ST. LOUIS – Calling it “a tribute to the World Series,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon made Javier Baez the Opening Night second baseman and aligned the outfield like this from left to right at Busch Stadium: Kyle Schwarber, Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist.
Sitting Baez against the St. Louis Cardinals on ESPN’s “Sunday Night Baseball” didn’t feel right to Maddon. Not after Baez started all 17 playoff games at second base and became a breakout star with his highlight-reel defense last October.
Maddon has repeatedly identified Zobrist as his primary second baseman this season, with Baez blocked by a World Series MVP and ticketed for a super-utility role, particular matchups and late-game defensive situations.
But with his sixth sense for tags, the range to make acrobatic plays and a rocket arm, Baez could help Opening Night starter Jon Lester control the running game and manage a throwing issue now magnified with former catcher David Ross on “Dancing with the Stars.”
Will the Cubs pair up last year’s National League Championship Series co-MVPs again? Could Baez become a personal second baseman for Lester?
“It depends,” Maddon said. “You’d like to have Javy playing second base with anybody pitching. He’s one of the top maybe two or three second basemen in all of baseball. But we’re just going to, again, try to fit everything in as well as we possibly can.
“I always try to set Javy up based on the pitcher and where I thought the ball was going to be hit. A lot of that had to do with Schwarber being hurt last year, Dexter (Fowler) got hurt, ‘KB’ (Kris Bryant) having to go in the outfield more often, and then it was more open.
“I don’t want it to happen again that way. I don’t want anybody to get hurt. I want to have to make these decisions daily just based on keeping guys rested, giving guys opportunity. But you can make the argument to play Javy at second base every day of the year.”
Baez won’t, because Theo Epstein’s front office constructed another deep, versatile roster and Maddon’s coaching staff will be focused on the idea of rest and peaking at the right time again after playing into early November.
“It made a lot of sense to have Javy in the lineup,” Epstein said. “He was on the field for just about every inning in the postseason. It would be odd not to have him out there for Opening Day.
“Everyone was in agreement that this is a nice nod (for Javy). Going from here, (Joe’s) going to have a lot of good choices day-to-day. And we know he’ll make it work.”