August 5, 2014
The Situation: On Monday, the Cubs announced they will be calling up IF Javier Baez from Triple-A Iowa, in time to make his debut Tuesday night in Coors Field. Baez will be playing second base, with Arismendy Alcantara shifting to CF. Baez ranked as the no. 1 prospect in the Cubs system in the Baseball Prospectus offseason Cubs Top 10, no. 4 in the offseason Top 101, and no. 5 on the midseason top 50.
Background: Baez was selected in the first round of the 2011 draft, as the ninth overall selection out of Jacksonville, Florida. The ’11 class was absolutely loaded with talent, and Baez is the second high school player selected in the first round to make his big-league debut, behind Dylan Bundy. With power to burn, Baez has smashed his way through the minor-league levels in short order. He slugged 161 extra base hits in 1,350 minor-league PA—a small number for a high school player to be deemed major-league ready.
After playing a handful of games in 2011, the infielder was sent to the Midwest league in 2012, where he put up a .333/.383/.596 line in 57 games, and scuffled to a .188/.244/.400 line in 23 other contests after being promoted to High-A. Baez’s prospect stock ballooned in 2013, as he combined for a .282/.341/.578 slash, with 37 bombs between High-A and Double-A. However, Triple-A proved to be a worthy test for Baez, especially in April, as he battled approach issues to a .619 OPS. He warmed up with the weather, culminating in a blistering July (.999 OPS). This is becoming a trend for Baez, often performing better as the season progresses, making adjustments as he goes.
Scouting Report: A divisive prospect to be sure, Baez has physical gifts that are nearly unparalleled anywhere in baseball. His bat speed is elite, and will stick out like a sore thumb from day one in the major leagues. He has extreme confidence at the plate, and shows big time swagger in the box. Watching him take batting practice, he loves to put on a show, and can change the trajectory of his home runs, a very impressive skill. Some are laser beams, while others are towering flies deep into the night. The swing is violent, but he has average barrel control; impressive for someone with an extreme bat wrap. Usually a bat wrap is a reason to write off a prospect’s chances, but the bat speed, coupled with superb wrist and forearm strength, help Baez make up for his deficiency. The issue with having such supreme bat speed is that Baez believes he can hit anything out of the park, and it’s important for him to swing only at pitches he can drive. The profile is that of a home run hitter, not a power hitter—he’s looking to hit the ball to Mars, not drive it deep into the gaps. (Here's Ryan Parker's analysis of the swing, from earlier this year.)
It’s no secret that Baez is going to have a steeper learning curve than most prospects. His game is still raw, and the approach at the plate needs a lot of work. It’s partly a pitch recognition issue, coupled with a violent swing that leaves him exposed to pitches down and out of the zone. Right now, falling behind in the count is a near automatic out, so he’ll need to stay in fastball counts or ambush early. Pitchers know this and will likely try the “hard in/soft away” method. With his current plan of attack, that seems to be the most logical idea. The adjustment to major-league offspeed offerings is going to be the biggest hurdle for Baez, as he’s likely going to be eaten alive for the first go around the league. He’s a mistake hitter—which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, because 30 or 40 mistakes a year could go into orbit—but well executed sequencing is going to cause Baez to scuffle. While it's fair to be hopeful thanks to Baez's aforementioned ability to adjust, adapting to major-league pitching is a whole different animal. Temper expectations, because it could take 1,000 PA before it starts to come together.
Baez could be a big-league shortstop given additional reps and patience on the developmental front. This approach would be reasonable were he a middling hitter whose value depended on his ability to stick at short. Fortunately for Chicago, neither of those things is true. So while he has the athletic ability and arm to stick at shortstop in the long term, Starlin Castro’s presence beside him, coupled with Addison Russell’s presence behind him, make second base a better fit for Baez in the near and distant future. He’s got solid average range for the keystone, and shouldn’t have any trouble maneuvering around the bag. The angles, instincts, and nuances might take a bit to flash in game action, but he’s a good enough athlete to make up for some inexperience. His arm should be a big time weapon at second, grading out around 6+. Baez looks to be a solid-average defensive second baseman long term, and to top it all off, he’s a 5 runner who might have some moderate impact with his legs.
Immediate Big-League Future: The game is going to move fast for awhile, so it’s important to be patient. Baez is going to have nights where he looks absolutely horrible for three PA, and then launches one over the scoreboard at Wrigley. With time, he could be a major-league average hitter, and if that’s the case, the power is going to play at or near an elite level—the raw power is an 8. He might make some miscues in the field, as he doesn’t carry the same confidence in his glove as he does in his bat, but the skill set is a tough one to ignore. Second basemen who hit 40 home runs don’t come along often, if ever anymore, and Baez’s impact is franchise altering if it all comes together. —Jordan Gorosh
Fantasy impact: Owners have been waiting for this day: Javier Baez is ascending from the minor leagues to take his place with the big boys, as he will now ply his lightning bat and aggressive approach at the major-league level.
Baez is a high-risk, high-reward proposition with a distinct track record of struggling before adjusting against every new level. Baez started notoriously slowly at Triple-A, to the tune of a .617 OPS in April. The strikeouts were out of control and the walks were non-existent to an extreme degree. His day/night splits were so slanted that our own Jason Parks wondered if Javier Baez might have a vision issue. (That went over well.)
Since his initial struggles he has improved in every month. He had a .738 OPS in May, an .815 OPS in June and finally he busted out for a .999 OPS in July, a month that saw him cut down on his strikeouts and show signs of understanding what opposing pitchers were trying to do against him.
Baez will play his first series at Coors, the sort of venue that will tease the gifted hitter to do something special. In the short term I would expect a severe adjustment period—Baez is a big believer in himself and his bat speed, so I don’t think a Jonathan Singleton-esque humbling is out of the question here. This type of promotion isn’t made with the short term in mind, however.
The long play is where it’s at with Cubs’ prospects. Baez has the tools to be supernatural; a perennial first round selection in redrafts who can maybe tease at 1/1 if it all breaks right. Second base might be his long-term home but I still hold out that he’ll end up at third as his defensive profile fits well on the left side of the infield. Baez could be a .280/35/80/100 threat every year. The speed doesn’t project well, but with that type of fantasy production who cares?
He’s a must own everywhere at this point. —Mauricio Rubio
Mauricio Rubio is an author of Baseball Prospectus. Follow @MRubio52