It was probably nothing, a few slips of the tongue, but these are the Cubs and we’d look for meaning in a pebble if it were a Wrigley Field pebble and Joe Maddon had stepped on it.
Reporters were asking the Cubs manager about Javy Baez, who had left Sunday’s game not long after his face had made the acquaintance of the left knee of Braves second baseman Ozzie Albies.
“He’s pretty important,” Maddon said. “He’s been playing so well. You can feel the difference, obviously [when he came out of the game]. Hopefully, it’ll be minor and he’ll be back [Monday] and we won’t have to [worry] over all of it. He’s very important to us right now, I cannot deny that.”
It’s very possible Maddon was paying his shortstop the highest compliment, but those of us who think Baez has never quite gotten his due from the organization are always on high alert for perceived slights. We heard a certain reluctance in Maddon’s comments. A holding back. Baez is “pretty important.’’ Then, “he’s very important to us’’ but with the qualifying “right now.’’ Finally, Maddon “cannot deny’’ Baez’s importance, as if he wanted to but couldn’t.
Am I reading something that isn’t there? Quite likely.
But Javy Baez is great, and I wish someone would say it without a hint of qualification. I wish someone in charge would scream it. He should be the Cubs shortstop for the next 10 years. Whenever incumbent Addison Russell comes back from the foot injury that has kept him out since early August, Maddon should escort him to the spot where second basemen stand.
Making such a statement used to be heresy, and whenever I delivered it, -going back to last season, I had to dig my way out of a mountain of nasty tweets and emails. But I believe that more and more Cubs fans are with me now, having seen the ridiculously athletic plays Baez has made at short, plays that only a handful of humans can make. He can still be feast or famine at the plate, but he’s hitting .271 with 21 home runs and 67 runs batted in. He was available off the bench Monday in Pittsburgh, the blurred vision from the collision with Albies apparently gone.
I’ve always had the feeling that the Cubs’ decision-makers compliment Baez with Russell in mind, as if they don’t want people to misunderstand the pecking order, as if they don’t want Russell to be offended. That’s how a player becomes pretty important on first reference instead of important.
The Cubs acquired Russell in a 2014 trade that looked like the steal of the century, any century. They sent Jeff Samardzija to Oakland for a bright-eyed kid who played the game right and figured to be a fixture at short for a decade-plus. They loved Russell. They loved the idea of him. They won a World Series with him at short.
Baez, on the other hand, was the product of a former Cubs regime, and he was less polished, at least at first. Give president Theo Epstein credit. Other executives might have sent Baez away for not being one of their own.
But the way for Epstein to really let go is to declare the obvious, that the 24-year-old Baez is the better -shortstop and that the team would be better off with Russell, 23, at second. Surely Epstein’s keen baseball mind is telling him that.
Ah, but this is where it gets tricky. It would cause problems for Maddon, who loves to use second base as a turnstile to give more players at-bats. Baez knows that only too well. Until Russell’s injury, he has been a potential Gold Glover without a permanent position because of Maddon’s insistence on mixing and matching.
Russell has never been inside Maddon’s blender. He has had most-favored-nation status since he arrived in the big leagues in 2015. He has played shortstop exclusively the last two seasons.
He shouldn’t be above being one of Maddon’s flexible-lineup game pieces. Baez, on the other hand, deserves a stable home. Think of how good he’d be if he were able to concentrate on playing shortstop exclusively.
The Russell vs. Baez discussion doesn’t seem all that heated anymore. It seems to be answered.
It took the Cubs forever to admit the obvious, that Kyle Schwarber needed to go to the minors to work on his swing after a horrible first three months to the season. It’s human nature to have favorites. Schwarber is one of them for the Cubs, and Russell is another. But this is the big leagues, a “meritocracy,’’ as Epstein calls it, where production and results are the ultimate judge.
The judge spoke a long time ago about the Cubs’ shortstop position. Is the team listening?
Follow me on Twitter@MorrisseyCST.