By Bruce Levine–
MESA, Ariz. (CBS) — Javier Baez is returning to Cubs spring training after a memorable run with his Puerto Rico team in the World Baseball Classic.
The 24-year-old Baez had a profound impact in Puerto Rico’s second-place finish, which they took after an 8-0 loss to Team USA in the championship Wednesday night. Baez’s flair also had a strong influence on the newfound attention the WBC received and the momentum it built as the Americans won the tournament for the first time since its inception in 2006. The event is held every four years.
Baez batted .296 with a homer and five RBIs in seven games and displayed his flash in the field, at-bat and on the bases, including with a highlight-reel no-look tag and amazing slide into third base to steal a bag. Puerto Rico games were appointment viewing for baseball fans, and the fun-loving Baez reminded how much fun players can have on the field as he and his teammates displayed their natural showmanship and national pride throughout.
The shocking reality for the sensational Baez is he will return to the Cubs without a full-time job, as he’s a backup infielder on a deep, talented team. So how will manager Joe Maddon find enough playing time for him?
“We had that conversation before we set this whole thing up,” Maddon said. “He knows his role. He is going to play often. Even if the game doesn’t start with him in it, you want it to end with him on the field if you’re ahead. He knows his time is coming as an everyday player. If an injury were to pop up, he is going to play a lot this year.”
The co-MVP of the National League Championship Series last October, Baez is focused on continued growth, consistency and maturity as a player.
“We are looking forward to having him back,” Maddon said. “I told him, ‘You have this innate ability to make the spectacular play. While you are doing that, make sure you make the routine play routinely.’We had that conversation both years we have been around each other. I think I see him better with that. I really do.”
Just by being himself, Baez is one of the most fun players to watch in the game. And more often now, what once may have been viewed as recklessness or over-ambition on the field is turning into the spectacular.
“I never want him to lose his flair,” Maddon said. “You never want to coach instinct or ability out of a player — ever. That is the threat. I don’t just want him to fit my particular sense or style mentally. Just make the adjustments in all areas. I have seen the projections of his strikeouts. They have dropped dramatically over the last three years. I think with maturity, you are going to see improvements in both areas, with the bat and routine plays.”
Bruce Levine covers the Cubs and White Sox for 670 The Score and CBSChicago.com. Follow him on Twitter @MLBBruceLevine.