Kris Bryant, Javier Baez and the Cubs Building the 'New-Age' MLB Star

Scott Miller@@ScottMillerBblNational MLB ColumnistOctober 18, 2016

CHICAGO, ILLINOIS - OCTOBER 07:  Javier Baez #9 and Kris Bryant #17 of the Chicago Cubs celebrate after beating the San Francisco Giants in the first inning-0 at Wrigley Field on October 7, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

CHICAGO — The Chicago Cubs led the league this year in, among other things, wins, winning percentage, run differential and multitasking.

Yes, that's right. Multitasking.

Do you feel pretty accomplished when you knock off three things at once? Look at Javier Baez, who this year became just the fourth Cubs player since 1913 with at least 20 starts at second base, third base and shortstop. He also started twice at first base, vacuumed the Cubs clubhouse after each game and refilled the team's Gatorade supply daily.

Well, those last couple of things might be a bit of an exaggeration, but the way Baez is stealing hearts (and home plates) this postseason, it's at least believable.

"He's probably the most exciting player in baseball right now," Cubs catcher David Ross raves. "He's energetic. He's not scared of the moment. And the flair he has...he's very, very exciting to watch."

Meantime...feel like a world-beater when you can text, email and watch your favorite television show all at the same time? Look at Kris Bryant, who probably is on his way to the NL MVP award this season because of the one-of-a-kind combination of his bat and versatility. Bryant in 2016 became only the second player in history to smash at least 35 homers while playing at least 10 games at third base, left field and right field in the same season. Albert Pujols (2001) was the first.

Yes, these Cubs are a postmodern team for a postmodern age. Led by Bryant and Baez, they tweet, they laugh, they win. Every day is Casual Friday.

What's especially unique is their unselfish, team-first attitude that allows manager Joe Maddon to move them all over the diamond while constructing a lineup that gives the Cubs the best chance to win on that particular night.

Ben Zobrist, who signed a four-year, $56 million free-agent deal last winter, was one of Maddon's original Swiss Army knives back in Tampa Bay in 2008. From second base to shortstop to the outfield, he changed positions more often than Beyonce changes outfits.

And yet, Bryant absolutely does not remind Zobrist of himself.

"No," Zobrist says. "Because when I started doing it, it was out of necessity to get into the lineup. The guys who were the stars of the team, like Kris Bryant, wouldn't do that. So it's a different situation.

CINCINNATI, OH - OCTOBER 01: Ben Zobrist #18 of the Chicago Cubs throws to first after fielding the ball against the Cincinnati Reds during the game at Great American Ball Park on October 1, 2016 in Cincinnati, Ohio. The Reds defeated the Cubs 7-4. (Photo
Joe Robbins/Getty Images

"It's basically just Joe taking a star and using all of the possible assets that that guy has. And that guy being willing to do that is extremely rare. Extremely rare. Most guys in his position would not do that. That just says the kind of person, the kind of team guy, he is."

Excuses are available like low-hanging fruit for Bryant to pick if he wanted to play the superstar card: Changing positions every other day, or even in the middle of a game, is too much of a distraction. He might not be comfortable. He could embarrass himself. It could ruin his concentration at the plate.

Instead, Bryant embraces it.

"I've played all over the field my whole life so it wasn't too uncomfortable for me," he says. "It's just getting used to the perspectives from each position. Each outfield spot is different for me. But I've never felt uncomfortable."

Even at the major league level, where the stadiums come with three decks and the lights are brighter than Broadway?

"Honestly, I feel like at times at this level it's easier because you have the better lights, the better visual backdrops, that sort of thing," Bryant says.

"Obviously, I've played third base, but moving around might add a little more of that fresher element."

That can-do attitude is a lot of what allowed Maddon to create space for Baez. When the season started, Bryant was the third baseman, Addison Russell the shortstop, Zobrist the second baseman and Anthony Rizzo at first. Baez, the Cubs' first-round draft pick in 2011 (ninth overall), came up through the minors as a shortstop. Any reservations he had about taking new positions out for a test drive were overcome by this realization: Would he rather be playing shortstop at Triple-A Iowa, or a variety of positions in the big leagues?

