The shortstop position has a high level of attrition in the minors because it is the elite defensive position on the field. Only those with the best combination of defensive skills, athletic ability, and instincts can remain there defensively long term. Many, as Arismendy Alcantara just did, will move to 2B. Some will move to 3B, as Mike Olt did very early on in his career. Some, like Junior Lake, will wind up in the OF. And then there are some will stick defensively but won't hit enough to make it matter.
If you have a young, true SS who can also hit, you have yourself one of the most valuable commodities in baseball, not just in terms of trade value, but because they can always switch positions, as many as the aforementioned prospects already have.
The Cubs already have a young, talented cost controlled SS in Starlin Castro but he has run into his first real struggles of his professional career while the Cubs have a seemingly near ready SS in AA in Javier Baez. It has some speculating that the Cubs will go in a different direction at SS in 2014. But I might as well give it to you straight right now: They won't.
It will be Baez who moves to accommodate. The front office has already said so on multiple occasions, including as recently as this month. They aren't so short-sighted or reactionary as to give up on a 23 year old two-time all-star SS after one bad season. The team is in the business of collecting assets and potential impact players, Castro is both and he is one of the precious few currently at the MLB level. There may be a time when the Cubs make a change at SS, but, barring something catastrophic, it will not be in 2014.
Starlin Castro, Cubs (MLB)
.244/.279/.347, wOBA .279, RC+ 69
Those are some painful numbers to look at. And it's not been a lot of bad luck, the peripherals aren't great either. He also doesn't pass the old-fashioned eye test. He simply looks lost up there. The Cubs have tinkered with his approach and are trying to have him be more selective at the plate. That part has worked. Among Cubs with 250 or more plate appearances, Castro has seen more pitches per plate appearance (3.91) than any Cub except for Luis Valbuena and Nate Schierholtz. Yet, to be perfectly honest, he's been terrible. The problem to me is that there's more to a good approach then simply taking pitches, it's about setting pitchers up -- or at least not allowing them to set you up. Unfortunately, that part has only gotten worse for Castro this season. So yeah, he's taking pitches up there, but it's uncertain if he has a consistent plan at the plate right now. You can argue whether they should have ever tinkered with him in the first place. As he was, Castro was a league average hitter the previous 3 years-- an asset in itself at SS where most hitters are well below that level. Maybe it's not the Cubs new way of doing things, but it worked for him. He has tremendous hand-eye coordination and plate coverage -- natural skills for a hitter that perhaps have been diminished by this new approach.
I am going to throw something out here that is completely out of left field. I have nothing behind it, no science to back me up -- but Castro's struggles have me thinking about the way I think about things -- about the way I'm naturally wired to process information. I think in big pictures and process, some would call it global thinking. I am more comfortable reading a work of literature or a book on theoretical physics than I am trying to figure out basic accounting (a class I nearly failed). It's weird, but sometimes the more you try to confine me with structure, the more difficult it gets for me to process information quickly. Perhaps a better example is this: I like to cook, but I do so creatively with my own style, my own ingredients and my own proportions. I have an idea of what I want the entire meal to be from the beginning and I work from there -- but if you ask me to follow a step-by-step recipe with exact measurements, it slows me down, has me re-thinking every step and eventually I will botch it up somewhere along the line.
What if Castro's mind is wired the same way as mine only in terms of hitting a baseball? What if Castro comes up to the plate needing to see the whole picture in terms of where and how he's being pitched? Perhaps structuring him and forcing him to break it down into smaller zones and a set of rules inhibits him and slows him down. Maybe it takes away from the natural way he sees and processes things. Some hitters can only work through a very structured approach, others like Castro have the natural ability -- the plate coverage and the hand eye coordination -- to work more comfortably in a less confining structure.
Perhaps this is why I am quick to empathize with Starlin Castro's struggles. They're trying to make him pass an accounting class when he'd probably much rather read Thomas Pynchon.
Javier Baez, Tennessee (AA)
.293/.355/.631, wOBA .439, RC+ 182 (Tennessee only)
.281/.344/.568, 31 HRs, 19 SBs (combined overall)
Baez is lighting up AA the way he lit up high A ball, which is the way he lit up low A. So the question is quickly becoming focused around his MLB readiness. My thoughts on that are that we should pump the brakes a little. The strikeout rates are still high and he's still learning to be consistent with his approach at the plate. His walk rate has climbed into a more than acceptable level (8.7% as of this writing) and the strikeouts are down from what they were when he first started at AA (22.5% in August). I often look at AA as a league where players are pretty close to MLB level from a pure raw skills standpoint. The pitchers throw just as hard and their breaking stuff can be just as crisp. On the other hand AAA pitchers tend to be much more experienced, with many having MLB experience, so they can be a bit more savvy as far as how to set hitters up. I think Baez needs some time to adjust to how pitchers will do this while he is still at the AAA level rather than doing it at the MLB level where the pitchers can do the same thing -- but with superior stuff, consistency, and command. It's a natural step in the progression and I think Baez will need to prove he can beat pitchers with something other than his immense physical talent. He may get that chance as early as this offseason, where I believe the Cubs will send Baez to the winter leagues to face more experienced pitchers and that will help cut down the adjustment time he'll need in AAA. He's already shown he can adjust quickly. At first we heard how his approach won't work at a pitcher's league like the FSL, then we heard it wouldn't work at an advanced level like the SL, but Baez just keeps adjusting and improving that approach and it stands to reason he'll be able to do it again at AAA in the PCL and/or the winter leagues. Once he does that, he'll be in the big leagues, though it will likely be at somewhere other than SS.
Marco Hernandez, Kane County (A)
.252/.290/.338, wOBA 290, RC+ 76
Hernandez is an athletic player with the potential for solid tools across the board. He has smooth, fluid actions with an above average arm at shortstop yet is prone to the occasional error on routine plays. He is one of my favorite players to watch at Kane County when things are going well and one that makes me want to cover my eyes when they are not. At the plate Hernandez has an aggressive approach, as evidenced by his consistently low walk rates (4.1% this year) but he does have a quick bat with the ability to hit most fastballs and, despite the low power numbers, occasionally surprise you with his pop. Last year I saw Hernandez effortlessly hit a liner over the CF'ers head for a triple. In the last game I attended, Hernandez stroked a would be HR that went foul with an easy, fluid swing. You can see the talent at times and if you were a scout and saw him on the right day, you'd walk away with a glowing report. I did talk to one scout who likes him a lot but also thinks he may be a little immature and perhaps that contributes to some of the inconsistencies and slower than expected development overall. Hernandez is a guy to watch. Either it's going to click for him and you'll have yourself a true MLB shortstop with average to above average tools across the board -- or he's going to stall at AA or so.
Carlos Penalver, Boise (short-season A)
.250/.317/.342, wOBA .321, RC+ 98
Penalver was one of two heralded signings from the Cubs 2010 international free agency class with the other being Jeimer Candelario. Penalver is a different player than his classmate. He's a more fluid athlete who can run and play the middle infield positions, but he doesn't possess the same level of natural hitting skills. Not that Penalver is a slouch at the plate. He shows a good ability to make contact combined with a solid approach at the plate (7.9% walk rate), traits that will play well if he's able to stay at SS. Right now that doesn't look like it should be a problem as Penalver shows the range, arm, and instincts to stay at shortstop long term.
Filed under: 2013 position-by-position depth charts