Thanks to Ben Zobrist, it is unclear where (and how often) Javier Baez will take the field for the Chicago Cubs in 2016. Baez, who struggled mightily after his first callup in 2014, striking out 95 times in 52 games, went back down to the minor leagues in 2015, refined his approach, and came back strong down the stretch for the big-league club. Still only 22 for the entire 2015 season, Baez was much improved in his 28 games with the Cubs, hitting .289/.325/.408 with only 24 strikeouts. It was still a small sample size, 80 plate appearances, but Javier Baez appeared well on his way to figuring out how to hit MLB pitching.
Even before the signing of Zobrist, who should assume the starting second base job with the Cubs, Baez’s role with the Cubs was up in the air. He was drafted as a shortstop, but the Cubs acquired Addison Russell in the Jeff Samardzija trade with the Oakland Athletics. Russell, more polished defensively and offensively than Baez, spent virtually the entire 2015 season in the big leagues, and will be the shortstop of the future in Chicago. After Starlin Castro lost his full-time job in August, Baez started five games at second base, six games at third base, and five games at shortstop, making two errors total on 76 chances. In Winter Ball, Baez has also taken up playing outfield.
It would appear the Cubs are preparing to utilize Baez as a next generation version of Ben Zobrist. He has the ability to play every infield position, and should pick up enough of the basics to play a passable center field. With a career .288/.346/.541 line and 89 home runs in 393 minor league games, there is little purpose sending Baez down to Triple-A to continue reinforcing the fact that he has accomplished all there is to accomplish at that level. Baez needs to be in the Major Leagues with the Cubs, but will turning him into a utility player allow the Cubs to harness all of his offensive potential?
Javier Baez has been a top-10 prospect across all of baseball since he was drafted. He hit 37 home runs in the minor leagues in 2013, a combined 32 between Triple-A and the Majors in 2014, and hit 13 in only 70 games at Triple-A last year. Baez has the ability to bring premium power from a middle infield position, and is continuing to cut down on his strikeout numbers while improving his plate discipline. Russell is superior to Baez defensively, but never approached his power production in the minor leagues. With the Gold Glove potential, Russell needs to be at shortstop, but when it comes to the offensive side of the game, the Cubs may benefit by finding a way to get Javier Baez into the lineup as frequently as possible.
Entering 2016, Ben Zobrist is the assumed everyday second baseman, with Kyle Schwarber in left field, and Miguel Montero doing the catching. Zobrist also has the ability to play left field, while Schwarber can also catch. The primary goal for Joe Maddon next year should be finding a way to limit the impact of Schwarber’s still unrefined defense while also getting Baez into the lineup. In the postseason, it was quite evident that Schwarber is a nightmare in the outfield. Montero has been gradually declining offensively since his best seasons in 2011 and 2012. Over the past three seasons, Montero, a two-time All-Star who has somehow received MVP votes in two separate seasons, has slashed .240/.330/.372 with an OPS+ of 94. He will turn 33 in early July, and has nearly 8,000 innings behind the plate to his name. Offensively, Montero will only get worse over the final two years of his six-year contract.
Kyle Schwarber must continue to develop as a big-league catcher. That is where the Cubs will get the most value out of his bat. It’s not going to be pretty behind the plate or in the outfield for a few years with Schwarber, but his bat predicated a rush to the big leagues. Eventually, the Cubs can make him a passable option defensively at either position, but he must continue getting reps at catcher. Montero may not be a better-than-replacement-level player the next two seasons, and a team with World Series aspirations needs better at a key position like catcher.
On certain days, Maddon must be prepared to slide Zobrist into left field, and Schwarber behind the plate, with Baez starting at second base. Montero should not be expected to start more than 120 games, and should probably be down closer to 100. The Cubs somehow gave David Ross 182 plate appearances last year, and were rewarded with a .176/.267/.252 line. Ross will be 39 on Opening Day, and giving him nearly 200 plate appearances in 2015 would be inexcusable. It’s bad enough that the Cubs are forced to use him as Jon Lester‘s personal caddy.
Baez should also see a few games in center field. Jorge Soler will probably not be traded at this point, but cannot be counted on for 162 games in right field. Jason Heyward can slide over to his natural home in right, with Baez starting in center. Baez should be able to get by on athleticism while he learns the new position. It’s still too much of a stretch to trade Soler and make Baez the everyday starter in center field. Baez and Schwarber playing two-thirds of the outfield would be too much of a misadventure.
Between second base and center field, Javier Baez should be able to approach 100 games for the Cubs in 2016. He can also be used to give Kris Bryant a day off at third base, while also spelling Russell at shortstop. At times last year, Russell looked overmatched against major-league pitching. His development should continue in 2016, but there will be times here and there when he needs a day off. The Cubs do not need Bryant or Russell to play all 162 games for them, and Baez makes it easier for both to get some time off to stay healthy, both physically and mentally.
Part of what made Ben Zobrist so valuable to Joe Maddon in Tampa Bay was his ability to provide flexibility in the lineup. That is exactly what Javier Baez will bring the Cubs in 2016. With the ability to play second base, shortstop, third base, and outfield, Maddon will be able to keep his other young stars fresh, give Schwarber the reps he needs behind the plate, and also work platoon matchups. This super-utility role is not likely the one Javier Baez envisioned himself taking on when he was drafted, but if he handles himself well, and does what the manager asks of him, Maddon will find a way to get him plenty of at-bats in 2016 and beyond.