Cubs

Ben Zobrist knows Cubs need to make room for Javy Baez in everyday lineup

Ben Zobrist knows Cubs need to make room for Javy Baez in everyday lineup

As Javy Baez emerged from the Cubs dugout on the third-base side of Wrigley Field, he was also bursting onto the national baseball scene.

Baez had just driven a Johnny Cueto pitch into the basket down the left-field line to break a scoreless tie in Game 1 of the National League Division Series and celebrated accordingly with the raucous Wrigley crowd.

It was the biggest hit of his young career and the moment he put the baseball world on notice.

Baez broke out in a big way during the Cubs' miraculous World Series run, making dazzling plays almost every night and even taking home NLCS co-MVP honors.

"[October] really helped me a lot," Baez said. "It's basically where I made my name — in the postseason. I feel good about it, and obviously ready to do it again."

Baez started every postseason game at second base, bumping veteran Ben Zobrist to left field.

So when the Cubs reconvene in Arizona for spring training ahead of the 2017 season, one of the biggest questions will be: How does manager Joe Maddon get Baez in the lineup on a regular basis?

Zobrist understands what's coming.

"Since Javy really came into his own last year at the end of the year, my guess is you gotta get him in there more," Zobrist said on the "All-Star Infield" panel of Cubs Convention at the Sheraton Grand Chicago. 

"At the beginning of the season, he wasn't in there much, which is why I wasn't moving around much. I'll probably be moving around more as we get into it more this year."

Zobrist — who turns 36 in May — began his big-league career as a do-it-all utility man for Maddon's Tampa Bay Rays, but when the Cubs signed the battle-tested veteran at the 2015 Winter Meetings, they envisioned him playing a majority of time at second base, hoping that sticking to one position would help keep him fresh.

With Baez's eye-popping baseball instincts, the lightning-quick tags and overall athleticism at second base, Zobrist knows what it means for him, even if he hasn't talked to Maddon yet.

"Over the years, he knows I have to be ready for anything and I know that," Zobrist said. "So over the years, he's like, 'Yeah, Zo knows.'

"I just don't want to play catcher," he joked. "That's not in the cards for me."

Baez had a similar answer when asked about his position for 2017.

"I'm pretty sure I'm gonna be moving around again, like everybody," Baez said.

At this time last year, Baez was fielding questions about his work in center field in winter ball.

Now, post-breakout, he knows that he's ready for a bigger role. (Not that confidence was ever an issue for a former first-round pick with the MLB logo tattooed on his neck.)

"Yeah, for sure. I'm 100 percent an everyday player," Baez said. "I don't mind [moving around] but obviously I wanna have my own position and just stay there some day."

In a Saturday morning panel at Cubs Convention, Theo Epstein's front office was asked a question about where the lineup stood after Dexter Fowler's surprise signing last spring and how many quality options Maddon had at his disposal. 

"We were all thinking, 'That's Joe's problem,'" GM Jed Hoyer joked.

Of course, Kyle Schwarber went and wrecked his knee in the third game of the season, lessening the everyday lineup complications.

There's no guarantee everybody is going to be healthy or produce at optimal levels in 2017.

Still, an abundance of high-level position players is a good problem to have. Especially for a team that has eyes on playing into November for the second year in a row.

"It enables us to get more off days and give guys breathers at times," Zobrist said of the depth. "I think it will be good for us."

Sports Talk Live Podcast: David Ross joins SportsTalk Live to discuss plans for his first season

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USA TODAY

Sports Talk Live Podcast: David Ross joins SportsTalk Live to discuss plans for his first season

SportsTalk Live is on location in San Diego for Day 2 of the Winter Meeting.

0:00 - New Cubs manager David Ross joins Kap and Tony Andracki to talk about getting ready for his first season as a big league skipper and how he'll handle his former teammates.

10:00 - Rick Renteria joins Kap and Chuck Garfien to talk about the White Sox' big offseason plans. Plus he discusses how he might handle his lineup, Yasmani Grandal's impact and how this Sox team compares to the 2014 Cubs that he managed.

20:00 - Dave Wannstedt joins Kap to preview the Bears/Packers game Sunday at Lambeau.

Listen to the full podcast here or via the embedded player below:

Sports Talk Live Podcast

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Cubs still trying to break through on extension talks with current players

Cubs still trying to break through on extension talks with current players

SAN DIEGO — While the rest of the baseball world is occupying their time with free agent signings and trades, the Cubs have been waiting for their number to be called.

They've been trying to nail down extensions with key players that are only a couple years away from free agency, though nothing appears imminent on that front. 

Kris Bryant, Javy Baez, Anthony Rizzo and Kyle Schwarber are all free agents after the 2021 season, leaving the Cubs two years to work out a deal or trade the player before losing them for nothing but a compensation pick. Willson Contreras is a free agent after 2022. Theo Epstein's front office reached a four-year, $55.5 million deal with Kyle Hendricks in spring training, extending his team control through the 2023 season.

The Cubs won't comment specifically on the current extension talks, but they'd ideally hope to wrap anything before spring training this year, so the players can focus solely on baseball by then.

"We always take the position of not commenting on extensions, but are we having those discussions? Yes," Jed Hoyer said Tuesday. "People focus so much on trades and free agent signings at these meetings, but all the agents are under the same roofs, also, and allows us to have those kinds of discussions. I'm not gonna specify who or what, but yeah certainly those conversations are ongoing."

Bryant has long been thought of as the toughest of the group to lock up long-term given that his agent, Scott Boras, typically advises clients to hit the open market and maximize their value. Boras reiterated Tuesday afternoon at the Winter Meetings he and Bryant are still open to extension talks with the Cubs.

Baez and Rizzo loom as the two most likely to extend their Wrigley Field stays, with the two emerging as the faces of the franchise in their own ways.

As the Cubs try to navigate an offseason where they're "serving two masters" (trying to compete in 2020-21 while also enhancing the long-term future of the franchise), a potential extension would check both boxes in a major way. If Hoyer and Theo Epstein knew Baez would be locking down shortstop and the middle of the lineup for the next six seasons, they could breathe a bit easier thinking about the big picture and long-term health of the franchise. 

At the same time, they can't operate as if anything is a certainty. Bryant could decide he likes the Cubs' offer and make Chicago his baseball home forever. Baez could conclude the opposite. 

It's what makes this particular offseason so tricky for the Cubs.

"We have to be able to have parallel tracks in our mind," Hoyer said. "We have to be able to do multiple things at once. It doesn't make it more difficult. We have a lot of really good players. We've had them for a long time. When we talk to these players about contracts, there's no player that we talk to that we haven't had a conversation with at some point before about a contract. 

"We've talked about these players for five years in some way, shape or form. When we sit down with these players, we're not covering a ton of new ground. We've already been over a lot of it. I think we're able to have parallel tracks."