While teams still began trade discussions by asking about Kyle Schwarber — trying to value him as a big-time prospect rather than the legitimate No. 5 hitter the Cubs envision in their 2017 lineup — at least rival executives finally started to get the hint about Javier Baez.
The Cubs already see Baez as one of their most valuable players — at the age of 23 and during his first full season in the big leagues — meaning trading him in the middle of a pennant race for a young starting pitcher would be robbing Peter to pay Paul.
“He’s a game changer on defense,” manager Joe Maddon said before starting Baez at shortstop during Wednesday afternoon’s game against the Miami Marlins at Wrigley Field. “It’s just unusual. Not many groups could have that particular weapon.”
Baez allows Maddon to give All-Star shortstop Addison Russell the day off — or move All-Star second baseman Ben Zobrist or All-Star third baseman Kris Bryant to the outfield — and still have a Gold Glove-caliber defender in position (with huge offensive potential).
“It’s like a really good boxer,” Maddon said. “There’s a natural fast twitch or whatever people want to call it. He’s just that guy who moves very quickly within his hands. That’s where the bat speed is. That’s where the tag speed is.
“If you watch (Robinson) Cano on defense, there’s not a tense muscle in his body. I think when you watch Javy play defense, there’s not a tense anything in anything that he does.
“Offensively, that’s where the loose, whippy approach is. Put your scout’s cap on, man. In a couple years, it’s going to be really fun.”
Cano is a two-time Gold Glove second baseman, a seven-time All-Star, a World Series champion with the New York Yankees and now in the middle of a $240 million megadeal with the Seattle Mariners. Baez can’t become a free agent until after the 2021 season, making him a core player right alongside Schwarber, Russell, Bryant and Anthony Rizzo.
Crazy comparisons follow Baez. Gary Sheffield met with president of baseball operations Theo Epstein and then-manager Dale Sveum in an Opryland hotel room during the 2012 winter meetings in Nashville, Tenn., asking him to watch video of Baez on a laptop and break down the swing. The Cubs later hired Manny Ramirez as a hitting consultant with Baez specifically in mind.
“There are days — or maybe a week or 10 days — where he’ll shorten up and really utilize the entire field,” Maddon said. “Other times, he’s pretty much John Daly.”
Maddon delivered that line perfectly in the interview room, getting reporters to laugh during his pregame media session. But it’s hard to imagine a manager who could draw more out of Baez.
“You look at him and two years from now you’re not going to recognize him,” Maddon said. “Even right now compared to the beginning of the year, there are moments where it’s completely different.
“This is who he is, man. He’s going to hit homers. He’s going to make extravagant plays, offensively, defensively. But there’s been more of a consistent approach to his game this year — at times.”
Baez has consciously cut down his strikeout percentage, from his 2014 debut (41.5) to last year’s September call-up (30) to this season (24.5). He’s put up 11 homers, 40 RBIs and a .768 OPS in less than 300 plate appearances. The sky’s the limit.
“With a lot of players, you got to take the bad with the good,” Maddon said. “They’re not going to be perfect when you get a young guy working through issues. Watch a Double-A game or a Triple-A game, you’re going to see a lot of that — the big swing sometimes or chasing pitches out of the zone and not making adjustments.
“So just continue to be patient with him. He’s making some really wonderful strides. He goes in and out of windows or pockets regarding his awareness to really cut things down with two strikes.
“But it’s a very forceful swing. You’re going to see the power when he gets his 500, 600 at-bats and really knows what he’s doing at the plate. You’re going to see a lot of homers, too.”