The Cubs are well on their way to another losing season, their fifth in a row and third straight since Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer took the reins, but their future is starting to take shape. And Chicago about to unveil a very big piece of that future very soon, as the team has called up Javier Baez, a shortstop considered to be its top prospect at the outset of the season, to join the Cubs in Colorado for Tuesday's game.
Chosen with the ninth pick of the 2011 draft out of a Jacksonville, Fla. high school — by the Jim Hendry regime, not the Epstein one, it bears remembering — Baez came into the year ranked fourth on Baseball Prospectus' Top 101 Prospects list and fifth among Baseball America's Top 100. Exposed to Triple-A for the first time, he started dreadfully, batting just .142/.229/.255 through May 15, striking out a whopping 45 times in 118 plate appearances (38 percent) as pitchers preyed upon his combination of a long swing and an overly aggressive approach.
Fortunately, the 21-year-old Baez has adapted, hitting .305/.358/.606 with 20 homers and a 27-percent strikeout rate from May 16 onward. He earned a spot in the recent Futures Game and put his power on display via a two-run homer for the World Team:
Baez’s early woes nonetheless have caused his stock to take a minor hit this year; in their recent midseason top-50 lists, BP ranked him fifth and BA seventh, with Iowa teammate Kris Bryant, a third baseman, surpassing him as the organization's number one prospect. It's Baez getting the call first, however, that coming after a crash course at second base, a position he had never played prior to the All-Star break but has done so in 16 of his past 20 games. While his defense at the keystone may not be a finished product, the move has caused no carryover to the plate; Baez has put up video-game numbers (.342/.395/.763 with nine homers in 86 PA) since starting the transition.
At least for now, the plan is for Baez to stay at second base alongside 24-year-old Starlin Castro, who's in the second year of a club-friendly seven-year, $60 million deal that keeps him under club control through at least 2019. Baez won't be alone in adapting to a new position; 22-year-old Arismendy Alcantara, who has hit .253/.324/.407 through 102 PA since being recalled on July 9, will shift from second to centerfield, where he's played all of 11 minor league games and six major league ones. Alcantara's emergence wound up pushing light-hitting Darwin Barney off the roster (he was traded to the Dodgers last week), and this shift could push Junior Lake — currently hitting .215/.242/.366 with an abysmal 100/10 strikeout-to-walk ratio — to the bench or the minors.
It's possible that Bryant, who's hit a combined .337/.438/.683 with 36 homers split between Double-A and Triple-A, could be up later this year to take over hot corner duties from Luis Valbuena, giving the team an infield to dream on, with everybody except first baseman Anthony Rizzo under 25. Bryant isn’t on the 40-man roster, but then neither was Baez before this move, and both had a year remaining before they needed protection from the Rule 5 draft.
Looking more closely at what the prospect hounds have to say about Baez, back in the spring, Baseball Prospecus' Jason Parks forecast him as a perennial All-Star, calling both his bat speed and raw power elite while noting his natural ability to barrel the ball, and further praising his arm as "plus-plus." Parks also sounded a warning flag or two with regards to Baez's approach: "Can get impatient at the plate and attempt to hit bad balls out of the park; can get tied up by off-speed offerings; early weight shift/fastball cheat; will expand and chase; struggles against quality arm-side stuff; big swing-and-miss." Parks also noted Baez's tendency to make ill-advised throws and take a passive approach on defense. He maintained an air of caution in the Midseason Top 50:
Baez has the best bat speed in the minors, and it’s not even close for me; a lethal weapon that could make him the premium power bat in the game. But his approach is below average, and he routinely puts himself in bad hitter’s counts and conditions. With more refinement, the ceiling is cathedral but the risk is still quite high despite the fact that the 21-year-old is more than holding his own at the Triple-A level.
ESPN's Keith Law, who ranked Baez eighth on his midseason list, largely concurred on the offensive side while adding some concerns with regards to his defense:
He's still rough around the edges at short, agile enough to play but lacking the finesse or the focus to do so at a major league level. That same Futures Game performance also saw him lollygagging on a ground ball to short and delivering a lazy throw when he needed to fire one over to first base. Makeup may be the biggest concern here. Otherwise, Baez has the raw ability to become a 35-40 homer guy at second or third base.
All of which makes more sense with regards to the move off of shortstop and serves to remind that despite his arrival, Baez is far from a finished product.
Elsewhere in the Cubs’ system, still sticking at shortstop is 20-year-old Addison Russell, who was recently acquired from the Athletics in the Jeff Samardzija deal and placed in a similar stratosphere on the aforementioned midseason lists; Law had him the highest at number four. While he's putting up strong numbers at Double-A, Russell missed two months of the season due to a hamstring strain and has just 41 games above A-ball; there's no reason to rush him to the majors. The same may be true for Jorge Soler, a 22-year-old Cuban rightfielder who has similarly been limited to 41 games this year due to hamstring woes, but who was recently promoted to Triple-A Iowa.
In due time, all of those players should wind up in Wrigley Field, but for the moment, the focus will be on Baez. His all-around game may need work, but given his prodigious power and Denver's high altitude, it wouldn't be a surprise to see him launch his first homer before he leaves town, so he bears watching from day one.