Cubs: What a difference a year makes for Baez

Cubs: What a difference a year makes for Baez
March 23, 2013, 7:00 pm
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MESA, Ariz. – Javier Baez sledgehammered any concerns there might be a letdown after his audition for The Show.

In front of a sellout crowd at HoHoKam Stadium, the most interesting player in Cubs camp wasn’t there for the WGN cameras or the 13,012 fans during Saturday’s 7-6 win over the Los Angeles Angels.

This was one week after Baez put on a laser show, homering on three consecutive pitches, four times in five at-bats over a two-game stretch, including the walk-off shot he called against Team Japan. The Cubs don’t want to lose that hard edge.

Even Jason McLeod, the senior vice president of scouting and player development, acknowledged it would be natural to wonder how Baez would respond once he reported to minor-league camp. Then McLeod watched Baez in his first at-bat last Tuesday at Fitch Park.

“(Javy) hit what might be the longest home run I’ve ever seen on one of these fields down here,” McLeod said. “He hit it across the street. It was ridiculous. You’re like: Oh my God.”

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McLeod thought back to this time last year, when Baez was playing so out of control that the Cubs had to pull him out of lower-level minor-league scrimmages to work on the side with then-hitting coordinator James Rowson.

The fans and media may have accelerated the Baez hype, but team officials are also fascinated by the 20-year-old shortstop in their own way. McLeod told this story the other night at a staff barbeque, how he was looking out across Fitch Park with farm director Brandon Hyde.

“We’re talking about: Man, how far has Javy come?” McLeod recalled. “We had our Double-A-Triple-A game and Javy comes up, hits the monster home run (and later) hits a missile off the wall in right-center. This third field over here we had our young guys – like the Boise-Mesa team – playing a Canadian travel team, the Langley Blaze.

“So Brandon and I are up in the tower. Brandon says: Hey, how about a year ago? Javy’s playing on this field over here in this game and we’re just like praying that he can just calm down. Remember when J-Ro would take him out of the game and come work with him one-on-one on this field, just doing basic tee work?

“Here he is a year later. I’m like: They grow up quick, Brandon.”

Rowson – who took over as Cubs hitting coach when Rudy Jaramillo was fired last June – felt it was mostly just Baez getting used to the structure of pro ball and the speed of the game.

“Honestly, we just simplified a little bit,” Rowson said. “We didn’t change anything. We just simplified what he was doing, slowed him down a little bit and let his natural athleticism take over.

“His hands are so fast – there’s nobody that can blow the ball by him. It’s just a matter of him making sure that he’s ready on time with his hands to put a good swing on the ball.”

It almost seems like any time a player has great bat speed, the comparison is made to Gary Sheffield. But this one might be legit. Manager Dale Sveum saw Sheffield at the same age with the Milwaukee Brewers, and it’s said that you can hear Baez swing and miss on a violent cut. The Cubs were just trying to harness that last spring.

“There’s a lot of hand movement (and) things he does with his bat, which allows him to drive the ball,” Rowson said. “But at the same time, he had to learn how to control it a little bit better to be more accurate, (so) that (he) was more accurate with the barrel. That way he had more consistent contact.”

The counter-narrative is how much more room Baez has to grow, considering he still hasn’t played a full season yet. Sveum looked past the six homers this spring and pointed out that Baez feasted on left-handed pitching and struggled against right-handers (7-for-29, .241) in the Cactus League.

“You see that he’s so far away from the big leagues,” Sveum said. “The defense and everything – the guy’s got to develop. I know he hit all the home runs and everything. But he’s still premeditated swinging. He’s got a lot to learn yet. There was never a thought that he was ever going to be on this team.”

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Baez has been working in higher groups at Fitch Park, as prospects typically filter back as the major-league roster starts to form. McLeod said “it’s pretty much set in stone. He’ll probably start in (advanced Class-A) Daytona.”

McLeod laughed when he was reminded of the line he told future Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer, back when they were both working for the San Diego Padres, leading up to the 2011 draft.

McLeod had just scouted Baez, who played for Arlington Country Day, a Jacksonville private school that became a kind of barnstorming team after withdrawing from the Florida High School Athletic Association.

The competition was suspect and McLeod had no idea what he’d just seen, telling Hoyer: “I don’t know if this kid is going to be Manny Ramirez or not get to Double-A.”

The Cubs took Baez at No. 9 overall, one spot ahead of the Padres, and they still don’t know where the ceiling will be (except higher than Double-A). Right now, fans are obsessed with Baez and $30 million Cuban outfielder Jorge Soler, but they’ve also been burned before. Stay tuned.

“You always worry about some of the younger guys coming down like: ‘Oh man, I’m a big-leaguer. I shouldn’t be down here,’” McLeod said. “But they work their (butts) off. … Hopefully, they left hungry for it, understanding they’re not going to run back to the major leagues.”