PITTSBURGH – When Javier Baez made his splashy debut in August 2014, it symbolized how much the Cubs wanted to sell the future and change the conversation after another selloff at the trade deadline.
But it also makes a statement when Javy Being Javy starts to live up to the hype – and create a highlight reel – only as a role player. That’s one takeaway from the defensive clinic Baez put on at third base during this three-game sweep of the Pittsburgh Pirates that ended with Wednesday’s 6-2 win at PNC Park.
“It’s a crazy situation here with the talent we have,” pitcher Jake Arrieta said, “and Javy at times being overlooked and not necessarily in the starting lineup every day. To have a guy like that with probably some of the best hands in all of baseball off the bench (is) a luxury that we’re happy to have. He’s a special talent.”
A natural shortstop, Baez has a unique ability to read the ball off the bat, but he’s also realized the value of sitting back and waiting at third base. Baez writes and eats left-handed and uses that as his dominant side, which helps him get into such an easy defensive flow. Even more than Addison Russell, Baez has the classic, big arm you’re looking for in a prototypical shortstop.
“You’re crazy,” Arrieta told Baez on Tuesday night after watching the third baseman react to a John Jaso check swing in the sixth inning, charging to the edge of the infield grass, grabbing the ball with his bare hand and making a fluid throw to first base for the out.
Baez made it look easy again in the seventh inning, going to his backhand on a David Freese chopper up the third-base line, planting his right foot on the edge of the outfield grass and unleashing a laser throw to first base.
Baez got Freese again in the ninth inning, making a charging backhanded play look routine and reinforcing why manager Joe Maddon sees him as such a weapon.
“You can actually say without stretching things way too far that he’s one of the best infielders in the National League – and he doesn’t start,” Maddon said. “Just purely as a defensive, groundball, infield-acumen kind of player, he’s one of the best in the league right now. Period.
“So we just got to find an opportunity for him. His bat continues to make progress. I absolutely feel great when he’s out there on defense, because he can really impact a game in a positive way.”
With a 3-for-5, two-RBI afternoon on Wednesday, Baez pushed his average to .341, showing that he’s not the same all-or-nothing hitter who struck out 95 times and put up nine homers in 52 games in 2014.
“When I got called up, I was hot with the bat, but I knew it wasn’t me,” Baez said. “It wasn’t my swing. I’m finally feeling really good at the plate and hopefully we can keep it going.”
Whether that means bumping Kris Bryant to the outfield more often or becoming that Ben Zobrist super-utility guy or filling in for the next injured player, right now it looks like the Cubs made the right choice in holding onto Baez and not packaging him in a deal for a pitcher.
“You have not only a guy that can play the hell out of some infield,” pitcher Jon Lester said, “but he also gives you another guy at the bottom end of that lineup that has some thump. You make a mistake and this guy can take you back.”
Credit Baez for making those adjustments at the plate, smoothing out some of his rougher edges and realizing that for now this is his path to sticking in The Show.
“I’ve been showing how much I’ve been growing up and my discipline at the plate,” Baez said. “My mind is all over the place with the positions, but I don’t have any problems playing it. I think I’m doing a pretty good job playing defense.”
The Cubs take on the Washington Nationals on Thursday night, and you can catch all the action on Comcast SportsNet. Coverage begins with first pitch with Len Kasper and Jim Deshaies at 7:05 p.m.
Be sure to stick around after the final out to get analysis and player reaction on Cubs Postgame Live.
Today’s starting pitching matchup: Kyle Hendricks (1-2, 3.52) vs. Joe Ross (3-0, 0.79)
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He’s disappointed in the decision and hopes to pitch again, but John Danks said Wednesday he understands why the White Sox moved on.
Speaking from his home in Nashville, Tenn., Danks said he would stay in pitching shape in case any teams call after his departure from the White Sox is finalized. The team’s longest-tenured player, Danks will officially be designated for assignment on Thursday, the White Sox announced on Tuesday. Danks said he began to believe his run with the club might be over after he lost on Thursday night in Baltimore, which dropped his record in four starts to 0-4 with a 7.25 ERA.
“I can’t fault anybody with the decision they made,” Danks said. “It’s a win-now league and I wasn’t helping the team win.
“The team is hot, the team is playing well. That’s obvious and you can’t go out there with four-fifths of a rotation, I totally understand that. It all starts with starting pitching, we’ve been told that since we were young. In order to win this thing, you have to have five starters giving you a shot every night out. Unfortunately, I wasn’t doing that in April.”
A member of the team since 2007 and in the final season of a five-year contract, Danks entered 2016 with the expectation he’d receive more than four starts before the White Sox cut him.
But Danks also expected more of himself.
He commanded his fastball and consistently hit 90 mph on the radar gun this spring, developments that had the White Sox cautiously optimistic Danks would regain some of the form that made him successful early in his career.
Yet Danks never once had an easy outing after the season began. Even in his best start on April 21, Danks worked around five hits and five walks to hold the Los Angeles Angels to two runs in six innings. After his loss Thursday, Danks said he felt he was in the way of something special in the White Sox clubhouse, which has thrived off energy and chemistry so far.
Danks said leaving his teammates was difficult. Chris Sale convinced him to stop by the clubhouse early Tuesday to say goodbye.
“I would say that was probably the hardest part,” Danks said. “Went in and hugged guys that were in there yesterday. We are having fun. Those guys are a blast to be around. It’s always more fun to win. Just the energy that gets brought in every day and the camaraderie and the trust in each other. You can see that on the field. Guys are willing to give themselves up for the better of the team.
“They do that because the other guy behind them does the same thing. It’s been a great month aside from four starts. I wish those guys nothing but the best. I’m a Sox fan for sure.”
Danks looks back fondly on his White Sox tenure, even if the four seasons after shoulder surgery didn’t go as planned. Though the results weren’t what he wanted, Danks is satisfied with his effort level. He also loves that he got to spend nine seasons living “in a badass city.”
But at 31, Danks isn’t quite ready to call it a career.
“I don't have any regrets, I worked as hard as I know how to and did my very best every time out and that's really all I could promise,” Danks said. “Certainly still is a desire to play. Now it's up to someone wanting me or not.
“I grew up there. Showed up as a baby, I was 21 years old when I made my first start and left as a 31-year-old man. I got to play with a lot of awesome teammates that have become lifelong friends now. Met a lot of people in a great organization. I don't know, I hadn't thought of my whole time just yet. I certainly had a lot of good times, some tough times, some struggles, but all in all I got to live a dream. Got to play a game, and yeah, I'm a very blessed man, no doubt.”