This will be the final Prospects Progress of the winter, but not the final minor league article. Not by a long shot. Now that we are into spring training, it is time to start looking at the farm system a little more broadly, assess the strengths, discuss the weaknesses, and revel in the concentrated awesomeness of one of the best collections of offensive prospects ever assembled by a single organization. Ultimately, as spring training draws to a close, the 2015 edition of the Bleacher Nation Top 40 Prospects List will finally arrive.
What is Prospects Progress? This is the 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.
Given the remarkable increase in catching prospect depth and talent the Cubs acquired in 2014, it is only fitting that the focus of this final piece in the series will be behind the plate. Although it might turn out to be in the outfield. There many things we know about Mark Zagunis, but one thing we are not sure of is what position he will play long term.
Mark Zagunis , C/OF
Born: February 5, 1993
Acquired: The Cubs drafted Zagunis in the 3rd round in 2014.
Stolen Bases, Bad
Zagunis split his time at Virginia Tech between catching and playing outfield, so it is not much of a surprise that his glove behind the plate is not as developed as some other parts of his game. Catcher is one of the most physically demanding positions in baseball, and it is also one of the positions that requires the most skill and the most practice to play well at a high level. Zagunis has the arm and athleticism he needs behind the plate, but his overall game needs work.
One example of that lack of polish shows up in his Caught Stealing percentage. In just 15 games behind the plate for Boise a total of 29 base runners tried to steal against Zagunis. Unfortunately, 26 of them succeeded. It is very possible that Zagunis doesn’t deserve all the blame for his 10% Caught Stealing rate, but even allowing for mistakes by the infielders and pitchers involved that is a less than encouraging figure.
It is also a statistic that I think we will see some substantial improvements in over the next few seasons. For the time being, at least, the Cubs appear likely to develop Zagunis primarily as a catcher. Focusing on his game behind the plate should allow him to start to make some significant improvements in that area that will show up on the stat sheets in short order.
Stolen Bases, Good
And that is good, because the offensive side of his game is quite a bit more advanced than his catching. After a few plate appearances in the Rookie League, Zagunis spent most of his season with Boise (41 games, 191 PA) and Kane County (14 games, 62 PA). Between those three stops, he walked 42 times. He also struck out 42 times. With Boise, the only team he stayed with long enough to amass much of a sample size, both his walk rate and his strikeout rate came in at 16.2%. As a strikeout rate that is very good; as a walk rate that is somewhere beyond fantastic.
It should be noted that Zagunis, as a college draftee, was expected to be more advanced at the plate than many of his competitors, but those figures are great even allowing for that experience differential. This is a hitter who understands the strike zone, is willing to wait for a pitch he likes, and is able to translate those tendencies into a very nice On Base Percentage (.420 for the season).
Surprisingly given that he is a catcher, Zagunis is quite a threat on the base paths. For the season he stole 16 bases in 18 tries, including a perfect streak of 5 for 5 with Kane County. Whether or not he can continue to maintain a speed game as his legs accumulate the wear and tear of life behind the plate remains to be seen, but that that speed will certainly come in handy if he has to move back to the outfield full time.
As a professional, Zagunis has played a few more games in the outfield than he has behind the plate, but I am not sure that trend will continue early in 2015. If he is going to be developed as a catcher, and all signs currently point to that conclusion, then he will almost need to get the majority of the starts behind the plate. He’ll stay fresh in the outfield as well, but I don’t think that will be where he finds himself the most. If he progresses well behind the plate that may change as we get into the middle of the season; that remains to be seen.
The bat says Zagunis is ready for Myrtle Beach, but if the Cubs want to develop him as a catcher that may not be possible. Victor Caratini, a good catching prospect who also needs work behind the plate, is expected to be the primary catcher for the Pelicans. It is possible that the two could split catching duties if the Cubs feel each would get enough experience to not have their development slowed by doing so, but I think the more likely scenario has Zagunis returning to Low A South Bend to start the season as the Cubs primary catcher.
Eventually, though, the Cubs will need to move Zagunis up a level to allow his bat to continue developing, and at that point things become interesting. Caratini is likely to be blocked from promotion to Double A during much of the season by Kyle Schwarber, and Schwarber, if he is able to stay behind the plate, is likely to spend most or all of the season working on his catching in Double A. That could leave the Cubs in the position of having a bit of a catching logjam.
That’s right – the same Cubs who had a scarcity of catching so recently now feature three catching prospects that may well be competing with each for at bats at a particular level. And that is without taking into account any innings behind the plate that might need to go to Will Remillard, Willson Contreras, Tyler Alamo, or Gioskar Amaya (if he stays at catcher), or any of the Cubs other young or converted catchers (Mark Malave, for example). It will be interesting to see how the Cubs find the opportunities to develop all their catchers this, particularly if they all progress well as we head into summer.