Good teams, the baseball thinking goes, are strong up the middle. If that applies to organizations as well teams, then the Cubs are in great shape. While the depth of quality is not quite as impressive as it is at third base, the overall mix of depth and quality rivals that of any position in the system. With Starlin Castro already in the majors, the Cubs just need a second baseman to emerge from this group and they would have a young, high quality middle infield that would cause envy in a lot of other front offices.
And the first two guys on this list could put an end to that second base battle before it ever really starts.
On The Way To Wrigley
The biggest story in the first half of the season will be Javier Baez, and he won’t even be in Chicago for at least part of that time. After rampaging through High A and Double A on his way to a 37 homer, .578 SLG season, Baez will head to Iowa as the everyday shortstop. Once he demonstrates he can lay off low breaking pitches and has picked up that final coat of polish, he should bring his insane bat speed and incredible power to what is all but certain to be an excited Wrigley Field.
Coming along for the ride on that trip will be a lot of strikeouts. As high as his ceiling is, Baez still represents a tremendous amount of risk. His ability to adjust in-season at two levels during 2013 makes me think he has a very good shot to make enough contact to have a long and productive career for the Cubs, but, at this stage, that is not certain. He doesn’t need to dramatically cut the strikeouts, but he does need to show improved plate awareness and discipline before he takes a middle infield (or, perhaps, third base) job in the majors. Mid-June still sounds about right for his arrival.
His Iowa double play partner, Arismendy Alcantara, may not be too far behind. I’m not sure where Alcantara will fit into the Cubs plans if all goes well and Mike Olt claims third and Javier Baez takes second, but I sincerely hope they find room for him somewhere. Alcantara took some significant steps forward in Double A last season and now looks like the sort of potential leadoff hitter the Cubs could use. Last season he hit 15 home runs, stole 31 bases, compiled an OPS of .804, and walked in 10.9% of his at bats. If he can maintain that walk rate and OBP with Triple A Iowa this season, the Cubs will find themselves assembling a suddenly complicated roster puzzle. Scouts report that Alcantara has the speed and arm to play in center. That might be the way to go; using his 2014 ZiPS projections from Fangraphs and the Fansided Simple WAR Calculator, it looks like he could be a 3 WAR guy in center. That’s not too shabby.
Somewhat forgotten in the prospect excitement has been Logan Watkins. Watkins is a left handed hitter with some power, good speed, and the defensive flexibility to play anywhere up the middle. Long term I think he projects as high quality utility player in the majors, but in 2014 he will be looking to rebound from a somewhat lackluster initial Triple A campaign. It could be challenging for the Iowa Cubs to find at bats for him in what should be both a prospect-crowded infield and outfield, at least until Baez and/or Alcantara are called up, but if the Cubs are struck with an early season injury on the infield it is more likely that Watkins will get the call.
One of the most frustrating events of the 2013 season was the injury (Tommy John surgery) that shut down Stephen Bruno for the season. After being drafted in 2012, he put on a show for Boise, amassing a .361/.442/.496 line with 3 triples, 3 homers, and a pair of steals (in nine attempts). He jumped to Daytona for the 2013 season and through his first 19 games was hitting .362/.436/.478. That’s where his season ended. We should not expect a lot of power from Bruno (who stands just 5’9″), but if he can continue to get on base at a high rate and can improve on his base stealing, he could jump into the prospect conversation in a hurry with a healthy season. I don’t know where he’ll start the season, but I’d not be surprised to see him in Tennessee by the end of it.
Second baseman Daniel Lockhart came to the Cubs in the 2011 draft. Since then he has been lurking in the (mostly) lower levels quietly picking up some fans among in minor league analyst circles. He made it onto Baseball America’s Top 30 list with praise for his left handed hitting and speed along with his defense at second base. It would be too early to give him top prospect billing, but when he opens the season in Kane County this season he will be one of the players I watch the most closely.
Wes Darvill began his career as a 17 year old way back in 2009 and last season reached Daytona at the age of 21. He still has some work to do, but in his 79 games at High A he showed flashes that he is close to translating his tools into baseball production. Also a left handed hitter, he projects to provide a nice mix of power an speed, but while he has been an infielder for most of his career to date, his ultimate future may lie in the outfield. Last season we saw Dustin Geiger and Rubi Silva jump into prospect spotlight with note worthy performances; Darvill is a solid candidate to follow in their footsteps this summer.
