The friendly debate started in 2014, with raw talent Javier Baez hitting majestic home runs and executing dazzling defensive plays while the decorated and steady Kris Bryant displayed his array of tools that delighted new-age evaluators.
At that time, Baez was ranked as the game’s fifth-best prospect by Baseball America, while Bryant — less than a year removed from winning the National College Player of the Year Award — was ranked eighth before winning Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player honors in successive seasons.
Now as Cubs fans fret over the starting pitchers’ lack of consistency and droughts of clutch hitting and power, they can take comfort that Baez’s overall game is finally polished to the point that he has earned at least equal marquee billing with the consistent Bryant.
“It gets interesting the way Javy is staring to figure things out, where KB figured out some of it in advance of Javy,” manager Joe Maddon said. “It’s probably based on where they came from, and what they endured coming up.”
As Baez has achieved All-Star status, the criticisms that once dropped him well below Bryant as recently as the start of last season have been quieted to the point where some of his occasional flaws are accepted.
“You never coach instincts out of a player,” Maddon said. “It’s a mortal sin to do anything like that.”
The criticism of Baez after he struck out 95 times in 213 at-bats during his first major-league stint in 2014 seems like a distant memory.
This season, he and Albert Almora Jr. carried the offense during a chilly April, and Baez filled in seamlessly as the No. 3 hitter recently while Bryant was recovering from a left shoulder injury.
Baez’s .323 on-base percentage is 21 points below the team average, but he has shown better plate discipline to aid his .289 batting average.
And over the last 11 months, Baez has achieved a balance of making routine plays with more consistency while continuing to display his dazzling talent to complete virtually impossible plays.
Baez’s defensive dependability has reached a zenith five years after he committed 44 errors at Class A Daytona and Double-A Tennessee. He solidified that last August when he replaced injured Addison Russell at shortstop and played 26 consecutive errorless games in helping the Cubs seize the NL Central.
The quick tags and diving stops that cause fans to gasp in awe now complement the ease with which he makes an off-balance throw while crossing second base, as he did Wednesday in completing a double play.
Meanwhile, the instant greatness Bryant achieved raised expectations so high that his power decline and occasional fielding miscues mask the fact he remains an agile 6-foot-5 defender who can play the outfield as well as every infield position if needed.
“I never understood (the height issue),” Maddon said. “I heard it too. My concern was with his feet and the pat (of the glove before throwing). They’re interrelated. If he’s taking too many steps with his feet, you have to pat your glove to catch up with your feet to catch up with your throw. His feet have gotten better, and his arm stroke is compact and accurate. Height never has been a concern for me.”
Despite his power dip and modest .279 batting average, Bryant remains a darling among the metrics crowd, which thought he should have finished higher than seventh in the 2017 NL MVP voting because of his 6.2 WAR and because many of his offensive numbers were similar to 2016, when he won the award.
The expectation is that Bryant will return to form — as he showed Wednesday with a home run in his third at-bat after missing 16 games — and pick up the slack for Anthony Rizzo, who is mired in a 0-for-19 slump.
So as the Cubs continue their pursuit of the Brewers, their fans can enjoy a well-balanced combination of ability and entertainment from their talented twosome.
“Javy definitely is out of the past,” Maddon said. “He appeals to the past and the present. He appeals to the past based on his baseball acumen and appeals to the present based on his allure, charisma and the attractiveness he has to today’s fan.
“KB is a classic. He could have played for all ages. He could have played in 1910 or 1970 or 2018. He appeals to all generations.”