I get accused sometimes on this here Internet, and I don’t think it’s totally unfair, that I trend towards too positive about the players I write about. For me, picking apart the flaws of a prospect isn’t fun, and frankly it’s not usually that informative (you know that guy needs better patience from reading his walk rate on a stat sheet).
We know, of course, the vast majority of the guys won’t be future Cubs. I just prefer to tell you what needs to go right for a player to make it.
This is my introduction to say that today, I’m being a little more realistic that today’s honorable mentions probably have ceilings as bench contributors at the highest level. That being said, in each case I can see a development path that leads to a helpful member of a 26-man roster. I imagine the big league bench will evolve a bit in the 2020s with the extra bench spot, and I see guys with extreme versatility or nice platoon bats as getting back in vogue.
So while I don’t believe in limiting a player’s ceiling to ‘maxes at a bench guy’, these are the Honorable Mentions that I see a clear path to that role. And in telling you about them, you better believe I’ll also be dreaming on how they exceed that projection.
[Note: all players in Honorable Mention will appear in alphabetical order. The age listed will be their 2020 baseball age, the affiliate is my projection at their Opening Day assignment. Previous honorable mentions here and here.]
Cam Balego, 3B, 25, Tennessee (Stats). Admittedly up front, I’m a sucker for the Balego kinds of stories. Chosen in the 30th round in 2017 from Mercyhurst College, the Cubs attempted to convert Balego to catcher in 2018. Even though it didn’t stick, Balego was still able to make the High-A Myrtle Beach roster with his useful bench versatility and positive clubhouse leadership. By the season’s end, Balego was entrenched as the Pelicans third baseman and most consistent offensive threat. A belief in Balego is a belief that the power is going to keep coming, and maybe a small part of me wonders if a return to second base could be possible. (Acquired: 30th round, 2017)
Cam Balego had 1 HR in his first 279 pro PAs and then popped 12 in 468 this season in a tough hitter's park/league. All while keeping his K% under 19% and posting a 12.4% BB% (plus 18 HBP). Interesting to see what he does in a hitter's park in Tennessee. pic.twitter.com/ROn12FeP4H
— Brad-Tor and the Snow Dog (@ballskwok) January 20, 2020
Trent Giambrone, UT, 26, Iowa (Stats). Giambrone keeps shape-shifting as a baseball; it’s a bit hard to keep up. The good news is that his core skills – good defensive instincts, fast, strong – will produce a versatile bench player. But a strikeout rate that had held an insane consistency between 19.1 and 19.5% from short-season ball to High-A to Double-A jumped to 27.4% last year. Power, which had been a side-benefit of his game early in his pro career, became the central focus of it last year. With a stroke as short as Giambrone’s, I believe that he can be the solid-contact hitter he showed early in his career. What that player looks like, when combined with the other offensive skills he’s picked up in the last two seasons, we’ll have to see. (Acquired: 25th round, 2016)
With 22 doubles and 20 home runs, Trent Giambrone is the first Iowa Cub with 20 of each since Javy Baez hit 24 doubles and 23 homers in 2014. pic.twitter.com/y4GqVGW9wh
— Iowa Cubs (@IowaCubs) August 1, 2019
P.J. Higgins, C/UT, 27, Iowa (Stats). This is when it becomes so damn difficult to discern the meaning of Triple-A numbers. Higgins began the year in Double-A behind Jhonny Pereda in the catcher pecking order, playing more at the infield corners than behind the plate. In April, he hit three home runs, a number he hadn’t reached in a single month prior in his professional (or collegiate!) career. But that trend didn’t continue through the rest of the first half, and to be honest, I sort of wrote it off as having no particular meaning. But in the second half, Higgins put together a .299/.366/.475 batting line, with 36 of those 52 games coming in the PCL. Did something meaningful happen? Higgins estimated fly ball distance at Double-A had been 291.7 feet, the highest of his career. It jumped to 314.6 feet in Triple-A. I just don’t know what to make of it. The good news is that I think he’d be a useful bench player either way, it’s just that one version is much more useful than the other. (Acquired: 12th round, 2015)
Jhonny Pereda, C, 24, Iowa (Stats). With the light offensive numbers and the good fielding reputation, you probably know where I’m going here. Pereda, of course, has that back-up catcher vibe. But, I don’t know, he also does just enough offensively to make me wonder if there’s one more leap coming. Pereda was a below-average offensive player in the Southern League last year despite a 12.3 BB% and 13.8 K%, a combination of numbers that show real plate approach maturity. Oddly, Pereda was torched against left-handed pitching (452 OPS), because of a .183 BABIP that he earned with a 63 GB%. And according to Prospects Live, Pereda pulled the ball against right-handed pitching at just a 24.5% clip, explaining his .071 ISO against them. The hitting coaches in the Cubs system probably need to work with Pereda to be more willing to sell out, and if that happens, the ceiling has room to get higher. (Acquired: IFA, 2013)
Alfonso Rivas, 1B/OF, 23, Tennessee (Stats). Number 31. If there’s an example of my list being more ceiling-oriented this year, it’s Rivas not being in the top 30, despite joining the Cubs system and immediately becoming its most “Professional Hitter.” I hope the Cubs really spend the next few months exploring what Rivas can be defensively in the outfield, just to have a full handle on his range of capabilities on a big league bench. What he is already – platoon contact-first bat with good first base defense – is a nice player, but one more development makes him a big leaguer. I wrote about what those developments could be recently. (Acquired: Trade, Jan 2020)
Here’s Rivas’ HR during 8-game reg season stint in AAA; swing in slo-mo at end. Certainly an inside-out swing, and given hit chart, probably more common than an anecdotal highlight. Little League Dads will love this, but Rivas will need counter when book comes out to jam him. pic.twitter.com/oqkqwQAjws
— Cubs Prospects – Bryan Smith (@cubprospects) January 14, 2020
Jared Young, 1B/OF, 24, Tennessee (Stats). When I saw Young in Mesa last spring, I became convinced that he was destined for a big 2019. Oops. Hitters with a swing-first offensive approach often hit that Double-A wall harder than others, and Young was exposed in a big way. After a nice start, Young’s final 79 games were pretty brutal, .209/.270/.280, and the struggles extended to the Arizona Fall League. Still, Young’s swing suggests that there’s more power in there than he showed last year, and if you take out the numbers against left-handed pitching, you can still hold out hope for the bench profile. I’d probably want the Cubs to explore if a return to second base would be manageable, but more than anything, I’m just hoping the second tour of Tennessee allows Young to return to his 2018 offensive form. (Acquired: 15th round, 2017)
Jared Young, BP, Spring Training, 3/14. Last swing slo mo. pic.twitter.com/ttgrVI7XOe
— Cubs Prospects – Bryan Smith (@cubprospects) March 15, 2019