Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo. Two peas in a pod in the conversation about the best Cub of their generation.
Bryant and then Rizzo — unless it’s Rizzo and then Bryant.
But what if it’s neither of them? What if the man we’re lauding 20 years from now as the transcendent player of his era is the no-look-tagging, home-run-hitting, basepath-burning Javy Baez?
Even to consider such a question is heresy in some corners. No one can break up the bromance that is Bryzzo — no one! They’re Instagram darlings, and they speak to a fan base smitten with the fresh-faced excellence and accessibility of the Cubs.
But the third wheel, Baez, won’t go away.
Nor should he. We’re talking about the trajectory of a career here, and Baez’s looks like one of his soaring home-run balls — with an accompanying bat flip — right now. We very well might be witnessing a rocket free of its boosters cutting a path through the sky and heading into orbit.
This is no knock at Rizzo, whose career has been consistently good, or at Bryant, a four-year veteran who was the National League Rookie of the Year and the NL Most Valuable Player in his first two seasons. Great players, obviously.
But there’s something different and special about Baez. Until this season, he did two things extraordinarily well: field and run the bases. He’s still the Cubs’ best infielder and baserunner. Now he’s having his best season at the plate, hitting .289 with 25 home runs and 89 RBI. He’s an NL MVP candidate.
‘‘It’s one season!’’ Bryzzo backers will scream. No, it isn’t. Baez has been building to this the last five seasons. He’s still a strikeout machine, but so is Bryant.
The question, of course, is whether Baez can sustain his success at the plate for years to come. If he can, then this debate will look silly 20 years from now. What we would have is a man who was among the best in the game at three disciplines: hitting, fielding and baserunning. Rizzo will be remembered as a great hitter and first baseman. Bryant will be remembered as a great hitter.
Baez already gets to baseballs that only Hall of Fame fielders have gotten to. Cubs manager Joe Maddon has compared Baez to Willie Mays on the basepaths, which is a very Joe thing to say, but you get the idea. Javy steals home in a cloud of dust, and the other team stands staring, like it just watched a magician disappear.
So if he can keep hitting? I know, a big if. A massive if. But if he can, wow.
The knock against Baez’s game is that it lacks discipline. His critics say he makes spectacular defensive plays but loses focus on routine grounders. He’ll swipe bags with ease but will end an inning on an ill-advised attempt at a stolen base. He’ll hit mighty homers that have yet to land but will swing at pitches so far out of the strike zone they might as well be in a neighboring state. He has walked only 18 times this season. There are fish that walk more.
But he has come a long way, and he’s only 25, younger than Bryant (26) and Rizzo (29). He has an all-around game now that is starting to approach his flair level. Fans around the country come to see something magical from him. Maddon has compared Baez’s popularity to a Beatle, pick a Beatle. Again, it’s Joe. But baseball fans can’t look away from Baez.
None of the three has great playoff statistics, but Baez was the 2016 NL Championship Series MVP. If the vote of best Cub were based on career to date, he would finish third. But we’re talking about later, when their careers are finished, when all is said and done.
And you? Whom do you think will be considered the best player when people look back on this era?
If you think it’s Cole Hamels, go to your room. If you think it’s Rizzo or Bryant, good choices.
But I’m betting on the momentum of a career that’s starting to take shape. I’ve seen rawness smoothed out with Baez. I’ve seen spectacular riffing, as usual, but I’ve seen more and more technical excellence.
Everything is a crapshoot. Perhaps this is a career year for Baez, and he’ll revert to being a decent hitter. There’s a chance this is an emergency flare, not a rocket in orbit.
But it’s also possible Bryant never again will be the player who won an MVP award. Maybe his shoulder problem will become a chronic issue. Who knows?
That’s the fun of this. No one knows for sure. But I do know one thing: Twenty years from now, one way or another, we still will be talking about Javy Baez.