How the Cubs have become Javy Baez's team

How the Cubs have become Javy Baez's team

ARLINGTON, Texas — The Cubs clubhouse was open to the media for more than an hour following the stunning Wild-Card loss to the Rockies at Wrigley Field and during that time, one takeaway stood out more than anything else.

This is Javy Baez's team now.

That's not a slight in any way on face of the franchise Anthony Rizzo or MVP candidate Kris Bryant or even grizzled veteran Jon Lester. It's just a simple point — Ednel Javier Baez is the present and the future of the Cubs.

He proved it again on Opening Day Thursday — crushing a pair of homers and driving in 4 runs to lead his team to a win in the first meangingful game since that one-game playoff.

Many were predicting regression for Baez in 2019 and even those who expected more of the same this year probably weren't predicting this kind of performance in Game 1. But those inside the clubhouse weren't surprised in the least.

"That's Javy being Javy," David Bote said. "The dude's a superstar."

"We all know what he can do," Bryant said. "We have a front row seat every day, so it doesn't surprise any of us. It was just a matter of him getting that experience and maturing and realizing what to swing at and what not to swing at."

"We all saw him grow up before our eyes last year," Lester said. "This year, it's just proving himself now. He's done it, so I don't think the questions are there as far as — 'Can he?' Now it's just a matter of him going out and playing. Let Javy do Javy and I think good things will happen."

Of course, it was only one game. And Baez won't stay on his current 162-game pace of 324 homers and 648 RBI.

But the last calendar year has been quite the rise for Baez. He opened the 2018 season hitting eighth in the first game and spent another few weeks in the 7 and 8 spots in the batting order.

How often do we see the MVP runner-up begin the season hitting at the bottom of his team's lineup to begin the season?

"Last year at this point, he was hitting really low in the batting order," Joe Maddon said. "It wasn't the same kind of vibe that you're seeing right now. He ascended to the middle of the batting order last year. 

"He's playing with a lot of enthusiasm and there's some people that may not like some of those things. He's demonstrating — in a good way — where he's come from."

Enthusiasm, swag, flair — use whatever word you'd like, but there's no denying Baez is oozing with it. That theme was absolutely on display in Texas on Opening Day, from the five pounds of bling around his neck to the leaping and waving as he called off Jason Heyward for a simple pop-up in shallow right field in the eighth inning. 

For his part, Baez doesn't care where he hits. He doesn't care what position he plays. He doesn't care about where he stands in the earliest MVP discussion in Cubs franchise history.

All the 26-year-old cares about is winning. And the Cubs didn't win last year.

Not when it counted, anyways.

Before Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer and Maddon talked about the need for urgency and edge, it was Baez lighting a fire under his teammates before and after that NL Wild-Card Game. 

"After the season was over, after the last game, we started saying what we were missing," Baez said. "It kinda bothered me because that's what the game is — to make adjustments and get better. We waited for the season to be over to look at it and to try to make adjustments when there was no tomorrow."

Epstein's front office and Maddon's coaching staff spent the winter trying to find more leadership within the Cubs clubhouse, but the answer might not come from the outside or even one of the wise veterans already on the roster. 

Part of the solution lies with Baez, whose baseball IQ and vision is unparalleled.

"These young guys think, 'Oh, I'm young, I'm a rookie,'" said Pedro Strop, who has had a big impact on molding Baez into the player and person he is today. "It's like, 'No, bro, you're gonna be one of the leaders. We're gonna be gone by the time you're gonna be the man of this team. Just take charge, bro.' 

"He's one of the leaders of this group. He can speak up when the team needs it, when we need it. And he's the type of guy to have fun. He brings a lot of energy to the clubhouse. ... Everybody just loves the way he plays. He plays like a kid. I remember when we were kids, we never thought about anything — we just played the game and had fun and that's what he does. There's not many players that play the game like that."

But how easy is it for a guy with only about three years of MLB service time to become a leader on a veteran-laden team with World Series expectations? 

"We have so many humble players," Strop said. "It's easy to become a leader here because we just let everybody share their opinions here. It's not like, OK, one guy's gonna talk. We like to hear everybody's opinion. If you want to be a leader, you can be a leader of this team because we're gonna make sure we listen to your opinions and willing to discuss it.

"If you're right, you're right. It doesn't matter if you have 2 days in the Show or whatever."

Baez was the guy the rest of the clubhouse turned to last year to come up with the big hit on the field and he was finding his voice off it, as a burgeoning leader in the dugout and clubhouse.

Nobody knows if he'll be able to keep the good times rolling in 2019, but no player is more important to the Cubs than Baez. If the Cubs are going to get where they want to go this season, they're going to need El Mago. 

Good thing this front office never traded him, eh?

"[Last year], we saw the kind of totally dynamic player he can be," GM Jed Hoyer said. "But probably most gratifying is the fact that I think we saw the leader and the example he can be. The players respect him so much — he plays hurt, he plays all-out and all he cares about is winning. I mean, he really takes losing to heart.

"More than anything, he takes any kind of lack of effort or anybody pulling in the wrong direction to heart. I think that's something he wants to continue to focus on is how can he vocalize his thoughts and become a better leader? When he sees things he doesn't like, how can he step up? 

"He's been told, but I think he's kinda figured out how much sway he has over his teammates. They respect him so much and the way he plays, so I think he can use that respect and that mantle he has for good. I think he will and I think we're gonna see tremendous growth from him on that standpoint.

"The offensive signs we saw last year can keep going forward. He can continue to organize the strike zone better, continue to have a really good right-center field approach with everything. The arrow is pointing straight up both as a person and as a player."

