The Cubs Are Creating A Monster
“We need a Ben Zobrist-type,” is a phrase uttered by countless front office executives and fantasy owners alike since Zobrist’s 8.6 WAR breakout campaign in 2009. Ultimately the phrase relates to teams targeting and developing players capable of fielding multiple positions, thus creating positional flexibility while using fewer position player roster spots to do it. It’s imperative in an age with most front offices electing to carry 13-man pitching staffs.
Take the Chicago Cubs for example. Heading into the season, the Northsiders looked to add to their loaded roster by acquiring a Swiss-Army knife, “Zobrist-type” player that could play multiple positions. The Cubs seemingly addressed the need by, well, signing Zobrist himself. While Zobrist has been outstanding thus far this season, he has started all but five games at second base. Instead of casting Zobrist in his traditional role, the Cubs have elected to create their own utility man out of Javier Baez.
Baez didn’t start out as an overqualified utility player extraordinaire. He was selected as a shortstop, the ninth overall pick in the 2011 draft (the final draft before the Theo Epstein regime). Despite an unassuming frame, scouts raved about the power generated by his lightning fast hands as well as the cannon affixed to his right shoulder. The drawback, if one existed, was that Baez could be, to put it mildly, aggressive at the plate. His trek through the minor leagues only confirmed scouts’ suspicions. Baez’s breathtaking bat speed was matched only by his unwillingness to take walks. For his minor league career, he produced an impressive line of .287/.346/.541, all while playing solid defense at shortstop, but he walked a little too infrequently (6.5 percent) and struck out a little too much (25.4 percent). Heading into the 2014 season, Baez was primed to emerge as one of the premier young players in the game. Baseball Prospectus ranked him as the fourth best prospect in baseball, slightly ahead of other shortstop sensations Carlos Correa and Francisco Lindor.
He began the 2014 season in Triple-A Iowa, exhibiting the best and worst of the Baez experience. In 104 games, he slugged .541, smacking 23 bombs and stealing 16 bases. While his power numbers remained elite, Baez also struck out 30 percent of the time, a number that would become an ominous indicator of things to come. Despite the strikeout issues, he received the call to the big club in early August and, right on cue, homered in his first game as a Cub (he also struck out three times, but whatever). The debut may have been the pinnacle of Baez’s first stint as a big-leaguer. Over 220 plate appearances, he hit .169/.227/.324. While he did connect with nine homers, he also whiffed at a staggering 41.5 percent rate.
Adding to questions about Baez’s future, the Cubs shipped Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel to Oakland, acquiring Addison Russell in the process. While it is never a bad idea to have too many good young players (especially shortstops), speculation about the team’s “shortstop of the future” began in earnest. Baez started the 2015 season in Triple-A, with the express directive to cut down on the strikeouts. He did, peeling nearly six percent off of his previous Triple-A rate, bringing his tally down to 24.3 percent in 313 plate appearances. This was apparently enough to warrant another run at major-league pitching. This time, however, Baez was not being brought up to be the team’s everyday shortstop. With Russell surpassing him on the depth chart, Baez’s new role was that of a utility infielder. He handled the role with aplomb, hitting .289/.325/.408 over his final 80 plate appearances of the season, splitting time at every infield position. While the improved numbers at the plate were encouraging, they did come with a hefty 30 percent strikeout rate attached, a number still among the worst in the league.
Heading into 2016, the season had a feeling of “make or break” for Baez, which seemed silly to say about a player that had just turned 23-years-old. His name had come up multiple times in trade rumors during the offseason (probably a casualty of having a surplus of young talent) and Russell had clearly demonstrated the ability to be the starter at shortstop. There were also rumblings that Baez would need to shift to the outfield to see playing time in Chicago. Once again, the Cubs’ brass asked him to address the biggest hole in his game: the strikeouts.
Baez began the 2016 season in Triple-A. Four games into his season, and shortly after a gruesome injury to Kyle Schwarber, Baez was back in Cubs pinstripes. Since being called up, Baez has hit .272/.313/.460 with nine home runs and five stolen bases. His .188 ISO is above the league average, and the highest in his young career. Best of all, Baez cut his strikeout rate to 23.4 percent. One factor in the improved strikeout rate has been his approach with two strikes. In his first major-league stint, Baez hit .097 with a .361 OPS in two-strike counts. He also struck out nearly 71 percent (!!!) of the time. Yes, you read that correctly, if Baez had two strikes, he struck out nearly three-quarters of the time. After making improvements in 2015 (54.5 percent), Baez has shown a vastly improved two-strike approach in 2016, slashing .208/.250/.443 (league average is .176/.246/.276), with a 44.6 percent strikeout rate, a number that is only slightly higher than league average. Sure Baez’s 3.7 percent walk rate is Matt Kemp-ian and could stand to increase, but let’s tackle these things one at a time and not get greedy, okay?
With Baez’s approach at the plate improving, we can loop back around and talk about positional flexibility. Since Russell is firmly entrenched as the primary option at shortstop at Wrigley Field, Baez has become a floater on defense, with Joe Maddon casting him as the 2016 version of, you guessed it, Zobrist. So far this season Baez has spent time at every infield position and left field, and has already qualified, for fantasy purposes, at second base, third base, and shortstop.
By having players that qualify at multiple positions, it’s much easier to get creative with bench spots and stashes, and it can even protect your roster in case of dreaded injuries. Baez has been a buzzed about prospect for a long time, and carries the “Cubs-tax” further increasing his price in most dynasty leagues. While that may be true, his flexibility and offensive promise, combined with his freshly shaven strikeout rate, could make Baez worth every penny.
You can follow Mark Barry on Twitter @hoodieandtie