[Ed. - And how about that? Baez will indeed be promoted tomorrow.]
When it comes to the near-term future of Chicago Cubs prospect Javier Baez, we know only a few things for sure: (1) Baez is currently playing a lot of second base at AAA Iowa, a position at which the big league Cubs could offer some playing time; (2) the Cubs’ front office has not ruled out a call-up for Baez this year; and (3) the Cubs’ front office has not offered any kind of clear timetable on Baez’s expected ascent to the Majors and schedule thereafter.
Even in the things we know for sure, the embedded questions are apparent.
It doesn’t hurt Baez’s case that he had what might have been his best game of the year last night for the Iowa Cubs, with two homers AND two walks. His one out was indeed a strikeout, but it was of the looking variety (and it was close). One game does not a decision make, of course, but it was emblematic of how Baez has performed over the last couple months: more controlled, more patient, plenty of power, and plenty of production. I don’t think it would be fair to say Baez isn’t being challenged anymore at AAA, but I do think it’s fair to say that, for a healthy stretch of time, he’s been dominating the level.
Bringing up Baez before the end of this year is a decision the Cubs won’t take lightly, given the 40-man implications (bringing up Baez now requires the Cubs to add Baez to the 40-man (before they would otherwise have to), and eat up a 40-man spot all Winter long, which they then can’t otherwise use to acquire a player). There’s also the developmental question of the value of big league at bats versus participating in a playoff race and then (hopefully) the playoffs at AAA Iowa.
Speaking of the development question, not only does Baez look ready for the next challenge, it just seems like he’s the kind of player who could really benefit from getting a taste of big league pitching (preferably before September, when roster expansion dilutes the talent pool), struggling against advanced stuff/command/game-planning, and then working things out in the offseason/early-season so that he can be in a better position to contribute in 2015. Look at how that kind of approach worked out for Anthony Rizzo a few years ago.
Of course, the inevitable counterweight to the development reasons for a call-up are the financial and team-control considerations. Should the Cubs call up Baez now, and unless he then goes back to Iowa for several months next year, the Cubs will have team control over Baez through the 2020 season. Should the Cubs, on the other hand, wait until late April next year to call Baez up, they could also gain control for the 2021 season (when Baez will be very much in his prime, at age 28). For me, development always trumps control considerations, but they do at least have to factor into the discussion.
Which then leads to a related discussion: what about an early extension for Baez?
Incidentally, Baez recently reportedly changed agents to the Wasserman Media Group. While I won’t go so far as to say a change in agents points to anything with respect to extension talks, it does afford us the opportunity to discuss the possibilities. Having received a $2.625 million bonus to sign with the Cubs back in 2011, Baez has made some money in his career already, but probably not enough to completely foreclose the attractiveness of guaranteeing a (relatively) large sum soon.
Earlier this year, we saw something we’d been waiting for in baseball for a little while: a player with no big league experience receiving a long-term deal that allowed him to get paid today, and his team to call him up now without any service time considerations mucking things up. The player was Jonathan Singleton, who received $10 million guaranteed, and the Astros received a few team options at the end of a five-year deal (with a total possible cost of $35 million). Previously, the closest we’d seen to a pre-playing time extension like that was the deal the Rays gave star third baseman Evan Longoria after just a week in the big leagues: $17.5 million guaranteed over his first six years, with three team options at the end that could bring it up to $44.5 million.
Were you looking at those deals as comparisons for a possible Baez extension, I’d immediately tell you that neither is a perfect fit. Singleton is not the prospect Baez is, and Longoria didn’t have the down-side risk profile that you’d probably put on Baez (Longoria was a polished college bat whose minor league strikeout rate was under 20%). Of course, on the other hand, Longoria’s deal was signed six years ago, and the game’s economics have changed considerably since then. Further, no one would argue that, in terms of upside, Baez is right up there with Longoria circa 2008.
So, against that backdrop, what might a pre-playing extension for Baez look like? If it happened this year, you’d want the deal to offer price certainty for the six years of control after this season that the Cubs have, rather than leaving the final year or two open to arbitration. That is to say, you’d want seven guaranteed years (including 2014, technically), or at least five or six guaranteed years and then some team options. A guarantee on the order of Longoria’s $17.5 million could make some sense, with team options in the $8 to $12 million range. The total commitment, then, could rise to something like a potential nine-year, $45 to $50 million deal, topping what Longoria received, but still within a reasonable range.
Yes, that sounds inexpensive when you’re dreaming on “Future Star” Javy Baez, but you’ve got to remember that the Cubs are trading a sizable chunk of money guaranteed, and absorbing all of the downside risk (the first 3.5 years of team control would otherwise cost less than $2 million total, and if Baez busts, the Cubs can walk away). The risk is exacerbated by the fact that, in this hypothetical situation, Baez hasn’t even yet played a day in the big leagues. In exchange for that, they have to receive some kind of upside value potential. That’s where those team options come in, together with more cost certainty during the arbitration years.
Do I think this will happen with Baez? I don’t think anyone can say it’s likely, given that a pre-playing extension has happened exactly once before. I do think Baez and the Cubs are in the right position for this kind of thing to happen, though, and it’s not unreasonable to have this discussion. I’d be surprised if it isn’t a discussion the Cubs and Baez’s new representatives have already started. Why not kick each other’s tires, right?
I know the Players Association isn’t inclined to agree, but I love these kinds of extensions for young players, as they often represent one of the very few truly win-win opportunities in the business of baseball. Young player guarantees his financial future (while still reaching free agency at an age when he can score big), team locks up a potential star at a friendly rate and can more confidently plan for the future. Those would be the aforementioned “wins.”