ST. LOUIS – This is why Joe Maddon wanted Javier Baez on the Opening Day roster. The Cubs manager saw the instinctual feel for the game, the natural athleticism and a rocket-launcher arm.
Let Baez figure out how to use that Gary Sheffield bat speed later. Maddon believed the kid could help the team win in so many different ways.
Baez still isn’t a finished product – and this season hasn’t gone according to plan – but here he is in September making a difference for a legitimate playoff contender against the hated St. Louis Cardinals.
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“He falls out of bed and he can play defense,” Maddon said before Wednesday’s 4-3 loss at Busch Stadium. “It’s incredible to watch how smooth he is and how comfortable he is with all these different positions.
“He’s just different. I don’t know even know if I’ve ever had anybody quite that comfortable on the infield, especially at that age.”
Baez is 22 years old, but he can take charge defensively like a veteran player. Did you see that diving stop to his left and the throw from his knees to rob Jason Heyward of a base hit on Tuesday night? Or the way he charged Greg Garcia’s bunt to make a barehanded play look effortless?
Not bad for a natural shortstop playing third base. But right now the Cubs don’t have a shortstop controversy or any plans to replace Addison Russell – who also looked so good at second base – in late-game situations or with certain matchups.
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“I really like Addie at shortstop,” Maddon said. “I like Javy’s ability to move around like he is right now. I’d like him to give Addie a day off. But we have not spoken at all about doing anything differently.”
A National League scout who covers the Cubs called Baez the organization’s best defensive shortstop. Arm strength is one area where the Cubs hope Russell will improve over time, allowing him to throw with more authority and make plays deeper in the hole.
Baez also looks more under control at the plate, going 8-for-25 (.320) with six strikeouts since his September call-up from Triple-A Iowa. But he doesn’t have to swing away to make an impact.
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Playing Baez at third base allows the Cubs to move Kris Bryant to the outfield. Playing Baez at second base tightens up the infield defense at a time when runs will be at a premium. There are so many possibilities for a manager who loves to go mix-and-match.
“Javy is showing you that he’s capable of doing all that,” Maddon said. “I’m certain he could be a good outfielder, too. But when a guy can play that kind of game on the dirt, you want to keep him there.”