Position Analysis – Third Base
The fourth installment of the off-season series to summarize and project how the minor league system looks on a position by position basis focuses on at a position which will probably be the most anticipated by Cubs’ fans for 2015: Third Base.
Probably even more anticipated than the coming of infielder Javier Baez last season will be when everybody’s All-Everything Kris Bryant makes his first appearance as a member of the Chicago Cubs at some point in 2015. The 22-year old began 2014 with an assault on Southern League pitching, batting .355 with 22 home runs and 58 RBI in 68 games for Double-A Tennessee, and was named a Southern League All-Star. Moved to Triple-A Iowa in mid-June, Bryant didn’t let the bump up in competition affect him as he hit .295 with 21 home runs and 52 RBI in 70 games. His combined totals were an amazing .325/.438/.661/1.098 with 34 doubles, a triple, 43 home runs, 110 RBI, and 15 stolen bases and he was named Minor League Player of the Year. Considered an average fielder at best, Bryant improved to a respectable .963 fielding percentage with Iowa to close out the year at .944 for a third baseman. While he could still use some polishing with the glove, Bryant should be ready to make an early season splash with the parent club.
Just who replaces Bryant at Iowa will have a lot to do with the kind of spring Mike Olt has. Breaking camp with the big league club in 2014, Olt struggled in his first extended look in the majors, batting only .160 but clubbing 12 home runs and driving in 33 in 89 games. Olt was sent down to Iowa and shifted over to first base to accommodate Bryant. In 28 games with the I-Cubs, Olt fared much better and hit .302/.348/.585/.933 with nine doubles, seven home runs, and 24 RBI. Olt was asked to work out at the team facilities in Arizona this off-season and prepare to not only be used at third and first base, but also at the corner outfield spots. Whether he will go north with the Cubs after Spring Training remains to be seen.
If both Bryant and Olt are up with the Cubs, the third base replacement at Iowa should be Christian Villanueva. After leading the Southern League in doubles and cracking 19 home runs and 72 RBI in 2013, Villanueva actually began last season with Iowa while Bryant was catching up with his development in Tennessee. However, the 23-year old didn’t do very well and batted only .211 with six home runs and 26 RBI in 62 games. In mid-June, Villanueva and Bryant were flip-flopped and Villanueva was sent back to the Smokies. But the drop in a level didn’t have much of an effect as Villanueva put up essentially the same numbers in Tennessee that he did in Iowa. For the season, Villanueva was a disappointing .230/.297/.379/.676 with 38 doubles, 10 home runs, and 58 RBI. Considered an outstanding defender, things seemed to bleed into Villanueva’s defense as he fielded only a combined .945. Villanueva also saw some brief time at second base. While it doesn’t seem like the front office has quit on Villanueva just yet, they may be hoping that he can put things together in his second full season with the organization.
If the decision is made to promote Villanueva in order to play third at Triple-A, there will be a real scramble to cover the position at Double-A Tennessee. The organization can choose to rotate players such as Gioskar Amaya, Stephen Bruno, Wes Darvill and Dustin Geiger to name a few. They could also choose to sign a free agent in the off-season. But the player that will probably see the most action, though not enough to be considered a starter, could be Ben Carhart. In an organization that appreciates a “good soldier”, Carhart may have been one of the best since Theo Epstein was put in charge. In 2014, Carhart accepted a demotion in order to learn how to catch. The 24-year old actually made the transition rather smoothly, fielding .996 and nailing 31 percent of would-be base stealers in 31 starts for Low-A Kane County. Carhart’s stock-in-trade is third base, at which he fields an above average .953 for his career. Carhart is also a decent first baseman, as well as being able to play second base in a pinch while also having a memorable pitching performance last year. In 115 games between the Cougars and High-A Daytona, Carhart batted .277/.344/.370/.714 with 18 doubles, a triple, five home runs, 43 RBI, and a stolen base. A valuable player to have in the minors, Carhart is just the type of player that knocks around long enough to get his shot at the big time.
The organization is left in a lurch at Double-A Tennessee because neither of the players they had at High-A developed the way they hoped possible. Still only 20 years old (21 on November 24) Jeimer Candelario hit only .256 for Low-A Kane County in 2013, yet was promoted to Daytona to begin last season. The switch-hitter fell flat on his face and hit only .193 with five home runs and 26 RBI in 62 games. A deflated Candelario returned to Kane County and batted .250 with six home runs and 37 RBI in 63 games for the Cougars. All total, Candelario was .223/.288/.379/.667 with 28 doubles, five triples, 11 home runs, and 63 RBI for the season. Candelario was able to improve his defense, which he raised his fielding average to .957, along with his lowest error total of his career. Candelario is still considered to be a top prospect, but maybe not as quick of a developer as originally envisioned.
