Chicago Cubs: Javier Baez will serve multiple purposes in 2017
By Jake Misener
Javier Baez started every postseason game at second base for the Chicago Cubs last season. Yet, entering 2017, he lacks a starting role and will serve as a utility player for Joe Maddon.
Sharing National League Championship Series MVP honors with Chicago Cubs left-hander Jon Lester, Javier Baez burst onto the national scene in a big way last October.
He posted an .833 OPS in the LCS, stealing two bases in the series and displaying superb defense on a nightly basis. Although he tailed off in the World Series, he remained a critical part of the Cubs’ defense up the middle.
The Chicago defense sorted itself out down the stretch. Because of the injury to Kyle Schwarber and his resulting inability to play the field, Ben Zobrist shifted to left field – thus, opening second base for Baez.
The relationship between Baez and Maddon is a special one. The former is known for his high energy and flash – both on and off the diamond. The latter is known for supporting player’s individual personalities.
This perfect storm has allowed Maddon to utilize Baez as he sees fit, while the Puerto Rican native just wants to be on the field as much as possible.
"“My biggest goal is to stay healthy,” Baez told CBS Chicago. “I have had some problems early with that the past few years. This year, I know I will play a lot. I need to stay healthy all year. This year I have a good plan. The games I don’t start, I will be ready to come in. I am more prepared with a plan to play off of the bench.”"
In 2016, Baez performed better as a starter than as a bench player – at least offensively. Across 400 plate appearances as a starter, he batted .275/.316/.436; meanwhile, in 40 PA off the bench, those numbers fell to .255/.300/.319.
Either way, plate discipline and making regular contact remains the biggest hurdle for Baez. He improved by virtually every measure from 2015 to 2016, but he will need to take another step forward this season if he ever hopes to displace a starter in Chicago.
If you look hot, wear it
Maddon knows what he has in Baez. He rode the young slugger and former top prospect in October last year and appreciates what he brings to the table on a daily basis.
"“All the bells and whistles are already in his tool bag,” Maddon said. “I have often said I like a chrome-less infield. However, if someone comes equipped like he has, I don’t want to tone that down. What I have talked to him about is making the routine play more routinely. I believe the rest is conversational. He needed to be shorter with his swing more consistently. I think that is what you saw from him, a season in progress.”"
Zobrist is heading in to the second year of a four-year pact signed prior to the 2016 campaign. A clubhouse leader and reigning World Series MVP, a bench role is out of the question. He’s one of the best on-base players in the league and sets the tone for the lineup in almost every plate appearance he takes.
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That being said, Schwarber won’t get pushed hard early on. Zobrist is going to play left field on days Schwarber sits; which opens second up for Baez. Addison Russell could share shortstop, while Baez may also give Kris Bryant a blow from time-to-time, as well.
Maddon says that Baez will get anywhere between 400 and 500 at-bats – just like he did in 2016. As we saw last season, Javier Baez does not need to start every day to be a productive member of this Chicago Cubs’ team.
He only needs a chance – and he’ll capitalize.