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 looked at all four infield positions, catcher and left field, next up is centerfield, a position that holds a lot of promise for the organization.
Some may that feel that Jae-Hoon Ha has been a prospect forever, but he will not turn 23 years old for a few more days (October 29). By now, many are familiar with Ha’s story. He was signed as catcher in 2008 at 18 years old out of Korea, and had close relationship with former star prospect Hak-Ju Lee. However, Ha emerged from his “Best Buddy” status to legitimate prospect after hitting .317/.344./468/.802 with 15 doubles, four triples, seven home runs, 46 RBI, and nine stolen bases in 77 games at Low-A Peoria in 2010. Ha then split time between High-A Daytona and Double-A Tennessee in 2011, and batted a combined .279/.315/.413/.728 with 31 doubles, three triples, 11 home runs, 72 RBI and 13 stolen bases in 132 games. It was at this point there became some confusion as to where Ha projected offensively. Ha struggled at clean-up for the D-Cubs but improved when he was moved up in the order. When he arrived at Tennessee, Ha flourished as a number-two hitter. There are many that felt Ha deserved the spot on the 2011 Fall Instructional League roster that ended up going to Junior Lake. In 2012, Ha returned to Tennessee and was moved again in the lineup. Ha hit third on a poorly constructed team but he was one of the few offensive threats the Smokies had, and the strain showed. Ha’s early struggles were magnified when he missed several games after being hit by a pitch. Ha regrouped and was hitting .256 with two homers and 20 RBI at mid-season when he was named to the World squad for the All-Star Futures game. In the game, Ha went 2-for-2 with a home run and two RBI. Upon returning to the Smokies, Ha missed more time after colliding with a concrete wall while attempting to make a catch. Ha ended the season hitting .273/.3523/.385/.737 with 28 doubles, three triples, six home runs, 47 RBI, and 11 stolen bases. After his performance the previous two seasons, most felt that Ha would open 2013 with Triple-A Iowa. But Ha began the year in Double-A and was off to a hot start until he landed on the disabled list in early May with a back injury. Ha missed more than a month and returned to the Smokies in mid-June. He was promoted to Triple-A after three games and finished his time in Tennessee with a .284/.384/.368 line with five doubles, one home run, 14 RBI and eight stolen bases in 28 games. With Iowa, Ha showed flashes of brilliance and ended up hitting .267 with two homers, 11 RBI and three steals in August. For the year, Ha batted a combined .254/.318/.365/.684 with 18 doubles, six home runs, 35 RBI, and 15 stolen bases in 90 games. Despite beginning his career as a catcher, Ha is considered to have gold-glove caliber defense and shows excellent athleticism and range with above average to superior arm strength.
Although he may be best suited for left field, it appears that John Andreoli will open in centerfield for Tennessee this coming season. One of the most overlooked prospects in the system, Andreoli was selected in the 17th round of the 2011 draft out of the University of Connecticut. After signing, Andreoli played a non-descript 10 games between Rookie ball and Low-A Peoria in 2011 and hit .176/.263/.176/.440 with one RBI and three stolen bases. It was somewhat of a surprise that Andreoli opened the 2012 season with High-A Daytona. Andreoli proved the doubters wrong by batting .289/.402/.376/.778 with 17 doubles, eight triples, one home run, 25 RBI, and leading both the Cubs’ system and the Florida State League with 55 stolen bases. After putting up those numbers in 2012, many felt that Andreoli was ready for Double-A ball for 2013. But Andreoli started the season back in Daytona, and once again proved critics wrong. Andreoli hit .318/.394/.405/.799 with 11 doubles, six triples and drove in 25 runs in 68 games before finally earning his promotion to Tennessee. With the Smokies, Andreoli provided some punch to the lower part of the batting order by hitting .289/.358/.398/.756 with 12 doubles, two triples, two home runs and 18 RBI in 59 games. For the season, Andreoli ended up leading all Cubs’ prospects with a .305 average, along with leading the system for the second straight year with 40 stolen bases. In many ways, the 23-year old is the mirror image of Jae-Hoon Ha in that he is not the greatest defender, but has a consistent grinder approach on offense that is desired by the front office.
