CHICAGO -- As long as the Chicago Cubs are still figuring out their long-term roster configuration there are going to be questions about who should play where. And there’s no better debate about that than in the infield.
After seeing rookies Addison Russell and Kris Bryant commit key errors -- on what manager Joe Maddon admitted were routine plays -- in Friday's 5-4, 10 inning loss to the Cincinnati Reds, the discussion is bound to heat up again.
"That's the kind of stuff these guys are going to start making more routinely," Maddon said after the game. "If you look at our errors this year on defense it’s been more of that kind of a play than a more difficult play. As our guys gain more experience you're going to see that mistake go away."
The routine mistake is usually a discussion that centers on shortstop Starlin Castro, but the two rookies need to be looked at as well after Russell booted a first-inning ball that led to two unearned runs and Bryant misplayed a 10th-inning grounder which led to the game-winning run. Russell was moving towards first base as the ball squeaked by him while Bryant fumbled the initial grounder and then threw the ball away. It was a wet afternoon at Wrigley Field, but those plays have to be made.
It’s still hard to come down on Russell, a 21-year old rookie who’s learning a new position and who also made big plays Friday. But what about the older and more mature Bryant?
“I think the third baseman and second baseman are learning to play here,” Maddon said before the game. “People don’t understand how difficult that is. KB (Bryant) is pretty much a novice over there. Addison is a total novice at second and you see the better play nightly out of both of these guys.”
He speaks the truth about Russell, but to say Bryant is a novice isn’t exactly accurate. He was drafted as a third baseman and played most of his collegiate career there. He’s gotten better and undoubtedly will improve more -- but it’s still a legitimate long-term question. That’s especially true if the Cubs don’t develop or acquire a left fielder and continue to employ a good number of prospects/players in the infield. Javier Baez was playing some third base before getting injured, so add him to the list as well.
Meanwhile, Bryant made his league-tying eighth error on Friday (Russell leads the NL with eight as well) and has the worst fielding percentage (.939) among qualified third baseman in the National League. The questions about moving him to the outfield will persist.
"He wasn’t as clean as he had been more recently," Maddon said. "It (the ball) might be a little moist, more than normal. I’m not concerned. He files things and comes back and plays. I like how he handles mistakes."
None of that is false. Nobody at his age learns from his struggles better than Bryant. But what if his size limits him or at least gives him less margin for error? In other words, what if he's physically unable to max out at the position? He and the Cubs need to be ready for a switch at some point in his young career -- if it comes to that.
"We've made some errors, most of that has been routine stuff," Maddon said. "Most of that can be fixed."
The little hitch in Bryant's throw, which Maddon has discussed previously, can certainly be fixed but hasn’t disappeared yet. Maybe that's for the offseason. His throws have taken first baseman Anthony Rizzo off the bag a few times -- he did it Friday before the tenth inning -- but overall it hasn't cost the Cubs games. Still, there’s a lot of action going on when Bryant fields a grounder, and this will be a question that remains until the Cubs figure things out on defense. It’s not about being critical of a rookie or going the other way to make excuses for him, it's simply a legitimate baseball question. Maddon finished with a positive thought considering the Cubs almost won the game despite the miscues.
"We made some physical mistakes," he said. "That's going to happen. You’re going to make mistakes, but if we play that game often enough this year we're definitely going to get ourselves in the playoffs."