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Cubs in ’11th hour’ to decide Javy Baez’s Opening Day fate

Javy Baez injured his thumb March 16. (AP)

TEMPE, Ariz. — The Cubs’ last piece of spring drama hinges on Javy Baez’s left thumb.

Rather than face the Angels at Tempe Diablo Stadium on Monday, as the utilityman had once hoped, Baez simply played catch in front of Cubs officials at the team’s training facility.

Baez jammed his thumb sliding into first base March 16, and last played in a game March 20. Neither fact bodes well for him starting the season with the team Monday in Anaheim.

“The concern is that he has not had enough at-bats, that he’s not played enough in the outfield, at different positions in the outfield … “: manager Joe Maddon said. “So yes, we need to try to figure out how we want to process all that right now.”

Baez has made the team on merit, Maddon said. At issue is whether he’ll start the season on the disabled list. With a retroactive DL stint, he could stay in Mesa to get extra at-bats and rejoin the team after six regular-season games.

“We’re attempting to create an 11th hour to get this whole thing done with Javy,” manager Joe Maddon said. “Getting more definition about Javy is really important right now.”

Maddon spoke with president Theo Epstein and GM Jed Hoyer about his options, and said they need to choose one soon. That could be Munenori Kawasaki or Tommy LaStella, both infielders, or out-of-options outfielder Matt Szczur. The Cubs could keep an extra hitter if they bring only seven relievers to Opening Day,

Maddon was more concerned, though, with how his substitutions — from defensive moves to pinch runners to double switches — line up after that.

“If, in fact he’s unable to go, and say it were Kawasaki, then what would you need after that? “ he said. “And that’s how these other pieces will fit. Because Baez was there to fulfill a lot of different roles. …

“Knowing what Javy’s up to matters a lot.”

Starting infielders Kris Bryant and Ben Zobrist give him some flexibility, though. Zobrist has played at least 100 career games at shortstop, second base, right field and left field.

Bryant, who played 19 games in the outfield last year, moved from third base to left field midway through Monday’s 8-8- tie against the Angels.

“You don’t have to play them a lot in the outfield,” Maddon said, “for them to be comfortable in the outfield.”

He’ll have one of his outfield options back soon enough.

Centerfielder Dexter Fowler injured his left side, Maddon said, when he crashed into a wall Saturday. He was removed Sunday after one inning — and after a home run —when tightness didn’t go away.

“It was more precaution,” Fowler said. “I feel good today. I feel a lot better.”

Maddon said Fowler looks stronger and is motivated by lingering on the free agent market until late February. Maddon first thought Fowler was essential when he signed, and that sentiment has only grown.

“Everything felt good to that point,” Maddon said, “but all of a sudden everything felt right.

“I don’t know that we knew how important that piece was until that came back to us.”

The fact that Fowler’s injury wasn’t caused by rotating his body is a good sign. Still, he didn’t play Monday.

“If there was something to worry about, I’d be worried,” Fowler said. “And I’m not worried at all.”

The same can’t be said about Cubs and Baez.

“If you don’t have him,” Maddon said, “you have to be more creative regarding how you’re gonna shuffle a late inning defensive replacement, how you’re gonna shuffle pinch running, who’s gonna be available, who you want for those roles

“So that’s why he is so important, being all of those things.”

Follow me on Twitter @patrickfinley

Email: pfinley@suntimes.com