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Be ready for anything: Cubs open to all trade avenues this winter

Be ready for anything: Cubs open to all trade avenues this winter

While Cubs fans sit on the edge of their seats waiting to see if Theo Epstein's front office trades away a core player — and which guy that might be — the question has really become more of a when

Both because it seems likely Epstein shakes up this Cubs roster this winter and because there's natural curiosity about the timing of such a move. 

If the Cubs don't get the type of return they're seeking for players like Willson Contreras and Kris Bryant, they are not going to trade just for trade's sake. But it's clear the roster needs a change and the front office has also shifted a good amount of focus on the long-term future of the organization — beyond 2021, when most of the core players are set to hit free agency.

As for when a major trade may come down, there's really no indication on that front. The MLB Hot Stove season has taken longer and longer to get going in recent winters and that very much appears to be the case again this 2019-20 offseason as many teams — including the Cubs — have just recently finalized their coaching staff and key front office hires.

At the GM Meetings last week, the Cubs said they were in the early stages of any offseason moves and had just started to exchange names with other teams about who is and isn't available.

They're not pigeonholing themselves into any one avenue for how the winter will play out.

"Sometimes you get a feel for the marketplace or kernels of ideas and they end up coming true and you look back and you're like, 'ah, that feel we had really matched the whole tenor of the offseason with certain teams,'" Epstein said. "Other times, you can go through a whole Russian novel's worth of twists and turns in an offseason depending on one or two player moves or clubs changing course or being able to execute things or not execute things. 

"We'll see. I think the important thing is to keep a really open mind and be prepared for all different permutations of how things can work out."

As for what shape the trades may come in, be ready for anything. 

The Cubs have said they still have no issues trading within the division, so even in a year where they're planning on competing in the wide-open NL Central, they're more concerned with improving their organization in the long run than worrying about potentially making a rival better.

Epstein also said they're not afraid of acquiring a player with only one year of team control left, as long as it makes sense. But there's no reason right now for the Cubs to mortgage the future to go all-in on 2020.

"It just depends on the player and the fit and the acquisition cost, and everything else," Epstein said. "I think we're like every team — to one extent or another, we're trying to balance an immediate future vs. a longer-term future. We knew that as we got closer to the end of the period of club control with some of our best players, we had to be increasingly mindful of if you put the longer-term future rather than just the short-term. 

"It's a bit of a transition for us, but it doesn't mean you rule anything out, even if it's something short-term. But you try to strike that right balance."

The Cubs also insist they're not locked into adding any one specific position or type of player. For example, they're not only looking to trade for centerfielders or leadoff guys — even if both are clear areas of need in the short-term.

Anything is on the table, which makes sense considering trading a core guy would also open up a hole elsewhere on the roster. If Contreras is dealt, the Cubs could feel pretty confident about Victor Caratini sliding into a larger role, but they would obviously need more catching depth both in the short- and long-term.

"I still think we have a lot of pieces that can move around the board a bit," Jed Hoyer said. "As we think about what we're gonna do [and] have conversations the whole winter, there's a big picture element to it where I think we're not gonna be entirely married to this position or that position — making moves that make sense both long-term and short-term. 

"We do have pieces that you can move around that makes us able to do that. We don't have particular holes that we feel like we have to spend the whole winter trying to fill, but rather we can make some moves maybe a little bit more strategically."

So the Cubs are saying all the right things, but what does that mean? 

For starters, it doesn't appear any major move is approaching on the horizon and regardless of what the first trade or free agent signing is, it will be just one piece to a larger puzzle. This is shaping up to be a crucial offseason in every aspect of the organization, so the final judgement of the winter will be the most important one.

But as the Cubs try to put that puzzle together and make their big-picture plans a reality, they're not going to get sidetracked by the incessant rumors and aim to continue trying to shield their players from a similar fate.

"We can't chase down every rumor," Hoyer said. "People are gonna put stuff out there about our guys and there's definitely some clickbait opportunity about our guys. We have a lot of guys who have been All-Stars and you can put a story out pretty easily that gets clicks. 

"One of the things about our players in general is we're in a big market, they're used to having their name in trade rumors, they're used to having their names out there. I think they have a sense of what's real and what's not real. But we can't chase down every rumor. We can't deny every rumor because we know that's going to happen. We have to live with that. We're not gonna add fuel to that fire, that's for sure." 

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Kris Bryant's big winter continues with baby announcement


Kris Bryant's big winter continues with baby announcement

Kris Bryant is in the midst of a potentially career-altering grievance case while trade rumors and contract extension talks continue to swirl around him.

Oh yeah, and he's about to be a father in April.

Talk about a life-changing winter for Bryant. 

Jess Bryant dropped a video on social media Tuesday morning showing pictures and videos of her and Kris throughout their relationship (including what looked to be a couple prom photos with a teenage "KB") and the minute-long video ended with a sonogram photo and the announcement that a baby boy is due April 2020:

Baby Bryant will be born a little over three years after Kris and Jess tied the knot.

That will be right as the regular season heats up for Bryant, who will be looking to build on a resurgent 2019 campaign that saw him hit 31 homers and post a .903 OPS while being named to the National League All-Star team and playing through persistent knee inflammation.

Bryant's long-term future with the Cubs is still in doubt but his agent, Scott Boras, confirmed they're open to listening on a contract extension and also shed some light on how unlikely it is that the Cubs would be able to recoup enough value in a deal to make trading the superstar worthwhile.

In the meantime, should we pencil Baby Bryant into the 2040 MLB top prospects list now or is that getting too far ahead of ourselves?