Cubs Top Prospects: The Shortstops

Cubs Top Prospects: The Shortstops
Javier Baez

Along with catcher, true shortstops are a rare commodity in baseball.  While the Cubs are woefully short on catchers after Welington Castillo, they do have surprisingly good depth at SS behind Starlin Castro.  The great thing about having depth at SS is it gives you a whole lot of options.  They are generally the best athletes on the field and can usually play every position except catcher.  Junior Lake, who we had moving to 3B, is a prime example.  Apart from catcher, there probably isn't a position he can't play -- including pitcher.  We can also point to Stephen Bruno, who was a SS as an amateur and has already played LF, CF, RF, 3B, and 2B and is being tried at catcher.

Then there is trade value.  The presence of Starlin Castro gave the Cubs an opportunity to trade Hak-Ju Lee and pick up a power arm in Matt Garza.  The Brewers did the same when they traded Alcides Escobar to help them obtain Zach Greinke.

It's a valuable asset and the Cubs potentially have 5 true shortstops in their system when you include current MLB starter Castro, perhaps 6, as Darwin Barney was once considered a good defensive SS at AAA Iowa.

Anyway, on with the Cubs top minor league shortstops..

1. Javier Baez, 19, 6'0", 180 lbs., R/R

  • Likely 2013 club: Daytona (Adv. A)
  • ETA: Late 2014

The Cubs top prospect overall, bat speed is Baez's calling card but he has surprised the Cubs with his instincts and athleticism at SS.  It was once a foregone conclusion that Baez would move to 3B, but the consensus now is that, if he doesn't outgrow the position, he has a good chance of sticking there.  If Baez continues to produce, then the Cubs will have to choose who plays SS and 3B down the road between he and Starlin Castro.  Baez was the best player in the MWL last season hitting .333/.383/.596 with 12 HRs in 57 games.  He was also a surprisingly efficient baserunner despite average speed, stealing 20 bases in 23 attempts and showing good instincts on the bases overall.  Baez has struggled a bit against older competition in Daytona and now the AZ Fall League, as better pitchers have exploited his aggressive approach a bit, so it appears he'll be starting the year in Daytona this season.  But once he adapts to the tougher pitchers in the FSL, it probably won't be long before the Cubs start considering him for a promotion to Tennessee.  Baez has the potential to be a Gary Sheffield type hitter with the ability to either play SS or gold glove caliber 3B.

2. Marco Hernandez, 20, 6'0", 170 lbs., S/R

  • Likely 2013 club: Kane County (A)
  • ETA: 2016

Of all the Cubs shortstops I've seen this year in the Cubs organization, Hernandez has the most fluid actions at SS.  He's a smooth athlete who doesn't stand out in one particular area but has average to solid tools across the board with a chance to contribute in all phases of the game.  Last year Hernandez initially skipped Boise and then struggled mightily at Peoria with the bat.  He appeared to be turning it around but Baez's promotion took precedence and Hernandez was sent to Boise.   By the end of the year, hitting coach Bill Buckner called him the team's most improved hitter.  Hernandez is still a bit aggressive at the plate as his 3.5% walk rate would indicate, but he does show pitch recognition skills and should improve on that with experience and as he begins to tap into his average power potential.  I think he's a breakout candidate in 2013 if he can improve his plate discipline.

3. Arismendy Alcantara, 21, 5'10, 160 lbs., S/R

  • Likely 2013 club: Tennessee (AA)
  • ETA: 2015

You can make a case for the wiry Alcantara as #2 on this list based on his superior hitting numbers in a more advanced league, but I ulimately chose Hernandez because I think he has the best shot to stick at SS on this list and has better long term power potential than Alcantara.  While he was on my radar entering the season, Alcantra really burst on the season in 2012, hitting .302/.339/.449 as a 20 year old in the FSL.  He consistently squared up the ball and made good contact all season before going down with a season ending injury.    On defense, Alcantara is another athletic fielder with a strong arm so he can make all the plays, but he can get sloppy with his footwork, leading to numerous throwing errors this past season.  If Alcantara can correct that fixable flaw and build on the improved plate discipline he showed late in the season, he has a chance to stick at SS and become a speedy (24 SBs in 28 attempts), switch-hitting player with the ability to shoot the ball through the gaps.  Since his injury,  Alcantara has played in instructs and in winter ball, but he hasn't really made up for that lost time yet.  Ideally he starts in AA with Baez playing SS at Daytona, but he'll have to show he's ready for that jump this spring.