Splitting time with Candelario at third base for High-A Myrtle Beach most likely will be Jordan Hankins. Selected in the 11th round of the 2013 draft, the Cubs have yet to decide exactly what to do with Hankins. Although the 22-year old only played second base in college at Austin Peay, the Cubs drafted him as a catcher. That idea was scrapped when Short-Season A Boise needed a third baseman after Kris Bryant was promoted last season. Hankins went on to catch in the 2013 Fall Instructional League, but was back at third for Kane County when the 2014 season opened. The left-hander then had an All-Star performance, batting .322 with 34 RBI in 50 games before being swapped with Candelario and promoted to High-A Daytona. However, Hankins was no better than Candelario at that level and hit only .218 with 17 RBI in 33 games and he was later replaced by Ben Carhart. Hankins overall numbers of .283/.346/.407/.753 with 21 doubles, five home runs, 51 RBI, and three stolen bases reflect more of his early success than a sustained effort. His overall fielding percentage of .931 makes it no guarantee that third will be Hankins permanent position. This fall saw Hankins back in the Instructional League were he saw time mainly at first base and catcher. It appears that the organization is developing Hankins to be more of a super-sub than a front-line player, which can ease the urgency to promote younger players before they are ready.
A player to watch as a prospect on the rise could be Jesse Hodges. Signed as an undrafted free agent in 2012 after playing with the Canadian Youth team, Hodges had split his amateur career between pitcher and shortstop, making the pros his first exposure to third base. The 20-year old experienced his growing pains in getting used to the position, but improved his fielding by 73 points this past season. Fielding at .930, Hodges’ defense still has a way to go, but the jump is encouraging. What also makes you feel good is his improvement at the plate, where his batting average improved by 55 points to.265/.329/.401/.730 with 14 doubles, a triple, seven home runs, and 44 RBI in 73 games for Short-Season A Boise. As can be seen from his numbers, Hodges is a potential power hitter/run producer in the future. Hodges will not turn 21 until just before the 2015 season, making him a player to keep your eye on if he can continue his progression.
The news on Adonis Paula, however, was less encouraging. After leading the Dominican Summer League in RBI for 2013, Paula struggled in his first appearance stateside in the Arizona Rookie League this past season. The 20-year old hit only .228/.284/.309/.593 with seven doubles and a triple while driving in just 15 RBI in 47 games. Paula had a tough time in the field and booted the ball 14 times (.833 fielding percentage). The only other third baseman of note for the AZL Cubs was 2014 22nd round draft choice Joey Martarano. A linebacker on the Boise State University football team, Martarano was said to have the best raw power of any third base prospect available in the draft. The 20-year old played only four games and went 2-for-13 with a walk and six strikeouts. Currently a redshirt sophomore, Martarano has stated his wishes to pursue playing baseball in the summer while still participating in football.
Bearing some similarity to Jeimer Candelario is DSL Cubs third baseman Miguel Ruiz. Like Candelario, Ruiz was born in New York, is a switch-hitter, a third base man, and was signed by the Cubs at age 17. However, Ruiz did not have the same start to his career that Candelario had, but that may be asking for too much. Ruiz played okay for his first professional season, batting .237/.364/.317/.682 with three doubles, six triples, 28 RBI, and seven stolen base in 57 games. Unlike Candelario, Ruiz appears to be more advanced in the field with a respectable .935 at third base while also playing shortstop and second base.
Another teen that is turning some heads is seventeen year old Wladimir Galindo. A big kid at 6-foot-3, 210-pounds, Galindo led the Venezuelan Summer League with seven home runs and was tied for sixth with 30 RBI. Galindo finished tenth in the league in batting average (.278), third in slugging (.462), tied for 10th in on-base percentage (.356), and third in OPS (.818). His fielding could use some work as Galindo committed 23 errors at third and fielded only .857. Galindo did see some action at first base as well as one appearance in the outfield. Currently in Arizona for the Fall Instructional League, Galindo may not be back in the Caribbean as his success suggests that he will be in the rookie league in 2015 despite his age.