Last offseason, the Cubs acquired one of the top 1B prospects in the game in Anthony Rizzo. After an ill-timed call-up with San Diego last season, the Cubs decided to keep Rizzo in AAA to make some adjustments. It's safe to say now he adjusted pretty well and now looks to be the Cubs starting 1B for the foreseeable future.
First base is a tricky position when making a prospect list, in no small part because you don't often draft 1Bs very high in the draft. Many MLB 1Bs played somewhere else as amateurs, especially high schoolers -- and even as professionals. The Cubs, in particular, have made a habit of drafting late round, productive 1Bs as organizational placeholders. Usually teams eventually move a top offensive prospect when their defense doesn't cut it at other positions. It's similar to how few pitchers are relievers from the get go. Most of the better prospects are tried as starters first.
The Cubs have a glaring exception to that rule in Dan Vogelbach. He was drafted as a 1B and will remain at that position as long as he stays in the NL. The Cubs took a gamble with Vogelbach, rating him higher than many other teams in the 2011 draft. The weight was a concern, of course, but it's not just that. If you're going to draft a 1B early and give him a huge signing bonus, then he better be able to mash. Thankfully, Vogelbach can mash.
As such, he's an easy pick for the #1 on this list but then it gets a little foggy. I can envision a few players right now moving to 1B, but that's obviously a last resort for the Cubs, not just because they already have Rizzo in the majors and Vogelbach in the minors, but because there is simply less value there. The pressure on the bat increases. You don't just want your 1B to hit, you want him to at least as well as the norm for that position for him to be an asset -- and that's a pretty high bar offensively given the big bats at the MLB level.
*One note with regard to the position change candidates. I'll give guys like Stephen Bruno and Jeimer Candelario a more complete write-up when I cover their current positions.
1. Dan Vogelbach, 19, 6'0, 250 lbs, L/L
- Likely 2013 club: Kane County (A)
- ETA: 2016
Vogelbach can flat out hit. He batted .322/.410/.641 between two levels, including 17 HRs in just 61 games. He has a compact, uncomplicated swing, great balance, and tremendous bat speed. Factor in his raw strength and what you have is a guy who many scouts rate as having "80", or top of the scale, power. He's not just a HR hitter, though. His swing is shorter than you would expect, and he has excellent pitch recognition with the discipline to lay off bad pitches . That combination of traits should also allow him to hit for average and draw some walks (13.7% walk rate at Boise), so we're talking about a player who will contribute both OBP and slugging at the plate. As for his demeanor, he has an infectious enthusiasm and is popular with his teammates, but don't get the wrong impression that he's just a class clown. The kid is a serious competitor. He was all business once the game started.
That's the good news.
The bad news is that his entire value is limited to his bat. He's not the athlete that Prince Fielder is. He doesn't run well and his defense is below average at this point. One scout called his range, "one step and dive". I don't know if I'd go that far, but it's close and I did see Vogelbach struggle with his footwork on the one tough chance he had in instructs. If Vogelbach can just get himself to be adequate defensively, however, his offense will more than make up for those deficiencies. With Rizzo entrenched at 1B, it's going to take the NL adopting the DH for Vogelbach to play in Chicago. But that's not something we should be worried about now. Vogelbach doesn't turn 20 until December and has yet to play full season ball. There is plenty of time to see things shake out. For now, we should just enjoy watching him crush the baseball.
2. Rock Shoulders, 21, 6'2", 225 lbs., L/R
- Likely 2013 club: Kane County (A)
- ETA: 2016
Shoulders (.250./.342/.447) makes for an interesting comparison/contrast with Vogelbach. When it comes to hitting tape measure HRs, Shoulders isn't too far behind his Boise teammate. In fact, he may have hit the longest HR I saw this year at that level. Shoulders has great strength and is athletic enough to have moved to the OF when Vogelbach arrived. 1B, however, is his best position on defense and probably where he'll play if he makes the big leagues - even though his best chance of playing on the Cubs will be in the OF. Shoulders has good discipline at the plate, drawing a walk in nearly 12% of his plate appearances. He's also a good kid who's outgoing and popular with his teammates.
Shoulders loads a little deeper than Vogelbach and that may partly account for the difference in batting average and contact rates, but his swing is otherwise balanced with good bat speed. With respect to his batting average, I was surprised to see that he didn't have a particularly long swing when I watched him on video, though it's possible, like some ballplayers (i.e. Rizzo in '11) that he lengthens it when he's struggling to find his power. At any rate, Shoulders has legit power. He's not, however, the overall hitter that Vogelbach is, and thus will have to continue to put up a high walk rate to maintain a respectable OBP. This past season, he was more of what is known as a 3 outcome guy. 45% of his PAs ended up with either a walk, strikeout, or HR. Defensively, he has the work ethic and enough athleticism to become a solid defender at 1B.
