Position Analysis – Center Field
The series of articles to summarize and project how the minor league system looks on a position by position basis continues today. And the CCO moves to the middle of the great green expanse and looks a position teeming with talent: Center field
The die appears to be cast in a change at the outfield pivot point, as Dexter Fowler declined a qualifying offer and elected for free agency. The Cubs have not closed the door on Fowler returning but the signing of Jon Jay to a one-year contract as the left-handed complement to Albert Almora Jr. appears to have signaled the end of Fowler’s time with the Cubs.
The front office wanted a way to ease Almora Jr. into the center field job at the big league level. And Jay gives the Cubs the insurance and left-handed bat to pair with the 22-year old Almora Jr.
The reason for the Cubs concern could be the lack of progress Almora Jr. has shown in plate discipline. Although Almora Jr. batted .303 in 80 games for Triple-A Iowa, he drew only nine walks for a .303/.317/.416/.733 batting line. Almora hit .277/.308/.455/.763 with nine doubles, a triple, three home runs and 14 RBI in 47 games with the parent club, but coaxed only five walks. No one doubts Almora’s instincts and defense, although he lacks both top end speed and arm strength. Almora has also displayed a tendency to get dinged up over the course of a season.
The Cubs seem determined to force the action with Jacob Hannemann, adding him to the 40-man roster. Set to turn 26 years old a few weeks following the opening of the 2017 season (April 29), Hannemann has only batted over .250 for a full season once in his four-year career. As a member of the Double-A Tennessee Smokies, Hannemann played only 74 for games before going down with a thumb injury. The injury was the latest for the 2013 third round draft pick, who has also been sidelined with shoulder, elbow and hamstring injuries. In his time with the Smokies, his second year at the Double-A level, Hannemann was around his career levels, batting .247/.326/.426/.752 with 14 doubles, four triples, 10 home runs, 30 RBI and 26 stolen bases. Hannemann’s home run and stolen base totals are a testament to his raw talent. In the outfield, Hannemann is one of those players whose defensive statistics do not reflect his actual play. Turning in several highlight reel plays, Hannemann fielded .973 over all outfield positions. However, most of those head-turning plays were due to Hannemann’s incredible speed and athleticism as he overcame poor positioning, poor instincts and poor technique. Hannemann also has below average arm strength. With other prospects fast on his heels, this upcoming season may be make-or-break for Hannemann.
What is not in question is Trey Martin’s defensive ability as he has already won a Gold Glove in 2015. The question is whether Trey Martin will ever hit enough to make it to the big leagues. The 23-year has never recovered any of his offensive potential since losing his 2013 season to shoulder surgery. Martin started this past season at High-A Myrtle Beach, appearing in 29 games and hitting .233. Several transactions transpired to necessitate a promotion to Double-A Tennessee, where Martin batted only .186 in 68 games. For the year, Martin was .200/.261/.249/.510 with five doubles, two triples, two home runs, 32 RBI and 16 stolen bases in 97 games. Martin’s defense remained sparkling, with a .995 average and four assists. While Martin has the speed and defense you are looking for, at this point you are looking at a very good minor league outfielder that may not have a chance of going forward without some major improvement on offense.
Rising almost as fast as his play on the field, 2015 second round draft choice Donnie Dewees can fill the parent club’s need for a leadoff man. Starting the year with Low-A South Bend, Dewees was on fire for the first month before slumping in May. The 23-year old regrouped and was able to get his average up to .282 in 84 games before being promoted to High-A Myrtle Beach. With the Pelicans, Dewees provided a spark by hitting .289, as Myrtle Beach won their second straight Mills Cup Championship. All together, the left-hander was .284/.338/.416/.754 with 25 doubles, 14 triples, five home runs, 73 RBI and 31 stolen bases in 129 games. It was a little bit of a surprise that Dewees was not invited to the Arizona Fall League in order to accelerate his development, but he did attend advanced instructs in Arizona. While some worry about a lack of top arm strength as a centerfielder, the Cubs have been working with Dewees on his mechanics and set-up to maximize his abilities. Defensively, Dewees has won praises from his coaches for his anticipation, fundamentals and closing speed while fielding .990.
