Jeimer Candelario had an odd, interesting season, following a round of serious hype in the second half of 2015, into the Arizona Fall League, and then into Spring Training.
In the first half of 2016, Candelario had good peripheral numbers but low overall production for Tennessee, and in the second half he exploded at Triple A Iowa. He also got a very brief taste of the majors – just 14 plate appearances – and now looks poised to seriously compete for a roster spot coming out of Spring Training … if he is still in the organization.
The Cubs sent Candelario, then 22, back to Double A for 56 games to start the 2016 season, and his .219/.324/.367 line during that span suggests he took a step back from his 2015 production (.291/.379/.462). If we look deeper, though, we find a walk rate of 13.1% (excellent), a strikeout rate of 18.9% (good), and a Batting Average on Balls in Play of just .261, one of the lowest of his career. That could have been bad luck, or perhaps he was making too much weak contact for a time, or a combination of both. But that BABIP went a long way towards sapping his overall production and producing the lackluster Tennessee slash line.
And then he went to Iowa.
Batters face a tougher challenge in Triple A. There may be more very high-end pitching prospects in Double A (that’s debatable), but Triple A undoubtedly has more minor league veterans and fringe Major League players – players that a team may need to call to the Majors on short notice. Triple A pitchers also, in general, benefit from better scouting reports and, in most cases, catchers who are better receivers.
In short, hitters should have a tougher time in Triple A than Double A.
Which is why it was such a delight to see Jeimer Candelario hit a whopping .333/.417/.542 line in 309 plate appearances. His OPS of .959 ranks seventh in the Pacific Coast League among players who had at least 300 plate appearances. That’s three slots higher than a guy named Dan Vogelbach. We have to drop to number fourteen, Joey Gallo, to find someone else who was just 22.
Candelario’s other rankings were similarly good: 20th in walk rate, fifth in OBP, fifth in batting average, third in age. Also, keep in mind: the Iowa Cubs’ home park is not among the hitter’s paradises in the PCL.
In short, Candelario was as could as we could have expected, while also being one of the youngest players in the league.
He was almost equally good against left-handers (OPS .985) and right-handers (OPS .948), but that isn’t a surprise given that he is a switch-hitter who is fairly advanced from both sides of the plate.
Defensively, Candelario stayed almost exclusively at third base. He filled in at first a few times, but between Tennessee and Iowa, he started 121 games on the left side of the diamond. And, from what I have seen, he isn’t a bad third baseman. He has more quickness than I would normally expect for a guy his size, charges in on balls well, and consistently makes hard and accurate throws to first. I don’t think he is Gold Glove material at third, but I do think he could stay there for several more years without any problem.
He has the arm the play the outfield, but were he in literally any other organization I would not spend a quarter second on the possibility. But the Cubs have sent catchers and relief pitchers into the outfield in recent years, and I don’t doubt Joe Maddon would try Candelario in left if he wanted to keep the bat in the lineup. I think the safer plan – *if you were dead set on getting Candelario into the lineup* – would be to slide Kris Bryant to the outfield and play Candelario at third, but I suspect we’ll see Candelario working out in the outfield at least a few times in spring training.
As a patient switch-hitter with power, I can see Candelario settling nicely anywhere in a big league lineup from third down to seventh. And if it were not for the presence of the NL MVP at third base, I’d be penciling in Candelario’s name on the 2017 infield right now.
But as good as the lineup would look with Candelario and Bryant and Anthony Rizzo and Kyle Schwarber and Willson Contreras and Addison Russell and Javy Baez and Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist, it going to be tough to get all those guys into the same lineup with any kind of regularity. If Candelario can handle some left field, that opens a few options, but left field is already going to be fairly crowded.
I think Candelario has the skill set to play very well off the bench in the big leagues, but, like many young players, he would probably be better off getting regular playing time somewhere. I’m just not sure whether that somewhere is Chicago.
Ultimately, the best place for Candelario to play in 2017 may very well be a different city altogether, if it meant regular starts. If he is still with the Cubs on Opening Day, I suspect it will be the Iowa Cubs, simply because the Chicago team won’t have a place to play him. It’s also possible that, if the Cubs need an extremely attractive, big-league-ready prospect to entice another team to part with a cost-controlled starting pitcher, Candelario’s name could come up. You wouldn’t want to see the Cubs deal Candelario just to move him out – after all, he’s excellent depth to have, if for no other reason than injuries do happen sometimes – but he has a great deal of value.
Wherever he winds up playing in 2017, it will be worth following Candelario’s continued development.
Brett Taylor contributed to this post.