Javier Baez: Late-Season Fantasy Savior?

Despite Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer’s best attempts to convince fans otherwise, it seems that Javier Baez will likely be in the majors sooner rather than later. While Hoyer brushes off several recent adjustments made to his roster as being big-picture moves, it’s impossible not to notice the openings being created for major-league playing time for Baez.

Baez recently started seeing time at second base with Triple-A Iowa. If, as Hoyer claims, this was done “to increase his versatility,” the timing is awfully coincidental. All within the space of about a week, the Cubs had Baez start playing at the keystone, designated incumbent second-sacker Darwin Barney for assignment, and tested the waters with Arismendy Alcantara playing center field.

To me — and probably you, as well — it seems the plan is for Alcantara to move to center, with Baez taking his place at second. And you know what? That still doesn’t make Hoyer’s statement about the big picture untrue. The Cubs are so loaded with infield prospects that Alcantara is likely to end up in center anyway (where I think he could be really good if given a chance to play there every day), while Starlin Castro is signed through 2019 to play short, leaving second base as a logical long-term landing spot for Baez. As for Barney, he simply wasn’t a part of the long-term plan to begin with.

The part of Hoyer’s statement that rings untrue to me is when he says that “these moves are not connected.” While they all do make sense in the big picture when taken individually, they also conveniently open up a short-term opportunity for Baez when examined together. And why not?

If you watched the Futures Game, you remember Baez’s opposite-field blast. For me, that moment was almost like deja vu, seeing as I had seen him hit a strikingly similar bomb in person just a few days prior:

Seeing Baez play in person validates everything you’ve read and heard about him. His bat speed is just crazy. He has legit home-run power to all fields. From a scouting perspective, I don’t have a whole lot to add to what’s already out there, but I do have one key observation.

Pretty much the only knock on Baez’s offensive profile coming into this season was his difficulty to adjust to breaking balls, partially as a result of his aggressive approach. He hasn’t gotten less aggressive — his plate-discipline numbers this year (7.9% BB-rate, 30.0% K-rate) are almost identical to last year (7.9% BB-rate, 28.8% K-rate) — but it seems like breaking balls aren’t giving him the tough time that they used to.

Take the two homers I’ve referenced above, for example. While it’s impressive to see a middle infielder go oppo with such authority, I think what’s more important is that these weren’t belt-high fastballs over the outer half. The long ball Baez hit off Lucas Giolito in the Futures Game was a curveball pretty much right down the middle. Instead of trying to pull it like most aggressive young hitters would — especially on a stage as big as the Futures Game — Baez sat back until the offering was deep in the zone, before unleashing one of his patented lightning-quick swings to drive it out of the park to right-center.

Similarly, take another look at the video embedded above. Carlos Perez does set up outside, but Rudy Owens‘ changeup sails in smack in the middle of the zone. Again, one would expect a 21-year-old slugger with an aggressive approach to jump out and pull that pitch. Again, Baez sits back, trusts his bat speed, and demolishes the ball to the opposite field.

Baez seems like a good candidate to make an immediate fantasy impact upon reaching the majors — much like Alcantara has — seeing as he hit 37 homers and stole 20 bases last year, and this year has 16 of each. There is one trend, however, which gives me some serious pause. Take a look at Baez’s splits by month this season in Triple-A:

  • April – .172/.238/.379 (.271 wOBA)
  • May – .250/.303/.435 (.325 wOBA)
  • June – .275/.345/.471 (.351 wOBA)
  • July – .292/.354/.597 (.376 wOBA)

The positive-minded individual will look at this and say, “No better time to call him up than now, he’s red-hot!” And I agree with this hypothetical person, to an extent. Baez has nothing left to prove in Triple-A, as his consistently escalating performance indicates. However, for fantasy purposes, owners need to understand that this wasn’t simply a case of a cold start; Baez has taken awhile to adjust to each level in his career:

  • August/September 2012 (High-A) – .188/.244/.400 (.288 wOBA)
  • April 2013 (High-A) – .262/.295/.515 (.348 wOBA)
  • May 2013 (High-A) – .258/.315/.443 (.362 wOBA)
  • June 2013 (High-A) – .300/.390/.678 (.474 wOBA)
  • July 2013 (Double-A) – .228/.297/.620 (.415 wOBA)
  • August 2013 (Double-A) .357/.398/.661 (.480 wOBA)

The power has pretty much always translated immediately for Baez, but little else has. It only took him about a month to get it figured out in Double-A, but adjustments came much more slowly at both High-A and Triple-A. The concern here, of course, is that even if Baez is called up soon, he may not produce this season with just over two months left to go.

Baez is still one of those “empty the FAAB” guys, especially so late in the season, but I’d caution against expecting much regarding his on-base abilities. Even still, a middle infielder with his level of pop will be immediately fantasy-relevant, it’s just a question of how much he’ll kill your batting average. He’s going to strike out a ton — that much is a given — but if his improved ability against offspeed pitches translates to the majors, his transition may not be quite as rough as his previous stops.

Scott Strandberg started writing for Rotographs in 2013. He works in small business consultation, and he also writes A&E columns for The Norman Transcript newspaper. Scott lives in Seattle, WA.

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Good analysis. Another reason to bring Baez up is to get those first few months of struggling out of the way now, so that the Cubs have a better chance to compete next season.

For fantasy purposes, I will be grabbing him the second Bonifacio is traded by the Cubs. Or I hear of significant interest in Bonifacio for that matter. And then I’ll be looking to deal him immediately while his value is highest.