Each day in March, NBC Sports Chicago is previewing one player from the Cubs’ expected 2020 Opening Day roster. Next up is shortstop Javier Báez
Báez didn’t repeat his 2018 MVP-caliber season, but he was damn good in 2019. In 138 games, the 27-year-old shortstop hit .281/.316/.531 with 29 home runs, 85 RBIs and a 114 wRC+.
Confoundingly, Báez wasn’t a Gold Glove Award finalist despite leading all MLB infielders in Outs Above Average (+19). He made 15 errors and still finished tied for first in Defensive Runs Saved by MLB shortstops (26) with the Cardinals’ Paul DeJong.
Báez's season was cut short after he fractured his thumb sliding into second base on Sept. 1. The Cubs went 11-15 in September without him, falling from 2.5 games back of first place in the NL Central to third — missing the postseason for the first time in five years.
Báez is indispensable to the Cubs’ success, providing elite baserunning and defense, plus an authoritative bat in the middle of their order. He made a single plate appearance post-injury, striking out as a pinch-hitter on Sept. 21.
You have to wonder how the Cubs would’ve fared in September had Báez not gotten hurt. The same can be said about his season overall, as he injured his heel in late May and wasn't the same hitter after:
Opening Day-May 19: 44 games, .319/.359/.595, 11 homers, 31 RBIs, 141 wRC+
June 1-on: 91 games, .260/.292/.497, 18 homers, 54 RBIs, 99 wRC+
Expectations for this season’s role
Báez is the Cubs’ starting shortstop and will play just about every game. He's 100 percent healthy, David Ross said late last month, a good sign for the club.
Báez will hit third this season after mostly hitting fourth in 2019. Ross plans to alternate righties and lefties in the lineup and anointed Kris Bryant the Cubs’ leadoff hitter at the start of spring training. This moves Anthony Rizzo up to second and Báez to third.
In 29 games in the three-hole, Báez is a career .366/.398/.571 hitter with four homers, 19 RBIs and a 161 wRC+. Small sample and home run totals aside, he’s enjoyed more success there than any other spot in the lineup.
This isn’t a coincidence; 26 of those games came from 2018-19, the best two seasons of Báez’s career.
In the past two seasons, Báez has started back-to-back All-Star Games (at second base and shortstop), finished second in a National League MVP race and won a Silver Slugger Award. And yet, it feels like he can hit another level in 2020.
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Being healthy bodes well for Báez in 2020, but that doesn't mean he can't improve. He's a free swinger, and the Cubs will never ask him to change who he is. However, his career 4.9 percent walk rate is subpar and getting it closer to average (around 8 percent) will make him a more dangerous hitter. Think of what the Cubs’ lineup will look like if Báez sports a .340+ OBP this season
What fans are wondering most is whether the Cubs will lock up Báez with a long-term deal in 2020. Last week, he said talks between his party and the Cubs are progressing, though he didn’t specify how close a deal is.
Báez isn’t a free agent until after 2021, but getting a deal done sooner gives the Cubs more long-term roster and financial certainty. In the meantime, we get to enjoy El Mago at work, and perhaps better than ever before.
The complete roster outlook series:
1. Cubs hoping Kris Bryant stabilizes leadoff spot in 2020
2. Kyle Hendricks is a steady force in the Cubs' rotation
3. Kyle Schwarber is primed for a breakout 2020 season
4. Tyler Chatwood has chance to rewrite the script in 2020
5. David Bote searching for more offensive consistency in 2020
6. One pitch could hold key to Jose Quintana's 2020 success
7. Albert Almora Jr. looking to rebound behind new swing, refreshed mental state
8. Cubs counting on bounce back season from Craig Kimbrel