Position Analysis – Centerfield
The seventh installment of the off-season series to summarize and project how the minor league system looks on a position by position basis focuses on a position that holds a lot of promise for the entire organization: Centerfield.
As was stated in the left field analysis, the outfield situation for the parent club looks crowded, which doesn’t bode well for Matt Szczur. The 2010 fifth round draft pick has enjoyed a steady, albeit unspectacular, rise through the minor league system to joining the parent club in the middle of August this past season. In 116 games with Triple-A Iowa, Szczur batted .261/.315/.312/.626 with 16 doubles, a triple, a home run, 24 RBI, and 30 stolen bases. The 25-year old had a decent showing in the big leagues, hitting .226/.273/.355/.628 with two doubles, two home runs, and five RBI in 33 games. Szczur has always been good defensively, fielding .990 for his career in the minors, as well as playing flawlessly with the Cubs. Szczur has come a long way since playing football for Villanova. Whether he can develop into a starting player or a valuable reserve e remains to be seen.
If Szczur does make the trip north out of Spring Training, Jae-Hoon Ha will most likely be the starter for the Iowa Cubs. Ha is one of those prospects that seem to have been around “forever,” but he just turned 24 years old (October29). Due to his hard charging style, Ha has been limited by injuries over the past three years. During the past off-season, Ha had surgery on his wrist and it took longer than expected for him to recover. Ha joined Double-A Tennessee two weeks after the season opened following very limited duty in the spring. The lack of preparation showed as Ha batted .226/.273/.302/.575 with 18 doubles, five home runs, and 49 RBI in 117 games. Nevertheless, Ha was moved up to Triple-A Iowa when Matt Szczur was promoted to the big leagues. In eight games, Ha hit .286 with a home run and two RBI.
Jae-Hoon Ha’s defense has always been considered better than his numbers indicate. Ha owns a .982 fielding percentage but with 53 assists in six seasons over his career. Ha is also an extremely popular player, both with fans and in the clubhouse. If he can stay in one piece, Ha could make it to the majors as a reserve outfield and possibly be one of those “glue” players that hold together a team.
The Cubs will also have to use careful consideration with Ha this off-season. Ha is eligible for the Rule 5 Draft, and he profiles in a very similar fashion to Justin Bour last season. The Cubs failed to protect Bour on the Triple-A reserve roster before last year’s Rule 5 Draft. The Marlins selected Bour for basically nothing and he now projects to be Miami’s Opening Day first baseman in 2015. Several teams, especially ones with a lot of outfield space to cover, could take a chance on Ha if the Cubs fail to protect him like they did with Bour.
The future at the position now resides at Double-A Tennessee as Albert Almora was promoted to the Smokies in the middle of last season. The 2012 first round draft pick had mixed results in his first full season. The 20-year old got off to a slow start in 2014 with High-A Daytona, but parlayed a .377 July into a trip to Double-A. As a member of the Smokies, Almora demonstrated that the move may have been premature. Almora batted .234 with two homers and 10 RBI in 36 games. For the season, Almora hit .270/.291392/.683 with 17 doubles, four triples, nine home runs, 60 RBI, and six stolen bases in 125 games.
Where Almora has not been a disappointment is defense. Almora not only has a career fielding average of .993 with 21 assists, he is a smart and heady player that routinely makes outstanding decisions in the field. Considered a potential “five tool” player, Almora has been lacking in both the power and speed departments so far as a pro, with only 14 career home runs and 15 stolen bases. Almora has been advanced somewhat rapidly since signing the Cubs, and he is rather young for the level he finished the season. Perhaps a full year at one level may bring about some of the expectations.
Almora may not be the only centerfielder in the system that the front office is anxious to see progress as Jacob Hannemann has also been aggressively promoted. Selected in the third round in 2013, the Cubs seemed to want to make up for lost time after Hannemann could not advance as far as they would have liked due to an arm injury. The 23-year old former football player started slow at Low-A Kane County, batting only .228 for the first two months before hitting .333 in July. Promoted to High-A Daytona, Hannemann struggled again as he hit .241 for the remainder of the season. For the year, Hannemann batted .251/.315/.368/.682 with 23 doubles, five triples, eight home runs, 51 RBI, and 37stolen bases in 124 games. The downside was the 111 strikeouts for the year. Nevertheless, Hannemann was added to the Arizona Fall League roster and hit a respectable .279 against some of the game’s best prospects.
Defensively, Hannemann is still a work in progress with a below average .981 fielding percentage last season. Hannemann has some impressive athletic skills, but his lack of experience shows, making him look awkward and sometimes downright clumsy. The front office appears to be very high on Hannemann’s ability, and will give him the benefit of the doubt more often than many other prospects would receive.
Hannemann may have a challenge to the centerfield spot for High-A Myrtle Beach if Trey Martin can demonstrate he is beyond some of the injuries that have hampered him. Drafted in the 13th round in 2011, Martin showed a lot of promise prior to the 2013 season. However, the 21-year old decided to try and play through an injury to his left (non-throwing) shoulder with disastrous results. Martin managed only a .200 average in 11 games for Low-A Kane County before sitting out the rest of the season and having shoulder surgery. Martin returned to the Cougars in 2014 and was a rotation outfielder with Shawon Dunston Jr. and Yasiel Balaguert while Hannemann started full-time in center. However, once Hannemann was promoted, Martin took over in centerfield on a somewhat regular basis until Jeffrey Baez was promoted.
