Position Analysis – Shortstop
The third installment of the off-season series to summarize and project how the minor league system looks on a position-by-position basis looks at a position which will probably have most fans and media members talking about this off-season: Shortstop.
The fans of the Iowa Cubs can sing a version of the classic folk song “Where have all the Flowers Gone?”, with the verses going something like “Where have all the shortstops gone?…Gone to the big leagues, one by one.” As covered in last week’s article on second basemen, the I-Cubs saw four of their middle infielders, Arismendy Alcantara, Javier Baez, Logan Watkins, and Chris Valaika, move up to the parent club.
That paves the way for super-prospect Addison Russell to open the 2015 season at Triple-A. Acquired in the deal that sent right handers Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel to Oakland, Russell took the Southern League by storm in 2014 after returning from a leg injury. Appearing in only 18 games as a member of the Athletics organization, Russell played in 50 for the Tennessee Smokies and batted .294/.332/.536/.868 with 11 doubles, 12 home runs, 36 RBI, and two stolen bases. The 20-year old also had a sparkling fielding percentage of .990, practically unheard of for a shortstop. Russell is now taking part in the Arizona Fall League as a tune-up for even greater heights in 2015.
Russell will not have to carry the entire burden at Triple-A Iowa as he will have Elliot Soto on hand. The 25-year old Carpentersville native is the quintessential defensive specialist. Sporting a .974 career fielding average at short while posting a .984 average at second base, Soto fielded a combined .986 at shortstop this past season. Hitting has always been a problem, but Soto saw a slight rise in that area. Playing 40 games with Tennessee and 29 with Iowa, Soto hit a combined .244/.321/.306/.627 with 12 doubles, a home run, 23 RBI, and four stolen bases.
It remains to be seen what exactly will happen the Marco Hernandez. After a lackluster 2013 and the thought he was being given a “social” promotion to High-A Daytona, the 22-year old switch hitter was to shrug that off enough to be placed on Baseball America’s list among the top defensive shortstops in the minor leagues. While Hernandez’s .949 fielding average represented only a ten point increase from the previous season, he was able to be credited with 370 assists and 69 double plays in only 573 chances. The lefty also seemed to thrive as the D-Cubs leadoff man until the arrival of OF Jacob Hannemann by tying a career high with 22 stolen bases. Hernandez batted .270/.315/.351/.667 with 13 doubles, seven triples, three home runs, and 55 RBI. Hernandez has all the tools to become a two-way shortstop, but there are some questions about his concentration. Currently penciled in to open the 2015 season at Double-A Tennessee, the front office will have to hold their breath as Hernandez is eligible for the Rule 5 Draft. While the organization will probably place Hernandez on the Triple-A reserve roster and force a potential drafting team to have him on the major league roster for an entire season, there may be someone who is willing to take that risk. Surviving that, Hernandez is also one of the players rumored to be the “player to be named later” to complete the trade for LHP Felix Doubront.
Should the organization lose Hernandez, it would create a massive hole in the shortstop position at the Double-A/High-A levels. The back-up plan could be either Elliot Soto, turn to minor league veterans Jonathan Mota or Wes Darvill, or sign a free agent. If there is a dark-horse 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, hitting a combined .381/.431/.536/.967 with five homers, 33 RBI and 17 stolen bases between rookie, Low-A and High-A ball. Saunders returned to Daytona in 2013, was moved around to several positions and injured his elbow while playing outfield. The result was being shut down for Tommy John surgery after only 62 games. Saunders attempted to come back in 2014, but after playing 36 games with Daytona and one with Low-A Kane County, he was unable to continue. One of the best attributes the 24-year old is his speed. Saunders has stolen 48 bases in 56 attempts for his career. It remains to be seen whether Saunders can come back, but if he does, he has the potential to an offensive force.
The situation at High-A Myrtle Beach is a little more unclear regardless of how things with Hernandez play out. The reason is the next player in line, 20-year old Carlos Penalver, does not seem to be ready for that level. Another player mentioned in Baseball America’s list of top defensive shortstops, Penalver was very solid in the field in his first full professional season. Penalver fielded .964, above average for a shortstop, with 376 assists in a lofty 606 chances. Observers feel that Penalver is even better defensively than his numbers indicate, and that further growth and maturity will bring those in line. However, Penalver scrapped switch-hitting and batted only .211/.263/.270/.533 with 17 doubles, four triples, a home run, 40 RBI, and tied a career high with 21 stolen bases. This past year, the organization regretted advancing young and talented 3B Jeimer Candelario to High-A ball before he was offensively ready. Penalver is in the exact same situation as Candelario was, and it is uncertain whether they will be willing to let Penalver’s defense carry him. Management does have an option to move Danny Lockhart over to short until someone emerges, or they can look at a free agent from independent ball to plug the gap.
