How did the Cubs wind up with Javier Baez?
It’s a good question now that Baez has finished a dominant season that cemented his reputation as one of the game’s elite prospects: 37 homers, 111 RBI, 98 runs scored and 75 extra-base hits in 130 games split between advanced Class-A Daytona and Double-A Tennessee.
Don’t forget the kid’s only 20 years old. But before Baez gets to experience a Southern League playoff run with Tennessee, let’s rewind to what might have been a franchise-altering decision.
Leading up to the 2011 draft, Tim Wilken – the scouting director at the time and now a special assistant to Theo Epstein – had one big theme in mind when his staff gathered for kick-off meetings that January.
“That was a real good draft,” Wilken recalled Monday while sitting in Wrigley Field’s box seats as the Miami Marlins took batting practice. “So whatever the equation was going to be at No. 9, you were going to get a real good quality player. (But) I posed this to all our guys: What is harder to find, a quality middle-of-the-order hitter – like Detroit’s quality – or a No. 2 pitcher?
“There’s like eight or nine No. 1 (starters) in baseball, maybe, so which one’s harder to find? And I think we finally came to the answer – that middle-of-the-order guy.
“Javy naturally kind of fit that and I just secretly thought that last month: ‘Please, I hope he gets to us.’”
At the time, some wondered why the Cubs didn’t take a polished college pitcher, or a more advanced player who might be on a faster track to the big leagues.
Injuries to Andrew Cashner and Randy Wells had shredded the rotation and exposed the organization’s lack of impact arms. General manager Jim Hendry – one of Wilken’s best friends while growing up in Dunedin, Fla. – had been feeling the heat and would ultimately be fired that summer in a secret meeting with chairman Tom Ricketts.
The first four picks in the draft tilted toward pitching: Gerrit Cole (Pittsburgh Pirates); Danny Hultzen (Seattle Mariners); Trevor Bauer (Arizona Diamondbacks); and Dylan Bundy (Baltimore Orioles).
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The Marlins (No. 14, Jose Fernandez) and Oakland A’s (No. 18, Sonny Gray) might have found frontline starters in the middle of the first round. The Washington Nationals (No. 6, Anthony Rendon) and St. Louis Cardinals (No. 22, Kolten Wong) identified infielders that have already started contributing in the majors.
At No. 9, the Cubs went with a teenager who had grown up in Puerto Rico before moving to Florida with his family. He starred at Arlington Country Day, a private school in Jacksonville that wasn’t part of the Florida High School Athletic Association, forcing the baseball team to play all over the Southeast.
“There were a couple clubs in front of us (where I) wondered if they had interest in Javy,” Wilken said. “What kind of helped us (was) all the (unanswered questions), because his team was kind of like the Harlem Globetrotters.
“They had kind of been kicked out of the FHSAA. I think that kind of helped him get to our spot. Plus, he’s pretty quiet and a to-himself guy. I don’t think he was as easy to approach as some of the other guys who were selected in front of him.”
In a final push before the 2011 draft, Wilken tried to chase down pitchers in the Pacific Northwest, seeing one in the Seattle area and another with Oregon State University. He ran into San Diego Padres assistant general manager Jason McLeod, who had the 10th overall pick and wound up going out with him for drinks one night in Portland.
McLeod – now the Cubs senior vice president of scouting/player development – wanted to know: What are you thinking?
“I didn’t tell Jason,” Wilken recalled. “I just told him: ‘Call me right before we’re going to pick and I’ll tell you.’
“‘If this everyday player gets to us, I’m taking him. I’ll give you your answer about five minutes before, just so you guys can go ahead and pick.’
“Little did we know we’d be teammates about a year later.”
Baez has committed 43 errors this season, though team officials say that is part of the learning curve for a young shortstop, mistakes made through inexperience and by being overaggressive.
The Cubs might soon have to decide if Starlin Castro really is their franchise shortstop. But flexibility had been a selling point when the Hendry administration made the Baez pick.
“We felt he was such a good baseball player that he could actually play at about five or six different positions,” Wilken said. “He had caught that fall and was doing pretty good behind the plate.
“We just thought at the time: OK, we’ll take him and he’ll tell us where he’s going to play. But at the same time, we may want to be guiding him to another position. We’ll leave him at shortstop and we’ll see what happens.”
The Cubs want to see Baez prove his versatility in the Arizona Fall League, which could help pave his way to Wrigley Field.
“In a lot of the showcases and stuff, he had played third base,” Wilken said. “Now I’ve never seen him at second. (But) I’ve seen him screw around in the outfield, take balls off the bat there.
“There’s probably not a position – other than the mound, and who knows if he couldn’t have done that? – (where) he couldn’t stand up and be very effective and a good defensive player. Maybe catching’s out now. But especially with his offense, there’s a chance to be a very productive player (almost anywhere).”
This process is why – no matter what happens to Baez, whether or not he lives up to the hype – Wilken will live with the decision and say: “It wasn’t a hard pick for me.”