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.

Brewers' faltering bullpen not doing them favors in NL Central race

knebel.png
USA TODAY

Brewers' faltering bullpen not doing them favors in NL Central race

At a time when the Cubs are missing their closer and continuing to hold their lead on the division anyway, the Brewers are in a very different place. 

Coming in to a short but weighty series at Wrigley Field, Milwaukee has dropped two games via bullpen meltdown in their last four. Corey Knebel, who saved 39 games for the Brewers in 2017 with a 1.93 ERA, has seen much more limited time in the closer's role this year. But getting him right will probably make the difference for Milwaukee down the stretch.

"It’s important that we get him going," Brewers manager Craig Counsell told reporters before Tuesday's game. "Getting Corey on track is probably the bigger equation in this that kind of normalizes the bullpen."

Last Thursday, Knebel loaded the bases in the 9th when Milwaukee was leading, 4-2, and eventually left for Joakim Soria after allowing a run on a single. This set the stage for Hunter Renfroe's grand slam that cost the Brewers the game. In his next appearance, Knebel pitched in the 5th inning against the Braves and gave up a run in Milwaukee's eventual 8-7 loss.

Without a reliable Knebel, the Brewers have had to play mix and match with their bullpen, a recipe that doesn't usually work. It's been successful so far for the Cubs in the absence of Morrow, but that hasn't been the case for Milwaukee lately. 

The Brewers acquired Joakim Soria from the White Sox on July 26 in hopes of shoring up their bullpen, but after giving up the grand slam to Renfroe last week, Soria hit the DL with a right quadriceps strain. Counsell said that it isn't likely for Soria to return very soon, however.

"We’re not going to be at 10 days, I’ll tell you that," Counsell said, adding that Soria is still only doing stationary bike work at this point.

But help might be on the way. Taylor Williams, who was placed on the 10-day disabled list on August 3, is eligible to return. For now, the Brewers opted to keep outfielder Keon Broxton on the roster, but Williams could prove to be a boon for the Milwaukee reliever corps. Before being shelved, he was averaging more than a strikeout per inning. 

Otherwise, the Brewers have Matt Albers rehabbing in Biloxi, Mississippi, where they plan to let him appear in at least a couple games before activating him.

Milwaukee has a chance to cut the division lead to a single game these next two days, but without a reliable bullpen, that could prove especially difficult.

State of the Cubs: What is the identity of this 2018 team?

State of the Cubs: What is the identity of this 2018 team?

Who are the 2018 Cubs?

It's mid-August, there's only seven weeks of regular season action left before the playoffs and yet the Cubs still don't have an identity they can hang their hats on.

Maybe they are just a team with an underachieving rotation, an inconsistent offense, a bullpen that is fantastic when rested and an elite defense.
 
Yet they maintain there's more in the tank and with a roster this talented and track records this extensive, it's easy to believe them. 

But when will that show up on a regular basis?

Mind you, the Cubs aren't complaining where they're at.

They woke up Monday morning with the best record in the National League by three games and the peace that no matter what happens in a two-game series with the Brewers this week at Wrigley Field, they'll head to Pittsburgh Thursday at least a game up in the division.

Of course, where would the Cubs be right now without David Bote's ninth-inning heroics Sunday night or against the Diamondbacks two weeks ago? Fortunately for the Cubs, that's an alternate universe they don't have to think about.

They'll take this current position, of course. Especially with the two biggest free agent additions of the offseason — Brandon Morrow and Yu Darvish — combining to throw just 70.2 innings to date plus a balky shoulder that has put Kris Bryant on the shelf for nearly two months (assuming he returns late August or early September) and has sapped the power of the 2016 NL MVP even when he has been healthy enough to suit up. And don't forget Carl Edwards Jr. — the team's second-most important reliever — also missed time (nearly five weeks) and has appeared in just 39 games.

"I don't take anything for granted," Joe Maddon said. "The Cardinals are playing a whole lot better, the Pirates have done a nice job, Milwaukee's not going away. I get all that. But at the end of the day — and this has been my mantra forever — worry about the Cubs. Worry about you guys.

"We just gotta play our game and if we do that, that stuff becomes secondary at every stop, whether it's Milwaukee, St. Louis, Pittsburgh. Cubs do what they're supposed to do, that other stuff becomes moot. 

