All eyes on Javy Baez as Cubs approach spring with possibility of long-term deal in play

The runner-up for the NL MVP award in 2018 might yet wind up as the biggest Cubs story of the winter.

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Javy Baez

AP Photo/Kathy Willens

Leave it to two-time All-Star shortstop Javy Baez to transform himself from the majors’ most exciting player during the baseball season to an off-the-radar dude with a cool new haircut during the Cubs Convention a few months later.

They don’t call him ‘‘El Mago’’ for nothing.

But if Baez seems like more of a footnote these days than a bigfoot during a do-little winter for the Cubs — and an afterthought amid the more pressing trade rumors involving third baseman Kris Bryant — don’t make the mistake of taking your eye off him.

Baez, the runner-up in the 2018 National League MVP voting, might yet wind up as the biggest Cubs story of the winter and the biggest signpost for the team’s longer-term plans for a next championship window.

Sources said the Cubs began talks with Baez on a long-term extension early in the offseason, and, while no deal has been struck, indications suggest it’s possible something might yet get done by the time the regular season opens March 27.

‘‘I’ve got my mind on bringing the team to the playoffs,’’ said Baez, who was reluctant to talk about how negotiations have gone or whether he’s optimistic about an agreement. ‘‘If [the extension] happens, I’ll be grateful to be a Cub for my entire career. Hopefully it happens. And if not, I feel happy with everything that happened here.’’

Baez wouldn’t comment in detail beyond that. Neither would top team officials as they try to navigate a winter of great transition, including a managerial change, but one of little player movement since a disappointing 84-victory season in 2019.

But extension talks have been on a parallel track to trade talks for the front office since the offseason began. And Baez appears to be the last possible extension candidate for the current cycle. Catcher Willson Contreras said he hasn’t been approached, and sources said the same goes for Bryant and left fielder Kyle Schwarber.

‘‘I’d say we’ve moved the ball forward a little bit, but it’s a long process,’’ president Theo Epstein said when he was asked Friday about his optimism level regarding possible extensions before the season starts. ‘‘We’ve had some productive talks, but obviously nothing to the point where we can get anything done.’’

Baez, 27, earned a sizable role in the Cubs’ core during the 2016 World Series championship season after several years of popping in and out of trade rumors. He became an every-day player in 2017 and led the NL in RBI on his way to finishing second to the Brewers’ Christian Yelich in MVP voting in 2018.

And he’s not only the shining light in the middle of the Cubs’ infield these days; he’s also in the middle of some of the team’s marketing plans going forward.

During a panel discussion Saturday about plans for the Cubs’ new Marquee Sports Network, a network exec outlined programming that included what amounts to a ‘‘Javy Cam’’ that will be positioned on the infield for an up-close look at his pregame work at short.

The network’s launch timing next month also happens to align with the recent unveiling of a Statcast defensive metric — infield outs above average — that has Baez ranked No. 1 in the majors, just ahead of Rockies third baseman Nolan Arenado.

If the long-term benefits for the Cubs of a multiyear deal with Baez are self-evident, the short-term ramifications might have been cleared when he and the team avoided arbitration last week with a $10 million deal for 2020. That would push the start of a potential extension to 2021.

The Cubs are maneuvering around a tight payroll in 2020 caused by luxury-tax considerations after exceeding the threshold in 2019.

Because average annual values of contracts are used to calculate luxury-tax liability, an extension for Baez — which likely would be more than double his 2020 contract in AAV — almost certainly would force the Cubs into significant salary-dump mode.

Baez, who said the thumb injury that sidelined him for the final month of last season isn’t a problem as he does his normal winter workouts and hitting, reiterated this weekend what he has said many times before: He wants to play his entire career with the Cubs.

Even as he watched the departure of manager Joe Maddon, who let ‘‘Javy be Javy’’ and enabled him to grow into a star, Baez lauded the hiring of former teammate David Ross and talked about returning to the postseason with him.

‘‘This is a team that, when Joe came, everything changed,’’ Baez said. ‘‘We got what we wanted. It was bring the championship to Chicago. And that’s our new goal again: try to make the playoffs and try to bring that championship back to Chicago.’’

Maybe that starts with an extension that would assure Baez of being in the middle of whatever comes next? Maybe the splashy move of the winter that arrives with the spring?

‘‘Hopefully if it happens, [it happens] before the season,’’ Baez said. ‘‘If not, there is no pressure.

‘‘When the right deal comes, we’ll be ready for it.’’

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