Position Analysis – Center Field
The position analysis series has moved back to the middle and continues with look at a position that is just loaded with prospects: Center field.
The front office made a good deal in the off-season, trading two unwanted players for a one-year rental in veteran Dexter Fowler. The 29-year old switch-hitter wasn’t a perfect fit, but provided enough speed an on-base presence to set up the rest of the offense. Fowler is now a free agent, and it appears that the Cubs will extend a qualifying offer, if for any reason to get a draft pick if he signs elsewhere. The Cubs also acquired vets Austin Jackson and Quintin Berry late, but both look like last second stop-gaps, to be re-signed only if other options do not pan out.
The first in-house alternative would be Matt Szczur. The 26-year old had the best preseason out of any Cubs hitter, but had to return to Triple-A Iowa as the Major League roster was already set. The former football receiver did get recalled and played in 47 games, getting only 80 plate appearances and batting .222 with a home run and eight RBI. To his credit, Szczur did not sulk when with the I-Cubs, hitting .292/.355/.442/.796 with 12 doubles, two triples, eight home runs, 31 RBI, and 20 stolen bases in 70 games. Szczur is currently the best defensive outfielder on the Cubs’ 40-man roster, fielding a perfect 1.000 in his big league career and .991 over six minor league seasons. Szczur is out of minor league options and it is not clear how much of a chance present management will give him. But it does seem as if he will have a good career as a pinch-runner/defensive replacement somewhere in the league.
A player with a career .278 batting average, .374 on-base percentage, and who averages 38 stolen bases a season should have a shot filling a vacant leadoff spot, shouldn’t they? But it appears that the Cubs are willing to let John Andreoli walk away for nothing, as the 25-year old is Rule 5 Draft eligible and most likely will not be protected on the 40-man roster. The 17th round selection in the 2011 draft has been confounding critics for years, which have been waiting for the opposition to catch up with Andreoli. In his first full season at Triple-A, Andreoli remained on pace, batting .277/.372/.401/.773 with 20 doubles, six triples, a career-high five home runs, 32 RBI, and 33 stolen bases in 106 games. Never considered a great defensive player, Andreoli turned in a personal best .991 fielding average in center field and .987 over all three outfield positions. With 159 career stolen bases, the Cubs could have turned to Andreoli as a pinch-running specialist late in the season, but instead chose to bring in Berry. Unless something truly amazing happens with the Cubs’ roster, some team could pick up a very good player for a mere $50,000.
Cubs’ management is very high on a pair of Tennessee centerfielders in Albert Almora and Jacob Hannemann, but others are not convinced. The initial first round selection by the current front office, Almora has had issues the past two seasons. The closest the 21-year old has come to playing a full season was 2014, when he participated in 125 games between High-A and Double-A. However, Almora hit only .234 in 36 games for Tennessee when promoted. This past year, Almora added to a long list of injuries, going on the DL three times as he hit at a .241 clip until August. In the final month, Almora batted .352 to push his totals to .272/.327/.400/.727 with 26 doubles, four triples, six home runs, 46 RBI, and eight stolen bases in 106 games for the Smokies. Considered a good defender with excellent instincts, Almora turned in his worst defensive performance of his career this past season. Almora fielded .976, and his six errors were three times as many as he committed in any previous season. What is more important, Almora suffered all of his injuries this past year while playing defense. Because of their investment, the Cubs will give Almora every break they possibly can. But concerns over whether Almora can hit at the big league level, or stay in one piece, are legitimate.
The Cubs also made a big investment on Jacob Hannemann, drafting him in the third round in 2013. The front office has tried to push the 24-year old through the system quickly, and conversely, Hannemann’s career has gone in fits and starts. Hannemann had only batted .254 at Low-A Kane County in 2014 when he was promoted to High-A Daytona, hitting .241 in 36 games. The Cubs seemed a little trigger-happy when they promoted Hannemann from High-A Myrtle Beach to Double-A Tennessee after he hit .328 in 16 games. The lefty proceeded to bat .233 in 112 games for the Smokies to end up with a total of .244/.303/.366/.668 with 24 doubles, nine triples, six home runs, 45 RBI, and 24 stolen bases in 128 games. Hannemann is one of those players whose defensive statistics do not reflect his actual play. Turning in several highlight reel plays, Hannemann fielded a perfect 1.000 in center field and .997 over all outfield positions. However, most of that had to do with Hannemann’s incredible speed and athleticism, as he overcame poor positioning, poor instincts, and poor technique. Hannemann also has below average arm strength. It would probably be best if the Cubs left Hannemann at the Double-A level and work on getting the most out his vast array of talents. Unfortunately, Hannemann’s progress has the feel of management trying to prove something, rather than letting a player develop at his own pace.
What is not in question is Trey Martin’s defensive ability, as he has already been awarded a Gold Glove for 2015. What is in question is whether Martin will ever hit enough to make it to the big leagues. The 22-year old has been a slow developing prospect, losing most of the 2013 season to shoulder surgery. Martin is still recovering from both the surgery and the long lay-off, as his offense has yet to reflect his early promise. Starting this past season at Low-A South Bend after spending all of 2014 at the same level, Martin was promoted after 16 games. Moving up to High-A Myrtle Beach, Martin spent a little time on the DL, but appeared in 90 games and hit .239. For the year, Martin batted .241/.279/.320/.599 with 18 doubles, three triples, two home runs, 39 RBI, and 20 stolen bases in 106 total games. Martin has the speed and defense you are looking for. If Martin can improve his offense, he can work his way into the conversation on the system’s top prospects.
