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Cubs organizational depth: 3B has become a position of strengh

Cubs organizational depth:  3B has become a position of strengh
Christian Villanueva (photo by Connor Watson)

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.

Current Starter(s):

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.

Top Prospect:

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)

.271/.379/.319

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.

Comments

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  • So who comes up September 1, Vitters or Olt?

  • In reply to Ike03:

    Why not both?

    Both can play OF, although Olt does it better. But I don't think they have anything to lose by bringing both up. Even if it's just to get MLB instruction on the side.

  • How do you rank them in terms of who will win the long term 3rd
    base job and who might go to the outfield.

  • In reply to emartinezjr:

    I wouldn't put any of them in the OF other than Kris Bryant. After that, Olt is the only one who is probably athletic enough to play the position full time and play it well, but much of his value comes from playing a good defensive 3B.

  • Lets not forget the other idea that has been bandied about. Baez to short and Castro to third.

  • In reply to carolinacub:

    That's a possibility but I'm not worried about position changes to much with this piece. If I did, it would probably be about 10 pages long for 3B, 2B, and the OF.

  • In reply to carolinacub:

    I really think that is a remote possibility. Even speaking as one of the biggest Baez backers there is, while he can play SS in the majors, its not like he can be Andrelton Simmons. The difference between Baez and Castro defensively is pretty much a wash. So given that they really wouldn't be improving the D at SS I would imagine they would stick with the incumbent and move Baez rather than the other way around. If the Cubs want Baez to play SS, then they should trade Castro, whose value would decrease significantly at any other position besides 2B.

  • Awesome as always! Hey, John, do you happen to know offhand the specifics of the PTBNL we have coming back for garza? I wascurious as to when the trade is supposed to be completed & who the choices are. Any idea?

  • In reply to MikeyB:

    Thanks Mikey!

    It's either Neil Ramirez or their choice of 2 from a pool of lesser prospects.

    The delay is likely the Cubs waiting out to find out more about Ramirez's health. They'd take him if he's healthy but that's a big if right now, so they might as well take their time and get it right.

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    Our hybrid 3B solution this year actually worked out pretty well. I wouldn't try it again, but considering we cobbled together from the waiver wire, not bad.

    Through today, slash line of .223/.318/.423, with 19HRs and 51 RBIs. Not great, but good enough for an OPS+ of exactly 100, or league average.

    So, our 3B man, Luis Ransomurphy, has produced league average production this year

  • In reply to Zonk:

    I thought his name was Cody Valmurphy.

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    In reply to John Arguello:

    I like Donny Rambuena.

  • Funny, I was thinking about this very topic today. Here's how I see the next few years shaping up at the hot corner:

    2nd Half, 2013: Vitters and / or Olt get a cup of coffee

    1st Half, 2014: Vitters breaks camp with Cubs, with Valbuena playing against the toughest righties.
    2nd Half, 2014: If Vitters scuffles (and he probably will), then Olt gets his shot.

    1st Half, 2015: If Olt hasn't nailed down the job, a spring battle between him, Villanueva and (possibly) Baez.
    2nd Half, 2015: One of the above will be entrenched as the starter, or else Bryant will get his shot.

    1st Half, 2016: If we still haven't been won over by any of these blue chip prospects, then Candelario joins the derby.

    That's about as far as I can see into the crystal ball. Ideally, we have multiple major league 3B here, because after we find the long-term answer at the position, it would be nice to deal a few of the others for pitching, similar to how the Padres responded to having two major league-quality 1B a few years ago.

  • In reply to Taft:

    I think Olt has the leg up on Vitters. Vitters is going to have to outplay him to get a shot.

  • In reply to John Arguello:

    Here's my thinking on that: We have everything to gain and very little to lose by throwing Vitters into the eighth spot in the lineup, assuming he's healthy. Worst-case scenario, he looks just as overwhelmed as he did in 2012. So if he's the second coming of Gary Scott, then by the end of April, he gets demoted to a full platoon with Valbuena, and if Vitters still can't hit his weight, then he can be DFA'd. At the same time, we're giving Olt a few months in Iowa to gain some confidence for his own big league bid. (In my view, Olt needs some sustained success post-vision surgery.) So around late May / early June, maybe Vitters has washed out and Olt gets his shot, with Villanueva moving to Iowa. Best-case scenario is that Vitters shows flashes of brilliance at the plate, so then we can flip him to a small-market team in the AL that has pitching depth. There were a lot of MLB scouts who loved Vitters coming out of HS, and I've gotta think that there are a few of those who've moved into the front office and who can be convinced he's a late-bloomer who's finally coming alive. If he's hitting .250 with 6 - 8 HRs by the end of May, with his pedigree I think he can bring back a decent pitching prospect.

  • In reply to Taft:

    If Olt, Vitters or Villanueva can't grab the job by next September they can forget about it. Baez will already be on the MLB roster by then and there is a chance Bryant makes it to the show in September as well.

  • In reply to mjvz:

    Another possibility is that we're in the market for a SS by Sept 2014 -- who knows whether Castro will ever recapture his .300 stroke. If that's the case, then we'll be obligated to keep Baez at his current position.