The shortstop position at Low-A South Bend could also be very interesting with the real possibility of phenom Gleyber Torres opening the season with the Cubs’ new affiliate. Signed by the Cubs in 2013, the 17-year old shortstop (18 on December 13) was thought to possibly start his professional career in the Dominican Summer League. However, during the 2013 Fall Instructional League and 2014 Spring Training, Torres displayed a mature approach. It was decided to keep Torres stateside for extended Spring Training and to see how he would handle his first professional experience in the rookie league. Torres surpassed all expectations, batting .279 with a home run and 29 RBI in 43 games for the AZL Cubs. Torres earned a late promotion to Short-Season A Boise. With the Hawks, Torres wasn’t in awe of playing with men three to five years older than him and hit .393 with a home run and four RBI in seven games, as well as starting in the playoffs. For the season, Torres was a combined .297/.386/.440/.826 with eight doubles, six triples, two home runs, 33 RBI, and 10 stolen bases in 50 games. His fielding at short is a work in progress as he had a combined .922 fielding percentage (19 errors). While the current management has emphasized steady development, it might be hard to hold Torres back if he has a similar spring in 2015. However, if management opts not to place Torres with the SB Cubs, they could hold back Penalver or use someone such as David Bote or Bryant Flete at short until they feel Torres is ready to take over.
A player who could be receiving a lot of looks in several different places in 2015 might be Jason Vosler. Drafted in the 16th round in 2014, Vosler quickly signed and was directly placed with Short-Season A Boise. Once with the Hawks, Vosler quickly developed chemistry with fellow draftees Chesny Young and Alex Tomasovich, but that was short lived. The 21-year old soon had to take a back seat to infielders Bryant Flete, Gleyber Torres, and David Bote while Young was promoted and Tomasovich moved to first base. For his part, the left-hander hit .266/.361/.372/.733 with a double, three triples, a home run, and 11 RBI in 30 games. Vosler fielded only .903 in 12 games at shortstop, but also saw time at second and third base. Vosler has also been practicing in the outfield while playing in the Fall Instructional League. Moving forward, Vosler could see time at any of those positions at either Short-Season A Eugene or Low-A South Bend during the 2015 season.
Some of the hope that Varonex Cuevas showed last season has been tempered a bit as the 21- year old failed to make any significant progress. The switch-hitter began the season with Short-Season A Boise, but was quickly sent down to the AZL Cubs after 12 games and had to scramble for playing time behind Torres and second baseman Andrew Ely. To get into the line-up, Cuevas also played third base and outfield as he hit a combined .262/.323/.402/.725 with five doubles, three triples, two home runs, nine RBI, and three stolen bases in 38 games. Cuevas’ fielding also took a nose dive, posting a paltry .905 average at shortstop and .968 at second base. Cuevas is still relatively young and could become a system player due to his versatility, but the days of him emerging as a prospect may be coming to a close.
There are some encouraging signs that the Cubs may have a player in Ho-Young Son. The 20-year old Korean native saw his first professional action with the AZL Cubs and held his own. In 25 games, Son batted .254/.321/.310/.630 with two doubles, a triple, nine RBI, and 12 stolen bases. While his .828 fielding average at short and .900 at second base are numbers that make you cringe, observers close to the action feel that Son was trying to do too much in his first trip to the States and that his defense will smooth out as he becomes better acquainted with his surroundings. Son did show that he has potential top-of-the-order type of offense, and will probably play a big role for Short-Season Eugene next season.
Also in his first professional season was 21-year old Carlos Jimenez. The primary shortstop for the DSL Cubs, Jimenez was an offensive force as he hit .301/.376/.435/.811 with 14 doubles, three triples, three home runs, 33 RBI, and 21 stolen bases in 57 games. His defense at short will need some polish as his .922 percentage is not horrible, but could be better. Jimenez also lined up at second and third this past season.
The VSL has two intriguing players in Humberto Garcia and Andruw Monestario. The 20-year old Garcia is a switch hitter the Cubs signed away from the White Sox in 2013. In four minor league season, Garcia has played every position, including pitcher with the exception of first base. Primary used as a second baseman throughout his career, Garcia split time between the infield and outfield in 2014, seeing most of his starts a shortstop. Garcia had his best offensive season as a pro last year, batting .275/.350/.388/.736 with eight doubles, five triples 18 RBI, and 20 stolen bases in 56 games. Garcia had a less than stellar fielding average of .839 at shortstop and he did not fare much better anywhere else. As a second contract free agent, Garcia is eligible for the Rule 5 Draft, and could tempt a team in the Double-A portion based on his athletic ability.
Seventeen-year old Monasterio is another one of the very young and talented players that were part of the V-Cubs’ squad in 2014. In 36 games, the switch-hitter batted a healthy .292/.368/.343/.711 with five doubles, a triple, nine RBI, and 14 stolen bases. For a very young player in his first professional season, Monasterio did very well in the field with a .935 percentage while playing shortstop exclusively. Although it is still very early in his career, Monasterio has the potential to take a lot of the national scouts by surprise, in a similar fashion to the way Cubs infielder Arismendy Alcantara did two years ago.