Cubs

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.”

As he decides what's next, it's clear Ben Zobrist has something left in the tank

As he decides what's next, it's clear Ben Zobrist has something left in the tank

When Ben Zobrist rejoined the Cubs active roster on Sept. 1, it was fair to wonder how much he could provide offensively. After all, he spent the previous four months on the restricted list while tending to a family matter, last playing a big-league game on May 6.

Zobrist did no baseball activities from May to mid-July, only working out to stay in shape. Although he eventually ramped things up, he played in just 12 minor league rehab games in August before returning to the Cubs, a small number compared to the length of his absence.

Even Zobrist admitted upon his big-league return that his timing at the plate wasn’t where he wanted it to be. And yet, what he did in September was nothing short of impressive. In 21 games, he posted a .284/.377/.388 slash line, performing at a level many couldn’t have expected, considering the circumstances.

Zobrist's impact on the Cubs' lineup goes beyond what you see in the box score, however. Not only is he a switch hitter with some pop, but he has a keen eye for the strike zone and frequently puts together professional at-bats.

On a Cubs team that tends to expand the zone, Zobrist’s presence mattered. In his second game back, for example, he went 3-for-3 with two walks, helping the Cubs beat the Brewers 10-5. After the game, Brewers starter Chase Anderson pointed out how different the Cubs' lineup looks with Zobrist in it.

"They play the matchups really well and Zobrist makes that team so much better," Anderson said on Sept. 5. "Just bringing his presence to the top of the lineup, it changes their dynamic a little bit."

Where Zobrist stands entering 2020, though, is currently unclear.

Zobrist is set to hit free agency after the World Series and will turn 39 next May. Therefore, it’s possible that he’s played his last game in the big leagues, as he has little, if anything, left to prove at this stage in his career.

Ahead of the Cubs’ season finale on Sept. 29, Zobrist told reporters in St. Louis that he hasn’t thought about how much time he’ll take before deciding what’s next for him. His family situation will obviously play a big role in his decision, but if September showed anything, it's that he still has something left in the tank.

“I’m 38 but I got that feeling all over again,” Zobrist said following the Cubs’ season finale, a 9-0 loss to the Cardinals in which he pitched a scoreless inning. “Just really fun, you know? It’s a fun game. Sometimes you don’t come out on the winning end, but you still gotta have fun with it and enjoy it. I enjoyed it today."

The Cubs roster is expected to undergo changes this offseason, with center field, second base and the leadoff spot being just a few areas the team will look to address. The latter two spots became revolving doors during Zobrist’s absence, as the Cubs struggled to replace what he brought offensively.

Zobrist is past the point in his career of being an everyday player. However, he still could be a useful asset for the Cubs in a supporting role, bringing his veteran approach to the lineup when he plays while still offering an experienced voice in the clubhouse.

“I take a lot of joy in that role, just being a supporting guy and being a part of winning clubs and part of winning atmospheres and cultures,” Zobrist said on Sept. 29. “The Chicago Cubs have been that since I’ve been around. This year we didn’t make the playoffs — we still have a winning record — (but) the kind of relationships that are built here and the culture that’s been built here is definitely a winning one.”

After the Cubs announced that they wouldn’t retain Joe Maddon for 2020, Zobrist acknowledged that more changes were likely coming in the offseason. Only time will tell what that means for the veteran utilityman — should he continue playing.

Whether he retires or joins a different team for 2020, though, Zobrist will look back on his four seasons with the Cubs fondly.

“(They’re) just the most passionate fans I’ve ever met,” he said of Cubs fans. “They’re very loyal, very passionate and it’s been such a pleasure to be a part of that team that beat the curse back in ’16, so I feel that still, when I see Cubs fans, there’s a lot of them that hug me and thank me for being a part of that.

“I’ll always look back at [my] time here — I don’t know what’s going to happen in the offseason — but look back at these four years and [be] very grateful to be able to be part of a group like this and be able to do what we did while I was here.”

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Cubs Talk Podcast: An ode to Joe Maddon and looking to the next era

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USA Today

Cubs Talk Podcast: An ode to Joe Maddon and looking to the next era

On the latest Cubs Talk Podcast, Tony Andracki, Kelly Crull, Scott Changnon and Jeff Nelson give us their memories of Joe Maddon's time with the Cubs and discuss David Ross and Joe Espada's candidacy to be the next manager.

01:30 Kelly's memories of Joe from the perspective of a reporter

06:00 Going back to Hazleton with Joe

07:45 Joe's legacy as manager of the Cubs

16:00 How Joe impacted Javy Baez' career

18:00 David Ross and Joe Espada may be the leaders to replace Joe Maddon.

Listen here or via the embedded player below:

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