Infielder David Bote jumped into the prospect spotlight with a very good 2017 Double A campaign, but that jump was predicted by his 2016 work in High A.
Bote began the 2017 season as Number 36 on the Bleacher Nation Top 40, although he actually fell off the mid-season list altogether thanks primarily to the fact that his power significantly faded in July and there were a lot of new faces pushing their way onto the list. Turns out I probably put too much weight on that .387 July SLG (recency bias is cruel trickster); he exploded for a .534 SLG in August and finished his Double A campaign on a high note.
And then he played well in the Arizona Fall League and was added to the 40-man roster to protect him from the Rule 5 draft. Suddenly this 24-year-old second baseman, who had been basically a journeyman infielder in the Cubs’ system until they asked him to take over at short in Myrtle Beach when Gleyber Torres was traded in 2016, was being recognized as one of the Cubs’ most Major-League-ready hitting prospects.
And looking at his 2017 totals, I can’t really argue. Bote finished his 127 games in Tennessee with a walk rate of 9.1%, a strikeout rate of 18.8%, and an ISO of .166. That led to a total line of .272/.353/.438 with 14 home runs. He’ll likely get playing time all over the infield at Iowa at the start of 2018, and should the Cubs need a backup infielder he is likely to be among the first to get the call.
We have seen players break out in High A and Double A before, notably including the original prospect cookie Arismendy Alcantara, and the Cubs’ current starting catcher Willson Contreras, and there is a bit of a pattern in these cases. If you want to spot breakout players before they happen, I would suggest looking for four things: a high walk rate, a moderate to low strikeout rate, a good ISO, and a fairly high BABIP. If you can find most of all of those ingredients on a prospect who has been generally overlooked, you may have found a breakout candidate waiting to happen.
So, who might that guy be?
Taking a look at the middle ranks of the Cubs’ farm system, we definitely see some breakout candidates including two pretty strong candidates to move into the prospect spotlight in a significant way in 2018. One of them is a guy that I ranked 8th in the midseason rankings, but neither FanGraphs nor MLB Pipeline has ranked at all: Ian Rice.
Rice, a catcher, also played 2017 in Double A, and he actually outproduced Bote. Through 119 games Rice hit 17 home runs on his way to a line of .230/.353/.423 with a walk rate of 15.2%, a strikeout rate of 22.8%, an ISO of .193, and a BABIP of .263. The walk rate and ISO are exactly what we want to see, and the strikeout rate, while a little higher than we’d like in a breakout candidate, didn’t really move from his 21.8% in 2016 despite his overall line improving at a higher level. The BABIP is quite low (potentially suggestive of too much weak contact), even considering he is a catcher, but the rest of the numbers suggest that Rice is a guy with plenty of power who has a good understanding of the strike zone and is able to hit the ball hard when he makes contact.
Rice has only been a professional since 2015; that means he opened his second full season as a pro in Double A. That is somewhat unusual, and the fact that he posted a wRC+ of 129 there is fairly impressive. If he repeats those peripheral numbers in Iowa to start 2018, I don’t think I’ll be the only one ranking him much longer.
The other really strong breakout candidate in this mold, and the guy who perhaps mirrors Bote the most, is shortstop Zack Short.
Short, drafted in 2016, has also been moving very quickly through the farm system. He spent half the season in South Bend (wRC+ 136) and the rest in Myrtle Beach (wRC+ 124) where he hit .263/.372/.414. He finished the season with a combined 13 home runs and 18 steals.
Since the Cubs are pretty much set at shortstop (and short doesn’t project to be as strong defensively as either Addison Russell or Javier Baez), I think we’ll see Short start to be moved around the infield a bit in Double A in preparation for a potential future as a Major League utility man. So far as his stats at the plate go, he ticks all the boxes. The walk rate is excellent (14.4% in High A), the strikeout rate is good (18.1%), and the power is apparent (ISO of .151). Keep a close eye on Short next season.