2017 Fall Instructs Breakdown - The Corner Infielders

In our first segment on Fall Instructs Tuesday I discussed briefly the changes, not just in the coverage we will be able to provide, but in the approach that the Cubs organization will be taking as well. The largest change is that there will be no formal games against other organizations, only sim games. For further details and a breakdown of the catchers participating in Mesa this fall, check out the article here. For further detail and to check out the entire roster of players and staff, AZ Phil has full list published. Today we will move on to the corner infielders.

First Basemen

Given the number of slick fielding middle infielders, especially second baseman, throughout the system I am listing Austin Upshaw among the first baseman. It isn't that Upshaw is not capable of handling second or third base if needed it is simply that I project him to receive the majority of his playing time in 2018, and potentially beyond, at that position. I do have questions about his range at second and think he may be best suited as a corner guy anyway but his versatility will help him as he advances through the system as we all know the emphasis this organization places on being able to handle multiple positions. Regardless, Upshaw will most likely make it or not based on his bat. I won't dig too deep into Upshaw here as he was the most advanced and most talked about position player from the recent draft class. Tom put together a nice post regarding him just a couple of weeks ago if you want to check that out.

Gustavo Polanco taking a pickoff throw

Gustavo Polanco taking a pickoff throw

Two players at the position that are sort of polar opposites are Joe Martarano and Gustavo Polanco. Martarano is of course a former middle linebacker at Boise State that finally gave up football in order to focus all of his attention on baseball for the first time this season. He is a powerful and surprising quick athlete but his baseball skills, both defensively (at 1B/LF) and at the plate are still unrefined. Meanwhile, Polanco is a former catcher with a strong arm but limited athleticism that gets by on his advanced hit tool that allows him to adjust and barrel up balls with regularity. He is the epitome of a free swinger that looks to hit a line drive somewhere in the park on every pitch he sees. It means his offensive game is limited both in terms of OBP and power as he rarely gets a great pitch to hit given pitchers don't need to challenge him much. His feel for the barrel allows him to succeed against lower level pitching due to the number of mistake pitches he sees but without a drastic shift in approach he will likely struggle moving forward. Martarano on the other hand is hopefully just scratching the surface. He has not managed to tap into his raw power in game situations yet and while he flashed a good approach at Eugene he struggled against the more advanced pitching he faced upon his promotion to the MWL, though it should be noted he did finish the year on the upswing. Martarano is the type of athlete that it is good to keep around and continue to work with in case he ever does tap into potential fully.

Luis Hidalgo is another intriguing name. Twenty-one years old and only recently making the move stateside after three and a half years in the VSL and DSL leagues is not normally the type of resume you would associate with an intriguing prospect but Hidalgo may just be a late bloomer. A high profile signing in the 2013 IFA class his career got off to a great start (.318/.370/.430) in 2014 down in Venezuela but injuries the following two years led to his offensive output dropping of a cliff and his defensive profile limited to 1B. But Hidalgo responded in a big way at the plate in 2017. He put up some of the best numbers in the DSL (.353/.419/.521) to earn a promotion to Arizona where he continued to produce (.339/.359/.516) and helped lead a late season surge for the club that carried them all the way to the AZL championship. If Hidalgo is able to carry over this breakout into next spring he would seem a good candidate to skip the NWL and potentially open 2018 as the first baseman for the South Bend Cubs.

The final player participating at this position is Gioskar Amaya. Long a favorite of mine, though his sleeper prospect status has long evaporated, Amaya missed all of 2017 with a knee injury so this will be the first action he sees. At this point Amaya is nothing but an org player, but a potentially useful one that is capable of filling in at multiple positions, including catcher, and it wouldn't surprise me one bit if he finds a job with the organization once he hangs up his cleats.

Third Basemen

Alongside Austin Upshaw the next most talked about position player from the 2017 draft class would have to be MIT alum Austin Filiere. Filiere eliminated all doubts regarding his collegiate success coming against Division III opposition by displaying good pop in the wood bat Cape Cod League in 2016. Blessed not just with above average power but a good eye as well Filiere was able to step right into the Eugene lineup after the draft and soon cemented himself as the club's cleanup hitter. His power (20 XBH in 43 G) and patience (14.7% BB rate) were regularly put on display but a few concerns also cropped up in my viewings of him. The least concerning at this point is the 14 errors he committed in his 37 games at third base. A shortstop in college this was his first full time taste at the hot corner and so a rough first go is not alarming in my eye. He flashed the necessary tools to handle the position, including a quick first step and strong arm. The facet of his game that does raise a red flag with me is the amount of swing and miss in his game. While his 25.8% K rate is not shockingly high, his 12.8% SwStr% was exceeded only by Joe Martarano in his brief time with South Bend among the prospects I tracked in 2017. While he rarely chases pitches outside the zone given his strong plate discipline, when he does it is a real struggle for him to adjust his swing path and make contact. Even inside the zone Filiere swings through more pitches than you would like to see. Again, this is just his first taste of pro ball and a limited sample size, it is also a massive step up in terms of competition so I am in no way writing him off as a prospect as there are intriguing aspects to his game but it is an aspect of his game that I will be monitoring moving forward. Hopefully there are adjustments he can make and with additional experience Filiere can emerge as more well rounded power hitting corner infielder as opposed to just a three true outcomes hitter.

