Archive for the ‘Minor League’ Category

What the Samardzija and Hammel Trade Means for the Rebuild

Tuesday, July 8th, 2014

Following the Cubs’ sweep of the Red Sox last week, I planned on writing about how the Cubs could be legitimate competitors in 2015 without blowing up the farm system or spending insane amounts of money. So late on the Fourth of July, I hopped on MLB Trade Rumors on my phone, intending to check which catchers are scheduled to hit free agency after this season. There, right on the top of screen, I saw that the Cubs traded Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel to the Oakland A’s for a package headlined by shortstop and top ten prospect in baseball Addison Russell. The Cubs also received the A’s second best prospect, outfielder Billy McKinney, and Dan Straily, a fairly successful starting pitcher with the A’s last season before struggling this year. The big prize, however, was undoubtedly Russell. Suddenly, I knew the post on the Cubs competing in 2015 would be delayed.

I know a fair number of Cubs’ fans were hoping, expecting, whatever verb is appropriate, to get high ceiling, near MLB ready pitching for Samardzija at the least. The rub, however, is that teams generally don’t trade high ceiling, close to the Majors pitching prospects mid-season for established MLB pitchers, even for very good pitchers like Samardzija. Instead, they promote those prospects to the Majors mid-season, if they’re contending.

Beyond that, even if they Cubs had been able to pick up two Aaraon Sanchez types (top 30 prospects in baseball), that’s not as good of a return as one top ten prospect like Addison Russell. Also, the abundance of fantastic Cubs’ hitting prospects, which includes three top ten prospects (Russell, Javier Baez and Kris Bryant), along with four other position player prospects who would fall into many top fifty lists (Arismendy Alcantara, Albert Almora, Kyle Schwarber, and Jorge Soler), gives the Cubs a host of options to complete the rebuild, and in relatively short order.

Trade Prospects for Elite Starting Pitching

Joe hit on this one in his write up of the trade on July 5. The Cubs could put a package of position player prospects together better than what any other team could offer on any starting pitcher who might become available via trade, including David Price.

Yet I don’t think the Cubs are going this route. There are too many pitchers like Price, top of the rotation arms right around age 30, hitting free agency for the Cubs to send a load of prospects for one of them. If someone like Chris Sale, who is signed long term to a fairly team friendly deal, became available, that would change my opinion. However, the odds of someone like Sale becoming available anytime soon are somewhere between the odds of me winning the lottery and my son becoming the King of England.

Keeping All The Prospects

Yes, this is a legitimate possibility, particularly if the Cubs think Kris Bryant is a better long term fit in an outfield corner than the hot corner. If this route was taken, there’s a high likelihood that the line up in mid-2015, and by early 2016 at the latest, would include some combination of Starlin Castro, Russell, and Baez at shortstop, second base, and third base, Anthony Rizzo at first base, Arismendy Alcantara in center field, and Jorge Soler and Kris Bryant in the outfield corners. That is a lineup with a ton of potential that would cost a grand total of approximately $17 million for seven starting position players, and allows Albert Almora and Kyle Schwarber to continue progressing in the minors.

With that much cost savings on position players, including top prospect insurance in the minor leagues, the Cubs could open the flood gates on pitching spending without mortgaging their ability to compete. They could easily sign a Max Scherzer or Jon Lester while having plenty of money available to pick up a second tier starter like Justin Masterson or Ervin Santana.

Trading for Giancarlo Stanton 

The Cubs have been very clear about the type of veterans they will target as they become competitive: in prime (e.g., still in their 20s, preferably as far away from 30 as possible) star caliber players. Unfortunately, these types of players rarely make it to free agency, and get $200 million-plus contracts when they do. This off season, though, the Miami Marlins are fairly likely to shop Giancarlo Stanton, one of the best hitters, and arguably the best pure power hitter, in baseball. Stanton does not turn 25 until November.

If the Marlins shop Stanton, the Cubs would be in a great position to make a deal for the power hitting outfielder. While the Marlins have a lot of young, elite pitching talent in their system, much of which is already in the Majors, their offensive prospects are more solid starter types or role players than potential stars. The Cubs could offer Javier Baez, who has a big boom or bust potential, Albert Almora, a Christian Villanueva or Dan Vogelbach type, and a Pierce Johnson type of pitching prospect while still maintaining a very solid farm system.

This move makes sense for the Cubs if they think that Bryant can handle third base long term. Looking at the same late 2015/early 2016 lineup time frame, the Cubs would have Rizzo at first base, Russell and Castro in the middle infield, Bryant at 3B, Stanton and Soler in the outfield corners, and Alcantara in center field. 

Stanton could particularly appeal to the Cubs because his offensive performance is already the best case scenario for any of the Cubs’ top prospects. Stanton is hitting .308/.406/.566 with 21 home runs through Sunday, July , which are MVP contender numbers. 

