Skip to content Skip to sidebar Skip to footer

Javier Baez is on the verge of free agency — and a big payday. The route to this point for the Chicago Cubs shortstop hasn’t been without challenges.

As the ground ball rocketed off the bat at 104.7 mph toward the hole, Chicago Cubs shortstop Javier Baez took three quick steps to his right.

In nearly one motion, Baez backhanded the baseball as it skipped off the left field grass, turned and fired a bullet to first baseman Anthony Rizzo, beating the runner by three steps. Baez looked smooth on the run-saving play that stranded a runner on third to end the fifth inning in Saturday’s win against the Pittsburgh Pirates at Wrigley Field.

Baez, 28, can make extraordinary plays appear routine. His prodigious power, quick hands, Gold Glove defense and instinctive style of play have transformed him into one of the best shortstops in baseball.

“When you make a play and the fans go crazy, that’s a feeling that you can’t describe,” Baez told the Tribune during a conversation last month. “Obviously you play to win and to hit the ball well, but for me, everybody recognizes me for my defense. I need the sound of the fans and emotion to play out there.”

A two-time All-Star with an MVP runner-up season to his name and coming off his first Gold Glove award, Baez has positioned himself for a big payday. The impending free agent will be part of a stacked group of shortstops that includes Trevor Story, Corey Seager and Carlos Correa. New York Mets shortstop Francisco Lindor was going to be part of that group before agreeing to a 10-year, $341 million contract on Wednesday to stay with the organization.

“I love Chicago, I love the fans, I don’t like the cold weather,” Baez said with a laugh. “But obviously, I would love to stay here for my whole career, if it’s possible. … Every player that comes through here, they see it’s different here and they love it.”

Talent alone hasn’t gotten Baez to this point in his career. His maturation over parts of eight big-league seasons with the Cubs has been part of Baez’s journey. In the process, he’s experienced individual and team success, a World Series title sparking his rise to stardom. Baez’s No. 9 Cubs jersey was the 11th most popular among all players in the past year, according to MLB. No other Cub was in the top 20.

On the verge of free agency where a big payday awaits, Baez is one of the most dynamic players in the game. But his path to this point, beginning with the Cubs’ belief that he could be something special when they drafted him, hasn’t been without challenges.

Baez wasn’t a can’t-miss prospect when the Cubs selected him out of Arlington Country Day School in Jacksonville, Fla., with the ninth-overall pick in the 2011 MLB draft. His electric power and bat speed translated to first-round talent, but his plate discipline raised concerns about how he would develop as a hitter when facing tougher minor-league pitchers. Defensively, there were questions whether he would have the range to stick at shortstop.

Tim Wilken, then the Cubs director of amateur scouting, saw Baez for his upside rather than the risks that came with his potential flaws.

“(Baez) had this real wild but huge swing and monster power, great arm and there were a lot of things he did very well,” Wilken told the Tribune last week. “But I don’t think the scouting community really knew how good of a baseball player Javy was and I don’t think he ever got the credit for it because he had some tools that were eye opening.”

About 10 days before the 2011 MLB draft, Wilken knew he wanted to pick Baez. A mammoth home run in the Athletic Coaches Association All-Star Game in Sebring, Fla., and a brief conversation he had with Baez after sealed the decision.

“I’m in, we’re going to take this guy,” Wilken recalled telling Tom Clark, the Cubs’ northeast area scout, afterward.

Wilken knew there might be some doubters outside the organization. However, he felt any perceptions that Baez had a gunslinger style of play were unfair. Clark’s understanding of Baez and his Puerto Rican background made Wilken feel it wasn’t a risky pick. Clark was previously the head coach at Lake City Community College in Florida where he worked with numerous Puerto Rican players. His experience coaching them, including Cleveland Indians catcher Roberto Perez, helped Clark — and by extension the Cubs — understand Baez’s shy and quiet off-the-field personality.

“Under that fire and everything there’s a calmness to his game and I would say that helps him realize how to slow things down mentally and maybe somewhat physically,” Wilken said. “He had a penchant to play really well when it counted and that’s not an easy read as an amateur.”

