This off-season the CCO will run a series of articles to summarize and project how the minor league system looks on a position by position basis.
First up, the CCO looks at a position which will probably have the most impact on the parent club: Third Base.
The position of third base has undergone a dramatic overhaul in the past two seasons, moving from one of the weakest positions in the system to one of the strongest. However, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t any question marks or concerns.
The first question comes from the transitional area between the parent club and Triple-A, where Mike Olt currently resides. Many were glad to see Olt, a bona fide top prospect, included in the deal that sent RHP Matt Garza to the Texas Rangers. However, Olt was experiencing the worst season of his professional career, as he was still dealing with the effects of a concussion which occurred after he was beaned in winter ball. The 25-year old would bat only a combined .201/.303/.381 with 20 doubles, one triple, 15 home runs and 42 RBI in both Double and Triple-A between the Texas and Chicago organizations. What has been glossed over with Olt is his defense, which at this point rates only average to below average. The right-hander has only a career .938 fielding average with a career-high fielding percentage of only .954 coming two years ago in High-A ball. The announcement that the organization plans to sit Olt for the off-season doesn’t assist in making any kind of projection for 2014. Should the front office decide to break Spring Training with Olt coming north with the big league squad, the rest of the system sets up well. However, if Olt is not ready for the majors, the minor league picture at third base goes into a tailspin.
The organization decided to move on with 2007 first round draft pick Josh Vitters as a third baseman, and have officially announced that he will be moving to left field. What is less clear is the future of Greg Rohan. After leading the minor league system with 21 home runs in 2012, Rohan was expected to be a “four corners” player for Triple-A Iowa in 2013 with an eye on a future utility role. However, an undisclosed injury (there have been unconfirmed reports of a knee injury) put Rohan on the shelf for most of the season. Rohan will be 28 years old shortly after the beginning of the 2014 campaign, and whether he can be a power-hitting reserve at third, first, left and right fields or just a “system player” remains to be seen.
The players that will be most affected by the decision on Mike Olt will be Christian Villanueva and Kris Bryant. Acquired in a 2012 deadline deal with the Texas Rangers for RHP Ryan Dempster, Villanueva had his first Double-A experience this past season and was up to the task. Villanueva was among the Southern League’s offensive leaders. Villanueva led the league with 41 doubles and tied for fifth in both home runs (19) and RBI (72). The 22-year old was also named the league’s top defensive third baseman. What causes concern for some is that Villanueva hit only .261 with a .317 OBP and a .787 OPS for the season. The second player selected overall, Bryant was the Cubs’ first round draft pick in 2013. For the regular season, Bryant was a composite .336/.390/.688/1.078 with nine home runs and 32 RBI between Short-Season A Boise and High-A Daytona. The soon-to-be 22 year old (January 4) fielded .955 for Boise and .975 for Daytona. In listening to broadcasts of both teams, Bryant seemed to routinely have the “dropsies,” with trouble fielding balls cleanly. Bryant will be playing in the Arizona Fall League, but club officials also want to see him in the outfield. The trouble with both Villanueva and Bryant is that confidence plays a huge part in a player’s performance and progress. Both have demonstrated that they should be ready for the next level of competition. If both are held back and need to return to a level they feel they have already mastered, it can throw them for a loop.
The High-A level is the first place a gap can be possibly seen in the system, especially if Kris Bryant ends up starting for Double-A Tennessee. Prior to Bryant’s arrival in 2013, the spot was filled by Ben Carhart. Carhart hit .247/.297/.336 with 27 doubles, one triple, three homers and 51 RBI in 112 games. However, Carhart will turn 24 years old after the first of the year and will be converting to catcher in the Fall Instructional League. Another option could be Stephen Bruno. The 2012 Northwest League batting champion had an injury marred 2013, but hit .362/.436/.478 in 19 games. Bruno could also be a factor at second base and in the outfield.
The Cubs front office has said that “sometimes, progress is not linear”, which is why fans can possibly see Jeimer Candelario repeating Low-A Kane County. The switch-hitter had good power numbers this past season. Candelario hit 11 home runs and 35 doubles while showing some good patience by drawing 68 walks in 130 games. That’s actually pretty impressive for a 19-year old in his first full professional season. Holding Candelario back and having him improve on his .256 batting average as a 20-year old may not be a bad idea. Candelario can also use the time to work on his defense, which improved from a .891 to a .925 fielding average this past season.
Predicting who will be at Short-Season A Boise at this time of year can be a little tricky, as the organization could fill positions via the draft. One of the first options could be Jesse Hodges. Signed as an undrafted free agent in 2012 after playing with the Canadian Youth team, Hodges had to fight for playing time with nine other players this season in the Arizona Rookie League. That could be why he batted an unimpressive .210/.272/.293 in 47 games. However, the 19-year old was second on the team with 20 RBI. After splitting his amateur career between pitcher and shortstop, his .859 fielding at third could use some polishing.
The Cubs’ foreign league teams also have two intriguing players in Roney Alcala and Adonis Paula. The switch-hitting Alcala came within three home runs of taking the Venezuelan Summer League triple-crown as he led the league with a .353 average and 49 RBI while slugging nine homers. The 19-year old adds further interest as he lined up nine times at catcher and had a .984 fielding percentage while throwing out 36% of all base runners. Also nineteen, Paula led the Dominican Summer League with 55 RBI while batting .281 with three home runs in 69 games. Both Alcala and Paula show decent fielding skills, as each had a .947 fielding percentage on the sun-baked fields of the Caribbean.