In baseball there are many lineup differentiations a manager can invent when any and all variables are given consideration; such as how Wrigley Field will play when the wind is blowing out or in, or whether not a ballpark is known as a hitter’s or pitcher’s park.
Perhaps their starting pitcher is prone to throw ground balls, so the manager decides to sacrifice offense for a better defensive infielder; or if the pitcher is a fly ball pitcher, the manager can replace however many regulars with those that have better defense and/or can cover more ground.
Or maybe on the road at a ballpark where there are fewer than the average home runs hit, and the opposition has a porous defense susceptible to the small-ball style of baseball, a manager could shuffle the lineup that emphasizes speed and higher OBP guys.
Whatever the situation, baseball managers can—and often do—utilize many lineup variations throughout the season in order to give their club the best chance to win.
Yet some teams do not have the necessary talent depth to be able to make use of multiple starting lineups.
However, for the Cubs, some of their best defenders at certain positions are also their all-around best option—Rizzo at first, Barney at second and Castro at short.
But what happens when Dale Sveum needs to go with a defensive lineup to start the game, or for late game substitutions?
Who plays in the outfield? Third base? Catcher? Who would occupy those positions when defense is paramount?
Deciding the catcher in that situation is fairly tricky. On one hand, there is the Cubs’ catcher-of-the-future, Welington Castillo, who has yet to play an entire season in the MLB. And on the other hand, is journeyman Dioner Navarro.
The outfield is much more complicated. Who should be selected? The three best overall defensive outfielders, or the best defensive option at each individual position? For instance: Players “A,” “B” and “C” all have a fielding percentage of .991, and player “D” has a .987, but none of the former three have played center field, which is player “D’s” home position.
Choosing the third baseman is not nearly as difficult. Simply go with the best defender.
So, to waste no more time, let us begin…
It’s a fact that Welington Castillo will be the Cubs’ primary backstop in 2013, with Dioner Navarro serving as his backup. However, right now Castillo’s defense is not at the level of Navarro’s.
Even though Dioner Navarro is lacking in the batter’s box, he is solid behind the plate. That’s not to say he one of the best defending catcher’s in the league—because he’s not. Dioner Navarro is a career backup that never lived up to the prospect reports when he was being scouted.
But he has a lot of experience behind the plate, giving him instincts to go along with good movement and a good arm.
The 2013 season could be akin to when the Cubs had Henry Blanco and Geovany Soto on their roster in 2008. Soto, as a young prospect, was their primary catching option. When the need for better defense behind the plate arose, Blanco was inserted into the lineup as Soto continued to develop behind home plate.
Welington Castillo has all the talent and skills to be able to end the season as the Cubs’ best defensive option behind the plate, but right now, the choice is Dioner Navarro.
Sorry to break continuity, but before moving on to the three outfielders, let us discuss third base.
There aren’t a whole lot of options here: Ian Stewart or Luis Valbuena?
Either or both of these two are essentially stop-gap players until Javier Baez is called up to The Bigs. But that will be another couple of years at the least.
So, at the risk of being labeled crazy, in a defensive situation, Luis Valbuena is your man; a joyful selection it is not.
The Cubs, theoretically, still have time to upgrade the position before Spring Training begins, but that seems unlikely. So, we are left with Valbuena and Stewart.
These two are very close statistically in almost every main defensive category except for experience. Ian Stewart has played 406 games at third base to Valbuena’s 92.
That additional experience would, in most instances, place him as the front-runner in this lineup. But here it is not the case.
Given his continued playing time at third, Stewart has not shown himself to improve defensively at that position whatsoever. Valbuena, however, showed to be a quick learner.
After committing five errors at third base between June 14 and June 30 (out of 47 chances), he committed only two errors at the hot corner the rest of the season (142 chances). That shows he was able to get some sort of handle on playing third on the fly, which is very impressive for such a difficult position.
Out of all positions to fill defensively, choosing who will play the outfield is by far the most difficult. In 2012 the Chicago Cubs' outfield committed only nine errors the entire season—nine!—tied for second fewest in the MLB.
