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Cubs Prospect Series: The First Basemen

First base isn't normally where you will find an organization's top prospects unless they have an exceptional hit and/or power tool as Anthony Rizzo did as a member of three different organizations.  Since Rizzo, Dan Vogelbach had held the role as the team's top 1B prospect, but he is now in Seattle as the payment for the Cubs to acquire 5th starter Mike Montgomery.  The front office under Theo Epstein and Jason McLeod has put far less emphasis on the position in recent drafts, in part because of the presence of Rizzo and Vogelbach, but also as a matter of organizational philosophy.  If you draft players that are strictly 1Bs early, there just isn't any wiggle room.  They have to hit and there is usually no other position they can play.  So what we may see more often in this era are players who move from other positions and that certainly is the case here with every player on this list.  In a couple of cases, there is a chance they can still play another position.

First Base Prospects

Chris Pieters

  • Age: 22
  • B/T: L/L
  • Ht/Wt: 6'3", 185 lbs
  • Last Level:  Short Season A (Eugene)

Pieters has gone from hard-throwing LHP prospect to a potentially intriguing, athletic OF to first baseman with a unique skill set.  Pieters did take some reps in the OF this fall, so it is possible the Cubs will try to get his athleticism and strong arm back where they can be best utilized.  Pieters, however, just hasn't shown great instincts in the outfield despite his good speed and athleticism.  His tends to get a late jump and can sometimes take some curious routes.  When he does get a good read off the bat, he has more than enough speed to run down fly balls in the gaps.

He played mostly 1B last year where he was an odd fit, as his athleticism is uncommon for the position but he doesn't really have infielder actions, even for 1B.  He got off to a great start with the bat and was arguably Eugene's most consistent hitter in the first half of the season.  One of Pieters strengths, ironically, is something he struggled with as a pitcher, and that is feel for the strike zone.  Pieters walked in just under 10% of his PAs but he was also prone to striking out.  Despite a patient approach, Pieters is prone to chasing like many inexperienced hitters.  He's also a long-levered guy who can be tied up inside with good fastballs.  Again, that is a matter of experience and making adjustments.  But Pieters is still interesting as a hitter because he does show feel for the barrel and a smooth stroke from the left side.  There isn't much lift to his swing, so it's better suited for line drives as it stands right now.  Pieters also runs very well, stealing 20 bases in just 23 attempts.

Based on his raw tools (speed, arm, hit), it seems rather obvious that his best fit defensively is in the OF and preferably CF because of the lack of power.   Pieters did get some reps out there and if he can make the transition to the OF then that greatly increases his chances as a prospect. especially if he can play CF -- but with DJ Wilson on the same career trajectory, he'll have a hard time finding a lot of game reps in CF.

Matt Rose

  • Age: 22
  • B/T: R/R
  • Ht/Wt: 6'4", 195 lbs.
  • Last Level: A ball (South Bend)

If you squint your eyes and look over at 3B, the tall, long limbed Rose physically resembles Kris Bryant.   Obviously with two partial seasons in A ball, he isn't as advanced at the plate, nor is he as athletic -- but that isn't anything to be ashamed of.  Few players were as advanced out of college and as athletic with that large build than the 2016 NL MVP.  That doesn't mean Rose doesn't have talent in his own right. He has played both 3B and 1B during the instructional league and I debated listing him with the 3Bs but with such a thin crop at 1B, I decided to slide him over to balance things out a bit.  Rose was a 3B as an amateur and then played a lot of 1B/DH in his debut due to an arm injury, but slid back and played almost half of his games at 3B this past season.  The Cubs are set at both corner infield spots for the foreseeable future, but Rose's value as a ballplayer overall obviously increases if he can stick at 3B.

At the plate, Rose has those long-levers and he looks to get those arms extended so he can get to that raw power.  He hit 17 HRs between Eugene and South Bend last year.  13 of those HRs were in South Bend, which like much of the MWL isn't particularly hitter friendly, though it will get even tougher at Myrtle Beach in the Carolina League.  Rose got off to a slow start to the season and was quickly reassigned to Eugene, but he found his stroke there and finished the season strong back at South Bend.  Rose improved his plate discipline, walking just under 10% of the time between the two leagues and most impressively, cut down his K rate to 20.9% at South Bend.  As you might expect from a tall power hitter, the swing can get long, so his ability to keep the K rate down speaks to his ability to make adjustments.

Rose probably isn't going to win any batting titles.  His ticket to the big leagues will be his power and his ability to draw more walks to supplement his OBP. and as we mentioned earlier, it would be easier to get there as a 3B than a 1B.

Yasiel Balaguert

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Balaguert was among the first Epstein era IFA signings, inking a $400K deal out of Cuba late in 2011.  Surprisingly because of his stout build, Balaguert was a CFer as an amateur, actually pushing Jorge Soler to a corner when they played on the same team. As a pro, Balaguert was quickly moved off the position and played the corner OF spots, but he continued to lose speed as he has aged and his body has continued to get even thicker.  Last year he made the transition to 1B.

