Bernfield: Cubs Embrace Joe Maddon’s Positional Versatility Vision

CBSChicago.com (6/9/2016)

(CBS) Cubs super-utility man Javier Baez keeps seven gloves in his locker and estimates he owns 35 in total.

“I’m a big fan of gloves,” he said.

It’s no wonder the Cubs built a new 30,000-square-foot clubhouse. They needed space to store all the equipment necessary to be one of baseball’s most versatile teams, and Baez symbolizes that.

He has played five positions so far this year. While spending the majority of his time at third base, he has also played shortstop, second base, first base and left field.

Baez typically uses the same glove to play both middle infield positions, though he occasionally switches to a smaller glove for second base to help him transfer the ball quickly to his throwing hand for double plays. He goes with a slightly larger mitt for third base and an even larger one to play 1st base. Baez also has three outfield gloves that he rotates when assigned to play left field.

Eventually, Baez hopes to settle in at one position and maybe even one glove. For now, he’s embracing his role, which keeps him in the lineup more frequently.
“It’s fun,” Baez said. “Obviously, I’d like to have my own position later on. I think shortstop or second base would be great for me.”

With so many talented infielders on the Cubs, Baez won’t start every day at either position right now. Ben Zobrist has had a remarkable season manning second base, and Addison Russell is tied for fourth in baseball in defensive WAR (1.0), per ESPN.

Still, Cubs manager Joe Maddon finds a way to get Baez into the lineup regularly, and he’s impressed with the way the 23-year-old has handled bouncing around the diamond.

“The way he’s accepted (his role), I shouldn’t say I’m surprised with (it), but I’m pleased with (it),” Maddon said. “Even when he doesn’t start the game, you go down there to give him the high-five before the game, he’s smiling, he’s engaged. You know he’s going to be ready that night. He’s just doing it properly.”

If Baez needs any guidance on how to handle his unique role, he can look across the clubhouse to Zobrist.

Though the Cubs signed the 35-year-old Zobrist primarily to play second base, they know his value reaches far beyond his prowess in the middle infield. Maddon made Zobrist into baseball’s ultimate utility player eight years ago, when the latter was trying to break through with the Rays. It was Zobrist’s only chance to make the club out of spring training.

Zobrist had hit just .224 in 52 games in 2006 and .155 in 31 contests in 2007. Then a shortstop, he hadn’t done enough offensively to convince Maddon and the Tampa Bay front office to give him a roster spot in 2008.

“So they were like, ‘If you’re going to make this team, you’re going to have to figure out how to be more defensively valuable,’” Zobrist explained. “And they said, ‘Bring three different kinds of gloves to spring training’ in 2008, and I said ‘great’. If it can get me more major league at-bats, which is what I need, then I’ll do it.”

Zobrist knew he was athletic enough to handle multiple positions, so he called up Rawlings and ordered new gloves. He soon discovered he had the arm required to excel in the outfield. Once his bat came around, Zobrist made the American League All-Star team in 2009 and finished eighth in MVP voting, all while playing seven positions that season.

The approach Maddon and Zobrist had in Tampa has now spread to Chicago. For the Cubs, there was never a worry about whether Kris Bryant would hit at the big league level. While those talents alone may be prolific enough for him to win an MVP someday, it’s Bryant’s positional versatility that has been the pleasant surprise that’s made him even more valuable.

So far this season, Bryant has played five different positions, splitting most of his time between third base and left field. He has also spent time in right field, first base and even played an inning at shortstop against the Dodgers last week.

Unlike Baez, Bryant brought just one glove with him when he joined the Cubs last April, figuring he’d spend most of his time playing third base. But Maddon likes to use Bryant’s athleticism the way he used to use Zobrist’s, and the player doesn’t mind.

“It’s exactly like Little League,” Bryant said with a smile. “You’re moving all over. That’s exactly what it was like for me growing up.”

As a youth player, Bryant’s father Mike was his coach.

“The coach’s kid — you can’t just put him at shortstop because the parents would complain,” Bryant joked. “He put me all over the diamond, and I think that’s just the ballplayer I’ve always been. And I enjoy it.”

Bryant’s collection of gloves is growing. This past offseason he bought an outfield glove, figuring he’d need it this season, and he’s also added a first baseman’s glove for the times Maddon gives Anthony Rizzo a day off. Bryant still feels most at home playing third base base but has grown more comfortable in the outfield.

Bryant’s new challenge is keeping each of his gloves game-ready. He switches them during batting practice to make sure he develops the right feel in each so he’s prepared to play wherever Maddon needs him each day. It’s a lot of defensive responsibility for a player who’s also expected to be one of the team’s best hitters.

“I have a ton of respect for him,” Zobrist said. “Because it’s a mental grind. It’s not easy mentally. I think physically he’s obviously a great athlete and he can do it, but it takes a special player to embrace that.”

Bryant does. He’s enjoying the chance to play other positions and credits Maddon with developing an unselfish clubhouse culture. Maddon deflects that credit back to his players. Together, they’re off to an MLB-best 41-17 start.

“Our guys are just out to win,” Maddon said with pride. “That’s it. And they don’t care who gets the credit or who gets it done that night. We’re just out there to win, and it’s beautiful to watch.”

Jordan Bernfield is an update anchor at 670 The Score and the co-host of “Inside the Clubhouse,” which airs Saturday from 8-10 a.m.

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