Cubs see self-awareness as key to Javier Baez's development


Cubs see self-awareness as key to Javier Baez's development

MESA, Ariz. — Javier Baez is on a different developmental curve than his fellow former-top-prospect teammates, as the Cubs look at their 2011 first-round pick as a regular backup. The upshot of that utility role not only is getting inconsistent at-bats, but also playing different positions. 

Those day-to-day positional changes were on display Monday and Tuesday this week, when Baez started in center field and at shortstop on back-to-back days. He made a fine play ranging to his right Tuesday against the Los Angeles Dodgers, quickly setting his feet and firing a strike to retire Yasiel Puig. But he also committed a throwing error trying to turn a double play too quickly, a mistake manager Joe Maddon said was largely mental. 

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Baez is still young, both in terms of age (he’s 23 years old) and experience (he’s played in 80 major league games). The mistakes will happen, but unlike Addison Russell, Kris Bryant or Kyle Schwarber, there may not be an opportunity for Baez to work through them in the next day’s game. 

“Of course you would like to put a young man like that in a position where he can play and make mistakes,” Maddon said, “and a lot of times that would be with a team that’s probably going to be relegated to the second division.”

This is a Cubs team that, on paper, doesn’t have many holes. Russell and Bryant are locked in at shortstop and third base, while $56 million offseason signing Ben Zobrist will settle in at second base. An outfield consisting of Jason Heyward, Dexter Fowler, Jorge Soler and Kyle Schwarber looks difficult to crack. 

Still, Baez will have an opportunity to carve out at-bats and innings for himself. That’s what Zobrist did under Maddon with the 2008 Tampa Bay Rays, playing every position but pitcher and catcher and slugging 12 home runs with a .844 OPS in just 62 games. 

Where Maddon wants to see Baez improve is in his ability to understand himself and why he’s either succeeding or failing on a play-to-play, at-bat-to-at-bat, game-to-game basis. 

“Not playing every day is going to lead into that also, where you really have to be more self-aware,” Maddon said. “If you’re playing every day, you can have more at-bats, you can make your adjustments. When you’re not playing as consistently, I think self-awareness is being a big part of being able to do well in that role.”

Baez, to his credit, was up front about the mistakes he made Tuesday against the Dodgers. He admitted he was “just trying to crush the ball” when he struck out in his first at-bat against Clayton Kershaw, and said he should’ve set his feet on the errant throw he made in the fifth inning. In the bottom half of the fifth, Baez hit a ground ball down the third base line he thought was foul — it was ruled fair — and didn’t run to first base. 

“There’s no excuses to not run out the ground ball,” Baez said. 

[MORE: Cubs hoping Jason Hammel can find his groove in 2016]

That’s the kind of self-awareness Maddon expects Baez to have as he enters a 2016 season staring down sporadic playing time. There will be opportunities for him to make an impact on a team that’s dreaming big, provided he takes the right mental approach. 

“When I do the good things, you want people to know when you did it,” Baez said. “But when you’re wrong, you gotta assess what you did wrong and just fix it.”

Addison Russell is so over 2017: 'That's last year, don't want to talk about that'

Addison Russell is so over 2017: 'That's last year, don't want to talk about that'

MESA, Ariz. — “That’s last year, don’t want to talk about that.”

In other words, Addison Russell is so over 2017.

The Cubs shortstop went through a lot last year. He dealt with injuries that affected his foot and shoulder. He had a well-documented off-the-field issue involving an accusation of domestic abuse, which sparked an investigation by Major League Baseball. And then came the trade speculation.

The hot stove season rarely leaves any player completely out of online trade discussion. But after Theo Epstein admitted there was a possibility the Cubs could trade away one or more young position players to bolster the starting rotation, well, Russell’s name came up.

And he saw it.

“There was a lot of trade talk,” Russell said Saturday. “My initial thoughts were, I hope it doesn’t happen, but wherever I go, I’m going to try to bring what I bring to the table here. It’s a good thing that it doesn’t have to be that way. I’m happy being in a Cubs uniform, I want to be in a Cubs uniform, for sure. But there was some talk out there. If I got traded, then I got traded, but that’s not the case.”

No, it’s not, as the Cubs solved those pitching questions with free-agent spending, bringing in Yu Darvish and Tyler Chatwood to replace the departed Jake Arrieta and John Lackey. It means Russell, along with oft-discussed names like Kyle Schwarber, Ian Happ and Javy Baez, are all still Cubs.

While the outside world might have expected one of those guys to be moved in some sort of blockbuster trade for Chris Archer or some other All-Star arm, the Cubs’ young core remains intact, another reason why they’re as much a favorite to win the World Series as any team out there.

“I’m really not surprised. The core is still here. Who would want to break that up? It’s a beautiful thing,” Russell said. “Javy and I in the middle. Schwarber, sometimes playing catcher but mainly outfield. And then (Kris Bryant) over there in the hot corner, and of course (Anthony) Rizzo at first. You’ve got a Gold Glover in right field (Jason Heyward). It’s really hard to break that up.

“When you do break that down on paper, we’ve got a lineup that could stack up with the best.”

This winter has been about moving on for Russell, who said he’s spent months working to strengthen his foot and shoulder after they limited him to 110 games last season, the fewest he played in his first three big league campaigns.

And so for Russell, the formula for returning to his 2016 levels of offensive aptitude isn’t a difficult one: stay on the field.

“Especially with the injuries, I definitely wanted to showcase some more of my talent last year than I displayed,” Russell said. “So going into this year, it’s mainly just keeping a good mental — just staying level headed. And also staying healthy and producing and being out there on the field.

“Next step for me, really just staying out there on the field. I really want to see what I can do as far as helping the team if I can stay healthy for a full season. I think if I just stay out there on the field, I’m going to produce.”

While the decrease in being on the field meant lower numbers from a “counting” standpoint — the drop from 21 homers in 2016 to 12 last year, the drop from 95 RBIs to 43 can in part be attributed to the lower number of games — certain rate stats looked different, too. His on-base percentage dropped from .321 in 2016 to .304 last year.

Russell also struggled during the postseason, picking up just six hits in 36 plate appearances in series against the Washington Nationals and Los Angeles Dodgers. He struck out 13 times in 10 postseason games.

Of course, he wasn’t alone. That World Series hangover was team-wide throughout the first half of the season. And even though the Cubs scored 824 runs during the regular season, the second most in the National League and the fourth most in baseball, plenty of guys had their offensive struggles: Schwarber, Heyward and Ben Zobrist, to name a few.

“You can’t take anything for granted. So whenever you win a World Series or you do something good, you just have to live in the moment,” Russell said. “It was a tough season last year because we were coming off winning the World Series and the World Series hangover and all that. This year, we had a couple months off, a couple extra weeks off, and I think a lot of guys took advantage of that. I know I did. And now that we’re here in spring training, we’re going to get back at it.”

Cubs Talk Podcast: Discussing 5-man unit and where Montgomery fits into Cubs' plans


Cubs Talk Podcast: Discussing 5-man unit and where Montgomery fits into Cubs' plans

Jon Lester has arrived at Cubs camp, and he’s pleased with the new-look rotation full of potential aces. Kelly Crull and Vinnie Duber discuss the 5-man unit, and where Mike Montgomery fits into the Cubs’ plans.

Plus, Kelly and Vinnie talk Jason Heyward and Kyle Schwarber, along with the continuing free agent stalemate surrounding Jake Arrieta.

Listen to the full Cubs Talk Podcast right here: