Jon Lester

'The Javy Baez Show' hits the All-Star Game, with El Mago taking his place among baseball's best

'The Javy Baez Show' hits the All-Star Game, with El Mago taking his place among baseball's best

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Asked not long ago how special Javy Baez is, Joe Maddon brought up another name: Jon Lester.

To paraphrase the Cubs’ skipper: When a player with the experience of Lester is raving about Baez, you know he’s something special.

It doesn’t take a lot to realize that Baez can do things on a baseball field that few others can. The man nicknamed “El Mago” is pulling a new rabbit out of his hat each and every game, it seems, leaving even those the closest to him consistently wowed.

And, yeah, Lester thinks pretty highly of his Cubs and National League All-Star teammate, saying Monday that Baez is the best infielder he’s played with during his big league career, now in its 13th season.

“I think he is, probably, the best infielder I’ve ever played with. That speaks pretty highly,” Lester said the day prior to the Midsummer Classic in D.C. “I’ve played with some pretty good ones: (Dustin) Pedroia, Mike Lowell, (Adrian) Beltre at third. These guys are pretty special defenders and players, and I think Javy’s athleticism makes him above and beyond those guys.

“How athletic he is, how he’s able to control his body. There’s times in the game where you feel like it’s almost going backwards for him it’s so slow. And the stuff he’s able to do at the plate, defensively, you guys all see that. He’s a special player to watch. I’m just glad he’s on our side and we get to do it every day.”

Baez’s breakout campaign has him in the MVP discussion at the season’s midway point. And he’s one of the stars of these All-Star festivities, a participant in Monday’s Home Run Derby and the NL leadoff hitter in Tuesday’s All-Star Game. While Cubs fans and observers have watched it all season long — Cubs teammate and fellow Derby participant Kyle Schwarber dubbed it “The Javy Baez Show” on Monday — these two days will put Baez on the national stage, one of the game’s biggest.

“I’ve seen him do some amazing things the past few years,” Reds second baseman and NL All Star Scooter Gennett said. “He couldn’t do anything that I’d be surprised (by). That’s just Javy doing some — what do they call him, ‘The Magician’ or whatever? — just doing some magic stuff. Nothing would surprise me. I’ve seen enough to be like, ‘Man, he’s extremely blessed and a really good baseball player.’”

“Javy is an electrifying player to say the least,” Houston Astros pitcher and American League All Star Gerrit Cole said. “Probably the most impressive thing outside of Javy’s glove work, which is just kind of magical in its own … I got to see him when he first came up and he knows how that first stint went in the major leagues and how he’s adjusted since he’s been there. And that’s probably the most important thing. He’s very flashy, he’s very flairy, which is great, is exciting, is attention grabbing. But his skill work and his talent is really what shines through, and he’s just a wonderful player and tough out.”

Though he paused, seemingly to take in the fact that Lester had such high praise for him, Baez himself said comparisons don’t mean much. It’s not a surprise from someone who has established himself as a unique talent not just in the current generation of ballplayers but perhaps throughout the game’s history.

“There’s a lot of comparisons with me. I just try to be myself, to be honest, out there, off the field, too,” Baez said. “There’s a lot of people who are scared to be them. I play the way I play because I do me. I do it the way I think. … I’m not trying to show anybody up. That’s the way I play, just me being me and trying to do the best for my teammates.”

The numbers and the highlight-reel plays have thrust Baez into the realm of baseball’s very best. His inclusion in the All-Star Game isn’t a surprise, it’s a necessity.

Baez said he’s hoping to learn a lot from this experience, and Lester, at his fifth All-Star Game, said the lesson should be a simple but important one.

“The biggest thing is — when I got my first All-Star Game, it makes you feel like you belong. It’s like, ‘I am pretty good,’” Lester said. “So I think to get rewarded for your hard work, to get to be able to do this, I think it’s kind of like the little pat on the back. Like, ‘Hey, good job.’ For me, it was like, ‘Maybe I am pretty good.’ It was like the big, eye-opening thing for me the first time I got to do this.

“Hopefully they (Baez and Cubs catcher Willson Contreras) see that, hopefully they feel like they are two of the best in the game and that just carries over to their game.”

After Cubs switch up rotation, Jon Lester likely won't pitch in All-Star Game

After Cubs switch up rotation, Jon Lester likely won't pitch in All-Star Game

Jon Lester is headed to his 5th career All-Star appearance next week, but he probably won't see any game action.

The Cubs changed up their starting rotation, announcing the move Wednesday afternoon that Lester and Kyle Hendricks would swap turns:

So that's Tyler Chatwood Friday, Hendricks Saturday and Lester Sunday. By having Lester start Sunday, it essentially rules out the veteran from facing American League hitters in D.C. next Tuesday. 

Thursday's off-day allows the Cubs to throw either Hendricks or Lester on regular rest Saturday.

The Cubs probably made the move to prioritize rest for the 34-year-old pitcher with more than 2,400 big-league innings on his resume including the postseason. 

Lester's been to the All-Star Game before and pitched in the Midsummer Classic. Not appearing in the actual game this year does nothing to diminish the honor of being voted onto the NL squad by his peers.

Due to odd MLB scheduling, the Cubs no longer have 4 days off for the All-Star Game and instead will have a quickturnaround, hosting the St. Louis Cardinals for a 5-game series beginning Thursday, July 19. (The two teams also play a doubleheader Saturday, July 21.)

Lester and the Cubs are eyeing another run into late October and rest has been a huge talking point for the club all season. After three straight National League Championship appearances, Lester doesn't need any more stress on his arm/body, especially in an exhibition game.

Lester has admitted throughout this season that he feels like a different pitcher now than he was even a year or two ago. All that wear and tear has changed the way he pitches, as he's now more focused on trying to pitch to contact rather than striking guys out.

