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Cubs’ Zobrist is “Super-Utility Man”

MLB: Winter Meetings

Mandatory Credit: Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

The Chicago Cubs’ Ben Zobrist is neither the first nor the only major leaguer to deserve the label “Super-Utility Man,” but he may be the archetype of a starting-lineup caliber bat that plays multiple positions. There have been others: Gil McDougald, Tony Taylor, Cesar Tovar, Bert Campaneris, and Tony Phillips come to mind as accomplished multi-position players. Among today’s young players, the Boston Red Sox’ Brock Holt and Mookie Betts may soon wear the mantle.

A 25-man roster typically includes 13 position players and 12 pitchers. Room for only five bench players challenges managers to make in-game substitutions, and fill out lineup cards as injuries and slumps occur. The Super-Utility player plugs holes, whether of the tactical kind, as in double-switches in a National League game, or of urgent necessity, such as filling in for an injured or slumping player.

The Cubs acquired Zobrist, a free-agent, during the 2015 Hot Stove season, signing the 34-year old veteran fresh off his second-half turn with the World Champion Kansas City Royals. In his 10-year career, played mostly with the Tampa Bay Rays, the two-time All-Star has played at least 100 games at four different positions: shortstop, right field, second base, and left field; and he has played multiple games at center field, first base, third base, and designated hitter. The switch-hitting Zobrist has batted .265/.355/.431 over his career with 127 home runs and 567 RBI in 1,190 games, profiling as a solid contact hitter with strong plate discipline.

Because of their happy player-manager relationship while on the Rays, the Cubs acquisition of Zobrist appears to be at Manager Joe Maddon‘s request. At least one writer has labeled the four-year, $56-million deal one of the notable overpays of the off-season. This assessment, based in part on the player’s age, fails to give due consideration to his consistency since 2011 at the plate. Then there is the cost saving nature of Zobrist’s defensive versatility – moving a proven veteran to the position most needed can spare a team a premature call-up of a player from the minors, for example – not to mention his reputation as an exemplary teammate and mentor (“one of the top five humans” in Maddon’s estimation).

As of this writing, the Cubs have a comparative glut of talented outfielders, and with young stars Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, and Anthony Rizzo playing third, short, and first, respectively, Zobrist figures to be the regular second baseman. His versatility will enable Maddon to move him, for example, into left field against left-handed pitching; sit left-handed batting, left fielder/catcher Kyle Schwarber; and start right-handed batting Javier Baez at second. Or, if Baez matches up well against a right-handed pitcher and Schwarber is catching, Zobrist also may start in left.

To see the depth on the Cubs spring training roster, and to hear Maddon propound his theories on the importance of rest makes one wonder if the Cubs will break the traditional model of eight regulars and five bench players (one or more of which often platoons) and implement a kind of position-player rotation that shares starts more generously. Zobrist would be a linchpin in such a system.

What if Zobrist himself needs to be replaced because of an injury or a slump? The Cubs have a plan for that too, working Baez at multiple positions this spring including center field, third base, and first base in addition to his familiar second base and shortstop spots. Tommy La Stella, a left-handed batting second baseman that can also play third, is expected to log time on the dirt if he is healthy.

Conventional baseball wisdom holds that position players perform best in well-defined everyday roles. The less time spent thinking about different defensive positions, the argument runs, the more focused players will be in the batter’s box.

Ben Zobrist, by contrast, seemingly checked the box “wherever most needed” on his employment application. He can play all over the diamond. Fans will enjoy watching how Joe Maddon deploys his “Super-Utility Man” in 2016.

Tim is a lifelong baseball (especially Cubs) fan, member of SABR, and player of Out of the Park Baseball. Recently he caught the genealogy bug and is researching his family history. He is originally from Chicago, but now lives in Columbia, MO, with his wife, two daughters, and two dogs.

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