The CCO’s off-season look at each position in the Cubs’ system continues today. The series of articles to summarize and project how the organization stacks up on a position by position basis has already looked at the infield and catcher, next up is the outfield starting with left field.
Before looking at the prospects, the Cubs will have to address the status of Julio Borbon, Cole Gillespie, and Thomas Neal. Borbon, a 27-year old former first round draft pick, was claimed off of waivers from Texas and appeared in 72 games for the Cubs, batting .202/.284/.279/.563 with a home run, three RBI and seven stolen bases. Borbon was sent outright to Triple-A Iowa and hit .260/.360/.329 in 24 games. The lefty has excellent speed and is a good bunter, but mistakes both offensively and defensively led to his demotion. The 29-year old Gillespie was claimed on waivers from San Francisco. A third round pick by Milwaukee in 2006, Gillespie batted .240/.328/.280/.608 with four RBI in 25 games for the Cubs. Known as a good defensive outfielder, Gillespie would make a decent fifth outfielder on a team receiving good production from their everyday outfielders. Gillespie’s future with the organization, like Borbon, is uncertain at this point of the off-season as both players can elect to become a free agent. Twenty-six year old Neal was claimed off of waivers from the Yankees at the beginning of August, and promptly injured his right (throwing) shoulder after appearing in two games for the Cubs. Neal has a career .301/.377/.459 line in eight minor league seasons, and could be an asset as a back-up first baseman should he choose to re-sign with the Cubs, as he was outrighted and can elect to become a free agent.
Battling for playing time in left for Iowa are two former first round draft picks with something to prove, Brett Jackson and Josh Vitters. Both Jackson and Vitters had injury plagued 2013 seasons. Jackson finished the year with Double-A Tennessee after a demotion to try to get him on track. When Jackson was drafted in 2009, it was envisioned that he would become a solid centerfielder and top of the order player with his speed and hitting ability. However, the present management sees the 25-year old as more of a run producer. While Jackson defensively has the range for center and the arm strength for right, he spent most of his time in left field when he was with the Smokies. For the year, Jackson batted .210/.296/.330/.626 with six home runs, 27 RBI, and nine stolen bases in 95 games at three levels. In 2012, Vitters produced one of the best seasons by a Cubs minor league position player. Vitters hit .304/.356/.513 with 32 doubles, two triples, 17 home runs and 68 RBI in 110 games. However, when the former 2007 first round pick was called up to the parent club late in the season he looked like the proverbial deer in the headlights. The 24 year old battled leg problems for all of 2013, and put up a .295/.380/.511 batting line with five doubles, five homers and 12 RBI in 28 games. Management recently announced that Vitters will be moving to left field after spending most of his career as a third baseman. Whether it is a permanent move to the outfield or for experience to become a “four corners” type of player remains to be seen.
Where the presence of all these players put Dave Sappelt and Matt Szczur is unclear. Acquired from Cincinnati in 2011 as part of the Sean Marshall deal, the 26-year old Sappelt has failed to take advantage of opportunities to contribute to the big league club the past two years. Last season, Sappelt batted .240/.269/.280/.549 with four RBI and three stolen bases in 31 games for the Cubs while hitting .252/.305/.364/.670 with 15 doubles, three triples, five home runs, 45 RBI, and four stolen bases in 90 games for Iowa. Sappelt is also getting a reputation as a player that may be difficult to deal with, as he was asked to shut down his Twitter account after making some questionable statements. Drafted in 2010, Szczur is now considered to be on his second contract as a procedural error by previous management placed him on the 40-man roster. This has accelerated the developmental clock for the 24-year old, who hit .281/.350/.367/.717 with 27 doubles, four triples, three homers, 44 RBI and 22 stolen bases in his first full season with Double-A Tennessee. Szczur saw action at all three outfield positions but left field is considered the best option for him. The former football player is also thought to be one of the fastest players in the organization. Szczur has two minor league options left, so the Cubs have time to see how he fits in down the road.
