Well...it was just 2 years ago when the only 3B prospects of note were Josh Vitters and a 17 year old kid playing in the DSL named Jeimer Candelario. Those two players are still in the picture, especially Candelario, but the Cubs have added three significant 3B prospects since July and it's now become a position of strength for the organization. Given the difficulty of finding quality 3Bs in baseball today, that could turn out to be a tremendous asset for the team.
As before, we're only using players who are currently playing the position, so Junior Lake, who has since moved to the OF and will soon lose prospect status anyway, was not considered. Also not considered was Javier Baez, who is a SS and is good enough to stick there for now.
Luis Valbuena/Cody Ransom/Donnie Murphy
Nobody imagines that Valbuena is much more than a very good utility player in starter's clothing but the Cubs have had little options with the failure of Ian Stewart and the slower than expected development of one-time top prospect Josh Vitters. Valbuena can at least embody the team philosophies of quality plate appearances and quality defense. Those skills were enough to put him on a pace of having a fringe starter's value by season's end before the injury. Valbuena is just a platoon player even as a starter, splitting time with journeyman Cody Ransom, who has added surprising power to his usual good defense. Current fill-in Donnie Murphy has a shot at a utility role next season.
Kris Bryant, 21, Daytona (advanced A)
.354/.416/.692; wOBA .479; RC+ 212 (at Boise, Short-Season A)
Once Bryant got his rhythm and timing back, he started putting up cartoonish numbers in the NWL and the Cubs decided that enough was enough. Bryant was making a mockery of the league and needed to be challenged. The tall slugger who was far and away the best power hitter in the college ranks this past season is not slowing down as a pro. Bryant uses a rather wide stance with very little stride, generating easy power with a swing that is powerful yet quick and short to the ball. He combines that skill with an approach that is already advanced even at the pro level. He should be a player that hits HRs and draws a lot of walks. There is some dissension as to whether he can hit for average, but the general feel is that he can hit in the .270 range, which is plenty good enough considering his potential for 35 HR power and ability to get on base via walks. The bigger question may be where Bryant fits best defensively. Most think he can be an adequate to solid 3B but perhaps an even better defender in the OF with his surprising athleticism and strong, accurate arm. Some of that may rest on the player below him on the depth chart, Mike Olt, who is superior defensively and is already at the AAA level. If Olt can show he can hit well enough to stick, the question becomes academic.
Best of the Rest
Mike Olt, 24, Iowa (AAA)
.134/.194/.284 (with Cubs)
Things can change quickly in this game. Olt was a top 50 prospect in the game last season and all but unattainable. This year vision problems have contributed to a dismal offensive season. The one good thing you can say about Olt is that he has cut his strikeout rate way down since coming to the Cubs, from 33% to 25%, the latter being a number they can live with given the rest of his skills. Unlike struggling CF prospect Brett Jackson, Olt's contact issues stem more from a vision issue than anything else and while he will strikeout, he's generally been in that acceptable 25% range over his career. What Olt can bring to the Cubs is power, a good plate approach, and above average defense. He's also an athletic player -- all are traits in which the Cubs want to improve as a baseball team, making Olt an ideal fit if he hits. We're willing to give him a mulligan here and it does look like he's slowly turning things around of late. Perhaps he gets it back together by the spring of next season, which would be an idea scenario for the Cubs, who could then move Luis Valbuena and Donnie Murphy to more suited utility roles.
Christian Villanueva, 22, Tennessee (AA)
.264/.315/.462; wOBA .352; RC+ 123
Olt wasn't the first foray into the Rangers' 3B depth. Last year the Cubs acquired the lesser known Villanueva in a deal that sent Ryan Dempster to Texas. Villanueva doesn't have the natural power that Olt does, nor does he share his good approach at the plate, but Villanueva may be an even better defender than Olt while having the ability to hit for a better average. His power has a chance to be average. Villanueva is still young but he has a shorter, stout build that he'll have to keep an eye on as he gets older, but he has enough athleticism to carry that current build. He's still quick and instinctual at 3B with smooth, fluid actions and a strong arm, traits that give him Gold Glove potential down the road. The question is will he be able to improve his approach and sustain average offensive numbers across the board? If so, Villanueva may be next in line if Olt falters and will be an asset one way or the other if he proves he can put up solid offensive numbers.
