He has been described as a monster at the plate, his bat speed has been compared to Gary Sheffield, his offensive output has been compared to Miguel Cabrera and at least one scout believes that he has Hall of Fame potential. His name is Javier Baez, and he is the Chicago Cubs’ No. 1 prospect as well as a unanimous top 10 prospect in MLB.
As a shortstop, Baez has the potential to be one of the most valuable players in baseball, and according to ZiPS, he can produce at the plate immediately in 2014. ZiPS is a projection service and on Tuesday they released their Cubs projections. If the Cubs played Baez for most of the season, ZiPS expects that he would lead the team in home runs with 28, steal 18 bases and be second overall on the team to Anthony Rizzo with a .340 weighted on-base average. ZiPS projects those numbers in a mere 515 plate appearances. In comparison, Rizzo projects to have 27 home runs in 655 plate appearances.
The question surrounding Javier Baez is what position will he play? Incumbent shortstop Starlin Castro signed a seven-year, $60 million contract before last season, and while 2013 was a forgettable year for the young shortstop, I believe he will bounce back this year. Currently third base is occupied by a platoon of Luis Valbuena and Donnie Murphy, who were surprisingly effective in that role last year. Neither player is a long-term option, though, and can be moved to utility roles or to second base if a younger player forces the Cubs’ hands.
However, the man who the Cubs hope will lock down third base in the near term is not Javier Baez; it is Mike Olt. The 25-year-old Olt was ranked as the 43rd best prospect in 2012 and 22nd best prospect in 2013 by Baseball America, but vision issues led to a miserable offensive showing this past year at Triple-A. Although he was considered untouchable prior to the 2013 season, Olt was included in the package the Cubs received from the Texas Rangers for Matt Garza before the trade deadline. Olt claims his vision issues have been solved, and if so he has 20+ home run power that he combines with good on-base skills and solid defense.
If third base is locked down, Baez has the skill to move over to second base which is currently manned by the all glove, no stick Darwin Barney. After winning a Gold Glove in 2012 with passable offense, Barney’s offense nose-dived in 2013, though he maintained his elite defense. Barney may be trade bait if he can improve offensively, however, even if Barney is traded or moves to a utility role, the Cubs have another top 100 prospect, Arismendy Alcantara, who could take over as the Cubs’ primary second baseman later this season. ZiPS projects Alcantara for a line of .255/.307/.405 with 12 home runs and 25 stolen bases in 529 plate appearances.
With Starlin Castro seemingly entrenched at shortstop and the future at second base covered by Alcantara, it appears third base is the best destination for Baez. If Mike Olt lays claim to the job in spring training then the Cubs would have a very good problem on their hands. One possible outcome is that if Olt proves he belongs in the big leagues, the Cubs could move him to left field as he has played some outfield in the past. Junior Lake is the projected starting left fielder, but he has played center field this winter and also played the position for the Cubs in 2013. Lake could either platoon with projected center fielder Ryan Sweeney, beat him outright for the job or he could move into a super-utility role off the bench.
These scenarios exist only in a perfect world, and a perfect world has not existed at Clark and Addison for over 100 years. Despite the favorable ZiPS projection for Baez, there is zero chance that he opens the season with the Cubs. However, if Baez obliterates Triple-A the same way he laid waste to Advanced-A and Double-A, the Cubs could be in a position to fit all of their pieces together and allow their young players shine.