Baez Backs Flash With Substance
PHOENIX—Millie's Café is a tiny restaurant in a nondescript strip mall in Mesa, Arizona, serving Puerto Rican specialties and homemade baked goods to homesick natives and adventurous foodies. Located just three miles from the Cubs' training complex, Millie's Café also attracts its fair share of ballplayers and coaches looking for a taste of home.
Amidst the glass display case filled with Millie's popular Puerto Rican pastries is a lone baseball card—that of Cubs prospect Javier Baez, who grew up on the island before moving with his family to Florida at the age of 12.
Millie beams when asked about the baseball card, showing her pride for the young man who frequents her restaurant for his regular order of mofongo, a popular Puerto Rican dish made from fried green plantains mashed together with broth, garlic, olive oil and bacon.
"I just go there every day," Baez said. "She's like a mom for me."
The image of a teenager far from home, looking for familiar comfort food and the support of a motherly figure, contrasts with that of a baseball player capable of incredible feats of strength in the batter's box but who also sometimes infuriates opponents with his flamboyant mannerisms on the field.
Baez, the Cubs' 2011 first-round pick (No. 9 overall), is getting an extra six weeks of Millie's mofongo this fall as a member of the Arizona Fall League's Mesa Solar Sox. However, Baez tweeted Monday night that he broke his right thumb, which would end his season.
At 19, he's one of the youngest players in the league. Midway through the season, Baez is tied with Phoenix's 26-year-old Brock Kjeldgaard (Brewers) for the league lead in home runs with four and is the sole leader in RBIs with 16. The rest of his batting line (.211/.250/.456) isn't as impressive until one considers he's three to four years younger than most of the pitchers he's facing.
His fall performance comes after an impressive first full season in which he ranked as the No. 1 prospect in the low Class A Midwest League, with a batting line of .333/.383/.596 and 12 home runs in 213 at-bats. He finished the season at high Class A Daytona with four more homers in 80 at-bats, although his overall numbers (.188/.244/.400) weren't as good. Even more important, his defense at shortstop drew rave reviews, dispelling ideas that he'd need to move off the position sooner rather than later.
Baez draws his power from off-the-charts bat speed and strong wrists. One of the bigger discussion points among AFL observers is Baez's aggressive nature at the plate. Baez acknowledged that his tendency to overswing is something that he's working on this fall with the help of Cubs coaches.
"That's been my swing since I've been playing in high school," Baez said. "They're trying to control my swing and (get me to) hit the ball to the right side."
"For Javy to be a year out of high school and facing this competition is a good challenge for him," said Mesa hitting coach Brian Harper, who managed Daytona during the regular season. "There are times when he overswings and gets a little rough at the plate . . . The main goal is to smooth his lower half up a bit and then get him to smooth out his swing.
Another goal for Baez is to improve his pitch recognition to better handle breaking balls. But the Cubs don't plan to mess with too much of a good thing.
"You don't want to change a whole lot with a kid like that," Harper said. "It's very small things that we try to do with him. There's not a whole lot of change that you want to do with a kid that's had some success. If he starts struggling a little bit, then you tweak it and go from there. I always want to let a kid keep his style of hitting, and then you just tweak it a little bit. I'm definitely not a guy that's going to clone hitters. Everybody's got their style. Javier's got his style, so you work with that."
A National League scout covering the AFL has been impressed with what he's seen from Baez so far.
"He's got a nice swing but he's still a free swinger," the scout said. "It's a nice loose swing. He's got to continue to work on his approach and work on his pitch recognition. He's still a work in progress but there's a lot of potential in that bat."
Baez is working on more than just his approach at the plate this fall. After playing exclusively at shortstop in the regular season, he's getting time at third base for the Solar Sox. It's not an unfamiliar position to Baez, as he played the hot corner during his junior year of high school. With Starlin Castro likely to occupy shortstop in Chicago for the foreseeable future, a move to third base for Baez may be unavoidable. But it's not because he can't do the job at shortstop.
"First of all, Javy's a plus shortstop," Harper said. "The thing that's almost as impressive as his power is his game awareness in the middle of the diamond . . . (At) third base, he's just a little uncomfortable since he hasn't played there. The angles and throws have kind of gotten him off. But there's no question in my mind, with games at third base, that he can be a good third baseman. He's got quick hands, quick feet, a good arm . . . But to me, he's a legit shortstop."