SAN FRANCISCO, CA - OCTOBER 11:  Javier Baez #9 of the Chicago Cubs fields a ground ball against the San Francisco Giants during Game Four of their National League Division Series at AT&T Park on October 11, 2016 in San Francisco, California.  (Photo by T
Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

Baez is immensely popular within the clubhouse, and as if there weren't a big enough soft spot for him from the beginning, it's only grown since his sister, Noely, tragically passed away in April 2015. Born with Spina bifida, doctors didn't think Noely would survive the day she was born. Instead, she lived until she was 21, teaching her brother a thing or two about fighting and living along the way.

Though Noely was able to travel to Denver along with the entire Baez family for his major league debut Aug. 5, 2014, she died the following spring. Baez, who was extremely close with her and has a large tattoo picturing her on his right shoulder, was playing in Triple-A Iowa at the time. He took two weeks away from baseball before he came back.

"From the time we showed up in 2012, we saw how incredibly close Javier was to his sister," Jason McLeod, the Cubs' senior vice president of scouting and player development, says. "She was at a lot of his minor league games, right there in the front row in her wheelchair. After the game, he'd go over and give her a kiss.

"It was really fun and special to see how much he cared about her. When she died, we wanted to support him as much as we could. We wanted to be there with open arms when he came back, but first give him the space he needed."

Baez's incredible versatility, and eagerness to imitate a disc jockey taking requests, allowed Maddon to deploy a stunning array of lineups this summer. Baez made 38 starts at second base, 36 at third base, 21 at shortstop and even two at first base. Whatever the skipper asked.

Maddon leaned especially hard on Baez's glove as a weapon with Jon Lester on the mound. Baez was in the starting lineup for 27 of the left-hander's 32 starts this year, including 18 times at third base, five at shortstop and four at second base. In collaboration with the Cubs' internal analytics department, Maddon's method is crystal clear: He wants to place Baez where the Cubs think the most action will be on a given night.

Ralph Freso/Associated Press

"It makes them tough to game-plan for," Andy Green, the San Diego Padres manager, says. "You look up on a given day and Javy Baez is playing third base, you immediately know you're not bunting that day, you immediately know you can't delay-steal third base, you immediately know he's going to shut things down because that's the kind of athlete he is.

"So moving those guys around the diamond changes the context of the game."

It is this versatility and strategizing that positioned the Cubs to lead the majors with 82 defensive runs saved this summer, according to FanGraphs' calculation. And it wasn't even close. Houston was a distant second at 51 runs saved.

Maddon, or a member of his staff, texts the players on the morning of a game so that there are no surprises when they walk into the clubhouse later that day. Bryant's cellphone will buzz and tell him he's playing third base tonight, or left field. Same for Baez.

The results speak volumes for what has become a vibrant, energetic and creative culture created under Maddon, president of baseball operations Theo Epstein, general manager Jed Hoyer and the rest of the gang.

"We have guys who are able to understand the overall goal and are willing to get out of their comfort zone for a little bit and try something," Zobrist says. "It also says Joe believes in players. He believes that if you're an athlete, you can do it. Even if at first you're like, 'Uh, I don't know.' He believes you're capable of doing things you haven't even thought of before."

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

As for the conventional wisdom that suggests changing positions might make a player less effective at the plate because he has so much on his mind, Maddon, the man who preaches that batting practice is overrated anyway, thinks that's rubbish. Look at Baez this year: He's significantly reduced his strikeouts. Might frequent position changes actually do the opposite of what some think and free up a player's mind?

"I totally believe it does work opposite," Maddon says. "I never believed that by moving them around it [could hurt them at the plate]. I believe that by moving them around it helps them at the plate because you focus so much on your defense you're not worried so much about your offense.

"I totally believe that by bringing a young guy up, i.e. a Zobrist back in the day, even B.J. Upton...B.J. came up when I was in Tampa and was established as a shortstop. He wasn't doing that well, so we started moving him around, put him at second base, and I thought he was almost an All-Star candidate before he hurt his leg running to first base in Miami. But he hit.

"He hit by playing different positions. We had him working out at different positions everyday pregame and I thought that would de-emphasize all this work in the cage. Hitters swing too much, they think too much. If all it took was X number of swings in a day or X number of hours of hitting, then everybody would be a .300 hitter. Because everybody puts that time in, and I think it's counterproductive. I think it works absolutely in reverse. I think there's a point of diminishing returns that sets in, guys become arm-weary, mentally weary, by swinging the bat too much.

