This has been a strange spring in Chicago.
We have had four measurable snowfalls in April—and no Blackhawks or Bulls playoff games. Usually, it’s the other way around.
What that means is, lots of time for golf. But there’s been no weather for golf, even for hardy duffers like me.
I would say, “Thank goodness for the Cubs,’’ except that between their .500 start and their weather postponements, the Cubs have not provided consistent relief.
So I will say, “Thank goodness for Javier Baez.’’
Javy Baez is the new Schwarber.
A couple of years ago, Chicago baseball fans were captivated by the seemingly limitless potential of Kyle Schwarber, an engagingly overweight catcher (from Indiana University!) who hit YouTube-worthy home runs. Remember the ball that landed atop the right-field scoreboard at Wrigley Field? Remember the broken windshield in spring training?
Schwarber has come back nicely from blowing out his knee. He is no longer a catcher. He has lost weight and now is a svelte left fielder, although his defense remains an adventure.
He remains an excellent hitter, earnest fielder and productive Cub who’s fun to watch. But we are getting a better read on Schwarber’s considerable (offensive) upside. I will be happy if he stays on the North Side of Chicago, but he has Designated Hitter written all over him, especially if the Cubs can get the quality they will demand in return.
Meanwhile, the upside of Baez looms larger. And larger.
For the longest time, he was unable to find a regular slot in the lineup. Flashier but less consistent than shortstop Addison Russell in the field, flashier but less consistent than second baseman Ben Zobrist—and with newbie Ian Happ also jockeying for playing time—Baez spent a lot of time bouncing around.
Even when he got in the lineup, he was tucked away, down there near the bottom.
Those days, it appears, are over. Baez not only is settling in as the Cubs second baseman. He not only is nailing down the No. 2 slot in the lineup.
He’s taking his place among the best hitters in the National League. Yeah, yeah, yeah. It’s early. But as one of my softball buddies used to say, “You can’t drink all day if you don’t start early.”
Baez leads the NL in RBIs (20) and slugging percentage (.742), and is tied for the lead with three triples. Sadly, none of those triples came on Friday night in frigid Denver, where he went 4-for-6, needing only a triple to complete the first cycle by a Cub in 25 years.
He also is tied for second in total bases (46). Among his 18 hits, an eye-opening 13 have been for extra bases. His six homers, five singles, four doubles and three triples do give him a new kind of cycle, if not a great poker hand.
He’s third in the league in WAR, which makes me even more determined to figure out what WAR is. (I’ve been anti-WAR since Vietnam, but one of these days. . . )
Baez also is a remarkable fielder. Check that. He’s a dazzling fielder. He makes startling plays, with amazing grace.
That might be the best thing about the Puerto Rican native who played his high-school ball in Jacksonville, Fla.: His flair for the game.
He makes all kinds of plays in the field that you just want to watch again and again. Bare-handed magician plays. Acrobatic tags on runners that are right out of Cirque du Soleil.
And when he runs the bases, he makes things happen—and uses his head. His best moment might have come on April 6 in Milwaukee. Straining for a triple, he outran his batting helmet and lost it somewhere between second and third base.
The ball arrived at third base about the same time as Baez. It bounced off the back of his noggin and caromed away to left field, allowing Baez to score. That two-run inside-the-park triple-and-an-error circuit of the bases tied the game.
In the dugout afterward, Baez was rubbing his head. The rest of us were rubbing our eyes.
If you’re like me, your baseball tastes may run toward the provincial. It takes a lot for me to get excited about things that don’t involve Cubbie Blue.
But check out Javy Baez. He’s not only an all-around talent. He’s one flashy dude.