(MCT) — MESA, Ariz. — The beauty of spring training is the chance for fans to get a glimpse of the future before it becomes reality.
But while top prospect Javier Baez will get a chance to strut his stuff in Cactus League play, the Cubs confirmed Sunday he will not open the season on the major league roster.
The 20-year-old shortstop will report to camp as a non-roster invitee to gain experience, meaning Starlin Castro doesn’t have to look over his shoulder just yet.
“He’s here to get a feel for what big league camp is all about, see how these guys go about their business,” general manager Jed Hoyer said of Baez. “It’s nice for fans to be able to see him, nice for us to be able to see him. But it’s not about making the major league team. This is about (getting) experience.”
President Theo Epstein said Baez “has a lot of work to do” before he gets a call-up and is likely to start out at Class A Daytona. Epstein said they “prefer guys to spend just about a full year” in Triple A before getting the call. Baez hit .333 at Class A Peoria with a .979 OPS last year before struggling in a call-up at Daytona, hitting only .188 in 23 games.
Manager Dale Sveum said Baez will play at short and second in Cactus League games.
“He’s a shortstop and he’s going to play shortstop,” Sveum said. “If he happens to get into a game at third or second base, it will just be because of flat numbers. It’s not that we need to take a look at him anywhere else. That will be a development question down the road. Maybe to get his bat in the lineup in spring training, you might see him at second base. I don’t know about third base right now.”
Castro, who turns 23 on March 24, needs to maintain his focus in the field, the Cubs concede, but will remain at short for the immediate future. Epstein said Castro still must make some “fundamental adjustments and mental adjustments” to reach his potential. There has been speculation Castro would be moved for Baez at some point.
“As we sat here last year, it was a bit of an open question in the organization whether he could stay at shortstop long term,” Epstein said. “Now we all feel he definitely can and will be a really good one. Offensively, it wasn’t a breakout season for him. He kind of got behind the eight ball early. I kind of look for him this year, or a year in the near future, to have that breakout year.
“You have to remember how young he is. He’s younger than a lot of these guys whose names pop up on top prospects lists. He’s got 2½ seasons and (529) hits in the big leagues. As he starts to understand himself a little better as a hitter and what pitchers are trying to do to him, he’s going to get more pitches that he can drive and will do some damage.”
On the day before pitchers and catchers report, Cubs brass had no big surprises. Sveum declined to name his Opening Day starter, which is expected to be between Jeff Samardzija and Matt Garza. Scott Feldman, Carlos Villanueva and Travis Wood will compete for the fifth spot, assuming Scott Baker is healthy enough to start out as No. 4. Carlos Marmol will be the closer, with Kyuji Fujikawa as the primary setup man.
The only real position battle is at third base, where Ian Stewart has a non-guaranteed contract. Luis Valbuena will make the team in a utility man role, but could start at third if Stewart doesn’t make the team. Sveum said Stewart will get “every opportunity” to win the job in spring.
“Ian knows he’s got to prove (himself) to us and swing the bat,” he said. “Because we need that production out of third base. We didn’t have that last year.”
Sveum, Hoyer and Epstein repeated some of the same buzzwords from last year, citing “accountability” and “progress” as attainable goals.
Of course, winning would be a more preferable option to Cubs fans.
“We appreciate their patience,” Epstein said. “We don’t want them to be patient forever. We want to make progress. We feel like we did make progress behind the scenes in a lot of areas last year. Our farm system, I think, took a pretty significant step forward in just a one-year time span.”