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In appreciation of Javier Báez

One thing’s for sure: He was always exciting.

Photo by David Banks/Getty Images

The first thing to remember about Javier Báez’ tenure with the Chicago Cubs is how it began.

It was revealed after the fact that Tom Ricketts had fired Jim Hendry as general manager before the 2011 draft. Hendry, though, was left in place to conduct that draft and the trade deadline before finally being let go in August and being replaced on an interim basis by Randy Bush (who, incidentally, is still with the Cubs as an assistant GM).

Ricketts did one other thing for Hendry before his departure. He gave him an unlimited budget for the 2011 draft, back in the day before draft slotting and caps on draft budgets, and told him to go get the best player he could.

And so, with the No. 9 overall pick of the 2011 first round, Hendry selected Báez out of Arlington Country Day School in Jacksonville, Florida — one pick after Cleveland selected one of Javy’s closest friends, Francisco Lindor, who is now his Mets teammate.

That first round (including its compensation picks) was one of the best ever. In addition to Gerrit Cole and Anthony Rendon (chosen before Lindor), players selected after Báez included George Springer, the late José Fernández, Sonny Gray, Kolten Wong, Jackie Bradley Jr., Trevor Story — and another future Cub, Andrew Chafin.

Báez was so confident he’d be a star in the major leagues that he had the MLB logo tattooed on the back of his neck — before he even left high school:

Getty Images

Báez played only a handful of pro games in 2011, then was already listed as a Top-100 prospect heading into 2012. He hit .294/.346/.543 with 16 home runs in 80 games split between two A-ball levels that year, went to the Arizona Fall League and then got himself a non-roster invite to spring training in 2013.

That’s when I wrote this somewhat silly article headlined “Could Javier Baez Make It In The Majors... Right Now?” The answer — as I noted at the end of the article — was, of course, “No,” but Javy turned a lot of heads that spring, batting .298/.313/.596 with four home runs in just 47 at-bats.

One of those homers was the longest I ever saw at the Cubs’ former spring home, HoHoKam Park. It cleared the scoreboard, went over a grassy berm behind the board, across an access road into the parking lot and landed six cars deep in the lot. This doesn’t show you the whole scene, but ought to give you an idea of how tall that board was and how far that ball went, likely well over 500 feet:

Photo by Brian Bahr/Getty Images

Báez tore up High-A and Double-A in 2013, hitting .282/.341/.578 with 37 home runs and 20 stolen bases, and now was a Top-10 MLB prospect entering 2014 according to several different prospect rating services.

He was batting .260/.323/.510 at Triple-A Iowa with 23 home runs in 104 games when he got the call to join the Cubs on the road in Colorado. It was traditional for the Theo Epstein regime to break players in on the road, as they felt it might be too much pressure to start them at Wrigley. Only Kris Bryant, of all the top prospects of the time, debuted at home.

He started that first game August 5, 2014 and homered in the 12th inning [VIDEO].

That homer won the game for the Cubs. (Can’t get over how young he looks in that clip, he was a couple months short of turning 22 at the time.)

In his career, Báez has made a thing out of hitting extra-inning homers. Of his 140 career long balls, seven have been hit in extras, four in the 13th or later.

Javy homered a lot the rest of 2014 — nine total homers in 52 games. He also struck out a lot — 95 times in 229 PA. So he started 2015 at Iowa, and in fact played most of the year there, playing in only 28 MLB games. When he did return to the Cubs in September 2015, manager Joe Maddon greeted him with a phrase that became a T-shirt:

It was back in January [2016] when the slogan started to take shape as a fan asked Cubs infielder Javy Baez at Cubs Convention what advice Maddon gave when Baez made his season debut in September 2015:

“Try not to suck.”

Baez told that story Saturday to an uproar of laughter from the thousands of Cubs fans in attendance at the “Rock star rookie” panel during the 2016 Cubs Convention at the Sheraton Grand Chicago.

After being tried — unsuccessfully — in center field during 2016 spring training (here’s a game recap chronicling some of his misadventures out there), Javy didn’t make the Opening Day roster that year, either, but was up to stay 11 games into the season, playing all over the place that year, all four infield positions plus left field, but generally starting a fair amount at third base (36 starts) and second base (38 starts) — never playing a regular-season game in center field.

Báez seemed to have a knack for hitting extra-inning homers. Here’s a walkoff winner in the 13th inning on Mother’s Day, May 8, 2016 — a game he didn’t start!

But Javy saved some of his best for the 2016 postseason. His solo homer into the wind in Game 1 of the division series against the Giants was the only run in a 1-0 win.

Watching that ball from my bleacher seat in left field, it looked like it was going over my head to land on Waveland. The wind pushed it back, but it still had enough to land in the basket.

Then Javy stole home in the NLCS against the Dodgers:

It was right then that we could see Báez’ baseball instincts were off the charts. And in Game 7 of the World Series, after he made two errors, Javy made us all forget about them when he homered:

I’ve gotten nearly 1,000 words into this tribute without mentioning Javy’s great defense, particularly the no-look tag. Perhaps the most famous of those was when he was representing Puerto Rico in the World Baseball Classic. This video contains that one plus more than two minutes of other great Javy tags:

And then there’s his “swim move” and other tag-eluding slides — here are more than seven minutes of those:

Báez had his best year in 2018, hitting .290/.326/.554 with 34 home runs. He led the NL with 111 RBI and finished second to Christian Yelich in MVP voting.

His numbers declined a bit in 2019, though he did produce 6.7 bWAR, and he had a terrible pandemic season in 2020, though he won his first Gold Glove that year. This year, his numbers were better but still below his 2018 standard. He leaves the 2021 Cubs batting .248/.292/.484 with 22 home runs in 91 games and defense below his usual standard, possibly attributable to a couple of minor injuries, including a heel issue that kept him out of part of his final week with the team.

None of that stopped Javy from helping produce two runs on this crazy play in Pittsburgh this past May:

And just last week, Javy was sent up to pinch hit in the ninth inning after not starting due to the heel issue and he ended the game on just one pitch [VIDEO].

That play included a bit of extracurricular stuff with Reds lefthander Amir Garrett, for which Báez was fined (though not suspended). Right there is the summary of Javy’s career, talent and passion for the game. We will miss those, to be sure.

We won’t miss all the strikeouts, especially the ones on pitches way out of the strike zone, and there seemed to be more of those this year than usual. Like this one [VIDEO].

And it was sure odd to see him wearing No. 23 for the Mets and homering in his first game for them [VIDEO].

But the Cubs homers, the tags, the slides, the exuberance, the fun that Javy had on the field for every single game he played — all of that, we’ll remember forever, the El Mago who thrilled us over and over for more than six seasons.

All the best to Javier Báez as he begins the second phase of his career, side by side with that best friend, Francisco Lindor, as his double-play partner (when Lindor returns from the injured list).

An appreciation article for Kris Bryant is coming up at 11 a.m. CT.