A couple of concerns would accompany any deal for Stanton. Stanton has dealt with knee issues in the past, but they’ve been more of the nagging variety than skill eroding injuries. An injury history like Stanton’s is a risk a team just has to take to sometimes to obtain a player like Stanton, and a discount shouldn’t be expected because of it if he remains healthy through the last half of 2014. The Cubs could also shift Stanton to left field, which is a bit less demanding than right field. 

Also, Stanton will enter his second of three years of arbitration in 2015. The Cubs would likely require an agreement on an extension with Stanton prior to any trade becoming official, and even with a pre-free agency extension discount any free agent eligible years covered by the extension would likely, and should, cost the Cubs at least $20 million per season, and probably $25 million or above. Would that be worth it for a middle of the order containing Stanton, Anthony Rizzo, and Kris Bryant? Only time would tell, but I think that would be one fun middle of the order to watch.

Odds are we won’t know what the Cubs plan to do with their brigade of position player prospects until the offseason. Whichever route the Cubs take, though, the Cubs are on the cusp of building what very well could be the best Cubs offense of my nearly 33 year lifetime without signing a single free agent starting position player.

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Prospect Watch: Closest to the Majors Edition

Tuesday, June 10th, 2014

 Two weeks ago, we explored the top of the Cubs’ system, who conveniently have continued to perform the similarly over the past two weeks, giving that piece at least a big of longevity. But the Cubs’ system wasn’t viewed as special heading into the season just because it had four of the top 50 position player prospects in baseball. It is also a deep system.

While Javier Baez’s and the Chicago Cubs’ poor starts make it much less likely we’ll see any of the Cubs’ top five prospects in Wrigley this season, several other legitimate prospects could make their Major League debuts with the Cubs this season. As a note, all statistics are through Sunday, June 8.

 Arismendy Alcantara (2B/SS) – Triple A Iowa Cubs – Age 22
.269/.307/.519, .351 wOBA, 107 wRC+, 8 HRs, 5.6% BB rate, 25.2% K rate, .331 BABIP, 10 SBs, 2 CSs

Outside of the Core Four position players and C.J. Edwards, Arismendy Alcantara is generally viewed as the Cubs’ best prospect, as well as a top 100 prospect in his own right, and Baseball Prospectus’s Jason Parks described Alcantara’s ceiling as Jose Reyes-lite. He showed an ability to get on base in Double A Tennessee last season, has above average power for a middle infielder, can steal bases, and should be at least a plus defensive second baseman, with gold glove ceiling as far as talent is concerned. Alcantara played shortstop through the Cubs’ system until Baez joined the Smokies in the middle of 2013.

Alcantara has shown good power in the hitter friendly Pacific Coast League, but has not forced the issue of his promotion due to a .306 OBP. He has been a level a year type of player throughout the minors, and I would not be surprised to see the Cubs prefer Alcantara play almost all of, if not the entire, Triple A season in Iowa. However, since he is already on the 40 man roster, I also would not at all be surprised to see Alcantara make his debut when rosters expand in September, with his Major League debut being no later than late April 2015.

Kyle Hendricks (RHP) – Iowa Cubs – Age 24
11 GS, 67 IP, 3.90 ERA, 3.04 FIP, 8.60 K/9, 2.55 BB/9, .347 BABIP against

At the start of training camp, Hendricks was the Cubs plus control/command, average at best stuff pitcher of the year. Nearly every team in baseball has one of these guys every season. Unfortunately, few become more than back end of the rotation starters.

Hendricks has shown some good signs this season, though, particularly an increased strikeout rate. He is essentially a finished product, and with his fairly limited ceiling service time concerns are unlikely to come into play. Hendricks will likely be one of the first three Iowa pitchers called up, along with Tsuyoshi Wada and Chris Rusin, upon either injury or trade of a pitcher currently in the Cubs’ starting rotation. As such, he could make his MLB debut tomorrow, or he could end up waiting until early 2015.

Christian Villanueva (3B) – Iowa Cubs – Age 22
.222/.279/.384, .289 wOBA, 67 wRC+, 5 HRs, 7% BB rate, 26% K rate, .283 BABIP, 2 SBs, 1 CS

While Kris Bryant and Mike Olt got the lion’s share of the media attention (let’s be honest, they got ALL the media attention) at third base during spring training, Villanueva is a solid prospect in his own right, rated higher than Olt coming into this season by all publications and more likely to stay at the hot corner than Bryant.

 Villanueva’s bat has been disappointing for the Iowa Cubs this season, but his defense at third, which rates as plus-plus and been called the best in all of the minor leagues, means that if he can be a league average bat he’ll provide great value while he is cheap and under team control.

