Cubs: Gary Sheffield sees Javier Baez taking game to next level in playoffs


Cubs: Gary Sheffield sees Javier Baez taking game to next level in playoffs

NEW YORK – The Cubs wanted Gary Sheffield to see this prospect with boom-or-bust potential and played the video of Javier Baez on a laptop.

Sheffield met with president of baseball operations Theo Epstein and then-manager Dale Sveum in an Opryland hotel room during the 2012 winter meetings in Nashville, Tennessee. They had played together for the Milwaukee Brewers, Sheffield taking over at shortstop after Sveum broke his leg in a devastating outfield collision in the late 1980s.

Sheffield got certified as an agent after playing 22 seasons in the big leagues and represented Jason Grilli, a reliever who interested the Cubs but would ultimately take a two-year, $6.75 million offer from the Pittsburgh Pirates and develop into an All-Star closer.

At a time when the Cubs wouldn’t spend big on free agents and needed to sell their vision of the future, Sveum gave Baez the ultimate compliment, saying Baez had Sheffield’s bat speed.

“I thought he had the goods then,” Sheffield said before Sunday’s Game 2 at Citi Field, where he’s working the National League Championship Series as an analyst for TBS.

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With all these young power pitchers, the New York Mets had been viewed as an obvious trading partner for a Cubs organization stocked with up-the-middle players. But within the last two years, Mets general manager Sandy Alderson said there was never a point where he thought the two sides gained traction and moved that close to an actual deal.

“No,” Alderson said. “They’re probably happy they didn’t make a trade, and we’re happy we didn’t make a trade.”

It’s been a rollercoaster, but Baez is showing that he can play shortstop in October and deliver big postseason hits while Addison Russell is sidelined with a strained left hamstring.

Baez can be viewed as a player with a high ceiling and a low floor, which might make him difficult to move as a centerpiece if the Cubs try to trade for pitching this winter.

Baez is still only 22 years old, with a first-round pedigree and an intriguing skill set that made him Baseball America’s No. 5 overall prospect after the 2013 season.

“I see the talent, and it’s showing in these playoffs,” Sheffield said. “(It’s) just maturity. With some guys, it takes a little while. But to be at his age and be up here in this situation, he’s handling himself very well.”

Sheffield — who got on base almost 40 percent of the time, never struck out more than 83 times in a season and retired with 509 home runs — understood Baez would have to shorten his swing.

Baez can still look out of control at times, but he’s more streamlined and disciplined than the rookie who struck out 95 times in 52 games with the Cubs last year.

Manager Joe Maddon wanted Baez on the Opening Day roster, but the Cubs waited for a September call-up. Baez took an extended leave of absence following the death of his younger sister and then missed more time at Triple-A Iowa with a fractured finger.

“Of course, he’s definitely an everyday kind of player,” Maddon said. “There’s no doubt about that. You just have to wait your turn sometimes. I remember when Sandy Alomar was coming up and Benito Santiago was catching. You knew Sandy Alomar should be an everyday catcher, but Benito Santiago was in the way.

“You don’t want to hold somebody back too long, because at that point it can become a negative. But it’s not bad to hold somebody back just long enough in regards to him really earning his spot and making sure that he’s ready.”

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The San Diego Padres wound up trading Alomar after the 1989 season, and the Cubs could finally be nearing that tipping point with Baez or Starlin Castro, a three-time All-Star shortstop who’s reinvented himself as a second baseman.

This October has showcased Baez, Castro and Russell, how the Cubs are creating a competitive culture and positioned for future playoff runs.

“Guys have to be patient, keep playing, keep getting better, keep understanding the game better,” Maddon said. “The result is a better brand of baseball where you’re not just like force-feeding guys into a spot.

“They have a good month or two months — and all of a sudden they’re ready — and then you see the mistakes on the major-league level and maybe a watered-down version of the game. So I’m good with — if you have that kind of depth — making people earn their stripes.”

Javy Baez can do anything defensively, but what's next for him at the plate?

Javy Baez can do anything defensively, but what's next for him at the plate?

MESA, Ariz. — You don’t need to spend long searching the highlight reels to figure out why Javy Baez goes by “El Mago.”

Spanish for “The Magician,” that moniker is a fitting one considering what Baez can do with his glove and his arm up the middle of the infield. The king of tags, Baez also dazzles with his throwing arm and his range. He looks like a Gold Glove kind of player when you watch him do these amazing things. And it’s no surprise that in his first media session of the spring, he was talking about winning that award.

“Just to play hard and see what I can do. Obviously, try to be healthy the whole year again. And try to get that Gold Glove that I want because a lot of people know me for my defense,” he said Friday at Cubs camp. “Just try to get a Gold Glove and stay healthy the whole year.”

Those high expectations — in this case, being the best defensive second baseman in the National League — fall in line with everything the rest of the team is saying about their own high expectations. It’s been “World Series or bust” from pretty much everyone over the past couple weeks in Mesa.

Baez might not be all the way there just yet. Joe Maddon talked earlier this week about his reminders that Baez needs to keep focusing on making the easy plays while staying a master of the magnificent.

“What I talked to him about was, when he had to play shortstop, please make the routine play routinely and permit your athleticism to play. Because when the play requires crazinesss, you’re there, you can do that,” Maddon said. “But this straight up ground ball three-hopper to shortstop, come get the ball, play it through and make an accurate throw in a routine manner. Apparently that stuck. Because he told me once he thought in those terms, it really did slow it down for him. And he did do a better job at doing that.”

