Is it time for the Cubs to see if Javy Baez can help this club catch the ball more often?
Two more errors by shortstop Starlin Castro and a costly one by second baseman Addison Russell in Wednesday night’s 3-0 loss to the Washington Nationals boosted the Cubs’ lofty season error total to 39 – second in the NL to Milwaukee.
And raised again the questions of whether an infield shuffle is called for – maybe including the promotion from Class AAA of middle infielder Baez, whom multiple evaluators call the Cubs’ best defensive shortstop in the organization.
Jason McLeod, the Cubs’ top player development executive, said Tuesday there are no immediate plans to promote Baez – a move that likely would start with shifting top hitting rookie Kris Bryant to the outfield.
“He’s had to deal with a lot in the off-season at the professional level and certainly at the personal level with his family,” McLeod said, referring in part to Baez’ lengthy leave in April after the sudden death of his younger sister. “He’s just in a good place right now [including hitting well]. … All we’re concerned about right now is him maintaining this.
“Certainly, he’s someone who wants to come up here and help the team win. And Joe [Maddon], Theo [Epstein] – we’re all looking at that every single day. And those are conversations that take place internally.”
With no move looking imminent as the Cubs enjoyed an off day Thursday, their fielding issues were a study in sharp contrast to a Kansas City Royals team they’ll see this weekend that fields three Gold Glove winners and played in the World Series seven months ago.
Despite the impact the spotty fielding is having on results for a team that has played a disproportionate number of close games, Cubs manager Maddon downplayed potential concern over the errors, in particular the recent glut on routine plays by Castro.
“The last play [Wednesday] night I don’t know if that was a product of his last at-bat or not,” said Maddon, referring to Castro’s muff of a ninth-inning grounder straight to him a half-inning after he stranded two runners with an inning-ending groundout.
“He’s done a lot of good things,” Maddon said. “I would say the problem mostly with him has been the routine play more than anything else.”
Castro, who has eight errors this month after committing just three in April, is second only to Washington’s Ian Desmond (13) at his position in the National League.
“He’s had a couple mistakes, I don’t disagree,” Maddon said. “But for the most part I’ve been fine with him at shortstop.”
The fielding on the infield has been an issue overall recently.
Since a streak of eight errorless games earlier this month, the Cubs have committed 12 in their last nine – five by Castro and three each by rookies Russell and third baseman Kris Bryant.
But it’s a been a season-long weakness that has the potential for derailing the ambitions of a young, talented team that is getting enough high performances from some starting pitchers and everyday hitters to otherwise think big heading into the summer months.
While some teams score easily enough or pitch deep enough through their bullpen to overcome lapses in the field, the Cubs have not shown that kind of margin to work with.
They lead the majors in one-run games played (going 13-10) and are tied for the National League leads in two-run (14-11) and three-run (19-16) games played.
That makes numbers like these even more damaging if the trends continue: 39 errors (one short of the NL lead), .978 fielding percentage (virtual tie for last in NL), an NL-worst 15 total fielding runs below the major league average (according to baseball-reference.com) and a below-average fielding efficiency (again: baseball-reference.com).
Their 16 unearned runs allowed is no worse than average. But for a team with playoff aspirations? Of the 10 teams in playoff-berth position through Wednesday, only three (Washington, the Yankees and Detroit) were not better than average in that category.
Not surprisingly the two worst teams in baseball, Milwaukee (23) and Oakland (30), both ranked among the bottom three in free runs.
Maddon called it “a little bit of a youthful thing,” which might help explain Bryant and Russell – both of whom made their major league debuts within the last six weeks.
And both of whom were on the field hours before batting practice Wednesday taking infield.
Russell’s error Wednesday put him in the lead among NL second baseman with seven errors – in 14 fewer games this season than the next second baseman on the list (Cardinals’ Kolten Wong with six).
Bryant (seven) is second to Pittsburgh’s Josh Harrison (eight) among NL third basemen.
“We work on it constantly, man,” Maddon said. “It’s a lot of routine stuff. We have made a lot of really good plays on defense, and the one that seems to bite us is more the routine stuff.
“That’s just repetition and technique. Just being fundamentally sound. We’re working on it always. …
“We’ve just got to get better.”