4. Carlos Penalver, 18, 6'0", 170 lbs., R/R

  • Likely 2013 club: Boise (short season A)
  • ETA: 2017

A sleeper on this depth chart, Penalver may be the most disciplined of this aggressive group of hitters.  He walked at a 9.3% rate, 4 points higher than anyone else on this list.  Penalver is a good athlete with above average speed and the instincts to stay at SS, but it's his bat that will determine whether he can be a starter long term or  come off the bench as a utility infielder.  He's held his own in both the DSL and AZ despite being young for both leagues.  This past year in AZ he hit .273/.341/.322.  Penalver has yet to develop extra base power but good size and a selective approach give him a chance to develop gap power as he matures.  He's still young, having just turned 18 in May and may eventually outgrow SS, but for now he has the skills to stay there.

5. Frandy De La Rosa, 16, 6'1, 180 lbs., S/R

  • Likely 2013 club: DSL
  • ETA: 2018

I usually don't like putting players this young on top prospect lists.  It's hard enough to project when they're in the DSL, where stats are almost meaningless, but a guy like De La Rosa hasn't even had a professional AB yet.  There are a few reasons I'll make an exception here, however.  First off is De La Rosa's intelligence and mental makeup are exceptional, which gives him a better chance to reach his ceiling than your average young player.  The second is his advanced feel for hitting.  De La Rosa's bat has the potential to be the most special on this list outside of Javier Baez.  He can hit from both sides of the plate and already has good size,though, like any 16 year old, he still needs to add strength to that frame.  The biggest question mark for De La Rosa is defense.  While he has good hands, he's already just an average runner at best, which raises doubts about his range long term, and his arm may end up being a little short for the position.  He is, by far, the least likely to stick at SS long term on this list, and I believe he'll move before he even gets to full season ball.  For now, however, he's a SS, and wherever he winds up moving (my guess is 2B or LF), it's his bat that will be his ticket to the majors.

Position Change Candidate: None.  People rarely switch from other positions to play SS.  It's the other way around.  And with the Cubs set with two top young shortstops already, plus 2-3 more true SS prospects right behind them, there's no need to stretch out someone's talents at the position.

Others:

Tim Saunders stands out as a guy who is athletic enough to stay at SS and has shown a solid bat thus far.  As mentioned in the 2B piece, David Bote and Daniel Lockhart both have a shot at making it as utility types.  Junior Lake is a SS for now but that won't be his position in the majors.  Logan Watkins can play SS in a pinch but he's not an everyday player there.

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  • Why do we not discuss more the possibility that Baez could also move to 2nd base? If could stick at SS, to me it is a no brainer that he could also play 2B. Wouldn't his bat profile that much better at a weak hitting position like 2nd base?

  • In reply to Ibleedcubbieblue:

    I think it's a very real possibility, just that 3B is more likely. I'd be worried about 2B because it's a physically demanding position. It also doesn't make use of his great arm. Baez's bat will profile well anywhere on the field

  • In reply to Ibleedcubbieblue:

    It certainly is a possibility.

    A couple reasons why I personally prefer 3rd, if he moves (random order):

    a) 3rd base is an increasingly tough position to fill. Look at FA. Look at the top levels of the minors. There, for one reason or another, really isn't that much.

    b) System has depth of options at 2nd base, with several guys that profile as potential regulars (whether or not they become is a separate question). 3rd base has depth of names, but without Baez on that list, the depth is a lot more questionable.

    Now, the great thing is, the Cubs gave themselves flexibility by adding Villanueva. If he develops, they can consider pushing Baez to 2nd, if they decide to move him.

  • Thanks, John for the insight and detailed work and analysis. I was thinking how much better we are at shortstop than most teams, including the dead Birds. 2007 #1 pick Pete Kozma indeed.
    And I was waiting for your newest post to share this gem from Bernie Miklasz, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, in today's column:
    "Trailing three games to one and all but counted out, the San Francisco Giants obliterated the Cardinals over three consecutive games to seize the NL pennant that was supposed to fly in St. Louis."
    Wow, "The pennant that was supposed to fly in St.Louis".....I cannot wait until we have the same sense of arrogance and entitlement that St. Louis exudes about their Cards. (Of course, we shall restrain ourselves and not gloat when that happens....)

