Position Analysis – First Base
After examining the catching position throughout the organization, it’s time to move to the infield with the next report to summarize and project how the minor league system looks on a position-by-position basis. Today, the CCO will look at a position that has a great deal of questions: First Base.
Over the past four seasons, Anthony Rizzo has started 615 of a possible 648 games at first base for the Chicago Cubs. Fans better hope that trend continues, because it is a long way down before you find any worthwhile players at the position.
Not that the Cubs don’t have anyone who can cover first base should any extended need arise. The initial move would be to third baseman Jeimer Candelario, who has first base experience. It would then be a sort-of roulette involving Candelario, Javier Baez, Kris Bryant, Willson Contreras, and Ben Zobrist. The question becomes then how would that effect the defense, with the answer possibly coming out of the minors.
This past season, Triple-A had what could be considered their first regular at first base since Brad Nelson played 100 games there in 2013 , Dan Vogelbach. The Falstaff-ian 23-year old logged 76 games at first before being dealt to the Seattle organization and fielded .992. Nine other players saw time at first replacing Vogelbach and had a collective .982 fielding percentage, way below standards for the position. As a parting shot, Vogelbach also broke bad on the Cubs organization and their preparation of him at the position.
The scene got worse at Double-A Tennessee, which used 14 players at the position and dragged a core defense that had twice finished first in fielding for their respective leagues to next to last. No player started more than 30 games at first base, with catcher Victor Caratini logging the most time.
You have to dig down to the High-A level before you can come up with a legitimate first base prospect, which would be Yasiel Balaguert. Playing his first full-season at the position, the 23-year old had some bumps defensively, but showed great improvement offensively. The Cuban national more than doubled his career high in home runs and set a Myrtle Beach record for runs batted in. In a year which he was named the Carolina Player of the Week twice, Balaguert hit .263/.316/.424/.740 with 25 doubles, two triples, 19 home runs, 96 RBI and five stolen bases in a career high 135 games. Following the loss of several key members of the Pelicans’ squad at midseason, Balaguert became a steadying presence with his leadership. Balaguert committed 10 errors and fielded .991 at first base, so there is more work to be done defensively as he saw his time dwindle to only three games in the outfield. Balaguert is very much of a traditional high risk/high reward power hitter, but he has been very productive and can adequately hold his own on defense.
Two other prospects looking to emerge at the position are Tyler Alamo and Matt Rose. With several top prospects coming to the catcher position, Alamo saw the bulk of his playing time at first base. The 21-year old Californian doubled his career-high in games played at 85 and set career highs for home runs and runs batted in. Alamo batted .243/.283/.330/.613 with 12 doubles, five home runs and 50 RBI for Low-A South Bend. At 6-foot-4, 200 pounds Alamo is just scratching the surface of his power potential. Defensively, Alamo picked things up pretty well with a .996 fielding percentage, the same he posted in 25 games at catcher with a 24 percent caught stealing rate.
It was rougher going for Rose, as he needed a midseason demotion to regain his stroke. Rose, the 11th round pick in the 2015 draft, has tremendous power but a very long swing that caused him to struggle at the plate. For the year, Rose went .236/.323/.426/.749 with 18 doubles, 17 home runs, 59 RBI and four stolen bases in 101 games between South Bend and Short Season-A Eugene. Originally a third baseman, Rose may be moving across the diamond permanently after posting a .909 fielding percentage there in 43 games, while fielding .995 in 47 games at first base.
Time may be running out on 22-year old Jose Paniagua, as his production has yet to match his previous hype. Paniagua has fallen a far away from the .305 average, six home runs and 40 RBI he had in 67 games in the 2014 Dominican Summer League. This past season, Paniagua hit .191/.231/.257/.488 with five doubles, two triples, a home run and 23 RBI in 50 games, playing all but six games with Short Season-A Eugene. While he has played outfield and third base along with first base, Paniagua has yet to really distinguish himself anywhere on the diamond.
While he lined up the most times at first base for Short Season-A Eugene in 2016, the future for Chris Pieters is most likely in the outfield. The former left-handed pitcher continues to make a transition to position player and harness his extraordinary athleticism. Among the batting leaders of the Northwest League over the first half of the season, the 22-year old fell dramatically off in the second half to bat .246/.324/.337/.661 with eight doubles, three triples, three home runs, 30 RBI and 20 stolen bases in 66 games. Pieters has been playing outfield in the Fall Instructional League in order to use that speed and athleticism to his advantage. But with the 2017 South Bend Cubs’ outfield looking totally stacked, don’t be too surprised to see Pieters taking some regular turns back at first.
Signed as a catcher, the front office is now viewing Kevin Zamudio as an infielder. One of an ever growing line of intriguing prospects signed out of Mexico, the 18-year old held his own in his first professional season. The 6-foot, 200-pound youngster hit .237/.291/.421/.712 with 14 doubles, a triple, four home runs and 23 RBI in 45 games for the AZL Cubs. Zamudio also saw a few turns at third base, so it appears as if management has yet to decide how to best utilize this budding offensive talent.
After spending most of his young career at third base, it looks like Rafael Mejia will be making a permanent move to first base. The 18-year old native of the Dominican Republic was brought to the Fall Instructional League with that move in mind, as the top brass feel that Mejia can develop into a power hitter and run producer. While appearing a little overmatched in the Arizona Rookie League, Mejia showed some decent power in batting .203/.226/.313/.538 with six doubles, a triple, two home runs and 10 RBI in 36 games. Mejia was given every opportunity to stick at third, but proved to be a little stiff in his fielding. Mejia will most likely return to Arizona in 2017 to further hone his craft.
Stepping up to the Dominican Summer League, 21-year old Fidel Matos seemed to go backwards in his development. After hitting a promising .247 in Venezuela last year, Matos regressed to bat .217/.311/.322/.633 with two doubles, two triples, three home runs, 23 RBI and two stolen bases in 46 games. Matos fielded a below average .980 at first and played 11 games in the outfield.
Two years removed from a serious knee injury, Luis Hidalgo is putting back together the pieces of his once promising career. The 20-year old hit .318 in his first professional season in 2014, but struggled as he tried to play through his recovery in 2015. This past year, Hidalgo displayed the power that scouts first saw in him. Hidalgo tied for second in home runs in the DSL. The primary first baseman for the DSL-1 Cubs, Hidalgo went .216/.320/.438/.758 with seven doubles, nine home runs, 30 RBI and 10 stolen bases in 48 games. Whether Hidalgo regains enough mobility to return to the outfield remains to be seen, but until then he needs work defensively at first.