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.