Fidel Mejia

Fidel Mejia

A player that John wasn't able to get much of a look at this spring and then didn't play real well once games began in the AZL is Fidel Mejia. The 2017 numbers don't tell the whole story with Mejia however as he was an effective hitter as a 16 and 17-year old in the DSL the previous two years that the organization was willing to challenge with an assignment stateside this season as an 18-year old. A switch hitter with a loose, athletic frame that John projected could add strength in the coming years it appears that Mejia still is waiting for that particular growth to come around as he has yet to hit a home run in his three years of pro ball. But as he is still a teenager there is plenty of time for that physical development to progress. it is possible that Mejia could return to the AZL squad next season, but given the number of promising infielders that will scratching and clawing for playing time with both the AZL and Eugene squads next year, including the two guys we'll discuss next, Mejia likely needs to show some progress soon or he may see himself getting lost in the shuffle.

Christopher Morel

Christopher Morel

Two very interesting prospects that competed in EXST and made a positive impression on John prior to being sent down to compete in the DSL this year have returned. They are Christopher Morel and Orian Nunez. Morel is the bigger, stronger, faster but less advanced of the two having missed all of 2016 in a freak household accident where he walked through a glass door that lacerated his arm badly enough that it required surgery. He used the opportunity to add weight to his frame and is now larger than his listed 140 pounds from the time of his signing in the Cubs massive 2015 IFA class. He created some buzz at instructs last fall thanks to his surprising bat speed, strength and athleticism that is not necessarily what you would expect from his still lanky frame. It took him a while to get going once the DSL season opened, but as an 18-year old who hadn't competed in a game setting in over a year that shouldn't be held against him. Eventually he showed all the attributes that had scouts excited including very good contact skills (13.8% K rate), good power (7 HR) and speed as well (23/33 SB). Also encouraging was his 13.1% BB rate that nearly matched his strikeout rate which is impressive for an inexperienced teenager in pro ball regardless the level of competition. I have him listed as a third baseman because that is where John projected him to play in the future, but Morel did in fact play SS all season in the DSL, and the door is not thought to be closed on him at the position.

Orian Nunez

Orian Nunez

Speaking of good contact skills, the prospect that posted the lowest K rate of any of the players that I tracked in the system this season was in fact Orian Nunez. His 7.8% K rate is pretty astounding as again we are talking about a teenager. Nunez is known as a grinder that lacks the physical projection of many of the players on this list but is a player that just knows how to hit. he was the most effective hitter for the DSL Cubs2 team throughout the year as he bounced between shortstop, second and third base defensively. With the reports of his limited athleticism even as a teenager I am listing him among the third basemen for now, but if in fact he can handle either or both middle infield spots moving forward it would be a tremendous boon to his chances.


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  • Pierce Johnson claimed off waivers by the Giants.

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    In reply to Michael Ernst:

    Does that mean that the Cubs and Giants can make a trade or does it mean the Giants just get him outright?

  • In reply to Joel Mayer:

    They get him. A trade has to be completed prior to this form of waivers.

  • In reply to Michael Ernst:

    I'm surprised it took this long.

  • It appears he didn't make it very far down the list of teams in the waiver order.

    Once a player is DFA'd the team has 10 days to release, trade or waive the player. (according to wikapedia) Maybe the cubs were dragging their feet

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    In reply to LOB8591:

    It wouldn't be that unbelieveable if they used almost their entire time trying to work out a trade and nothing came of it.

  • In reply to Joel Mayer:

    Yeah, from my understanding it takes 2-3 days to run a guy through waivers so they likely took 7 days to find a trade partner but apparently nothing materialized.

    As I said, 26 year olds with arm strength and control issues like Johnson are available all the time on waivers. The one reason I thought they might be able to make a deal for Johnson is he still has option years remaining so he could be an up-and-down guy for a team.

  • In reply to Joel Mayer:

    $50k waiver fee. Just like Hanneman and Leathersich. I really wish they had been able to extract some value from these guys. Even the PTBNL that I believe we owe Seattle, where Hanneman ended up.

