With Spring Training soon coming to a close and Javier Baez showing he belongs on the Major League roster, the Cubs surprised some fans by sending him down to Triple-A on Saturday. If you look across baseball, this is a common occurrence when it comes to an organization’s top young player. Take a look at what happened to the Astros and George Springer. The team reportedly offered Springer a seven-year, $23 million extension last September which he rejected and this spring he was sent down to the minors. Why was Springer good enough to be offered an extension with no Major League experience, but not good enough to make the team? Teams constantly tap dance around this issue and will cite development concerns and older players deserving to get their final chances through time accrued on the roster. But what’s the real reasoning? Why do teams across the league continually send down their top guys when they’ve proved themselves and a hole clearly needs to be filled?
It’s all about control. When a player comes up from the minors and stays as many top prospects do, the team has that player under control for six seasons. The first three seasons, the player makes close to the Major League minimum at a salary that the team decides. After those three years, the player enters arbitration for the final three seasons. As arbitration eligible, the player and the team he plays for both submit salary offers to each other and try to hammer out a contract before their arbitration date. If the team and the player cannot reach a resolution, the two offers are considered by a neutral third party at an arbitration hearing where the arbiter decides either the player’s or the team’s figure as salary for the coming season. The reason this can get expensive for teams as that the player generally submits a figure based on salaries of similar players in their age range and skill ability. If a top prospect becomes an All-Star caliber player, they tend to become very expensive in their arbitration years.
The main reason for delaying a top prospect however is the dreaded “Super-Two” status. According to the MLBPA, a Super-Two player is one that has at least two years of service time in the majors, but less than three years and at least half a season (86 days) the previous year. If that player ends up being in the top 17 percent of players with similar service time, they become a Super Two. That means instead of being paid a league minimum salary that their team has decided, they gain an extra arbitration season and the potential to earn even more money from their respective club. By delaying Javier Baez, the Cubs stand to save money over the length of his contract and if he lives up to his billing, a potentially substantial amount. But is delaying his service clock helpful or a hindrance to the team as a whole?
Javier Baez has shown in the minors to have power, the ability to drive in runs and steal bases. Last season between High-A Daytona and Double-A Tennessee, he had a slash line of .282/.341/.578 with 37 home runs, 111 RBI and 20 stolen bases. Numbers like that would provide some protection for Anthony Rizzo and help the lineup as a whole become more balanced and have more potential to produce runs, a big struggle for the team last season. It’s possible that with more offense and a similar pitching performance to last year that could lead the team to more wins. But on the other hand, Baez has some flaws to his game as well. Like Starlin Castro, he is not a very patient hitter and struck out 147 times in 577 at bats and may have the potential for even more against better competition in the majors. He’s also not a particular good fielder at shortstop. Javier Baez committed 44 errors in 123 games, and that makes Starlin Castro look like Ozzie Smith.
With the front office clearly stating that they plan to build their farm system through trades and the draft and for fans to be patient with the process, how much more of an impact would Baez make to this process? To properly show the impact, let’s use the statistic of WAR. WAR stands for Wins Above Replacement and is a non-standardized sabermetric statistic developed to sum up the extent of a player’s total contribution to his team. It takes other sabermetric statistics like wRAA, UBR, wSB and UZR that help measure abilities with offense, base running and defense. Then a positional adjustment is made for harder positions to play like shortstop or centerfield for example to calculate WAR. In order to get the best gauge for Baez’s potential influence on to the Cubs, I compared him to the top two guys at the shortstop position Troy Tulowitzki and Hanley Ramirez due to their similar skillsets.
In their first full seasons, Tulowitzki posted a .291/.359/.479 line with 24 home runs, 99 RBI, seven stolen bases and a 6.8 WAR. Ramirez posted a .292/.353/.480 line with 17 home runs, 59 RBI, 51 stolen bases and a 4.9 WAR. Baez should be able to meet a happy medium between those two in his first season of ball based on expectations and previous experience in Spring Training. So if we average their WAR numbers, Baez has the potential to post a 5.8 WAR in his first full season.
So if Baez is worth roughly six extra wins that puts the Cubs at 72-90 and would have placed them seventh in the draft order if all standings stayed the same, not a big leap. Letting him play also would likely bring more fans to the ballpark, give them a chance to see the future of the team up close and help them understand the reasoning behind the rebuild the team is in the middle of. However, one of the main words that the front office has been using is ‘sustainable’ winning. Delaying Baez by a half or full season, gives the team extra time to build a team around him and allow other top players such as Kris Bryant, Albert Almora, Jorge Soler, C.J. Edwards and Arodys Vizcaino to develop. With six years of control of these players all at once, could be an exciting six years for Cubs fans.
Both sides of the argument are strong ones and for now the front office has answered the question. All we can do in the great Javier Baez debate is something we’ve been doing for a long time as Cubs fans. Wait.