Cubs

Cubs: How Javier Baez became baseball’s human highlight film

Cubs: How Javier Baez became baseball’s human highlight film

ST. LOUIS – Javier Baez – the kid with the Major League Baseball tattoo on the back of his neck – walked into Dave Keller's office and asked to speak with the Class-A Daytona manager.

This was still early in the 2013 season, about two years after the Cubs selected Baez with the ninth overall pick in the draft. Keller had managed Manny Ramirez in the minors and later developed enough of a fluency in Spanish – and an appreciation for cultural differences – to become the organization's field coordinator in Latin America. Keller called in hitting coach Mariano Duncan, a respected bilingual voice who once mentored a young Derek Jeter on the 1996 New York Yankees team that began a run of four World Series titles in five years.

Looking at the schedule and how much Baez had been playing, Keller made him the designated hitter the day before an off day, trying to maximize his rest.

"All three of us sit down. He goes: 'I don't DH,'" recalled Keller, who explained the thinking behind the decision only to get this response from Baez: "'I don't need a day off, either.'"

"Inside, I'm laughing my ass off," Keller said. "But outside, I'm going: OK, we have to continue to help this kid understand boundaries.

"I said: 'OK, that's good to know, you're DH-ing today.'"

Keller and Duncan looked at each other with the same reaction: This guy's unbelievable.

***

By the time Baez became a breakout star during last year's playoffs, the Cubs had already seen the rough cut of baseball's "Human Highlight Film." The location shoot could be anywhere in the Florida State League and Baez might make a mind-bending play. It just took backdrops like Wrigley Field and Dodger Stadium – and the social-media machinery behind the World Series and World Baseball Classic – for Baez to pop when he stole home or dropped a no-look tag.

"Who doesn't want to be like Javy right now?" said lefty reliever Zac Rosscup. "Everything like that just comes so easy for him. I don't know how to explain it. He's got such a good mind for where he's at on the field. Like in basketball, you would say a court awareness.

"It's got to feel good for those catchers, too. You know if you throw it anywhere around the base, he's going to put down that quick tag, the no-look tag, the between-the-legs tag. I'm just waiting for him to do a backflip."

Bullpen catcher Chad Noble, who played four seasons in the farm system, immediately sensed the curiosity from Cubs coaches Chris Bosio and Mike Borzello.

"The first thing they asked me was: 'What do you got on Javy?'" Noble said. "I said nothing about his hitting. I was like: 'He's the best tagger I've ever seen. He makes everything an out.' I felt weird saying it: 'Best tagger?' I felt stupid saying it, because it's like: 'Who says best tagger?'

"But now it's like a national thing."

When asked for a favorite Javy moment, both Noble and Rosscup vividly remembered Baez diving to his left at shortstop in the ninth inning of Eric Jokisch's 2013 no-hitter with Double-A Tennessee.

"It was like a line drive up the middle that no one on this planet could have caught and he just stabbed it," Noble said.

"You're like, 'Damn, well, there goes the no-hitter,'" Rosscup recalled. "Out of nowhere, Javy comes diving, makes the play. He just does that stuff every day and it's not something where he finds his chance here or there.

"He makes the ridiculous plays look so easy. To pick one moment – I don't think you can – because every time he's out on the field, you want to watch, because there's something exciting going to happen."

***

One of the original "Javy Being Javy" stories circulated around the Cubs leading up to the 2011 draft, out of an all-state event for the best players in Florida, where each guy was supposed to introduce himself and say his hometown and where he committed to play in college. So Baez, the legend goes, stood up and pointed to that tattoo on the back of his neck and announced: "I'm going to the University of Major League Baseball."

Tim Wilken, the scouting director at the time, had framed the question to his staff like this: What's harder to find, a middle-of-the-order hitter or a frontline starter? The pre-Plan Cubs came to a Theo Epstein conclusion.

Even if Baez had some rough edges, a great sense of swagger and all-or-nothing stretches at the plate, Wilken didn't really view it as a high-risk play, because hitters are safer investments near the top of the draft, middle-infield athleticism is so valuable and the baseball IQ would open up even more possibilities.

One particular play during an A-ball game in Clearwater foreshadowed "The Javier Baez Show" that ran last October.

