SAN DIEGO — The Cubs will eventually have to figure out how all the pieces of the puzzle fit together.
How long do you keep Starlin Castro at shortstop? Does Javier Baez become trade bait or a core player (at shortstop, second base or third base)? Do you move Kris Bryant off third base to left field? Or will Kyle Schwarber have to play there if the catching experiment doesn’t work?
Addison Russell is a natural shortstop learning how to play second base. He’s 21 years old, the second-youngest player in the National League, with broad shoulders and big legs that made one rival scout wonder if he will outgrow the middle infield.
What seems obvious is the Cubs aren’t good enough to keep having these defensive breakdowns and become real contenders this season.
“We’ve given too many games away this year,” manager Joe Maddon said, “whether it’s pitches out of the bullpen or (our) defense. We got to tighten it up all the way around.
“That’s how you stay hot. That’s how you really get to that record where you go from five over to 10 over to 15 over .500. You got to get to those numbers. And you got to play a complete game nightly to accomplish those goals.”
Maddon likes to say he comes from The Land of Run Prevention. The Tampa Bay Rays did it with pitching and defense and on a small-market budget.
The Cubs are making sacrifices while breaking in rookies and trying to generate more offense, building their team around a younger generation of power hitters. Defensive stats can also be inherently flawed or misleading, representing a next frontier in the age of Big Data.
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But even in giving all those concessions, this is still a team with question marks across the board, unless you ignore the eye test and think all the defensive metrics have an anti-Cub bias.
Only four teams in the majors had committed more errors than the Cubs (30) heading into Wednesday, while only three had a worse fielding percentage (.979). In its defensive efficiency ratings, Baseball Prospectus ranked the Cubs at No. 22. This is also a bottom-10 team when it comes to double plays turned.
You couldn’t miss it during Tuesday’s 4-3 loss to the San Diego Padres at Petco Park, where Bryant, Castro and Russell combined for three errors that led to three unearned runs.
“It’s pretty frustrating,” Russell said. “I know the type of baseball I’ve been playing is not the baseball that I’m used to playing (while) being at this new position. But I can’t be so hard on myself. I’m learning how to play second base at the big-league level. So I’m trying to cut myself a break.”
All these issues are magnified for a pitching staff working off the basic philosophy of throwing away from slugging percentage, trying to get as many groundballs as possible and using the data to shift defenders into the right positions. The bullpen also has to compensate for a rotation that’s only made 20 quality starts through 38 games.
“It’s about pitches that you make a pitcher throw because you don’t make a play,” Maddon said. “Why are starters able to go more deeply into games? Because you play good defense. That’s not just about errors. It’s about making plays you’re supposed to make.
“When you make plays you’re supposed to make, pitchers throw less pitches, thus they pitch deeper into games. People always talk about pitch counts and all this other kind of crap. It’s about making plays.
“They’re definitely interrelated. They’re connected. So when you make plays, your pitchers pitch more deeply, thus the bullpen gets less stressed. And that’s what we’re shooting for.”
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The pitch-framing metrics are kind to Miguel Montero and David Ross and grade out those veteran catchers as good receivers. The Cubs had only thrown out four of 32 runners trying to steal, but the pitchers deserve some blame in that department.
Dexter Fowler has good range and a 2.5 Ultimate Zone Rating after finishing at -21.8 last season with the Houston Astros, but that probably says more about the fleeting nature of defensive statistics than some major breakthrough in center field.
But the defense should inevitably see some improvement across the next several weeks and months as Russell and Bryant gain more experience (and maybe with the addition of Baez from Triple-A Iowa).
“Oh yeah,” Russell said. “It’s new faces this year in this organization here at the big-league level. We’re just going to have to keep communicating, keep working. And we’ll see how that works out for us.”
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The Cubs also seem to have the right manager for the job, someone who won’t single out young players and rip them publicly.
“I don’t get bummed out or worried about this,” Maddon said. “Our guys are going to make mistakes. People have to understand that. (But) you got to cover through your offense sometimes.
“Sometimes your pitcher can pitch through a rough moment, too. But I don’t expect these guys to be perfect. I ask them to be present. I don’t ask them to be perfect.”