    Be interesting to see how Johnson makes out now that he's removed from the Cubs system. Totally a waste to lose him for two innings of Tseng before he's ready. JH and JL are having some success with their current MLB clubs.

  • In reply to LOB8591:

    Cubs have a bunch of arms that they need to add this offseason to protect them from the Rule 5 so Johnson may not have made it through offseason on roster anyway. He was simply bypassed by Pena and Maples who both offer superior stuff and suffer through same inconsistencies. You can't keep too many of those guys. Need to pick a couple to roll with and move on from the rest when you are a competitive club. Arms like Johnson are passed around waivers all the time.

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    In reply to Michael Ernst:

    Especially in the off-season. They are the "41-45 guy" on many rosters.

  • Hey Michael, recently read an article over at Fangraphs that got me to wondering. Maybe an article idea for you in the off-season...


    "A fast player is a fast player is a fast player, and nothing has changed too much about the utility of speed. But, think about fielding and power. Think about what’s been taking place in the majors."
    "That’s what’s happening with defense. Power, I probably don’t even need to tell you about. Home runs are up. Way up. Scooter Gennett has hit 24. Jose Ramirez has hit 26. Francisco Lindor has hit 30. Back in 2015, Kiley McDaniel rated Lindor’s power as a 40, on the 20-80 scale. Nobody thought this would happen, but it is inarguably happening."

    "You can watch a player in the minors as much as you’d like, but the challenge is no longer just imagining him at a higher level. It’s imagining him at a higher level, where the game-play is different. You can forgive the evaluators for missing Whit Merrifield. These are weird and unusual times."

    The first player that came to mind was Ian Happ. Decent defense, but I don't think anyone thought he would hit at the MLB level with this much power this soon. I started wondering who in the pipeline could benefit from this new reality. Guys at the upper levels with a contact profile that may lead to a jump in power at the MLB level.

    Anyways, great series and appreciate all your hard work.

  • There are some interesting concepts in the article, not sure I agree with all of the conclusions. The need for range in the infield has been reduced by the use of defensive shifts, but I do think that the recent success of the Cubs and Royals who both put together defenses with great range still show the value of players that possess that attribute, especially if you can field many of them at the same time.

    Also, the assumption that the recent trend of so many hitters attempting to lift the ball and try for home runs is not guaranteed to continue. Yes, it has proven successful recently, but pitchers will continue to adjust (more 4 seamers up to combat uppercuts for instance). One thing I believe is that the majority of the metrics and data being compiled benefit pitchers more so than hitters, so if a number of hitters have made changes in swing/approach/etc the pitchers will make adjustments to combat it. Which will in turn lead to hitters readjusting. It really is a back and forth.

    Teams, often small market clubs that need to take advantage of market inefficiencies will start looking for the next trend. Maybe it is collecting line drive hitters with better bat control that can be more difficult to shift against and can also take advantage of those teams that are sacrificing range on their infield. They would also combat against all the hard throwing relievers that miss so many bats. I really do think an org will commit to this approach at some point in the near future. It might fail and get someone fired, but I still think it will be tried.

    Also, if the ball really is different this year as some have speculated, it may not be permanent. Remember we have had rabbit ball years before (1987 for instance) and I think it is dangerous to assume that the ball, specifically the materials it are made from stay constant on a year to year basis. And I don't just mean in a conspiratorial way where they are "wound tighter" or whatever. Baseballs are not made from thin air. They are constructed from many different materials and a manufacturing change (flaw or improvement) in any one or a combination of a few of the materials involved can have ramifications.

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    In reply to Michael Ernst:

    To me the advancements made in defensive shifts, for instance, are just another item in the "Rock-Paper-Scissors" game that is modern baseball. I could see a team going "all in" on defensive shifts and maybe have more 5-man infields/4 man outfields to compensate for limited range because those same defenders also bring other extraordinary skills (such as power, or speed, or contact, or discipline). I don't want to put much formulaic success on what the Cubs and Royals did with their defense. They built their teams as best they could and then did their best to maximize their advantages and minimize their weaknesses.

    What I like best about the Cubs is that they have a plan. On this site many have tried to decipher what the plan is and it seems to be prioritizing versatility on defense, controlling the strike-zone (if you can't limit your K's then at least draw some BB), and pitchers that don't walk many batters. Something like that. That is the strategy they chose. But it might have started with simply trying to acquire as many talented players as possible and then figure out what their skills are and build around that. They could have also acquired a ton of guys with extraordinary speed and had success with that. They could have acquired as many pitchers as the league would allow and might have had success with that.

    My point is that there will likely be teams that will try to guess the next trend (as you point out). They might even be right about those trends. But part of what I love about baseball is that there are so many ways that a team can be successful.

  • In reply to Joel Mayer:

    Caught in the filter Michael.

