If the Cubs never came that close to trading Javier Baez when he had been a Triple-A prospect with so much boom-or-bust potential – after a rough big-league debut where it looked like he might strike out 200-plus times a season – then they aren’t going to do it now that he’s become an indispensible part of a World Series team.
If the Cubs agreed with the idea Ben Zobrist would have a better chance of staying productive into his late 30s by focusing on one position – which helped frame a four-year, $56 million contract that includes two more seasons of full no-trade protection – then they aren’t going to permanently move a World Series MVP off second base and into the outfield.
But this won’t become an either-or scenario, because Baez is such a transcendent talent, Zobrist is such a good teammate and Joe Maddon is such a creative manager.
“We’re going to continue to lean on the versatility of all the players involved,” team president Theo Epstein said, “and (use) that to get some rest for guys and continue to put a good lineup out there every day and try to tailor the offense for that day’s opposing starting pitcher, as well as the defense for our starting pitcher.
“(We’ll) continue to try to be thoughtful about it, but not commit to any one position for any one player, except for some of the obvious ones.”
It will be hard to top the “multiple bank shot” Epstein pulled off at last year’s winter meetings, trading Starlin Castro to the New York Yankees to open up second base, free up money and win the Zobrist bidding war with an offer that didn’t top the $60 million guarantees from the New York Mets and San Francisco Giants. The Cubs bookended that move by signing veteran pitcher John Lackey and Gold Glove outfielder Jason Heyward away from the St. Louis Cardinals and forever changing that rivalry.
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When – or if – the industry gathers again next week for the winter meetings at the National Harbor in Maryland, it could be under a cloud of uncertainty. All that hinges on Major League Baseball’s owners and the players’ union finalizing a new collective bargaining agreement by the time the current labor deal expires on Thursday. But whatever happens, Epstein’s staff has already done most of the heavy lifting for the defending World Series champs.
During that unforgettable playoff run, Baez transformed from a super-utility guy/defensive replacement/raw offensive talent into a center of attention, a national audience suddenly recognizing his sixth sense for tags, slick fielding, clutch hitting and daring base-running.
Maddon immediately saw all that potential and lobbied for Baez to make the 2015 Opening Day roster, an internal debate he did not win, though the decision to stay patient paid off big time. Maddon has predicted that Baez will someday stop bouncing around the infield and settle into one position. But even as Baez emerged as a National League Championship Series co-MVP – and started all 17 postseason games at second base – Maddon didn’t necessarily see that happening in 2017.
“It just depends on how we configure the team,” Maddon said during the World Series. “(With Kyle) Schwarber being healthy, and then what do you do in center field? (There’s) Heyward and then there comes Zobrist’s name, so how do you configure all that?
“I don’t know the answers to those questions right now. I’m just saying those are the kind of questions you’ll ask and try to address in the offseason when I have a chance to talk with Theo and (GM) Jed (Hoyer) once the offseason kicks in.”
Baez also looked lost at times against the Cleveland Indians, going 5-for-30 with zero walks and 13 strikeouts. This is a player who will turn 24 on Thursday and still hasn’t spent a wire-to-wire season in the big leagues yet. The Cubs ran that risk-reward calculus in Game 7, when Baez committed two careless errors at second base and then led off the fifth inning by driving a Corey Kluber slider over Progressive Field’s center-field wall, knocking out the Cy Young Award winner.
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Zobrist came as advertised, showing why he developed into one of Maddon’s all-time favorite players during their time together with the Tampa Bay Rays and a World Series champion with the Kansas City Royals. This lineup absolutely needed Zobrist’s switch-hitting presence, inner confidence and sense of calm, a leader by example for the young Cubs.
“I can’t say that he’s not (our second baseman),” Maddon said during Zobrist’s MVP performance. “Right now, he’s been playing left field, yes, but down the road I can’t tell you that for sure. Not at all.
“He’s in a good place. He’s had good at-bats. He’s had a good postseason again. But that has nothing to do with next year. That’s just for right now.”
Winning 103 games only reinforced the importance of depth and flexibility, how a Cubs team stocked with interchangeable parts could withstand a marathon that lasted more than eight months and still peak at the right time.
Baez is insurance against another hamstring injury sidelining All-Star shortstop Addison Russell, coverage in case NL MVP Kris Bryant needs to move off third base and play more in the outfield or fill in for Gold Glove/Silver Slugger first baseman Anthony Rizzo.
Baez, Russell and Zobrist already went to Disney World. Though Zobrist and the middle infielders of the future are at different points in their careers, the Cubs will all have the same idea in mind in 2017: Repeating.