Growing up, I remember listening to my neighbor prattle on about how he had just read in Vine Line about the next big stud coming through the Cubs’ system. He would regale us with stories of the majesty of Gary Scott, Brant Brown, and Brooks Kieschnick. I also distinctly remember a friend of mine delivering an oral book report on “Rookie,” Jerome Walton’s memoir of the 1989 season. Heady stuff, folks.
While we could all rattle off several more names (Patterson, Pie, Choi, etc) in the litany of failed prospects, each seemed to exist in his own little fishbowl, individual stars eventually swallowed up by the infinite void. We were so used to looking at them through a microscope that we never really stepped back to see the bigger picture.
Had we done so, we’d have seen a pointillist portrayal of an enormous fist, middle finger extended in an insulting salute to our existential struggle as Cubs fans. And what an insult it was indeed to be strung along to the point that we could do little else but laugh at ourselves for ever buying into the hype and the hope. For the most part, these guys all came along a wide enough intervals that the wounds from one nearly scarred over by the time the next arrived.
Walton and Dwight Smith provided a nice one-two rookie punch when they came up, but they both struggled in subsequent years. My introduction to the term “sophomore slump” came when I heard my dad worrying it being a possibility for one or both of the young phenoms. I didn’t realize it at the time, but my old man — a farmer by trade — had just planted in me the seed of apprehension for all things bright and shiny in Cubdom.
Now we stand on the precipice and look out upon a starting lineup that will feature Jorge Soler, Kris Bryant, and Addison Russell, not to mention Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro. That’s five young guys, three of whom are rookies, who had quite a bit of hype leading up to their Cubs debuts. It’s unheard of, at least for a vast majority of us.
In seeking to define the new sense of direction for this Cubs team, however, it’s another ballyhooed phenom I look to: Javier Baez. I’m not seeking to write a redux of yesterday’s post, though writing it and thinking more about it did bring me to this. When Baez first came up, he immediately melted hearts with his blistering swing, mashing three home runs during his first series in Denver.
Everyone fawned over him to the point that he might as well have removed the Z from his name. He was bae. Of course, bae is also a Danish word for poop, and that’s basically what the kid’s pitch recognition was. Opposing hurlers had a giant book on him and he looked dyslexic at the plate during much of his time with the Cubs.
Let me say again that I really, truly hope he’s able to figure things out and that he can eventually make it back to the Bigs. At this point, however, I think he’s facing an uphill battle and may end up a victim of his overzealous tendencies. Even if he does become a late bloomer, I think he ends up doing so in another organization. I think Cubs fans would be okay with that too, and that’s exactly why I say that Javy defines this reworked organization.
Sure, people will be upset if he doesn’t pan out (again, I’m not saying that he won’t, but simply taking a hypothetical tack here), but it won’t sting nearly as much as with those other players upon whom we had all heaped such lofty expectations. I mean, Baez was going to be The Man and now there’s a possibility that he could be just meh. And it won’t hurt the organization or drive fans to drink!
In the past, each time we caught whatever strain of shinyobjectitis that was going around that particular season, there was no prescription other than letting it run its course. Now, however, Drs. Epstein and Hoyer have developed a series of immunizations based on constant injections of fresh talent. Heck, the Russell call-up came less than a week after Bryant’s debut.
And the best part: they’re not done. This organization still has some prime assets at various stops in the farm system. Whether it’s Albert Almora collecting 5 hits in a game, Dan Vogelbach earning Southern League Player of the Week honors, Kyle Schwarber mashing in general, or Eloy Jimenez just being a beastly man of Solerish proportions, we’re going to have no problem get our prescription refilled. Hell, they’ll probably throw in more cowbell if you need some of that.
Just take yourself back 3, 5, 10 years and imagine what you’d have said if someone had told you that the Cubs’ would have a top prospect who started hot and then floundered and was trying to work out kinks at AAA. You probably wouldn’t have batted an eye, responding with, “Yeah, what’s new?” Now imagine if that same person then told you that three other prospects had subsequently leap-frogged the first guy and were contributing to the big club? “Shut the front door.”
It would be great if Javy Baez figures things out and makes it back to realize his potential, but right now it’s his struggle to do so that most accurately defines just how far this team has come and how different it is from those we had all grown used to. Now that metaphorical middle finger is going to start coming from the other teams in NL as the Cubs put all this talent to use.