Position Analysis – Left Field
The position analysis series moves from the infield to the outfield, first up one of the corner spots. Today, the CCO takes a look at a position that has a lot of promise: Left Field.
It was a mixed bag for the Cubs in left field at the Major League level as they used Chris Coghlan, Chris Denorfia, and Junior Lake at the position until they finally decided to bring up 2014 first round draft pick Kyle Schwarber and played him there. The 2016 season looks like more of the same, with Schwarber and Coghlan seeing most of the time and an off-season pick-up providing a right-handed option.
The Cubs invested in some insurance that they never collected on when they signed Adron Chambers to a minor league contract. The 28-year old veteran of three major league seasons performed as would be expected, batting .280/.358/.375/.734 with 18 doubles, two triples, a home run, 30 RBI and nine stolen bases in 88 games for Triple-A Iowa. Never a defensive stalwart, Chambers fielded .973 in 62 outfield appearance. However, Chambers provided solid leadership to the many young players on the squad.
Completing a journey in 2015 that both began and ended oddly, Billy McKinney goes into the off-season as possibly the second best prospect in the Cubs’ system. After being acquired in a major mid-season deal in 2014 from the Oakland A’s, the now 20-year old hit .301 in 51 games for High-A Daytona. It was somewhat a surprise that McKinney opened this past season back in Advanced-A, this time with Myrtle Beach. It was then learned that the Cubs were not satisfied with McKinney’s defensive effort during Spring Training, and were not willing to promote him until it improved. In 29 games, McKinney torched Carolina League pitching for a .340 average while posting a perfect 1.000 fielding average. Promoted to Double-A Tennessee, McKinney outperformed more ballyhooed prospects Albert Almora Jr. and Jacob Hannemann by hitting .285 with 39 RBI in 77 games. Overall, McKinney batted .300/.371/.454/.825 with 31 doubles, three triples, seven home runs, and 64 RBI in 106 games. With a little more than two weeks left in the season, McKinney was shut down with a seemingly minor leg injury. Critics complain that McKinney’s off-balance swing negates his power. However, McKinney hit 10 home runs at High-A prior to the trade, but batted 48 points lower than his career average. And his 31 doubles show that he does have power potential. His flaws are correctable, especially at his young age, but it may not be wise to emphasize power hitting. While he primarily played right field with the Smokies, McKinney profiles better both offensively and defensively in left field.
While it seems as if Pin-Chieh Chen has been around for a long time, the native of Taiwan is just 23 years old. Initially assigned to Double-A Tennessee, Chen became the odd-man out when the Cubs promoted both Billy McKinney and Jacob Hannemann. To his credit, Chen did not sulk when he was sent back to High-A Myrtle Beach, and put up some of the best numbers of his career. Chen hit a combined .263/.338/.378/.716, his highest since 2011. Chen hit a personal best five home runs and tied his career mark with 22 doubles. The lefty also had eight triples and 21 stolen bases, and his 46 RBI were his second highest total. Chen is considered a top-flight defensive player, capable of lining up anywhere in the outfield. A six-year minor league free agent, Chen may tempt an organization looking for a pinch-runner/defensive specialist on their roster.
Although he played in only 86 games this past season, it appears that Kevin Brown has a future in the Cubs organization in some capacity. Selected in the 22nd in 2013, Brown has now played at every level in the minors. Brown was initially assigned to Triple-A Iowa due to some personnel issues, and hit .278 in 11 games for the I-Cubs. Brown was sent down to High-A Myrtle Beach, where he batted .225 with four home runs and 21 RBI in 75 games. For the season, the left-hander hit .229/.289/.339/.628 with 13 doubles, three triples, four home runs, 24 RBI, and a stolen base. It is in approach where the 24-year old is valuable. The front office believes that Brown has the best grasp of their offensive philosophy of any player in the entire organization, majors included. Therefore, Brown acts like another coach wherever he is asked to go. Brown has also been reliable in the outfield and has some experience at first base. Although his playing days may not be over, Brown will most likely be around for a long time as a coach or special assistant.
One of the last remaining prospects in the system from the previous front office, Shawon Dunston Jr. still has a long way to go to follow in his father’s footsteps. The problem has been that the 11th round pick in 2011 has played a little more than a season’s worth of games over the past three years. The now 22-year old had setbacks in career almost as soon as it started as he was demoted from Short Season-A Boise to the Arizona rookie league 19 games into his first professional season in 2012. Dunston returned to Boise in 2013 and was off to a fine start before suffering what would be a season ending injury after 49 games. Dunston returned to play in 2014 with Low-A Kane County, but found him competing with prospects such as Yasiel Balaguert, Jacob Hannemann, and Trey Martin for playing time. Promotions and injuries to others cleared the way, and Dunston was able to hit .268 with 27 stolen bases in 96 games, bringing hope back into the picture. But his career took a bad turn again this past season as Dunston once again had to jostle for playing time with High-A Myrtle Beach, appearing in only 12 games before going on the disabled list again. Dunston lost about three months until resurfacing back in the AZL, playing in seven games over almost two months. Dunston returned to the Pelicans and played in five more games before the season ended. All totaled, Dunston batted .247/.289/.377/.666 with four doubles, three triples, five RBI, and four stolen bases in 24 games. Dunston went on to compete in the Fall Instructional League, in which it well, so this story may not be over.
