This off-season the CCO will run a series of articles to summarize and project how the Cubs’ minor league system looks on a position by position basis.
The first report took a look at the hot corner and today, the CCO will look at a position which will probably have most fans and media members talking about this off-season: Shortstop.
The 2014 season appears to be the start of Javy-Mania, as the CCO Minor League Player of the Year Javier Baez advances one step closer to Wrigley Field. However, Baez is just the beginning, and not the end, to the system’s prospects at the position.
For better or for worse, the front office has already made a commitment to Javier Baez opening the 2014 season as Triple-A Iowa’s shortstop, eschewing their publicized “100 games” policy. Baez has only played 57 games at Low-A and 54 games at Double-A, while playing a combined 99 games at High-A Daytona over the past two seasons. Offense has never been a problem for Baez, as he hit a combined .282/.341/.578/.920 with 34 doubles, four triples, 37 home runs, 111 RBI, and 20 stolen bases between Daytona and Tennessee this past season. His RBI total and 75 extra-base hits led all minor league players this past season. What has been a question is his defense. Baez committed 44 errors and had a .932 fielding average between both levels this year. Supporters argue that Baez showed defensive improvement after his promotion to the Smokies. Critics say that even with defensive standout Christian Villanueva and “toolsy” Arismendy Alcantara flanking him, he still fielded a below average .948. A plan to look at Baez at both third and second base in the Arizona Fall League was scuttled when management withdrew Baez due to “physical and emotional exhaustion” after the past season.
Exactly who lines up at short for Double-A Tennessee next season remains a mystery, with “system” players Jonathan Mota and Elliot Soto the usual suspects. The 26-year old Mota needs to only add centerfield to his résumé to claim the distinction of playing every position, including pitcher. Mota spent the bulk of his playing time in 2013 substituting for an injured Justin Bour at first base for the Smokies, but has 302 starts at short over his nine year career. Mota played well for Tennessee, hitting a career high .276 (.348 OBP, .757 OPS) with seven home runs and 40 RBI. Soto, now 24 years old, is the quintessential defensive specialist. The Carpentersville native sports a .971 career fielding average at short while posting a .987 average at second base. Hitting has always been a problem, especially at the Double-A level where he has a combined .178 average over the past two seasons. Soto did provide a steady influence both in the field and at the plate as the starter for Daytona’s 2013 Florida State League Championship team.
If there is a darkhorse candidate for shortstop at Tennessee, it could be Tim Saunders. Selected in the 32nd round of the 2012 draft, Saunders tore up the minors in 2012. Saunders hit a combined .381/.431/.536/.967 with 13 doubles, one triple, five homers, 33 RBI and 17 stolen bases between rookie, Low-A and High-A ball. The 23-year old returned to Daytona in 2013 and was moved around to several positions to accommodate Javier Baez. However, Saunders injured his elbow while playing outfield and tried to play through it. The result was a .226/.316/.321 slash line with eight doubles, two triples, three home runs and 27 RBI in 62 games before being shut down for surgery. It will remain to be seen if Saunders will have the arm strength to return to short or the outfield. One of Saunders best attributes is his speed, as he is one of the fastest and best base runners in the organization. Saunders stole 21 bases in 24 attempts this past season. Saunders has the same “if I’m on, I’m gone” mindset shown by former Cub Tony Campana.
The frontrunner for the Daytona starting shortstop position appears to be 2013 18th round draft pick Giuseppe Papaccio. The 22-year old is scheduled to attend the Fall Instructional League in order to convert to catcher. However, most observers feel this is just to add versatility in preparation for a future reserve role. The Seton Hall product hit .279/.331/.364 with four doubles, one triple, two homers and 13 RBI in 37 games with Kane County, while fielding .969 and displaying sound fundamentals. Also on hand could be 23-year old Brad Zapenas. Known as a good glove man, Zapenas is one of several infielders in the system that have recently dealt with arm issues. Playing only 27 games in 2013, Zapenas batted a combined .222/.367/.264 with three doubles and four RBI in stops at Tennessee, Daytona, and Kane County. Zapenas is a quality “system” player that provides solid defense at short, third and second base.
It remains to be seen what exactly will happen Marco Hernandez. The 20-year old switch-hitter appeared on several Top Twenty Prospects lists after posting successive batting averages of .333 and .286 in rookie ball and Short-Season A the past two seasons. However, Hernandez was a huge disappointment both offensively and defensively in his first full season. Hernandez batted only .254/.287/.338 with 17 doubles, three triples, four home runs and 34 RBI while fielding only .939. The lone bright spot was his 21 stolen bases. Hernandez has all the tools to become a two-way shortstop, but there are some questions about his concentration. Whether he will be given a “social” promotion to Daytona, remain at Kane County, or be given looks at second base and in the outfield are all options on the table.
Part of the reason for dilemma surrounding Marco Hernandez is the play of Carlos Penalver. The 19-year old displayed defensive prowess much better than his .946 fielding average would indicate. The Venezuelan has been likened to countryman Omar Vizquel, and many believe he is the best defensive infielder in the organization, majors included. Penalver struggled out of the gate offensively, but a quick trip to the rookie league when he could not travel out of the country was the reboot the switch-hitter needed. Penalver went onto bat .261/.338/.359 with 16 doubles, two triples, one home run, 21 RBI, and nine stolen bases in 68 games. Returning back to Short-Season A Boise at his age is not the worst thing, however, his defense may be his ticket to the next level.
After being a hitting star in Extended Spring Training, Francisco Sanchez found the pitching a little more difficult in the rookie league as he managed only a .208/.242/.369 slash line but led the AZL Cubs with 22 RBI. The 19-year old also has some work to do on defense after fielding only .902. When a back-up was needed, Trevor Stevens was signed as an undrafted free agent. The switch-hitter batted .257/.388/.329 with one double, two triples and seven RBI in 26 games, but it is unclear what the future holds for the 24-year old Northwestern product. Little is known about Alex Sanchez, who was signed late in the season. Sanchez is a 21-year old switch-hitter who hit .267/.353/.333 in 15 games, but only played in the field five times.
For the past few years, Varonex Cuevas claim to fame was his unique name, but it now appears that the 20-year old has started to surface as a prospect. The starting shortstop for the DSL Cubs, the switch-hitter batted .260/.374/.358 with 11 doubles, three triples, one home run, 20 RBI, and 13 stolen bases in 60 games while fielding an encouraging .938. Over in the VSL, 20-year old Bryant Flete looked like an offensive force but a defensive liability. The lefty hit .271/.383/.356 with 11 doubles, five triples, 23 RBI and 17 stolen bases as their lead-off man, but fielded only .891. A move to the outfield to better utilize Flete’s offensive ability may be in the cards.
Seeing his first professional action in the Fall Instructional League will be Gleyber Torres. The soon-to-be 17 year old (December 13) was considered the number two international prospect this past signing period. According to the scouting report of Ben Badler of Baseball America:
“Torres is a savvy player with present skills and the potential for five average or better tools. He has a clean, compact stroke, hits in games and shows good power projection, although he mostly works the gaps right now. He has good bat speed and hand-eye coordination to put the ball in play, although he can be a bit of a front-foot hitter and tends to pull off the ball at times. Some scouts believe Torres is a true shortstop, while others think he’s not athletic enough. He could end up being a guy who splits time between shortstop, third base and second base, with a skill set that draws comparisons to Freddy Sanchez. He has good hands and a strong arm, but he doesn’t have the classic wiry shortstop frame and is already fairly filled out. Back in November, Torres showed above-average speed, but more recently he’s been running closer to average.”