The headline of this post doesn't exactly communicate what I'd like to speculate on.
It *might* end up that uber-prospects Baez and Bryant both crush AAA pitching in July. We *may* see both moved to the major league infield. Castro might be forced to take second from Barney, and on August 1 we could witness the first of what might eventually be 500 games where Rizzo, Castro, Baez, and Bryant man the infield.
That hypothetical is possible, and so talking about it would satisfy the headline of this post. But "What Might the Cubs Infield Probably Look Like" isn't good grammar, so I'm having to wait until I'm three paragraphs into my blog post to tell you what actually interests me: rather than dream on the slightest of chances, I'll try to sketch out today what I think is the *likeliest* outcome for the Cubs' infield on Aug. 1, 2014.
Barney, Castro, Valbuena, Murphy, Watkins, Olt, Roberts, Valaika, Bonifacio, Villanueva, Alcantara, Baez and Bryant all have more than zero chance -- a better chance than, say, me -- of manning some quadrant of the Cubs infield at some point this year. But then I think some of those players have a greater chance than others.
For example, inertia is a powerful thing. And if Rizzo-Barney-Castro isn't 75 percent of the starting infield on opening day, I think we'd all be shocked. So there's plenty of chance that those guys maintain their spots well into August.
In contrast, third base is wide open. And if we're being perfectly honest with ourselves, there's no reason to expect any consistent offensive production out of that spot until August at the earliest.
Dan Szymborski's ZiPS projection system is guessing that Luis Valbuena will hit .241/.325/.376 in 2014. Blech. For Donnie Murphy, you're looking at a .229/.291/.417. And Mike Olt is pegged at .220/.299/.383.
Some folks might say Olt is the one guy out of that group with the best chance to exceed expectations, given his age. But let's be clear about what it would take for Olt to outperform: recall that he's never hit .300 at any level of MiLB; he hit .197 across 104 games at AAA; and he's struck out in 26 percent of his minor league plate appearances. Frankly, I think the ZiPS guess for him looks really about right. And that's not good enough for MLB. (Olt is currently 3-for-14 this spring, with no walks and six strikeouts.)
Of course, it might be a good thing to have an open spot in the infield, because I agree with the fanboy hype on at least one Cub propsect: Ednel Javier Baez is headed for the major leagues, and soon.
Yes, Baez has great bat speed, all five tools, and this and that, yadda yadda yadda. But he's also put up fabulous numbers on the minor league baseball field, and at an advanced level. The jump from A+ ball to AA is generally considered the most difficult in the game, and we all know how Baez responded to his being moved from Daytona to Tennessee: he hit even better. After posting a .274/.338/.535 (!) at Daytona, Baez hit .294/.346/.638 (!!!) over 54 games with the Smokies. Yes, Baez's strikeouts climbed a bit from A+ to AA, but so did his walks, and so did his power. Ednel appears to be delivering exactly what the front office is looking for: take more pitches, and when you do swing, try to hit the ball hard.
Given the Cubs' lack of impact major league level talent at 3B, and the fact that Starlin Castro is a 24-year-old two-time all-star shortstop, it feels likely to me that Baez and Castro will man the left side of the Cubs infield on Aug. 1.
Where does that leave Kris "The Other Stud" Bryant? My guess is, the minor leagues. Yes, Bryant showed he was a capable professional hitter in his short stint with Daytona, slugging .719 over 62 plate appearances. But the kid has only appeared in 36 total pro-ball games. And that includes two games of rookie ball! By all accounts Bryant is an exceptional talent, and he could get a look at the majors in September when rosters expand. But even Troy Tulowitzki, a generational talent that made his MLB debut at age 21, had to wait until August 30 of his second year as a pro to be called up, and had by that time already put in more than 100 games at the AA level.
If the Cubs have four players under the age of 25 manning their infield on August 1 (!!!), I don't think Bryant is the fourth guy. Instead, I'm giving the nod to Arismendy Alcantara.
Like Baez, Alcantara has put up stats at an advanced level. After posting a .302/.339/.447 at A+ in 2012, Alcantara took another step forward in 2013, posting a .271/.352/.451 -- with 31 steals -- at Tennessee. I've pitched to various prospect experts on Twitter that Alcantara's production looks a lot like that of Pirates 2B Neil Walker, and the feedback I've gotten when making that connection has been that I'm near the mark with my assessment.
Also like Baez, Alcantara balances an almost-scary K-rate with a good number of walks, and a decent amount of power. The former shortstop should play great defense at second, and the speed is a useful tool. Combined, I think it's a robust package of abilities that will play well at MLB.
While we're inventorying Cubs infield prospects, I'll say one more thing: I think Christian Villanueva will reach the majors before Bryant, too. CV didn't walk quite as often as Alcantara at Tennessee last season, but he slugged quite a bit better. And while Alcantara's production was fairly consistent across the full 2013 season, Villanueva really turned it on in the second half: he went from hitting .251/.311/.423 in April May and June, to batting .275/.326/.531 in July August and September.
So let's finally answer the question: what might the Cubs infield look like on August 1st?
I say there's a 40 percent chance that Rizzo, Alcantara, Castro, and Baez are your 3-4-6-5 at that point.
If Alcantara doesn't end up hitting well at AAA, you might see Baez at 2B and Villanueva at 3B, with Castro and Rizzo filling out the infield. But I consider this outcome slightly less likely than the first set I mentioned.
A slightly more boring, and slightly less likely alignment would be Rizzo-Barney-Castro-Baez. Even more boring and even less likely would be Rizzo-Barney-Castro-Valbuena/Murphy, if none of the Cubs' prospects hit. And Olt might find a way to unseat the Valbuena/Murphy platoon at third, although at this point I think his chances are extremely slim.
If Kris Bryant beats Alcantara and Villanueva to the big league club I will be really, really, really, really surprised. And of course, a trade involving any one of these kids throws everything off.
Thanks for reading!
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