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Javy Baez deserves to start at one position for the Cubs

Cubs third baseman Javy Baez catches a foul ball by Marlins catcher J.T. Realmuto on June 24. (AP Photo/Alan Diaz)
When Javy Baez plays shortstop, he’s a Gold Glove-level shortstop. Same with third base. Same with second base. He’s the best on his team at all three positions, and it’s not particularly close.

He deserves to start at one spot for the Cubs.

If you think of the roster as Joe Maddon’s chemistry set, you’ll understand why Baez isn’t a regular. The Cubs manager loves the idea of Baez in the super-utility role, using him at second base if Ben Zobrist needs a rest, putting him at short to give Addison Russell a breather, and inserting him at third base and moving Kris Bryant to left field to get Baez more work.

It’s hard to argue with the results. The Cubs are very good. Peace reigns, everybody is happy and Baez, despite a costly error Thursday in a loss to the Mets, has been more fun to watch than bear cubs at the zoo.

Cubs third baseman Javy Baez catches a foul ball by Marlins catcher J.T. Realmuto on June 24. (AP Photo/Alan Diaz)

But you can’t argue that having Baez as a super-utility player is what’s best for the team if you haven’t given him a shot as a starter at one spot. Who knows how good he can be with a regular position and a regular slot in the order?

Maddon is one of Baez’ biggest supporters. He wanted him on the big-league roster last season when camp broke, but the front office didn’t and won out. The flip side is that Maddon likes to tinker, which is why the Cubs’ 2011 first-round pick finds himself moving from position to position to position, a man without a country.

To pat Baez on the head and tell him he’d be a starter for most other teams is nice but meaningless. He deserves to be a regular for the Cubs. Russell is off limits at short, though nothing in his year and a half in the majors (.240/.317/.388) suggests he should be. Everybody loves the 22-year-old, despite his being second from last in fielding percentage among National League shortstops. They see a perennial All-Star in him and, fine, OK, we move on. A losing battle. Did I mention that Baez is only 23?

But why not move Bryant to left for the rest of the season and let Baez start at third? Because rookie Willson Contreras deserves playing time? Based on what? Thirteen games in the big leagues?

That Baez is lacking a starting spot isn’t a problem. Or it’s a good problem to have, as they say. The real problem for a team with very few problems is a shaky bullpen and, to a lesser extent, average hitting.

But this is a fairness issue. In sports, there’s the basic understanding that the best players play. We hold that truth to be self-evident. So do players. They know who should be in the lineup. There’s no fooling them. I wish we had some truth serum we could administer to Cubs players on the issue.

It wasn’t so long ago that Baez was a crazy man at the plate, swinging wildly, missing a lot and all but breaking his ankles on his mighty follow-through. I’m sure the Cubs are mindful of those 2014 struggles. But he’s much more mature now, much more polished, and though he’s still not as disciplined at the plate as you’d like, he has come a long way. He has the same number of home runs as Russell (eight) this season in almost 70 fewer at-bats – not to bring up Russell again!

Baez was hitting .269 heading into the weekend for a team that could use some offensive help. No, it’s not a great average. The Cubs are seventh in the N.L. in batting average (.255) and first in on-base percentage (.349). Not to kill you with stats, because nobody deserves to die that way, but the Cubs are hitting .257 with runners in scoring position, decidedly middle of the pack.

Maybe Baez helps with that, I don’t know. But that’s just it: We won’t know for sure until he has the comfort of a regular spot on the field.

My guess? Baez will be trade bait to get a relief pitcher, either this season or next. To the Cubs, he has as much or more value as a commodity than he does as a piece of their puzzle. I don’t believe Cubs president Theo Epstein cares that Baez was a Jim Hendry pick, but it is human nature to root for those in whom you have a personal investment.

The Cubs are going to be fine, and Baez is going to be fine in his current role as a jack of all trades. But one lingering question: What if?