Soler and Bryant in particular are expected to play a massive role on the Cubs this season. Their addition to an already impressive young group of players make the Cubs a very interesting team to watch this year.
While most of their young stars are impressing this spring, Javier Baez is one prominent young Cub who is continuing to have a very familiar issue.
Scouts marvel at Baez’s incredible bat speed, natural athleticism and huge raw power, but he has always had contact issues throughout his professional career. As he rose through the ranks, strikeouts and pure inability to lay off of bad pitches were masked by his obvious raw tools.
Baez’s talent has impressed ever since the Cubs drafted him out of high school with the ninth overall pick in 2011. He made his full season debut in 2012 where he hit a combined .294/.346/.543 with 16 home runs in only 80 games between low and advanced A-ball.
Baez really burst onto the scene in 2013. He returned to Advanced-A to start his season where he hit .274/.338/.353 with 17 home runs in 299 at-bats. The Cubs challenged Baez with a promotion to Double-A over halfway through his 2013 season and he responded in a big way.
Baez hit .294/.346/.638 with 20 home runs in 218 at-bats in Double-A that season. The jump from A to Double-A is the most significant jump in the minor leagues, and Baez took the promotion in stride, even improving his performance drastically.
Combined through his 2013 season, Baez hit .282/.341/.578 with 37 home runs in 517 at-bats. He was commonly considered to be a top five prospect in all of baseball, and clearly had an incredibly bright future ahead of him.
Baez struck out 147 times in those 517 at-bats in 2013, which is a fairly alarming rate. However, power hitters are expected to strike out some, and nobody really seemed to worry.
He started last season in Triple-A where the contact issues seemed to get worse. He struck out 130 times and only hit .260 in 388 at-bats, but his .510 slugging percentage and 23 home runs were still incredibly impressive.
The Cubs decided to give Baez his first taste of the big leagues last season. While there were certainly moments where he was incredibly dangerous at the plate, Baez struck out far too much, as big league pitchers consistently tricked Baez to swing at pitches well out of the strike zone.
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In his rookie season Baez hit a pitiful .169/.227/.324, with an incredibly alarming 95 strikeouts in 213 at-bats. While it is a fairly small sample size, Baez’s contact issues have clearly caught up with him as major league pitchers figured out how to confuse him.
Baez has not really fared much better this spring, hitting .135/.179/.216 with 13 strikeouts in 37 at-bats. To be fair, Baez has made plenty of hard contact that have turned in to outs, but he still clearly struggles with strike zone discipline.
At this point, it is obvious that the Cubs are going to have to live with the strikeouts when it comes to Baez. However, he must get it down to a much more manageable level.
Cubs’ manager Joe Maddon realizes that Baez has issues, but he thinks the young infielder can turn things around.
“He’s always going to strike out,” Maddon told Carrie Muskat of MLB.com. “It’s not even about the strikeouts, it’s about organizing his strike zone a little better. If he could somehow get a better decision-maker and then test that forceful swing he’s got in the strike zone, let’s see what happens there.”
In the simplest terms, that is what it comes down to. Baez simply must be able to let the bad pitches go, and wait for a strong pitch in the strike zone that he can hammer. MLB pitchers abused Baez with high fastballs and low breaking pitches last season, he simply must work on letting those pitches go if he is going to be successful at the major league level.
Perhaps Baez is best suited to work on his strike zone discipline in the minor league to start the season? In an earlier interview with Muskat, Maddon talked about that possibility. “Of course, there’s a chance (Baez) doesn’t make the team,” Maddon said. “There’s no lock in regard to that. Everything has to be earned.”
“He has things he has to learn how to do yet,” Maddon continued. “He shows signs of brilliance at times. To this point, he’s had a lot of good at-bats and hit some balls hard. Then he’ll show the out of control swing that bothers him a little bit.”
“It’s a young guy trying to figure this all out,” Maddon said. “(He has) sterling bat speed, incredible bat speed. He just needs plate appearances.”
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Maddon seems pretty convinced that Baez can work his struggles out. At this point, I think it is best for the Cubs to let him work his plate discipline issues out at the minor league level. Give him something to work on and make him earn his way back to the big leagues.
With Mike Olt, Tommy La Stella and Arismendy Alcantara having very promising performances this spring, the Cubs should be in good hands without Baez to start the season. If he goes down to Triple-A and quickly shows improvement, nothing would hold him back from coming back up and being the Cubs’ everyday second baseman.
The Cubs have a stock of impressive young infielders who can handle things while Baez gets his plate discipline worked out.
Baez is still a tremendously talented player with massive upside. Right now, the most important thing is that he develops at the plate as a ball player. At least for the start of the season, that would be best done at the minor league level.