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Minor League Update: The Next Great Prospect

Tuesday, May 5th, 2015

In 2013, the Cubs were on the forefront of a strategy that pretty much every large market team in baseball has since copied: blowing past their international amateur free agent spending limit. While this greatly limited the Cubs’ ability to add similar prospects in 2014 and resulted in a significant taxes, it so meant the Cubs were able to acquire much of the best talent in that class. The Cubs added two of the best prospects in that class that season in shortstop Gleyber Torres and outfielder Eloy Jimenez.

Torres in particular has excelled in the early phase of his professional baseball career. Before we get into Torres’s particulars, it’s worth noting the risk and reward of signing these young international free agents out of countries like the Dominican Republic and Venezuela: teams get to sign them at age 16. The advantage to this is that MLB teams get to put players in their farm systems with professional coaching at age 16. The disadvantage is that teams have to pay the best prospects a considerable sum of money when they’re still in the midst of puberty. If a team projects a lot of power from a 16 year old who just stops growing, odds are that prospect will be a bust.

Torres tore through rookie ball and the short season Northwest League last season. Torres playing in those two leagues as opposed to the one of the Cubs’ Dominican or Venezuelan Summer League teams as a 17 year old last season was already aggressive. This season, just four months after turning 18 (a.k.a. the age of a high school senior), Torres was sent to full season A ball in South Bend. He is nearly three and a half years younger than the average player in the Midwest League.

Despite the age gap, Torres is destroying Midwest League pitching this season, batting .349/.443/.434, good for a 168+ wRC+ (68% better overall offensive performance than league average). He is walking in 13.4% of his plate appearances, and striking out in only 17.5%. Plus, he’s a true shortstop with the realistic potential of being plus defensively, and has stolen 8 bases while being caught just once.

If Torres has one downside, it’s that he hasn’t shown much power this season, and projects to have average at best power in the Majors. However, the Midwest League is not only known to play as a pitcher’s league, but that can be especially true in the cold weather Aprils of a league entirely encompassed in the upper Midwest. Additionally, most players are not done growing, especially strength-wise, at age 18.

Even if Torres tops out as more of a double hitters offensively, though, a plus defensive shortstop who can get on base and then cause havoc once he’s there? Yes please.

Torres’s excellent play so far has likely already propelled him into midseason top 100 prospect lists, and he might be forcing a promotion to the High A Carolina League sooner rather than later. If he keeps this up, the Cubs will soon have a new top 25 middle infield prospect everyone is talking about.

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Minor League Update: The Retreads

Tuesday, April 28th, 2015

Early disclosure: after Memorial Day, I’m going to have to leave writing for VFTB for at least a few months while my family and I move to Seattle for me to start a new job. I hope to be settled enough to be back for the stretch run in September. However, with my imminent hiatus in mind, we’re going to spend the next few weeks of minor league updates looking at some of the more interesting players in the Cubs minor league system, including guys whose names you might start hearing soon and an updated top prospects list.

Today, though, we look at a host of players who aren’t technically prospects anymore because they’ve lost rookie eligibility. These are, for lack of a better term, the retreads: players who have already been up to the Show with the Cubs, but are now back in the minors. As a note, I am not including players on rehab assignments, so you won’t see the likes of Tsuyoshi Wada on this list. Also, Junior Lake’s promotion yesterday disqualifies him, although I expect to see Lake bounce between Chicago and Iowa a few times this season.

Javier Baez (SS) and Arismendy Alcantara (Utility): The two most obvious players on the list, and the two most “prospectish”, as they aren’t that many plates appearances beyond losing their rookie eligibility, are young, and are considered to have high ceilings. Baez and Alcantara will both get legitimate chances to become stars in the Big Leagues again, whether it’s with the Cubs or other teams. They’ve also primarily struggled with the same issue, strikeouts, albeit for different reasons.

