We’ve taken a brief Tanaka-imposed hiatus on our position by position analysis, but we resume today with the position of shortstop.
Shortstop is spoken for at the moment by 23 year old two time all-star Starlin Castro, but things are about to get very interesting. Javier Baez will begin the year at AAA and he will also play shortstop. His stock is on the rise.
Professor Parks of Baseball Prospectus had this to say about Baez,
Based on recent conversations w/ industry sources, I think ranking Javier Baez #4 overall in MiLB is going to look foolish. Case for #1.
Something has to give.
The assumption is that it will be Baez who gives. Theo Epstein has said as much In fact, the news out of the convention is that Javier Baez will play some 2B this spring.
But anything can happen over the next season or so.
Scouting VP Jason McLeod believes Baez can be a shortstop at the big league level.
“There’s still some of the mental mistakes (where) you wouldn’t want to necessarily just put him right into the environment here,” McLeod said. “I do think Javy is a kid who steps up to the environment that he’s going to be in. Some (errors) might be lack of concentration. Some of them might be because he does get to balls that other guys don’t get to – he’s trying to make the great play and ends up throwing it away.
“Do I think he can come up here and you’d want him to be the shortstop catching groundballs (at Wrigley Field right now)? I can’t sit here and (pound) the table today. (But) I think he will be that guy, (or) could be that guy, for sure.”
Complicating the situation is that Starlin Castro took a step backward last year. There was a combination of factors here. Castro came to camp out of shape, management tried to change his approach, and Castro had to deal with failure for the first time in his career. He was never really able to right the ship. There was no late surge to give you optimism heading into this season.
So, for the first time since his big league debut, Castro faces questions this spring. Physically nothing has changed. He hasn’t lost bat speed or athleticism. He does work hard and he does care — though I’ve had some scouts suggest that he needs to mature a little. But all the skills and athleticism that made him a core player and up and coming star are still there.
He’s still young, so it’s not shocking that he makes mistakes and loses focus from time to time. People mature at different ages, but I also wonder if the old front office did him a disservice by rushing him to the big leagues. The fans were getting frustrated with the team and Jim Hendry was feeling the heat, so the Cubs did what you should never do to a young player — call him up with the burden of rekindling fan interest and saving the GMs job. As gifted as he is, Castro still had a lot to learn on and off the field when he made his debut just 2 months after his 20th birthday.
Castro was ready from a physical skills standpoint. His plate coverage and ability to make consistent hard contact made him a tough out. He started hitting from day one and didn’t really stop until around May of last year. That’s when he struggled mightily for the first time in his career. One of the unintended consequences of his early call-up is that he hadn’t developed the skills in the minors to work his way out of it. He floundered, lost confidence, and ultimately grew frustrated.
The hope is that Castro takes this as a learning experience and does a better job of handling adversity the next time it happens. Only time will tell in that respect. The Cubs are making a preemptive strike by having him work with strength coach Tim Buss this offseason. Get him focused early, make sure he gets into good shape, and perhaps help instill some of that confidence he lost.
And it doesn’t hurt to have a top 5 prospect at your position just one level behind you to keep you focused.
All of those things are intangibles and while those things are difficult, if not impossible to measure, we can look at what Castro projects purely from a statistical standpoint. Steamer has the following projections for next season:
- 11 HRs
- .319 wOBA
- 98 RC+
- 2.6 WAR
So what we’re looking at here is roughly a league average shortstop. That in itself would be a boost from last season, but there is little question in my mind that Castro has the talent to easily exceed those projections. He may have to if he wants to fend off the hard-charging Baez.
As for Baez, he also has work to do. He needs to cut down on the errors. Like Castro, he has the flair for the spectacular on defense but he too can lose focus. His contact skills aren’t as good as Castro’s and his walk rate projects to be about the same. The defensive potential is similar. Where Baez separates himself most is with his power potential, a tool that would be elite from a middle infield position.
Those are things he needs to work on at Iowa before the Cubs deem him ready for the majors. The test for Baez won’t be if he can handle AAA from a physical standpoint. He can and he will. A pitcher’s raw stuff at AAA is really no different than that in AA. He will crush mistakes at all levels. For Baez it’s going to be about facing more experienced pitchers who will be better equipped to set him up and exploit his aggressiveness.
Baez will have to build upon the more disciplined approach he began to show at Tennessee late in the season. He walked at a career high 8% rate in AA and there is some reason to think that rate is legit. Baez’s walk rate has steadily risen since walking in just 3.8% of his plate appearances for Class A Peoria in 2012. It has gone up at each new level and season.
But walks aren’t the end goal. They should be just one of the many possible positive results that comes from developing a good approach at the plate. We follow the minors here closely in our recaps and what we began to see was Baez working counts, getting ahead, and getting better pitches to hit as the season went on — even before the walk rate reflected that improvement. To me, this isn’t a fluke or something that has happened overnight, it’s been developing slowly but steadily over time. He’s not ever going to be a walk machine, but if he can do it at something near a league average rate and at least get ahead in the count more consistently, he’s going to be a menace to pitchers everywhere. Given that he shows the ability to have this kind of offensive impact from a premium position, Baez has the potential to be a monster.
Baez is also intelligent enough to know that pitchers will try to make him get himself out and that his power is a threat, so he will get pitched around. He began to show signs of adapting to this reality midway through last season. As Baez’s power began showing up with regularity, so did the walks. It’s been part of his maturation process as a ballplayer — and thankfully the front office has let him develop that at a proper pace in the minors. There’s no reason to think that they won’t continue to do so.
We won’t expect Baez to have the same kind of patience as far as his timetable. You just hope he doesn’t revert to his aggressive approach and tries to blast his way to the majors. You hope that he understands that what will get him to the majors isn’t the 450 foot HR or the occasional jaw dropping defensive play (though that is a whole lot of fun) — it will be consistency at the plate and the field. Baez needs to continue refining his approach as he faces more experienced pitchers.
If he understands that, then things will take care of themselves and he may just force the Cubs hand at some point later in the season.
As for how it will work out at shortstop long term, it’s too early to tell. There are too many variables. The Cubs have two very talented young shortstops. That is a wonderful luxury for this front office — especially if each reach their respective potential. If Castro reminds us that he can indeed be the long term answer at shortstop, then Baez is gifted enough to play just about any other position in the field. And we know his bat can play anywhere. These things take tend to take care of themselves.
The Cubs also have other talented infielders knocking on the door. Kris Bryant, Mike Olt, Christian Villanueva, and Arismendy Alcantara may also have some say as to how the final pieces will fit together.
So, for now, we have to be content to sit back and watch this play out over the next few months. In a season that isn’t expected to produce excitement in terms of win totals, the long-term shortstop situation will be a subplot well worth watching.