As soon as Dexter Fowler turned down his qualifying offer from the Chicago Cubs to test the free agent market, a move that was expected, Theo Epstein began the search for a new center fielder on the North Side. While Epstein has said that there still has been some discussion with Fowler’s agent to bring him back, he must look at all options to be ready for the 2016 season.
The obvious number one choice would be to sign free agent Jason Heyward and move him to center, but nobody knows right now exactly how that’s going to play out. The 26-year-old is reportedly going to command between $150-200 million, and the Cubs have already shown that they’re not going to try and match teams that are dishing out the insane dollar amounts that we’ve seen this week. If that doesn’t work out, Theo Epstein may just have something else in mind.
The Puerto Rican Winter League got going this week, and Javier Baez is putting in some time with Santurce. He started his first game at second base, but seeing as the Cubs have somewhat of an overload in the middle infield at the big league level right now, Epstein wants him to spend some time playing in center field, and has sent Minor League instructor Doug Dascenzo down to practice with Baez before he makes a start in the outfield. Epstein seems excited about the move.
“It will add to his versatility and it makes sense to do it at a moment in time when we have a bit of a hole in center field — it makes sense to see how Javy looks out there, ” Epstein said. “He’s someone who’s always enjoyed taking fly balls during batting practice in center field, shagging out there, and has always looked good doing so.”
It’s been a roller coaster ride for Baez since he was first called up to the Cubs in 2014 after three years in the minors. He played 52 games for Chicago that season, but hit a dismal .169 and struck out 95 times. He started 2015 at Triple-A Iowa, and after missing the first month of the season due to his sister’s death combined with a broken finger, he played extremely well upon his return. In 70 games, he hit .324 with 13 home runs and 61 runs batted in before being called back to the Cubs for the final stretch of the regular season. In 28 games, he hit .289 with a home run, and stepped in nicely in the playoffs when Addison Russell went down with an injury. Who can forget this bomb in Game 4 of the NLDS against the Cardinals and well….actually, his new teammate, John Lackey.
We know that the bat is going to be there on a more consistent basis in 2016, and you’ve got to think that the Cubs are going to want him on the field every day. The question remains on where that will be. Will the Cubs eventually move Castro and make Baez their everyday second baseman? Or is this temporary move to center field a way to transition him into that role? It’s just something that Theo Epstein wants to try out for a little while, and I suppose we’ll just see what happens.
“Maybe [moving Baez to center] it creates another option for [manager Joe Maddon] late in games or as an injury fill in — who knows what it will lead to?” Epstein said. “It’ll be fun to take a look at him out there.”
I think we can all agree that he’s a better outfield option than Kyle Schwarber, right?