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How the Rays could have ruined the Cubs postseason

Revisiting the Javier Baez for Alex Cobb trade that nearly was...

Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

The Chicago Cubs will make history tonight as they will play their first World Series game in 71 years and continue their journey to end a 108-year curse without a championship. While the Cubs’ super team – which boasted seven All-Stars during the regular season – got the team to the playoffs, Javier Baez has done the heavy lifting ever since.

In 10 postseason games, Baez boasts a .346/.373/.531 slash line with one home run and seven runs batted in. Coming out of Chicago’s series win over the Los Angeles Dodgers in the National League Championship Series, the Bayamon, Puerto Rico, native shared NLCS Most Valuable Player honors with left-handed pitcher Jon Lester.

Clutch, game-winning home runs, and flashy defensive plays endeared Baez to fans. The same flashy plays that were once a source of frustration.

A year ago, Baez seemingly possessed limitless talent in defense but produced less than stellar results that irritated the fanbase.

"Sometimes people might criticize the fact he can be flashy. However, that's something I would never want to coach out of him," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. "I want him to make better judgments regarding the mental component of the game. The physical side of it, he does things that are unique."

However, the 23-year-old phenom almost became a victim of the Cubs’ depth; trade rumors involving Baez circulated all off season.

At one point, Gordon Wittenmyer of the Chicago Sun-Times reported that Baez was heading to the Atlanta Braves in exchange for Shelby Miller. But that deal never happened, and Miller ended up in Arizona.

The one destination that Baez seemed destined for was Tampa Bay. With myriad young pitching and a shortage on offense, Baez’s young, impactful, developing bat and defensive versatility seemed like a perfect fit. Right-hander Alex Cobb was the piece headed for the Windy City -- if the two sides agreed on a deal.

Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

The trade that almost happened

Cobb, 28 at the time, had missed all of 2015 with Tommy John surgery. In parts of four seasons beforehand, the Rays’ fourth-round pick from 2006 owned a 35-23 record with a 3.27 ERA in 498 2/3 innings. But overpowering hitters was never Cobb’s calling – evidenced by his career fastball velocity (90.8 mph) per FanGraphs, and meager K/9 rate (6.5). He also never exceeded 166 innings in one season.

But Cobb was an ace, and could easily return to form. The Cubs wanted him, and could have had him for what seemed like a small price to pay.

While Baez's athleticism was on display in Chicago, the rest of his game was not. After being called up in 2014, Baez – despite slashing just .169/227/.334 – he smashed nine home runs and drove in 20, but he also struck out 95 times in 213 at-bats (40.1 percent), more than alarming. Baez’s contact skills did not improve in Spring Training of 2015, and he spent most of the season in Triple-A.

The Cubs seemed to be moving on from Baez. They signed Ben Zobrist to a four-year, $56 million deal to play second base, acquired shortstop Addison Russell in the 2014 trade of Jeff Samardzija, and had top prospect Kris Bryant cemented at third base.

Then it all fell apart.

Marc Topkin reported on December 8, 2015, that the Cubs and Rays sides "cooled" on trade talks involving Baez/Cobb when other players’ names became involved. That same day, the Cubs signed veteran hurler John Lackey to a two-year deal.

The Cubs chose right

Baez went from offseason trade chip to super utility player. Meanwhile, Cobb rehabbed from surgery and came back to make five starts in 2016, going 1-2 with an 8.59 ERA in 22 innings.

In a Cubs infield that includes the likely 2016 NL MVP Bryant, the player with the second-most RBIs (95) among MLB shortstops, and MLB’s version of a Swiss army knife, Baez carved out a role by simply playing well wherever he was slotted.

In 142 games, Baez slashed .273/.314.423 with 14 HRs and 59 RBIs. He cut down his strikeout rate to 24 percent. He also made appearances at third base (62 games), second base (59 games), shortstop (25 games), first base (six games), and left field (two games).

He didn’t just play those positions, he played them well; to a point where Maddon moved players to other positions – like Bryant to left field – just to get Baez into the lineup. This very skillset was surely the Rays priority in targeting Baez, and it was finally coming together in 2016.

A stark contrast from two seasons ago where Baez’s athleticism was his only calling card. Now his entire game is his calling card.

"You look at him and two years from now you’re not going to recognize him," Maddon said. "Even right now compared to the beginning of the year, there are moments where it’s completely different."

Sometimes, the trades that aren't made are the most valuable and Baez's influence on the Cubs' 2016 season demonstrates that. In Game 1 of the World Series, Javier Baez will be starting at second base, and Ben Zobrist will be starting in left field.