The Cubs have a player with a lot of potential in 20-year old Charcer Burks. The 2013 ninth round selection played his first full season this past year and seemed to wear down a bit, but generally played well. Batting leadoff for 66 games, Burks hit .278 with a .339 OBP and 17 stolen bases out of that spot. When Burks had to cede to Jeffrey Baez, he mainly batted sixth. For the season, Burks hit .257/.339/.347/.686 with 22 doubles, four triples, three home runs, 44 RBI, and 28 stolen bases in 116 games. Burks is also above average defensively, fielding .993 in left field and .986 in center field. However, Burks lack of top arm strength projects him more as a left fielder.
In what can be called a triumphant comeback, Kevin Encarnacion was able to play for the first time after suffering burns to over 75% of his body in an off-season car crash in 2013. The former Northwest League Batting Champion was back in action in late May with Low-A South Bend, and hit .276/.345/.376/.721 with six doubles, three triples, three home runs, 17 RBI, and five stolen bases in 63 games. After batting only left-handed during his rehab, the 23-year old was back to switch-hitting, batting .256 right handed and .281as a lefty. Before the accident, Encarnacion was regarded very highly on defense, with the speed to play center field and the arm strength for right field. Encarnacion was primarily played in left to ease him back in, but he also played 14 games in right field and one at first base. It remains to be seen whether Encarnacion can come back all the way.
Right now, it is not quite certain what the Cubs have in 22-year old Danny Spingola. Selected in the 31st round of the 2015 draft, the left-handed hitter nearly split his time evenly between the outfield and designated hitter. Spingola played in only 12 games total: six with the AZL Cubs, two at Short Season-A Eugene, and four for Low-A South Bend. Overall, Spingola batted .314/.375/.543/.918 with four doubles, two triples, seven RBI, and a stolen base in 35 at bats. However, most of that damage was done in the Arizona rookie league, where Spingola hit .529 and had all of his extra base hits, RBI, and stolen bases. The sample size was small, so assessing his defense is difficult. In seven games (five in left field, two in right), Spingola committed one error in six chances. While his age and lack of experience is working against him, the Cubs did promote Spingola very rapidly in a short amount of time. What that exactly means will have to wait until spring to be answered.
It was a little surprising to see the Cubs’ teen sensation Eloy Jimenez lining up in left field this past season. The soon-to-be 19 year old (November 27) has been considered by most to be a prototypical right fielder due to his size, arm strength, and run-producing ability. For whatever reason, player development felt it best to have Jimenez play left field, which he fielded a room-for-improvement .983. At the plate, Jimenez was able to deliver as he hit .284/.328/.418/.746 with 10 doubles, seven home runs, 33 RBI, and three stolen bases in 57 games for Short Season-A Eugene. Jimenez was also very impressive during his time in the Fall Instructional League, not only displaying his power, but demonstrating some leadership to younger players. A lot will depend on roster make-up as to whether Jimenez plays mostly in left or right field as he progresses to Low-A South Bend in 2016.
Another late round draft pick that saw a lot of playing time after signing was Donnie Cimino. Selected in the 37th round out of Wesleyan University (CT), Cimino batted .217/.284/.233/.517 with a double and three RBI in 20 games for the AZL Cubs. The 22-year old was perfect in 19 chances in the field, but just where he fits is uncertain. Selected a little higher in the 16th round, Michael Foster may be able to force some decisions. A two-way player at Northeastern University, Foster is considered a good athlete with speed and a strong throwing arm. Foster will turn 22 years old on Nov. 4, and hit .241/.343/.287/.630 with two doubles, a triple, 11 RBI, and two stolen bases in 25 games for the A-Cubs. Splitting his time evenly between left and right field, Foster fielded a perfect 1.000. Like Spingola and Cimino, Foster is a bit over-aged but has the option of converting to pitcher if his offensive game stalls.
It was a revolving door in left field for the DSL Cubs, with six players lining up there during the season. Among the players that don’t project to another position, 18-year old Samir Lara looks to have the most promise. In his first professional season Lara put on quite an offensive display, batting .272/.348/.437/.785 with nine doubles, a triple, two home runs, 19 RBI, and six stolen bases in 28 games. Lara played both left and center field, with improvement needed on a .955 fielding average. Seventeen-year old Tony Rijo struggled a little more, hitting only .193/.338/.248/.587 with six doubles, a home run, 12 RBI, and seven stolen bases in 47 games. Rijo was perfect in 14 games in left field, and committed only one error in seven games as a right fielder. A defensive specialist, Luis Ubiera also had some trouble at the plate. The 19-year old batted .195/. 292/.230/.522 with two doubles, a triple, 11 RBI, and six stolen bases in 41 games, but was a perfect 1.000 in the field.
Twenty-one year old Jose Rojas provided stability on the VSL Cubs line-up. His maturity was on display for a team that the average age was a little under 19 years old. Rojas was the run producer as he hit .264/.338/.377/.715 with 15 doubles, a triple, three home runs, 40 RBI, and 10 stolen bases in 66 games. Rojas also lined-up at six different positions and fielded the best in left field, with a .942 average. After a promising start to his career, 19-year old Luis Hidalgo is working his way back from injury. After putting up a .318 average in 46 games last season, Hidalgo rejoined the club 36 games into the 2015 season and hit .179/.293/.214/.507 with three doubles, 11 RBI, and five stolen bases in 30 games. If Hidalgo can work his way back to his pre-injury form, the Cubs could have an interesting young run producer.