Cubs Down on the Farm Report – 08/09/11

The Cubs Minor League System Quarterly Report

We are now at the three-quarter mark of the minor league season. At this point a system philosophy seemed to have emerged. However, the disconnect between the minors and the Major League front office appears to be stronger than ever; the in-season revolving door remains, as does the policy of not placing prospects in a position to succeed at the Major League level.

While the Cub affiliates produced twenty-three All-Stars this season, only seven of them were promoted while two (D.J. LeMahieu, Marco Carrillo) were technically demoted. The 40-man roster and the rosters of Triple-A Iowa and Double-A Tennessee are in need of an overhaul, as talent is starting to back up in High Class-A Daytona, Class-A Peoria, Short Season-A Boise, Rookie AZL Cubs, and the Dominican Summer League.

Here’s an overview as to what may be the organization’s direction, as well as how the affiliates have performed for this quarter.

Note: All statistics are current as of August 6, 2011

Organizational Philosophy
For those of you who are fans of dominant starting pitching and a power-hitting offense, please sit down. I don’t want to be responsible for anyone’s health.

From a pitching perspective, the organization has seemed to veer away from the classic hard throwing starters, although some still exist in Trey McNutt, Robert Whitenack, Dae-Eun Rhee, and Matt Loosen. Instead, they appear to be focused more on control pitching and the “quality start”, as hurlers like Casey Coleman, Chris Rusin, Nick Struck, Zach Rosscup, and Eric Jokisch would illustrate. Relief pitching has also changed, with dominant closers no longer part of the landscape. In their place is a “come at you in waves” philosophy, with “squads” of three pitchers at the ready for each game. In some instances there is no clear cut closer, although Chris Carpenter, Frank Batista, Larry Suarez and Francisco Turbi appear to have those qualities.

While the system currently has nine players listed in their respective league’s top ten in home runs, including league leaders in Bryan LaHair and Paul Hoilman, a closer look at the numbers may reveal something else. LaHair and Hoilman, along with Rebel Ridling, Matt Spencer, Justin Bour, and Richard Jones, are all considered somewhat “over-aged” for their levels, and may be taking advantage of younger pitchers with their experience. The focus seems to be more on contact hitting, with 14 players in the organization finding themselves in the top 20 in batting, including seven in the top ten at their particular level. Speed is also the key, as eight players in the system are in the top ten in stolen bases. This doesn’t include Junior Lake, who’s combined 30 steals leads the organization; nor does it include Matt Szczur or Zeke DeVoss, who have a combined 21 and 10 steals respectively.

Defensively, the emphasis is on versatility over playing a set position. This is a key to the team’s offensive future. Moving players in and out of the line-up and using the entire roster has created match-up problems for the opposition, and allowed clubs to take advantage of their improved athleticism.

In short, if the Chicago Cubs decide to let their talent develop from within the organization, the team you see will bear little resemblance to your older brother’s Cubs, much less your father’s or grandfather’s Cubs.

Triple-A – Iowa Cubs
The Iowa Cubs posted a 15-20 quarter, as it saw many roster changes. Iowa demoted Esmailin Caridad, Jeff Stevens, Ty Wright, Austin Bibens-Dirkx, and Marco Carrillo; they sold the contract of Bobby Scales while releasing Fernando Perez and Augie Ojeda. This is a turnover of one third of their roster, and as a consequence, their play has suffered.

The change hasn’t seemed to effect Bryan LaHair, as he remains the Pacific Coast League’s leader in home runs with 29, while placing seventh in both batting and RBI with a .333 average and 80 driven in. Another holdover, C Welington Castillo, has put up 15 homers and 35 RBI while batting .315. However, some questions about his catching ability have surfaced again, as the team’s ERA has lowered by 1.65 since Castillo was recently placed on the disabled list.

The new additions to the offense have had mixed results. Marwin Gonzalez began blistering hot, and has maintained to hit .316; while D.J. LeMahieu hit over.300 for most of the time since arriving from the parent club, he has recently tailed off to a .278 average. Brett Jackson also started hot before dropping off to back to hot again. Ryan Flaherty is struggling to hit .200. However, the team has seemed to get a collective lift from the defense these players provide, with several pitchers appearing more relaxed on the mound.

