This is Part One in a series of posts that will examine the current state of the Cubs organization position-by-position from the majors all the way down to rookie ball.
One of my favorite things about going to the Cubs Convention is sitting in on sessions having to do with the minor leagues. Over the past few conventions, it’s been interesting to listen to Jason McLeod, Jaron Madison, and Joe Bohringer talk about the types of players the Cubs’ scouts look for and target to develop in their system. Probably the most eye-opening conversation I heard the past three conventions was listening to Bohringer speak of the how the NL needs a more athletic kind player versus the American League, which has the DH to hide someone who is not as athletic.
This year we have seen that play out at the big league level as Kris Bryant, Chris Coghlan, Kyle Schwarber, and Javier Baez all played multiple positions. Part of that’s by design, part of it by need. For the Cubs, first base has been interesting position in terms of trying to develop talent.
In the 2015 draft, Taylor Jones was drafted in the 35th round and did not sign. In 2014, the Cubs did not select any first basemen and in 2013 they selected Kelvin Freeman, who washed out of the system in less than a year. The only first baseman drafted by this regime and who is still in the system is Jacob Rogers, who was taken in the 40th Round in 2012. On the whole, first baseman are not known for being the most athletic players on the team. As a result, under McLeod, Epstein, and minor league director Madison, the Cubs have shifted players to first base from other positions, most notably third base, catcher, and outfield.
Anthony Rizzo is signed through 2021. The heart and soul of the team, Rizzo had an All-Star caliber season through July and early August before a slump. Despite that, Rizzo is pegged in at first base for at least the next five years and his entrenchment at first blocks the position for other prospects. When Rizzo’s contract ends, he will be 32 and likely beginning the downside of his career. That being said, that time frame gives the Cubs a lot of time to develop another first baseman.
Next Men Up
At the top of the list is Dan Vogelbach. Vogelbach was selected by the Cubs in 2011 in the last draft by Jim Hendry. He had consecutive 17-home run seasons in short-season Boise and low-A Kane County before struggling a bit in 2014 in the Florida State league. He got off to a great start at AA Tennessee in 2015 (.282) before several small injuries derailed him for most of the second-half. In spite of that, Vogelbach is the Cubs’ top-rated first baseman when it comes to hitting. His fielding, however, has not drawn rave reviews.
On the other hand, Vogelbach’s still a very valuable piece for the Cubs moving forward. If the NL goes to the DH in 2017, his stock increases dramatically. If it doesn’t, he’s blocked by Anthony Rizzo for the next six years. Vogelbach could be a nice left-handed bat off the bench, but I think the Cubs might get more out of him if they trade him to an American League team willing to put him at DH.
For Jacob Rogers, time is not on his side. He has the reputation of a quality hitter on the left side who works counts, takes his walks, and has some plus power, but he’s 25 years old. There’s not a lot of time left in the organization for him. He does get high marks as a leader and that is evident as he’s been part of two championship winning teams at Kane County and Myrtle Beach.
Versatility at the Corners
For me, Matt Rose might be the one who could shine brightest of the first baseman in the Cubs’ system. He had a brief debut in 2015 after being drafted and has shown a very balanced swing and the potential for power. The 6-foot-4, 195-pound frame has plenty room for projection. Tall and angular, Rose looks like a Kris Bryant clone and has ability to play third base as well as first. Most people don’t know that Rose is still coming off Tommy John surgery in 2014 at Georgia State where he pitched and played the field.
I think we’ll get a better view of what Rose can do in 2016, when he will likely be at South Bend to start his first full year in professional baseball. Given his strong arm, I could also see him in a corner outfield spot. The key, however, is his versatility to play multiple power positions.
Odds and Sods
Most of the other first baseman in the Cubs’ system were converted from another position. At South Bend this year, former OF Yasiel Balaguert played some first, as did catchers Gioskar Amaya and Cael Brockmeyer. Catcher Tyler Alamo did the same at Eugene, along with third baseman Blake Headley. Myrtle Beach catcher Victor Caratini also saw a lot of time at first when he wasn’t catching this year. None are seen as permanent players at the position, but the Cubs just don’t have a lot of guys who predominantly play 1B.
I think a big surprise in terms of first baseman could come in converted pitcher Chris Pieters, who spent most of the 2015 season hitting .311 for the Cubs’ Dominican summer team. Pieters did arrive stateside to get in nine games in the Arizona Rookie League and combined to hit .302 with three home runs and 39 RBI in 62 games in his first year as a hitter.
He might start 2016 in Arizona, but, at 21 years old, is likely to head to Eugene at the first sign of success. Swinging and throwing left, Pieters has a natural advantage that none of the other players in the Cubs system do at first base. Still, it is early in his transformation. He also saw some time in the outfield this year as well and is a versatile player, much like Rose.
While the Cubs do have a few nice prospects at first, it is probably their weakest position in the minors and the one with the least depth. I think Vogelbach and Rogers have limited futures with the Cubs, while Rose and Pieters may have more opportunities because of their versatility, not to mention their age.
With Rizzo holding down the fort in the big leagues, and the versatility of several Cubs to also play/fill in there (Bryant, Coghlan, and Baez), the need for another first baseman is not immediate. The Cubs can afford to take their time in developing players, which is always a good thing. Any first baseman the Cubs develop between now and then will be a bonus or a player they can use to fill out the organization at other positions.
Next week, we will look at one of the Cubs deepest positions: second base.