A while back I did a similar piece on pitchers, so it's time to finally do part two on the position players. The Cubs are loaded with position player talent, so picking breakthrough prospects is a little bit more tricky.
First of all, I want to define what I mean by a break out candidate. I'm using a broad definition here in that I'm defining it as the player who reaches the next level, whatever that may be. For some, that could mean a top 10 Cubs prospect -- or perhaps even a top 100 ranking in MLB. For others it could just mean getting on the prospect map. It could mean just establishing themselves as potential big league ballplayers, even if it's not in a starring role.
Now that I've briefly explained my thought process, here's my list of position player prospects to watch for 2014. I've listed the prospects current age, position, and expected playing level.
Jeimer Candelario, 20, 3B, Daytona
Candelario has the best pure pitch recognition skills in the Cubs system. He has the strong hands and good size to hit for power but his swing path is more conducive for hitting line drives. He keeps his hands short to the ball and has excellent hand-eye coordination, traits which allow him to make consistent contact. I don't see Candelario as a big HR hitter unless he tweaks his swing but I've seen him hit a ball 400 feet to dead center against a howling wind -- so when he connects, he can really drive the ball a long way. Candelario has worked hard on his physical conditioning and defensive play so that at this point I think he can be an adequate 3B in the big leagues. He'll have to keep working to maintain that condition because of his naturally thick build but I have no doubts that Candelario has the work ethic to do so. I'm looking forward to seeing that Daytona staff work with him this year. This could be the year Candelario gets more national recognition.
Trey Martin, 21, CF, Kane County
There are two Cubs prospects capable of playing CF in the majors right now. One is Albert Almora and the other is Trey Martin. I first saw Martin live in Arizona last year and he stood out because of his long, lean athleticism. He eats up ground in CF with long, fluid strides and as I watched him play a name instantly popped into my head: Torii Hunter. Like Hunter was as a prospect, Martin isn't nearly as advanced at the plate as he is in the field. He has an aggressive approach and his long, lanky build can cause him some issues. He likes to get his arms extended and in doing so he tends to lengthen his swing. Pitchers with good fastballs and command can bust him inside and tie him up at times. Still, there is that raw ability and we saw Martin tear up the rookie league and then hold his own at Boise as a 19 year old. He just needs a few tweaks and lots of reps at the plate. His ceiling is that of a top shelf defensive CF who can hit 15 HRs or more in the big leagues.
Marco Hernandez, 21, SS, Daytona
There are times when you catch Hernandez and you think, "that's a big league ballplayer" and there are other times where you wonder if he'll get out of AA. The physical skills are there but he has a ways to go. An image that stuck in my head was a minor incident I saw on Opening Day last season. Hernandez made a lackadaisical effort on a practice throw that drew the ire of catcher and teammate Willson Contreras. It made me wonder if it wasn't the first time. Later that season, one rival scout mentioned to me that Hernandez was one of his favorite players on Kane County but that he "needs to grow up".
But here's the good news: I think he started to do exactly that by the end of last season. Looking back at my notes, I'm reminded at how Hernandez was going all out on every play and running out every ground ball at full speed toward the end of the year.
Hopefully that's a sign of things to come because as I mentioned, the physical skills are there. Hernandez has average to above average tools across the board. On defense he flows through the ball exactly the way you want to see from a true shortstop. He has the arm strength and range to be a good defender there. One offense he has quick wrists and can make surprisingly hard contact. I've seen him drive the ball on a line over the CF'ers and last year he hit a few over the fence in a league not noted for big HR totals. He is aggressive but started to take more pitches as the season went on, even if it didn't reflect in his walk total. I'm anxious to see what another year of maturity and some work with Mariano Duncan can do for Hernandez next season.
Willson Contreras, 21, C, Daytona
You'll have no trouble lighting a fire under Contreras. He plays the game with passion but it sometimes gets the best of him. There were a few incidents last year that involved Contreras at the plate last season. He's a tough kid with excellent athleticism for a catcher. You may remember me raving over a year ago about how he stood out in instructs during catchers' drills, pouncing on bunts with incredible quickness and agility and firing missiles to 2B. He has yet to develop a feel for the art of catching, however, and that may take some time.
At the plate Contreras wavers in his approach. He can go from being overly aggressive to remarkably patient. He walked in 7.5% of his plate appearances last year despite going through long stretches where he didn't walk at all. He obviously has the pitch recognition skills, it's now just a matter of developing consistency with his approach. He has strong wrists and forearms that look like they were wrought out of iron. It's that strength that led to a surge in Contreras power numbers. He hit 11 HRs, 3rd on the team behind Vogelbach and Shoulders, and had a respectable ISO of .174, both numbers were more than double his career high.
Contreras needs to channel his aggressive play and refine his catching skills to take the next step. The athleticism, passion, and work ethic is there for him to continue to improve. I think he has the upside of a a solid everyday catcher in the big leagues but he is also a high risk player with a low floor.