Villanueva, however, could end up the odd man out of the Cubs’ game of third base prospect musical chairs. If the Cubs decide Mike Olt is not the answer (and it sure doesn’t look like he is) AND the Cubs trade Luis Valbuena this season, Villanueva could get the call up in July, particularly if he starts hitting more consistently. But I don’t think the Cubs trade Valbuena, arguably their second best offensive player who is only in his first year of arbitration.

By next year, Kris Bryant could bang down the door to Wrigley and claim third base for at least the next 6 plus seasons… or the Cubs could move Bryant to a corner outfield spot. I would not be shocked to see Villanueva get a cup of coffee in the show with Alcantara in September, but, unlike Alcantara, I am not convinced Villanueva will be on the Major League active roster early in 2015. He could end up as trade bait as much as anything, where he would be a solid second or third piece in a trade for a bigger name on the trading block.

Arodys Vizcaino (RHP) – High A Daytona Cubs, Double A Tennessee Smokies – Age 23
At Daytona: 9 G, 9 IP, 1.00 ERA, 2.33 FIP, 10 K/9, 4 BB/9, .286 BABIP against
At Tennessee: 11 G, 11 IP, 2.38 ERA, 1.93 FIP, 10.32 K/9, 2.38 BB/9, .231 BABIP against

Vizcaino is the only prospect not currently on the Iowa Cubs in this list, although he has been pitching in the High A Florida State and Double A Southern Leagues to start the season due to their friendlier weather than Iowa in April and May, not because he could not handle Triple A hittersg. Aside from one bad outing with the Smokies a couple of weeks ago where he allowed 3 earned runs in one inning, Vizcaino has been lights out this season, not allowing a run in his other 10 appearances in the Southern League. You know how good Hector Rondon and Neil Ramirez have been for the Cubs this season? Vizcaino’s ceiling as a late innings reliever is higher.

 The questions regarding Vizcaino’s arrival in Wrigley are: (1) when are the Cubs comfortable that he’s ready for the rigors of MLB bullpen usage? (2) Are the Cubs planning on trying to convert Vizcaino back to a starter? And (3) how are the Cubs viewing his service time issues? This is a bit more complicated for Vizcaino than most, since time on the disabled list (where Vizcaino spent 2012 and 2013) counts as service time towards arbitration, not minor league option years. As such, Vizcaino already has more than 2 years of MLB service time.

So we could see Vizcaino very soon. But, if the Cubs decide to convert Vizcaino back to a starter, which is viewed as unlikely but possible, he might not hit Wrigley until 2016. My guess is we see Vizcaino very late this season, once the Cubs will be sure he will not be a Super 2 player entering arbitration in 2015.

My guess on the order of call ups for these four: Hendricks, Vizcaino, Alcantara, Villanueva, with Villanueva having the highest odds of never suiting up as a Chicago Cub.

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How Are the Top 5 Prospects Doing?

Tuesday, May 27th, 2014

Heading into the season, near unanimity existed regarding the identities of the Cubs’ top prospects: shortstop Javier Baez, third baseman Kris Bryant, center fielder Albert Almora, right fielder Jorge Soler, and right handed pitcher C.J. Edwards. Some publications put Edwards higher than Soler, some put Edwards behind all the position player prospects, but these were the Cubs’ top five prospects. Now, with nearly two months of play, behind us, how are they doing, and when can we expect to see them in Wrigley Field? Just as a note, all of my estimated times of arrival for theses prospects presume that the Cubs do not do something crazy like win 20 of 25 games to get back into contention. Of course, should the Cubs miraculously end up competing for a postseason spot, the timelines for at least some of these prospects, particularly Baez and Bryant, could speed up to improve the Major League team for a stretch run.

Javier Baez
Triple A Iowa Cubs, Age 21.
.225/.287/.437, 7 HRs, 33.5% K rate, 7.2% walk rate, 4 SB, 1 CS

Had this posted prior to May 17, just ten days ago, Javier Baez’s 2014 season would have been an unmitigated disaster. Through May 16, Baez was batting .145/.230/.255 with just 3 home runs and a 36.9% strikeout rate, looking wholly over matched as the youngest player in the Pacific Coast League. In the past ten days, on the other hand, Baez hit .439/.444/.927 with four home runs and a much more manageable 24.4% strikeout rate.

It’s possible Baez’s struggles were due in part to an early season injury. After struggling in his first few games of the season, Baez appeared to be turning it around early before going on the disabled list due to a badly rolled ankle, and struggled even more greatly upon his return. On the other hand, Baez may have been destined for a fairly extended struggle in his first season in Triple A. He had starts upon his promotions to both High A and Double A before making the adjustments that eventually allowed him to dominate the Florida State and Southern Leagues, and his approach, which involved swinging as hard as he could at any pitch he thought he could make contact with, was one that more advanced Triple A pitchers could take advantage of. There’s also the distinct possibility that this is just a hot streak, as opposed to Baez making real adjustments.

