[Ed. - The following is a guest post from Sahadev Sharma, whose work you likely know from many corners of the web. In addition to said corners, you can find Sahadev on Twitter and on the weekly Bleacher Nation Podcast.]
When Javier Baez was invited to the Cubs’ Rookie Development Program (RDP) – a program the Cubs have explained is typically reserved for prospects that are likely to hit the Major League roster sometime that upcoming season – I raised an eyebrow, but ultimately didn’t think much of it. When he got an invite to big league camp, I was definitely intrigued.
Both Jed Hoyer and Theo Epstein are downplaying Baez’s presence at Spring Training, and that’s what they should be doing. Epstein said Baez isn’t close to the big leagues and has “significant development in front of him.” Hoyer essentially echoed those sentiments, saying that “this is not about [Baez] making the Major League team, this is about experience.”
This is exactly what I expected both of them to say, and, frankly, I believe them. It’s definitely true that Baez has plenty of things to work on in the minors – particularly improving his approach at the plate. Nothing that happens over the next month and a half of Spring Training is going to convince the Cubs, nor any sensible talent evaluator, any differently.
Baez is someone who doesn’t display the natural leadership skills and exemplary makeup that Albert Almora does,* and, though Baez speaks English very well, it is his second language. Going through the RDP twice (this and next season) for someone like him can’t hurt; understanding how to conduct oneself off the field is something that’s essential for professional athletes. This is especially true for a player like Baez, who already is being hyped in the local media, and will be expected to be a star once he arrives at Wrigley. That type of pressure is never easy to handle, especially for a young kid, and though nothing can truly prepare a player for such an intense situation, going through these activities multiple times can’t hurt Baez.
*Let’s be clear: I don’t believe Baez has makeup issues, but he’s 20 and often acts his age. That’s what sets Almora apart from many prospects. He may be young, but he displays the maturity of a veteran leader.
While Baez’s invites to both the RDP and big league camp were mainly presented for the mere experience, that wasn’t the sole reason. There is a situation that could present itself – one that’s very unlikely* – in which Baez could find himself on the Major League roster at some point this season. And because of this minute possibility, there was a slight added benefit of getting him to both the RDP and big league camp.
*One NL scouting director put the chances of Baez hitting the majors this season at 1%. While a rival front office member initially laughed and indicated that the situation I laid out was unlikely, he acknowledged it was not impossible.
So what exactly has to happen for this improbable situation to play out?
First of all, Baez would have to perform well enough at High-A Daytona (where I’m told it’s likely he’ll start the season) that he’s called up to AA Tennessee (a realistic timeline for this would be Baez tearing up the Florida State League for three months and moving up to the Southern League by the All-Star Break). Once there, Baez would have to continue to show that he’s maturing quickly and developing at a faster pace than expected. While this is happening, the Cubs would have to be making an equally surprising playoff run. Not only would those two very unlikely situations have to occur, but the Cubs would also have to have a hole at third.* Then, come August, maybe the Cubs call upon Baez to help aid them in an unexpected run towards the postseason.
*Or somewhere in the middle infield, which would likely mean deep regression or an injury for Starlin Casto or Darwin Barney, neither of which any of us want to see happen. Not to mention that either of those scenarios coming to pass would make a playoff run all the more implausible.
I can’t emphasize enough just how unlikely it is for such a confluence of positive events to occur. But let’s temporarily suspend disbelief and remember that something very similar played out in Baltimore last summer with Manny Machado. The similarities between the two situations are actually quite stunning. You would have been laughed out of any respectable baseball discussion if you suggested that the Orioles were going to compete in 2012. Further, most believed that Machado wasn’t expected to arrive in the bigs until some point in 2013. But things change quickly when the playoffs are at stake. The Orioles had a massive void at third and Machado, a shortstop by trade, was holding his own in AA Bowie (.789 OPS). So the Orioles filled a hole with their young, stud prospect.
The similarities don’t end there. 2011 was Machado’s first full season in pro ball, as 2012 was for Baez. Machado was impressive in Low-A (.859 OPS* in 38 games), and struggled when he was promoted to High-A (.692 OPS in 63 games). In comparison, Baez destroyed Low-A pitching with a .979 OPS, and also struggled in his 23-game stint in High-A (.644 OPS).
*I’m aware that OPS isn’t the be all, end all of offensive statistics, but rather than breaking down each player’s numbers in the minors, I’m trying to give a quick snap-shot of what these kids did with the bat at each level.
To be fair, while Machado is a year ahead of Baez development-wise, he’s only six months older. Machado also played all of 2012, prior to his call-up to the majors, in AA, much of it at only 19. Machado was also a more highly-rated prospect, ranked as high as 4th in baseball (by Keith Law, behind two of the greatest prospects in recent memory, Bryce Harper and Mike Trout), while Baez usually falls in the mid-20s in most rankings. Baez does trump his Oriole counterpart in that Machado never dominated a level like Baez did in Peoria.
The biggest challenge to Baez in pulling off this feat is improving his approach at the plate (or as one scout told me, he just needs to find an approach that isn’t “see ball, swing hard”). Machado has always known how to work a count, while Baez believes he can send every pitch on a 500 foot journey.
Baez is going to have to show that he really has embraced the Cubs’ organizational philosophy of not just swinging at strikes, but making sure to get your pitch. That flaw is why we’re not consistently seeing Baez creep into the 10-15 range in top 100 lists. Whether he’s to do the improbable and arrive at Wrigley in 2013 or develop on a more practical timeline, one thing is for sure: if he’s ever going to live up to the lofty expectations that came with his eye-popping season in Peoria, he must correct the fatal flaw that is his approach at the plate. Expecting him to do it over the next few months may be asking too much.