Before coming to the Phillies last year, Contreras had appeared in 191 major-league games, and 175 of them were as a starting pitcher. The Phillies signed him to a one-year deal worth $1.5 million not knowing for sure if he could or even wanted to be in a relief role.
"It would have been a lot harder trying to make the adjustment without [Baez]," Contreras said.
Baez, as he did all last season, translated the conversation with the 39-year-old Contreras, who understands English but still is not comfortable speaking it in an interview format. This time, Baez was slightly reluctant to translate because he does not feel he deserves any credit for Contreras' success.
"I didn't do too much," Baez said.
Contreras has no problem crediting his fellow countryman, whom he once mentored when the two played together on the Cuban national team.
"I was trying to do too much," Contreras said. "I wanted to do everything in one day. I was worried about everything, and he told me to stop worrying about things I could not control. He told me the only thing I could control was getting ready to pitch."
Contreras thought he had to throw harder and be sharper because he was going to be in the game for only a short period, and Baez recognized his friend was not being natural.
"I didn't want to be his pitching coach because I'm not the pitching coach," Baez said. "But I saw him pitch in Cuba, and I told him: 'If you listen to me, I think I can put you back on track.' Sometimes I can't see what I'm doing wrong, but I can see it in other people. With him, I could even see in fielding practice during spring training that he was trying to do too much."
Early last season, even after manager Charlie Manuel asked Contreras to pitch in the closer role a few times, the former Cuban national star still thought he could be more valuable to the Phillies as a starter.
"When [Joe] Blanton got hurt and then J.A. Happ got hurt, Jose came up to me and said, 'This is my chance. This is why I came here,' " Baez said. "I told him, 'I don't think you're going to be in the rotation.' I also said, 'You have a new career as a reliever, and if you focus on that, you can pitch for another five, six, or seven years.' "
By June, Contreras started to buy into what Baez was telling him. By the end of the season, he had appeared in a career-high 67 games, all in relief, and posted a 6-4 record with four saves and a 3.34 ERA. He was rewarded with a two-year, $5.5 million contract after the season that will allow him to pitch into his 40s.
"I am now 100 percent reliever," Contreras said. "I don't want to go back to the rotation."
Baez, 33, obviously wants to pitch better himself this season, but if his biggest contribution a year ago was helping his friend, he was more than happy to do it.
"For me, it was a pleasure because he helped me a lot in Cuba when I was a rookie," Baez said. "He taught me how to work hard, how to respect the game, and how to do things you need to do in order to stay in the game as long as you can. He taught me to pitch."
Contreras and Baez laughed aloud as they both recalled the first time they met.
"He was a rookie, and I wanted to throw, and he didn't have anybody to throw with," Contreras said. "I called over to him."
Contreras had no idea who the kid was. Baez knew Contreras well.
"For me, it was like being called up to the big leagues and having a chance to work with Roy Halladay," Baez said. "Roy might say, 'If you want to learn, come with me, but you have to be here at 5 o'clock in the morning.' That's what I used to do with Jose. He would say, 'You can go with me, but you better be here early, and I'm going to run for 45 minutes. Do you think you can do that?' I'd say, 'Yeah, I can do that.' He didn't know that I ran all the time, and I could run forever."
More than a decade later in another country that both men now call home, the student got a chance to repay his teacher, and the Phillies have become the beneficiary.
Contact staff writer Bob Brookover
at 215-854-2577 or firstname.lastname@example.org.