Clark first looked at Baez the summer heading into senior year. But it was a sequence at the Double-A ballpark in Jacksonville during Baez’s senior season that convinced Clark he was a first-round talent. During one at-bat, Baez pulled a ball so far foul that Clark estimated it might have cleared the roof down the third-base line. When it progressed to a two-strike count, Baez drove the ball to left-center field. In that moment, Clark saw Baez possess an important ability to make adjustments.

“He fielded a ball up the middle and then he spun to make the throw to first — when most guys do that you go, ‘There was no reason to do that,’” Clark said. “But when you watched him do it, it made perfect sense for where he fielded that ball. So he’s always had great instincts. He’s always had supreme confidence, off-the-charts confidence in his abilities, but he can back it up.”

As the Cubs honed in on Baez, Wilken didn’t want to tip other teams off. So, halfway through Baez’s senior season, Wilken told Clark to not attend anymore of his games. Clark didn’t see Baez play again until the infamous high school All-Star Game in Florida.

The 2011 MLB draft was loaded with talent. Of the 60 players chosen in the first round, including the supplement round, 42 have played in the majors with 15 amassing at least 8.0 career Wins Above Replacement (WAR). Notably, right-handers Gerrit Cole, Trevor Bauer and Jose Fernandez, third baseman Anthony Rendon, outfielder George Springer, and shortstops Lindor and Baez were taken within the top 15 picks. Baez went to the Cubs one pick after Lindor went to the Cleveland Indians.

Wilken planned to take Baez even if Lindor was still available. The Cubs heard a couple teams in front of them were interested in Baez, so they devised a backup plan. If Baez was off the board by the time they picked, they were going to draft Fernandez, who starred for the Miami Marlins for four seasons before his tragic death, or first baseman C.J. Cron, now in his eighth big-league season with a 7.5 career WAR.

As Wilken, now a special assignment scout with the Arizona Diamondbacks, and Clark have watched Baez’s career, not much has surprised them with his development. Baez has hit for a higher average than Clark envisioned, initially projecting his power would overshadow that area. After a dismal 2020 season, Baez has a career .264 batting average, but he had a .280 average during his best years (2016-19). Baez’s nifty tags and slides have caught Wilken’s attention of the years.

“I didn’t know he had all those tricks in his bag,” Wilken said. “I’ve been around a fair amount of players and he’s definitely the most fun in my 42 years of watching because of how he plays the game.”

Part of Baez’s development in becoming a star has meant learning how to handle not being in the Cubs lineup everyday. In 2016, he only started 97 of the 142 regular-season games he played in. Baez was used to being a leader and one of the best players on his teams growing up and as he came up through the Cubs minor-league system. Now he had to find a way to make an impact even if he wasn’t in the lineup.

“For me, it was hard because I couldn’t be out there with the other guys,” Baez said. “But I never got comfortable not starting the game. I was ready from the first inning on and I was inside doing cage work or moving my legs so I’d be ready to come in the game anytime.”

Cubs outfielder Jason Heyward and former catcher/now manager David Ross became mentors to Baez that year as he endured the new challenge. Heyward would point out to Baez all the ways he was helping the Cubs win games. Even if he was coming off the bench, Heyward told Baez: ”You aren’t a backup.”

“He’s like a freakin’ kid out there playing a grown man’s game,” Heyward said last month. “Playing for a living, yes. But he reminds us all why we started playing. He’s so special.”

The beginning of Baez’s career could have derailed some players. He struggled offensively after getting called up in 2014 and for stretches of the 2016 season. He wasn’t a finished product, but Baez’s glove got him in the lineup. Those reps ultimately helped him turn his all-around game into an All-Star player and one of the most entertaining players in the game.

“It’s just another story about perseverance, which is staying true to yourself,” Heyward said. “Javy’s done a great job, even in the struggles of the game he has fun, he has fun competing. If you’re going to target someone as far as what the game should head towards from now and the near future, it’s his mindset and the way he goes about it.”