Báez: 'Obviously, I want to stay here'

28-year-old star is open to extension as he enters final year before free agency

February 26th, 2021

MESA, Ariz. --  is an entertainer. He thrives off the energy of a packed stadium and craves those moments when he can head back up the dugout steps to pound his chest and join in his audience's celebratory shouts to the heavens.

As was the case for every player in 2020, that aspect of the game was removed during the pandemic-impacted season. Baseball provided an escape via broadcasts for fans staying safe at home. For the players, and especially for one who plays with as much emotion as Báez, the impact of the crowd's absence was real.

"It was the worst," Báez said on Friday. "It was worse than facing a pitcher in Spring Training on the backfield, to be honest. I didn't like it at all."

Báez quickly noted that citing that element of last season is no excuse for the worst offensive season -- abbreviated or not -- of his career. It also remains undetermined how fans might be reintroduced into Wrigley Field and other ballparks around the country, given the current state of COVID-19.

Even so, the prospect of any fans fuels Báez in these early, optimism-laced days of Spring Training. And in his mind's eye, the dynamic shortstop can envision himself once again performing as El Mago for Cubs fans, and doing so for many years to come on the North Side.

As free agency possibly looms for Báez next offseason, he reiterated again on Friday that he has no desire to try on another uniform. Cubs president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer has made it known that he plans to sit down with Báez to discuss the potential for an extension, and the shortstop is ready to listen.

"We've talked about it every Spring Training," said Báez, referring specifically to the past few preseasons. "We didn't ever talk about numbers. We had a good conversation about the stuff that I can do, the stuff that I'm willing to do and the plan that I have for the future.

"Obviously, like I've said, I want to stay here. I don't want to play for another team."

Among the core group remaining from the 2016 World Series team, Báez, Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo could become free agents next winter, with Willson Contreras following them after the '22 season. That has Hoyer trying to navigate his way through a crucial transition point in the franchise's timeline.

In Báez, the Cubs have a 28-year-old star who was the runner-up for the National League Most Valuable Player Award in 2018. Báez started at second base for the NL All-Star team that year, and then started at short in the '19 All-Star Game. In those two seasons combined, he posted a .286/.321/.544 batting line with an average of 32 homers, 39 doubles, 95 runs and 98 RBIs for Chicago.

During the abbreviated 2020 campaign, Báez won his first career Gold Glove Award at shortstop, which came on the heels of a stellar defensive showing (19 Outs Above Average, per Statcast) in the previous season, as well. It was in the batter's box that Báez slipped dramatically last year.

"Last year, man," Báez said. "I don't want to talk about last year."

Báez turned in a .203/.238/.360 slash line with eight homers and 24 RBIs in 59 games. He struck out 75 times, drew only seven walks and finished with a 59 OPS+ (indicating he was 41 percent below MLB average as a hitter).

"It was frustrating to me, to a lot of players," Báez said. "But it was two months. It was two months of baseball that I felt in a rush. I felt like I didn't have time to make adjustments. ... I was not mentally ready for what happened last year."

During last season's offensive struggles, Báez was vocal about how the lack of access to in-game video impacted his approach. Pitchers were attacking him in a different way, but he could not watch clips to confirm what his eyes were telling him until after games. It was a frustrating component that contributed to his downward spiral.

Cubs hitting coach Anthony Iapoce said it also just came down to a disruption in the routine that Báez built and found comfort in over his career. The shortstop got accustomed to checking on his timing or if a pitch location was where he felt it was in the moment on the field.

"With him," Iapoce said, "it's not necessarily breaking down your swing that guys are looking for. It's a reassurance."

Báez said that led to a collapse in trusting himself, but the shortstop also believes there were valuable lessons learned in those trials. And now, with the hope that fans can return at some point, and with in-game video expected to be reintroduced in some capacity, Báez is also confident about the coming season.

Cubs manager David Ross shares that feeling.

"I think he's going to have a special year," Ross said. "I think getting fans back in the stands, getting video back -- all those things that play into a normal routine for him -- and just some of the things that we've had conversations about, I think he's in a good place going into this year."

Báez added that he plans to "just let my game talk," when it comes to bouncing back and trying to earn his next contract. The shortstop did not set an end date for negotiations with the Cubs, but hinted that he would prefer not to enter the season with that situation hovering over his head.

"We're probably going to have a deadline," Báez said. "I don't like to play with that pressure, which I'm always saying that I don't play with pressure, but it's always there. I always try to keep it away. We're probably going to have a deadline. We'll see.

"We'll see what happens, where we are in the conversation. But obviously, I want to stay here."