Going Down Swinging With Javier Baez

Chicago Cubs LogoGood morning, good afternoon, or good evening, whichever is applicable to you.  If you’re searching for a team building block at second base, you’re looking at the wrong place, at least for my taste. Jose Altuve and Dee Gordon are clearly the top options, but neither would be considered 5 category options. While the top options don’t impress me, I feel the position as a whole offers plenty of high upside value picks.

My high upside pick of choice is Javier Baez.  Not long ago, 2014 to be exact, Javier Baez was a universal Top 10 prospect. He was coming off a season in which he hit .282 with 37 HR and 20 SB over the course of 158 games between High A and AA.  After hitting .260 with 23 HR and 16 SB at AAA he earned an August call up. Baez hit 9 HR in 229 plate appearances. He also showed his warts hitting .169 with a 41.5% K rate. At the start of 2015, Baez was penciled in as the everyday second baseman for the Cubs. A lackluster Spring Training made him one of the final roster cuts as camp broke. Personal tragedy and injury took away a good portion of the 2015 season, but he still managed a .324 AVG with 13 HR and 17 SB in 313 AAA plate appearances. Perhaps most importantly his K% improved to 24.3%. While Baez did manage to hit .289 after a September call-up, he offered little else, and still had a 30% K rate.

Fast forward to 2016: Baez has an ADP of 274 (22nd 2B off the board) in completed NFBC drafts. Owners view him as a Super Utility type with no clear path to at bats. Combine that with disappointing results and it’s hard to fault those who doubt him. I choose to see a player with transparent talent; the type of value pick that can win a fantasy title.

Let’s first deal with the faults. A 2014 strikeout rate of 41.5% cannot produce profitable earnings, regardless of whatever talents he may possess. The 30% K rate of 2015 is much more palatable. Last season 20 players had a K% of 28 or greater using a 300 PA minimum. Of those 20, seven had a BA greater than .260. Among those seven, three had a BB% of less than 8.0. I understand that a .260 BA shouldn’t be a target goal, but in today’s game a .250 BA will rank among the Top 200 in baseball.

The seven hitters in question defied the odds thanks to a favorable BABIP.  Baez has good speed on the base paths; combined with his bat speed it makes Baez the type who can sustain a higher than normal BABIP. He also had a very low soft hit rate last year of 7.7%, another thing that plays in his favor.  Granted a 7.7% is unsustainable over the course of a full season, but if it settles into the 12-14% range he’s still in good shape.  Another negative is his hard hit rate.  While he showed some improvements in 2015, a 32.7% still does not crack the top 50 which plays against his power numbers. 

Then there is his overall contact percentage.  Like his hard hit rate, there were improvements in 2015 over his previous season.  Unfortunately a contact% closer to 68 ranks him outside the top 100.  Some hitters are capable of hitting for average despite a low contact percentage, but most of those hitters have a higher hard contact rate, lower strikeouts and better overall plate discipline. Finally we have LD% which spiked when he was recalled and FB% which dropped from his previous season.  A high LD% is good for batting average, but expecting 31% here is as unrealistic as expecting a BABIP of .400+.  On the other side, a FB% close to 30 doesn’t bode well for power (hence one home run in 80 plate appearances).  It was over 40% the previous season though so things should even out with more at bats.

While Baez has some work to do, there were some positive signs last year (both in the minors and brief appearance in the majors).  If he can continue to make small improvements there is no reason he couldn’t finish with an average in the .250/260 range.  Those small improvements will also aid his power.  Baez has hit 20+ HR every season, excluding 2015 in which he only played in 102 games total. I see Baez’s GB/FB rate settling in close to 1.0 with a HR/FB rate between 12-14%. He likely won’t be the 37 HR player from 2013, but I feel strongly that he could settle into the 25 range (give or take).

