MESA, Ariz. – This is not the image the Cubs would want to project to a national television audience on the MLB Network: Javier Baez flat on his back, twisting in the grass.
But one big takeaway from this camp has been the drive and determination shown by Baez, knowing he’s thisclose to The Show. One staffer described Baez as someone who’s guarded and introverted at first, willing to open up over time, cocky but well-received by teammates because he plays his (expletive) off.
“He’s a heck of a player,” Jeff Samardzija said Thursday. “That’s what you need. We don’t just need one Baez. We need six, seven more of them. That’s what it’s all about. But one’s a start. And as long as he keeps doing his thing, we expect big things out of him.”
The plan still hasn’t changed. Baez won’t be playing behind Samardzija on Opening Day, so expect Twitter to catch fire every time he hits another bomb at Triple-A Iowa.
“He’s doing extremely well,” manager Rick Renteria said. “But I think that as we’ve mentioned before, we’re looking to make sure that the person that we take – whomever it is – is not coming back (to the minors).”
Whether or not the Cubs had worst-case scenarios flashing through their minds late Wednesday night, Baez got up from his collision with Anthony Giansanti in left field and walked back toward shortstop, keeping his distance from Renteria. The body language screamed: Stay away.
“No interest in coming out,” Renteria said. “None whatsoever.”
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In front of a sellout crowd, Baez had already blasted his fifth Cactus League home run off Colorado Rockies reliever Rob Scahill, a Chicago guy who played at Willowbrook High School and Bradley University. It landed in the batter’s eye beyond the center-field wall at Salt River Fields at Talking Stick. An ESPN estimate had it traveling 452 feet.
“Yeah, a lot of people texted me,” Baez said, “and they sent me messages on Facebook and Twitter, but that’s how it is with everything.”
That was the top of the eighth, and in the bottom of the inning Baez ran down a ball in left field. Baez and Giansanti got their right legs tangled up and banged knees. Baez jammed his left wrist into the ground and momentarily couldn’t get his hand out of his glove. The Cubs would lose a meaningless game 9-6, but it matters to Baez.
“No matter what happens on the field,” he said, “I don’t like coming out of the game.”
That’s what the Cubs want to hear when they talk about building from within, creating a new identity and showing some swagger again.
“We are like brothers,” said Christian Villanueva, the Southern League All-Star third baseman who played next to Baez last season at Double-A Tennessee. “He’s an unbelievable player. He’s one of those guys that likes to push teammates.”
Coming off a 37-homer, 111-RBI season in the minors, Baseball America’s No. 5 overall prospect has been hearing it from friends and family. When are you getting to the big leagues?
“Yeah, they ask me pretty much every day,” Baez said. “I don’t know how I should answer or what I can answer. But I know I will figure it out and let them know as soon as I know.”
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Cubs fans want to watch The Baez Show right now. Eventually, maybe some point in June, Theo Epstein’s front office will have seen enough from Baez and decide it’s OK to start his arbitration/free-agency meter.
“You just keep perspective and understand where he’s at in his development,” Renteria said. “You still see and understand that there are things he’s still going to work on. You keep that in mind and kind of let things take care of themselves.”
Once that happens, Baez is never going to want to come out of the game.