This Could be Make-or-Break Time for Javier Baez

When news came down about the trifecta of immense talent the Cubs had cut from major league camp, I was pretty much unmoved. I should, however, cop to being at least a little surprised by the demotion of Javier Baez. Despite still looking a bit lost at the dish, Baez was playing decent defense and gives the Cubs at least a little positional flexibility.

Then again, Tommy La Stella and Arismendy Alcantara have even more flexibility and have less to work on offensively, making Baez expendable. Still, I bristled when I saw whispers that the Cubs might be waving the white flag on their former top prospect. But the more I thought about it, the more doubt started to creep in as to Javy’s long-term future with the team.

Watching Baez play last season, from his epic debut series in Colorado to the final game of the year, was like seeing a venerable building with a seemingly limitless cathedral ceiling remodeled into a bland office space with a drop ceiling comprised of nondescript tiles.

At first, you never knew what you might get from a Baez at-bat; the anticipation was palpable as you looked forward to seeing something you’d never seen before. The atmosphere at Wrigley for his debut was nothing short of electric; even John Cusack in his black-on-black Sox cap could sense it. As the season wore on, however, the feeling changed.

By September, fans had almost begun to fear the worst when their young star came to the plate. That swing, once frighteningly beautiful in its barely-controlled violence had become just frightening. Onlookers were hoping not to see what they’d seen from Baez before.

Mesa would be a new start though, a time and place for Javy to prove that he had made the necessary adjustments; that’s what we told ourselves anyway. But he picked up in Spring Training right where he’d left off in Chicago, striking out 20 times in 52 at-bats. He did have a home run, but that was his only extra-base hit in March.

Now Baez finds himself back in AAA, playing next to yet another young phenom in Addison Russell. At this point, the two seem to be on opposite career trajectories, with Russell impressing fans and scouts alike by hitting .327 over 37 Cactus League AB’s while playing solid defense as well.

The Cubs know what they have in Starlin Castro and, while it’s still possible they move their All-Star shortstop, his presence in Chicago means that Baez and Russell could be battling for that second middle-infield spot. Of course, it’s also possible that Kris Bryant move to left and Mike Olt flops again, which opens the hot corner back up.

But the fact remains that Baez has a lot to work on before the Cubs will feel comfortable bringing him back up to Chicago. Joe Maddon spoke to that yesterday when he addressed the media following the decision to send his slugging second baseman back to Des Moines.

“He’s had a lot of really good teachers come his way and he’s done some really good work. But he knows right now we’re in a situation (where) we’re trying to win some games early on and he’s not quite ready to help us offensively.

“He knows he’s got to get better offensively. I told him: Listen, as a 22-year-old baseball player, you might be the most accomplished 22-year-old I’ve ever been on a field with regarding defense, base-running, just like knowing what to do on the field in every moment.”

And they’re not going to take this situation lightly, looking to promote Baez at the first signs of life.

“Because he’s that kind of guy that once he comes up the next time, we want him to be able to stay and not ride that airplane back and forth. It’s a wonderful debate. It’s so nice to be in a position with young talent like this.”

That opens the door to the very real possibility that Russell is ready to make his own MLB debut before Baez is ready to come back. If that happens, and if the Cubs have someone entrenched at 3B — be that Olt, Bryant, or some other combination of interchangeable parts — Baez could be the odd man out. Let’s face it, this isn’t really the kind of guy you keep on your bench in a utility role.

This is all highly speculative of course, and based on the possibility that Javy doesn’t really get it figured out, at least not to the extent that Maddon and the brass desire. Maybe he recaptures that magic we saw from him as he made his way through the minors and plays with a chip on his shoulder, forcing a quick promotion.

Javier Baez is a special talent, the kind of player who can make you remember why you fell in love with baseball in the first place. The unbridled passion of his swing is something I could watch time and time again. But when the results aren’t there, the waters of emotion can quickly grow stagnant, the enthusiasm reckless.

But these are no longer the days when we all held our breath and prayed that maybe, just maybe, this or that prospect would make it. If Warren Buffet sees one of his investments flame out, he can be comfortable in the knowledge that several others are doing just fine. Likewise, the Cubs now have an embarrassment of riches and have just been named Baseball America’s top farm system.

So I’m going to cross my fingers and hope like hell that this kid gets it together and that we’re able to watch him do things with his bat that steal the words from the mouths of even the most verbose and garrulous among us. But I’m also going to sleep soundly in the knowledge that the Cubs don’t need him to pan out.

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