Balaguert's best asset is his bat speed.  He's one of the more impressive young power hitters you'll see in BP down here in AZ, but he struggled mightily against live pitchers and breaking balls in his first season.  He improved significantly the next season in the short season Northwest League and then last year had his best season as a pro in the pitcher friendly Carolina League.  He finished 4th in the league in HRs with 19 and 2nd in RBI with 96.  RBI, of course, isn't the best metric to use when evaluating a hitter but I do think it's a product of two of Balaguert's characteristics -- his aggressive nature at the plate and above average plate coverage, perhaps a remnant of that athleticism he showed as a young amateur.  With men on base, Balaguert showed a strong ability to adjust and put the ball in play.  Whether Balaguert can continue to do it at the upper levels against more advanced pitchers, especially those with sharper command, is a big question.  There is no question, however, that Balaguert is going to have to bash his way up the ladder because he really doesn't have any other standout skills.

Others to watch

Rafael Mejia was signed for $250K out of the Dominican Republic as part of the 2014 IFA class.  He has a strong, broad-shouldered frame and the first thing that comes to mind when you see him before he even takes a swing is that this guy's game is going to have to be about power.  The 19 year old was signed as a 3B so that's exactly what you'd expect from a corner infielder and indeed, Mejia does show above average raw power in BP.  Unfortunately, Mejia struggled in all phases of the game last year in the AZL.  He was extremely error prone despite decent hands and a strong arm.  Most of those errors came on throws which sometimes missed 1B by a pretty significant margin.  The problem lies more with his footwork than his hands or arm strength.

Mejia also struggled at the plate and despite having strong hands, he had a hitch in his swing and too much pre-pitch movement at times, causing his hands to be out of position as the pitch came into the zone.  You'd see some late swings despite having enough bat speed.  That in turn, caused Mejia to try to cheat early on his swing and made him vulnerable to breaking and offspeed stuff.  Mejia is as raw a player as you'll find and if he makes it, it is going to take a lot of time.  He will have to at least show progress very soon, howver.

Kwang-Min Kwon signed for a $1.2M and that kind of bonus brings a lot of expectations with it.  He's a big kid at 6'2", 210 lbs. at just 19 years old.  There's enough athleticism for the Cubs to try him out in the corner OF spots but I think he eventually lands at 1B.

Kwon made an early name for himself at the backfields by winning the instructional league HR derby, edging out DJ Wilson, so we know there is some raw power to go with that size, but we would have to wait a while to see if that translated to games. He was held back  after struggling in extended spring training after getting beat by good fastballs, raising some questions about the length of his swing and perhaps even his bat speed.  Kwon worked on shortening his swing as the AZL started before eventually making his debut mid-season.  He played 9 games and continued to have issues making contact, striking out in nearly 30% of his PAs in what is admittedly a small sample size, but still a reflection of the problems we saw in the spring.

Kwon is still very young and he does have good natural strength with solid plate discipline, so there is something to build on.  We'll see how he looks this spring after a full year of working with a re-tooled swing.

Taylor Davis and Gioskar Amaya have been tried at catcher with limited defensive success and now find themselves at 1B.  Davis is noted as a good clubhouse guy both for his personality and knowledge of the game.  It wouldn't surprise me to see him find a coaching or scouting position after he retires.  As a hitter, he has put up good numbers and shown a good approach and the ability to make consistent contact.  It's not a pretty swing, but he has produced at the upper levels of the system, making him a favorite among some who follow the Cubs minor leagues.  His prospect status, however, doesn't match his statistical production.

Amaya was once considered a solid 2B prospect worthy of a top 20 ranking but his lack of middle infielder athleticism/actions caught up with him and the Cubs asked him to try catching.  An intelligent player, Amaya quickly caught on to the mental aspects of the position but struggled with his catch and throw skills.  That experiment appears to be over, leaving Amaya at 1B without the kind of power or overall profile you want from the position.  Like Davis, it wouldn't surprise me if Amaya stuck around in another role after his playing days are over.  His bilingual skills would be an asset in a number of capacities.

I didn't know Joey Martarano was still in the system as he did not play at all last season, but according to AZ Phil he is still with the organization and so I will defer to him on that.  Martarano is a big strong kid (6'3", 240 lbs) who was a former linebacker in high school and now at Boise State.  He put baseball on hold in 2016 to focus on his football career.  He performed reasonably well as a sophomore but then suffered a horrific looking leg injury late this year that could have been worse than it was (fractured fibula) this past November. It ended his junior season.  I am not sure how that will affect his decision but considering this he was a 22 yr old redshirt junior, time is quickly becoming an issue. I also don't know whether that will affect his ability to play baseball this season.  If and when Martarano does play again for the Cubs, his strength as a ballplayer, as you might expect, is his raw power.  Martarano has hit some of the longest batting practice HRs among the young players in instructs, but it has not translated to games in what has been an extremely limited sample over 2 seasons.  With a year off from baseball and limited experience before that, Martarano is going to have to make up ground quickly.

