Of all the positions, outfield might provide the greatest range of prospecty goodness for Cubs fans. The Cubs have some ultra-high ceiling guys, and they have some high floor guys. They have some really interesting tools to dream on, and they have some prototypical ball players grinding their way up the system. There are even a couple slightly enigmatic lottery tickets.
There are also a lot of them. Particularly in center field, the Cubs have a seemingly bottomless pool of outfield potential. For this article I will not be considering the infielders who spill over in the outfield. Players like Kris Bryant (3B) and Arismendy Alcantara (2B) may yet turn into outfielders as a means of making the majors, but in this series they are considered at their current position.
As has been the trend with the other positions profiled in this series, we should start to see some major league arrivals from the farm system some time this season.
Were it not for the injuries that slowed him down last summer, I think Josh Vitters would have already claimed at least a share of a left field platoon in Chicago. His Triple A numbers, while still a little young for the league, have been very good. His walk rates in Triple A are the among the highest in his career (11% in 100 PA last season), his strikeout rate is under 20%, and his ISO is over .210. In 138 games over two seasons with Iowa Vitters has posted an OPS of .873. Last season against lefties (small sample size) that figure was 1.065. Left field is a new position for him, but it is not that demanding of a position. He should be ready for Wrigley in a very short time. As soon as an outfield slot appears in Chicago, I think Vitters gets the call. At worst I think he’ll do just fine in a platoon role, but I think he has a fair chance of claiming the starting left field job outright.
And then we have Brett Jackson. He got an extended (142 PA) look in the majors in 2012, and his strikeout rates were truly horrific. At 41.5% he blew way beyond bad and into the domain where even English majors have to crack a thesaurus to find an adequate adjective. Of course, he also walked at a 15.5% rate. And his ISO was a solid .167. His defense? Excellent for the corner positions, fair in center. He is also an excellent base runner with 100 stolen bases to his name.
That was 2012. In 2013 he went back to the minors to try to improve on his contact ability and it did not go well. Now he is coming back from the worst season of his career. I think he will report to Iowa, but beyond that I’m not sure what there is to project here. If he can cut that major league K% down to something around 30% or under he has a future as a quality fourth outfielder. Unfortunately, the ability to make contact is not something that can really be coached into a player. There are some mechanical tweaks he can make that will help, but that’s about it. If he is going to rebound enough to claim a spot on the major league roster, we’ll likely know it within a month or two in the minors.
After the three level season that was his always-moving 2013, I think we can add Anthony Giansanti to the ‘nearly ready’ category as well. Giansanti can do a little everything. He has enough speed to keep a pitcher honest (although his success rate on the basepaths is not great), the defensive versatility to play all over the outfield or come in for second and third base in a pinch, and he can even take the mound if a manager needs to save his bullpen in a blowout. He is trending a little towards the old side for the minors now, and I suspect the Cubs will use him as a cross between a minor league veteran to help steady some very young teams up and down the system, and as a reserve guy for the major league roster. Talent wise he could start for Iowa, but if the Cubs send some of their young, star potential outfielders to Tennessee and if Giansanti is as good a teammate as I have been led to believe, I would not be surprised if the Cubs send him to Tennessee to help out the youth movement.
Matt Szczur and Jae-Hoon Ha both project as fourth outfielders (good ones, at that) these days, and both should open the season in Iowa. Ha is better with the glove, Szczur has more upside with the bat, but either would be a valuable addition to the major league bench should a spot open up this season. And if the Cubs needed someone to fill in due to trade or injury, after Vitters these are the two most likely to get the call.
Must Watch Duo
There is not a lot left to write about Albert Almora or Jorge Soler. Both are among the 100 best prospects in all baseball, and likely among the 50 best. Because of Almora’s character and Soler’s experience, both are thought to have fairly high floors. Almora is a defensively gifted center fielder with a very good bat, and Soler is a strong armed right fielder with power that rivals Javier Baez and Kris Bryant. Both could start in Daytona or Tennessee (though it’ll be Daytona for Almora and Tennessee for Soler), and both could finish the year in Chicago (although I think that is a bit of a stretch for Almora). Both will no doubt be near the top of the Bleacher Nation Top 40 in the near future, so I’ll save any further analysis until then.
Zeke DeVoss is a fascinating prospect to watch. He does not hit for average or power, but is an exceptionally patient hitter with outstanding strike zone judgement. As a result, when he went from Low A to High A for 2013, his OBP actually climbed from .382 to .393 despite facing tougher pitching. Once on base he uses his speed to good effect, stealing 73 bases over the past two seasons. Can a no power, speedy, walk machine make it to the majors as a left fielder? Tennessee fans should get to judge for themselves this summer.
And then there’s another speedster in John Andreoli. After swiping 55 bases for Daytona in 2012, he settled for just 40 between Daytona and Tennessee in 2013. He is a better overall hitter than DeVoss and has more power as well (although he’s no slugger), but he is not quite as adept at drawing the walk. Unlike DeVoss, I think Andreoli could handle center at the major league level, although his glove is better suited for left.