Speed is a separate factor from those things mentioned above. The stolen base skill set shown throughout his minor league career hasn’t yet surfaced at the ML level. In 80 games Baez has 6 SB in 9 attempts. His single season high is 27 back in 2012, but he has cleared 20 every season excluding the injury shortened 2015 season where he netted 19.  Better contact and on base skills should help this.  If/when the speed will surface is anyone’s guess.  The lack of steals could be a result of poor contact skills leading to limited opportunities.  It could also be a managerial decision, having him focus more on hitting and contact (Imagine if they took this approach with Billy Hamilton).  The potential is still there for speed, and a 20+ steal season could be in the cards; it just may take some time before we see it – similar to how it took Todd Frazier several years before we saw some of the speed he displayed in the minors.

While all this potential for fantasy value is great, the reality of it all is, playing time drives fantasy value.  Judging by his ADP, Baez is being viewed as a bench player. In this role Baez would be the first bat off the bench, likely staying in to be a defensive replacement. Baez would get a couple of starts a week, standard days off for regulars, or perhaps days when Schwarber is behind the plate. Even if Baez realizes his potential, this role would cap his value. 300 plate appearance simply won’t cut it outside of Only leagues or perhaps 15-20 team leagues.

I do not see Baez as the 300 PA player. Perhaps a trade out of the North Side would solidify Baez’s outlook for 2016. Baez’s name has been linked to the Rays, who have been in search of an impact MI bat for many years. The Rays have several CF options, a deep pen, and some extra pitching to part with, all of which seem to be positions of interest for the Cubs. The Braves and Cubs have also been a popular match, but the Braves seem to be enamored with Jorge Soler. Perhaps a trade of Soler would transition Baez to a corner OF spot or move Zobrist to the OF with Baez returning to 2B.

There are numerous scenarios that could place Baez into the everyday lineup, but could the most logical one be the least obvious one? Baez’s recent stint as a center fielder in the Puerto Rican League  suggest the Cubs are considering it. Baez played CF in 4 of the 15 regular season games. During his tenure Baez didn’t make any errors.

Peter Gammons had tweeted:

Most are penciling in Jason Heyward at center, but I for one am not buying it. Jason Heyward signed an 8 yr/184 million dollar contract. While Heyward is young, a big part of his value is his elite-level defense in right field.

Yes, Heyward has played CF, 233 innings to be exact. The results, however, suggest he’s more effective in RF. Heyward is 6’5’ and weighs 245 lbs. Both would rank Heyward among the biggest in baseball to play CF. To make matters worse, the biggest center fielder in baseball would be flanked by Jorge Soler and Kyle Schwarber. So a team who tends to be sabermetrically inclined, is willing to play Heyward out of position and pair him with two below average defenders? I just don’t see it. The transition to center field for Baez would make absolute sense. All scouting reports rated his glove work at short as a plus skill. Billy Hamilton went from 2B to CF two seasons ago and has ranked as a plus defender ever since. Having a Gold Glove caliber defender to his left wouldn’t hurt either.

As of today the story of Javier Baez is that of a 300 plate appearance player with the potential for good production, but without a clear path to playing time. As a result of this,  Javier Baez is an afterthought to many fantasy GM’s around the country. What if the narrative was different? What if Baez was the speculative starting center fielder? Would there not be more talk about Baez? Would his ADP not be at the least 50-75 spots higher? If last years ADP of 184 is any indication, the answer is yes. We do not draft for the present, we draft for what’s going to happen. Javier Baez should begin to tap into that potential this season and will do so as a lineup regular. Just do yourself a favor and be willing to take the chance.  That late round flyer could turn into fantasy gold before the end of the season.

 

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Josh Coleman
Father of four SP1 children. Replacement level husband to a top tier wife. I love my family, value my friendships, and spend as much time as possible (too much according to the aforementioned Mrs. Coleman) dedicated to the pursuit, of another Fantasy Championship. I'm the oddball at the bar who prefers Fantasy Baseball to Fantasy Football.