Either way, Baez’s extended early season struggles lead me to believe that Baez will not see the Majors until early to mid-2015. The extremely elevated strikeout rate, plus the extreme extent of Baez’s struggles through mid-May, give the front office more than enough reasons (or excuses, if you’d prefer to phrase it that way) to leave Baez in Iowa to get a full season of playing time at Triple A, and it’s unlikely the Cubs’ would add Baez to the 40 man roster in September, in turn removing someone else, to burn MLB service time in games that, for the Cubs, have a strong chance of being rather meaningless.

Kris Bryant
Double A Tennesse Smokies, Age 22.
.337/.431/.641, 14 HRs, 27.9% strikeout rate, 11.8% walk rate, 6 SB, 2 CS

If any prospect in the Cubs’ system has been close to a complete success, it’s Bryant. Not much could be said about Bryant beyond what the statistics already show you. Bryant is tied for the Southern League lead in on base percentage, leads the Southern League in home runs by 4, leads the Southern League in slugging percentage by more than 100 points, and leads the Southern League in OPS by nearly 130 points.

Bryant’s sole issues in his first full professional season have been an elevated strikeout rate and defensive issues at 3B. Bryant will always strike out a fairly high amount, but is a more complete hitter who can get around that issue as opposed to Baez, who has a greater chance of striking out too much to every reach his power. While prospect comparisons are dubious, I have been thinking something along the lines of a right handed Jim Thome as far as the contact/walks/power are concerned. Bryant has also made far too many errors at 3B, and the Cubs may be looking to move him to an outfield corner.

Which is precisely what I think the Cubs will do when they promote Bryant to Triple A in the next 45 days or so. As with Baez, I do not think the Cubs will promote Bryant to the Big League club this season, but he will an every day player in Wrigley Field sometime early of mid-season 2015. Meanwhile, I’d expect to see Bryant manning right field in the Pacific Coast League over the last two months of the season or so.

Albert Almora
High A Daytona Cubs, Age 20
.266/.287/.364, 2 HRs, 10.5% K rate, 2.2% BB rate, 3 SB, 3 CS

No one’s start has me more concerned than Almora’s. His offensive struggles in  the extremely pitcher friendly Florida State League is not exactly a surprise because Almora lacks elite power, but precisely due to that lack of power Almora needs to be able to get on base to succeed offensively. It’s not that Almora is Emilio Bonifacio as far as power is concerned, but he’s more a guy that will top out around 15 home runs at his peak.

A 2.2% walk rate is not going to allow Almora to get on base enough, even with the extremely low strikeout rate. The word on Almora when he was drafted in 2012 was that he had an extremely advanced approach at the plate. At some point, that approach will have to lead to Almora getting on base much more than he is now, or Almora will no longer be a top prospect.

I find it unlikely that Almora will get a mid-season promotion to Double A Tennessee this season. As such, best case scenario is likely an early to mid-2016 debut in the Majors, and that is dependent on Almora getting on base at a much higher clip than he currently is.

Jorge Soler
Double A Tennessee Smokies, Age 22
.333/.407/.625, 0 HRs, 18.5% K rate, 11.1% BB rate, 0 SB, 0 CS

That batting line on Soler looks really nice, right? The problem is that he compiled it in only seven games due to a couple of leg injuries leading to a pair of disabled list stints, including one he is on right now due to a hamstring pull. The injuries are of the minor variety, but his career to this point has been hampered by such relatively minor injures. He needs to show he can stay on the field.

If Soler can get healthy, stay healthy, and produce, he could still be looking at a mid-2015 promotion to the Majors.

C.J. Edwards
Double A Tennessee Smokies, Age 22
4 GS, 20.2 IP, 2.61 ERA, 3.03 FIP, 8.71 K/9, 3.48 BB/9

Heading into the season, no one questioned Edwards’ stuff, which is top of the rotation quality. However, they did question whether his extremely thin frame could hold up to a starter’s work load. He started the season pitching quite well. Not as well as he pitched in 2013, but quite well nonetheless. Unfortunately, Edwards then felt some tightness in his right shoulder, and has been shut down since April 20.

The good news is that Edwards’ issues are not structural (in other words, they’re muscle related instead of joint and/or ligament related) , and Cubs’ brass indicated that, had Edwards been an MLB veteran as opposed to a young prospect, this is the sort of discomfort he likely would have pitched through. The bad news is that this adds fuel to the fire that Edwards’ future is in the bullpen, reducing his value in any trade, and that Edwards will not be back with the team until after the All Star Break (although it’s unclear whether the team was referring to the Southern League break in mid-June or the MLB break in mid-July).

