Last year at this time the biggest question for the Cubs regarded top prospect Javier Baez: would he break camp with the big league club if he had an impressive Spring Training?
Baez indeed had himself an impressive exhibition, yet he did not head to Chicago for Opening Day.
Last spring, a local media friend approached team president Theo Epstein about the thought process behind that strategy. Epstein gave him an insightful earful and shared with him his belief that everyone was absolutely crazy to think that Baez was anywhere near ready at the beginning of last year for the major league level.
Epstein also scoffed at the notion that it was about club control and amusingly chuckled at speculation that littered Twitter and such at the time regarding dates Baez would get the call-up. Baez still had many kinks to work out and there was even a strong doubt within the organization as to whether he would make his debut at any time at all in 2014.
Baez was eventually, and somewhat surprisingly, promoted in early August after rebounding from a horrible stretch at AAA Iowa while working with new mentor Manny Ramirez.
Upon his call-up, Baez showed some flashes of the lightning quick bat and brilliant power most scouts had come to rave about. Overall though, the converted second baseman struggled mightily at the plate and his alarming strikeout rate (44.6%) wasn’t too much of a surprise to anyone in the Cubs front office. He looked simply overmatched at times.
The Cubs knew what they were doing by promoting Baez earlier then they may have initially planned. Did they set him up to fail? Not really. They wanted Baez to succeed in the long run, but they also knew full well that he would receive a rude awaking from MLB pitchers.
In talking with a scout recently, the belief around some league circles is that the Cubs organization had a purpose in calling Baez up to watch him fail with the hope that it would humble him into understanding the kind of work he still needs to do to be a success at the major-league level.
They wanted to break him down a little, if you will; Baez definitely has a stubborn streak. Epstein was pretty up-front with beat reporters in letting them know he wanted the kid to see for himself what it’s really like in the big leagues.
When I have talked with local sources regarding Baez, I’ve been assured the Cubs in no way have soured on Baez or are even possibly thinking about giving him up in any deals just yet. They still see the potential as being as high as it has ever been.
It is pretty apparent, however, that the Cubs are hedging their bets somewhat for 2015. By trading for Tommy La Stella and making overtures towards Stephen Drew and possibly even Ben Zobrist, the Cubs are allowing themselves the very real possibility of starting Baez off at Iowa to open the 2015 campaign.
At the very least, there is the strong possibility that Baez could be sent down in short order if no progress is displayed in his plate approach.
New Cubs hitting coach John Mallee has had some recent success with young Astro hitters such as Jose Altuve and Chris Carter and has recently been in San Juan working with Baez.
MLB network analyst Ron Darling shared some strong opinions with me regarding Baez:
Well, I hope they leave this (Baez) thing alone. He generates so much bat speed. He reminds me very much of Gary Sheffield, Manny Ramirez in his prime. I hear a lot of that [talk about] shortening his stroke. If anyone shortens his stroke, I hope they get fired. I mean, what he needs to do is to have an idea on strike zone.
The intelligence part of the game–the recognizing the pitch, knowing what pitches he can handle–I know that’s going to come, but I think what happens over the course of time is that, people…It’s like taking a guy who throws really hard and saying, “You know what, I’m going to make him throw only 65%, 70%; that way he throws strikes.”
I wouldn’t do that with Baez. I would let him do what he does best, and that is that he’s real aggressive. When he makes contact, no one can hit the ball as far as he can. What he’s got to understand is strike zone recognition; that’s not different from any other younger player. Now, the strikeouts, are they alarming? Well, if you ask a lot of sabermetricians, they don’t care about strikeouts.
I think he’s got to get better with two strikes. He was on a pace with just the small number of games he played last year to set a Major League record, if he’d played the entire season. Yes, he has to do some things with two strikes that are different, but I wouldn’t change too much on the first two strikes.
Most eyes this spring will be on Kris Bryant as the Cubs have a new focal point, his blue eyes and all, yet much of the organization will be focused on the guy with the MLB logo tattooed on his neck.