Improved approach gives Baez better outlook
Cubs top prospect making adjustments, now teamed with Bryant in Triple-A
DES MOINES, Iowa -- About a month ago, Javier Baez and infield coordinator Jose Flores had dinner, and the conversation turned to the Cubs top prospect's mental approach to the game more than his swing.
Baez had a stellar season at Class A Advanced Daytona and Double-A Tennessee last year, batting .282 with 37 home runs, 34 doubles and 111 RBIs combined. This year, Baez is Triple-A Iowa's starting shortstop, and it's not gone as well. He was batting roughly .130 at the time they talked.
Flores asked Baez what he did last year that made him so effective, and the shortstop apparently figured some things out.
"This is the first time in Javy's career that he's struggled the way he did early in the season, and it'll be good for him," Flores said Friday at Iowa's home Principal Park. "Every ballplayer goes through struggles. What makes a difference is how you come out of it."
Baez, 21, who was the Cubs' Minor League Player of the Year last season, feels much better about how things are going, even before player/coach Manny Ramirez arrives in Des Moines.
"It's getting better, and I'm swinging at more strikes and being patient at the plate and just keeping the same approach I had to right-center and getting better every day," Baez said Friday.
He hasn't changed the mechanics of his swing, which draws oohs and ahhs during batting practice, but he has a better mental approach at the plate, and it shows.
"Javy has such tremendous tools," Iowa manager Marty Pevey said. "Other teams come out to watch his [batting practice] -- it's a professional batting practice. I don't mean Mark McGwire-type BP, and dead pull type BP, but he stays on the ball and drives it to the opposite field so well that once it starts to translate into his game on a consistent basis, staying up the middle and to right-center, he's going to be a force to be dealt with."
That's what the Cubs were counting on when they made the teenager their first pick in the 2011 First-Year Player Draft.
Now, Baez is matched in the Iowa lineup with Kris Bryant -- the 2013 No. 1 pick and the Cubs' No. 2 prospect -- who was promoted on Thursday.
"I think having Kris here will really help Javy," Pevey said. "It's going to ease a little bit of the pressure that's unfortunately been placed on [Baez's] shoulders. It'll just put him in a better place."
When Baez and Bryant were in the Cubs' camp in Spring Training, they got far more interview requests than several of the big league players. Baez says he wasn't bothered by all the hoopla.
"I don't pay attention to my stats or whatever I do," Baez said. "For me, that's stuff that if it would get in my head and I was worried about it, I wouldn't be thinking about my at-bats."
In spring, he batted .264, and was second on the Cubs with five home runs. He knew he was headed to Triple-A, but the questions persisted -- when will he get to the big leagues? Baez batted .172 in April, and there was speculation he was not happy about not making the Cubs' big league roster.
"I wasn't doing bad because of that decision," Baez said. "It was something with my swing, and my approach."
And that seems to be corrected now.
"At his age, he's just now starting to get used to the attention from the media," Flores said. "Part of his job as a ballplayer is to mature off the field in those areas, too. I think he'll be able to do it. He's very strong, he's got his goals pretty well set, he knows exactly what he wants. He knows the organization trusts him to become the player that we know he can be. It's just up to him to show everybody. At this level, he's going to go through struggles he's never faced."
The rest of this homestand should be good for Baez, whose family made the 18-hour drive from Jacksonville, Fla., to watch the Iowa team. He was looking forward to some home cooking from his mother.
When Ramirez, 41, arrives, the attention will shift to the 19-year veteran who belted 555 home runs and batted .312 for the Indians, Red Sox, Dodgers, White Sox and Rays.
"From talking to all the players I've talked to, Manny has the best work ethic an offensive player could possibly have," Flores said. "If Manny can transmit that same message on what it takes to be successful at the big league level, we've got nothing to lose. Yes, Manny did some things, Manny was being Manny on the defensive end. We worry about the things he can help with -- and not only Javy."
Ramirez was in Mesa, Ariz., at the Cubs' complex to get in shape, although he is expected to be more of a coach than a player when he arrives in Iowa.
"He's going to talk to me and a lot of guys," Baez said. "I'm sure he'll help a lot."
Just as Flores did a month ago.
"Javy's really elevated his game," Pevey said. "Javy wants to win. He's a competitor and really a bright spot as far as from a team standpoint and being a good teammate."
Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. She writes a blog, Muskat Ramblings, and you can follow her on Twitter @CarrieMuskat. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.