Edwards was a pitcher some thought could see some time in the Cubs’ bullpen later this season. That is likely out the window at this point. Edwards could see the big league club as a reliever sometime in 2015, though, and potentially move into the rotation in 2016, if all else goes well.

Next time, we’ll look at a handful of the Cubs’ less known and less heralded prospects, including the two prospects most likely to make meaningful contributions on the Major League roster in 2014: right handed starting pitcher Kyle Hendricks and switch hitting second baseman Arismendy Alcantara.

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3 Cubs Prospects Who Deserve a Promotion

Monday, May 5th, 2014

With basically a month completed in the minor league season, it’s time to look at some names that are potentially begging for a look and possible promotion based solely on their numbers.

1. Kris Bryant (3B – AA) – Since you’ve probably never heard of Bryant before now, I figured I’d mention him on this list. In all seriousness, Bryant has played very well in AA so far and has a lot of Cubs fans excited. There isn’t much to say about him other than when will he get here, and where will he play?

Age AgeDif Lev PA R 2B 3B HR RBI SB CS BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS
22 -2.6 AA 123 21 8 0 6 15 5 0 17 34 .304 .423 .559 .982

One thing to note is that Bryant is quite young for his league, almost three years younger than the average for that league. The home run numbers, while expected, are still nice to see play out through his development. There are reports that have him close to 80 on the scouting scale for power, so it will be important that the power continues as he moves through the system. The promotion is inevitable, and will probably come sometime this month, but the question then remains where will he play? Currently, Christian Villanueva is occupying third base in AAA, and you’d have to imagine the Cubs want to give him every opportunity to continue to develop there, but he’s struggling at the plate, hitting just .198 / .271 / .337 so far this season. My guess is that if Bryant continues to hit, we’ll see him promoted and split time between third base and right field.

2. Rafael Lopez (C – AA) – The Cubs made a curious move before opening day, electing to get rid of George Kottaras, who was acquired to be the backup catcher to Welington Castillo and decided to go with John Baker. Baker has done nothing at the plate (-0.3 WAR) or in the field (-0.1 WAR) so far this season. Couple that with the fact that he’s never really done anything at the Major League level and you begin to wonder if his days on the roster are numbered. The Cubs currently only carry two catchers on the 40 man roster, so Baker would essentially have to be removed to make room for Lopez, but it may be something to consider.

Lopez, a 16th round pick out of Florida State in the 2011 draft, is having a nice year so far in AA both with the bat and with the glove. So far a .304 / .442 / .522 slash line with 2 HR is what he’s been able to do at the plate and a 50% caught stealing rate (10 of 20) is a plus in the field. At this point, I’m not sure what the reason behind keeping Baker would be. Lopez may deserve the chance.

3. Tsuyoshi Wada (SP – AAA) – Before we get too excited about this guys numbers so far, and they are good, it’s important to note that he’s 33 years old. Now, commence looking at his minor league numbers so far:

Lev W L ERA GS IP H R ER HR BB SO WHIP H9 HR9 BB9 SO9 SO/W
AAA 4 1 0.57 5 31.1 16 2 2 2 4 37 0.638 4.6 0.6 1.1 10.6 9.25

If you’re like me, you probably have little to no knowledge of Wada or where he came from, so let’s go over the key points. He’s a two time Olympian (2004 & 2008) and a member of the 2006 Japanese National team that competed in the WBC. He spent the majority of his early years in Japan before signing a deal with the Baltimore Orioles in December of 2011 and then promptly got injured that May and needed Tommy John surgery. He signed with the Cubs this offseason and then was released in spring training and resigned. Below are his numbers in Japan.

Year Age W L ERA GS CG SHO IP H R ER HR BB SO WHIP H9 HR9 BB9 SO9 SO/W
2003 22 14 5 3.38 26 8 2 189.0 165 77 71 26 61 195 1.196 7.9 1.2 2.9 9.3 3.20
2004 23 10 6 4.35 18 7 0 128.1 110 67 62 23 38 115 1.153 7.7 1.6 2.7 8.1 3.03
2005 24 12 8 3.27 25 4 0 181.2 154 69 66 17 57 167 1.161 7.6 0.8 2.8 8.3 2.93
2006 25 14 6 2.98 24 6 3 163.1 137 57 54 18 42 136 1.096 7.5 1.0 2.3 7.5 3.24
2007 26 12 10 2.82 26 2 0 182.0 168 65 57 15 42 169 1.154 8.3 0.7 2.1 8.4 4.02
2008 27 8 8 3.61 23 3 0 162.0 167 65 65 12 36 123 1.253 9.3 0.7 2.0 6.8 3.42
2009 28 4 5 4.06 13 1 1 84.1 72 39 38 13 24 87 1.138 7.7 1.4 2.6 9.3 3.63
2010 29 17 8 3.14 26 1 0 169.1 145 59 59 11 55 169 1.181 7.7 0.6 2.9 9.0 3.07
2011 30 16 5 1.51 26 4 2 184.2 145 33 31 7 40 168 1.002 7.1 0.3 1.9 8.2 4.20
9 Seasons 107 61 3.13 207 36 8 1444.2 1263 531 503 142 395 1329 1.148 7.9 0.9 2.5 8.3 3.36

