CHICAGO -- The Chicago Cubs are getting closer to fielding a team they believe can contend in the coming years, so figuring out who plays where around the diamond is becoming an important issue.
The Cubs will tell you it's a good problem to have and they are keeping their options open. That starts with baseball's top prospect, Kris Bryant. For the first time the front office says Bryant will see time in the outfield next spring while he continues to develop at third base.
"We're going to keep outfield fresh for him," Theo Epstein said. "Now that it's been a full year since college we want to make sure he doesn't lose that. We think, no doubt in our minds, he can play third base and be a really good third baseman, but we just don't know how the roster is going to look a year from now, two years from now, five years from now. We want to keep that fresh for him."
It makes sense on several levels. Epstein is right about the roster uncertainty going forward. The Cubs have an abundance of young, middle-infield players. Any of them could move to third base or even the outfield as Arismendy Alcantara did this season. Plus, Bryant is 6-foot-4, not necessarily the preferred height for an infielder who isn't playing first base. None of that means Bryant can't play the position, it just means it may not be best for the team.
"That's what I want to do this offseason, solidify my defense at third," Bryant said Tuesday. "Moving side to side. Things like that."
Although Bryant could easily make his major league debut at third base, it still remains more likely than not that he ends up in the outfield long term -- at least the way the Cubs are currently constructed. Highly touted prospect Addison Russell is waiting in the wings at shortstop and Javier Baez has already switched positions from short to second base. Either of those players, as well as Starlin Castro, is capable of playing third base.
"I'm not sure which one is best suited for third base, but you have a three-time All-Star at shortstop so it might be tough to move him off that position," one National League scout said recently.
There was a time some believed Russell didn't have what it took to play shortstop in the majors, but his game has been more than adequate. Castro has proven he can handle the position, as his defense has been almost as good as his offense this year with just 15 errors. Giving that he's prone to a mental lapse here and there, moving Castro to third base might make the most sense since he can relax more, but not many teams move a 24-year-old All-Star to another position. This isn't an aging Cal Ripken or even Alex Rodriguez moving, this is one of the leaders of the team who's proven he can do it in the majors while Russell has yet to accomplish anything at this level. But it doesn't mean it won't happen. Plus, the Cubs are likely to deal a prospect at some point in their development as a team and that could open the door for Bryant to remain at third base, as well.
The bottom line is the Cubs need options with their players and catching fly balls while fielding grounders next spring will only prepare Bryant even more for the majors. After all, former infielder Junior Lake played in the outfield before being called up for the first time, same with Alcantara. It must mean Bryant is getting close, right?