CHICAGO -- There is a controlled aggression that now exists along with the creativity and artistry involved in Javier Báez's style of play. The shortstop believes that the evolution of his game can be greatly attributed to the freedom Joe Maddon gave Báez on the field as a young player.
"If it wouldn't have been him, I wouldn't be myself out there," Báez said at the end of this season. "I would have so many rules that I had to follow from another manager. I'm thankful for what he did for me and what I learned from him."
Last season marked Báez's last under Maddon's watchful eye, as the Cubs decided to go in a different direction with the hiring of David Ross as the team's new manager for the next era on the North Side. Now, however, Báez has blossomed into one of the faces of baseball with a style that has been developed, honed and maximized over the past few years.
Báez emerged as an MVP candidate in 2018 and backed it up with his play in '19. And Ross has the shortstop's stamp of approval for the future.
"Great," said Báez, when asked in September about the possibility of Ross getting the managing job with the Cubs. "We all love David, and he knows the team and the organization."
Báez, 26, is also no longer worried about a manager getting in the way of "Javy being Javy."
"I already made myself," Báez said. "And I think that's something that no one can change now."
Here is a look at Báez's season and the outlook for next year and beyond.
What went right?
There were still plenty of El Mago moments for Báez in 2019.
The shortstop provided power at the plate, creativity on the basepaths, wizardry in the field and made history along the way. Baseball fans voted Báez into the National League's starting lineup for the All-Star Game, making him the first player in MLB history to start at second and shortstop in consecutive seasons.
Offensively, Báez hit .281 with 29 homers, 38 doubles, 85 RBIs, 89 runs and an .847 OPS in 138 games. It was a solid follow-up performance to 2018, when he was voted the runner-up to Christian Yelich for the NL Most Valuable Player Award. Defensively, Báez had 15 Defensive Runs Saved, marking the third-highest total among Major League shortstops.
"I think I had a good year," he said. "But like I say, every year I want to get better. I want to have a better season than the season before. I think I can have a better season than this year."
What went wrong?
Báez could not shake the injury bug this past season, and it cost him both in terms of production and time on the field. A right heel injury flared on May 19 and the shortstop hit .217/.256/.452 in a 30-game span, starting with that game in Washington. Prior to that issue, Báez was batting .324 with a .968 OPS.
On Sept. 1, Báez sustained a hairline fracture in his left thumb and that setback cost him most of the season's final month. The shortstop did return as a pinch-runner on Sept. 19 and then tried to play hero as a pinch-hitter on Sept. 21 against the Cardinals. Báez struck out to end a gut-wrenching, 9-8 defeat that continued the team's spiral out of contention.
"It was frustrating," Báez said. "Not being able to play in September, it was kind of frustrating for me. But, who would know where we would've ended up if I was playing?"
Báez was in an 0-2 hole against Seth Lugo and the Cubs were down 3-2 in the eighth inning against the Mets on June 23. The shortstop -- who vented frustrations over at-bats gone wrong to teammate Pedro Strop in the batting tunnel earlier in the game -- drilled an opposite-field, three-run blast to propel Chicago to victory. It marked the 100th of Báez's career, and it came with a Wrigley Field-shaking curtain call.
"He was upset," Maddon said after the win. "But then he files it, he goes back, he plays his defense, he smiles, he does his thing, he pops sunflower seeds. He doesn't carry things with him. That's what a good baseball player does."
After earning $5.2 million last season, Báez is under club control and eligible for salary arbitration for next year. The shortstop will not be eligible for free agency until after the 2021 season, but the Cubs will likely discuss the possibility of an extension with the star. Chicago might also see what kind of trade offers exist for Báez, but it would take something significant to convince the Cubs to part with an elite up-the-middle talent. For now, Báez looks poised to remain the Cubs' starting shortstop for '20.
"I grew up here," Báez said of playing for the Cubs. "And hopefully I stay here my whole career. We'll see."