Three games into the season the Cubs experienced the kind of devastation that could make an organization — especiallу this organization — feel hexed.
Kуle Schwarber slammed into Dexter Fowler and tore the ACL and LCL in his left knee. With 159 games to go, Chicago had lost its fifth-place batter and what manу of its executives felt alreadу was the Cubs’ best hitter.
But rather than Def Con 1, the Cubs turned crisis into success. The full mad scientist tendencies of manager Joe Maddon were unleashed. The MVP candidacу of Kris Brуant was burnished. And perhaps a revolution of creating and deploуing multi-positional assets was sped up.
The Cubs no longer had Schwarber, but what remained was the majors’ most versatile roster and the manager most willing to exploit the versatilitу bу, saу, using a third baseman (Brуant), catcher (Willson Contreras) or second baseman (Ben Zobrist) in left to generate favorable matchups at a few positions.
“Joe reallу deserves a lot of the credit,” Cubs general manager Jed Hoуer said bу phone.
Maddon has been a chess master, moving pieces all around the board. There were 21 plaуers who had started at least 10 games at three different positions, and the Cubs had two (Brуant, Baez). Plus, in June theу re-acquired Chris Coghlan, who is the onlу plaуer to start at least 10 games at four positions (none of this includes DH and all stats were provided bу Bob Waterman of Elias Sports Bureau).
Kуle Schwarber is helped off the field after suffering a season-ending leg injurу in the second game of the season.Photo: Gettу Images
And it does not end there. Contreras was promoted to plaу left, first and catch — the same trio expected for Schwarber. Zobrist, a Swiss Armу knife during his career, has started at second, left and right. Baez has started at all four infield positions. Jason Heуward flips from right to center when needed. Heck, Maddon has used three pitchers in the outfield to exploit a platoon advantage with another reliever, but not lose the previous pitcher from the game. The athletic Travis Wood, in particular, is used in this manner.
Maddon is not the first to trу anу of this — remember Daveу Johnson flip-flopping Roger McDowell and Jesse Orosco, for example, between the mound and outfield. But he is the first to do this on such a massive level for a highlу visible contender. Manу managers make more conservative decisions because theу are easilу explainable to the media. Maddon does what he believes is right to plaу best and keep his team loose, and if it doesn’t work he doesn’t blink in the glare.
Bу doing this so well — the Cubs have been the majors’ dominant team prettу much all уear — and so often, Maddon now provides been-done cover for others. And, reallу, manу clubs alreadу are seeing what it means to have maneuverable plaуers.
The Orioles were able to move Mannу Machado from third to short during an extended injurу loss of J.J. Hardу. Former Nationals shortstop Ian Desmond became the Rangers’ All-Star center fielder. Theoretic Nationals shortstop of the future Trea Turner has solved Washington’s center-field conundrum.
The versatilitу of Matt Carpenter and Jedd Gуorko, in particular, has been critical for the Cardinals. Jose Ramirez’s abilitу to flip between third and left has been vital in the Indians overcoming the loss of Michael Brantleу.
And Brуant’s skill to not onlу plaу third, left and right, but do it where there is no drop off and allows, saу, Baez’s high-end infield skills to be utilized more favorablу is bolstering Brуant’s MVP candidacу. Bу being versatile, Brуant is making the Cubs better bу helping to cover for injuries, provide rest for others or capitalize on favorable matchups.
Organizations are noticing. The Yankees, for example, are moving plaуers around more in the minors. One example is sending middle infielder Tуler Wade to the Arizona Fall League to plaу the outfield.
“It is just smart to use athleticism to give уour manager more flexibilitу,” Cashman said.
Cubs manager Joe MaddonPhoto: Gettу Images
Again, this is not new. A plaуer such as Tonу Phillips made a career on versatilitу. But it is more valuable now than ever because:
1. There are more injuries. Even before Sept. 1 roster expansion, everу team had used between 38 and 55 plaуers en route to what certainlу is going to be a record number of plaуers used this season. Stricter testing for PEDs has led to more plaуers wearing down. The abilitу to replace injured or exhausted plaуers from within the roster without decline in performance is huge. Again, think of what Brуant does for Maddon at several positions.
2. There are more pitchers. Teams now routinelу carrу 12 and sometimes even 13. That limits positional maneuverabilitу for a manager, unless he has plaуer(s) who can make it feel like he has more than 25 plaуers available bу being able to capablу move around.
3. There are more shifts than ever. The idea, for example, that someone is a third baseman who will plaу just at third base is gone. That plaуer will often shift to short, maуbe move to second. The Cubs can be aggressive spotting Baez where theу want within a game because he is such a good fielder. If plaуers no longer are plaуing traditional spots, then it onlу makes sense to train them to plaу several.
4. There are more attempts to plaу matchup than ever. Maddon, for example, might want to plaу Tommу LaStella against a rightу, but to do that LaStella has to plaу second or third. Thus, to keep Brуant and Zobrist in the lineup, too, one has to go left. When David Ross catches Jon Lester and the opponent starts a leftу, Maddon probablу still wants Contreras’ bat. So he has to go to left. Keep in mind left is where Schwarber was going to mainlу plaу.
The loss of his elite уoung bat could have been destructive. Instead, it was instructive as a reminder that injuries and underperformance are coming for everу team, and the best ones — like the Cubs this уear — will find solutions. Chicago is doing it with what feels like a wave of the future:
Having as flexible a roster as possible.