Pick a level, any level, of the Cubs farm system and there was a very good third base prospect there in 2013. According to Baseball America, four of the Cubs fourteen best prospects are third basemen by trade today, and a fifth could wind up there before it is all said and done. Maybe a sixth.
Normally, when we survey a position we are are content to see depth and very good prospects. In the case of third base, the Cubs have a significant depth of those very good prospects, and then an additional depth coming behind that. If there was a Nobel Prize for baseball organizations, the Cubs would win it in a landslide for their work building this completely insane stockpile of third base talent.
With this time of incredible depth, though, comes the best problem a General Manager can have. Now the Cubs will have to figure out which one to play, and what to do with the rest.
The best of the bunch, without a doubt, is Kris Bryant. Bryant is a Top 10 in all of baseball prospect and right at the pinnacle of the Cubs system alongside Javier Baez. The Cubs appear willing to leave Bryant at third for as long as he can handle it and so long as his development there does not slow the arrival of his bat in the majors, and so far he’s done just fine. In a more normal organization I think he would stay at third long term, but with the Cubs I suspect he’ll wind up in right field simply to open up third base for another organizational bat (because goodness knows the Cubs have plenty of them).
Bryant’s raw power is effectively equal to Baez, although it remains to be seen if that power will continue to play as well in game as Baez has shown. The early results are very good, though, as Bryant put up an otherworldly SLG of .719 in his 16 game stint with Daytona (by comparison, Baez slugged .535 at the same level). That was good for an ISO of .386. Even in video games you aren’t seeing numbers like those without cheats, and this guy was doing it in one of the toughest pitching leagues in the minors.
Bryant probably will strike out more than I’d really like, even to the point of being a 30% strikeout rate guy in the majors. He’ll also draw a lot of walks, though, and should hit for an acceptable average regardless of the swings and misses. Bryant should start the season in either Tennessee or Daytona (highly likely to be Tennessee at this point), but he could finish up in Chicago.
Regardless of how fast Bryant moves, Mike Olt will beat him to the majors. We know Olt can play excellent defense at third, but there are lingering questions about his ability to hit. Those answers should arrive early this season now that Olt is apparently recovered from the concussion, tear duct issues, and allergy problems that have slowed him in the past.
Olt also has some natural swing and miss to his game, but he projects to compensate with plenty of power and plenty of walks. If Olt does show he can hit major league pitching, he might lock down the Cubs third base job before the rest of the candidates arrive.
If Olt stumbles, the next man up will be Christian Villanueva, the best defensive third baseman in the system, and quite possibly the best in the minors. Villanueva quietly put together a good season with Tennessee in 2013, finishing with an OPS of .787 and the most doubles in the league, but I think his value will continue to come primarily from his glove. He could be a good hitter in the majors, but he lacks both the power and the patience shown by Olt and Bryant.
Villanueva should begin 2014 as the everyday third baseman for Iowa, but, depending on how various roster battles shake out, I would not be surprised to see the Cubs move him around the diamond a little as they assess him for a possible major league future as a utility guy.
Work In Progress
One of the best prospects in the next wave of talent currently sloshing around in the lower levels of the system remains Jeimer Candelario. There are some concerns that this switch hitter may not be able to stay at third long term, but he did just fine at that position in 2013 and should remain on the left side of the infield as he moves up the system. His best asset is his bat, though, and at the plate he produced a walk rate of 11.9% and a strikeout rate of just 15.4% at the age of 19 in the Midwest League. He hit only 11 home runs last season – most of those in the second half – but there is more power where that came from. He should report to Daytona for this season.
Baseball America lists Wes Darvill at third, but so far in his career he has primarily played in the middle of the infield and that is where I will be considering him for this series. Junior Lake and Josh Vitters were both third base candidates at one time, but both have now moved to the outfield. Ben Carhart played quite a bit of third for Daytona in 2013, but it appears the Cubs are moving him to catcher now. The international leagues do have some promising looking hitters that could slot in at third as well, but they are all quite a ways off yet.
The Cubs are not really in need of any more third base prospects right now, though. Their top four can rival the top four at any position in any organization in baseball in recent memory. And if we consider that both Javier Baez and Arismendy Alcantara could yet wind up at that position (more likely for Baez than Alcantara), their depth gets even crazier.
Nothing is certain, of course, but there is reason to be very optimistic that the Cubs are developing on the farm a very bright future for themselves at third base. The way to win at the prospect game is not to just develop very good prospects, to develop lots of very good prospects so that the inevitable busts do not derail any long term plans. That is exactly what the Cubs have done at third base.