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Getting to know the newest Met, Javier Báez

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The team’s biggest deadline acquisition might end up their most exciting player

Tampa Bay Rays v Chicago Cubs Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Ednel Javier Báez was born on December 1, 1992 in Bayamón, Puerto Rico, also the home of Yadier Molina and José Berrios. His family moved to Jacksonville, Florida when Javy was in middle school, and, from there, he starred at Arlington County Day School as a multi-position slugger. The Cubs drafted him ninth overall in the 2011 MLB draft, and by 2013 ranked him as the 16th-best prospect in baseball.

Báez made his debut for the Cubs on August 5th, 2014, hitting what would eventually be the game-winning home run in the twelfth inning against the Rockies. He spent much of 2014 and 2015 in the minor leagues to work on his strikeout problem and then worked his way into regular playing time on the Cubs’ infield in 2016.

After Chicago’s World Series win in 2016, which included Báez being named the co-MVP of that year’s NLCS, he drastically improved as a hitter and a defender over the next three seasons. His high mark as a hitter came in 2018, where he earned his first All-Star appearance and Silver Slugger award while finishing second in the NL MVP voting behind Christian Yelich. By 2019, he had become Chicago’s full-time shortstop, earning his second All-Star appearance in 2019 and winning his first Gold Glove in 2020.

The abbreviated season saw a major regression in Baez’s offensive production, however. His power and already-low walk rate plummeted, while his already-high strikeout rate increased significantly. He finished the season with a career-low 57 wRC+ and sported the lowest OBP of all qualified NL players, his magical glove and impactful baserunning doing just enough to raise his fWAR to 0.0.

This season, Báez has somewhat recovered his earlier offensive explosiveness, albeit with an unconventional method. As a hitter, Báez has truly progressed past the chaotic three true outcomes of today and has embraced the future of the balanced two true outcome player. He strikes out on 36.3% of his plate appearances, which is by far the highest of his career and has led to a major-league-leading 131 strikeouts in 91 games. He is also hitting home runs in 6.1% of his plate appearances, which is also the highest of his career and has him projected for the highest home run total of his career. He is truly the most polarizing, all-or-nothing batter in MLB, and for this he has blessed himself with the highest bWAR of any position player on the Mets.

A lot of that value comes from defense and baserunning, both of which he often performs exceptionally. Statcast actually sees Báez as a well-below-average defender at shortstop this season, but just two seasons ago pegged him as the best defensive player in baseball. As for his baserunning, a seven-minute highlight video of Baez’s slides the Cubs published in 2019 remains one of the most entertaining MLB highlight videos around. Just his headfirst swim move alone, often copied and rarely bettered, earns him the nickname of “El Mago,” or “The Magician” in Spanish.

And there’s more cool stuff, because while cool is subjective and there are a lot of cool players in baseball, Báez is responsible for some of the most awe-inspiring plays in the game over the past few seasons. His no-look tag on Nelson Cruz as a member of Team Puerto Rico in the 2017 World Baseball Classic is easily my most-watched non-Mets baseball highlight. His tags at second in general are some of the quickest and smoothest the game has ever seen. He bats left-handed sometimes. He’s responsible for possibly the only successful pickle between home and first base. He also has a freakishly strong arm and creative playing style in the infield, though with a slightly limited range that may serve better at second or third base in the near future.

But with Francisco Lindor out, potentially for much of the rest of the regular season, the Mets will likely ask Báez to take his place at shortstop until he returns. From there, it’s unclear where he will play, as the team currently has a logjam with Jonathan Villar, Jeff McNeil, and JD Davis all used to regular playing time in the infield this season. A Lindor-Báez reunion up the middle remains the most tantalizing and likely possibility, but if McNeil and Davis become invaluable offensive players as the season winds down, Baez’s playing time may not look so regular.

As for the future, that remains a bigger enigma. Báez said earlier this week that he would prefer to play shortstop at a new destination, but would accept a role at second base only if he were to play with Lindor. Well, now he’s playing with Lindor, and if the chemistry is there he can have the opportunity to do so for a very long time. But as an unrestricted free agent next season, Báez may have a hard time getting a lot of money in Queens when the team has cheaper infield options in McNeil and Davis. He is absolutely capable of a Céspedes-like impact on this team, and that’s what it may take to convince the team to keep him long-term. Outside of that, it’s very possible that the Báez rental will remain a rental and nothing more.

But for now, Mets fans get to enjoy one of the most exciting players in baseball as they await the return of the franchise’s cornerstone. Báez will most likely strike out a lot and draw very few walks. He will also probably hit a lot of very long home runs and make some very cool plays at short. He will be exceptionally fun and occasionally infuriating, and he’ll be an essential player if the Mets make a pennant run.