As the unexpected leadoff hitter for the Cubs, Emilio Bonifacio has been one of the best finds off the waiver wire so far this season and a lifesaver for Rotisserie owners who neglected speed on Draft Day.
But part of me is hoping he'll fail.
|1.||George Springer, OF, HOU||75|
|2.||Archie Bradley, SP, ARI||61|
|3.||Javier Baez, SS, CHC||57|
|4.||Oscar Taveras, OF, STL||47|
|5.||Noah Syndergaard, SP, NYM||44|
|6.||Byron Buxton, OF, MIN||40|
|7.||Gregory Polanco, OF, PIT||35|
|8.||Kevin Gausman, SP, BAL||32|
|9.||Kris Bryant, 3B, CHC||29|
|10.||Dylan Bundy, SP, BAL||24|
In a perfect world, they'd be the Cubs' starting shortstop, third baseman and second baseman by season's end, but in this imperfect world of ours, when they arrive depends partly on when the Cubs can make room for them. With the unlikely emergence of Bonifacio, they're suddenly blocked at every turn.
Or so it seems. But then, a big reason why we had so much hope for them in the first place was because we thought only Valbuena and Darwin Barney stood in their way. By awarding those jobs to Olt and Bonifacio instead, the Cubs showed a willingness to move on, which was the biggest hurdle. And by assuming they didn't even have a chance, we showed our lack of faith in Olt and Bonifacio.
I'd be lying if I said I had just as little faith in Bonifacio today. My lack of faith was in response to what I perceived to be a league-wide lack of faith when the Royals released him just before spring training. He stabilized their second base vortex and rediscovered his form with a .285 batting average and 16 stolen bases in 42 games late last year after an ill-advised stint with the Blue Jays, who clearly didn't know what to do with him, so you'd think they could have gotten something in return. He hit .296 with 40 stolen bases in 152 games for the Marlins as recently as 2011, and I don't see why, back playing every day for a team that gives him free rein on the base paths, he couldn't do something similar at age 29. I also don't see why he has to stay at second base if he does. He's already getting some starts in center field and could move there full time if the needed arises.
Olt is a different story. Certainly, he has a pedigree, but his stock plummeted when he hit .197 between the Rangers' and Cubs' Triple-A affiliates last season. The Rangers blamed his struggles on a vision problem that they more than once claimed to have conquered only to unload him on the Cubs in the Matt Garza deal. He showed signs of turning the corner with his performance this spring, but already he's contending with a shoulder injury that diminishes his chances of putting his best foot forward. And even in his "good" minor-league seasons, he wasn't exactly contending for batting titles. The Cubs may not have the patience for a streaky Mark Reynolds type, especially when they have more talented players knocking on the door.
In other words, Baez, Bryant and Alcantara aren't any more blocked than if the Cubs went with the stiffs we originally thought they would at third and second base.
For Baez, anyway, Fantasy owners have already deduced as much. He's the third most owned minor leaguer at 57 percent, behind only must-stashes George Springer and Archie Bradley. Particularly in Rotisserie leagues, where home runs are scarce and middle infielders are in short supply, he might rank up there with them. Coming off an impressive spring power display that validated the Gary Sheffield comparisons, he figures to be first in line regardless of which position opens up first. From the day the Cubs selected him ninth overall in the 2011 draft, most assumed he'd have to move off shortstop eventually, if only to accommodate Castro.
Of course, third base was supposed to be his fallback position, but that was before the Cubs made Bryant the second overall pick in the 2013 draft. Bryant doesn't have anywhere else he can go, which is why that Baez-to-second base talk gained momentum this spring. Why make the effort to transition Baez to third base if Bryant is coming up right behind him?
The Cubs have kept Baez at shortstop for the time being, which could indicate they have something else up their sleeve. They've shown they're open to trading just about anyone at the big-league level, making Castro's resurgence not such a bad thing. He was never the Theo Epstein type, so if he can resuscitate his value enough to fetch what a 24-year-old All-Star shortstop signed to a team-friendly long-term deal should, Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer may choose to break up the logjam that way. That's mere speculation, of course.
I should point out Alcantara isn't the same caliber of prospect as Baez or Bryant, who are practically superstars already without even setting foot in the big leagues, but he showed with a breakthrough performance at Double-A Tennessee last year that he can be an impact player in the majors. Maybe even a Jimmy Rollins type, though he probably won't reach quite the heights Rollins did.
The Cubs have done such a good job accumulating minor-league talent during this first stage of their massive rebuild that they'll have to get creative to fit it all onto a big-league roster. But while their big-league talent already appears to have improved, the changes they've made so far aren't intended for a long haul. Baez, Bryant and Alcantara still determine when the second stage begins by how quickly they progress in the minors.
So despite any early season developments, my short-term outlook for them hasn't changed. I'll be keeping a close eye on all three -- especially Bryant, who seems too distant to stash just yet but too high-end to pass up if that changes.
Now then, about that Jorge Soler ...
In recent years, the Reds have not been shy about quickly getting their top pitching prospects to the majors.
They skipped the minor leagues entirely with Mike Leake, who in 2010 became the 21st player since the MLB draft was instituted in 1965 to play in the majors without first playing a game in the minors. Last season, Tony Cingrani was added to the roster in mid-April after Johnny Cueto landed on the disabled list, despite Cingrani barely getting any service time above Double-A and only logging 197 1/3 innings in his first two pro seasons.
The next great pitching prospect in the Reds' pipeline is Robert Stephenson, who was a 2011 first-round pick (27th overall), and Fantasy owners are wondering how quickly can he ascend to baseball's highest level.
Stephenson is considered the Reds' top prospect by Baseball America and MLB.com, as well as a top 100 prospect by both outlets. Baseball America has Stephenson rated as the 19th-best prospect, while MLB.com ranks him 18th overall.
Stephenson has clearly blazed a trail in his first two pro seasons, and his third year is off to a stellar start. In his season debut for Double-A Pensacola, Stephenson allowed one hit and one walk over five scoreless innings, while striking out 11. In 38 career appearances (37 starts), the right-handed pitching prospect has a 2.98 ERA and 1.12 WHIP, while striking out 10.7 batters per nine innings.
Stephenson has added velocity to his fastball since being drafted. Coming out of high school, his fastball was in the low-to-mid-90s. He now throws it in the mid-to-high-90s. Stephenson also has a curveball with a big 12-to-6 break and a changeup that gives him the potential to have three above-average offerings.
When Mat Latos returns from the disabled list, the Reds will have a pretty solid five-man rotation, making it difficult for Cincinnati to carve out an opening for Stephenson. Even if someone goes down with an injury, Alfredo Simon has proven he can be a viable replacement.
It will probably take a trade or long-term injury for the Reds to even consider bringing Stephenson to the majors. While there's no guarantee Stephenson will get a chance to make his MLB debut in 2014, if he continues to progress at his current pace, you can bet the Reds will probably make room for him in the rotation next spring.
Byron Buxton, OF, Minnesota
Nick Franklin, SS, Seattle
Joc Pederson, OF, L.A. Dodgers
Rafael Montero and Noah Syndergaard, SPs, N.Y. Mets
Tom Murphy, C, Colorado