Matt Carpenter

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."

Podcast: Main takeaways from the 5-game Cubs-Cardinals series

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USA TODAY

Podcast: Main takeaways from the 5-game Cubs-Cardinals series

Tony Andracki is joined by Phil Barnes, the senior editor of Vine Line, to break down the Cubs-Cardinals 5-game series at Wrigley Field that kicked off the second half of the 2018 MLB season.

The main takeaways from the weekend included an up-close look at a Cubs starting rotation is still struggling to find their footing almost 2/3 of the way through the season. 

The Cubs lineup and bullpen continue to be the saving grace of the team with the NL's best record and run differential, but there are serious question marks moving forward on the depth of the relievers as well as waiting for Kris Bryant to return to MVP form.

Check out the entire podcast here:

Matt Carpenter giving the Cubs Daniel Murphy PTSD

Matt Carpenter giving the Cubs Daniel Murphy PTSD

Say the name Daniel Murphy around Cubs fans (who have been around since before they won the 2016 World Series) and expect a dirty look or shade of some sort.

What Murphy did to the Cubs in the 2015 National League Championship Series still haunts the fanbase, even if they did end the championship drought the following fall.

Now, the Cubs are seeing it again and their PTSD is in overdrive.

St. Louis infielder Matt Carpenter has been on an unreal tear of late, setting Cardinals franchise records in the process.

Throughout this five-game series at Wrigley Field, Carpenter is 9-for-16 with 6 homers, 10 RBI, 8 runs scored, 3 walks, a pair of doubles and a bunt single to lead off Sunday's game against the Cubs' shift.

"We're seeing this guy probably at his best moment in his life as a baseball player," Joe Maddon said. "My god. We saw it a couple years ago in the playoffs. We're seeing it all over again.

"Similar kind of a swing, not missing anything. It's pretty impressive."

In that 2015 NLCS, Murphy — then with the New York Mets — homered in all 4 games while hitting .529 with a 1.850 OPS, driving in 6 and scoring 6. 

To put that in perspective: The Cubs scored only 8 runs as a team in the 4 games.

Maddon and the Cubs don't know what to do to get Carpenter out right now, so they've resorted to walking him whenever possible, like in the second inning Sunday when they just dealt out a free pass to the Cardinals infielder with runners on second and third and two outs.

They also tried out a funky shift in the seventh inning Sunday, with Kris Bryant as a fourth outfielder in left-center, Addison Russell as the only defender on the left side of the infield and Javy Baez playing on the grass in shallow right field. It worked, as Carpenter grounded it to Baez for a routine out.

Beyond that, all the Cubs can do is hope time eventually wears Carpenter down. After all, nobody can stay this hot forever.

Even though Carpenter and the Cardinals are leaving town after Sunday's game, these two team square off against each other again next weekend for the final series in St. Louis.

"For them, it's a blast to watch," Maddon said. "Give the guy credit. What he's working right now is unique. The last time I saw it was Daniel Murphy. 

"Before that, I think, was Barry Bonds in the World Series in 2002. Playoffs with Murphy a couple years ago, where the guy — every pitch that is thrown — he's on time, he's on balance with a forceful swing that looks like the ball can go out of the ballpark every time. Bonds, Murphy and now him."

That's some serious company to be in.

So what's led to this insane stretch from Carpenter?

Maybe it's the salsa.

When told about that theory, Maddon laughed and said:

"Listen, that makes total sense to me. Can he send a jar over here, please?"