Cubs

Cubs will ride out boom-and-bust cycles with Javier Baez because the upside is so great

Cubs will ride out boom-and-bust cycles with Javier Baez because the upside is so great

The Cubs will live with the boom-and-bust cycles for Javier Baez, because he can still be a game-changing presence with his swim moves and freakish sense for tagging, whether or not he looks out of control at home plate.

“Not so much,” manager Joe Maddon said Wednesday when asked if Baez is at that point in his career where he has to earn his at-bats. “I’m just trying to balance everything out right now, honestly. I even told him: ‘Go and strike out as often as you need to. Go ahead, I don’t care. I really don’t care.’

“I just want to see him play with that focus and passion. That’s all I want. I totally expect him to strike out. I totally expect him to swing at balls in the dirt and over his head, absolutely.

“I do eventually believe it’s going to go away. But the only way it’s going to go away is if he keeps getting a chance to do that.”

Baez boosted his batting average 66 points (up from .203) during the first two games of this week's series with the Philadelphia Phillies at Wrigley Field, drilling his second and third home runs this season and almost hitting for the cycle on Tuesday night.

Baez oozes style, but Maddon also loves the substance to his game. When hitting at the bottom of the lineup, Baez has made first-inning flip drills with assistant hitting coach Eric Hinske part of his routine. Baez also seems to be getting the message from the coaching staff and trying to reduce his leg kick.

[CUBS TICKETS: Get your seats right here]

Baez is no longer the all-or-nothing hitter who blasted nine homers and struck out 95 times during his 52-game audition with the Cubs in 2014. But this is also a player who has drawn comparisons to Gary Sheffield, Manny Ramirez and Giancarlo Stanton.

In terms of an offensive ceiling, Maddon said, “I don’t think it’s going to be revealed to us for another couple years.

“I think it’s very high, absolutely. You’re still going to see him go through these kinds of moments, up and down. The difference with him is that even during the down moments offensively he can still help you win with his defense and his baserunning.

“So I fully anticipate seeing those offensive swings in a sense — up and down — but the reward’s going to be great. When he really figures it out, the reward is going to show up and it’s going to be outstanding to watch.”

Starting Baez at second base over World Series MVP Ben Zobrist for all 17 playoff games last season is a clear indication of what Maddon is thinking. So is sticking with Baez through a slow start (.601 April OPS) and the Cubs listing him as their second baseman on the All-Star ballot.

“I think everybody knows how good I am,” Baez said. “I don’t have to show anybody anything. I control the things that I can control.

“I’m always going to play with passion and try to do my best out there, whether it’s on defense or on offense.”

The transition from part-time player and age-24 learning curve for Baez is emblematic of a team where leadoff guy Kyle Schwarber, catcher Willson Contreras and center fielder Albert Almora Jr. all own World Series rings but still haven’t completed a full season in The Show yet.

“It just happens everywhere,” Maddon said. “These guys are young and they’re learning on the fly on the major-league level with a lot of scrutiny going on, so just wait a couple years. This guy is going to really show you how good he is.”

As he decides what's next, it's clear Ben Zobrist has something left in the tank

As he decides what's next, it's clear Ben Zobrist has something left in the tank

When Ben Zobrist rejoined the Cubs active roster on Sept. 1, it was fair to wonder how much he could provide offensively. After all, he spent the previous four months on the restricted list while tending to a family matter, last playing a big-league game on May 6.

Zobrist did no baseball activities from May to mid-July, only working out to stay in shape. Although he eventually ramped things up, he played in just 12 minor league rehab games in August before returning to the Cubs, a small number compared to the length of his absence.

Even Zobrist admitted upon his big-league return that his timing at the plate wasn’t where he wanted it to be. And yet, what he did in September was nothing short of impressive. In 21 games, he posted a .284/.377/.388 slash line, performing at a level many couldn’t have expected, considering the circumstances.

