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.”