One of the byproducts of Addison Russell’s domestic-violence mess is that Javy Baez will be the Cubs’ starting shortstop while Russell is suspended.
If Baez plays up to his ability and there is a baseball god, he’ll keep the job after Russell serves the final 28 games of the 40-game punishment Major League Baseball handed him last year.
That hope has nothing to do with Russell’s off-field problems, though there are plenty of us who think he never should play another game in a Cubs uniform.
It has everything to do with the fact that whenever Baez runs onto the field to play shortstop, the Cubs automatically have one of the best shortstops in the majors.
It means that, for at least 28 games, a baseball wrong will have been righted.
Everything about Baez says ‘‘shortstop.’’ His strong arm. His wide range. His exciting style. He’s an excellent second baseman and a master at putting down a tag. But second base is second fiddle. Anybody who has played baseball knows this. The best infielders play shortstop.
Why Baez hasn’t been the Cubs’ regular starter there remains a head-shaker, especially because of the team’s emphasis on excellence.
Some of it has to do with Russell’s early reputation as a can’t-miss prospect. In 2014, the Cubs traded pitchers Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel to the Athletics for the then-20-year-old shortstop. Almost from the moment the trade was consummated, the Cubs wrote Russell’s name in indelible ink at short and were sure it wouldn’t be rubbed out for the next 10 to 12 years. He had been a first-round pick two years earlier, he was talented, he was dedicated and he was fresh-faced. This was a shortstop a manager would want to take home to meet the parents.
Baez was rougher, a serrated knife to Russell’s more honed razor edge. It took him longer to find himself. The skills were there, but they needed work. As a rookie in 2014, he was a tornado who swung from his heels and often looked bad doing it. But when he was allowed to play shortstop in the next few years, he was often spectacular. He could run down pop flies that were intent on being left alone. The talent was indisputable. But every time the Cubs sent him out to second base, that talent was being disputed.
There also has been stubbornness on the Cubs’ part when it comes to Russell and Baez. No one is going to tell manager Joe Maddon who should play where, even if the obvious won’t stop staring at him.
For all the good things Baez has done in his five seasons with the team, I feel deprived when I consider his career to date. Last season, he appeared at second base in 104 games, shortstop in 65 games, third base in 22 games and first base in one. How good would he be if he could be an every-day shortstop?
Even with all the positional restlessness, he finished second in National League Most Valuable Player voting last season after hitting .290 with 34 home runs and 111 RBI. No one knows if he’s the kind of person who finds comfort in the familiar. And no one knows if the familiar would lead to even better results at the plate. But what if it did? Everybody would win.
I don’t mean to pile on Russell, who’s going through counseling as part of his suspension. But this switch should have been made a long time ago, simply out of fairness. Baez is a Gold Glove shortstop waiting to happen. Russell has been a fine shortstop. If he’s still with the team when his suspension ends, he can play second base. And the Cubs will be better for it.
The Cubs open their season March 28 against the Rangers in Arlington, Texas. Barring some unforeseen development, Baez will be anchoring the infield at shortstop. And that anchor should weigh a ton. He shouldn’t be moved anywhere, no matter when Russell returns to action.
This situation doesn’t exactly evoke Wally Pipp, who missed a game in 1925 because of a headache, not because he mistreated his ex-wife, as Russell did his. And Baez isn’t Lou Gehrig, who took advantage of Pipp’s absence to start a streak of 2,130 consecutive games played for the Yankees.
But Baez should have the opportunity to be the Cubs’ Iron Horse at shortstop. He earned it — about three years ago.