Zobrist's impact on the Cubs' lineup goes beyond what you see in the box score, however. Not only is he a switch hitter with some pop, but he has a keen eye for the strike zone and frequently puts together professional at-bats.

On a Cubs team that tends to expand the zone, Zobrist’s presence mattered. In his second game back, for example, he went 3-for-3 with two walks, helping the Cubs beat the Brewers 10-5. After the game, Brewers starter Chase Anderson pointed out how different the Cubs' lineup looks with Zobrist in it.

"They play the matchups really well and Zobrist makes that team so much better," Anderson said on Sept. 5. "Just bringing his presence to the top of the lineup, it changes their dynamic a little bit."

Where Zobrist stands entering 2020, though, is currently unclear.

Zobrist is set to hit free agency after the World Series and will turn 39 next May. Therefore, it’s possible that he’s played his last game in the big leagues, as he has little, if anything, left to prove at this stage in his career.

Ahead of the Cubs’ season finale on Sept. 29, Zobrist told reporters in St. Louis that he hasn’t thought about how much time he’ll take before deciding what’s next for him. His family situation will obviously play a big role in his decision, but if September showed anything, it's that he still has something left in the tank.

“I’m 38 but I got that feeling all over again,” Zobrist said following the Cubs’ season finale, a 9-0 loss to the Cardinals in which he pitched a scoreless inning. “Just really fun, you know? It’s a fun game. Sometimes you don’t come out on the winning end, but you still gotta have fun with it and enjoy it. I enjoyed it today."

The Cubs roster is expected to undergo changes this offseason, with center field, second base and the leadoff spot being just a few areas the team will look to address. The latter two spots became revolving doors during Zobrist’s absence, as the Cubs struggled to replace what he brought offensively.

Zobrist is past the point in his career of being an everyday player. However, he still could be a useful asset for the Cubs in a supporting role, bringing his veteran approach to the lineup when he plays while still offering an experienced voice in the clubhouse.

“I take a lot of joy in that role, just being a supporting guy and being a part of winning clubs and part of winning atmospheres and cultures,” Zobrist said on Sept. 29. “The Chicago Cubs have been that since I’ve been around. This year we didn’t make the playoffs — we still have a winning record — (but) the kind of relationships that are built here and the culture that’s been built here is definitely a winning one.”

After the Cubs announced that they wouldn’t retain Joe Maddon for 2020, Zobrist acknowledged that more changes were likely coming in the offseason. Only time will tell what that means for the veteran utilityman — should he continue playing.

Whether he retires or joins a different team for 2020, though, Zobrist will look back on his four seasons with the Cubs fondly.

“(They’re) just the most passionate fans I’ve ever met,” he said of Cubs fans. “They’re very loyal, very passionate and it’s been such a pleasure to be a part of that team that beat the curse back in ’16, so I feel that still, when I see Cubs fans, there’s a lot of them that hug me and thank me for being a part of that.

“I’ll always look back at [my] time here — I don’t know what’s going to happen in the offseason — but look back at these four years and [be] very grateful to be able to be part of a group like this and be able to do what we did while I was here.”

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.

Cubs Talk Podcast: An ode to Joe Maddon and looking to the next era

maddon_pic.jpg
USA Today

Cubs Talk Podcast: An ode to Joe Maddon and looking to the next era

On the latest Cubs Talk Podcast, Tony Andracki, Kelly Crull, Scott Changnon and Jeff Nelson give us their memories of Joe Maddon's time with the Cubs and discuss David Ross and Joe Espada's candidacy to be the next manager.

01:30 Kelly's memories of Joe from the perspective of a reporter

06:00 Going back to Hazleton with Joe

07:45 Joe's legacy as manager of the Cubs

16:00 How Joe impacted Javy Baez' career

18:00 David Ross and Joe Espada may be the leaders to replace Joe Maddon.

Listen here or via the embedded player below:

Subscribe:

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.