The AFL and the 2012 Cubs


The Arizona Fall League has earned its reputation as a prospect heavy league. The level of competition is very high, and for many players a strong AFL performance can greatly increase the odds of a promotion to the majors in the following season.

The Chicago Cubs have some of their top prospects playing with the Mesa Solar Sox this fall, including top pitching prospect Trey McNutt and Andrew Cashner, who started the season as the Cubs fifth starter. Today I want to focus on the offensive side of the game again. There are three hitters playing for Mesa this fall that could have a significant impact on the Cubs in 2012.

D.J. LeMahieu made his major league debut in 2011 playing primarily at second and third. With Aramis Ramirez likely on his way out and Darwin Barney struggling in the later half of the season, LeMahieu has the opportunity to take the starting job at either position.

LeMahieu is a very good hitter. He is a good enough of a hitter, in fact, to be consistently projected as a .300 hitter in the majors. The problem is that he has shown very little power. Even in the hitter-friendly Arizona Fall League he has managed a slugging percentage of just .365. That is low for a major league third baseman, but it could work at second. On the positive side, he has drawn 9 walks to go with his 12 strikeouts. And surprisingly, he has 8 stolen bases.

I would not have thought of LeMahieu as much of a base stealing threat, but if he can add that dimension to his game, he becomes a very attractive option for the Cubs as a full-time second baseman batting either near the top or near the bottom of the order. A high batting average and a patient approach will result in a very healthy on base percentage that would be welcome to a Cubs team that had problems scoring runs last season. As of now, I expect LeMahieu to open the 2012 season as the Cubs everyday second baseman. If he were showing any power at all I would change that to third.

For years the Cubs top third base prospect has been Josh Vitters who is also playing in Arizona. I think we have to change his title, though. While still one of the Cubs best prospects, I don’t think we can consider him a third baseman any more. He will still play there in the minors and he may even reach the majors in that position, but I think his future is more likely as a first baseman or in left field.

Going into the AFL, Vitters had the same questions that have haunted him for his entire minor league career: does he have any patience, and where is the power? And it looks like we have answers: yes, and its coming along nicely. Vitters has a fantastic batting eye that results in very low strikeout numbers. Unfortunately, he knows he can hit virtually any pitch he sees and will swing at a mediocre pitch instead of waiting on a good pitch he can really drive. This fall he has looked more patient than he has in the past, drawing 4 walks to go with 7 strikeouts, and he has done so in just 48 at bats. I think the Cubs have to seriously consider bringing Vitters to the majors during the 2012 season. His OPS of 0.978 this fall is more than high enough to soothe concerns over his power, and his bat could fit in nicely at first base in Wrigley. If the Cubs can move Soriano, they could use Vitters in the outfield as well. He may not emerge as a regular member of the All-Star team, but I think he is ready to be a good player and a valuable contributor for the Cubs by the end of 2012.

The real surprise of the AFL has been Junior Lake. Lake made it to Double A Tennessee this season as a shortstop, but Starlin Castro effectively blocks his progression at that position. I think Lake has the power and the arm to move to third base. The way he is playing in Arizona, he wants to be playing third base in Wrigley next season. He hasn’t drawn enough walks versus his strikeouts to make me completely comfortable with a rapid promotion, but there is no arguing with the results when he does make contact. Four home runs and 11 stolen bases make him one of the batting leaders in the entire AFL. His OPS of 1.073 is startling, especially considering his previous career high was 0.752.

I think Lake still needs some time in the minors, and I hope the Cubs move him to third base full time in Iowa or Tennessee next season, but he may be closer to the majors than we think. His 16 strikeouts result in a strikeout rate of about 25% which, while high, is tolerable for a guy slugging 0.661. His speed would be welcome on any team.

I think all three of these guys should be invited to Chicago during the 2012 season, if only in September. LeMahieu should be there all season long. As the Cubs look to put together a team for next season, this trio of AFL performances should factor into many of their conversations.