With minor league baseball largely scrubbed for the season, players in the 30 pipelines are mostly on their own this season for improvement. The players largely are, anyway, as they have to adjust to each new level, or get released. The Chicago Cubs have one of the better examples of that premise, in Javier Baez. He struggled mightily at most minor league levels, but eventually flourished in most of them. As most players get no opportunity to lock horns with opponents this season, those of us who mind the minors are left to either guess, or plead ignorance. Following Baez' minor-league career hints to why each level provides value.
Baez was a first-round selection of the Cubs in 2011, and was selected ninth overall. He spent some of his first fractional season in Mesa, and went 4-for-12. The Northwest League's Boise Hawks were in playoff contention in 2011, and Baez was sent to Idaho to try to help them win a title. However, he wasn't as good as the Northwest League. The Boise games were streamed on-line, and Baez was outclassed by pitchers at the level. He went 1-for-6, and would have played more, but other players on the team were better than he was at the time. Raffy Lopez hit third. Ryan Cuneo hit fourth. Baez hit eighth, and Willson Contreras hit ninth. As frustrating as it might be to hear that players develop at the rate that they do, that's how it works.
After two Baez starts, Wes Darvill reclaimed the spot at short because Darvill was better than Baez at the time, or Baez would have kept playing. In the first post-season game, Baez pinch-hit for Kyung-Min Na, who is most well known for being the other piece in the Andrew Cashner-for-Anthony Rizzo trade. Baez fanned, and remained in the game as Contreras shifted from third base to left field. Baez watched the elimination game, as a Reggie Golden homer was the only post-season run the Hawks would score. Baez was probably the 12th-best hitter on the team as that season concluded. The light hadn't gone on yet.
With new people making the executive decisions in the spring, Baez was left in Mesa for the start of the Midwest League campaign. Part of it was that Baez was a bit of a loose cannon, and part was that Marco Hernandez was considered better than Baez at that particular moment. I think his immaturity was the stronger reason, but Hernandez was batting second on opening day, while Baez was still in the desert.
Eventually, Baez was summoned to Peoria to replace Hernandez, who started the year on a cold streak. As Hernenbez was turning it around, he swapped spots with Baez, who adapted to the Midwest League rather quickly. After 57 games and a .979 OPS, Baez went to Advanced-A Daytona, where he was brutal. In 80 at-bats, he walked five times, fanning 21. He hit .188, but four of his hits were homers. In 2013, he returned to Daytona, and was much better than the league.
Promoted to Tennessee for the second half of the season, he started slowly over the first five games, then simmered as he became familiar with the league, much as he would eventually do in MLB.
The default mindset is that a great number of players in a pipeline are specifically holding a roster spot until someone better claims it. While that applies some of the time, remember that Wes Darvill was better than Baez in their time as teammates in Boise. It wasn't a small sample size. If the coaches thought Baez made the Hawks a better team than Darvill did, Baez would have started in the playoffs. He didn't.
Players at any specific time are developed to a point where they may be better than some levels, but not as good as another level. Or, the ceiling may be in dispute. Last season, Kohl Franklin pitched well in Eugene, and was in line to try to show that he was better than the Midwest League this season. Will he ever be better than the Midwest League? Some will toss around numbers on a radar gun, the 20/80 scale, or an Edgetronic computer, and claim it's obvious. The best way to show a player is better than a level is to shred at that level. Otherwise, we're only guessing.
Every player the Cubs have retained through the shutdown has proven a few things. Unless they're on the 40-man roster, and even if on it in many cases, other things still need to be proven. Any "mere placeholders" would have been released, and replaced by a player signed for a $20,000 signing bonus. Players who were likely to be in Eugene, South Bend, or anywhere else in the pipeline, have skills and upsides. Everyone is losing development time because of the cancelled season. If Baez had lost an entire season of development, his entire career arc might have looked different. It isn't a case of 10 or 12 guys are good, and the rest are rubbish. It's that players who would have benefited from 400 at-bats or 100 innings with South Bend this year, won't get them. Whether that is a fatal career loss might be developed over the next few seasons, but the opportunities wouldn't have equally benefited everyone.
That I miss minor league games is completely beside the point. The minor league landscape from 2019 is likely forever gone. That level that gave Contreras 500 at-bats between 2011 and 2012? It's likely forever gone. Development personnel will need to decide between "compound level" (Mesa) or full-season ball for players. For some, it may be exactly what they needed. Some players will get lost without the extra level, and will be considered by many as flops.
Some players will be submerged at any level, regardless. Eventually, most will be found wanting, eventually. At one point, a Northwest League team that reached the playoffs had ten or so better players than Baez, who watched from the bench much of the time. Eventually, he figured it out, one level at the time. Remember that players at a lower level of development may be exactly where they need to be playing. Unless they aren't playing.