"He took one of his hernia swings and had so much topspin on it that the left fielder didn't know what to do," Wilken recalled. "At the second he jumps – he was a left-handed throwing left-fielder – it's got so much spin it almost hit him around the elbow area.

"The ball drops straight down, and I'm sure the poor kid had never seen a ball hit with that much spin on it. The kid does come up firing to second and he's got Javy dead to rights, because Javy didn't get out of the box. He took (his time). And then he does one of those famous swim moves.

"Chris Truby – who's an ex-big leaguer and was the manager for (the Phillies' affiliate) – starts running across the field. He looks and he knows that Javy was safe. He just throws his hands up at the play and turns around and storms back. He didn't even argue."

Wilken – a gifted storyteller who drafted Chris Carpenter and Roy Halladay for the Toronto Blue Jays and now works as a special assistant with the Arizona Diamondbacks – also flashed back to the 2013 Southern League playoffs against Birmingham.

"Javy hit a home run to left-center in Knoxville," Wilken said. "It was almost like a fence-scraper and Javy turns around and starts yelling toward the plate. And I'm going: 'Oh, s---! We're going to get into a fight here. He's yelling at the catcher.'

"He wasn't yelling at the catcher. He was yelling at the umpire, saying: 'How could you miss it? That was a catcher's interference!' Because the glove had hit Javy's bat. No kidding, I mean, that was amazing. I'm just sitting there going, 'Oh, we're in a fight.' And, no, he was yelling at the umpire."

***

That sixth sense reminded Keller of watching Omar Vizquel and Roberto Alomar when he worked on the major-league staff with the Cleveland Indians in the early 2000s.

"All I remember talking about the whole time when (Javy) was there was his instincts for the game were off the charts," Keller said. "He would do stuff in the game that was so further advanced than that level at the time, whether it was a pop-up in the infield, and then letting it drop because he knew who was running, so he'd try to get the fast guy and leave the slow guy on base.

"Or his ability to steal third at that level was better than I've probably ever seen anywhere on any team that I've ever been with. It was just more or less trying to keep him focused every day to play, which was really no problem, because he came to play. But with so many kids at the lower levels, you don't really worry about the game. You worry about what's going on with them between 1 o'clock and 6 o'clock."

Keller moved his hand in a flat, straight line to describe the college hitters like Kris Bryant (16 games in 2013) and Kyle Schwarber (44 games in 2014) who breezed through Daytona while the Cubs sold off pieces from their big-league team to build for the future.

"All the little things that people don't do at the lower levels, (Javy) was doing," Keller said. "The tags – you could tell right away. His ability was almost like you would think it was sneaky, you know what I mean? But at the big-league level, it comes off as unbelievably intelligent, anticipatory, whatever you want to call it, because his mind thinks that way.

"We found out right away that mentally he was way advanced. But what winds up happening is the physical ups and downs get into the emotional part of it. And all those guys deal with that. As soon as they get through the emotional part of it, the better off they'll be.

"Javy was a little bit different, because he showed his emotions a lot more than those guys. Once they get the emotions under control – not that they were out of control – but it's maturity. That's why we have the minor leagues."

***

Baez has a short mohawk with his hair dyed blond at the top. His left arm now features a tattoo with the Cubs logo and a 2016 World Series trophy. But he blends style and substance with a willingness to analyze his weaknesses, ask for help and listen.

"I've been learning from everything," Baez said. "It's not like I like failing. But that's when you learn to make your adjustments and to get better at stuff that you didn't do in the past."

Jose Flores, the infield coordinator, also grew up in Puerto Rico, spoke the same language and even coached Baez' older brother, Rolando Agosto, in winter ball. Flores still first noticed the same quiet, introverted streak that probably kept other teams guessing when Baez came out of Arlington Country Day School in Jacksonville.

"At the beginning, it was just a little bit tough to communicate with him, because he's very closed," Flores said. "I told him: 'I'm just going to let you go out there and perform and eventually you're going to come to me.'"

Three years before he would change playoff games with his defense and become a National League Championship Series co-MVP, Baez committed 31 errors in 73 A-ball games.

"I just let him play," Flores said. "One time I visited Daytona and he's like: 'What can I do to get better defensively?' I said: 'All right, now we're talking, let's just start working.' And from that day on we established a really good bond.

