There’s a new way of playing baseball, or more of an old way come back to life. It revolves around position played, and the Chicago Cubs have been at the forefront of this new way of playing baseball. It seems like this new movement started happening all of a sudden one day. After all Ben Zobrist the super utility player was always an aberration and far from the norm. The surface hardly ever provides the truth, and for the Cubs the ability of a player to take the field at multiple positions has become a must, as opposed to an aberration.
Most of us, heck probably all of us, grew up with a strict view of baseball. For me, and many others, this was molded by baseball cards. Leon Durham had to be a first baseman for the Chicago Cubs because his 1984 Donruss baseball card said he was a first baseman for the Chicago Cubs. Listening on the radio or watching on television only further enforced the repetitive nature of baseball. Shawon Dunston was always at shortstop and Ryne Sandberg was always at second base. It didn’t matter what game of the year I was watching/listening to, or what the situation on the field was. I knew where the players were going to be on the field, because they played the same position every day.
Looking at the current Cubs positional player roster it’s easy to see how much things have changed. Of the 13 positional players on the Cubs there are only two who are tied to one position; Anthony Rizzo at first base and Miguel Montero at catcher. The rest of the lineup is littered with flexibility. Kyle Schwarber is a left fielder and a catcher. Willson Contreras can play left field, right field, catcher, and first base. Kris Bryant can play both corner bags and all three outfield spots. On and on I could go, down a list of players who are capable of taking the field at a variety of positions. This has been one of the keys to the Cubs current run of success. They are never tied to one lineup, that’s the gift of flexibility.
This didn’t happen overnight for the Cubs, it didn’t even start at the big league level. The push for positional flexibility started in the farm system, and it continues in the farm system. A top prospect like Jeimer Candelario has branched out from his usual third base to learn how to play first base, and he’s now taking reps in the outfield too. Candelario is an example of a player adding to their positional flexibility because they realized it’s a way for them to make the big league roster. The New York native is a stud third baseman, but on the big league club that position happens to be occupied, on most days, by the reigning MVP. For Candelario learning to play new positions is just as much about his personal success as it is the team’s success.
The desire for positional flexibility isn’t entirely new, and it’s not something the Cubs invented. It’s a hot trend in baseball that the Cubs profit from on an almost daily basis. But, long before Javier Baez was showing the world he had the ability to play literally every position on a baseball diamond there were flexible players. It was extremely common in the Negro Leagues for players to be able to play multiple positions. For years in Major League Baseball positional flexibility was the norm. It seems to have fallen out of favor around the 1960s, with players settling into one position and one position only. I’m not sure why the shift away from positional flexibility took place, but it’s clear with the way Ben Zobrist was treated for years that by the 1990s positional flexibility was viewed as something novel and unique.
In 2017 positional flexibility has become commonplace again, with a team like the Cubs leading the way. Are there dangers to being so in step with positional flexibility; possibly. There is something to be said for a player being so comfortable at a position that he becomes the very best at said position. At the same time it’s nice to know that you can move your usual everyday second baseman to right field in order to make way for an otherworldly fielding second baseman. There are also limitations to positional flexibility, namely that the player has to be able to be flexible. Anthony Rizzo is a first baseman only, and one of the reasons for that is because he isn’t able to flash the same leather at other positions. Why take a Gold Glove caliber first baseman and try to move him to left field where he’s probably average at best and more than likely below average? It’s important for teams to limit the flexibility of their players to what is needed for a given situation and that specific team.
I hope positional flexibility is back to stay this time. It has added greatly to the ability of the Cubs, and other teams, to win. The ability of a player to take the field at multiple positions also greatly adds to their value, and eventually makes them more money. There will always be players who are one position guys, as long as baseball is around that will be the case. However, that’s not the norm with the 2017 Chicago Cubs, and it shouldn’t be the case with this team for years to come.