SURPRISE, Ariz. – “The Wow Factor.” Javier Baez has it. Giancarlo Stanton has it.
Cubs bench coach Brandon Hyde saw it, back when Stanton went by “Mike” and they were still called the Florida Marlins. Watching Baez crush batting-practice pitches that break car windows has reminded people of the Miami star who blasted 117 homers in the big leagues before his 24th birthday.
“The Wow Factor,” Hyde said. “Mike’s just way bigger.”
Coming out of high school, Stanton could have played football for Pete Carroll at USC. Stanton played for Hyde at Double-A Jacksonville in 2009. Hyde became Jack McKeon’s bench coach in 2011 before joining Theo Epstein’s front office as a minor-league coordinator and farm director.
“But (it’s) the way ball would come off the bat and the distance it would travel,” Hyde said. “It was more amazing, with Javy, too, (how) a lot of the misses they don’t hit very well just seem to kind of travel over the fence.”
Baez launched one over the right-field wall at Surprise Stadium during Tuesday night’s 7-6 loss to the Texas Rangers, giving him four home runs this spring. The previous at-bat against Alexi Ogando, Baez had struck out swinging with the bases loaded. Baez later doubled into left field and stole third base.
A natural shortstop, Baez also got 10 innings in at second base and watched a ball go through his legs for an error, part of the experiment that could get him to Wrigley Field faster.
Aside from the eye-popping numbers and laser shows in batting practice, what has really impressed Cubs officials is the focus, a more businesslike approach.
“Having the success that he had last year – really from Day 1 – (he) came in with more of a purpose this year,” said Jason McLeod, the vice president of scouting and player development. “Certainly, we’ve communicated with him the plan to start the season in (Triple-A) Iowa and play shortstop.
“He wanted to come in and show like: ‘OK, that might be the plan. I’m fine with it. But I’m going to show you guys just how serious I’m taking this.’
“He’s done that. He’s played very well up here in major-league camp. I’ve been really happy seeing how he is interacting with his teammates and (becoming) much more comfortable dealing with them and dealing with questions from the media. He’s been great. That’s been really a joy for us to see.”
Baez elected to skip the Arizona Fall League after putting up 37 home runs and 111 RBI in 130 games at advanced Class-A Daytona and Double-A Tennessee. He had been a center of attention in spring training, homering six times, twice in an exhibition against Japan’s World Baseball Classic team.
At the old Mesa complex last year, veteran outfielder Darnell McDonald had the locker between Baez and $30 million Cuban outfielder Jorge Soler. One morning, McDonald smiled at the scene, all the laughter and chatter, and thought back to when he showed up to spring training as a Baltimore Orioles first-round pick and his place in Cal Ripken Jr.’s clubhouse.
“I was sitting in a far, far corner not talking, not saying a word,” McDonald said. “You already knew that you were to be seen and not heard.”
Cubs prospects don’t get to blend into the background. Baez hasn’t created any media storms with the way he’s answered the Starlin Castro questions. Baez has been doing early work with Gary Jones, the third-base coach in charge of the infielders. Baez is focusing on footwork and learning the angles at second base, and should get a look at third base soon.
“Last year, I was like, ‘Whatever is going to happen is going to happen,’” Baez said. “But this year, I learned from a lot of guys, how to take care of stuff and take care of my body. I’ve been doing better.”
Hyde laughed and thought about how the Marlins would have to position Stanton during batting practice at their facility in Jupiter, Fla.
“We had to move his field because there would be apartments across the street behind the complex. He kept hitting the condos,” Hyde recalled. “So at some point, we’re like: ‘Stanton can’t hit on that field. He’s going to have to hit on these two fields or we’re going to be breaking windows over there.’”
Baez is only 21 years old, the same age when Stanton hit 34 homers for the Marlins in 2011. There’s a huge difference between hitting on a back field at Cubs Park and doing it under the lights at Clark and Addison. But the outside hype won’t matter as much when you already have the internal drive.
The Cubs can see Javier Baez is on a mission.
“His mindset’s different,” Hyde said. “I think he realizes how close he is. He is playing with a lot more confidence than he did last spring and with more determination. (He’s) a pro now. He understands what it takes.”