By Meghan Montemurro
CHICAGO – When Cubs director of player development Brandon Hyde heard prospect Javier Baez say he is willing to move from shortstop and play any position, Hyde believed him.
While an official position change isn’t happening yet, Baez’s willingness to adapt only adds to what is becoming an impressive resume.
“I do believe it’s true; I think he wants to be in the big leagues,” Hyde said. “Javy’s going to do whatever it takes to play in the major leagues. He’s super confident guy. I think he thinks he can play shortstop but I think he thinks he could play center field [or] second base. He just wants to be here and help contribute.”
On an early track from a player development standpoint, Baez is doing his best to force the Cubs into some tough decisions, namely when – or if – he should be moved off shortstop with two-time All-Star Starlin Castro holding down the position in majors.
“I was just trying to do my best every time I was playing on the field and trying to do good,” Baez, the Cubs minor league player of the year, said at Wrigley Field Saturday.
Hyde is convinced Baez could hit in the big leagues right now, though he also acknowledged the 20-year-old still has a lot of development left. But the numbers from an impressive 2013 season don’t lie. In 130 games between High-A Daytona and Double-A Tennessee, Baez hit 37 home runs and drove in 111 runs while batting .282 with a .341 on-base percentage. While the Cubs’ brass certainly didn’t expect Baez to hit 37 home runs, his power hasn’t been a surprise.
“I think he’s just scratching the surface to be honest with you,” Hyde said. “As he learns the strike zone better, understands how to control the strike zone, understands pitchers and what they’re trying to do – and he’s got the intelligence and instincts to do that – as soon as that happens he’s going to hit a lot of home runs in the big leagues.”
It was fitting that Baez – along with minor league pitcher of the year Kyle Hendricks – were honored before the Cubs’ 3-1 comeback win over Atlanta, which prevented the Braves from clinching the National League East. Castro started the Cubs’ eighth-inning rally with a leadoff single, one of four straight to open the inning. Two batters later, Anthony Rizzo doubled to score Castro and tie the game at 1. Dioner Navarro followed with an RBI single to score what proved to be the game-winning run. Pedro Strop locked down the save, his first of the season, by striking out the side.
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Castro and Rizzo remain part of a core that Baez is expected to join, should he continue to progress like the Cubs believe he will. Add in Saturday’s starting pitcher Travis Wood, who allowed one run in seven-plus innings and is one inning shy of 200 pitched this season, and the Cubs have some pieces in place at the big-league level that suggest they’re headed in the right direction. But the success of the Cubs minor league teams this season, which featured three teams (Tennessee, Daytona and Class-A Short-season Boise) appearing in the postseason, has the front office particularly excited.
“We had a lot of our prospects make big steps and that’s why we’re here,” Hyde said. “We got better organizationally in the minor leagues, not only on offense but with pitching too.”
Saturday's lively atmosphere, which had plenty of Braves fans littering the 34,612 in attendance at Wrigley, reminded the Cubs of what is potentially at stake in the future. While the Cubs were happy to delay the Braves' quest to clinch, some couldn't help themselves envisioning being in Atlanta's position to celebrate.
“I don't think any team looks forward to it (seeing another team celebrate), but it's always exciting when somebody does and one day hopefully that'll be us and we can move forward from that," Wood said.
The on-field product this season suggests those celebrations won't happen soon. But as Baez, who will likely start next year at Triple-A Iowa, moves to the verge of the majors, the Cubs' big picture for the organization is slowly -- and at times painfully -- taking shape.
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For now, Baez will take time to mentally and physically regroup after a long season. Although he won’t participate in the Arizona Fall League (because of fatigue) or instructional leagues, Hyde said Baez will attend specialized workouts in Arizona a couple times during the offseason to prepare for spring training. Baez will primarily play shortstop in Arizona though will take infield work at second base and third base.
“I’m just trying to help the team and the Cubs and whatever they want me to do, that’s what I’ll do,” Baez said. “[People] compare me to Gary Sheffield because my swing is natural and it looks like him. He’s a great player and I’m trying to be like him.”