Sweet-Swinging Javier Baez Primed to Be Cubs' Breakout Star of 2016 Playoffs

Jacob Shafer@@jacobshaferFeatured ColumnistOctober 8, 2016

CHICAGO, ILLINOIS - OCTOBER 07:  Javier Baez #9 of the Chicago Cubs celebrates after hitting a home run in the eighth inning against the San Francisco Giants at Wrigley Field on October 7, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

The Chicago Cubs have no shortage of burgeoning stars.

Toss a fungo bat during Chicago's pregame warm-ups, and you're likely to hit a young stud: Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, Addison Russell—the list goes on.

In Game 1 of the National League Division Series against the San Francisco Giants on Friday, second baseman Javier Baez nudged his name closer to the top of the Cubs' up-and-comer leaderboard. 

With the score knotted 0-0 in the bottom of the eighth, Baez crushed a solo homer off Giants starter Johnny Cueto, much to the delight of the long-suffering Wrigley Field masses.

MLB.com's Cut4 offered a look at the timely shot:

Prior to Baez's blast, Cueto had been cruising, yielding no runs, two hits and no walks with nine strikeouts. Cueto went on to finish the eighth inning and added another strikeout, making his final line unequivocally impressive. 

On the other side, Cubs starter Jon Lester put up zeroes for eight innings, surrendering five hits with no walks and five strikeouts.

And trade-deadline acquisition Aroldis Chapman came on to slam the door in the ninth, toting his triple-digit heater.

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It was a classic pitchers' duel and a see-who-blinks-first affair.

Left-hander Jon Lester threw eight shutout innings for Chicago.
Left-hander Jon Lester threw eight shutout innings for Chicago.Stacy Revere/Getty Images

There's no shame on the menu for Cueto, who pitched brilliantly in his first postseason start with San Francisco.

Instead, heap credit on Baez, who could emerge as the breakout star of the 2016 playoffs.

"At times this year he's carried us, both offensively and defensively," Lester said of Baez, per MLB.com's Chris Haft and Carrie Muskat. "It's just been fun to watch. Any given night it seems like he makes a play to save the game for us."

The 23-year-old had a solid season overall, posting a .273 average and .737 OPS in 142 games and putting up 11 defensive runs saved at second base.

The latter stat melds with the slick-fielding Russell to form arguably the flashiest keystone combo in baseball.

After hitting just .220 in August, Baez raised his average to .284 with 12 RBI in September and October. Now, after cutting his teeth with a 5-for-15 performance in the 2015 playoffs, he's poised to do much, much more.

The ninth overall pick in the 2011 draft, Baez has worn the Cubs' top-prospect label his entire pro career.

Still, it's easy to get overshadowed in this gilded Chicago organization. You've got to shine to be noticed.

Right now, Baez is sparkling.

If you're a Giants fans looking to lose more sleep tonight, there's this, courtesy of USA Today's Bob Nightengale:

Whatever the outcome of this best-of-five Cubs/Giants tussle, Baez's homer will stand as a moment in Cubs lore. So he's got that going for him, which is nice, to quote noted North Side booster Bill Murray.

For his part, Baez struck an appropriately humble note.

"I had a big hit, but we have to turn the page," he said after taking Cueto deep, per Paul Skrbina of the Chicago Tribune. "We have 10 wins to go."

Baez has been a boon for the Cubs on offense and with the glove at second base.
Baez has been a boon for the Cubs on offense and with the glove at second base.Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

We know Cubs skipper Joe Maddon loves to mix and match his chess pieces, so don't be surprised if switch-hitting veteran Ben Zobrist gets some reps at second.

Baez, however, will be given ample opportunities.

The Cubs are likely to face two more left-handers in this NLDS—Madison Bumgarner and Matt Moore—and Baez owns an .801 career OPS against southpaws compared to a .636 mark against righties.

The postseason is a time when anything can happen. Superstars crash to earth, and scrubs rise to prominence. If you're looking for a guy with a shot to rise, however, keep your eyes trained on Baez.

The Cubs have no shortage of stars. On Friday, Baez showed why he deserves a place in the firmament.

                  

All statistics current as of Friday and courtesy of MLB.com and FanGraphs unless otherwise noted.