The Upcoming Season Might Be Joe Maddon’s Most Challenging Yet

Which burden is heavier, that of failure or success? It’s probably the same as asking whether a ton of bricks versus a couple thousand pounds of feathers weighs more, though I bet one feels better when it’s dropped on your head. As such, Joe Maddon’s got a bit of a cushion when it comes to the task of fitting all the extra pieces into a puzzle that already appears to be complete.

Given the depth the Cubs had built up, all the injuries actually served to alleviate some of those same issues last season. While no one will ever say losing Kyle Schwarber was good for the team, his absence certainly didn’t cost them in the end. Schwarber’s back now, of course, and with him the conundrum of how to get everyone enough at-bats.

Chris Coghlan and Dexter Fowler are gone, but Jon Jay and Albert Almora are part of the mix. There’s also Matt Szczur, but he won’t be much of a factor unless he channels that performance against St. Louis. Assuming no more catastrophic injuries, you figure War Bear, Almora, and Jason Heyward take up a bulk of the innings. Okay, that doesn’t sound so bad.

You’re right, it doesn’t. Except that it makes things a little tighter when it comes to the infield. All those injuries in the outfield in 2016 forced/allowed Kris Bryant to put in plenty of time in left and right. In all, he actually logged 453.1 innings in the outfield, more than half as many as he got at third (857). That meant more room for Javy Baez, who played 370.2 innings at the hot corner.

Less time for Bryant in the outfield means less time for Baez at third, which isn’t good. Not necessarily the part about Javy not playing third, specifically, more just him not having as much extra time in general. Then again, second base was the position at which he saw the most action (383 innings) and at which he seems to have the most impact (his 11 defensive runs saved was tied for 3rd in MLB and 16.3 UZR/150 was highest among players with minimum 300 innings). Cool, that was easy. Except…

What about Ben Zobrist, who some think should assume the leadoff spot Fowler vacated. First, it’s sounding more and more like Schwarber’s going to be at the top of the order on a pretty regular basis. Second, Zobrist might be transitioning back into more of the utility role we saw him fill down the stretch and in the playoffs as Baez proved himself a necessary part of the lineup.

“I really think it’s important, whether it’s pitchers or position players to really be aware of giving guys rest,” Maddon said at Cubs Convention a couple weeks ago. “Zo’s another year older. The last two years, he’s played very deep into the year. It’s a long spring training with the WBC going on.”

Maddon’s not necessarily saying he’s putting the veteran out to pasture, but it sure sounds as though he’s laying the groundwork for the possibility of a scaled-back workload. Like he said, though, there’s a while yet to figure things out. If that sounds a little non-committal, that’s because it is. After all, there’s no reason to set a lineup when we’re still weeks away from position players reporting to Mesa.

“I’m not worried about that right now,” Maddon said when asked about exactly how everything would shake out.

There’s no reason to doubt the decidedly laid-back skipper’s word, particularly when you consider the timing and how things broke down — both literally and figuratively — last season. Hell, he’s probably too busy popping bottles of Pingus with his wife, Jaye, as they take in the sunset while lazing beside the comforting hulk of Cousin Eddie. And he should be relaxing for now because it’s gonna get a lot more interesting here real soon.

Even though everyone knew the Cubs were going to be good, the possibility of actually winning the World Series remained somewhat distant and ethereal. Not until Anthony Rizzo had tucked the final out into his back pocket did it coalesce into something we felt safe touching. That something has grown more substantial with each passing day, morphing from metaphorical Sisyphean rock being pushed up the mountain to booby-trap boulder rolling along behind Maddon like the opening scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Dude’s got a plan, he’d be stupid not to. And he’d be just as stupid to waste his precious free time writing a lineup in the sand when he knows the next wave is only going to force him to write it all over again. But maybe writing different lineup iterations over and over would be great practice for the reality of the campaign before him, which is that Maddon faces a mammoth task when it comes to finding adequate playing time for everyone on his roster.

Hairy as it is, I think that’s what they call a good problem to have. But it’s still a problem, and one that is going to be a huge part of the Cubs’ title defense.

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