Jose Ramirez

Javy Baez for NL MVP? Joe Maddon's driving the El Mago hype train

Javy Baez for NL MVP? Joe Maddon's driving the El Mago hype train

With each passing day, Javy Baez's case for National League Most Valubale Player picks up steam and seems more and more of a possibility.

"El Mago" woke up Thursday morning leading the NL in RBI and sixth in OPS. 

He leads the Cubs in just about every offensive category — runs, hits (22 more than the next closest guy, Albert Almora Jr.), doubles, triples, homers, RBI, total bases, stolen bases, slugging percentage, OPS and WAR.

He's already set career highs in RBI, stolen bases, triples, doubles and extra-base hits and there are still two months left in the season. Over the next week or so, he will reach new career marks in hits, homers and runs.

Where would the Cubs be if you took Baez out of their lineup?

"Oh, don't do that," Joe Maddon joked with reporters prior to Thursday's 6-1 Cubs loss to the Padres.

Seriously, though, where would the Cubs be?

They currently have the best record in the NL despite Anthony Rizzo's up-and-down season, a year for Kris Bryant marred by a shoulder injury that has limited his effectiveness even when he's been on the field and Yu Darvish accounting for only 40 innings of subpar results.

Through it all, it's been Baez that has anchored this Cubs lineup on a daily basis despite just a .333 on-base percentage and 16 walks (6 of which were intentional).

"He's hitting fourth, he leads the league in RBI still, homers are good, he's using the whole field — that's the part that's making the on-base not as bothersome to me," Maddon said. "He still will strike out, but like [Wednesday], drew that walk. He went from 1-2 to 4-2, I think. Did not chase for that third strike.

"That part is maturing a bit. I think he can sustain this. He's playing with so much confidence right now."

Looking at the other top MVP candidates around the league right now, only Nolan Arenado, Matt Carpenter and Freddie Freeman have a higher WAR than Baez.

Baez is significantly better defensively than Freeman and Carpenter, two guys who spend a lot of time playing first base, where defense is not as important. Arenado is a fantastic defender, but Baez is a much better baserunner. 

In fact, Baez rates as the fifth-most valuable runner in all of baseball, behind Jose Ramirez, Billy Hamilton, Eddie Rosario and Whit Merrifield. 

"I know [J.D.] Martinez with the Red Sox is wonderful, but he does not provide on defense or the bases what Javy is able to provide," Maddon said. "So that's my point — don't just get locked into hitting all the time. It's a complete game."

Baez was already a household name around baseball prior to the 2018 season. Many knew him for his flair or easy smile on the baseball diamond. Or they saw his breakout performance in the Cubs' 2016 World Series run that saw him win a co-NLCS MVP.

Yet he still began this season hitting eighth in the Cubs lineup, a 25-year-old that still had quite a bit of developing to do as a hitter.

"He's come a long way this year," Maddon said. "He's getting close [to being the guy other teams gameplan around]. The reason why I'm saying that is, I know he's not chasing as much, but his confidence.

"I don't even know if he could be more confident than he is right now. That plays also. If you get to this tight moment, he believes he's gonna beat you somehow. That has nothing to do with numbers. That's what's in his heart. That's what's in his mind.

"His mind, on a baseball field, is truly artisitic. He does things and he sees things that most other guys do not. And furthermore, he's got the courage to do things. He's fearless.

"I still think he's like a year or two away from being this player that tears everything up.  But for right now, he's trending in that direction. The way he's thinking is a difference-maker right now."

How Albert Almora Jr. became part of the World Series puzzle for Cubs

How Albert Almora Jr. became part of the World Series puzzle for Cubs

MESA, Ariz. – Theory and reality collided for the Cubs in the 10th inning, when Kris Bryant drove Bryan Shaw's 94.8 mph fastball out to Progressive Field's warning track. Pinch-runner Albert Almora Jr. alertly hustled from first base as soon as Cleveland Indians center fielder Rajai Davis caught it in front of the KeyBank sign.   
 
