Javy Baez quietly entered a ballroom teeming with reporters Friday at the Cubs Convention. His eyes down and hidden behind dark sunglasses, he made straight for the deserted bar along the wall farthest from the hubbub and ordered a beer.
It was perfect. A big oaf of a reporter had Baez cornered.
The opening question: Who’s the best shortstop in baseball?
“Derek Jeter, man,” came Baez’s reply.
No, not ever. Right now.
“Oh, right now? It depends.”
“If I’m playing there, it’s me. If I’m playing short, I’m not going to say someone else is better than me.”
So there you have it: a declaration. Who’s better at shortstop than the man called “El Mago”? Nobody, the way he sees it.
We have to assume that includes Addison Russell.
What are the Cubs going to do with Russell if — and manager Joe Maddon emphasizes it’s a big “if” — he proceeds satisfactorily along the road back from a domestic-abuse suspension and rejoins the roster? Will he reclaim his role as the team’s No. 1 shortstop? Will Baez, perhaps the most jaw-dropping defensive talent on the planet, be relegated to second base with occasional appearances elsewhere in the infield?
“One of the big ‘ifs’ is just that Addison does the right things to get back here in the first place,” Maddon said. “And if he does that and everybody’s satisfied with that progress — him and us — then you give him the opportunity to become a shortstop again.”
There are those who will swear Baez is a better shortstop than Russell. They tend to be people who believe their eyes and ears more than what the slide rules in their pocket protectors tell them. It’s Baez out there — not Russell — driving fans wild with his athleticism and being lavished with near-constant praise by opposing players. Perhaps that means something?
Then again, most, if not all, metrics evaluations favor Russell. At least that’s what those who sleep with calculators under their pillows insist is the case. Maddon himself, all along, has preferred an infield with Russell at short and Baez at second.
There probably isn’t going to be any changing of minds on either side.
We already know which camp Baez is in, although he’s too team-oriented to say it directly. But he acknowledges that going into another season not knowing where he’ll line up on the field is “hard.” And he isn’t afraid to say that, in a perfect world, he’d be dirtying his uniform at short day after day for seven wonderful months.
It’s his favorite position, after all.
“The way that I play, I’m very hyper, so I think shortstop is the position where you’ve got to move more than the other positions,” he said. “If I had the opportunity to play shortstop, it would be great. If not, I would take second, obviously.”
But this is a superstar on a spectacular ascent and a man on a serious mission. Not only does he believe he’s the best shortstop in baseball, but he also is betting on himself to have — call it another declaration if you’d like — an even better season in 2019 than he had in 2018, when he established career highs across the board offensively, became a first-time All-Star and finished as runner-up to Brewers outfielder Christian Yelich for National League MVP.
“Oh, yeah. Yeah, for sure. I’m sure I can have a better year, for sure,” Baez said.
It’s almost enough to suspect he’s sure.
“If I control myself the whole year, and if I do my homework the whole year, I should have a better year,” he said.
And about that missed shot at the MVP? Baez — who took no issue whatsoever with losing out to Yelich — likes his chances to take the next step in that department, too.
“Oh, yeah,” he said. “For sure.”
If Baez is a broken record, at least he’s stuck on the best line of the song. Who could sound any more confident?
One thing that sticks in Baez’s craw is that he hasn’t been able to win a Gold Glove yet. He moves around so much that it has been just about impossible to win one.
“I just want to have the opportunity,” he said.
If it comes as a second baseman, so be it. If it comes as a shortstop, all the better.
It’s his favorite position, after all. The best shortstop in baseball — just ask him — isn’t about to pretend otherwise.