For the last two seasons, Addison Russell has been firmly entrenched at shortstop for the Cubs. Brendan Miller has made the case for the Cubs to maintain the status quo and he presents an excellent argument. However, I would like to advocate for Javy Baez to take over at short in 2018. Bear in mind that this is not meant to malign Russell, who is absolutely an elite defender, it is instead to extol Javy’s potential.
Both of Chicago’s middle infield phenoms began their professional careers at shortstop, but both were forced out of position by Starlin Castro. Russell became the everyday second baseman in 2015, but he and Castro switched positions once it was determined beyond a shadow of a doubt that the rookie was the superior defender.
Baez had been similarly displaced during his time in 2014 and was then firmly behind Russell by the time he got past injuries in 2015. Javy split time with Ben Zobrist at second when he was called up for good in 2016, but he used his freakish athleticism to play numerous infield positions including short. Nowhere was his flare for the dramatic on better display than when injuries sidelined Russell this past season.
In a debate about defensive positioning, at least in this case, offense has a limited role in the discussion. Russell had a down year at the plate in 2017, while Baez had his best season as a pro with an OPS of .796 and 23 homers. That isn’t really relevant here, other than it means Javy has earned the right to be an everyday player somewhere on the diamond.
As Brendan laid out, the defensive metrics favor Russell at short over Javy by a fair amount. Defensive runs saved (DRS) and ultimate zone rating (UZR) both show a clear edge. A big problem with that is Javy has never gotten a long stretch of play at short. He’s only logged a total of 1,067 innings in four seasons, which may seem like a lot but actually comes to about 118 nine-inning games. Consistent reps at shortstop would likely improve Baez’s metrics significantly.
Where Javy has a clear edge is range and athleticism. His range is almost superhuman and his ability to reach balls deep in the hole at short could populate numerous highlight reels. He is one of very few defensive players that can make Russell’s own elite ability to cover territory look somewhat pedestrian. A strict adherence to defensive philosophy would call for the most athletic fielder (Baez) to play the most difficult position (shortstop).
But my primary reason I believe most strongly that Baez and Russell should swap positions is throwing. Javy has a cannon for an arm, the kind that makes you wonder whether the ink on it was laid in with a vibranium needle. Russell, on the other hand, has struggled mightily with his throwing motion and the results thereof.
His sidearm throws sometimes end up short or wide of first base, leading to a whopping 19 throwing errors over the last two seasons. It’s entirely possible that nagging injuries forced a change in mechanics that could be fixed, but a move to second base would allow Russell shorter throws and less need to fire the ball hurriedly to first.
A lightning release has compensated somewhat for Russell’s weaker arm, but the mechanical issues have made it a problem that can’t be fully ignored. When combined with Javy’s range and athleticism, it makes me think a change could really help the team. Either option gives the Cubs an elite defense, but Baez at short makes the potential ceiling for the Chicago defense a bit higher.