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NL reset: Baez, Greinke, West race

@matthewhleach
April 27, 2019

Let’s say you’ve got a shortstop. This shortstop is hitting at an MVP level. He’s playing shortstop at a Gold Glove level. He came up through the Minors as a shortstop with a sterling defensive reputation. Let’s then say that you have multiple other players who can handle second base,

Let’s say you’ve got a shortstop. This shortstop is hitting at an MVP level. He’s playing shortstop at a Gold Glove level. He came up through the Minors as a shortstop with a sterling defensive reputation.

Let’s then say that you have multiple other players who can handle second base, and who offer nicely complementary offensive skills to one another.

Are you sure you’d want to mess with that?

One of the most eye-opening performances of the young season has been Javier Baez’s strong defensive showing at shortstop in the absence of Addison Russell, who is serving a suspension for violating MLB’s Domestic Violence Policy. By the numbers and by the eye test, Baez has been brilliant. He entered Friday with +5 defensive runs saved, tied for the best mark of any shortstop in baseball.

There’s really no reason to think it’s a fluke, given that Baez has all the tools, has been an exemplary defensive second baseman, and again was a shortstop in the Minors. Maybe he’s not this good at short, but it’s no stretch to play him there. And he’s also hitting at an even higher level than he did last year, when he was a finalist for National League MVP Award honors.

Meanwhile, the Cubs’ second-base mix has worked well also. Daniel Descalso, David Bote and Ben Zobrist have combined to be perfectly adequate, if not outstanding, at the keystone. Their combined offensive output has been solid, middle of the pack.

So while one option certainly would be to reinstall Russell at shortstop and move Baez back to second base next week, the other possibility becomes more and more appealing. The Cubs are apparently considering moving Russell to more of a utility role and leaving Baez at shortstop.

The benefits seem obvious. You keep your best player in a spot where he’s thriving. You add to the diversity of options at shortstop. You add a capable utility infielder who’s a legitimate shortstop.

It’s not an automatic, to be sure. But Baez’s performance in the field and at the plate over the past month has provided options that might not have seemed so viable just a month ago.

Player of the week: You’ve almost certainly read about Zack Greinke’s hitting exploits. Weirdly, what’s not getting as much attention is his, you know, pitching. Since a brutal first outing, Greinke has been untouchable. His seven shutout innings on Thursday only continued a run during which he’s basically pitched like Max Scherzer.

Over Greinke’s past five starts, he’s amassed 36 strikeouts against five walks in 32 2/3 innings. He has a 2.20 ERA in that span and has thrown 66 percent of his pitches for strikes. His season ERA remains misleadingly high because of that rough debut, but Greinke right now is as good as any pitcher in the NL.

Race of the week: If you’d been asked to name the least interesting NL division race going into the season, you almost certainly would have had to say the West. You’d have had to. And as recently as a week ago, it was still an easy call. At the end of April 19, the Dodgers appeared to be firmly in control, a 2 1/2-game lead that felt bigger due to run differential and a win streak.

It’s gotten more intriguing this week. A so-so week by the leaders, combined with surges by Arizona and San Diego, means that three teams are separated by a game. Just as noteworthy, the consensus top contender before the season started, Colorado, has gotten its house in order. The Rox have won eight of 10 to pull within four games. We’ll know a lot more about Colorado in a week, by the way, after a trip to Atlanta and Milwaukee.

Looking ahead -- Series of the week: There are some good ones early and late next week. Sneaky good, like Rockies-Brewers, and juicy good, like Nats-Phillies. But there’s no reason at all to get cute. The weekend brings the first Cardinals-Cubs series of the year, and when both teams are in contention, that’s just as good as it gets. It gets started with a Friday afternoon game, and wraps up with Sunday under the lights.

Matthew Leach is an editor and reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Obviously, You're Not a Golfer and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewHLeach.