When Javier Baez was promoted last August and played 52 games in his first Major League season in 2014, he became known for two things on the game's biggest stage. Tape-measure home runs, as in 430-plus-foot long balls, and striking out a lot, as in 41.5 percent of his at-bats. The Cubs wanted their former top prospect to stop hitting for distance, and for the most part, it's working at Triple-A Iowa.
The thing is he's still hitting homers.
The Cubs shortstop went deep twice Sunday afternoon to lead the I-Cubs to a 7-4 win over Tacoma at Principal Park.
The 22-year-old right-handed slugger, who has hit 30-plus homers between the Minors and Majors the past two seasons, lined his first shot to left-center field on a 1-1 offering from Sam Gaviglio in the first inning and added another blast on a 1-0 breaking ball by the Rainiers right-hander in the fifth. The two blasts gave Baez three in his last three games and five through 23 games on the season.
"Both at-bats, he laid off borderline pitches before getting good pitches to hit," said I-Cubs hitting coach Brian Harper. "That's the key for Javy. What he's done the most lately is not overswinging. He's not trying to hit 800-foot home runs any more. He's just trying to hit 350- to 400-foot home runs, that's all. He's working really hard at calming things down."
Beyond just power, Baez has shown minor improvements in overall hitting ability at the plate. By reaching three times -- he also walked in the eighth -- the 2011 first-rounder, who hit .260/.323/.510 in 104 contests in the Pacific Coast League a season ago, has his slash line up to .322/.404/.540. In his last 13 games, he is 20-for-48 (.417) with four homers and 13 RBIs. He's still struck out in 24.2 percent of his plate appearances, but even that is down from his 30 percent at Triple-A Iowa last season.
His recent run is especially noteworthy, given he was batting .205 through his first 10 games on May 9 after missing the first month of the season after the passing of sister Noely.
"I think it was just getting back into the swing," Harper said. "He wanted to get back quick and didn't play a whole lot before getting right back to Triple-A, so it took him a little time to get back into the game. Obviously, Javy's sister was really important to him and his family, and he took as much time as he needed to come back from that. But lately, he's getting back the timing of everything. He's still just 22 years old too. We've all got to remember that."
Given Baez's recent hot streak, questions about a return to Wrigley Field are bound to come up despite the logjam in the Cubs' infield. No. 2 prospect Addison Russell and three-time All-Star Starlin Castro are starting at second and short respectively, and the North Siders aren't inclined to get either bat out of the lineup to make room for Baez.
The only option perhaps on the table would be to move top prospect Kris Bryant, who has an .861 OPS in his rookie campaign and has played three games in the outfield, to left and slide Russell or Baez, who has split time between short and second in Iowa, over to the hot corner. Moving three of the team's best young players off their natural positions might not be ideal, but it'd certainly pack the lineup with plenty of punch. For what it's worth, Harper believes the trio of Bryant, Russell and Baez would be game.
"I think Javy can handle any position you give him," Harper said. "I think Bryant can handle any position, and I think Russell can handle any position. Here, we leave it up to the big-league guys to make those choices and let them do what they want. But with Javy, Kris and Addison, they're talented enough to handle whatever they give them."
Center fielder Arismendy Alcantara hit a solo homer -- his sixth of the season -- for the I-Cubs. Starter Donn Roach had to leave after facing only two Tacoma hitters when a ground-ball comebacker hit him in the leg.
No. 4 Mariners prospect Patrick Kivlehan and Rainiers designated hitter Jesus Montero went deep for Tacoma.
Sam Dykstra is a contributor to MiLB.com. Follow and interact with him on Twitter, @SamDykstraMiLB.