Cubs prospects Bryant, Baez focus on the present

DES MOINES, Iowa — Javier Baez slides to his right on Principal Park's infield. A few feet away, Kris Bryant steps to his left. On a muggy night in central Iowa, the Cubs' two 2014 Futures Game participants are framed in a snapshot of the future.

The shortstop and third baseman are that close to each other, in more ways than one.

The 6-foot, 190-pound Baez is 21, less than 11 months younger than Bryant, who's every bit of 6-5 and 215 pounds and not your average 22-year-old. Bryant was drafted No. 2 overall last year. In Jim Hendry's final year as Cubs general manager, he selected Baez ninth overall in 2011.

“My job is to not mess them up — just let them play and let them do their thing,” said Marty Pevey, manager of the Class AAA Iowa Cubs. “We worked on a few things today with Kris with his positioning and his feet, and getting himself in better position to throw on the backhand. Basically, it's working on the little things. This is his first full year. He's a babe.”

Offensively, Bryant is a man. Promoted to the I-Cubs from Class AA Tennessee just last month, Bryant hit 9 homers in Class AAA before the All-Star Game break, while batting .322. In just 248 at-bats at Tennessee, Bryant launched 22 homers and posted a .355 batting average. He seemingly hasn't missed a beat, nor a fastball, although he concedes the jump in competition has challenged him.

“I think (pitchers) have more command of their pitches here,” Bryant said. “They throw their off-speed stuff in the zone, so you really got to go up there focused and have a good approach. It is a little different from Double-A, that's for sure.”

Bryant is not your average young hitter, either.

“He's well-advanced with the bat,” Pevey said. “Defensively, he's still got some things he's got to work on. But he's just a good baseball player. Both of those guys are. Baez is an outstanding defender.”

Brett Jackson, a former first-round draft pick himself, was impressed with Bryant the first time he saw him play while on a rehab assignment in Arizona last summer. Now, the I-Cubs outfielder chuckles and shakes his head in awe.

“I'm even more impressed now,” Jackson said of Bryant. “He really works hard and has really quality at-bats. He seems to be adapting to the league really quickly.”

Both Bryant and Baez are considered two of the best prospects in baseball. And while Bryant put together what Pevey called an “out-of-this-world” first half offensively, it's the maturity of the former University of San Diego slugger and the way he carries himself that is also off the charts.

“He's never way up here or way down here,” said Pevey, waving an open hand above his head and then dropping it below his waist. “The only questions he'll ask are, ‘Am I on that guy? Am I swinging over the top of that ball?' Everything is very simple. He never gets too excited. He's got one goal, and that's to play in the big leagues and be the best big-league player there.

“And he wants to be there this year,” Pevey added.

Cubs president Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer have stressed that no prospect will be rushed to the big leagues, meaning Bryant and Baez, even if they continue to hit the ball well this summer, might not receive a call-up when major-league rosters are expanded in September. Bryant pays no attention to the speculation of his Wrigley Field arrival.

“I just know right now I'm playing on the Iowa Cubs,” he said. “My teammates here are great. They've welcomed me, and I feel like I've been here the whole season. It's been a lot of fun in my first two weeks here.”

While Bryant has been a model of consistency with the bat, Baez is just finding his groove offensively. As he did at Class A Daytona in 2012 and again at Tennessee last year, Baez got off to a slow start at Iowa. “Slow” might be kind. In 58 April at-bats, Baez hit .172 with 22 strikeouts.

“The first month was just horrendous,” Pevey said. “I mean, you couldn't have been any worse than Javy was. He was terrible. It was like watching a guy playing in short-season rookie ball. Swung at everything out of the (pitcher's) hand. He chased horribly. It was almost laughable. The other teams were toying with him. They never even threw him a strike.

“You could tell he was fighting,” Pevey continued. “He wanted to succeed. He's such a good competitor. Then after April was over, it started getting a little warmer and so did Javy. The next thing you knew, he had 5 (home runs), then 7, then 8, then 11, and then, wow, we're in the middle of July and he's got 14 homers.”

By the break, Baez had raised his batting average to .240 with his 14 home runs and 55 RBI leading the team. His 110 strikeouts also led the club.

“Impressive hitter, impressive defender,” Jackson said. “He's doing a great job of handling some adversity that he's faced this year — the batting average and strikeouts. Whatever. The guy is a pure hitter and is going to be a real great player in the major leagues.”

“It was normal for me,” Baez said of his first half in the Pacific Coast League. “I've been getting better and I'm going to keep getting better every day.”

Baez hit .275 in June, and while he's just 10-for-44 (. 227) in July, he ended the first half with a 10-game hitting streak that included 3 homers. He launched an opposite-field home run in last Sunday's Futures Game.

He insists he wasn't pressing early in the season.

“Not really,” Baez said. “I was just chasing a lot of pitches and trying to hit the ball, and (the pitchers) weren't going to give in to me.”

“Quiet, quiet, quiet,” Pevey said of the difference in Baez's at-bats compared to early in the season. “He has to have quiet feet to be successful. His feet get real loud and noisy. When his feet are moving around, that's when he gets out of control.”

Perhaps not coincidentally, Baez has put together better at-bats since the arrival of Bryant and former big-league star Manny Ramirez, who was brought to Iowa as a player/coach.

“I'd say my approach (is better),” Baez said. “My swing's been getting better. I've been working with the hitting coach (Brian Harper) in the cage, and I've been hitting the ball to the other side.”

For now, neither player worries about when the call to play at Wrigley Field will come.

“When you're focusing on that, it's just a distraction that you don't really need,” Bryant said. “If I'm focusing on getting promoted, it takes away from my performance on the field. I really just try to live in the present moment and focus on that.”

• Follow Joe's reports on Twitter@JoeAguilar.

Cubs prospect Javier Baez got off to a slow start with the bat this season, but his defensive work for the Triple-A Iowa Cubs has been solid. Associated Press/file
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