The Javier Baez era has pretty much encompassed the amount of time I've been following Cubs prospects. I've seen the bad, and generally listened to the good. He has intrigued opposing radio announcers and created positives and negatives every step of the way. Now he has debuted in the majors, and precious little has changed. Few have much confidence on their read of Baez. Nonetheless, what we have seen tells more than you think about evaluating prospects.
If Baez hits the ball solidly, he can take it out of pretty much any park to any field. You already knew that. His defense can be both impressive and maddening in the same inning. No news there. Any ZIPS or PECOTA projection for him is more guesswork than most players. Nonetheless, Baez does a much better job of most players of giving a tell from what to expect from similar players in the future -- if they even exist.
If you want me to tell you how Baez will adjust to the majors, that isn't likely to happen. If I choke out a projection, it's likely to be wrong. However, his career with the Cubs has done a better job than most in determining how current Cubs management will treat the "next" Javier Baez.
Let's use Corey Patterson as a backdrop. Patterson had a very good season in Lansing in 1999, with an OPS of .949. Whether you want to call it rushing him, or not, Patterson skipped High-A ball. Whether that was wise or not, it wasn't what was done with Baez. Every step of the way. Check every box. The brass has been very deliberate with Baez, and most players not named Kris Bryant. They were very step-by-step with Kyle Schwarber, though that may have had as much to do with scheduling as anything.
While being outclassed in 2011 in Boise (True, it appears a small sample size, but the sample size would have been far larger if he had played well enough to earn more at bats. In a very similar case in 2014, Gleyber Torres played well enough to push Bryant Flete to second base. Baez sat most of the time in 2011, and flailed to a 1-for-6 when he did play), it was expected Baez would be a starter in 2012 in Peoria. He didn't. Whether production-based, maturity-based, or whatever, Marco Hernandez (recently sent to Boston as the Felix Doubront PTBNL) started in Peoria over Baez.
That told quite a tale early on. If you don't do what is expected, you can stay in Mesa for a month until you get it right. Whether that is what would have been done before, it is the standard now. And the coaches, players, and executives in the system all know it. That helps immensely in evaluating prospects writ large. If Gleyber Torres breaks camp with the South Bend Cubs, he will have earned it. Cuz Javy Baez.
As Baez crept up the ladder, he had some titanic homers in spring training. Undeterred, the brass kept to their modus operandi. Players will advance only if it is determined they should. Levels won't be skipped to rush a timeline. (One of the reasons Bryant avoided Kane County was that Jeimer Candelario needed the at-bats at that level. As Bryant was that good, and it benefited the system, he skipped a level. However, without the Candelario option, it could have been a different puzzle.) Baez went to Daytona, and struggled there, early in 2012. When he had the level figured out, he moved up.
There was curiosity if he would get an early call in 2013 or 2014. He didn't. Check the boxes, every level along the way. Eventually, Baez (with no small amount of help from Manny Ramirez) figured out Pacific Coast League pitching, and moved to the majors.
He did what Javy does. He was sensational. And embarrassing. In successive at bats, sometimes. So how did the brass show their unwavering confidence in Baez' ability to crush MLB pitching? They traded to get Tommy La Stella, a second baseman who hits from the other side of the plate from Baez. And draws walks with regularity. Not specifically a traditional vote of confidence.
I have no idea what Baez will do, but things the front office has done in their time since Jim Hendry was dismissed shows how they might treat an Eloy Jimenez if he scuffles early in his career. Or, even if he succeeds. On-field results aren't the only cue in evaluating prospects. Front office response to on-field results are a bit of a tell, as well.
One other thing to note about Baez is the value placed on options. While Baez could have been rushed up in either of 2013 or 2014, he wasn't. First off, he hadn't proved enough to justify a spot on the 25-man roster. Arguably, more importantly, he hadn't shown anything to justify a spot on the 40-man roster. When it became pretty much apparent he had to be in the majors, he was called up. He was left to do what he was going to do in 2014.
I place too much value on 40-man spots. I admit it. I tend to be very polar on things. If they matter, I virtually obsess. If I don't care, they rarely merit a mention, unless it tells a proper tale. By keeping Baez in the minors as long as they did, Baez still has three options left. (I just saw you roll your eyes.)
In evaluating prospects, it's a wise idea to me to figure the loose likelihood of 'the light going on' for him. For a fringy back-up catcher type, the light probably won't ever go on. However, with Baez, there is no telling when, or if, he will mature as a hitter. If he does, you don't want him as an All-Star or a solid regular for a division rival. Especially if it was easily avoidable.
If Baez is bad in Mesa this year, he returns to Iowa. If he's bad in Mesa in 2016, as well, he would burn his second option. If he's bad in 2017, he can burn his third option. If he's still bad in 2018, yeah, you let him go on waivers. Where he would likely be claimed by someone willing to give him another shot.
If the team had foolishly rushed him up in 2013 to quell a bitter fan base, he would have two less years to figure it out as a Cub. I will forever overplay that hand, in part because others will continue to underplay it.
To summarize, when assessing a player, it's wise to value where he was drafted, who was drafted around him, and probably what was thought of him at the time. Progress through the minor league levels is another component of evaluating. The more usable information, the better. How the front office has dealt with players like him in the past also bears watching. In most cases, if a player has a 10 WAR career, that's rather good. For early draft picks, the number could be a bit higher, but attention should be noted on outliers on either side.
In the process of running through Jake Hannemann, Albert Almora, and Baez, I realized a few other points I want to make. It's not terribly surprising the next trio will be pitchers, all with their own little angles as well. Expect three more soon on pitchers...... naaaah. I'll make you wait for it.