There was no shortage of excitement surrounding the debut of the Chicago Cubs' top prospect, Javier Baez, and he did not disappoint, hitting his first career home run in the top of the 12th inning Tuesday night.
The 21-year-old still has a lot of work ahead of him before he becomes the superstar many have predicted he will be. However, he showed poise beyond his years and came through with what proved to be the decisive blow against Colorado Rockies left-hander Boone Logan.
The No. 9 pick in the 2011 draft, Baez is one of the last major ties to the previous front office, but he figures to be a significant piece of the puzzle for Theo Epstein and Co. as they look to put together a team that can consistently contend in the years to come.
After hitting .282/.341/.578 with 34 doubles, 37 home runs and 111 RBI between High-A and Double-A last season, many viewed Baez as one of the top prospects in the game. He was the No. 5 prospect in the game on the Baseball America Top 100, while Baseball Prospectus had him a notch higher at No. 4 overall.
The team gave him an extended look in spring training, and he wrapped up Cactus League action at 14-for-53 with three doubles and five home runs.
That included this towering blast off veteran left-hander Randy Wolf:
That performance had many calling for him to break camp with the big league club, but the team opted to send him to Triple-A to open the season, and it proved to be a necessary step in his development. Through his first 56 games, Baez hit just .217/.275/.415 with 10 doubles, nine home runs and 33 RBI while posting a 15/80 BB/K ratio in 207 at-bats.
Even with his terrific numbers in 2013, he still had a 40/147 BB/K ratio, and it was clear he needed to improve his plate discipline and contact rate before he could succeed at the big league level.
A 2-for-4 game June 15 (which included a home run) broke an 0-for-19 slump, and that proved to be a turning point in his season, as he went on an offensive tear at Triple-A after that. From that day on, Baez hit .309/.376/.619 with 14 doubles, 14 home runs and 47 RBI in 48 games prior to earning the call-up to Chicago.
"I've never seen anybody like Javy," said former big league star and current Iowa player/coach Manny Ramirez following Baez's call-up, via CSN Chicago. "He's a special kid. He works hard, he loves the game and I think the Cubs fans are going to love him."
There are no doubt going to be some ups and downs, and the game-winning home run helped hide what was an 0-for-5 game with three strikeouts leading up to that point. However, Baez has the tools to be an offensive force in the very near future. His top-flight bat speed has earned comparisons to Gary Sheffield:
New #Cubs coach Eric Hinske told me last night that Javier Baez has Manny Ramirez/Gary Sheffield-type bat speed.— Ken Rosenthal (@Ken_Rosenthal) March 20, 2014
Theo Epstein said that Javier Baez has 80 bat speed (on scale of 20-80) he compared the bat speed with Gary Sheffield #Cubs XM 89— Jim Bowden (@JimBowden_ESPN) August 18, 2013
Sveum says prospect Javier Baez has "Gary Sheffield like bat speed".— Jesse Rogers (@ESPNChiCubs) December 4, 2012
Both players debuted around the same age and spent roughly the same amount of time in the minors, so let's see how their numbers stack up prior to being called up:
The obvious difference here is the strikeout rate of Baez, as Sheffield actually drew more walks than strikeouts during his time in the minors. He would go on to win a batting title in 1992 and regularly hit over .300 in his career.
Baez is never going to contend for a batting title, and there's a good chance he whiffs north of a 33 percent clip here early on in his big league career. But the power potential is there for him to be a consistent 30-35 home run guy in the middle of the Cubs order, and there's no reason he can't develop into a solid .270-.280 hitter in his prime.
For now, it's just a matter of him getting comfortable at the big league level over these next couple months in preparation for what will almost certainly be an everyday job in 2015.
If nothing else, Baez should help pump some life into a team that is headed for another last-place finish and give Cubs fans something to cheer about the rest of the way.