Javier Baez and the Cubs' defense come up short (again)

PHOENIX -- How many errors does it take for an elite infielder to lose that label? Chicago Cubs shortstop/second baseman Javier Baez must be approaching that line after committing his 10th error of the season at shortstop (14th overall) in Saturday’s 6-2 loss to the Arizona Diamondbacks.

Now the Cubs are tied with the St. Louis Cardinals for first place in the National League Central.

Baez isn’t making the spectacular play anymore -- he missed one to open the sixth inning -- but now he’s not making the routine one, either. Down 1-0 in the sixth with runners on second and third base and the infield in, Baez threw way wide of home on a Ketel Marte ground ball to make it 2-0. Then the floodgates opened.

“We have to make that play at the plate,” manager Joe Maddon said. “That’s routine.”

It’s not the first time Maddon has made those comments about Baez, who should be judged based on his talent, not necessarily by the talent of his peers. When teammate Addison Russell makes a throwing error, it’s with the understanding that he doesn’t have as strong of an arm. Baez has a rocket, but it isn’t always accurate, certainly not enough of the time. Here’s some perspective: Baez’s 10 errors at shortstop this season were compiled in 289 innings played. Russell has 11 in 729 innings at the position. The latter player has been on the disabled list with a sore foot, forcing Baez into everyday action.

“Javy is having a wonderful year overall,” Maddon said. “It’s just a matter of putting him out there too often sometimes. I like to give him a break once in a while. Right now, there is no break. ... We need Addison back to balance it out. When Javy is [at second base], we’re really good on the infield. That’s hopefully forthcoming relatively soon.”

That’s not how it should work with an elite defender, having to hide him on one side of the field. It wasn’t long ago some liked to make the case he actually was the Cubs' best infielder at all four positions. How is that possible with the amount of mistakes he’s making?

It’s not like Baez isn’t familiar with shortstop. He came up as one and has played there enough to make routine plays, yet he hasn’t. Not nearly enough, at least. To be fair, he’s not the only culprit. The Cubs are one of the worst fielding teams in the league after being all-world in that category last year. That’s helped put them in the position they’re in, losing sole possession of the division lead. It’s been a bad week on defense.

“Some mistakes in the field, which we should tighten up a little bit,” third baseman Kris Bryant said.

The Cubs didn’t hit much on Saturday, but that’s not something you can always control. Routine defense is, and Baez keeps coming up short. If Maddon is right about playing him too much, that’s a sad state of affairs, as well. Eleven games in 12 days should not wear down a 24-year-old to the point of him forcing bad throws to home from a pulled-in infield. Until Russell returns, Baez has to do better. Starter Jon Lester deserved a better fate on Saturday but wouldn’t take the bait when asked if the play at home could have made the difference.

“This game is built around what-ifs,” Lester said. “I have to make better pitches.”

And his teammates have to play better behind him, starting with their alleged best defender.