Yasiel Balaguert, 21, OF, Kane County
I first saw Balaguert as a 19 year old playing for the Peoria Chiefs. It was early in the season and there was no Javier Baez yet, so it was Yasiel Balaguert (and Taiwan Easterling) who were the most impressive in BP that day. Balaguert showed strong wrists, very quick hands, and very good bat speed, driving the ball hard consistently into the OF. Unfortunately it didn't show up in games that year. Balaguert may have been rushed after signing out of Cuba but he also looked out of shape to me.
Balaguert showed up in Boise this year in better shape and perhaps a bit more adjusted to life in the U.S. It showed in his performance. Balaguert took his batting practice performance to the plate in live games last year. He hit 15 doubles and 8 HRs in 269 PAs last year, putting up an ISO of .172. He also showed good plate discipline, walking in nearly 10% of his ABs. To me, Balaguert was just scratching the surface last season. He just turned 21 today so there is plenty of time to grow as a ballplayer. I think there's more in the tank as long as he comes into camp ready to take that next step.
Jacob Hanneman, 22, CF, Boise/Kane County
The Cubs have quite a few CF'er with Hanneman's build and athleticism, most notably Matt Szczur. Not to take anything away from Szczur, who is himself an MLB prospect, but the game appears to come a bit easier to Hanneman. The physical skills are similar but his instincts give Hanneman a bit higher upside. Like Szczur, Hanneman is one of the fastest players in the system and so far has relied on speed early on to provide above average range in CF.
What Hanneman needs more than anything is to stay healthy and get reps to develop his skills. He is already older because of time missed while serving on a Mormon mission. Considering he doesn't have much experience, he'll need to adapt quickly and make his way up the ladder to remain on a desirable timetable.
Shawon Dunston, Jr., 20, CF, Kane County
Dunston had a bit of a breakthrough last season, hitting .290/.378/.357. The OBP is an encouraging number and is one of the major difference between Shawon and his father, who played SS for the Cubs for many years. Junior's 12.6% walk rate gives cause for optimism. He shows the potential to get on base and utilize his speed.
There are some similarities to Shawon, Sr. -- his quick twitch athleticism shows in his hands and gives him the potential to hit for average power despite his slight build. He also has good range in the field and a strong arm, though he doesn't possess the bazooka his dad did. Who does?
A breakout for Dunston would entail maintaining his OBP skills at the full season level while providing a bit more extra base pop at the plate.
Mark Malave, 19, C, Boise
I may be a year early on this one as Malave is switching back to full time catcher after moving around the infield last year. Malave has good size (6'3", 185 lbs) and natural strength but has yet to show any in-game power. What he did show was very good plate discipline for an 18 year old playing his first year in the states, walking nearly 16% of the time.
I think Malave can eventually provide some power and has the arm strength to control the running game behind the plate, but both of those skills may take more time to develop.
Carlos Penalver, 19, SS, Kane County
Penalver struggled out of the gate last year but was one of Boise's most consistent's hitters by the end of the season. He may be the best defensive SS in the system. He has a strong arm, quick feet, and the fluid athleticism to stick at SS. He is not going to hit for a lot of power but he has a good idea up there at the plate, working counts and taking walks in 9.5% of his PAs. As he matures physically he could show some doubles power to go with good OBP skills and above average speed on the bases.
A couple of players I considered putting on the list was 2B Stephen Bruno and C Will Remilliard. Bruno already has shown what he can do at Boise and early on in Daytona before getting hurt, so in the end, it was hard to call him a break out candidate. How do you break out from hitting .361 in your debut and then skipping a level to Daytona and hitting .362 before going down with an elbow injury? Still, a whole season of that kind of performance will garner more attention. Remilliard has yet to play so I couldn't call him a break out guy but I do think he's a guy to watch. He's in that mold of catchers the Cubs are trying to develop in that he is an athletic defender with a strong arm and the potential to provide some power.
Wes Darvill is another guy I like who has some MLB potential. He's always had solid athleticism and a good approach at the plate, but his slight build prevented him from being any kind of threat at the plate until last season. Last year Darvill put on about 25 lbs. of lean muscle and started to show glimpses of his talent. I think he's a utility guy but the more I follow prospects, the more I realize just how difficult it is just to make it to the big leagues. I think Darvill has a shot.
I don't know if I'd call John Andreoli a break out candidate since I think he's doing pretty much what we would expect, perhaps even more than some expected when he was drafted. However, he has a thick build and is physically stronger than his power numbers would imply. His swing isn't indicative of someone who is going to be a HR guy, but I think he can have some gap power with the occasional ability to poke one over the fence. I can see him becoming a Reed Johnson type player in the bigs with perhaps a bit more base stealing ability.
Charcer Burks is an intriguing player with great athleticism. he surprised scouts with his consistent ability to but the barrel of the bat on the ball during pre-draft tryouts. He's still a bit raw and struck out more than you would like in his debut, but you hope that becomes less of an issue as he gains experience.
Casey in Boise reminds me about Daniel Lockhart, on whom I have heard great things from Cubs people. Lockhart isn't a big player but he consistently squares up the ball and has the instincts and enough athleticism to play all over the infield. I don't think he has star written all over him, but I think he can be a quality role player in the big leagues.