Would the Cubs move their best major-league-ready defensive center fielder to first base? Based on manager David Ross’ comments Tuesday before the Cubs beat the Pirates 11-3 in the series opener at Wrigley Field, it’s a real possibility for Cody Bellinger.
Bellinger has been out of action with a left knee contusion since May 15, when he landed awkwardly after making a leaping catch at the wall in Houston. His recovery has taken longer than initially hoped, but he spent the weekend at the Cubs’ training complex in Arizona, where he was able to build up with some at-bats through live batting practice. He finally began a rehab assignment Tuesday in Triple-A Iowa’s lineup — as the starting first baseman.
Yes, Bellinger, who’d been a rock in center field for the Cubs before his injury, will begin his rehab assignment at first base (Bellinger also told reporters in Des Moines he’ll be in at first for the first two games of the assignment, per the Des Moines Register’s Tommy Birch). Cubs manager David Ross said one reason was because first base might be a little easier on the knee than center field would be as Bellinger gets back into playing games. The only thing that’s bothered his knee is “the all-out sprint, the extension within that,” according to Ross, and playing first could help minimize that.
However, Ross provided another reason that could have some ripple effects on the Cubs’ roster.
“[Mike] Tauchman is swinging the bat really well and held down center field pretty well, so just trying to find the best lineup whenever Belli gets back,” Ross said. “Having him, he’s pretty darn good at first base, and has been. Just having another option over there makes some sense.”
It’s probably too early to say moving Bellinger to first base should be the expectation. That may be what happens as a way to get him back in the lineup as soon as possible and protect the knee for a little bit longer. But the fact that it’s even a possibility could also be Ross trying to shuffle things up to break his team out of its weeks-long funk.
Tauchman has now led off three straight games, and he’s responded with four hits (including two doubles) in 12 at-bats along with a walk in each of the last two contests. Ross said he’s been impressed with the way Tauchman has swung the bat, and his .403 on-base percentage in 78 plate appearances after Tuesday leads the team. Keeping his bat in the lineup while he’s still hitting well and allowing him to continue to play solid defense in center appear to be at least part of the reason why Ross is considering the move to first base for Bellinger.
“I think if you look at common denominators amongst good teams, they have a lot of length in the lineup, and they have a lot of depth on their team,” Tauchman said. “Obviously, getting Cody back here, I think that’s hopefully the plan soon. He’s had a great season to this point and he’s played really well. He’s going to contribute offensively, he’s going to contribute defensively. Just adds some length to lineup, adds some slug to the lineup. That’s awesome.
“As far as what that turns my role into it, I really don’t care that much to be honest. I’m happy to be here, I’m happy to help if I’m in the lineup that day. I’m ready to go if there’s a matchup that they like and I come in to hit or go in on defense. Kind of help contribute that way, too.”
As Ross said, the move makes sense as a way to potentially get some more production out of first base.
It’s been a disappointing group so far. The trio of players who’ve played first for the Cubs this season (Matt Mervis, Trey Mancini and Eric Hosmer) have together produced -1.8 fWAR (last in the major leagues) and a 67 wRC+ (second-to-last) after Tuesday’s slate of games. Mervis, even with the go-ahead RBI single against Pittsburgh, hasn’t found the results to match some of the underlying numbers he’d recorded before Tuesday. Mancini has looked far from the accomplished hitter he’s been in the past (77 wRC+). And Eric Hosmer hasn’t been on the team in almost a month.
They just haven’t found much success offensively at that spot — and really haven’t since Anthony Rizzo was traded two years ago, outside of Frank Schwindel’s surprising but unsustainable effort to end that season. So, Ross could insert Bellinger into the spot to see if he can produce more there than what the Cubs have gotten so far.
“First-base production hasn’t been one of our strengths so far this year,” Ross said. “Got to get somebody going over there.”
The Cubs haven’t yet determined how long Bellinger’s rehab assignment will last. Per usual, it will depend how he feels as he continues to build up his game reps. But the Cubs — who have won three of four but are still eight games under .500 — need to spark a quick turnaround. If they can get Bellinger playing anywhere near the way he did for the first month of the season, getting him back quickly would obviously help.
There are clear reasons why that moves makes some sense. Bellinger has played 262 games at first base in his career, so he has the experience. It may be tough to move a Gold Glove-caliber center fielder out of the outfield, but if his replacement is someone who’s filling in admirably both in the field and at the plate, a shift to jumpstart a different position group isn’t the craziest thing to do.
That’s sort of the position Ross is in now. If the team doesn’t show a clear improvement in the standings over the next few weeks, selling at the trade deadline for the third consecutive year isn’t out of the question. So as a way to get them there, Ross has to keep pulling levers to see what will get his team moving in the right direction.
“I’m sure the season has been stressful on him,” said Jameson Taillon, who tossed his first quality start of the season Tuesday to earn his second win as a Cub. “He’s trying to put the magic pieces together, and I appreciate that. I’ve seen what he’s been doing behind the scenes, and I know he’s rooting for us and pulling for us.
“But at the end of the day, I think sometimes it just comes down to us just playing better.”