While the Chicago Cubs are mired in yet another losing season at the MLB level, optimism for the future is as high as it has been in years thanks to the myriad of talent making its way through the upper levels of the minors.
Planted firmly at the top of every Cubs' prospect list is Javier Baez. The 20-year-old was the team's first-round pick (ninth overall) in the 2011 draft and is on the fast track to the big leagues thanks to an incredible performance this year.
After a 4-for-4 night that included two home runs on Wednesday, Baez's season stats between High-A and Double-A are now .286/.348/.581 with 33 home runs, 33 doubles, 19 stolen bases and 276 total bases in 119 games.
With the exception of pitchers, shortstop is a position that has been coveted like no other in recent drafts as teams put more emphasis on finding a cost-controlled, impact player in the middle of the diamond.
This current era of shortstop prospects is arguably as good as it has ever been.
Jurickson Profar (Texas), Manny Machado (Baltimore) and Xander Bogaerts (Boston) have already been promoted to the big leagues. Baez, Francisco Lindor (Cleveland), Addison Russell (Oakland) and Carlos Correa (Houston) aren't far behind.
For the record, I know that Profar and Machado haven't been playing shortstop since being promoted, but they were drafted and developed at the position and could play there now if their respective teams had an opening.
Yet Baez is a clear standout because of his huge offensive upside.
Russell and Correa are the closest to Baez with the bat, but they can't quite match his ceiling, which should tell you how special he can be.
Fortunately, instead of just telling you Baez will be really good, we are going to show you exactly what makes him such a unique talent and why he's already knocking on the door to Chicago.
The Moneymaker: Bat Speed
Anytime you watch Baez or talk about him with other people, the first thing that comes up is bat speed. It is what got him drafted in the top 10 of a loaded draft class, why he's been able to move up three levels since the start of 2012 and helps him generate the power displayed this season.
Doing player comparisons is always dangerous because no two people are the same and what worked for one player isn't exactly going to stick with someone else.
That said, Baez has a comparison when it comes to bat speed, so perfect it is too good to pass up: Gary Sheffield.
Take a look at Sheffield's bat and how quickly it gets through the zone with that quick-twitch action he used to build a Hall of Fame-caliber career:
Now look at Baez's swing on this home run he hit during spring training and just how quickly the head gets through the zone to drive the ball:
Here are both swings side-by-side, courtesy of Pastime Athletics, to show you just how similar Baez and Sheffield are when they start their swings, where they are when the barrel moves through the zone and how they finish:
Baez has more load to his swing than Sheffield, meaning he moves his hands back before moving forward to attack the ball, but beyond that it is really hard to tell the difference because they use their wrists so well.
Thanks to that bat speed, Baez can wait back on velocity longer than your typical hitter before committing to swing.
It also allows him to put an extra charge into the ball, and that extra speed can take a ball that would normally hit off the base of the wall over the fence.
That ability to wait on balls will also help Baez's contact rate when he learns to read and react to off-speed stuff better.
It is his best tool and why he projects to hit 30-plus homers in the big leagues.
The Work In Progress: Approach
As is often the case with Cubs hitting prospects, Baez is still developing an approach at the plate.
For all the great things he has done this season, particularly the ridiculous amounts of power he's shown playing in Double-A games at age 20, he's not ready for the big stage if the Cubs were to bring him up today.
Baez's biggest issue is that he is so anxious to make something happen, especially with the bat, that he tries to force the issue when he should be a bit more selective.
If you want to talk about an all-or-nothing prospect, Baez is your man. Yes, he has 70 extra-base hits in 475 at-bats. But he also has 132 strikeouts (54 in 176 Double-A at-bats).
Given his age and current level, it's not a huge problem right now. But there are times when Baez looks like he knows just how quick his bat is and will swing at anything, even if it isn't close to the strike zone.
Take a look at this video of Baez when he was at Daytona earlier this season, and you can see that he gets caught swinging from his heels on more than one occasion.
He can get away with those kinds of swing-and-miss tendencies at Double-A because pitchers' off-speed stuff, while better than anything you will see in A ball, is still developing and isn't consistently commanded.
This has been the big knock on Baez since he came out of high school two years ago, with some speculation it could make him turn into another failed Cubs prospect: Josh Vitters.
Vitters has one of the prettiest swings you will ever see with plus bat speed and raw power, but because he had no kind of approach or idea at the plate, things never worked out for him.
While Baez still has that hole in his game, he's had far more success moving through the system than Vitters ever had.
It leads you to suspect that Baez is going to figure things out eventually and become a player who hits for both average and power.
Where Does Baez Play?
Drafted and being developed—for now—as a shortstop, Baez is still a crude defensive player. He has raw skills that you can imagine playing well at shortstop—plus arm strength, surprising range and footwork.
But he is also erratic throwing the ball, as evidenced by the 41 errors in 602 chances this season. Obviously Baez would be most valuable to the Cubs as a shortstop because his offensive upside at that position is incredible.
There aren't a lot of shortstops in the big leagues or minors who have the ability to hit .280 with 30 home runs. The Cubs are smart to keep him at shortstop and hope that things click eventually.
Another concern is Baez's body. Not that he is out of shape or close to it at 6'0", 195 pounds, but he has more room to fill out and could lose a step, which would hinder his already average range.
If/when Baez adds more muscle, the shortstop experiment could end, and the Cubs would just slide him over to third base where his arm would play just fine and allow him to rely more on instincts instead of movement.
There is no real danger in lowering Baez's ceiling if such a move happens because he is going to hit and hit for power. But when you have the potential, even if just for a few years, to get this kind of bat in the middle of the diamond, you are going to do everything possible to make it stick.
The Cubs faced a similar scenario with Starlin Castro when he was developing.
He didn't have the power Baez does, but his hit tool was better, and he was big enough for a shortstop that it was assumed an eventual move to third base was imminent.
Four years into his career, Castro is still a well below-average defensive shortstop, but the Cubs haven't tried to move him yet. His offensive regression this season (.240/.275/.338) has been particularly crippling since the 23-year-old signed a seven-year contract extension last year.
That could provide an opening for the Cubs to test Baez at shortstop in the big leagues as soon as next season.
And The Ceiling Is...
When it comes to prospects, I always play things conservatively because there are so many things that have to go right for them to reach their ultimate ceiling.
In an ideal world, Baez learns to play shortstop at an average level and learns an approach that allows him to walk on occasion and keep his average over .300, while he launches 30-plus home runs over the ivy at Wrigley Field.
But that is the perfect-world scenario.
What I expect Baez to do is still really, really, really great. He is going to be an impact middle-of-the-order hitter because that power is something special. You just don't see many players at age 20 showing off the way he has this year.
The approach has been better of late, with Baez showing a willingness to work counts and take walks with some frequency, but it is still not great. There is time for him to turn that around because he is so young, but I would not expect him to be someone who walks more than 40-45 times in a season.
If Baez is able to tone down the strikeouts, that walk total won't be a problem. He can be a .300 hitter with a .350-.360 on-base percentage and .550-plus slugging percentage.
But again, that is an ideal scenario.
Ultimately, Baez's offensive ceiling looks more likely to be .280/.340/.575. That's still fantastic and would play beautifully in the No. 3 or 4 spot of any lineup.
Defensively, I would expect Baez to stay at shortstop for at least another year. Even if he is below average with the glove, you can put up with a lot more when you are getting that kind of offensive production.
It also helps that the Cubs have so many players in the upper levels of the minors capable of playing third base in the big leagues very soon.
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