"That's about getting the rotation back where we think they can be. That's about getting our offense percolating on all cylinders again while we continue to play this defense. If we could somehow get KB, Darvish and Morrow back for that stretch run, my god, you can't get better acquisitions at the end of the year.

"That's all a possibility, but I don't count on it. I'm not waiting for that day to happen. In the meantime, you work with what you got and try to make that as best you can."

What Maddon has is a team that is 13-11 with a -21 run differential since the All-Star Break — obviously not the stuff of a championship team across nearly a month's worth of a sample size.

Digging deeper, however, and you see that the Cubs have been on the wrong end of several blowouts including the 18-5 loss to the Cardinals July 20 and the 9-0 defeat at the hands of the Royals last week. Of the Cubs' 13 second-half wins, 9 have come by three runs or less, including 6 one-run victories.

But the concerns are there, particularly with making sure the rotation helps pick up the slack down the stretch and reduce the stress on an already-taxed bullpen.

Cubs pitchers have combined to throw just 44 pitches and get 7 outs after the seventh inning all season — all of which can be credited to Kyle Hendricks. Jon Lester, Jose Quintana, Yu Darvish, Tyler Chatwood, Mike Montgomery and now Cole Hamels have yet to throw a pitch in the eighth inning this year (though, obviously, Hamels has been fantastic in a small sample size and Montgomery saved the rotation when Darvish went down months ago).

Once the Cubs signed Darvish in February, there were many pundits across the game that believed this could be the top starting staff in baseball behind only the Houston Astros.

"Remember I thought in spring training, this had a chance to be THE best rotation we've had here," Maddon said. "We've had some pretty good ones. And it just hasn't gotten to that point yet, but I still believe that it can, in spite of the fact that we haven't gotten the normal innings out of them."

The rotation is underperforming, but this has been by far the deepest stable of relief pitchers Maddon has had to work with in Chicago.

"You gotta give these bullpen guys a ton of credit and the depth that is organization has built," Maddon said. "The guys that have come up for cameos have contributed greatly to this moment.

"I've often talked about the bullpen — you gotta have that to win a championship and these guys are demonstrating that right now. And part of that is to not beat 'em up."

The Cubs still rank atop the National League in many offensive categories — including runs scored, OPS and on-base percentage — but anybody who's watched this team all year knows they are prone to rather extreme highs and lows.

Since the All-Star Break, it's mostly been at a low, contributing to that suboptimal run differential.

"Offensively, I don't see some of our guys at their normal levels," Maddon said. "I know we got this wonderful run differential [on the season] and we lead the league in runs scored, but how do you maintain that? That's my biggest concern."

Beyond Javy Baez's MVP campaign and the resurgence of Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist, the only thing that has been working offensively of late is Anthony Rizzo in the leadoff spot.

Maddon tossed the face of the franchise atop the order a month ago and hasn't moved him out — for good reason. In 27 starts at leadoff, Rizzo is slashing .347/.446/.604, good for a 1.050 OPS. 

The rest of the lineup behind him has gone through its ups and downs lately, but that's also the nature of the game, especially in this day and age with strikeouts up and basehits down.

For perspective, a Phillies team that has been challenging for the NL East all season has experienced similar head-scratching offensive games on a regular basis:

A lot can change in Major League Baseball in the span of a few weeks.

Just a few weeks ago, who considered Bote to be big part of this team in 2018 or beyond? When the Cubs traded for Hamels, they were hoping he could give them solid innings. Did anybody predict this level of success from the 34-year-old southpaw so soon?

With seven weeks left until postseason baseball, rest assured — there are still plenty of ups and downs coming for the Cubs.

Outsiders — fans and media — often seesaw with those ebbs and flows for many reasons, but the best one is this: It's simply no fun if you don't allow yourself to get completely caught up with moments like Bote's ultimate grand slam or Hamels' Rejuvenation Tour that has only lasted three starts.

But even if those outsiders are willing to ride that roller coaster even a little bit, the Cubs certainly won't inside the clubhouse.

"Never a good time to ride the roller coaster," Rizzo said. "I get motion sickness anyways."