A surprise out of the 2016 draft, Connor Myers may have a bright future. Selected in the 27th round out of Old Dominion, Myers came with a reputation as a polished defender. That proved to be true, as Myers did not commit an error in 98 chances for 47 games over three levels. At the plate, the 22-year old showed that he has something to work with, being quickly promoted to Low-A South Bend where he batted .221 in 34 games. Combined, Myers hit .229/.288/.349/.637 with eight doubles, two triples, three home runs, 18 RBI and 11 stolen bases in 49 games. A four-year starter in college, it would not be a surprise to see Myers start his 2017 season with High-A Myrtle Beach.
Next in the wave of talent in center field is 2015 fourth round draft pick Darryl ‘D.J.’ Wilson. A high school player from Canton, OH, the 20-year old was not as advanced as originally anticipated. After a slow start with Short Season-A Eugene, the left-hander was moved from leadoff to ninth in the batting order before regrouping and reclaiming the leadoff spot after an injury to Robert Garcia. Wilson batted .257/.320/.371/.691 with 15 doubles, two triples, three home runs, 29 RBI and 21 stolen bases in 64 games. Wilson was a little erratic and careless in his outfield play, fielding .949 and committing seven errors. Wilson does have a strong, accurate arm, and with his 5-foot-9, 177-pound frame has drawn national comparisons to Adam Eaton.
Playing the part of system rover for the Cubs, Jose Gonzalez did not have the statistical season he had hoped for. After playing two seasons in Venezuela, the 20-year old started the year in the Arizona Rookie League before being called up for two weeks to Triple-A Iowa, then spending the remainder of the season with Short Season-A Eugene. Through it all, Gonzalez was unable to get his feet under him as he batted .153/.227/.190/.416 with five doubles, nine RBI and seven stolen bases in 46 games. Defensively, Gonzalez was a pedestrian .971 in the field, with his best position being center. While Gonzalez does not look like very much on paper, the Cubs typically use a player in this fashion that they think highly of.
Encouraging is the best word to describe Venezuelan Luis Ayala. After spending the last two years playing in his native country, the 20-year old had a fairly good stint in the Arizona Rookie League. In 46 games for the AZL Cubs, the lefty batted .283/.330/.369/.699 with five doubles, four triples, a home run, 19 RBI and 19 stolen bases. Ayala was also encouraging on defense as he fielded .990 with eight assists, splitting his time almost evenly between center and right field.
Drafted in the 32nd round, there is scant information on Zach Davis. The 22-year old was selected as a senior out of Texas Tech University, where he was reported to be an aggressive base-stealer. Davis appeared in only six games for the AZL Cubs after signing, hitting .188/.188/.188/.375 with two RBI while fielding cleanly in center field.
Switch-hitting Jose Gutierrez is one of the multitude of teenaged prospects the Cubs signed last off-season. As the primary centerfielder for the Cubs-1 team in the Dominican Summer League, the 18-year old hit .241/.291/.372/.662 with six doubles, 11 triples, two home runs, 20 RBI and 12 stolen bases in 65 games. While Gutierrez’s six assists are something that gets your attention on defense, his eight errors and .946 fielding average show that he still has some work to do.
In his second professional season, Yovanny Cuevas did not make much progress as he shared the center field duties on the C-2 team. The 18-year old’s batting line was not much different from last season, but he did cut down on his strikeouts. In 61 games, Cuevas hit .227/.378/.328/.706 with nine doubles, a triple, three home runs, 26 RBI and 20 stolen bases. Cuevas even regressed in center, fielding .948. Moving forward, Cuevas may benefit by switching to left field.
Numbers may not fully encapsulate the impact of switch-hitter Fernando Kelli. The 18-year old was a dynamo every time he took the field for C-2, often provided the spark for the team. In his first professional season, Kelli batted .240/.329/.247/.576 with a double, eight RBI and 23 stolen bases in 44 games. Kelli’s .956 fielding in center could use some improvement, but his five assists in 35 starts are cause for notice.