How Cubs envision Nick Madrigal fitting into 2023 roster puzzle
In many ways, 2022 was a learning opportunity for both Nick Madrigal and the Cubs.
Madrigal, 25, had been acquired at the 2021 trade deadline from the White Sox in the Craig Kimbrel trade and was returning from a massive injury, a hamstring tear that caused him to miss the rest of that 2021 season. He was ramping up for the 2022 season when the lockout began in December 2021 and lost communication with the Cubs’ medical and coaching staff.
“It was not a good recipe for in-season health,” Cubs president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer said.
Madrigal, eager to return to the field and compete for his new team, was back in the spring, battling for a roster spot and to become the team’s starter at second base. He was successful, opening the season hitting second and manning the second base position against Milwaukee after a shortened Spring Training.
But the results weren’t what he or the Cubs had hoped for.
A player known for his bat-to-ball skills, Madrigal hit just .203 in his first 23 games of the season before landing on the 10-day injured list with a low back strain. It’s the type of injury that could have stemmed from overcompensating on his hamstring.
“I think he was behind,” Hoyer said. “If I could do it again, I’d probably hold him back out of Spring Training.”
That’s what made this offseason so crucial for Madrigal and the Cubs. Madrigal spent the offseason in Arizona, strengthening himself and preparing to stay healthy through the course of the 2023 season.
For Madrigal, part of the solution to a healthy regiment in 2023 comes from advanced data the team has on each player’s biometrics through their running and other movements they make. According to some within the Cubs system, for Madrigal, that means the way he runs — Madrigal’s running pattern has him more upright than other players, meaning he’s putting more stress on his hamstrings, which can, in turn lead to hamstring or lower body injuries.
Spending the offseason to build a workout plan that combats the way Madrigal runs could lead to success for Madrigal in the health department. But, if he stays healthy, just where does Madrigal fit? After all, the Cubs signed Dansby Swanson to play short, moving Nico Hoerner to second base and outside of 1 game in the Arizona Complex League for the White Sox at shortstop, Madrigal has played every inning of his professional career at second base.
“Certainly, guys get hurt, guys need days off,” Hoyer said. “I think he’ll probably play some third base as well. We wanna have a really versatile infield, so we expect that he’s definitely gonna work over there and take reps.
“It’s not the way you think of a stereotypical third baseman — power, slugger, but he’s a really good hitter, really good player. He can definitely do it.”
For a team emphasizing defense and run prevention, how might that fit for a player who grades as an above-average defensive second baseman with a below-average arm (he was in the bottom 14th percentile in arm strength, per Baseball Savant in 2022)?
First, it’s important to note that it’s unlikely the Cubs see Madrigal long-term at third-base. Barring him becoming an astounding defensive third baseman in one offseason, the Cubs are probably at their best defensively with either Patrick Wisdom, Christopher Morel or Zach McKinstry there in 2023.
But if they want to use Madrigal at the hot corner, it could come in a multitude of ways. One, and likely the most practical, is simply in reps at the position in the remainder of the offseason and during Spring Training. The second way could come in the form of lineup manipulation and matchups.
With the shift being banned, Madrigal at third base would mean he’d be on the left side of the infield and near third base. If the Cubs use a righty starter and the opposition uses a left-handed, pull-hitter heavy lineup, could David Ross and the Cubs opt to deploy Madrigal at third, knowing the number of times the ball will be hit his way diminish against, say, a right-handed heavy lineup? The Cubs employed something similar when Jon Lester pitched for the team. They’d occasionally put Javy Báez at third base and Ben Zobrist, Tommy La Stella and others at second and move Kris Bryant to the outfield, knowing that the bulk of the grounders would go to third with a right-handed heavy lineup.
Additionally, if the Cubs are facing a left-handed starter or a pitcher who right-handed hitters have success against, the team could opt to sacrifice some defense to keep Madrigal’s bat (.296/.321/.377 lifetime against LHP) in the lineup.
After all, Madrigal showed in the second half his bat-to-ball skills are still as sharp as ever. In 28 games across August and September (before landing on the injured list to end the season), Madrigal hit .277 with a .348 on-base percentage, which are more in-line with his career numbers (.289/.336).
That’s why the Cubs want to learn from 2022 and have a healthy Madrigal, because it leads to success offensively. They will want to find ways to keep his bat in the lineup, whether that’s in the DH role, at second on off-days for Hoerner or Swanson or at third base.
Regardless, the main priority for the Cubs and Madrigal is health throughout the course of the 2023 season. If that happens, that bodes well for both sides. Having multiple, successful options at various positions is the sign of a healthy and competitive team.
“Those are good problems,” Hoyer said. “We have obviously DH at-bats and depth is so important. You write out your lineup at the beginning of the year and that’s the last time you ever do that. You’re gonna have injuries, you’re gonna have poor performances.
“Having as many good players as you can is really valuable, and I think we’re getting there.”