Among the roster construction questions Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer will have to answer when the lockout ends is the one about his middle infield.
In December, just after Hoyer signed Marcus Stroman and just before the lockout began, rumors emerged that the Cubs might be in on free agent shortstop Carlos Correa. Some of this was stoked by tweets from Stroman. But assuming the Cubs go forward with their middle infield as currently constructed, what is the best way for manager David Ross to capitalize on what he has?
Right now, there are three players who stand to get the most time at second base and shortstop: David Bote, Nico Hoerner and Nick Madrigal. There are questions about what each of them will be able to contribute if called upon to handle the majority of the innings up the middle in 2022.
For Bote, Hoerner, and Madrigal, one of the main concerns is health. Bote missed a large part of the 2021 season with shoulder issues, and he is not expected to be able to start this season on time. Hoerner showed a lot of promise last year, but hamstring and oblique injuries limited him to just 44 games. And Madrigal was acquired at the trade deadline from the White Sox, but a June hamstring injury had already sidelined him for the remainder of 2021.
Obviously, this doesn’t bode well if Ross is going to have to lean primarily on these three players to man things up the middle.
But if he does, Hoerner and Madrigal have the best batting profiles. Hoerner has a career .691 OPS in 112 games after bouncing back considerably from a rocky season at the plate in 2020. Last year, he tamed his strikeout rate and continued to improve on drawing walks, and Hoerner’s hard-hit rate climbed while he also got better at hitting to all fields. In the relatively small career sample size, Hoerner has pretty even splits against right versus left-handed pitching. But in 2021 he widened that gap, batting .327 against righties and .244 against southpaws.
Madrigal’s Tony Gwynn-esque strikeout rate is probably his most enticing quality as a hitter. The career major league sample size is even smaller than Hoerner’s (324 plate appearances in 83 games), but Madrigal made waves during his 2018 professional debut by going through Rookie and Low-A in the White Sox system without striking out at all. By a slight margin, Madrigal handles left-handed pitchers better than right-handed ones. That presents a possible scenario where Ross can use Madrigal and Hoerner in a platoon.
Defensively, however, Ross’s best choice might be to use the two of them on the field at the same time. Madrigal has played exclusively at second base in his professional career, but Hoerner has experience in both middle infield spots. This is where Bote could fit in nicely. He has the potential to be a slightly above-average hitter, but Bote’s best role might be as utilityman. Bote has played the least amount of innings at shortstop in his career by far, but he has logged 830 1/3 innings at second and over 1,200 at third base.
Ross can best utilize what he has by writing Madrigal and Hoerner into his lineups together, and by using Bote as needed across the infield.
Ideally, the Cubs improve their roster by adding a shortstop when the lockout ends. Ross can probably cobble together workable lineups using Hoerner, Madrigal, and Bote, but that’s not a recipe for success. If Ross does have to rely on those three, then Hoerner at short, Madrigal at second, and Bote filling in as needed is the best way to do it. Assuming they can all stay healthy.
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