By now, every serious Cubs fan is fully aware of the grand praise that our farm system has been receiving, particularly as system rankings and individual prospect rankings have been released over the last several weeks. In each, the Cubs and their players have been seen all over the top of those rankings. While it is certainly easy to get the most excited about Kris Bryant, Jorge Soler, and maybe even Javier Baez, we can’t miss some of the players who are a little farther away from making it to the majors. Here are three in particular that I think deserve our attention this season:
Remember him? The 6th overall pick in the 2012 draft? You know, the guy who went from high school baseball to absolutely tearing up rookie ball before forcing a promotion to low A Boise all in the same season? Most guys are 20 or 21 in low A, but the brand new high school graduate was still able to hit .292 with 7 doubles and just 5 strikeouts in 65 plate appearances in his inaugural season in the minors. I had the opportunity to watch him in person several times the following season in Kane County, and he provides ample reason for excitement. There’s potential for a guy who can excel in hitting XBH (he had 17 doubles and 4 triples in 82 hits in 2013), and he has shown so far that he can keep his strikeouts down. As I outlined in a previous post here, the Cubs are a team that is probably going to strike out a lot in the coming years. So, while I would like it if he walked more, I’m happy with a guy who can keep his strikeouts down.
So why has he fallen off of the radar? I think it’s almost entirely because he had a less than impressive 2014, at least by his own standards. More specifically, he struggled when he made the move to AA Tennessee. His batting average and OBP were lower than where he usually performs, but he continued to produce XBH at his usual rate and he was able to hit for power. His struggles after making the jump to AA last year may have been because of lingering injury issues (he missed large portions of 2013 due to various injuries), but they may also have been because he was playing at a level probably significantly above where he would usually be. I tend to pay close attention to the age of a player versus the average age of those around him while a guy is in the minors, and during his short stint in Tennessee last year, Almora was 4.5 years younger than the average. That may not be a significant spread when you’re in the majors, but it is for a guy who had just turned 20 as the season was starting.
So when he 2015 season begins, I think he’s an important player to keep an eye on, because if you remove his 36 games in AA last year, his minor leagues are genuinely impressive. Even with them included, he’s still at .294/.322/.424 in just over 200 games. His injury history is concerning, but I’d like to see him start in AA this year, and strive for a full season at that level. I don’t think there’s any reason that the organization needs to rush Almora, even though CF is a bit of a hole that I’d love to see him fill one day.
Of course Kyle Schwarber is the catching prospect that has everyone’s attention these days, but I suspect that Zagunis is the one who stands a more likely chance to stick at catcher defensively, even though his time in the Cubs’ farm system so far has shown a pretty even split between C and OF. All signs seem to point to Schwarber moving to the outfield before he reaches the majors, and catcher is a position organizationally that looks a bit thin otherwise. So, considering what he can offer defensively, I think Zagunis is worth paying closer attention to this year. His minor league experience is very limited so far, but his performance across three levels just last season is noteworthy. The Cubs picked him out of Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in the third round last year, and after a very brief (2 games) stint in rookie ball, he spend the bulk of 2014 in Boise. What stands out to me the most is the way he gets on base. He hits well, and hits for extra bases consistently, but he draws a lot of walks. Again, this will be important on a team that is probably going to strike out at a high rate for years to come.
I think he’s been overshadowed so far because his trajectory last season followed Schwarber’s pretty closely, so they were often playing at the same level at the same time, and while Schwarber is a first rounder out of a D1 school, Zagunis is a third rounder from a school most of us have never heard of. Schwarber will probably move through the ranks more quickly than Zagunis, which is fine, because I think it will provide him with the opportunity to play catcher with greater frequency.
For that reason, I’d like to see him start 2015 in South Bend. Though he spent part of last season at that level in Kane County, I think 4-6 weeks (or even more) at the beginning of this season in A ball will be a good thing. I’m guessing Schwarber will start 2015 at high A in Myrtle Beach, if not all the way to AA. That gives Zagunis the opportunity to continue to play catcher more regularly at both A and high A when he eventually moves up. I don’t think it’s out of the realm of possibility to see Zagunis cross three levels of the minor league system in 2015, but even if he doesn’t, I think he’s definitely a player to keep your eye on this year.
He’s increasingly popping up on the radar (Baseball America and MLB.com both have him in the top 100 prospects for 2015, and Baseball Prospectus had him in their top 100 in 2014), and I suspect that 2015 will be the year that he really breaks out. He projects to be a very reliable middle of the rotation starter, but one of the things that I find most intriguing about him is the number of strikeouts he elicits from the hitters he faces. At every level he’s seen so far, he’s averaged at least a strikeout per inning pitched, if not more. Along with that, he does an excellent job of keeping men off of the basepaths, with a WHIP that sits right around 1.00 at every level. In fact, his average across 3 seasons (237 innings) is .0975. I’m a big fan of pitchers who can strike people out and keep them off of the basepaths. That, combined with the fact that he is quite stingy with the HRs he allows (a whopping 2 during his time in the minors so far), leads me to think he’s worth more careful consideration this season.
Because he missed such a large portion of last season with a shoulder injury, I think he absolutely needs to start 2015 in Tennessee. He logged just 48 innings in AA last year because of the injury, so I’d like to see him start there to begin the season, but provided he can stay healthy of course, I think he can make his way to Iowa by the end of the season, and then eventually onto the 40 man roster by the start of 2016. In a farm system that is bursting with offensive strength, Edwards is a guy who has consistently put up good numbers so far, and I suspect he can do the same when he eventually pitches at Wrigley. But that probably doesn’t happen until next year.