"I wish they'd play with their gloves a little more often. I think there is this residual effect in a positive way offensively by not swinging so much. I do, I believe playing more defense and playing different positions can help a young player become a better offensive player."

David J. Phillip/Associated Press

Even before he became a manager and created the "Zorilla" phenomenon with Zobrist in Tampa, as a coach in Anaheim, Maddon's fingerprints were all over the versatility of Tony Phillips, Mark McLemore and Chone Figgins.

"The players have to be able to do those things," Maddon says. "Not everybody can play those positions well. I think that's the greater requirement as opposed to worrying about their hitting, it's can they do that on defense? If they can't, then you don't do that."

As Maddon points out, from a manager's perspective, it is far easier to do this with a younger player on the way up than with a veteran. It becomes difficult to teach an old dog new tricks, right? In this vein, Bryant, 24, and Baez, 23, are perfect. To them, maintaining an array of broken-in gloves for different positions is a perfectly normal way to live an MLB life.

"If you try to get them to do that four years from now it might be difficult," Maddon concedes. "But if they come in young doing this thing and get it to become part of their fabric and understand how it helps the group, you've got something."

You better believe that other clubs are taking notes. It's a copycat sport, and who wouldn't want to emulate the Cubs right now?

Maddon first laid eyes on Baez in Puerto Rico when he visited two winters ago after accepting the Chicago job. He watched Baez make some slick plays in the infield and immediately knew that the Cubs would be a better team with Baez around.

This October, everyone is seeing that. He smashed a key home run against San Francisco and made several highlight-reel plays in the field during the division series. Against the Dodgers in Game 1 of this NL Championship Series, he created a run all by himself with a hustle double, a dash to third on a wild pitch and then a breathtaking steal of home. In Game 2, he alertly let a line drive skip on the ground in front of him, instead of catching it, to start a double play.

CHICAGO, IL - OCTOBER 15:  Earvin 'Magic' Johnson attends game one of the National League Championship Series between the Chicago Cubs and the Los Angeles Dodgers at Wrigley Field on October 15, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

"He's just a unique talent," Maddon says, noting that it is only a select few players who possess it in any sport, like Magic Johnson, one of the Dodgers' owners and the former NBA great.

"Some of your greater running backs," he continues. "They just have this vision. They see things. He sees things. And that's why he's so good."

It's also why it will be so difficult for rival clubs to duplicate what the Cubs have right now. It is an exquisitely rare mix of vision, talent, unselfishness and a willingness by all to do things for the good of the team.

"There are so many guys in the league who could do it if they put their mind to it," says Zobrist, one of the pioneers of the trade. "But some guys don't." 

Among other things, Zobrist says, versatility not only helps the team, it can improve a player's individual stock. Case in point: himself.

"Teams were looking at me not just as a second baseman or outfielder, but both," says Zobrist, who emerged as one of the more desired players on the market last winter. "So several different teams were talking to me, saying we want you to do this or we want you to do this. They were putting offers on the table for various positions.

"If that opens up your opportunities, that's what's going to enable guys to make more money in free agency, too."

So far, it has worked wonders for Bryant.

CHICAGO, IL - JUNE 20: Kris Bryant #17 of the Chicago Cubs makes a catch for an out against the St. Louis Cardinals during the fourth inning at Wrigley Field on June 20, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images)
Jon Durr/Getty Images

"I feel like it kind of keeps me on my toes in terms of moving around," Bryant says. "It keeps you fresh at third base. I feel like this game is so monotonous, it's the same thing over and over every day. So I feel like for me to move around to left field, third base, first base, right field, it kind of makes me wake up a little bit."

"It's a great model," the Padres' Green says. "Joe's proven to be a trendsetter in the game in recent years. He was shifting before anybody else was shifting. You look back 20, 30 years at the way Tony La Russa managed the bullpen; now everybody is using their bullpen that way.

"Now, moving guys around the diamond, if you have the pieces to do that, it's a concept I wouldn't shy away from at all. But until you get that caliber of athlete all over the diamond where you've got a Javy Baez and a Ben Zobrist and a Kris Bryant, the rest of us are just pretending."

    

Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow Scott on Twitter and talk baseball.

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