Archive for the ‘Minor League’ Category

Minor League Update: Not Long for the Minors

Tuesday, May 26th, 2015

 

I have to admit that I probably have a bias in Javier Baez‘ favor much of the time, mostly because I want to see him succeed, and not just for the sake of the Cubs. That said, a successful Baez can only mean good things, whether it’s because he makes his return to the major league club (which raises interesting defensive questions), or because he’s a part of a trade. Either way, things look promising so far for an improved Baez, but let’s take a closer look:

2014 Baez:

434 PAs, 23 HR, 80 RBI, 34 BB, 130 Ks, .260, .833 OPS.

First, let me say that I would very, very happily take a Baez who can hit like that, especially as a middle infielder. His strikeout rate is still pretty high, but he’s hitting for average pretty well in spite of it and his power numbers are nothing to scoff at. Not to mention, he also stole 16 bases for Iowa last year.

2015 Baez:

103 PAs, 5 HR, 17 RBI, 9 BB, 25 Ks, .311, .911 OPS.

The standout difference so far is the change in batting average and OPS, both much, much higher than what he did last season in AAA. The difference largely comes from the reduced rate of strikeouts. At this pace, he could have 30-40 fewer strikeouts than last year. That’s a huge change. Much of it is believed to be coming from the fact that his plate approach has changed from last year to this one. He’s crowding the plate (looks an awful lot like what Anthony Rizzo) and it has helped bring his strikeout rate down to 24% so far from the 30% of last year.

As things stand now with Baez, I think it boils down to three options:

  • Promote him in a few weeks and let him play 2B. This would require that Addison Russell moves over the shortstop (his natural position), but even trickier would be moving Starlin Castro to 3B. Castro has been vocal about the fact that he wants to remain a shortstop, but he mightb be agreeable to a defensive change. The trouble here is that it’s not a straightforward move, given that Castro has a whopping 5 games of experience at 3B that date back to rookie ball in 2008. So just moving him over isn’t as simple of an option as some might be tempted to think.
  • Keep him in Iowa and then trade him in late June/early July. If I had to choose, I think this is what is probably likely. He and Dan Vogelbach and probably not long for this organization.
  • Maybe a crazy idea, but perhaps Russell needs to spend some time back in Iowa. Injuries to Tommy La Stella and putrid performance from Jonathan Herrera and Arismendy Alcantara forced Russell up probably before he was ready. It might not be the worst idea for Russell and Baez to trade places, at least temporarily.

 

 

Another player who might not be long for the farm system is Kyle Schwarber. He, too, brings some defensive questions, as it is hard to tell if he will stick at catcher or ultimately move to the outfield. The question is still unclear, but at the very least, a roster expansion call up in September is sounding very likely. Defensively, confidence in his ability to function as a catcher is growing, so perhaps we may see him as a left handed bat later this season who can spell the veterans behind home plate or in left field. Schwarber has been punishing AA pitching so far at a .305/.440/.595 clip to go with 10 HRs and 26 RBI. He has yet to see any time at AAA, but calling up a player from this level is not without precedent by any means.

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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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Minor League Update

Wednesday, April 15th, 2015

It’s been an eventful first week of the minor league season, with each level of the farm system experiencing some success. After their first 6 games, the Iowa Cubs are 3-2, the Tennessee Smokies are 3-2, and the Myrtle Beach Pelicans and South Bend Cubs are both 3-3.

In Iowa:

Kris Bryant and Addison Russell have been the stars, surprising hopefully no one. Their game in New Orleans was postponed last night, but the series picks up again today. Bryant has done so far exactly what we’ve expected of him, hitting .381 with an OPS of 1.089 and 2 HR in just 21 at bats. It is likely that by this point next week, he’ll be with the major league club, so enjoy him while you can, Des Moines. Russell has excelled similarly, (.318, .833, 4 RBI in 22 at bats), leading to speculation that we may see him in the majors during mid-summer this year, though this may hinge on a possible trade of Starlin Castro or a position change for either Castro or Russell.

In Tennessee:

Dan Vogelbach has been the big story for the 3-2 Smokies, who start a 5 game series against Pensacola today. Vogelbach is putting up the kind of numbers that force the question of how long he’ll stay in AA, as well as whether or not he becomes a trade piece later this summer. He’s currently hitting a whopping .444 in his first 5 games, with 5 walks and 4 doubles. CJ Edwards made news when he was moved to the bullpen to start the year, and so far has just one appearance (2.1 innings, 2 Ks, 2 BBs, and 1 earned run), so it’s likely too early to tell how he’ll perform in this role.

