Cubs

Javy Baez, the Cubs' versatile King of Swag

Javy Baez, the Cubs' versatile King of Swag

Even his teammates are having a hard time wrapping their minds around Javier Baez, the farmer.

Anthony Rizzo asked the flashy infielder before one of the panels this weekend at Cubs Convention, “What is it you do exactly? Feed chickens?”

The exchange garnered a good laugh from the crowd, but let’s be honest: only Baez could make feeding chickens look as cool as feeding a double play ball at Wrigley. Having asked at least 10 different Cubs players this weekend which teammate has the most swag, it was always Baez. And there was never any hesitation. 

Like the bling that hangs around his MLB logo-tatted neck, Baez dazzles on the field as well. His tags are a thing of beauty. You can just imagine young ballplayers around Chicago imitating the swipe, much like a Michael Jordan fadeaway jumper. Whether manning second or short, the 25 year-old has become a must-see defensive player.

Last season Baez took over at shortstop as Addison Russell dealt with a strained right foot/plantar fasciitis problem. In 30 games Baez thrived at his natural position, so much so he left some wondering if the Cubs would consider flipping Russell back to second base.

Baez has the more traditional, powerful shortstop arm, but Theo Epstein will tell you when you look at Russell’s defensive rankings compared to other shortstops, he’s a special player in his own right as well.

One thing’s for sure: the Cubs are fortunate to have that kind of depth up the middle. Joe Maddon made it clear last September that without the play of Baez, it’s doubtful the team would have been in position to clinch the division.

“We have two legitimate shortstops," Maddon said. "It’s very unusual to have that.”

Sure, a great problem to have. But how does it play out for the Cubs when all is said and done?

Does Baez take over at short with Russell moving to second, or is it Maddon having a tough conversation with Ben Zobrist and plugging No. 9 in as his everyday second baseman? There's Ian Happ, too. Is he the Cubs' second baseman of the future with Russell/Baez being the trade chip that lands a frontline starter?

All viable options, but just for fun we put Baez on the spot at Cubs Convention and asked him: Are you a shortstop playing second, or a second baseman playing short?”

He flashed a big grin and said a second baseman playing short. In other words, he gets it.

His bling doesn’t blind him from being a team player. "El Mago," the magician, knows his time is coming. A process that will begin in a few weeks when the Cubs report to Mesa.

How the Cubs are trying to help Kris Bryant out of his slump

How the Cubs are trying to help Kris Bryant out of his slump

Whatever Kris Bryant does from here, it's just frosting on the cake that is his legacy.

That's one way to look at the lasting impact of a guy like Bryant, who morphed from "The Chosen One" as the No. 2 overall pick. He's lived up to the hype from Day 1, has a Rookie of the Year and NL MVP Award in his trophy case and — most importantly of all — led the Cubs to their first World Series championship in 108 years.

A slump in May and June of 2018 won't tarnish that legacy.

But you can also forgive Cubs fans if they're growing a little antsy with their stud player. 

Just rest easy that he's growing a little antsy, too.

After chronicling his "temper tantrums" and actually admitting he gets so angry he is prone to breaking bats in frustration (still find that really hard to believe) last week, Bryant still isn't quite over his slump.

Maybe he's just simply trying to do too much right now.

"Kris is fine," Jon Lester said. "I mean, I think anytime you have a guy like that, he's got such high expectations not only of himself but the other people outside of the baseball world.

"I think he feels that — he feels pressure from his teammates, he feels pressure from himself and he wants to perform and he wants to do well every night. When he doesn't, it seems like he just keeps adding on. The rock on his back gets a little bigger every time."

As recently as May 22, Bryant was hitting .303 with a 1.007 OPS.

But since then — a span of 21 games — he's hitting just .241 with a .316 on-base percentage and .310 slugging percentage, good for a .627 OPS. More alarming than anything, he's struck out 28 times in 87 at-bats, taking a step back in the area he has made the most improvement in since breaking into the league in 2015.

The power has been an issue for even longer. Bryant just recently went a month without a homer before sending one into the bleachers Friday night at Busch Stadium.

Still, since May 15, he has only 8 extra-base hits (7 doubles and that 1 homer) in 27 games.

The struggle is real right now, but that hasn't stopped the Cubs from going 17-11 during Bryant's dip in power.

GM Jed Hoyer reiterated again that Bryant is the last guy the Cubs worry about in the big picture.

"The way he runs the bases, the way he plays defense, I feel like he's contributing to wins even when he might be struggling at the plate a little bit," Hoyer said Monday evening. "With guys like him, I always look at it and think to myself — that means a hot streak is right around the corner.

"I said that about Anthony [Rizzo] in April when he was struggling and he's been great since May 1. I think Kris will have the same kind of turnaraound. With him, it's just a matter of when he breaks out.

"Over the course of the season, every great player goes through one or two big slumps. We're in a strange sport where even the greatest players are not slump-proof. He'll get out of it and we'll all reap the benefits when he does."

Even with the struggles, Bryant ranks 23rd among position players in WAR (Fangraphs) with 2.3, pacing the Cubs in that category. That still puts him on pace for a roughly 6-WAR pace, which would be his lowest throughout his MLB career but is still very clearly elite.

In an effort to get him back to the "KB" we've seen so much over the last four years, Joe Maddon has twice resorted to bumping him to the top of the lineup, including Monday night's game against the Dodgers.

Maddon is hoping a move to the leadoff spot will reinstill in Bryant's head that he doesn't need to be a power hitter to help the team win.

For right now, it works. After all, Bryant is still tied for 9th in baseball in OBP (.389). 

"You really do start trying too hard," Maddon said. "You try to force things as opposed to letting them come to you. Especially a power guy that's not hit home runs in a bit. My take on power guys is that it normally is cyclical. They'll get it for a while, then they'll get away with it, then it comes back."

Like Hoyer, Maddon talked up Bryant's abilities as a "winning player" in every other area of the game even when he's not going yard. That includes his daily hustle and effort.

"When a guy like him goes through this moment, I want him to focus on that — not homers," Maddon said. "He probably hears that way too much about the power situation and I'm really not interested in that. 

"Put him back in the leadoff spot for the reasons I just said — he can help win a game in so many different ways and I want him to just focus on that. ... He needs our support; he's gonna get it. I just put him in that top spot to readjust how he's thinking and that's all."

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Are we seeing a playoff preview between the Cubs and Dodgers?

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USA TODAY

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Are we seeing a playoff preview between the Cubs and Dodgers?

Kap is joined by Doug Glanville, Nick Friedell, and Seth Gruen. The guys preview the NLCS rematch at Wrigley between the Cubs and Dodgers, discuss Kris Bryant's return to the leadoff spot, and consider the possibility of a 6-man rotation upon Darvish's return from the DL.

Plus, the guys weigh in on the Bulls' options in the NBA Draft on Thursday.

Listen to the full SportsTalk Live podcast here