Another wave of Cub All-Stars? Would-be first-timers making strong bids

Eight players adorn the cover of the Cubs’ 2018 media guide in the team’s shout-out to its star power.

Want to know why the Cubs believed they were on course for a fourth consecutive deep run in October? Just look at the 19 All-Star selections represented on the front of that book, including five between newcomers Yu Darvish and Jose Quintana.

What’s that they say about judging a book by its cover?

The Cubs are indeed close to where they thought they might be just past the halfway mark in the season — 14 games over .500, tied in the loss column with the division-leading Brewers and riding a six-game winning streak into this weekend’s series against the Reds.

Javy Baez and Willson Contreras could be first-time All-Stars for the Cubs this year. Contreras overtook Buster Posey for first among NL catchers in fan voting this week.

But outside of ace Jon Lester, you won’t find their star power on the media guide cover, at least not the All-Star power that has the best chance to represent the National League in Washington on July 17.

With many of the Cubs’ usual suspects hampered by slow starts or injuries in the first half, a group of potential first-time All-Stars has carried a disproportionate load — or at least an unexpectedly large one — to keep the Cubs in strong position as they near the break.

And by the end of the All-Star selection show Sunday night, the Cubs could have four (five?) first-time selections joining four-time All-Star Lester (11-2, 2.25 ERA).

“That’s pretty spectacular when that does occur,” manager Joe Maddon said. “A young player making your way in the game being recognized in that manner matters a lot. It’s one of those things that can push somebody further along in their career mentally as much as anything.”

Did somebody say young?

First-year Cubs closer Brandon Morrow is the outlier among the team’s likely first-time All-Stars. After years of injuries and questionable management early in his career, Morrow broke out as a dominant setup man for the Dodgers last year and has carried that into 2018 with a 19-for-20 performance in save chances and the top ERA among NL closers (1.40).

He turns 34 on July 26.

Steve Cishek, 32, might have a narrow chance for a selection as the Cubs’ most valuable setup man with a 1.85 ERA in 40 appearances.

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But the youth is serving notice from the rest of the roster, with 2011 and 2012 first-round picks Albert Almora Jr., and Javy Baez, respectively, emerging as potential All-Stars. So is catcher Willson Contreras, who on Thursday passed the Giants’ Buster Posey for the top spot at his position in fan voting.

“If you look at the whole lineup, we have All-Star caliber players,” said shortstop Addison Russell, a 2016 All-Star starter whose post-April surge might have come a little too late for serious consideration for a second bid.

And the most conspicuous is Baez, the middle infielder who has arrived on the brink of the All-Star Game at breakneck, home-stealing pace.

“I think folks would want that. I think enough folks see us often enough that they would want to see him there,” Maddon said of the elite-fielding, big-swinging Baez. “I mean, who’s more exciting to watch than he? I love [the Indians’ Francisco] Lindor; I think they’re kind of kindred spirits in the sense of how they play the game. And there’s others. [Carlos] Correa with Houston. And others.

“But he is in that, I’d say, top-10 — kind of part of the Rat Pack back in the day, where you had to go to Vegas to see him. He’s one of those guys. He sashayed in with Sinatra and the boys. That’s how he plays baseball.”

Certainly, Baez has done it his way, from hitting 16 home runs to flipping bats to swim-sliding around tags to steal home twice this season (and four times in his career).

Major League Baseball still hasn’t asked Baez to hit in the Home Run Derby, an event built for his style (is there another player whose swing is less likely to be affected?)

“We’ll see. If I get in, in the last minute, I’ll probably do it,” said Baez, who might have to wait for his selection to the team to be invited, although being an All-Star is not technically required.

“But we’re not sure if we’re going to the All-Star Game yet. I’m just taking it day-by-day and see what happens.”

Like Contreras — who trailed Posey through the first month of balloting — Baez is locked in a close race for the potential starting nod at his position, second to the Braves’ Ozzie Albies at second base.

He’s almost certain to be selected as a backup via the players’ balloting, which was completed more than two weeks ago.

Almora, the league’s second-leading hitter, is a deserving candidate with the toughest uphill climb. Because he wasn’t anticipated to have more than a platoon role in center with Ian Happ, Almora wasn’t included on the fans’ or players’ ballot.

He would need extraordinary write-in support to make it in time for the announcement. He’ll have a more realistic chance to make it as an injury replacement or in the last-chance voting for the final roster spot.

Then there’s Kyle Schwarber, who quietly is having an impressive bounce-back season with a team-leading 17 homers and 49 walks, contributing to an .876 OPS. The 2014 first-rounder is not among the leading outfield vote-getters. If only the NL had a DH category.

Russell agrees with Maddon on the value mentally of earning a bid for the first time.

“It definitely makes your confidence go way up,” he said.

Could that mean yet another second-half bounce for a team that already got a first-half boost from its potential first-time All-Stars?

Baez, for one, sees it coming when he looks around the clubhouse.

“I think this team is going to do huge things,” he said.