While Kris Bryant is getting all of the attention for the Chicago Cubs in Spring Training with his six home runs in 23 at-bats, he’s not the biggest surprise for the Cubs so far this spring.
Bryant is considered by most to be the top prospect in all of baseball after hitting .325/.438/.661 with 43 home runs in the upper levels of the minors last season. His early Spring Training results, while incredibly impressive, are far from surprising, as he is a future star in the making.
The single biggest surprise performance by a player on the Cubs’ roster early in spring is by outfielder Matt Szczur who is hitting .348/.423/.870, and is showing more power than ever before with three homeruns in only 23 at-bats.
While he never reached the prospect stardom of Bryant, Szczur was once a top prospect in his own right. Early in his professional career, Szczur showed great speed and athletic ability that caught the eyes of many scouts. He was ranked near the top of every Cubs’ organizational list, and was even ranked the 64th best prospect by Baseball America before the 2012 season.
Szczur had a good, but not great 2012 season where he hit .267/.360/.390 with 42 stolen bases at the Advanced-A and Double-A levels. In the seasons following, Szczur has continued to be decent, but his complete lack of power has held him back from becoming too highly thought of as a prospect.
Last season in 414 Triple-A at-bats, Szczur hit .261 with 30 stolen bases, but his .313 slugging percentage suggests that he will never be anything more than a scrappy bench outfielder type. The days where Cubs’ fans expected Szczur to be an everyday speed demon at the top of the order appeared to be long gone.
That being said, his speed still plays. Szczur has 120 stolen bases in 158 attempts throughout his five-year minor league career. His career .280 average and .345 on-base percentage is also impressive. On top of that, Szczur is a great defender in the outfield who uses his speed very well defensively. Not a top prospect by any means, but certainly a guy who can make a difference at the major league level.
The Cubs’ outfield situation is a little murky heading into the 2015 season. Dexter Fowler and Jorge Soler are expected to be everyday starters, with Chris Coghlan and Chris Denorfia expected to form some sort of platoon in left field. Super utility player Arismendy Alcantara also figures to see some time in the outfield, while Bryant and Mike Olt could find time in the outfield this season as well.
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With Alcanatara’s extreme versatility, the Cubs could decide to go without a true fifth outfielder to start the season. That is fairly unlikely however. While it is early, it appears that Szczur and Ryan Sweeney are the favorites to land the last spot on the Cubs’ bench on Opening Day.
Sweeney is performing pretty well this spring too, and this figures to be a strong battle that goes down to the wire. For his part, Szczur has seemed to grab the attention on manager Joe Maddon.
According to Joey Nowak of MLB.com, Szczur has really impressed Maddon so far this spring. “What a great kid,” Maddon told Nowak about Szczur. “He plays the game properly. Could you get more eager? I don’t think so. And now he’s hitting balls out of sight. Great baserunner with great speed. Throws well, outstanding outfielder and on and on.”
Maddon clearly cannot say enough good things about Szczur’s performance this spring, and that is not a bad guy to be impressing as you compete for one of the last spots on the roster.
Now, Szczur’s power surge this spring is very interesting. Obviously, 23 at-bats is far too small of a sample size to take anything significant from, but certainly something to keep an eye on, as he does look much stronger and confident at the plate.
Szczur was a two-sport star playing both football and baseball at Villanova University, so it is not ridiculous to think that he could be a late bloomer who could add power as his bat develops.
Realistically, Szczur is probably nothing more than a future fourth outfielder with great speed, very good defensive abilities and decent contact abilities at the plate. That in itself can be extremely valuable to the Cubs as they look to compete for a National League Central crown this season.
That being said, if he does end up growing some late blooming power to help keep the defense honest, Szczur could be a huge role player for the Cubs for many years.