Chicago Cubs 2016 NL Central Championship Gear

jeimer candelario cubsI wonder how far the Bleacher Nation Top 40 Prospects List we will get before the Prospects’ Progress series runs out of off season. About the start of spring training this series will have to wind down to make room for other prospect writings, and that is right around the corner. Think we can get to Dave Berg (Number 25) before then? Or maybe Jeremy Null (Number 30)? We’ll see. To date, we’ve made it to Number 6, Ian Happ, who got a lengthy look last week.

Today’s edition focuses on third baseman Jeimer Candelario, listed seventh in the latest edition of our own prospect rankings. Candelario finished his 2014 campaign in High A Daytona, and it was to High A (Myrtle Beach this time) that he returned to open 2015. Through 82 games he had a solid season underway when the Cubs decided to send him on to Tennessee. Despite the jump to Double A being generally considered the most difficult jump in the minors, Candelario excelled at that level and turned 2015 in a certifiable breakout season.

A couple of years ago there were serious questions about Candelario’s ability to stay at third base, but those questions have largely been answered. He can stay. We shouldn’t expect Gold Glove level work at the hot corner, but I think the glove is good enough to be roughly average. Paired with a very good defensive shortstop (say, Addison Russell) Candelario could be part of a good defensive package on the left side of the infield. He may lose a step and need to move away from that position as he gets older, but for the next several seasons I think he’ll be fine.

And that’s good, because his bat could be special. If he pans out as a hitter he could play anywhere, but he would be all the more valuable at a more premium position such as third. Candelario is a switch-hitter who has the potential to hit for both power and average from both sides of the plate. He does not strike out at a concerning rate, walks quite a bit, and can send line drives sailing to pretty much any part of the diamond. This is the sort of bat that could look good in the middle of a lot of lineups.

His Myrtle Beach numbers are quite good: 343 PA, .270/.318/.415, 5 HR, 5.8% BB%, 18.1% K%. For a guy who played all year at age 21, that is a good line. It is also completely blown away by what he did in Tennessee.

The Double A edition of Candelario’s age 21 season looked like this: 182 PA, .291/.379/.462, 5 HR, 12.1% B%, 11.5% K%. If your jaw isn’t on the floor, you probably misread that line. Even allowing for the fact that the Southern League is more hitter friendly than the Carolina League and that the Smokies play in a relatively slugger friendly stadium, that is a remarkable set of numbers when compared to what he did in Myrtle Beach.

There’s more. Candelario’s Batting Average on Balls In Play was .320 with Myrtle Beach, but fell to .308 in Tennessee. That means he posted that marked increase in production without any significant increase in good luck. What’s more, he walked more than he struck out. That is a very good sign for a young Double A hitter.

How good of a sign? Here is the list of every single player who has posted more walks than strikeouts over at least 180 plate appearances in his age 21 season (or younger) in the Southern League going back to 2006 (data from Fangraphs):

Michael Brantley (twice)
Jason Heyward
Logan Morrison
Ronald Torreyes
Jeimer Candelario

That’s it. That’s the list. Two stars, an everyday player, a guy who just reached the majors last season, and Candelario. Of that list, only Heyward posted a better ISO than Candelario in their year of record.

I’m not sure what happened here, but a sample of 182 Plate Appearances is too much to just ignore. A random hot streak can account for some of it, but I have a hard time crediting just a hot streak with a decline in strikeout rate of the size Candelario experienced between High A and Double A. Whatever the cause, be it luck or a change in ballpark or a matter some lessons taking hold or a combination of factors, Candelario ended the season on a high note that he continued in the Arizona Fall League (89 PA, .329/.371/.610, 5 HR, 6.7% BB%, 11.2% K%). As a result, he will enter 2016 as one of the best hitters in the farm system.

If I were a General Manager for any of the other 29 teams in baseball, Candelario is the Cubs’ prospect I would be asking for. He is blocked at third base by Bryant, first base by Rizzo, and in left field (if that is an option for him (and I’m not sure it is)) by Schwarber. Unlike Contreras, there is no readily apparent place to play him in Chicago in the next couple of seasons, not unless Bryant is moved to the outfield (where in the outfield?), and that means he may well be more available than guys who could fill a Cubs’ need such as Contreras and Almora. And, again, he might be the best hitter in a farm system that has been producing some very good hitters lately. Candelario could be special.

In fact, if anyone in the farm system is going to push Bryant off of third base (which I’m not saying is going to happen – I’m just saying *if* it were to happen), Candelario is currently the best candidate. I have no idea how the Cubs would make it work, but I would love to see his bat in the lineup with the rest of the Cubs’ young hitters in 2017 or so.

As far as 2016 goes, tentatively look for Candelario to return to Tennessee to begin the year (assuming he is still a Cub). If he picks up where he left off, he should be in Iowa around the middle of the year, if not sooner, and in Chicago for September (he is already on the 40-man roster). If the Cubs find themselves in need of an extra bat during the season due to an injury, it isn’t impossible that Candelario could answer that call as well.

I’ve been in fairly high on Candelario for several years now, but I’ve never been more excited to see what he can do than I am now. When the 2016 minor league season begins, Candelario will be one of the bats I watch the most.

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