ST. LOUIS -- Back in spring training, Theo Epstein said this about an up-and-coming prospect: “If he was in another National League camp, they would be talking about him for Rookie of the Year.”
Judging by the hype surrounding his young players, you may think the Chicago Cubs president was referencing former first-round pick Ian Happ, but it was corner infielder Jeimer Candelario getting the high praise.
While Happ has been the most talked about prospect for Cub fans -- he’s second in the Pacific Coast League in home runs -- it is Candelario who got the call when the team had a chance this week to add a prospect. He was hitting .340 with a 1.093 OPS before coming up from Triple-A Iowa on Tuesday. He may go back down soon, but only because the Cubs want him to play every day.
“As a part-time player, it would be difficult to want to keep him here,” manager Joe Maddon said on Wednesday.
His path to a full-time spot in the lineup is blocked, but Candelario is a major league-ready switch hitter who can play either corner infield position more than adequately.
And he can hit.
“I know what it takes,” Candelario said of his second stint with the Cubs. “The guys help me a lot and give me confidence. I’ll be there for them and for everyone.”
Candelario got a hit in his first at-bat of the season, but it was his next plate appearance -- in the same inning -- that caught the eye of his Cubs teammates. He worked the count before walking with the bases loaded to keep a big inning alive.
“I take my walk and RBI,” he said. “If I don’t get the pitch to hit, I’ll take the walk.”
“That was really impressive. ... He’s ready to play,” Kris Bryant added. “He only started a few games [in spring] but he would come out and rake, even off the bench. It was really impressive.”
With the Cubs looking up at first place, is there a case to keep Candelario on the big league club, even in a part-time role?
“You’re really fighting playing time for a lot of folks at that point,” Maddon said. “That would confuse and muddy the waters even more.”
Candelario is taking a measured approach to a potentially frustrating situation. His boss said he could win Rookie of the Year, yet he’s having trouble even sticking on the big league roster.
“I just want to do my job and help my team win,” he said. “Whatever it takes, I’ll do it.”
For now, that means biding his time at a level he’s dominated for the better part of two years. His bond with former Cub and funny man Munenori Kawasaki is helping to keep him grounded. They played together for a couple years in the minors and lockered next to each other during spring training before Kawasaki was released.
“Let’s go, let’s go, Candy,” Kawasaki texted him on Tuesday morning. “You [are] in the big leagues now. Do your job. Let’s go.”
Candelario has shown he is capable of doing his job in the big leagues. His defense is on par with his bat as well. He made plays at third and first in his two starts Tuesday and Wednesday while batting cleanup. In fact, Maddon said he debated hitting Addison Russell fourth but chose Candelario over him.
“It tastes good right now,” Maddon said. “I just did it. ... They both are about the same age. They’re pretty much peers in a sense.”
But one is a starter on a championship team while the other is trying to find a way to stay. Though most of Chicago’s issues this season aren’t run-scoring related, how long can a team that isn’t running away with a division keep a player who can help now down in the minors?
“I’m confident I can hit in the big leagues,” Candelario said. “Wherever they use me.”