Baez plays the game with flair and enthusiasm, which sometimes rubs opponents the wrong way. He's working on toning down his flamboyance, especially after hitting one of his trademark tape measure home runs.
"When I hit it hard, sometimes I start watching it," Baez said, "but I realize I can't do that in the big leagues . . . You've got to respect the game, and respect your teammates and the other team."
As part of the next wave of prospects coming through the rebuilding Cubs system, Baez is drawing lots of attention, so much so that his baseball card was recently stolen from the display case at Millie's Café. Baez quickly took care of his Arizona mom.
"I gave her a big poster of me," Baez said, "so she got more excited."
Giants' Dunnington Gaining Attention
The Arizona Fall League annually boasts an impressive array of high-profile talent, with plenty of high draft picks dotting the rosters of its six teams. Thirty-four players playing in the league right now were taken in the first or the sandwich round of the last few drafts.
Then there's Jacob Dunnington. The 21-year-old Scottsdale Scorpion righthander waited for his name to be called during the 2009 draft just after he finished high school in Redmond, Wash. But 1,521 players later, Dunnington wasn't selected. Perhaps the fact that he was 6-foot-1 but weighed less than 150 pounds had something to do with all 30 teams passing on him.
Dunnington instead joined a local summer league and began preparations for attending nearby Skagit Valley (Wash.) JC that fall. During the summer he gained weight and his fastball climbed about five miles per hour to around 90, catching the eye of an area scout with the Giants who signed the lanky righthander for a mere $2,500 bonus. Dunnington jumped at the chance to play professional baseball, never giving college a second thought.
He made his pro debut in 2010 in the Rookie-level Arizona League with eye popping numbers of a 0.63 ERA and 45 strikeouts in 28 2/3 innings. Dunnington has made steady progress through the Giants farm system since then, reaching Double-A Richmond midway through the 2012 season. He was especially effective at Double-A, finishing with a 1.76 ERA in 13 relief appearances. His success in Richmond helped earn him a spot in the AFL.
Dunnington isn't at all intimidated by being around so many high draft picks despite his more humble background.
"It feels good," he said. "I came from a small town and was a late bloomer, but it's baseball no matter where you go. It's the same game."
Dunnington is working on all four of his pitches in the AFL, with the jewel of his repertoire being his plus fastball in the 91-94 mph range. He's working on being more consistent with his delivery and keeping the ball down. He's also trying to improve the curveball, slider and changeup, all of which show promise but need more work.
Dave Machemer, who managed Dunnington at Double-A Richmond this year, believes Dunnington has a good future ahead of him.
"He's got a lot of natural ability with a plus fastball," Machemer said. "He's got a young, live arm . . . a whip in his arm."
Improving his command is key to Dunnington's development since his delivery creates a lot of movement.
"When he gets ahead of the count," Machemer said, "he can use all of his pitches."
As he gets higher in the minor league system, Dunnington knows that consistently throwing strikes becomes even more important.
"Hitters take more pitches," he said, "they hit mistakes. You don't get away with very many mistakes the higher you go up."
• AFL statistics can be deceiving. With the season lasting six weeks and the league primarily being more about development, one typically cannot fairly evaluate a player's performance because of small statistical samples. But it was difficult to ignore Mesa Solar Sox first baseman Aaron Westlake's
numbers coming into the season's third week. The lefthanded hitting Tigers prospect was batting an unsightly .040, with only one hit in 25 at-bats.
"I was working on some things and trying something new," Westlake said, "and obviously when you are trying something new it takes a little time. You've just got to be patient with it. I hit a couple of balls hard but just right at guys. I didn't let myself get down, and finally it clicked one time in BP, and from then on I've been seeing the ball well and the swing's been feeling good."
The Vanderbilt product hit 8-for-18 last week with a pair of long home runs. Scouts report Westlake makes good, hard contact and has the ability to hit with power to all fields. But the clock is ticking on the 23-year-old, who will need to move quickly after spending the entire 2012 season in the Midwest League.
• The annual Rising Stars Game is scheduled for Saturday, Nov. 3, beginning at 5:10 pm Mountain time. The game, to be broadcast live on MLB Network, will be played at Salt River Fields at Talking Stick, in Scottsdale, moving across town from its previous home at Surprise Stadium. Rosters will be announced this week.