It is uncertain what will happen with 2011 third round draft choice Zeke DeVoss for next season. The product of the University of Miami was considered a tough sign for the Cubs, but they persuaded the switch-hitter to ink a deal and shipped him off to Short Season-A Boise after a four game warm-up in the rookie league. DeVoss played mainly second base with the Hawks and hit .311/.458/.386/.845 with nine doubles, one triple, 14 RBI and 14 stolen bases in 38 games as he helped Boise reach the playoffs. DeVoss remained at second base as he advanced to Low-A Peoria to start the 2012 season but the results were not good. DeVoss hit only .249/.382/.370/.752 with 24 doubles, seven triples, six home runs, 38 RBI, and 35 stolen bases in his first full season. After posting only a career .942 fielding average with 42 errors at second base, DeVoss was moved back to the position in which he was drafted … the outfield. The hope was that moving DeVoss to a less defensively demanding position would help him offensively, but it just was not the case. DeVoss continued to struggle at the plate and hit .246/.393/.354/.747 with 17 doubles, five triples, six home runs, 51 RBI, and 39 stolen bases. Confidence in DeVoss eroded over the last half of the season as he was dropped from leadoff to second in the order in favor of Pin-Chieh Chen. It was also a mixed bag for DeVoss defensively after he struggled early in the season, particularly in left field, but he was making highlight reel catches in center by the end of the season. In many ways, the 23-year old DeVoss is similar to John Andreoli in that they both are not the best defenders, have high on-base percentages, and are legitimate stolen base threats. DeVoss has more pure speed, while Andreoli has a better hit tool. Whether DeVoss stays in the outfield, moves back to the infield, or becomes a super-utility player remains to be seen.
There will be a spirited battle for the centerfield position at High-A Daytona between 2012 first round draft pick Albert Almora and 2013 third round selection Jacob Hannemann. There are some that feel Theo Epstein got his Jacoby Ellsbury clone in the 22-year old Hannemann. A defensive back on Brigham Young’s football team, the lefty also spent time on a Mormon mission prior to his selection. After Hannemann was signed, it was felt that he would have the same type of developmental arc that first round pick Kris Bryant took, a brief stay at Short-Season A Boise and a jump to Daytona. However, Hannemann suffered from exhaustion due to his schedule, and also developed an injury in the elbow of his non-throwing arm that needed surgery. Hannemann hit .290/.313/.468/.780 with four doubles, two triples, one home run, five RBI, and three steals in 14 games with the Hawks. Hannemann appeared to be somewhat recovered in the Fall Instructional League as he won the intrasquad home run derby.
Albert Almora had to deal with injury problems of his own this past season. Almora missed the first month and a half of the season after breaking a hamate bone in Spring Training. The 19-year old had the look of a seasoned pro after signing in 2012 and hit a combined .321/.331/.464/.795 with 12 doubles, one triple, two home runs, 19 RBI, and five stolen bases in 33 games with the AZL Cubs and Boise. Upon returning from the injury last season, Almora feasted on Midwest League pitching with the Kane County Cougars. Almora hit .329/.376/.466/.842 that included 17 doubles, four triples, three home runs, 23 RBI, and four stolen bases in 61 games before missing the last month of the season with a groin injury. Almora is currently hammering pitching in the Arizona Fall League, with a .379/.400.690 line through seven games. While Almora may be the best pure hitter in the entire Cubs organization, he still hasn’t developed the rest of his game. At 19-years old, he may be held back in Kane County to start next year, with a quick promotion if he continues to dominate. There is one edge that Almora has over Hannemann, and that is defense. Almora is a polished outfielder with an accurate throwing arm, while Hannemann is more out of control with a below average arm.
Coming on fast after toiling in obscurity for a few years is Kevin Encarnacion. Signed in 2010 as a free agent, the switch-hitter had an easy to overlook debut season. Encarnacion batted .233/.366/.295/.661 with nine double, one triple, 15 RBI and 15 stolen bases in 63 games for the DSL Cubs-1 team. Encarnacion returned to the Dominican Summer League in 2011 and split time between both Cubs’ teams. Encarnacion hit a combined .296/.396/.426/.822 with four doubles, 11 triples, one home run, 27 RBI, and 28 stolen bases in 66 games as he helped Cubs-1 reach the playoffs. It was somewhat of a surprise that Encarnacion was sent to spend a third year in the DSL in 2012, but he did not let the assignment get him down. Encarnacion took advantage and improved his overall game. Encarnacion batted .308./447/.465/.912 with six doubles, three triples, five home runs, 31 RBI and 12 stolen bases in 52 games. Encarnacion was then jumped over the rookie league in 2013 and went straight to Boise where he hit .298 in the first 13 games of the season. This earned Encarnacion a quick trip up to Kane County where he hit .217 in 16 games before returning to the Hawks. Encarnacion then became the second straight Boise player to win the Northwest League batting crown. Encarnacion hit .355/.431/.566/.997 with nine doubles, one triple, eight home runs, 30 RBI, and 10 stolen bases in 42 games. You have to like how the soon-to-be 22-year old (November 23) has improved his offense at every level. Encarnacion is also considered to be a solid defender with good enough arm strength to play right field.
