The Chicago Cubs, currently sitting in last place in the National League Central at 25-36, are enduring yet another bad season at the big league level.
As hard as it might be for Cubs fans to sit through another bad season—though at this point they really should be used to it, right?—the reasons to get excited are down on the farm. Specifically, star prospect Javier Baez had a game for the ages on Monday night.
Playing for the High-A Daytona Cubs, Baez had as close to a perfect night as a hitter can have. He went 4-for-4 with four home runs and seven RBI against Fort Myers, Minnesota's High-A affiliate. This coming just nine days after he went 5-for-6 with three doubles, one home run and six RBI against Brevard.
You can see home run No. 4 and countless thank yous from Baez to his fans in this article over at Yahoo! Sports.
That performance is going to be the thing that everyone hangs on with Baez. Certainly, it does warrant some kind of discussion. But why not use it as a jumping-off point to talk about how impressive he has been this year?
Baez entered 2013 as the top prospect in a much-improved Cubs' system. On top of that, his bat has always been his calling card. He got drafted out of Arlington Country Day High School with the ninth pick in the 2011 draft.
The scouting reports on him always start with his lightning-quick bat speed. Because Baez has such great hand and wrist acceleration through the zone, he has been projected to hit for plus power when he develops some kind of approach at the plate.
Here is what our own farm system guru, Mike Rosenbaum, wrote about Baez in his preseason ranking of the Cubs' top 10 prospects:
Right-handed hitter with potential for above-average-to-plus hit tool; raw power is an easy plus attribute; elite, plus-plus bat speed yields loud contact to all fields; 20-20 potential; will jump on velocity; extremely strong wrists and top hand; max-effort swing every time; lacks a feel for the strike zone and will chase too many pitches; needs to show some restraint; will need to improve pitch recognition; chases too many breaking balls; can be beat by quality sequencing; needs to work more hitter counts...
So far this season, Baez has put together a stat line that you would expect of someone with his particular skills and age (courtesy of MiLB.com).
As you can see, there is a lot there to like and some things to be concerned about. Let's start with the good. A 20-year-old in High-A hitting .291 with a slugging percentage of .570 and 34 extra-base hits is obviously a huge positive.
There was some doubt about how well Baez might be able to hit right away because he is still very crude. But when you can swing a bat as hard and as fast as he can, good things are going to happen when you make contact.
Staying on contact, that brings us to some of the reasons that give us pause before proclaiming him a surefire superstar.
What made Baez's performance on Monday night so special, according to Daytona hitting coach Mariano Duncan (h/t MiLB.com), is that he hit four home runs on four different pitches.
"The first ball to right-center field was a cutter, the second was a changeup, the third to left-center was a fastball and the last one down the left-field line was a breaking ball," Duncan said.
Like the preseason scouting reports said, Baez is still learning to become a pure hitter. He will swing from his heels every time he steps into the box, regardless of where the pitch is. Having close to 5.5 strikeouts for every walk is worrisome.
Cubs fans know all too well about having a top prospect who can really hit but doesn't have a lot of patience: Starlin Castro.
Castro came up as one of the best pure hitters in the minor leagues, earning praise for his bat speed and plate coverage. He was called up to the big leagues very early, at the age of 20 in 2010. He had instant success, hitting .300/.347/.408 in 125 games as a rookie.
Things got even better for Castro in his second year in the majors, as he posted a .307/.341/.432 line in 158 games. He wasn't working counts extremely well, but he made enough contact to keep his average and on-base percentage at a good level.
But then pitchers got the book on Castro. They beat him with breaking balls, especially low and away, and he has regressed ever since—even though he should be entering the best years of his career. He did hit well at the start of 2012, posting a .317/.336/.454 line through May.
After that, Castro slipped down to .268/.321/.429 the rest of the year. He has only gotten worse through two months this season, hitting .243/.283/.341 with a 46-11 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 255 at-bats.
The fear for the Cubs has to be that Baez doesn't learn to hit off-speed pitches and hacks at everything, which causes him to flame out in the upper levels of the minors like another failed prospect for the team who had a great swing: third baseman Josh Vitters.
However, circling back to the spectacle of the four-homer game on Monday night, Baez is well beyond where both Castro and Vitters were at this point in their respective careers because he has more power.
The prevailing theory when you are evaluating prospects is the last thing to come for a hitter is power. You have to be able to hit to show power, and right now Baez is hitting well enough to show his big power potential.
While his approach at the plate does merit some hesitation, it is important to keep these things in proper context. As mentioned before, he is just 20 years old and already in High-A. If the Cubs were worried about him being overmatched, they wouldn't have pushed him to the level.
The point of this is to determine whether Baez's special night is just the latest sign that he will become a superstar in Major League Baseball. Anyone who follows prospects knows that there are big things expected from him.
You don't get to be the top prospect in a system, even the worst one in baseball (which the Cubs certainly don't have), without having some future value in the big leagues.
But to be a top-20 prospect in all of baseball you have to be really special. That says you are among the most talented players, as well as having a relatively high probability of reaching that lofty ceiling placed on you.
There are always going to be elite prospects who flame out, either in the upper levels of the minors or in the big leagues for one reason or another, but more often than not, it is going to be because of a failure to make an adjustment rather than them just being overmatched.
Baez is far from a finished product, but he is well on his way to having a very good and potentially great big league career because all of the raw tools he had even prior to being drafted are showing up in games.
Where Baez eventually plays in the field is up for debate, though the odds of him staying at shortstop are slim. He is already 6'0", 195 pounds with plenty more room to fill out, so he is eventually going to outgrow the position. On top of that, he just doesn't have the actions or instincts to handle it. He's already made 26 errors this season.
Eventually Baez will move to third base, which is fine because he has more than enough arm strength and lateral quickness to be at least an average defender. But the bat is his calling card, and it looks very, very good.
Being a superstar requires constant adjustments. Baez hasn't reached a point where he has really had to do that yet. It is coming with his eventual move up to Double-A, where the breaking balls and command get a lot better.
After we see how Baez handles that jump, we will be able to make a much better determination if superstardom is in his future. But hitting four home runs in a Florida State League game at the age of 20 isn't a bad way to let the world know exactly who you are.
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