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    Having seen Candelario in person, though admittedly only once, something about his approach at the plate and his swing reminds me of a young Carlos Beltran. It also won't surprise me if he is the one who ultimately ends up sticking at third. He seemed to be able to make all the plays the night I saw him up at South Bend. Also, to me, he looked taller and skinnier than reports indicated, and it wouldn't surprise me if he's had a growth spurt.

  • In reply to Michael Caldwell:

    He's definitely in better shape. And his approach is already one of the best in the organization -- and he's just 19.

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    In reply to John Arguello:

    All his bios on all the different prospect web sites have him listed at 6'1", and having seen him in person, I thought he looked taller than that, maybe 6'3", and in his bio pic, he looks pudgy, but he isn't. He may just be a late bloomer physically, and that could have something to do with him getting a lot better nutrition now that he is with the Cubs.

    I knew a girl in high school. She wasn't ugly. She was just plain, and when you looked at her older sisters, you couldn't help but wonder what happened to her. 5 years later, no one recognizes her. She finally grew up, and man did she grow up right.

    Candelario might be kind of like that girl. only in a baseball sort of way.

  • In reply to Michael Caldwell:

    haha great analogy

  • ... "that acceptable 25% (K) range ..." It sickens me that baseball has become a game where strikeouts are tolerated at this level.

    I know they're both HOF'ers but Billy Williams had as many walks as Ks in his career and Ernie Banks reached triple digits once (late in his career). A more modern example was Sandberg, who's K rate was 13.6%.

  • In reply to MoneyBoy:

    There are parts of the game I like better than from what I grew up with in the 70s and 80s now too -- more athleticism, better defenders, better plate discipline, less bunting (have I told everyone how much I dislike bunting? Don Baylor as manager was a difficult time for me).

  • In reply to MoneyBoy:

    The game is different now. Strikeouts are not looked down upon like they used to be. And I know people don't like to say it, but even with more teams and lower mounds, the pitching depth in the majors is just better than it used to be. Way more guys throw hard. And the change in bullpen philosophy with every team seeking same side matchups at every turn as well as the simple fact that a starting pitcher throwing his 150th pitch in a game is goign to be way less effective than a fresh reliever pumping 95 MPH fastballs is going to lead ot more strikeouts.

  • In reply to mjvz:

    I'm cognizant that the changes in the game make an already difficult task even more challenging. John's right too; athleticism is far superior to what it was in the 60's and 70's.

    I just dislike the mindset that says striking out so much is acceptable.

  • I heard Len Kasper on the Score this morning and they were talking about Bryant.

    I almost swallowed my coffee when Len said that he sees Bryant being called up late next season. He even went on to say that he think Bryant could come up now and hold his own.

    Very surprising comments as I believe that Len knows a bit more than most and also has access to some key decision makers within the FO.

    I have my fingers crossed that Bryant could break camp with the club in April of 2015.

  • In reply to IrwinFletcher:

    I don't think late 2014 is out of the question if he gets to AA before midseason.

  • OT, but Vogelbach is hitting 4th in Game One of the Daytona doubleheader today vs. Clearwater (begins 5:30 EDT). Bryant not starting.

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    In reply to StillMissKennyHubbs:

    Cubs probably don't want to hinder Ben Carhart's development

  • In reply to Zonk:

    Or Bryant had difficulty traveling to Daytona, or he's going to play in Game 2, or....
    No big deal, just the facts.

  • In reply to StillMissKennyHubbs:

    Bryant playing in Game 2, hitting 5th.
    Vogelbach (K, single, HR, 2R scored in Game 1) hitting cleanup again.

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    In reply to StillMissKennyHubbs:

    PS: Vogelbach just went yard, 2 run HR

  • In reply to Zonk:

    I figured it out -- Vogelbach and Bryant are in Daytona to handle Clearwater's Carlos Alonso, in case Alonso wants to pick another fight with the D-Cubs (as he did with Soler).
    Vogey to give Alonso a headlock, and Bryant to fling him into the Atlantic.
    And while they're there, they can hit a few pitches out of the park too.

  • Cubs announced Jorge Soler won't play in the minors this season but hoping he's ready for Fall League.

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    In reply to John Arguello:

    Bummer.

  • In reply to John Arguello:

    Man that stinks, but I would definitely rather they be on the conservative side with injuries. He has a long career still ahead of him.

    On the bright side, the fact that it turned out that he injured himself in Spring Training but played through the fracture until the pain was too much for him AND still produced (in fact until he went out, you could argue he was having the better year over Baez) with an injury shown not only his amazing character but how talented he can be as we only saw an injured Soler this year.

  • Just to reflect on how much the organization has improved their farm...

    2011 Cubs top 10 prospects (via mlb.com)
    1. Anthony Rizzo
    2. Brett Jackson
    3. Matt Sczcur
    4. Chris Carpenter
    5. Trey McNutt
    6. Josh Vitters
    7. Rafael Dolis
    8. Jay Jackson
    9. Reggie Golden
    10. Hayden Simpson - personal favorite

    Great, great strides made in 2 years.

