Javier Baez has developed into one of the most exciting players in Major League Baseball in the seven years he has been a member of the Cubs organization.
However, his ascension to his status as one of the best players in the sport and the road he traveled to get there was not always smooth. Instead, many times it was filled with frustration both for Baez and the organization as he played out of control both at the plate and in the field.
The player that Baez is today in 2018 is a far cry from the young man who was chosen ninth overall by former Cubs general manager Jim Hendry and his scouting director Tim Wilken in June of 2011.
“I loved Baez from the first time I saw him because of the athleticism he showed and the unbelievable bat speed he possessed at a young age. I knew he was raw, but I also knew he had the potential to be one of the best players in baseball if he worked hard and he refined his game,” Wilken told me.
Baez was one half of a dynamic duo of shortstops from Puerto Rico that were projected to go in the top 10 picks in the 2011 MLB amateur draft with his close friend Francisco Lindor being the other highly ranked prospect.
“I loved both players but I just loved the skill set that Baez showed even though I knew it would take him time to develop," Wilken said. "The bat speed he possessed at age 17 was unbelievable and I imagined him producing offensively at a high level in a Cubs uniform. His defense, while at times inconsistent also showed him making some incredible plays and that package of skills sold me.”
Not every team in that year’s draft was convinced that Baez had what it took to be a star in professional baseball. The first eight picks came and went with Baez still on the board leaving him there for Wilken to choose for his boss, Hendry. In fact, had the Cubs not taken Baez at No. 9 the team that was choosing next would not have taken him. The San Diego Padres, who were being run by current Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer and current Cubs VP of Scouting and Player Development Jason McLeod were concerned about Baez’s undisciplined play and have admitted they would have passed on him in Round 1 had the Cubs chosen someone else.
“We obviously loved his athletic ability and his bat speed, but we had some concerns about his ability to refine his game and we were going in another direction,” McLeod told me.
In fact, McLeod related a conversation he had with Wilken a few weeks before the draft in the spring of 2011 when the two sat down to grab a beer after scouting a game on the road.
“I asked Tim who he was going to take because it didn’t matter if I knew because they were choosing ahead of us," McLeod said. "He said he was taking a shortstop and I laughed and said 'Hey Tim, Lindor isn’t going to still be on the board when you pick.' I’ll never forget what he said. 'It doesn’t matter if he is I’m taking someone else.' I was stunned because Lindor was considered the best shortstop in the draft by most observers and we really wanted him for the Padres but he smiled and told me he loved Baez. And while Lindor is a great player, his evaluation of Javy was right on. He has refined his game and he has become one of the best run producers and most exciting players in baseball. We are so thrilled to have him wearing a Cubs uniform.”
I remember Jason looked at me like I was a little nuts, but there was no way I wasn’t going to take him if he was there when we picked," Wilken told me. "I had that much conviction on him and Jim Hendry was great about letting me make the pick. There was just something about Javy that I absolutely loved and I was not going to let anyone talk me out of picking him.”
Baez was much more of a feast or famine player during his early years in the Cubs organization. For every prodigious home run he hit in minor league stadiums around baseball he struck out many more times, often on pitches far out of the strike zone. His lack of ability to lay off of sliders that were down and away frustrated many members of the Cubs front office and for several winters his name popped up in trade talks.
But, Javy Baez had a man in the organization who loved his package of skills and loved the passion that he played the game with on a daily basis. That man was Cubs manager Joe Maddon, and he constantly preached patience with the youngster. He saw what many did not. He saw a player who could dominate a game with not only his bat but also his glove and his legs. In Baez, Maddon saw a player that he believed could be a superstar if people were patient with him.
“When Javy stops swinging at pitches down and out of the zone he has a chance to be Manny Ramirez,” Maddon said in early 2018, a statement that surprised reporters who cover the team on a daily basis.
And while that may be a bit lofty there is no doubt that Maddon is right that as Baez develops he will be one of the most feared hitters in the game.
During his senior year of high school, he hit a whopping .771, tallying 64 hits in 83 at-bats. He also smacked 22 home runs, 20 doubles and he drove in 52 runs, good for a 1.807 slugging percentage. He also played with a flair and passion that some scouts loved but many others were turned off by. In fact, some teams were shocked that Wilken had the guts to draft Baez as high as he did.
Baez rocketed through the Cubs minor league system, but it was not all smooth going. While he was second in all of baseball in 2013 with 37 home runs he also committed 44 errors, many of them on somewhat routine plays. As the 2014 season began, at the age of just 21, Baez was close to a promotion to the major leagues and when it came in early August he delivered with his customary flair for the dramatic, hitting a game winning home run in Colorado in his debut. In fact, he smacked three home runs in his first three games.
But major league pitchers adjusted their approach to him and he ended the 2014 season hitting just .169 with an astounding 95 strikeouts in just 213 at-bats. Many around Chicago considered Baez a bust and wrote him off as a failed draft pick because of his undisciplined approach at the plate. But then Maddon was hired in the fall of 2014 and he saw in Baez a player who he knew would thrive in his system. More than any other manager in baseball Joe Maddon uses players in a variety of roles and he believed Baez could play multiple positions and play all of them well.
“Joe Maddon deserves a ton of credit for Javy’s development," Wilken said. "He saw what many around the game did not and he found a way to get the most out of Javy’s abilities. Even though I’m not still with the Cubs (Wilken is now with the Arizona Diamondbacks) I root for Javy. He was one of my favorite players I ever drafted.”
With the 2018 season nearly three months old the leading RBI man in the National League is Baez, a stat that Wilken envisioned nearly seven years ago when he had the conviction to draft Baez higher than most would have. That conviction has given the Cubs the 2016 NLCS co-MVP (with Jon Lester) and a player who should be among the best in the game for the next decade.
Here is what the bible of amateur baseball – Baseball America wrote about Baez prior to the 2011 MLB First-Year Player Draft:
Drafted in the 1st round (9th overall) by the Chicago Cubs in 2011 (signed for $2,625,000)
Baez matched up with fellow Puerto Rican native and Florida prep shortstop Francisco Lindor in February in the season's most heavily scouted high school game, with as many as 100 scouts on hand. Baez and Lindor have more contrasts than similarities, though. Where Lindor is smooth and lauded for his makeup, Baez is explosive and scouts generally pan his makeup. He lives with his high school coach (who is also his legal guardian), though his mother remains in the picture. His bat is too good to ignore, though, and offensively he has few peers in this year's draft. He has the fastest bat in the draft, and while he has a dead-pull approach at times, he has the bat speed to let balls get deep in the zone. Baez has plus raw power as well, which may serve him well if he has to move to third base. He has the defensive tools to stay at short until he outgrows it, as at 6-foot-1, 205 pounds, he doesn't have much range to spare. He has plenty of arm for either position. His tools fit the catcher profile, but his makeup does not. He plays with energy, but it's not always positive, and he turns off some scouts with emotional outbursts and an off-field demeanor some describe as aloof. He's committed to Jacksonville.