Javier Baez Tours the Diamond in His First Week
Javier Baez had an interesting first week on the job, starting at three different positions and pinch hitting twice in six games, compiling a 6-for-17 (.353) batting mark with four runs scored and a home run. He also had a front row seat for Jake Arrieta‘s no-hitter against the Cincinnati Reds on April 21st.
Baez joined the team April 15th, after starting the season on the disabled list, then rehabbing for four games with the Iowa Cubs (AAA). After an inauspicious debut season (2014) and an injury and bereavement leave-shortened 2015 campaign in which he displayed both improvement and resilience – plus impressive composure in post-season play – the 23 year-old infielder will be one to watch in 2016.
Cubs manager Joe Maddon started Baez at second base on April 16th against the Colorado Rockies, resting photo credit: New York TimesBen Zobrist, shifted him to shortstop the next day to rest Addison Russell, pinch hit Baez against the Cardinals twice (April 18th-19th), then started him at shortstop again (April 20th). In the second of four games on April 22nd in Cincinnati, Baez started at third base, with incumbent third sacker Kris Bryant moving to left field.
In Friday’s 8-1 defeat of the Cincinnati Reds, Baez displayed the full range of his athleticism. After cracking a lead off, opposite-field single in the second inning, he made the circuit to home plate on a stolen base, ground out, and sacrifice fly. In the ninth inning he lined an 0-and-2 pitch into the left field seats for his first home run of the season. He played a solid third base, in one moment starting two-thirds of what finished a split second shy of an around-the-horn triple play (which would have made a neat story: two Chicago teams and two triple plays in one day).
Maddon has tabbed Baez for the “super-utility” role he once carved out for teammate Ben Zobrist. Drafted as a shortstop (first round, 2011, ninth overall), Baez played short, second and (sparingly) third base in the minors. Before his hand injury this spring, he added center field and first base to his portfolio.
The Cubs are taking a creative approach to a talented, aggressive young player who needs at-bats to develop his pitch recognition skills. Swing and miss batting and poor plate discipline are his Achilles Heel (he has 123 whiffs compared to just 19 walks in career Major League play). By rotating him in and out of the starting lineups Joe Maddon allows the versatile Baez a chance to compete for a starting role while resting his regulars in anticipation of a post-season run.
Baez’s ticket to the majors at present is his defensive versatility and mature base-running skills. Unique among utility players, he also possesses freakish bat speed and power (.541 slugging percentage in his minor league career). His strike out rate has declined between seasons and he has calmed his long batting stroke a bit. If the Cubs plan for “Javy” succeeds, he may soon ascend to a full-time starting role and aggravate a growing number of Major League opponents.