Through the sometimes irregular playing time, Martin struggled to find his game as he hit .247/.297/.337/.634 with 16 doubles, a triple, five home runs, and 37 RBI in 112 games. What emerged was Martin’s speed as he more than doubled his career total in a single season by swiping 29 bases. If Martin is fully recovered, he is a silky smooth defender in the outfield with both speed and power potential. Martin fielded a combined .996 while lining up in all three outfield positions last season. One thing that Martin may need to do is add some weight and strength on his very thin 6-foot-2, 188-pound frame.
A dynamic prospect that may be ready to take center stage on the national scene is Jeffrey Baez. Signed as a 17-year old international free agent in 2011, Baez has been under the radar for the past three seasons, laboring in the Dominican Summer League and the Arizona Rookie League. But this past season, the now 21-year old took the Northwest League by storm as he clouted seven home runs and stole 15 bases in 38 games for Boise and was named a league All-Star before being promoted to Low-A Kane County. Baez struggled a bit with the Cougars, but his overall season of .255/.324/.472/.796 with 13 doubles, three triples, 13 home runs, 45 RBI, and 17 stolen bases in 69 games was enough to earn The CCO Short Season Player of the Year award.
On defense, Jeffrey Baez is better than his career numbers indicate as he was forced to play right field mostly out of necessity. While Baez’s arm is suited for right, as his 10 outfield assists from there will attest, his complete skill set may be better suited for centerfield. Baez is a stocky 6-foot, 180 pounds and looks as if his power game will improve with time.
At this point it is hard to know what to expect from Kevin Encarnacion in 2015. Signed in 2010 as a free agent, the switch-hitter became the second straight Boise player to win the Northwest League batting crown in 2013. Encarnacion hit .355/.431/.566/.997 with eight home runs, 30 RBI, and 10 stolen bases in 42 games. But a fiery automobile crash in which Encarnacion had to be pulled to safety last off-season left him with second and third degree burns on most of his body. Encarnacion spent the better part of 2014 recovering in an Arizona hospital, and resumed some baseball activities in the middle of the summer. The soon-to-be 23-year old (November 23) participated in the Fall Instructional League, in which he was no longer able to switch-hit or play in the field. Encarnacion was considered to be a solid defender with good enough arm strength to play right field. But for now, there is no telling whether Encarnacion will be able to regain the ability that once held so much promise.
A player that has been gaining a lot of attention on the national scene is Rashad Crawford, but he has to find a way to produce to justify that attention. Selected in the 11th round in 2012, Crawford has scrapped switch-hitting and batted only left-handed this past season. After a non-descript performance the past two seasons, Crawford blossomed a little with Short-Season A Boise, batting .259/.297/.360/.657 with 13 doubles, seven triples, a home run, 34 RBI, and 14 stolen bases in 71 games. The 21-year old also showed improvement in the outfield, but still needs to work on his defense (.988 fielding percentage). Crawford was a Northwest League post-season All-Star and has appeared on some “players to watch” lists, but still has some work to do in order to turn some of that promise into production.
An exciting mid-round find in last year’s draft was Kevonte Mitchell. A third baseman when selected in the 13th round out of Kennett High School in Missouri, the Cubs immediately moved Mitchell to the outfield. The 19-year old didn’t do too badly, fielding .961 in center and .965 overall. At this time, it is unclear whether the organization wants to continue to use Mitchell in centerfield or perhaps move him to a corner spot. The position change did not seem to affect Mitchell at the plate as he hit over .300 for most of the Arizona Rookie League before dipping to .294/.374/.371/.745 with three doubles, four triples, 12 RBI, and 19 stolen bases in 39 games. Mitchell is very athletic and maturity will help fill out his 6-foot-4, 185-pound frame to add more power as he develops.
How the emergence of Mitchell will effect Arnaldo Calero is not known, but he will need to pick up the pace. Signed as a 17-year old back in 2011, Calero spent two seasons with the DSL Cubs before moving over to Venezuela in 2013. Calero was in the top ten in all offensive categories that season, but got lost in the shuffle last season with the AZL Cubs. Calero played in only five games and had two hits and two RBI in 11 at bats for a .182 average with no extra base hits or stolen bases. It is unknown whether Calero had any injuries, but up to this point he has only seen token action in the Venezuelan Winter League. The 21-year old looked as he was developing into a solid player, with above average speed, power, and defensive ability. However, he simply fell off the map in 2014. Calero may still be useful as a “system player,” but he will need to dramatically improve his stock in order to hang on.
A player that seems to be cut out of the same cloth as the previously mention Kevin Encarnacion is 21-year old Roberto Caro. A part of the Cubs organization since 2012 when he signed as an 18-year old, Caro has put up steady numbers in the Dominican Summer League. Last season, the switch-hitter batted .289/.416/.472/.888 with six doubles, 15 triples, three home runs, 37 RBI, and 35 stolen bases in 66 games. What immediately leaps out at you is his high on-base percentage, the 48:47 walk to strikeout ratio, and his speed. His defense is almost where you would like it, with a .987 fielding average in center indicating some minor tweaking. Like Encarnacion, Caro is the type of player that can jump straight to the Sort-Season A Eugene Emeralds in 2015 and possibly contend for a batting championship based on his overall ability and maturity.
Eighteen-year old Jose Gonzalez rounds out the position, and could be a diamond in the rough. In his professional debut for the VSL Cubs, Gonzalez had a solid effort. Playing in 64 games, Gonzalez hit .232/.293/.283/.556 with four doubles, two triples, 24 RBI, and 12 stolen bases. Gonzalez also was acceptable in center, fielding .976 while having five assists overall. Gonzalez looks like he has some tools to work with, but may need to take his development one step at a time.