Almora had already launched his body into a textbook slide — his left arm raised in the air and his right hand scraping the dirt — before Cleveland shortstop Francisco Lindor even caught the ball several feet off second base.
 
"Tagging is Almora with great baserunning," Fox play-by-play man Joe Buck told 40 million World Series viewers, making this epic Game 7 Major League Baseball's most-watched TV event in 25 years.   
 
That moment of clarity — after the fog of a 17-minute rain delay and potentially the most devastating collapse in franchise history — illustrated why Almora became the first player drafted by the Theo Epstein administration in 2012. The Cubs projected the baseball IQ and self-confidence sharpened by a strong Cuban-American family and from playing on Team USA and year-round in South Florida.   
 
"Just those intangibles," new Cubs outfielder Jon Jay said. "Maybe he picked that up growing up in Miami, where baseball is serious. We were taught the fundamentals of the game — do the little things right — and everything was so competitive. 
 
"That's what I saw out of that play. I said: Man, he probably did that in high school or when he was 13 years old, because that's what we were taught when we were younger."
 
Almora scored the go-ahead run from second base when World Series MVP Ben Zobrist smashed a double past diving Indians third baseman Jose Ramirez. Four days before his 23rd birthday, Almora will receive the championship ring marking the end of the 108-year drought. 
 
"Why I was so confident had a lot to do with my teammates, what they allowed me to be when I first got to the big leagues," Almora said. "They allowed me to be myself. It was really awesome to feel that way. I knew nothing would really change in the playoffs. 
 
"Just go out there and be yourself. Go out there and have fun. Obviously, I was such a small piece of the puzzle for the World Series. But when they called my name there, I was just happy I could get the job done." 

[MORE: Cubs and Pedro Strop look to future with contract extension]
 
The Cubs didn't hand Almora an everyday job, signing Jay to a one-year, $8 million contract and expecting him to be a left-handed complement and a veteran mentor. Jay played at the University of Miami — while Almora committed to the Hurricanes before agreeing to a $3.9 million bonus with the Cubs — and the two had already paired up as offseason workout partners back home. 
 
"I can learn from such a great person and a great player as well," Almora said. "My goal doesn't change from last year to this year — it's to win a World Series. He brings a lot to the table. He brings experience in the playoffs.
 
"This isn't about me. This isn't about him. It's about us and whatever makes the team better."
 
The Cubs opened their Cactus League schedule on Saturday with split-squad games against the Oakland A's and San Francisco Giants, Jay starting in center field in Mesa while Almora did the same in Scottsdale. The Cubs will see the Indians again on Sunday afternoon at Sloan Park, another reminder of the instincts that might someday help Almora become a Gold Glove defender.
 
"He has a really good awareness of what's going on out there," manager Joe Maddon said. "This kid loves to play. He loves to be part of this. He's always looking for growth. He's always looking to get better at different things.
 
"Coming from Miami and his background, he's just kind of a baseball junkie."
 
To put Almora's focus in context, he married Krystal at a Chicago courthouse in late July last year, got sent back down to Iowa the next day and together they welcomed their newborn son, Ayden John, in August. By early November, Almora's father, Albert Sr., felt good enough after his battle with prostate cancer to ride in the bus in the championship parade down Lake Shore Drive and Michigan Avenue. 
 
At this time last year, Almora envisioned himself in the World Series, even though he hadn't yet played above the Triple-A level and wouldn't make his big-league debut until early June. That didn't stop him from making 2016 the most unforgettable year of his life. 
 
"Yeah, I can honestly say that I had confidence in myself that I was going to be there," Almora said. "I didn't know what role I was going to have — that's something you can't control — but I knew from the bottom of my heart that I had worked hard enough, that I was going to get the chance to be on a playoff team.
 
"You have to (look at it that way). My goal was to be on that team to help win a World Series. And that's what happened."