August 5, 2014 was a big day in Chicago Cubs land. In a losing season, the fans were looking for excitement and they finally got some as shortstop/second baseman Javier Baez made his major league debut. A top prospect on the team and in the league as a whole, it was a big deal. Whispers of his mythical bat speed and explosive power had people eager to see him in Cubbie blue. He didn’t disappoint, hitting a game-winning home run in Colorado in the 12th inning.
The rest of the season however, wasn’t all high-fiving after moonshots over the ivy. Contact was his biggest issue, and it was a major one. Striking out over 41 percent of the time in 229 plate appearances, he just couldn’t put the bat on the ball enough. For perspective, at that pace, over the course of a full season, he would have broken the MLB record for strikeouts (223 by Mark Reynolds).
After a winter of hoping he just needed to make adjustments and develop some more as a hitter, it was expected that Javy would break 2015 Spring Training and head to Chicago. Rumors circulated that he made the team, only for the Cubs to backtrack and send him to Iowa at the end of March to play for their Triple-A affiliate. This was the first blow in a season that would have many more downs than ups, and not just on the field.
In early April, the Baez family suffered a tragedy as his 21-year old sister Noely, suffering from spina bifida since birth, passed away. Often seen in pictures together, the two were reportedly close and she was his biggest fan. I can’t even try to understand what that must have been like; nothing is as important as family, and Javier took time to grieve with his family and rightfully so.
After a couple weeks away from the game, Baez was back and looking to play his way to Chicago. With Jorge Soler, Kris Bryant and Addison Russell all already on the team, he was on the outside looking in to the Cubs prospect party and success. He was also now partially blocked positionally, barring a move to the outfield by Baez or Bryant (the latter more likely with Baez’s glove seen as one of his strengths).
Back in Iowa, Baez’s bat started to come around again and position or not, it appeared a call-up was imminent. The Cubs were about to begin interleague play on June 9 in Detroit and it was all but guarenteed that Baez would be up to play DH. Two days prior, on a headfirst slide into second base, he broke his finger and was sidelined for 4-8 weeks. Another setback that paved the way for Kyle Schwarber to get a cup of coffee in Javier’s place as the DH later that month.
He remained out until July 28, but continued to perform once he was back at Iowa. On the season for the I-Cubs he’s hit .324/.385/.527 with 13 homers in 313 plate appearances. He also appeared to have adjusted his stance and swing, making a lot less noise and choking up on the bat when the count wasn’t in his favor. The dream of him putting it all together had never quite faded; he was a young prospect after all, and the potential will always be enormous when it comes to Baez.
Now, finally, we’re going to see if the changes that lead to his success in Triple-A translates at the big-league level. Javier Baez is one of the September call-ups for the Cubs and with Starlin Castro struggling (despite a recent hot streak) and Jorge Soler on the DL (allowing Chris Coghlan to play right field) he should get some playing time.
Regardless of the results, it’s hard to argue the determination and mental toughness that Baez has shown this year in his quest for a chance at Major League success. From his Spring Training back-and-forth, to a personal tragedy and an injury when on the brink of a return, saying he’s been through the ringer is selling it short. In terms of baseball, it shouldn’t be surprising that he’s handled it as best as someone can (the man has the MLB logo tattooed on the back of his neck), but it’s hard to forget that the players are human beings and adversity affects everyone in their own personal way.
Baez seems like the kind of player who internalizes and uses his obstacles in life to fuel his drive. Whether or not that’s true I am not sure, but I do know that if he can reduce his strikeout rate and shorten up, he has the potential to be one of the most explosive middle infielders in the league. That’s a much bigger ask than stating it, and it’s hard to trust his Iowa numbers after he posted similar numbers in 2014, but it’s just as difficult to bet against him.
Whatever obstacles Baez faces, in life or on the diamond, he’s shown the ability to work through it and keep grinding away at being a valuable Major League baseball player. Whether he turns into an all-time great, a middling contributor or whiffs his way out of the league, he’s someone to root for.