Javier Baez: Wait 'til next year

USA TODAY Sports

Chicago's top prospect looks poised to crest the majors in 2014, but Cubs fans might be better off waiting for 2015 to get excited.

Actually, wait 'til next next year, but whatever.

Thanks to surprisingly good projections and some enthusiastic speculation, a few of the Cubs' most promising minor leaguers appear to be primed for the highest level, but 2014 is likely to be more of a transition than a breakout year.

Cubs fans probably knew that already, but it's worth mentioning that the brow-raising projections for Javier Baez are just that -- projections. ZiPS is not projecting playing time (if they were, they'd be about 10,000 plate appearances long for the Cubs as a team). They are just attempting to give us an idea of what the upcoming season might look like from each player.

ZiPS has Baez pegged for All-Star-type rookie season -- 28 homers, 18 stolen bases, a .486 slugging percentage, and the second-best weighted on-base average (.340) on the team behind first baseman Anthony Rizzo. And it's easy to see where they got those numbers. Baez was incredible last season. After pillaging the Florida State League (17 homers, 12 steals, .274/.338/.535 in 76 games), he was promoted to Double-A Tennessee and hit even better (20 homers, 8 steals, .294/.346/.638 in 54 games). Pretty good. Pretty good enough, actually, to be touted as a potential "generational talent" by Baseball Prospectus' Jason Parks, and spur a successive wave of apoplexy across Chicago proper.

On the other hand, ZiPS projects him to incite his riotous exploits over 515 plate appearances. That part's probably not going to happen. Not because Baez lacks the skill, but because the Cubs have little reason to rush him to Wrigley. They'd have to displace one of their current starters to get him in the lineup, he has all of 240 plate appearances above Single-A, and perhaps most importantly, his arbitration clock starts ticking the minute they hand him a Cubs uniform. Why start the financial countdown now?

Baez' potential impact clearly can't be matched by Luis Valbuena, Darwin Barney, or even Starlin Castro. However, the Cubs are in a position that affords them the ability to keep Baez in the minors and allow their current major leaguers an opportunity to develop (or continue to develop) into valuable trade chips.

Barney's Gold Glove-calbier defense at second and Valbuena's projected .307 wOBA and solid glove at third could land the Cubs a player or two that could help them during their actual window of competition -- 2016 or 2017. Neither player is likely to bring back anything extraordinary on the trade market, but moving them would open spots for Baez and Arismendy Alcantara -- and they might just get a useful player or two in the process.

Starlin Castro presents the club with a much tougher decision. They have the prospects to replace him. An infield of Anthony Rizzo, Alcantara, Baez, and Mike Olt or Kris Bryant would certainly be a promising unit with which to begin an ascent through the NL Central, but the team isn't likely to give up on him yet. He's still only 23 years old, and he's already been named an All-Star twice. The team also just signed him to a pretty team-friendly extension that locks him up through 2020, never guaranteeing him more than $11 million in a single season.

Chicago's bat-heavy farm system is rather puny when it comes to future impact arms. Trading Castro could be a way for the roster-building duo of general manager Jed Hoyer and president of baseball operations Theo Epstein to address that. However, their deep organizational cache of left-side infielders is far from being a sign that they intend to make a change at shortstop.

No matter what they decide to do with Castro, Javier Baez is likely to start the season in the minors and stay there until something changes at the big league level. He could still be an exciting player to watch this year, but Chicago has a few good reasons to keep him on the farm for the better part of the 2014 season.

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