Cubs: After tough season, Javier Baez expects big things in 2016


Cubs: After tough season, Javier Baez expects big things in 2016

Heading into a pivotal offseason, there might not be a Cubs player surrounded by as much uncertainty as Javier Baez.

Will he be traded for pitching this winter? What position will he play next season? Will the adjustments he made in 2015 stick? Will he make the Opening Day roster?

At this point, even the Cubs don't have all those answers. Not after a roller-coaster season for Baez, who will turn 23 in December.

After failing to make the team out of spring training, and then dealing with the death of his sister in early April, and then missing roughly six weeks with a broken finger, Baez didn't make it back to the big leagues until rosters expanded on Sept. 1.

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But he was right in the middle of a playoff run and wound up starting each game of the National League Championship Series at shortstop with Addison Russell (strained hamstring) sidelined.

"It's been a tough year for me and, obviously, my family," Baez said. "As a team, we didn't give up until the last pitch and the 27th out. I'm just proud of my teammates for the year that they gave to the fans.

"Obviously, I wasn't here the whole year, so I couldn't say much about the things they went through. But I'm just proud of my teammates and ready to come (back) next year and do the same thing."

Baez began his postseason career with four hits in his first five at-bats, including a big two-out, three-run homer off John Lackey in the divisional-round clincher against the St. Louis Cardinals.

But Baez collected just one hit in 10 NLCS at-bats and committed two errors at shortstop in the playoffs.

Baez admitted as the series with the New York Mets wore on, the Cubs became frustrated with how many balls they hit hard, but right at defenders. That being said, he's stoked to put the playoff experience to good use.

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"For me, [it was all about learning to handle] the pressure," Baez said. "Usually, there's a lot of pressure when you're in the playoffs.

"This team, we didn't play with the pressure on us. We just didn't do the little things that we had to do to get some runs. The [Mets] pitchers just had four straight good games and we couldn't respond to them.

"I didn't play with pressure. Obviously, I made a couple errors, but you learn from those. You learn from everything you do. Next year, I'm pretty sure it will be easier for us."

Baez impressed manager Joe Maddon from Day 1 in spring training with his infield defense, swagger, speed and baseball intelligence. He wound up playing all four infield positions in the big leagues, getting in at least 12 games at second, third and shortstop including the playoffs.

But there's also been whispers of the Cubs being open to giving Baez a look in the outfield, given all the young talent already established in an infield that includes Russell, likely NL Rookie of the Year Kris Bryant, MVP candidate Anthony Rizzo and the resurgent Starlin Castro.

"The overriding policy is the more versatility, the better," president of baseball operations Theo Epstein said, pointing out how much success Maddon had in 2015 by moving players - rookies and veterans - all over the field.

Baez has said in the past that he's open to testing the outfield waters if the organization asked him to. And it's a pretty safe bet he won't be spending a lot of time checking out the Cubs page on MLB Trade Rumors this winter.

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The former top prospect is just ready to get back out on the field with a young core hoping to take the next step.

"For sure, this is [just the beginning]," Baez said. "We got a young team that has a lot of talent. Every one of us knows what we can do.

"We didn't ever give up because we know what we can do. We didn't do it this year, but we just gotta come back next year and do the same thing."

When Kyle Schwarber met new Cubs hitting coach Chili Davis: 'I don't suck'

When Kyle Schwarber met new Cubs hitting coach Chili Davis: 'I don't suck'

MESA, Ariz. — The first thing Kyle Schwarber told his new hitting coach?

"His first statement to me is, 'I don't suck.'"

The Cubs hired Chili Davis as the team's new hitting coach for myriad reasons. He's got a great track record from years working with the Boston Red Sox and Oakland Athletics, and that .274/.360/.451 slash line during an illustrious 19-year big league career certainly helps.

But Davis' main immediate task in his new gig will be to help several of the Cubs' key hitters prove Schwarber's assessment correct.

Schwarber had a much-publicized tough go of things in 2017. After he set the world on fire with his rookie campaign in 2015 and returned from what was supposed to be a season-ending knee injury in time to be one of the Cubs' World Series heroes in 2016, he hit just .211 last season, getting sent down to Triple-A Iowa for a stint in the middle of the season. Schwarber still hit 30 home runs, but his 2017 campaign was seen as a failure by a lot of people.

Enter Davis, who now counts Schwarber as one of his most important pupils.

"He's a worker," Davis said in an interview with NBC Sports Chicago. "Schwarbs, he knows he's a good player. His first statement to me is, 'I don't suck.' He said last year was just a fluke year. He said, 'I've never failed in my life.' And he said, 'I'm going to get back to the player that I was.'

"I think he may have — and this is my thought, he didn't say this to me — I think it may have been, he had a big World Series, hit some homers, and I think he tried to focus on being more of a home run type guy as opposed to being a good hitter.

"His focus has changed. I had nothing to do with that, he came in here with that focus that he wants to be a good hitter first and let whatever happens happen. And he's worked on that. The main thing with Kyle is going to be is just maintaining focus."

The physically transformed Schwarber mentioned last week that he's established a good relationship with Davis, in no small part because Schwarber can relate to what Davis went through when he was a player. And to hear Davis tell it, it sounds like he's describing Schwarber's first three years as a big leaguer to a T.

"Telling him my story was important because it was similar," Davis said. "I was a catcher, got to big league camp, and I was thrown in the outfield. And I hated the outfield. ... But I took on the challenge. I made the adjustment, I had a nice first year, then my second year I started spiraling. I started spiraling down, and I remember one of my coaches saying, 'I'm going to have to throw you a parachute just so you can land softly.' I got sent down to Triple-A at the All-Star break for 15 days.

"When I got sent down, I was disappointed, but I was also really happy. I needed to get away from the big league pressure and kind of find myself again. I went home and refocused myself and thought to myself, 'I'm going to come back as Chili.' Because I tried to change, something changed about me the second year.

"And when I did that, I came back the next year and someone tried to change me and I said, 'Pump the breaks a little bit, let me fail my way, and then I'll come to you if I'm failing.' And they understood that, and I had a nice year, a big year and my career took off.

"I'm telling him, 'Hey, let last year go. It happened, it's in the past. Keep working hard, maintain your focus, and you'll be fine.'"

Getting Schwarber right isn't Davis' only task, of course. Despite the Cubs being one of the highest-scoring teams in baseball last season, they had plenty of guys go through subpar seasons. Jason Heyward still has yet to find his offensive game since coming to Chicago as a high-priced free agent. Ben Zobrist was bothered by a wrist injury last season and put up the worst numbers of his career. Addison Russell had trouble staying healthy, as well, and saw his numbers dip from what they were during the World Series season in 2016.

So Davis has plenty of charges to work with. But he likes what he's seen so far.

"They work," Davis said. "They come here to work. I had a group of guys in Boston that were the same last year, and it makes my job easier. They want to get better, they come out every day, they show up, they want to work. They're excited, and I'm excited to be around them.

And what have the Cubs found out about Davis? Just about everyone answers that question the same way: He likes to talk.

"I'm not going to stop talking," he said. "If I stop talking, something's wrong."

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Andre Dawson talks about his Cubs reunion


SportsTalk Live Podcast: Andre Dawson talks about his Cubs reunion

Carmen DeFalco (ESPN 1000) and Jordan Bernfield join Kap on the panel. Anthony Rizzo returns to the Cubs after an emotional weekend home while Tom Ricketts expects another World Series parade. Plus Hall of Famer Andre Dawson joins Kap to talk about his Cubs reunion and how the current crop unsigned free agents compares to his experiences with collusion.