PHOENIX – The Cubs have officially started Javier Baez Watch.
By moving their elite prospect from shortstop to second base, the Cubs guaranteed one of the second half’s biggest storylines immediately becomes: When is Javy getting here?
The Plan is coming into sharper focus as Baez works on his footwork, focus and positioning at Triple-A Iowa, getting ready to play alongside All-Star shortstop Starlin Castro.
So while Twitter buzzed about the organization’s top prospects going on a home-run binge – and the team filing a lawsuit against rogue mascot “Billy Cub” – the big-league team that can feel like an afterthought returned to work after the All-Star break with a 5-4 loss to the Arizona Diamondbacks at Chase Field.
The Cubs (40-55) don’t sweat the game details now. But Edwin Jackson – who gave up three runs in 5.1 innings to lower his ERA to 5.61 – left with a lead before reliable relievers James Russell and Brian Schlitter gave it right back to the Diamondbacks (41-56).
Anthony Rizzo showed he’s still the franchise’s biggest offensive force until further notice by crushing two homers. Rizzo’s 21st sailed beyond the pool in right-center field, while his 22nd soared out to deep center and bounced onto the concourse.
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Rizzo and Castro just played in the All-Star Game at age 24. Iowa third baseman Kris Bryant is now ranked as the No. 1 midseason prospect for ESPN and No. 2 for Baseball America. Super-utility guy Arismendy Alcantara is already here. Kyle Hendricks – the organization’s minor league pitcher of the year in 2013 – will become the new No. 4 starter.
“I feel it getting there,” Rizzo said. “I think everyone else does, too. That’s long-term. Short-term, we need to start playing better and get into a groove. But pieces are going to come and go, and hopefully everyone clicks and we get rolling.”
Manager Rick Renteria didn’t play along with the team-of-the-future angle, though that is exactly what the franchise is trying to sell now.
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“My biggest concern is dealing with the guys that are here,” Renteria said. “It’s good to see that (Baez is) moving around. But from my perspective, it’s not an anticipatory position for me to think I’m going to see him.
“It would be foolish of me and irresponsible to say: ‘Oh, I’m looking forward to seeing him here.’ It’s not the right thing for me to say.”
Cubs fans and the Chicago media want to see Baez, and Theo Epstein’s front office could probably use a look in September, if not sooner.
Baez homered on back-to-back nights in Round Rock after moving to second base. That gives him 16 home runs and 59 RBI after a slow start that had people wondering about his vision, free-swinging style and the wisdom of hiring Manny Ramirez as a player/coach.
But even during that offensive spiral, Baez, 21, had been making a positive impression on team officials with his attitude, work ethic and attention to detail defensively, which had been the bigger-picture concerns. He still showed up all over the midseason prospect rankings as a consensus pick for Baseball Prospectus (No. 5), Baseball America (No. 7) and ESPN (No. 8).
“The future’s bright,” said Jake Arrieta, who’s now looking like a top-of-the-rotation starter. “That’s very apparent with guys like Alcantara. And we know we’ve got some guys in the pipeline who can definitely help us in the near future.
“We look forward to seeing those guys, Baez and Bryant and a couple of the other younger guys. It’s going to be a fun, fun period of time here over the next six, eight months, towards the end of the season and the beginning of next season, just seeing those guys blossom and continue to grow and get some experience up here.”