Baez, Lindor have special baseball connection

Puerto Rico natives were back-to-back picks in 2011 Draft

October 24th, 2016

CLEVELAND -- on one side. on the other. The energy, atmosphere and anticipation all electric.

What? You think we're talking about Game 1 of the World Series tonight at Progressive Field? No, no, although that'll be cool, too.

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No, we're talking about a high school game west of Orlando in 2011.

"Feb. 17, 2011," Indians scouting director Brad Grant says, reciting the date from memory. "Montverde [Academy] and Arlington [Country Day School]. There were probably 150 scouts there, and Montverde is a boarding school, so you had about 150-200 students there, too. So the environment was really cool."

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Scouts spend their nights eating bad food in bad hotels in search of the next great thing. So they don't forget a night like this, when two legit first-round-type talents -- either capable of being the first shortstop selected -- elevate their game in a heated competition mere months before the Draft. Lindor went 3-for-3 with a walk, while Baez went 1-for-4 with a triple and, perhaps as memorably, sprayed homers to all fields in batting practice.

Lindor and Baez had been on the same field several times before. In the 2010 Aflac All-American Game, for instance, they hit back-to-back triples. But that game on Feb. 17, 2011, stands out because of its Draft implications.

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Four months later, Lindor went at No. 8 overall to the Indians, and Baez went at No. 9 to the Cubs.

Five years after that, the 22-year-old Lindor and the 23-year-old Baez are arguably the two most captivating everyday players on this World Series stage. And their remarkably similar paths -- both were born in Puerto Rico, moved to Florida at a young age and wound up being taken back to back in the Draft -- has secured a friendship and a shared respect. The two even had a Thanksgiving dinner together at Baez's house a few years back.

"His family made food, and my mom brought something," Lindor recalled. "We just chilled, we ate, we hung out with our families, then we played paint ball with his brothers and his cousins, just like kids do."

Added Baez: "He's like my brother. We've kind of had the same life."

And the same impact in October.

Lindor, the Tribe's starting shortstop and wearer of "BelieveLand" cleats, has gone 10-for-31 with two homers, two doubles and four RBIs this postseason, building on what has been a remarkably smooth transition to the Majors that earned him runner-up status in last year's AL Rookie of the Year Award voting.

Baez -- perhaps not unexpectedly, given his big-swinging ways -- had a little more turbulence in his transition, but this season he has been a play-everywhere, hit-anywhere weapon for manager Joe Maddon's club. And this October has been Baez's coming-out party -- 13-for-38 with one homer, two stolen bases and seven RBIs while essentially owning the starting second-base spot.

For those who were at Montverde -- at the field that now bears Lindor's name -- that memorable night in 2011 and spent an inordinate amount of time breaking down their respective games and making projections for their futures, seeing them both succeed on the big stage has been both fun and, well, not entirely unexpected.

Lindor and Baez take different methods to basically get to the same point of impact.

"You've got the calm, and you've got the storm," said former Cubs scouting director Tim Wilken, who left the club last year to go to the D-backs. "Lindor plays with a wonderful pace, he's really under control, almost cerebral in a sense. And Javy's like the wild colt that's eventually going to turn into quite the horse. Javy does some exceptionally exciting things, and Lindor's pretty good every day. It's funny, it's a contrast."

There is certainly a contrast in style -- Lindor the graceful, gleeful artist who has embraced the notion of being the smiling face of a franchise, and Baez the introvert, who lets his aggressive-yet-instinctive and fearless performance speak for itself.

Baez came with some question marks. Arlington Country Day lost its accreditation with the Florida High School Athletic Association and faced lesser competition than Lindor's school, and Baez's impassioned play ignited a dustup at a 2010 showcase.

"All you were hoping for was that he had the ability to tone it down," Wilken said. "If you hit on that, you're hitting a grand slam."

Baez can hit those and, especially as he ages and refines his approach, he will provide more pure power. He struck out in 24 percent of his plate appearances this season (Lindor, in comparison, struck out in just 12.9 percent), but the trade-off is what he can do when he gets a hold of one. Baez hit a higher percentage of fly balls this season (36.4 vs. 28.4), and a higher percentage of his fly balls (12.7 vs. 9.9) went for home runs. And Baez is a perfect fit for a Maddon-managed team, because he can catch the ball anywhere. He made at least 25 starts at second, short and third this season and he also played a handful of games at first base and left.

There's great value in versatility in today's game, and that's one reason why Wilken made Baez his chief target with that No. 9 pick.

Of course, there's great value in an everyday shortstop, too, and that's why Grant targeted Lindor, who was actually projected on some boards to go much higher than No. 8.

"In the end, as we worked through it, that consistency and that ability to play shortstop was what separated them," Grant said. "Lindor's always had more power than people gave him credit for. He won a home-run-hitting contest at the Aflac Games between junior and senior year. It's surprising, but he's got some strength."

Lindor and Baez demonstrated both the strengths and the weaknesses of the Puerto Rican breeding ground. Puerto Rico used to routinely churn out top talent at the big-league level, but changes to the Draft and the baseball culture on the island negatively impacted that rate of production. When Baez and Lindor moved to Florida, they fundamentally improved their eventual Draft stock because of the number of eyes that would be upon them. 's selection by the Astros as the first overall pick out of the Puerto Rico Baseball Academy has likely changed that for the current, up-and-coming generation.

"It's definitely better now," Grant said. "There's a lot more structure to the baseball now. At that time, for [Baez and Lindor] to play in the States and against each other was really important. The number of looks, the amount of information, it worked out well."

The eighth and ninth picks of that particular Draft have both worked out well. Here they are, under the lights, the prying eyes upon them, the expectation of excellence established. It's a pretty cool feature of this World Series, but, for those who were there that night in February 2011, it's really nothing new.

"He texted me after he won [in the NLCS] and said, 'Hey man, is this a dream?'" Lindor said with his big smile. "I said, 'I think it is, because I haven't woken up yet.'"