3. Justin Bour, 24, 6'4", 250 lbs., L/R
- Likely 2013 club: Iowa (AAA)
- ETA: Late 2013
There's no way around it. Bour is in a tough spot. He has Anthony Rizzo ahead of him and Dan Vogelbach behind him. At AA, Bour was a highly productive player, driving in 110 runs to tie for the lead in the Cubs organization with Rizzo, who had 110 between Iowa and Chicago, and edging out Alfonso Soriano and his 108 RBIs at the big league level. Overall Bour hit .283/.360/.455. Despite his great size, one area of concern for Bour is the power department. He's solid at 17 HRs and a .172 ISO at the AA level, but not really what you want from your starting 1B. His average may also have been inflated a bit by a .332 BABIP, a rate he is unlikely to sustain at the MLB level.
Bour is a good minor league player but a fringe prospect because he just may not hit enough when compared to MLB first baseman, including Rizzo himself. Moreover, he's not the defender that Rizzo is and isn't athletic enough to play anwhere else. I really admire productive players like Bour and I wish I had a more optimistic write-up, but he's a one-tool player and that tool, his bat, may not be good enough for the position he plays. He'll need to improve his defense and hit for more power at Iowa next year to get his shot at the majors, but that shot, barring injury, probably won't be coming with the Cubs.
4. Trevor Gretzky, 20, 6'4", 190
- Likely 2013 club: Boise (short season A)
- ETA: 2017
The Cubs are banking on Gretzky's athleticism and bloodlines to quickly make up for the fact that he's very raw as a baseball player. Gretzky plays both 1B and OF right now but the way I look at it, his ticket to the majors will be power. For that to happen, he's going to have to make some adjustments, gain experience and fill out that tall, slender frame. He's a good athlete now with decent speed for his size, but if he winds up being, say 6'4", 220, he may not stay quick enough to be an outfielder at the MLB level. If he does retain his speed, however, he has the natural athleticism and solid arm strength to stay in the OF, but I think he winds up at 1B once he fills out. I hope I'm wrong.
Gretzky has yet to hit for power (.026 ISO at Rookie Level AZ) but he did start coming on with the bat late in the season, finishing with a .304 batting average. He also has surprisingly good discipline for a player of his experience (9.1% walk rate). The reason observers think he can hit for power are his potential to fill out and gain strength plus the fact that he does show some natural lift in his swing, though it can get long at times. Right now, the only place you'll see Gretzky's power is at batting practice, so he he has a long way to go and a lot of work to do. Technically, he's a better prospect than Bour (or at least has a higher ceiling), but he's so far from reaching the bigs right now that I slotted him here.
5. Jacob Rogers, 23, 6'5", 195 lbs., L/R
- Likely 2013 club: Daytona (Advanced A)
- ETA: 2016
Rogers has some of the traits on and off the field that Theo and the front office likes. On the field, he has good plate discipline and big power potential. That's why they've drafted him twice, once out of high school when they ran the Red Sox and again in the 40th round of this past draft.
Rogers is an extremely patient hiter, walking in 20% of his PAs, including 27.5% in his brief time in Peoria. His overall line last season was .326/.462/.507. He only hit 4 HRs in 173 PAs, but one of them was off the scoreboard at O'Brien Field in Peoria, the first ever to do that, so the raw power is there. The problem is that Rogers is already 23 and will probably start the season in A ball. He's very tall, but he's also very slender, and unlike Gretzky, he doesn't have the time and room to fill out and be much more than that. The real test for Rogers will be when he faces players closer to his age bracket and if he is still hitting when he reaches AA, he has a chance.
Position change candidate: Jeimer Candelario, 18, 6'1", 180, S/R
Obviously there are a lot of candidates here, but Candelario is the best of them right now. The hope is that Candy can stay at 3B, where he'd have more value. He has the hands and the arm to stick there, but he's just 18 and he's probably not done growing yet. He's not a great natural athlete, so he may not have enough range to stick there if he continues to grow -- and he may not be fast enough to play the OF either. But Candelario has big time bat potential and if he reaches it, the Cubs will find a spot for him, or at least get some value in return somewhere. Josh Vitters and newly signed Jesse Hodges are also candidates, as are a few others.
As mentioned earlier, the Cubs draft a lot of organizational types to play 1B with the expectation that top hitting prospects who struggle with defense can always move there later. Greg Rohan's best position is 1B, though his future as a big leaguer may be as a guy who can fill in at the four corners (LF, RF, 3B, 1B). Rebel Ridling was already a fringe prospect going into the season and a bad year could spell the end for him in the organization. The same may be true of Paul Hoilman, who after making headlines by setting the record for the longest hitting streak at Peoria (24 games), slumped badly for the rest of the year before getting hurt. Hoilman's swing is too long and I talked to a scout who wasn't impressed with his defense. With Vogelbach and Shoulders coming up behind him and Rogers surpassing him on the depth chart, there's really nowhere for Hoilman to go. If you dig deep, a player like Ricardo Marcano in the DSL, whom some have compared to Victor Martinez, looks like a candidate to move to 1B as he gets older and fills out.
Filed under: prospects