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.
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.”