In Myrtle Beach: 

I mentioned Mark Zagunis as a player to watch in a previous post, and so far he’s showing a fairly strong performance at the plate, with 6 hits in 21 AB, though his OPS is just .733. Jen-Ho Tseng had a solid outing in his first appearance yesterday, with 5 strikeouts in 5 innings and letting just 4 runners on base. The Pelicans conclude a series against Salem tonight before heading on the road for a 4 game set against Winston-Salem.

In South Bend:

The South Bend Cubs concluded a series against Dayton yesterday with a loss and will start a new series in Fort Wayne tonight. Gleyber Torres is hitting an impressive .348 through the first 6 games and has driven in 3 runs to go with 2 stolen bases. On the pitching staff, Ryan Williams has proven to be the most noteworthy thus far. He’s appeared in two games, once in relief and once as a starter, and has a ridiculous 0.250 WHIP so far and has 8 strikeouts in 8 innings.

All four teams are in action today, and while this is likely to be the last week that Bryant is in an Iowa Cubs uniform, he has plenty of opportunity to hit a few more Pacific Coast League homeruns. I’m looking forward to seeing more from some of our pitching prospects as they get more innings on the mound in the coming weeks.

 

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2015 Cubs Minor League Preview

Wednesday, April 8th, 2015

Even with the excitement surrounding the young talent that is already on the major league roster, the Cubs minor league system is still generally agreed upon as the top ranked system in all of baseball. It can be a challenge keeping track of which player is at each level, especially as the season begins, but we’ll take a look at what each roster looks like at the start of the season:

Iowa Cubs – AAA

The roster that is most likely to experience early change (buy your tickets now if you want to see Kris Bryant play in Des Moines), but also the one with plenty of reasons to watch even after the end of this month.

Who to watch:

Bryant: Of course. And although he won’t be here long, look for him to get some time in LF in preparation for spending time there when he’s called up. That call up would happen, at the earliest, somewhere around April 17, but the Cubs have not given any indication as to when they plan to bring him up. That does give him time to play in the first to series with Iowa, but both are on the road, so if you live near Memphis or New Orleans, get tickets!

Javier Baez: Perhaps a surprise to see him in Iowa, but especially after a rough spring (.182/.237/.236, 21 Ks), it is necessary. It’s hard to predict how long he’ll stay in Iowa, but it’s expected that he’ll return to the majors at some point this summer. Look for him, of course, to work on reducing his K rate by focusing on pitch selection.

Addison Russell: He’s the one who is most likely of these three to spend all or most of the season in Iowa. Speculation is already abounding that he may one day force Castro out of the SS spot, whether it’s because Castro takes a different position or is traded, so the timing of Russell’s call up may hinge on Castro’s fate. Don’t be surprised if we see Russell with a similar fate to that of Bryant next spring. He’s young enough (21) that the Cubs can afford to wait on him for another year.

Opening Series:

The Iowa Cubs don’t play at home until April 17, but they’ll open their season against Memphis for a four game set starting tomorrow.

Tennessee Smokies – AA

Like the AAA brethren, the Smokies have a roster with plenty of reason to watch. This would be a team to follow very closely, as some of these guys are likely to make their debuts in the coming years (2016 is really going to be fun.).

Who to Watch:

Kyle Schwarber: The Cubs first rounder last year made a quick rise through the system (moved through 3 levels), and could continue doing the same, depending on what the Cubs want for him defensively. This could be a season that he spends entirely in AA to focus on being a full time catcher, or if the Cubs do explore other defensive options, he could move up more quickly. Either way, he hits like crazy (1.061 OPS, 18 HR overall last year)

C.J. Edwards: I’ve mentioned him before, but the biggest test for Edwards this season may be whether or not he can stay healthy for a full season. He has the potential to have an impact on the pitching staff at the major league level very soon, but injury problems have interfered so far. He made just 10 starts in AA last year, so he could be in Tennessee all season.

