MESA, Ariz. — Javy Báez laughs when he’s asked the question. And the smile and body language that follow might as well be his answer.
Is he the best shortstop in the game right now.
“I mean, I’m not competing to be first, to be the best one,” he says with the smile during a sit-down this spring with NBC Sports Chicago. “But I’m one of the top I think. It doesn’t matter, to be honest, where anybody puts me. I think I’m one of the top five. But I don’t want to say I’m the best, because that sounds kind of cocky or whatever.
“I just want to let my game show [it].”
The answer to that question, in the eyes of the Cubs — if not 15 or so other teams — might actually matter for Báez more than at any point in his career.
Coming off his first Gold Glove season and a two-month season at the plate that he and the team have flushed as an aberration, Báez is about to enter his walk year with the Cubs — with one eye on extension talks and the other on a free-agent shortstop class for the ages on the near horizon.
Depending on what happens with Francisco Lindor’s extension talks with the Mets, Báez might join a class of shortstops on next winter’s market that include not only four-time All-Star Lindor but All-Stars Trevor Story of the Rockies, Carlos Correa of the Astros and Corey Seager of the Dodgers.
In baseball’s financial universe of comps-as-king, how any of those players get paid in the next several months is all about how executives rank them and who signs what kind of deal next.
Wunderkind shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr.’s recent 14-year, $340-million extension can be set aside as less relevant given his extreme youth and lack of service time. But the Mets’ initial offer to Lindor that is said to be just under $300 million — and Lindor’s counter that starts with a “3” — starts to matter more.
Lindor, 27, has two Gold Gloves and two Silver Sluggers to go with his four All-Star appearances. Close friend Baez has one of each and has started the last two All-Star games for the National League, at second base and shortstop.
Báez, 28, has made it clear to the Cubs and anyone else who cares to listen that he wants to stay in Chicago, make an extension work and wants no part of free agency.
Báez won’t say whether he’d be surprised if he doesn’t get a deal done, if only because of the nature of the business side of the game.
The bigger issue with leaving as a free agent, he says, has less to do with any kind of shock or hurt that might result after failing to reach agreement with the only organization he has known.
“I just don’t want Chicago fans to see me differently,” he says. “I think a lot of players get out of their cities and play with another team and when they come back to that city, they’re hated. And I don’t want to do that. I don’t want to be that guy.
“It won’t be hurt feelings or anything, but you’ve got to see the business side.”
Wait, what? "Hated"?
By Cubs fans? Is that even possible?
“I don’t know,” he says. “It depends where I go, too, if [an extension] doesn’t get done.”
Báez has been one of the most popular players among the fans since his breakout 2015 postseason and might be the most popular Cub among kids in Chicago. And he might thrive off that relationship with fans at the ballpark as much as any player in the game — a common reason given by those who know him best for his struggles offensively last year as baseball played a 60-game season with no fans allowed.
Whether that relationship is a driving force on his side of the efforts to reach an agreement with newly promoted team president Jed Hoyer on an extension, he’s at least willing to let talks continue between his agent and Hoyer once the season starts.
“I want to stay here,” he says. “They know it. The fans want it. But we’ll see. We’ll see what happens when the season starts, see how far we go into the season, and hopefully it goes good for me and they see the good things about me.”