Chicago Cubs breakout prospect candidate: Shawon Dunston Jr.

Shawon Dunston Jr. has a lot to prove this season.
Shawon Dunston Jr. has a lot to prove this season.

The name is familiar if you know even a little about the Chicago Cubs. Having grown up in the ’80s myself, the name Shawon Dunston conjures up memories of the Shawon-O-Meter, Harry Caray, the 1984 team that broke our hearts and Mark Grace wincing in pain after catching a throw from the shortstop.

This isn’t that Shawon, however. This is the son of the former first-overall pick by the Cubs back in the 1982 MLB draft and current special assistant for the San Francisco Giants. Junior is trying to make a name for himself with the organization and its fans.

He’s off to a good start.

Shawon Dunston Jr. grew up around the game. He grew up around Barry Bonds. That alone makes you an outlier and gives you a leg up on the competition as far as the intricacies and nuances of the game. It’s like wanting to get into computers as a child and Bill Gates is your dad’s best friend. There is a reason why bloodlines are brought up a lot when discussing prospects. Dunston had a bird’s eye view of the pro game early on and soaked up as much of the game as he could.

He inherited his dad’s canon arm. He also was blessed with terrific speed and was clocked at 3.8 seconds from home to first in high school. For comparisons sake, Ichiro Suzuki has been timed at 3.7 seconds. His speed, arm and instincts made him a perfect fit for centerfield — a premium position in baseball. He also hit from the left side, which is something all teams covet. In other words, he had the talent to go along with the bloodlines.

After he finished his career at Valley Christian HS in San Jose, California, the 2011 MLB draft was next. He was a top-100 (68) prospect by Perfect Game and was projected to go in the early rounds. One caveat — he had a commitment to Vanderbilt. The baseball powerhouse has a tendency to keep its recruits and having that school attached to your name sometimes causes players to slip in the draft as teams fear they could be wasting a pick on a player they won’t be able to sign.

Ten rounds into the draft, Dunston still hadn’t heard his name. This is the point in the draft where a player has to start thinking about a tough decision: Honor your college commitment or turn pro for a considerably smaller signing bonus. Luckily for Dunston, the 2011 MLB draft was the last year before spending limits were put into place. The Cubs decided that they were going to go all out, outspend everyone and seize this last opportunity to sign as many of their draft picks as they could — at any cost.

The Cubs selected Dunston with their eleventh-round pick, gave him a $1.27 million signing bonus (equivalent to early second-round money in today’s assigned values) and essentially made his 50/50 decision a no-brainer. The fact that there were family ties to the team obviously helped, as well.

Dunston made his pro debut with short-season Boise on June 15, 2012, and went 0-for-3 with two walks. He struggled during his first go around with the Hawks, hitting just .185 over 19 games with four walks, 14 strikeouts and a .577 OPS. The Cubs decided to send him down to the Arizona Rookie League to work on his game, as well as his confidence.

Through his first three games with the AZL Cubs, he went 0-for-13 with three strikeouts. Then, he turned it around. Over his final 36 games, he hit .311/.393/.446 with 12 extra-base hits, 18 walks and stole four bases, helping guide the team to the second-best record in the league (37-19).

Dunston entered this past season with a lot to prove. He started in Mesa at the team’s Arizona Instructional League. Over seven games, he hit .300/.417/.450 with three doubles, four walks and was 3-for-3 in stolen bases. The organization decided to ship him off to Boise again to start the season. The results were much different this time.

In his first game, he went 4-for-6 with a double and stolen base. He went on to record at least one hit in his first eight games and, more importantly, was racking up more walks than strikeouts, as well as being more aggressive on the base paths. I asked Dunston what he had worked on during the offseason, and he told me his first season was a very humbling experience. He said he spent the offseason trying to sort of find himself and his game again. He added 15-18 pounds of muscle without losing a step of his speed. When I asked about his approach, he said he was just being more selective at the plate, not forcing it and taking what the pitchers give him. He wants to grind out every at bat and not waste a single one.

On July 21, he suffered a deep leg bruise when he collided with a teammate in the outfield. At such an early stage in a prospect’s career, every game, every at-bat, every pitch is crucial to development. The 20-year-old spent three weeks on the DL, returning to the Hawks on August 15.

Over 49 games for the Hawks, Dunston hit .290/.378/.358 with 10 extra-base hits, 12 stolen bases and drew 28 walks to just 25 strikeouts. Busting his butt during the offseason showed up in his production.

I recently asked Dunston what he was working on during this offseason. He told me that he knows he still has a ways to go. He has continued to work on his approach at the plate, his first step on the base paths and using his legs more to hit and throw. He has filled out his once 6’-2”, 175 pound slender frame and is more chiseled and compact. He wants to open eyes and show he’s the real deal. He could break out this year and do exactly that. It could take until next year. However long it does take, leave your Shawon-O-Meter at home once he gets there.

Feel free to follow me on Twitter @DanMKirby for 2014 MLB draft updates, prospect news and Chicago Cubs ramblings.

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