  • In reply to Burnsie25:

    Didn't we trade for Rizzo in 2012? If we did, he wouldn't have been our top prospect in 2011.

  • In reply to Burnsie25:

    Rizzo wasn't around yet, so the list I found was...

    1) Brett Jackson, OF, Grade B+: Love the broad base of skills.
    2) Trey McNutt, RHP, Grade B+:
    3) Chris Carpenter, RHP, Grade B:
    4) Jay Jackson, RHP, Grade B:
    5) Hayden Simpson, RHP, Grade B-:
    6) Reggie Golden, OF, Grade B-:
    7) Josh Vitters, 3B, Grade B-.
    8) Robinson Lopez, RHP, Grade C+
    9) Austin Reed, RHP, Grade C+:
    10) Alberto Cabrera, RHP, Grade C+

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  • So Vogelbach HRs in his second AB....

  • In reply to John Arguello:

    Thatta Kid!

  • John - I am seriously disappointed that you did not include Roney Alcala in this post!

    If you had stopped at Boise in previous posts I could have maybe understood...but for the 2nd basemen post you included Frandy De La Rosa.

    Frandy "Friggin" De La Rosa, who was batting a robust .077 at the time in the DSL!!!

    Roney Alcala,is a 6'1", 223 lb switch hitter who held his own in the DSL last year hitting .303 at age 18, but who this year after being promoted to the VSL is mashing to the tune of .353 and a line of .386/.544/.930.

    Also he is the rare switch hitter who can actually hit from both sides...

    vs Left .349 with 3 HR
    vs Right .354 with 6 HR

    I'm obviously just kidding John, but I figured if I didn't give Roney some love then no one would. ;-)

  • In reply to Ghost Dawg:

    He's having a huge year. Seems like he's the DSL Kung Fu Panda with that build too.

    By thew way, VSL is the same level as the DSL, just more Venezuelan players in that league and more Dominicans in the DSL.

    Got my eye on Alcala but that build at age 19 at that age makes me a little nervous. I also don't know enough about whether he can stay at 3B. If he's a 1B/DH type in the DSL, I can't get too excited yet.

  • In reply to John Arguello:

    ID he's 18, why isn't he stateside playing is AZ?

  • In reply to John Arguello:

    Are the VSL and DSL 1 really considered the same competition level?

    Because if you look at the Cubs system stats, almost any player that has done well in DSL 2 gets promoted to either DSL 1 or the VSL but I have noticed consistently that players who do well in DSL 1 but are still to young, raw, etc. for any reason to go to the states they go to VSL. Also players that do bad in DSL will sometimes go back to DSL.

    Therefore I thought it was a higher level. But now that you say that maybe it's just because the Cubs have better instruction in the Dominican Republic? Help me out here John.

  • In reply to Ghost Dawg:

    I don't believe there is a DSL 2 team this year. We only have one DSL team this year. But we have a VSL team that we didn't have last year.

  • In reply to John57:

    That is correct.

  • In reply to Ghost Dawg:

    Yes. It's just geographical. The Cubs have good instruction in both leagues. They just have the academy at the Dominican. Players don't get promotoed or demoted between the leagues.

  • In reply to John Arguello:

    By the way, I think Alcala at 6'1' 223 lbs is much closer in body type to Adrian Beltre - 5'11" 220 lbs than Kung Fu Panda who is 5'11" 240 lbs

  • In reply to Ghost Dawg:

    If Alcala was 30 that might be more appropriate but he is just 19 and he's already a little on the stout side. Leaves for no projection and perhaps something he'll need to monitor. Also brings into question whether he can stay at 3B. I dont have any info on him, so I don't like to add guys I don't know much about and rely on stats, especially those from the DSL. I'll try and find out what I can and let you know more about him if I do.

  • Five years from now the Cubs could 4 or 5 present 3Bmen starting around the MLB.

  • In reply to 44slug:

    That's okay, think of the pitching we'll receive for them....

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    In reply to HoosierDaddy:

    Or it would be an awesome 5 way platoon. :)

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    What, no Ben Carhart?!???!?!?!?!?!

    j/k :)

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    Looks like Bryant has homered in game 2, not sure if it was his first or second AB.

  • It seems like Ryan Braun is a good comp for Bryant at this stage of their careers, their 21 year old campaigns. Similar draft position. 3b/of guy. Doing a lot of damage. How would you grade Bryant's glove against Braun's at this stage?

  • In reply to Ben20:

    Braun always had the athleticism to get to balls, but his hands were blocks of stone. He was a complete butcher with limited instincts.

    I haven't seen Bryant play much 3B, but he seems to have decent hands. It is more of a question of lateral agility and just the fact that there have been very few players his size that have actually been good at 3B. He is also pretty lean right now, if he adds weight to his frame he just may not remain quick enough to play there.

  • re: Christian Villanueva. Isn't he a candidate to get moved to 2B? His bat would sure play a lot better at that position than at third. I also like the idea of two lottery tickets for the Cubs' future 2B (Alcantara and Villanueva) instead of just one. Or three I suppose if you regard Amaya as more than a fringey prospect.

    But Villanueva to 2B, what's wrong with this idea, if anything?

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