"Once he started failing, he's like: 'What do we got, Flo? What can I do here to get better?'"

For all the flair to his game, Baez is a baseball gym rat. He developed a consistent, game-speed routine. He focused on his pre-pitch positioning and being less jumpy, so that he would have sharper reflexes and better reads off the bat. He changed his arm angle to improve his accuracy.

Joe Maddon, a free-spirited, unconventional manager, allowed Baez to be himself and play with passion. His younger sister, Noely, who was born with spina bifida and died two years ago, gave Baez a renewed sense of purpose and inspiration. A star-studded cast allowed Baez to make mistakes, find his role and blend more into the background – at least until the biggest games in franchise history.

That's why Maddon did a World Series tribute and made Baez his Opening Night second baseman, shifting Ben Zobrist to right field during Sunday's 4-3 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium. This viral sensation has been years in the making. The guy who doesn't DH is willing to do whatever it takes for some more championship bling and maybe another World Series tattoo.

With no move on the horizon, Carl Edwards Jr. still the key to Cubs bullpen

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USA TODAY

With no move on the horizon, Carl Edwards Jr. still the key to Cubs bullpen

As currently constructed, the biggest X-factor in the Cubs bullpen isn't Brandon Morrow or even Pedro Strop.

It's Carl Edwards Jr. 

Maybe that all changes in a couple weeks if the Cubs join the Craig Kimbrel sweepstakes or acquire an impact arm via trade. 

But the season is only about one-quarter of the way completed and Theo Epstein admitted Monday it's probably too early to see any major deals take place. So right now, it's Edwards that looms as the potential key to the much-maligned Cubs bullpen.

Edwards was called on in the seventh inning to protect a 1-0 lead Tuesday night, but managed to get only two outs before leaving with runners on second and third. Brandon Kintzler came on to face Andrew McCutchen, who promptly singled home both runners, saddling Edwards with a blown save. He has now allowed 9 earned runs in 7.1 innings on the season.

"Getting Carl right is large," Joe Maddon said before Tuesday's game. "If we get Carl right, that really fills a big gap right there."

Many have drawn the parallels between the 2019 Cubs and the 2016 Cubs and like that World Series team, this year's squad seems destined to acquire a closer (or at least a high-leverage impact reliever) this summer.

In 2016, Hector Rondon had a successful run as the team's closer, but it was pretty clear the Cubs needed an impact arm at the back of the bullpen to make a World Series run and they got it in the form of Aroldis Chapman.

It's too early to talk about World Series runs right now, but it's once again clear that the Cubs would be best served making an impact addition to the bullpen.

The Cubs got good news on the Morrow front Monday as he threw from flat ground and reported everything OK, but the 34-year-old has already suffered one setback in his recovery and at this point, he's a complete unknown. The Cubs can't bank on him returning at all this year and have to approach the situation with the idea that any contribution Morrow lends to this bullpen is a bonus.

Strop could be nearing a return after throwing a successful bullpen Monday. But his health — especially with his now-problematic hamstrings — will obviously be a big factor in the overall success of the bullpen, as we can see right now with the way this unit has been set up in his absence. 

With both Morrow and Strop down, Steve Cishek has been the next man up in the closer's role, but he was asked to work 2.1 innings Sunday night to close out the Cubs' win in Washington and was thus unavailable for the series opener against the Phillies.

So Brad Brach got the call for the ninth inning Monday night at Wrigley Field and wound up getting charged with the blown save. The Cubs then lost the ballgame the next inning when Kyle Ryan served up a home run to Phillies catcher J.T. Realmuto.

That bullpen breakdown led to another round of sky-is-falling panic in the fanbase, calling for relief reinforcements like Kimbrel.

The Cubs are tied for second in baseball with 9 blown saves, though they actually came into Tuesday's game with the second-best bullpen in the league (2.72 ERA) since that rough 2-7 start to the season.

But now this unit has become a big concern once again. Getting by without Morrow is one thing, but between losing Strop to the IL and Edwards still not performing up to his potential, suddenly this bullpen is on some seriously unstable ground.

"This year to this point, we've lost some games late that we normally haven't lost in the past," Maddon said. "If we had just pitched somewhat up to our standards, our record would be crazy good right now. But I like the stuff that we have, I like the resiliency that we have. Like I said, Carl's a linchpin to this and I think Stroppy is, too."

