Baez forcing Cubs to consider their options
For two years, the Cubs' position on Javier Baez was quite clear.
Actually, it was his position -- shortstop -- that was indisputable.
Over and over again, the Cubs said Baez was a shortstop, is a shortstop and would be a shortstop. No discussion.
Consider that a year ago, Theo Epstein smiled when it was suggested Baez would be moved to third, saying, "That seems to be a common theme. You just haven't heard anyone in our organization say that because we haven't thought in those terms."
And there was scouting director Jason McLeod, who said, "It would be a phenomenal problem to have if he gets to the big leagues and is ready to play shortstop. There's incredible value there in both players."
The players being Starlin Castro and Baez.
"There's absolutely no doubt in my mind right now that Javy can play shortstop at the major-league level," McLeod said last year. "This kid can make every single play you need to make at shortstop at the big-league level.
"He can go to his left, he can go to his right, and he has the arm to make any play. He has the quickness.
"The reason people think he's not a shortstop is we have a shortstop. They see the big-body type (6-0, 200) and they automatically think he's a third baseman or another position. There have been a lot of guys his size who have played the position well defensively."
That was then, but now that Baez is on the verge of reaching Chicago, the Cubs say he will start the season playing shortstop at Iowa (AAA) and will also spend time in spring training and in Des Moines working at the other infield positions.
So what's changed?
Baez has moved so fast through the system that the Cubs haven't had a chance to make up their minds on Castro, who remains a talented enigma. And though Castro seems never to be an Epstein-type player, the Cubs are choosing to wait as long as they can before making a decision.
They just didn't expect to be in this spot already. They say all the right things about Castro, not wanting to hurt his feelings or his trade value, but the truth is they have no clue what to expect this year from a player who will be only 24 in March and has six years remaining on a $60 million deal.
They don't know if he will ever live up to his promise or that extension, but they do know his contract would not preclude a trade if they ultimately decide that Baez should be at short and Castro should be in another city.
In the meantime, Castro stays put and Baez experiments at new positions.
"He's still a shortstop, but we're gonna move him around during spring training and at Iowa. He'll see some time at third base and second base," Cubs GM Jed Hoyer said over the weekend. "You can never have too many center fielders or too many shortstops. If we have two great shortstops on our team, that's a good problem to have.
"But we will move him around, anticipating his arrival and trying to think about where we can fit him in."
As for Castro, the Cubs have myriad excuses to explain his 2013 season, from Dale Sveum to Castro's lifestyle, diet and workout regime.
Publicly, they say they believe in Castro. Privately, you hear differing opinions, ranging from the belief that he will be a star to wondering how well he needs to play in order for them to trade him.
"We gave Starlin a big contract. We're still really optimistic about his future," Hoyer said. "He had two really good years in the big leagues, a good year, and a year he'd probably like to have back.
"I think he can bounce back and have a really good year and a really good future. We're still every bit as high on Starlin as we have been.
"If Javy gets to the big leagues, then we'll find a place for Javy to play. That's a really good problem to have and not one we're really thinking about much right now other than making sure Javy can play other positions."
It is not in the Cubs' best interests to reveal what their plans are for two valued assets, especially if their belief is that Castro will be dealt at some point, and this Cubs regime is always careful about protecting information if it's to their benefit.
But the truth is they don't know yet. Baez isn't here and Castro hasn't forced them to a decision.
That day, however, is not far off. It's coming this summer to a ballpark near you.
•Hear Barry Rozner on WSCR 670-AM and follow him @BarryRozner on Twitter.