While Cubs fans anxiously await the arrival of Javier Baez and Jorge Soler, there may be one prospect who beats them both to the show and makes an impact as a starter -- Arismendy Alcantara.
One thing you want to see from prospects at any level is improvement in their game and few Cubs prospects have exemplified that better than Alcantara the last two years.
It's not like Alcantara was a nobody before last year. It's just that he was still so raw. He showed quick-twitch athletic ability, speed, a strong arm, and the quick hands to potentially generate better power than you might otherwise expect from a guy who stands 5'10" and weighs 160 lbs. In fact, according to Baseball America, some scouts have compared him to a young, similarly-sized Jimmy Rollins The thing is, he never really put that together on the field -- until last year.
I had little chance to see Alcantara play until this year. A couple of exciting but erratic games as a Peoria Chief in 2011, a video or two, and some audio feeds from Daytona. There are also the minor league recaps, which I started last year. While I'm not a fan of "box score scouting", I couldn't help but notice early on that Alcantara would do something offensively everyday to help the team -- whether it was stealing a base or putting together some multi-hit games.
On the downside, there were the errors. He made a whopping 35 in just 80 games last year. Most of those errors were on throws and, I've been told, the result of rushing plays and getting sloppy with his footwork. Unfortunately, from what I've seen of Alcantara so far, that hasn't really changed. He has 8 errors in 16 games at SS and again, nearly all of them are throwing errors.
The temptation is to say, "Hey, he's just 21 and 2 years from the big leagues. You can coach him up and if he puts the work in, he still has time to improve." This, of course, is always possible but at the risk of sounding like I'm giving up on him, the hard truth is that not everyone in baseball can be a good shortstop. The game moves quickly there and it takes more than just great athleticism, range and a strong arm to succeed. It's also a very instinctual position and you have to have the ability to slow the game down. That in itself is a gift and not everyone has it.
The Cubs may feel the same way as we've seen Alcantara play more and more games at 2B with minor league vet Jonathan Mota playing SS. Alcantara has played 4 games at 2B this year after playing there just once all of last season. The good news? He has yet to commit an error there.
But let's get back to Alcantara at the plate, which is where he can really have an impact. The most marked improvement with Alcantara has been in his ability to work counts and get on base. This is a trend that started in July of last year -- even a bit earlier as Alcantara had shown some good pitch recognition, and now is starting to apply that skill to draw more walks and get ahead in counts. The improvement has been remarkable.
I have posted and/or tweeted this before, but Alcantara drew 12 walks in 313 PAs from April of 2012 to June of 2012. That's a walk rate of 3.8%. In his 136 PAs since then, he has walked 18 times, a rate of 13.3%.
But before you think that Alcantara goes up with his bat firmly glued to his shoulder, that is not the case either. He is still an aggressive hitter. He just does it with better pitch selection now. On one AB in a recent game, I saw Alcantara work a 2-0 count on a pitcher who was struggling with his command. The next pitch was a cookie over the middle of the plate and Alcantara ripped it into CF to drive in a key run.
Which brings us to the next exciting aspect of Alcantara's development -- and that is the ability to make hard contact and even show some power. As mentioned earlier, he's not exactly a physical specimen, but he has very quick hands. In some ways it reminds me of Shawon Dunston. Now, we know that Dunston wasn't a great hitter, but that doesn't mean he was without his strengths. He had very quick hands which allowed him to generate more power than his wiry frame would otherwise suggest. Those quick hands also allow you to wait longer on pitches. Despite some of his flaws, Dunston was actually a good breaking ball hitter for this very reason. Alcantara has the quick hands to have those same strengths. Then, when you add good pitch selection to the equation, you can see where there is intriguing potential for Alcantara to have an impact as a middle infield bat.
We'd be remiss if we didn't mention another one of Alcantara's assets on offense - his legs. Alcantara stole 25 bases last year in 29 attempts and this year, since he is getting on base more often, has already stolen 12 bases. Even more impressively, he has not yet been caught. That is still another area where Alcantara has shown progress. In Peoria, he had stolen 8 bases in 16 attempts. Since then he has stolen 37 bases in 41 attempts over 105 games.
The sample size is too small to draw too many conclusions this year (.288/.370/.463 with 4 HRs and 12 SBs in 20 games), but even if we go back to last season, we're looking at a middle infielder with a line of .299/.343/.450 with 11 HRs and 37 SBs in his last 452 PAs -- and he is not yet a finished product. The most important thing about Alcantara is that he continues to improve as he moves up and faces tougher competition. That is the sign of a major league ballplayer and, hopefully, one that can m impact the game in a number of ways for the Cubs within the next two years.