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December 2014

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Prospect Watch: Albert Almora and Kyle Schwarber

Written by , Posted in General

I’ll admit it: this is the first offseason in half a decade that I am more excited about the Chicago Cubs’ Major League team than the prospects in their minor league affiliates. However, that does not mean that prospects should be ignored. To the contrary, the Cubs near unanimously considered top farm system in baseball is the primary reason so many analysts are so high on the team, and even after Kris Bryant and Jorge Soler are no longer considered prospects due to losing rookie eligibility, the Cubs will still have one of the best systems in baseball.

Our first look goes to two of the three first round selections by Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer, Jason McLeod, and company: 2012 first round pick Albert Almora and 2014 first round pick Kyle Schwarber.

Albert Almora (CF, 20 years old)

2014 Stats:
Dayt0na (High A): 385 PAs, .283/.306/.406, 11.9% K rate, 3.1% BB rate, .123 ISO, .305 BABIP, 100 wRC+, 6 SB, 3 CS
Tennessee (Double A): 144 PAs, .234/.250/.355, 16.0% K rate, 1.4% BB rate, .121 ISO, .267 BABIP, 64 wRC+, 0 SB, 1 CS

Analysis:
There are two camps on Almora, the optimists and the pessimists. The optimists see an elite defensive center fielder who strikes out very little and generally at least held his own in the minor leagues, with the sole exception of his Double A promotion last season, while being very young for each league he played in. The pessimists see Josh Vitters without the power at the plate, a guy who does not strike out but with no discernible approach, resulting in a lot of weak contact. They also see a guy who will have average power at best and doesn’t walk, leaving it hard to see how a guy with a low OBP and mediocre slugging rate can be a Major League regular, much less someone worthy of the sixth pick in a pretty strong draft.

I split the two, but fall more into the pessimist camp at the plate. I am very concerned about the complete lack of approach that Almora has shown to date. He is too much of a see ball/hit ball hitter without having the sort of power to make that approach work. It is pretty simple: he has to walk more to be successful. He does not need to be an above average walk guy; if he gets the walk rate into the 7-8% range that will also likely mean he is waiting for pitches he can drive more, and he can succeed with that sort of walk rate and a low K rate. But he cannot succeed walking in less than 3% of his plate appearances over a season.

Everyone appears to agree he is an elite defender in center field, a premium defensive position, which should at the least give Almora more opportunities to find success at the plate. You can live with Josh Vitters’s bat if the player is also providing elite defensive value. You cannot live with that bat when it’s also connected to Josh Vitters’s glove.

The few reasons I remain somewhat optimistic about Almora at the plate, though, are his young age and reported makeup, which is supposed to be among the best in baseball. However, if he is as eminently coachable as his makeup would infer, he needs to show it this season. Almora will likely slide into the back half of most Top 100 prospect lists, although I would expect to see him closer to 51 than 100. He has the ability to make a huge jump, but could also slide off the lists entirely and be precariously close to the dreaded “former prospect” status if he does not improve.

Likely 2015 Starting Spot: Double A Tennessee

MLB Debut: Mid-2016 to mid-2017.

Kyle Schwarber (C/LF/1B, 21 years old)

2014 Stats:
Boise (Short Season A): 24 PAs, .600/.625/1.350, 8.3% K rate, 8.3% BB rate, .750 ISO, .533 BABIP, 397 wRC+, 0 SB, 1 CS
Kane County (Low A): 96 PAs, .361/.447/.602, 17.7% K rate, 11.5% BB rate, .241 ISO, .419 BABIP, 197 wRC+, 1 SB, 1 CS
Daytona (High A): 191 PAs, .302/.393/.560, 19.9% K rate, 13.6% BB rate, .258 ISO, .328 BABIP, .166 wRC+, 4 SB, 0 CS

Analysis
Many analysts were surprised when the Cubs took Schwarber with the 4th pick in the MLB draft because they felt Schwarber was, in the long run, a first baseman in the Major Leagues. This would mean he is blocked by the Cubs’ current best player, Anthony Rizzo, and it is a huge risk to draft a first baseman that high because the bat has to be so good for the player to provide elite value. The Cubs, however, felt that Schwarber was the best available college bat, had a shot to stick at catcher, and could at least play a survivable left field.