  • In reply to StillMissKennyHubbs:

    I might gloat just a little :)

    Kozma seemed like a stretch even at the time. I guess the Cubs aren't the only team that messes up their top pick. Kozma may be better than he showed, but he doesn't project as a star.

  • I read someone's take on Baez's play at 3B. Half the time (or more) he makes errors, and it was offered that while he plays at SS, he feels more in a leadership position, talking to the rest of the infield, etc. He keeps more to himself at 3B, and this isolation might be affecting his play. If he can become a more disciplined hitter but remains at SS, that would move Castro to 3B, which would affect Starlin's worth, correct? How would Castro play 3B?

    Now hear me out on this. While I'm a big fan of Castro, and was happy to see him make real progress both in the field and at bat, we lost 100 games. I've watched my local team, the Giants get to the World Series in 2 of the last 3 years with basically completely different position players except for Posey and Sandoval. The reason they were able to do this is their great pitching. What if we waited to see If Baez could hit big league pitching and if we were assured he could, then trade SS Castro for pitching? With his friendly long term contract and his youth, we should command a huge return in young talented pitching that could help put us in the playoffs year after year. We'd still have an all-star at SS and 1st base, and a young extremely talented outfield.

    Look, we lost over 100 games last year, last time I checked. That tells me nobody should be off-limits. Let's use our depth at SS to our advantage.

  • In reply to SFToby:

    That sounds like the stuff I wrote on Baez :)

    I think right now it's just difficult to get value for Starlin Castro. He's a 22 year old SS with a solid glove and big time bat potential. That is a rare commodity. It's not that you can't trade that, but it's tough to find value, especially young pitching which can be very risky. I would like to see the Cubs develop their own pitching the way SF did rather than trade away long term pieces that should be part of the solution. And we still don't know if Baez can cut it at SS or whether the other guys will make the majors at all.

  • From all the SS (including Catro) the one with the most ability
    to move to 3rd should try to do so. Keep on playing them at
    SS if that their best position right now.

  • In reply to emartinezjr:

    I'm always in favor of keeping a guy at a premium position as long as possible because it keeps their value higher. You can always switch to another position, especially from SS.

  • In reply to John Arguello:

    With all the good infield prospects we have which position
    is harder to switch to? SS to 3rd, 3rd to SS, etc.

  • In reply to emartinezjr:

    Hardest to switch to is always SS, that's why it's very rarely done. Easiest transition is to 3B. As long as the arm strength is there, it's not as difficult to play as the middle infield positions.

  • john I read from bruce levine that the marlins might offer josh johnson to the cubs. I think the cubs should listen as long as soler baez,almora are not included, And the core pieces on the major league roster, what do you think ? Josh johnson has one year left on his contract so he could be flipped if healthy for more prospects or could be a long term piece with shark.

  • In reply to seankl:

    I think that's a lot of speculation but you have to think to yourself, why trade good prospects if you have to try and flip him to get some prospects back later. Why not keep the ones you have now? The Matt Garza situation has shown it isn't always easy to recoup what you lost the first time around.

    In my opinion, if you trade for him, it needs to be for the long term, but given his injury history, that's a risky bet.

  • In reply to John Arguello:

    I agree, but if the marlins asking price is reasonable to the cubs then you at least have to think about it. But I do see were you are coming from, the cubs might feel they are not in position to do that type of deal now.Probably a couple years down the line.

  • In reply to seankl:

    If their main concern is dumping salary, then we wouldn't have to trade a lot. I'll bet Soriano would play there. Give 'em Soriano and Marmol, maybe a different veteran mix, toss in one of our extra pieces we pick up most of the salary of the vets.

    JJ has 4 good pitches with command of all of them. He could step in as a #1 pitcher. JJ, / Shark / Garza/? / Wood / TBA.

  • In reply to SFToby:

    I think it's a bit wishful thinking to think that we could get Josh Johnson for Soriano, Marmol, and change. Keep in mind that they shed some salary during the year (Hanley deal), and by and large, aren't pressed to dump salary.

    My guess, if they shop Johnson, is that they are either

    a) concerned about his long term future
    b) looking to restock a depleted system and rebuild things ... again.

  • Just addressed the Levine rumors plus a couple of other tidbits in new article.

    Cubs just made a nice claim on a power bullpen arm, Carlos Gutierrez.

  • josh johnson sounds nice and everything but i think the cubs getting him is very unrealistic. first off hes gonna wanna go to a contender, second there are contenders out there who may not have a lot of money available but will still have the option of throwing the required amount of cash to acquire him, such as the yankees. i think he ends up in l.a. either with the angels or dodgers.

