PITTSBURGH — The question isn’t so much whether or not Javier Baez belongs on the playoff roster. It’s becoming whether or not the Cubs can afford to keep him out of the lineup.
Baez is that good defensively, the kind of unique talent that could help the Cubs beat Gerrit Cole and the Pittsburgh Pirates in a one-run wild-card game where every play matters.
Baez finally forced the issue after not making the team out of spring training, taking an extended leave of absence after the death of his sister in April and fracturing his finger on a headfirst slide in June with Triple-A Iowa.
If the Cubs wanted to acquire a frontline pitcher like Carlos Carrasco or Tyson Ross at the July 31 trade deadline, they probably would have had to give up Baez in a deal with the Cleveland Indians or San Diego Padres.
“You still heard a lot of things,” Baez said before Wednesday night’s game against the Pirates. “But I was trying to get better every day and learn something from the game every day.”
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It seems like Baez was humbled by last season’s audition with the Cubs (95 strikeouts in 52 games) and a difficult year from a personal and professional standpoint. Something had to change for a natural shortstop with contact issues and an aggressive swing that can look out of control at times.
The Cubs gave Addison Russell the night off on Wednesday and moved Baez back to shortstop at PNC Park, where these two contenders will likely meet again on Oct. 7 in the National League’s wild-card game.
There will be room for Baez somewhere if he’s playing like a Gold Glove third baseman. Just listen to manager Joe Maddon describe the way Baez charged a chopper and made a barehanded play to rob Michael Morse during a 2-1 Game 2 win in Tuesday’s doubleheader.
“Outstanding,” Maddon said. “Almost like the old Brooks (Robinson), Graig Nettles kind of a thing where you look at the ball and then you throw it to first base accurately without any stress.”
Baez had been tough enough and versatile enough to play some catcher at Arlington Country Day School in Jacksonville, Fla., where he developed into the ninth overall pick in the 2011 draft.
And Maddon doesn’t doubt that Baez could play anywhere in the outfield now, though the manager doesn’t see the point in moving such a gifted infielder off the dirt.
“I feel good at third base,” Baez said. “I thought it was going to be weird, but I’m seeing the ball off the bat really good.”
Baez — who still writes and eats left-handed and uses that as his dominant side — believes that helps him react with the glove and get into such an easy defensive flow.
“When I was little, I used to do everything left-handed,” Baez said. “All my brothers and my cousin played shortstop. They just wanted me to play short and made me right-handed. I was swinging lefty in high school and it hurts my back, so I stopped.”
A young player with Gary Sheffield bat speed also appears to be more under control at the plate, hitting .302 in his first 13 games as a September call-up. But Maddon believes pitching and defense wins championships, which means Baez is a wild card in the team’s plans.