Baez, who has not played at Iowa yet due to the death of his 21 year old sister Noely, has two issues at the plate: first, he does a poor job of recognizing pitches out of the pitcher’s hand. Second, he has a poor general plate approach, including a poor understanding of how pitchers are attacking him. It’s really unknown whether pitch recognition is a teachable skill as opposed to something hitters either do or do not pick up as they see more pitches and gain experience. Understanding how pitchers are attacking him, however, is just a matter of study, and Baez is currently falling for some of the oldest tricks in the book. Was Baez behind a fastball for strike one? Throw something offspeed that drops out of the zone next. He’ll almost always swing way in front of it. Baez’s ceiling is still sky high, but he’ll have to become a better student to come close to reaching it. Baez reported to extended spring training following his bereavement league at the end of last week, and should be joining the I-Cubs within a week or two.

I saw more of what looked like a mechanical problem in limited looks at Alcantara this season. Alcantara’s strikeout problems didn’t stretch into his minor league career the same way Baez’s did, although Alcantara did struggle with a high K rate after his call up last season (31%). After a strong winter league performance and spring training, however, I was hopeful that Alcantara would put those problems behind him and be more in the low to mid-20% range this season. While Alcantara did draw a lot of walks in his brief stint with the Cubs to start this season (15.6% walk rate), the strikeout rate spiked to just under 35% as well. My concern with mechanical problems is based upon seeing Alcantara swing through some fastballs in the zone that he had timed correctly. He also had a hellishly bad BABIP in the Majors this season (.133), so I do wonder if that ended up leading to Alcantara trying to cheat for power a bit, which led to more swing and miss, which led to higher strikeouts. If Alcantara can right the ship in Iowa, I’d expect him to see him back at Wrigley Field pretty quickly.

Blake Parker (RP): In the back half of 2013, Blake Parker was one of the best pitchers in the Cubs bullpen after posting a 2.72 ERA, 2.90 FIP, and 3.54 xFIP over 46.2 innings on the strength of an excellent 10.68 K/9 and solid, especially for a reliever, 2.91 BB/9. Last season despite a similar 10.29 K/9 and superior 1.29 BB/9, Parker’s ERA ballooned to 5.14 over 21 innings. As his solid peripherals would indicate, Parker’s FIP and xFIP were a far superior 3.28 and 3.12. A big part of the reason for the ERA spike was, of course, BABIP. After being right around leave average at .294 in 2013, hitters posted a very high .350 BABIP against Parker in 2013. That should come down, as most outliers do. My one concern with Parker is that he’s an extreme fly ball pitcher, and there are some games in the summer at Wrigley where that’s just dangerous. Parker is currently on the minor league disabled list, but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him get another shot in middle relief in Chicago as the season wears on.

James Russell (RP): In 2012, it looked like James Russell could be turning into an adequate Sean Marshall replacement as one of those rare left handed relievers without elite velocity who can get out both left and right handed hitters. In 2013 and 2014, however, Russell looked a lot more like a LOOGY than anything else. If either Phil Coke or Zac Rosscup go down, Russell could be the next man up as a lefty specialist out of the pen.

Matt Szczur (OF): Szczur has long been a fan favorite, based largely on an overly positive early ranking from Baseball America and the fact that he’s the sort of guy who goes through a painful medical procedure to help a complete stranger. He has also, however, been a guy whose upside has been limited by a slappy swing that leads to limited power. Following a power surge in spring training, there was some hope that he may have shown some real improvements. This far, though, it just looks like a small sample size aberration in the hitter friendly Cactus League. Through 36 plate appearances between MLB and Iowa, Szczur has just one extra base hit, a double. His athleticism and versatility, though, likely mean he’ll be up and down throughout the season depending on team needs and injuries.

Dallas Beeler (SP): Beeler performed yeoman’s work as an emergency starter last year for the planned double header and following the Jeff Samardzija/Jason Hammel trades, but that’s really all he is. If Wada and Turner are entrenched in the bullpen and the Cubs need a 26th man as a starter for the second game of a double header, he might grab a start or two, but that’s about it.

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The Opening Day Roster Is Coming Together

Tuesday, March 31st, 2015

Shortly before yesterday’s game against the Giants, the Cubs waived über prospects Kris Bryant and Addison Russell to Triple A Iowa, and optioned Javier Baez to Iowa along with them. Following the game, the Cubs added left handed relief pitcher Phil Coke, who they signed to a minor league free agent contract early this spring training, to the 40 man roster. With these moves, the Cubs’ Opening Day roster has really come into focus.

