Infielder Javier Baez made his major league debut for the Chicago Cubs on Aug. 5 on the road against the Colorado Rockies, the worst pitching team in baseball. Baez went 1-for-6 in his debut with three strikeouts, but the one hit was a go-ahead home run in extra innings that proved to be the difference maker in a 6-5 Chicago victory. He was one of the headlines, if not the headline, for baseball that night. While his follow-up performance the next day was unimpressive -- 0-for-4 in a dismal 13-4 beating by the Rockies -- his 3-for-4 with two homers in the rubber match proved the difference again, giving the Cubs a 6-2 win over the Rockies and a rare series win in an otherwise dismal season.
Starting pitcher Trevor May made his major league debut for the Minnesota Twins on Aug. 9, on the road against the Oakland A's, the best hitting team in baseball. He walked seven batters over two innings of work while allowing four earned runs. May was completely unable to locate the strike zone and took a humiliating loss in his debut.
On the surface these two major league debuts have little to do with each other. One is a hitter and the other is a pitcher; one came into the year as a consensus top-five prospect in all of baseball and the other is the second best pitching prospect in a weak system for pitchers. But they illustrate something about the Cubs more than the Twins: Chicago's front office is extremely good at controlling expectations and managing the fans and media.
Up until recently, Baez had been struggling in the Triple-A Pacific Coast League this year; even with his recent hot streak, he was only putting up only an .833 OPS in the most hitter-friendly league in the sport while striking out in almost a third of his plate appearances. So it may not be a coincidence that he got to see a bunch of hittable pitchers in a hitter's paradise park for his first taste of MLB action. Much of it was for his benefit, to help him build confidence and take some of the pressure off in probably the most intense, nerve-wracking games of his professional career. But some of it may have been for the fans and the media, too, who had been sold for years on the idea of Baez riding over a hill on a white horse at the head of the group of young heroes who would finally save Cubs baseball.
That's exactly the image received in that series against Colorado. General manager Jed Hoyer and team president Theo Epstein couldn't count on it going that perfectly, of course, but they had every reason to believe that a heated-up Baez would eat pitchers like Boone Logan (season 5.48 ERA at the time of the series), Yohan Flande (5.77 ERA), and Juan Nicasio (6.07 ERA) alive. Their performance this season doesn't negate the fact that Baez crushed dingers off all three of them -- but these are pitchers that a prospect of Baez's quality should annihilate. The Cubs knew this, saw a way to give their guy an opportunity to put his best foot forward, and they took it.
It would be inaccurate to say that the Twins did the opposite -- they didn't set May up to fail intentionally by any means. But it's doubtful that the optics of May's debut factored as heavily into their plans as Baez's obviously did for the Cubs.
May hasn't been billed as the franchise savior, of course, nor should he be -- Byron Buxton's held that position for two years and counting now, and even on the pitching side, Alex Meyer is the high upside arm to watch in Minnesota's system. May had a shiny ERA this year for Triple A Rochester (2.93 ERA in 95 1/3 innings), but even with "improved" command from the previous years he was still walking 3.5 batters per nine innings. The Twins had a hole in their rotation, needed a starter, decided it was time to see what May could do and called him up. What anyone outside the organization thought about the move -- or the results -- was almost certainly not a factor Still, the guy is wearing it in the local papers -- and if there's one thing Epstein and Hoyer want to do, it's protect their premium prospects from wearing it in the local tabloids for as long as possible.
This isn't trickery or deception on the Cubs' part. From a baseball operations standpoint, a player's first exposure to a new level of competition is a milestone and a breakpoint in his career; it's important that it happen in the most positive, comfortable environment possible. Sure, we like to talk tough about guys who can ignore the media and tune out the hype and just play their game under the bright lights, but teams have realized that treating those turning points as "sink or swim" object lessons with no special treatment can lead to prospects losing confidence and failing to continue their development. Cubs fans are as familiar with this as any fanbase, having watched former prospects Corey Patterson and Felix Pie mismanaged into utility players. A positive environment can do wonders for morale, and the biggest win by far of the last few years of Cubs baseball has been in the realm of public perception: No team has gotten its fans to buy into a young group of prospects better than Chicago.
Think this is all nonsense? After leaving Colorado, the Cubs went home to host the Tampa Bay Rays, whose pitching staff leads the league in strikeouts and are on pace to set a team record for strikeouts in a 162-game season.
In three games against the Rays, Baez had nine whiffs. Imagine what people would be saying if those were the first three games of his career, instead of the fourth, fifth and sixth. That's why they weren't.