Well, the time to submit 40-man rosters has come and gone, and our two headline hitters were fortunate enough to make the cut—not that this came as any surprise. Jeimer Candelario and Willson Contreras stayed hot swinging the lumber in the Southwest desert this fall. Again, I want to point out the small sample sizes we get from such a shortened Arizona Fall League schedule, but it's exciting to see some of the Cubs top prospects continuing to play at a high level against quality competition. So without further ado, here's how they played.
Willson Contreras - C, 23 years old
AFL Stats: 14 G, .283/.361/.547, 3 HR, 7 BB, 9 K
If you've been following the Cubs minors very closely, then you already know that this guy's stock is rising quicker than anyone else on the farm. You might also know that he led the Southern League this summer with a .333 BA. I'm extremely impressed with his smooth, patient approach at the plate. He kept his bat hot in the AFL, even showing some pop (though I don't anticipate power being one of his major tools going forward).
Unfortunately, Contreras ran into some hamstring trouble—nothing too major. I might attribute this to his recent weight gain. According to John Arguello of Cubs Den, Contreras is sticking around Arizona for a while to work out the hamstring issue. This speaks to what I like most about Contreras: his work ethic. Keep in mind Contreras was having trouble keeping above the .250 mark before 2015. To fix his issues in the batter's box, Contreras checked off every cliché in the book—first to the stadium and last to leave, put extra time in at the cages, spent extra time watching video, etc., etc.
Certainly Cotreras' bat has gotten him onto several prospect lists, but what's exciting for me to see are his improvements behind the plate. Contreras is a converted catcher (ex-3B), and his defense hasn't always been pretty. In the past, I was quick to criticize his defensive abilities (along with many scouts), but I'm starting to think maybe the criticism came too quickly. This guy never played behind the plate before, so it stands to reason his catching abilities weren't big-league ready right away. Given his track record, I'm confident Contreras has the dedication to keep improving defensively.
Jeimer Candelario - 3B, 22 years old
AFL Stats: 21 G, .329/.371/.610, 5 HR, 6BB, 10 K
Candelario was absolutely locked in this fall in Arizona, and he started off with a bang. Just three games into the season, he was hitting .667 with 3 HR and 7 XBH. Candelario continued to demonstrate an ability to put his bat on the ball (and with some pop) throughout the rest of the fall. I see Candelario, going forward, as a guy with plus power. He's already a big guy, and he just turned 22 (on November 24th). During one of the games I got to watch—thank you MLB for broadcasting many of the AFL games—Candelario got an inside fastball which I assumed would have jammed him, but he yanked the ball over the left field wall for a home run. This home run showed me Candelario's unique combination of strength and natural athleticism.
Candelario is another player whose seen his stock rise recently. Scouts are a bit more divided on his big league abilities though. As I've pointed out, he certainly has the physical tools to succeed, but many think his approach at the plate is too erratic. I have to admit, he does have a tendency to look Paul Bunyan-ish, but his K% doesn't seem to have suffered as a result—at least not yet. He struck out 18.1% of the time at A+ with the Pelicans and just 11.5% of the time at AA with the Smokies. The rational fear is that advanced scouting at higher levels will expose the holes in his wild swing. Some players have gotten away in the big leagues as free swingers, but I'm not ready to call Candelario the next Vlad-Glad. I believe Candelario's success will be determined by his dedication to quiet his swing.
From a defensive standpoint, some question his ability to stay at 3B given his size (and some guy named Bryant), but I was very impressed with his defense at the hot corner in the AFL games I caught. The ceiling is very high for Candelario. He'll be one of my favorite guys to keep an eye on going forward.
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