By Bruce Levine–
(CBS) The spring training drills for 23-year-old Javier Baez will be significantly different this February. After the playoffs ended for the Cubs last October, the coaching staff told Baez to be ready for work at multiple positions in 2016.
Baez took an outfielder glove with him to Puerto Rico this winter. Center field was a new venture for the highly touted career infielder.
“It had gone really well,” Baez said last week. “I played in center field a few games, and I felt really good at the position. I saw the ball off of the bat really well. It felt natural like when I played the position when I was little.”
With a full infield of All-Star-caliber players ahead of Baez, the Cubs coaching staff wants him to be capable of moving around to many positions and get more at-bats that way. As the outfield stands right now, Baez could get substantial time as the fourth outfielder or, in a less likely scenario, eventually win a spot outright. The infield is set, barring injury.
The Cubs’ first-round pick in 2011, Baez will feel little pressure to make the team out of spring training this year. Last spring, he made it until late March before getting shipped out to Triple-A. After losing his sister to a lifelong illness and sustaining a broken hand, Baez gradually improved and really began to blossom in late August. He was called up to the Cubs and played sporadically late in the year, until shortsotp Addison Russell pulled a hamstring in Game 3 of the NLDS.
Baez played the next five games at shortstop before the Cubs were eliminated by the Mets. His value was detected by manager Joe Maddon last spring. Maddon fought his bosses on retaining Baez on the 25-man roster to start the 2015 season but was overruled by president of baseball operations Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer
Baez hit .289 with one homer and four RBIs in 80 plate appearances across 28 regular-season games in 2015.
“He is one of the best baseball position players we have in the organization,” Cubs bench coach Davey Martinez said of Baez. “We are going to try and play him at multiple positions and make it fun for him. He told us he is all for it and not worried in the least. On offense, we want him to be himself and let the ball get in there on him before he reacts.
“I told him late last year before a game to go up to the plate and strike out. He looked at me and thought I was out of it. I repeated, ‘Go up to the plate and strike out.’ In his next at-bat, he lined out hard to right field. He came back to the bench and told me it had helped defuse the situation to not think about striking out. We told Javy if he strikes out, so what. We want him to have the approach to go out play the game he loves and have fun.”
Baez debuted in 2014 and struggled mightily, striking out in 41.5 percent of his plate appearances. That did little good to bring him along in the organization. Now he has matured as a young person and player.
In 2015, Baez struck out 30 percent of the time in the big leagues and 24 percent of the time at Triple-A.
“I know now I will be playing more positions,” Baez said. “Wherever they decide to use me, I will try to do my job and enjoy it. I thought center field was going to be difficult, but it really came natural to me. The routes to the ball seemed routine for me as well. My hitting has come along really well.”
Having the faith of Maddon and the staff has been a comfortable zone for Baez to perform in.
“Joe knows the strength of every player he has,” Baez said. “He knows how to use us and support our talents. He allows us to relax and play the game right.”
Baez may turn out to be the Cubs’ best defender at any position they prefer.
“He really is a great kid ” Martinez emphasized. “He really understands the game so well. Javy is a team player who has a great sense for the game. We like the idea that everyone on our roster can think about playing everyday. This type of process keeps all of the guys interested and motivated.”
Bruce Levine covers the Cubs and White Sox for 670 The Score and CBSChicago.com. Follow him on Twitter @MLBBruceLevine.