In 2014, the Chicago Cubs Javier Baez and Kyle Schwarber were thought of differently. Baez one of the last Hendry era picks–and struggling–while Schwarber was fresh out of college. Now the two fall under the ‘untouchable’ label just a few years later.
Who would have thought that in 2016 we would be talking about the Chicago Cubs turning away deals due to Javier Baez and Kyle Schwarber’s names being tossed in? People often times had no issues with calling for Baez to be dealt last season in order to get help at the trade deadline. And Schwarber had just been drafted in 2014 and was a hot hitting prospect in the minors. Schwarber is out with full tears to his ACL and LCL, and Baez doesn’t have a position to play–and neither appear to be going anywhere this trade season.
Baez wasn’t drafted by Theo & Co., but he fits in well with the style of these Cubs and the current draft picks under Epstein and Jed Hoyer. Baez was Kris Bryant before Bryant was. With enough power to strike fear into any pitcher, and a glove made of gold–Baez seemed destined to be part of the future core of the Cubs. The only problem was his propensity for that powerful swing to come up empty, and Starlin Castro was signed as part of the long-term solution for the Cubs.
His debut was an eventual game-winning home run in Colorado. But the shine wore off quickly as the strikeouts became a serious issue (95 K’s in 229 AB in 2014), and in 2015 he wouldn’t find his way onto the Opening Day roster, even with a glowing review from new Cubs’ skipper Joe Maddon.
"“If you break him down in other components of his game, he’s one of the best young players I’ve seen, period,” Maddon said. “He’s only being judged from the outside by his swings. That’s it.”"
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Baez was improving at the plate down in Des Moines and looked set to join the Cubs, even before September call-ups. But an injury to his thumb on a slide put him out just as that move looked likely, and then he was hit in the head by a pitch which temporarily derailed his next chance. But finally, Baez got his chance during the Cubs stretch run.
The swing was still violent but toned down as Baez cut his strikeout rate down from 30% to 22.5. The power numbers took a dip, but the glove was still exactly as Maddon envisioned it as Baez played every infield position in 2015. He was growing from an all-or-nothing hitter into a great all-around player. He had become Ben Zobrist 2.0–and then the Cubs signed Zobrist.
Starlin Castro was traded to the Yankees to free up second base, which for a hot second looked to be for Baez. But the deal was the one made to help facilitate the signing of Zobrist. So now it appeared that Baez would once again have to take at-bats wherever he could, and in turn started playing the outfield in the spring to afford himself every chance he could get.
Even with all these “setbacks”, Baez continued to play wherever Maddon put him and defensively played all of them well. He started slowly at the plate but continued to work on his approach–and it’s paying off. Since May 27, Baez is batting .315 with seven home runs and 27 RBI, as well a six stolen bases without being caught (Including a few slides that seem simply unreal).
He might not have “regular” position, but that means nothing in Joe Maddon’s book. Baez is an established part of this year’s team, and based on the fact the Cubs weren’t willing to include him in a deal for the Padres Drew Pomeranz? He’s likely to be a part of it for a while.
Kyle Schwarber was on a similar path to that of Kris Bryant in the minors. Both played college ball, and the refinement showed right away as each slugged their way through the lower levels of the farm system. Pure hitters. That was becoming the theme of this front office. Continue to draft hitters–against the thinking of the rest of the league that stockpiled pitching–and see where it would take them.
Taken just a year after Bryant in the draft, Schwarber’s biggest concern was where he would play. A catcher at Indiana, whether his skill set was quality enough to stay there was the biggest question. His response? “You know, it really f*****g pisses me off when people say I can’t catch”. Dually noted, and nobody seemed to argue with him on it. Two years later we still don’t really know where he’ll play, but the Cubs believe no matter where it is, it’s with the Cubs.
Called up for a stretch when the Cubs were playing American League teams last year, it was expected he’d do a little bit of DH’ing, and then he’d head back to continue his work behind the plate. But this crazy thing happened–he completely pulverized the baseball. The issue of where he played became secondary to what he could do at the plate.
In 69 games in 2015, he hit 16 home runs while knocking in 43 runs. His epic home run against the Cardinals in the NLDS is now legend, and he had established himself as one of the premier young power hitters in the game. He was actually a better fielder in the outfield than behind the plate (.979 to .967) but was exposed in the NLCS against the Mets as the media quickly tried to run his defense through the ringer after the Cubs were escorted from the playoffs.
His work in the offseason with Jason Heyward was spoken about often as he was determined to improve his defensive game. But it was sadly his defense that led to him missing the entire 2016 season as he collided with Dexter Fowler on a fly ball, tearing his ACL and LCL completely. Some say he didn’t belong out there, but it was simply a case of a ball in the gap that neither player was going to give up on.
He’s been ruled out for the rest of this season, including the playoffs assuming the Cubs make it. But his rehab is progressing well, and he is almost always seen at the top of the steps of the dugout at Wrigley Field. Another player without a position, but too good for the Cubs to let go.
The Yankees have been rumored to ask for Schwarber in order for talks to continue for Andrew Miller or Aroldis Chapman. And Epstein continues to be pretty clear on his availability–there isn’t any. Epstein is open to listening to offers up to the deadline, as he’s been clear the Cubs are looking to do business, but if you come asking for either of these guys leading up to Aug. 1? You better have a complete package offered up for that to happen or you’ll get sent away empty handed. And even then the chances of that are near zero.