Guaranteed on Opening Day Roster:

Starting Pitchers: Jon Lester, Jake Arrieta, Jason Hammel, Kyle Hendricks

Relief Pitchers: Hector Rondon, Pedro Strop, Neil Ramirez, Justin Grimm, Jason Motte

Catchers: Miguel Montero, David Ross

Infielders: Anthony Rizzo, Starlin Castro, Mike Olt, Arismendy Alcantara, Tommy La Stella

Outfielders: Dexter Fowler, Jorge Soler, Chris Coghlan

There isn’t much to say about this bunch, although there are questions about who will play at second base and third base among Alcantara, Olt, and La Stella. My bet is that the Cubs will prioritize playing Alcantara, who has the highest ceiling of the bunch, with Olt and La Stella splitting time at the hot corner for a couple of weeks until Bryant is called up.

Guaranteed on Opening Day Roster if not Traded:

Pitchers: Travis Wood, Edwin Jackson

Catcher: Welington Castillo

I should initially note that I don’t think any of these three will be traded before Sunday. I debated whether to put Travis Wood in the first category following the injuries to Tsuyoshi Wada and Jacob Turner, but I think the Cubs would still trade Wood if they were absolutely blown away by an offer. That is unlikely to happen. As far as Jackson is concerned, excluding the day he couldn’t find Ho Ho Kam he has been competent enough and continues to be expensive enough to likely get a spot as a long man in the bullpen.

The Cubs reportedly turned down a trade with Orioles to swap Castillo with relief pitcher and former top prospect Brian Matusz, and the Red Sox filled their catching hole resulting from Christian Vasquez‘s injury in a trade with the Nationals. It’s always possible the Cubs and Orioles put together a trade for pieces the Cubs want more, but I find it unlikely that move will happen before Sunday. As such, the Cubs will likely start the season with three catchers on the active roster.

Almost Guaranteed on Opening Day Roster:

Pitcher: Phil Coke

Coke has been excellent this spring, and I doubt the Cubs would have added him to the 40 man roster this late in the spring if they didn’t intend on him starting the season on the north side.

The Question Marks:

Infield: Jonathan Herrera

Outfield: Matt Szczur, Junior Lake, Ryan Sweeney

Only two of these four can make the active roster. One of Szczur or Lake are guaranteed to make it as the right handed caddy to Chris Coghlan in left field until Chris Denorfia returns from injury. I’d give the inside track to Szczur, who has shown more pop this spring than in prior seasons and can handle all three outfield positions defensively. Also, Lake has shown enough improvements in terms of plate discipline over the course of winter ball and spring training that the Cubs may want to prioritize him playing every day, considering Junior’s still considerable ceiling.

Sweeney and Herrera will come down to whether the Cubs would prefer using Alcantara as an emergency fifth outfielder, presuming he’s playing most games at second base to start the season, or an emergency shortstop. If the prior, Herrera will get the roster spot, and if the latter it will be Sweeney. Both primarily provide defensive value, and would be rightly viewed as the 25th man on the roster. I’d lean towards Sweeney since he has at least shown on base skills in spurts in the past, whereas Herrera is an outright offensive negative.

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Prospect Watch: C.J. Edwards and Pierce Johnson

Tuesday, March 24th, 2015

While the top of the Cubs’ farm system is loaded primarily with position players, and the majority of the most exciting Cubs’ pitching prospects will be in High A or below next season, the system does have a couple of legitimate starting rotation prospects who should pitch in Triple A Iowa as the season starts, and could contribute to the MLB team later this season: C.J. Edwards and Pierce Johnson.

C.J. Edwards (RHP, 23 years old)

2014 Stats

Tennessee (Double A): 10 GS, 48 IP, 2.44 ERA, 2.92 FIP, 8.63 K/9, 3.94 BB/9, .234 BABIP


Among Cubs pitching prospects in the upper levels of the Cubs’ farm system, C.J. Edwards has the highest ceiling. Edwards’ fastball sits 91-95 with solid movement, and he also throws a curveball that could be plus consistently with continued work to go along with an average change up. Two plus pitches and an average third pitch is solid middle of the rotation stuff, and if Edwards can get the change up to even a fringe plus pitch you’re looking at number 2 in a rotation type of stuff.