There are six realistic candidates to choose from out of a list of eight from Cubs.com—neither Jorge Soler nor Matt Szczur is given consideration for this lineup—to fill three spots in the Cubs’ best defensive lineup.
Before making the final selections each, candidate must be taken into consideration.
First up: Alfonso Soriano. Fonsi had been a defensive liability for the Cubs prior to 2012, and given the fact he plays in left field—the one position where a potent bat can negate a permeable glove—is saying something.
However, in 2012 the Cubs unexpectedly saw a rejuvenated Alfonso Soriano, and in the field no less. Last season Soriano posted the highest fielding percentage of his career (.996).
He looked to have bought high on the team’s new philosophy, evidenced by his performance at the plate and more importantly, in the field. Last season Alfonso Soriano ranked in the top five in all of the following categories for left fielders: putouts, assists, double plays turned by an outfielder, range factor/game, range factor/nine innings and fielding percentage.
If this is the “new” Alfonso Soriano the Cubs and their fans can expect to see the next two seasons, then he just may make up for all those head-scratching plays in the outfield.
Next up is Tony Campana. The speediest of all the Cubs’ outfielders, he can cover the most ground of any other player, giving Dale Sveum more flexibility of where to place him—shallow, deep, etc.—regardless of the situation, without worrying if he can make a play on the ball.
The next two were second-half call-ups in 2012: Brett Jackson and Dave Sappelt.
Brett Jackson requires little more than a video as to why he deserves to be selected into the best defensive lineup.
Dave Sappelt, on the other hand, needs a bit more since having the unfortunate luck of face-planting into a chain-link fence whilst making a spectacular catch. As Rod Stewart said, “Some guys have all the luck.”
Nevertheless, Sappelt has good fielding capabilities; some scouting reports state he has plus-defense. He has performed well when on defense in his 54 games in the MLB, first with the Reds in 2011 and then the Cubs in 2012, by committing zero errors.
David De Jesus is a solid player for the Cubs. He’s the type of player that cannot only play all three positions in the outfield but can play in any situation at left, center, or right.
De Jesus committed only two errors out of 272 chances in 143 games—predominantly in right field, with 50 in center and a handful in left.
He has a good arm—not Vlad Guerrero-esque, but good—and decent range.
Lastly, we have Nate Schierholtz.
Nate Schierholtz has a lot of experience playing in a ballpark that can play almost as finicky as Wrigley Field. Before being traded to the Philadelphia Phillies last July, he was with the San Francisco Giants beginning in 2007.
His offense is not what could earn him the right to be the Cubs’ Opening Day right fielder—but if you look at his career numbers at Wrigley, it may help. Rather, it is his superb defense that will likely see him win the job.
So, which three of these six players will fill the available outfield positions as part of the best defensive lineup?
In right: Nate Schierholtz. There is one reservation about this selection, and that is his small sample size playing at Wrigley Field, as opposed to David De Jesus. But Schierholtz has a better glove and arm than De Jesus.
As for who is in center field, Brett Jackson is the guy.
Brett Jackson has great fielding instincts. He can track the ball very well off the bat, and his instincts allow him to utilize his speed to get a quick jump on the ball, expanding his range. He has a strong and accurate arm that gives him the ability to make throws wherever the ball happens to take him.
Finally, in left field…Wow, this is hard…Alfonso Soriano.
This may or may not be shocking, but, yes, Alfonso Soriano is playing left field as part of the Cubs’ best defensive lineup. Whodathunkit?
We all want to believe the Alfonso Soriano we saw in 2012 is the Alfonso Soriano we will see going forward. We want to believe his fielding performance was not incongruous but a transformation into becoming a complete ballplayer.
They say seeing is believing. But no Cubs fan would have believed Fonsi could field as well as he did last season until they saw it.
Now that we all have seen, should we all believe?
In regards to long-term, who knows; even the most ardent optimist would be skeptical. But in terms of right now, hop on the wagon.