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Cubs will rely on infield star power in 2019

In the weeks leading up to the start of Spring Training, has been going Around the Horn, examining different facets of the Cubs’ roster. In the final installment this week: Infielders and catchers.

There is no shortage of star power within the Cubs’ infield.

In the weeks leading up to the start of Spring Training, has been going Around the Horn, examining different facets of the Cubs’ roster. In the final installment this week: Infielders and catchers.

There is no shortage of star power within the Cubs’ infield.

Kris Bryant already has a pile of hardware to his credit — not to mention historic bragging rights on creating the final out to clinch the 2016 World Series. Javier Baez has electrified fans with his jaw-dropping tags, slides and home runs. His breakout showing last year nearly netted him the National League MVP Award. Anthony Rizzo has been a source of stability, while Ben Zobrist has brought both versatility and veteran leadership.

This is not a group without concerns, though. Shortstop Addison Russell will begin the season by serving a suspension for violating MLB’s Domestic Violence Policy. Even when he comes back, Russell is not a sure thing, coming off his worst season in the big leagues. Bryant is coming back from a season-changing injury, Zobrist is not getting any younger, and look no further than catcher Willson Contreras for a combination of overflowing talent and enigmatic results.

To get where they want to go, the Cubs will need their stars to play like stars in 2019, and that starts with the cast of characters around the infield dirt. Here’s a look at Chicago’s infield and catching situations.

First base
There are few questions about this spot. Rizzo has been a source of offensive consistency (he’s averaged 30 homers and 100 RBIs over the past five years combined) to go along with plus defense (two NL Gold Glove Awards). Zobrist and catcher Victor Caratini offer backup options for first, and both Bryant or Ian Happ can handle innings there in a pinch.

Number to know: .905 OPS
That was Rizzo’s OPS after his slow April. He posted a .303/.393/.512 slash line in the 135 games that followed his rough first month (.448 OPS).

Video: Zobrist talks 2018 season, looking toward 2019

Second base
At the start of the season, the Cubs will likely mix and match at second base between Zobrist and Daniel Descalso, who can each play multiple positions. For the season’s first month, Baez is expected to patrol shortstop, filling in for the suspended Russell. Manager Joe Maddon can get creative here based on platoon splits and how the rest of the defense is aligned for any given game. The versatile David Bote could also serve as a backup option for second. Happ has experience at the spot, too.

Number to know: 5 Defensive Runs Saved
Baez had five DRS in 699 2/3 innings at second base last season, compared to five DRS in 1,530 career innings at shortstop. Defensively, the Cubs are best with Baez on the right side of the infield.

Russell is in the midst of serving a 40-game suspension, making him ineligible to suit up for the Cubs until May 3. He is currently going through a treatment protocol given to him by both the Cubs and MLB. If he does not meet the standards, Chicago can terminate his non-guaranteed contract. In the meantime, the club has the NL MVP Award runner-up in Baez, who hit .290 with 34 homers, 83 extra-base hits, 111 RBIs and an .881 OPS last year. Bote represents the third-stringer at short.

Number to know: 80 wRC+
Off-field issues aside, Russell has seen his offensive production drop over the past couple years. The shortstop had an 80 wRC+ last year, indicating he was 20 percent below the MLB average. That was down from 85 in ’17 and 95 in ’16.

Video: Bastian on how Bryant’s health is key for Cubs in ’19

Third base
The Cubs are counting on a return to health for Bryant, who saw his slugging percentage drop dramatically (.460 in ’18 vs. .546 in the previous two years combined) due to a left shoulder problem in 2018. The former NL Rookie of the Year Award (2015) and MVP Award (’16) winner ended the season hitting .272 with 13 homers, 52 RBIs, an .834 OPS and a 125 wRC+. Backup options for third include Bote, Descalso, Zobrist, Happ and Baez.

Number to know: 69.3 percent
That was Bryant’s rate of pulled ground balls in 2018, marking the highest percentage among right-handed batters (minimum 75 grounders), according to Statcast™. Grounders were a major issue in the Cubs’ second-half offensive slump. Over the final two months, Chicago ranked last in MLB with a 47.8 percent grounders rate.

Video: Willson Contreras is the No. 5 catcher right now

No catcher caught more innings (1,109 2/3) than Contreras did last season and the Cubs will be leaning on him a lot again this year. Chicago will be hoping to get more of the version of Contreras who slashed .277/.366/.442 over the first four months and was voted the NL’s starting All-Star catcher. This spring, Contreras plans on tackling the issues that plagued him both in the batter’s box and behind the plate. Caratini is the backup catcher.

Number to know: 0.5 degrees
That was Contreras’ average launch angle over the final two months last season, representing the second-lowest mark in MLB (minimum 100 results). It was 9.4 degrees on average in the first four months combined.

Jordan Bastian covers the Cubs for He previously covered the Indians from 2011-18 and the Blue Jays from 2006-10. Read his blog, Major League Bastian, follow him on Twitter @MLBastian and Facebook.

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