The big question with Edwards is his durability. He’s listed at 155 pounds, which means he weighs the same amount as me despite being five inches taller. And I do not exactly have a build you’d look at and say “that’s a MLB pitching prospect”. With Edwards, this isn’t a young Tim Lincecum who is throwing 180-plus innings a year with analysts saying the wheels are going to fall off because he’s too small to maintain this type of performance for more than a handful of seasons. Edwards has never thrown more than 116.1 innings in a professional season, which he did in 2013, and was limited to 68.2 innings (20.2 of which were rehabbing a shoulder injury that kept him out much of the season) in 2014.

This has led to a big disparity in prospect gurus rankings of Edwards. While both and Baseball America continue to view Edwards as a potential starter and rank him as a top 50 starter, Baseball Prospectus and ESPN’s Keith Law see Edwards as a reliever only, and as such don’t have him in their top 100 lists.

Edwards was quite good when he pitched in 2014, but 2015 will likely be a year for him to prove he can hold up to a starter’s workload, or a year where he’ll show his long term future is in the bullpen. If Edwards cannot start, I’d be curious if he could fit into a role similar to the role Dellin Betances filled with the Yankees in 2014: a high leverage, multi-inning reliever. But there would even be questions if Edwards could hold up to that workload. At worst, though, Edwards should slot in as a solid late inning reliever along with Hector Rondon, Pedro Strop, and Neil Ramirez by 2016.

Likely 2015 Starting Spot: Iowa (Triple A)

Likely MLB Debut: Mid-2015 to early 2016

Pierce Johnson (RHP, 23 years old)

2014 Stats

Kane County (Single A): 2 GS, 11 IP, 2.45 ERA, 4.30 FIP, 6.55 K/9, 2.45 BB/9, .115 BABIP
Tennessee: 18 G, 17 GS, 91.2 IP, 2.55 ERA, 4.27 FIP, 8.93 K/9, 5.30 BB/9, .242 BABIP


When the Cubs picked Pierce Johnson with their sandwich pick they received in free agent compensation for Aramis Ramirez in 2012, many thought the Cubs could have gotten a steal. Johnson’s draft stock dropped from a mid-first round grade primarily due to a forearm strain in his final college season, combined with arm action that led scouts to believe more arm injuries could be in his future. The stuff, though, was considered solidly mid-rotation, and many thought the Missouri State product could be a fast riser.

Johnson hasn’t exactly been a disappointment, but he hasn’t exactly lived up to expectations either. He’s generally pitched pretty well, but he hasn’t moved as quickly as hoped and the arm action remains troubling to some, both from health and control standpoints.

In regards to Johnson’s 2014 statistics in Double A, I do think he needs to be looked at pre-injury and post injury. Prior to hitting the DL with a hamstring injury in mid-May, Johnson put up a 4.39 ERA and posted a BB/9 rate of 8.10. When he returned, Johnson posted a 1.80 ERA and a 4.15 BB/9. That walk rate is still too high, but it’s at least not epically terrible and indicates to me that Johnson wasn’t right in his first stretch of 2014.

While Johnson doesn’t have quite the same durability questions as Edwards, this is a big year for him to prove that he deserves a spot in the Cubs’ long term rotation plans as well. To do so, he’ll have to stay healthy and limit walks in the hitter friendly Pacific Coast League.

Likely 2015 Starting Spot: Iowa

Likely MLB Debut: Mid-2015 to mid-2016.

As a final note, the Cubs have another pitching prospect, Armando Rivero, in Iowa who could be a big time contributor to the bullpen. As a bullpen only guy, he’s not considered a big time prospect, but he could be the first guy up if one of Rondon/Strop/Ramirez/Grimm/Motte struggle or get hurt, and I’d suggest checking out his stat line on your website of choice.