If one thing is certain for next season, it’s that you never know where Anthony Giansanti will be. Signed as an undrafted free agent in 2010, the 25-year old has now played every position on the diamond, including pitcher. Giansanti rose through the system being known as an outfielder/third baseman with a powerful throwing arm. Giansanti spent the entire 2011 season at Low-A Peoria and hit .232/.294/.372/.665 with 21 doubles, four triples, 11 home runs, 56 RBI, eight stolen bases while playing all three outfield spots, third base, second base, first base, and pitcher. After the 2011 season, Giansanti went to the Fall Instructional League to convert to catcher. Limited to 36 games in 2012 due to injuries, Giansanti batted .264/.321/.333/.655 with six doubles, one home run and 19 RBI over three levels. In 2013, Giansanti was held back in extended Spring Training to work on a new position, second base. Giansanti then made his season debut with Tennessee, where he played 40 games, mostly in the outfield, before being promoted to Iowa for 14 games. Giansanti was then dropped down to High-A Daytona to provide extra offensive firepower after the D-Cubs lost the services of Jorge Soler and Javier Baez. For the year, Giansanti had a .278/.343/.363/.706 batting line with 16 doubles, three triples, one home run and 30 RBI in 102 games at all three outfield positions; first, second, and third bases; and a one-inning stint at shortstop.
Depending on how the other spots in the outfield shake out, the favorite for the starting left field spot for Daytona appears to be Bijan Rademacher. The 22-year old is one of the hidden gems in the Cubs’ system and is underrated both as a defender and an offensive player. Drafted in the 13th round in 2012, Rademacher moved up swiftly after being signed. Following a three game stint in the rookie league, the lefty appeared in 14 games for Short-Season A Boise and crushed Northwest League pitching. Rademacher hit .396/.411/.566/.977 with six doubles, one home run and eight RBI. Rademacher came back to earth a little after he was promoted to Peoria. Rademacher hit .221/.280/.295/.575 with seven doubles, one triple, 11 RBI and two stolen bases in 35 games. Sent to Low-A Kane County to start the 2013 season, Rademacher was more prepared for Midwest League pitching as he had a .303/.374/.378/.753 batting line with eight doubles, two homers, 18 RBI, and five stolen bases in 55 games before being promoted to Daytona. This time Rademacher adapted well to a new level and hit .276/.338/.407/.744 with seven doubles, three triples, two home runs, 20 RBI, and three stolen bases in 42 games for the D-Cubs. While not blessed with blazing speed, Rademacher is a good athlete whose knack for knowing where a ball is going to be hit will remind some of former Cubs outfielder Jim Edmonds. A former pitcher, Rademacher also has a powerful and accurate throwing arm. While spending most of his career as a right fielder, Rademacher may have to move to the other side of the diamond to accommodate other options.
If Rademacher isn’t moved to left field, Pin-Chieh Chen should get first crack at it. Signed in 2010 as a second baseman, the international free agent batted a combined .295/.375/.326/.701with four doubles, one triple, 19 RBI and ten stolen bases between the AZL Cubs and Boise. The Taiwan native stayed behind in extended Spring Training in 2011 to convert to the outfield and became a catalyst for Boise that season. Chen hit leadoff and ended up with a .301/.363/.424 line that included 14 doubles, four triples and two home runs with 20 stolen bases and 30 RBI. It was tougher sledding for the lefty in 2012, as Chen hit only .259/.345/.347/.692 with 15 doubles, 10 triples, two home runs and 51 RBI but led Peoria with 36 stolen bases. It was no surprise that the 21-year old (turned 22 in July) started this past season with Kane County, but it did raise some eyebrows when he was promoted after hitting only .242/.346/.298 in 44 games. As part of the team approach that Daytona was using after some of their big names were promoted, Chen batted .281/.368/.351/.720 with two doubles, two triples, two home run, 14 stolen bases and 14 RBI in 51 games. Despite having only three years of experience, Chen is considered an excellent outfielder who uses his well above average speed to cover a lot of ground. While he’s played both left and center, Chen projects more as a left fielder due to a lack of top end arm strength.
