Cubs need birthday boy Javier Baez to bounce back in 2021

(Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images)
(Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images) /

If the Cubs hold onto Javier Baez, they’ll need him to figure it out in 2021.

The Chicago Cubs escaped the pandemic-shortened 2020 campaign with a National League Central title, their third in the last five years, despite major struggles from several key players, including 2018 National League MVP runner-up Javier Baez.

Baez, who turned 28 on Tuesday, limped through what was arguably his worst offensive season, batting just .203/.238/.360 in 235 plate appearances. It wasn’t just that his plate discipline disappeared – which likely wouldn’t have come as a huge shock to a lot of folks – he was flat-out missing hittable pitches in the zone.

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Fastballs that caught the heart of the plate – the same pitches Baez punished ruthlessly in the past – became a major problem for the Chicago infielder in 2020. His .252 WOBA ranked in the bottom three percent of qualified hitters, his career-worst 31.7 percent strikeout rate clocked in among the bottom seven percent and his three percent walk rate was lower than 98 percent of his counterparts.

In short, it was a dreadful showing for a guy just one year from free agency. Not to mention it’s arguably the most loaded free agent class ever at the position of shortstop, including guys like Francisco Lindor, Carlos Correa and Trevor Story alongside Baez.

We’ve heard plenty of Javier Baez rumors already this offseason – although nothing that seems like more than smoke. There certainly hasn’t been the fire-like rumors with Baez like we’ve seen with his teammate Kris Bryant. But with the team looking to shed payroll, the Cubs trading Baez certainly can’t be ruled out.

But let’s assume Jed Hoyer decides that, of this core group of players, Baez is the one he’s going to build around long-term. After all, the front office and Baez’s camp were working toward an extension before COVID-19 threw the world into chaos this spring. He’s got a lot of intangibles you can’t teach – and when he’s got those talents working with his skillset, Baez is one of the best players in the game.

Assuming, at the very least, the Cubs trade Bryant this offseason, more of the load will rest on the shoulders of Baez. If we’re being brutally honest, he cannot put up numbers like he did this year. You might be able to write off his 2020 struggles given the lack of fans and overall strangeness of the season – but repeating such a performance in what we hope will be a relatively normal campaign next year could cost him big-time.

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Should Chicago bank on a rebound and keep the two-time All-Star around for at least one more year, they’ll be looking for him to show he’s truly a franchise cornerstone. Consistency is key – and if he wants to spend the rest of his career with the Cubs, he’ll need to prove it sooner rather than later.