Give Epstein credit for seamlessly integrating Baez, Contreras

CLEVELAND — If there's one thing Chicago Cubs president Theo Epstein has been generous about, it's giving credit to the previous baseball regime led by former general manager Jim Hendry.

Epstein continues to send thank-yous to Hendry and his staff for drafting infielder Javier Baez and signing Willson Contreras as an undrafted free agent.

And why not? Baez was the co-MVP of the National League championship series, and rookie Contreras has emerged as the Cubs' No. 1 catcher.

Epstein and his crew no doubt deserve some credit, too. In baseball and other businesses, new management teams too often dismiss inherited talent as not being “our people.”

But instead of looking at the raw talent of Baez and Contreras and trading it away, the new Cubs baseball-operations team stuck with the players and nurtured them through the system.

“Jim Hendry and his lieutenants did a great job finding those guys,” said Epstein, who took over in the fall of 2011. “They were both in Boise when I got here. The talent was obvious. Like any other player in the low minors, some of the tools stand out and some of the challenges are there in the development path. It was obvious a lot of people would have to touch them along the way and help bring them along.

“Both guys have made incredible strides and are really talented and are passionate about winning. That's the thing I like, not to generalize or lump two guys together, but they're both really emotional players because they're passionate about winning. There is so much to work with between their physical tools and their drive and for their passion for the Cubs and winning.”

Of course, with the skill sets Baez and Contreras possessed, there was no way the new Cubs baseball guys were going to discard them because somebody else acquired them. The Hendry team took Baez in first round of the 2011 draft and signed Contreras as an infielder out of Venezuela in 2009.

“It always starts with ability first,” said Jason McLeod, the Cubs' scouting and player-development chief. “Javy was drafted in 2011, and we showed up four months later, so we've been with him pretty much from the beginning.

“Willson at that time was in rookie ball. For us, it's just like any other player you bring into the organization. Maybe your weren't here when they were originally signed or drafted. To get them when they're in rookie ball or short-season ball they way we did, we've been with them pretty much since they were in pro baseball.”

This year, both players have made dazzling plays, and both have made mistakes common to young players.

“Javy is so ridiculously talented — bat speed, power, defense,” McLeod said. “He always showed the great hands. There was some swinging-and-missing, of course early on and even when he was putting up big numbers. We saw it in the major leagues, as well. But he was a guy who had this user talent.

“With Willson, it was more unrefined. There were the raw tools there, but it really took him step by step by step and struggling. This was a kid, who two years ago was struggling to hit for a high average in Daytona. Then he goes into the 2015 season and wins the Southern League batting title, carried it right into this year in Triple-A, and here he is.

“I don't think any of us could have said he'd be starting behind the plate in the World Series. But that's his ability, his talent and the skill finally got to catch up.”

As the head of the operation, Epstein looks on with pride at the Cubs' two prodigies.

“It's cool to think back about first impressions of what they first looked like from when we saw them in the low minors to where they are now,” he said. “But just a great job by Jim and his guys in identifying them and then the development folks who are here helping them along the way. We're just looking for players who can help the Cubs win and who want to be here. It doesn't matter who brought them in or whether they're drafted guys or traded guys or who have been her awhile or they just got here.

“Winning is so hard you can't try to do it a certain way. You just look for players who can help you win.”

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