Position Analysis – First Base
A series of reports over the off-season will summarize and project how the minor league system looks on a position by position basis. Today, the CCO looks at a position that was once a strength in the organization but now has some questions: First Base.
For the second straight season, the Cubs decided against having a prospect at Triple-A when they left Justin Bour unprotected, and he was selected in the Rule 5 draft. In his place, the Cubs used eight different players at first base for the Iowa Cubs. Getting the most reps was Chris Valaika, who received a late season promotion to the majors and was used as a utility infielder. Also high on the list was Mike Olt, who was demoted and moved across the diamond in order to accommodate super prospect Kris Bryant at third base. Logan Watkins (10 games) and Chris Coghlan (five games) were also players that saw time at first base before moving on to the majors. A few minor league veterans also took a turn, including Lars Anderson, Jonathan Mota, Josh Vitters, and Eli Whiteside. Just how the organization fills this position for 2015 is a bit of a mystery at this time.
Part of the reason for the uncertainty in Iowa next season is the somewhat rough year Tennessee’s Dustin Geiger had in 2014. The 24th round pick of the 2010 draft remains a good power hitter, but the soon to be 23-year old (December 2) found Double-A pitching a little tougher than the previous level. Geiger left the park 12 times, but his slash line was .223/.305/.376/.681 that included 47 RBI in 124 games. Geiger remained one of the top fielding first basemen in the entire organization with a .996 fielding percentage. Geiger also has a bit of versatility, as he saw a few turns back at third base (his original position) and a couple in the outfield. Another great asset for Geiger is that he is considered to be a ‘character’ and a positive locker room presence. Most likely, Geiger will return to the Smokies for 2015.
The Cubs signed 27-year old Lars Anderson prior to the 2014 season with hopes that he could regain his form and provide some insurance for Anthony Rizzo. Anderson had been rated the 17th best prospect in 2009 while a member of the Red Sox organization, but has seen some hard times since then. After being released by the White Sox, the Cubs scooped up Anderson, but he was unable to play due to injuries. Anderson was in and out of the line-up for the Iowa Cubs, and by the time he was at full strength there was a greater need for him at Tennessee. Anderson did not complain and split his time between left field and first base. With four year’s experience at Triple-A, Anderson’s success with the Smokies was unsurprising as he hit .315/.390/.468/.858 with two home runs and 12 RBI in 37 games. It is uncertain as to whether Anderson will re-sign with the Cubs this off-season or look for better opportunities elsewhere.
The evolution of Dan Vogelbach continued this past season as the formerly roly-poly prospect began the season at a trim 230 pounds. However, the loss of another 20 pounds after shedding over 50 pounds the previous year seemed to have a negative effect. Vogelbach batted only .259 with five home runs and 26 RBI in the first half. Vogelbach had some modest improvement in the second half of the season and batted .276 which improved his line to .268/.357/.429/787 with 28 doubles, a triple, 16 home runs and 76 RBI. The problem for the left-hander continues to be his defense. Vogelbach posted a career high .995 fielding percentage, but was considered mainly a stay-at-home first baseman. Vogelbach’s lack of mobility and athleticism was seen many times in Daytona where he was unable to catch up with pop fouls and gave away outs but not having it show up in the error column. Vogelbach has brought his weight back up to 250 pounds, and is playing for the Mesa Solar Sox in the Arizona Fall League. Going up against some of the game’s best prospects will be telling as to his future.
Time may be slipping away for Rock Shoulders as he did not show expected improvement in 2014. At 6-foot-2, 225-pounds Shoulders is 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. Turning 23 years old following the season, Shoulders is a classic power hitter than can carry a team when on a hot streak or turn ice cold at the plate. But Shoulders did not fare well in his move up to High-A Daytona this past season. Seeing action in just 91 games, Shoulders hit .223/.341/.397/.737 with 16 doubles, a triple, 12 home runs and 42 RBI. Shoulders will really have to show up strong in Spring Training or he may get squeezed out.
If there is any player that fans can really get behind in the system it would be Jacob Rogers. Drafted in the 40th round in 2012, Rogers has defied the odds and may have just carved a niche for himself in the organization. The big lefty (6-foot-5, 195 pounds) turned 25 years old in the final weeks of the regular season, and provided leadership to a young squad that won the Midwest League Championship and had the best record in minor league baseball. Rogers is considered a high character individual who may end up as a coach/manager when his playing days are over. That may not be as soon as some may think as Rogers hit .288/.361/.445/.806 with 27 doubles, two triples, 16 home runs and 67 RBI. Rogers is a Cinderella-type story, and it will be fun to follow him as he advances to High-A Myrtle Beach next season to see if the magic continues.
Short-Season A Boise had some issues with the first base position, mainly using catchers Danny Canela and Mark Malave until it was decided to move Alex Tomasovich there. Drafted in the 20th round in 2014, Tomasovich was originally a middle infielder and saw 10 games at second base, three at third base, and one at shortstop before the decision was made to try first base. Neither Canela nor Malave were considered good defenders, and at 6-foot-3, 185 pounds, the lanky Tomasovich had the size you desire along with the athleticism of a middle infielder. While only seeing 18 games at first, Tomasovich settled down a somewhat erratic infield while fielding a perfect 1.000 average. Offensively, Tomasovich is not you would expect out of a first baseman, but he did hit well. In 37 games, Tomasovich batted .311/.372/.371/.744 with six doubles, a triple and 18 RBI. It is not clear as to whether the switch to first is permanent, or if the organization would like to see Tomasovich at some other position as he moves to Low-A South Bend.
The Cubs used first base to get extra reps for catchers Tyler Alamo and Alberto Mineo in the Arizona rookie league, but the player seeing the most action was Roney Alcala. Fresh off a season in which he contended for the Venezuelan Summer League triple-crown, Alcala found the competition stateside a little bit tougher in 2014. The 20-year old switch-hitter batted .242/.294/.355/.649 with six doubles, a triple, two home runs, 10 RBI, and two stolen bases in 38 games. Alcala still has some work to do as a first baseman as he fielded .982 in 32 games. But Alcala also lined up at third base, second base, and in the outfield, and he does have catching on his résumé. Fans in Eugene, Oregon should be looking forward to seeing Alcala as part of the Cubs’ new Short Season-A affiliate for 2015.
In the Dominican Summer League, 20-year old Jose Paniagua saw most starts (47) among the nine players that took a turn at first base. Paniagua hit .305/.396/.511/.906, tying for seventh in the league with six homers, 40 RBI and 20 stolen bases in 67 games while also seeing action in the outfield and at third base. Paniagua also fielded his position well at .986, and may be an emerging prospect with better days ahead.
Among the offensive leaders in the Venezuelan Summer League was 21-year old Miguel Rico. Rico tied for third with five home runs and was fifth in the league with 33 RBI. Rico batted only .252/.362/.374/.736 but walked 28 times opposed to 24 strikeouts. Rico is a legitimate power threat, with 16 career home runs in 174 games and is fairly solid at first, fielding .983. Rico also has experience at third base, but his future will lay at first base.