The road to the majors has been a long one for Jeimer Candelario. The switch-hitting infielder has toiled in the Cubs’ organization since he was signed in October 2010.
Candelario finally had his coming out party in the 2015 Arizona Fall League, hitting five homers in 21 games for the Mesa Solar Sox while logging a .981 OPS. He built on this success with a really nice 2016 campaign, highlighted by a .333/.417/.542 performance in 76 games for Triple-A Iowa.
His incremental success even earned him a short promotion for an injury-riddled Cubs team in early July. He went 1-11 in five games.
Candelario’s progress has not gone unnoticed by the Cubs organization and its fanbase. Many in the scouting industry haven’t bought into him just yet—Baseball America ranked him the seventh-best prospect in the Cubs’ system and once again did not place him among their annual Top 100—but his progress is notable and intriguing.
This has put the Cubs in an interesting spot: What do you do with him? Given the Cubs are the defending world champions and are expected to contend for another, there isn’t exactly much room for him as the roster currently stands.
But the Cubs have a bevy of options at their disposal with the young corner infielder. Here are some of the roles Candelario could play in 2017:
With first and third base aptly filled by Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant, who at the very least will be locked into their positions until 2019, Candelario is a man without a position on the major league club. This is a problem, because despite somewhat underwhelming overall power numbers, Candelario sure looks like he can start every day in the show.
The dominant theory is that, given the Cubs’ loaded 25-man roster, there’s simply no place for the guy on the big league squad, especially with Ian Happ’s rather swift ascent through the Cubs’ farm system. He may be better off with another team.
If Candelario can follow up on his impressive 2016 season, and if the Cubs are hoping (or needing) to make a trade at the deadline, he’d sure be a fine asset to throw into any trade package.
There was concern in 2015 and before 2016 as to how Joe Maddon was going to use Javy Baez. Would he see enough playing time? Is he going to be blocked by the brilliant infield of Rizzo, Bryant, Addison Russell and Ben Zobrist?
Baez would go on to log 450 plate appearances in 142 games last season, and earned himself an NLCS MVP award along the way. Maddon is noted for mixing his lineup and treats it like a science, a practice many players like Kyle Schwarber, Willson Contreras and Chris Coghlan have also benefitted from the last two years.
Can Candelario play a similar role? The Cubs don’t exactly have a full-time backup first or third baseman. Weird things happen in baseball, and for all we know Kris Bryant may need time on the disabled list for one reason or another, or Rizzo for a back that seems to chirp at him with annual regularity.
And on March 5, Maddon indicated outfield could also be in Candelario’s future:
“This is the kind of guy you could put in the outfield if you wanted to,” Maddon told reporters. “But he’s so good on the dirt, you’d probably like to leave him there. However, if the bat comes and these spots are taken, then you do something else.”
That’s still a challenging proposition. The Cubs’ “backup” core already boasts established major leaguers like Tommy La Stella, Jon Jay and Matt Szczur, while Baez and Albert Almora Jr. currently hover in-between “backup” and “everyday.” That’s some incredible depth, but I’ve learned not to doubt Maddon’s ability to manage playing time for so many talented players.
If Maddon and Co. can make it work, this is probably the best-case scenario for both the Cubs and Candelario in 2017.
40-Man Roster Depth:
This would appear to be the most likely prospect for Candelario. While his 2016 numbers in Iowa were tremendous, one could make the argument that a greater sample is needed if he’s going to secure a spot on the big league squad, whether that’s with the Cubs or elsewhere.
Having already touched on the Cubs’ roster depth, it’s easy to imagine the front office opting for mainstays like La Stella and Szczur for the final seats on the bench. But as we learned in 2016, this wouldn’t exactly be the worst possible outcome for Candelario; Szczur and La Stella, as well as Jay, Almora Jr. and Baez, could always be in need of a trip to the disabled list at any point. This is where Jeimer can shine.
Obviously, the issue of player options certainly plays a role in this not being the most ideal possibility for the Cubs. We learned that options can be an issue last season, when La Stella was sent to Iowa because he had options (Szczur didn’t) and went AWOL for several weeks instead.
Long-Term Injury Reserve:
We can all pretend guys like Bryant and Rizzo are immune from dramatic injuries, but the sad reality is, they’re just as open to the possibility as the next guy. Fortunately, we’ve been blessed with great health for both throughout their careers, and we keep our fingers crossed it stays that way.
*knocks on wood frantically*
But. It could happen. And that, unfortunately, would probably be Candelario’s best chance to see every day playing time with the Chicago Cubs in 2017.
Still, he seems to have the favor of the Cubs’ big league manager, who has spoken in glowing terms of the young prospect over the years. This bodes well for Candelario; rarely does Maddon swoon over prospects and fail to reward them.
What we know is this: Jeimer Candelario currently looks to be part of the Cubs’ on-field plans in the short-term future. If the Cubs had any intention of shipping him elsewhere, chances are they would have done so by now, be it at last year’s trade deadline or during the offseason.
But it might be that will be his fate in the future; for all we know the Cubs do believe in Candelario, but also realize his future may be better suited elsewhere. If that’s the case, clearly they’re waiting for him to reach his minor league ceiling before shipping him off.
One thing is for sure: Based on remarks from coaches and the front office, they seem to believe he’s capable of making an impact at the big league level, with the Cubs.
Lead photo courtesy Rick Scuteri—USA Today Sports