The Chicago Cubs have gathered plenty of attention due to some of their moves during the free agency period ,but the main goal of the organization continues to be to let their younger players develop in the Major Leagues.
While some like Jorge Soler are expected to be a regular name in the lineup and others like Kris Bryant expected to start their 2015 campaign at the minor league level, others are making steady progress at the Winter Leagues – leagues in countries such as Venezuela, Mexico, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic – among others and that feature a talent level that’s between Double-A and Triple-A. Some haven’t made a lot of noise but there are others that appear to be on the right track in terms of development.
Among the lesser known prospects, two that are having solid seasons abroad are third baseman Christian Villanueva and catcher Wilson Contreras.
The Mexican infielder has always been considered a doubles-machine and he’s certainly expendable thanks to the plethora of infield prospects in the organization ,but that hasn’t stopped him to produce some good numbers for Yaquis de Obregon in the Mexican League. Through 44 games his average isn’t very good – just .212 in 151 AB – but he has shown his usual power thanks to nine home runs and four doubles. He also has a .297 OBP which means he’s walking at an acceptable rate while also displaying great defense at the hot corner. He might not make it to the Majors as a Cub but he could be a nice addition in a trade package.
As for Contreras, he’s a raw player but he has great athleticism for a backstop and has shown some leadership qualities at the low levels of the minors. He’s been catching for Tigres de Aragua in the Venezuelan League, and while he has only played 23 games his numbers look quite promising. The 22-year-old has hit .267 to go along with five home runs and a .320 OBP. If he can keep this up, he will certainly climb his way into prospect status in the next year or so.
Baez has only played six games for Santurce (Puerto Rico) and while there’s no question that his numbers are a small sample size, he certainly looks like he has improved. Through his first 22 at-bats he has nine hits, and of those he has two doubles and two home runs. His average is a robust .409 and his OBP stands at .462, but the downside is that he also has nine strikeouts already – though three were in his first game. He needs to continue working on his pitch recognition and his understanding of the strike zone, but if he can hit for a better average he could become a force in the middle of the lineup sooner rather than later.
Arismendy Alcantara is another player who’s been on a tear this offseason. The switch-hitting outfielder has been playing for Tigres del Licey in the Dominican League and he has been a force through his first 19 games. A .324 avg, a .395 OBP and four home runs in just 68 at-bats are the perfect proof that he’s been seeing the ball much better, just like he did in the minors. As the Cubs are rumored to be shopping for a leadoff hitter on the trade market, Alcantara might be the team’s long-term answer if he’s able to translate these improvements to the MLB level.
Junior Lake has been the Cubs’ best prospect so far in the Winter Leagues. He showed some interesting things during the 2013 season but he was flat-out awful this past season as he was demoted to AAA to work on his approach. He joined Estrellas del Oriente in the Dominican League and apparently his tweaks have given him positive results – in 140 AB, Lake has a .243 avg but his OBP is around the .400 mark thanks to 30 BB in 42 games. He has also stole 21 bases in 23 attempts and has only struck out 51 times.
The power isn’t there as Lake has only hit two home runs, but the 24-year-old needed to make improvements on his contact skills. He still has to show it at the MLB level before making himself worthy of a spot on the 25-man roster but his play throughout the Winter has helped his cause a great deal.
It remains to be seen if all these improvements will translate to Spring Training and ultimately to the Majors, but one thing is certain: the youngsters appear to be on the right track in terms of their development and these news can only be positive for the team’s long-term outcome.