The Cubs have focused hard on finding catchers in the draft the past few years, and the products of that effort are starting to show up on the prospect rankings. When they are not drafting catchers, they are often looking for infielders they can convert into catchers as a professional. Prospects of both types are featured on today’s list.
Corner infielders are not exactly a position of depth right now in the organization, but that’s ok. First base is often a position of last resort for players who are defensively challenged, so odds are good that any hitter who needs a home on the diamond could move to first in the upper minors and become a first base prospect if needed. Meanwhile, future third basemen often begin their minor league careers as shortstops. Given that a healthy percentage of the Cubs’ most talented bats are in the low levels of the minors, a lack of corner infielders is not really surprising.
I suspect, though, it is the highest ranked corner infielder, the first name listed today, that will raise some eyebrows. While Eloy Jimenez is no doubt the Cubs’ top prospect, the identity of Number Two was somewhat in question. Ian Happ is probably the consensus choice, but by the thinnest of margins I stuck with Jeimer Candelario. Much of the thinking behind that call will have to wait for Happ’s own write up (next time).
Before talking about Candelario, though, you may need a refresher. The 2017 Top 40 Prospects list began here with a bit of history, then moved on to talk about right-handed pitching and left-handed pitching.
2. Jeimer Candelario, 3B
I see Candelario as a future middle of the order hitter, the sort of batter who could slot in comfortably anywhere from third to sixth in most major league lineups. A switch-hitter, Candelario can spread line drives to all fields, has at least average power, and is a very selective hitter who maintains a high walk rate. That translates into a batter who will hit for average, post a high on base percentage, and should be able to hit twenty or so homers a year in his prime. He may well be the best hitter to pass through Triple A since Kyle Schwarber and Willson Contreras graduated. At the very least, he is a candidate for that title.
And yet Candelario is ofter undervalued. Part of the reason for that, perhaps most of the reason, is his defense. Somewhere in his past, Candelario was unfairly labeled a poor defender, and to various degrees it seems like that label has stuck. I don’t think that label is accurate. Every time I watch him, I am surprised by how good he looks at third. He charges in on balls very well, has a strong arm that is usually accurate, and moves fairly well to the sides. He is not fast, but in the field he plays quick. I don’t think he is likely to ever be a Gold Glove candidate at third, thanks in no small part to his limited range, but I do think he will be an average defensive Major League third baseman for a number of years.
He definitely will be good enough at third to keep his bat in the lineup, and it is with the bat that he adds the bulk of his value. Steamer projects a Major League line for Candelario of .241/.309/.379 as a 23-year-old. That’s not bad for a rookie campaign, and I honestly feel like that is a little low. That’s based on a BABIP of .285, but except for a 56 game stretch to start the season in Double A last year, he hasn’t posted a BABIP that low since 2014. So long as he stays willing to take what the pitcher offers and try doesn’t get pull happy, I don’t think we’ll see a BABIP that low in the majors either.
Honestly, there isn’t much here not to like. A switch-hitter who can draw walks, doesn’t strike out too often, makes hard contact to all fields, and is perfectly fine at fielding his position is absolutely an asset for any organization. I would love to see the Cubs find a way to get Candelario into their lineup on a regular basis, but I have to admit he would be very attractive to other GMs as well. As a call up or as a trade piece, I think he provide plenty of value to the Cubs over the next few years.
15. Victor Caratini, C
How about another switch-hitter? Reports on Caratini’s work behind the plate are mixed, but there are no questions about his bat. Caratini is a patient, low strikeout, moderate power, switch-hitter who seems tailor made to fill the role of backup catcher. I don’t think he’ll hit for enough power to challenge for a starting catcher job on a good team, certainly not against the likes of Willson Contreras and Kyle Schwarber, but as a backup I can easily see him hitting .260/.330/.370 with a half a dozen homers as a pinch hitter and in occasional starts.
Defensively, I like what I see, but admittedly I have not seen very much. I don’t think it is really possible to grade pitch framing without the aid of pitch tracking technology, but the naked eye doesn’t reveal any bad habits in that regard. He appears to manage a game and handle a pitching staff pretty well already. He does not appear to be notable as a restraint on base runners, though, and I have not watched him catch a pitcher with really hard breaking stuff that frequently needs blocking. I’m not sure how he would handle a Jake Arrieta, in other words.
Caratini would have trade value, but I tend to think the Cubs might be better off keeping him and grooming as the heir to Miguel Montero as first catcher off the bench. With such backup catcher luminaries as John Baker and David Ross in the organization to learn from, the conditions are right for him to transition into that role as smoothly as possible.
