Almost 350 miles west of Wrigley Field, Javier Baez is still the biggest headline for this team, the player Cubs fans want to talk about now.
There is another side to the hard edge Baez is supposed to bring into this clubhouse. The Triple-A Iowa shortstop got thrown out of Saturday’s game for arguing a check-swing call and then got into it with catcher Eli Whiteside in the dugout. Baseball America’s No. 5 overall prospect answered back by hitting a pinch-hit home run in Sunday’s 4-3 victory over Memphis.
President of baseball operations Theo Epstein downplayed any concerns about Baez, whose sense of swagger is symbolized by the Major League Baseball logo tattooed onto the back of his neck.
“It was a great development experience for him,” Epstein said Tuesday. “He started out not feeling really comfortable at the plate. He was in a slump and he let that get him frustrated and he showed it on the field. His teammates know how good he can be and how good a teammate he can be. They kind of called him out on it and he responded just the right way.
“He’s taken it to heart. Experiences like that will just help him get where he needs to be.”
After putting on another show in spring training – and impressing team officials with his businesslike approach – Baez has begun his Triple-A season by going 1-for-14 with six strikeouts. Whiteside is a respected veteran who earned two World Series rings with the San Francisco Giants.
“I was mad, he was mad, everybody was mad,” Baez told The Des Moines Register. “We argued a little. Nothing personal.”
Baez is coming off a spectacular season in which he generated 37 homers and 111 RBI in 130 games at advanced Class-A Daytona and Double-A Tennessee. He also committed 44 errors and turned 21 in December. He could debut at Clark and Addison sometime this summer.
“Physically, fundamentally, mentally, (he needs more time),” Epstein said. “You want that stuff to happen down there. It helps our players mature so when they get up here, they can handle a broader set of experiences that will be thrown on them.”
Manager Rick Renteria – who worked directly with the 2011 first-round pick and got so many Baez questions in spring training – wrote it off as “a tremendously great learning experience” but didn’t want to say much more than that.
“We’re all aware of everything that’s going on,” Renteria said. “He had a nice conversation with a teammate and that was a good thing.”
Jorge Soler, the $30 million Cuban outfielder, made headlines for the wrong reasons last April when he grabbed a bat and had to be restrained during a bench-clearing incident in Daytona. This is not trying to equate the two mistakes, but the intense media coverage does show the microscope the prospects will be under while the Cubs bet everything on the farm system.
“It’s more important how players respond to adversity,” Epstein said. “You want everyone to go through adversity in the minor leagues, because it’s important for them to learn how to deal with failure, make adjustments and come back even stronger. That’s exactly the type of thing you have to deal with when you’re breaking into the big leagues.”