CHICAGO -- Can Javier Baez remain patient?That's one of the questions hanging over the Cubs as they prepare to defend the championship they won in spectacular fashion last November. As Joe Maddon puts together the pieces of a roster that is the deepest in the Major Leagues and once again
CHICAGO -- Can Javier Baez remain patient?
That's one of the questions hanging over the Cubs as they prepare to defend the championship they won in spectacular fashion last November. As Joe Maddon puts together the pieces of a roster that is the deepest in the Major Leagues and once again will include Kyle Schwarber, he must decide who gets the bulk of time at second base: Baez or Benjamin Zobrist?
Baez is a defensive wizard and, at age 24, potentially a star in the making. He received 450 plate appearances last season, and showed in the postseason he's ready for more. The knee-jerk reaction is it's time for a changing of the guard, Baez ahead of Zobrist, with the latter moving back into the utility role he became famous for.
But no matter how much fun it is to watch Baez turn hits into outs and make the quickest tags you've ever seen, he hasn't caught up to Zobrist in all-around value.
Zobrist said he wasn't even the best player on his high school team. That's hard to believe, but even if true, he's proof that baseball is about a whole lot more than physical gifts. It's clear he's mastered his game, and he has penchant for doing something vital, like delivering that double he slashed into left field in the 10th inning of Game 7 of the World Series vs. the Indians.
Over the past two postseasons with the Cubs and Royals, Zobrist has played in 33 games and had three fewer walks than strikeouts (14/17) while putting together a .343 on-base percentage and a .438 slugging percentage. And he has two rings, winning the World Series MVP Award with the Cubs. He's hit .314 in the last two Series, with seven extra-base hits and 10 runs scored in 12 games.
This isn't a guy who should be phased out, especially not by a team intent on repeating as champs. The Cubs were wise to sign him to a four-year deal before 2016, and if anything -- given that the Cubs have lost leadoff man William Fowler to free agency and traded outfielder Jorge Soler to the Royals for closer Wade Davis -- Zobrist could have a bigger role on a post-Fowler roster.
Schwarber could get a test drive as the leadoff man in Spring Training, in part because of how much Maddon likes slotting the switch-hitting Zobrist behind National League MVP Award winner Kristopher Bryant and Anthony Rizzo. Zobrist makes it hard to pitch around Rizzo (just ask the Indians, who walked Rizzo to get to him in that fateful 10th inning). But he might make more sense as the leadoff man.
Zobrist had a .386 on-base percentage last season, and while he's not as fast as Fowler, he's an excellent baserunner. He ran into only one out on the bases last season, earning a +20 rating by Bill James even though he was only 6-for-10 stealing bases. That mark was better than Fowler (+15) and way better than Baez (-2), who made nine outs on the bases.
Assuming Maddon wants to get Baez regular work at second and improve the club's outfield defense, Zobrist could get a couple starts a week in the corner-outfield spots, replacing Jason Heyward (and sometimes Schwarber) against left-handers. Schwarber's likely to be the designated hitter in the games in Boston, Baltimore, on the South Side of Chicago and in St. Petersburg, so that's 10 more games Maddon can play Baez at second and Zobrist in the outfield.
That only leaves a couple of games a week at second base for Baez, who might be the best defensive second baseman in the Majors. But instead of Zobrist moving back into a utility role, it should be Baez who does it. Baez could spend extended stretches at shortstop or third base if Addison Russell or Bryant landed on the disabled list. He could lock into second if Zobrist, Schwarber or Heyward were injured. Maybe he'll even get another look in center field if Albert Almora Jr. doesn't land a spot on the Opening Day roster.
Also look for Maddon to use defensive replacements more than most managers, lifting Schwarber and Zobrist late in games to get Baez into the action to help protect leads.
First-round Draft picks his age, with Baez's talent, almost always have a set spot in the lineup. But being open-minded and a good teammate for another season could benefit Baez as much as his presence benefits Maddon and the club.
Baez is far from a finished product. He's done a great job cutting down his strikeout rate (from 41.4 percent in 2014 to 24 last season) but had only 12 unintentional walks last season -- one every 37.5 trips to the plate.
As a result, Baez is going to be a bottom-of-the-order hitter until he does a better job working counts and taking walks. And with Zobrist perhaps now needed to man the leadoff spot -- and provide his wide range of subtle skills -- second base is still his to lose.
Phil Rogers is a columnist for MLB.com.