Over the course of the Epstein/Hoyer Era in Chicago, the Cubs have been notorious for not drafting first basemen. Instead, they tend to move players there from the outfield, behind the plate, and even the opposite corner of the infield. While the Cubs currently have a few good prospects playing at first base in the minors, we’re profiling fewer at this position than any other in this series. As we saw with Dan Vogelbach last year, having Anthony Rizzo firmly entrenched effectively caps upward mobility for a lot of these guys.
This is where the aforementioned strategy really bears fruit, as the following prospects all play a secondary position that enhances their value. Let’s take a look, then, at the top five first baseman in the Cubs’ minor league system.
5. Kevin Zamudio – An interesting prospect, Zamudio plays a little first and a little third. He started off great in June in Rookie Ball, plummeted in July, and rebounded in August. All told, he hit 4 HR’s and drove in 23 over 45 games as an 18-year-old. At 6’0″ and 200 pounds, we’re not talking about the ideal 1B frame, but the kids has shown the ability to control the bat at times. Expect to see him in Eugene to start the coming season.
4. Chris Pieters – I loved watching this young man play for Eugene last year. A converted pitcher, Pieters was only in his second year as a position player and he easily showed a deft touch with the glove around the first base bag. I’d say he was almost as good as Rizzo when it came to his raw defensive abilities. Pieters got off to a great start, hitting .356 in June before struggling down the stretch. It will be interesting to see how he does at the plate in 2017 and to see whether he continues playing more in the outfield like he did in the second half, or logs more time at first.
3. Gustavo Polanco – An interesting case, Polanco has only been stateside for one year. He has shown the capacity to hit for average during his time at Mesa, but, despite a solid frame (6-0, 190), his strength has not translated into power yet. The 19-year-old Venezuelan will be in Eugene this summer and I will get a pretty good look at what he can and cannot do.
2. Matt Rose – I thought Rose was the most inspirational player in the system last year. He started out at South Bend playing third base and routinely hit the ball hard without much of anything to show for it. After hitting less than .200 by the time June rolled around, Rose was reassigned to Eugene, where he worked to improve his game and lead a team that sprinted to a first half title. Rose came back to South Bend in late July and hit 7 home runs in August. His .291 batting average and .352 OBP (11 walks) that month showed an improved eye at the plate as well. I hope he picks up where he left off next year in Myrtle Beach and I’d love to see him get a lot more action at third base. And you never know, he could even play some left field. I should ask Jason McLeod that question at Cubs Convention.
1. Yasiel Balaguert – After hitting .263 with 19 HR’s and 96 RBI in 2016 for Myrtle Beach, I think Balaguert is going to do much better in 2017 when he plays at a much more hitter-friendly park at AA Tennessee. Despite those big numbers and potential for even more from the 23-year-old Cuban, it doesn’t seem like anyone’s talking about him. Balaguert improved a lot as a hitter over the past year and a half, particularly when it comes to curveballs, and he’s never met a fastball he didn’t like. The big right-hander can play the outfield as well as first, but he could make an excellent designated hitter in the future, too.
With Rizzo established as a fixture and the ability of Javy Baez and Kris Bryant to spell him, the Cubs have nothing but time to develop an eventual successor. While these prospects do play first, they are not tied there. I can see Rose in left, Polanco catching (which has done as a Cubs farmhand), and Pieters and Balaguert in the outfield. First base in the Cubs system is not a death sentence or a ticket out of the organization, but rather a place to get some at-bats. In fact, it would not surprise me to see Ian Rice get some at-bats there in 2017 for that exact same reason.