DENVER — The Cubs are signaling the future is now for Javier Baez, who already has the Major League Baseball logo tattooed onto the back of his neck.
It wasn’t just Cubs fans and the Chicago media driving the hype. The move, confirmed by a team source on Monday, will probably get this reaction inside the clubhouse: About time.
Baez will join the team in Denver and make his big-league debut on Tuesday night at Coors Field after checking all the boxes at Triple-A Iowa.
Think Baez might like facing the Colorado Rockies in the mile-high altitude?
There’s the Gary Sheffield bat speed and the window-breaking batting-practice shows that reminded Cubs people of Giancarlo Stanton in spring training.
All the attention in the Cactus League might have created an emotional letdown in Des Moines. It also took time for Baez to adjust to the experienced pitchers in the Pacific Coast League, where everyone knew this was a big-name, hotshot prospect. No one wanted to be on his home-run list, and they attacked his weaknesses, taking advantage of his aggressiveness.
But after a slow start, things started to click for Baez, who hit .321 with 12 home runs, 42 RBIs and a 1.016 OPS in his last 44 games. He blasted his 22nd and 23rd homers on Sunday, giving him 80 RBIs and finally forcing the issue.
President of baseball operations Theo Epstein — who gambled when he signed Manny Ramirez to be an Iowa player/coach on Memorial Day weekend — had indicated a Baez decision would be made toward the end of August. “Manny Being Manny” and “Javy Being Javy” appeared to be a good match of right-handed power hitters with unique personalities.
Minutes after the July 31 deadline, general manager Jed Hoyer dismissed the idea that trading utility guy Emilio Bonifacio to the Atlanta Braves could open a spot at second base, saying it wouldn’t impact the Baez timetable. Over the weekend at Dodger Stadium, manager Rick Renteria said “there’s no hurry.”
But Baez already started moving off shortstop last month, learning how to play second base and eventually play next to Starlin Castro, who on Sunday predicted he would be able to handle the big leagues. Soon.
At the age of 21, Baez has also impressed the organization with his professionalism, focus and attention to detail, which happened to be the bigger-picture concerns heading into this season.
It seems like ancient history now, but Baez signed in the final days of the Jim Hendry administration in 2011. Chairman Tom Ricketts had already fired the Cubs general manager and authorized spending on a $12 million draft class, before a restrictive collective bargaining agreement would change the game.
Tim Wilken — the scouting director at the time and now a special assistant to Epstein — had framed the question for the No. 9 overall pick that year: What’s harder to find? A quality middle-of-the-order hitter — like Miguel Cabrera good — or a No. 2 starter?
Baez can look out of control, and he sometimes quietly kept to himself after moving from Puerto Rico to the Jacksonville area. His Arlington Country Day team had become a version of the Harlem Globetrotters, playing all over the Southeast after leaving the Florida High School Athletic Association. He wasn’t necessarily easy to approach — or easy to read — and the levels of competition made him that much harder to evaluate.
[MORE CUBS: What was Rick Renteria thinking?]
The Cubs went with the big bat, a gutsy pick that went down to the final minutes before the Aug. 15 signing deadline. Hendry worked the phones and paced around his box at Minute Maid Park.
Hendry closed the deal with Baez, who got a $2.6-plus million bonus right around the time Kerry Wood got the final out in a 4-3 win over the Houston Astros. Later that week, Hendry would do his farewell press conference inside the Wrigley Field interview room/dungeon.
Baez became a foundation piece in Epstein’s rebuilding project at Clark and Addison, the organization’s minor league player of the year in 2013 after putting up 37 homers and 111 RBIs combined at advanced Class-A Daytona and Double-A Tennessee.
Now the Cubs can give Baez almost two months to let the shock to the system wear off, find a comfort level and get some of the initial struggles out of the way.
It could get ugly. Beginning Aug. 19 against the San Francisco Giants, the Cubs will play their final 38 games against contending teams that headed into Monday above .500.
It could also get very interesting, with Baseball America’s No. 7 overall midseason prospect joining a lineup that already includes 24-year-old All Stars Castro and Anthony Rizzo. Jorge Soler — the $30 million Cuban outfielder with a 1.006 OPS through his first 12 games at Iowa — is expected to be a September call-up.
A last-place team just changed the conversation and gave you a reason to watch. It’s Baez Time.