Even with the shaky moments from the bullpen and the fact they're onto their backup backup closer (or is it the "backup to the backup closer?"), the Cubs still entered Tuesday's game with a 27-18 record and in first place in the National League Central.

They've managed to do all that with very little in the way of contribution from Edwards, who has the best stuff and the highest ceiling of any pitcher currently on the roster. 

The Cubs already sent Edwards down to the minor leagues for a month to fine-tune his mental and physical mechanics and though the 27-year-old has been back in the big leagues for the last couple weeks, he's still not quite himself.

Prior to Tuesday's hiccup, Maddon thought Edwards might be getting close to that level — he was dialing his fastball up to nearly 96 mph Saturday as he retired the only two batters he faced on 11 pitches.

"He threw well the other day," Maddon said. "[On Saturday], the fastball was better, better command of it, better finish on it. I think with Carl, it's just a confidence thing. I just gotta keep putting him out there. He has a couple successful moments and I think he can turn it around.

"But stuff-wise, I saw the better velocity, I saw the cut and I saw the really good curveball."

Sure, adding Kimbrel or another proven, high-leverage arm would give the Cubs a better bullpen. 

But no such move appears to be on the horizon and Morrow's future is still a giant question mark, so the Cubs have to work with what they have and Edwards pitching like he's capable of would change the entire complexion of the bullpen.

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Jake Arrieta full of appreciation in return to Wrigley mound: ‘I’ll never forget this city’

Jake Arrieta full of appreciation in return to Wrigley mound: ‘I’ll never forget this city’

The last time Jake Arrieta pitched at Wrigley Field, his night ended with Cubs fans giving him a rousing standing ovation. The former Cubs right hander tossed 6 2/3 innings of one-run ball, leading the Cubs to victory in Game 4 of the 2017 NLCS—their only win against the Los Angeles Dodgers that series.

Arrieta returned to Wrigley Field as a visitor on Monday night, making his first start against the Cubs since joining the Philadelphia Phillies last season. Ironically, Arrieta’s counterpart for the night was Yu Darvish, who ultimately replaced Arrieta in the Cubs starting rotation.

Despite now donning Phillies red, Cubs fans once again showed their love for Arrieta, giving him a lengthy standing ovation ahead of his first plate appearance. Darvish even stepped off the mound in respect for the moment.

“I loved it, absolutely loved it,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said to reporters postgame. “[I’m] very happy that our fans would acknowledge him like that. Yu stepped away from the mound nicely. Jake deserved it.”

Arrieta tipped his helmet in appreciation for the crowd, taking in the moment for more than 30 seconds before stepping into the batter’s box. After the game, he told reporters that moment brought back memories of his time with the Cubs.

“That was something that really brought back great memories of getting that same sort of ovation pretty much on a nightly basis,” Arrieta said. “[I’m] very appreciative of that. I can’t say thank you enough to the city of Chicago, I really can’t.”

Arrieta took fans back to his Cubs tenure on Monday, throwing six innings of one run ball in the Phillies’ 5-4 10-inning win. Although the 33-year-old didn’t pick up the victory, he matched Darvish—who threw six innings of three-run ball—pitch by-pitch.

Phillies manager Gabe Kapler noted how well Arrieta handled his emotions throughout the night.

“I thought he handled the emotions really well. I thought he was in control of the game even when we were down,” Kapler said to reporters. “He always maintained his poise and he just got stronger as the outing went on and that’s why we were able to have him take down the sixth inning for us.”

It’s well-documented how Arrieta’s career improved for the better after the Cubs acquired him in a trade with the Baltimore Orioles in July 2013. When the Cubs acquired him, Arrieta held a career 5.46 ERA in 69 games (63 starts). He finished his Cubs career with a 2.73 ERA in 128 regular season starts. He also won five postseason games with the Cubs, including Games 2 and 6 of the 2016 World Series.

Despite moving on in free agency, Arrieta spoke highly of his time with the Cubs, their fans and the city of Chicago.

“Cubs fans all across the country, all across the world, they really respect and appreciate what guys are able to do here for them,” he said. “It means a lot, it really does.

"I’ll never forget this city, the fan base, the organization, everything that they did for me. It was 4 1/2 incredible years of my career.”

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