It’s been no secret that I’ve been a fan of Mark Zagunis for a while now. I ranked him as the fifth-best prospect in the Cubs system coming into this season, and nothing he’s done this year has changed my opinion of him. (Although he might be up to number three now with Ian Happ and Albert Almora Jr. falling off the lists.)
The Cubs took Zagunis in the third round of the 2014 draft, which was the same draft that the Cubs took Kyle Schwarber in the first round. Like Schwarber, Zagunis was a college catcher out of Virginia Tech. He caught some his first year in professional ball, but he was moved to the outfield permanently in 2015, which is pretty much what happened to Schwarber as well.
The similarities with Schwarber pretty much end there. For one, Zagunis bats right handed and while he does have some power, it’s not the kind of power that makes you go “ooooh” like Schwarber does. Another is that Zagunis has some speed. Or at least had some speed. Zagunis stole 16 bases in 2014 and another 12 in 2015. But last year, he broke his foot at the end of July and he missed the rest of the year. Since his return, he’s only tried to steal two bases and has failed both times.
The thing that makes Zagunis such an interesting player is his incredible ability to draw a walk. If this were still the early-aughts, Zagunis is exactly the type of player that Billy Beane would try to get for Oakland. Above all, Zagunis gets on base. His batting average this year is a weak .249 (although that’s being driven down by a poor babip) but thanks to 48 walks already, his OBP is .399. The Cubs front office likes to compare Zagunis at the plate to Kevin Youkilis, and Youkilis had a terrific major league career with a similar skill set.
Zagunis is also showing more power this year than he has in the past. While his home runs don’t go 430 feet, they all count the same if they go over the fence. Zagunis already has a career-high 11 home runs this season,
Zagunis isn’t a “three-true outcomes” player because he only strikes out in around 20% of his plate appearances and he doesn’t hit that many home runs. But he does get a lot of doubles and he draws a lot of walks. He could be the ideal modern leadoff hitter, especially if his speed returns as he gets farther away from his foot injury. But even if it doesn’t, his OBP and power is what teams look for in a modern leadoff hitter.
Ultimately, however, I’m not sure Zagunis fits into the Cubs long-term plans. He’s likely major-league ready right now, which is why he got the call today. But defensively he’s a decent corner outfielder with a good enough arm for right field and a very good arm for left. But he really shouldn’t play center field and the Cubs have Jason Heyward in right field for the foreseeable future. He could make a case for left field, but I expect Schwarber to get straightened out soon and even if he doesn’t, there is Eloy Jimenez lurking down in High-A.
But by calling him up now, the Cubs not only get someone to fill in for the injured Heyward, but they also showcase him for a possible trade next month or in the offseason. If he can demonstrate that his OBP and power skills translate to the major league level, he could be a very attractive piece on the market.
But even if his future is not on the North Side, I’m extremely happy to see Zagunis make his major league debut with the Cubs. Joe Maddon will find a way to get his bat in the lineup as long as it produces and after that, who knows what will happen?