As far back as late last year, the Chicago Cubs front office held open the possibility that, despite his promotion to the big leagues in August, Javier Baez could start the 2015 season back at AAA Iowa. No, I don’t think I would call that the expectation – at least not last year – but it was always possible. Not every player comes to the big leagues and stays immediately upon his initial promotion.
Convenient example? Anthony Rizzo was promoted by the Padres in late 2011 (under then-GM Jed Hoyer) during his age 21 season. Rizzo struggled a bit offensively, was traded to the Cubs, and started the 2012 season at AAA Iowa. He fully embraced certain adjustments, raked, and came up for good in late June 2012.
Last year, the Cubs promoted Baez in late 2014 (under GM Jed Hoyer) during his age 21 season. Baez struggled a bit offensively, went to winter ball and struggled some more, and now he’s trying to win a job on the big league team in Spring Training. The issue for Baez, as we’ve discussed at length, is that he’s got a significant number of adjustments to fully embrace before he can succeed, consistently, at the big league level. Every player is an individual, but it’s possible that, like Rizzo, Baez will be best served by some time at AAA to start the 2015 season.
Cubs manager Joe Maddon was asked whether Baez had a spot on the 2015 team out of camp, and he declined to guarantee anything (Cubs.com, ESPN, CSN, Tribune). Reiterating his “no entitlement program” stance, Maddon emphasized that you don’t want to just hand young players a job. Baez is working on his approach, showing some signs of progress, but often still sliding back into (what appear to outside observers to be) bad habits. He does play good defense, runs the bases well, and has a high baseball IQ, but unless the Cubs believe his development will be best served in the big leagues – and unless they believe he won’t kill their offense in a potentially competitive year – a layover in AAA Iowa to continue working is a real possibility. The guy is just 22, after all.
I won’t get too deeply into the Baez-specific stuff here, in part because you all already know the score there, and in part because those four linked articles there do a good job already.
Instead, I want to take a moment to discuss the Cubs’ roster, in light of the possibility that Baez starts the season at AAA Iowa, rather than in Chicago.
Let’s go with some assumptions first:
- With 5 starting pitchers and 7 relievers expected, the Cubs will have 13 position players on the roster.
- With 8 of those 13 as nominal starters in the field, there will be 5 bench spots.
- 1 of those bench spots will go to back-up catcher, David Ross.
- So, right now, we’re talking about 4 bench spots available on the team to be spread among the spare infielders, outfielders, and, if necessary, Welington Castillo.
Against that backdrop, the roster implications of Baez heading to AAA Iowa to start the season are rather significant. With Baez on the team, the four bench spots could have gone to Arismendy Alcantara, Tommy La Stella, Chris Denorfia, and one of Ryan Sweeney, Matt Szczur, Junior Lake, or Welington Castillo. That assumes Mike Olt is the nominal starter at third base, but there’s also some flexibility there, as he’s not a lock to make the team just yet. Once Kris Bryant is ready to come up, however, somebody gets bumped.
Without Baez,* however, Alcantara or La Stella nominally slides into the starting second base job, and suddenly the possibility of carrying Castillo as the third catcher for just a little while becomes all the more plausible. Further, the roster doesn’t feel as crowded when Bryant comes up (perhaps replacing Castillo on the 25-man and 40-man, if the Cubs have made a deal by then). Moreover, the slim possibility that the Cubs could carry eight relievers for the start of the year, rather than seven, opens up. That could allow the Cubs to retain someone they cannot option (Edwin Jackson? Felix Doubront? Tsuyoshi Wada? Drake Britton?) for a little while longer.
All that is to say, the Cubs’ ability to manage the periphery of the roster improves slightly if Baez starts the season at AAA Iowa.** I present that, of course, not as a reason to option Baez to start the season – that decision will be made entirely based on what is best for the Cubs’ big league performance and Baez’s development. Instead, I simply thought this was an aspect of the Baez roster decision worth discussing.
*(Note that, without Baez, the Cubs wouldn’t have a really obvious back-up shortstop on the roster. Alcantara could fill in for a very short-term pinch, though, and, if Starlin Castro went down with an injury for any significant amount of time, the Cubs could simply elect to bring Baez back up to play there, or could roster another shortstop.)
**(Since I know some of you will ask: yes, it is possible that the Cubs could gain an extra year of control over Baez if they were to keep him in the minor leagues until mid-June. But, in his situation, I think Baez’s development and the Cubs’ 2015 needs are going to dictate his timeline, not service time considerations.)