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Javier Baez’s Return Slowed by Pitch to Helmet, Complicating Roster Picture

Chicago Cubs

javier baez featureJavier Baez’s slow return to the majors may have just taken yet another step back.

If you recall, Baez was fully expected to break camp with the big league team and play several positions around the diamond – not unlike the former Rays version of now Cubs second baseman, Ben Zobrist.

Unfortunately, near the end of Spring Training, Baez suffered a jammed left thumb on a head first slide into first base and began the 2016 season out on the disabled list. Bummer.

However, Baez’s trip to the DL came with a silver lining.

With Baez temporary removed from the active roster, the Cubs could afford to keep outfielder Matt Szczur (and Neil Ramirez) on the team for at least a little bit longer. Before the space opened up, Szczur – who has already made an enormous impact on the first three games of the season – was otherwise out of options and beginning to look a lot like the 26th man on the field. Even with his nice skill set and seemingly improved power, Szczur was expected to be the odd man out when Baez returned for the home opener on Monday.

However, Javier Baez was hit in the ear flap by a pitch in extended Spring Training on Monday, and that has slowed his return (as Brett suspected it might). And, to be certain, Baez’s absence has (now) had much less to do directly with either injury (from all reports, he’s healthy), but rather on his readiness to face big league pitching (he’s missed some serious time for both occurrences).

Indeed, according to reports at both CSN Chicago and the Chicago Tribune, Joe Maddon indicated that Baez is healthy, but simply needs more time/more at bats, before rejoining his team in Chicago. And, to be clear, that would be true of any Major League hitter, let alone a guy like Baez whose biggest obstacle (and potentially biggest asset) is what he can offer with his bat off the bench. Getting your timing down is difficult (batters are often well behind hitters at the beginning of Spring Training, for example), so some additional at bats in Arizona, and maybe even Iowa thereafter, was more than understandable.

And then, Kyle Schwarber.

If you’ve somehow been able to avoid the terrible news from last night’s otherwise pleasant game, I’m sorry to ruin your day. Last night, Kyle Schwarber was involved in a very scary collision with the center fielder Dexter Fowler, and left the game with the help of a cart (in other words, he couldn’t limp off the field, even with the help of others). Although the initial X-rays did not indicate any broken bones, the injury looked extremely painful and we are all awaiting the results of an MRI (hopefully) this afternoon.

Needless to say, Kyle Schwarber will probably not be returning to the Chicago Cubs anytime soon.*

And this, of course, complicates things greatly, because Baez would have been one of the primary substitutes in left field for Kyle Schwarber, along with Jorge Soler, while he was out. Or, similarly, Kris Bryant could have temporarily made the move out to left field, with Baez handling third base for the time being, which would have actually been an overall improvement on defense. But, if Baez is not ready to come back, as Maddon suggested, Matt Szczur might get some additional chances, and may even grab a start or two thanks to his hot hand.

To be clear, though, Maddon’s comments about Baez’s readiness came before the injury to Schwarber, Thursday night. Perhaps, then, Baez’s readiness level was just dialed up, because the team may need him.

Alternatively, it’s possible that Munenori Kawasaki is the one to come up to replace Schwarber (presuming, of course, a trip to the DL), because if Baez (the infielder) was the obvious choice before, maybe another infielder is the obvious choice now. But even that argument has holes, because Baez wasn’t expected to be exclusively an infielder. In fact, if he was coming up to replace Schwarber on the roster, you’d almost have to assume that some appearances in outfield would have been expected. In that regard, the Cubs could also turn to Shane Victorino … but even he is still rehabbing/getting ready for the season in Arizona, and is not yet on the 40-man roster.

So, if you catch my drift, there is not a very straightforward, sure-fire solution to the Cubs’ tricky, and impending, roster optimization decisions. If Schwarber goes on the disabled list (which, I’d be *shocked* if he didn’t, even if the news today is great), the Cubs could call up any of Javier Baez, Munenori Kawasaki or Shane Victorino. Best guess for now? Probably Kawasaki, with Baez returning some time thereafter.

The only thing for certain is that Matt Szczur just got a second life, once again. But given his tricky roster situation and the way he’s been hitting, perhaps that’s not the worst thing in the world.

Momma said there’d be days like this, but just remember: the Cubs are as deep and talented as any team in the Major Leagues. This is precisely what that depth is for.

UPDATE: Schwarber is out for the year, so these questions all become more pressing, even if a little less complicated now.

*Which is a real bummer, because he was going to start behind the plate tonight, with Jason Hammel on the mound.

Author: Michael Cerami

Michael Cerami covers the Chicago Cubs, Bears, and Bulls at Bleacher Nation. You can find him on Twitter @Michael_Cerami