Dan Vogelbach: If ever there was a reason for me to want to embrace the DH in the NL, it’s this guy. He can absolutely mash, but given that he’s a first baseman and Anthony Rizzo has that spot pretty much locked down for the next several years, there’s really nowhere for Vogelbach to go at this point. The 2011 2nd rounder could be a valuable trade piece at some point, but there’s not specific expectation that that will happen at this point.

Note: Albert Almora will be in Tennessee as well, and is a worthy candidate for a bounce back year in 2015.

Opening Series:

The Tennessee Smokies begin their season with a 5 game series against Mississippi before coming home next Wednesday, April 15 to play 5 games against Pensacola.

Myrtle Beach Pelicans – A+

This is the first year that the Cubs’ High A affiliate is in Myrtle Beach, after ending their relationship with the Daytona franchise. The roster in Myrtle Beach is absolutely loaded with 9 highly ranked prospects starting the year there.

Who to Watch:

Billy McKinney: Acquired from Oakland last year when Jeff Samardzija was traded, McKinney is proving to be a solid outfielder. Oakland took him in the first round in the 2013 draft out of high school, and he’s put together some noteworthy numbers during his 2 seasons in the minor leagues (.283, 14 HR, 95 RBI in 181 games overall), and those averages are down slightly because of an adjustment to high A ball last year while he was in Stockton. Since joining the Cubs’ system, he’s hit significantly better.

Jen-Ho Tseng: Tseng has been a topic of conversation here before, but he looks to be a high ceiling pitching prospect in a system that’s heavy on offensive talent. His experience in the minors isn’t extensive, but he had a very impressive year in Kane County last season (2.40 ERA, 0.867 WHIP, 85 Ks in 105 innings)

Duane Underwood: Another second rounder that the Cubs took out of high school in 2012, Underwood showed distinct improvement from 2013 to 2014, even while moving from low A Boise to A level ball in Kane County. He pitched twice as many innings, and still lowered cut his ERA practically in half (from 4.97 in 2013 to 2.50 in 2014).

Opening Series:

This is basically the team that won the Midwest League Championship while in Kane County last year, so they’ll be fun to watch. They open their season at home tomorrow with a 4 game series against Wilmington followed by 3 games against Salem.

South Bend Cubs – A

Formerly the Kane County affiliate, South Bend has a few spots of real talent, including a very young shortstop who provides ample reason for excitement. Four Winds Field has also been under construction this past offseason and it looks like a place worthy of a mini road trip if you live near northwest Indiana.

Who to Watch:

Gleyber Torres: The 18 year old shortstop spent most of his season in 2014 at the rookie ball level in Arizona, with just a 7 game appearance in low A Boise. But what a 7 games: an OPS of 1.254 and 11 hits in 28 at bats. Granted, the sample size is small, but the ceiling is very, very high here.

Jake Stinnett: The Cubs picked him in the 2nd round last year after he opted not to take the Pirates’ offer when they drafted him in the 29th round the year before. His rooked ball numbers were perhaps a little scary (don’t look, trust me on this), but when he made the move to low A Boise, he pitched like the Cubs are hoping he can: 0.789 WHIP, 7 Ks in 6 innings.

Gioskar Amaya: This 22 year old Venezuelan has been in the Cubs’ system since he was 17, and the Cubs have moved him somewhat slowly through their system, having him spend full seasons at Kane County in 2013 and Daytona in 2014. He looks to be a solid defender in the middle infield who will probably always hit pretty well, but offers some speed on the basepaths as well, with 73 stolen bases in his minor league career so far.

Opening Series:

The South Bend Cubs open a 3 game series at home tomorrow against Bowling Green. They’ll play Kane County this season, but at home, so there won’t be a chance to check these guys out in Chicagoland.

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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

Analysis

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 MLB.com 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

Analysis

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

Analysis:

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

Analysis:

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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3 Cubs Prospects to Keep Your Eye On in 2015

Wednesday, March 4th, 2015

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:

Albert Almora

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.

Mark Zagunis

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.

C.J. Edwards

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.

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Prospect Watch: Kris Bryant and Jorge Soler

Tuesday, March 3rd, 2015

As the unanimous, at least as far as I’ve seen, opinion that the Cubs have the best farm system in baseball indicates, the Cubs have a number of talents in their minor league system who project as quality Major Leaguers. Two of these players with elite prospect status are likely to get the opportunity to make big impacts in the Majors early in 2015: Kris Bryant and Jorge Soler.

