Chicago Cubs

Baez hopes to take over full-time second base duties

Aging Zobrist looks to bounce back after down season

Chicago Cubs' Javier Baez runs to the dugout during the second inning of a spring training baseball game against the Texas Rangers, Saturday, Feb. 24, 2018, in Mesa, Ariz. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)
Chicago Cubs' Javier Baez runs to the dugout during the second inning of a spring training baseball game against the Texas Rangers, Saturday, Feb. 24, 2018, in Mesa, Ariz. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

Could this be the year we witness an official changing of the guard, with Javy Baez taking over as the Cubs’ everyday second baseman?

The time seems right, and the conditions seem ripe.

It’s getting more difficult to keep Baez off the field, and he wasted no time showing why, making a pair of dazzling plays in one early spring game.

Baez has his eyes on a couple of prizes.

“Just to play, obviously hard,” he said. “Try to be healthy the whole year again. Try to get that Gold Glove I want because a lot of people know me because of my defense. I just want to get a Gold Glove.

“I played a lot last year. I had a lot of [at-bats], and I had a great year. We didn’t go as far, but just try to be a better team and try to win it [this] year.”

The 25-year-old is a force in the field, and he has played six positions in his young career. He seems to be getting there at the plate, as well. Last year, he put up a line of . 273/. 317/.480 with 23 homers and 75 RBIs. He also walked only 30 times, while piling up 144 strikeouts in 508 plate appearances.

The Cubs would love to see Baez develop more plate discipline and get his on-base percentage higher. His OBP in 2016 was . 314.

That will be a job for Baez and new hitting coach Chili Davis.

“He’s been great,” Baez said. “He speaks great Spanish. He’s not afraid to go to anyone and talk to them. He’s like [manager Joe Maddon]. Everything he says is positive.”

Last year, Baez played 80 games at second base and 73 at shortstop. If he has any competition for the second-base job, it comes from veteran Ben Zobrist, who saw action in 81 games at the position last year.

But Zobrist, the MVP of the 2016 World Series, turns 37 in May, and he was slowed early in spring training with a tight back. He was on the disabled list last year from June 13 to July 1 with left wrist inflammation, and his offensive production took a deep dive.

In 128 games, Zobrist had a line of . 232/. 318/. 375 with 12 homers and 50 RBIs. In 2016, his line was . 272/. 386/. 446 with 18 homers and 76 RBIs. Zobrist’s line-drive percentage was down 6 percent last year, and his OPS-plus dropped from 121 in 2016 to 79 last year.

Zobrist, like Baez, remains extremely versatile. In his career, he has played all of the infield and outfield positions.

It could be that his playing time significantly is reduced, but Maddon uses all of his players, and Zobrist could spell Baez at second base and fill in at each outfield position.

The stats site fangraphs.com can see it both ways.

“The beginning of the end of Ben Zobrist?” an author on the site wrote. “One of baseball’s most consistent, versatile, and durable players crumbled in 2017, casting long shadows on his future.

“Despite entering his age-37 season, Zobrist retains one of baseball’s most solid skill sets, with plus contact skills and plate discipline as well as modest power. Moreover, his ‘decline’ may have been fueled entirely by a balky wrist that bothered him prior to his mid-June disabled list stint … A healthy-wristed Zobrist could spit in Father Time’s face.”

Ian Happ started 28 games at second base last year as a rookie, but he is seeing most of his time in the outfield this spring.

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