Willson Contreras is the best player on the planet right now. Anthony Rizzo is the face of the franchise. Kris Bryant is the reigning NL MVP.

But Jon Jay has been the hero the Cubs need.

The 32-year-old outfielder has flown under the radar with fans, but players and coaches around the league have always appreciated his game.

Jay began the year as a part-time player for the Cubs — a pinch-hitter off the bench, a defensive replacement and spot-starter at any of the three spots in the outfield.

But he's been playing full time lately and filling the void at the top of the order. Jay has started nine of the Cubs' last 11 games, playing a ton of center field while rookies Ian Happ and Albert Almora Jr. work to make adjustments. 

"He's playing at a very high level right now," Joe Maddon said. "We have really been in need of his services. He's made a great impact this year and we wouldn't be nearly in as good of shape without him right now."

Jay's numbers don't jump off the page, but he is hitting 298 with a .388 on-base percentage and is sixth on the team in position-player WAR, ahead of guys like Jason Heyward, Ian Happ, Ben Zobrist and Kyle Schwarber.

In addition to what he's done on the field, Jay has helped fill the leadership void in the clubhouse with David Ross now in the broadcast booth and Cubs front office. Maddon has even called Jay his sidekick.

 

"It's very important when you get that kind of support," Maddon said. "Jon Jay is a pro. I do lean on him a little bit talking to some of the younger guys. I'll say things to him and I know that he'll take the message properly to the player.

"He has influence. There's no question. Who works better at-bats than he does right now? Who works harder than he does? Watch him in the outfield shagging fly balls when we take batting practice. He wears his little beanie and his hoodie and he goes out there and he works his butt off and I love it.

"In the weight room, he's always on the treadmill or on the bike or doing something to stay ready. Just has a great method about him. He's got a good way with the guys about him also. They kinda gravitate toward him."

Jay has never been an All-Star. He's only notched more than 500 plate apperances once in his eight seasons. His career high in homers is 10 and has never driven in or scored more than 75 runs in a season.

But he also doesn't try to do too much. He's not up there swinging for the bleachers, choosing instead to spray the ball from sideline to sideline with a line-drive approach.

His teammates love him. To a man, when asked about Jay, each guy in the Cubs clubhouse immediately goes to his work ethic and preparation. 

You'd think the phrase, "he's a true professional" might have actually been invented for Jay the way his teammates and coaches keep coming back to it.

Just ask John Lackey about Jay (the two played together in St. Louis in 2014-15). Lackey often spends his post-start media sessions giving reporters short answers or calling teammates out for not turning enough batted balls into outs, but his face lit up when asked about Jay.

"Man, just a pro," Lackey said. "He's prepared, he's ready to play every day whether he's in the lineup or not. He does his work, he puts together a professional at-bat every time he's up there.

"He knows what he's trying to do. He knows who he is as a player. He's a guy you can trust, for sure."

Jay has always been this way, according to Almora, a Miami-area native who watched Jay play with the University of Miami.

Jay has really taken Almora under his wing this season, helping the young outfielder handle a reduced role and staying ready for any opportunity in the game, whether as a pinch-hitter, defensive replacement or pinch-runner.

"His work ethic's off the charts ever since I've known him," Almora said. "He came into the University of Miami, he had his own gameplan and workout. He knew what he had to do to get ready and maintain for a whole baseball season. 

 

"Now being with him day in and day out, just the preparation work, the mental part of the game. He loves the game. He's a student of the game and every time he sees an opportunity to tell me something for me to learn, he's always there."