MESA, Ariz. — We briefly interrupt our wall-to-wall Javier Baez coverage to tell you that the most exciting player at Cubs Park has been assigned to minor-league camp.
It won’t be long before Rick Renteria’s media sessions will be dominated by one question: When is Baez coming up?
The manager doesn’t have the answer now, but Baez Watch will intensify with those 3-2 games the Cubs will lose in the cold April weather. Every losing streak will magnify the elite prospect stashed at Triple-A Iowa. Forget about it if the Cubs trade an infielder from their surplus, someone gets injured or Baez goes off with another four-homer game.
Baez took Saturday’s news in stride, going to the minors along with relievers Chang-Yong Lim, Brian Schlitter and Jonathan Sanchez, infielder Chris Valaika and outfielder Casper Wells. The Cubs also optioned reliever Blake Parker to Iowa, cutting their spring roster to 37.
The Cubs never wavered from their plan to send Baez to Des Moines. The young shortstop wasn’t disappointed or surprised by the decision, even after leading the team with five home runs and 13 hits this spring.
“I was just playing the game right, playing it hard,” Baez said. “There’s a lot of people here. We got veteran guys, (so) I understand.”
Baez listened to older players like Emilio Bonifacio and Welington Castillo explain some of the arbitration/free-agency considerations that will play into the timing of his promotion this season. The education of Baez will continue in a Pacific Coast League that could make his numbers look silly.
The Cubs would like to see Baez become a more selective hitter, without taking away what made him Baseball America’s No. 5 overall prospect. He accounted for 37 homers and 111 RBI — as well as 44 errors — in 130 games split between advanced Class-A Daytona and Double-A Tennessee last season.
“He’s always going to be someone — because he’s really aggressive and confident at the plate — who looks out of control at times,” said Jason McLeod, the vice president of scouting and player development. “When you have the bat speed that he has — especially if he swings and misses — it’s going to look out of control.
“But when we look at his overall approach from 2012 to what he did last year and then going up to Double-A, it’s not just the numbers he put up. It was (the) quality of the at-bats. We’re still seeing an upward trajectory as far as how he goes about every single day preparing for that day’s game, on both sides of the ball, defensively and offensively.”
Baez came across as more focused this spring, impressing team officials with the way he developed a routine and realized the opportunity in front of him.
“You’ve seen the maturation process with how he’s conducted himself in the major-league clubhouse, with the type of teammate he’s being,” McLeod said. “He’s becoming much more confident in his leadership skills and being vocal with other players. Because he’s been a name and a first-round pick here, I think we forget this is still a 21-year-old kid.
“We’re seeing some of his own natural maturation. (So) we just want to see him continue that growth going forward. Hopefully, he could be a leader on what would be a young team (in Iowa). Every single day, come to the ballpark looking to get better.”
For all the headlines and highlight-reel plays, Baez still isn’t a finished product. Remember that he’s only played 54 games above the A-ball level.
“He’s made a lot of progress,” Renteria said. “One of the things we talked about is to make sure he continues to work on his defense, continues to go down there and put together some good at-bats. Try to get on base a little bit more through the process. Just go out there and be a professional. He’s been hustling, busting his rear end here.”
Baez got exposed to second base in the Cactus League, but will start this season at shortstop. Twitter will catch fire any time he changes positions during a Triple-A game. He smoothly handled all the Starlin Castro questions and the daily media attention.
“I’m just trying to do my best,” Baez said. “Especially for our team, it’s not everything about you. It’s everything about the team and winning.”
Baez is supposed to be a marquee attraction for the next winning team at Clark and Addison. The underlying message from Saturday’s news: See you soon.
“He took it to heart,” Renteria said. “He’s going to continue to improve and try to become the best player that he can possibly be and try to get himself ready.”