With all of the talent at the position, it is easy to overlook the abilities of Rashad Crawford. Part of the present administration’s first draft in 2012, the 22-year old has made slow but steady progress each year. In his first full professional season, Crawford was the primary centerfielder for Low-A South Bend. Playing 107 games, the lanky left-hander batted .280/.322/.382/.704 with 15 doubles, five triples, four home runs, 50 RBI, and 20 stolen bases. Crawford is also above average defensively, fielding .990 in center and .992 with 10 assists overall. Crawford has shown incremental progress each step up the ladder, so his 2016 season for High-A Myrtle Beach may be special.
Someone who may not be staying long in center field is 2015 first round draft pick Ian Happ. The ninth overall selection did not make the same splash as previous first round selections Kris Bryant or Kyle Schwarber, but those are awfully tough acts to follow. Management wanted Happ to feel comfortable at the plate, so they kept the switch-hitter in the outfield. Happ showed that he had ability out there, fielding 1.000 in center field and .992 with three assists over all the outfield positions. Splitting his time between Short Season-A Eugene and Low-A South Bend, the 21-year old showed his offensive versatility by hitting .259/.356/.466/.822 with 17 doubles, four triples, nine home runs, 33 RBI, and 10 stolen bases in 67 games. The Cubs are spending the off-season converting Happ to second base, a position he played part-time at the University of Cincinnati. However, it is good to know that Happ can handle himself in the outfield should things not pan out.
The 2015 draft also brought Donnie Dewees in the second round. The Cubs selected the 22-year old due to an overall system need for leadoff men. Dewees certainly fits the bill as he swiped 19 bases in his first 66 professional games. The lefty also hit fairly well, batting .266/.306/.376/.682 with 14 doubles, a triple, five home runs, and 30 RBI for Short Season-A Eugene. But it may be a stretch to put Dewees in center field as he lacks top arm strength for the position. Defensively, Dewees fielded only .980 in center, but had a 1.000 average everywhere else. Offensively, Dewees provides a much needed area for the organization. However, he may have to move to left field in the future.
That future for Dewees may be as early as next season, because the Cubs signed a gifted centerfielder in Eddy Julio Martinez. The Cubs were able swoop in and lure the 20-year old away from the San Francisco Giants, signing him to a $3 million contract on Oct. 19. According to reports from MLB.com, Martinez has a quick power stroke and shows good defensive instincts with an accurate arm. Martinez will turn 21 in January and due to his age and international experience is expected open the 2016 season with Low-A South Bend.
Providing some maturity and stability, Roberto Caro was the main centerfielder for the AZL Cubs. Signed in 2011, the 22-year old kicked around in the Dominican Summer League for three seasons before coming stateside in 2015. In the Arizona Rookie League, Caro was able to use his experience to bat .255/.351/.347/.698 with three doubles, three triples, nine RBI, and eight stolen bases in 31 games. Caro also had a five-game stint with Triple-A Iowa as a roster-filler in July. On the defensive side, Caro had one of his worst seasons, fielding .963 in center field. However, Caro does have a career average of .989 in center, so he can still be useful as a support player. But unless Caro is able to accelerate his progress, he may be nothing more than a system player.
The next wave of talent in center field begins with 2015 fourth round draft pick Darryl Wilson. A high school player from Canton, OH, the 18-year old turned away from a commitment to Vanderbilt University to play for the Cubs. The left-hander was able to display some of his speed and athleticism after signing, playing 22 games for the AZL Cubs. Wilson batted .266/.322/.354/.676 with three doubles, two triples, six RBI, and five stolen bases. Wilson also had a perfect 1.000 fielding percentage in the outfield and has a strong, accurate arm. Wilson impressed on-lookers in the Fall Instructional League with his speed, and will now need to improve his strength in order to get the most out of his 5-foot-9, 177-pound frame.
The teenaged talent continued in the Dominican Summer League with 17-year old Yovanny Cuevas and 18-year old Jose Jules. At nearly two and a half years below the league average age, Cuevas displayed a lot of promise both offensively and defensively. In 59 games, Cuevas hit .259/.364/.387/.751 with 15 doubles, three triples, two home runs, 25 RBI, and 13 stolen bases. Cuevas was a perfect 1.000 fielding average in 30 games in center, but struggled at .958 in 19 games as a left fielder. Jules struggled more in both phases of the game, batting .218/.294/.270/.564 with four doubles, a triple, a home run, 11 RBI, and 11 stolen bases in 52 games. Defensively, Jules fielded a poor .911 in 41 games in the outfield.
Making some progress, the VSL Cubs’ Jose Gonzalez could become a player, but still has a long way to go. The 19-year old played his second season with the V-Cubs in 2015 and led the league with 45 RBI, quite an accomplishment on a last place team. In 70 games, Gonzalez batted .242/.352/.316/.668 with six doubles, two triples, three home runs, and 10 stolen bases. The greatest improvement Gonzalez made was defensively, where he raised his fielding percentage to .992 this past year. The Cubs may use Gonzalez to provide some leadership and maturity to what looks like a very young and talented DSL squad next season.