Just twelve months ago, first base was as barren a position as any in the minors. Arguably, the Cubs best first base prospect was Josh Vitters, a third baseman. And then we had a couple encouraging performances in the minors, the Cubs drafted a truckload of first base talent in June, and the new GM traded for one of the best first base prospects in the game. What was once an area of weakness has been completely transformed. The Cubs now have nearly as much premier talent at first as they have at any other position on the diamond. And that’s without counting Vitters.
That does not mean there are no concerns at first. Other than Rizzo, the majority of the Cubs first basemen are either very low in the minors or are slightly old for their leagues. Neither of those factors are necessarily bad things, but it is worth keeping in mind. If Rizzo does not work out, it could be a few years before the next long-term candidate is ready to go. It is also slightly concerning that the Cubs have a few prospects who look more like designated hitters than first basemen. Unless the rules change, that could force the Cubs into some tough decisions in a few years. In the meantime, let’s take a look at the cream of the crop.
1 – Anthony Rizzo. Age: 22. Major League ETA: 2012
If all goes well, the Cubs have a very good defensive first baseman with plenty of left handed power. At the age of 21, Rizzo destroyed the Pacific Coast League, posting an OPS of 1.056 with 26 HR and 101 RBI in just 93 games. Even in the offense-inflating PCL those are very impressive numbers. He struggled in a brief trip to the majors, but that does not worry me at all. At just 22, he could spend another full season or two in Iowa, if necessary, and still be young for the league. Iowa is where he will begin 2012, but I think he will finish the season in Chicago. I think he will be called up no later than August.
2 – Dan Vogelbach. Age: 19. Major League ETA: 2015
I have less confidence in my ETA for Vogelbach than for any other player. Ultimately, his progress through the farm system will be dictated by his bat, not his glove. Some reports, including Baseball America, refer to him as a relatively polished hitter with a chance to hit for average as well as for massive power. If that is the case, he could move through the farm system very quickly. On the other hand, if his conditioning proves to be an issue over the course of his minor league career, it could slow him down a year or two. Whether he makes it to the majors in late 2013 or late 2016, he will begin the 2012 season by blasting 500+ foot bombs to all fields in downtown Peoria.
3 – Justin Bour. Age: 23. Major League ETA: 2014
Bour was slightly old for the Florida State League in 2011, but his 23 HR and .813 OPS are worth respecting nonetheless. At 6’4″ and 250lbs, it no surprise that Bour can slug. He doesn’t strike out too much, can draw a few walks, and even had three steals for Daytona last season. If he can keep hitting as he climbs up the farm system, he could have a nice future as a platoon first baseman and left handed DH in the majors. He will start 2012 in Double A Tennessee, but if all goes well there he could be bumped to Iowa once Rizzo is promoted.
4 – Richard Jones. Age: 24. Major League ETA: 2015
At the age of 23, Jones was a little older than is typical for Low-A, but it’s hard to ignore his .538 SLG (league average in 2011 was .370). I am not comfortable with his strikeout rate, but given that 2011 marked his first full season as a professional, I am not alarmed either. Like the three sluggers above him, Jones swings from the left side and has no trouble launching long balls. He will start 2012 in Daytona, but if Bour is promoted during the season I think the Cubs will give Jones a shot at Double A. If he is going to progress beyond that, he just needs to keep hitting.
5 – Paul Hoilman. Age: 23. Major League ETA:2015
And finally, we find a right handed hitter. Hoilman was taken in the 19th round of the 2011 draft and promptly began launching balls for Short-Season A Boise. He finished with 17 HR over 71 games and a line of .252/.383/.512. His 35% strikeout rate is the stuff of nightmares, but his 16% walk rate is very impressive for a guy just starting to play professionally. We need more data before we can say anything for certain, but so far he looks like a high-strikeout, high OBP player (similar to Brett Jackson). Even so, that strikeout rate will need come down at least ten points if he is going to enjoy any kind of long term success in the Cubs’ farm system. He’ll open 2012 in Peoria.
Others To Watch
Rock Shoulders could have been as high as No. 3 on this list, but with just eight games in the books it is hard to project his future. Vitters and Rebel Ridling could both see time at first, as could Steve Clevenger and Blake Lalli. The Cubs drafted a trio of good hitting young catchers in 2011, and one of them could possibly be moved. We will be talking more about them next time, when we break down the Cubs’ catching prospects.