Jeimer Candelario, 19 Kane County (A)
.258/.347/.392; .344 wOBA; 110 RC+
Candelario has held his own despite being one of the youngest players in the MWL. He does not turn 2o until November. Candelario's strength is his pitch recognition and plate discipline, something that has helped him achieve a 12.2% walk rate while hitting vs. much more experienced pitchers. He has a short swing and a bat that stays in the zone a long time, leading to a low 15.5% strikeout rate. It does lack lift and that isn't conducive to big HR numbers but strong wrists have enabled Candelario to be a doubles machine (31) for now. Whether that translates to additional power may depend on whether he can add some lift to the swing and/or gain some strength as he continues to mature physcially. I don't want to see too much changed to his swing, as I think he can be a high average guy with 20 HR power and plenty of walks with something close to his current swing and approach. The question before this season was whether Candelario could stay at short but the people I've talked to lately think he can. He's improved his footwork and his range in all directions this season, though he's still prone to inconsistency and errors. He's a work in progress on defense, but one can see the light at the end of the tunnel as long as he continues to work at it.
Josh Vitters, 23, Iowa (AAA)
.294/.381/.506; wOBA .394; RC+ 135
Vitters was once not only the Cubs top 3B prospect, but the organization's top prospect overall. It's hard to believe he's still just 23 (turns 24 in two weeks) and at an age appropriate level at Iowa. Vitters may be the most polarizing player on this list. Some see a ship that's sailed while others still see hope with his numbers over the past two season in Iowa. In 137 games there (549 PAs), he has hit .302/.361/.512 with 22 HRs. What is perhaps most encouraging is a walk rate that is around average (7.5%) during that time. Once known as a notorious free-swinger, Vitters has developed better discipline, laying off more pitches he knows he can't drive and waiting for his pitch. All of that is the good news but there are still concerns. It starts with his defense where his lack of footwork and ideal athleticism makes him workmanlike at best at the position. The other issue is that Vitters hasn't hit RH pitching as well, putting up less than an .800 OPS in an ideal hitter's league for the past two seasons. He has improved slightly this year to .798, but that is largely due to an unusually high walk rate of 16% (all 11 of his walks have come vs. RHPs). He's still hitting .243 with a mediocre (for his position and league) .421 slugging percentage. Vitters also needs to stay in better shape and stay healthy. The result of all this is a guy who can be a fringe average defender on the short side of a 3B platoon as his ceiling. Hardly a player to get excited about, but Vitters' recent improvement might get him one last crack to prove his sweet swing and excellent hand-eye coordination are enough to carry him to the big leagues in a larger role.
Mark Malave, 18, Arizona (Rookie)
Malave was the Cubs IFA bonus baby in 2011 and from what I know, was also pursued heavily by a couple of other good scouting teams in the NL. There are some who like Malave a lot and some who had some questions -- one of which is his ability to stay at catcher, his original position. That question has apparently been answered by the Cubs, who have moved him all around the infield. Some questioned his ability to hit for power long term, saying he relied on raw strength more than bat speed. Yet, I've talked to a couple of evaluators who feel he has plenty of bat speed to hit for average and power. The Cubs seem to like Malave a bit more than the others in that solid 2011 IFA class and have pushed him more. He has seen plenty of time in extended spring training and this year he got his chance to play in the U.S. at just 18 years old. He has held his own in the AZ Rookie League, showing a good walk to strikeout ratio (16 to 22 or 15.5% rate to 21.2% rate) while hitting .271 with a .379 OBP. What he hasn't shown yet is power but he's very young and has excellent size (6'3", 185 lbs) and developing strength, so there's no concern at this point. There's also the question as to what position he'll play. The Cubs have tried him at every spot in the infield, even shortstop, despite being signed as a catcher. He has plenty of arm for the left side though he's likely a better fit at 3B. There are some things to like about Malave, but he's not as advanced at the same age as Candelario was. Of course, that doesn't necessarily mean anything as players develop at different paces -- and Malave's pace has been pretty quick in it's own right.
Filed under: 2013 position-by-position depth charts