Kris Bryant (3B, 23 years old)

2014 Stats:
Tennessee (Double A): 297 PAs, .355/.458/.702, 22 HRs, 26% K rate, 14% BB rate, .347 ISO, .440 BABIP, 220 wRC+, 8 SB, 2 CS
Iowa (Triple A): 297 PAs, .295/.418/.619, 21 HRs, 29% K rate, 14% BB rate, .324 ISO, .367 BABIP, 164 wRC+, 7 SBs, 2 CS

Analysis:

Along with Twins CF Byron Buxton, Bryant has been one of two players mentioned in the top prospect slot in top 100 lists this winter. Bryant has an elite power bat, with at least 70 power on the scouting scale, and a strong ability to get on base.

Bryant’s only offensive concern is a high strikeout rate, but Bryant does not show the concerns that Javier Baez does. Baez incurs a high strikeout rate because of a poor approach and an inability to read breaking balls early enough. Bryant has a typical high power/high walks/high strikeouts approach. He’s going to look for a pitch he can crush, will take pitches until he gets one, and won’t cheat to contact much with two strikes. It’s a Giancarlo Stanton like approach, and Bryant has similar offensive gifts as the Marlins’ slugger.

There are also defensive questions about Bryant, although most scouts I’ve seen have said he should be able to at least be acceptable, if not average, at the hot corner for now. The bigger concern is if, at his size (he’s listed at 6’5”, 215 pounds), his body can hold up to the demands of the position long term. While he’s likely to at least start his career at 3B, he could be moving to an outfield corner based on the success of players like Baez, Arismendy Alcantara, and Addison Russell, and in any case will likely be headed to the outfield meaningfully before his 30th birthday.

A comp I’ve heard frequently for Bryant is Troy Glaus. And before you say “ugh, Troy Glaus?!”, just go ahead and look at Glaus’s early career numbers before the injuries started piling up. If Bryant can avoid injuries and maintain that type of offensive production throughout the next seven season, Cubs fans will be very, very happy.

Bryant will almost certainly start the season in Iowa under some pretense to gain an extra year of service time before he hits free agency. He will be up once that extra year accrues, which should happen on April 15. So it might be a very happy tax day for Cubs fans.

Likely 2015 Starting Spot: Iowa.

MLB Debut: Mid-April to early May 2015.

Jorge Soler (RF, 23 years old)

2014 Stats:
Tennessee: 79 PAs, .415/.494/.862, 6 HRs, 19% K rate, 15% BB rate, .447 ISO, .457 BABIP, 265 wRC+, 0 SBs, 0 CS
Iowa: 127 PAs, .282/.378/.618, 8 HRs, 20% K rate, 13% BB rate, .336 ISO, .303 BABIP, 149 wRC+, 0 SBs, 1 CS
MLB: 97 PAs, .262/.318/.470, 5 HRs, 25% K rate, 6 % walk rate, .208 ISO, .295 BABIP, 146 wRC+, 1 SB, 0 CS

Soler entered 2014 as the prospect Cubs fans were most wary about due to a somewhat down 2013 season heavily affected by injuries. While he continued to struggle through a couple of hamstring injuries over the first half of the season, Soler’s production when healthy answered any questions of whether he could play at an elite level.

Soler tore up the Southern League so masterfully the Cubs sent him up to Triple A after just 79 plate apperancess, and then beat up the Pacific Coast League to nearly the same extent as Bryant did before Soler received his MLB call up. In both minor league stops, Soler showed an ability to hit for power, get on base, and limit strikeouts to a respectable level.

I think some Cub fans are overrating Soler’s MLB debut based upon their first looks at him because he had such an amazing first five games (.526/.550/1.211, 3 HRs, 391 wRC+ in 20 PAs).  Soler struggled for his remaining 19 games of the season (.229/.273/.400, 2 HRs, 82 wRC+ in 77 PAs). By no means, however, does this mean I’m down on Soler. He has elite tools, and is very refined for both his age and amount of professional experience. He should continue to hit for power, but it wouldn’t surprise me to see it take a couple of seasons for the walk and strikeout rates to return to his dominant minor league levels. If not for Bryant, he’d likely be the front runner for NL Rookie of the Year.

Likely 2015 Starting Spot: Chicago. The only way Soler won’t start the season as the right fielder in Wrigley is if he isn’t healthy on Opening Day.

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