CHICAGO — This is the seventh in a series of position-by-position analyses of the Cubs after the 2019 season.
1. Is Javier Baez too valuable to trade?
Like Kris Bryant, the return would have to be greater than the loss of Baez for two seasons before he's eligible for free agency.
"I grew up here and hopefully I stay here my whole career," Baez said Sept. 29. "We'll see."
The same agency that struck a four-year, $55.5 million contract with right-handed starter Kyle Hendricks represents Baez.
Cubs President Theo Epstein intimated he will reach out to some of the younger core players, such as Baez, Bryant and Willson Contreras, this offseason to see if they're interested in a long-term contract.
If there's no common ground, the Cubs will test the players' value with other teams -- especially with multiple needs and the threat of losing those players after 2021.
Given Baez's youth (26), all-around skills and popularity, the Cubs could fill several needs with a trade. But Baez's superb defense alone gives Cubs pitchers a sense of comfort and would be considered before any deal. His 15 runs saved at shortstop, according to the Fielding Bible, were 11 more than his previous high as a backup shortstop in 2016.
"I feel good with this season, but every year I want to have a better season than the season before," Baez said. "I can have a better season next year."
Baez's walk rate climbed minimally from 4.5% to 5%, but his 36.1% pull rate was his lowest in four seasons. The latter stat paid off as he hit the ball with more authority up the middle and to the opposite field.
Baez remains an interesting study, but his intangibles outweigh his occasional flaws.
Joe Maddon treated Baez with kid gloves from the time the manager went to Puerto Rico in December 2014 to watch Baez, who was learning to play center field and working on cutting down his high strikeout rate.
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The patience paid off. Baez has developed into one of the league's top players. He has said he won't change his game to satisfy the next manager, so the chemistry between him and Maddon's replacement bears watching.
2. If the Cubs trade Javier Baez, who are the internal options at shortstop?
Based on his play in the final three weeks of the season, Nico Hoerner has earned the inside track. Hoerner skipped Triple A and was promoted Sept. 9 only after Baez injured his left thumb, Addison Russell suffered a concussion and Triple-A Iowa shortstop Dixon Machado injured one of his hamstrings.
The Cubs already were in the process of altering Hoerner's arm stroke to improve his velocity on long throws. Hoerner played his first 125 1/3 innings before he was charged with his first error and has emerged as the team's most dependable shortstop behind Baez.
Russell has more experience than Hoerner at the position but committed throwing errors in three consecutive games in Milwaukee from Sept. 5-7.
3. How much did Javier Baez's thumb injury contribute to the Cubs missing the playoffs?
On the final day of the season, Baez lamented how he and teammates "struggled all year" and failed to get hot at the same time.
Baez suffered a hairline fracture in his left thumb Sept. 1, sidelining him for all but one at-bat as a pinch hitter and four appearances as a pinch runner the rest of the season.
In the final 23 games before the injury, Baez hit only one home run and saw his average drop 12 points. Maddon pulled him early from four blowouts, and Baez didn't play in one game because of an illness.
Nevertheless, Baez had a .304 average and .966 OPS against left-handers in 2019. The Cubs, who hit only .239 with a .750 OPS against lefties, sorely missed his production down the stretch.
The Cardinals deserved to win the National League Central, and the Brewers went 20-7 in September -- while the Cubs went 11-16 -- to seal a wild-card spot.
A healthy and productive Baez could have kept the Cubs in contention in the season's final week.