Javy Baez hype comes with a history lesson
BY DAN McGRATH For Sun-Times Media August 5, 2014 10:45PM
Updated: September 7, 2014 6:40AM
If you’re old enough to remember Dick Drott, Nelson Mathews and Byron Browne, you’re probably holding back and waiting to be convinced on Javy Baez.
Understandable. Cubs fans of more recent vintage have been through Gary Scott, Corey Patterson and Felix Pie.
Unlike, say, the White Sox, who delivered Jack McDowell, Robin Ventura, Frank Thomas and Alex Fernandez within one four-year period, the Cubs don’t really get player development. Thus the fuss over each phenom.
Baez’s debut takes us back to May 22, 2002, when Mark Prior joined the Cubs nine months and nine minor-league games after signing as the most ballyhooed prospect of his generation. Citing his size, his stuff, his control and his ‘‘perfect’’ mechanics., Sports Illustrated wondered if he was the greatest college pitcher ever during two lights-out seasons at USC.
Prior ‘‘fell’’ to No. 2 in the 2001 draft because his contract demands were beyond the Minnesota Twins’ means. The Twins ‘‘settled’’ for hometown hero Joe Mauer at No. 1, which worked out pretty well.
The Cubs were six weeks into a 95-loss season that would cost manager Don Baylor his job. With the nondescript Pittsburgh Pirates in town, Prior was clearly the attraction for the sellout crowd of 40,138, who watched him throw six innings of four-hit, two-run ball in a 7-4 victory at Wrigley Field. Aside from his 10 strikeouts, what stood out most was the remarkable size of Prior’s calves.
All part of those ‘‘perfect’’ mechanics that turned out to be something less than that. Within a year, Prior was one of the best pitchers in baseball, going 18-6 with a 2.43 ERA and 245 strikeouts in 211 innings for the Cubs’ 2003 division winners. Three years and 57 games after that, he was gone from the major leagues, victimized by a series of injuries as frustrating and unrelenting as they were debilitating.
Those who believe in curses would cite the Florida Marlins’ eight-run eighth inning in Game 6 of the 2003 National League Championship Series — the Bartman Game — as the very definition of the Cubs’ star-crossed history. Prior was on the mound when the unraveling started. He couldn’t stop it.
And as impressive as his debut game was, it was not a good night for phenoms. Center fielder Patterson and second baseman Bobby Hill were a combined 0-for-8
with two strikeouts.
Baez, a 21-year-old infielder, is here because he has worn out minor-league pitching, hitting .278 with 76 homers, 238 RBI and a .336/.545/.881 slash line in 319 games. Those numbers, along with a steadfast self-assurance that views any setback as temporary, accelerated his development timetable. He is the first of the ‘‘core four’’ to be summoned, but the Theo Epstein regime has cover if he doesn’t make it; Baez was the Cubs’ No. 1 pick in 2011, the final draft of the Jim Hendry era.
Epstein says the Cubs aren’t expecting instant success.
‘‘The timing allows Javy to go play for eight weeks, then take a deep breath this winter,’’ he said. ‘‘He can take a fresh look at his performance in the big leagues, take it all in and start to make any adjustments necessary.’’
Nonetheless, the future is here. Welcome to the Cubs, Mr. Baez. Let history be your guide at your peril.
Gary Scott, the Cubs’ second-round draft choice in 1989, was going to fill a black hole at third base said to have existed since Ron Santo’s days, as if Bill Madlock’s two batting titles never happened. Scott batted .160 in 67 games over two seasons and never returned to the big leagues after being sent down in 1992.
Dick Drott went 15-11 as a 21-year-old in 1957, then fell victim to a dreaded ‘‘sore arm’’ that might have been fixable today with proper diagnosis and treatment. Drott won only nine more games in a Cubs uniform and was gone from baseball by 1963.
Nelson Mathews was supposed to follow the Santo-Billy Williams-Ken Hubbs pipeline to Chicago but hit just .190 with six home runs over parts of four seasons and washed out after two years in Kansas City.
Browne, a specimen at 6-2 and 190 pounds, hit them a long way when he hit them, but not too often. He offset 16 homers with 150 strikeouts in 134 games as a Cub and didn’t put it together in Houston, St. Louis or Philadelphia, either.
The Cubs had another young outfield prospect from that era who didn’t receive as much fanfare. Kid named Lou Brock. Wonder whatever became of him.