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Javier Baez has blasted four home runs in his last two games. Is it possible he's ready for the major leagues much earlier than management had envisioned?
SCOTTSDALE, Arizona -- Don't go off on this post before you at least read it, because it's very, very unlikely that the question posed in the headline can be answered, "Yes", nor am I specifically advocating it.
On the other hand, Javier Baez is having one of those springs that, at the very least, makes you go "Hmmmm." He's currently hitting .324/.343/.706 -- in detail, that's 11-for-34 with a double, four home runs and eight RBI. Only three players in all of spring training have homered more than Baez -- Khris Davis of the Brewers, Paul Konerko of the White Sox and Michael Morse of the Mariners all have five. That's another really good prospect and two established major-league power hitters. And if you count Baez's two blasts against Japan (yes, I know they "officially" don't count), that's six homers and an overall line of .342/.359/.842 in 38 spring at-bats. His "opposition quality", as listed on his baseball-reference page, is 8.5, which translates to a little bit above Triple-A. Saturday's two home runs were off a major-league (or, well, maybe a former major-league, the way he threw) rotation starter, Bruce Chen.
Yes. Spring at-bats. Where pitchers throw a lot of fastballs and a good fastball hitter like Baez can launch them. The history of major-league baseball is littered with guys who had amazing springs and then fell flat on their butts, rarely to be heard from again. There are two recent examples just from Cubs spring camps: Scott McClain smashed six home runs, including a game-winner, in 2005 and wound up the last player cut from the roster. In 2009, Micah Hoffpauir also had six homers, with 26 RBI in 94 at-bats and hit .277/.314/.553, fooling Lou Piniella into thinking he could shoehorn Micah into the outfield.
And then there was Gary Scott, whose experience might be more germane to Baez. Through the 1990 season Scott had played two years in the Cubs organization, just 35 games' worth above A ball. He had about 700 total plate appearances and hit reasonably well, coming off a combined .298/.354/.449 season with 16 home runs.
And then he hit like a madman in spring training -- unfortunately, spring stats that far back appear to be lost to the ages, but I recall a batting average over .400 and home runs everywhere. Manager Don Zimmer was desperately seeking a third baseman and Scott outhit everyone, so north he came, and north he flopped. He hit .165/.305/.241 -- at least there was a bit of plate discipline -- and was quickly sent to Triple-A Iowa, where he didn't hit either (.208/.286/.307 in 63 games). He got into a few more big-league games in 1992, then floundered in the minor leagues, confidence shattered, never again to return.
Of course, you wouldn't want that to happen to Javier Baez. You can't say the guy lacks confidence, because:
You like a little swagger in a major-league player, as long as he can back it up, and Baez did Friday. Baez has just 311 minor-league at-bats and struggled when promoted to Daytona late last season -- although some of that has to be credited to the fact that Daytona got rained out of about two-thirds of their games after Baez was promoted. He just never got into a good rhythm there.
What of players who do make the major leagues at age 20? Baez turned 20 last December and there are, in major-league history since 1916, 89 players who have had at least 300 at-bats in the year in which their baseball age was 20.
There are some really good players on that list, including 19 Hall of Famers, but also some guys you probably never heard of (here's one who never played in the majors again, although he later became a longtime major-league trainer and coach). It makes logical sense that a Hall of Fame player might have had significant MLB time at age 20; after all, if you're going to put up a Hall of Fame career, it very likely starts early.
A couple of names stand out on that list, at least in connection with Baez. One is Gary Sheffield, to whom Baez's stance, bat speed and swagger have been compared. He had 368 at-bats in his age-20 season, and frankly, didn't do very well, hitting .247/.303/.337 while the Brewers tried to figure out what to do with him. He wasn't happy in Milwaukee and they probably weren't real happy with him, either, and he wound up traded to the Padres before he turned 24, just in time for him to blossom into the hitter who racked up over 500 home runs and a career OPS+ of 140.
Perhaps an even better comp is longtime Cub favorite, Hall of Famer Ron Santo. The story's told that Hall of Famer Rogers Hornsby (who's also on that age-20 list), a spring-training coach for the Cubs in 1959, spent three weeks working with Cubs minor leaguers at camp. After the camp was over, he gave rough evaluations to nearly every "prospect", then turned to one of the group and said, "You can hit in the big leagues right now," and at another, "So can you."
Those two young men were Ron Santo and Billy Williams. Hornsby had an eye for talent, obviously. The 1960 Cubs were a bad team, in about the same spot as the Cubs are now, though clearly with some young talent in the pipeline such as Santo, Williams, and the late, lamented Ken Hubbs. Santo had hit .327/.390/.473 at Double-A San Antonio in 1959 in his first professional season, with 35 doubles and 11 home runs.
Despite Hornsby's statement, the Cubs sent Santo to Triple-A Houston, where his numbers were a bit more pedestrian -- .268/.348/.412 -- but on June 25, 1960, after the Cubs dropped their ninth game in a row to fall to 23-37 and dead last in the National League, management decided to recall him and install him at third base.
Santo responded to the challenge. In 95 games he hit .251/.311/.409; the .720 OPS ranks in the middle of the pack of those 89 players (42nd of 89). He finished fourth in National League Rookie of the Year balloting, and the next season established himself as one of the best young hitters in the league (.284/.362/.479 with 23 home runs).
One thing Santo did from the very beginning of his career that Javier Baez doesn't do (yet) is draw walks. As was mentioned on the WGN-TV telecast Saturday, that's something that Theo Epstein and management want Baez to work on. You wouldn't want to give Baez the Cubs' third base job on April 1, 2013 and have him suffer Gary Scott's fate because he simply doesn't have the plate discipline he will need to succeed. He almost certainly needs to learn to hit offspeed pitches and make adjustments.
On the other hand, the 2013 Cubs need a third baseman. It doesn't look as if Ian Stewart is going to make it, and the thought of 130 or so games of Luis Valbuena there makes me cringe (and again, I think Valbuena makes a fine utility player, just not an everyday starter).
It's been assumed, I think, that Baez is going to be sent to Daytona to play a full year in the High-A Florida State League. But why do that? Why not put him on the fast track and see if he can hit Double-A pitching? (Hint: I think he can.) If he can do that, promote him to Iowa after a short time in Double-A and maybe he can be on the Santo Plan, being a big-league third baseman by later this year -- and at that point, if he's good enough, I wouldn't even think about the 40-man roster spot or future arb years. If he belongs in the big leagues, he should be there.
This isn't something that Cubs management teams have done in recent times except when the player seemed singularly ill-suited for that sort of thing (Scott, and Corey Patterson, the two prima facie examples). But Baez isn't Scott, and he isn't Corey Patterson. He appears to be the kind of guy who might be that once-in-a-generation talent the Cubs have been searching for, for
what seems like decades. Maybe he's the Cubs' version of Giancarlo Stanton as a hitter.
So should Javier Baez go north with the Cubs to Pittsburgh as the starting third baseman April 1? No, not even as an April Fool's joke. The answer to the question posed in the headline is "No." But he seems to have the talent and confidence and drive that management shouldn't keep him down on the farm too long. It wouldn't surprise me to see him bashing baseballs onto Waveland Avenue sometime in 2013.
When should Javier Baez make his MLB debut?
Sometime in 2013 (160 votes)
Early to mid 2014 (268 votes)
September 2014 (117 votes)
2015 or later (14 votes)
559 total votes