One of the most interesting phrases to enter the baseball lexicon in recent years has been “The Next Zobrist.” You see this pop up any time a player is tasked with playing more than two positions on a regular basis. Still, it’s fun to debate, and finding a new player like the Chicago Cubs’ second baseman is at the very least, pretty interesting.
It’s a silly comparison, as nobody has quite done this as well as Ben Zobrist did in his prime, and any player would be hard-pressed to live up to that standard. However, that’s been the full impact of Zobrist as a player: We now obsessively search for signs of the next player to achieve success as a super-utility player.
Another Cubs player, Javier Baez, has drawn a lot of attention throughout baseball for playing this role and doing it quite well. Baez has aided the Cubs by playing second base, third base, and shortstop enough to be considered a bench player in only the technical sense.
More remarkable is that he’s played all three positions well enough to be rated as an elite defender by every available defensive metric. Baez comes in at 1.8 dWAR, 16 defensive runs saved, and 3.8 Fielding Runs Above Average.
The young infielder is also only 23 years old, leading many to believe he is bound to get even better–which, is that even possible on defense?
What is the true value of this type of versatility, though? Well, that’s not an easy question to answer, but I already proved my foolishness by trying to sort out the National League Cy Young race, so why stop now? Let’s start by trying to evaluate the roster implications of having Baez himself available off the bench.
Baez currently sits at 2.2 fWAR, 2.2 WARP, and 3 bWAR, so we can definitely say he’s not an easily replaced player. If you accept the notion that he pro-rates out to a roughly 3-win player (which does include his offensive production, which has been more than decent), then his value in backing up his team’s starting infielders is immense.
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We don’t have to look far to find an example of the type of player the Cubs would have to field instead. With Baez injured for a large portion of the summer in 2015, the Cubs turned to Jonathan Herrera to backup Addison Russell, Starlin Castro, and Kris Bryant. Jonathan Herrera posted a -0.4 fWAR in 132 plate appearances, failing to even fit the definition of replacement level along the way.
It’s not a completely fair comparison, but Baez has been a 2.6 fWAR swing to this point. Just the very fact that the Cubs can play Baez on a regular basis and feel they’re getting competency at the plate and in the field provides flexibility.
Most teams, of course, do not have Zobrist, Addison Russell, and Kris Bryant. Still, with the value of one win being roughly $8,136,364 this season, Baez looks set to provide approximately $20 million of value to his team. Baez is, some would say, the best-case scenario version of a super-utility player.
That is not untrue, but almost every team has several players who would be best served to focus on defense and baserunning in order to create a stable production floor. If those players can add just a bit of versatility, as Baez has shown, they can still be considered very good players in their specific roles.