Cubs

Where things stand with Javier Baez and Cubs roster

javierbaez-0327.png

Where things stand with Javier Baez and Cubs roster

MESA, Ariz. — Javier Baez — the player who generated so much debate between manager Joe Maddon and Theo Epstein’s front office at this time last year — might be the final piece to the roster puzzle facing the Cubs now.

This time, it’s a question of health with Baez, who jammed his left thumb while diving headfirst into first base and hasn’t played in a Cactus League game since March 20. 

“He came in, shook my hand this morning, wished me Happy Easter,” Maddon said Sunday at Sloan Park. “I know he’s feeling pretty good.”

Maddon is sold on Baez, a natural shortstop who can play multiple positions and an aggressive swinger with some all-or-nothing tendencies. Baez has taken 30 Cactus League at-bats — hitting .200 with eight strikeouts — but spring training performance doesn’t really matter at this point.

“We just have to really nail down the fact that Javy’s well,” Maddon said. “We’ll figure it out. As long as he feels well, we’ll get him out there. I just got to verify with the training staff.”

[MORE: Cubs say Jake Arrieta is all systems go for Opening Day]

The uncertainty leaves infielder Munenori Kawasaki — who’s shown he’s much more than a karaoke singer — on the roster bubble. But assuming Baez is healthy and the Cubs carry an eighth reliever — Neil Ramirez is out of minor-league options and appears to have the inside track — then a 25-man Opening Day projection would look like this:

C: Miguel Montero

1B: Anthony Rizzo

2B: Ben Zobrist

SS: Addison Russell

3B: Kris Bryant

LF: Kyle Schwarber

CF: Dexter Fowler

RF: Jason Heyward

Bench

David Ross

Jorge Soler

Tommy La Stella

Javier Baez

Rotation

Jake Arrieta

Jon Lester

John Lackey

Jason Hammel

Kyle Hendricks

Bullpen

Trevor Cahill

Adam Warren

Clayton Richard

Travis Wood

Neil Ramirez

Justin Grimm

Pedro Strop

Hector Rondon

A team that reported to Arizona in February with World Series expectations really just needed to stay healthy and essentially focus on the 24th and 25th spots on the roster.

[SHOP CUBS: Get your Cubs gear here]

Maddon lobbied hard for Baez to make the team last year, seeing a fundamentally flawed defensive team and believing his range, strong arm and baseball IQ could help win low-scoring cold-weather games in April.

Maddon also wondered if the speed of the major league game — and working directly with his coaching staff — would force Baez into making adjustments at the plate.

“Just watching the kid last year,” Maddon said, “based on everything else that we had at that time, compared to what you have (here), it’s two different worlds right now based on offseason acquisitions, the ascension of different players.

“I’m coming in for the first time — I can see Javy making that team better. But then they’re relating to me different things that they had seen before that — and the fact that a lot of folks thought he needed more seasoning. That’s all you got to tell me. I didn’t see enough of him to really make that call. So it’s not a hard argument to have with me.”

Maddon’s fresh eyes could only see so far, and it became a difficult personal/professional transition for Baez, whose sister died last April. Baez also missed almost two months at Triple-A Iowa after fracturing his left ring finger on a headfirst slide into second base.

In a sense, Maddon and Epstein’s staff both had the right idea last spring. Baez did need more time to develop — and he did contribute as a September call-up for a playoff team.

Baez helped knock the St. Louis Cardinals out of the divisional round with one huge swing, a delirious crowd at Wrigley Field chanting “LAC-KEY! LAC-KEY!” after that go-ahead three-run homer in Game 4.

“I gave the boys my side of things,” Maddon said. “And then I know at the end of the day it’s up to them to make the call. I prefer that, but you always tell people what you think.

“The greatest line ever (came from) Colin Powell talking about the president of the United States when he operated in government: ‘I give him my best advice and I give him my strongest loyalty.’

“In other words, (if) you go to a meeting like that – and then whatever you suggest is not followed – there’s a lot of meetings after meetings and water-cooler stuff where you tear people down.

