By Chris Emma–
CHICAGO (CBS) — Faced with his Cubs future, infielder Javier Baez briefly looked down from the cameras and microphones. His tone quickly diminished.
He couldn’t imagine leaving the Cubs and an organization that has supported him through professional struggles and personal tragedy. Baez blossomed from a raw prospect to a young star in a Cubs uniform, overcoming much more than a flawed plate approach along the way.
Baez hates even pondering the possibility of being traded. He never wanted to face this after a 9-5 victory over the Reds on Thursday, one in in which he hit a grand slam and knocked in five runs. But the question emerged.
“I love Chicago,” Baez replied. “I love this organization. It’s been the best.”
Fortunately for Baez, his value is appreciated by the defending World Series champions. So while Ben Zobrist brings his steady veteran approach and Ian Happ bursts onto the scene as the next prized prospect, Baez has a place with this organization.
Despite the Cubs’ intentions to add another pitcher prior to July’s trade deadline, Baez should remain with the team he loves.
He knows it, too, and sees it as reassuring.
“If something comes, I know it’s not going to be anytime soon,” Baez said.
Baez has been the convenient name mentioned in aimless conjecture of trade possibilities. A simple Google search of “Javier Baez trade” brings a long list of results. On paper, he’s the 24-year-old without an everyday slot in manager Joe Maddon’s plans, a first-round pick in Jim Hendry’s final draft with the Cubs in 2011.
Baez didn’t become what the Cubs had initially projected. In fact, he became something more.
Last season, Baez emerged as one of the top defensive infielders in all of baseball. His power has been well-documented ever since going in the first round to the Cubs. But the prowess in the field was a pleasant surprise in 2016. It became a major story in the postseason. There were actual montages of Baez tags played during the World Series. He became a postseason hero for the Cubs’ championship run.
The 12.7 defensive win shares Baez posted in 2016 would’ve ranked third among second basemen, fifth among third basemen and 10th among shortstops if he qualified with innings at each position, according to FanGraphs’ numbers.
But Baez is a role player for these Cubs. When Zobrist needs a day off, Baez takes second. When Addison Russell needs a breather, he takes shortstop. When Maddon wants defensive help for Jon Lester, he often mans third. In fact, Baez is tabbed to play every time Lester takes the hill because his defense is that important to the infield.
Maddon spoke prior to Thursday’s game about the immediate impact of Happ, who has an OPS of 1.638 through five games. The Cubs are considering keeping Happ on the big league roster permanently because of his efforts, looking to find a place for him wherever that may come. Then, Baez went out and drove in five runs, blasting a hanging slider 415 feet to the left-field bleachers for a 5-0 lead.
Come Friday afternoon, it could be Zobrist starting at second base, or maybe Happ gets his first opportunity in the infield. Baez may take second instead, or perhaps he gives Russell a breather and plays shortstop. Maddon could even have Baez take the hot corner and put Kris Bryant in the outfield.
The only limit to talent on this Cubs roster is 25. Maddon wants to make a case for a 26th man, and he would gladly take 30 or 40 for each game. The Cubs could fill out a roster better than any other club in baseball. Their organizational depth is outstanding.
Baez isn’t the odd man out for the Cubs, despite what the rumor mill spits. He’s a valued piece to Maddon’s puzzle, one in which all the pieces are linked together.