Position Analysis – First Base
The position analysis series continues with a look at a position that has some questions in the Cubs’ system: First Base.
For the third straight season, the Cubs decided against having a prospect at Triple-A and used 10 different players at first base for the Iowa Cubs. Getting the most reps was third baseman Christian Villanueva, who lined up there 35 times. The I-Cubs also used catchers at first base: Taylor Davis 30 times, Taylor Teagarden had eight starts, and Luke Carlin played there once. Utility infielders Chris Valaika, Mike Olt, Jonathan Mota, and Ryan Dent combined for 59 starts, and outfielder Junior Lake made five appearances at first base. Getting the second most starts was Major League veteran Mike Baxter. The 30-year old left hander played first base 32 times also had 35 starts in the outfield. Playing 34 games with the parent club, Baxter batted .246/.348/.263/.612 with a double and two RBI. Baxter remains a useful player, and would be a good addition to the organization if he was willing to sign another minor league contract.
There has to be some concerns as to whether Dan Vogelbach will ever be anything more than an interesting minor league story. The calorically challenged 22-year old was officially listed at 250 pounds. But those who have seen Vogelbach believe that those estimates can be about 20 pounds low. Vogelbach raised more concerns than answered critics with his play for Double-A Tennessee in 2015. Starting off with a .362 batting average in April, Vogelbach was named the organizational Player of the Month. However, Vogelbach’s season went south from there, as he batted .238 the rest of the way to end up at .272/.403/.425/.828 with 16 doubles, a triple, seven home runs, 39 RBI, and a stolen base in 76 games. Even if Vogelbach did not lose nearly half of his season on two trips to the disabled list (hamstring, oblique), he would have been hard pressed to match last year’s power numbers of 28 doubles and 16 home runs. Vogelbach’s lack of mobility and athleticism not only showed up in his defense, but in his base running, forcing the Smokies to play station-to-station whenever he got on base. Defensively, Vogelbach posted a respectable .990 fielding average, but his lack of range was even more glaring at the higher level of play. Vogelbach is part of the new Advanced Fall Instructional League in order to make up for some of the time he lost. There is no guarantee that Vogelbach will be promoted to Triple-A for the 2016 season.
While considered to be a utility player, Wes Darvill spent most of his time in 2015 at first base. The former shortstop split his time between first and third base for Tennessee this past season, batting .173/.253/.225/.479 with two doubles, a triple, two home runs, 25 RBI, and three stolen bases in 69 games. Darvill even pitched an inning for the first time in his professional career, and fielded a personal high of .982 at third base while being a perfect 1.000 at first. The front office likes Darvill and considers him a good soldier. They will be willing to do what they can to keep him around.
Consistency is the hallmark Jacob Rogers. The big lefty (6-foot-5, 195 pounds) turned 26 years old in the final weeks of the regular season, and can be counted on for double digit totals in home runs, being among the league leaders in RBI, and playing the best defense at first base in the entire franchise (majors included). Rogers is considered a high character individual who may end up as a coach/manager when his playing days are over. For now, Rogers remains the glue for a team that has played for a league championship three consecutive years, and came away with the crown twice. Rogers spilt his season between High-A Myrtle Beach and Double-A Tennessee, hitting a combined .249/.352/.388/.740 with 23 doubles, 13 home runs, and 82 RBI in 129 games. Fielding .993 at first, Rogers was considered a security blanket for infielders Jeimer Candelario, Carlos Penalver, and Chesny Young. Drafted in the 40th round in 2012, Rogers is a Cinderella-type story that is fun to follow as he advances.
South Bend was another mixed bag at first base, with 10 different players lining up there. With the second most reps, outfielder Yasiel Balaguert established that he can play the position going forward in his career. The 22-year old Cuban national has had trouble keeping himself in one piece over his career, as he missed a little more than a third of the season this year due to injury. Playing in 82 games, Balaguert hit .271/.310/.407/.717with 18 doubles, two triples, seven home runs, 40 RBI, and three stolen bases. Spending 36 games at first base and 32 in the outfield, Balaguert fielded .991 at first and .968 between left and right fields. If Balaguert can ever play a full season, he has the potential to be a very productive power hitter who can more than adequately hold his own on defense.
