By Bruce Levine–
CHICAGO (CBS) — The 25-man roster has never been taken more seriously by a manager than by Cubs dugout master Joe Maddon, who views it as his chess board of players.READ MORE: Chicago Weather: Best Rain Friday Night
The tinkering to get it right for that day’s opponent is the 62-year-old Maddon’s main focus. From the last pitch the day before until first pitch of that day’s game, the moving parts of his lineup are on his mind.
“I sometimes try to work a series in advance,” Maddon said. “Maybe not a week in advance, but I try to be a series ahead.”
Maddon will use a cross-section of information from his numbers-crunching geek squad as well as the daily eye test as part of expertise he brings to formulating the lineup. That’s all based on his 44 years in the game. On Thursday against the Reds, it was regular third baseman Kris Bryant who started in left field. On Sunday, it was Bryant in right field. Tommy La Stella then got the start at third base in both of those contests.
These are all examples of how Maddon views the game in his fertile baseball brain. So too is his early habit of batting Ben Zobrist third in the order and Bryant fifth, even though conventional wisdom may suggest otherwise.
“They give you information,” Maddon said of the analytics department’s impact on his decision. “A lot of the geek wisdom these days insist that I should use Bryant three, not Zobrist, as an example. What I have figured out is I am OK with Bryant batting three against a lefty. That is almost counterintuitive, because Bryant was better last year against right-handed pitchers. To this point it has worked OK.”READ MORE: Getting Hosed: A Look At The Universe Of Chicago Water, And Its Sometimes-Sordid History, This Earth Day
The mixing and matching at different positions will be more extreme when Javier Baez joins the club next week. In Baez, Maddon feels has the next Zobrist, who at 36 is the embodiment of versatility. Zobrist now has been given the second base position permanently.
“In the past, players used to come up and play one position,” Zobrist said. “If they were moved around, they got upset. Now, it’s about how good of a player is this guy, where can he help us, do we have a need somewhere? It’s just the evolution of the game and the need for that team at different positions. That induces managers like Joe to move guys around. If a 22-year-old is a great athlete and doesn’t have the experience, they are going to give him the at-bats at another position.”
The Cubs’ bench strength has been curtailed with the season-ending injury to Kyle Schwarber. That setback, however, affords Maddon the use of numerous players in the outfield, including the improving Jorge Soler and possibly Zobrist as well.
“I know things can happen,” Zobrist said, acknowledging Maddon’s penchant for changes. “I know I can move from time to time. This team is so deep that, as it looks right now, I am playing second base every day. I may not move off that unless we have some injuries or some things that happen.”
The one common element you learn as an opposing manager or interested fan is you can’t completely predict how Maddon will use his players. And he has little ego when it comes to putting out a lineup.
“I am very flexible,” Maddon said. “I don’t really think I know everything by any means. Coming out of (spring training), I watched it very closely and felt this was the best way to get people on base. All these things we have are factors. I use them and my baseball instincts and try to come up with the right decision.”MORE NEWS: Shuttered By Pandemic Last Summer, Guthrie's Tavern In Wrigleyville Has New Owner And Will Be Reopening
Bruce Levine covers the Cubs and White Sox for 670 The Score and CBSChicago.com. Follow him on Twitter @MLBBruceLevine.