Feature Photo: D.J. Wilson, CF, Cubs
In 2015, the Chicago Cubs paid an over-slot bonus of $1.3 million to sign Canton (Ohio) High School outfielder D.J. Wilson away from a commitment to play baseball at Vanderbilt University. Over the past three seasons, Wilson, a center fielder and fourth-round selection by the Cubs, has been brought along slowly as he and the Cubs work to translate his obvious physical gifts into on-the-field production.
Heading into 2017, Baseball America rated Wilson as the Cubs’ No. 9 prospect, behind such well-known names as outfielder Eloy Jimenez (now with White Sox), second baseman/outfielder Ian Happ, and outfielder Albert Almora Jr. In 2080 Baseball’s 2017 Cubs’ Organizational Review, Wilson was featured in the “Pure Projection” section given his limited pro experience to-date. Although Wilson’s numbers through his first two-and-a-half professional seasons aren’t eye opening, the outfielder has drawn the attention of talent evaluators due to his pure athleticism. Wilson isn’t particularly big at 5-foot-8 and 175 pounds, but he combines above-average foot speed with the kind of bat speed that could develop an ability to drive the ball for some more over-the-fence power as he matures.
A big key to unlocking that ability is in the tremendous care Wilson takes with his body.
“I try to keep a healthy diet,” Wilson said prior to playing in a game with the Class A South Bend Cubs versus the Peoria Chiefs in the Midwest League on May 13. “I try to get up on time to get some breakfast. We have a spread here before and after the game, so that really takes care of that. And after the game it’s really late, so after we get back I find a healthy snack of some sort.”
In addition to keeping up good nutritional habits, Wilson puts plenty of time in at the gym.
“As far as weightlifting, I go to the gym probably three times a week. I try to get three, if I can. From that standpoint, staying on top of shoulder work, anything Logan [Severson, the South Bend Cubs’ athletic trainer] asks me to do, preventative stuff for my body.”
While power is pure projection with Wilson right now, the speed is a present tool, and it was on display when I saw him on May 13. In one at-bat, I timed him at 3.8 seconds from home to first base from the left side, on a strikeout no less. He also used his elite speed to turn what would have been a single to right field for an average runner into a sliding double.
That speed also helps him on defense, where Wilson combines excellent range and instincts with an above-average throwing arm in center field. South Bend manager Jimmy Gonzalez says Wilson brings significant defensive value to his game.
“He’s an exciting player to watch,” Gonzalez said. “He’s done some great things in the outfield, his defense speaks for itself. There’s no issues there. He’s got a strong arm, and it could be deceiving. You see a guy who’s not a huge guy, but he moves very fast.”
Despite being only 20 years old, Wilson has figured out how to utilize his speed properly on defense. That starts with how he positions himself, which often changes depending on the batter and situation.
“That’s something we’re taught, never to play directly behind the pitcher,” he said. “Three or four steps to the [hitter’s] opposite field is what I usually play. I learned that coming in with Doug Dascenzo, our outfield coordinator, and ever since then I’ve done it and it’s comfortable. It feels natural.”
But that’s not to say that Wilson can’t still improve. While Wilson won’t gain additional speed as he develops, he says there are aspects of his defensive game that he is continuing to develop.
“There’s always something you can improve on,” he said. “As far as first-step quickness, routes, route efficiency, balls at the track, and judging the wall, I try to look at it as all one thing. Because there’s so many aspects that you can’t just work on defense itself.”
While Wilson didn’t get too many difficult chances in the field against the Chiefs when I saw him on May 13, he looked good judging the ball off the bat, getting to his spot, and settling in for the catch. In one instance, he showed his range by running a perfect route and making a fine running catch that may have dropped in on a defender with less speed.
At the plate, Wilson is still very much a work in progress. In his first two seasons in professional ball, he posted modest numbers; a .676 OPS with no home runs in 89 plate appearances in the Arizona Rookie League in 2015, then a .691 OPS with three home runs and 21 stolen bases in 274 plate appearances for the Short-Season A Eugene Emeralds in the Northwest League last year.
In his first 77 plate appearances this year, he slashed .159/.247/.304 with six extra-base hits for South Bend, striking out 42.8 percent of the time. Wilson is working hard to implement some changes at the plate and turn those numbers around.
“I’m changing a few things mechanically,” he said. “I had basically deleted my leg kick and reverted more to a knee tuck. On top of that, I brought my hands down closer to my armpit. Just really trying to sell out to that and get my pitch to hit.”
In addition to those changes, Wilson focused on getting his mindset back to a time when he had previously had success.
“Using the whole field, for sure” Wilson said. “There was a point last year where I got hot at Eugene, and it was when I was using the whole field. I’m definitely trying to improve on that and get it where it needs to be.”
In his four plate appearances on May 13, the changes that he described with his mechanics were noticeable. The leg kick was gone and his hands were consistently held lower, which could help Wilson get the bat to the ball quicker. The combination of those two changes will give him more time to decide whether or not to swing, he said.
“Just letting [the ball] get deep, seeing pitches for a long time, and being able to trust your hands to get to your pitch,” Wilson said.
In 64 plate appearances in the month of May, Wilson’s numbers did begin to come around. He hit .259/.328/.414 with two home runs and three doubles, showing off a little bit of power that could emerge as he gains more strength.
Wilson’s hard work in May raised his overall slash line to .206/.286/.357, but an undisclosed injury landed him on the disabled list on May 24. He finally returned to the field on July 3 in Mesa, Arizona, with the Cubs’ Rookie League team, where Wilson hit two home runs in his first three at-bats and finished 4-for-8 with two walks, three homers, and one stolen base.
Since returning to South Bend on July 8, Wilson is swinging a hotter bat. He has gone 10-for-32 with two home runs and a slash line of .313/.371/.563. While Wilson has found recent success at the plate, improving his defense is still drives him.
“As motivation, I’ve always taken pride in my defense. It’s definitely something that I’ll continue to get better at,” Wilson said. “As far as the bat, it’ll come along. It always has.”
One area Wilson will need to improve to have a chance to be an everyday player in the big leagues is hitting against left-handed pitching. As a young left-handed batter, Wilson has struggled badly against lefties in his professional career. In 274 plate appearances in 2016, he had a pronounced split, slashing .282/.333/.426 against right-handers and .175/.277/.193 against left-handed pitchers.
If Wilson is unable to improve against left-handed pitching, his ceiling as a big leaguer will be as a fourth outfielder or the left-handed side of an outfield platoon. Wilson will still provide speed on the basepaths and defensive value in the outfield, but his approach will need to improve significantly for him to have a chance to hit for average and get on base at a consistent rate in the upper levels.
However, if Wilson can improve his hitting against left-handers he could end up being a solid major-league regular. The speed will certainly play in all three outfield spots though he looks well suited to stick in center field. He still doesn’t project to get on base at a high rate, but with the power beginning to develop Wilson could end up as an average hitter – in the .250/.320/.450 range – with above-average power potential and 30 stolen bases in his prime.