Like the rest of the unhealthy members of Cub Nation, I find myself stationed on my couch for the most unlikely of appointment television on a Tuesday in early August between two baseball teams in competition for the number one overall pick in the 2015 MLB Draft. The reason I’m here is to see the unveiling of the hope we’ve been promised on the Northside of the city since the arrival of the Theo Epstein regime in the fall of 2011.
That hope is embodied in the six-foot, one hundred ninety pound frame of a second baseman by the name of Javier Baez. I won’t waste your time with all of the accolades that Mr. Baez has earned along his way to Wrigley but I assure you they have been both warranted and plentiful. The question was never if Baez was going to make it to The Show but rather when and under what terms.
When Theo & Co. arrived at 1060 W. Addison they found the organizational shelves rather bare as far as projectable major league talent amongst the lower ranks of the farm system. It was only four months prior that the Ricketts family was willing to flex the financial muscle to keep up with the modern major league franchises in their willingness to spend unreasonable sums of money on unproven amateur talent in the draft. Leading the class of new Cubs that summer was a young shortstop with prodigious power from the Jacksonville, FL area. While credit most certainly goes to former General Manager Jim Hendry and Scouting Director Tim Wilken for identifying the talent with the ninth overall selection – a choice implying that eight other teams passed on and the current brain trust will openly admit they would not have drafted if given the opportunity – it should be noted that the new bosses did not take a slash-and-burn approach to the field before planting their own seeds. Instead talent was recognized for what it was, nurtured, and grown as if it were their own.
If it wasn’t his four homerun game at Daytona last year, or his run at the Triple Crown in the AA Southern League in the second half of 2013, or his dominance against major league competition in spring training then surely Baez’s homer in the Futures Game in Minneapolis last month was the tipping point for his inevitable promotion (note to future Cubs prospects – the only sure-fire way to get called up is to hit a dinger in the Futures Game – see Alcantara 2013, Baez 2014). The bigger question however is why now?
I won’t get tangled in the complicated web of service time rules in Major League Baseball as if you’ve made it this far you’re either already familiar with them or your left side will go numb with boredom over the next 1,500 words. In short all you need to know is that in the big picture view of the Cubs rebuilding process, there’s nothing that says they have to call Baez up right now. In fact, it would beseech them to wait until sometime next May to ensure they can keep him in a Cubs uniform for cheap all the way until the year 2021 instead of 2020 as would be the case if he stays up the rest of this season and stays with the club from this point forward. Bringing him up now shortens the length of time he’s under team control and potentially adds some empty wins which hurt the Cubs’ draft position next summer. So what logic could Theo & Jed have applied to think now is the perfect time to start Javy’s major league clock?
Operating on absolutely zero inside knowledge (I assure you) I think the decision is multi-tiered. First and foremost I believe an announcement is pending that Baez has signed a long-term, club friendly contract which will lock him in at a fixed rate, buying out his arbitration years and a year or two of free agency, for guaranteed money. My guess is that somewhere in the next ten days to six months Baez will sign a seven year contract in the ballpark of $50-60 million dollars. The benefits here are multi-tiered:
a) Signing such a contract removes any service time concerns for the Cubs so the idea of starting his clock becomes moot.
b) Extending such a deal to him probably will save the club quite a bit of money if he becomes everything he’s been projected to be.
c) A guaranteed contract puts a lot of money in the pocket of a 21 year old kid with a sister who lives with spina bifida and a family that moved from Puerto Rico to provide her better medical care.
d) Baez has historically started slowly at each new level he progresses to so one school of thought is the club wants him to work out the jitters of this final promotion now so he can hit the ground running next April.
Last week in an under-covered story by the Chicago media, Javier Baez changed agents to the Wasserman Media Group. I would guess that Javy was not hearing what he wanted from his former agent – KPS Sports – and the Wasserman group promised they could get him boku bucks before next season begins. Any time an athlete changes agents it means that they’re looking to sign a new deal because from the agent’s perspective a new agent doesn’t see a dime off an athlete’s existing contract. Their commission comes off of any new paper their client signs so from purely a capitalist perspective they are incented to get him signed to a new agreement as soon as they can. Additionally, signing a seven year deal today still makes Baez a free agent in his age 28 season which is arguably when he’ll be entering his prime, so he would do so knowing more big paydays are yet to come.
So obviously if you’re a 21 year old kid getting offered more money than the last seventeen generations of your family have earned collectively, cutting a deal makes a lot of sense. From the Cubs perspective, aside from theoretically buying low on a candidate, perhaps the greater value is in the message it will send.
The message I refer to is perhaps several messages in one. The first statement being made is to the Cubs fans who have been fed the dream of the future for three (or a hundred and three depending on who you ask) plus seasons. Calling up your #1 prospect says that the future starts now and it’s time to get back on board. That’s all well and good from a marketing perspective but I think it goes deeper than that. I think by calling up Baez now, and theoretically getting him signed to a professional contract now, sends a message to the rest of the prospects on the rise within the organization that if you want to play under the big lights then you need to do so under our terms.
Both Kris Bryant and Albert Almora (two future stars on their way to Chicago as well) are clients of uber-agent Scott Boras. Boras is renowned in the game for getting his players the biggest paydays he can and generally scoffing at the idea of a “team friendly” deal. Boras wants to get his clients “clocks” started as soon as he can so that they can hit the true prize of free agency as early in their career as possible. So for these next two months, and most likely to start next year, Kris Bryant will continue to take the eight hour bus rides through the minor leagues while his equal and his peer Baez is fulfilling his dream by playing in the Majors. Somewhere in a Motel 6 in Nebraska or eating at a Subway in rural Oregon Bryant is going to be tempted to pick up his phone and ask his agent just what a deal would look like to get him to The Show where someone carries your bags for you and all the batting practice balls are white. The Cubs are playing this perfectly appealing to the ego and fantasies of competitive young men chasing their dreams. If Bryant can listen to his agent and wait out the Cubs for a few more months of bus breakdowns and window mounted AC units then power to him. But the carrot has most certainly been dangled assuming my assumptions are correct and Baez signs on the dotted line to make his dreams come true all the sooner.
So the future is now Cubs fans, or at least the proverbial window has been opened more than a crack and a steady breeze of optimism is rushing in. Breath it in deeply as this day has been long in coming, for the fateful “Next Year” is almost here.