Cubs’ Ed Howard, Cristian Hernandez lead search for next Javy Báez

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Who’s got next? Teen prospects race to be next Javy Báez originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago

MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. — The Cubs’ search for their next Javy Báez is not waiting for that historic free agent class of shortstops this winter.

It starts this week. Partly with the return from the injured list of Nico Hoerner, who will play short the final two weeks and who wants the long-term job.

But mostly, it starts with the opening of Instructional League work in Arizona, where the best young shortstops in the Cubs’ farm system — emphasis on young — are all assembled for the annual staple of offseason development.

And one of the youngest, Kevin Made (pronounced MAW-day), has a message for Cubs president Jed Hoyer:

“I’m ready to be in the majors,” Made said in Spanish, breaking into a big smile. “Don’t [sign] any shortstops. You have a lot.”

He’s not necessarily wrong.

But it probably was fitting that Made spoke a few days ago from a picnic table adjacent to the Low-A diamond in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, where he shared time at shortstop with another teenager, 2020 first-round draft pick Ed Howard from Mount Carmel High, as they played out the final week of their minor-league season for the Pelicans.

Because if there’s a new age dawning for Cubs’ shortstops, it might be this: 19.

Or 18. That’s how old Made was until two weeks ago, the youngest player on the field for all but three of his 58 games in his first professional season since signing two years ago out of the Dominican Republic — and the current age of Reggie Preciado, the switch-hitting prospect from Panama acquired from the Padres in the Yu Darvish trade.

Or maybe 17?

That’s the age of Cristian “Baby A-Rod” Hernandez, the Dominican shortstop considered at the top of last year’s international class and signed by the Cubs for $3 million in January.

The Cubs have high hopes for two more shortstops in the system, who seem almost over the hill by comparison: 20-year-old Yeison Santana, acquired with Preciado in the Darvish trade, and 21-year-old Luis Vazquez, a 2017 draft pick out of Puerto Rico who might be the best-fielding shortstop in the system.

Vazquez, who finished his season at Double-A Tennessee, is the only one from the high-ceiling, higher-hopes group that has played a day of baseball at a level higher than low-A.

So maybe Vazquez can be the next Javy Báez?

“Sí,” Vazquez said a couple hours before flashing a Báez-like quick glove on a tag at second and singling in his final home game with the Smokies.

“Sí, sí, sí.”

“It’s a really good problem to have,” Cubs farm director Matt Dorey said as he watched Howard, Made and the rest of the Pelicans take pregame work during their final series of the season last week.

Unless you need somebody in the majors now — Made’s self-confidence notwithstanding.

That’s part of the equation Hoyer and his staff compute as they head to the winter with at least a bag or two of cash for free agents and what’s left of a big-league roster that looks anything but big-league — with major holes to fill in every position area but catcher and, maybe, debatably, the bullpen.

“Jed does what he needs to do to make sure the big-league club is ready to play and win. I get that,” Howard said when asked about what might happen with the suddenly wide-open big-league roster — and specifically shortstop position — before he has a chance to get there.

“When it’s my time to come, when I can help win, then he’ll make a decision,” Howard added. What Jed does is not up to me. I just keep working on getting better. That’s all I can worry about.”

It’s not hard to see why team officials rave about the 19-year-old Howard’s maturity and makeup, on top of the talent that earned him a place on Baseball Prospectus’ top-100 prospects list this year (No. 88).

“He wants to be the next Ed Howard,” Dorey said.

Next Javy? Next Ed Howard?

Either way, who’s got next?

The shortstop position might be a microcosm of the Cubs’ organization these days, especially when it comes to comparing it to the last time the Cubs went through a major rebuild, leading up to the 2015 turnaround.

That team already had an All-Star, Starlin Castro, at short and three future All-Stars rising fast through elite levels of Baseball America’s prospect rankings in 2011 No. 9 overall pick Báez, 2012 No. 11 overall pick Addison Russell (acquired from Oakland in the Jeff Samardzija trade in 2014) and Gleyber Torres, signed as an international free agent in 2013 and traded to the Yankees for Aroldis Chapman in 2016.

This group doesn’t have close to the kind of star power yet, even as prospects.

Hernandez, Howard and Preciado are consensus top-10 prospects in the Cubs’ system — a system Baseball America ranks 24th out of 30 in its latest talent rankings. Made and 2021 second-round draft pick James Triantos (age: 18) rank anywhere from 11th to 26th in the Cubs’ system on various rankings.

Howard is the only one that makes anyone’s top 100 in baseball.

But this collection of shortstops is a big part of what Dorey calls the best depth he’s seen in the farm system during his eight years overseeing the drafts and farm system for the Cubs.

“These guys are all super talented, all profile defensively to be able to stay [at short] forever,” Dorey said, “and it’s good to have competition.

“For me, in my role, I can’t wait to get them to instructs,” he added. “They’re all young, excited, uber talented and really competitive. Any time you can throw those ingredients into the same bowl and watch them go compete, it’s going to be a lot of fun.”

Nobody can predict how many of them will make it, much less stick as an everyday big-leaguer at short — less so as an impact, All-Star caliber player.

Never mind the next Javy Báez.

That’s part of why all of them already are getting time at other positions — Made spending a chunk of the season at third and Howard at second, for instance.

Even Báez was an All-Star second baseman before replacing Russell and becoming an All-Star shortstop. Before that, Castro went from short to second when Russell established himself in 2015. Hoerner turned into a Gold Glove finalist at second last year with Báez at short.

Torres helped the Cubs win a World Series because he was valuable enough to be be the centerpiece in a decisive trade.

“You never know when you get up there and it’s your turn whether you might have to go play third,” Dorey said. “We don’t know what that major league team’s going to look like when these guys are all ready. It’s our job to expose them to a lot of different things.

“And how they can go up and impact the major league roster, that’s our job is to prepare them for that.”

Whatever Hoyer might decide to do this winter at short to win next year, there’s at least no shortage of intrigue, if not built-in volatility, among the very youngest Cubs’ prospects.

Also no shortage of confidence, it seems.

The young Made, who hit .272 in his 58 games this year after the 2020 minor-league season was wiped out by COVID-19, said he expects to be the one manning short for the Cubs at Wrigley Field the next time they’re in the playoffs.

What about Howard, his good friend on the team?

“We can switch some games,” Made said, smiling.

“One day I can play short, and one day Ed can play short, and maybe I’m at second.”

Regardless, he said, somebody needs to let Hoyer know he’s coming. And to save him a spot.

 

(Note: Myrtle Beach catcher Raymond Pena, who can be seen in the accompanying video, helped as interpreter during the Made interview for this story)

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