MILWAUKEE – Cubs manager Joe Maddon kept Javier Baez in the lineup the day after a full-speed, head-on collision with Jason Heyward in shallow center field left him looking like a boxer with a bloodshot left eye and dark bruising around that eyelid.
Baez started all 17 playoff games at second base last year. Baez has now started four of the season's first five games at second base, pushing Ben Zobrist toward the outfield and into more of a super-utility role for the defending World Series champs.
At what point does Baez become your everyday second baseman? (Hint: It's already happening.)
"I haven't even thought about that," Maddon said before Saturday's game against the Milwaukee Brewers at Miller Park. "Zo's at second base tomorrow. Javy's off tomorrow. Today's lineup was not based on the collision at all. I had that lineup made up before the game.
"I'm going to try to balance it out as much as I can. Part of it is it's not just about Javy being the everyday second baseman. How do you get (Albert) Almora in the lineup? How do you get (Jon) Jay in the lineup? How do you keep Zo in the lineup as often as possible? That's really what it comes down to.
"So pretty much what you've seen to this point, I think, is like a good indicator of what we're going to be able to do with everybody being healthy."
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Baez generates more highlight-reel plays and buzz on social media, but Zobrist is still a clubhouse leader, All-Star second baseman and World Series MVP. Zobrist is in the second season of a four-year, $56 million contract signed with the idea of ending the 108-year drought and focusing on one position to help preserve his body through his mid-30s.
Beyond the respect for Zobrist, Maddon also seems to be trying to avoid anointing Baez, a player so confident he got the Major League Baseball logo tattooed onto the back of his neck as a teenager. Throughout spring training, Maddon answered questions about the second-base dynamics by identifying Zobrist as the primary option with Baez as a defensive rover.
"It's always about semantics, man," Maddon said. "You got to be (careful). Whatever you say, it sticks. And then people hold you to that, which they should. When it comes to baseball players, man, if you say they're one thing and then try to make them into something else, it really freaks them out."
This is also the direction where Maddon sees the game trending, lineups built with analytics and matchups in mind, rosters becoming less top-heavy and revolving more around depth and flexibility. Maddon has talked about the year he never formally named a closer for the Tampa Bay Rays and just kept going to the same guy in the ninth inning for save situations.
"Without naming a closer, without naming a second baseman, without a naming an eighth-inning guy or a seventh-inning guy, it really creates a lot more latitude, which you need in today's game," Maddon said. "Our group needs that. I think it's going to become more prominent throughout the industry where you might name a closer only and then the rest of the guys will just be out there and be ready. Position-player-wise, we're just different, I think, with all the versatility that we do have."