As the Cubs maneuver through a pivotal offseason, we will break down the current state of the team by sectioning it off into position groups. Here is the seventh installment on the shortstops.
This "State of the Cubs" series could be rebranded as a "How often will Javy Baez play this position" series? That was the case for the last two installments (second base, third base), but the question is even more pertinent for the most important infield position.
The first month, at least, is guaranteed: Baez will be the Cubs' shortstop every single day if he's healthy enough to play (rhyme not intended, but a welcome addition). But what will happen if Addison Russell is still on the roster when he's eligible to return from suspension on May 1?
That's the main question that will have to be answered over the next few months...
1. Javy Baez
2. Addison Russell*
3. David Bote
4. Daniel Descalso
5. Phillip Evans
6. Ryan Court
Filling in for Russell over the last two years, Baez has made 119 starts at shortstop and will be "The Guy" at the position for at least April. If Russell ever makes it back to the active roster, will he automatically regain the starting shortstop role and push Baez to a valuable infield utility role?
Apart from any off-field issues that will obviously dictate Russell's future, his on-field performance has not been up to standards recently. His power took a major dip in 2018 (due at least in part to a hand injury he battled all season) but his typically Gold Glove-caliber defense also took a step back, as he made a career high 17 errors while also managing a shoulder injury.
The simple fact is Russell has not been healthy enough or productive enough at the plate over the last two seasons to warrant everyday at-bats at shortstop when the Cubs have another very good option on the roster in Baez.
Some fans may not want to see Russell back in a Cubs uniform, but all signs point to that being the case on May 1. Still, it would be hard to see Joe Maddon penciling him into the starting lineup every day. Russell will be rusty after a long layoff and he'll also have to prove the team is better with him as the starter and Baez moving elsewhere. Based off what we've seen since Russell's stellar performance in the World Series, the Cubs are better off with him starting against left-handed pitchers and coming off the bench as a pinch-hitter/defensive replacement late in games.
As for Opening Day (and possibly beyond), however, there are a bunch of question marks beyond Baez on the shortstop depth chart.
Bote has shown a terrific glove in a small sample size in the big leagues, but has only played 10 innings at shortstop in his big-league career. Descalso has played all over the field throughout his career, but he did not appear at shortstop in 2018, saw just 2 innings there in 2017 and turned 32 in October.
Evans and Court are minor-league signings that represent depth around the infield. Court — an Illinois native — played 114 games for Triple-A Iowa in 2018, including 59 at shortstop.
Ben Zobrist has played there in the past, but he'll be 38 in May and has logged only 13 innings at short in a Cubs uniform.
Nothing big, but that same two-word phrase could be utilized as an answer to this question at any Cubs position the way this winter has gone.
Given Baez's hard-nosed style of play, he's more susceptible to injury (even if it's only minor aches and pains that keep him out of the lineup for just a day or two). The Cubs will want plenty of reliable shortstop depth behind him either for the first month or longer if we've already seen Russell's last game in a Cubs uniform.
For a team with championship aspirations, it'd be difficult to staff the most crucial infield position with a bunch of question marks if Baez were to miss any serious time.
Unless the Cubs acquire some more infield depth that could represent a reliable option at shortstop, all signs point to an in-house expectation that Russell will be in the mix from May 1 on. It'd be hard to see the team getting rid of Russell and then giving Baez a day off in the middle of a heated division race in September and instead inserting Bote, Descalso, Evans or Court in at shortstop.
The bottom line
Even if Russell comes back into the shortstop mix, expect Baez to lead the team in starts and innings played at the position in 2019 and possibly beyond. At the moment, Baez is clearly the Cubs shortstop of the present and future.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.