javier baez aflThe World Series is over and the offseason has arrived. It is time to turn our eyes back to the minors and take a look at some of the prospects in the Cubs’ organization. The goal here is not to re-rank those prospects (that comes next year) or to assess the strengths and weaknesses of farm as a whole (that also comes next year). The goal for this series is to take each prospect individually, study the progress made so far, and see what we can learn about the future for that player.

To start things off, though, I will go straight to the top of the list. By far the most talked about prospect within Cub circles this year is Javier Baez. So let’s break down the prolific slugger and see how he is measuring up.

Javier Baez, SS/INF
Born: December 1, 1992
Acquired: First round of the 2011 draft (9th player taken overall).

Season Summary

Baez spent the 2013 season putting up numbers that do not seem real. He struggled tremendously at the start of the season in Daytona, so much so that many fans were rushing to judgment and proclaiming him a total bust on the basis of a very small sample of plate appearance. But then, in the span of about a week, he turned his season around and began show a total mastery of High A pitching.



Then he went to Double A and repeated the pattern – early struggles followed by tremendous success.

But here’s the almost unreal part: his season numbers with the Double A Smokies are better across the board than his numbers with Daytona. Just compare the lines.

In Daytona (337 PA over 76 G) Baez posted an impressive slash line of .274/.338/.535. His wOBA clocked in at .391 and his wRC+ a weighty 145. He struck out 23.1% of the time against a walk rate of 6.2%. His ISO calculates to .261 with a BABIP of .310.

That, my friends, is the description of a very, very impressive season. I could stop there and have a case for making Baez the best prospect in the organization and one of the ten best in all of baseball. There’s more.



In Tennessee (240 PA over 54 G) Baez produced the even better slash line of .294/.346/.638. His wOBA jumped to a ridiculous .435 with an wRC+ of 180. The walk rate went up to 7.9%, the ISO jumped to a stunning .344, and his BABIP finished at .333.

Oh, and despite playing in 22 fewer games for the Smokies, he actually hit more home runs in Double A (20) than he did in High A (17).

Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you the single most impressive offensive showing by any prospect I have had the pleasure of witnessing. His ceiling as a player is right up at the top of the chart.

And his floor is somewhere in Japan. Despite the video game numbers, continued success for Baez is not certain. As impressive as his bat speed is and as prolific as his power is proving to be, there are still real and significant questions about Baez’s ability to recognize pitches. Amid the awesomeness that was his Tennessee campaign was one giant red flag; he struck out 28.8% of the time.



Future Outlook

A lot of fans are going to want to look at the good numbers and ignore that K%, and believe me I understand the temptation. After all, anyone who can post huge stats like those Double A figures, in Double A no less, is bound to be so good at baseball that he can’t possibly fail in the majors? Right?

But that simply isn’t how these things work. Before that legendary bat speed can become a significant factor Baez has to be able to recognize the pitch. We do not know for sure that he lacks that skill (more on that in a minute), but we do not know he has it, either. It remains possible, very possible, that Baez is one of those very powerful sluggers that simply cannot avoid striking out at a high rate in the minors. Those are the guys that are often branded AAAA players and who have brief major league careers, if in fact they have one at all. That is the floor for Baez. He will win chances with his power and bat speed, but if the eye is not there Triple A and Major League pitching will handle him with ease.

In this scenario, the Cubs would be smart to deal Baez now while his trade value is at an all-time high.

On the other hand, there is reason to think that his elevated strikeout rate has more to do with his approach and aggressiveness at the plate than it does with his ability to recognize pitches. To start with we can see from his numbers that he was able to improve on his strikeout rate to a remarkable degree within the season. Here are his K% numbers by month.

Daytona
April – 27.7%
May – 22.2%
June – 20.0%
July – 16.7% (3 games)

Tennessee
July – 33.7%
August – 24.2%
September – 37.5% (2 games)

Trend lines like those strongly suggest that Baez’s high K% are the result of his need to adapt to the pitching at each level and of the fact that he is still a very young player learning to refine his game.

I think the eye test also points in this direction. Baez rarely has a weak, tentative, or uncertain swing. He’ll overswing at times, get too aggressive now and then, and has a tendency to try to hit a pitch 400 miles instead of simply 400 feet, but his swings are rarely uncertain. He knows where he expects the ball to be and he is confident that he can hit it there. That is not something I see in many minor league hitters (and something I don’t see in plenty of major league ones). Confidence of that nature, particularly when it is backed by arguably near-historic numbers, makes me suspect that this is a guy who is having no trouble seeing the ball.

If this is the version of reality the Cubs believe, then it would take a king’s ransom to pry to Baez out of Chicago. I lean in this direction myself, and, as a result, would be very surprised to see Baez traded for anything short of a young, cost controlled star.

I could be wrong, though, and I can’t ignore that 28.8% Double A K%, no matter how much I think it is due to factors that do not indicate a severe long term problem.  If you run through the list of players who have struck out at that rate in the Southern League over the last few years you will find very few significant major league players.

On the other hand, you will also find Giancarlo Stanton.

I personally doubt Baez is destined to be a bust, but the red flag is real.  His continued progress will be the subject of careful scrutiny as we head through the early months of next season.

And The Glove?

So where does Baez play? Pick a spot other than catcher or center fielder and I think he’d be fine there. He’ll never get to as many balls at shortstop as Starlin Castro does, but he is probably going to be a safer bet to make the routine play than Castro has proven to be so far. His glove would fit equally well at second or third or in either of the corner outfield slots. I doubt he has the speed to play center, but if you stuck him between good defensive corner outfielder he’d probably do alright. First base would be a cakewalk for him.

I’m not sure that I would be so confident in Baez at short that I would look to deal Castro as the Cubs are rumored to be doing, but I can understand the thinking. Any team that can slot a bat as potent as Baez’s into the middle infield is a team that is a little ahead of the game in terms of overall lineup construction.

On that note, I liked what I saw from the tandem of Baez and second baseman Arismendy Alcantara in Tennessee. There is no certainty that we will see that combo turning double plays in Chicago one day, but it is a distinct possibility (Alcantara will get his own Prospects Progress write up later in the off season).

Prognosis

Baez will once again be the talk of Spring Training in 2014, but I do not see him breaking camp with the Cubs under any circumstances. He’ll head to Iowa and open the year posting a K% in the mid to high 30% range again,and  many fans will label him a bust and rail at the front office for not trading him while they had the chance. Baez will make adjustments and pull his K% down into the mid to low 20% range. And, after it stays there for 100 PAs or so, he will head to Chicago. I doubt his Major League debut takes place before June 15, but it will take place in 2014 (barring injury). It may not be until 2015, though, before we get a good idea how well he will be able to hit in the majors. He has the potential to be a perennial MVP candidate, but it remains to be seen how much of that potential will be fully realized.




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