Baez, Soler sent to Minor League camp
Two of Cubs' top three prospects made positive impression on coaches in camp
PEORIA, Ariz. -- In 1989, Gary Sheffield was a 20-year-old shortstop with the Brewers, and Dale Sveum saw firsthand how polished the youngster was. Sveum sees a lot of Sheffield in the Cubs' No. 1 prospect Javier Baez.
"You don't want to put labels on people," Sveum said Monday, "but it's the same bat speed I saw Sheffield have when he was 20 years old. It's all there. I think 'Shef' was a little more polished at that age as a complete hitter, because he was able to lay off pitches a lot better than Baez is now. 'Shef' had about 1,000-plus at-bats before he got to the big leagues, too.
"It's that kind of bat speed, it's that kind of violence that goes through the strike zone," Sveum said. "It's one of those special bat speeds you don't see."
If Cubs fans want to see Baez any more this spring, they'll have to go to Fitch Park to watch the Minor League games. On Monday, he and Jorge Soler, another top prospect, were among the players sent down to the Minor League camp. Soler was assigned to Class A Daytona.
"I think they grew through Spring Training, the experience they got, and watching Baez, not just the results but the way he kind of grew up -- probably a lot of that was feeling more comfortable as camp went on," Sveum said.
On Monday, the pair started against the Padres and batted 3-4 in the lineup. That could be a powerful combo in a couple years, along with Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo.
"When their numbers are called, it'll be a great group of guys from the Minor Leagues coming up together," pitcher Edwin Jackson said.
It was an interesting camp for the future Cubs. Soler batted .222 with one home run and three RBIs in 17 games, while Baez hit .302 in 16 games, and as of Monday, led the team with four home runs and 10 RBIs. He hit two more homers in an exhibition game against Team Japan that didn't count in the Cactus League stats.
"It was great," Baez said after Monday's game, a 5-2 win over the Padres in which he notched his 10th RBI. "I learned the game better and about slowing it down. I just want to keep doing what I'm doing."
Soler said he's learned a lot about hitting and the need to be patient at the plate.
"I've never seen this kind of pitching before," the Cuban outfielder said, using coach Franklin Font as an interpreter. "It used to be when I played, 3-0 fastball, 2-0 fastball, and now it's different. Now 3-0 changeup for a strike, 2-0 slider for a strike. The pitchers have more command of every single pitch."
Soler is hopeful to make the Cubs next year, but there's a lot of adjustments to be made at the plate.
"There's some special stuff there," Sveum said of Soler. "There's a guy who's already polished defensively, it looks like, he has the instincts. Now the guy just needs to see the changeups and sliders. He just needs the at-bats."
Soler may have special baseball talents, but he's like any other 20-year-old, seemingly permanently attached to his iPad and headphones. He's often watching NBA clips -- he's a big Miami Heat fan -- or listening to music. Soler's father lives in Miami, while his mother and sister are still in Cuba. He talks to them at least twice a day, sometimes more.
Soler is picking up some words and phrases in English, and Baez has helped him with the language. Veteran Alfonso Soriano also delivered some advice.
"Soriano told me no matter what kind of money you get, what kind of money your signing bonus is, you have to work hard every single day, and when you go down the Minor Leagues, you have to be a good example for the Minor Leaguers," Soler said.
Jackson was 20 when he made his Major League debut on Sept. 9, 2003.
"Time will tell," Jackson said. "I've seen every situation almost. I've seen guys like Chris Sale spend almost two weeks in the Minor Leagues and then be in the big leagues. You never know in this game."
Baez, the Cubs' No. 1 pick in the 2011 First-Year Player Draft, has talked to Jackson about what it takes. At 20, he's smart enough to know to ask questions.
"A lot of times, you learn more from pitchers than from hitters," Baez said. "If he wants to say something to me, he says it."
Jackson's No. 1 advice was to have fun.
"Who knows when the right time is?" Jackson said about the decision to promote players to the big leagues. "You go through the Minor Leagues and you fly through and you get put on a pedestal so when you do struggle, and it's in the public eye and not the Minor Leagues, it's exposed. Everything I went through made me what I am today."
For fans who can't wait, keep in mind that Sheffield totaled 1,799 at-bats from 1982-86 in the Minors before making his Major League debut. That didn't discourage Baez.
"Everybody has a different story," Baez said. "Mine is going to be mine."
Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. She writes a blog, Muskat Ramblings, and you can follow her on Twitter @CarrieMuskat. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.