The Cubs went into the offseason with a big power deficit on the left side and questions at third base, so they signed Eric Hosmer and opted to move Nick Madrigal to the hot corner. That duo has combined for 22 homers in their last 1,427 plate appearances and neither has ever logged so much as an inning at third base in an actual MLB game. Enter Edwin Ríos, who was picked up for $1 million after the Dodgers non-tendered him.
Though he’s only hit 20 homers in the bigs, doing so in 229 PAs puts him at a slightly better power pace than Hosdrigal. The 28-year-old Ríos also has two more years of club control, making him almost three years younger than incumbent third baseman Patrick Wisdom. With three homers so far in Cactus League action, Ríos looks like a real option to break camp with the club and be in the starting lineup with great frequency.
As with any spring numbers — see Keegan Thompson‘s stat line vs. his alarming velocity numbers — context matters a great deal when discussing what these exhibition results really mean. For Ríos, it’s a matter of an adjustment he made to his swing in early March and what’s happened since. After coming into camp with a bigger leg kick meant to help him activate his back hip, the slugger quickly realized his success in the cage wasn’t transferring to live at-bats.
“The leg kick was just very inconsistent,” Ríos explained recently. “So I kind of just got it to a spot where I was still getting into my back hip, but without having a leg kick and being a little softer with my front side.”
What’s even more impressive than going 6-for-24 with three homers and a triple since making the change is that Ríos effectively implemented a new swing on the fly and got immediate results. Credit also goes to hitting coaches Dustin Kelly, who was with Ríos in the Dodgers organization as well, and Johnny Washington for helping to simplify the move without sacrificing that feel of getting into the back hip.
David Ross believes Ríos can put up “some real big power numbers” if he’s able to get regular at-bats, which is likely to happen if this spring is any indication. However, Ríos is also likely to put up some real big strikeout numbers if his current and past performances are any indication of the future. He’s got a career 32.1% K-rate in the majors and has struck out 11 times in 33 Cactus League PAs (33.3%), so the expectation is that he’s only a slight improvement over Wisdom in that regard.
Enter Madrigal, whose emergence as a viable option at third in the right situations could make him a nice foil for Ríos. Kind of a slam vs. slap or dink vs. dong combo that allows Ross to play the matchup game depending on the opponent. The only issue there is that Ríos has posted nearly even wRC+ splits with better slugging and OPS marks against lefties in his limited action over parts of the last four seasons.
But barring a trade, it doesn’t appear as though Madrigal getting regular reps at third is the mirage we all believed when the possibility was first reported. He’s acquitted himself well, making all the routine plays he needs to, and having such solid defenders up the middle should allow the Cubs to position their defense in such a way that Madrigal isn’t on an island when he plays.
Plus, the roster has a little flexibility for the time being with Wisdom moving out to right field regularly to fill in for the injured Seiya Suzuki. Depending on how long Suzuki remains sidelined, and he appears to be progressing quite well, Ross and the front office can kick the can down the road on any big decisions. There’s also the possibility of creating a little room at first base, a position both Ríos and Wisdom can handle if necessary, by parting ways with Hosmer.
As unlikely as that might seem given the name recognition and pedigree — we’d all be rich if we had a dollar for every time a broadcast has mentioned his four Gold Gloves — Hosmer is on a league-minimum deal and doesn’t offer much other than experience that the team can’t get from someone else. There’s also the possibility that the Cubs find a trade partner for Madrigal, who’s hitting .265 with three steals this spring as he proves his lower body is fully healthy for the first time in nearly two years.
I’ve said for a while now that I don’t think Madrigal provides the same relative value as a bench bat or part-time player because his hit tool really needs to be utilized every day in order to be sharp. His abject lack of power means he’s got to be able to chip away with base hits, then there’s the matter of maintaining his timing and routine with more than just pinch-hitting and platoon usage. If the Cubs can’t find a way to move him to a team that needs an everyday slap hitter in the lineup, it sure looks like they’re going to keep Madrigal around.
So as weird as it would have sounded even three weeks ago, I’m starting to buy the idea that Ríos and Madrigal could form a dynamic duo at third this season. I’m keeping a little salt at the ready just in case I’ve got to eat those words, though.