Also potentially ready to join the outfield mix for the Smokies by midseason will be Pin-Chieh Chen, another speedy center field type who shows good patience at the plate. Chen has flown a little under the radar lately, but he passed through three levels in 2013, and it would not be a stretch to see him finish the year in Iowa.
Shawon Dunston broke out in short season Boise last summer. He walked more than he struck out and compiled a nice .290/.378/.358 line. He is a left handed hitter with enough speed to be a threat on the basepaths and all the tools to play above average in center field, but he’ll need a few seasons yet before he is ready. He should be the starting center fielder for Kane County. Don’t let that low ISO number worry you; he projects to have average or better power once he grows into it.
And then we have Oliver Zapata. Some days this diminutive switch hitter looks like he is about to put it all together and make a run up the prospect charts, but then it doesn’t quite happen. At just 5’9″ he still produced enough power for 7 home runs and an ISO of .133 with Kane County last summer, and he stole 13 bases as well. The walk rates are healthy and the strikeout rates aren’t bad, but his season line was just .240/.317/.372. If he doesn’t break out soon he may have a hard time holding on to a job in the Cubs system, but for now I suspect he’ll report to Daytona.
The best name in baseball belongs to Cubs LF/1B Rock Shoulders. He also has a potent left handed swing that carried him to an OPS of .818 against right handed pitching last season in the Midwest League. His best position is probably first base, but he has been playing at the same level as Vogelbach, and that has pushed Shoulders into left. He has power to spare with 18 homers last season, but it remains to be seen if he can hit enough against tougher pitching for that power to be useful. He should head to Daytona.
One of the first of the Cubs’ Cuban signees, Rubi Silva joined the system as a second baseman, largely fell off the prospect radar, and then had a coming out party in Double A last season. If it weren’t for names like Alcantara and Baez on the same roster, Silva would probably have been the talk of the team. His .284/.310/.483 line was hindered only by his comically low 3.7% walk rate. Even so, as he comes off a 15 home run, 13 steal season in Double A, he is probably the best home grown left handed bat in the high minors. If he can learn to take a few more walks, he could push for a starting outfield job in Chicago a year from now.
Speaking of sleepers, Rony Rodriguez slugged .438 for Quebec (an independent league team) in 2012 before signing with the Cubs and joining Boise in 2013 where he slugged .405. He still has a lot to do to prove himself, but so far his peripheral numbers look solid. We should see how he handles the Midwest League this year.
The Wild Cards
The outfield tends to gather athletic players who sometimes have great tools, but sometimes take longer to work those tools into baseball form. The Cubs have quite a few of those guys, as well as a few more who are rather enigmatic prospects for other reasons.
The Cubs 2013 draftee Jacob Hannemann stayed off the diamond for quite some time himself, but that was because he took a two year mission trip before starting his college career. Once he worked some of the rust off, his draft stock rose rapidly as a fast, athletic center fielder with better than average power and a fairly clean swing. Unfortunately, he got hurt soon as after starting his professional career. The scouts seem high on him, as does the Cubs front office, so I look forward to seeing what he can do this season. I suspect he’ll start in Kane County. On paper he looks a little old for the lower levels of the minors, but thanks to that two year layoff his age is not all that useful of an indicator. The Cubs won’t rush him, but he could reach Daytona by year end anyway.
Fans of the Boise Hawks will recognize the names Kevin Encarnacion and Yasiel Balaguert. These two outfielders each spent part of the season in Boise, and both showed a mix of power and speed while there. Encarnacion is a little ahead of Balaguert, but I’d not be surprised to see both with Kane County in April (at least when Encarnacion is healthy after the offseason car accident). A late season promotion to Daytona for Encarnacion would also not surprise me. Neither are counted among the Cubs’ top prospects today, but both these hitters have the potential to start moving up the prospect charts with a good showing in 2014.
Bijan Rademacher does not offer a great deal of power or success on the bases, but he had a solid season split between Kane County and Daytona and could yet emerge as a fourth outfielder candidate in a year or two. Trey Martin receives a ton of praise from some analysts, but after appearing in just 11 games in 2013 he will just be looking to stay on the field and build up some needed experience this season.
With elite talent, loads of depth, lots of speed, tons of power, and a sprinkling of intriguing wild cards, no matter what sort of prospect you like to watch there is probably a few of them roaming the outfield in the Cubs organization. Tennessee fans in particular could be in for a great summer as a steady string of prospects with major league potential (including Almora and Soler) seem likely to appear in East Tennessee.
The best news, I think, is that there are some candidates among the outfield prospects who could help improve the Cubs major league on base percentage in a few years. Adding in that OBP could be the final piece to be placed in a potentially potent offensive puzzle.