Cubs

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

javy-baez-ready-to-explode-in-2016-slide.png

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.

[RELATED - Unfinished business: Epstein built Cubs into World Series contender in Year 4]

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.

[MORE - Cubs facing another big decision with Starlin Castro this offseason]

"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.

[SHOP CUBS: Get your Cubs gear right now]

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."

Sports Talk Live Podcast: Can Jon Lester get out of his slump?

lester-806.jpg
USA TODAY

Sports Talk Live Podcast: Can Jon Lester get out of his slump?

David Haugh, Ben Finfer and Seth Gruen join Kap on the panel.

0:00- The Cubs winning streak is over as Jon Lester's struggles continue. Should fans be worried that he can't get out of this slump? Would he be a playoff starter right now?

8:40- The White Sox rebuild continues as Rick Hahn says fans might have to wait until next spring to see whether or not they'll be contenders. Is next year too early to compete?

15:00- The Bears backups get ready to face the Colts backups Saturday night. Is there any reason to have the preseason at all?

18:30- Mitch Trubisky's preseason is over. So is he ready for Week 1?

20:00- College football is back. The panel give their picks for Florida vs Miami in the Fanduel Friday Faves.

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

Cubs rallying behind Jon Lester after another tough outing

Cubs rallying behind Jon Lester after another tough outing

There are three ways to look at the Cubs' 9-3 loss Friday:

1) Jon Lester had another rough outing and the sun is starting to set on his career as a front-of-the-rotation starter.

2) Lester gave up some hard contact, but also had some tough luck and pitched better than his final line indicated.

3) Meh.

To be honest, each of the three perspectives has an element of truth to it, but the third one is probably the main way to look at it as the Cubs tasted defeat for the first time in a week.

No, the team did not play well, but it went far beyond Lester.

The Nationals didn't get into town until the wee hours of Friday morning, yet it was the Cubs who looked sluggish Friday. They managed only two baserunners - a single and a walk - until the ninth inning when they put together a too-little-too-late rally thanks to some shoddy Washington fielding.

But even if the offense did come to play, the game was out of hand by the fifth inning, when Lester and Pedro Strop combined to allow 3 runs, extending Washington's lead to 7-0.

Lester was charged with 6 runs on 9 hits and a walk over 4.1 innings, but 8 of those 9 hits were singles. The only extra-base knock off the Cubs southpaw was Adam Eaton's line drive home run in the first inning that he smacked into the 18 mph wind howling in off the lake.

Of the singles, a couple were hard ground balls knocked down by Cubs infielders and one was a perfectly executed bunt by pitcher Anibal Sanchez with two strikes that the Cubs had no choice but to hope it would roll foul. At that point in the fourth inning, the score was only 3-0, but the Cubs' misfortune seemed to open the door for the Nationals.

"I'm telling you, I don't think he was that bad today," Maddon said. "We were a little bit unlucky with him. ... Outside of that last inning when they squared him up, I thought he actually threw the ball decently.

"I think he's gonna be fine. He will find a way to get himself back into the picture in the right way. There's a lot of time left with the playoffs, etc., so I'm counting on it. I believe in Jon."

Beyond the tough luck, the Nationals hit five balls more than 100 mph off Lester, including a 108.5 mph single on the final batter (Juan Soto) he faced in the fifth inning.

After the game, Lester couldn't do much but shrug and accept responsibility for the loss.

"I feel fine," he said. "Today sucks. Tomorrow, I'll wake up and start a new day and get ready for another start. That doesn't take the sting away from today. Joe's always said, 'you win hard, you lose hard' and losing for me is even harder than that. Sucking as a pitcher is even harder than that.

"It's my job to do better and I'm not. I let a five-game winning streak basically go by the wayside because I didn't throw the ball very well. It's frustrating, but tomorrow starts a new day and move on to the next one."

Friday's game marks the fifth time this season Lester has allowed at least 6 runs in an outing. This was his 25th start of 2019, so that means 20 percent of his appearances have resulted in putting his team in a major hole.

"I think we're getting to the point where you can't isolate [the rough games]," Lester said. "They're happening a little bit too much for myself. I felt pretty good about myself after the last one, just being able to continually execute pitches. I don't feel like stuff was much different than last time, just different results and that's the shitty part about this game and my job - it's results driven and it doesn't matter how I feel or what the gameplan was going in.

"You have to execute and get people out and keep them from scoring runs and I'm just not doing that."

Lester started the five-game winning streak for the Cubs with a performance befitting true "ace" or "stopper" status. After a pair of disheartening bullpen meltdowns, he took the ball last Saturday and shut out the Pirates through 6 innings, battling despite not having his best stuff (5 walks).

But even including that start in Pittsburgh, Lester has now allowed 23 earned runs in 24.1 innings in five starts in August.

For a 35-year-old with three World Series rings and a long track record of pitching well when the lights are the brightest, he isn't where he wants to be as September approaches in a tight playoff race.

"Better than this," he said. "Usually this is the time of year where I pitch a lot better than I have been. For whatever reason, I haven't hit that stride. I usually have ups and downs to every season, but usually more ups than downs.

"Right now, it's just continuing to go down. The old saying - one step forward, two steps back - is kinda what I'm doing right now. The positive is I physically feel fine. Can't blame it on that. Just have to be better. Tomorrow's a new day, prepare for the next one."

Even with the recent struggles, Kyle Schwarber said Lester is still the guy the Cubs would want to give the ball to in Game 1 of a playoff series.

"He'll bounce back," Schwarber said. "He knows how to handle himself really well. He's a leader out there and we always have his back."

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream Cubs games easily on your device.