TAMPA, Fla. – Imagine Javier Baez wearing a New York Mets uniform or playing in an empty Tropicana Field and where the Cubs would be without their backup shortstop.
The trade speculation still lingered into this season, even after Baez blossomed into a National League Championship Series co-MVP and a World Series champion. Maybe it was just out of habit since Theo Epstein’s front office spent years collecting hitters and planning to deal for pitching, or a perception issue for a prospect who wasn’t drafted by this regime and has a “flashiness” to his game that recently got this unfair, narrow-minded label from a Pittsburgh Pirates broadcaster: “A difficult player for me to root for.”
But the Cubs never traded Baez to the Tampa Bay Rays for one of those starters who usually seems to be on the rumor mill – Chris Archer, Alex Cobb, Jake Odorizzi, Matt Moore – and that decision continues to look better and better in hindsight.
Baez again showed why he is essentially untouchable while Addison Russell slowly recovered from a strained right foot and plantar fasciitis, starting 41 of 42 games at shortstop between Aug. 3 and Sept. 16 and hitting .282 with eight homers and 27 RBI during that stretch.
Deep down, Baez still views himself as a shortstop – “yeah, for sure, if I get the (chance)” – while deferring to Russell (who was activated over the weekend) and understanding that the Cubs can again have an elite defensive unit when he moves back to second base.
“When I play short every day, obviously, I’m going to be ready for it and making all the adjustments to be there,” Baez said. “I do my best to help the team. Addie’s a big part of the team.”
Remember how shaky the defense looked up the middle when Russell missed the 2015 NLCS with a hamstring injury and the Mets swept the Cubs out of the playoffs?
The Cubs created enough depth – and room to grow – to stash an All-Star shortstop on the disabled list on Aug. 4 and go from being a 57-50 team with a 1.5-game lead in the division to running a season-high 17 games over .500 heading into Tuesday night at The Trop.
Even though Joe Maddon lobbied for Baez to make the Opening Day roster during his first post-Rays spring training in 2015, the manager also made a point to say he didn’t run an entitlement program.
Maddon would not anoint Baez as an everyday player heading into this season, even after he started all 17 games at second base during last year’s playoffs and starred for Team Puerto Rico in the World Baseball Classic.
“If you had done that with him two years ago, he would have buried himself,” Maddon said. “Absolutely. I don’t think he would have made the same adjustments at the plate. You would have seen a lot more mistakes on defense. You would have seen a lot more routine plays not handled routinely. You would not have seen the same base running. Even though he had it in his back pocket, I just think that he’s learned how to really pick his moments there, too. He wasn’t ready for all that.”
There is something to the idea of taking the good with the bad with Baez. Except there are no perfect players and so few have his mind-blowing combination of skills, love for the game and sixth sense for highlight-reel moments.
“You don’t teach those things – that’s just God-given talent,” catcher Alex Avila said. “He’s been able to put it together. You see those plays. But the work that goes into it – as far as being in the right spot, having the right first step, anticipating the ball, things like that – all that kind of gets you the result.
“(It’s not only) making sure he’s making the routine plays, but he has the athleticism and the wherewithal to be able to make the spectacular plays as well.”
Instead of focusing on the tattoos or the hairstyles or a swing that can get out of control at times, remember that this is someone who already has 22 homers and 70 RBI in the middle of September – and a .791 OPS in his age-24 season that represents a 54-point jump from the year before – for an iconic team with World Series expectations.
“You could see there was a lot of stuff for Javy to iron out,” Maddon said. “He’s worked them out. It’s a lot of repetition. It’s a lot of good coaching. But it’s about the player himself, being able to make those adjustments. I honestly think his path has been a good one. And I think the way we did it last year was perfect.
“Everything’s happened as it should organically for him.
“There’s nothing I can really say to them that would make a difference right now,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said inside Wrigley Field’s underground interview room on Sept. 10, answering a broad postgame question about team meetings at the end of a lost weekend where the Milwaukee Brewers outscored the defending World Series champs 20-3.
“They just need to see consistency from me,” Maddon said after the division lead had shrunk to two games over the Brewers and St. Louis Cardinals. “They just need to see me do what I always do. I’m having conversations with all of them daily. It’s more one-on-one for me, as opposed to group. One-on-one therapy as opposed to group therapy.”
Maddon chuckled at that one-liner – and he should have the last laugh on this Cubs season. Within one week – basically the time it took for the entire Bears season/Mike Glennon experiment to crater – the Cubs went from being on the ropes to landing a knockout punch against the Cardinals and doubling their lead over the Brewers in the National League Central.