Unfortunately, Wada is a man with a couple things against him. First, he isn’t on the 40 man roster, which means a spot would have to open up for him to be promoted, since he’s in AAA already. Second, there really isn’t much room in the rotation at this point and there isn’t much of a point in moving him to the pen, something he’s never done, to get him to the Majors. At this point, Wada will probably continue to pitch well and just have to be content waiting for one of the current members of the rotation to be traded (Looking at you Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel) or get injured. However, even then he’ll need to compete with guys like Kyle Hendricks, Chris Rusin, and Carlos Villanueva (I just threw up a little) for that spot.

HONORABLE MENTIONS

  • John Andreoli (OF – AA) – 17th round selection in the 2011 draft is hitting .325 / .441 / .422 with 14 stolen bases
  • Corey Black (SP – AA) – Acquired in the Alfonso Soriano deal late in 2013, Black has two separate starts in which he left without allowing a hit.
  • Marcus Hatley (MR – AAA) – 17 K’s in 11 IP for the Iowa Cubs with 7 games finished. He’s not the closer, but he’s a late inning guy who’s missing bats.
  • Zack Godley (CL – A) – The 10th round selection in last year’s draft by the Cubs has a 16.6 K/9 rate in 13 innings of work and six saves. To put that ratio in perspective, that’s 24 strikeouts in just 13 innings.
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The Cubs’ Future Number 1 Pitching Prospect

Tuesday, April 29th, 2014

Two weeks ago, we discussed how the Cubs’ pitching prospects are underrated, as the system has a significant amount of depth in pitchers with mid-rotation and late innings bullpen upside. However, the Cubs’ system lacks the type of prospects who project into ace and number 2 roles in Major League rotations. That likely changes on June 5, when the Cubs will have the chance to select one of a deep crop of pitching prospects with the fourth pick in the Rule 4 draft.

Carlos Rodon (LHP, NC State): Three months ago the odds that Rodon could fall to the Cubs at number four were all but nonexistent, as he was viewed as likely the biggest lock to go at number 1 since Bryce Harper in 2010. Last season, Rodon showed a 93-95 mph fastball with an elite slider and fantastic command. Neither the breaking ball or the command have been as strong this season, and his status has fallen a bit. Both Keith Law’s rankings (last updated on March 21) and Perfect Game‘s (last updated on April 16), now place Rodon behind a pair of high school arms. As such, it’s distinctly possible Rodon could be available when the Cubs pick at number 4.

Brady Aiken (LHP, High School): Aiken is the new pitcher in the number one slot for both Law and Perfect Game, with a mid-90s fastball and a plus curveball. Law also reports that his change up could be a plus pitcher in the future, and describes him as a “pretty good version of the [Clayton] Kershaw starter kit.” However, if Aiken’s status as the essentially consensus number 1 continues, the odds that he’ll get past the Astros, Marlins and White Sox are very slim.

Tyler Kolek (RHP, High School): Both Law and Perfect Game currently list Kolek as their number 2 prospect. He’s got the big body MLB teams want in starting pitching prospects (6’5″, 230  pounds) and throws 100 mph.

Tyler Beede (RHP, Vanderbilt): Like Rodon, Beede’s draft status has taken a bit of a hit this season, particularly with inconsistent performances in his last several starts. Law ranked him at number 4 in March (when he was pitching better), and Perfect Game listed him at number 6 in mid-April. Ideally, he has three plus pitches, which he showed with plus command early in the season, but hasn’t been able to continue.

Jeff Hoffman (RHP, East Carolina): Last year’s Cape Cod League darling can throw 97 and, at least in the Cape Cod League last season, showed a very good breaking ball. Law listed him at 6, while Perfect Game has him at 4.

Grant Holmes (RHP, High School): Holmes is a high school arm who throws 98 with a projectable body for a starter, although not one that is ready right now like Kolek. Law ranked him at 5, and Perfect Game at 8.

This is just a preliminary look, as a lot can change in the 40 days before the draft. Some of these names will peel off this list because they either solidify themselves as a top 1 or 2 pick, or because their performance falls off. Others will join this list, and we will reexamine the few players who the Cubs are most likely to pick as the draft approaches. With no Kris Bryant on the horizon among this year’s draft class, though, odd are strong that the Cubs will draft their most promising pitcher since Mark Prior this season.

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Are the Cubs’ Pitching Prospects Underrated?