If the Cubs are going to take home a second championship in the last 110 years, they're gonna need Lester to be healthy and fresh for the stretch run and into October.

Analyzing the All-Star chances for each Cubs player

Analyzing the All-Star chances for each Cubs player

Barring a crazy Fourth of July holiday, the Cubs will not have a player voted into the National League All-Star starting lineup.

It's always possible a Cubs player could join that lineup over the next two weeks as a replacement, but as of Monday, the only Cub with a chance of being voted in was catcher Willson Contreras, who was close on the heels of former MVP Buster Posey.

Javy Baez somehow slipped to 3rd in voting among second basemen while Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, Jason Heyward, Kyle Schwarber and Ben Zobrist were all likely too far behind in their respective positions to make up the ground before voting closes on July 5.

But that's not to say the Cubs won't be well-represented when it comes time for the entire roster — including reserves — to be announced.

Either way, Baez will be on the NL roster. That much is clear.

Jon Lester leads the NL in wins (11) and will enter his next start with a 2.25 ERA and 1.15 WHIP in his age 34 season.

Washington's Max Scherzer and New York's Jacob deGrom are having fantastic seasons and should be the NL's starting pitcher, but if their schedule doesn't allow, Lester looks like the next-best candidate at the moment.

Albert Almora Jr. may also be named as an NL reserve with the incredible first half he's put up so far this year.

The 24-year-old entered play Tuesday 2nd in the NL in batting average (.331), just behind Cincinnati's Scooter Gennett (.334). And that was before Almora doubled home a run in the 5th inning Tuesday to get the Cubs on the scoreboard.

He wasn't an everyday starter at the beginning of the year and thus wasn't included by the Cubs on the All-Star ballot, so the only way fans could vote him in is by writing him in manually.

Still, Almora has been an absolute revelation for the Cubs this season, hitting .332 with a .371 on-base percentage and .834 OPS. He's on pace for 88 runs in only 476 at-bats and has already accrued as much WAR (1.7) in 78 games in 2018 as he did in 179 games between 2016-17 combined.

Almora is always focused on the team and trying to get the Cubs back to the Promised Land. But even he could allow himself to dream on how cool it would be to head to Washington D.C. in two weeks to represent his organization.

"It'd be special," Almora said. "Not even being on the player's ballot, to be a write-in everywhere, no exposure when it comes to social media from our team or anything, that'd be pretty neat if I could make that.

"It shows people really pay attention to the season. But at the same time, I'm not looking at that. I'm not paying attention to that. But it would definitely be a great experience."

Almora appeared in 132 games for the Cubs last season, but only notched 299 at-bats in the process. Despite hitting .298 with a .783 OPS, he was only a platoon player as the Cubs limited his plate appearances against right-handed pitching.

The Cubs still manage his exposure to some tough righties and Almora still has a tendency to swing at too many breaking pitches low and away, but he's made remarkable strides this year. Entering Tuesday's game, he was hitting .329 with an .815 OPS against righties compared to a .333 average and .855 OPS against lefties.

When asked if his place near the top of the NL leaderboard in batting average is any validation for the amount of work he's put in, Almora let out a breath and said, "Ah man, I've put in a lot of work, that's for sure.

"There's still a lot of season left, so I'm not gonna sit here and say, 'Yeah, what I did paid off,'" Almora continued. "I'm just putting my head down and playing the game. There's still a long way to go. 

"I feel like you can really determine a player throught he final stages of the season, when you start getting tired and fatigued. It's been a nice season so far for myself and team-wise, we're right where we need to be."

Almora talks about rest and with a team hoping to be playing through the end of October, getting 3 days off in mid-July for the All-Star Break would be a major boon.

At the same time, the Cubs also understand how exciting it would be for these young players to be able to experience the honor of going to the Midsummer Classic for the first time and Joe Maddon believes it can do wonder for the confidence of a guy like Almora.

As for the rest of the Cubs, Willson Contreras looks to be a good bet to go in as a reserve even if he can't catch Posey in the voting. 

Jason Heyward and Kyle Schwarber are having resurgent offensive seasons at the plate and the NL outfield isn't as stacked as it usually is, so it's possible one — or both — of the Cubs outfielders makes the trip to D.C.

Kris Bryant's All-Star chances have slimmed after enduring the worst month of his pro career in June and landing on the disabled list for the first time ever. Nolan Arenado is a lock to start at third base if healthy and Cincinnati's Eugenio Suarez will probably be his backup. Then it's a choice between Anthony Rendon, Travis Shaw and Bryant among the other candidates if the NL squad even has 3 third basemen.

Across the diamond, Atlanta's Freddie Freeman should start and it would be hard for Anthony Rizzo to beat out the likes of Paul Goldschmidt, Brandon Belt and Joey Votto for a reserve spot. Rizzo is currently 10th in the NL in OPS, ahead of only Justin Bour, Ian Desmond and Josh Bell among qualifiers.

Ben Zobrist is having a very solid season, but isn't an everyday player at age 37 and probably won't be included among the reserve outfielders.

Closer Brandon Morrow also has a chance to make the NL squad. He's only thrown 24.2 innings, but he's 18-for-19 in save chances and has a sparkling 1.46 ERA and 1.14 WHIP.

Setup men aren't often selected for the midseason festivities, but Steve Cishek (1.89 ERA, 1.05 WHIP, 10 holds, 2 saves) has been the linchpin of the Cubs bullpen this year while appearing in almost half the team's games.

Of course, none of this speculation is even taking into account the rule where each team must be represented at the All-Star Game. Maybe Colin Moran is the Pirates' only representative worthy of attending, which would take yet another third-base spot away from Bryant's potential bid.

We'll find out more about the Cubs' chances in the next week or so.