The CCO’s off-season series of articles to summarize and project how the minor league system looks on a position by position basis continues today. Earlier this week, the focus was on second base and last week we took a look at third base and shortstop. Next up is a position that continues to be a strength of the system and may be the best example of the front office’s idea of position redundancy: First Base.
The Cubs’ organization bought themselves some insurance in December last year when they signed Brad Nelson to a minor league contract. Nelson had 28 at bats in the majors with the Brewers, as was supposed to remain “at the ready” in Triple-A Iowa in case anything happened to Anthony Rizzo. Rizzo made it through the season in one piece, but they got their money’s worth out of Nelson. The 30-year old hit 20 home runs for the third consecutive season while driving in 71 runs and hitting .271/.346/.467/.814. It isn’t likely that the front office re-signs Nelson for next season, but never say never.
Chances are that Justin Bour will open next season as Iowa’s first baseman. The 2009 25th round draft pick looked like he would be in Des Moines last season after leading the Southern League with 110 RBI in 2012. But management wanted to play things conservatively and sent Bour back to Tennessee. Their trepidation ended up costing Bour as a wild pitch broke his wrist on April 19. Bour was lost for eight weeks, and the time off was reflected in his .237/.313/.461/.774 line. The 6-foot-4, 250-pound lefty did club 18 home runs in 83 games, and his 64 RBI were good for ninth in the Southern League. Bour has also worked hard on his defense and posted a career high .992 fielding average while providing a big, reliable target for Christian Villanueva, Javier Baez, and Arismendy Alcantara. Bour did play in the Roberto Clemente League last winter, and may return there to make up some at-bats.
If an award was given for the most improved player in the system, the hands-down winner would be High-A Daytona’s Dustin Geiger. The 24th round pick of the 2010 draft had always been a good power hitter, but his coaches had him concentrate more on driving in runs. Geiger still got his taters and left the park 17 times, but raised his batting average to a career high .281 with a .365/.458/.824 line and was third in the Florida State League with 86 RBI. Drafted as a third baseman, the 21-year old moved across the diamond and led the minor league system with a .994 fielding percentage. Another great asset for Geiger is that he is considered to be a “character”, and a positive locker room presence. As a right-handed hitter, Geiger has future potential as a back-up or platoon player with Anthony Rizzo, but may have to improve his versatility. That could mean some reps back at third and maybe in the outfield.
Probably the most identifiable minor-leaguer outside of Javier Baez would be Daytona’s Dan Vogelbach. With a physique resembling more a 16-inch softball player, the 20-year old put up some good offensive numbers between Low-A Kane County and High-A Daytona. Vogelbach hit a combined .294/.375/.449/.824 with 23 doubles, 19 home runs and 76 RBI in 131 games. The problem for the left-hander is defense, where he posted a below average .987 fielding percentage. Vogelbach lacks not only mobility, but baseball skills and has shown average at best catching and throwing ability. Vogelbach will need to continue to slim down his 6-foot-0, 250-pound frame and work on his agility and basic skills. Otherwise, he will be locked into solely first base as a position. Working in his favor is his well above average bat speed and hitting skills, along with surprisingly good base-running.
A study in contrast to Vogelbach is Kane County’s Rock Shoulders. At 6-foot-2, 225 pounds Shoulders is also a big man but has better agility and athleticism than Vogelbach. He shows enough mobility and arm strength to play left and right field as well as first base. Shoulders turned 22 years old following the season. Shoulders is a classic power hitter than can carry a team when on a hot streak but like so many power hitters he can turn ice cold at the plate. Shoulders was the organization’s Minor League Player of the Month in April after hitting .370 with five homers and 16 RBI. However, he followed that by batting .188 with seven home runs and 18 RBI in May. Overall, Shoulders hit .258/.352/.445/.797 with 27 doubles, 18 home runs and 74 RBI. Shoulders was named a Midwest League mid-season and post-season All-Star.
Taking a turn away from their idea of developing “classes” of players that move through the system, the organization opted to place a more mature player at first base for Short-Season A Boise in Jacob Rogers. Drafted in the 40th round in 2012, Rogers surprised many by batting a combined .326/.462/.507 in his initial season. He spent his entire 2013 season with Boise, where he tied for second in the league with eight home runs and was second overall with 47 RBI. Rogers hit .278/.394.413/.807 and drew an impressive 45 walks in 259 at bats. Rogers turned 24 years old in the final week of the regular season, and provided leadership to a young squad that reached the Northwest League finals for the second consecutive year.
The Cubs used seven different players at first base in the Arizona Rookie League, but Kelvin Freeman ended up receiving the most playing time. The Cubs selected Freeman in the 17th round of last June’s draft (2013) out of North Carolina A & T. Freeman could be considered this-year’s Jacob Rogers as the 22-year old provided leadership to a very young rookie league squad. Freeman batted .262/.357/.292/.649 with four doubles and 19 RBI in 40 games. The front office must have liked what they saw, because Freeman was invited to play in the Fall Instructional League. Also getting some reps at first for the AZL Cubs was Kevin Brown, the Cubs 22nd round pick in the 2013 draft. Brown was drafted as an outfielder but saw eight games at first and displayed some versatility. Brown spent most of his time in Arizona, but had two games with Boise and hit a combined .233/.374/.333/.707 with five doubles, two triples, one home run, 15 RBI, and eight stolen bases in 36 games. Brown will be 23 at the end of October and, like Freeman, will be able to provide maturity and leadership as he moves forward.
Among the offensive leaders in the Venezuelan Summer League was 20-year old Delbis Arcila. The young left hander was tied for third in the league with 10 home runs, tied for fourth with 42 RBI, and sixth with a .321 batting average (.394/.533/.927). Sharing time with Arcila and also seeing action at third base was 19-year old Miguel Rico. Rico tied Arcila with 10 home runs but batted only .231/.325/.436/.760 with five doubles, one triple, one home run and 26 RBI in 62 games while fielding .986 at first base. The first base position in the Dominican Summer League was split up with two players seeing primary action and six players manning the position overall. Nineteen-year old Jose Paniagua got the most starts (31) and hit .206/.304/.306/.610 with 15 doubles, one triple, two homers, 24 RBI and five stolen bases in 60 games while also seeing action in the outfield. With 27 starts, 21-year old Jhonny Pena was next as he was limited to only 40 games and batted .232/.324/.328/.652 with six doubles, two home runs and 11 RBI while also seeing some time at catcher.