CHICAGO — If there wasn’t enough riding on the shoulders of Chicago Cubs MVP candidate Javier Baez before, then there is now, as he’ll take over the full-time shortstop duties while teammate Addison Russell is on administrative leave after he was accused of domestic violence by his ex-wife.
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Baez has played the position on and off this season while Russell was injured, but with the Cubs in a tight division race, the team is counting on the 25-year-old even more. Is there any doubt he’s up for the task?
“We’re kind of lucky that Javy is able to do that as well as he does,” manager Joe Maddon said before the Cubs 8-3 win over the Chicago White Sox on Saturday. “He might be the best overall shortstop in the league right now, if you want to grade it out. He’s a top-three, top-five shortstop in all of baseball, even if he hasn’t played there a lot.”
That’s lofty praise, which would sound crazy about any other player. How can you call someone who started the season at second base one of the best shortstops as well? In fact, Baez has also played some third base as his MVP candidacy will depend in part on voters recognizing how well he has played all three positions.
Of course those same voters will notice his bat. He hit his 34th home run on Saturday to help plate three RBIs, giving him 110 on the season. So think about it. The Cubs best offensive player is now playing the most important position, without the roster providing much help behind him there. The Cubs called up Triple-A shortstop Mike Freeman — who was working out at Clemson — after getting the news that Russell was being placed on administrative leave. But it’s not like Freeman is going see the field much. This is Baez’s time to shine at shortstop.
“At this time of the year, with a lot riding on everything, you find that energy,” Maddon said of potentially playing Baez every inning the rest of the way.
Baez added: “I just have to get my arm used to playing short every day again.”
The absence of Russell changes the dynamic for Maddon on defense but not in a dramatic way. You can thank rookie upstart David Bote for that, as his defense at third and second isn’t far below what Russell and Baez provide.
“Without Addison it does present differently at the latter part of the game,” Maddon admitted. “(But) you don’t think twice when you put Javy’s name at shortstop.”
On Saturday, Bote started at third base then later in the game took over for Daniel Murphy at second while Kris Bryant came in from the outfield to play third. When Russell was around, Maddon would simply have Baez at second and Russell at short. The new infield look Maddon has been forced to use isn’t all that bad. Bote provides little drop off . “He’s a very good second baseman,” Maddon said of Bote. “We’ve seen him mostly at third. When we left camp I was told he was an outstanding second baseman.
“Addison is still one of the premier shortstops in the game and when you can put Javy there (second) and put Bote at third you like that too. But Bote at second, alongside Javy, I’ll take it.”
All of this works because Baez is simply so good at the game of baseball. After hitting his home run in the first inning on Saturday, he made an error on a long throw from the hole at short but then a few moments later fired a strike to first from the same spot.
“It was a dumb error,” Baez said. “I had time to get my feet set and I didn’t.”
You might excuse him since he has basically carried the Cubs for most of the season and now he’ll have to do it at shortstop without much of a break the rest of the way. Of course, the sooner the Cubs clinch, the sooner he can get off his feet. After Saturday’s win, they lead the Milwaukee Brewers by 2.5 games.
“They have to pay attention to us, not us to them,” Baez said. “If we do that we should be good.”
And Baez should be good for more than a few MVP votes. As much as the Cubs and Brewers are battling for top honors, two of their stars are doing the same. Baez and Christian Yelich have exchanged MVP blows all month. The division and the award are coming down to the final week. We know who the Cubs are backing.
“When you add multiple positions to a guy, I think that changes my vote for sure,” Saturday’s winning pitcher Jon Lester said. “Javy has been big for us.”