A little late today and we’ll continue this series on the 26th. After all the pitching additions, the focus on the team and possible improvements has turned to the position players. We focused on catching yesterday, which could be set for years if Welington Castillo continues to make progress. Today it’s the first baseman, and the Cubs look even more set at that position.
Offensive Outlook (Bill James projections)
- Anthony Rizzo: .283/.346/.517 with 33 HRs, .234 ISO, and 8.3% walk rate.
Do we really need another name here? Rizzo will play over 150 games if healthy. We’ll look at other 1Bs in the depth section. James’ projections for Rizzo are eye-popping and the Cubs would be thrilled with that kind of production from their 23 year old first baseman. The power numbers are particularly impressive, though James predicts an uptick in walks as well, which puts the OBP near a very respectable .350.
Rizzo was a plus defender last year (10.9 UZR/150) and figures to keep improving after working hard on his footwork and lateral movement around the bag. He’s always had soft-hands and a surprisingly strong arm for a first baseman. Rizzo profiles as a gold glove type 1B defensively.
Barring something unforeseen, the Cubs have their 1B for the next decade in Rizzo. He figures to be an asset offensively and defensively. He has the excellent mental makeup and leadership skills to be a cornerstone of the franchise.
The Cubs don’t need outside help here so we’ll focus on the depth. Short term depth includes free agent acquisition Nate Schierholtz, who is capable of playing 1B, though we haven’t seen it yet in the majors. Ian Stewart may be an option as well if Rizzo needs an occasional day off. 3rd catcher Steve Clevenger has some experience at 1B. Needless to say, don’t expect any of them to get much playing time at 1B unless there is an injury. If Rizzo is out long term, the Cubs may call up the recently signed 29 year-old Brad Nelson to be the emergency 1B. That would allow the Cubs to keep the rest of their lineup in tact. Nelson is essentially the Cubs replacement for the NPB bound Bryan LaHair in that he is an older prospect who has put up tremendous numbers at the AAA level. Like LaHair before 2012, he’s had a couple of cups of coffee earlier in his career but has since been relegated to an organizational depth player. Nelson hit .279/.364/.488 for the Texas Rangers’ AAA affiliate last season. He hit 24 HRs, put up a .209 ISO, and walked in just under 13% of his plate appearances. Josh Vitters could also be part of the mix should Rizzo go down for an extended period of time.
Most MLB ready: Other than Nelson, the Cubs closest prospect to the majors is Justin Bour, 24, who was one of the organization’s most productive players last season. He has a good eye and a knack for driving in runs. He’s a big kid (6’4″, 250 lbs) and must be mindful of that to keep himself mobile around the bag. Despite the great size, he doesn’t have the kind of HR power you like at 1B, hitting 17 at AA Tennessee while slugging .455 (.172 ISO).
Top Prospect: Dan Vogelbach may have more pure power than Rizzo but his game isn’t as well-rounded. He’s an excellent hitter with 80 (top of the scale) power potential to go with a plus hitting tool. He generates great bat speed with an efficient swing and supplements that with a rapidly improving feel for the strike zone. He’s not as agile around the bag though he does have soft hands. Neither Vogelbach or Rizzo are capable of handling another position full-time, so the Cubs will have to pray for the DH to come to the NL or make a decision down the road. Vogelbach will be at Kane County next season as their is no reason to rush the just turned 20 year old.
Others worth watching: Both Rock Shoulders, 21, and Jacob Rogers, 23, have great power potential to go with good plate discipline. Each has a chance to be a solid defender. Their biggest obstacle is being stuck between Rizzo and Vogelbach, so they’ll have to put up some big years to draw attention next season.