Starlin Castro's injury puts Javier Baez in the spotlight

Starlin Castro's injury puts Javier Baez in the spotlight
March 2, 2014, 7:45 pm
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MESA, Ariz. — Just because all the Cubs fans back home will be wondering: If Starlin Castro goes down, when would you be ready to step in and contribute at Wrigley Field?

“No, he’s not down,” Javier Baez said. “I know he’s not down. He’s just taking it easy because it’s only spring training. He’s just trying to get ready for the season, and he’s going to take care of his body.”

Good answer. Castro downplayed his right hamstring strain after Sunday’s 5-3 loss to the Kansas City Royals at Cubs Park, predicting it won’t be long until he’s back in the lineup.

But this is what happens when a franchise underfunds the big-league product and bets everything on the prospects. The kids become the big story. Three games into the Cactus League schedule, Baez Watch has already begun.

[MORE: Dale Sveum: No regrets with Cubs or Starlin Castro]

Castro got hit by a pitch in the first inning and tried to steal second base. He got a good jump but felt something as he slid headfirst. He got thrown out, left the game and Baez took over at shortstop in the second inning, going 2-for-3 with a double and a run scored.

“It’s not too bad,” Castro said. “You don’t want to take a chance. It’s early right now. You take a couple days to be right back again.”

Castro strained his left hamstring last year and missed about two weeks of game action, the slow start to a disappointing season. He reported to camp this spring looking rebuilt and refreshed after training at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., and working with Cubs strength and conditioning coordinator Tim Buss in the Dominican Republic. That’s what made this frustrating.

“It was a little bit tight, not anything bad,” Castro said. “Last year, I couldn’t walk. Now, I can walk normal.”

[RELATED: Cubs: Mike Olt wants a shot to win the third base job]

Baez used that time as a springboard for a monster season in the minor leagues, putting up 37 homers and 111 RBIs in 130 games at advanced Class-A Daytona and Double-A Tennessee last season. The 21-year-old kid who has been compared to Gary Sheffield, Miguel Cabrera and Giancarlo Stanton didn’t want to look at this as a chance to showcase his skills.

“There’s a lot of guys that play infield,” Baez said, “and they’re going to get the opportunity to play, too.”

But the noise will only get louder. It’s not just the Chicago media or Twitter speculation. Just listen to a clubhouse leader like Jeff Samardzija: “You got to come with all your bullets in the major leagues.”

Or face-of-the-franchise first baseman Anthony Rizzo: “There’s no reason to ever take your time in the minor leagues. It’s the worst place. Why would anyone want to take their time in the minor leagues? I don’t get that.”

The plan is for Baez to be the Opening Day shortstop at Triple-A Iowa. The hope is he forces the issue and makes it to Wrigley Field this summer. But Cubs fans are desperate for the next big thing.

“We need Castro,” Baez said. “I’m trying to learn from him.”