Thomas Neal is the newest Cub. Neal is 25 years old, big (6’2’, 225 lbs.), and he throws and bats right-handed. He was recently DFA’d by the Yankees, and was hitting .325/.391/.411 over 297 plate appearances with AAA at Scranton Wilkes-Barre (a nice line, for sure, but he only hit 2 hr – that’s a little worrisome). He was a former top 10 prospect in the Giants system, but he’s had a few injuries. Hopefully, he’s healthy and can assume an upward trajectory. It would be nice if he could be the Cubs 4th outfielder or assume a platoon role in 2014 – although the fact that he’s been let go by three teams (Giants, Indians, Yankees) within the last two years is definitely a red flag. Rafael Dolis (remember him?) was added to the 60-day DL to make room for Neal on the 40-man roster.

I heard an intriguing interview with Sports Illustrated’s David Epstein today on NPR’s Fresh Air. He has a new book, The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance, which sounds so good that I think I’m going to buy it. Anyway, Epstein has dug into the research on genetics as it relates to sports performance. He spends a good deal of the interview discussing how major league hitters are able to recognize a pitch, decide to swing, and finally make contact. A few of the highlights: 1) “reflexes” are largely mythical in this context – in fact, baseball players often don’t score that well on tests of reflexes, 2) visual pitch recognition out of the pitcher’s hand is the real key, 3) baseball players might as well close their eyes once the ball is halfway to the plate, because all of the mental processes and mechanical actions must be in motion by then, 4) the average pro baseball player has 20/12 vision – so, a good way to tell if a kid might be a good hitter one day is to get his/her vision tested (good vision won’t make him/her a good hitter, but poor vision would probably prevent it), 5) talent is being redefined as the genetic predisposition to respond well to training. Overall, it’s a highly interesting interview. Best of all, you can listen free here:

http://www.npr.org/programs/fresh-air/

Ugh, I suppose I should comment on the biggest story of the day, the Biogenesis scandal. I’m sure you’ve read about this from the 349382749837 sources covering the story today. The short version: 12 players were suspended 50 games (included the Rangers’ Nelson Cruz, the Padres’ Everth Cabrera, and the Tigers’ Jhonny Peralta) and suspending Alex Rodriguez through the end of the 2014 season. Apparently, A-Rod intends to appeal, blah, blah, blah. Does anyone care anymore? Is there anyone who isn’t completely sick of A-Rod’s act? Guys like A-Rod and Lance Armstrong just need to go away. We can debate on the actual effects of steroids on performance (considering the information from the interview above, Lasik surgery might be a more effective way to “cheat”) and the moral/ethical issues. That debate aside, it is against the rules of the sport, so these players knowingly did something they knew was wrong and hoped to get away with it. The great thing for all of us is that no Cubs players were involved (insert joke about how obvious that should have been).  Honestly, I see this as a failure of baseball: the sport turned a blind eye to the issue for years, and now this “harsh justice” seems disingenuous. I’m looking forward to the day when the most reported baseball stories are positive – it seems like we’re a long way from that point, though.

STATE OF THE SYSTEM
First Base

by Rob Willer

Top Prospect: Dan Vogelbach who was the second round pick by the Cubs in 2011. Vogelbach played in just six games after signing, hitting three doubles and bombing his first professional home run. Played in 24 games with the rookie-level Arizona Cubs, hitting .324/.391/.686 that season. After those 24 games he was promoted to rookie-level Boise and hit at a very similar line .329/.391/.696 in 20 games at that level. Vogelbach has the type of offensive tools in approach, hitting ability and legitimate power  but that set of skills has to fully mature for him to be an impact player at an offense-oriented position. For the 2013 season we have seen Vogelbach play at Kane County which is the Cubs Low A Minor League Affiliate. His stats continue to be great as he moves through the system which includes 16 home-runs and 68 runs batted while having a line of .283/.360/.450. Vogelbach seems to only project as a designated hitter/first baseman due to his lack of speed and defense which raises questions since Anthony Rizzo just signed a seven year contract who also plays 1st Base for the Cubs presently. Most scouts say that he has the potential to hit 30 home-runs in a season consistently and also hit for average as well. The problems that arise with Vogelbach are his defense which becomes limited with his lack of range and athleticism due to his size. His speed is below average which is what you would expect but even for first base his speed is way below average. I have personally seen Vogelbach at Kane County this summer and have seen him do wonders with the bat which makes him a very intriguing prospect over the next couple years. Considering that the Cubs are replenishing their system I definitely could see him being a throw in to a deal to acquire a Top Pitcher/ Impact Bat in the near future.

Sleeper: Justin Bour was highly touted in 2012 after completing the year at Double A Tennessee. In 506 at bats he clubbed 17 home-runs and 110 runs batted in while having a slash line of .283/360/455. After Anthony Rizzo got called up last year to the Cubs most people believe Bour would get a chance at Triple A after he proved through out the year he was ready. Bour didn’t get that chance and ended up back at Tennessee this spring where he has struggled hitting for average as his batting average has dropped 53 points since 2012. A positive to take away from this season is his slugging percentage went up 50 points to .493 and he has hit 15 home-runs in 300 less at bats than last year. He is a big first baseman at 6’4″, 250 lbs he finally seems to be harnessing that power that some what alluded him in 2012. If you take a look at Bour’s advanced stats on FanGraphs something that jumped out to me was that he lowered his strikeout rate while increasing his walk rate which is tremendous. Bour’s story relates to Rafael Lopez in yesterday’s post about how they have talent but are still stuck at Double A and they’re not getting any younger. As long as Bour get’s called up Triple A by the end of the summer I see no reason for him not to get called up in the summer time of 2014 barring any injuries

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Sean Powell is a music education professor currently based in Georgia. He is also a co-host of VFTB Radio. He started following the Cubs in the 1985 season, growing up on WGN after-school broadcasts. Connect with Sean on Twitter @powell_sean or E-mail.