• The Cubs would be lost this year if not for the massive contributions of Javy Baez. It all depends on the definition of "most valuable," but the Chicago infielder deserves plenty of votes for NL MVP this year.
By Jon Tayler
September 27, 2018

Editor's note: SI is highlighting the top candidates in a crowded race for the National League MVP award. Check out our primers on Lorenzo Cain, Freddie Freeman, Jacob deGrom, and Christian Yelich.

For a team that may finish with the best record in the National League, the Cubs certainly don’t look like a powerhouse. Anthony Rizzo and Willson Contreras are both amid down seasons. Kris Bryant has missed nearly half the year with injuries. Addison Russell alternated between hurt and awful before being suspended over domestic abuse allegations. Yu Darvish managed just 40 innings of a 4.95 ERA before being lost for the season. Tyler Chatwood couldn’t stop walking hitters. Closer Brandon Morrow is done for the year; so is fill-in Pedro Strop.

But as the Cubs have struggled—relatively speaking, of course; they have 93 wins with three games to go—Javier Baez has shone. The Puerto Rican infielder has always been more promise than finished product, wowing fans and scouts with titanic home runs but scaring them away with his undisciplined hacking. The free swinging has remained an inextricable part of his repertoire: He’s top five in swing rate and swinging-strike rate among all qualified hitters this year. Yet despite that (or maybe because of it), he’s exploded into a consistent power hitter—and more importantly, the most reliable player on the Cubs.

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Baez’s MVP case is easy enough to make by the numbers. He’s third in the NL among position players in Baseball-Reference’s Wins Above Replacement (6.2, behind Christian Yelich and Lorenzo Cain) and fourth in Fangraphs WAR at 5.4 (trailing Yelich, Cain and Nationals third baseman Anthony Rendon). He’s first in RBIs (111) and total bases (330), second in slugging percentage (.562) and home runs (34), and seventh in doubles (38), and his 128 OPS+ leads the Cubs’ regulars. That’s an impact hitter no matter how you define it.

But beyond what he does at the plate, there’s what he offers in the field. A terrific defender at second base, Baez also has the range to play shortstop and third base, and well. His versatility makes him a potent weapon for manager Joe Maddon, who mixes and matches with gusto. He’s an aggressive base runner, too, taking the extra bag 64% of the time—third highest among all hitters with 500 or more plate appearances this season.

The strongest argument for Baez being this year’s NL MVP, though, is what happens to the Cubs if you take him away. The hole he would leave not only in the lineup but also in the middle of the infield would be impossible for Chicago to fill; he’s the most irreplaceable player on a roster loaded with talent. The Cubs have survived long stretches of nothing from Rizzo, weeks with Bryant on the shelf, start after start from lesser pitchers in place of Darvish. But it’s hard to imagine Chicago still being a playoff team had Baez either gotten hurt or gone into an extended funk at any point. He’s been a consistent producer at the plate and in the field all year.

Your choice for NL MVP depends largely on how you define an MVP, and what frame of time matters most, and what stats are most important, and the philosophical underpinnings of the word “valuable,” and a dozen other conditions that I won’t get into here. But if an MVP to you is the player a team couldn’t live without, then Baez has to be at the top of that list.

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