Another reminder Javier Baez is a game-changer – not trade bait – for Cubs

Another reminder Javier Baez is a game-changer – not trade bait – for Cubs

Remember Javier Baez? “Javy Being Javy” hasn’t delivered quite the same entertainment value recently, the Cubs not blowing teams out the way they did last year or playing the same highlight-reel defense every night.    

Ian Happ is now the next big thing. Kyle Schwarber is the one answering questions about his offensive approach. Baez is still getting lumped into talk-show debates and online polls about who should go in the trade for a frontline pitcher.

“The first thing that comes into my mind is I don’t control that,” Baez said after blasting the grand slam that set the tone for Thursday’s 9-5 win and swept the Cincinnati Reds out of Wrigley Field. “I can’t pick what people and fans are going to talk about. I just try to stay focused on baseball.”

Don’t forget that Baez is one of the most dynamic talents in the game, a hitter with Gary Sheffield bat speed, a Gold Glove-caliber defender all over the infield, someone who runs, tags and slides with the natural instincts of a great NBA point guard.     

Plus, Baez is only 24 and already did it on the biggest stage, becoming a breakout star during last year’s playoffs and a viral sensation with Team Puerto Rico in the World Baseball Classic. That combination will be pretty close to untouchable in the middle of a pennant race.

“Things happen for a reason,” Baez said. “I’ll obviously be ready to stay here, because I love Chicago and I love this organization. It’s been the best. If something comes, I know it’s not going to be anytime soon. I’m not really paying attention to that.”

Does it surprise you this would even become a topic of conversation after everything you did for a World Series team?

“Yeah, to be honest,” Baez said. “But I know it’s not going to happen yet, and hopefully not for a long time.”

Baez reminded you with one big swing in the first inning. Baez dropped his bat, took a few steps and watched Amir Garrett’s hanging slider soar out toward the top of the left-center field bleachers for a 5-0 lead. The Cubs overwhelmed Garrett, a well-regarded rookie with the frame and athleticism to play college hoops at St. John’s.

While the rebuilding Reds (19-21) are on a six-game losing streak and sinking in the National League Central, the Cubs rolled with Jon Lester, who put together another quality start (six innings, three runs) for a rotation moving in the right direction.

Led by Baez and Lester – last year’s NLCS co-MVPs – the Cubs are now 5-1 against the Reds and 16-18 vs. the rest of their schedule so far. The Cubs have scored almost 25 percent of their runs this year against Cincinnati pitching.

Baez finished with five RBI and went 3-for-3 to raise his batting average 20 points to .248. He also committed his sixth error, all signs of a young, ultra-talented team still trying to get into rhythm after making history last November.  

“You shouldn’t single just him out,” said Lester (2-2, 3.57 ERA). “We all haven’t really been sharp from top to bottom. But Javy is a unique guy.

“You see him grow each at-bat. Obviously, we know (a couple) years ago about his swing-and-miss stuff and he’s made the adjustments to stay around. Obviously, his defensive side of the ball helps that.

“But you see him grow every day as a hitter. You see him make adjustments and have good at-bats and do things that can really change the game for us.”

Message to Cubs is clear: ‘We can’t expect outside help to get us out of this rut’

Message to Cubs is clear: ‘We can’t expect outside help to get us out of this rut’

MIAMI – Kyle Schwarber’s offensive spiral had gone on for so long and gotten so deep that the shock value of sending a potential franchise player to Triple-A quickly wore off once the news broke on Twitter.

The Cubs sent their message directly to Schwarber. Even if the bosses wanted to, the Cubs couldn’t put the rest of the clubhouse on edge by demoting a .171 hitter with 260-plus plate appearances in late June. 
 
The Cubs are in survival mode, not a position to play mind tricks, beginning an 11-games-in-11-days road trip with World Series MVP Ben Zobrist (left wrist inflammation), Gold Glove outfielder Jason Heyward (left hand abrasion) and Cy Young Award finalist Kyle Hendricks (right hand tendinitis) all on the disabled list.   

