Cubs' Former Top Prospect Javier Baez Is One of MLB's Biggest Wild Cards of 2016

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterFebruary 23, 2016

Chicago Cubs' Javier Baez (9) pumps his fist as he runs bases after hitting a three run home run against the St. Louis Cardinals National League Division Series, Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2015, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)
Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press

Once an elite prospect destined to help the Chicago Cubs become relevant again, Javier Baez is now a former prospect hoping to latch onto a Cubs team that became relevant without him.

But there's a line between "former prospect" and "afterthought." Baez is still only 23, and he still has the talent that made him a top prospect in the first place. He also has what most afterthoughts don't.

An opportunity.

Coming off a 97-win season that took them to the National League Championship Series, the Cubs don't have a starting role for Baez in 2016. He's a natural shortstop, but Addison Russell has that spot on lockdown. Ditto Kris Bryant at third base and newcomer Ben Zobrist at second base. Barring injury, none of them is moving for a dude with a career .201 average and .598 OPS in the majors.

But because Zobrist—whose visage appears next to "versatile" in the encyclopedia—is indeed locked into his own position, it sure would help Chicago's quest to end its 108-year championship drought if somebody else emerged as a Zobrist-like utility player. As Carrie Muskat of MLB.com noted, whether Baez is up to that challenge is among the big questions the Cubs hope to answer this spring.

Like any other experiment, this one could go awry. Maybe Baez doesn't have it in him to play all over the field. Or maybe his bat will continue to be the problem. Or both. And though this probably wouldn't be a staggering blow to the Cubs, it would certainly put Baez back in prospect purgatory.

But then there's the oh-so-juicy alternative: What if Baez is capable of what the Cubs are asking?

Video Play Button
Videos you might like

If nothing else, Baez doesn't have to do much to prove he can handle defensive versatility. When he was considered a top-five prospect by Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus going into 2014, there wasn't much doubt he had the athleticism and arm strength to play shortstop. In the time since, he's shown he can also handle second base and third base.

The Cubs are now trying to find out if he can handle center field, and the early vibes are positive. Baez told Bruce Levine of 670 The Score that he felt "really good" playing center field in the Caribbean Winter League, and Cubs manager Joe Maddon expressed his faith last month.

"I definitely think he can," Maddon said when asked about Baez's ability to play center field, via Tony Andracki of CSN Chicago. "He's one of the best on-field defenders I've seen, period. The way he plays the infield, he's never in trouble. He's very calm, he's got this really high baseball acumen—he sees things in advance."

If Baez proves capable of playing center field, it's not much of a stretch to assume he could also play left or right field in a pinch. As such, his immediate future could involve him spelling not just Russell, Bryant or Zobrist in the infield, but also Jason Heyward, Kyle Schwarber or Jorge Soler in the outfield.

But while all of this gets the optimism gland going, Baez's glove wasn't the reason he became a fallen prospect.

No, sir. It was mainly Baez's offensive potential that stood out. His insane bat speed helped him get picked ninth overall in 2011, and it officially put him on the map when it produced a .920 OPS and 37 home runs in the minors in 2013. Throw in 20 stolen bases, and Baez had the look of a Carlos Correa prototype.

CHICAGO, IL - AUGUST 21:  Javier Baez #9 of the Chicago Cubs walks back to the dugout after striking out during the fifth inning against the San Francisco Giants at Wrigley Field on August 21, 2014 in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo by Brian Kersey/Getty Image
Brian Kersey/Getty Images

When Baez arrived in 2014, though, his weaknesses stood out like a pink shirt at the Springfield power plant. In 52 games, he hit just .169 and struck out 95 times in 229 plate appearances. That's a 41.5 strikeout percentage, which made Baez the league's strikeout-iest hitter.

Alas, it was a perfect storm of whiffiness. By swinging at under 60 percent of the pitches he saw in the strike zone and over 40 percent of the pitches he saw outside the strike zone, Baez validated warnings that he had neither good pitch recognition nor good discipline. And though your humble narrator will leave it to Z.W. Martin's piece at Deadspin to break down the particulars, Baez's swing mechanics featured enough moving parts to make a Transformer look like a chump.

But now, for the bright side: Going into the spring, the worst of it appears to be behind Baez.

Though the tragic death of his sister and a broken finger limited him to just 70 games at Triple-A last year, he dropped his K% to 24.3 and hit .324. In 95 total plate appearances between the regular season and the postseason in the majors, he hit .278 with a 29.5 K%. 

This traces back to what was going on a year ago. Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated wrote about how Baez and the Cubs were responding to his major league reality check by testing out some changes in the batter's box. The big one involved going to simplified mechanics in two-strike counts and other situations where he needed to prioritize simply putting the ball in play, and he ended up making good on that.

This was Baez with two strikes in 2014:

And this was Baez with two strikes in 2015:

The difference is a triple whammy of increased efficiency. Baez closed his stance to the extreme, with his left foot inside of his right foot. Rather than a big leg kick, his timing device was a small heel lift. He also never let the head of his bat get too far in front of his helmet.

This paid off about as well as that long dinger would seem to suggest. Per Baseball Savant, here's a look at how much Baez improved in two-strike counts:

Javier Baez in Two-Strike Counts
YearABsAVGK%SwStr%
2014130.10065.517.5
201552.13550.913.0
Baseball Savant

Behold the Anthony Rizzo-fication of Javier Baez. The Cubs first baseman looks to drive the ball early in counts, but he calms down his approach and simply looks to put it in play in two-strike counts. It's worked for him, and Baez teased in 2015 that it could also work for him.

And that's not the only way he helped himself in 2015. He also got more aggressive in a good way, upping his in-zone swing percentage from under 60 to darn near 70. And as Rian Watt of Baseball Prospectus Wrigleyville covered in detail, those numbers only scratch the surface of the improvement of Baez's selectivity.

“I’m seeing the ball really well and letting it get deep into the zone,” Baez said last September, via Jesse Rogers of ESPN.com. “I’m trying to get a pitch over the plate."

Obviously, the sample size we're talking about is small enough to warrant sarcastic whistling of the "Small Sample Size" song. Nobody can call Baez a competent major league hitter just yet.

However, it bodes well enough that he's clearly headed in the right direction. And it bodes even better that he's not yet satisfied. As he told Muskat last week, he's not done making adjustments.

"I'm just making my adjustments now," he said. "I feel like I've been doing good."

Which brings us back to our big "What if?" The Cubs are hoping that Baez can be a super utility guy, and he might actually be able to field and hit well enough to make that hope come true.

The door would then be open for him to log regular time all over the field while also getting plenty of at-bats, and his combination of power and speed would put him more in line with 2009-2012 Zobrist or 2014 Josh Harrison than with 2015 Brock Holt. That is, a player good enough to potentially warrant both All-Star consideration and MVP consideration.

That makes Baez one heck of a wild card going into the 2016 season. If he can't do what the Cubs are asking of him, it's no big blow to their contention chances. But if Baez answers the challenge, that'll just be one more reason to believe that a 108-year wait won't become a 109-year wait.

Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs unless otherwise noted/linked.

Follow zachrymer on Twitter