Cubs fans haven't had a whole lot to cheer about over the last 100-plus years, but over the last few seasons, the organzation has amassed a wealth of high-talent prospects who could put the team on the path towards a World Series title. Dynasty-league owners know all about these guys, of course. But owners who play in nonkeeper formats are starting to get a look at the much heralded class, and two Cubs rookies in particular are creating a bit of buzz.
Second baseman Javier Baez is a shortstop by trade, but the organizational depth chart at the position is likely the most loaded of any position on any team in baseball. Starter Starlin Castro is on a multiyear contract that will pay him at least through the end of 2019. Top prospect Addison Russell was the jewel of the trade that sent Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel packing. Baez is considered at least as good a prospect as Russell, maybe better, and he's the one that the team decided to recall in early August and stick at second base.
The Cubs have gotten a good look at Baez at the keystone position, as he's played every inning of every game at second base since his debut. What have they seen? A guy whose power is as light-tower as advertised. Baez has slugged five home runs in his first 14 games, with the latest coming on a 434-foot blast Monday. He's also had a 432-foot home run during the past two weeks, with two of his other three shots also clearing 400 feet.
Unfortunately, the power has also come with an impressively-high number of strikeouts. The rookie has struck out in 40 percent of his at-bats and 38.7 percent of his plate appearances while drawing just two walks. Pitchers have displayed a vast unwillingness to give Baez anything juicy to hit, because they haven't needed to. He's been awful with two strikes (.108/.132/.216), as is the case with plenty of hitters, but he's getting to two strikes in more than 60 percent of his at-bats.
If Baez can't find a way to put himself in better situations on a regular basis, he runs the risk of remaining a high-power, low-average hitter. Fortunately, he has a phenomenal minor-league track record, and his major-league sample size is still plenty small. He may do more harm than good to fantasy teams over the last six weeks of the season, but I'm still a long-term believer, and I can't wait to see what he has in store for 2015.
Meawhile, Kyle Hendricks has been snapped up in a majority of Fantasy leagues after stringing together an excellent run that has included just five earned runs allowed over his last six starts. He's also completed at least seven innings five times during that stretch, going 6 1/3 innings in his shortest start.
While Hendricks can do some good in Fantasy lineups, one thing he doesn't do is strike batters out. If Hendricks was qualified for the ERA title, which he's not after only seven starts, his 5.36 K/9 rate would rank sixth-worst among all pitchers, only ahead of Mark Buehrle, Kyle Kendrick, Kyle Gibson (what's with all the Kyles who don't rack up Ks?), Scott Feldman and Kevin Correia. He's made it work by coaxing an overwhelming number of groundballs from batters (50 percent rate) while refusing to issue many walks (2.03 BB/9).
Pairing a low walk rate with a high groundball rate has worked for plenty of pitchers this season, including Gibson (3.96 ERA), Rick Porcello (3.28 ERA), Henderson Alvarez (2.43 ERA), Tim Hudson (3.03 ERA), Alfredo Simon (3.28 ERA), Roberto Hernandez (3.72 ERA) and Hiroki Kuroda (3.97 ERA). In fact, of the eight qualified pitchers with a strikeout rate less than 6.0 per nine innings and a groundball rate of at least 45.0 percent, only one hasn't delivered an ERA under 4.00 (Jarred Cosart, 4.27 ERA).
Hendricks' ERA is going to rise from his current 1.66 mark as his strand rate and BABIP regresses, and at that point Fantasy owners will likely move on to the next big thing. But if you play in a format that lessens the impact of high-strikeout pitchers, he's certainly one to follow over the next few years.