Is Arismendy Alcantara the Chicago Cubs’ center field answer?


The infusion of young talent that has been long-touted by Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer began in 2014, and while the names of Javier Baez, Jorge Soler and Kyle Hendricks often dominated the discussions, a versatile speedster was also amongst the team’s rookies – Arismendy Alcantara.

Alcantara, who turns 23 later this month, appeared in 70 games for Chicago – playing both center field and second base over the course of the year. The switch-hitting utility man showed flashes of brilliance, but overall struggled offensively, batting just .205/.254/.377 – striking out 31 percent of the time.

Now, moving forward, Soler appears to be a lock for one of the team’s three outfield spots. Chris Coghlan, who put together an impressive bounce back campaign this year, also appears set to return for second-year skipper Ricky Renteria. That leaves the likes of Justin Ruggiano, Ryan Sweeney, Junior Lake and Matt Szczur to compete with Alcantara for the final spot.

More often than not, Ruggiano was a corner outfield option for Chicago in 2014, appearing in either left or right field in 44 of his 57 games this season.  Sweeney and Lake are more feasible options for center field, although the latter will need to show he can recapture his 2013 rookie performance if he hopes of playing every day next season.  Szczur, formerly hailed as one of the organization’s top talents, played all across the outfield for the Cubs in 2014, but posted a disappointing .273 on-base percentage across 33 games.

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So, while it’s far from a clear-cut decision, Alcantara appears poised to, at the very least, make a serious run at the starting center field job next spring. Some combination of Lake, Ruggiano and Sweeney will likely fill in as a fourth outfielder – given they are all on the club’s roster when February rolls around and Spring Training begins.

Steamer projections for 2015 show Alcantara improving his approach at the plate, cutting his strikeout rate from the aforementioned 31 percent to 23.4 percent – a still-high mark, but notably better than in 2014. Beginning the year on several organizational top prospect lists, the speedster did swipe eight bases in his time with the big league club, but was caught five times. More often than not, his ability to impact the game with his legs was diminished – despite his ability to hit to all fields – because of his high strikeout tendency.

Alcantara struggled against right-handers, which accounted for the overwhelming majority of his at-bats, posting a dreadful .190/.215/.350 line in 210 plate appearances, in which he struck out a whopping 73 times. By contrast, he actually fared better against southpaws, batting .244/.344/.410 in 90 plate appearances. Granted, the sample size was smaller, but the difference was noted.

As demonstrated by this FanGraphs heat map, pitchers pounded the outside corner against Alcantara all season long.

Opposing pitchers pounded the low, outside-corner of the plate against Arismendy Alcantara in 2014. (FanGraphs)

This strategy makes sense when you take into account that Alcantara posted his lowest contact percentage of any of the nine strikwzone areas in the low, outside corner – making contact with just 69 percent of swings. When you took him outside the zone in that area, he made contact roughly one out of every three swings.

New hitting coach John Mallee, who worked last year with the Houston Astros, including American League batting champion Jose Altuve, will likely spend the winter working on plate discipline with the young utility player, in hopes of cutting down on both his strikeouts and his chasing pitches outside the strike zone.

In the field, Alcantara posted saved three runs above the league average, playing a role in the Cubs ranking ninth in all of Major League Baseball with a DRS of 26 last season. However, it should be noted that prior to joining the big league club, the Dominican Republic native had appeared in a grand total of just 22 games in the outfield – all of which came earlier this season with various affiliates.

His continued development not only at the plate, but in the field, where his speed could prove valuable to the Cubs in 2015, will be deciding factors in whether or not a starting role is in the cards for Alcantara. However, if he falls short, he could provide lesser value as a utility player off the bench. But looking at the team’s roster as-is, having his speed in the lineup on a daily basis would greatly alter the make-up and composition of the lineup card.

With 21 steals in 89 games with Triple-A Iowa in 2014, there’s no doubt of the havoc Alcantara can wreak on the base paths. The only question moving forward is whether or not he can reach base enough for that to matter.