Chicago Cubs should pass on Javier Baez contract extension
According to Jon Heyman and Buster Olney, Javier Baez reportedly passed on a contract extension in the ballpark of $160 to $170 million last spring. Entering the final two years of his deal, Baez chose to bet on himself, in hopes of securing a long-term contract worth more money, similar to the contracts that Fernando Tatis Jr. and Francisco Lindor would receive a year later.
The problem, however? The 28 year-old slugger has since struggled mightily at the plate, and hasn't looked to be the budding star he appeared to be from 2016 through 2019.
Through the Cubs' first 15 games, of which Baez has started all of, he has a .214 Batting Average, .267 On Base Percentage, .731 OPS and a league-worst 27 strikeouts and 45% strikeout rate.
15 games doesn't tell the whole story. It's still early, and I can already see the tweets from Wrigleyville fired back at me, accusing me of overreacting or grasping at straws for a hot take. But take it from somebody that has watched nearly every Cubs game over the last decade — Javy's recent struggles are not surprising, yet are still alarming.
To better understand Baez, perhaps we should start from the beginning. Or at least, close to the beginning.
Ever since his return to the big leagues in September of 2015, Baez has been one of the sport's best characters and highlight-reels. When the shortstop connects with a hanging slider or a misplaced fastball, you'd be hard-pressed to find a sweeter home run stroke. His playing style is nothing short of exciting. He maneuvers the field and the base paths like a 10 year-old that just finished his third can of Mountain Dew, expressing himself with an endearing and contagious child-like joy, while making some of the most improbable plays you'll ever see on the diamond.
Javier Baez has been great for the sport of baseball, and equally great for the city of Chicago. He's one of the easiest players to root for. He's a good guy with a bright smile that makes the game look fun, and maintains the same level of energy and enthusiasm that we all expressed as kids playing little league or in the backyard. He connects with the younger fan, a trait that is extremely valuable to the oldest sports league there is.
Naturally, Major League Baseball and its fans and media gravitated towards him. For the last four years, I don't think there's a player that has populated the league's Twitter and Instagram accounts more than Baez. Fernando Tatis Jr., Ronald Acuna, Shohei Ohtani and Juan Soto are starting to take the torch from Baez, but after the shortstop finished second in the National League's Most Valuable Player award voting in 2018, the league has hitched its wagon to him. Last year he appeared on the cover of MLB The Show 20, and in 2019, the league released a full 60-second commercial centered around Baez. The only other star to receive a full 60-second trailer? Mike Trout.
Indeed, Baez ascended to stardom rather quickly. As a walking highlight reel and larger-than-life personality, it makes sense. The league should cash in on him however it can. But just because Baez has been one of the sport's greatest presences over the last few years, does not mean that he has been one of the sport's greatest players.
A closer look at his numbers better explains the career and the enduring slump of Javy Baez.
Baez's crown jewel season came in 2018, when he finished second in NL MVP voting behind Christian Yelich. Baez knocked in 111 RBI's with 34 homers to the tune of a .290 BA, which is by all accounts, an excellent season for a big league player. But was it the second-best season from a National League player that season? I don't believe so.
Let's take a look at the 2018 NL MVP candidates, this chart via Baseball-Reference.
For one, Baez's On Base Percentage was just .326. There wasn't another player with an OBP lower than .345 that received votes. Nolan Arenado, Freddie Freeman and Paul Goldschmidt, who finished third, fourth and fifth in MVP voting respectively that season, piled comparable home run and RBI totals, but each outperformed Baez in BA, OBP, and OPS.
With Baez swiping 21 bags, his 20-20 season was held in high regard; but how many times was he caught stealing? 9. In other words, Baez was thrown out nearly a third of the time he tried to steal an extra bag. By comparison, Yelich stole one more base than Baez that season, and was caught stealing only four times. If I had a vote, Baez would have been on the backend of my top 10 that year, not no. 2.
Baez's annually low OBP (he's a career .303) and inability to draw walks has been the thorn in his side preventing him from becoming a true offensive superstar. He's perennially ranked near the top of the league in chase rate (which measures a player's likeliness of swinging at pitches out of the strike zone), and as teams around the league have collected more tape on him, he's been exposed in the batter's box.
Baez got off to a red-hot start in 2019, slashing .330/.370/.984 through his first 42 games. Since May 18th 2019, however, he's been a completely different player. I noticed a stark contrast midway through the 2019 season in how pitchers were approaching Baez that season compared to what we had seen before. Once it becomes well-known that a player can't resist pitches off the plate, there's no incentive to throw said player pitches in the strike zone. It's a lesson that dates back to youth baseball; if he swings at everything, don't give him anything good to hit.
Tracing back to May 18th 2019, Baez's last 163 games, he's posted a .233 BA, .268 OBP, .709 OPS and 30.4% K rate. Over his last 664 plate appearances, he's walked just 24 times. Until Baez is able to show his opposition that he will lay off breaking pitches off the plate and take the walk, he will continue to struggle. If Baez can develop the plate discipline that he currently lacks, he can become the superstar that Major League Baseball, the Cubs' front office and fans want him to be. But at age 28, that's a tall ask off him. If his numbers and offensive approach were coming from another player, there would be far less optimism; that player would be viewed very differently.
I think the best chance Baez has at success this season is hitting above Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo in the batting order. With Bryant and Rizzo behind him, he'll have protection. There's a greater chance that he sees good pitches inside of the strike zone, as pitchers often choose to avoid walking hitters before facing the meat of the order. I also think a change of scenery could greatly benefit javy. The Cubs — who rank near the bottom of nearly every major offensive category — aren't exactly setting the world on fire. Through the first two and a half weeks of play, Willson Contreras and Kris Bryant have been the only two bats contributing. That's it. A lot has been asked of Baez on what is — quite frankly — a bad offensive team. Perhaps a change of scenery would help him clear his head and return him to his pre-2019 self. In fact, I actually think he will thrive in a new place. If he moved to a team with more offensive consistency and stability — where he is a complimentary piece and not a main attraction — I believe he will perform a lot better.
The Cubs are at a crossroads right now. As they've limped out of the starting gate, it's looking increasingly more like the team will be selling off parts at the deadline, and gearing up for a rebuild, if the team hasn't begun the rebuilding process already. Bryant, Rizzo and Baez are all set to hit the free agent market seven months from now. Next winter, Willson Contreras will be up for bidding on the open market as well. Even with all four of the team's core players on the roster, the Cubs are still struggling to win games. It might just be time to blow the whole thing up.
The Cubs could shop Baez around the trade deadline and get a nice package of prospects back. It wouldn't be the same haul the team would have netted for him two years ago, but even as an expiring contract, Baez will be sought after by contending teams. The Cubs could also keep Baez and re-up with him on a one-year deal for next year. If Baez's struggles continue, he may not get the same kind of money — from any team — that the Cubs offered him last spring. He may choose to bet on himself once again, and want to prove that he is in fact a superstar. At this time however, it's difficult to justify giving superstar money to a player with a career .303 OBP and a track record that indicates his plate discipline will not improve.
(Photo via Associated Press)