As the Chicago Cubs prepare to head out to spring training in Mesa, Arizona, Windy City Hardball is previewing each of the positions on the field for the team (and pretending we’re heading to Phoenix ourselves to enjoy the warm weather).
We keep things going with the first base position.
There are only a couple of positions on the Cubs’ roster that are absolutely guaranteed, and their starting first baseman is one of them. Anthony Rizzo went from being a really solid player last season to being a potentially elite one, slugging 32 home runs, racking up an impressing 5.6 WARP and even garnering MVP votes for a last place team.
Perhaps more impressively than his play overall was the fact that he embraced his role as a leader on the team. With precious few veterans on the squad, Rizzo took it upon himself to be the voice of the team, and even though guys like Jon Lester and Miguel Montero will be helping out in that department this season, they aren’t likely to tell Rizzo to quiet down since he’s the guy who’s been around the longest on this particular team.
As for what we can expect from Rizzo in the upcoming year, it’s tough to say. Some advanced metrics suggest he’ll suffer a dip in his home run total but an increase in his RBI total (having guys like Dexter Fowler ahead of you in the lineup will help with that), but it wouldn’t be shocking to still see him hit around 30 home runs and drive in close to 90 runs. That would be a big boost to the Cubs’ offense, and with a guy like Kris Bryant potentially coming up midseason to help provide more protection, Rizzo could really take another step forward in the coming year.
First base is really the only position that the Cubs don’t have a certain back-up for at the moment, but guys like Mike Olt will likely be looked at to give Rizzo an occasional break. Calling up a guy like Dan Vogelbach is off the table (at least we’d assume it is), but other options like Tommy La Stella, Chris Coghlan and Arismendy Alcantara (who is likely shifting into a utility infielder role with Fowler taking over as the full-time center fielder), aren’t exactly palatable.
Even though they aren’t blessed with a tremendous back-up, the Cubs’ first base situation is their second-best position in our eyes. Rizzo is one of the top first basemen in the National League, and with Joe Maddon at the helm and with the confidence of his breakout season still fueling him, the Cubs won’t have to worry about addressing this spot for a while.
With tremendous depth at other positions, the Cubs have a really shallow group of true first basemen in their system. Vogelbach is just about the only guy that immediately comes to mind, and while he’s a solid prospect, he’s likely not a game changer at the position from a defensive standpoint. That’s not a deal-breaker, especially considering how good he is at the plate (he had an impressive .357 OBP and 45 extra base hits in 560 plate appearances in High-A Daytona last season), so it wouldn’t be surprising to see him take a step or two up the ladder this season.
One game sample-sizes are a terrible way to judge the merits of a baseball player, but since my time in Arizona is so brief, I’m being forced to evaluate players based on just one game of action. Here are my snap judgments on some prospects for the Chicago Cubs, who fell in Arizona Fall League action to the Scottsdale Scorpions by a score of 2-1 on Monday night in Scottsdale.
Cates only faced one hitter in the bottom of the fifth inning, retiring Roman Quinn on a groundout to shortstop. It was a very well located pitch that he induced the grounder on, and I really wish that he had faced more batters in the game.
Unfortunately for me, all three of the Cubs’ hitters who started this game struggled at the dish. Hannemann was just 1-for-6 entering the evening, and he left without helping his average at all. In fact, Hannemann hit with runners in scoring position on three different occasions in the game, and he grounded out to first base, flew out to center field, and struck out in those situations.
Even though he had an off-day at the plate, Hannemann made up for it with a couple of nice defensive plays, including a slicing ball down the right field line that he was able to cut off and hold Tyler Austin to just a single. His throw to Addison Russell wasn’t perfect, but it got the job done as the Solar Sox looked to keep their hopes of winning the game alive.
Out of the four Cubs prospects that I saw on Monday, none impressed me the way that Russell did. No, he didn’t blow me away at the plate (although his sharply hit single to left field and his ninth-inning walk were both good to see), but his work with his glove was jaw-dropping.
In the bottom of the fifth inning, Russell (playing second base in this game) was positioned at normal depth against right-handed hitting Blake Miller. On an outside pitch, Miller lifted a fly ball that sliced down the right field line and looked like it was headed for trouble. Getting to full acceleration in just a few steps, Russell was able to somehow get under the ball and make a remarkable running catch to retire the batter.
Not content to let that be his only web gem, Russell came up with an even better one in the bottom of the seventh inning. Elias Diaz smacked a ball up the middle of the field, just eluding the pitcher. Sliding on one knee, Russell made an excellent pick of the ball, and from that knee he rifled a throw over to Dan Vogelbach at first, and when the Cubs’ first base prospect was able to scoop it out of the dirt, the runner was retired.
Both of those plays showed why Russell is such a highly touted shortstop. His range is incredible, his arm is strong, and most impressively of all, he made it look ridiculously easy. If Starlin Castro is looking over his shoulder during the 2015 season, fans will know why.
Vogelbach’s immediate comparison player is Javier Baez. He strides up to the plate looking like he can hit the ball a mile, but if anything offspeed came near the plate in this game, he was swinging and missing. He struck out with runners on second and third in the first inning, struck out again in his next at-bat in the third, and grounded out softly to third base in this third trip to the dish. He finished off the evening by grounding into a fielder’s choice in the top of the eighth inning.
Even though Vogelbach has struggled at the plate during AFL play (he’s now 1-for-11 with seven strikeouts and three walks), his glove work did give him something positive to build on. When pitcher Felipe Rivero fielded a high chopper near home plate, he ended up throwing the ball directly down the base line. Vogelbach not only was able to pick up the ball out of his hand (not an easy thing to do with a baserunner bearing down on you), but he was able to pick the one-hop throw out of the dirt to get the out at first base.
The Chicago Cubs have been cultivating their farm system for several seasons now under the regime of Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer, and Jason McLeod, and this fall the fruits of their labor will once again be on display when the Mesa Solar Sox take the field in Arizona Fall League action.
As part of the Solar Sox roster, the Cubs will send seven of their best prospects to compete in the league, and the list is an impressive one. The name that jumps out right away is shortstop Addison Russell, who was acquired by the Cubs in the Jeff Samardzija trade in July. Russell has been raking since being acquired by the team, slugging 12 home runs and driving in 35 RBI for West Tennessee. He also is sporting a very nice split of .297/.339/.560 in the 44 games he’s been there, and his defense has dazzled scouts and fans alike.
Russell will be joined on the Solar Sox roster by pitcher C.J. Edwards, who is arguably one of the top arms in the team’s farm system. In nine starts with West Tennessee, Edwards has a 2.25 ERA, a 1.00 WHIP, and is striking out 9.2 batters per nine innings. He has also surrendered just one home run in those 44 innings (he allowed one home run in 116 innings pitched in 2013), and even though his strikeout-to-walk ratio is a tad higher this season, he still is wowing fans at just 22 years of age.
First baseman Dan Vogelbach (15 home runs, 72 RBI in high-A ball this year), pitcher Gerardo Concepcion (3-2 with a 3.39 ERA in 58.1 minor league innings), pitcher Zach Cates (3-2 with a 4.15 ERA in high-A and Class-AA), outfielder Jacob Hannemann (8 HR, 49 RBI, 37 SB), and pitcher Ivan Pineyro (0-5, 5.46 ERA in 56 IP) round out the Cubs’ representatives on the Solar Sox.
The Solar Sox will kick off their season on Tuesday, October 7 at 2:35pm Central time against Glendale, and their first home game will be played the next day against Glendale at Cubs Park.