Javier Baez leads tidal wave of prospects about to hit Cubs

Javier Baez leads tidal wave of prospects about to hit Cubs
August 4, 2014, 10:00 pm
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DENVER – Javier Baez denied this ever happened. But a Cubs official told it with enough detail – and the story said everything about his swagger – that it might as well be added to the urban legend.

At a prestigious banquet for Florida’s elite prep baseball players, each one was supposed to introduce himself to the room, saying his name and college choice. So the kid from Arlington Country Day got up and said:

“Javier Baez, Major League Baseball University.”

The point is it sounds exactly like something Baez would do.

Baez should feel some butterflies when he makes his big-league debut on Tuesday night at Coors Field. But it’s not like the 2011 first-round pick will be in awe of the Colorado Rockies or wonder what he’s doing in The Show.

It won’t happen overnight, but this attitude should bring an edge to a clubhouse that’s about to get hit by a tidal wave of prospects. Pretty soon, the National League Central might not have the Cubs to kick around anymore.

ESPN just rated it baseball’s best farm system. Baseball America had Kris Bryant (No. 2), Addison Russell (No. 5) and Baez (No. 7) on its midseason top-prospect list. Bryant’s ETA is sometime after Opening Day 2015, while Russell will keep playing shortstop at Double-A Tennessee for now.

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Arismendy Alcantara has created a spark at the top of the order, looking smooth in center field and making highlight-reel plays at second base. Kyle Hendricks (2-1, 2.05 ERA) looks like he belongs in the rotation. Jorge Soler, the $30 million Cuban outfielder, is projected to be a September call-up.

“We’re getting to that point,” frontline pitcher Jake Arrieta said. “We’re making strides. We’ve seen some young guys come up here and do some good things for us.

“We’re going to continue to see guys like that. So, yeah, we’re definitely moving in the right direction.”

Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro are 24-year-old All-Stars. President of baseball operations Theo Epstein recently made a point by mentioning George Springer, the great rookie for the Houston Astros. Rizzo is a few weeks older than Springer, while Castro is months younger.

“They’re established,” Epstein said. “Sometimes we lose track of just how young they are.”

That happens when Rizzo, Castro and the kids are quickly made faces of the franchise, even though it will take years for them to figure it out and create identities as big-league players.

Baez struck out 130 times in 104 games with Triple-A Iowa this season, and there will be moments where he looks frustrated and overmatched. He committed 44 errors at shortstop last year, and now he will have to turn double plays as a second baseman – in front of 40,000 fans and TV audiences tuning in to watch him.

The Cubs need to find out what they have in Baez and figure out the plan of attack for what promises to be a very busy winter.

“Those two months left are really important, not only for me, (but the entire) team,” Castro said. “When you finish really strong, you come in next year with a better (mindset). It’s going to be really good for us to keep playing hard and finish strong.”

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Baez earned it by responding to some adversity and putting up 23 homers, 80 RBI and an .833 OPS with Iowa. Period.

But it can’t hurt throwing a bone to a fan base that’s watching another race to the bottom, a fifth-place finish for the fifth year in a row and a chance to get next year’s No. 1 overall pick. It will help a business operations department that had to be wondering how to sell this team.

It’s an opportunity for first-year manager Rick Renteria, who got the job because of his bilingual skills and ability to develop young players. It’s a selling point when Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer try to recruit big-name free agents this offseason.

Javier Baez called his shot. He just got into Major League Baseball University.