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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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