Emilio Bonifacio giving the Cubs the spark they need

Emilio Bonifacio giving the Cubs the spark they need
April 6, 2014, 2:30 pm
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Tony Andracki

Six games into the season, new Cubs manager Rick Renteria has yet to use the same lineup twice.

But there has been one constant: Emilio Bonifacio is the leadoff hitter.

It doesn't matter what position he plays — Bonifacio has started at both center field and second base and also seen time at shortstop — Bonifacio has given the Cubs an important spark atop the order.

"He's a ball of energy," Renteria said. "He's talking in the dugout all the time. He's walking up and down. We come in and he's talking about getting on base and trying to score runs. He's a ball of energy we appreciate having."

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Bonifacio set an MLB record with nine hits in his first two games and entered play Sunday leading the National League with 13 hits and four stolen bases.

The 28-year-old utilty player has had quite the journey to Chicago. After signing with the Diamondbacks out of the Dominican Republic in 2001, he was traded to the Nationals in July 2008, then dealt to the Marlins a couple months later. In November 2012, Bonifacio joined Jose Reyes, Josh Johnson and Mark Buehrle in the Blue Jays-Marlins megadeal.

The Royals purchased Bonifacio's contract from Toronto last August before releasing him in February. Five days later, the Cubs signed him and he's found a home in the leadoff spot.

"It's kind of an interesting situation that he fell through," Renteria said. "Fortunately for us, we were able to get him and take advantage of the skillset that he brings to the table.

"Obviously, he's off to a good start and hopefully he can continue to maintain that."

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The Cubs aren't expecting Bonifacio to hit .542 (his average entering play Sunday) all year, but they believe his tools play better in the NL, with more of a small-ball approach.

He struggled in the AL last year, but had a career .332 on-base percentage and 103 steals during four seasons in Miami.

"We felt like he was sort of miscast in the American League," Cubs GM Jed Hoyer said. "He's a really good National League player, a guy that can do a lot of different things — play positions, lead off, pinch-run. You need those guys for a good bench in the National League.

"To us, seeing him places like Toronto and Kansas City, that's a little bit of a waste of what he can do well on the baseball field. He gives Rick Renteria and the coaching staff a lot of different weapons within the same player."

Hoyer labeled Bonifacio as a bench player, but it's been impossible for Renteria to take him out of the lineup right now. Bonifacio joins Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo — two franchise cornerstones — as the only Cubs to start every game in the early going.

"I would love it if he would [outgrow a bench role]," Hoyer said. "He's certainly not a young player where you think that he has that kind of upside, but he's got a coaching staff that likes him a lot and he's got a role where he can play a great deal.

"Sometimes, those kind of players in that kind of season can out-perform expectations. I also like the fact that he knows what his game is. You don't see a lot of fly balls out of him. You don't see him get big with his swing very often.

"He knows why he's on this team and what he's trying to do and I think that's an important element to any team."

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The Cubs have found reasonable success picking up players off the scrap heap (think: Shawn Camp, Luis Valbuena). Bonifacio probably won't become a part of The Core, but he's still young enough to fill in as the valuable role player Hoyer envisioned.

His average will come back down to Earth and soon enough, prospects like Javier Baez will be hitting Wrigley Field, pushing for playing time and forcing guys like Bonifacio to the bench.

But for now, on a team that will struggle to score runs, the Cubs will take any spark they can get.