Cubs

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

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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.

[MORE CUBS: Cubs drafting Kyle Schwarber over Michael Conforto could tilt NLCS]

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.”

[NBC SHOP: Buy Cubs playoff gear]

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.”

It looks like rough times are ahead for Brewers relief ace Josh Hader

It looks like rough times are ahead for Brewers relief ace Josh Hader

The Brewers' best pitcher is in some serious hot water before the second half of the MLB season gets underway.

As he was serving up a 3-run homer in the All-Star Game Tuesday night, Josh Hader's Tweets from 2011 were aired publicly and the result was...not good.

Hader's Tweets as a 17-year-old reflected racist and homophobic remarks, among other issues. (A summary of his Tweets can be found at Deadspin.)

After the All-Star Game, Hader was immediately put in front of reporters to respond to the Tweets and admitted he will accept any punishment that comes his way — including any possible suspension:

Regardless of whether or not he misses any game action for this (a suspension here would be rather unprecedented for MLB, but the world is certainly changing), this absolutely could affect Hader mentally moving forward. 

Case in point:

He can ask teammate Ryan Braun how to deal when fans turn on you, but it's going to be a lot more difficult for a 24-year-old in his first full big-league season to deal with any hate that comes down. 

Hader has been the Brewers' most valuable pitcher all season, going 2-0 with a 1.50 ERA, 0.79 WHIP and a ridiculous 16.7 K/9. 

But over the last month-plus, he's been...human.

Ever since Jason Heyward turned on a 98 mph Hader fastball to tie the game in Milwaukee on June 11, the Brewers' relief ace has a 2.84 ERA, 1.18 WHIP and 13.5 K/9.

Still great numbers, to be sure, but not the Superman-esque line baseball fans came to expect from Hader after the first couple months of 2018. (Plus, the All-Star Game homer he served up to Jean Segura, but that obviously doesn't count for anything.)

With the Brewers already chasing the Cubs by 2.5 games in the division in the second half, they can't afford Hader's slump to worsen.

Though Cubs fans may be rooting for that...

It might have been just another dinger in homer-happy All-Star Game, but Willson Contreras will remember it forever

It might have been just another dinger in homer-happy All-Star Game, but Willson Contreras will remember it forever

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Willson Contreras’ third-inning home run might not have ended up standing out too much in an All-Star Game featuring a jaw-dropping and record-shattering 10 dingers.

But, obviously, it will always stand out to the guy who hit it.

“I enjoyed every single second that I spent out there.”

Remarkably, Contreras repeated his feat from two seasons ago, when he hit his first big league homer on the first big league pitch he ever saw. Ditto on Tuesday night at Nationals Park, when he launched the first pitch he saw as an All Star out over the wall in left field.

“When I hit the ball and thought it was gone, I went back to 2016, playing in Chicago. It was the same thing, first pitch for a homer,” Contreras, all smiles, said following the American League’s 8-6 victory. “I’m really blessed with these kinds of situations. Those moments, they’re going to be history and they’re going to be in my mind and my heart.”

Contreras’ long ball was the highlight of the evening for fans watching back home in Chicago. Javy Baez got a hit in his first All-Star at-bat but was outdone by his teammate. White Sox first baseman Jose Abreu was hitless in his two trips to the plate.

And while it will be a highlight on this night for Cubs fans, it will be a highlight forever for Contreras, who enjoyed the heck out of his first All-Star experience.

“‘I did it, I did it,’” he said when asked what was going through his head. “I knew it was something special. And I wasn’t trying to do too much because these guys are nasty, throwing 98 in the first inning. I just tried to get the hit out.”

The nasty guy he went deep against was Tampa Bay Rays pitcher Blake Snell, whose 2.27 ERA on the season made him a very worthy inclusion on the AL roster. But Contreras was more impressed with the guy who started the game for the National League, raving about Washington Nationals ace Max Scherzer after the game.

“He was great, man. Great stuff, he gets so into the game,” Contreras said. “I would like to have him one day on my team or play with him for a few years. That guy is amazing.”

That’s not the current Nationals star Cubs fans are dreaming about, Willy, but point taken.

But it wasn’t Snell or Scherzer or even Baez or Jon Lester, also in the NL dugout, who Contreras was thinking about the most during his home run trot. Instead, Contreras was thinking about his grandfather, Ernesto, who passed away a few years ago.

“My grandpa, he died in 2015,” Contreras said. “I grew up with him.

“He didn’t play ball. But I feel like every time I go out there and step into the box, he’s at my back. It just feels amazing when you hit a homer or do something special, look at the sky and you know that he’s there smiling somewhere.”

It all made for a pretty incredible night for Contreras, who has officially and loudly taken his place among baseball’s best on the game’s biggest stage.

The only thing that was missing? The ball.

Yeah, Contreras didn’t get the ball, not that he really expected to. But if you’ve got it, he wants it.

“I don’t think they’re giving it back,” he said with a grin.

We’ll see. Social media’s a powerful tool. So reach out.