Whether or not the big trade for a frontline pitcher happens, there are still five-plus weeks left until teams feel the urgency of a deadline.   

“If something presents itself that makes sense, we’ll certainly jump on it,” general manager Jed Hoyer said over the phone before an 11-1 win at Marlins Park. “But to us, the answers are in that clubhouse. We can’t expect outside help to get us out of this rut. The answers are in there, and we believe in those guys. 

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“Will we be active? No question. But that’s not going to happen for a while and there’s a lot of games to be played between now and July 31.”  

The Cubs (37-35) aren’t booking Schwarber’s trip to Iowa so he can be converted into a pitcher. An aging, stressed rotation remains a much bigger concern than the boom-and-bust periods with a young offense. 

Kris Bryant unleashed an MVP swing when he launched a three-run homer into the left-center field patio deck. All-Star shortstop Addison Russell just missed hitting for the cycle while rookie Ian Happ (this year’s Schwarber) also went 4-for-5. Young catcher Willson Contreras blasted his seventh home run.

More importantly, Jake Arrieta looked more like himself, limiting the Marlins to one run across seven innings.

“Interesting, isn’t it?” manager Joe Maddon said. “The biggest thing for us to really do well is to pitch well, because you can’t anticipate scoring a ton of runs without this group involved. You shouldn’t. That’s a bad assumption on my part. So you probably have to take more chances defensively. Your pitching staff – you really got to try to draw out of them as much as you possibly can.”  

Did Cubs start the tailspin by making Kyle Schwarber their leadoff guy?

Did Cubs start the tailspin by making Kyle Schwarber their leadoff guy?

MIAMI – Everything aligned for the Cubs to make Kyle Schwarber their leadoff hitter. Joe Maddon’s gut instincts told him to do it – so the manager asked the Geek Department to run the numbers – and the projections backed him up. A front office raised on Bill James principles endorsed the idea after Dexter Fowler took an offer he couldn’t refuse – five years and $82.5 million – from the St. Louis Cardinals.
   
It all looked good on paper and sounded reasonable in theory. But by the time the Cubs made the Schwarber-to-Iowa move official before Thursday’s game at Marlins Park, the slugger once compared to Babe Ruth in a pre-draft scouting report had devolved into the qualified hitter with the lowest batting average in the majors (.171) and an .OPS 75 points below the league average.  

If Schwarber had been batting, say, sixth since Opening Day, would the Cubs be in a different spot right now?   

“Obviously, I can’t answer that,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “It’s an impossible question to answer. We put him in a leadoff position and he struggled. We obviously moved him out of that position (and) that didn’t work either. I know that’s what people are going to point to, because that’s a variable in his career. 

“Obviously, hitting him leadoff in 2017 didn’t work. Whether or not it caused the tailspin, I have no way to answer that question.”   

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The Cubs also deserve credit for: drafting Schwarber when the industry viewed him as a reach with the No. 4 overall pick in 2014; fast-tracking his development to the point where he could help the 2015 team win 97 games and two playoff rounds; and overseeing a rehab process that allowed him to be a World Series designated hitter less than seven months after reconstructive surgery on his left knee.    
 
The Cubs will have their hitting instructors give Schwarber subtle suggestions, focusing on how he starts his swing and where he finishes, trying to reestablish his balance and confidence during this Triple-A timeout.
    
But deep down, this is a 24-year-old player who never experienced a full season in the big leagues before and wanted so bad to be a huge part of The Cubs Way.

“I do think a lot of the problems are mental,” Hoyer said. “These struggles have kind of beaten him up a little bit. Like anyone would, he’s lost a little bit of his swagger, and I think he needs to get that back. But I think when you look at what a great fastball hitter he’s been – how good he was in ’15, how good he was last year in the World Series – the fact that he hasn’t been pounding fastballs this year is a mechanical/physical issue that we’ll be looking to tweak. 

“This is a guy that has always murdered fastballs and he’s not there right now.”