By Jared Wyllys
I have always begun with the assumption that Javier Baez was the kind of player who needed to be in the lineup on a regular basis, preferably as a regular starter in some spot on the field. Since his call up in 2014, and even with the subsequent struggles, I held to the opinion that he would one day be a full time player. His performance at the plate this past season only bolstered this opinion. But, if he is to be a regular starter in 2016, that isn’t going to be simple.
Assuming that there won’t be another significant trade involving Jorge Soler or Baez, and there’s reason to think that there won’t be, especially when it comes to Soler (see more about that here), then Joe Maddon will have to flex his creativity to get regular at bats for Baez and Chris Coghlan. Both might be deserving of regular spots in the lineup, but especially when it comes to Baez, that is not always completely clear, or at least has not been so far. He probably needs a chance to get as many plate appearances this season as he can, as I think he has proven his mettle in AAA and stands little, if anything, to gain from spending more time in the Pacific Coast League, and because he has the potential to be the kind of hitter I would rather see him coming up to the plate 4 or 5 times during a game, rather than just once as a pinch hitter.
Using Baez in a strictly utility/pinch hitting role seems like a waste of incredible offensive potential, along with the defensive athleticism that he can offer at both middle infield positions. Not to mention the distinct possibility that he could be used to spell Kris Bryant at third base and Jason Heyward in center field if the winter league experiment in center field continues. Very early indications are that he’s done passably in center this winter. This is not much of a surprise, because he has the arm strength that can suit him well at the hot corner or in the outfield. Some of his best defensive numbers in 2015 came at third base, though he spent quite a bit less time there than he did at second or shortstop.
At the plate, Baez took a much larger number of swings at pitches in the zone, going from about 58% in 2014 to close to 66% in 2015. This played a very large role in a batting average increase from .169 in 2014 to .289 this year. More importantly, his K% dropped from 41.5% in his first year to 30% this past season, and he saw an OPS increase from .551 to .733. According to the Steamer Projections, he’s expected to keep improving on this in 2016, and be a 1.1 WAR player (he was below replacement level in 2014, and just barely above this year).
With this in mind, I expect that we’ll see Baez spend much of his time as the utility player who can work his way into the lineup in several different spots defensively. Steamer projects him to see just 273 plate appearances in 2016, but still offer some pop (13 home runs) and increase his OPS (.757), and keep the K % down even further (28.1%). If he can hit like this at the plate, he’ll be worth getting in the lineup with regularity, so the question turns to where that will happen. It should be acknowledged, of course, that defensive statistics in this case need to come with the small sample size caveat, as he has not amassed nearly enough innings at any position to tell us quite enough (and from what I’ve watched of him and his scouting reports, he stands to potentially turn out better than his defensive numbers indicate so far). So, with the question of where he’ll land on defense, let’s start with the obvious.
Second Base and Shortstop
This is where he’s spent the majority of his time defensively, both in the minors and with the Cubs. In the last two seasons, he’s spent 269.2 innings at 2B and 300 at SS. Interestingly, his advanced defensive numbers at those spots are actually not that great. In 2014, he had a -3.2 UZR at 2B and a -1.5 at SS. Comparatively, Starlin Castro had a 1.0 UZR at SS and a -0.8 at 2B, and Ben Zobrist wasn’t much better, though he’s had years where he’s been quite good. Addison Russell had a 6.1 UZR at SS and a 7.3 at 2B. Granted, defensive statistics are less reliable in general than offensive ones, but this provides at least some basis for comparison. In general, Baez offers more with his bat than he does with his glove. His WAR went up from 2014 to 2015 because he improved so much at the plate. I suspect that his best chance at earning a regular spot anywhere will be if he can force the issue with his bat, a la Kyle Schwarber.
Baez spent just 64 innings here in 2015, and prior to that he had just a handful of appearances at third in the 2012 Arizona Fall League. So, using any sort of defensive stats here would be mostly meaningless. He hasn’t even played enough in the majors at the middle infield spots to draw any sort of reasonable conclusions, let alone what he’s done at third. That said, he definitely possesses the range and arm strength to handle third base when called upon. I can’t see this being much more than a spot start position for him, and Kris Bryant will foreseeably have this locked down for many years to come.
This is certainly interesting, though very hard to tell how serious at this point. Baez has not played in the outfield since high school, and is dabbling in center field during his time in the winter leagues in Puerto Rico. He’s clearly feeling confident about it, judging from the tweets he’s sending on the subject:
First Game in CF #LetsGo
— Javier Báez (@javy23baez) December 18, 2015
Just dont hit it to CF when im there. 💪🏽🔥🔥🔥🔥
— Javier Báez (@javy23baez) December 20, 2015
I’ll want to see what he looks like out there before I can think about him playing out there for the Cubs. I am sure he can handle it, but like third base, this is a spot that he seems likely to see only very sporadically during the Cubs season.
With all of this considered, I grow less and less convinced in the idea of Javier Baez as a regular starter. The ceiling for him is very, very high, but the floor is also frighteningly low. Unless he shows at some point that he can keep his swings in the zone and take more pitches outside of it, he’s likely doomed for a utility/pinch hitting role.