But the biggest question for Cubs fans when it comes to Baez is when the offense will catch up to his defense. Baez hit a game-winning homer run in his first major league game and smacked 23 of them last season, good for fifth on a team full of power bats. But arguably just as famous as Baez’s defensive magic is his tendency to chase pitches outside of the strike zone. He had 144 strikeouts last season and reached base at a .317 clip. Seven Cubs — including notable struggling hitters Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist — had higher on-base percentages in 2017.

Baez, for one, is staying focused on what he does best, saying he doesn’t really have any specific offensive goals for the upcoming season.

“I’m not worrying about too much about it,” he said. “I’m just trying to play defense, and just let the offense — see what happens.”

Maddon, unsurprisingly, talked much more about what Baez needs to do to become a better all-around player, and unsurprisingly that included being more selective at the plate.

“One of the best base runners in the game, one of the finest arms, most acrobatic, greatest range on defense, power. The biggest thing for me for him is to organize the strike zone,” Maddon said. “Once he does that, heads up. He’s at that point now, at-bat wise, if you want to get those 500, 600 plate appearances, part of that is to organize your zone, accept your walks, utilize the whole field, that kind of stuff. So that would be the level that I think’s the next level for him.”

Will Baez have a season’s worth of at-bats to get that done? The versatile Cubs roster includes a couple guys who split time between the infield and outfield in Zobrist and Ian Happ. Getting their more consistent bats in the lineup might mean sacrificing Baez’s defense on certain days. Baez, of course, also has the ability to slide over to shortstop to spell Addison Russell, like he did when Russell was on the disabled list last season.

Until Baez learns how to navigate that strike zone a bit better, it might make Maddon more likely to mix and match other options, rather than considering him an everyday lock like Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant.

But like Russell, Albert Almora Jr. and Willson Contreras, Baez is one of the young players who despite key roles on a championship contender the last few years still have big league growth to come. And Maddon thinks that growth is right around the corner.

“I want to believe you’re going to see that this year,” Maddon said. “They’ve had enough major league at-bats now, they should start making some significant improvements that are easy to recognize. The biggest thing normally is pitch selection, I think that’s where it really shows up. When you have talented players like that, that are very strong, quick, all that other stuff, if they’re swinging at strikes and taking balls, they’re going to do really well. And so it’s no secret with Javy. It’s no secret with Addy. Addy’s been more swing mode as opposed to accepting his walks. That’s part of the maturation process with those two guys. Albert I thought did a great job the last month, two months of getting better against righties. I thought Jason looked really good in the cage today. And Willson’s Willson.

“The natural assumption is these guys have played enough major league at-bats that you should see something different this year in a positive way.”'s Cubs' 2018 Top Prospects list full of potential impact pitchers

USA TODAY's Cubs' 2018 Top Prospects list full of potential impact pitchers

Could 2018 be the year that the Cubs finally see a top pitching prospect debut with the team? 

Thursday, released its list of the Cubs' 2018 Top 30 Prospects, a group that includes six pitchers in the Top 10. The list ranks right-hander Adbert Alzolay as the Cubs' No 1. prospect, projecting him to debut with the team this season. 

Alzolay, 22, went 7-4 with a 2.99 ERA in 22 starts between Single-A Myrtle Beach and Double-A Tennessee last season. He also struck out 108 batters in 114 1/3 innings, using a repertoire that includes a fastball that tops out around 98 MPH (according to

Following Alzolay as the Cubs' No. 2 overall prospect is 19-year-old shortstop Aramis Ademan. Ademan hit .267 in just 68 games between Single-A Eugene and Single-A South Bend, though it should be noted that he has soared from No. 11 in's 2017 ranks to his current No. 2 ranking. He is not projected to make his MLB debut until 2020, however.

Following Alzolay and Ademan on the list are five consecutive pitchers ranked 3-7, respectively. Oscar De La Cruz, No. 3 on the list, slides down from his 2017 ranking in which listed him as the Cubs' top overall prospect. De La Cruz, 22, finished 2017 with a 3.34 ERA in 13 games (12 starts) between the Arizona League and Single-A Myrtle Beach.

De La Cruz is projected to make his MLB debut in 2019, while Jose Albertos (No. 4), Alex Lange (No. 5), Brendon Little (No. 6) and Thomas Hatch (No. 7) are projected to make their big league debuts in 2019 or 2020. All are right-handed (with the exception of Little) and starting pitchers.

Hatch (third round, 2016) and Lange (30th overall, 2017) and Little (27th overall, 2017) were all top draft picks by the Cubs in recent seasons.

Having numerous starting pitchers on the cusp of the big leagues represents a significant change of pace for the Cubs. 

Since Theo Epstein took over as team president in Oct. 2011, a plethora of top prospects have debuted and enjoyed success with the Cubs. Majority have been position players, though.

The likes of Albert Almora, Javier Báez, Kris Bryant, Willson Contreras, Anthony Rizzo and Addison Russell all contributed to the Cubs winning the World Series in 2016. Similarly, Ian Happ enjoyed a fair amount of success after making his MLB debut last season, hitting 24 home runs in just 115 games.

Ultimately, Alzolay would be the Cubs' first true top pitching prospect to make it to the big leagues in the Theo Epstein era. While him making it to the big leagues in 2018 is no guarantee, one would think a need for pitching will arise for the Cubs at some point, whether it be due to injury or simply for September roster expansion.

The Cubs have enjoyed tremendous success in recent years in terms of their top prospects succeeding in the MLB. If the trend continues, Alzolay should be a force to reckon with on the North Side for years to come.