A lot of questions were raised when it was noted several weeks ago that Nick Madrigal would be getting some reps at third base, with “Why?” leading a majority of them. Left without a regular position by Nico Hoerner‘s move to second base following the addition of Dansby Swanson, Madrigal was willing to try something new in order to carve out more playing time. Right, but why?
The best answer is that the Cubs really want to find a way to keep Madrigal’s bat in the lineup, assuming he can still show off the hit tool that led the White Sox to select him with the fourth overall pick in 2018. That wasn’t the case last season as he battled chronic leg injuries and subsequent weakness en route to a .249 average and a .305 OBP. Those numbers might be acceptable from a slugger, but Madrigal had just seven extra-base hits (all doubles).
No matter what position he plays, all that really matters is that Madrigal hits like he did at the start of his career and for a stretch late last season. If he’s putting up a .325 average with a sub-10% strikeout rate, the Cubs won’t mind sacrificing a little defensive prowess. Between the new shift rules and the ability to deploy him based on matchups, they might even be able to mask his lack of experience at the hot corner. And who knows, maybe he can actually acquit himself well with the glove.
“I’ve been impressed,” David Ross told media members at Cubs camp on Thursday. “He’s moving really well. Feels like a totally different player than we saw last year where he looked like he was guarded at times and it was hard work to run. The first ball that was hit to him in the infield – (Andy Green) hit it pretty hard after hitting balls in the gap on the infield, outfield – moved his feet, gobbled it up well, and threw a nice strong throw. He’s moving well. The arm strength is there.”
Now, it’s possible to read that as the manager talking someone up for accomplishing the most basic tasks rather than simply throwing him under the bus. Or perhaps you prefer to look at it as a used car salesman noting to a potential buyer that a car has functional air conditioning and automatic windows. I mean, yeah, any vehicle from the last two decades should have those things. Still doesn’t hurt to put that information out into the public sphere.
Between Patrick Wisdom, Christopher Morel, Zach McKinstry, and Miles Mastrobuoni, the Cubs have four other players who’ve logged significant time at third. As an aside, I think we should flip the W to make it Misdom just for the sake of alliteration. In any case, it’s hard for me to see a path by which Madrigal breaks through to hold a roster spot based almost exclusively on his ability to hit for average. I suppose it’s possible he could serve as a bench bat, but I’m not sure he can establish his hitting rhythm in that role.
That leads us to the possibility of a trade or two, which seems inevitable given the current mix of players. Swanson and Hoerner are locked in for at least three years and there are several middle infielders coming up through the system who will be looking to earn spots by at least the end of that period. Morel will presumably occupy a utility role, so maybe two of the remaining four “Ms” will be able to wrangle real innings.
Madrigal probably has a leg up due to his pedigree, but it’s not going to be easy and I believe the Cubs need him to prove the bat is still legit here in spring training. This is one of those situations where Cactus League results really matter, so I’ll be watching Madrigal really closely as the spring season gets underway on Saturday.
Ed. note: Holy crap, totally spaced Edwin Ríos, who is a lefty batter to boot. Yikes, that’s a lot of players.