There are two question marks at this point of the depth chart in Trey Martin and Oliver Zapata. Selected out of high school in the 13th round of the 2011 draft, Martin hit .243/.289/.357/.647 with four triples, eight RBI and three stolen bases in the rookie league after signing. Martin then played a big part in Boise’s championship run in 2012 as he batted .270/.318/.377/.696 with five doubles, four triples three home runs, 23 RBI, and six stolen bases in 57 games. Slated to start in center for Kane County in 2013, something went wrong for Martin as he hit only .200 in 11 games. He was then shut down for the season and had surgery on his left (non-throwing) shoulder. When he is physically sound, Martin is a smooth-as-silk defender in the outfield that has an intriguing blend of power and speed.
After Martin went down, Zapata stepped in at centerfield for the Cougars until Albert Almora was ready. Once Almora was activated, Zapata rotated through all three outfield positions. Signed as a free agent in 2010, Zapata showed some promise by batting .241/.328/.333/.661 with eight doubles, two triples, four home runs, 33 RBI, and 18 stolen bases in 71 games for Cubs-1 in the DSL. The switch-hitter then split time in 2011 between the AZL Cubs and Boise, and hit a combined .278/.383/.412/.795 with eight doubles, four triples, three homers, 22 RBI, and 16 stolen bases. Zapata played his first full minor league season in 2012 with Low-A Peoria. In 109 games, Zapata hit .225/.305/.282/.586 with nine doubles, four home runs, 28 RBI and tying a career high with 19 stolen bases. As stated earlier, Zapata returned to Low-A in 2013 and showed some improvement. Zapata hit .240/.317/.372/.690 with 13 doubles, nine triples, seven runs, 49 RBI, and 13 stolen bases in 114 games. Whether Zapata is just a nice minor league player or is a slow developer remains to be seen. Zapata is above average defensively in all three outfield positions and, like Martin, will be only 21 years old next season.
One of the fastest players in the organization, Rashad Crawford has to find a way to take that speed and turn it into production. Selected in the 11th round of the 2012 draft, Crawford is still listed as a switch-hitter even though he hit only from the left side this past season. After signing with the Cubs, Crawford appeared in only nine games in the rookie league and batted .167 with three RBI and four stolen bases. Crawford returned to the AZL Cubs this season but on several occasions was left out of the lineup due to players rehabbing from injuries. Appearing in only 42 games, Crawford went .210/.299/.275/.575 with eight RBI and 10 stolen bases. The 20-year old has a lot of work to do if he wishes to advance any further as he is also somewhat of a sub-par defender.
The Dominican Summer League has two promising centerfielders in 19-year old Roberto Caro and 20-year old Jenner Emeterio. Signed in 2012, Caro had a fine debut that season. The switch-hitter batted .314/.418/.404/.821 with five doubles, six triples, 18 RBI and 15 stolen bases in 55 games with the Cubs-1 and Cubs-2 teams. However, Caro took a bit of a step backward this past season and hit only .254/.378/.376/.754 with eight doubles, eight triples, 18 RBI, and 18 stolen bases in 60 games. Caro has been flawless in 69 games in center with a 1.000 fielding average, but has really struggled in left and right. Emeterio also joined the organization in 2012 but spent his first year as a middle infielder. Emeterio hit .283/.380/.396/.776 with two homers, 20 RBI, and 12 stolen bases in 45 games. Emeterio then made a seamless transition to the outfield and used his speed to field 1.000 in both center and left. While on offense, Emeterio was third in the league with 37 stolen bases as he batted .261/.408/.296/.705 with a home run and 23 RBI.
An emerging player from the Venezuelan Summer League is Arnaldo Calero. Signed as a 17- year old back in 2011, Calero spent two seasons with the DSL Cubs and hit .204/.264/.204/.468 with three RBI and two stolen bases in 15 games in his first year and .269/.314/.385/.699 with three homers, 23 RBI and seven steals in 54 games in his second season. Moving over to Venezuela in 2013, Calero was in the top ten in all offensive categories. Calero hit .297/.347/.454/.801 with 13 doubles, four triples, five home runs, 33 RBI, and 12 stolen bases in 61 games. Calero is considered a solid defender in center and will turn 20 years old on November 16.