By: Nick Roark
Before becoming a big league sensation, Yasiel Puig’s talent was on full display in the Southern League. Since Javier Baez arrived at Double-A, opposing managers and players have admired the shortstop’s raw ability. The lasting memory for players, fans and media will be the rare athleticism of of Puig and the excitement of Baez.
The former is an eccentric 22-year-old Cuban defector who has become the talk of Major League Baseball after providing an undeniable spark in right field for the N.L. West leading Los Angeles Dodgers.
The latter is a soft-spoken 20-year-old kid from Puerto Rico, currently playing shortstop for the Tennessee Smokies while making his way through the Chicago Cubs Minor League organization with the label of ‘top prospect’.
So why are both being mentioned in the same sentence?
While the two never crossed paths in the 2013 Southern League campaign, both have left unforgettable impressions on those who have seen them. The lasting memories and undeniable talent makes it easy for Chattanooga Lookouts manager Jody Reed to see the similarities in both players.
“Similar in a number of ways actually. They’ve got that violent swing and what I mean is they’ve really got the bat speed to create impact on the ball,” Reed said while still sounding somewhat astonished by both players. “When they do connect, it goes a mile. They have that rare combination of that violent swing with balance and control.”
Baez reminded Reed of those comments Saturday evening when the young prospect launched a mammoth shot over the left field wall at AT&T Field in Chattanooga to where few people hit home runs. The moon scraper was the 20-year-old’s 36th home run this season, third most in all of Minor League Baseball.
Puig certainly showed pop in his bat during the 40 games he played for the Dodgers’ Double-A-affiliate Chattanooga. Before being called up three months ago, the outfield sensation hit eight home runs for the Lookouts with 37 RBIs and a slash line of .313/.383/.599.
“They have good pitch recognition; good strike zone discipline,” Reed said of both phenoms. “When they pull the trigger that’s when the bat speed and the violence come through. But it’s a controlled violent swing and that swing can do some damage and Yasi’ showed it when he was here. He’s shown it at the big league level.” Reed said.
When Puig joined the Dodgers on June 2, Los Angeles sat seven-and-a-half games back of the Arizona Diamondbacks in last place of the N.L West division. Since then, all the 2012 signee has done in 78 games is hit .349 with 13 home runs and 31 RBIs to go along with .408 on-base percentage and a .557 slugging.
Cubs fans can only help but wonder if Baez is capable of putting up Puig-like numbers when the 2011 first-round draft pick receives his promotion to Chicago. After making his Smokies’ debut with a home run in his first Double-A at-bat, Baez has 19 home runs and 51 RBIs with a line of .295/.349/.633 in 52 games.
Although Reed said the players share similarities, Smokies skipper Buddy Bailey says the two prospects will be different players in the Major Leagues.
“Their bodies are somewhat different and they’re different type hitters. Puig hits the ball more up the middle and the other way more than Javy does right now,” Bailey said.
“As far as the final type hitters they’re going to be, I don’t think it’s a lot of similarities.”
But the two share a common trait in their tendency to argue balls and strikes. Puig’s habit of doing so has been seen on a big league level while Baez – whose arguments tend to be fewer than Puig’s – has shown his displeasure with umpires on occasion.
“Everybody has that,” Bailey said. “Puig was worse than Javy is here but they both at times feel like if they don’t swing or they don’t hit it, it shouldn’t be a strike but that’s not the way it is.”
“We’ve been working with Javy trying to get better at it. Obviously Puig had some problems here and a little bit at the big leagues but it’s something in time that people grow out of.”
Puig’s clubhouse and off-field issues – as well as his unwillingness to meet with Los Angeles media – have been well chronicled and came to no surprise to those who saw him play in the Southern League. The 245-pound prospect took one step forward by throwing out runners at home or hitting long home runs, but jumped two steps back by attempting to turn routine singles into triples, slowing down games by slowly walking to the Lookouts’ dugout or driving 97 mph in a 50-mph zone.
“He’s young. Young players are going to make young mistakes,” Reed said of Puig.
Reed later added, “You have to have an amount of patience and we tried to give him that patience down here and when you needed to bring him in and talk to him, you did so. But he’s a kid that is good at heart and he wants to do well, he wants to make people happy. You just have to be patient and keep reminding him when he does something that you’re really not looking for him to do. Even at the big league level.”
For the 195-pound Baez, Chicago fans should not have to worry about such issues. While the chaos surrounding Puig can be attributed to his short time in the United States, the Cubs No. 1 rated prospect has resided in Jacksonville since 2005. The young shortstop has become a slick fielder, turns fringe singles into doubles and happily meets with media members.
And if conventional thinking leads you to believe Javier Baez and Yasiel Puig are not that similar, think again.
Perhaps one day the baseball world can see just how comparable the two are when they share a Major League Baseball diamond.
To stay current with all the latest news, follow Smokies on Radio on Twitter and like the Smokies on Radio Facebook page. Nick Roark is the Senior Beat Writer for the Smokies Radio Network. You can follow him on Twitter here: NickRoark4.