MESA, Ariz. – The internal tug-of-war over Javy Baez between the front office and new manager Joe Maddon came to a head Monday when Baez was optioned to AAA Iowa, one of three touted prospects sent out of big-league camp six days before the season opener.
The two others were expected: third baseman Kris Bryant and shortstop Addison Russell, both of whom will join Baez in an infield many say rivals the Cubs’ big-league infield.
“It was a healthy debate,” said Maddon, who liked the idea of Baez on the roster at least in the early going and spent close to a week making the case daily in conversations with reporters.
“With him, [you go] back and forth, back and forth – and it’s easy to recount and recap his strengths, which are on the defensive side of the ball and the bases. And of course the power. And as he gets more consistent making contact, the offense is going to be spectacular.”
Baez told the Sun-Times last week that he had been told he would make the club, which a team source confirmed – though apparently without knowledge of the front office.
Baez originally was in the Cubs’ lineup for Monday’s game against the Giants but was scratched soon after he got the news.
As much as Maddon liked the idea of sewing up an important position with the player who might have been the best defender at his position, Baez still had not come close to taming what might be the biggest swing in baseball. He had 20 strikeouts in 52 at-bats this spring (.173 average) with three walks.
“Right now he’s so close to getting it figured out in the batters box we just felt like AAA is the right venue for him to continue to make those adjustments and get locked in,” said Epstein, who acknowledged the validity of the case Maddon had made about other areas of Baez’ game.
“In a healthy organization there should be different opinions expressed, bounce ideas off each other, talk about different aspects of the game and how you weigh different variables,” Epstein said. “These players were new to Joe. He’s just seeing them for the first time. We couldn’t have had healthier debate on it. In the end we all agreed.”
Maddon said he was impressed with the maturity and self-awareness Baez showed in getting the news.
“I said, `As a 22-year-old baseball player, you might be the most accomplished 22-year-old I’ve been on a field with, regarding defense, base running, just knowing what to do on the field at every moment,’ ” Maddon said. “the part that has to get better is the offense, and he agreed. He totally agreed.”
Russell showed all spring the kind of hitting ability and fielding polish that has him ranked higher on some prospect lists than Bryant. But with only three games above the Class AA level and All-Star Starlin Castro at short, there was no roster drama with him.
“How about this kid? Nobody’s talking about him,” said Maddon, who figures to see him again in a Cubs uniform this year – and settled for a “keep-it-up” message on his way out, because, “I couldn’t tell him what to work on.”
Said Epstein: “I could probably be in this game for a long time and not send down three players that talented on the same day ever again.”
NOTE – The Cubs selected the contract of lefty reliever Phil Coke, adding him to the 40-man roster and essentially setting the 12-man pitching staff. Coke, who recorded his ninth consecutive scoreless outing this spring on Monday, makes $2.25 million (plus bonus clauses) this year.