Another player who received a surprising promotion in 2013 was Trevor Gretzky. Selected by the Cubs in the 11th round of the 2011 draft, Gretzky needed to overcome shoulder surgery before he was able to start play in 2012. After having only experience at first base in high school, the Cubs moved the former quarterback to the outfield. On a very talented rookie league club, Gretzky initially struggled in all phases until some promotions freed up his more familiar first base. Once he was more comfortable, Gretzky helped lead the AZL Cubs to a playoff berth by hitting .304/.372/.330/.703 with one double, one triple, ten RBI and four stolen bases in 35 games. Gretzky was assigned to Boise to start the 2013 season, but struggled to get playing time in a crowded outfield situation and hit only .256/.281.291/.572 with three doubles and six RBI in 27 games. When the organization promoted first baseman Dan Vogelbach to Daytona, the organization tapped Gretzky as his replacement on Kane County’s roster. Now getting regular playing time, the lefty hit .306/.3343/.408/.741 with one triple, two RBI and his first professional home run in 14 games. Only 20 years old, Gretzky will probably be back with the Cougars, and hopefully, can slap some muscle on a very wiry 6-foot-4, 190-pound frame in the off-season.
Challenging for playing time at Kane County next year will be the son of another great athlete, Shawon Dunston Jr. Selected in the eleventh round of the 2011draft, Dunston surprised many by signing rather than accepting a scholarship offer from Vanderbilt. Signed too late to see any action in the regular season, Dunston participated in the 2011 Fall Instructional League and looked ready for Boise following extended Spring Training in 2012. Unfortunately, the lefty found Northwest League pitching a little more difficult as he hit only .185/.254/.323/.577 with four doubles, one triple, one home run, two RBI, and one stolen base in 19 games before being demoted. Once with the AZL Cubs, Dunston regrouped and became one of the leaders on the club, joining with Trevor Gretzky to help propel the team to the playoffs. Dunston hit .286/.357/.410/.767 with six doubles, four triples, two homers, 24 RBI, and four stolen bases in the rookie league. Dunston was primed for a big return to Boise, and was among the Northwest League’s leading hitters until a collision with a teammate sidelined him with a deep thigh bruise. Dunston returned for the Hawks’ playoff push and wound up hitting .290/.378/.358/.736 with eight doubles, one triple, one home run, 19 RBI, and 12 stolen bases in 49 games. On defense, Dunston utilizes his speed to cover a lot of ground and he possesses an above average arm. While he has played both left and centerfield, he looks more comfortable defensively in left field.
While ten players saw action for the AZL Cubs in left field this season, no one had more starts that Charcer Burks. A surprise selection in the ninth round of the 2013 draft, Burks was the first high school player chosen by the Cubs. Even though he had offers from several colleges, Burks decided to sign with the organization and performed well in the rookie league. Burks batted .269/.344/.296/.641 with seven RBI and six stolen bases in 31 games. The 18-year old is similar to both Pin-Chieh Chen and Shawon Dunston Jr. defensively in that he can play either left or center field, but projects better as a left fielder.
The Cubs had a pair of teenagers in the Dominican Summer League and the Venezuelan Summer League in Jose Paniagua and Martin Hodwalker. Nineteen-year old Paniagua is in his second year with the organization and batted .206/.304/.306/.610 with 13 doubles, one triple, two homers, 24 RBI, and five stolen bases in 60 games this season. The switch-hitting Hodwalker is 18 years old and in his first season in the Cubs organization. Hodwalker played 40 games and hit .204/.283/.250/.533 with three doubles, one triple, nine RBI and three stolen bases. Hodwalker is the better defender of the two and got some looks at second and third, while Paniagua has also seen time at first base.