Starting pitching has also received a boost, as Nick Struck and Chris Rusin have recorded some decent numbers. Struck is 1-3 with a 4.50 ERA in the hitter-friendly PCL, while Rusin has a 3.47 ERA. However, Rusin’s playing time has been cut into as the organization brought in veteran right-hander Dave Bush, who has been underwhelming with a 10.97 ERA in 10.2 innings. Casey Coleman has become more consistent, going 3-1 with a 4.00 ERA over the past quarter. Alberto Cabrera is 0-1 over the quarter, with an ERA of 2.89 while averaging a little over five innings per start. Jay Jackson has struggled mightily, seeming unable to hold a lead in any of his contests. Jackson is 3-4 with a 5.18 ERA since June 20.

Relief pitching has been a mess. Since July 1, John Gaub, Scott Maine, Blake Parker, Justin Berg, and Chris Carpenter have given up 25 earned runs for a 4.30 ERA while recording only five saves.

Double-A – Tennessee Smokies
After running roughshod over the Southern League for the first half of the season, promotions and uneven play by some newcomers have made the Smokies less of a juggernaut, although they are recently showing signs of improvement. Upon losing more than a one third of their roster in D.J. LeMahieu, Chris Carpenter, Marwin Gonzalez, Nick Struck, Chris Rusin, Ryan Flaherty, Brett Jackson and recently Steve Clevenger, Tennessee stumbled to a 16-19 record this quarter.

To replace those players, the organization has assigned mainly a group of minor league veterans, including outfielders Ty Wright and James Adduci, infielders Matt Camp and David Macias, catcher Luis Flores, and pitchers Marco Carrillo, Austin Bibens-Dirkx, Esmailin Caridad, and Jeff Stevens. Add to that some young prospects in shortstop Junior Lake, outfielder Jae-Hoon Ha, and pitchers Dallas Beeler, Brent Ebinger, and Oswaldo Martinez, Tennessee was bound to have some growing pains.

One holdover whose progress is encouraging is Josh Vitters. While his .278 average can be considered only modest, Vitters has hit .297 over his last ten games and, more importantly, demonstrated some leadership. Vitters has come up big in several games, including his extra inning game-winning homer on July 26. Rebel Ridling has remained consistent despite the changes, hitting .290 with 14 home runs and 57 RBI. Recently promoted Matt Spencer had slipped to .258, but remains the RBI leader with 63 runs driven in. However, the new pieces of the offense have struggled to fit in, as Lake has hit only .215 while continuing his poor defense, committing 15 errors since his call-up. Ha has recently raised his batting average to .269, with two homers and 15 RBI. Both Lake and Ha have failed to distinguish themselves as leadoff hitters, and had to be dropped in the batting order.

Tennessee’s rotation is still trying to find itself, as Trey McNutt continues to suffer injuries, and Beeler is currently on the disabled list. McNutt has not been consistent, with flashes of brilliance sandwiched by several poor outings. His numbers reflect that, with a 2-4 record, 4.79 ERA, 1.65 WHIP, and a 39-23 strikeout to walk ratio. Beeler was a tough-luck pitcher, seemingly most affected by the offensive inconsistencies. While only 1-5 with a 4.53 ERA, Beeler’s strikeout to walk ratio is 33-7. Left-hander Brooks Raley remains inconsistent, while the only thing consistent about Bibens-Dirkx is that you can either expect him to strike someone out or serve up a home run. Ryan Searle was converted to a starter at the beginning of July, with mixed results as he is being “stretched out”. However, recently demoted right-hander Carrillo is getting a look as a starter, and has maintained a 1.69 ERA and 1.06 WHIP.

Once Tennessee’s secret weapon, the bullpen has also been a contributor to the Smokies’ uneven play. Closer Rafael Dolis remain in the top ten in the league in saves, but his lack of command of the strike zone has placed many games in jeopardy. Jeffrey Beliveau and Kevin Rhoderick continue to be a powerful lefty-righty combination, with a 2.66 ERA between them. After being promoted this quarter, Martinez and Ebinger show some promise, with ERA’s of 3.63 and 2.84 respectively.

