This is part one in a series of posts that 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 sit and 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 Joe 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 played multiple positions. Part of that’s by design, part of it by need. For the Cubs, first base has been interesting position in 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 one first baseman and in 2013 they selected Kelvin Freeman who washed out of the system pretty quickly in less than a year. The only first baseman the Cubs drafted that is still in the system is Jacob Rogers, who was drafted 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 Jaron 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 Al-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. Rizzo’s 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.
The Top Two
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’s had two 17 homerun seasons in short season Boise and low A Kane County. While 2014 was a bit of a struggle for him at the plate 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. However, his fielding 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 at first base. 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. Rogers has the reputation of a quality hitter on the left side who works counts, takes his walks, and has some plus power, but Rodgers is 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 a the potential for power. The 6’4” and 195 pound frame has plenty room for projection. In addition, Rose looks like a Kris Bryant clone in his tall angular frame and his 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, his first full year in the Cubs’ system. For me, I could also see him in a corner outfield spot with his arm. The key however, is his versatility to play multiple power positions. 2016 will show us more of what he can do. He will likely be at South Bend to start the year.
Odds and Sods
Most of the other first baseman in the Cubs’ system are converted to first base. 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 Chase Headley. None are seen as permanent players at the position. Myrtle Beach catcher Victor Caratini also saw a lot of time at first when he wasn’t catching this year. Like the others, Caratini’s first position is behind the plate. The Cubs just don’t have a lot of 1B who predominantly play 1B.
I think a big surprise for first basemen could come in converted pitcher Chris Pieters, who spent most of the 2015 season playing for the Cubs Dominican summer team while hitting .311. Pieters did arrive stateside to get in nine games in the Arizona Rookie League. Combined he hit .302 with three homeruns and 39 RBIs in 62 games in his first year as a hitter. He might start 2016 in Arizona, but at 21 years old is more than likely to head to Eugene at the first sign of success. Swinging from the left 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 and is a versatile player, much like Rose.
While the Cubs do you 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 have brighter futures because of their versatility and ability to play third base and the outfield, respectively, along with their age.
With Rizzo holding down the fort in the big leagues, and the versatility of several major league 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 develop Rose and Pieters as Rizzo isn’t going anywhere for a while. Any first baseman the Cubs develop between now and then will be a bonus or a player they can use to get other players at other positions.
Next week, we will look at one of the Cubs deepest positions, second base.