The Cubs currently possess a near historic collection of incredibly good young hitters across the major and minor league levels, and a lot of words have been written about those guys already. This will not be one of those articles. Pin-Chieh Chen is not one of the Cubs’ elite prospects. He isn’t one of their Top Twenty prospects. He probably won’t be one of their Top Forty prospects (although that remains to be seen). Some, in fact, would argue that he isn’t a prospect at all.
But not me. Fringey? Yes. Unlikely to make the majors? Yes. Probably a career minor leaguer at best? Yes.
Potential 2016 Chicago Cub? Maybe. It is a slim, faint maybe, but it is a maybe. This edition of Prospects Progress will focus on that maybe.
If you’re new to Prospects Progress, this is an annual offseason series that focuses on players at all levels of the minors. Each article will take one prospect … maybe a big name you instantly recognize, and maybe a fringe guy you haven’t heard of … and will spend some time looking at his numbers, his risk factors, and how he projects to fit into the Cubs’ future.
Pin-Chen Chen , OF
Born: July 23, 1991
Acquired: Signed as an International Free Agent in the summer of 2009.
In a system that is becoming known for sluggers, Chen simply isn’t. Over five minor league seasons dating back to 2015 he has a grand total of six career home runs, and not one of them was hit in 2014. His ISO will blip above .100 every now and then, but for much of his career he’s been hanging out around .080. If you are looking for a power bat, you are looking in the wrong place.
He isn’t know for his great speed, either. He put up three seasons with at least 20 steals in the low minors, including a very nice total of 36 for Peoria in 2011, but as he has moved into the higher levels of the system those numbers have fallen off. Between Daytona and Tennessee this past summer he managed just 13 stolen bases. His seven triples in 2014 indicate that he is good enough of a base runner to use his speed when the opportunity presents itself, but this is not the sort of player who is going to make a living with his legs alone.
He also doesn’t hit for average. His career figure, despite spending most of that time in A ball, is just .270. He hit .275 in 65 games in the Florida State League to start the year, and in the pitcher friendly FSL that’s actually not too bad. It isn’t exactly good either, though, and it definitely isn’t great. His 2014 Double A figure in 48 games was just just .232 (more on that in a bit).
So why am I writing about a guy without power, speed, or average? Because he’s a potentially versatile left handed hitting outfielder who doesn’t strike out and draws a ton of walks. In other words, he is pretty much exactly the kind of guy the Cubs would not mind having as the fifth outfielder in the majors right now.
Before I dive in here, let me again reiterate that the odds are decidedly not in the favor of Chen. He doesn’t project as a star, or even as a major league starter. He really doesn’t project as much of a major league player outside of a bench role, and the role he could fill could also be filled by a large number of other players in the Cubs system, not to mention a bunch of free agents or cheap trade targets. This is a story of maybe, not probably.
That maybe, that chance that he could reach Wrigley as a fourth of fifth outfielder, centers around his on base abilities. In 48 games (182 plate appearances) with Tennessee last season, Chen posted a surprisingly strong OBP of .343 to go with his average of .232. That large gap between his AVG and OBP is thanks to a 13.2% walk rate. Throughout his minor league career his walk rates have consistently been over 10.0% at every level. The fact that he matched his career high at the highest level he has yet reached is interesting and suggests strongly that Chen has a good understanding of the strike zone and a strong ability to recognize pitches.
He doesn’t miss many pitches, either. His strikeout rate for the Smokies was just 8.8%, the lowest he has posted in a league where he has had enough plate appearances to make a useful sample size. And if you’re thinking that a guy who can post those peripheral numbers should be able to hit for a better average than .232, you’re probably right.
Chen’s Double A average of .232 came with a BABIP of .259; that figure is significantly below the BABIP he has posted at most other levels. Typically his BABIP sits around .330 or so. Even after we account for the increase in difficulty that comes with a jump to Double A, I tend to think that .259 is decidedly on the low side. It isn’t hard to justify projecting bit of a bounce in BABIP and a corresponding 2015 line that could be closer .260/.350.
Even with a high minors OBP of .350, though, there is really only one scenario in which a profile like Chen’s would fit as even a fifth outfielder on a competitive major league team. It comes down to the glove.
For a light hitting walks machine to hold a major league bench job, he just about has to be solid defensively across the outfield. There are signs that point to Chen fitting that profile, but right now that is unclear.
Chen played a lot of center field in the low minors, but over the past two seasons he has primarily been in the corners – mainly left field in 2013, and mainly right field in 2014. I don’t think he has moved to the corners because he is bad at center field, though, so much as that he has been playing along side some pretty good center fielders. In 2014, for example, the center fielder he played alongside for most of his time at both levels was Albert Almora, one of the best defensive outfielders in minor league baseball. If Almora and pretty much anyone else in the farm system are playing in the same outfield, Almora will get the majority of the starts in center. That doesn’t mean the other guy is bad at center, though.
It does mean we can’t be sure. My only real not-a-scout concern, having watched Chen in the outfield a few times, is his arm, but the fact that he spent much of 2014 in right field is an indicator that his arm should be good enough for center. Whether or not his overall defense is good enough to profile as a light hitting defensive replacement bench guy in the majors remains to be seen, but I don’t think we can rule it out.
Chen should begin 2015 back with the Tennessee Smokies, and in all honesty I am not sure he goes any higher. I love the strikeout rate. I love the walk rate. I think the glove could be good enough, although I’m not sure on that. The problem is just how light of a hitter Chen is. If he busts out with an ISO in the .140 range in Double A to start the season this may look different, but short of that I’m not sure there will be enough life in his bat to beat out all of the other options the Cubs will have for that last outfield slot. Fifth outfielders are cheaper if developed from within, but they don’t tend to be terribly expensive if they are signed from without.
That said, he does have a chance. And, personally, while the bigger names and more elite tools tend to deservedly get most of the time in the spotlight, I find the stories of those prospects on fringe, prospects like Chen, to be nearly as interesting. These guys are a integral part of what makes minor league baseball the awesome experience that it is, and every once in awhile one of them bucks the odds and takes a place in the spotlight. Could Chen be one of those surprise breakout guys? Maybe.