Editor’s Note: Ryan Davis is a friend and colleague who writes for Baseball Prospectus Wrigleyville and Today’s Knuckleball . You can also find him on Twitter @RyanDavisBP. He shares some of his thoughts on Cubs 3B prospect Jeimer Candelario after his recent trip to see the Iowa Cubs.
Of all the great hitting prospects the Cubs have compiled, is there any one more overlooked than third baseman Jeimer Candelario? Probably not, but with Dan Vogelbach now finally having been moved to an American League team, is there anyone more blocked at his position than Candelario? Having only played third and first base in the minor leagues with the Cubs, the 22-year-old switch-hitter with sweet linedrive power could be the next to have to play his way out of the organization.
But for now, Candelario has a few things he’s working on: consistency at the plate and defense. One of the knocks on Candelario as a prospect has been the question of whether he can stick at third, according to the Baseball Prospectus 2016 Annual:
Candelario hasn’t converted his doubles power into the over-the-fence stuff (despite an average raw power tool) and he hasn’t convinced observers that he can handle third base in the majors. He doesn’t necessarily need to do both to have a career, but he probably needs to do one of them. Word is that he’s worked hard on his defense at third, so that’s a good sign, as is the fact that he’s just 22, so the switch-hitting prospect could still grow into the pop he’d need to play first base or DH.
The questions, according to the metrics, have been justified so far. Last season between High-A and Double-A, Candelario combined for 128 games and a -11.9 Fielding Runs Above Average (FRAA)—which places him as a well below average third baseman.
But, as the notes from BP indicate, Candelario is a notoriously hard worker and has put in the time to improve defensively. Veteran baseball scout Bernie Pleskoff of Today’s Knuckleball saw him in the Arizona Fall League this last season and came away impressed with the strides he has made:
I came away very impressed with his ability to play better-than-average third base defense. Although he hit extremely well in the fall, it was his defense and arm strength that seemed to be his most advanced, if not his best, tools. His arm is very strong and accurate. Some say he has the strongest arm in the Cubs organization.
Candelario has very good baseball instincts that serve him well at third base. He has quick, soft hands and enough range to get to balls hit to both sides. He is a bit slow coming in on lightly hit balls in front of him. His reaction time and his reflexes are assets in his overall defensive strength.
Coming into 2016, the question would be how the scouting would measure up against the advanced statistics. So far, so good. In 110 games played between Double-A and Triple-A this year, he’s combined for 3.0 FRAA—a marked improvement over the numbers from 2015.
However, those numbers aren’t a complete picture. His FRAA back in 2014 was 13.8, which on the surface might lead you to believe he’s actually an excellent defender. While defensive metrics are coming along and may eventually shape the way we look at defensive value in the future, even the most devoted defenders of the numbers would tell you it’s a work in progress. Trust the scouts’ eye, in this case, that Candelario can handle third base in the major leagues.
On the offensive side, the key for Candelario is his consistency at the plate. Scouting the stat line won’t tell you everything on Candelario, but it will tell you something—he’s having a good year at the plate. He struggled in his start to the year at Double-A but received the call to Triple-A Iowa and has been raking ever since—hitting .297/.406/.497 in 212 plate appearances at the highest level in the minors.
The ability has never been in question, but the consistency has. More from Pleskoff on Candelario at the bat:
My greatest concern about Candelario is his inconsistency. He can look like he’s setting the world on fire in one at-bat and then look lost at the plate in the next.
The last sentence here is the one that stands out to me and is startlingly true, in my own opinion. I traveled to Des Moines for Baseball Prospectus to speak to Albert Almora and Pierce Johnson, but got the opportunity on my adventure to watch Candelario as well. What I would see from him was confounding. He came up to the plate eight times, striking out three times, walking three times, and collecting zero hits.
He looked particularly lost in one at-bat, striking out on just three pitches—swinging out in front of the first two and way, way behind on the third. According to those around the I-Cubs, this has been the story of his season there. From at-bat to at-bat, Candelario either looks like the doubles-machine his physique suggests he’ll become or like a kid that’s completely over-matched in a league full of players several years his elder. The concern is that he’d be exposed much more frequently in the big leagues.
But there’s still time for Candelario to figure it out. He won’t turn 23 for a few more weeks, and might get the benefit of more time in Chicago this September when rosters expand. Without knowing where Tommy La Stella stands in a potential return to the team, the Cubs could certainly use another left-handed bat on the bench.
But again, this is a player that historically has been inconsistent and is blocked by Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo at his two capable defensive positions. Even if Candelario were good enough to force Bryant out to left field—and he’s not—there’s still the issue of Javier Baez, who is by far a superior player. The hope for Candelario is that he finds consistency at the plate while continuing to improve on his defense to become a quality utility player for the Cubs in 2017 or 2018—or maybe a part of another team down the road.
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