Lower Level Lurkers
Several years ago the Cubs had in the low levels of their system a very talented double play combination that featured guys named Castro and Lake. Last season in Tennessee the Smokies had perhaps a more talented combination named Baez and Alcantara. This summer in Daytona we may see the next high ceiling double play combination on display. Marco Hernandez is a switch hitting shortstop who stole 21 bases for Kane County despite getting on base at just a .287 pace, and Gioskar Amaya is a second baseman who stole 13 bases and drove 6 triples and 5 home runs with his line-drive producing right handed swing. Neither of them produced a great OPS (Amaya was the highest of the pair at .698), but both were slightly young for the league and struggled some with consistency over the course of the season. And while I am higher on Amaya, I like both these players quite a bit. They will join a very talented infield that also features Vogelbach and Candelario in High A this summer.
Kane County will no sooner graduate a pair of high ceiling middle infielders than they will find another very projectable shortstop on their roster. Carlos Penalver made it to Boise for his age 19 season last summer, and he held his own. His line for the season read .261/.338/.359, but the highlights were his 9.5% walk rate and 18.6% strikeout rate. Those aren’t bad numbers for a teenager in that league, and his consistently high walk rate throughout his (short) career makes me suspect the healthy on base percentages could continue as well. When he grows into some additional power, the potential will exist for Penalver to provide solid offense at either short or second. And while it is early yet, it looks like his glove will do just fine in either position as well.
Shortstop Gleyber Torres was the top international prospect in Venezuela last year, and the Cubs signed him for $1.7 million in June. At just 17, he’s still a long way from the bigs (or high-level prospect radars, really), but he’ll be one to watch. It remains possible that he’ll open up his Cubs career in the Arizona Rookie League later this Summer, but he could also head back to Venezuela to play summer ball there first.
Among the Cubs draftees the past two summers has been a trio of light hitting collegiate infielders that, while they may not crack many top prospect lists, are well worth monitoring. Giuseppe Papaccio joined the Cubs in 2013 and spent most of his summer with Kane County. He finished with a line of .279/.331/.364 and a pair of home runs. Those numbers were trending upwards at the end of the season, though, and given his collegiate experience I would not be surprised to see him match or surpass those stats with Daytona this year.
Tim Saunders was a late round pick in 2012 who soared to Daytona in his first summer, but he was not quite able to recapture that success in 2013. Given that his BABIP was over .400 at every stop he made in 2012, a decline in 2013 was not entirely surprising. Nevertheless, in 62 games for Daytona he stole 21 bases and walked at a 9% clip while posting an OPS of .637. That OPS is potentially misleading, though, because he got off to a very slow start. In June, his final month, he hit .307/.398/.427 over 22 games. After 2 games in July he was shut down for the season with an injury. I suspect he’ll open 2014 back in Daytona, but if it turns out that his mid-summer numbers are the real deal, then he could find himself moving up to Tennessee and moving up some prospect charts in a hurry.
Another 2012 draftee, David Bote was taken out of community college at the age of 19. Last season he spent time in Boise, Kane County, and Daytona. At every stop he put up very good walk rates and flashed some speed on the basepaths. With Boise, his only sample size large enough to really mean anything, he totaled an OPS of .703. Bote should start 2014 as an everyday player in Kane County where I suspect he’ll make a name for himself with a combination of walks and steals.
If we reach all the way back to the 2010 draft, there is one more light hitting infielder worth mentioning here: Elliot Soto. Now in his fourth year with the Cubs, Soto has yet to make it past Double A, and while with Tennessee he really hasn’t hit enough to warrant a promotion (his OPS is just .568 in 127 games there). At this stage his career seems more likely to mirror that of minor league veteran and general do-it-all guy Jonathan Mota than it is, say, Darwin Barney, and that is somewhat unfortunate. That means it may be that fans in Iowa and Chicago will not get to watch the guy who has made some of the best plays at shortstop I have ever seen.
Given the depth the Cubs have on the middle infield a major league future for Soto is looking unlikely, but I should note that his walk rates have been trending up since 2011 and reached 9.6% with Tennessee last season, and that ugly Double A line of .190/.269/.256 came with a BABIP of just .226 when his average is closer to .290. Between those figures and his very, very good defense, I suspect he would provide positive value to a major league team as a shortstop or second base fill in should the opportunity ever appear.
While Baez and Alcantara at top of this list clearly outshine the rest of the prospects on it, the Cubs have enough depth and talent up the middle to keep producing a major league quality middle infielder every year or so for the foreseeable future. That sort of depth will come in very handy when it comes time to flesh out a flexible bench for postseason candidate teams in a year or two, not to mention the potential value they offer in trades. For the next few years, anyway, it doesn’t look like Cub fans have anything to worry about up the middle.