2019 Preview: Cubs Infield

A healthy Kris Bryant returning to top form is key for the Cubs.

Bruce Levine
February 05, 2019 - 8:27 am

(670 The Score) With pitchers and catchers reporting to spring training next week, we're breaking down the Cubs' roster as they enter the new season. Today, we start with a look at the team's infield.

Who's back?

The Cubs will return the majority of their infield from 2018. Assuming health, the Cubs will often start Willson Contreras at catcher, Anthony Rizzo at first base, Ben Zobrist at second base, Javier Baez at shortstop and Kris Bryant at third base early in the season. Shortstop Addison Russell will miss the first 28 games of the regular season as he completes his 40-game suspension for violating the league's joint domestic violence policy.

David Bote will also return as a utility infielder who provides some right-handed power off the bench.

Who's new?

The Cubs signed utility infielder Daniel Descalso to a two-year deal in December. A nine-year MLB veteran, the lefty-swinging Descalso has plenty of experience at second base and can play any of the other three infield positions as well. Descalso will be used to help keep Zobrist's workload light and should a teammate suffer an injury, he's capable of stepping in and being a regular starter.

Descalso replaces Tommy La Stella, whom the Cubs traded to the Angels in the offseason.

Position battles

When Russell's suspension ends, the battle for playing time at shortstop and second base will be interesting. Russell will attend spring training and play in those exhibition games. Will the Cubs rotate him between shortstop and second base? If so, it could be a sign that they plan to use him a fair deal at second base in 2019.

Russell has few peers when it comes to range, but a switch to second base has been broached at times due to his throwing issues. So it wouldn't be a surprise to see the Cubs use him more at second base. 

Zobrist, who turns 38 in May, will need sufficient time off to stay at the top of his game. He's expected to split time between second base and the corner outfield spots again. He made 42 starts at second base and 62 starts in the outfield in 2018, but that was when Russell was an everyday player and National League MVP runner-up Baez was often playing second base.

Zobrist's defensive range has diminished, but he's sure-handed when he gets to the ball. He made just one error in 139 games in 2018.

Descalso should get ample starts at second base against right-handed pitching. Bote will start his first full season in the big leagues backing up three positions. 

Contreras had an off-year in 2018, when he .249 with 10 homers and 54 RBIs and a .730 OPS. All those marks were down from 2017, when he hit .276 with 21 homers, 74 RBIs and an .855 OPS. 

Nonetheless, he'll be the everyday catcher. There could be competition behind him, as the Cubs could still sign a backup catcher before Opening Day. With inconsistent playing time, Victor Caratini hit .232 with a .597 OPS in 2018. The Cubs may desire a veteran with more consistency.

2019 outlook

After a quiet offseason for the Cubs, perhaps nothing will be more critical to improvement in 2019 than Bryant regaining his top form. The NL MVP in 2016, Bryant was limited to 102 games last season due to a shoulder injury and getting hit in the head. He had two stints on the disabled list.

After producing a 6.7 WAR in 2017, Bryant had a 2.3 WAR in his injury-plagued 2018, per Fangraphs.

In Bryant's absence and struggles, Baez's game ascended to a star level with 34 homers, 111 RBIs and an .881 OPS. While some regression may be natural, the Cubs will again count on him to play at a star level. 

Rizzo has continued to be his usual steady self, producing at least 25 homers and 100 RBIs in each of the past four seasons. He, Bryant and Rizzo give the Cubs three All-Star-caliber players in the infield -- and any of them could potentially be an MVP candidate. 

The Cubs' infield is really strong defensively. Rizzo is a two-time Gold Glove winner, and Baez was a finalist in 2018. Russell's range is superb, and Bryant is solid if not spectacular at third base. Contreras has arguably the best arm in all of baseball and threw out 34 percent of would-be base stealers in 2018. His pitching framing and setup still needs work. Contreras is a workhorse, having caught an MLB-high 133 games last season. 

For Contreras to be more productive offensively, the Cubs would be better served keeping his workload to around 120 games.

Bruce Levine covers the Cubs and White Sox for 670 The Score. Follow him on Twitter @MLBBruceLevine.