It was only three weeks ago that I wrote about the start of the season potentially being make-or-break time for Javier Baez, who had been sent to AAA to work out his issues at the plate. That appears more true now than ever, as the Cubs future infield may be very close to solidifying.
Heading into the season, there was a great deal of speculation as to who would end up playing where, particularly in regard to Kris Bryant. It was initially believed that Bryant’s position would be determined by performance, or lack thereof, by the incumbent players at left and third but it was injuries that eventually forced the Cubs’ hand.
While you never want to see someone get Wally Pipp-ed, that may be what seals Mike Olt’s fate on the North Side. He may be able to hang around as a corner-spot utility man, but it’s going to be difficult for him to earn back significant time even after he recovers from a fracture he suffered when he was hit by a pitch earlier in the season.
With Bryant now presumably entrenched at 3B, there’s one less spot on the infield for the remaining trio of Starlin Castro, Javier Baez, and Addison Russell, each of whom has been speculated at one point or another to be moved to the hot corner. Now comes word that Russell will be playing second, the spot Baez held in Chicago when he came up, more consistently at AAA Iowa.
As for Russell’s play, Patrick Mooney reports that Theo Epstein recently said that he’s impressed but that the team is no hurry to call up its next Next Big Thing.
“He hasn’t been at Triple-A all that long, but he’s playing great,” Epstein said. “He’s been having really good at-bats, using the whole field. He played outstanding at shortstop the first week of the season, made like four highlight plays.
“He’s going to continue to develop at Triple-A and we’ll see what happens,” team president Theo Epstein said. “But certainly the No. 1 thing we like to see in our players before they move up is dominating a level. And he’s off to a good start.”
“He’s probably going to continue to play second base through the weekend and we’ll see how that goes. But we’ve had a lot of injuries in the infield. We’ve had to shuffle some things.”
I don’t think I’m being too presumptive in assuming that the Cubs are giving Addison more run at 2B in preparation for his inevitable promotion to his namesake address. That seems to fly in the face of what many have believed from the start, which is that Russell would usurp Castro’s role, but nothing is set in stone.
To see one, one need look no further than the South Side, where stud pitcher Carlos Rodon has been called up to serve in a bullpen role. But with a suspect back end of the rotation, he’s not expected to stick there long; in fact, Phil Rogers believes a move could occur as early as the first week in May.
It’s said that if you stick a frog in a pot of water and then slowly turn the heat up, the amphibian won’t notice the increasing heat. The Cubs and Sox may believe the same holds true for their young prospects, who can be brought along in lower-leverage roles as they break into the Bigs for the first time.
In Russell’s case, he’d not only be tasked with taking over one of the most coveted and dissected positions in baseball, but would be doing so in a city and for a team that always has a couple extra magnifying glasses handy. Not to mention he’d be displacing a 3-time All-Star who is already a top-five offensive player at the position.
It appears at this point as though we’ll see Addison Russell as the starting second baseman in Chicago, maybe sooner than later if Brett Taylor’s hunch is correct. Iowa manager Marty Pevey certainly seemed to indicate as much when he spoke with the Des Moines Register’s Tommy Birch on Saturday.
“He’ll be a full-time second baseman right now but he’s a big-league shortstop.”
So now we are left with the very real possibility that the Cubs’ lineup will feature Bryant at 3B, Castro at SS, and Russell at 2B as early as May, or perhaps June at the latest. Doesn’t seem there’s a lot of room left for the big-swinging Baez, whose return following the death of his sister is still unknown.
I don’t want to speculate on Baez’s emotional state at this point, but can say that tragedy and other difficult circumstances have the ability to push people, athlete’s in particular, one way or the other. They can galvanize and fortify one’s desire and drive, or they can have the opposite affect by sort of taking the world out of focus.
It is my sincere hope that Javy takes the time he needs to grieve and to be with his family, and also that he’s able to return to baseball and to perform as we know he can. And that’s got nothing to do with the Cubs’ success, but with his own well-being.
Regardless, he may now be facing an uphill battle to make a return to Chicago, at least as a member of the Cubs. As BP Wrigleyville’s Jeff Lamb pointed out a while back, there remains the possibility that Castro would be traded at season’s end. That really only seems like an option, however, if Baez has indeed returned to form.
I’ve been banging the world’s largest Starlin Castro drum since his debut, so you may want to heavily salt my words even before chewing them over here, but I don’t see a Cubs future with Javy Baez in it at this point. As Brian O’Donnell pointed out in today’s Rundown, Castro is a hit machine who seems tailor-made to excel in this revamped lineup.
If Russell truly is as good as advertised and he and Castro are able to coexist in the middle infield in one iteration or the other, there simply won’t be room left over. And even if Baez does come around, there’s a very real possibility that his value to the Cubs is greater as a trade chip than as a part of the organization.
His ceiling may well be higher than either of the three other men discussed above, but the rub is that his floor is also lower. Much lower, as evidenced by his lackluster stats in a couple months in Chicago last season and then in Mesa this Spring.
Given all the other question marks they have, it seems unwise for the Cubs to move forward with someone who’s got that kind of boom-or-bust potential. Whoo, boy, that swing though. But if this was a game in which potential and big swings ruled, Wily Mo Peña would have been a Hall of Famer.
In closing, to boil this all down to just a few words: Addison Russell will be here soon, Starlin Castro should stay with the team at either SS or 2B, and Javier Baez ends up the odd man out despite his massive reservoir of talent and potential.
And what’s more, we need someone with a little more cachet than DJ LeMahieu for fans to point to as a guy the Cubs never should have traded away.