A find in this year’s draft, Matt Rose definitely has a future. Selected in the 11th round, Rose was known as a pitcher/third baseman. However, the lanky 21-year old had some arm issues, and ended up spending most of his time at first base. Playing in 45 games between Short Season-A Eugene and Low-A South Bend, Rose batted .271/.309/.392/.701 with eight doubles, four home runs, and 37 RBI. Rose fielded a flashy .997 in 39 games at first base, while being perfect in six games at third base. Listed on the roster as a pitcher, it appears that management has not ruled that out for Rose yet. But based on the way he has hit, Rose should stay as a position player, no matter where he lines up.
Another 2015 draft choice, 20th round pick Blake Headley, also saw playing time at first base for Eugene. Headley had the bulk of the starts once Matt Rose was promoted, lining up at first base 35 times while playing third base 22 times and taking a couple of turns at shortstop. The 22-year old fielded a perfect 1.000 at first base and .955 at third base. Headley had a little tougher time at the plate, batting .230/.302/.293/.595 with 10 doubles, a triple, 19 RBI, and two stolen bases in 60 games. Just where Headley fits in the future is unclear, but he could be useful as a swing infielder.
In the Arizona Rookie League, 21-year old Jose Paniagua saw most starts (35) among the 10 players that took a turn at first base. Paniagua hit .255/.304/.401/.705, with nine doubles, a triple, four homers, 25 RBI and a stolen base in 42 games. Paniagua also fielded his position well at .988 while playing four games in the outfield. Another intriguing prospect playing for the AZL Cubs was Joey Martarano. A linebacker for the Boise State football team, the 21-year old played 18 games between the AZL Cubs and Eugene, hitting .275/.301/.362/.664 with four doubles, a triple, 13 RBI, and a stolen base. Martarano is more of a football player, with baseball as a hobby. Martarano has a lot of raw tools, but chances are they will not develop until he exhausts all possibility of a future in football.
The CCO’s Short-Season Minor League Player of the Year, Chris Pieters came out of nowhere to be one of the Cubs’ most interesting prospects for 2016. Signed as a left-handed pitcher in 2011, Pieters could not cut it on the mound and moved to being a position player this past spring. At 6-foot-3, 185-pounds, the lanky 20-year old played both first base and outfield. Pieters showed that he was a work in progress, fielding .977 in 42 games at first base and .946 in 19 outfield appearances. It was at the plate that Pieters was the biggest surprise, batting a combined .302/.432/.423/.855 with 13 doubles, two triples, three home runs, 39 RBI, and 25 stolen bases in 62 games between the DSL and AZL Cubs. Pieters is attending the Fall Instructional League, and with a good showing can bypass Short Season-A Eugene and begin 2016 with Low-A South Bend.
Twenty-year old utility player Franklin Tineo also lined up 19 times at first base for the DSL Cubs, as well as 20 starts at second base and one start each at third base and catcher. In 44 games, Tineo showed some decent production, with six doubles, a triple, three home runs, 19 RBI, and three stolen bases. But Tineo only hit .214/.366/.344/.709, so he has a lot of work to do in order to move up the chain.
In the Venezuelan Summer League, 20-year old Fidel Matos always seemed to be coming up with big hits. Matos’ offensive numbers are modest, batting .247/.335/.391/.726 with nine doubles, two triples, four home runs, 19 RBI, and five stolen bases in 51 games. But it always seemed like Matos was a part of the V-Cubs’ 30 wins. Matos fielded .980 at first base while playing eight games in the outfield and pitching an inning. Twenty-one year old Roberto Vahlis seems to have settled in as more of a coach on the field. Vahlis played 18 games at first base, eight at catcher, and three in the outfield while also serving as a DH. In 39 games, Vahlis hit .267/.381/.348/.729 with eight doubles, a home run, 16 RBI, and two stolen bases.
Cubs Minor League Position Analysis