Javier Baez and the rise of the Cubs


Is it too late for Javier Baez to lead the majors in home runs for 2014? The National League? The Cubs?

If you’ve been too preoccupied by pennant races to notice, Baez is the 21-year-old rookie infielder recalled by the Cubs this week who hit three home runs in his first three games, two on Thursday alone.

At that pace, he’ll hit 52 if he plays every game the Cubs have left. As it is, his three homers in 14 at-bats entering play Friday are one more than Emilio Bonifacio hit in 276 at-bats, and one more than Darwin Barney hit in 204 at-bats (and just 27 less than Bonifacio and Barney have hit in 4,212 career at-bats).

It was no coincidence that the Cubs promoted Baez this week while the team was in Colorado. If Coors Field didn’t sustain Baez’s confidence, the Rockies woeful pitching staff would.

These are heady times for the Cubs and Cubs fans, who haven’t had many recently. The Cubs lost 101 and 96 games in Theo Epstein’s first two seasons and are still on pace to lose 90 in this one. But more than half the headlines on their web page — and the Sun Times’ and Tribune’s — are about Baez. Hope is the thing with power.

Earlier this season, Sports Illustrated said the Houston Astros would win the 2017 World Series, which would have sold a lot of magazines in Texas if anyone cared about the Astros (even more if anyone in Houston could get them on their cable TV package).

Of course, SI also once said Kansas City would win the 2015 World Series. The Royals still haven’t made the playoffs and may not this year, and James Shields will be leaving town after about 13-14 more starts.

People like those futuristic stories for the same reason they do sci-fi: it’s all fantasy.

The Astros have talent, but even the worst of GMs could get some if they had that many high picks (the Astros have had the last three No. 1 picks in the draft). If SI really wanted to pick an underdog to win some World Series to be, they should have picked the Cubs.

If the Astros have gone Same Hinkie on baseball, they did so without a plan.

Not so the Cubs, whose foundation is better than the Astros by the distance of one of Baez’s home runs. The Astros have Carlos Correa, who’s injured, Mark Appel, who’s scuffling, a first pick of the draft who returned to school unsigned and powerful young sluggers who strike out so much they make Casey At The Bat seem like a contact hitter.

Unless the residue of a marijuana habit takes a year or more to undo, Jon Singleton will strike out more frequently than Chris Carter. That’s saying something. Strikeouts are to the Astros’ lineup what machismo is to Texans.

The Cubs, in the Epstein years, had a plan. Three of Epstein’s No. 1 picks have been hitters, because position players don’t miss full seasons with Tommy John surgery. (Baez was Jim Hendry’s last No. 1 pick — if he had made more like that, he might still have the job. A list of Hendry’s No. 1 picks below).

Compare the Astros’ talent to the Cubs: Kris Bryant, who may soon be the best hitter in baseball (think Miguel Cabrera); Baez, an infielder with power and speed, if little control of the strike zone (think Alfonso Soriano, in the good years); and Jorge Soler, a Cuban outfielder with a career .947 minor-league OPS (think Yoenis Cespedes).

That’s not a bad middle of the order, and in Cubs vs. Astros, a sweep for Chicago.

The Cubs saturated their drafts with pitching picks after round one, traded for oft-hurt C.J. Edwards, and a have a legitimate prospect in Pierce Johnson (a second 2012 first-rounder who has a 2.74 ERA in the minors). And they have money, too. They can build a pitching staff, albeit differently than they have a lineup.

If they rely on Kyle Hendricks and pitchers of his ilk, they’ll be in a lot of wild-card games.

Given where the Cubs have been, that’s not all bad.

Given where they can go, that’s not good enough.

Jim Hendry’s No. 1 picks: 2003, Ryan Harvey (never made majors); 2004: forfeited for signing free agent Latroy Hawkins; 2005: Mark Pawelek (never made majors); 2006: Tyler Colvin (now a Giant, 239/287/446 fourth outfielder); 2007: Josh Vitters (.121 in 129 at-bats) and Josh Donaldson (All-Star third baseman traded in package for Chad Gaudin and Rich Harden); 2008: Andrew Cashner (talented if injury-prone pitcher traded by Epstein for Anthony Rizzo) and Ryan Flaherty (utility infielder lost in Rule 5 draft); 2009: Brett Jackson (.175 in 120 at-bats); 2010: Hayden Simpson (5-18, 6.83 ERA in minors before release) and 2011: Baez.)

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