Ripple effects of Javy Baez’s thumb injury and what it means for the Cubs

MILWAUKEE — Catching the Cardinals in the division just got a whole lot tougher for the Cubs with Javy Baez sidelined indefinitely with a hairline fracture in his thumb.

Hell, simply MAKING it to the playoffs will be a whole lot tougher for the Cubs now.

The Cubs do not have an exact timeline for Baez’s recovery at the moment, but the expectation is he will miss several weeks. That’s a devastating blow for a team 2.5 games out of first place and only 2.0 games up in the Wild-Card standings.

There’s no way around it — Baez might be the Cubs’ most important player and has been a vital part of the team’s success over the last few seasons. He finished second in National League MVP voting last season and started his second straight All-Star Game this summer.

He leads the Cubs in WAR, is second on the team in RBI (85) and home runs (29) and rates as an elite fielder while taking over shortstop full time this season. He ranks eighth in all of baseball with 15 Defensive Runs Saved this season and only Nick Ahmed (19 DRS) and Trevor Story (18 DRS) are higher among shortstops. 

Baez is also a central figure in the Cubs’ defensive shifting, as he was almost always moving from the traditional shortstop position to shallow right field against the likes of Christian Yelich and other left-handed hitters. 

So how do the Cubs overcome this?

“Addison [Russell] plays a lot of shortstop. We definitely have a lot of other good names,” manager Joe Maddon said. “It’s not like we’re just a one-man band. Other guys have to take care of their component of the game also. Everybody’s gotta do their job and you win.

“It’s not easy. It’s no fun without him, but you don’t go home, you keep playing and you look for other people to maybe rise to the occasion. I don’t want them to try to do more. I just want them to do their jobs.”

In other words, it’s time to take a page out of Bill Belichick’s playbook: “Next man up.”

Injuries happen. Every team deals with it throughout the season, which is why depth is so important.

But the timing of Baez’s injury could not be worse, as the Cubs are trying to make one last push for the playoffs.

“Well, the whole world’s about timing. When timing’s on your side, it’s beautiful. When it’s not, it’s a little bit more difficult,” Maddon said. “We’re gonna miss him — we miss him already — but we got a nice group out there and nobody’s gonna feel sorry for you. We can’t feel sorry for ourselves. 

“We’ve got very capable other players. We just gotta go out there and play that tight defense. We gotta find a little bit of his offense from other areas.”

The offense is maybe the biggest deal here. Russell is a very good defender and the Cubs may not lose much defensively between him and Baez at shortstop. 

But Russell is nowhere near the offensive player Baez is, hitting just .229/.302/.393 this season including his solo homer in Saturday night’s game. He has a career .702 OPS compared to Baez’s .795 lifetime mark.

The Cubs have struggled all season to get their offense on track consistently. Entering play Saturday, they were 7-3 in their last 10 games — scoring 47 runs in the seven wins and just 1 run in the three losses.

They just got Ben Zobrist back into the leadoff spot and Willson Contreras back on the field after the All-Star catcher missed a month with a hamstring injury. Missing Baez now from the middle of the order will be huge, but other players like Kyle Schwarber and Nicholas Castellanos will have to keep their hot streaks going while Kris Bryant will have to return to his MVP-caliber form and Anthony Rizzo keeps up his steady production.

Even when Baez wasn’t going well (as he struggled over the last few weeks before the injury), he was a feared hitter in the middle of the Cubs lineup, always one swing away from changing a game.

On top of all that, the Cubs’ depth chart at shortstop is now suddenly maybe the thinnest area on the team. 

All of a sudden, Russell has become one of the Cubs’ most important players as they make their push toward the postseason. After all the off-field issues that permeated throughout the winter and spring and into the regular season (including his month-long suspension to begin the year), he then had on-field issues by making mistakes on the basepaths and struggling to get into a rhythm offensively, prompting the Cubs to demote him to the minors in late July.

And now as they’ll be counting on him big-time over the final three weeks of the season. With Baez out, Maddon is talking about playing Russell every single day at shortstop and even if he needs a break, trying to give him the first few innings off and then popping him out there for the latter innings. If anything happened to Russell, the Cubs would roll with David Bote as the backup shortstop and the 38-year-old Zobrist might be next in line after that for the team’s most important defensive position.

Russell made throwing errors in back-to-back games Thursday and Friday, but Maddon doesn’t see it is a negative trend despite the fact Russell has had throwing issues in the past.

“He’s spent so much time at second base working on this different stroke, now he’s gotta go to the other side, get this other one back,” Maddon said. “I actually think that his arm strength looks better and [Cubs infield coach Brian Butterfield] concurs. I just think it’s a matter of angles and getting back to the side that he had been used to.”

Beyond his impact on the field, the Cubs are losing a special player in Baez — whom Willson Contreras called “the heart of this team.”

Baez has emerged as a vocal leader in the dugout during games and his personality and fearless nature has set a great example for his teammates. 

“It’s hard losing a guy of his charisma,” Maddon said. “There’s all that, the things that he does to pick us up when things aren’t going well — stolen base, the extraordinary slide, the play, the home run. The things that Javy does, we’re just gonna have to find that in other areas.”

When he initially found out the news about Baez’s fractured thumb, Rizzo said he wouldn’t be surprised if the star shortstop would try to play through the injury just knowing his personality and drive. 

But Baez hasn’t been able to even swing a bat without an issue the last couple days and Rizzo knows how big of a blow this loss will be to the Cubs.

“He’s an everyday player, an everyday shortstop, hits fourth or fifth,” Rizzo said. “He’s done some amazing things. He makes plays and energizes us on the field.

“As professionals, we have to step up and obviously you’re filling an All-Star on and off the field and a perennial MVP candidate, so that’s not easy. But we can’t hang our heads. We gotta play.”

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