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Cubs Tue Aug 05 2014

Call Up & Break Down: Javier Baez Comes To Chicago

Cubs_200.pngIf the Cubs waited until next spring to add Javier Baez to the 40-man roster, the decision would've been understandable. They would've had an open roster spot to use on either a Rule 5 protectee or a free agent during the offseason, along with an easier possibility of pushing Baez's free agency off until 2021.

Shortly after the Cubs traded James Russell and Emilio Bonifacio to the Braves for a prospects, Jed Hoyer was asked if Baez would be called up to take Bonifacio's spot.

"We're not going to change our timetable on any of our prospects based on a moves we made at the big league level," Hoyer said. "When we feel like they are ready to contribute, we'll do that."

So no, Baez wasn't taking Bonifacio's spot five days ago. Instead, the Cubs bypassed Logan Watkins, who they could've called up immediately, and instead added veteran Chris Valaika to the 40-man and Major League roster to play the utility slot. Valaika has experience playing every non-catcher spot on the field, and had a .768 OPS in Iowa in 2014. It was pretty clear that on July 31st, the Cubs front office felt Baez wasn't ready.

Tonight, August 5th, Baez will play second base and bat in the middle of the Chicago Cubs order during their only trip to the friendly hitting confines of Colorado's Coors Field. Barring injury, he'll play there the rest of the year.

The timing of the surprise promotion is a bit confounding. Why add Valaika to the roster when he's likely the odd man out upon Baez's call up? Valaika has to be waived to be sent down, and there's no guarantee he'll clear waivers as a versatile defender with some experience in The Show. Why call him up after 104 games when the organization has said previously that a full season of at bats in triple-A is important (remember Anthony Rizzo?) for a player's development? Why separate him from hitting guru Manny Ramirez after just a month of tutelage?

The answer from Theo Epstein and Hoyer is likely to be simple: they believe Baez is ready. They don't care about service time like Pittsburgh did with Gregory Polanco (who has struggled since his call up). They aren't waiting for Baez to agree to a long-term contract like the Astros did with Jon Singleton (who has struggled sing his call up). They believe the best thing for Baez's development is to get him almost two months worth of at bats in Chicago in preparation for 2015 and beyond. They believe he's improved every month he's been in Iowa (OPS by month: .617, .738, .815, .999, 1.400) and his two-homer, two-walk game on Sunday night was the tipping point.

Are they right? It's a question that's impossible to answer. Epstein, Hoyer, Jason McLeod, and Tim Wilken as a group believe he is, and those are four of the best baseball minds and eyes of the 21st century. If Baez succeeds immediately and indefinitely, they'll be lauded for their efforts. If he fails, they'll be hounded until they're out the door. In reality, it has nothing to do with them. It's all up to Baez now. The organization has put him in a position to succeed, but it's his responsibility to perform.

Hitting major league pitching is said to be the toughest thing to do in sports. As an example of just how hard it is as a rookie, here's how the other hitters in Baseball Prospectus' preseason Top 50 (Baez was fourth) have done in the majors this year (AVG/OBP/SLG):

2. Xander Bogaerts, SS, Boston Red Sox - .239/.306/360
3. Oscar Taveras, OF, St. Louis Cardinals - .220/.259/.321
20. George Springer, OF, Houston Astros - .231/.336/468
23. Jackie Bradley, CF, Boston Red Sox - .218/.290/.299
24. Gregory Polanco, CF, Pittsburgh Pirates - .258/.329/.363
28. Chris Owings, SS, Arizona Diamondbacks - .277/.313/.458
33. Kolten Wong, 2B, St. Louis Cardinals - .243/.289/.389
37. Nick Castellanos, 3B, Detroit Tigers - .259/.309/.402
39. Rougned Odor, 2B, Texas Rangers - .255/.297/.373
48. Travis d'Arnaud, C, New York Mets - .223/.287/.366
49. Billy Hamilton, CF, Cincinnati Reds - .273/.301/.402 (43 SB)

Out of all of those hitters, only Springer is hitting exceptionally well (.804 OPS), but he also sports 114 strikeouts in 345 plate appearances for an absurdly high 33.0 percent K-rate. It's a problem that Baez shares. In Iowa, Baez punched out in 30.0 percent of his his plate appearances, and walked in just 7.8 percent. In the majors this season, only nine hitters have 150 or more plate appearances with a K-rate above 30 and a walk rate below eight. The average wRC+ (an all encompassing offensive valuation) of those players is a paltry 85.8 (100 is average).

What's all this mean? It means striking out as often and walking as little as Baez does is a difficult formula to be successful with in the majors. Baez had a brutal April, an acceptable May, and has been unstoppable in June, July, and August. The improvements he's made over that time are substantial, but the early numbers still have to be taken into account. The game of arbitrary endpoints does nothing but muddy the math. Players have bad months. You can't just ignore the struggles and extrapolate the brilliance.

Baez does have one thing going for him that none of those other hitters have: prodigious power. Taveras might hit 30 homers at some point in his career, but his calling card is the ability to hit a pitch at his eyes or at his toes and put it in play. Baez's is hitting a pitch so hard it racks of frequent flyer miles by the time it lands. In his 158 games in double and triple-A, Baez has hit 43 bombs. In the last calendar year, just two players in MLB hit more: Chris Davis and Miguel Cabrera. Only 10 players have hit more than 30 homers during that time frame. Going yard is becoming a lost art, and Baez hopes to buck that trend.

He'll play second base everyday, which might be a bit dangerous when turning the double play, but he has the glove, arm, and range to be above average there. It'll be something he learns mostly on the fly too, as Baez has only played 16 professional games there, all of which coming in the last month. Being a natural shortstop should make the transition relatively easy though.

The call up also pushes Arismendy Alcantara back out to centerfield, which is where his long-term future is despite being a fantastic second basemen. The great thing about former shortstops (both Alcantara and Baez are) is that you can eventually play them pretty much anywhere. That's exactly what the Cubs plan to do.

With four franchise cornerstones now playing in Chicago every day, the Cubs are slowly becoming a must watch team again. Alcantara has struggled a little bit with strikeouts in the majors, and Baez will too. But it's rare for any player, regardless of how good they are, to hit immediately and emphatically against the best pitchers in the world. Give these guys some time and their talent will shine through. The Plan is coming together.

 

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