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).”

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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.

Yu Darvish emotional after Cubs lose another tough one: 'I'm so frustrated'

Yu Darvish emotional after Cubs lose another tough one: 'I'm so frustrated'

With their postseason hopes fading by the day and the Cubs needing him most, Yu Darvish delivered on Sunday.

And yet, the game ended in a far-too familiar way for the Cubs: with a 3-2 loss, the Cubs’ fifth-straight one-run defeat — and third since Thursday when they were tied or leading in the ninth inning or later.

“If you just play back the tape, it’s almost unbelievable that it turned out this way,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. “Also, the games against Cincinnati. For the last six, this is really wash and repeat. Of course it’s frustrating."

Darvish was extremely emotional postgame, as evidenced by a mud stain spread across his locker resulting from an anger-laced throw of his cleat. He pitched well — 8 1/3 innings, three earned runs, 12 strikeouts and no walks — only running into trouble in the ninth.

“I’m so frustrated, you can see it, right?” he said, looking back at his locker. “We have to win, especially today, but we lost.”

The 33-year-old right-hander was rolling heading into the ninth, which started off with pinch-hit triple by Jose Martinez that hit off Albert Almora Jr.’s glove, despite a valiant diving effort.

“It sucks that we couldn’t win that game,” Almora said. “I really wanted to make that play there. Can’t catch them all, but I tried.”

For what it’s worth, Craig Kimbrel didn’t pitch Sunday because he was unavailable, though Maddon said he would’ve stuck with Darvish even if his closer was available.

"I was happy at that point, but right now everything just….There’s no words right now," Darvish said.

That’s neither here nor there, though. What matters is that the Cubs lost another game that they seemed to have in their grasp, only to see it slip away late. They're now eliminated from NL Central contention, and their elimination number in the Wild Card race is three.

Even Maddon struggled to explain the series, one where the Cubs played quite well but only saw their playoff hopes take a big hit.

“It’s really difficult,” he said. “You look at it, how did that all happen? How did we lose all those four games? They were just one runner better than us every night and they were really evenly matched. That’s all I will concede.”

Although Darvish admitted he feels responsible for Sunday’s loss, Maddon spoke highly of the right-hander, even comparing how he's pitched to what Jake Arrieta did during his tenure with the Cubs. 

“I saw Jake pitch really well and win a Cy Young, but this is equivalent of all of that,” he said. “The stuff, command of his stuff. [Darvish] absolutely deserved a better fate.”

Whether you think that Maddon was being too hyperbolic there or not, there’s no doubting that Darvish looked excellent for majority of his outing on Sunday. Baseball is a game of inches, something the Cubs experienced firsthand this weekend.

“They got us. They got us,” Maddon said. “Give them credit for that, but we did not leave anything on the field, man.”

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Cubs Talk Podcast: Swept by the Cardinals (and playoff dreams dashed)

USA Today

Cubs Talk Podcast: Swept by the Cardinals (and playoff dreams dashed)

On the latest Cubs Talk Podcast, Tony Andracki and Kelly Crull discuss the Cardinals sweep, Yu Darvish taking the loss so hard, and what to look for over the final six games of the year.

01:00 - Reaction to being swept by the Cards

03:30 - Darvish taking the loss really hard

05:30 - This is the Yu Darvish Cubs fans thought they were getting when he signed with the Cubs

07:00 - Almora's miscue in the 9th inning of the loss

08:00 - It feels like the end of an era

12:00 - Is this the end of an era for the Cubs?

16:00 - Surprised Rizzo was available on the field for the entire Cardinals series?

20:00 - There is no one thing you can look to that didn't work this season

22:00 - What do you want to see over the final six games?

25:00 - Seeing a cornerstone being helped off the field for a second Sunday in a row

29:00 - How much will we see the injured guys on the field?

Listen here or in the embedded player below. 

Cubs Talk Podcast