Javy Baez return looms as Cubs keep options open for potential infield shuffle

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Javy Baez

SAN DIEGO – It was an extreme example.

But when the Cubs’ young infield committed three costly errors in a one-run loss Tuesday in San Diego, it offered another reminder of the work in progress the Cubs defense is this season – talent, potential and manager Joe Maddon’s upbeat outlook aside.

A game like that also raises the question: Whatever happened to Javy Baez?

And this: Is Baez the eventual solution for tightening the Cubs’ inconsistent fielding alignment?

“Javy can make any defense better. I talked about that in camp,” said Maddon, who lobbied for Baez out of spring training for his fielding prowess over his bat. “I thought he was one of the finest young infielders I’ve seen.

“But I’m not displeased with anybody out there right now, either. Sometimes you’ve just got to wait for your opportunity, your turn.”

Baez, who spent the final two months of last season as the Cubs’ second baseman, is playing both second base and shortstop (on a 60-40 split by design) for Class AAA Iowa. He’s hitting .296 in 19 games with two homers, and farm director Jaron Madison said his approach is improving since joining the I-Cubs three weeks ago after an extended bereavement leave following his sister’s sudden death.

He looks like he might even become the key midseason upgrade for team trying to turn an encouraging start into a pennant race.

The Cubs won’t say publicly how they plan to fit all the pieces together once they decide to reintroduce Baez to a 25-and-under infield that has rookie Addison Russell at second, All-Star Starlin Castro at shortstop and baseball’s top prospect, Kris Bryant, at third.

But several options have been discussed internally, including, notably, moving Bryant to left field (where Chris Coghlan was hitting just .205 even after his two-homer Tuesday) and shifting Castro off of short.

The Cubs have talked about Russell being a candidate to eventually take over at short, but one scout said after a recent Iowa trip that Baez is the best shortstop of the three.

Madison said the organization has no immediate plans of having Baez play any third base for Iowa.

Castro said he considers himself a shortstop but will do whatever the team thinks is best. Those close to him say if he’s moved, he’d prefer second and wants no part of third. Russell said he considers himself a middle infielder but that he’s familiar with third from high school and is open to it.

“I’ve played third base before,” said Russell, who has had fans yell at him from the seats before games and ask on Twitter whether he can play third.

“I think anyone’s going to like anywhere to play in the big-league level,” he said.

How the pieces ultimately fit best, the Cubs don’t seem to feel an urgent need to shuffle the infield deck yet.

Even while acknowledging that moving Bryant to left is a “possibility,” Maddon defended Coghlan’s bad-luck hitting numbers and his defense.

He also defended his fielders as a group, pointing out the team’s eight consecutive games without an error before Tuesday.

But it’s as easy to make the case the streak was the aberration as it is to suggest Tuesday’s game was.

“We’ve made some errors, but I think we’ve made a lot of plays,” Maddon said.

Even with the eight errorless games, the Cubs rank 25th of the 30 major league teams in fielding percentage (and errors) – in part a function of youth, in part Russell learning a new position, in part a bunch of guys in their first season on the same field together.

Even by some of the more advanced defensive metrics the Cubs are no better than middle-of-the-pack in the majors, with contenders such as Kansas City, Detroit, the Dodgers, the Cardinals, the Giants and even last week’s whipping-boy Mets, ranked ahead of them.

It’s something that needs to improve for the Cubs to get where they hope to go this season.

“We’ve given too many games away this year, whether it’s pitches out of the bullpen or [Tuesday] on defense,” Maddon said after the loss. “We’ve got to tighten it up all the way around.

“That’s how you stay hot. That’s how you really get that record, how you go from five over, to 10 over, to 15 over .500. You’ve got to get to those numbers, and you’ve got to play a complete game to accomplish those goals.”

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