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  • The 2023 Cubs Can't Win Without an Elite Defense, and They Don't Have One

    Matt Trueblood

    In an absolute sense, the most disappointing performances of the young season for the Cubs belong to veteran signees in each segment of the roster: Jameson Taillon, Eric Hosmer, Trey Mancini, Michael Fulmer. In an absolute sense, it's the bullpen where they've struggled most. Taking into account preseason expectations and the offseason strategy the front office pursued, though, the biggest red flag is that this pitching-and-defense club hasn't played good defense.

    Image courtesy of © Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports

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    The focus of most Cubs writers and fans, coming into this season, was on the spine of a great defense that the Cubs have constructed up the middle. That has panned out exactly as hoped, and might be the most exciting and compelling thing about this team thus far. Yan Gomes continues to look like the anti-Willson Contreras behind the plate. Dansby Swanson and Nico Hoerner are not only brilliant defenders on the middle infield, but an increasingly coherent miniature unit, making plays and communicating flawlessly.

    Even Cody Bellinger was living up to the hype, and then some, before he got hurt a fortnight ago. Between catcher, shortstop, second base, and center field, the Cubs have 14 Defensive Runs Saved already, according to Sports Info Solutions. That's what the team needed. However, elsewhere, the club's defense has collapsed hideously. The corner infielders and corner outfielders have combined for -14 DRS, canceling out the great work up the middle. 

    Good glove work from their pitchers and sound positioning have kept the team above average. Still, they're 10th in MLB in DRS at the start of June. That's not good enough, for a team built around pitching and defense and without a deep or dangerous enough lineup to slug their way to many tough wins. The Cubs weren't expected to be a playoff team this year, of course, but any version of the team that did get there was going to be one that converted batted balls into outs at an elite rate. Instead, the rival Brewers (first place in the division, four and a half games up on the Cubs) are the best fielding club in MLB. 

    Some of this problem is already being ameliorated. Seiya Suzuki missed the first two-plus weeks of the season, but he's back now, and with some rough adjustments seemingly behind him, he's likely to be one of the league's best defensive right fielders the rest of the way. The Cubs rack up negative value whenever he's out of the lineup, because neither Miles Mastrobuoni nor Patrick Wisdom nor Trey Mancini have proved able to acquit themselves in the outfield this year. In general, though, that problem was short-lived and is already solved.

    It's harder to say the same, with confidence, about the other spots. Matt Mervis's glove looks (if anything) better than advertised at first base, but his bat hasn't been good enough to guarantee either everyday playing time or much job security so far. Wisdom and Christopher Morel still look uneven at the hot corner. Morel is clearly a better defender at second base, but the Cubs need him at third, and it hasn't clicked for him there. 

    Most glaringly, Ian Happ has only occasionally looked like the guy who won a Gold Glove last year. He's trending in the right direction, to be sure, with a couple of fine catches and throws, but he's been as inconsistent out there as he used to be at the plate. To be worthy of the contract extension he signed in April, Happ has to be that strong defensive presence, even at an ostensibly unimportant defensive position. That hasn't been the case so far.

    In the NFL, you'll hear knowledgeable people debate which is more valuable: a great cornerback or a great pass rusher. In any particular case, obviously, the players' quiddities could tip the scale, but in its anonymous form, it's a fun philosophical argument. Ultimately, the point I find most cogent is this one: to have a significant effect on a play, everyone in the secondary has to do their jobs correctly. If even one guy is beaten, the cost can be massive. One shutdown corner only narrows the opponent's options. A great pass rusher, though, can alter a play without anyone else having to succeed. 

    That's the way with the two components of run prevention, pitching and defense. A great pitcher is much more like a great pass rusher. They can take over games and make the defense relatively unimportant. A great defense, by contrast, requires everyone to be good. If there's a weak spot in the phalanx, the whole thing becomes vulnerable. Defense is a team effort, and building a great defense means prioritizing that side of the ledger in an extra decision or two about how to build the team as a whole.

    Right now, the Cubs are learning the hard way that they don't have strong enough supporting defenders for their star-caliber ones. If they hang around and become trade-deadline buyers, one thing they need to do is shore up their defense at the hot corner. In the meantime, though, they need the players in place to bring their full concentration and talent to bear at all times, because their margins for error are too thin to accommodate disappointing defensive showings.

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    Completely agreed with the premise of the article. I’m biiiiiig on adding Nick Lopez (arb eligible, one of the best defenders in the league) of the Royals at the TDL for exactly this purpose 


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    1 hour ago, TomtheBombadil said:

    Completely agreed with the premise of the article. I’m biiiiiig on adding Nick Lopez (arb eligible, one of the best defenders in the league) of the Royals at the TDL for exactly this purpose 


    Ooh, love that one. Royals have a surplus of infielders too. Worth watching.

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    I hesitate to put a lot of stock on the literal numbers for things like DRS or RAA after just 50 games, though it doesn't at least disagree with a crude number like defensive efficiency, which has the Cubs 12th.  In either case, the difference between the Cubs current level and a Top 5 defense is just a few runs saved, and there's so much noise in that 50 game sample that I don't want to ascribe a ton of meaning to it.  There's also the expected improvements from positive regression from the corner OFs and Mervis passing the eye test.

    If there's one spot where defense has me concerned though, it's Morel.  He hasn't looked up to the task of being a MLB OF so far this year, and that's really damaging to his potential role.  Without being playable in the OF(and given how much Tauchman has played recently that seems to be the org's view at the moment), he essentially becomes a younger, more athletic Wisdom.  That's a good thing to have, but a lot less helpful to the 2023(and 2024) Cubs that have Wisdom.  Given that Morel's homer-fueled hot streak has dried up(2 for his last 22 w/ 10/1 K/BB), and Wisdom has stabilized a little bit from the deepest depths of his slump, I wonder if the best thing isn't Morel going back to Iowa to get as many OF reps as he can. I could even see the argument for getting him as many 3B reps as he can, with an eye on making him the best version of himself at his best position as the way forward.  But the status quo doesn't seem sustainable there, and every day that Bellinger gets closer to returning or that Madrigal/Velazquez continue raking at AAA nudges us closer to that decision.

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