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.”

Glanville: Fall to Spring - A player’s offseason changes meaning with each changing season


Glanville: Fall to Spring - A player’s offseason changes meaning with each changing season

A few weeks after the we (the Cubs) were eliminated from the 2003 playoffs, I got a phone call from my college professor. Since it was officially the off-season, I was in the early stages of a break from following a pocket schedule to tell me where to be every day for nearly eight months.

But this was a man I could not refuse. I chose my college major to go into his field of transportation engineering and he was calling because he needed a teaching assistant to accompany him on his trip to South Africa.

One minute I could barely move off of my couch in my Chicago apartment after losing Game 7 against the Marlins. The next minute, I would be standing within miles of the Southern most point in Africa at the Cape of Good Hope. Why not? I needed the distraction so I agreed to go.

The offseason is its own transition. Leaving the regimen of routine, of batting practice and bus times, to an open ended world that you have to re-learn again. When I finished my first full major league season in 1997, I lived in Streeterville at the Navy Pier Apartments.

That offseason, I decided to stay an extra month in Chicago only to wake up panicked for the first two weeks because I thought I was missing stretch time for a home day game. A major league schedule becomes etched in your DNA after a while.

It is also a time that you get to reflect. The regular season does not give you a moment to really get perspective on what was just accomplished, what it all means, what you would change. I always joked about the T-shirt I wanted to a sell that listed all of the things a major league player figures out during the off-season. From the perfect swing to the ex-girlfriend you need to un-break-up with next week.

It all becomes so clear when a 96 MPH fastball isn’t coming at you.

For years, I would arrange a training program to follow, but I quickly learned that I had to mix it up. There was only so much repetition I could stand in the off-season. So some years, I moved to the site of spring training and worked out early with the staff, other years I found a spot at home where I grew up or wherever I played during the season, to train.

I was single when I played, but now with a family, I have a better understanding of the challenges my teammates would express as they were re-engaging as a daily father again after this long absentee existence.

To keep it fresh and spicy, when I got older in the game, I enrolled in a dance studio and took a winter of dance lessons. Salsa, Foxtrot, Rumba, you name it. On Thursdays we had to dance for an hour straight, changing partners in the room every song change. Dancing with the Stars had nothing on me.

Of course, not every offseason is fun and games. There were years when I wasn’t sure I would have a job the next year, or I was in the throes of a trade rumor. In 1997, I was traded from the Cubs to the Phillies two days before Christmas. In 2002, my father passed away on the last game of the season, leading the offseason to be a time of mourning.

By my final season in 2005, I thought I was officially on my couch forever. I was going to fade away into oblivion like many players do. No fanfare, the phone just would stop ringing and I would just let the silence wash over me. The Yankees had called earlier in that off-season, acting like they were doing me a favor which I turned down, then they called back later with a more open tone, seeing me as a potential key piece in their outfield with Bernie Williams slowing down quite a bit at that point.

I did get off that couch for that call, only to get released the last week of camp, so I was back on the couch, with a fiancé and some extra salt in the wounds after that final meeting with Brian Cashman and Joe Torre, who boxed me into the coaches office to tell me I was released. Released? Come on. Never had that happen before.

The Cubs players will go through all of this if they have the good fortune of playing a long time. The wave of uncertainty, the meaning of age in this game spares no one. Each offseason is a time to reset, a period where you get away, seemingly adrift from the game, then as spring gets closer, the shoreline comes up in the horizon once again, magnetically drawing you to its shores for another season.

Amazingly, you don’t always know your age and what it has done to your body. 34 can’t be that old, right? I can still run, or throw 95. Then those 23-year-olds in camp are the wake up call, or maybe you are that 23-year-old and can’t believe your locker is next to Ryne Sandberg’s.

Then you blink, and you are advising Jimmy Rollins about etiquette and realize you have become that guy, the seasoned vet, preaching about locker room respect.

For the 2018 Cubs, they fell short of their goal to repeat their 2016 magic. Failed to meet their singular destination that meant success over all else. Yet, those who come back for 2019, will not be the same player, the same person, that left the locker room at the close this season. They will have grown, changed, aged, wizened up, rehabbed, hardened. All of which means that new perspective is the inevitable part of this time off, whether you like it or not.

Baseball is a game that has this unique dynamic. The highest intensity rhythm of any sport. Every day you are tested. You are pushed to the brink by sheer attrition. According to my teammate Ed Smith, who was playing third base at the time when Michael Jordan reached third, Jordan, after playing well over 100 games in a row, said to him “Man, I have never been this tired in my entire life.”

The grind.

Then it stops on a dime. Season over. Only on baseball’s terms.

But you may be granted another spring. Another crack at it. Until one day, the baseball winter never ends and its time for you to plant your own spring.

Remember that guy? Former Cubs shortstop Ricky Gutiérrez

Remember that guy? Former Cubs shortstop Ricky Gutiérrez

Ricky Gutiérrez played in the Majors from 1993-2004. He played shortstop for the Cubs from 2000-01 and later signed with them again in June 2004. 

However, Gutiérrez never got back to the Majors with the Cubs, who sent him to the Red Sox the following month. His final Major League game was with the Red Sox on Oct. 3, 2004, the final game of the 2004 regular season; he didn’t play in the 2004 postseason. Gutiérrez was subsequently signed and released by a few other teams, including the White Sox in 2005.

Gutiérrez holds the distinction of being the first Cubs player to hit a regular season grand slam against the White Sox (July 12, 2001). In his two seasons with the Cubs, he tied for the Major League lead in sacrifice bunts both years (16 in 2000, 17 in 2001) which was odd since he had a grand total of 18 sacrifice bunts in his 847 career games NOT in a Cubs uniform. He also had uncharacteristic power with the Cubs:  21 home runs for Chicago in 272 games, 17 home runs with everyone else (847 games).

What Cubs fans probably remember most is what Gutiérrez did against them. On May 6, 1998 he had the lone hit (many dispute it should have been ruled an error) for the Astros off Kerry Wood in Wood’s 20-strikeout masterpiece at Wrigley Field (Gutiérrez was responsible for two of the strikeouts). 

Later that season, on June 26, the number 20 and Gutiérrez were again connected when he had a 20-pitch battle against Bartolo Colón, which ended in a strikeout. It remained the last plate appearance in the Majors of at least 20 pitches until Brandon Belt flew out on the 21st pitch of an at-bat against the Angels' Jaime Barria on April 22, 2018.

Gutiérrez’s nephew, James Jones, played 14 seasons in the NBA for the Pacers, Suns, Trail Blazers, Heat and Cavaliers.