High Class-A Daytona Cubs
Call it “The Angel Guzman Factor“, as the plan to rehab the 30-year old right-hander has contributed to a 16-19 record this quarter. After starting with a record of 7-5, a plan to have Guzman start and pitch two innings every four days was put into place on July 5. The scheduled starter was then “displaced”, starting the game in the third inning. The D-Cubs went 3-4 in those games, with the displaced starters averaging 4.2 innings and a 4.97 ERA. In games following their “Guzman start”, displaced starters were 3-3 with a 6.11 ERA. The question now is how long does the organization jeopardize the development of four starters with the average age of 21.5 over Guzman?

Left-hander Jeffry Antigua, the youngest of the starters, has displayed the most potential. Antigua has posted a 3.55 ERA with a 23-3 strikeout to walk ratio in his four starts. Dae-Eun Rhee is the most explosive, as his 80 strikeouts over 95.2 innings but 4.52 ERA would indicate. Casey Harman has also done well since converting to the starter role, with a 3-0 record and 2.17 ERA in his four starts. Jeffrey Lorick has been solid, but unspectacular going 8-5 and a 4.82 ERA. Zachary Rosscup has been on the disabled list.

Daytona’s bullpen has been a big factor in the team posting a 3.61 ERA, good for third in the Florida State League. Eduardo Figueroa is usually the first man up, and sports a 2.18 ERA over 53.2 innings. Since going to the pen, converted starter Aaron Kurcz has gone 2-1 with a 2.00 ERA while ringing up 23 batters. Closer-in-waiting Larry Suarez is 1-1 with a 3.00 ERA, while Juan Serrano is 4-1 and a 3.50 ERA. However, closer Frank Batista has been the mainstay by racking up 21 saves, good for second in the league. Batista has a 1.88 ERA and 38 strikeouts in 48 innings.

Since the organization promoted Junior Lake and Jae-Hoon Ha earlier, they seem to be reluctant to promote any other of Daytona’s position players. If anyone deserves to go up, OF Evan Crawford is second in the Florida State League in hitting with a .322 average and third in stolen bases with 28. Second baseman Logan Watkins also merits some consideration, shrugging off a poor start to hit .281 with 13 steals. First baseman Justin Bour is second in the league in home runs and RBI. Outfielder Michael Burgess has recently raised his average to .229, while his 16 homers are good for fifth in the league. Recently promoted Greg Rohan has also given Daytona a lift, hitting .362 with three home runs and 10 RBI in 16 games. Matt Szczur has hit .256 with two homers and five stolen bases in 19 games since being called-up.

Low Class-A – Peoria Chiefs
It’s been a struggle for the Peoria Chiefs this season, with an 11-24 record over the quarter. Peoria lost two of the league’s top four hitters in Greg Rohan and Matt Szczur to promotion, while only three other teams are worse than their 3.91 ERA.

Remaining is 1B Richard Jones, who is seventh in the league with a .307 average, while being second with 73 RBI and third with 19 home runs. Rubi Silva is second on the team, hitting .290 while splitting time between centerfield and second base. Newcomer OF Taiwan Easterling also has a .290 average in his 16 games with the club. However, many on the team have been scuffling, as C Micah Gibbs is hitting only .254, while 1B Ryan Cuneo has only hit .263. Infielder Dustin Geiger, OF Ben Klafczynski, and OF Jesus Morelli have all had a hard time adjusting since being called-up. Infielder Arismendy Alcantara has done as well as can be expected from a 19-year old, hitting .265 but committing 35 errors. Infielder Brandon May could be lost for the season with a recurrence of his Valley Fever.

While left-hander Austin Kirk posted only a 2-4 record with a 5.06 ERA for the quarter, his 4th of July no-hitter displayed his potential as a future top of the rotation pitcher. After beginning the season as a piggyback starter, lefty Eric Jokisch demonstrated that he was no fluke as he maintained a 7-3 record with a 2.94 ERA. However, the rotation has missed left-hander Graham Hicks, who has spent the entire quarter on the disabled list. In his place, righty Starling Peralta is 2-3 with a 6.75 ERA in six starts. Luis Liria is 1-2 with a 6.00 ERA in four starts, while LHP Frank Del Valle has been a little more impressive since his promotion. Del Valle is 1-2 with a 4.56 ERA and 17 strikeouts in six appearances, four of which were starts.

