PHILADELPHIA -- Joe Maddon’s fondness for versatile players and a fully engaged 25-man roster were readily apparent during a successful run as Tampa Bay Rays manager from 2006-14. He was fortunate to spend all nine of those seasons managing Ben Zobrist, a team-first type with the mindset and ability to contribute anywhere on the field.
Now that manager and player are back together again in Chicago, it’s comforting for Maddon to know that Zobrist is always available to move around the chessboard. But Zobrist isn’t the only Chicago Cubs player who provides a smorgasbord of options.
Consider what took place this week during the Cubs’ three-game series against the Philadelphia Phillies at Citizens Bank Park. A night after left fielder Jorge Soler went down with a strained hamstring, Maddon filled the outfield void by moving third baseman Kris Bryant to left. In a corresponding lineup move, Tommy La Stella slotted in at third base and contributed two of Chicago’s six hits in a 3-2 loss to Jerad Eickhoff and the Phillies on Tuesday.
Factor in the contributions of Javier Baez, who is capable of playing second base, shortstop, third base and the outfield, and Maddon feels almost liberated in his ability to let his imagination roam with his lineup calls.
"We have a whole bunch of guys that we’ve been nurturing into being that kind of player," Maddon said. "I think it’s great. It’s very valuable to a team, and it permits you to do so many things when a game is in progress. The beauty of our guys is, when you put them somewhere, there’s no breakdown on defense. They’re able to play different positions really well."
The numbers bear out what Maddon’s eyes are telling him. The Cubs lead the major leagues with 35 Defensive Runs Saved this season, according to Baseball Info Solutions. Stellar defense has played a significant role in the pitching staff’s MLB-best 2.61 ERA.
Zobrist, 35, gravitated to the Cubs as a free agent in December for reasons beyond a four-year, $56 million contract. He was excited by the prospect of reuniting with Maddon, on a winning team, in a city not far from his home base in Nashville. The Cubs also made it clear that Zobrist would be their primary second baseman, and he would no longer be required to check the lineup card each day to see where he might be playing.
The Cubs have been true to their word. Zobrist has started 48 games at second base and three in right field, and the continuity has helped him mesh with double-play partner Addison Russell more seamlessly in the middle infield.
When Maddon needs versatility in a pinch, he’s been more inclined to turn to Bryant, who has started 32 games at third base and 21 in the outfield, and who has made cameo appearances at first base and shortstop.
Bryant turned the wrong way on a Freddy Galvis double to left field Tuesday night, but he has generally played adequate defense or better regardless of where the Cubs put him. He carries two outfield gloves, a third baseman’s glove and a first baseman’s mitt, so he comes prepared.
"I’m very open to it," Bryant said. "It’s kind of how the game is now. A lot of guys are moving around, especially on this team. I’m slowly getting used to it, so it’s not really a big deal to me. I think it helps the team a lot, because it allows Joe to get guys in the lineup who are swinging the bat good and only play in certain areas."
The biggest challenge for Bryant: Moving from the outfield to the infield while a game is in progress, because the game speeds up at third base and quicker reactions are required. Maddon won’t hesitate to shift Bryant from third to left field during a game, but he tries to avoid the alternate scenario.
Bryant, 24, was the second pick in the 2013 draft and made the All-Star team and won the National League Rookie of the Year award last season. It’s a tribute to his priorities, as a budding superstar, that he’s so willing to move around the field and risk something going badly for the sake of the team. His contribution has not gone unnoticed by his manager.
"It just tells me he was raised properly, that’s all," Maddon said. "He’s more altruistic. It’s not about him. That’s another reason why he is so good. He plays a complete game of baseball, and his primary purpose out there is to do something to help us win. That’s it. He’s a baseball player, and we need more of that. The industry and the game need that -- players who 'get it.' It’s just about winning. It’s not about you."