MESA, Ariz. -- Since the unexpected return of Dexter Fowler to the Chicago Cubs, I’ve been asked multiple questions about playing time. Who gets the bulk of it? Is Jorge Soler now a part-time player? And wasn’t Javier Baez supposed to get some at-bats in the outfield?
I think people are missing the point.
First off, if you wondered these things after Fowler’s return, you should have been asking those questions even before Chris Coghlan was traded and Fowler re-signed. The Cubs had four starting-caliber outfielders then, and they have four now, but for some reason Coghlan never got the same level of respect as Soler.
I understand that Soler is a great physical specimen and everyone assumed he was to be the everyday right fielder this year, but I don’t think it was that cut and dry. Coghlan’s OPS, a pretty all-encompassing stat, was .784 last season while Soler produced a .723 mark. And Coghlan was easily a better defender, save for Soler’s arm. And once again Soler missed time due to injury and struggled when the temperature fell below about 45 degrees, which seemed to happen often both early and late in the season. But Soler had those nine plate appearances in the National League Division Series, which seemed to define his year. He got on base nine times in a row using a keen eye and/or some wicked contact, giving hope to his 2016 season.
In any case, manager Joe Maddon had a playing-time problem before Fowler’s return, and he supposedly has one now -- it’s just moved positions as Jason Heyward is back in right and Soler is mixing in with Kyle Schwarber in left. Schwarber is another player who still has work to do on his game. There’s no reason to believe he won’t improve, but remember he went just 8-for-56 against lefties last year, with a .213 on-base percentage, and had those miscues in the field he’d like to eliminate. Of course those numbers should go the right way with more experience, but the Cubs are in a win-now mode, so why not have backups like Soler or Baez around? They would be starters on other teams. That’s pretty cool.
But there is a bigger issue at play and it involves Maddon’s overall managing philosophy: Less is more. We’ve seen how that manifests itself in less batting practice and later arrivals for games, but it’s also true for overall playing time. With a stacked roster, Maddon can rotate guys in and out. He would do this anyway, but now he’ll match up players such as Schwarber, Baez, Ben Zobrist, Miguel Montero and even Fowler and Addison Russell to get the most out of them. Some of them will play most of the time, but Maddon won’t hesitate to exploit a good matchup while getting rest for a regular. If he wants he can use some of his players as mega-platoon guys. As much as Schwarber might want more playing time, just think what his numbers might be against righties only? Or Soler against lefties only? Fowler had some bad moments against certain pitchers last year, so Maddon can even bring him in and out of the lineup more if he wants. It’s why when asked if Fowler is his leadoff man Maddon answered, “When he’s in there.” The Cubs manager has a luxury few in the league possess: deep, deep talent.
With crazier travel schedules than ever, combined with rules against the use of drugs including amphetamines and steroids, Maddon’s style is perfectly suited to dealing with an abundance of starting players. He’ll use them all to keep his team fresh. His ways come from years of experience, starting as a coach in the Angels organization.
“It always seemed as though we ran out of gas,” Maddon explained. “I saw guys fade by the end of the season.”
His realization that players need more rest -- even stars in a pennant race -- has evolved over time. He once thought the old ways were the right ways.
“We hit a lot,” he said. “I was the hitting coach and I thought that was the right way to do things, too.”
He has changed his beliefs, and it coincides with the changes in the game. He foreshadowed how he might manage this season last year in the second half, when Schwarber came up, Montero returned from a thumb injury, Starlin Castro got hot, Soler returned from injury and then Baez was recalled and became a contributor. He mixed and matched and the offense took off. He exploited the matchups that best suited his hitters, while getting rest for old and young alike.
“I don’t care what birth certificates say,” Maddon said. “I’m living it [the grind] myself. I believe in keeping the mind sharp. If the mind is sharp, the body will follow.”
Maddon will go on and on about the value of rest, so in his mind the questions about playing time are moot. First off, players are going to get injured, so like a football team with a great backup quarterback, the Cubs have guys who are ready to go. By the time spring is over, Baez will be proficient at every position, save pitcher and catcher. He’ll slide right in as a starter in the infield if someone goes down. In the meantime he’ll be getting some starts and entering plenty of games later for defense, anyway. They may not miss a beat with Baez. We already know the team has an extra outfielder in Soler or Schwarber or Fowler or whomever. And if everyone is healthy, Maddon can use his matchup machine like he did late last season, while reducing the workload.
“There’s all these factors involved and then all this stress,” Maddon said. “Whether it’s self-inflicted or something from the outside. However you process stress that makes you fatigued also.”
Make no mistake, Maddon’s ideology is different than the norm. Keeping players guessing their roles -- and that includes relievers in the bullpen -- has always been frowned upon. But somehow Maddon has turned it into a positive. The use of an entire roster also creates a camaraderie you can’t fake. How often did the team go nuts last year when 25th man Jonathan Herrera, or players like him, had a big moment in a game?
Maddon wants his players ready at all times for all things. He believes that’s what keeps them sharp, instead of adhering to the same routine every day. So how will Maddon use everyone? He’ll just do it. And it will be a killer for the opposition.
“Most of the time with teams you have a lot of that depth at Triple-A, but we have a lot of that depth with us all year,” Maddon said.
So back to the manager’s original thought on all this. One he and Cubs management have expressed so simply since putting together a powerhouse team.
“It’s a good problem to have,” Maddon said with a smile.