Javier Baez showing Cubs why he can be a game-changer


Javier Baez showing Cubs why he can be a game-changer

ST. LOUIS – This is why Joe Maddon wanted Javier Baez on the Opening Day roster. The Cubs manager saw the instinctual feel for the game, the natural athleticism and a rocket-launcher arm.

Let Baez figure out how to use that Gary Sheffield bat speed later. Maddon believed the kid could help the team win in so many different ways.

Baez still isn’t a finished product – and this season hasn’t gone according to plan – but here he is in September making a difference for a legitimate playoff contender against the hated St. Louis Cardinals.

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“He falls out of bed and he can play defense,” Maddon said before Wednesday’s 4-3 loss at Busch Stadium. “It’s incredible to watch how smooth he is and how comfortable he is with all these different positions.

“He’s just different. I don’t know even know if I’ve ever had anybody quite that comfortable on the infield, especially at that age.”

Baez is 22 years old, but he can take charge defensively like a veteran player. Did you see that diving stop to his left and the throw from his knees to rob Jason Heyward of a base hit on Tuesday night? Or the way he charged Greg Garcia’s bunt to make a barehanded play look effortless?

Not bad for a natural shortstop playing third base. But right now the Cubs don’t have a shortstop controversy or any plans to replace Addison Russell – who also looked so good at second base – in late-game situations or with certain matchups.

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“I really like Addie at shortstop,” Maddon said. “I like Javy’s ability to move around like he is right now. I’d like him to give Addie a day off. But we have not spoken at all about doing anything differently.”

A National League scout who covers the Cubs called Baez the organization’s best defensive shortstop. Arm strength is one area where the Cubs hope Russell will improve over time, allowing him to throw with more authority and make plays deeper in the hole.

Baez also looks more under control at the plate, going 8-for-25 (.320) with six strikeouts since his September call-up from Triple-A Iowa. But he doesn’t have to swing away to make an impact.

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Playing Baez at third base allows the Cubs to move Kris Bryant to the outfield. Playing Baez at second base tightens up the infield defense at a time when runs will be at a premium. There are so many possibilities for a manager who loves to go mix-and-match. 

“Javy is showing you that he’s capable of doing all that,” Maddon said. “I’m certain he could be a good outfielder, too. But when a guy can play that kind of game on the dirt, you want to keep him there.”

Cubs bolster pitching staff with minor trade, foreshadow more moves coming

Cubs bolster pitching staff with minor trade, foreshadow more moves coming

The Cubs didn't wait long to make Joe Maddon's words come true.

Roughly 5 hours after Maddon said the Cubs are definitely in the market for more pitching, the front office went out and acquired Jesse Chavez, a journeyman jack-of-all-trades type.

It's a minor move, not in the realm of Zach Britton or any of the other top relievers on the market.

But the Cubs only had to part with pitcher Class-A pitcher Tyler Thomas, their 7th-round draft pick from last summer who was pitching out of the South Bend rotation as a 22-year-old.

Chavez — who turns 35 in a month — brings over a vast array of big-league experience, with 799 innings under his belt. He's made 70 starts, 313 appearances as a reliever and even has 3 saves, including one this season for the Texas Rangers.

Chavez is currently 3-1 with a 3.51 ERA, 1.24 WHIP and 50 strikeouts in 56.1 innings. He has a career 4.61 ERA and 1.38 WHIP while pitching for the Pirates, Braves, Royals, Blue Jays, A's, Dodgers, Angels and Rangers before coming to Chicago.

Of his 30 appearances this season, Chavez has worked multiple innings 18 times and can serve as a perfect right-handed swingman in the Cubs bullpen, filling the role previously occupied by Luke Farrell and Eddie Butler earlier in the season.

Chavez had a pretty solid run as a swingman in Oakland from 2013-15, making 47 starts and 50 appearances as a reliever, pitching to a 3.85 ERA, 1.31 WHIP and 8.2 K/9 across 360.1 innings.

"Good arm, versatile, could start and relieve," Joe Maddon said Thursday after the trade. "I've watched him. I know he had some great runs with different teams. 

"The word that comes to mind is verstaility. You could either start him or put him in the bullpen and he's very good in both arenas."

It's not a flasy move, but a valuable piece to give the Cubs depth down the stretch.

There's no way the Cubs are done after this one trade with nearly two weeks left until the deadline. There are more moves coming from this front office, right?

"Oh yeah," Maddon said. "I don't think that's gonna be the end of it. They enjoy it too much."

Jason Heyward has become an offensive catalyst

Jason Heyward has become an offensive catalyst

Expecting Jason Heyward to carry a team offensively would be thought as foolish just a few short months ago. But here in the middle of July, Heyward has turned into the offensive firestarter the Cubs have been seemingly missing since Dexter Fowler left. 

Heyward walked away from Thursday night's 9-6 win over the Cardinals tallying three hits, two RBI, two runs scored and his first stolen base of the year, as the 28-year-old outfielder continued to poke holes in the Cardinals defense. 

Twice Heyward was able to slip a ball between the 1st and 2nd basemen that off the bat looked like neither had a chance to make it through the right field side. Later, Heyward would battle through a lengthy at-bat, finally being rewarded with an opposite-field hit that drove in the game-tying run. 

"It just happened," Heyward explained. " [Carlos Martinez] is not going to give you a whole lot to do damage on throughout the game. I was able to get one pitch there and get a guy home." 

Cubs manager Joe Maddon mentioned Heyward and his ability to move the ball around the field and how it's helped him become an effective piece to this Cubs offense. So effective Heyward's batting average crept up to .290 after today's three-hit performance. 

Heyward credits his quick hands as the major tool he's utilized to create so many successful at-bats lately, which has allowed him to take advantage of certain pitches and punch them through for hits.

He's certainly not driving the ball for consistent power, but the approach has put Heyward on pace to match the 160 hit total he amassed with the Cardinals in 2015. 

"I feel like Joe's mindset on moving the ball is putting the ball in play when you got guys on base," said Heyward. "It keeps the line moving, regardless of the result." 

It might be crazy to think that Heyward's incredible turnaround this season might simply be attributed to putting the ball in play. But even just taking a look at Heyward's contact rates shows he's increased his contact on pitches outside the zone by roughly three percent.

Not a massive difference, but if Heyward's hands are truly giving him an edge at the plate, making contact with pitches that may not be a strike but are hittable pitches could explain the increased offense we are seeing now. 

"That's kinda the biggest thing," said Heyward. "The more good swings you take, the more hits you have a chance to get." 

Shooters shoot, and Heyward continues to shoot his shot and keep the Cubs offense chugging along.