PHOENIX — Cubs fans tired of hearing about the future — and maybe feeling a little loopy on St. Patrick’s Day — finally got their wish: Javier Baez played second base in a Cactus League game.
That passes for major news in Camp Renteria, where manager Rick downplayed the idea this means Baez is getting closer to Wrigley Field. Baseball America’s No. 5 overall prospect passed an initial test during Monday’s 6-2 loss to the Oakland A’s at Phoenix Municipal Stadium.
Baez caught a pop-up in the second, fielded a groundball cleanly in the third and executed a nice inning-ending double play in the fifth with Darwin Barney, the Gold Glove second baseman pushed to shortstop during this experiment. Baez tracked a hard-hit ball up the middle, went across the bag and made a long throw to first base, showing the natural instincts Cubs officials talk about.
Nervous? Baez? The kid got the Major League Baseball logo tattooed onto the back of his neck.
“Nah, not really,” he said. “I’m just ready for anything.”
The Cubs have already made a $60 million investment in Starlin Castro, the All-Star shortstop coming off a down season and still recovering from a strained hamstring.
“I know it’s a big story because of Starlin and ‘Does this mean something?’ and all that,” said Jason McLeod, the vice president of scouting and player development. “We certainly understand that. But as far as him doing the job on the field, I think it’s going to be relatively smooth, whether it’s just for today or getting there a couple days this week before he comes back down (to minor-league camp), which I think will happen.”
That sounds as if there’s some wiggle room, but the plan hasn’t changed since camp opened last month. Baez, 21, is ticketed for Des Moines and some seasoning at the Triple-A level.
“He’s still scheduled to be our Opening Day shortstop in Iowa,” McLeod said before laughing a little bit. “I’m glad that he’s played so well that it has a lot of people questioning if that’s going to be the case still.”
The crowd of 6,099 included New York Yankees special assistant Jim Hendry sitting with the scouts behind home plate. The Baez camp had taken the former Cubs general manager right up to the Aug. 15 signing deadline in 2011. Up in his box at Houston’s Minute Maid Park, where the Cubs played the Astros that night, Hendry closed the $2.65 million deal with around 10 minutes to go, about three weeks after chairman Tom Ricketts called a secret meeting and told him he would be fired.
Baez had starred at Arlington Country Day, a private school in Jacksonville that wasn’t part of the Florida High School Athletic Association, forcing the baseball team to barnstorm all over the Southeast. The future first-round pick was tough enough and athletic enough to play second base, shortstop, center field, even catcher.
If you can play shortstop, you can play anywhere?
“Pretty much,” Baez said.
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Baez flipped his bat over his shoulder after striking out looking with two runners on to end the first inning. In the fourth, he lined a single into left field and tossed off his helmet after getting thrown out trying to steal second base.
After putting up 37 homers and 111 RBIs in the minors last season, Baez has homered three times this spring and broken car windows during batting practice at Cubs Park.
“It just simply makes sense for us to be able to move him around,” Renteria said. “Hopefully, before the spring’s out, we’ll see him at third base, too. We’ll give him a couple starts back-to-back at second base and then we’ll go from there.”
No big deal, except for the manager and most of the Cubs beat corps making the short trip to Phoenix, leaving behind another split-squad game in Mesa that would be broadcast on TV back home in Chicago and feature $52 million pitcher Edwin Jackson.
Baez Watch is on, with veteran players wanting the Cubs to bring their best 25 and the center of attention impressing everyone with the way he’s handled the hype. No shortstop controversy to see here.
“It’s just if somebody gets hurt and I’m playing good, I can come up and play another position if I have to,” Baez said. “I’m just trying to get there and be in the lineup.”