Wednesday, April 16th, 2014

If you mentioned the phrase “Cubs prospects” to most who follow baseball prospects, the first players you’d hear in response would be the Cubs’ high tier offensive talents: Javier Baez, Kris Bryant, Albert Almora, Jorge Soler, Arismendy Alcantara. Sure, you have C.J. Edwards and Pierce Johnson there, but you have to get past the Jeimer Candelarios, Dan Vogelbachs and Christian Villanuevas of the system before you see other starting pitching prospects in the rankings. But is the Cubs’ system really that devoid of pitching talent?

The Best Cubs’ Pitching Prospects

The Cubs lack one very big item among their pitching prospects: the clear top of the rotation arm. The guy who something doesn’t have to really break right for to be a number 1 or number 2 in a good rotation, but just needs to stay healthy. The Cubs’ most talented starting pitching prospect is C.J. Edwards, who has excelled in three Double A starts this season (2.45 ERA, striking out more than 1 per inning) after dominating both full season Single A levels in 2013.  But the caveat on Edwards is, and has always been, his size. He is a rail at 6’2″ and about 160 pounds, and there are legitimate questions regarding if someone like him can hold him to the rigors required of a MLB starting pitcher. With that said, to this point Edwards has a clean injury history.

Pierce Johnson is more a solid mid-rotation type with number 2 ceiling if everything breaks right. Johnson has yet to pitch this season due to a minor injury in spring training, but should make his first starts in Double A soon.

Arodys Vizcaino is in a similar boat as Edwards, but a couple years older and after having dealt with injuries, including Tommy John Surgery. Vizcaino’s stuff is electric, top of the rotation stuff, but his arm may only survive being a late innings reliever. The Cubs sent the right hander, who they received in a trade for Paul Maholm in July 2012, to Daytona to start the season in better weather, but he will be up in Triple A once the weather warms up in Iowa. Vizcaino will only be considered in a relievers role this year, and likely next as well. If his arm holds up, the Cubs may reevaluate whether to try to convert him back to a starter at that point.

Other Interesting Arms

I wrote about Kyle Hendricks during spring training, and he remains what we thought he was (that is a phrase I will never grow tired of hearing, by the way): a potentially solid back end of the rotation arm.

The Cubs’ Double A affiliate, the Tennessee Smokies, has three additional interesting pitching prospects. Corey Black and Ivan Pineyro, who the Cubs received in the Alfonso Soriano and Scott Hairston trades, have pretty good stuff, but their repertoire and health may hold up much better in the bullpen in the long run. Armanda Rivero, a Cuban right hander, is also an interesting bullpen option with late innings potential. For those of you waiting for a mention of Tony Zych, however, he has not continued to impress as he moved up the system, has somewhat stalled out at Double A, and is now viewed as nothing more than a potential middle reliever.

The Cubs drafted a host of arms from the second through tenth rounds in 2013, highlighted by second round pick Rob Zastryzny, a left handed pitcher out of the University of Missouri. His likely track and projection reminds me of Pierce Johnson.

The Cubs also drafted a few of high ceiling lottery tickets in 2011 and 2012, highlighted by Dillon Maples, Paul Blackburn, and Duane Underwood. Maples has struggled in his limited time on the mound, also dealing with injuries, while Blackburn and Underwood are in the midst of their first tastes of full season ball in Kane County.

The Top of the Rotation Prospect Is (Likely) Coming

The strength of this year’s coming draft? College starting pitching, and the Cubs are highly likely to add an elite college arm with the fourth pick in the draft. Next time, we’ll look at the most likely players the Cubs could take in the first round.

In short, while the strength of the Cubs’ system is definitely its bats, its pitching is not as devoid of talent as some believe.

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The Myth of Greg Maddux, the Soft Tosser

Tuesday, March 4th, 2014

Since Andrew Cashner, no high ceiling starting pitching prospects both succeeded in the upper minors and eventually debuted with the Cubs. They have, however, had a variety of pitching prospects with mediocre fastball velocity, but good control, or at least reported good control. From Nick Struck to Chris Rusin, this tradition is now being held up by Kyle Hendricks. With Jake Arrieta likely not ready for the start of the season, some call for Hendricks to get a shot at a spot in the rotation to start the season, despite Hendricks only starting six Triple A games.

The back end of this tradition, however, always involves the proponents of the soft tossing prospects arguing, “but Greg Maddux didn’t throw hard!”

In some ways that statement is correct. Maddux never threw 95, and spent the last 6 or 7 years of his career with his fastball velocity slowly creeping from the high 80s to the mid 80s. But prior to his decline, Maddux threw a 92 mile per hour fastball. A 92 mile per hour fastball with fantastic movement and pinpoint control and command.

