Number nine is about as high as you are likely to see Mark Zagunis ranked on any of the Cubs’ prospect lists, and it remains to be seen if he can stay that high when the mid-season Bleacher Nation Top 40 is re-ranked before the 2016 season starts. For now, though, ninth is where he sits and so Zagunis is the ninth prospect to be covered in our annual series of prospect breakdowns.
The Cubs drafted Zagunis out Virginia Tech as a catcher in 2014, but almost right away he began to spend a large amount of time in the outfield. In 2015 the Cubs scrapped the catching side of his game altogether and let him concentrate on his outfield defense and his progression at the plate. Long term, his value will probably come primarily from what he does at the plate.
Defensively, Zagunis has spent most of time roaming the corner positions, but that is at least partly due the rosters he has played on. Trey Martin, one of the best defensive center fielders in all of minor league baseball, played center for Zagunis’s Myrtle Beach Pelicans in 2015; playing in left or right alongside a glove like Martin is no insult. In four games with the Mesa Solar Sox of the Arizona Fall League in 2015 Zagunis played center twice.
And it may not matter anyway, because if Zagunis keeps getting on base like he did in 2015, managers will find a place to play him. Zagunis’s offensive game is centered on one statistic: On Base Percentage. This guy is one of the best in the organization at just getting on base. For his professional career, his OBP sits at .411, including the .406 he put up in High-A over 115 games. He’s not a one stat player, though, as his overall Myrtle Beach slash line was a respectable .271/.406/.412 with 8 home runs and 12 steals (in 22 attempts).
The peripheral numbers for Zagunis were strong as well. Not surprisingly, given his OBP, his walk rate in High A was an extremely impressive 15.6% (and a ludicrous 28.8% in 66 PA with Mesa (sample size alert)). His strikeout rate of just 16.8% was also quite good, as was his ISO of .140.
Sometimes when we see a walk rate as elevated as it is with Zagunis, it can indicate that a guy is being a little too selective at the plate and could perhaps stand to be a little more aggressive as a means of producing more hard contact. In the case of Zagunis, though, given his SLG of .412 in a pitching-friendly league, I’m not so sure that is the case. It is very possible that he just has an excellent eye and simply doesn’t swing at balls out of the strike zone. As for the pitches in the strike zone, so far he appears to have done a nice job attacking the pitches he can hit the hardest.
I think there is a place in baseball for high OBP corner outfielders, even if they don’t possess great speed or power. If Zagunis can maintain his on base game and improve his stolen base success rate dramatically, he could yet turn into a quality lead off hitter. Otherwise, again assuming he can improve his base running, he could do very well as a fourth outfielder one day. Given that he will be 23 at the start of the 2016 season, I suspect the Cubs will let him move through Double and Triple A as fast as his bat and base running will let him. An Iowa finish and a chance to fight for a roster slot in the spring in 2017 is certainly possible.
On the other hand, the Cubs are absolutely loaded with outfield talent at all levels of the minors. It is by far the strongest position in the farm system, and that means it could be a source of trade assets. As a Double A player with a standout aspect to his game, Zagunis could be in the conversation if the Cubs look to make some minor or mid-size moves mid-summer. Either way, he is someone we could be talking about quite a lot during the 2016 minor league season.