MILWAUKEE – While managing the Tampa Bay Rays, Joe Maddon once went an entire season without declaring a closer – yet used the same guy in the ninth every time he was available.
“So there was always the ability to pitch him in the eighth if you wanted to because it wasn’t in his head that he was just a closer,” the Cubs manager said this weekend.
So is he pulling the same trick with Javy Baez and second base this season?
Baez, who was back in the lineup at second Saturday after a nasty-looking collision in the outfield with Jason Heyward Friday, has started at second four of the Cubs’ first five games.
That’s the same Javy Baez that Maddon said multiple times during spring training had been told as camp opened he would play the super utility role he did last season – filling in across the infield as needed.
This despite starting every postseason game at second last year, earning national celebrity on that stage, then repeating his flashy success during the World Baseball Classic this spring.
“It’s not about Javy being the everyday second baseman,” Maddon said. “It’s how do you get [Albert] Almora [Jr.] in the lineup? How do you get [Jon] Jay in the lineup? How do you keep Zo in the lineup as often as possible?”
That’s Ben Zobrist, the World Series MVP and last year’s All-Star starting second baseman for the National League – and the guy fans up and down Twitter timelines seem to want pushed elsewhere so Baez can play second every day.
“He’s a great defender. I get it,” Zobrist said. “I understand that he’s exciting to watch on defense. I love watching him for the same respect. I made zero errors for the first three months playing second base last year. People don’t remember that. That’s all right.
“What matters is that I work my tail off to be ready to make plays when I get a chance, and wherever Joe puts me I’ve got to try to do the best I can. And when Javy plays second, I want him to make every possible play. When I play second I want to make every possible play.”
Maddon, who said he’s trying to “balance” playing time for what amounts to four or five players across two or three positions, will have Zobrist back at second on Sunday, he said.
“I don’t look at this and think it’s an indication of how the whole season’s going to go, nor even if everything was the same every day would I think that,” said Zobrist, who played for Maddon in Tampa Bay. “I know Joe well enough to know that as time goes on sometimes he just plays the hot hand; sometimes he doesn’t; sometimes there’s no rhyme or reason to it a lot from our standpoint.”
That’s why Maddon uses his words carefully when asked about players’ roles, usually leaving descriptions more open-ended.
“It’s always about semantics, man,” Maddon said. “Whatever you say, it sticks. And then people hold you to that, which they should. When it comes to baseball players, man, if you say they’re one thing and then try to make him into something else, it really freaks him out. It just does.
“Without naming a closer, without naming a second baseman, without naming an eighth-inning guy or a seventh-inning guy, it really creates a lot more latitude, which you need.”
Closer Wade Davis, for instance, is the only reliever with a defined role.
Zobrist, who was told when he signed a four-year deal before last season that he would begin as the Cubs’ primary second baseman, said he was “actually surprised that I played every day at second base the first half of the year.”
He started in right field the first two games in Milwaukee and said he expects Maddon to keep moving him and Baez around.
“If it does ever stay longer than a couple months,” Zobrist said, “then I need to go see if he’s OK.”