  • In reply to jshmoran:

    I feel the same way. Definitely interested, but it seems like a long shot all things considered.

  • I keep wandering what we're going to do at SS or 3b if a couple of these guys are ready at the same time. Castro or one of the prospects will jump to third, but what about the rest? Even if these guys succeed are they destined to be trade chips?

  • In reply to Carne Harris:

    I think that would be a great problem to have and if so, some will become trade chips, especially guys like Hernandez or Alcantara, whose greatest value is at SS.

  • Can't disagree about the list.

    I would probably lean towards Alcantara at shortstop. I was one of the earliest people on the Marco bandwagon, and a lot of good things came through this year. If he improves his discipline, he could take off. People forget that he had a good month in Peoria (and IIRC, the reports were that he really had a tough time adjusting to the weather). His bat speed was even better than I expected (although, off the top, he had splits issues).

    If you ask me my gut feeling on Alcantara, I'd still be wary. I just don't know if I buy that bat. But he's so dang young (not yet 21), less than 1 year older than Marco), and he's also likely going to be 2 levels higher than Marco (I think, barring injury/setback, he has to start in AA ... don't see the Cubs pushing Baez off short, and he isn't going to go down).

    Physically, I think one could make the argument that he might have the highest defensive potential at short in the system (there's no concerns about Alcantara outgrowing the position, and he's more physically gifted than Marco). This doesn't diminish the loads of work he needs on improving his consistency at short, but a lot of young shortstops need time. Offensively ... well, put it another way ... how big is the gap from Christian Villanueva to Arismendy Alcantara on offense? I'm not convinced, on paper, it's by that much.

    Again, not the biggest, gung-ho guy for Alcantara, but I think he almost gets a bit under-rated on account of the season ending early for him. He had such a surprising season, one of the true breakouts for our system in 2012.

  • In reply to toonsterwu:

    sorry, that meant to say I would lean towards Alcantara as 2nd on the list.

  • In reply to toonsterwu:

    You could definitely make an argument for Alcantara but I don't see him as more physically gifted. They're different. Alcantara has more raw speed and maybe that helps his range, but Hernandez shows his athleticism with how fluid he is at that position. Better footwork and he just flows through the ball a bit better, not to mention he's bigger and will probably have more strength as he fills out.

    The Cubs are lucky to have both and it'll be interesting to see how they develop as they mature physically. Two guys to really watch next year.

  • In reply to John Arguello:

    Don't get me wrong, I'm a big fan of Marco. In a rare move (by me) to give a nod to tools, I put him 5th (post-Rizzo trade) on my Cubs prospect list last year. If you ask me my gut feeling on who has a better shot to reach the bigs, I'd go Marco (hence why I said above that I can't disagree with it).

    Leaving all that aside for a moment, though, when I note Alcantara as more physically gifted, I'm pointing to arm strength, lateral range, and footspeed. Marco has a bit better ... for lack of a better term right now ... hand-eye coordination/footwork. So, the question is (and it's something we as fans can't really answer), can Alcantara's issues on defense be fixed, or is this a case of a guy who simply, for one reason or another, will never be great there.

    As for power, I think Alcantara probably has 8-10 HR pop potential, with Marco more in that 12-15 range if all goes well.

  • Another fine article, John!

    I'll certainly feel better about Baez once he shows that he can hit a curve ball. He really struggled after his promotion.

  • In reply to DropThePuck:

    Thanks! I think he'll hit breaking balls fine once he matures with his approach. He has the hand speed to wait back on those CBs as long as possible. We often think of hand speed in terms of power, but if you're patient it can also give you the advantage of being able to wait on pitches just a split second longer.

  • John
    Your in-depth knowledge and analysis continue to amaze me. I guarantee you that nobody over at the Tribune has ever heard of Asimendy Alcantara!

  • In reply to DropThePuck:

    Haha! Thanks again. Alcantara certainly snuck up on a lot of people this year. He's an exciting ballplayer. Looking forward to seeing him play at Tennessee next year.

  • In reply to DropThePuck:

    Not so.....The Trib's music critic thinks Alcantara's a Spanish tenor.

  • In reply to StillMissKennyHubbs:

    Nicely done...especially since cantar means to sing in Spanish :)

  • Let's hope he sings the National Anthem as a Cub in the 2015 World Series...la la la...

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