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Today’s obscure Cub: Mike Baxter

He had a couple of good games in his brief time in blue pinstripes.

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I'm apparently to the Requests portion of the show. Mike Baxter was requested, and I figured that was as valid of a writing idea as I had for the short-term. Whenever he gets mentioned, I think of Meredith Baxter, the actress who played Michael J. Fox's mother Elyse Keaton on Family Ties. The hyphenated "-Birney" is no longer on the record.

The ballplayer Baxter was a fourth-round draft pick by the Padres from Vanderbilt in 2005. Taking a second-day offense-first outfielder from a major conference is something the Cubs have rarely done the last decade or so. Most of those selections have been pitchers, with little to no MLB success. When a team selects an offense-first outfielder on the second day of the draft, he's expected to hit his way to the upper-minors, much as Mark Zagunis did. No, you can't tell from a college record whether a hitter will hit a big-league slider. However, if a college bat struggles against pitching not good enough to conquer the Midwest League, he might not be able to reach full-season ball himself.

I hold to the belief that players _can_ learn to hit pro pitching. The likelihood of that happening is much more likely if there's a hint of a whisper of it in his college record. Baxter started his college career at Columbia in the Ivy League. As a freshman, his OPS was .879, which earned him a "promotion" to the SEC, where his OPS as a junior was 1.075. Not a guarantee of any future success, but if you can hit SEC pitching with an aluminum bat, you might be able to hit low-level pitching in the pros.

The Padres did something that wasn't prevalent in the 20-teens, and presumably won't be allowed in the future. His first assignment was in the Midwest League. The standard has been to get a few looks either "on the compound" or in Short-Season ball. San Diego bounced him directly to the Fort Wayne Wizards, now the Tin Caps. (Teams may well be banned from letting draft choices play for an affiliate in their draft season in the future. Mostly because of money reasons, but you likely guessed that.) It took until his second try, but he eventually took his gear to the Advanced-A Cal League.

Baxter usually figured out each level in his second season, which isn't uncommon. (Javier Baez struggled initially at most levels, as well. Baseball is hard.) Hitters, though, often figure out how to hit. Baxter got his first MLB cup of coffee in 2010 with the Padres, going 1-for-8. From there, he became a "waivers/free agent" guy, never valued enough to be traded, or little enough to be entirely out of work until after the 2016 campaign. Part of 2015 saw him in Chicago, where he drove in two runs. He'd drive in 20 that year for the Triple-A I-Cubs, as well.

Baxter was a traditional "have bat/will travel" outfielder. His power peaked in the Pacific Coast League, where he hit 18 home runs in 2010 for Portland. Teams should usually have five or six "Mike Baxter or better" outfielders in their pipeline at any time. Because the Cubs haven't is part of the reason why it's been so hard to envision any in-house outfield prospects being better "straight-up" offensively than Jason Heyward. As soon as the Cubs actually have a prospect corner outfielder who clearly hits better than Heyward, trading him becomes far easier. Because they don't need a replacement in that (or another) exchange.