The four elements of a fastball are velocity, movement, control and command. On the 20-80 scouting scale, Maddux’s velocity through his prime was a 55-60, solidly above average, and the movement, command and control were all 70s to 80s.

So, first of all, comparing guys who throw 89-90 to in prime Maddux is inaccurate. There’s a big difference between 89 and 92.

Second, comparing a guy who has above average to good control in the minors to the pitcher with the greatest combination of pitch movement and control in the history of baseball is a disservice to the young pitcher.

I’m rooting for Hendricks. He could be a solid, cost controlled back end of the rotation piece. But let’s allow him to be that before we start comparing him to one of the greatest pitchers, if not the greatest pitcher, of most of our lifetimes.

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The Fallen: Brett Jackson Edition

Tuesday, February 25th, 2014

In some ways, Brett Jackson is the most disappointing prospect of the four in this series. He never had quite Josh Vitters’ pedigree, as Jackson was a very late first round pick (31st overall). It just seemed like he was so darn close to at least being an average MLB regular, providing speed, a solid on base percentage, 15 to 20 home run power, and above average defense in center field, and it came crashing down so quickly. Can Jackson approach his promise again?

The Heights: After speeding through the minors in his first 24 months as a professional baseball player, Jackson put up a fantastic, even for the Pacific Coast League .297/.388/.551 in his first 48 Triple A games, despite striking out in 29.8% of his plate appearances.

The Depths: Jackson’s return to Triple A for the 2012 season resulted in a solid, but unspectacular .256/.338/.479, although the strikeouts only got worse, increasing to 33.8%. The wheels really came off with a call up to the Cubs in early August 2012, when he struck out in more than 40% of his plate appearances and batted just .175. No amount of walking can make up for a batting average and strikeout rate like that. The Cubs tried reworking Jackson’s swing, and it did not take, at least for 2013. Jackson was terrible in both Double A and Triple A, when he was not struggling through injuries.

Best Case Scenario: Jackson somehow is able to get the strikeout rate below 25%, and is able to tap into the power enough to become a rich man’s David DeJesus. Odds are he is a player you’d rather not start regularly against left handed pitching, but he could be one of the better platoon players in baseball, and a starter on a second tier team.

Worst Case Scenario: Jackson keeps striking out in 30% percent of his plate appearances and never sniffs the Majors again. Or, ever worse, he never sniffs the Majors again for the Cubs, gets DFA’d, the Cardinals pick him up, and then they magically fix him with that human sacrifice altar they have under Busch Stadium. Oh yes Cardinals fans, we have discovered your secret.

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The Fallen: Josh Vitters Edition

Tuesday, February 11th, 2014

In the long run, the failure of one Cubs prospect most hampered the Cubs ability to rebuild quickly, and may have doomed the Jim Hendry regime as much as any poor free agent signing: Josh Vitters. The third pick in the 2007 Rule 4 Draft, even as a prep star he gained renown for having one of the prettiest swings in baseball. Unfortunately, a combination of an injuries, poor approach at the plate, and a failure to improve defensively at third base leave him as all but a non-prospect at this point.

The Heights: After being drafted with the third pick in the 2007 draft, Vitters performed very well through his first significant stretch in full season ball: the first 70 games of 2009, where he put up a .316/.351/.535 line in the Low A Midwest League.

The Depths: Vitters’ fall was not as precipitous as some, but more a long, slow march towards irrelevance. A part of this was related to injuries. Vitters missed significant time in 2010 and 2013, which delays any prospect’s progress. Vitters also entered a pattern where he struggled in his first run at each new level, before having moderate success in the second run. This, however, is not that uncommon. More significantly, Vitters showed himself to not be equipped to handle third base defensively, limiting him to an outfield corner at this point. Worst, however, Vitters has not shown significant improvement in his approach at the plate. This is the downside to Vitters’ pretty swing. He can make contact with a pitches he should not swing at, at least in the minors.

The worst came with a promotion to the Majors in 2012, where he put up a miserable .395 OPS in just over 100 plate appearances, and then only played in 28 games in Triple A in 2013 due to myriad injuries. On the good news front, he was effective in his limited playing time, posting a strong .295/.380/.511 line, including an 11% walk rate, by far the best of his career.

Best Case Scenario: Still only 24 years old, Vitters still has a bit of time to prove that he can be a productive big leaguer, but he needs to stay healthy and hit now. I’m not a Junior Lake fan, and think that a BABIP regression on Lake’s front will lead to him losing the starting left fielder job early in the season. Best case scenario is that Vitters takes it, shows he can hit in the Majors, and at least becomes an average Major League starter. Not quite what you would be looking for in a third pick in the draft, but it would be considered a success at this point.

Worst Case Scenario: Excluding injuries, the worst case scenario for Vitters is that he fails when given his next shot at the Major League level, firmly establishing his status as one of the biggest draft busts in recent memory.

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