MESA, Ariz. — Javier Baez — the player who generated so much debate between manager Joe Maddon and Theo Epstein’s front office at this time last year — might be the final piece to the roster puzzle facing the Cubs now.
This time, it’s a question of health with Baez, who jammed his left thumb while diving headfirst into first base and hasn’t played in a Cactus League game since March 20.
“He came in, shook my hand this morning, wished me Happy Easter,” Maddon said Sunday at Sloan Park. “I know he’s feeling pretty good.”
Maddon is sold on Baez, a natural shortstop who can play multiple positions and an aggressive swinger with some all-or-nothing tendencies. Baez has taken 30 Cactus League at-bats — hitting .200 with eight strikeouts — but spring training performance doesn’t really matter at this point.
“We just have to really nail down the fact that Javy’s well,” Maddon said. “We’ll figure it out. As long as he feels well, we’ll get him out there. I just got to verify with the training staff.”
The uncertainty leaves infielder Munenori Kawasaki — who’s shown he’s much more than a karaoke singer — on the roster bubble. But assuming Baez is healthy and the Cubs carry an eighth reliever — Neil Ramirez is out of minor-league options and appears to have the inside track — then a 25-man Opening Day projection would look like this:
C: Miguel Montero
1B: Anthony Rizzo
2B: Ben Zobrist
SS: Addison Russell
3B: Kris Bryant
LF: Kyle Schwarber
CF: Dexter Fowler
RF: Jason Heyward
Tommy La Stella
A team that reported to Arizona in February with World Series expectations really just needed to stay healthy and essentially focus on the 24th and 25th spots on the roster.
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Maddon lobbied hard for Baez to make the team last year, seeing a fundamentally flawed defensive team and believing his range, strong arm and baseball IQ could help win low-scoring cold-weather games in April.
Maddon also wondered if the speed of the major league game — and working directly with his coaching staff — would force Baez into making adjustments at the plate.
“Just watching the kid last year,” Maddon said, “based on everything else that we had at that time, compared to what you have (here), it’s two different worlds right now based on offseason acquisitions, the ascension of different players.
“I’m coming in for the first time — I can see Javy making that team better. But then they’re relating to me different things that they had seen before that — and the fact that a lot of folks thought he needed more seasoning. That’s all you got to tell me. I didn’t see enough of him to really make that call. So it’s not a hard argument to have with me.”
Maddon’s fresh eyes could only see so far, and it became a difficult personal/professional transition for Baez, whose sister died last April. Baez also missed almost two months at Triple-A Iowa after fracturing his left ring finger on a headfirst slide into second base.
In a sense, Maddon and Epstein’s staff both had the right idea last spring. Baez did need more time to develop — and he did contribute as a September call-up for a playoff team.
Baez helped knock the St. Louis Cardinals out of the divisional round with one huge swing, a delirious crowd at Wrigley Field chanting “LAC-KEY! LAC-KEY!” after that go-ahead three-run homer in Game 4.
“I gave the boys my side of things,” Maddon said. “And then I know at the end of the day it’s up to them to make the call. I prefer that, but you always tell people what you think.
“The greatest line ever (came from) Colin Powell talking about the president of the United States when he operated in government: ‘I give him my best advice and I give him my strongest loyalty.’
“In other words, (if) you go to a meeting like that – and then whatever you suggest is not followed – there’s a lot of meetings after meetings and water-cooler stuff where you tear people down.
“The loyalty’s not there. So if you disagree with somebody, you tell him straight up you disagree. But if you’re a part of a group and you come to a conclusion, then you all get on board with that conclusion. And that’s how it works.”