Jed Hoyer

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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In lieu of a veteran backup catcher, Cubs place their trust in Victor Caratini

caratini_cubs_backup_c_story.jpg
AP

In lieu of a veteran backup catcher, Cubs place their trust in Victor Caratini

MESA, Ariz. — Barring a surprise move, the Cubs will head into the 2019 regular season with the same catching situation as a year ago — Willson Contreras as the bell cow and Victor Caratini as the backup.

It's still possible the Cubs add a veteran backstop into the mix (Martin Maldonado remains a free agent and a favorite of #CubsTwitter), but that's looking more and more unlikely by the day. Pitchers and catchers have been working together in Cubs camp for nearly two weeks now, so it would be less than ideal to throw another catcher into the fray and have that guy get up to speed with the entire pitching staff before the regular season begins on March 28.

The Cubs did add Francisco Arcia over the winter, but he's already 29 and has less MLB experience than Caratini.

So all signs are pointing to the 25-year-old Caratini as the backup once again.

After getting his first taste of the big leagues in 2017, Caratini beat out veteran Chris Gimenez as Contreras' backup last spring, though he didn't play much initially. 

Caratini started only 8 games at catcher over the first two months of the season before being swapped with Gimenez and sent back down to the minor leagues. The young catcher emerged in Chicago again during the first week of July and was here to stay after that.

"Nobody likes getting sent down and obviously I wasn't happy with it," Caratini said, "but I went down there, I worked on a few things and tried as hard as I could to come back and help my team win.

"...Even though [the season] didn't end the way we wanted it to end, during the whole process, I felt like I made it, I'm here and I'm going to stay as long as I can."

Caratini still didn't get a ton of playing time when he returned — 7 starts at catcher in July, 5 starts in August — but he started earning the trust of Joe Maddon's coaching staff and the Cubs pitchers as the year went along, eventually earning 11 starts in September.

Most of that was due to the rapport he built up with starter Cole Hamels after the Cubs acquired the veteran southpaw from the Rangers just before the trade deadline. Of Caratini's 31 starts at catcher in 2019, 8 came with Hamels on the mound.

"We like Vic a lot — he did a great job with Hamels last year at the end," Cubs GM Jed Hoyer said. "All the guys like throwing to him. He studies reports, he's in there all the time, he prepares. Most backups are older. He doesn't see himself as a backup, but he understands his role now and he prepares well.

"In that role, if the guys see you preparing, that's how you earn the trust of the pitchers and he did a good job with that."

Caratini may continue to catch Hamels a lot in 2019, but he'll still only see sporadic starts behind the plate with Contreras once again expected to shoulder a heavy load. Maddon insists Contreras' offensive slump in the second half of last year was not related to physical fatigue, but it stands to reason the Cubs would be more confident in giving their All-Star catcher a rest more often if their trust level in Caratini increases.

Even though he's made appearances in parts of 107 MLB games over the last two season, Caratini has only caught 366.1 innings and registered 266 plate appearances at the big-league level. He's also seen some time at first base and is a regular pinch-hitter, but it's not the type of consistent playing time that he's used to.

It's difficult for an inexperienced player to develop while only starting once a week or so, but Caratini came into the new season with the confidence of knowing he belongs in the big leagues and a better plan to settle into his role.

"When I was growing up — up until I got to the majors — I was playing every single day," Caratini said. "And it's not easy to only play a couple days a week at the most.  What's important is to prepare and study and that's what I try to do. 

"I try to prepare as much as I can because I don't know when I'm going to get called on to enter the game and I need to do everything I can to be as prepared as possible. That way, I can get into a roll where I'm playing often. My goal is to play every day and be an everyday player.

"...I do feel a little bit more established here. I just came to camp to do my job and try to keep my spot here and try to help the team achieve our ultimate goal."

With Machado in San Diego, the Cubs are adjusting to the new normal in NL

With Machado in San Diego, the Cubs are adjusting to the new normal in NL

MESA, Ariz. — The Cubs didn't spend the winter hanging out at the top of the market for free agents or trades, but they're about the only National League team that can claim that.

The NL was already pretty good a year ago and it looks to be even better in 2019, with maybe only 3 teams (the Marlins, Giants and Diamondbacks) who aren't trying to be competitive. (Then again, the Giants have been rumored to be a player for Bryce Harper, so it's entirely possible that list dwindles to just 2 teams by Opening Day.)

Manny Machado's record contract Tuesday morning helped solidfy the San Diego Padres as a serious player — if not in 2019, then in the very near future. 

That throws another team into the mix, joining the Cubs, Brewers, Cardinals, Nationals, Phillies, Braves, Dodgers and Rockies as serious contenders in addition to a few teams on the upswing even if they may not be playoff squads this year (Pirates, Reds, Mets).

With tanking and "rebuilding" popular trends in the game today, it's been a while since one league was as competitive as this.

"There are a lot of things about the game that we're doing right or people are disgruntled about," Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said, "but as a fan, when you can look at a lot of different markets and feel like your team has a chance to compete for a division, I don't recall any other time where it's been like this. This is a good thing for where this game is at right now."

While the Cubs have been surprisingly quiet this winter, the rest of the NL had loaded up, with the talent changing leads very unequal. 

Here's the list of notable players moving from the American League to the NL this year:

Josh Donaldson
Robinson Cano
Edwin Diaz
Jeurys Familia
Andrew McCutchen
Jean Segura
David Robertson
Andrew Miller
Yan Gomes
Brian McCann
Sonny Gray
Russell Martin
Joe Kelly
Jed Lowrie
Ian Kinsler

Meanwhile, the list of talent going from the NL to the AL is basically D.J. LeMahieu, Adam Ottavino, Matt Harvey and a bunch of role players.

On top of that, many free agents chose to stay in the NL, led by Machado. There's still a bunch of talent on the open market (Harper, Craig Kimbrel, Dallas Keuchel, Marwin Gonzalez, etc.) that could wind up in the NL, too.

All that points to a tough road for the Cubs, a team that spent much of last year with the best record in the NL. The talent gap on paper has certainly shrunk.

But the Cubs still have plenty to focus on what's happening under their own roof, with a refocused mission and renewed sense of urgency.

"Things are cyclical — the American League was like that 3, 4, 5 years ago and they've had a number of teams that hit a different part of their cycle at this point in the AL," Cubs GM Jed Hoyer said. "But now that's what we have in the National League — where there's a cycle that it's hard to find a team that's not competitive, that doesn't have a chance.

"It means some lower win totals will probably win the division and be in the Wild-Card race. It means you just have to grind through every series. You're not gonna just look at your schedule and know you got some easy runs. It's changed.

"In '15 and '16, for example, in the National League, you could look at the schedule and you'd have some stretches where you felt like we gotta go 11-3 in those two weeks to feel good about it. That's not gonna be the case anymore and there's nothing wrong with that. You just gotta kinda readjust your sights a little bit."

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