Position Analysis – Third Base
Fittingly, the fifth installment of the position analysis reports focuses on the hot corner. Today’s report takes an in depth look at a position which remains rich in talent: Third Base.
The 2015 National League Rookie of the Year Kris Bryant followed up a successful first season in the majors with a year that has him in contention for the National League Most Valuable Player for 2016. However, Bryant also saw 69 games in the outfield as well as playing third base, so lining up at the hot corner in 2017 on a regular basis may not be a sure thing.
That’s because arguably the best prospect in the Cubs’ minor league is Jeimer Candelario. Set to turn only 23 years old in a week, Candelario appears on the verge of exploding onto the Major League scene. After a fine 2015 season and a dominating performance in the Arizona Fall League, Candelario was inexplicably returned to Double-A to start the 2016 season. The obviously dejected switch-hitter predictably struggled out of the gate, particularly right-handed, posting a .219 average in 56 games before getting the call to move to Triple-A Iowa. Up where he belonged, Candelario destroyed Pacific Coast League pitching, batting .333 with 54 RBI in 76 games. Candelario was so hot the Cubs gave him a five game promotion to the big leagues the first week of July. Altogether, Candelario hit .283/.376/.464/.840 with 39 doubles, four triples, 13 home runs and 77 RBI in 132 games. Candelario’s splits show two different hitters. Candelario hit .322 with three home runs right-handed and .265 with 10 home runs from the left side. What sets Candelario apart, and may lead to a change at third base, is his defense. Candelario set a new career-low with 11 errors in 309 chances for a .964 average. Candelario also has some experience at first base, making that another option.
A decision will have to be made about Christian Villanueva this off-season. Known as an excellent defender, the 25-year old sat out all of 2016 after breaking his leg in Spring Training. Villanueva has been activated from the 60 day disabled list and placed on the 40 man roster, but he is out of minor league options. Villanueva is currently playing in the Mexican Pacific League but has yet to see time in the field. In 15 games, Villanueva has hit .278 with three home runs and nine RBI, but has not played since October 28. While primarily a third baseman, Villanueva also has experience at first base, second base and the outfield. With his versatility and power, Villanueva could be a very useful player off the bench.
Taking Candelario’s place on Double-A Tennessee was Jason Vosler. Selected in the 16th round of the 2014 Draft as a shortstop, Vosler was assigned to High-A Myrtle Beach to start the 2016 season. With the Pelicans, the 23-year old saw the bulk of his duty at third base and, before opposing teams concentrated on neutralizing him, was their most consistent hitter. The lefty batted .254 with two home runs and 39 RBI in 93 games before getting the call to join the Smokies. The move sparked an improvement defensively, as Vosler raised his fielding percentage to .967 at third base while hitting .250 with a home run and 12 RBI in 26 games. Overall, Vosler hit .254/.323/.359/.682 with 32 doubles, two triples, three home runs, 51 RBI and a stolen base in 119 games. There are some that believe that Vosler will be worked as an infield sub based on his middle infield background. However, with Vosler improving his defense with a .937 average at third base, along with his power potential, he may remain at third and eventually work toward a four corners type of player.
The best way to describe Jesse Hodges is that of a slow developing prospect that still has a lot of potential. Signed as an undrafted free agent in 2013, Hodges has worked his way unevenly through the system. The former pitcher and shortstop has had to really grow into his position, and that has had its bumps along the way. After hitting seven home runs in 73 games for Short Season-A Boise in 2014, Hodges became too pull happy and slumped to a .238 batting average in 90 games for Low-A South Bend in 2015. Returning to the SB Cubs last season, Hodges showed better plate discipline and improved his average to .287 in 61 games while increasing his walk total. The 22-year old was part of the general organizational reshuffling at the position in July and was brought to High-A Myrtle Beach. Hodges rotated in with several players and hit .186 in 29 games. For the season, Hodges batted .254/.316/.328/.644 with 10 doubles, five triples, a home run, 32 RBI and two stolen bases in 90 games. Defensively, Hodges improved his fielding average to .931 but still takes too many chances and has not slowed down the game for himself. There are a lot of parts to Hodges game to like: his power potential, his ability to adjust, and his athleticism. Whether Hodges can put together his assets remains to be seen.
The chances seem to be dwindling for Adonis Paula as he has not progressed as anticipated. Signed as an International free agent in 2012, the Dominican’s path through the minors has been more sluggish than the previously mentioned Jesse Hodges. After showing some promise with a .247 average for Short Season-A Eugene last season, the 22-year old slumped in an injury plagued 2016. Paula hit .204/.253/.307/.560 with six doubles, a triple, two home runs, 19 RBI and a stolen base in 40 games for Low-A South Bend. Paula played only 16 game at third and matched a career high .947 fielding percentage. Paula has experience at first base, shortstop and the outfield, so there is some versatility. A lot of Paula’s future with the organization will be tied to where some of the infield prospects signed last year shake out in the coming months.
Turning 20 years old at the beginning of the month (Nov. 6), Wladimir Galindo is on track to be considered one of the system’s elite prospects. The Venezuelan is just starting to scratch the surface of his potential, and if his pace of improvement continues the Cubs could have a very exciting player. Coming back from a wrist injury in 2015, Galindo was thrust into the cleanup role for Short Season-A Eugene this year and tied for second in the Northwest League in home runs while finishing eighth in RBI. That can be considered quite an accomplishment for someone with only 79 games of professional experience and was two years younger than the league average. In 66 games for the Emeralds, Galindo batted .243/.337/.462/.798 with 19 doubles, four triples, nine home runs, 40 RBI and three stolen bases. A big young man at 6-foot-3, 210-pounds, Galindo is expected to fill out even more as he matures. Galindo is a work in progress on defense, but his .910 fielding average was enough of an improvement to quell talk of moving to first base on a permanent basis, at least for now. As he moves to full season play in 2017, Galindo ranks second behind Eloy Jimenez on the list of the system’s top run-producing prospects.
The third base position at Short Season-A Eugene for 2017 looks a little muddled at this time, as the players inhabiting the position for the AZL Cubs this past season all project elsewhere, while player development is still sorting out the infielders they signed last off-season. This picture may not become clear until after the 2017 Major League Draft.
Eighteen-year old Orian Nunez projects well offensively at third base, but is a long way off defensively. The primary third baseman for Cubs-1 in the Dominican Summer League, Nunez batted .278/.344/.394/.738 with 16 doubles, two triples, a home run, 29 RBI and 12 stolen bases in 66 games of his first professional season. As a third baseman, Nunez fielded only .835 in 36 games and played better at second base, with a .961 average at that position.
Switch-hitting Fidel Mejia played all four infield position for the C-2 team, but may have found a home at third base. The 18-year old hit .321/.374/.378/.752 with nine doubles, 16 RBI and nine stolen bases in 41 games. Mejia fielded .976 in 17 games at third base, and at 5-foot-11, 160-pounds has the frame to fill out more.