Earlier today, Jeff Passan dropped a bunch of proverbial bombs regarding the upcoming offseason, which revealed, among many things, the Cubs’ apparent willingness to listen to offers on Kris Bryant over the winter. But that was far from the only Cubs-related rumor that requires our attention.
Later in his article, Passan mentions that, like this past offseason, the threat of a strike or lockout in the future could push a number of players into early extensions.
And the very first player he names? None other than Cubs shortstop Javier Baez: “There has been momentum in the past to keep Baez, 26, in a Cubs uniform well into his 30s. With Baez two years from free agency, it’s the sort of deal that makes a lot of sense.”
Why, hello there, late-August rumors. You are very unexpected, but always welcome.
Despite taking a step backwards offensively this season, Baez, who is set to be a free agent after 2021, is still the sort of player this Cubs team should absolutely want to keep around long-term (and I doubt any Cubs fan would disagree). Because even though his 116 wRC+ isn’t quite in line with his MVP-runner-up 2018 campaign (131 wRC+), it’s still well above-average (and all the more valuable for a player with so many other skills).
But there’s of course a lot more to it than that, and more reasons to think an extension really makes sense (maybe even in contrast to Kris Bryant).
For one thing, the Cubs don’t really have many other obvious options at shortstop for the foreseeable future. Addison Russell may have – at one time – been seen as the future of the position, but that ship has long since sailed. Even before considering his domestic violence suspension, Russell has dealt with nagging injuries, bouts of total ineffectiveness and streakiness, as well as, at times, what seems like a general lack of focus and commitment. Is he a useful player on a playoff team? Yeah, sure. But is he someone to which you’ll attach yourself over the next 6-7 years as the starting shortstop? I don’t think so.
And then there’s Nico Hoener, one of the Cubs’ top prospects. He may have all the realistic upside in the world, but there’s no guarantee that he’ll succeed at the big league level. But even if he does find his way to Chicago sooner than later, it won’t necessarily be at shortstop. The Cubs have already worked Hoerner out at both second base and center field, both of which could be uniquely valuable positions for him/the organization anyway, not only over the next couple years, but beyond.
Broader point being: If the Cubs don’t look to extend Javy Baez within the next two years, they’ll have to find another shortstop around the time he hits free agency anyway. It’s just a very difficult position to secure.
The Cubs will probably also look to secure some general cost certainty very soon. They’ve already moved one piece out of the way, signing Kyle Hendricks to an extension last spring, but there are still so many players reaching arbitration and/or free agency around the same time. That’s obviously good for the product on the field, but it can make long-term planning very difficult for the front office. If you lock down Baez now, it might not be cheap, but you’ll at least know what you’re working with from a budgetary standpoint, and that has value.
But speaking of how cheap or not it may be, now seems like a good time to extend Baez, right? Simply put, there’s a matter of timing to these things, and signing Baez after this season (which, again, was slightly worse than 2018) could ultimately work out in the Cubs favor. From a performance stand point, he’ll simply command less than he would have if he’d improved on his 2018 campaign at the plate.
That discussion is not only about what he’s worth on a new contract based on what he’s expected to produce, but also what he might otherwise make in arbitration over the next two years. Baez is earning $5.2M in his first of three trips through arbitration this season. And while he’ll undoubtedly get a raise next year, his performance in 2019 won’t likely bring his paycheck up to the Kris Bryant-level arbitration dollars. So if he won’t make enormous money next season through traditional channels and hasn’t earned as much throughout his career until now, he may be more willing to sign for a price tag the Cubs would consider.
From a human perspective, we all want Baez to earn as much as he possibly can. But we also can’t ignore the strategic implications for the Cubs, and we’re just acknowledging that reality.
With all of that said, JavyBaez might not cost as much as you think. On the one hand, he’s still only 26 years old, was worth 5.3 WAR last season and is on pace for about as much again this season (his defensive value has skyrocketed with more time at shortstop). But on the other hand, this season has demonstrated that he’s not a lock for that elite-level of offense.
Relatively speaking, Baez may be a top-5 overall shortstop, when everything is taken into account. But by wRC+ he’s just barely in the top-10 (9th). That doesn’t mean he’ll be cheap – by any means – but I just don’t think we’re anywhere close to the Nolan Arenado/Manny Machado range. Does anyone really believe he’ll get more than the 7-year/$163.5M deal Jose Altuve signed as a fellow middle infielder? I don’t.
Altuve may play second base and not shortstop, but he’s a truly elite hitter who had a far longer and better track record of success at the time he signed his deal. Even if you thought that was a steal and throw in the fact that it was signed 1.5 years ago, I just can’t see Baez eclipsing that deal.
No comp is going to be perfect, but the Red Sox extended their 26-year-old shortstop Xander Bogaerts over the offseason and I think that could be a good framework. Bogaerts was one year closer to free agency when he signed than Baez would be if he went for it this winter, but he also had two seasons with above-average offensive production (111 wRC+, 114 wRC+) and another at that obvious-All-Star level (133 wRC+). The Red Sox gave him $120M over six years with a vesting option for another $20M. If Baez was somewhere in that range, perhaps a year shorter to account for the service time difference, I think it could be the sort of deal that does something for both sides.
We’re still a long ways away from figuring the particulars out, but the framework is there, the need is there, and the talent is there. Everyone – from the front office to the fans in the bleachers – would love to see Javy Baez doing his El Mago thing at Wrigley Field for a long time. Now we just have to hope they can get something done.
Brett Taylor contributed to this post.