First base is an odd position to rate because unless you are a monster at the plate, it’s not really a position where you want your prospects to start out. It’s often for that guy who can really hit but who can’t quite cut it defensively at 3B, catcher, or the OF.
But not always. The Cubs do have a great hitter who is a 1B only prospect from day one — and yes, he is a potential monster at the plate. We’re talking, of course, about Kane County 1B Dan Vogelbach.
This is the type of player we are covering today rather than speculate on which prospects don’t have the defensive chops to stick at their current position. Because of that, this won’t go as in-depth as catcher because very few “natural” 1B qualify as prospects because the offensive bar is so much higher.
Current MLB starter:
Anthony Rizzo, 23 (24 tomorrow)
.240/.333/.451, .341 wOBA, 113 RC+
Rizzo hasn’t had the kind of big year many of us hoped but it hasn’t been a lost season for him either. In fact, in some ways he’s just as good a player as he was last season. Where Rizzo has improved is his plate discipline and his power. His defense is still well-above average, perhaps Gold Glove caliber. So while you don’t have a guy who is wowing you with the numbers, you do have a player who is settling nicely into the kind of player the Cubs prefer — Great approach, great defense, and power. His walk rate this season is a very solid 11.2%, up about 4% from last season. His ISO% ( a statistics that isolates the power numbers from slugging percentage) is at .211, up from .178 last season. Those are not small increases. Those are huge improvements. Rizzo’s improving ability to take the ball the other way has substantially increased his doubles power while retaining his 25-30 HR power (he projects to hit 27) and keeping his strikeout rate pretty low for a power guy (18.7%). The one thing that’s a blemish on Rizzo’s season is his rather pedestrian .240 average, but even that can be accounted for by a very low BABIP this season (.264). When you put it all together, Rizzo has been as productive as he was last season. The wOBA is at .341, pretty close to the .349 mark he was at last year, while his RC+ is 113 compared to 116 last season. But given how Rizzo has improved in terms of plate discipline and hitting the ball the other way with authority, I’ll take it because that BABIP luck will turn around — and when it does you’ll once again be talking about Rizzo as a potential all-star 1B.
Dan Vogelbach, 20, Kane County (A)
.282/.359/.449, 16 HRs; .366 wOBA, 124 RC+
Speaking of learning to go the other way, the powerful but once pull-happy Dan Vogelbach has learned to do exactly that. In some ways, the two best hitting 1B in the Cubs organization have been on similar paths. Vogelbach has not only learned to take the ball the other way, but he can do so with authority, hitting a number of doubles toward left-center to go with a few HRs that way. Another thing I like about Vogelbach is that he still has great plate discipline (11.2% walk rate) but he has learned to foul off borderline pitches he can’t drive. Whereas last year he’d take some of those pitches or take a big swing (which resulted in a few more walks and even more strikeouts), this year he’s fouling them off in hopes of getting the pitcher to make a mistake on the next offering. All those changes in his approach have brought Vogelbach’s K rate down to 14.8%, extremely low for a power hitter. The power is down this year but it’s hard to say Vogelbach hasn’t made serious progress as a hitter. It’s not the empty numbers we saw from once Cubs top 1B prospect Brian Dopirak, who feasted on inferior pitching. Vogelbach is using a more polished approach which should sustain — and even improve — production at the higher levels. If Vogelbach has an achilles heel, it’s that he’s not near the defender that Rizzo is — but he works hard at it and if he can just make the plays he’s supposed to make, his bat will carry him to the big leagues.
Other Prospects of Note:
Rock Shoulders, 21, Kane County (A)
.258/.358/.472, 17 HRs, .376 wOBA, 131 RC+
While he doesn’t get the same prospect love as his slugging teammate, in some respects Shoulders has actually put up better numbers this year. He has tailed off after a ridiculous April but Shoulders is still hitting the ball well. His numbers have just regressed to ones that are more appropriate for his skill set. Shoulders has similar power to Vogelbach and perhaps an even better batting eye. What he lacks is Vogelbach’s ability to make consistent contact. He also doesn’t take pitches the other way nearly as well at this point. Shoulders is a different type of hitter than Vogelbach. He’s more of what’s known as a “3 outcome” guy that became popularized with past saber-favorites such as Adam Dunn and Jack Cust. In other words, in any given AB, the chances are pretty good that Shoulders will either walk, strikeout, or hit a HR. There’s a place for that type of player in this league, though it’s probably a better fit in the AL, especially considering that Shoulders isn’t a great defender at any position. I’d consider him a prospect, but one that has a tremendous burden on his power bat and plate discipline to be a successful MLB player.
Dustin Geiger, 21, Daytona (A+)
.283/.366/.441, 11 HRs, 370 wOBA, .130 RC+
Geiger was drafted as a 3B and the Cubs liked his hands and arm from that position, but as so happens with young players, he filled out physically and lost some of the quickness and range that you like at that position. His good hands should eventually make him an asset at 1B but switching to the position has put a greater burden on his bat. Geiger used to sell out a lot for power and would go on HR binges at Peoria last season that would be followed by even longer HR droughts. This year he has become a much better hitter, although hit has cost him in the HR department for now. Geiger has increased his walk rate by nearly 4% — he’s just a shade under 10% this season — and he has cut down his strikeouts by 6%, down to 17.6%. What Geiger has also done is become a much better situational hitter, adjusting his approach in RBI situations to one where he looks to make contact and drive runners home. It has resulted in a career high 71 RBI. While I don’t think RBI is a stat that tells you a ton about a hitter, I think that stat gets downplayed a bit too much by some. Much of it depends on situation/environment, but it’s not entirely luck, some hitters just have a knack for adapting to the situation and getting the runner home. Geiger seems to have that ability. I wonder too if he might take the same path as the next hitter on this list, Justin Bour, who also became a great situational hitter in 2012 and then turned on the power this year and became a more productive hitter overall. The difference is Geiger is 4 years younger than Bour, so his timetable is much more suitable for prospect status.
Justin Bour, 25, Tennessee (AA)
.230/.320/.482, 15 HRs, .353 wOBA, 121 RC+
Bour missed half the season with an injury and has put up those HR numbers in just 59 games this season. His ISO has increased from a pedestrian (for a 1B) .172, to a much more position appropriate .252. He has done this while simultaneously producing a small uptick in walks and even a slight improvement in his already good strikeout rate. All of that is the good news. The bad news is that Bour is hitting just .230, though much of that is the result of an unsustainably low BABIP of .218. That average should rise in the near future. Of greater long term concern is Bour’s age and a big body that he’ll need to keep working on to stay in good shape. Like Vogelbach and Shoulders, his defense is adequate at best, so it’s going to have to be his bat that takes him to the majors. Unlike those two, however, time is not on his side.
Filed under: 2013 position-by-position depth charts