PITTSBURGH – He couldn’t make the team out of spring training, missed the first month of the minor-league season for family reasons, missed another month with an injury and then was made available in trade talks in July.
But just about the time Javy Baez had become the Cubs’ most forgotten big-shot prospect, he suddenly started to become one of the most indispensible parts of their postseason plans.
“It’s a pitching-and-defense time of year,” manager Joe Maddon said.
And Baez, who didn’t make his big-league season debut until Sept. 1, has shown in barely two weeks what some in the organization already suspected: He might be the Cubs’ best defensive player at any position.
In fact, at several.
With all due respect to rookie Addison Russell, Baez is the best shortstop on the team, including a far better arm.
With all due respect to rookie Kris Bryant, Baez also is the best third baseman on the team, if his ease and agility there this past week is any indication. Maddon compared him to Gold Glove third basemen Graig Nettles and Brooks Robinson after his highlight-reel game there Tuesday night in Pittsburgh.
Baez also might be the best second baseman on the team.
“I like all three of them,” said Baez, who didn’t play third in a regular-season pro game until August – and says he has no idea where he’ll end up as an everyday player.
“I like playing defense because that’s when I relax the most. I relax when I play defense, and think about how the game is going.”
Maddon even sounds confident Baez can excel in the outfield.
“He could do it,” Maddon said. “There’s no doubt he could do it. But he’s so good on the infield. It’s rare to find somebody that fields the baseball as well as he does, so you’d really have to have somebody else equal [as an infielder] to move him off there and put him in the outfield.”
But putting him on the playoff roster? That’s a no-brainer – even if the Cubs couldn’t find a big-league job for him until rosters expanded this month.
“Of course, you have to consider him, no doubt – just for his glove if anything,” Maddon said. “He’s had good at-bats, but what he’s done defensively has been pretty spectacular.”
Baez said he likes hearing that. But if he’s learned anything during his season of greatest adversity, it’s that he’s taking nothing for granted.
“It feels great,” he said, “but we’re just trying to win. And whoever doesn’t get the job done, we’ve got more people on the bench ready to play and give everything they have, too.
“I’m just going to try to do my best and leave everything out there like I always do.”
Baez debuted last summer as one of the youngest players in the majors, flashing his exceptional power (nine home runs in 52 games) but also mostly missing with his huge swing (95 strikeouts, 213 at-bats).
By spring training, the swing was still a problem and despite an internal debate over keeping him for his glove, Baez was sent to the minors. Then came the sudden death of his younger sister after years dealing with complications from spina bifida, and a lengthy leave to mourn with family.
He was back barely a month when a broken finger sidelined him again.
“It’s been a really tough year for me and my family,” he said. “Plus my injury … That’s what’s made me really patient.”
He has certainly looked like a different player so far during his return to the majors – and not just because of the facemask on his helmet he just got approved to wear this week to protect dental work he had this season.
He’s taking more pitches, adjusting how big he swings based on situations and after his two-hit game in a 2-1 victory Tuesday night was 13-for-43 (.302) with a homer, three doubles and a pair of walks.
“This game is all about making adjustments,” he said. “And especially with these young guys, including me, we just want to do good and get better every day, every day, every day. And show everybody we can be here for a long time.”
For now the Cubs are thinking about how long they can keep playing this year – and how big a role Baez’s glove(s) can play.
“It’s huge,” teammate Anthony Rizzo said. “That’s what’s going to win us a lot more ballgames. Runs are going to be hard to come by, I feel like, when we get to October. The better we play defense, the better off we are.”