Baseball / Sports

Javier Baez's versatility boosts Cubs' options

Javier Baez played catcher on his summer league team before his senior season at Arlington Country Day High School in Florida.

Theo Epstein won't go that far to address the lack of upper level depth at catcher, but the Cubs' president of baseball operations believes the stockpiling of shortstops can eventually strengthen the franchise at other positions.

"Shortstops and center fielders tend to be the best athletes on the field," said Epstein, one week after Baez moved from shortstop -- his natural position -- to second base, and infielder Arismendy Alcantara continued his major league audition in center field.

"And if you have athleticism, you tend to play longer, have more versatility and tend to adjust to different situations if you do more things on the baseball field."

In Epstein's mind, he'd rather have too many shortstops than left fielders or first basemen, with history supporting his case. Former Gold Glove shortstop Robin Yount moved to the outfield in 1985 and won the American League most valuable player award in 1989.

With sure-handed Zack Cozart at shortstop, the Reds moved Billy Hamilton to center field in the Arizona Fall League in 2012, and the shift already has paid off with Hamilton using his legs to make several spectacular catches the season.

Even Shawon Dunston, a former Cub who played 13 seasons at shortstop, prolonged his career by five more seasons by expanding his versatility to the outfield and second base.

Epstein, however, is thinking bigger with Baez and newly acquired Addison Russell (currently at Double-A Tennessee) potentially forming a formidable starting eight.

"We want the most impact we can find," Epstein said. "We're going to find a way to put the most impactful players on the field at the same time."

Baez's move to second isn't permanent yet, but manager Rick Renteria worked with Baez on the nuances of playing there in spring training, and minor league infield coordinator Jose Flores has spent time with Baez and Alcantara on their new positions this season.

The wild card in this grand scheme could be Russell, 20, who could necessitate a shift to third base for Starlin Castro if Russell fulfills the expectations the Cubs held for him after acquiring him from the A's in the Jeff Samardzija trade.

"(Russell) has quick hands," Emilio Bonifacio said during his brief rehab assignment at Tennessee. "He gets the ball quicker to second than you realize. He can make the deep throw (to first), too."

There's also the possibility that the Cubs could trade one of their shortstops, but they currently are invested in exploring their versatility now. That will take some time. Renteria has spoke often the intricacies of double play pivots, when a second baseman must know the runner and his speed while bearing down on him while trying to catch and make the relay throw to first.

"It took me about a year to feel comfortable," Gordon Beckham of the White Sox said about his move from the left side of the infield to second base. It's all about the work and establishing a routine and repetition."

Beckham, 27, played shortstop his entire baseball career until his final week at Triple-A Charlotte in 2009 prior to his promotion to the Sox, where he played third base for the final four months before moving to second the following season.

"If you play shortstop, you should have the footwork to play second and the arm to play third," Beckham said. "Third base was easier because you can step and dive. At second, you're involved in more plays. And that double play pivot is important."

The stockpiling of shortstops could lead the Cubs to moving one of them to help land a frontline pitching prospect. But for now, they're committed to looking at their best athletes at other positions.

"Athleticism allows you to do a lot of different things to help you win baseball games, including playing different positions," Epstein said.

(c)2014 Chicago Tribune

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