Cubs: Will Javier Baez push Kris Bryant to the outfield?

Cubs: Will Javier Baez push Kris Bryant to the outfield?

Manny Ramirez – the hitting consultant hired with Javier Baez specifically in mind –  sat in the big chair in front of Baez’s locker on Monday afternoon as a reminder of the offensive potential the Cubs saw. The day before, Baez did a bat-drop-and-hop routine after hitting a 13th-inning, walk-off homer into the Wrigley Field bleachers, ending a four-game sweep of the Washington Nationals.   

But manager Joe Maddon loved the defensive upside and baseball IQ so much that he wanted Baez on last year’s Opening Day roster, whether or not the kid could actually handle big-league pitching yet.

Maddon didn’t win that tug-of-war with Theo Epstein’s front office, but the extra time to develop keeps paying dividends. Even if it’s only a small sample size this season (.306 average), Baez has struck out less than 24 percent of the time, or a 15-point drop from his 2014 and 2015, a much more manageable number given his natural power and well-rounded game.    

Baez can play Gold Glove-level defense all over the infield, which could turn All-Star third baseman Kris Bryant into a part-time left fielder.     

“I can’t say no (to that),” Maddon said, pointing to the scheduled pitching matchup – Jon Lester vs. San Diego Padres right-hander Cesar Vargas – before Monday night’s rainout forced a day-night doubleheader for Wednesday at Wrigley Field. 

“You’ve noticed I like Javy at third base with Jonny pitching. There’s potentially a lot of action at third base offensively from them. You look at their lineup – it’s all right-handed. I’m not saying that Kris can’t do it. It’s just that it’s a good night for Javy there – he matches up well versus their pitcher.”

This isn’t about Bryant, who is surprisingly agile for a 6-foot-5 slugger and could throw 90-plus mph as an occasional amateur pitcher. The Rookie of the Year is also versatile and well-rounded and seen as a hard worker. 

But Jorge Soler (.552 OPS) hasn’t grabbed the left-field job after Kyle Schwarber’s season-ending knee injuries and the Cubs will be looking for an offensive boost. Tommy La Stella (1.104 OPS) has also excelled as a situational player and earned time in the third-base rotation as Maddon tries to incorporate his entire roster.

“Moving forward, you probably will see (Javy) and Tommy a little bit more often at third base,” Maddon said. “But I still want to get George out there. And when that happens, you’re going to probably primarily see ‘KB’ at third base.”

Cubs Talk Podcast: Manny Machado’s value and other Cubs offseason wish list items


Cubs Talk Podcast: Manny Machado’s value and other Cubs offseason wish list items

Did Manny Machado’s value take a hit at all after he openly admitted hustling isn’t his “cup of tea”? Our Cubs team (David Kaplan, Kelly Crull, Tony Andracki, Jeff Nelson) debate that, plus the potential fit of Machado or Bryce Harper for the 2019 Cubs and beyond.

The crew also runs down the top items on the Cubs’ offseason wish list – ranging from bullpen help to infield depth to a set leadoff hitter – in what may be the most impactful winter in Theo Epstein’s tenure in Chicago.

Listen to the podcast here or via the embedded player below:

The most underrated storyline of the Cubs offseason

The most underrated storyline of the Cubs offseason

There are plenty of intriguing Cubs storylines to monitor this offseason from their potential pursuit of the big free agents to any other changes that may come to the coaching staff or roster after a disappointing finish to the 2018 campaign.

But there's one question simmering under the radar in Cubs circles when it comes to this winter: How will the team solve the shortstop conundrum?

Just a few years ago, the Cubs had "too many" shortstops. Now, there are several different factors at play here that makes it a convoluted mess.

First: What will the Cubs do with Addison Russell? The embattled shortstop is in the midst of a suspension for domestic violence that will keep him off an MLB diamond for at least the first month of 2019.

Has Russell already played his last game with the Cubs? Will they trade him or send him packing in any other fashion this winter?

Theo Epstein mentioned several times he felt the organization needs to show support to the victim in the matter (Russell's ex-wife, Melisa) but also support for Russell. Does that mean they would keep him a part of the team at least through the early part of 2019?

Either way, Russell's days in Chicago are numbered and his play on the field took another big step back in 2018 as he fought through a hand injury and experienced a major dip in power. With his performance on the field and the off-field issues, it will be hard to justify a contract worth somewhere in the neighborhood of $4 million in his second year of arbitration (prorated, with a month's worth of pay taken out for the suspension).

Even if Russell is on the roster in 2019, Javy Baez is unquestionably the shortstop for at least the first month while Russell is on suspension. 

But what about beyond Baez if the Cubs want to give him a breather or disaster strikes and he's forced to miss time with an injury?

At the moment, there's nothing but question marks on the current Cubs shortstop depth chart throughout the entire organization and they're certainly going to need other options at the most important defensive position (outside of pitcher/catcher). 

There's David Bote, who subbed in for Baez at short once in September when Baez needed a break and Russell was on the disabled list. But while Bote's defense at third base and second base has opened eyes around the Cubs, he has only played 45 games at short across seven minor-league seasons, including 15 games in 2018. There's also the offensive question marks with the rookie, who hit just .176 with a .559 OPS and 40 strikeouts in 108 at-bats after that epic ultimate grand slam on Aug. 12.

The Cubs' other current shortstop options include Mike Freeman (a 31-year-old career minor-leaguer), Ben Zobrist (who will be 38 in 2019 and has played all of 13 innings at shortstop since 2014), Ryan Court (a 30-year-old career minor leaguer) and Chesny Young (a 26-year-old minor-leaguer who has posted a .616 OPS in 201 Triple-A games).

Maybe Joe Maddon would actually deploy Kris Bryant at shortstop in case of emergency like a Baez injury ("necessity is the mother of invention," as Maddon loves to say), but that seems a lot more like a fun talking point than a legit option at this current juncture.

So even if Russell sticks around, there's no way the Cubs can go into the first month of the season with just Baez and Bote as the only shortstop options on a team that with World Series or bust expectations.

The Cubs will need to acquire some shortstop depth this winter in some capacity, whether it's adding to the Triple-A Iowa roster or getting a veteran who can also back up other positions. Right now, the free agent pool of potential shortstops is pretty slim beyond Manny Machado.

Epstein always says he and his front office look to try to mitigate risk and analyze where things could go wrong to sink the Cubs' season and through that lense, shortstop is suddenly right up there behind adding more bullpen help this winter.