Cubs

Inside the Javier Baez inside-the-park home run

Inside the Javier Baez inside-the-park home run

SAN FRANCISCO — Javier Baez made it feel like the playoffs more than the 63-degree temperature at first pitch, the Halloween colors all around AT&T Park and a San Francisco Giants franchise holding auditions and playing for the future.

October is Javy Time after last year’s breakout performance, which started Game 1 with the Johnny Cueto quick pitch he drove into the Wrigley Field basket and became a blur of highlight-reel plays. The rest of the baseball world began to see what the Cubs already understood — a sixth sense for tagging, freakish range and arm strength, a fearless attitude running the bases and so much swagger.

Baez became the game-changer during Monday’s 5-3 win, again stealing the show on a night where Metallica played the national anthem, Joe Montana watched from the stands, Jake Arrieta showed flashes of Cy Young Award stuff and Barry Bonds waved to the crowd on the 10th anniversary of breaking Major League Baseball’s all-time home-run record.

Baez didn’t exactly burst out of the batter’s box and admired this one for a moment in the second inning, a natural reaction to watching lefty Matt Moore’s 93-mph fastball soar out to right-center field.

“I was in the on-deck circle — I see Javy,” Arrieta said. “Most hitters kind of take a look, kind of assess the situation and then go from there.

“But he’s a tremendous athlete. I knew we were going to have a chance to have him get all the way around the bases, based on the kick. And this is a strange park. There are certain spots in the outfield. If the ball hits off the wall, good things can happen like that.”

Baez turned on the afterburners in between first and second base when he saw the ball slam off the angled wall and ricochet away from Carlos Moncrief, who made his big-league debut in late July for a last-place team that lost its identity and might now have the worst outfield defense in the game.

Third base coach Gary Jones still knew Moncrief had a “cannon” and calculated that sending Baez would be worth the risk with two outs in a scoreless game and the pitcher up next.

“I thought he ran hard the whole way,” Jones said. “I just try to read the situation. You try to play certain scenarios in your mind before they actually happen. And then when they happen — because you’ve already played it in your mind — it kind of slows down on you a little bit.”

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Moncrief hustled after the ball and unleashed a strong one-hop throw that bounced up while Baez dove low headfirst under the tag from Giants catcher Buster Posey.

“That guy may have the best arm I’ve ever seen,” manager Joe Maddon said. “That’s Bo Jackson arm stuff right there. That was that good. That was Bo good. I’ve always thought Shawon Dunston and Bo Jackson. Shawon Dunston on the infield, Bo Jackson on the outfield. And I think Moncrief is among that group. It’s incredible.”

Baez stretched out in the dirt for a moment before slapping hands with Jason Heyward — who scored from first base — and getting back up to his feet with a big smile on his face.

“That’s everything I had,” Baez said.

“He told me after that he drank too much water, so he was a little heavy,” Jones said. It became the first inside-the-park homer for Baez since “Little League, I guess.” It marked the first by a Cub since Anthony Rizzo last season and only the 10th since this magnificent stadium opened in 2000.

“Everybody was really excited (in the dugout) — I was just tired,” Baez said. “I was trying to catch my breath for a few minutes.”

It’s hard to picture a more dynamic No. 8 hitter who can play Gold Glove-level defense at second base and seamlessly move over to replace an All-Star shortstop while Addison Russell is on the disabled list. With that mad dash, the defending World Series champs are now 59-52 and up 1.5 games on the Milwaukee Brewers in the National League Central. The Cubs and Baez are coming for October.

“Everybody’s got me as a really exciting player,” Baez said. “I’ll take it.”

Why did Kris Bryant get a first-place vote in this year's National League MVP balloting?

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USA TODAY

Why did Kris Bryant get a first-place vote in this year's National League MVP balloting?

Kris Bryant was the 2016 National League MVP. And despite having what could be considered an even better campaign this past season, he finished seventh in voting for the 2017 edition of the award.

The NL MVP was awarded to Miami Marlins outfielder Giancarlo Stanton on Thursday night, a fine choice, though it was nearly impossible to make a poor choice, that's how many fantastic players there were hitting the baseball in the NL this season.

After Stanton, Cinicinnati Reds first baseman Joey Votto finished second, earning the same amount of first-place votes and losing out to Stanton by just one point. Then came Arizona Diamondbacks first baseman Paul Goldschmidt, Colorado Rockies third baseman Nolan Arenado, Rockies outfielder Charlie Blackmon and Washington Nationals third baseman Anthony Rendon ahead of Bryant.

But there was someone who thought Bryant deserved to repeat as the NL MVP. Yes, Bryant earned a first-place vote — as did everyone else mentioned besides Rendon, for that matter — causing a bit of a social-media stir considering the Cubs third baseman, despite his great season, perhaps wasn't as standout a candidate as some of the other guys who finished higher in the voting.