    The Cubs are in an enviable position with that offense and defense. It allows them to do things most teams can only dream of. That KC team may have benefited the most in this environment. Whit Merrifield could be the poster boy of middle infielders with great contact skills and seeing a big power jump at the MLB level.

  • La Stella is similar. Line drive, high contact, limited range and never hit for much power in Minors but his exit velocities are always among the best on the club. When he does lift the ball it goes.

  • In reply to Michael Ernst:

    Thanks Michael. Agree with everything you said. I think the ball has changed, but not purposefully. More due to a confluence of small changes that fell into maybe a to wide of a range of acceptable standards. Regardless, hitters have adjusted and are looking for more EV and LA. Guys with good contact skill and good OBP with warning track power will benefit the most. Teams will value the 4 seamer more, like the Rays ironically. And there definitely is a chance for a small market team to jump the market on both sides.

  • In reply to Michael Ernst:

    It will make it more difficult to scout power at the MLB level with the marked difference.

  • As for specific players...

    We already saw one at the minor league level start down that path in Jason Vosler. He went from hitting 35-45% fly balls to 55% this year and saw his HR totals spike as a result.

    Other candidates I can see are Austin Upshaw, Wladimir Galindo, Mark Zagunis, Eddy Martinez. They could all end up as guys that would hit more in the majors than minors. If I said to you that Austin Upshaw reminds me of someone that the Cardinals would develop I think people would understand what I am talking about. No flashy skills but no real deficiencies, calm at plate and in the field, etc.

    Maybe David Bote if he ever gets a chance. Kevonte Mitchell hasn't made a ton of contact yet, but he is still developing his all around game and I think there is power to come.

    Many of the Cubs high contact guys (Young, Higgins, Davis, Sepulveda) are guys that I would rate as 30 or below in the power department so I really don't see them as guys that could have big power spikes.

  • In reply to Michael Ernst:

    Nice! Zagunis jumps out at me with his contact skills and eye. Maybe even some up the middle guys like Zack Short?
    Candelario is a good type and off to a good start in 100 at bats in Detroit.

  • Zagunis has the best eye at the plate in the whole system. Closest we have to a Zobrist type. Unfortunately he doesn't offer the same defensive versatility... and Zo is still around to fill the LF/RF platoon role subbing for Heyward and Schwarbs so I'm not sure Zagunis ever gets a chance barring injuries.

    Maybe on Zack Short. I'll be honest I don't have a great read on him at this point. He is study project for me this offseason.

    Candy is definitely a guy that I can see hitting more homers in the majors than the minors.

  • In reply to Michael Ernst:

    It is going to be tough for anyone to crack this line-up for the foreseeable future. The Cubs are a team that may benefit the least in this environment.

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    Referring to Polanco: "His feel for the barrel allows him to succeed against lower level pitching due to the number of mistake pitches he sees but without a drastic shift in approach he will likely struggle moving forward."

    It is commentary like this that keeps me reading your stuff, Michael. Rather than simply saying, "He might do well now he will struggle as he advances." You give me a REASON he will struggle. And, if applicable, a way to avoid those struggles (making adjustments).

  • In reply to Joel Mayer:

    Thanks. He is one of those guys that really does a "good" job expanding the zone and spraying line drives, but so very few of those guys make it, especially ones that have no other skill to fall back on. You never like to rule a guy out because he can improve his approach and if he starts waiting for good pitches to drive maybe he makes it. He has good bat to ball skills which is a solid foundation.

  • Did you forget about Galindo.? Would like to know your thoughts.

  • In reply to cubman:

    He isn't participating. Still rehabbing from his injury.

  • In reply to cubman:

    I like Galindo. Surprised me a bit by flashing some quickness at 3B that I did not expect. I haven't seen enough to get a full read on his defense, but I'm intrigued enough that the 1B only reports I've seen from some may not be accurate. Remember those same type of reports dogged Candy for years as well. Of course we will need to see how he bounces back from his ankle injury and if it affects his movement skills long term.

    As for offense, he doesn't have a plus tool that I have seen, but he has good raw strength and I don't see any issue with bat speed. He showed a much better approach in his limited time this year. In 2016 he swung at anything in reach but that was not the case early in 2017. If he can continue on that path he has a chance to make some noise in the coming years.

  • Sorry, I missed the point that it was only players in instructs.

  • I know you haven't written up the OFs yet, but I was excited to see that Fernando Kelli and his 412 stolen bases this season will be in Az. along with baserunning coach Doug Dascenzo !

  • In reply to DropThePuck:

    Yeah, Kelli and Luis Diaz (another speedster that showed increased productivity across the board in 2017) are a couple of guys that I would love to see in action.

  • Caught in the filter Michael

  • Not any more :)

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