Cubs

How soon before Cubs make Javier Baez an everyday player?

How soon before Cubs make Javier Baez an everyday player?

SAN DIEGO — The airtight defensive alignment for October would have to include Javier Baez, a game-changing force moving in all directions. The Cubs have seen Baez make barehanded plays and laser throws, take charge on bunts and frustrate hitters with an uncanny ability to improvise and make split-second decisions.

Baez and Addison Russell are two of the best athletes in the entire game, Jake Arrieta said after Tuesday night’s win over the San Diego Padres, so put the ball in play and let those two middle infielders take over.

There could be playoff lineups where Baez starts at second base and bumps Ben Zobrist to the outfield. But manager Joe Maddon isn’t about to hand Baez an everyday job, sticking with the super-utility formula and versatile philosophy that’s helped the Cubs become the best team in baseball.

“It depends on how we morph as a group over the next couple years,” Maddon said Wednesday at Petco Park. “Right now, I like the way it’s working out. I like the fact that (Javy’s) getting rested (and) not playing every day. Look at his at-bats — they have gotten better, too. He is making adjustments or adaptations during the at-bat. He’s not just out of control every swing.”

Baez has channeled his aggressiveness, hitting .276 with 13 homers, 47 RBIs and 83 strikeouts through 343 plate appearances, becoming a more mature and well-rounded player at the age of 23.

“You’re seeing a lot of progress,” Maddon said. “Who knows if by playing sporadically this is becoming more part of who he is? As opposed to playing every day, maybe getting caught in the trap of not hitting well, whatever, and all of a sudden he takes it on defense. It’s natural progression. He’s an everyday player, there’s no question, in maybe a couple years.”

[SHOP CUBS: Get your Cubs gear right here]

The Geek Department and scouting reports will ultimately influence where Baez plays, because Maddon wants him wherever the ball will most likely be hit most often. When Jon Lester pitches, that can mean Baez starting at third base and Kris Bryant moving to the outfield.

The Cubs promised Zobrist the second-base job when he signed a four-year, $56 million contract, agreeing the focus on one position would help reduce the wear and tear on his body at the age of 35. The Cubs still need Zobrist’s switch-hitting skills and World Series experience in the lineup.

Maddon also wants to keep Jorge Soler involved — because he’s a presence other teams have to account for — and maybe that will mean sacrificing Jason Heyward’s Gold Glove defense in right field at times.

But Baez is the type of defender the Cubs will want to see out there in one-run, low-scoring playoff games.

“He’s unbelievable,” Bryant said. “Any ball hit his way — whether it’s in the air, on the ground, on line — you kind of just expect him to make the play and make it look good. That’s what he’s been doing all year. I certainly think he’s Gold Glove worthy, but he plays all over. I feel like there should be a utility man Gold Glove, because he definitely (deserves it).”

Ian Happ trying to force his way into Cubs second base picture

Ian Happ trying to force his way into Cubs second base picture

MESA, Ariz. — Don't write the obituary on Ian Happ's career as a second baseman just yet.

The versatile young player started 28 games at second base during his rookie year in 2017, but did not see a start in 2018 and played just 3 innings at the position the entire season.

Thats not a trend that typically bodes well for Happ's future at second base.

But it's not necessarily a trend that will continue.

After last season ended, Happ had a conversation with Maddon and was direct: He wants to be included in the second base picture.

"We were in contact several times," Maddon said Sunday. "One of the things I really like about Ian is that he is very lucid and transparent regarding what he's thinking and he brought that to my attention."

Happ has been clinging to his desire to play second base in much the same way Kyle Schwarber passionately stuck by his love for being a catcher. But as the Schwarber situation proved, you need more than just passion (though, undoubtedly, Schwarber's major knee injury in 2016 and that entire lost year of development played a factor in his scenario).

The Cubs drafted Happ with the 9th overall pick in 2015 out of the University of Cincinnati, where he spent time in both the infield and outfield. Coming out of college, there were concerns about Happ's ability to stick in the infield, but he started more games at second base (107) than he did in the outfield (30) over his 3 years in the minor-league system.