Schwarber’s bat provided all that could be hoped for and more, dominating three levels after participating in a full college season. He lapped the other 2014 draftee in the argument for best college bat, Michael Conforto (selected by the Mets with the number 10 pick), and the only question in regards to his bat is if he will be able to keep this up as he enters the upper minors next season. Most firmly believe he will continue to mash.

The real question with Schwarber is “what is his MLB position?” The Cubs sent him to instructs at their Mesa, Arizona, facility in October to determine whether they wanted to keep him catching or end that experiment now. Of course, if Schwarber could catch even half the season he would massively increase his value, as very few catchers can hit like Schwarber, particularly from the left side of the plate. But he is a work in progress there, so that will also slow down his ascent to the Majors.

After one week, the Cubs decided Schwarber can catch well enough that they will keep working him at the position next season. What exactly Schwarber’s breakdown between catching and left field will be in 2015, I am not exactly sure, but I would bet you’ll mostly see Schwarber catching and then getting truly rested by DHing on the majority of days he doesn’t catch.

If Schwarber continues to stick at catcher, you probably will not see him in the Majors until at least late 2016, with early 2017 being more likely. If he is moved to left field permanently, he could be up as early as late 2015 if the Cubs contend and think his bat could help the club.

Likely 2015 Starting Spot: Double A Tennessee

MLB Debut: Late 2015 (if not catching anymore ) to early 2017 (if sticks at catcher).

  • Doc Raker

    What is it with the Cubs and center fielders that have no plate discipline, ala Korey Patterson? Almora sounds like Korey Patterson without the power, disappointing for a top draft pick.

    • Noah_I

      Different situation than Patterson. Patterson was a high K/low walks guy, while Almora is a low K/low walks guy. Patterson didn’t have Almora’s contact skills, with Almora more falling into the Vitters pattern: he can make contact with everything, but ends up making a lot of weak contact because of it. The Almora fix should be an easier one because you’re not trying to get him to lay off pitches he can’t make contact with. You’re just trying to get him, particularly before he gets 2 strikes, to wait for pitches that he can hit harder.

      Now, as to why you’re seeing issues like this with Patterson, Vitters, Almora,etc.: it’s the risk in drafting high school players. They tend to have the highest ceilings most seasons (2013 was the first season since 2009 where the top hitter taken was a college player), but they also haven’t seen the level of pitching the college players have. Even with all the USA Baseball experience that Almora was facing, he wasn’t seeing pitching better than rookie ball or, at best, short season A Ball. With a college player from a good conference, they’re regularly seeing pitchers who are between full season low A Ball and high A ball caliber, and occasionally seeing guys who are Double A caliber. They’re just seeing pitchers with much more mature stuff, including better control/command of breaking pitches.

      If you notice, the last two seasons the Cubs have taken the first hitter in the draft, and both times picked the best college hitter available. I would not say this was a response to Almora’s struggles, though, as much as a look at available talent and the Cubs’ apparent philosophy of loading up on bats with their first round picks (particularly since they’ve been picking high) and getting pitching elsewhere. In the 2012 draft, the next college hitter taken after Almora (6th pick) was Tyler Naquin, who was taken 15th by the Indians. Naquin has been ok, and was significantly better than Almora in Double A last season, but has a lot lower ceiling and is three years older.

      But picking a college bat could be something close to a philosophy now for the Cubs, at least as long as they are picking high. The next two picks in the draft last year were high school bats who were considered by most to have higher upside than Schwarber, particularly if, as most presume, Schwarber isn’t likely to stay at catcher: Nick Gordon by the Twins with the 5th pick, and Alex Jackson by the Mariners with the 6th pick. Gordon should a shortstop long term, and Alex Jackson, an outfielder with a high ceiling bat who could play either corner.

