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'Try not to suck': Javier Baez takes his swag to center field with Cubs

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'Try not to suck': Javier Baez takes his swag to center field with Cubs

When Javier Baez walked into Joe Maddon's office before his reintroduction to the big leagues in 2015, the Cubs manager had some simple advice for the young player:

"Try not to suck."

Baez told that story Saturday to an uproar of laughter from the thousands of Cubs fans in attendance at the "Rock star rookie" panel during the 2016 Cubs Convention at the Sheraton Grand Chicago.

That advice seemed to work out just fine, as Baez contributed maybe the biggest hit of the Cubs' 2015 season when he launched a three-run homer into the right-center field bleachers off Cardinals starter John Lackey in the clinching game of the NLDS.

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Baez pointed to that moment as the highlight of what was an up-and-down season fraught with personal loss and growth.

After his sister died, Baez took a few weeks away from the game before returning to Triple-A Iowa, where he stayed until big league rosters expanded Sept. 1.

Heading into 2016, the Cubs are trying to make Baez into a Ben Zobrist 2.0 with defensive versatility.

Baez can already play second, third and shortstop, but now he's working in center field in winter ball and the Cubs will keep that experiment going in Arizona this spring.

"I feel really good," Baez said. "I'm looking forward to start playing center field and we'll see how it goes in spring training."

Baez said he's having fun playing in the outfield despite never moving beyond the infield in his professional career.

Baez may only have six games under his belt in center field, but the 23-year-old kid with the MLB logo tattooed on the back of his neck is already feeling that sense of swagger.

So much so that he already warned his peers on Twitter:

 

 

The backstory behind that, Baez said, was when nine balls were hit to him in center during a game in Puerto Rico and he tracked them all down, including a sliding stop to cut a hit off in the gap.

Maddon has been talking up Baez's baseball IQ and defensive prowess since last spring and he wants to see what the kid can do in center.

"I definitely think he can [play it at the big league level]," Maddon said. "He's one of the best on-field defenders I've seen, period. The way he plays the infield, he's never in trouble. He's very calm, he's got this really high baseball acumen - he sees things in advance.

"I could go on and on. And he's only 23 years of age and he's got all this goin' on."

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Maddon loves to move his players all around the field and Baez is on board with whatever will help him get some playing time.

"Obviously, I'm here to play," Baez said. "I'm ready to play. I want to play every day.

"It doesn't matter what position, I just want to be in the lineup."

How Ian Happ got his groove back at the plate

How Ian Happ got his groove back at the plate

There's a legit case to be made that Ian Happ has been the Cubs' second-best hitter in 2018.

Yes, really.

Happ ranks second on the Cubs in OPS (.895), behind only Kris Bryant (.995) among regulars, though a recent hot streak has buoyed that overall bottom line for Happ.

Still, it's been a pretty incredible hot streak and it's propelled Happ back to where he began the season — at the top of the Cubs order. 

Happ has walked 10 times in the last 6 games and hammered out 3 homers in that span, including one on top of the Schwarboard in right field as a pinch-hitter Tuesday night.

Even more jaw-dropping: He's only struck out 5 times in the last 9 games after a dreadful start to the season in that regard.

"It was just a matter of time until things clicked a little bit," Happ said. "That's why we play 162 games and it's a game of adjustments. At the end of the day, it all evens out.

"Look at the back of Tony [Rizzo's] baseball card — it's the same thing every single year. That's how this thing goes. You're gonna have your ups and your downs and I'm just trying to be as consistent as I can. If I can level it out a little bit and be more consistent over a period of time, that'll be better for our team."

So yes, Happ is on the upswing right now and he'll inevitably have more slumps where he strikes out too much and looks lost at the plate.

Such is life for a 23-year-old who is still a week away from his 162nd career MLB game.

The league had adjusted to Happ and he had to adjust back, which he'd been working hard doing behind the scenes.

"I just try to get him to primarily slow things down," Joe Maddon said. "Try to get him back into left-center. And I did not want to heap a whole lot of at-bats on him. When you're not going good, if you heap too many at-bats on somebody, all of a sudden, that's really hard to dig out of that hole.

"So a lot of conversations — a lot of conversations — but nothing complicated. I like to go the simple side of things. I wanted him to try not to lift the ball intentionally, really organize his strike zone."

Maddon believes Happ had lost sight of his strike zone organization, chasing too many pitches out of the zone — particularly the high fastball.

Now, the Cubs manager sees Happ using his hands more and less of his arms in his swing, working a more precise, compact path to the ball.

The Happ experiment at leadoff was a disaster to begin the year — .186 AVG, .573 OPS and 22 strikeouts in 10 starts there — but all the same tools and rationale exist for why Maddon likes the switch-hitting utiliy player in that spot.

And that's why Happ was leading off Wednesday with both Ben Zobrist and Albert Almora Jr. getting the night off.

"We're gonna find out [if he can stick at leadoff]," Maddon said. "I just thought he's looked better. He's coming off a nice streak on the road trip. [Tuesday night], pinch-hitting. I know the home run's great and of course that's nice.

"But how he got to the pitch that he hit out, to me, was the important thing. Got the two strikes, took the two borderline pitches and then all of a sudden, [the pitcher] came in with a little bit more and he didn't miss it.

"That's the big thing about hitting well, too — when you see your pitch, you don't either take it or foul it off. You don't miss it. He didn't miss it."

Baseball Night in Chicago Podcast: Who has more fun on the diamond, Javier Baez or Yolmer Sanchez?

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USA TODAY

Baseball Night in Chicago Podcast: Who has more fun on the diamond, Javier Baez or Yolmer Sanchez?

Ozzie Guillen and David DeJesus join Leila Rahimi on Wednesday's podcast. After Tuesday's game-winning hit and second self-inflicted Gatorade bath the guys wonder if anyone has more fun on the field than Yolmer Sanchez. Jim DeShaies joins the conversation and brings Javy Baez to the table.

Plus, Manny Mania continues to swirl in Chicago. Finally, what should be the White Sox plan for calling up their top prospects?

Listen to the full Baseball Night in Chicago Podcast right here: