PITTSBURGH – When Javier Baez made his splashy debut in August 2014, it symbolized how much the Cubs wanted to sell the future and change the conversation after another selloff at the trade deadline.
But it also makes a statement when Javy Being Javy starts to live up to the hype – and create a highlight reel – only as a role player. That’s one takeaway from the defensive clinic Baez put on at third base during this three-game sweep of the Pittsburgh Pirates that ended with Wednesday’s 6-2 win at PNC Park.
“It’s a crazy situation here with the talent we have,” pitcher Jake Arrieta said, “and Javy at times being overlooked and not necessarily in the starting lineup every day. To have a guy like that with probably some of the best hands in all of baseball off the bench (is) a luxury that we’re happy to have. He’s a special talent.”
A natural shortstop, Baez has a unique ability to read the ball off the bat, but he’s also realized the value of sitting back and waiting at third base. Baez writes and eats left-handed and uses that as his dominant side, which helps him get into such an easy defensive flow. Even more than Addison Russell, Baez has the classic, big arm you’re looking for in a prototypical shortstop.
“You’re crazy,” Arrieta told Baez on Tuesday night after watching the third baseman react to a John Jaso check swing in the sixth inning, charging to the edge of the infield grass, grabbing the ball with his bare hand and making a fluid throw to first base for the out.
Baez made it look easy again in the seventh inning, going to his backhand on a David Freese chopper up the third-base line, planting his right foot on the edge of the outfield grass and unleashing a laser throw to first base.
Baez got Freese again in the ninth inning, making a charging backhanded play look routine and reinforcing why manager Joe Maddon sees him as such a weapon.
“You can actually say without stretching things way too far that he’s one of the best infielders in the National League – and he doesn’t start,” Maddon said. “Just purely as a defensive, groundball, infield-acumen kind of player, he’s one of the best in the league right now. Period.
“So we just got to find an opportunity for him. His bat continues to make progress. I absolutely feel great when he’s out there on defense, because he can really impact a game in a positive way.”
With a 3-for-5, two-RBI afternoon on Wednesday, Baez pushed his average to .341, showing that he’s not the same all-or-nothing hitter who struck out 95 times and put up nine homers in 52 games in 2014.
“When I got called up, I was hot with the bat, but I knew it wasn’t me,” Baez said. “It wasn’t my swing. I’m finally feeling really good at the plate and hopefully we can keep it going.”
Whether that means bumping Kris Bryant to the outfield more often or becoming that Ben Zobrist super-utility guy or filling in for the next injured player, right now it looks like the Cubs made the right choice in holding onto Baez and not packaging him in a deal for a pitcher.
“You have not only a guy that can play the hell out of some infield,” pitcher Jon Lester said, “but he also gives you another guy at the bottom end of that lineup that has some thump. You make a mistake and this guy can take you back.”
Credit Baez for making those adjustments at the plate, smoothing out some of his rougher edges and realizing that for now this is his path to sticking in The Show.
“I’ve been showing how much I’ve been growing up and my discipline at the plate,” Baez said. “My mind is all over the place with the positions, but I don’t have any problems playing it. I think I’m doing a pretty good job playing defense.”