The focus of Spring Training last year was on Kris Bryant. The phenom was ranked No. 1 overall on many prospect lists and mashed three doubles and nine home runs in just 40 at bats last spring. Nonetheless, Bryant was sent down to the minors, much to fans’ chagrin. When the team did bring him up, the hand wringing about his service time was forgotten as Bryant cruised to being the unanimous NL Rookie of the Year. Bryant is set to the return as the third base starter, but may see some time additional time in the outfield. Let’s take a look at third base for the coming season.
Kris Bryant certainly accomplished a lot in his first season. In addition to winning NL Rookie of the Year, he was named to the All Star team, finished 11th in NL MVP voting, set Cubs rookie records with 26 home runs and 99 RBI and a Major League record with 199 strikeouts. Overall, he batted .275/.369/.488 and added 31 doubles, five triples and 13 stolen bases. Bryant’s BABIP was .378 last year, well above the league average .300 and suggests some regression in his batting average. Even with a dip in that department, with the team adding veterans like Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist who have great on-base skills, some pressure should be off Bryant to produce. This should help him during the season to cut down on his strikeouts, put more balls into play and hopefully reduce the chances at a sophomore slump.
There were concerns about Bryant’s defense going into the season, but he fielded a 5.4 UZR/150 rating for above average. Bryant also spent 19 games total at all three outfield positions and could see time there depending on matchups as he graded out well in the defense department.
If Bryant is in the outfield, someone has to play third base. The leading candidate is Javier Baez. As previewed in our second base and shortstop profiles, Baez is expected to fill a super utility role. Of all the positions he played last year, he looked most comfortable at and graded out the best defensively at third base. He probably could earn at most a start a week there.
Tommy La Stella could be another possibility if he makes the 25-man roster. He was slated to share third base with Mike Olt last season, but injuries to La Stella and Olt forced the Cubs hand to call up Bryant a little earlier than they may have wanted to. His bat doesn’t really fit a power position like third, due to just 25 career home runs in 451 pro baseball games. However, his ability to get on base is something the front office covets and this team needs. Defensively, he needs more time at third in the spring though. He has just 52 innings of experience and has graded out as well below average.
A dark horse for a bench job and potential starts at third is Christian Villanueva. He was acquired in 2012 in the trade that sent Ryan Dempster to the Rangers for Villanueva and RHP Kyle Hendricks. Thanks to that trade, prior to the team drafting Bryant in 2013, Villanueva was considered the team’s third baseman of the future. Uneven results in the minors have caused his star to lose its luster some within the organization as he hasn’t earned himself a call-up yet to the majors. Last season at Iowa, Villanueva played the good soldier and had one of his better years. He batted .257/.314/.438 with 23 doubles, two triples, 20 home runs and 95 RBI while splitting his time between first and third base. Some scouts say that Villanueva may be one of the better fielders at third in the Cubs organization thanks to quick first step, soft hands and a strong arm. Villanueva is out of minor league options, so if the Cubs intend to keep him, they’ll either have to sneak him through waivers or add him to 25-man roster to start the year. With the team not having a true backup for Anthony Rizzo and having a fair amount of positional redundancy on the roster, Villanueva could make some sense. It likely could be a battle between Baez and Villanueva for who hits better this spring.
Another Cubs third base prospect to keep an eye on this spring is Jeimer Candelario who probably has taken the title of third baseman of the future away from Villanueva at this point. The 6-foot-1 switch hitter split his season last year between High-A Myrtle Beach and Double-A Tennessee. In 128 games, he batted .277/.339/.431 with 35 doubles, four triples, 10 home runs and 64 RBI. Scouts say Candelario has more power from the left side, but is pretty balanced hitter from both sides of the plate. He also may not be as quick as Villanueva at third, but he probably has just as good hands and arm. With Candelario slated to likely start at Tennessee this spring will give the front office a chance to see how he does against tougher pitching and a bigger stage.
Just like the rest of the infield, the Cubs have a wealth of options at third base. Due to manager Joe Maddon’s love for versatility, future superstar Kris Bryant might not spend all of his time at third. It’s nice to know there are good options if he plays the outfield. The Cubs also have some decisions to make on players like Villanueva and La Stella and their chances of making the roster.
2016 Cubs Spring Training Previews
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