Four words, people: “Cubs shortstop Javy Baez.”
Get used to them.
Addison Russell is one step away from a return to the Cubs, his 40-game suspension (retroactive to Sept. 21) for violating Major League Baseball’s domestic-violence policy nearly behind him. The controversial infielder could be at Wrigley Field as soon as May 3 for a weekend series against the Cardinals, though precisely when his preparatory stint at Class AAA Iowa — where he reported this week after an extended spring training in Arizona — will end remains to be seen.
But whenever Russell, 25, re-emerges, he’ll have to get used to gazing at his old shortstop position — where he has played exclusively since moving over from second base to replace Starlin Castro midway through the 2015 season — and seeing it manned by Baez, 26, who continues to establish himself as one of the elite players in baseball.
Cubs manager Joe Maddon and team president Theo Epstein didn’t outright declare the position Baez’s before Thursday’s 2-1 loss to the Dodgers, but they came close enough.
“Addison is going to play some shortstop, and Addy’s also going to play second base,” Epstein said. “He’s also not back yet, so it’s a question for another day.
“But Javy is obviously right at the very center, along with some other position players, of everything good that we do. Risking interrupting that when we don’t have to would be a questionable move.”
Since the Cubs’ World Series win in 2016, a steady drumbeat of support for the electrifying Baez as a full-time shortstop has grown louder among fans and some in the media. But the Cubs — particularly Maddon — long maintained that the team’s snazziest look was with Russell, also an excellent defender, at short and Baez alongside him up the middle.
Baez isn’t always perfect. Take Thursday’s fifth inning, when — while looking Dodgers baserunner Alex Verdugo back to third base — he let Chris Taylor’s sharply hit ground ball go under his glove for a run-scoring error. Baez also was caught stealing earlier in the game, halting a rally.
But there’s no kidding anyone when it comes to this guy. For over a year, he has been the team’s best, and most valuable, player — and it hasn’t been a close call on either count.
And now the Cubs are coming around to the obvious, too.
“I think everyone recognizes how important he is as a central member of this team — the energy he provides, the things he can do on the field and the spirit with which he does them, and how important that is to all of us,” Epstein said.
Russell played only shortstop during spring training, which Maddon chalked up to getting him back “on his feet” while he was “going through a lot emotionally.” But just as Castro — then a three-time All-Star — was bumped off his spot by a rising star in the organization, Russell is getting his own taste of change.
One might more cleverly describe it as a taste of his own medicine. To be sure, Russell has brought much of this upon himself.
Epstein stressed that Russell has made earnest strides in his personal life and in his relationships inside the organization, including with leading players on the big-league club. It seems he’ll get another shot to join them — and soon — though his time as the Cubs’ mainstay at shortstop is over, or at least on indefinite hold.
“Just because he’s moving out of the complex in Arizona and going to Iowa doesn’t mean there’s a finish line, just like [getting] back to the Cubs doesn’t mean there’s a finish line,” Epstein said. “He’s responsible going forward for continuing to grow as a person and improve the relationships, and he has to continue to be committed to have a positive outcome.”