The Arizona Fall League is underway, and the future of the Cubs infield is on display. There are only three games in the books, so it is way too early to be drawing any conclusions from what has happened on the field. In the case of three players, though, we can get an idea of what to look for as the short season progresses.
The Mesa infield has a very Chicago flavor this year, with Josh Vitters playing a lot of first base, D.J. LeMahieu playing a lot of third, and Junior Lake splitting time time between short and third. LeMahieu figures to be in the running for a starting roster slot with the Chicago Cubs next season, and if Vitters gets hot early in the season he may not be too far behind. Since it seems increasingly likely that Vitters is moving off third base, Lake is looking to establish himself as the third baseman of the future… for now.
From Vitters, we need to see power and defense. His defense at third has been rough and slow in developing, but first seems like a safer fit for him. If he can look like a good major league first baseman, the Cubs will have an easier time getting his bat in the lineup. Left field is an option for him as well.
No one questions Vitters’ ability to hit, and hit consistently. While his power numbers this year were not bad, he still has not shown quite the level of power many had hoped for when he was drafted out of high school. In that regard, Vitters got off to a great start. In his first game he smacked two home runs and drove in five. A few more games like that, and the Cubs might consider looking at him as a first baseman in spring training.
We know what LeMahieu brings to the table: a high batting average, the hint of power to come, and solid defense. He may evolve into a super-sub in the majors, but that is down the road. Next season he has a chance to be the everyday third baseman. The Cubs will be looking for him to cease that opportunity. Consistent, quality defense and a generous handful of doubles could be enough to make him the favorite at third heading into the spring.
Lake is the enigma. He has all the tools, but he needs a lot of polish. From a potential standpoint, he could be the best Cubs’ third base option likely to arrive in the next year or two. If that promise is to be realized, he has to cut back on the strikeouts. His mix of power and speed will play very well in the majors, but a 25% K-rate will not give him the opportunity to show off those tools. If he can make good contact more consistently in the AFL and keep that up in the minors next season, he could be putting pressure on the Cubs third baseman a year from now.