CINCINNATI -- When perusing the details of Ben Zobrist's 2016 season so far, one might find something a little odd. Well, not necessarily odd for a "normal" player, but for Zobrist it's totally out of whack. He has played only second base.
Thursday afternoon, he is starting at second for the 19th time this season. He hasn't spent an inning anywhere else in the field.
It's quite the departure for the career super-utility man. Last season, Zobrist played 69 games at second, 45 in left field, five in right field and served as DH six times. In his 11-year career, he has played third base in four different seasons, first base in two, DH in seven, center field in five, left field in six, shortstop in seven, right field in eight and second in nine.
The last time Zobrist only spent time at one position in one season was in 2007, when he only appeared in 31 games as a shortstop for Joe Maddon's 66-96 Tampa Bay Devil Rays.
Now reunited with Maddon on a four-year, $56 million contract, the Cubs made it clear to reporters in the off-season that Zobrist wasn't going to be moved around as much and thus far have stuck with it.
Still, I couldn't help but wonder if it's been an adjustment for Zobrist. He says it is, but in a good way.
"It’s a lot easier," said Zobrist in Cincinnati last weekend. "I just know that there are certain things I have to do to be ready for the game and if I were playing a lot of positions I’d have to do a lot more. So it’s been a nice change of pace for me, as I kind of move into this new part of my career."
Zobrist hasn't really gotten the bat going like it can, as he's hitting .246 with four doubles and a homer (.354 slugging percentages). His eye is as good as ever, though, as he's walked 16 times compared to nine strikeouts, good for an outstanding .390 on-base percentage (league average is .327 entering Thursday). His 19.5 BB% is the highest of his career.
Interesting to me was the way he said "new part of [his] career." It was as if now he's a second baseman in his last big contract at age 35, as opposed to a guy being shuttled all over the field. Not that it's out of the realm of possibility of him playing anywhere else, of course, because when I asked him if Maddon had given him any indication that he wouldn't be used elsewhere on the diamond, he said, "no, we haven’t talked about it at all."
Still, it would be surprising to many outside observers how Maddon has deployed his resources in the early-going, even with the injury to slugger Kyle Schwarber.
Star third baseman Kris Bryant has started four games in left field and one in right. Tommy La Stella, who brings a .364/.417/.636 small-sample line into Thursday, has started three games at third and one at second while providing a great pinch-hitting bat off the bench. In fact, he's been dubbed "3 AM," since he's supposedly so good at pinch hitting that you could throw him in the batter's box at 3 a.m. and he'd be OK with it.
And then there's Javier Baez, who Maddon appears to be grooming as the next Zobrist. Baez started the season on the disabled list, but he's already seen time at all four infield positions and played some outfield in both winter ball and spring training.
Baez has very little professional experience at third base until late last season, but he's still nifty enough over there to have attempted to turn an across-the-body, around-the-horn triple play late last week:
It wasn't a well-thought-out plan or anything. Baez -- a career shortstop -- simply was going on instinct.
"The ball got really close to the bag, so I decided at the last second to go for the triple play," he said. "I was going to step on third and go to first base and then I just reacted."
Maddon was impressed, complimenting Baez for his "court awareness."
As Baez looks to become a more well-rounded player, he tapped into a great resource: Possible Hall of Famer Adrian Beltre.
"I learned from Beltre," Baez said, noting he contacted him over the winter.
The Cubs would surely be content to have Baez be a more powerful version of Zobrist -- or a least part of the Zobrist puzzle with Bryant and La Stella -- while Zobrist himself just becomes a good second baseman.
It's a bit funny that part of the Cubs' success so far this season is their versatility and that Zobrist not moving from second is part of that reason in an indirect way. Not that this bothers him. As he said, it's easier now -- though his opponents probably don't agree.