Cubs

Why Cubs made the high-risk, high-reward play to build around Javier Baez

Why Cubs made the high-risk, high-reward play to build around Javier Baez

Leading up to the 2011 draft, the Cubs heard a story out of an all-state event for the best players in Florida. Each guy was supposed to introduce himself and say where he was from and where he was committed to play in college.

So Javier Baez stood up, pointed to the tattoo on the back of his neck and announced: “I’m going to the University of Major League Baseball.”

“That’s Javy,” Tim Wilken said.

That’s why the Cleveland Indians still have to account for Baez, even as he takes some of the “hernia swings” Wilken once saw while tracking the uber-talented, ultra-confident prospect at Arlington Country Day School in Jacksonville.

Baez is 3-for-21 with nine strikeouts and zero extra-base hits and no walks during the World Series. But no Cub has raised his profile more in October than Baez, who can still add to his personal highlight film in November without doing much at the plate.

It’s the daring base-running, the take-charge attitude at second base for a team that led the majors in defensive efficiency, and the sixth sense for tags as the Indians try to push the running game. Down 3-2 heading into Tuesday night’s Game 6 at Progressive Field, the Cubs need more Javy Being Javy moments.

Some of that swagger and overaggressive style scared away other teams, but Wilken credited area scout Tom Clark for getting to know the Baez family as well as the player’s makeup and love of the game. Wilken’s maverick style also got him inducted into the Professional Baseball Scouts Hall of Fame this summer for his work with the Toronto Blue Jays (Chris Carpenter, Roy Halladay) and Tampa Bay Rays (Wade Davis) and Cubs (Jeff Samardzija, Josh Donaldson, Andrew Cashner, D.J. LeMahieu).

As the scouting director during the final months of the Jim Hendry administration, Wilken framed the 2011 draft with a question to his staff: Which is harder to find: a legitimate middle-of-the-order hitter or a top-of-the-rotation starter? The Cubs came up with the same answer that would drive Theo Epstein’s front office, targeting Baez with the No. 9 overall pick.

Wilken left the Cubs last year to become a special assistant with an Arizona Diamondbacks franchise now in transition again with Mike Hazen taking over for fired general manager Dave Stewart.

When Baez became the first Cub to steal home plate in a postseason game since 1907 – part of a brilliant all-around performance that eliminated the Los Angeles Dodgers and made him the National League Championship Series co-MVP – Wilken watched from (where else?) a Marriott Courtyard in Jupiter, Florida, near the spring-training complex shared by the St. Louis Cardinals and Miami Marlins. After scouting a heavily attended Perfect Game showcase, baseball officials watched Baez become a star on the satellite TV set up in the lobby.

“You stick your neck out with every pick,” Wilken said. “He’s high-risk, high-reward. And hopefully as he’s put these things together, it’s going to be a high reward for him and the Cubs, wherever his career takes him from here.

“But at the same time, (he had) the one thing that a lot of guys that are high-risk, high-reward (don’t). Normally, those guys don’t play the game that well. They do have those kinds of tools, but you don’t know how they’re going to (put it together).

“He was still a very good base-runner. He was still a very good slider. He still had plus arm strength. He still had great hands. He still was the good tagger and his instincts were off the charts. So in one sense, it wasn’t (risky).”

[SHOP: Buy a "Try Not to Suck" shirt with proceeds benefiting Joe Maddon's Respect 90 Foundation & other Cubs Charities]

Open-minded manager Joe Maddon immediately noticed Baez and recognized those strengths instead of focusing on his weaknesses. Baez gained a new perspective on life after the death of his sister last year. Epstein’s inner circle never really came close to selling low and trading Baez for pitching.

The Indians looked at Baez as part of a bigger deal for Carlos Carrasco or Danny Salazar, but Cleveland has a reputation for using trade talks to get a better read on its farm system. The San Diego Padres didn’t push hard enough to move Tyson Ross. The Philadelphia Phillies and Atlanta Braves actually liked Jorge Soler more than Baez while shopping Cole Hamels and Shelby Miller.

“The only thing you were wondering was: Could he calm down his swing?” Wilken said. “There were times you could see a pretty decent two-strike swing as an amateur. It would be rare, but if you were there to see it, you’d say: ‘OK, I can gamble on that.’ I can gamble on (Cubs hitting coach John) Mallee or whoever else they want to give credit for (those) better two-strike swings.

“Credit whoever talked to him. Credit to him for taking (the advice). But that ability was there – and I don’t know if people got to see that. And there were only glimpses of that. Fortunately, it happened it front of me. That made it much easier, because all the rest of his game was fine. He wasn’t (some) crude (player).”

Another middle infielder born in Puerto Rico who moved to Florida also caught Wilken’s attention that year. But the Cubs had reports that Francisco Lindor would go in the third-to-sixth range near the top of the first round. The future All-Star shortstop surprisingly fell to the Indians at No. 8, or one spot in front of Baez.

