Cubs: Expect Javier Baez to be a Regular this Season

There has been some skepticism as to whether or not Javier Baez will get regular playing time in 2017, but Joe Maddon will find a way to make it happen.

Let’s talk about Javier Baez for a minute, because if we’re being honest here, the Chicago Cubs haven’t gotten any sort of coverage at all. The basic message: don’t be afraid to draft him, he’s going to play.

Nobody is really quite sure what to think about Baez in 2017.  Baseball Prospectus only projects him to hit .243 this season, while RotoChamp has him hitting .258.  Not exactly what you want to see, but both sites have him hitting 18 home runs, which is good.

We’ll get to the numbers potential here in a minute, but the real pressing question is not so much what he’ll do, but whether or not he’ll receive legitimate playing time.  To this point, Ben Zobrist has been the starting second baseman for the Chicago Cubs.  This was sort of one of the conditions for him when he signed with Chicago as a free agent, but there may be a bit more flexibility at this point.

Zobrist is dependable as they come, both at the plate and on defense.  But let’s be honest, he doesn’t flash the leather like Baez.  The world watched as Baez made incredible play after incredible play all throughout the playoffs.  And for those who didn’t watch, the regular season was no different.  The guy is a defensive wizard.

This is one big reason Cubs manager Joe Maddon has to use Baez with more regularity, but defense aside, it’s his bat that we’re really concerned with here.  After all, this is where your fantasy production is going to come from.

Baez has had somewhat of an up-and-down start to his MLB career.  He was ranked as the fifth best prospect in 2014 by Baseball Prospectus before being called up from Triple-A.  In his very first Major League game, Baez hit a game-winning home run, and thus a legend was born.  Well, sort of.  Baez went on to record a slash line of .169/.227/.324 to finish out the 2014 season.  To call his debut season a disappointment would be a huge understatement.

Things looked better in 2015, though Baez spent the majority of the season in Triple-A Iowa.  He only had 80 plate appearances, but he made the most of them, hitting .289/.325/.408.  A smaller sample size, but a drastic improvement to be sure.  2016 was Baez’s first full season at the Major League level, and though he had his down moments, he managed to finish with fairly impressive numbers.  With a career high 450 plate appearances, Baez hit .273/.314/.423 with 14 home runs.

One thing has become exceedingly clear since Baez’s lackluster start: he’s trending in the right direction.  Dare I say “budding star?”  There isn’t any one particular thing Baez does exceptionally well on offense, but if you look at his numbers, he’s improved in almost every category since his debut.  The big knock on Baez has always been plate discipline.  Strikeouts are the most pressing issue for the young slugger now, but he’s showing improvement in that category as well.  In 2014 he struck out a whopping 95 times in just 229 plate appearances.  Last year he struck out 108 times in 450 plate appearances.  That number is still a bit higher than you’d like to see, but that’s monumental advancement of plate discipline.  And there’s no reason to believe he won’t continue that trend this year.

Strikeouts are the most pressing issue for the young slugger now, but he’s showing improvement in that category as well.  In 2014 he struck out a whopping 95 times in just 229 plate appearances.  Last year he struck out 108 times in 450 plate appearances.  That number is still a bit higher than you’d like to see, but that’s monumental advancement of plate discipline.  And there’s no reason to believe he won’t continue that trend this year.

This is a problem, albeit a good one, the Chicago Cubs have.  Figuring out how to get serious playing time for all of their talented young players.  But Joe Maddon will find a way to make it work.  You don’t win your first World Series in 108 years with an ignoramus calling the shots.  One way or another, Javier Baez is going to get a starter’s share of playing time this season.  You can expect Ben Zobrist to play the most second base between the two, but Baez has shown he can be an adequate outfielder, so he doesn’t necessarily have to be out of the lineup when Zobrist takes the infield.

If Baez’s offense keeps progressing the way it has been, Maddon has no choice but to keep him in the lineup as much as possible.  The power is definitely there as well.  With real playing time, Baez could be a 25-30 home run guy.  His speed and skills on the base paths are also assets.  It’s not at all far-fetched to expect 20 stolen bases from him.

Realistically, Zobrist should go before Baez.  But the spark plug nature of Baez probably gives him more upside than Zobrist.  The flip side is you also take a bigger risk.  Zobrist isn’t going to put up gaudy numbers, but he’s also not likely to deviate from the dependability he’s provided for years.  For 10-12 team leagues, I have Baez being drafted at about 200th overall.  Maybe a little sooner if you’re the gambling type.

Bottom line, don’t be surprised if he delivers significantly more than his suggested value predict