After spending his entire big-league career with the Chicago Cubs, Javier Báez might just become the most coveted free agent to hit the market this fall.
Still just 28, the versatile Puerto Rican broke into the big leagues in 2014 and soon blossomed into the best player in Cubs livery.
He’s topped two-dozen homers twice, hitting a career-peak 34 in 2018, the same year his 111 runs batted in led the National League.
He also played in 160 games, also a career high, that season.
Báez brings the Cubs five tools: the ability to hit for average, provide power, steal bases, supply solid defense, and throw. Going into this season, he had 118 home runs in regular-season play and another five in the post-season, including the Cubs’ world championship year of 2016.
The co-MVP of the National League Championship Series in 2016, Baez was an All-Star in 2018 and 2019, runner-up for the league MVP trophy in 2018, and a Gold Glove recipient in 2020. He’s also played every position but catcher, pitcher, and center field for the Cubs, a team that prizes versatility.
Chicago also prizes frugality, however, which might make Baez expendable. Should the Cubs fall from their unexpected perch atop the National League Central, management might move the 6-0, 190-pound righthanded hitter before the July 30 trade deadline.
Any acquiring team would have to pay the last two months of his expiring $11.6 million contract, however, and try to sign him before he can take the plunge into the murky waters of free agency.
He would be one of more a half-dozen available shortstops with impressive resumes, from Andrelton Simmons and Corey Seager to Carlos Correa, Marcus Semien, Brandon Crawford, and Trevor Story.
Báez, nicknamed El Mago, seems to get better as the weather warms. His two-run homer at CitiField Tuesday – his 15th of the season – was the only damage done to Mets starter Taijuan Walker, who coasted to a 3-2 victory over the visiting Cubs.
One night later, Baez went 0-for-3 with two strikeouts in another 3-2 defeat, lowering his average to .232. But the Cubs know the powerful right-handed batter can break out at any moment.
An aggressive base-runner who reached the highlight reels earlier this season by tricking Pittsburgh first baseman Will Craig into pursuing him back toward home plate while a Cubs teammate scored, Báez has been a clubhouse leader and fan favorite since reaching the majors.
He even hit a home run in his first game, at Denver’s Coors Field, on August 5, 2014. Two days later, he hit a pair. No other Cub has ever hit three homers in his first three games.
An All-Star in 2018, when a rush of last-minute support gave Báez the starting nod at second base over Atlanta’s Ozzie Albies, Báez has homered in the Division Series, League Championship Series, World Series, Puerto Rican Winter League, and World Baseball Classic (he played for Puerto Rico in the 2017 games).
In 2018, he led the Cubs with 40 doubles, nine triples, and 34 homers in addition to his league-best RBI count.
Signed by Tom Clark after the Cubs drafted him in the first round of the 2013 amateur draft, Baez was the first man in team history to 40 doubles, 30 homers, and 20 stolen bases in the same season. He was also the fourth Cubs middle infielder to have a 30-homer season, joining Hall of Famers Rogers Hornsby, Ernie Banks, and Ryne Sandberg.
Defensively, he was the first Cub since Mark DeRosa in 2008 to play all four infield positions plus left field in the same season.
Faced with the possible free-agent defections of Baez, Anthony Rizzo, and former MVP Kris Bryant, the Cubs must decide whether to keep them, trade them, or try to sign them. Both age and price will factor into their decisions.
One thing is certain: if he enters the market, Javy Báez will have a plethora of suitors.
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