Baez: Franchise player in making

"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."

Patience

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.

progers@tribune.com

Twitter @ChiTribRogers

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