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2018 MLB Draft Prep: The case for first base

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Should the Cubs select a first baseman in the first round this year?

Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

I was going somewhere else, but I think this works better. And that can save. Right now, the draft world seems outwardly in a holding pattern. No teams are tipping who they plan to select, yet. The weather is getting almost baseball-like in the north. And, mock drafts still aren’t very regular or reliable. As such, now seems to be the right time to make a case for a first baseman for the Cubs in 2018.

Darren Pritchett, who is announcing his fourth year for South Bend in the Midwest League, noted recently that the Cubs have yet to have a traditional first baseman in any of the years with their affiliation with South Bend.

Perhaps, the first baseman will be a catcher. Or a corner infielder. However, in none of the years have the Cubs had a specified first baseman on the roster. Despite routinely having three catchers.

This isn’t an accident. The Cubs brass figures that, by drafting a first baseman, they short-circuit the unstated goal of versatility.

While some first basemen can play other spots (Bill Buckner was an outfielder. Cody Bellinger can play all three outfield spots), many play first as a bit of a last resort. Some are quality defenders at the spot. Others, less so.

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Coming up with the proper example is key. If I use Dan Vogelbach, I’m being rather dismissive of the defensive angle of first. If I roll with Albert Pujols, I over-extend the expectations.

Which is why I settled on Mark Grace.

A .395 hitter at San Diego State as a junior, he lasted to the 24th round in the 1985 draft. Despite a W/K ratio of 40/15. He had two paltry homers in his final season of college ball.

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Quite a few college teams have their best or second best hitter playing first base. Some of them are even solid defensively. A few of them are good base runners.

The Cubs are rather good at locating players who are good teammates, happy to visit children’s hospitals, and good at the fundamentals. They’ve clearly avoided first base. Was it due to “bigger needs elsewhere”? Or, do they abjectly refuse to draft first basemen?

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What led to the discussion in South Bend was a play with two outs in the ninth inning recently. With a runner on first, the batter hit a reasonably routine grounder to shortstop. The throw was in the dirt. The infielder at first was, obviously, not a natural at the post.

He may be at third tomorrow. Or DH. Or back at first. However, he was unable to dig the throw out of the dirt. The runner from first aggressively tried for third. The throw was wild enough for the third baseman to misplay it, and the tying run scored.

A proper first baseman might have made either half of the play. Or put the ball in his pocket as the runner headed to third.

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Drafting a first baseman on the third day of the draft shouldn’t be considered controversial. By the time the 15th and 16th rounds roll around, a team is usually drafting signable players to put in their starting line-up in short-season ball.

Plugging in a third baseman or right fielder from a college in California or Texas isn’t scandalous in Round 17. Nor should be selecting a player who is deft defensively at the cold corner.

By not selecting first basemen at all, the Cubs clear room for players like Yasiel Balaguert in the upper-minors. A very popular player with raw power, Balaguert is still learning the position. Nobody wants Balaguert to be pushed out of a gig in the system. Tennessee first baseman is his primary job. While he could play left field or right field, others are better at either, defensively.

If the Cubs do begin to draft first-base talent, Balaguert and Ian-Rice types will lose chances to hit.

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The question, and I’m not certain I have a proper answer, is, are the Cubs better served trying to add a Mark Grace-type player on the third day? Or continuing with a platoon of modified reserves at first base and DH, when an AL team is involved?

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Yes, I think the Cubs could find MLB talent from a college first base option in 33 percent of the cases. I could be off a bit, but I’m not sure which way I would be off.

The key is to look at how a player “like that” might advance through the system.

For the Cubs to push this way, his power would likely be “developing”. He’d likely have a good strike zone grasp, and be a good defender. Or, they wouldn’t bother.

So, the zone command and defense would probably be primary, with a mild interest in speed. (A Plan B might be to get a similar sort of left fielder, which is another position the Cubs usually dodge, with the size to cover first.)

Again, willingness to work to get better will be a primary consideration..

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Since he’s likely a good college hitter with a grasp of the zone, the Northwest League (Eugene) shouldn’t be a problem. By his first full-season, he should be to the Midwest League (A-Ball) or the Carolina League (Advanced-A Ball).

By the end of his first full season, Advanced-A or Double-A are a valid possibility.

By that point, adjusting to the league adjustments tell the tale. Perhaps he’d be Triple-A good by the end of his second or third season. If he isn’t, they likely chose the wrong guy. With a third day selection. Whoopity-doo.

However, if they peg the right option, he could be ready to fill in if Anthony Rizzo gets injured. Or, if he’s hitting well enough, he might make sense for a DH in a series in an American League park.

If he’s really good, I doubt anyone in the Cubs nation would carp on a 15th-round player getting MLB swings. (See David Bote.)

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Too often, when a “different” idea comes up, people take immediate offense. Like I’m trying to trade Rizzo for a pitcher in A-Ball.

The reality is, by the time you read this, you might feel a bit queasy about Victor Caratini or Ben Zobrist at first base.

If it’s all about this week, the concern should be minimal. However, if Riz is suddenly felled by back pain in late-August or mid-October, having “an available guy” becomes far more useful.

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The best way to plan for misfortune is well in advance.

Certainly, the Cubs can add “a veteran first baseman” in trade. However, the piece going back isn’t likely to be a player without a shot at a future. The use of the name Zack Godley plays here.

You likely don’t want the Cubs to give up a future MLB long-term option to find a serviceable first baseman in late August.

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College teams are awash in good first basemen. Many times, a really solid-hitting third baseman can be a heist in the draft, if the team is willing to consider them as a first baseman.

A downside is, fewer system-wide ABs for back-up catchers.

Is it worth it?

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Which makes more sense to you?

Prioritize a slugging first baseman in an early round, and get a really good one?

Get a reasonably good one on the second-day of the draft?

Try to reprise Mark Grace in the teens?

Take one that slips to Round 30, that probably should have gone in the teens?

Stay the course, and ignore first base? Get another pitcher, instead.

All make a bit of sense. I waver on the idea, but if South Bend radio is pointing it out, it’s an obvious trend.

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What do you think the Cubs ought to be looking for more of in the draft?

I’m sick of pitchers left-and-right like the people in the Monty Python’s Flying Circus sketch were on lupines.

Pitchers take forever, get hurt too often, and haven’t produced in the pipeline as well as hitters.

If the Cubs sign 40 picks this year, I want 20 hitters.

One of whom is an actual first baseman.

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Ask questions, and I’ll try to answer them in a useful fashion.