Thursday, August 16, 2012
Baez quietly emerging as top Cubs prospect
By Sahadev Sharma
Anthony Rizzo has been a Cub for nearly two months, teasing fans with a glimpse of things to come. Brett Jackson and Josh Vitters got the call a week into August, and while the results haven't been nearly as spectacular as Rizzo's, their presence at least gives fans hope that the Cubs may just have a young nucleus to build around. The logical question has to be, who's next?
Other Cubs prospects may get more notoriety, but Javier Baez has grabbed the attention of baseball personnel.
Jorge Soler, the $30 million Cuban, and Albert Almora, the first-round pick from this year's draft have already been pushed up to Peoria and Boise, respectively. This after last year's second-round pick, Dan Vogelbach spent the last three weeks with Boise tearing up the Northwest League to a tune of a 1.087 OPS with eight home runs.
But it's another intriguing youngster who predates the Epstein regime and may have a greater impact than any of the others: Javier Baez, who was drafted by Jim Hendry and the recently promoted special assistant to the general manager Tim Wilken with the ninth pick in the 2011 draft.
The Cubs have proven of late to be rather aggressive when promoting their top talent through the minors. After dominating pitchers in the Midwest League with Low-A Peoria, Baez was promoted to High-A Daytona on August 4th.
"I had (an in-depth) conversation with (vice president of scouting and player development) Jason (McLeod) the Thursday before he decided to bring Baez to Daytona," Wilken said. "There were some talks about what we were going to do with (him) beyond that -- for this fall, on into next spring training -- because as you can see there are some pretty special things going on with him."
Baez, 19, is a shortstop, born in Puerto Rico. At 12 he moved with his family to Florida to play baseball. The Cubs believe his future is bright and there's no doubt Baez does as well, his ultimate goal is apparent by the MLB logo tattoo on the back of the neck. Though he's struggling in his introduction to the Florida State League, his numbers in Peoria matched the ink, hitting .333 while sporting a .979 OPS while with the Chiefs.
Baez has "top-shelf bat speed," according to one National League scout who recently saw him play. "I haven't seen that type of bat speed this year outside of the big leagues. It's pure, unadulterated, just violent bat-speed."
He compared Baez's swing -- and bat-waggle -- to that of Gary Sheffield, who played more than 20 years in the big leagues and hit 509 home runs.
At 6-1 and 205 pounds, Baez is still filling out his muscular frame, but his power is already apparent.
In his sixth game, he launched the first home run of his professional career an astounding 430 feet. In fact, many of his home runs on the season -- he had 12 in 57 games while slugging an impressive .596 with Peoria -- have been eye-poppers, eliciting gasps from the crowd.
Baez, though, is still a teenager and with the prodigious power come the headaches of immaturity.
"But he's 19 years old," said the scout, "so it's nothing that scares me off or makes me think he's going to be in trouble in the future."
In the same game that he hit his first home run, Baez swung at a 3-0 pitch late in the game with his team leading 13-0 after he'd been given a take sign. The pitcher, none too pleased, drilled Baez in the back with the next pitch.
"He's got this insatiable drive to be a winner and his competitiveness is top of the scale," said Wilken. "He'll fight you in dominoes ... he's extremely competitive."
Wilken definitely sees that quality in Baez as a positive, one that will aid him in his hopeful ascent to the big leagues. Baez was remorseful about the situation and looks ready to grow from it.
"I didn't mean to show anybody up or anything," Baez said about the incident. "I just swung at it because I wasn't thinking. I'm just going to use that as a learning experience."
Wilken wants people to know that not only is Baez's makeup not a concern, he's more than just an offensive force.
"He was 20-for-23 in steals in a month and a half (in Peoria)," Wilken said. "If you prorate that for a whole season, he'd probably be fourth in all of minor league baseball in stolen bases and no one says anything about it. We're always talking about these prodigious blasts and no one talks about his base-running ability."
While the Cubs believe that Baez can stick at short -- his glove has looked better than advertised in the minors -- most scouts tend to lean towards the opinion that as he climbs through the system he'll eventually move to third base.
"He's got some instincts for the position," said the scout on Baez's ability to play shortstop. "But I feel like as he gets older, as he gets bigger and loses a step, he's gonna have to move to third base. With his current range and hands, he's playing as good a defensive shortstop as he ever will."
With Starlin Castro and Baez, the left side of the Cubs' infield could provide a lot of pop one day. What excites the organization more than anything are the raw tools Baez possesses. Other youngsters like Vitters and Jackson are nice players, but neither has the potential of Baez.
He is the kind of special talent the Cubs system hasn't seen since Castro, who made his major league debut at the age of 20. Unlike the Cubs' All-Star shortstop, though, Cubs fans will have to wait for Baez.
"He's got a chance to be an above average third baseman and have some All-Star seasons," said the scout. "He's far away from it right now, but his offensive skills just jump out at you."
Baez has rocketed up prospect lists over the past couple months and when next year's team lists come out, it is expected that he'll battle Soler and Almora for the top spot in the Cubs' system.
"I'm not surprised (by his success), because it can be one scary bat," Wilken said. "When we drafted him, we felt here's a guy who can fit (in the middle) of your lineup in the future. You don't want to get ahead of yourself, but (he could be) in the upper echelon of three to five hole hitters in the major leagues."
For his part, Baez isn't letting on that he's in any rush to get to Wrigley.
"All I'm worrying about right now is just playing hard every time," Baez said. "This is my first year here, I just gotta keep learning the game."
Which proves one thing: He's already handling interviews like a big leaguer.