      • Doc Raker

        That is an interesting point about high school hitters verse college hitters. I know a kid who was drafted in the 8th round and choose to go to a Pac 10 school instead. He is having troubles hitting because he says he is facing aces every Friday and Saturday night. If he doesn’t fatten his stats up against the lack luster pitching they face out of conference it is hard to keep up good numbers when only facing Pac 10 aces. I see it as a pretty big risk for a high school hitter to pass up draft money for college since your stock can go down in college due to facing tougher pitching. But as a MLB FO a good college hitter is a good draft pick.

      • Doc Raker

        That is an interesting point about high school hitters verse college hitters. I know a kid who was drafted in the 8th round and choose to go to a Pac 10 school instead. He is having troubles hitting because he says he is facing aces every Friday and Saturday night. If he doesn’t fatten his stats up against the lack luster pitching they face out of conference it is hard to keep up good numbers when only facing Pac 10 aces. I see it as a pretty big risk for a high school hitter to pass up draft money for college since your stock can go down in college due to facing tougher pitching. But as a MLB FO a good college hitter is a good draft pick.

  • Doc Raker

    What is it with the Cubs and center fielders that have no plate discipline, ala Korey Patterson? Almora sounds like Korey Patterson without the power, disappointing for a top draft pick.

  • Blocked by Lake, blocked by Ross. Nothing to see here.

    • Seymour Butts

      Succinct clarity.
      Should be rewarded with a Swannie award.

      • Doc Raker

        Maybe you can buy Jswan a turkey and swiss combo to celebrate.

    • cap’n realist

      Agree…I think everything we need to know about Schwarber’s catching (that I haven’t already said 6 months ago)we learned by the Ross signing. Also important to remember that Schwarber’s college hitting was off B1G pitching (nowhere close to PAC12, ACC, SEC, or Big12) with plenty of protection in the lineup. Until he shows something at AA, I’m not even sure he will be a viable option in LF. Look at how Almora scuffled against the markedly better AA pitchers…substantial difference.

      • Doc Raker

        He threw up some numbers in high A, I am optimistic he will continue to hit in AA. Almora I am not so sure about, a lot of weak contact reminds me of Juan Pierre but Pierre had a pretty good career with a lot of weak contact. I don’t think I ever saw more 3 hoppers to a second baseman off one man’s bat than Pierre’s.

      • Shall we discuss the vagaries associated to each hop of a duck squirt?

      • Seymour Butts

        If it hopped 3 times, Pierre beat it out.

      • Doc Raker

        No, he didn’t beat then out.

      • Joe Aiello

        In 2014, Almora was 4.5 years younger that the league average for that level. He may have been pushed a little too fast. He picked it up mid-year a little better.

      • Doc Raker

        Excellent point Joe, way to weigh in on the no nonsense side of the room.

    • Doug S.

      Just don’t block CAPS rounding 3rd.

  • Blocked by Lake, blocked by Ross. Nothing to see here.

    • Seymour Butts

      Succinct clarity.
      Should be rewarded with a Swannie award.

      • Doc Raker

        Maybe you can buy Jswan a turkey and swiss combo to celebrate.

    • cap’n realist

      Agree…I think everything we need to know about Schwarber’s catching (that I haven’t already said 6 months ago)we learned by the Ross signing. Also important to remember that Schwarber’s college hitting was off B1G pitching (nowhere close to PAC12, ACC, SEC, or Big12) with plenty of protection in the lineup. Until he shows something at AA, I’m not even sure he will be a viable option in LF. Look at how Almora scuffled against the markedly better AA pitchers…substantial difference.

      • Doc Raker

        He threw up some numbers in high A, I am optimistic he will continue to hit in AA. Almora I am not so sure about, a lot of weak contact reminds me of Juan Pierre but Pierre had a pretty good career with a lot of weak contact. I don’t think I ever saw more 3 hoppers to a second baseman off one man’s bat than Pierre’s.

      • Shall we discuss the vagaries associated to each hop of a duck squirt?

      • Seymour Butts

        If it hopped 3 times, Pierre beat it out.

      • Joe Aiello

        In 2014, Almora was 4.5 years younger that the league average for that level. He may have been pushed a little too fast. He picked it up mid-year a little better.

    • Doug S.

      Just don’t block CAPS rounding 3rd.