19. Wladimir Galindo, 3B
Watching Galindo develop could be a whole lot of fun. This guy can produce a lot of game power, as evidenced by his .219 ISO in Eugene last year, and he does a reasonable job staying away from pitches off the plate. His walk rate a year ago was a very healthy 11.7%, but his strikeout rate was a too high 28.6%. I suspect at least some of that elevated strikeout rate was his approach rather his ability to recognize pitches, but it will take time before we know that for sure.
That strikeout rate will be the thing to watch in South Bend this year. If he can bring that down into the low 20% (or lower) while maintaining his power and walk rate, he would be well on his way to breaking out as a potential impact bat. Whether or not he can remain at third base long term remains to be seen, but that really isn’t something I am too worried about at this point.
27. Chris Pieters, 1B/OF
Pieters began his professional baseball career in 2012 as a pitcher. And as a 6’3″ lefty, it is easy to see why the Cubs were content to keep him pitching for three years. Finally, in 2015, after his horrific control issues resulted in terrifying ERAs and nightmarish WHIPs (seriously, he has a career BB/9 of 13.8. Yes, that reads thirteen point eight), the Cubs decided to see what he could do at the plate.
In his first year as a first baseman he managed an OPS of .855, and the Cubs never looked back.
Last year, thanks to a pretty good video feed from Eugene, we discovered that Pieters is a very athletic first baseman who shows promise of being very good defensively there. Minor league infielders, particularly low level minor league infielders, are not known for the accuracy of their throws, and Pieters got a regular workout picking balls out of the dirt or hauling them in from high and wide. I have no doubt he saved his infielders quite a few throwing errors with some impressive work on the receiving end.
Unusually for a first base prospect, Pieters is also fairly fast. He stole twenty bases a year ago, and has stolen at least twenty every year since he converted from the mound. It comes as no surprise, then, that the Cubs have moved him more into the outfield with South Bend.
Long term, I’m still not sure what the Cubs have in Pieters. He is still adapting to hitting, I think, and his swing isn’t always consistent. I suspect as he adds consistency and a little more muscle, he’s going unlock at least average power. A good defensive first baseman/outfielder with 15+ HR and SB is not out of the question one day … if he can reign in the strikeouts. His 25.6% rate in Short Season A is higher than I am comfortable with for that level; any higher in full season A ball is certainly a problem.
29. P.J. Higgins, C
This is a cautious ranking on Higgins; a case can be made for moving him up ten to fifteen spots. By the end of the season, it is very possible that he has passed Caratini as the best catching prospect in the system.
Higgins entered the system in 2015 as a 12th round pick. The Cubs initially played him on the infield, but in 2016 moved him behind the plate almost exclusively. His catching is still a work in progress, but the early reviews are good. He is an athletic backstop who shows signs of managing balls in the dirt well, and so far has done excellent job shutting down the running game. His development behind the plate will be one of the big things to watch in Myrtle Beach this year.
The other will be his work at the plate. Higgins walked almost as much as he struck out for South Bend last season (13.4% versus 14.0%), and both rates were excellent. He did not show much power, though, with an ISO of just .072 and no home runs. Thanks to a high average and that very nice walk rate he did get on base at a great clip: .389.
We should find out this year whether Higgins projects as a good defensive future starting catcher with an on-base driven game at the plate, or if he projects as a light-hitting backup catcher. The difference may come down to whether or not his power develops as he adjusts to High A.
40. Michael Cruz, C
The Cubs drafted Cruz out of Bethune-Cookman in the seventh round of the 2016 draft. That means he automatically stands out as one of the relatively few non-pitchers the Cubs took that early. In fact, Cruz was the first position player the Cubs took, and one of only two drafted in the first twenty rounds.
In the Arizona Rookie League he had nearly as many walks (20) as strikeouts (23) on his way to a .238/.370/.331 line. As a college player, though, he showed a fair bit of left-handed power to go with that patience. I suspect that power will start to show up this season when he (probably) becomes a prime catching option for Eugene when their season starts later this summer.
This season should also give us an idea how good he is behind the plate. Given that he was a catcher in college and did not convert to that position as a professional, I suspect his glove may be advanced enough to allow him to move up as quickly as the bat will let him. We’ll find out in a few months.
Now this series moves back to areas of organizational depth. Middle infield is up next, and after that we’ll take a look at the outfielders.