Prospect watch: Kris Bryant soars, Javier Baez struggles
The Cubs have built one of the best stables of hitting prospects in baseball, the fruit of all their losing over the last five seasons. Baseball America named four of their position-player prospects in the top 41 of their 2014 rankings, headlined by No. 5 Javier Baez and No. 8 Kris Bryant. Those two, upon which so much of the Cubs' future depends, have taken divergent paths this season.
Let's start with the good. Bryant, a third baseman, has been an absolute terror to Southern League pitchers in the first two months of the year. Through 43 games and 186 plate appearances, he's hitting .325/.419/.600 with 11 homers and 36 RBI at Double-A Tennessee. Two weeks ago, he embarked on a seven-game stretch in which he hit five bombs. Simply put, he has been one of the best hitters in the minors this season.
Strikeouts could be an issue for Bryant down the road, as he has fanned 53 times in his 186 plate appearances this year. At 6-foot-6, he naturally has a long swing and can get tied up inside, similar to the way teams would approach Richie Sexson. Despite that, he has had huge success at four different minor league levels during his brief professional career. After the Cubs selected the University of San Diego product with the No. 2 pick in last year's amateur draft, they sent him to Rookie Ball. He moved on to Low-A Boise and High-A Daytona before starting this year with Tennessee. All told, he has a career minor league slash line of .330/.407/.639 with 20 homers and 68 RBI in 332 plate appearances.
Bryant's major league ETA heading into this season appeared to be 2015, and that likely remains the case. If he continues to rake, he'll almost certainly earn a promotion to Triple-A Iowa, but even that appears to be some time off at this juncture. General manager Jed Hoyer sounded a note of patience when asked recently about the idea of moving Bryant up a level, and the team took a similar course with Baez last season, even though he was dominating at High-A Daytona. Bryant is unlikely to be a major fantasy factor this year, but he could have a regular spot in the Cubs' lineup next season. He's definitely owned in dynasty leagues and keeper leagues with deep minor league rosters, but those of you in shallower keeper leagues will want to keep your eye on his progression this season.
As good as all the prospect experts believed Bryant was, Baez was seen as the can't-miss guy in the Cubs' organization. Last year, he hit .282/.341/.578 with 37 homers and 111 RBI between Daytona and Tennessee, all while playing solid defense at shortstop. He was a spring training star last March, belting five homers in 53 plate appearances, leading some people to call for him to head north with the Cubs when the season began. The team appropriately decided against that, sending Baez to Triple-A Iowa, where he has struggled.
Through 33 games, Baez is hitting .176/.252/.320 with four homers and 14 RBI. He spent some time on the DL with a sprained ankle, but he can't really point to the injury as the root of his issues at the plate. Most prospects deal with adversity at some point, so his struggles don't spell doom at face value. What's troubling, however, is that he has 47 strikeouts in 139 plate appearances. Strikeouts were a problem for him last year, as well, as he fanned 147 times in 577 trips to the plate.
Baez' bat speed is his calling card, drawing comparisons to Gary Sheffield. His style at the plate also produces empty swings, an issue he'll have to figure out before he gets a real look at the major league level. While the conventional wisdom is still that Baez will make his debut in the bigs this season, he'll have to break out of this season-long slump before the Cubs consider promoting him. He'll also have to prove himself ready to play second base, with Starlin Castro entrenched at shortstop and enjoying a resurgent season. Baez is still the can't-miss guy the entire baseball world believes him to be, but he'll need to get hot over the next month or six weeks before fantasy owners can count on him making a noticeable impact this year.
The Marlins promoted Andrew Heaney to Triple-A New Orleans, and he'll make his first start for the Zephyrs on Thursday against Oklahoma City, the Triple-A affiliate of the Astros. Heaney had a great run at Double-A Jacksonville, putting up a 2.35 ERA, 1.08 WHIP and 52 strikeouts against 13 walks in 53 2/3 innings. This is likely a precursor to a major league promotion in the next month or so, assuming he doesn't struggle at New Orleans.
Digging deeper into the prospect world, Joey Gallo, the Rangers' 20-year-old third base prospect, has been a monster at High-A Myrtle Beach this season. He's slashing .342/.460/.792 with 18 homers and 39 RBI in 189 plate appearances. It shouldn't be long before he earns a promotion to Double-A Frisco, though GM Jon Daniels recently said that no move is imminent. Gallo has cut down on his strikeouts this season, fanning 43 times after doing so 172 times last year. He also already has 28 walks after earning just 50 free passes a season ago.