It’s official: Javier Baez is must-watch television.
The 21-year-old continued to blow past all reasonable expectations Thursday against the Rockies with a 3-for-4 performance that included a pair of impressive home runs.
Baez is now batting .286 with five RBI through his first three games, and his three home runs during that span make him the second player in the last 100 years to accomplish the feat, according to High Heat Stats, via Twitter:
In his debut Tuesday, Baez went 0-for-5 with three strikeouts before connecting for his first major league hit—a go-ahead, solo home run in the top of the 12th inning. He turned in a 0-for-4 showing the following day but quickly made up for the hitless game Thursday with an impressive display of power.
After lacing an RBI single through the left side of the infield in his second at-bat, Baez muscled an inner-half, 3-2 offering out to left field against starter Yohan Flande the next time up. And just for good measure, the right-handed slugger capped his day with a two-run home run to the opposite field in the eighth inning off righty Juan Nicasio:
Baez has made a strong impression on manager Rick Renteria, per Mark Gonzales of the Chicago Tribune:
He has a grasp of being able to separate the nuances of everything that’s around him and remain within himself and stay focused.
He’s going to have struggles. He’s going to have great days, bad days, good days, not so good days. It’s all part of the process. That’s why he’s here. And probably dealing with all the fan (attention) will be part of the process. It isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But we all have to keep perspective and have a good balance in all those things.
However, while Baez’s immediate success in the major leagues has opened everyone’s eyes, it’s even more exciting to think that he’s just one of countless high-end prospects.
The Cubs, who have been aggressively rebuilding for the better part of the last three years, took a step toward the future when they called up Arismendy Alcantara from Triple-A Iowa in early July. Since the promotion, the 22-year-old switch-hitter—who played second base prior to Baez’s call-up and is now patrolling center field—has batted .240/.310/.404 with 10 extra-base hits, 11 RBI and four stolen bases in 24 games.
With both Alcantara and Baez now in the major leagues, the next big-name prospect to arrive should be outfielder Jorge Soler.
Despite missing most of the first half with a nagging hamstring injury, Soler, 22, still posted monster numbers at Double-A Tennessee when healthy, batting .415/.494/.862 (1.355 OPS) with six home runs, nine doubles and 22 RBI in 22 games.
Soler’s overwhelming success in the Southern League prompted the organization to promote him to Triple-A Iowa in late July. He’s continued to rake to the tune of a 1.078 OPS with nine extra-base hits (four home runs) and 12 RBI through 14 games.
Besides his robust production, Soler’s vastly improved plate discipline this season against advanced pitching—25-19 ratio of strikeouts to walks in 128 plate appearances between the Double- and Triple-A levels—has allowed him to take a big step forward developmentally.
Considering he’s already on the team’s 40-man roster, it’s almost a foregone conclusion that Soler will receive his first taste of the major leagues in September.
Then, of course, there’s Kris Bryant, who has done nothing but mash since the Cubs selected him No. 2 overall in the 2013 draft.
The 22-year-old third baseman has posted video game numbers this season between Double-A Tennessee and Triple-A Iowa, batting .341/.446/.685 (1.131 OPS) with 36 home runs, 33 doubles, 94 RBI and 15 stolen bases in 114 games.
As a result, Bryant has emerged as one of the sport’s top prospects this season, ranking No. 3 in Prospect Pipeline’s midseason update. He is knocking on the door of the major leagues.
However, just because he’s on pace for one of the best minor league seasons in recent memory doesn’t mean the Cubs will call him up in September.
Don’t get me wrong: There’s nothing I want to see more than Bryant playing alongside Baez, Alcantara and Soler during the final month of the regular season. That being said, those four guys have spent a good chunk of the year playing together in the high minors, so in theory it wouldn’t be a terrible idea for the Cubs to at least consider breaking him in with the parent club among familiar faces.
The 2015 season should feature the arrivals of several more impact prospects in shortstop Addison Russell, outfielder Albert Almora and possibly even 2014 first-rounder Kyle Schwarber. However, due to the Cubs’ wealth of positional talent, those players’ future defensive homes remain up in the air.
Russell, the No. 11 overall pick in the 2012 draft, was acquired in early July from the A’s in the deal for right-handers Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel. Like Soler, the 20-year-old missed most of the first half with a hamstring injury but has quickly made up for the lost time with a hot start with his new organization, batting .296/.364/.509 with eight home runs, four doubles and 19 RBI through 27 games.
Unfortunately, Russell lacks a clear path to the major leagues with current shortstop Starlin Castro under contract through at least 2019. Therefore, it’s likely the Cubs will trade one of them, likely in exchange for high-end starting pitching, in the coming years.
Meanwhile, Almora has been the least productive of the Cubs’ big-name prospects this season, with a .271/.297/.390 batting line, 32 extra-base hits (eight home runs) and 53 RBI in 102 games. The 20-year-old outfielder played 89 games at High-A Daytona before receiving a promotion to Double-A in late July when Soler was moved up to Triple-A.
If all goes as planned with Almora’s development, he could be ready to debut late in the 2015 season. However, Alcantara’s presence in center field with the Cubs could force Almora to change positions prior to debuting in the major leagues. Plus, as is the case with Castro and Russell, there’s a chance one of them is dealt in the next year or two.
Last, but certainly not least, is catcher/outfielder Kyle Schwarber, who has hit his way to High-A Daytona this summer after the Cubs selected him No. 4 overall in June.
After signing a $3.125 million bonus, Schwarber was assigned to Short Season Boise, where he batted .600 with four home runs and 10 RBI in his first five games. The 21-year-old continued to terrorize opposing pitching following a promotion to Low-A Kane County, as he batted .361/.448/.602 with four homers, eight doubles and 15 RBI in just 23 games.
The left-handed hitter hasn’t posted the same type of gaudy numbers since moving up to High-A Daytona, but he’s still held his own with a .730 OPS, four extra-base hits (two homers) and 11 RBI in 20 games. Overall, Schwarber is batting .341/.437/.594 with 22 extra-base hits, 36 RBI and a 35-28 ratio of strikeouts to walks through 48 games this season.
However, while his bat looks as though it will be ready sooner rather than later, Schwarber's development on the other side of the ball is more likely to influence when he arrives in the major leagues.
The Cubs listed him as a catcher when the selection was announced due to the potential value of his offensive profile at a premium position. Yet there already was concern heading into the draft about his ability to stay behind the plate for the long term.
In theory, Schwarber would require additional time in the minor leagues if developed as a catcher, whereas a move to the outfield full time would likely allow the Cubs to expedite the arrival of his bat in the major leagues.
Cubs president Theo Epstein has already said that the organization won't impede Schwarber's development by forcing him to remain behind the plate if his bat merits fast-tracking to the major leagues, per ESPN Chicago's Jesse Rogers.
If true, it wouldn’t be surprising for Schwarber to reach the major leagues ahead of schedule, possibly as early as late 2015. However, it’s hard to see him earning a call-up before the team resolves its current logjam of position players.
With several impact prospects now in the major leagues and even more on the way, it shouldn’t be long before the Cubs enter a new phase in their rebuilding process and begin to target high-end starting pitching. Based on the organization’s recent (and upcoming) promotions, that process could begin this offseason.
For now, however, the Cubs will focus on challenging their young hitters at advanced levels as the organization builds toward success in upcoming seasons.