Last spring, there was a push for Happ as a primary outfielder for several reasons: 1) it was the position he was most likely going to end up at long-term and 2) the Cubs had more playing time available in the outfield with Jon Jay departing and the combination of Ben Zobrist and Javy Baez dominating time at second base.

This spring, things are quite a bit different. Baez will shift over to shortstop for at least the first month of the season and the second base picture is filled with a bunch of players (Zobrist, Daniel Descalso, David Bote) who can also play a host of other positions. (Nobody knows yet how Addison Russell fits into the picture if he returns from suspension.)

If Happ wanted another shot at proving his mettle at second base, now is as good a time as any.

But it won't be easy. Zobrist and Descalso have much more experience at the position and Bote is a natural second baseman who has already impressed the Cubs with his infield defense in his brief big-league career.

The switch-hitting Happ, meanwhile, still figures to see a good amount of playing time in the outfield as a potential platoon option to Jason Heyward (right field), Albert Almora Jr. (center field) and Kyle Schwarber (left field). Happ will also back up the corner infield spots as he did last year.

"He made it clear to me he wants to be considered to play second base," Maddon said. "...He wants for me and us to know that he'll do whatever it takes to get in the lineup. If we're facing a lefty or whatever and he wants in the lineup or a righty and the outfield's set up a certain way, he knows there might be an option somewhere else to play if we want to move it around or just give somebody a day off. He's smart. It's just about him wanting to get into the lineup."

Happ has only played 263.1 innings at second base in the majors and the Cubs would like to see him grow as a defender, though they understand he needs reps to continue to develop.

"When you watch him, he's still a work in progress when it comes to being — for lack of a better term — a little bit more smooth, but then again, he's effective," Maddon said. "I've seen some really good defenders that aren't necessarily this Spalding guy, but they don't make mistakes. Probably just [improving his] lateral range, going to his right as much as anything, backhanding, throwing that ball. He's got a really strong arm; he can complete a double play.

"It's just a nuance — the lateral movement nuance of the position. But he's smart — he knows where to be, he knows where cutoffs and relays occur, he knows all that stuff. It's just like this repetitive thing, I would say for me in my mind's eye - going over [to the right] more smoothly to make that play would be something optimal for him.

"He's not the Spalding guy all the time, but he's pretty effective out there. I think it's just repetition."

The Cubs aren't guaranteeing Happ playing time at second base or anything like that. But at the very least, it appears they're open to giving him a legitimate shot this spring to potentially earn an opportunity in the regular season.

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Cubs easily on your device.

Phillies reportedly willing to meet Bryce Harper's price tag

Phillies reportedly willing to meet Bryce Harper's price tag

MESA, Ariz. — We may finally be nearing a resolution in the Bryce Harper free agency saga at just the right time.

Spring training begins in earnest Monday with position players officially reporting around the league and Harper may not be far behind.

USA TODAY's Bob Nightengale reported Sunday evening the Philadelphia Phillies are reportedly willing to meet Harper's price tag and give him more than the $300 million, 10-year deal the Washington Nationals offered before the season ended:

Keep in mind, Nightengale is not reporting a done deal and the key word is Harper "appears" to have found a team willing to meet his price tag in the Phillies.

But this is one of those "big, if true" situations that portends a potential conclusion to Harper's 3.5-month free agency tour.

The Cubs ruled themselves out of the Harper Sweepstakes back at the very beginning of the offseason due to a bloated payroll for 2019 and a budget that doesn't have the room for the salary Harper is about to make.

The Phillies have been rumored to be in on Harper from Day 1 and owner John Middleton famously said his team may spend "stupid" money this winter. They've been very aggressive this offseason trying to build around a young core and improve upon thhe 80 wins they put up a season ago.

The Phillies have already signed Andrew McCutchen and David Robertson and traded for Jean Segura and J.T. Realmuto in the last couple months while also giving ace Aaron Nola a long-term extension.

Adding Harper to the mix would be a huge boost to the Phillies' chances in what is shaping up to be a very competitive National League East.

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Cubs easily on your device.