Cubs

Cubs: Javier Baez making a playoff statement with his defense

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Cubs: Javier Baez making a playoff statement with his defense

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.”

[MORE CUBS: Cubs expecting Jorge Soler back for Cardinals series]

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.

[MORE CUBS: This is nice for Cubs, but Jon Lester signed up to win World Series]

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.

Even with an entire spring schedule to go, guessing the Cubs' 25-man roster is pretty easy

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USA TODAY

Even with an entire spring schedule to go, guessing the Cubs' 25-man roster is pretty easy

MESA, Ariz. — The frequent mission of spring training is to iron out a 25-man roster.

But at Cubs camp, that mission seems to already be completed.

With an entire Cactus League schedule still to play, the Cubs’ 25-man group that will leave Arizona for the season-opener in Miami seems pretty well set.

The starting rotation: Jon Lester, Yu Darvish, Kyle Hendricks, Jose Quintana and Tyler Chatwood.

The position-player group: Willson Contreras, Victor Caratini, Anthony Rizzo, Javy Baez, Addison Russell, Kris Bryant, Tommy La Stella, Kyle Schwarber, Albert Almora Jr., Ian Happ, Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist.

The bullpen: Brandon Morrow, Steve Cishek, Pedro Strop, Carl Edwards Jr., Mike Montgomery, Brian Duensing, Justin Wilson and Justin Grimm.

Boom. There’s your 25.

Joe Maddon, do you agree?

“You guys and ladies could probably write down what you’re seeing and be pretty accurate,” Maddon said Thursday. “I can’t deny that, it’s true. Oftentimes, when you’re a pretty good ball club, that is the case. When you’re not so good, you always get auditions during spring training.

“I think what the boys have done is they’ve built up a nice cache in case things were to happen. The depth is outstanding. So you could probably narrow it down, who you think’s going to be the 25, and I won’t argue that.”

It’s the latest example in a camp that to this point has been full of them that the Cubs are one of baseball’s best teams and that only a World Series championship will fulfill expectations. Had the front office stuck with a starting rotation of Lester, Hendricks, Quintana, Chatwood and Montgomery, then there would’ve been a spot open in the bullpen. But the statement-making signing of Darvish jolted the Cubs into “best rotation in the game” status, sent Montgomery back to the bullpen and further locked the roster into place.

Guys like Grimm and La Stella have been forced off the 25-man roster at points in recent seasons, though even their spots seem safe. Maddon even said that a huge spring from someone else wouldn’t mean as much at what guys have done at the major league level in recent memory.

“Spring training performance, for me, it’s not very defining,” Maddon said. “You’re going to be playing against a lot of guys that aren’t going to be here, more Triple-A guys, even some Double-A guys. Some guys come in better shape, they normally look better early. The vibe’s different. You play a couple innings, you don’t get many at-bats, the pitcher doesn’t see hitters three times and vice versa. So I don’t worry about that as much.

“It’s more about, guys that might be fighting for a moment, what do they look like, does it look right, does it look good, how do they fit in? Is there somebody there that you scouted? Because what matters a lot is last year and what you did last year and the last couple months of last year.

“So of course guys that have been here probably have a bit of an upper hand, but we’re very open-minded about stuff. And I think when you look at the guys, you’re right, it’s probably pretty close to being set. But stuff happens.”

Could the recently signed Shae Simmons give Grimm an unexpected challenge for the final relief spot? Maddon said guys who have been with the Cubs in the recent past have a leg up. Could Chris Gimenez turn his experience with Darvish into a win over Caratini for the backup catcher spot? Maddon threw cold water on the "personal catcher" narrative last week.

Of course, Maddon left the door open the possibility of an injury that could open up a roster spot and even shake up the depth chart. But barring the unforeseen, this 25-man group looks locked into place.

That gives the Cubs an edge, perhaps, in that they can specifically find ways to tune up those guys rather than focus on getting enough at-bats for players who are fighting for roster spots. But most of that edge came during the winter, and in winters and summers past, when the front office built this team into a championship contender.

There have been plenty of years when the fans coming to Mesa to watch the Cubs play in spring training saw the blossoming of a big league player thanks to a monster spring or a surprise tear during March. That’s going to be unlikely this spring, a reflection of just how far this team has come.

“It’s easy for me to reflect on this because when I started out with the Rays, wow,” Maddon said. “That was a casting call trying to figure it out. You had very few settled positions when you walked in the door. And then as we got better, it became what we’re talking about. As we moved further along, you were pretty much set by the time (you got to spring training) except for one or two spots.

“So I think the better teams are like that.”

The Cubs are most definitely one of those better teams.

Cubs Talk Podcast: Sitting down with new Cubs coaches Chili Davis and Jim Hickey

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KELLY CRULL

Cubs Talk Podcast: Sitting down with new Cubs coaches Chili Davis and Jim Hickey

Spring training baseball games are up around the bend, but before the boys of summer get into organized action, two of the team’s new coaches Chili Davis and Jim Hickey sit down with Kelly Crull.

Plus, Vinnie Duber joins Kelly to discuss these baseball conversations including the memorable first words of Kyle Schwarber to Chili Davis, “I don’t suck!"

Listen to the full episode at this link (iOS users can go here) or in the embedded player below. Subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcasts.