9:36 PM CDT, September 5, 2013
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. —
So much can go wrong. Can't-miss guys miss all the time. But suspend your skepticism, excuse some rough edges and Javier Baez's ascending arc screams what Cubs fans have been saying forever — wait till next year.
He is what baseball fans dream about — a franchise player in the making.
Baez isn't especially polished as a 20-year-old. He's much more of a work in progress than he is the next Ken Griffey Jr., Alex Rodriguez or Mike Trout. But he's fast becoming a name brand for an organization trying to change its history of heartbreak and underachievement.
Cubs Chairman Tom Ricketts recently surprised one of his children with a Tennessee Smokies jersey, with Baez's No. 9, as a birthday present.
"I hope I get the call to be in the big leagues soon," Baez said. "When I get to the big leagues, I want to stay there, not come back down."
Even if Baez keeps hitting home runs at a pace worthy of Miguel Cabrera, he probably won't play his first game at Wrigley Field before next summer. But merely by taking his spot as the Smokies' No. 3 hitter at the start of the Southern League playoffs, Baez is proving to be one of the best hunches that the Cubs have played.
Jason McLeod, the Cubs senior vice president of scouting and player development, was the Padres' scouting director in 2011. He had the 10th pick of the draft, one spot behind where the Cubs claimed Baez, and admits that he wasn't sold enough to take him if he still had been on the board.
"We just couldn't get enough information on him, and didn't know what to make of him," McLeod said. "We saw the tools but we weren't sure. One of our guys said he could be Manny Ramirez or he might not get out of Double A."
Arrows point toward Manny Ramirez.
Ricketts and McLeod were at Regions Field on Thursday. They were there to support and evaluate a lot of players, but the main attraction was clearly the shortstop who has batted .282 with 37 home runs, 75 extra-base hits and 111 runs batted in over 130 games between Tennessee and Daytona. He also stole 20 bases while getting caught only four times.
"He's a pretty instinctive player," said Tim Wilken, a special assistant to Cubs President Theo Epstein who was the scouting director when Baez was drafted. "It's not the stolen bases but knowing when to run. He has a great sense of timing at the plate too. He has had a lot of big hits, at big times. That's what the best players do. He finds a lot of different ways to help you win. … That's exciting stuff."
Baez strikes out a lot (111 times in 517 at-bats), makes too many errors (67 in 209 games as a pro, including 44 this year) and has a tendency to get himself ejected when umpires call strike three. But Epstein and his staff knew all of that was in the package when they studied him closely two springs ago. What they didn't know was that he would be a good learner.
He's working on the rough edges while being a consistently outstanding run producer. He has hit everywhere he has played the last two seasons, beginning with the tedium of extended spring training in 2012 and including stops in the Arizona Fall League (four home runs, 16 RBIs in 14 games) and the Cactus League (.298, four homers and a .908 OPS in 97 at-bats).
In 54 games at Tennessee, Baez showed how close he is to the big leagues as a hitter. He hit 20 home runs and prompted comparisons to Yasiel Puig, who spent two months in the Southern League before joining the Dodgers in early June.
Jody Reed, the former Red Sox infielder who managed Puig at Chattanooga, says Baez and Puig are "similar in a number of ways." Both come out of their shoes swinging at pitches.
"They have that violent swing and what I mean is they really have the bat speed to create impact on the ball," Reed told Knoxville reporter Nick Roark. "When they do connect, it goes a mile. They have that rare combination of that violent swing with balance and control."
Baez is one of only seven players his age or younger who have hit 37-plus homers in a minor-league season in the last 20 years. The list includes the Marlins' Giancarlo Stanton and two others who had long big league careers (Marcus Giles and Russell Branyan). But as a cautionary tale, it's worth noting it also includes career .186 hitter Brandon Wood and Brian Dopirak, a sensation for the Cubs with the low-A Lansing Lugnuts who never rose to Triple A. There's also Joey Gallo, a strikeout-crazy 19-year-old currently in Class A for the Rangers.
Baez represents the Cubs' payoff for a 2010 season that saw Carlos Zambrano shipped to the bullpen, a 20-year-old Starlin Castro summoned from Double A and Lou Piniella resign before he was dismissed. He was the ninth pick in the 2011 draft, which was unusually rich in talent.
"That was a real good draft," said Wilken, who served as scouting director under general manager Jim Hendry. "I didn't think you could go wrong if you had one of the first 15 or 20 picks."
Wilken said the question the Cubs debated was what's harder to obtain, a middle-of-the-order hitter or a front-of-the-rotation pitcher? They decided it was tougher to find impact bats, and Wilken and his staff quickly fell in love with Baez's bat speed and off-the-charts self-confidence.
"He has a very handsy swing," said a scout from another organization who has watched Baez. "He's an arrogant swinger. He ain't going to change for much. … A nicer way to say it is he's one of the loosest swingers. He's aggressive, confident, arrogant. … He ain't trying to move it to (the opposite field)."
Baez is compared most frequently to Gary Sheffield, a right-handed hitter who got to the big leagues as a 19-year-old and played until he was 40, hitting 509 home runs.
"He's a real hard swinger, like Sheffield," a Southern League coach said. "But I'll give you another guy he reminds me of — Cliff Johnson. Cliff would corkscrew out of the box when he missed the ball, almost falling down. That's how hard he swung, and it's the same thing with Baez."
Maybe so, but Baez also has improved his plate discipline. Smokies manager Buddy Bailey and Wilken are among those who have praised him for becoming more selective as he has faced more advanced pitching.
"I'm more patient at the plate," Baez said. "Since I got called up to Double A, I've had to be. The pitchers here know what they can throw you and what you can hit. You have to wait to get one to hit."
In another era, with another regime, Baez might be headed straight to Chicago when the Southern League playoffs end. Attendance is down at Wrigley for a fifth year in a row and there's one more homestand on the schedule. Why not offer a sneak preview, as it were?
There are technical reasons for not doing so, such as his not being on the 40-man roster and the front office not wanting to start the so-called arbitration clock. There's little to be gained with Ricketts observing a timetable that has 2015 as the first season circled on anyone's calendar. But maybe the biggest point is one a scout from another organization made.
"He's not ready to work, not in the big leagues," the scout said. "There are a lot of strikeouts, a lot of errors. Anybody who makes (44) errors isn't ready. … I don't think he pays too much attention to his defense, to tell you the truth."
Barring a Starlin Castro trade or injury, Baez could play a full season at Triple-A Iowa next season. He will continue his preparation for a possible position change when he reports to the Arizona Fall League in October. Shortstop Addison Russell, a top prospect for the Athletics, will be a teammate on the Mesa Solar Sox, assuring Baez will slide over to second base.
"I'm just going to keep playing shortstop until they move me," Baez said. "That's their decision. I like shortstop, but they'll decide where I play."
The anticipation builds, level by level, long ball by long ball.
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