Nearly a month ago, the first fruits of the Cubs’ elite farm system reached Wrigley Field when the team recalled Arismendy Alcantara. Tonight, Javier Baez, one of the Cubs’ top three prospects and one of the top ten prospects in baseball, makes his Chicago Cubs debut at second base against the Rockies at Coors Field.
Whereas most Cub fans felt that Alcantara was ready for the call up, Baez is a bit more controversial due to an extremely slow start in Iowa and season numbers (.260/.323/.510, 23 HRs, 8% walk rate, 30% strikeout rate) that are good, but not indicative of destroying the PCL. In particular, the high strikeout rate concerns many Cub fans and prospect analysts.
However, Baez’s season is probably best described in three separate portions. The first is from Opening Day to May 16, when he was terrible. The second is from May 17 to June 30, when he was much better. The third is from July 1 to August 3, when he was flat out awesome.
Opening Day to May 16: 122 PAs, .145/.230/.255, 36.9 K%, 8.2 BB%, 3 HRs
May 17 to June 30: 176 PAs, .310/.358/.563, 29.5 K%, 7.4 BB%, 8 HRs
July 1 to August 3: 136 PAs, .300/.360/.675, 24.3 K%, 8.1 BB%, 12 HRs
This type of progression is not out of the ordinary for Baez. Since moving up from the Low A Peoria Chiefs to the High A Daytona Cubs in 2012, Baez has struggled upon reaching each new level before, eventually, dominating enough that he spent no more than four months at any level of the minors.
The Cubs have been fairly aggressive in promoting Baez, moving him up a level once he showed a month or so of consistent performance demonstrating improvement on his problems upon each promotion, typically dealing with his overaggressive approach leading to struggles with improved breaking pitches he saw as he moved up. This call up is right in line with that approach.
But what should we expect from Baez in his first stint in the Majors?
I’d caution not to set expectations too high. As I stated above, Baez struggled at each of the three highest levels of the Minor Leagues before adjusting, and he will consistently face pitchers with better stuff and control than at any prior point in his career. Nor would Baez be the first elite prospect to struggle in his first stint in the Majors and have a bright career soon thereafter. Antony Rizzo’s struggles in his first call up to San Diego in 2011 were widely reported, hitting just .141/.281/.242 in 153 plate appearances. Rizzo has emerged as one of the best hitters in baseball this season. Mike Trout, who has a meaningful chance of being the best baseball player many of us have ever seen when his career is finished, hit just .220/.281/.390 in his first 135 plate appearances in the Show.
If Baez hits .250/.300/.400 and keeps his strikeout rate below 30%, I’ll be fairly pleased. If the slugging percentage is .450, meaning he’s making solid enough contact to get to his power, I’ll be quite happy. Anything beyond that from a 21 year old middle infielder with historical troubles upon moving up to a new level making him MLB debut? Well, my wife may need to tell me stop doing my ridiculous happy dance a few times over the rest of the season.
But if Baez does struggle, people should hold off on the Felix Pie/Gary Scott/etc. comparisons. When your worst case scenario is sending a 22 year old player back to Triple A for a half season to work on a pitch recognition and plate approach refinement, you’re in pretty good shape.