Javier Baez is something of an enigma in the current era of the Chicago Cubs, and much of that comes from his unique path with a rebuilding club.
Baez was drafted in 2011, by the previous front office, and has already faced a lot of praise, trade rumors and criticism throughout his professional career. He was considered “not their [the front office] type of player” and labeled as positional redundancy. And, of course, all of that escalated when the Cubs acquired Addison Russell, their current everyday shortstop.
Making his debut in 2014, Baez struggled mightily. His work on defense was solid, but he was striking out at disturbing levels. So real were his struggles, that – despite reports of his manager wanting to keep him on the team – the front office sent Baez back down to AAA Iowa to start the 2015 season. Then, through a series of unfortunate events (his sister passing, his injury, etc…), Baez didn’t get off to a fast start in 2015.
Baez, 23, now finds himself a month away from Spring Training 2016 – the first spring he’s more or less expected to break camp with the Major League team. While he might be blocked at his most obvious positions, shortstop (Russell), second base (Ben Zobrist) and third base (Kris Bryant), Baez is going to get plenty of playing time this year. Thanks to his immense athleticism, baseball acumen, hard work and all around versatility, Baez has explored playing center field in the offseason, and by most reports, the returns have looked good.
Over at the Athletic, for example, Sahadev Sharma takes a deep dive into Baez’s positional versatility and his expected role on the team in 2016. With quotes from Joe Maddon and GM Jed Hoyer, it becomes clear that the Cubs expect to use Baez in many multiple roles throughout the season. The way Maddon puts it, the super utility role is real position on the team. He will have expectations and responsibilities and see a lot of playing time throughout the year. The constant comparison to the Cubs’ own Ben Zobrist might be overused in general, but it figures to actually apply in this situation.
Baez has such raw, natural talent that it’s impossible not to see him sticking in the majors. If he starts off his career as a super utility type, expect it to be cut from the cloth of Ben Zobrist. Then, if all goes well, and the bat develops, he can stick in that role or start at any one of the seven positions he’s capable of playing.
Either way, 2016 feels like another first step in the process, and it’ll be very interesting to see how it goes.