“The loyalty’s not there. So if you disagree with somebody, you tell him straight up you disagree. But if you’re a part of a group and you come to a conclusion, then you all get on board with that conclusion. And that’s how it works.”

A stellar Jon Lester outing gives the Cubs more than just a win

A stellar Jon Lester outing gives the Cubs more than just a win

It's been a tale of two halves for the Cubs veteran Jon Lester, who after a sparkling first half of baseball that saw him win 12 games with a 2.58 ERA, has looked nothing like a 2018 All-Star. Prior to Thursday's start, Lester had posted a 10.32 ERA, allowed 4 or more runs in 4 of his 5 most recent starts, and had yet to win a game in the second of the season. 

The 34-year-old veteran flipped the script Thursday night, throwing 6-shutout innings while striking out 8 Pirate batters in the Cubs 1-0 win in Pittsburgh. Lester surrendered only 5 hits and baffled the Pirates all-night, finally busting out of his slump and giving the Cubs his 2nd quality start since the All-Star break. 

Lester attacked the bottom portion of the strike zone all night with his fastball, which topped out at 93 mph, generating 4 whiffs with his heater. Over the last month, Lester has said he's felt he can't quite execute his "out" pitches, explaining that when he has a hitter set up for a strikeout he hasn't been able to throw the ball effectively in those moments. 

And while Lester walked off the mound after the 6th inning amassing 8 punch outs, the veteran starter never looked like he was trying to strike out batters. He just continued to dot the corners, occasionally raise the eye-level of the batter with an elevated heater, and threw his secondary pitches just enough to keep the Pittsburgh batters uncomfortable at the plate. 

The Cubs offense once again struggled, facing Ivan Nova who has won four his last five starts against the Cubs, but Ian Happ's solo shot in the 4th inning was enough run support for Lester to push the Cubs to 20 games over .500. But the biggest takeaway from Thursday night's win isn't that the Cubs came out on top, it's that Jon Lester returning to form gives this Chicago rotation something they've lacked seemingly this entire season. 

Stability at the front of the rotation. 

With Cole Hamels impressive three starts in a Cub uniform and Kyle Hendricks finally figuring out his issues on the mound, if Jon Lester can replicate Thursday's performance throughout the rest of the season, the Cubs rotation may finally turn into the strength many thought it could be before the season started. At the very least, Lester showed that whatever he's been working through over the last month of baseball is fixable. 

It's only one start in a string of poor outings for Lester, and while The Athletic's Sahadev Sharma did find some positives in his starts prior to Thursday's big win, Lester will have to show he can maintain this level of pitching through the remainder of this season. But I think our own Tony Andracki put it best tonight on Twitter. 

With the Cubs pitchers finally starting to perform to their expected level, and the return of Yu Darvish looking closer each day, it could be the Cubs starting pitching that carries through the rest of the season. 

Joe Maddon speaks out on Wednesday night's Marlins-Braves brawl

Joe Maddon speaks out on Wednesday night's Marlins-Braves brawl

Much has been made about Wednesday night's brawl between the Marlins and Braves, which started when Braves young star Ronald Acuna was nailed in the elbow with a 99 mph fastball from Jose Urena. The strangest part of the whole situation was that it seemed like Urena was unprovoked by Acuna or any of the Braves players prior to plunking the former No. 1 prospect in all of baseball.  

The ever wise Cubs skipper Joe Maddon was asked about the incident prior to Thursday's game, making it clear he felt plays like these needed to leave the game entirely. 

It was announced Thursday afternoon that Urena would be suspended just 6 games for intentionally throwing Acuna, which means the Marlins starter will likely only miss one game for trying to hurt Acuna. The good news is that Acuna did not sustain any serious injuries, but Joe Maddon is right there is no reason for people to be hurling nearly triple-digit fastballs at players. Whether provoked or not, intentionally throwing at players is something that needs to be phased out of the game, and its safe to assume Maddon would agree.