Rozner: Cubs' Baez thinking bigger, better in 2019

 
 
Updated 1/21/2019 6:34 AM
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  • Javier Baez, center, greets former Cubs Billy Williams, left, and Randy Hundley, right, during opening night Friday of the 2019 Chicago Cubs Convention at the Sheraton Grand in Chicago.

    Javier Baez, center, greets former Cubs Billy Williams, left, and Randy Hundley, right, during opening night Friday of the 2019 Chicago Cubs Convention at the Sheraton Grand in Chicago. Patrick Kunzer | Staff Photographer

With a week to go in the 2018 season, Javy Baez was the National League MVP.

Perhaps hanging on by a thread, he was still on top.

The Brewers' Christian Yelich was charging hard, but the consensus was with Baez, assuming he could have a strong week and the Cubs would hang on to win the Central Division and finish with the best record in the league.

Not one of those things happened.

Yelich hit 5 homers and drove in 17 runs over his last 8 games with a 1.857 OPS, while Milwaukee went 8-0 and chased down the Cubs, catching them and eventually winning Game 163 at Wrigley Field.

At the same time, Baez got absolutely nothing to hit and flailed at pitches out of the zone, opposing hurlers knowing the rest of the Cubs' lineup was feeble.

He played the final week with no homers, 1 RBI, 11 whiffs in 8 games and a .607 OPS, as the Cubs limped to the finish line, the Brewers celebrating after the tiebreaker in Chicago and the Cubs losing the next day in the wild card.

While considerably less important than what happened to the Cubs' season, Baez also gave away the MVP, perhaps a once-in-a-career opportunity.

Yelich would argue that he took it away and there's merit to that case, but there's no denying that Baez had it.

And lost it.

Among the reasons, Baez said this weekend at the Cubs Convention, was the love of Cubs fans who chanted "MVP" each time he came to the plate in September.

"It did put too much pressure on me. I put too much pressure on me. I didn't handle it," Baez said with a smile. "That's why I don't like to play with numbers. I want to play without thinking about those things.

"Obviously, our fans doing what they do best, cheering for us, is so great. They are so good to me. I love them. But I get nervous depending on the situation of the game.

"Them yelling 'MVP,' it got to me a little bit."

With an OPS of .915 in June, Baez was thrust into the MVP race. A .953 in July put him near the top and a .904 in August put him in the lead, while so many candidates fell by the wayside.

But his .791 OPS in September, up against Yelich -- who posted a spectacular 1.313 -- came at the wrong time. Voters like a strong finish in meaningful games and Baez struck out 38 times in 29 games, his worst month of the year.

He was tired and banged up but played through it, the Cubs desperate for his defense at shortstop and his offensive production.

But opposing pitchers gave him nothing to hit and he frequently got himself out.

"I learned a lot about to handle all of that and I think I would do a better job next time," Baez said. "I think controlling myself a little bit better. In the situation, I think I would go way further. I'm making adjustments."

Baez did finish second in the MVP voting and had a breakout year in so many ways, posting career highs in RBI (league-leading 111), homers (34), stolen bases (21), OPS-plus (126), average (.290), doubles (40), triples (9), hits (176), runs (101) and at-bats (606).

Offensively and defensively, he was a huge part of the Cubs winning 95 games, carrying them for long stretches, and expectations for the 26-year-old will only grow in 2019.

"That's good," Baez said. "Can I do it again? Oh yeah, for sure. I believe I can have a way better year than last year.

"Staying healthy is my first thing to do. I want to win. I want to win again and have another great parade. That's what I want more than anything.

"It was a great year, obviously, but we didn't get to where we wanted to be. I can't wait to get going again. I want that parade."

If Baez is right about besting 2018, that's a pretty good start.

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