MESA, Ariz. — Javier Baez clipped his answers with “yes, sir,” locking away the swagger that led him to get the Major League Baseball logo tattooed onto the back of his neck years ago.
One day, Baez is supposed to bring some attitude to this team, but it’s not his clubhouse now. He will be in seen-and-not-heard mode at Cubs Park. At least that’s the plan.
“I’m still young and still learning how to play the game,” Baez said Monday. “I’m just going to take my time.”
Baez acted like he was in a hurry last spring, when he homered six times, twice in an exhibition game against Japan’s World Baseball Classic team. He then went out and put up 37 home runs and 111 RBI in 130 games at advanced Class-A Daytona and Double-A Tennessee, fueling the hype that led a group of reporters to surround his locker.
Cubs fans can dream about The Baez Show. As much fun as it would be to see All-Star catcher Brian McCann getting in his face, there’s no chance Baez will be standing at home plate admiring one of his shots when the Cubs visit Yankee Stadium in mid-April.
Team officials have repeated this over and over again, but that won’t stop people from asking if Baez has a chance to make the team. It doesn’t matter how many home runs he hits this spring. Next stop: Iowa.
“He’s slated to start off in Triple-A. That’s how we’re approaching the spring,” manager Rick Renteria said. “These are guys that are still very young. Sometimes there’s pressure to rush someone because they’ve had some performances that allow them to have everybody feel comfortable with the possibility and I get that. But we’ve got to make sure that when they get here, it’s for the long-term. We’re going to take that approach.
“I’m not going to tell you that we’re going to change the way we think. He needs to continue to season and continue to improve.”
Baseball America looked at a deep farm system and identified Baez as the organization’s top overall prospect. Baseball Prospectus (No. 4) and MLB.com (No.7) ranked the 21-year-old shortstop among the best prospects in the game.
But before sending in your Starlin Castro fantasy-baseball trades, remember that Baez committed 44 errors last season.
“He’s got a lot of things that he has to learn,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “There’s a world of things to like about him, but he’s also got to tighten up his plate discipline, his defense. He’s not a finished product yet.
“So there’s plenty of things he could work on in Triple-A – not just defense. I think he understands he’s coming into a situation where just a couple years ago Starlin was his age and Starlin was breaking into the big leagues. Javy’s been amenable to moving around the diamond and I think he’ll do a good job wherever we put him.”
Baez laughed off one prank that put the MLB logo and a “ROOKIE ON BOARD” message across the back of his white Mercedes-Benz last spring. He elected to skip the Arizona Fall League, preferring to work out at his old high school, Arlington Country Day in Jacksonville, Fla., where he emerged as the ninth overall pick in the 2011 draft.
Baez believes he can play with Castro at Wrigley Field: “Oh yeah, for sure. I’m going to be working with him, learning a lot of stuff from him, so we’ll see.”
That won’t stop the Twitter speculation every time Baez plays second base or third base in a Cactus League game.
“You never want to remove a shortstop from shortstop,” Renteria said. “So if we have the luxury of being able to have Starlin at the major-league level and (Baez) at Triple-A, why wouldn’t we do that? Once again, he’s a guy who’s impressed everybody. He has some skill and we want him to continue to improve and mature and be the player we hope he will become in the end.”