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Short story: Javy Baez building case to stay at SS for Cubs when Russell returns

Baez last week in Miami.

Cubs manager Joe Maddon has made it clear since before spring training that he plans to return Addison Russell to the starting shortstop job if and when Russell is allowed to return from his 40-game suspension for domestic violence.

But with a May 3 return looking imminent and Javy Baez playing like a National League All-Star starter at short, could that decision be more fluid by the end of next week?

“That’s still a discussion we have to have,” Maddon said Wednesday night after another big game from Baez in the Cubs’ 7-6 victory over the Dodgers, which pushed their record to two games over .500 for the first time. “We have to wait and see how well Addison does. I don’t want to jump-the-gun-type of thing without discussing in detail with the players themselves.”

It’s not clear whether a discussion is more necessary with Baez or Russell, but one thing has become especially clear during the Cubs’ 9-2 surge the last two weeks: Baez is playing like a man determined to not only return to the All-Star Game but perhaps also force the Cubs to move Russell to second base.

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He hit home runs each of the last two nights, to right field and left, respectively. His three-run shot in the sixth inning Wednesday tied the game.

He also prevented perhaps five potential baserunners with sharp plays in the field, including a quick backhand pick in the hole in the sixth and a 90-plus-mph throw to first to get speedy Joc Pederson by a fraction of a step.

“He makes it look easy,” said veteran starting pitcher Cole Hamels, who walked a season-high six as he worked around a potent Dodgers lineup. He pitched into the sixth inning and left with a no-decision.

“I’ve been very fortunate to play with some very good shortstops that have won some MVPs and put up some pretty good careers,” added Hamels, who played with former MVP Jimmy Rollins in Philadelphia and two-time All-Star Elvis Andrus in Texas. “He’s right in line with those guys.”

Said Jason Heyward, who added a second three-run homer in the sixth: “You can’t read about Javy. You’ve got to watch him.”

Russell started a weeklong minor-league assignment Wednesday in preparation for his anticipated return, playing shortstop for Class AAA Iowa and going 1-for-4 with a walk.

<em>Rounding 3rd after Wednesday’s HR</em>.
Rounding 3rd after Wednesday’s HR.

Maddon has long preferred Russell’s “no chrome” consistency at the position to Baez’s often spectacular, less consistent athleticism. Baez has dramatically improved that part of his game and has the much bigger arm.

Between Maddon and some members of the front office, shortstop remains at least a debated topic.

“It’s a great problem to have,” he said.

Meanwhile, the least of the Cubs’ problems in their two-week bounce-back from a 2-7 start has been their starting rotation. It has a 1.67 ERA in those 11 games, with ace Jon Lester set to rejoin the group Thursday against the Dodgers in his return from a hamstring injury suffered in the home opener April  8. The Cubs announced the pending move Wednesday.

Hamels had won three consecutive starts before Wednesday’s no-decision. He averaged seven innings in those three starts, without allowing a walk in any of them.