Position Analysis – Third Base
The position analysis series continues with a look at a position which is still rich in talent after the promotion of the potential National League Rookie of the Year: Third Base.
After everything that has transpired with the Cubs this season, it is hard to believe that Rookie of the Year candidate Kris Bryant was the Opening Day third baseman for the Iowa Cubs. His stint lasted all of seven games before Bryant joined the big league team and set rookie records for home runs and RBI.
Taking Bryant’s place with the Iowa Cubs was Christian Villanueva. Known as an excellent defender, the 24-year old had his statistically worst defensive season of his career. However, his fielding average of .931 was due in part to substandard play at first base. Villanueva actually had the most starts of anyone on the I-Cubs at first base, lining up their 35 times and fielding a respectable .991. On the offensive side, Villanueva showed that he is starting to figure things out as he went .259/.313/.437/.751 with 23 doubles, two triples, 18 home runs, 88 RBI, and two stolen bases in 123 games. Villanueva also has some distant experience at second base and shortstop, and played almost exclusively in the outfield during a stint in the Mexican Pacific League last winter. Villanueva is currently off to a hot start in winter ball.
The Cubs organization had its share of high profile promotions and breakthrough performances in 2015. But if you asked which player made the most improvement, you would not get much argument if you mentioned Jeimer Candelario. The 21- year old had always been long on promise as he has been a part of Top 20 prospect lists for several years. However, Candelario had not performed to expectations, posting batting averages of .256 and .223 the past two seasons. But a change in approach seemed to benefit the switch-hitter, as he was asked to be less selective and to look for more pitches to drive. The change resulted in a .277 batting average at High-A Myrtle Beach and a promotion to Double-A. In Tennessee, Candelario continued to be aggressive, which led to a .291 batting average in 36 games. Overall, Candelario hit .277/.330/.431/.770 with 35 doubles, four triples, 10 home runs, and 64 RBI in 128 games. It was on defense that Candelario made the greatest improvement. His 13 errors were a career low, and exactly half of what he committed two seasons ago. Candelario also had a 46-game errorless streak and fielded .951 between the two levels, turning in several highlight reel plays. Candelario is currently playing in the AFL, and seems ready for bigger things.
Taking Candelario’s place on High-A Myrtle Beach was a surprise promotion in Jason Vosler. Drafted in the 16th round last year as a shortstop, Vosler was assigned to Low-A South Bend to start the 2015 season. With the SB Cubs, the 22-year old saw the bulk of his duty at third base, starting 38 games there. The lefty also saw seven games at second base and five each at first base and shortstop. The left-handed hitter batted .235 with four home runs and 20 RBI in 69 games before getting the call to join the Pelicans. The move sparked an improvement both offensively and defensively, as Vosler raised his fielding percentage to .943 at third base while hitting .244 with six home runs and 20 RBI in 38 games. Overall, Vosler hit .238/.323/.374/.697 with 18 doubles, two triples, 10 home runs, 40 RBI, and three stolen bases in 107 games. Vosler will probably return to Myrtle Beach and work more around the infield, with some possible reps in the outfield. The Cubs may have a gem in the making with Vosler.
Disappointing is the best word to describe the season turned in by Jesse Hodges. Signed as an undrafted free agent in 2013, Hodges looked like a potential steal when he batted .265 with seven home runs and 44 RBI in 73 games for Short Season-A Boise in 2014. But the 21-year old failed to show any progress, batting only .238 with 18 doubles, a triple, six home runs, 34 RBI, and a stolen base in 90 games for Low-A South Bend. Hodges actually regressed as a third baseman, fielding only .902 after posting a .930 percentage last year. Hodges also saw some time at first base. It was a bit of a surprise when the Cubs did not invite Hodges to participate in their catcher conversion program in the Fall Instructional League after he had a very good showing in an emergency appearance this past season.
Caution can best describe how the organization’s approach to Short Season-A Eugene’s third baseman Adonis Paula. Signed as an international free agent in 2012, Paula has seen an incremental progression through the Cubs’ system. The 21-year old spent two years in the Dominican Summer League, and moved stateside to the Arizona Rookie League last year before being assigned to the Emeralds. Through it all, Paula’s numbers were pretty undistinguished, batting a career high .281 in 2013. In 47 games with Eugene, Paula hit .261/.316/.382/.698 with nine doubles, two triples, two home runs, 19 RBI, and a stolen base in 47 games. Paula fielded an unremarkable .906 at third base this season, and has experience at both first base and shortstop. While Paula’s numbers are not horrible, they look incredibly similar to Hodges at this stage. Only time will tell on Paula, but for now, there is plenty of room for improvement.
The next big thing for the Cubs at the third base position could be teenage phenom Wladimir Galindo. The 18-year old contended for the Venezuelan Summer League Triple Crown last season and was leapfrogged to the Arizona Rookie League this year. Galindo came out blazing, hitting .358/.400/.522/.922 with seven doubles, two triples, 11 RBI, and a stolen base in 19 games. However, Galindo was then shut down due to a wrist injury. Galindo participated in the Fall Instructional League, where his main focus was defense. The 6-foot-3, 210-pounder is a work in progress defensively, as he fielded a paltry .780 at third base and only had a .857 average last year. Galindo has had some success at first base so that is always an option. Despite his defensive woes, Galindo shows the same offensive maturity that Gleyber Torres has, and it would not be a surprise to see him open with Low-A South Bend, provided his is physically sound.
When Galindo went down, the A-Cubs turned to veteran utility infielder Carlos Jimenez to fill the gap. The 22-year old is in his second season in the Cubs organization, and has played at short and second as well as third base during that time. Last year, Jimenez posted an intriguing .301 average with 21 stolen bases in the DSL. But those numbers took a big downturn as he moved to Arizona for 2015, hitting .236/.264/.330/.594 with five doubles, a triple, a home run, and 11 RBI in 30 games. Jimenez fielded a non-descript .833 at third base. As we saw this season, Jimenez is probably a good player to keep around for emergencies, but his future prospects are limited.
The Cubs have another exciting teenage talent in 17-year old Dominican Rafael Mejia. The 6-foot-1, 195-pound youngster has some legitimate power as he had 12 doubles and four home runs in 54 Dominican Summer League games. Mejia also had 30 RBI and nine stolen bases while batting .263/.379/.387/.765. For that, Mejia was named a DSL All-Star. Like many young players, Mejia needs work on his defense, as he had only a .839 fielding average.
Backing up Rafael was another Mejia, as 16-year old Fidel Mejia had a good showing for a first year professional. Appearing in 37 DSL games, Mejia hit .275/.360/.331/.691 with four doubles, two triples, 13 RBI and six stolen bases. Mejia also line-up at second base and shortstop, fielding .977 at second, .846 at short, and .776 at third base.
Bringing up the bottom of the chain is yet another young player in 17-year old Francisco Garay. Toiling in the Venezuela Summer League, Garay had a trying time at the plate, batting only .126/.190/.146/.336 with four doubles and 15 RBI in 61 games. The primary third baseman for the V-Cubs, Garay fielded .825 while also taking some turns at shortstop, second base, and first base. Garay has a long way to go, and a lot of work to do.