Javier Baez is still a shortstop.
That may not sound like a piece worth noting, but with Baez tearing up High-A and AA last year, and on the doorstep of the big leagues within the next 12 months, Baez’s long-term position has become a salient and immediate question.
Baez clearly remains a shortstop in the Cubs’ eyes, as confirmed both by President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein and Scouting and by Player Development Chief Jason McLeod within the last week. They now believe - I guess without any lingering reservations – that Baez can be a shortstop in the big leagues. That wasn’t something you could confidently say just one year ago.
If Baez is to remain at shortstop in the near-term, and if he could truly play adequate defense at the position in the big leagues, the upcoming decision on how to deal with incumbent shortstop Starlin Castro and Baez becomes much more difficult.
Baez unquestionably offers more value at shortstop than at any other position – at shortstop, it’s virtually impossible to find a bat like his (although a wave of fantastic shortstop prospects – Xander Bogaerts, Addison Russell, and Franscio Lidnor among them). And Baez’s bat, if it continues to develop, projects to be much more valuable than Castro’s. On the other hand, the Cubs have to decide which of the two can play a more effective defensive shortstop *and* a more effective defensive second base (which is where Baez is expected to get some work in Spring Training, and where McLeod hinted that Baez could go if Castro is still around when Baez is ready). It’s possible that one of the two might be only better at shortstop, but miles better at second base. In that situation, particularly if that guy is Castro, you’d really have to think putting Baez at shortstop (because of the bat), even if he’s technically the inferior defensive shortstop.
There’s still a lot that has to happen before this is a serious issue – Baez will have to adjust to AAA and play well there, and continue to improve defensively at shortstop, as the Cubs are projecting – but it makes you wonder if the front office is a little salty about Castro’s down 2013 season. If Castro had been effective, the Cubs would have the option of trading Castro for a haul, and opening up shortstop in the long-term for Baez. As it stands, Castro isn’t going to entice prospective buyers to the extent you’d want to see before shipping him off for other pieces. For now, particularly given his age and contract, it seems wiser to hang onto Castro for the time being, and work out any emerging positional issues as Baez forces them.
Hopefully Baez crushes it at AAA Iowa and improves even further defensively at shortstop, while Castro does the same at the big league level, and this tricky discussion becomes all the more tricky in June and July.