“He was the ‘Steady Eddie,’” Wilken said. “He didn’t have that field charisma or flair that Baez had. But he was – if there’s such a thing with a high school guy – a sure draft. We kind of throw that tag mostly on college guys. But Lindor was far ahead of the scales as far as being under control of himself at the age of 17.

“If we did call a timeout or whatever, I still think at the end I might have taken Baez, just because of the damage he could possibly do as an offensive player.”

And now either Baez (108 years) or Lindor (68 years) will be front and center when one team finally ends a World Series drought.

MLB.com's Cubs' 2018 Top Prospects list full of potential impact pitchers

adbert_alzolay.jpg
USA TODAY

MLB.com'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, MLB.com 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 MLB.com).

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 MLB.com'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 MLB.com 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.

Even with an entire spring schedule to go, guessing the Cubs' 25-man roster is pretty easy

0222-joe-maddon.jpg
USA TODAY

Even with an entire spring schedule to go, guessing the Cubs' 25-man roster is pretty easy

MESA, Ariz. — The frequent mission of spring training is to iron out a 25-man roster.

But at Cubs camp, that mission seems to already be completed.

With an entire Cactus League schedule still to play, the Cubs’ 25-man group that will leave Arizona for the season-opener in Miami seems pretty well set.

The starting rotation: Jon Lester, Yu Darvish, Kyle Hendricks, Jose Quintana and Tyler Chatwood.

The position-player group: Willson Contreras, Victor Caratini, Anthony Rizzo, Javy Baez, Addison Russell, Kris Bryant, Tommy La Stella, Kyle Schwarber, Albert Almora Jr., Ian Happ, Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist.

The bullpen: Brandon Morrow, Steve Cishek, Pedro Strop, Carl Edwards Jr., Mike Montgomery, Brian Duensing, Justin Wilson and Justin Grimm.

Boom. There’s your 25.

Joe Maddon, do you agree?

“You guys and ladies could probably write down what you’re seeing and be pretty accurate,” Maddon said Thursday. “I can’t deny that, it’s true. Oftentimes, when you’re a pretty good ball club, that is the case. When you’re not so good, you always get auditions during spring training.

“I think what the boys have done is they’ve built up a nice cache in case things were to happen. The depth is outstanding. So you could probably narrow it down, who you think’s going to be the 25, and I won’t argue that.”

It’s the latest example in a camp that to this point has been full of them that the Cubs are one of baseball’s best teams and that only a World Series championship will fulfill expectations. Had the front office stuck with a starting rotation of Lester, Hendricks, Quintana, Chatwood and Montgomery, then there would’ve been a spot open in the bullpen. But the statement-making signing of Darvish jolted the Cubs into “best rotation in the game” status, sent Montgomery back to the bullpen and further locked the roster into place.

Guys like Grimm and La Stella have been forced off the 25-man roster at points in recent seasons, though even their spots seem safe. Maddon even said that a huge spring from someone else wouldn’t mean as much at what guys have done at the major league level in recent memory.

“Spring training performance, for me, it’s not very defining,” Maddon said. “You’re going to be playing against a lot of guys that aren’t going to be here, more Triple-A guys, even some Double-A guys. Some guys come in better shape, they normally look better early. The vibe’s different. You play a couple innings, you don’t get many at-bats, the pitcher doesn’t see hitters three times and vice versa. So I don’t worry about that as much.

“It’s more about, guys that might be fighting for a moment, what do they look like, does it look right, does it look good, how do they fit in? Is there somebody there that you scouted? Because what matters a lot is last year and what you did last year and the last couple months of last year.

“So of course guys that have been here probably have a bit of an upper hand, but we’re very open-minded about stuff. And I think when you look at the guys, you’re right, it’s probably pretty close to being set. But stuff happens.”

Could the recently signed Shae Simmons give Grimm an unexpected challenge for the final relief spot? Maddon said guys who have been with the Cubs in the recent past have a leg up. Could Chris Gimenez turn his experience with Darvish into a win over Caratini for the backup catcher spot? Maddon threw cold water on the "personal catcher" narrative last week.

Of course, Maddon left the door open the possibility of an injury that could open up a roster spot and even shake up the depth chart. But barring the unforeseen, this 25-man group looks locked into place.

That gives the Cubs an edge, perhaps, in that they can specifically find ways to tune up those guys rather than focus on getting enough at-bats for players who are fighting for roster spots. But most of that edge came during the winter, and in winters and summers past, when the front office built this team into a championship contender.

There have been plenty of years when the fans coming to Mesa to watch the Cubs play in spring training saw the blossoming of a big league player thanks to a monster spring or a surprise tear during March. That’s going to be unlikely this spring, a reflection of just how far this team has come.

“It’s easy for me to reflect on this because when I started out with the Rays, wow,” Maddon said. “That was a casting call trying to figure it out. You had very few settled positions when you walked in the door. And then as we got better, it became what we’re talking about. As we moved further along, you were pretty much set by the time (you got to spring training) except for one or two spots.

“So I think the better teams are like that.”

The Cubs are most definitely one of those better teams.