 

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Filed under: Prospect Series 2017

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  • fb_avatar

    I like the possibilities of Chris Pieters but with all his talent I hope he can figure out CF. It doesn't sound like we have any natural 1st basemen in the system, and that this (maybe with 2nd basemen) may be the thinest in the minors.
    If Rizzo is out for any length of time who would take his place? Maybe KB and put Javy at 3rd and Zo at 2nd or have Candelario come up?
    Thanks John.

  • In reply to Jonathan Friedman:

    Candelario to me would likely help fill at 1B if needed. Another candidate as a future 1B further down the line is Wladimir Galindo.

  • fb_avatar
    In reply to Jonathan Friedman:

    I am not worried about 2B as most SS can also play 2B. I am excited for Chesny Young, but I always take 2B rankings with a "grain of salt." A mediocre SS with maybe not quite the arm for the position can quickly become a good 2B.

    As for 1B, if they can hit for the position the defense isn't that hard to get to "adequate." We are getting spoiled with Rizzo who is exceptional defensively. But many teams put guys at 1B that can't really play anywhere else. Case in point: David Ortiz, in his career when he has to play the field he plays: 1B. He literally has no other defensive position listed.

  • Kinda lacking of enthusiasm for these prospects. Not quite the same as the previous prospects you've talked about. I guess we'll just have to settle w/ Rizzo for the time being.

  • In reply to Oneear:

    1B not a hot bed for prospects. Put a few guys there (Rose, Pieters, Kwon) who may actually play somewhere else.

  • I don't think that most teams have a lot of first base talent at the lower levels. Anyone that has both hitting ability and athleticism is likely to play other positions until he proves that he can't make it anywhere else on the field. As Jonathan Friedman said, Rizzo's replacement would almost certainly come from the current ML roster, with Bryant being the most likely, Baez shifting to third base. But there are several that can move over to give Rizzo a day or two of rest. Contreras (who would himself getting a rest from the rigors of catching), Baez, and Zobrist have all played there for a few games, and probably will again.

  • In reply to DaveP:

    I would guess Schwarber more likely to play first than Bryant. But they're all young. Where does Rizzo go? Guess is Rizzo is here for as long as he produces.

  • I know that anyone who can get to the mlb can be put on first if their is need for his offense in the lineup, but I like a good defensive first baseman with soft hands and good footwork. It's makes a difference.

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    In reply to 44slug:

    Good defense at 1B certainly makes a difference. The Cubs have a long history of good defensive 1B. In my lifetime there was Grace, Lee, and now Rizzo with one sojourn into the wilderness that is/was Brian LaHair.

    But, yes, it is a perfectly viable strategy to take a guy with great offense and simply "stick him at 1B" and tell him to try to catch the balls thrown to him.

  • In reply to Joel Mayer:

    I think Carlos Pena was more of the Cubs' "sojourn into the wilderness". LaHair was exactly what he was supposed to be, a bridge to Rizzo.

  • I see Rizzo playing 1B at Wrigley Field until he's about 40 and retiring as the most beloved Cub since Ernie.

  • In reply to TTP:

    Yes, his words about immersing himself in Cubs culture and that the WS was for every Cub in history will not soon be forgotten.

  • fb_avatar
    In reply to ElvisSanto:

    And the fact that unlike Mienkiewicz he didn't "keep the ball" for himself but, instead, gave the ball to Tom Ricketts. I fully expect that ball to be made into a display at Wrigley.

  • In reply to Joel Mayer:

    Tough enough to challenge an entire dugout to a fight but kind and fair enough to apologize to the umpire when he's in the wrong.

    Between his words and choking up on stage there can be no doubt that he's one of us.

  • fb_avatar
    In reply to ElvisSanto:

    I loved that moment of him apologizing to the ump. And the ump's response was classy too. He said something like, "It's fine. You are just competing. I understand that. But the fact that you are apologizing now says something about you."

  • Hi John,

    As we get used to some of these names year after year -- Rose, Balaguert, etc., is there some natural progression when the 'light should turn on?' For Rose, this is year three out of college (iirc), so is there some rule of thumb on this? or is it more of a 'you never know' type thing?

  • Any Cub 1B not named Rizzo...
    Find another position or you're trade bait.

  • In reply to hoffpauir6:

    Maybe Rizzo will be like Banks a lifetime Cub. Him and a few others from this core.

  • The one thing I would add to the report is this, Yasiel Balaguert has very good leadership qualities. When Myrtle Beach lost both Gleyber Torres and Ian Happ off their roster at midseason, Balaguert and David Bote assumed a lot of leadership and helped the rest of the team pull together to win their second straight Carolina League championship.

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