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Prospect Watch: Addison Russell and Billy McKinney

Tuesday, March 17th, 2015

The Cubs’ farm system was already arguably the strongest in baseball as July 2014 started. When the Cubs traded starting pitchers Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel for the Oakland Athletics’ two best prospect, shortstop Addison Russell and outfielder Billy McKinney, that “arguably” part disappeared.

Addison Russell (SS, 21 years old):

2014 Stats:

Mesa (Rookie): 50 PAs, .196/.260/.348, 2 HRs, 6% BB rate, 26% K rate, .152 ISO, .226 BABIP, 66 wRC+, 1 SB, 0 CS
Stockton (High A): 18 PAs, .188/.278/.188,0 HRs, 11.1% BB rate, 33.3% K rate, .000 ISO, .300 BABIP, 31 wRC+, 1 SB, 0 CS
Midland (Double A): 57 PAs, .333/.439/.500,1 HR, 14% BB rate, 14 % K rate, .167 ISO, .385 BABIP, 173 wRC+, 3 SB, 2 CS
Tennessee (Double A): 205 PAs, .294/.332/.536, 4.4% BB rate, 17.1% K rate, .242 ISO, .305 BABIP, 141 wRC+, 2 SB, 2 CS


When the Cubs obtained Addison Russell, they gained one of the most difficult to acquire and valuable pieces in baseball: a top ten overall prospect. Russell fell to Oakland at the eleventh pick in the 2012 draft after he bulked up before his senior season of high school. Scouts who saw him that season saw 70 raw power, but also saw a guy who was unlikely to stick at shortstop. In response, Russell lost the weight  after the draft and quickly established himself as an at least average defensive shortstop, likely better, with plus arm strength.

Russell missed much of the first half of the 2014 season with a hamstring injury, which is why he had stops in High A with the A’s and rookie ball after his trade to the Cubs. He showed the solid power and ability to hit for average that was expected following his return to Double A after the trade, although a higher walk rate would be more in line with his career numbers.

The most interesting question with Russell is what the Cubs will do with him when he’s ready? He’s arguably the best defensive shortstop above A Ball for the Cubs, with most scouts seeing him as a better shortstop right now than Starlin Castro. But, if the Cubs succeed this season, I think it would be unlikely that the Cubs would try to cause any issues by moving Castro off the position as long as he continues to be serviceable there. Russell could also replace Javier Baez at second base if Baez continues to strike out too much to get to his power, or he could move to third base if Bryant struggles there defensively, where Russell could bulk up and potentially reach bigger power numbers.

This could also mean that Russell’s MLB debut waits until 2016. In any case, once Russell debuts he is expected to be a mainstay in the Cubs’ infield for years to come.

Likely 2015 Starting Spot:  Triple A Iowa

MLB Debut:  Mid-2015 to early 2016

Billy McKinney (OF, 20 years old)

2014 Stats:

Stockton: 333 PAs, .241/.330/.400, 10 HRs, 10.8% BB rate, 17.4$% K rate, .159 ISO, .267 BABIP, 92 wRC+, 5 SB, 3 CS
Daytona (High A): 210 PAs, .301/.390/.432, 1 HR, 11.9% BB rate, 20.0% K rate, .131 ISO, .377 BABIPO, 136 wRC+, 1 SB, 0 CS


In many, if not most, systems, McKinney would be a top five prospect. Indeed, he was widely considered the A’s second best prospect prior to the July 4 trade after only Russell. In the Cubs’ incredibly deep system, on the other hand, McKinney is more a back end of the top ten type of prospect.

McKinney’s biggest issue is that he only has one plus tool. The good thing for him is that it’s his hit tool. Aside from that, however, McKinney is corner outfield only with limited power, meaning he might project better as a second division starter or fourth outfielder.

This is not to say there isn’t a lot to like about McKinney. There’s a ton to like about him, especially his work ethic. Every single tool of his is thought of higher by scouts today than it was when he was drafted, and that’s solely due to hard work and coachability. But with the Cubs’ stacked hitting prospects, the Cubs might get the most value out of someone like McKinney by trading him as he approaches MLB readiness, which could be as soon as this summer depending on how he performs in his Double A debut.

Likely 2015 Starting Spot:  Tennessee

Likely MLB Debut: Late 2016 to mid-2017.

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