Cubs: Javier Baez beginning takeover of second-base job

Cubs: Javier Baez beginning takeover of second-base job

MILWAUKEE – Cubs manager Joe Maddon kept Javier Baez in the lineup the day after a full-speed, head-on collision with Jason Heyward in shallow center field left him looking like a boxer with a bloodshot left eye and dark bruising around that eyelid. 
Baez started all 17 playoff games at second base last year. Baez has now started four of the season's first five games at second base, pushing Ben Zobrist toward the outfield and into more of a super-utility role for the defending World Series champs.  

At what point does Baez become your everyday second baseman? (Hint: It's already happening.) 

"I haven't even thought about that," Maddon said before Saturday's game against the Milwaukee Brewers at Miller Park. "Zo's at second base tomorrow. Javy's off tomorrow. Today's lineup was not based on the collision at all. I had that lineup made up before the game. 

"I'm going to try to balance it out as much as I can. Part of it is it's not just about Javy being the everyday second baseman. How do you get (Albert) Almora in the lineup? How do you get (Jon) Jay in the lineup? How do you keep Zo in the lineup as often as possible? That's really what it comes down to.

"So pretty much what you've seen to this point, I think, is like a good indicator of what we're going to be able to do with everybody being healthy."

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Baez generates more highlight-reel plays and buzz on social media, but Zobrist is still a clubhouse leader, All-Star second baseman and World Series MVP. Zobrist is in the second season of a four-year, $56 million contract signed with the idea of ending the 108-year drought and focusing on one position to help preserve his body through his mid-30s.

Beyond the respect for Zobrist, Maddon also seems to be trying to avoid anointing Baez, a player so confident he got the Major League Baseball logo tattooed onto the back of his neck as a teenager. Throughout spring training, Maddon answered questions about the second-base dynamics by identifying Zobrist as the primary option with Baez as a defensive rover.    

"It's always about semantics, man," Maddon said. "You got to be (careful). Whatever you say, it sticks. And then people hold you to that, which they should. When it comes to baseball players, man, if you say they're one thing and then try to make them into something else, it really freaks them out."

This is also the direction where Maddon sees the game trending, lineups built with analytics and matchups in mind, rosters becoming less top-heavy and revolving more around depth and flexibility. Maddon has talked about the year he never formally named a closer for the Tampa Bay Rays and just kept going to the same guy in the ninth inning for save situations. 

"Without naming a closer, without naming a second baseman, without a naming an eighth-inning guy or a seventh-inning guy, it really creates a lot more latitude, which you need in today's game," Maddon said. "Our group needs that. I think it's going to become more prominent throughout the industry where you might name a closer only and then the rest of the guys will just be out there and be ready. Position-player-wise, we're just different, I think, with all the versatility that we do have."      

Nationals 'love' Kris Bryant but potential holdup could stymie trade talks

Nationals 'love' Kris Bryant but potential holdup could stymie trade talks

With Anthony Rendon officially joining the Angels, the Nationals have a vacancy at third base.

Washington has options to replace Rendon; Josh Donaldson is still available in free agency, and Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant could potentially be had via trade.

The Nationals have reportedly inquired with the Cubs about Bryant, and while they “love” the 27-year-old, their focus is on Donaldson, according to MLB Network’s Jon Heyman. The Cubs would likely seek center fielder Victor Robles in a deal, a holdup on Washington's end, Heyman said.

From the Cubs perspective, it would make all the sense in the world to ask for Robles. He’s 22 years old, plays excellent defense (22 DRS in 2019, No. 1 in MLB by center fielders) and is only scratching the surface as a big-leaguer. Robles is projected to be a star, but Bryant already is one. If the Nationals want Bryant badly enough, they’ll have to sacrifice talent in a deal.

On the other hand, it’s easy to understand why Washington would be unwilling to trade Robles, who's under team control through 2024. Bryant will hit free agency after 2021, but if he wins his ongoing grievance case, he'll hit the open market after next season.

Nonetheless, if the Nationals do engage in Bryant trade talks, you can bet the Cubs will at least ask for Robles in return. A trade could be worked out without him, but for a Cubs team searching for better center field production, you've got to wonder who could be more enticing than Robles.

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Willson Contreras and his boundless energy join Cubs All-Decade Team

Willson Contreras and his boundless energy join Cubs All-Decade Team

With the 2010s coming to a close, NBC Sports Chicago is unveiling its Cubs All-Decade Team, highlighting the players who made the biggest impacts on the organization from 2010-19.

It didn’t take long for Willson Contreras to introduce himself to Major League Baseball. On the first pitch he saw as a big-leaguer, the Cubs catcher cranked a two-run home run to center field — on Sunday Night Baseball, nonetheless.

That moment was a sign of things to come for Contreras, who has since established himself as one of the best catchers in baseball. The 27-year-old holds a career .267/.350/.470 line with a 117 wRC+ and 67 home runs in four seasons. He’s started back-to-back All-Star Games, the first Cubs catcher to do so since Gabby Hartnett (1937-38).

Contreras offers so much to the Cubs besides his bat. His cannon of an arm and athleticism behind the plate are integral to the Cubs controlling opposing run games. His pitch framing is a work in progress, and admittedly, he could improve in this area by throwing behind runners less, ensuring he gets strikes called.

However, back-picking is part of Contreras’ value. He may lose some strike calls by not sticking a frame, but there've been plenty of occasions where Contreras' arm has provided the Cubs with a spark. His boundless energy is unmeasurable, but its importance to the Cubs — who feed off of it — cannot be overstated.

There are areas where Contreras can improve, and that's a scary thought. But he's already is one of the best backstops in baseball and has earned the starting catcher spot on our Cubs All-Decade Team.

Also considered: Welington Castillo, Miguel Montero, David Ross, Geovany Soto