Baez motivated to get back among league's elite

MESA, Ariz. - Until just about the final week or 10 days of last season, the Chicago Cubs' Javier Baez was the front-runner for the National League's Most Valuable Player award.

But things changed - drastically.

The Milwaukee Brewers overtook the Cubs to win the NL Central title. And then Cubs were bounced out of the postseason by the Colorado Rockies in the wild-card game.

Christian Yelich led the Brewers to the postseason, and he was the runaway winner of the MVP.

Even on the night the Cubs' season ended, Baez exuded confidence about his MVP chances.

"The numbers are there," he said at the time. "We'll see what happens. Obviously Yelich had a great year here, too. I played multiple positions. He did, too. We'll let whoever picks the MVP pick it."

Voters picked Yelich, but on Tuesday, Baez flashed a streak of pride about his individual season last year as he looked forward to better things in 2019.

"It was nice to be one of the last three," he said, referring to himself, Yelich and third-place finisher Nolan Arenado of the Rockies. "I don't know how that works, if it's with numbers or whatever. I just hope and think they should put more (emphasis on) defense into it because there is a lot of comments about it. That's something I can't control. Yelich had a great year, just like me and Arenado. Hopefully I'll be in the next three this year, and we'll see how it goes."

Like his teammates, Baez wants things to go better than they did last year, when the memory of a 95-win regular season was wiped out by losses in the final two games of the season.

For his part, Baez had a hitting line of .290/.326/.554 with 34 home runs and 101 RBI to go along with many spectacular defensive plays at second base and shortstop. Yelich went .326/.402/.598 with 36 homers and 118 RBI. He also had good timing on his side.

That still gnaws at Baez.

"After the season was over, after the last game, we started saying what we were missing," he said. "It kind of bothered me because that's what the game is for, to make adjustments and get better, and we waited for the season to be over to look at it and to try to make adjustments when there was no tomorrow. This off-season we had a lot of time to think about it and to see how we're going to react this year."

Baez says making the adjustments for him means upping his on-base percentage from .326. There's one good way to do that.

"I'm just trying to get more walks," he said. "People are talking about my walks and strikeouts. It's only going to make me better if I walk more and see the ball better."

Baez walked only 29 times last year, down 1 from 2017. Cubs manager Joe Maddon has talked up Baez's baseball IQ since Maddon got here for the 2015 season. Maddon said he likes Baez having the self-awareness to recognize the need for more walks on his own.

"We just had his meeting with him this morning," Maddon said. "We did not bring it up. I did not bring it up. He has a specific idea of what he wants to do and how to do it, typically. I would bet that you're going to see more of that. I don't mean that you're going to see a dramatic improvement, but any kind of movement in that direction should be beneficial to him offensively because you get on base more often, he's a great baserunner, he's going to score more runs because of that.

"It's just a maturation process with him from 2015 until now. Even back then, my observation was the Cubs were a better team when he was on the field, period. I've always felt that way. But he had to go through some growing pains. The next level is, 'I need to get a little more disciplined at the plate.' A nice thought."

At 26, Baez is one of the Cubs' young veterans. He'll open the season at shortstop while Addison Russell completes his domestic-violence suspension. If Russell regains his job as the Cubs' shortstop, Baez will move back to second base. In any event, he is looking for more accountability overall as he assumes more of a leadership role.

"I can't do it alone," he said. "I'm sure there's a few guys here with leadership. We just try to stay together and get the team to play more together.

"I think it's the little things. One example, last year, I didn't run full speed to first base and I would get back to dugout and no one would say anything. This year, I'm sure, if I don't do it, someone will hopefully say something. It's not to show you up. It's to make our team better."

Is Darvish feeling good after throwing batting practice? Yu bet.

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