By GORDON WITTENMYER
MESA, Ariz. – Cubs manager Joe Maddon said there’s nothing to read into the fact that Javy Baez is starting in center field for the Cubs’ spring training opener Thursday against the Brewers.
But the position has been a point of emphasis for the versatile infield since he was asked to play games there during winter ball, and his ability to handle the position could make him the most important defensive bench player on the opening roster.
“Here’s the thing, though,” Maddon said. “We were watching him on the main field the other day during batting practice, and, God, he looks like he’s done it forever. And he did it down in winter ball, and I heard nothing but wonderful things about his work there.”
Baez, who said last year he likes center since playing there as a kid, has said repeatedly since the winter that he’s more than comfortable since his more recent work. He already might be the best defensive infielder, regardless of position.
“None of it will surprise,” Maddon said of seeing Baez play Thursday. “If he makes a couple, three great plays, don’t be surprised.”
Jake on opener
Jake Arrieta’s Opening Day assignment isn’t his first, but it’s not exactly the same either, coming off a Cy Young season compared to 2012, when he was coming off a 10-8 season with a 5.05 ERA for Baltimore.
“Career-wise it’s a different look,” he said. “I don’t think it’ll feel really any different. There’s going to be excitement there, but the preparation’s going to be exactly the same, and then as soon as the umpire says play ball my focus is just on executing pitches.”
Arrieta, who went 22-6 with a 1.77 ERA last season, called the assignment “an honor” but stressed the larger picture of what the Cubs hope to get done the rest of the year, too.
Arrieta’s first start of the spring is Wednesday against the Indians at the Cubs’ home park. Jon Lester and John Lackey are expected to make their spring debuts the following two games, respectively.
Outfielder Matt Szczur, a potential backup for all three outfield spots, has been slowed in camp by a “slight” oblique strain, the club said. He’s expected to be ready for game action within a week or so.
S“Our [medical] guys didn’t think it was very severe, but that’s something that can become aggravated,” Maddon said. “He’s not awful, but we just did not want to press it right now.”