In Part II of my 2014 MLB Season Preview Series, I revisited the struggles of BJ Upton in his first year as an Atlanta Brave (and then watched Twitter in horror as both Jason Heyward and Freddie Freeman signed extensions, antiquating comments I’d posted only hours earlier). Today my focus shifts to the NL Central, as I attempt to find something worth writing about concerning a team which will be lucky to top 75 wins. Though the Chicago Cubs team that breaks from Spring Training may not be all that exciting, help is on the way in the form of their loaded farm system. Javier Baez is the crowning jewel of that minor-league stash.
“Baez could end a 40 HR shortstop. That’s his ceiling. That’s actually a possibility. Likely? Not sure. But its possible. How many prospects in baseball can make such a claim? That’s a truly elite ceiling. That’s a generational talent.” – Jason Parks, Baseball Prospectus.
40 HRs. That’s Giancarlo Stanton-like power from a guy listed at 6’0, 195 lbs. A guy who is only 21 years old. A guy who plays shortstop (for now at least – more on that later). A guy who ZiPS projects for 28 homers, 18 stolen bases, and a .486 slugging percentage over 515 plate appearances were he to make the big club this year. Meet Javier Baez, the top prospect of the Chicago Cub’s farm system, and no. 7 across baseball according to Keith Law’s Top 100 Rankings.
The Puerto Rican split 2013 across High-A and Double-A, raking at both levels to post a final triple slash line of .282/.341/.578, crushing 37 HRs in the process. It bears repeating, this is a shortstop – widely regarded as the lightest hitting position of all – drawing Gary Sheffield comparisons. So how does Baez hit for so much power relative to his frame?
“Baez has the best bat speed of any hitter in the minors right now, and the ball explodes off his bat like he’s splitting atoms with contact.” – Keith Law, ESPN.com Insider.
And you don’t have to simply take the word of Law if you’re not an ESPN insider.
Even in slow motion, Baez’s bat is a blur. And if you’re wondering where that specific pitch ended up, well, it went a long way.
Alongside Arismendy Alcantara, Kris Bryant, and Jorge Soler, Baez is quite simply, the future of the Cubs. Unfortunately for that rare breed of tortured fans who bleed cubbie blue, it’s unlikely that Baez sees significant time up in the majors in 2014. Though his monstrous stats (and GIFs) suggest otherwise, there is still significant room for improvement. The aggressive approach that produced so many dingers also led to 147 strikeouts over 130 games, which in combination with his meagre 40 walks, suggests Baez still has plenty to work on regarding his plate discipline.
Then there’s the fielding issue. Playing exclusively at shortstop, Baez recorded 44 errors last year. While he has the tools to succeed at the position, boasting a plus arm and solid instincts, Baez is still prone to pressing – leading to unseasoned mistakes. Much like his approach to breaking balls, his fielding will improve with more repetitions, one of the reasons why Baez will be starting the year at Triple-A Iowa. In an announcement at the close of the Cubs Convention, Jason McLeod – director of scouting and player development for the club – said of the decision to keep their prized asset down, “Our goal for Javy is to have him play shortstop for as long as he possibly can”.
And while Cubs fans might protest, the decision makes sense. With Starlin Castro firmly entrenched at the shortstop position, it’s no surprise that Chicago has opted to further develop Baez – who purportedly will also take reps at second and third base – while simultaneously suppressing his service time. At this point, barring anything drastic, it seems safe to predict we won’t see the prodigious slugger until at least the second half of the season. While Baez is saying all the right things – “I just have to be patient, work hard and do my routine every day… It is tough, but once you keep working, it will happen.” – you can bet he’ll be smarting to make an immediate impact when his time comes. I wouldn’t want to be a pitcher in the Pacific Coast League until that moment arrives.
I Have A Good Feeling About This Year.
— Javier Báez (@javy23baez) January 25, 2014