Despite the lack of games to sports bet on as COVID-19 continues to shutter all traditional U.S. sports for at least the short-term future, it is the futures market where bettors can do “labwork” of their own.
There is no shortage of value picks across Major League Baseball and the NFL ahead of the (hopefully) start of their respective seasons, though there is the strong possibility MLB could be facing a drastically shortened season because of the global pandemic (think 80 regular season games or fewer).
So brush aside Belarusian soccer and turn off that Taiwanese baseball after you get your fix for live-action sports. And don’t get all cute looking at consensus favorite Mookie Betts and his NL MVP chances with the Los Angeles Dodgers.
The challenge here is looking for a realistic sleeper in a crowded field for that award, and the one player who sticks out is shortstop Javy Baez of the Chicago Cubs.
Scouting ‘El Mago’
Baez already has one MVP trophy, the 2016 NLCS MVP award as he helped the Cubs end their 108-year World Series drought that year. The odds on the 27-year-old winning his first regular-season MVP award in 2020 vary depending on the sportsbook you visit. DraftKings and BetRivers are the most bullish on Baez, offering +1800 to win. FanDuel has the longest odds at +2500, while FOX Bet nearly hits the sweet spot between the three at +2200.
— Chicago Cubs (@Cubs) March 19, 2020
The two-time All-Star did miss 24 games last season, most of them coming at the most inopportune time, after he fractured his thumb Sept. 1 sliding headfirst into a base. Baez was limited to two pinch-hit appearances and three pinch-runner appearances after that as the Cubs faded from contention in both the NL Central and the wild-card race, but he was batting .281 with 29 homers and 85 RBI at the time of the injury.
That put Baez on pace to set a career high for homers, established with 34 in 2018 when he finished runner-up in MVP voting to Milwaukee Brewers outfielder Christian Yelich. He could have made a run at his second consecutive 100-RBI season after leading the NL with 111. Beyond the traditional Triple Crown statistics, Baez also finished with a career-best 6.0 WAR, including a 3.3 rating on the defensive side that put him narrowly behind St. Louis Cardinals infielder Paul DeJong for best in the National League.
Baez was not the only starter on the Cubs who was injured in 2019 as Kris Bryant missed the final six games with a sprained ankle and catcher Wilson Contreras was limited to 105 games between a pair of stints on the disabled list. But, when combining the games Baez missed plus the ones down the stretch in limited duty, the Cubs were 11-18 in those compared to 73-56 with him fully healthy.
Fangraphs projected Baez to hit .273 with 31 homers and 97 RBI to go with a 3.5 WAR and 108 wRC+ over a 162-game season in 2020. A full season looks quite unlikely, but those projections are a good jumping point where he can be considered a viable MVP candidate on the Senior Circuit. Another motivating factor is that Baez becomes arbitration eligible in 2021, and he avoided that process ahead of this season with a $10 million deal signed in January.
Teammates could split votes
In all four sportsbooks, Baez is nowhere near being the favorite. The aforementioned Betts gets top billing across the board, while the last two NL MVP winners — his Dodgers teammate Cody Bellinger (2019) and Yelich (2018) — are second or third options depending on the sportsbook.
The possibility of star players splitting votes among NL contenders is a double-edged sword. It can help Baez, considering Braves teammates Ronald Acuna Jr. and Freddie Freeman as well as Padres stars Manny Machado and Fernando Tatis Jr. are also popular picks. But if Bryant and/or Anthony Rizzo also have a monstrous season alongside Baez, he could potentially suffer the same fate come ballot time.
Baez, though, is as good as the superstar players who carry their teams and could also be in the hunt this season. Yelich immediately comes to mind, as does Philadelphia Phillies slugger Bryce Harper, Washington Nationals youngster Juan Soto and Colorado Rockies third baseman Nolan Arenado. All are higher on the pecking order than Baez, and with the exception of Arenado, all are likely to be on playoff-contending clubs.
Solid supporting cast can help lift Baez
The 2020 Cubs are a team built to win now, with an emphasis on the now. While Bryant is under contract through 2021, the back-and-forth of how the team obtained an extra year of service when he was a rookie is still a sticking point in his craw — Bryant lost a grievance in February to qualify for free agency after this season — and could be a candidate to be traded if this season goes sideways.
Rizzo has always been a solid player for the Cubs, but he is more of a steady presence than a player who will put up one-off career highs in Triple Crown categories. In his last five seasons, he has hit between 25 and 32 homers and has had between 94 and 109 RBI while posting a batting average between .273 to .293. He is more the metronome of this offense than the flash.
Beyond that pair, there is also still plenty of pop in Chicago’s lineup around Baez. Willson Contreras hit 24 homers in the 105 games he played, and Kyle Schwarber is coming off a career-best 38-homer season in which he also was less of a feast-or-famine hitter and batted .250. First-year manager David Ross — Baez’s teammate on that 2016 team — should be able to quickly ascertain whether Baez is still best-suited for the cleanup spot or perhaps in the No. 2 hole similar to 2018 when he thrived.
Also in Chicago’s favor — in what looks to be a finely balanced NL Central with the defending champion St. Louis Cardinals, Brewers and potentially improved Cincinnati Reds — is a veteran pitching rotation that should be ready to go from the moment the season actually begins. When Yu Darvish is on, he is a Cy Young-caliber pitcher. Kyle Hendricks had an above-.500 record (11-10) despite getting two or fewer runs of support in 17 of his 30 starts. Jon Lester is still formidable and in a contract year, and Jose Quintana has notched 13 wins in each of his two seasons on the North Side since moving across town in 2017.
While the fifth spot in the rotation is up for grabs, a shortened season may result in that spot being called on less frequently. That could result in quality and quantity for the pitching staff to help Chicago to its fifth playoff appearance in six years.
The ‘El Mago’ factor
A Most Valuable Player candidate has to have something distinctive to be worthy of an MVP award — swagger, the potential to be an outlier in terms of production, a clubhouse leader, and so on. Baez checks all those boxes. He is appointment viewing at the plate and especially in the field, with the no-look tag and the cannon arm.
You’re gonna wanna sit back and enjoy these tags by Javy Baez 🔥 pic.twitter.com/N48H2Vm5id
— Baseball Central™ (@BaseballCentraI) November 16, 2019
Jumping on the Baez bandwagon is a medium-risk, high-reward pick. While a veteran-laden team is an ideal team for a shortened season, any spate of injuries could send the Cubs spiraling down the NL Central since Pittsburgh is the only weak link in the division. Ross’ managerial acumen is also a big X-factor, but he was also selected to replace Joe Maddon because Chicago’s championship window is closing — and Ross intimately knows the talented locker room he’s inheriting as a former champion player from four years ago.
It is an all-or-nothing season for the Cubs, and the hedge is worth going all-in on Baez to be NL MVP.