COMMENTARY | There's one player all eyes will be on as the Chicago Cubs break for spring camp this week -- Javier Baez.
The invite to spring training is a big opportunity for the 20-year-old shortstop to showcase his skills, and a chance for the organization to evaluate their No.1 prospect's maturity and poise against top-level talent.
It was just three years ago the Cubs invited another baby-faced shortstop to spring camp, then 19-year-old Starlin Castro. Two months later he was making his major-league debut.
Baez, however, won't follow the same path as Castro, who skipped Triple-A entirely. Regardless of how well Baez auditions during the Cactus League, the Cubs insist he'll begin the season in the minors, most likely where he finished last season, at high Single-A Daytona.
WHO IS BAEZ?
Baez, the Cubs' ninth overall selection in the 2011 draft, is a collection of raw talent. He has size (6'1", 205 pounds), speed, quick hands and the potential for big-time power.
Scouting reports note Baez plays the game with an edge, swings from the heels and carries high energy between the lines, some of which needs to be tempered to endure the grind of a 162-game schedule in the big leagues.
What his overall game lacks is refinement, which appears the biggest obstacle Baez needs to overcome to reach the majors.
Part of his refinement will be improving plate patience. Baez has drawn just 14 walks in 321 minor-league plate appearances, well below the on-base standards the Cubs are demanding throughout all levels of the organization.
His defense is also a work in progress. Baez committed 17 errors at shortstop last year and nine more miscues during the Arizona Fall League this offseason (where he also played some third base) before suffering a thumb injury that ended his season prematurely.
It's hard to say how long it will take Baez to make the necessary adjustments to his game. Realistically, it could take another year or two of minor-league seasoning, or it could happen much sooner.
But given his tremendous raw talent (Baez is ranked the 31st-best prospect in baseball by ESPN's Keith Law) it's reasonable to believe Baez will progress rapidly, which brings another interesting question to the surface.
Where will Baez play when he's ready to join the Cubs?
IF WHO'S ON FIRST WHAT'S THE SHORTSTOP'S NAME?
With Castro having emerged as the franchise shortstop, and already signed to a long-term deal (seven years, $60 million), the speculation is Baez will be forced out of his natural position. That could mean a permanent move to third base or possibly left field for Baez.
The situation hardly seems a concern to Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein, who shared his thoughts about Baez during a recent radio interview on ESPN-1000 in Chicago.
"That's the problem you want to have. Give me nine shortstops. If you give me nine shortstops we'll field a team," Epstein said.
"You look throughout baseball history, the great players are the ones who come up in the middle of the field and then move to a corner or move further along on the defensive spectrum. Gary Sheffield came up as a shortstop. He stayed there for a while and then he went to third base and then left field and right field. That's typical."
You wouldn't have to look far to find Cubs fans who believe Castro, not Baez, should be the player making a position change.
Castro has committed 83 errors in his three seasons, an average of 28 per year. That's roughly twice as many as the league's regular starting shortstops.
That said, it's worth remembering Castro, 23, is still a young and developing player in his own right. He should get stronger defensively in the coming years.
That's one reason why I expect Baez to begin making a position change either later this season or next year. Starlin is already established and Baez will have the benefit of working out the kinks of a position change in the minor leagues.
THE CUBS' PLAN FOR BAEZ IS WORTH THE WAIT
A refined game is one advantage Castro was deprived of when former Cubs general manager Jim Hendry rushed him to the majors in hopes of sparking a Cubs team off to a sluggish (13-16) start in 2010.
Granted Castro's career has gone swimmingly, but there's no telling how much his development was slowed by having to learn and adjust against the best players in the world, instead of at a more traditional pace for a player of his age.
Conversely, the Cubs' new patient approach to player development won't leave Baez's progression to chance. He'll be afforded the liberty to develop at his own pace, just as long as he keeps improving.
It won't necessarily make for an easier path than Castro's, but what we can expect is for Baez to be as ready as he can be for big-league success upon his arrival in Chicago, and that should prove a huge boost in the Cubs' pursuit of reaching the postseason.
Brian Corbin is a Chicago-based sports blogger. He's covered Cubs baseball year-round at BullpenBrian.com since 2007. His posts have been published on the Chicago Sun-Times News Group web sites and numerous baseball blogs.
You can follow Brian on Twitter @bullpenbrian.
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