So the person who cast that first-place vote for Bryant, MLB.com's Mark Bowman, wrote up why he felt Bryant deserved to hoist the Kenesaw Mountain Landis Memorial Baseball Award for the second straight year.

"In the end, I chose Bryant because I believe he made the greatest impact, as his second-half production fueled the successful turnaround the Cubs experienced after the All-Star break," Bowman wrote.

"Though I don't believe the MVP must come from a playoff contender, in an attempt to differentiate the value provided by each of these three players (Bryant, Votto and Stanton), I chose to reward the impact made by Bryant, who produced the NL's fourth-best OPS (.968) after the All-Star break, when the Cubs distanced themselves from a sub-.500 record and produced an NL-best 49 wins."

It's easy for Cubs fans and observers to follow that logic, as the Cubs took off after the All-Star break following a disappointing first half. As good as Bryant was all season long, his second-half numbers, as Bowman pointed out, were especially great. He hit .325 with a .421 on-base percentage and a .548 slugging percentage over his final 69 games of the regular season, hitting 11 home runs, knocking out 21 doubles and driving in 35 runs during that span.

Perhaps the craziest thing about this year's MVP race and Bryant's place in it is that Bryant was just as good if not better than he was in 2016, when he was almost unanimously named the NL MVP. After slashing .292/.385/.554 with 39 homers, 102 RBIs, 35 doubles, 75 walks and 154 strikeouts in 2016, Bryant slashed .295/.409/.537 with 29 homers, 73 RBIs, 38 doubles, 95 walks and 128 strikeouts in 2017.

Of course, the competition was much steeper this time around. But Bryant was given the MVP award in 2016 playing for a 103-win Cubs team that was bursting with offensive firepower, getting great seasons from Anthony Rizzo (who finished third in 2016 NL MVP voting), as well as Dexter Fowler and Ben Zobrist. While the Cubs actually scored more runs this season and undoubtedly turned it on after the All-Star break on a team-wide basis, Bryant was far and away the best hitter on the team in 2017, with many other guys throughout the lineup having notably down years and/or experiencing down stretches throughout the season. Hence, making Bryant more, say it with me, valuable.

So Bowman's argument about Bryant's impact on the Cubs — a team that still scored 822 runs, won 92 games and advanced to the National League Championship Series — is a decently convincing one.

Check out Bowman's full explanation, which dives into some of Bryant's advanced stats.

Game on as Jake Arrieta, Wade Davis and Alex Cobb turn down qualifying offers

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AP

Game on as Jake Arrieta, Wade Davis and Alex Cobb turn down qualifying offers

During the middle of Jake Arrieta’s 2015 Cy Young Award campaign, super-agent Scott Boras compared the emerging Cubs pitcher to another client – Max Scherzer – in the first season of a seven-year, $210 million megadeal with the Washington Nationals.

Now don’t focus as much on the money – though that obviously matters – as when Scherzer arrived for that Washington press conference to put on his new Nationals jersey: Jan. 21, 2015.

It might take Boras a while to find a new home for his “big squirrel with a lot of nuts in his trees.” Teams have been gearing up for next winter’s monster Bryce Harper/Manny Machado free-agent class for years. Mystery surrounds Shohei Ohtani, Japan’s Babe Ruth, and the posting system with Nippon Professional Baseball. Major League Baseball’s competitive balance tax may also have a chilling effect this offseason.

As expected, Arrieta, All-Star closer Wade Davis and pitcher Alex Cobb were among the group of free agents who went 9-for-9 in declining the one-year, $17.4 million qualifying offer before Thursday’s deadline.

With that formality out of the way, if Arrieta and Davis sign elsewhere, the Cubs will receive two third-round picks in the 2018 draft.

By staying under the $195 million luxury-tax threshold this year, the Cubs would have to give up a second-round draft pick and $500,000 from their international bonus pool to sign Cobb, an obvious target given their connections to the Tampa Bay Rays, or Lance Lynn, another starter on their radar who turned down a qualifying offer from the St. Louis Cardinals.

That collectively bargained luxury-tax system became a central part of the Boras media show on Wednesday outside the Waldorf Astoria Orlando, where he introduced “Playoffville” as his new go-to analogy at the end of the general manager meetings.

“The team cutting payroll is treating their family where they’re staying in a neighborhood that has less protection for winning,” Boras said. “They’re not living in the gated community of Playoffville. Certainly, they’re saving a de minimis property tax, but the reality of it is there’s less firemen in the bullpen. There’s less financial analysts sitting in the press boxes.

“The rooms in the house are less, so obviously you’re going to have less franchise players. When you move to that 12-room home in Playoffville, they generally are filled with the people that allow you to really achieve what your family – your regional family – wants to achieve. And that is winning.”

Boras also represents four other players who rejected qualifying offers – J.D Martinez, Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas and Greg Holland – another reason why this could be a long winter of Arrieta rumors, slow-playing negotiations and LOL metaphors.