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Yankees potential trade target: Javier Báez

The Chicago Cubs seem likely to continue tearing down the 2016 championship squad.

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Cincinnati Reds v Chicago Cubs Photo by Quinn Harris/Getty Images

Ask anybody on the streets of New York what the Yankees need, and you’ll hear a few different answers. A new manager in the clubhouse, perhaps, or a new direction in the front office that is — depending on the individual — either completely bereft of analytics or embraces new directions within the field. Two additions universally rank near the top of that wish list: first, a shortstop, preferably one with a strong glove that will push Gleyber Torres back to second base; second, speed and aggressiveness on the basepaths; and third, a fresh new attitude to shake up a clubhouse that is laid back to a fault.

Although he’s not yet officially on the trade market, there is one name that fulfills all three characteristics and might become available: Javier Báez of the Chicago Cubs. There’s some uncertainty about whether or not he’ll be available, but if he is, the Cubs are sure to have interested suitors for the 28-year-old.

When Báez first emerged on the scene as an integral part of the 2016 World Series champions, he looked like a budding superstar. He played superb defense at all four infield positions, accruing 11 Outs Above Average and 12 Defensive Runs Saved while becoming known for his perfect tags. He hit a solo home run off Johnny Cueto in Game 1 of the NLDS to lead the Cubs past the Giants, 1-0, then drove in the winning run in the top of the ninth of Game 4 to clinch the series.

Just a few days later, Báez stole home in Game 2 of the NLCS against the Dodgers, becoming just the 9th player in baseball history (sixth during the Wild Card era) to swipe home during the playoffs; he was also the first Cubs player to do it in over 110 years.

Over the next three years, Báez’s star kept rising. He put together an extraordinarily impressive 2018 campaign, in which he finished runner-up for National League MVP honors and was voted to his first All-Star Game as the NL’s starting second baseman. The following year, his first as the full-time shortstop, saw Báez’s offensive performance dip from 131 wRC+ to 114, but it was made up for by his defense improving from already-great to otherworldly-elite (he accumulated 27 OAA and 31 DRS in 2019) — and it would have been even better if he didn’t also record 15 errors.

Then, 2020 happened. If you thought Gary Sánchez’s 2020 was bad, Báez was somehow even worse at the plate. The Chicago shortstop is the definition of a free-swinger — this year, in a largely-productive rebound season, he has walked only 4.2 percent of the time (bottom-fourth percentile in the league) while striking out 36.4 percent of the time (bottom-first percentile). In most years, elite bat speed and good plate coverage have allowed him to generate enough good contact to make up for the low on-base percentage. Last year, however, without the benefit of in-game video — “It’s sucked,” he very succinctly put it when asked for comment — Báez struggled to make the in-game adjustments necessary, leading to an absolutely-abysmal .203/.238/.360 slash (57 wRC+).

This year has been an up-and-down campaign for Báez.

While these month-by-month splits obviously leave plenty out, they do nonetheless give an impression of just how streaky Báez can be. Sometimes, he hits like the All-Star he was two years ago; sometimes like the MVP candidate he was three years ago; and sometimes, like the pumpkin he was just last year. That’s probably not going to change, either.

Yes, Báez murders the baseball — his average exit velocity is in the 74th percentile, his hard-hit percentage in the 79th, and his barrel percentage in the 85th, all of which would rank among the top three on the Yankees. But he’s also among the worst in baseball in both strikeout and walk rate, and while I don’t care all that much about that strikeout rate so long as he works walks and hits for extra bases, he doesn’t walk, either, meaning that he legitimately needs to hit at least .280-.290 to be a true force with the bat (as he did in 2018-19).

The defensive metrics haven’t taken too kindly to Báez’s 2021 season, either, with DRS seeing him at +4 and OAA giving up a -1, the first negative ranking of his career. Obviously, that’s not great, and a major decline from last year’s Gold Glove performance. Most of that negative value, however, comes when he’s “out of position” and playing, as Statcast describes it, in the “Role of 3B - Toward SS/3B Hole.” Without looking at every single play that Outs Above Average has graded him negatively on, it’s impossible to say for certain what exactly is causing these problems, but Báez is only 28 and already has a lengthy track record. I’d be surprised if this level of performance continues long-term.

On the basepaths, Báez has speed, which something the Yankees lack. His 28.4 ft/s sprint speed is faster than everyone in pinstripes but Tim Locastro, Ryan LaMarre, Estevan Florial, and Tyler Wade — i.e., faster than anyone the Yankees actually intended to be a member of the starting lineup. Moreover, his aggressiveness has put pressure on defenses throughout his career, to the point that Craig Edwards of FanGraphs wrote in 2018 on how other teams make three times more errors with Báez on the basepaths than normal; in a recent example, he somehow managed to reach base on a weak ground ball to third base with two outs by causing first baseman Will Craig to completely forget how to play baseball.

Considering how historically bad the Yankees have been running the bases, some skillful aggressiveness would be a welcome addition.

Last, but certainly not least, Báez has attitude, and I mean that with all the positive and negative connotations that you can imagine. As one of the faces of baseball’s “Let the kids play” campaign that began during the 2018 postseason, Báez has worn his heart on his sleeve throughout his career, while Cincinnati Reds pitcher Amir Garrett — yes, that one, and we’re going to come to him in a second — said he has “swag.” When he’s excited, boy will you know it.

That same “swag,” however, would also make him extremely popular among a certain section of the fan base. After hitting a walk-off single to center field in Monday night’s game off Garrett, Báez — who has history with Garrett that includes a benches-clearing incident from earlier this season — pimped it in every way imaginable, taking a 16-second stroll to first base during which he mocked Garrett’s broom-sweeping celebration while his teammates ripped his jersey off him. Not surprisingly, that rubbed many the wrong way, although his teammates clearly enjoyed it.

Garrett, moreover, didn’t have a problem with the celebration itself, saying to reporters after the game, “Actually, I like the intensity, I’m all for the (trash)-talking and stuff like that. That’s 100 percent fine.” His problem was hypocrisy on the part of the Cubs, whom he said had complained of opponents’ celebrations that were directed at the Cubs and not their own teammates. So, maybe radio talk show hosts would disapprove — who are we kidding, all we need to do is look at Odell Beckham Jr. and the Giants to know they would — but that’s where it would remain. He wouldn’t be the clubhouse cancer he’d be made out to be, and in fact, might just be the sparkplug the team needs.

Of course, with all this said, there’s one big caveat to the Yankees acquiring Báez: he’s a free agent at the end of the season. As I wrote a month ago and Josh wrote earlier this week, making a move for a rental, at this point in time, is a really bad decision for the Yankees; the emphasis should be on putting the team in the best position for the 2022 season, not the 2021 playoff hunt.

Unless they extend him as part of the trade, Báez would be a waste of trade chips. At this point in time, if the Yankees think that Báez would be an asset in pinstripes, they’re better served waiting until the winter.