The bullpen continues to vex manager Casey Kopitzke, as he has lost several good prospects to promotion. Robinson Lopez has battled the injury bug, while veteran Alvaro Sosa has not provided the leadership he was being counted on. Rookies Pete Levitt and P.J. Francescon have struggled, but Roderik Pichardo has shown some promise. Kopitzke has been recently turning to 6-foot-7, 23 year-old Dan Berlind, with mixed results.

Short Season-A – Boise Hawks
Boise finished the first half their season 17-21, five games out of first place. First year manager Mark Johnson has had an interesting time dealing with erratic young pitchers, while juggling six infielders across three starting spots. However, he has enjoyed the production of three very promising players: OF Pin-Chieh Chen, 1B Paul Hoilman, and RHP Yao-Lin Wang.

The most consistent offensive force for the Hawks has been the “Taiwanese Flash” Chen, who has a .295 average and 13 stolen bases and 18 RBI while batting leadoff for most of the season. Hoilman has been a man among boys in the Northwest League, slugging 11 home runs in 154 at bats (an average of one every 14 at bats). Phenom OF Reggie Golden is just scratching the surface of his 19-year old potential, batting .254 with 13 extra base hits (including two home runs) while driving in 20 runners. Catcher Rafael Lopez has taken advantage of the experience afforded a 23-year old to hit .317 with four homers and 26 RBI. Bonus-baby C Yaniel Cabezas has struggled, hitting just .216 with a homer and 14 RBI.

However, a glut of talent in the infield has caused a fight for playing time, as Wilson Contreras, Wes Darvill, Kenny Soccoro, and Brad Zapenas have hovered around .225 as each is unable to get consistent at bats. Add to that the over-aged Dustin Harrington (23 in November) and third round selection Zeke DeVoss, and that equals one major headache for Johnson. Harrington is currently hitting .349, but he has been demoted from both Daytona and Peoria. DeVoss captivated fans with his five stolen base debut, and is now hitting .286 with eight steals. Competition has also affected the outfield, as Blair Springfield has vied for playing time with Kyung-Min Na, Ben Klafczynski, Jesus Morelli, and now, Oliver Zapata.

Wang has lived up to all of his advanced billing, as the right-hander has posted a 2.57 ERA and a 3-2 record in 49 innings (10 starts), while striking out 49 against 12 walks. Twenty-one year old lefty Willengton Cruz has been almost equally impressive, 1-2 with a 2.57 ERA and a 43-16 strikeout to walk ratio in 42 innings (nine starts). Eighteen-year old Ben Wells has shown a lot of unpolished potential, with a 4.24 ERA and 30 strikeouts in 46.2 innings (nine starts) while sporting a 3-2 record. Austin Reed has had less success, as the 19-year old righty is 0-3 with a 6.46 ERA. South Korean right-handers Jin-Young Kim and Su-Min Jung have both had a hard time being consistent, and have shuttled between Boise and Mesa.

As typical in the lower minors, the bullpen suffers the most. Consistent performers get promoted, while less consistent pitchers see less work. Manager Johnson has relied on 22-year old Bryce Shafer, who has experience at higher levels of competition, as his closer. Shafer is 2-2 with a 3.63 ERA, and his eight saves rank second in the league. Dustin Fitzgerald and Charles Thomas have the next most appearances; Fitzgerald has a 4.08 ERA while converted infielder Thomas is at 4.61. Kyler Burke has made the most of his second chance, as the former organizational Hitter of the Year has a 3.25 ERA and, more importantly, a 1.16 WHIP, striking out 25 while only walking nine in 27.2 innings. With Burke’s previous experience, expect him to climb the ladder quickly if his left-handed power arm continues to show command of the strike zone.

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Quote of the Day

"Logic will get you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere." - Albert Einstein