What appeared to be weaknesses while this team couldn’t get rid of a World Series hangover – a laissez-faire attitude in the clubhouse, no real sense of urgency, the short attention span, too many off-the-field distractions – can be seen as strengths now that the Cubs are a season-high 17 games over .500 after sweeping the Cardinals out of Wrigleyville.
It’s too early to take a victory lap when Maddon returns to Tropicana Field on Tuesday and faces the Tampa Bay Rays. But by not overreacting and completely losing his players, and staying relentlessly positive and patient, and remembering there is life outside the stadium, and allowing all of this natural talent to finally take over, Maddon has the Cubs in position to make the playoffs for the third straight season, something that hasn’t happened for this franchise since player/manager Frank Chance won three NL pennants in a row and back-to-back World Series titles in 1907 and 1908.
“There’s only one time to really call a team meeting – if your best pitcher is pitching the next day against a really bad team,” Maddon said. “That’s when you could look good. Otherwise, try to refrain from that. Don’t pick the wrong day. In our game, sitting there, trying to rehash the obvious, there’s no motivational component to that whatsoever.
“When things tighten up like this, they need to see you be consistent, not inconsistent. If I were to do something like that – that’s something I never do – so that would send out all the wrong signals.
“I’ve been around managers that have done that in the past. I’ve been one in the minor leagues – and I hated me for it afterwards.
“For the group that’s always looking for the inspirational speech, I promise you, if in fact it had any impact at all, it might last 10 minutes by the time they got out to the field. And if the other team’s pitcher that night is better than yours, it’s not going to work.”
The Cubs have created huge advantages in terms of talent, payroll and experience. But Maddon has held it together while every member of the Opening Day rotation got injured at different points this season and an everyday catcher (Willson Contreras), a World Series MVP (Ben Zobrist), an All-Star shortstop (Addison Russell) and a Gold Glove outfielder (Jason Heyward) spent time on the disabled list.
“Honestly, it’s minor-league training, man,” Maddon said. “It happens all the time. You immediately start thinking about: ‘OK, what do I do now? What’s next? Who’s the replacement? How do we fix this? How do we plug the dike?’ That’s it. I don’t take a doomsday approach mentally ever.
“I reference it often – the minor-league training really matters a lot in these situations. You have to be creative sometimes. You have to utilize different people, different methods, possibly. But ‘How do you fix this?’ is your first thought.
“That’s the beauty of this game, man. It is an endurance test. And it is a test of depth a lot of times also. You have to have it. That’s where I go. I remember playing in the Texas League with eight position players and one of my pitchers had to be the DH. You just do it.”
Maddon is old enough to collect Social Security checks, but he remains an ideal modern manager. Not because he dyes his hair “Blue Steel” and organizes themed road trips that feel more about building his personal brand than any team-bonding concept.
It’s the way Maddon tames the media before and after every game, pumps The Geek Department for information, casually namedrops the assistant director of research and development (Jeremy Greenhouse) during his press briefings and sees the Cubs from 30,000 feet.
“This is an organization working as one,” Maddon said. “For years, I was a part of the other side where I thought nobody was listening and it’s really a tremendous disconnect. If I ever got a chance to be doing what I’m doing right now, I would absolutely listen to these folks, because I think it’s important.”
So when Theo Epstein’s front office pushes Jen-Ho Tseng to make his big-league debut in the middle of a pennant race, Maddon sells the decision. Even though Tseng wasn’t one of the 40 pitchers the Cubs put on their spring training roster, and Maddon had only seen him on video and just met him for about five minutes.
“I trust the people making these decisions,” Maddon said. “Having spent so much time in the minor leagues, I listen to minor-league people. I listen to front offices. I listen to people that get to see people play that I don’t get to see.
“So if your evaluators really believe strongly in this, and your minor-league people do, too, you listen to them. You believe. You trust. That’s part of how this thing works.”
If Maddon had emerged from obscurity to become a borderline Hall of Famer during that small-market miracle in Tampa – five seasons with at least 90 wins in nine years – then winning the World Series with the Cubs guaranteed his Cooperstown plaque.
Of course, Maddon got slammed for his Game 7 decisions and had to keep answering questions about it months and months later. The manager didn’t really lash out or second-guess himself – and once again his team seems to be peaking at the right time.
Since 2015, the Cubs have played 162 regular-season games in August, September and early October – and gone 109-53 plus winning five playoff rounds so far.
“It’s a mental thing, man,” Maddon said. “It’s competition. It’s the competing component of it. It goes so far beyond just looking at statistical information and lineups and where do they rank right now sabermetrically. It has nothing to do with (sabermetrics). I talked about the heartbeat last year. It’s going to show up over the next couple weeks again.”