By Bruce Levine–
MESA, Ariz. (670 The Score) — The 2017 season saw Ben Zobrist and Javier Baez splitting time at second base for the Cubs. Zobrist started 65 games at second, while Baez started 56 times there.
Both versatile players were used at other positions regularly and sometimes shifted in the later innings of games. Zobrist was utilized often in left field and right field, while Baez logged 67 starts at shortstop, many when Addison Russell suffered a foot injury in the second half.
Baez, 25, has proved to be as talented as any middle infielder in the game. At the plate, he has blossomed from a player who has tried to homer on nearly every at-bat to a more dangerous hitter who uses the opposite field better. Baez’s .273 average, 23 homers, 75 RBIs and .796 OPS in 2017 were all career-best marks.
Meanwhile, Zobrist dealt with some nagging ailments in 2017 and saw his production drop, as he hit .232 with 12 homers, 50 RBIs and a .693 OPS. With a back issue bothering the 36-year-old Zobrist early in spring training now, it’s yet another sign that Baez will serve as the team’s primary second baseman.
Maddon is ready to give Baez close to 600 plate appearances if he executes what the team has discussed with Baez.
“Organize his hitting zone, accept your walks and utilize the whole field,” Maddon said of the keys for Baez.
“We had a conversation that he said really stuck with him last year. I had told him to please make the routine play routinely. He said that had really stuck with him.”
That conversation came after a fancy throw by Baez had cost the Cubs a run.
“When the play required craziness, I told him we knew he could do that,” Maddon said. “The three-hopper to shortstop, come get it, play through it. Make an accurate throw. Apparently, that stuck. He told me once he thought in those terms, it really did slow it down for him.”
Maddon continues to stress to Baez to organize his hitting zone. He knows that’s the most crucial focal point, because Baez has the raw talents in all the game’s other departments.
“He is one of the finest baserunners in the league,” Maddon said. “He has one of the best arms. Most acrobatic, best range on defense. Big power. The biggest thing for him to do now is organizing the strike zone. Once he does that, heads up. That goes back to what I have been talking about the last couple of years — that would be the next level I am looking for from him.”
Bruce Levine covers the Cubs and White Sox for 670 The Score. Follow him on Twitter @MLBBruceLevine.