The Cubs have a lot of players who can play short stop. A lot. Starlin Castro, Javier Baez, Addison Russell, and to a lesser degree, Arismendy Alcantara are all capable of playing short and all are going to be in, at least, AAA Iowa for the upcoming season. Looking even further down the road, Gleyber Torres is likely going to make his first appearance with a full season club this season, with the South Bend Cubs in the Midwest League (Low A). At the moment, the position still looks as stocked and as deep as was thought after the Addison Russell acquisition. Looking forward, that isn’t as clear cut.
Everybody’s favorite to take over the short stop position is Addison Russell. At the moment, he is a fine defensive short stop, and when he was traded to the Cubs, A’s GM Billy Beane called him Barry Larkin. There is no disputing that Russell is a great athlete. And he will always be a great athlete. But Addison Russell is only 21 years old. He carries big, broad shoulders. For his build, he is still slight. He hasn’t reached physical maturity, yet. There is a very strong chance, that in spite of his best efforts, he will get bigger and stronger. When Russell bulked up in high school to help his power, he was limited to third base in his time with Team USA. There is a good news/ bad news angle to that. The good news is, in the likely event he does add that size that comes naturally with a maturing male, his power increases and he becomes an above average athlete for third base with a strong power profile. The bad news is, and has been seen before, that it hurts his long term ability to stay at short stop. His Baseball Prospectus scouting report from before the 2014 season, written by now Cubs scout, Jason Parks, cited that “range could be an issue in the future.” While there is no dealing in absolutes with how an individual’s body will develop, Russell carries all of the markers of someone who will probably add bulk and may not be able to stick at short stop long term.
Javier Baez is an option at the position moving forward, but he carries some of the same risks that are seen in Addison Russell. Baez is still a physically maturing player, and while he can play the position for the time being, there is no certainty he is able to maintain the requisite athleticism to do it. While Baez does not come with the broad shoulder width that Russell has, Baez comes with a naturally thicker build, especially in his core, gluteals, and thighs. As with Russell, there is a good news/ bad news aspect. The good news is that his prodigious power isn’t going anywhere. The bad news is, he’s may slow down in both straight line and lateral speed as his body naturally settles into its permanent adult form. Being 22, he is also likely two or three years away from finishing his physical development.
Gleyber Torres is a player who, at 18, and not yet having reached full season ball is not an option at the position for at least a few more years. He is just barely 18 years old, and at 6’1″, 175 pounds, he probably has a ton of physical maturation left. Without seeing him in person or extensively on video, it is difficult to know how much, but his age and height/ weight proportion scream that he’s not close to a finished product physically. He also needs time to develop. He is just now starting his professional baseball career and is still only a boat load of potential. He comes with all of the question marks that come with players with so little experience. That is to say, he cannot be seen as a viable option to play short stop for the Cubs for at least 2 and maybe 3 full years. He’s a player to be justifiably excited about developing, but he’s so far away that he doesn’t factor into who plays short for the major league team until 2017 or 2018, at the earliest.
What is left is the status quo. Starlin Castro is a good athlete and has been the short stop for the better part of the last 5 years. Being 25 years old as of March 24, his physical maturation process is nearing its end. And his relative youth and proven durability can cover a lot of potential future problems at the position. Having an established three time All-Star at a premium position who is just now entering what will be his physical prime likely makes him the front-runner to hold the job, not only in the present, but also in the moderate term future. And the Cubs could do a lot worse.
It may seem outside the box to have this discussion at this point in time. Because the Cubs could play Russell or Baez at short in the present, and move them when Torres is ready, it will continue to make Starlin Castro the rumored trade candidate he has been for what feels like his entire career. The list of variables in that equation is long, though. It assumes that Torres develops into a capable major league short stop. It also assumes that Russell and Baez can both replace the proven production of Starlin Castro. Although both are very talented, both have a long way to go to prove that they can do that job.
Questions about the long term ability to play short stop could be a reason why Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer still have Starlin Castro. Having the required foresight to keep a veteran player who is still in his early to mid 20s and has a proven record of success, when he could be used as a trade chip to acquire talent at a seemingly less settled position, is an asset that recent past Cubs management has lacked. Nothing about this discussion is likely a secret to the Cubs, who should know their players better than anybody. If the logic behind not trading Castro relates to positional questions of the other short stops who are with the major league club, or close to being with them, that answers why Castro is still a Cub. It also opens a new discussion about where everyone plays.
The entire line of thinking in this case is a great problem to have. The Cubs have a bounty of players who are very good athletes; many of whom could line up and play short stop at the major league level right now. As time wears on, the only player left who maintains the athleticism necessary may be Starlin Castro. But it is rare for a team to have two other infielders with 70 or higher potential power profiles with above average athletic ability to play second and third base, which is what the Cubs would have if Baez and Russell end up in those positions. It would also give them a great deal of overall range and coverage on ground balls and pop ups.
As with all things, time will tell how this all plays out. For those who want nothing more than to see Starlin Castro shipped out on the first plane out of Chicago in favor of one of the other short stops, it’s not that simple. Players with his credentials aren’t so easily procured and replaced, even when it seems that they could be.