Mandatory Credit: Reid Compton-USA TODAY Sports
There is a lot of talent coming through the Chicago Cubs system these days, making them one of the more exciting teams out there, but one thing lacking is a true leadoff hitter. The two most likely options within the organization are outfielder Matt Szczur and infielder Arismendy Alcantara. Each has top of the order potential, but neither is a perfect fit.
The early edge seems to be to Szczur, the 24-year old former Villanova football player. He is an outfielder, as opposed to a middle infielder like Alcantara, who has to contend with Starlin Castro and Javier Baez. Szczur has much more experience in the role as he hit leadoff in 500 at-bats over 121 games for Double-A Tennessee in 2013, with Alcantara hitting second in the order most days. Szczur put together an encouraging offensive season in 2013, with a line of .281/.350/.367 that included 34 extra-base hits and 50 walks. That was good for an average 8.7 BB%, though it was far below the 12% he earned in 2012.
There are some signs of concern for the former fifth round pick. Szczur hit many more ground balls in 2013 than previous years, jumping 9% to a 55.3% ground ball percentage. His power numbers dipped and he hit just three home runs, his fewest since his professional debut in 2010 and a far cry from the ten he posted in 2011. Also, his .086 Iso was by far the lowest of his career. While Szczur has good enough speed to steal 22 bases in 2013, that number was half his total from 2012 and he was successful in just 64.7% of his attempts.
There is more upside with Alcantara, despite a very limited number of professional at-bats in the top spot of the order. In fact, the only time he hit leadoff in 2013 was in the Dominican Winter League, where he had 18 at-bats in four games in the top spot. The 22-year old has spent less than fifty games as a leadoff hitter in the last four seasons. You would have to go back to 2010 to find any real measure of success in the spot when Alcantara hit .319/.347/.478 in 16 games for Boise of the Northwest League.
Despite a lack of experience, Alcantara seems better suited than Szczur as a leadoff hitter, at least on paper. He is a switch hitter and posted a 10.9 BB% in 2013 and was successful in nearly 84% of his 37 stolen base attempts. While he does strike out more (21.9% in 2013) he is more explosive, hitting 15 home runs in 2013 among his 55 extra-base hits. His 30 career home runs and 30 triples each nearly double Szczur’s career totals in just 173 more at-bats as a pro, with Szczur posting 17 homers and 18 triples over that time.
The biggest hurdle for Alcantara is his position. He is a shortstop with a strong arm, but will be blocked in Chicago by Castro or Baez at both middle infield positions likely, and a move to third base is out of the question due to Kris Bryant and Mike Olt. Unless the Cubs trade Castro, it seems Alcantara will likely need to move to the outfield – a move he is certainly capable of making – to have an impact at the Major League level. Even then, Chicago will seemingly have a crowded group that includes prospects Szczur, Albert Almora, Jorge Soler and Junior Lake all under the age of 24, which could mean a role as a super-utility player.
In all, neither player is a clear option. Most reports consider Szczur a fourth outfielder and Alcantara as a utility player. While both may be able to make an impact at Wrigley Field in the coming years, neither may be the leadoff hitter of the future. Almora is an on-base machine, but lacks ideal speed and has not played above Low Class-A. Lake showed promise as a Major Leaguer in 2013, but has yet to prove he can be an every day player in centerfield. For the Cubs to make a big stride towards the playoffs in the next few years, they will need someone to step up at the top of the order, or they will need to acquire someone from outside the organization.
Under the Radar: OF Jacob Hannemann
An intriguing potential option for the Cubs is outfielder Jacob Hannemann. A 2013 third rounder from BYU, Hanneman played in just 17 games as a pro last season before succumbing to an elbow injury to his non-throwing arm. The Hawaii native showed great talent after spending two years on a Mormon mission and hit .344 with 16 doubles, seven triples and five homers in 51 games as a Freshman in 2013. The 22-year old also earned a football scholarship to play for the Cougars and is an Eagle Scout, giving him one of the most unique backgrounds in the game. He is still very raw as a baseball player, but could move quickly through the system and has drawn some comparisions to Jacoby Ellsbury.