Cubs Down on the Farm Report – 02/13/12

Greetings to everyone at the CCO … With the Winter League seasons over and Opening Day for the Minor Leagues weeks away, it’s time to step away from reporting and move to more feature articles. As a preview to Spring Training, the Down on the Farm Reports returns to a feature entitled …

Bubble Players and Bubble Busters

Each year, a number of players are “on the bubble” as to making the Major League roster. This article takes a look at whom some of those players could be, and which players could “bust” their bubble.

Outfield
Bubble Player: Tony Campana – By now, most Cubs fans are familiar with the story of Tony Campana. Drafted in the 13th round in 2008, the spritely Campana, made his Cubs debut last season. As a child, he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, and underwent 10 years of treatment. He is now in remission. The left-hander captured the attention of the Cubs Faithful with his blazing speed. Campana stole 24 bases in 26 attempts, with only 155 plate appearances. He also electrified fans with his inside-the-park home run at Wrigley Field in August. However, there were some flaws to his game.

Campana batted only .259, with only eight walks against 30 strikeouts. While his defense at the Major League level was fine, his track record in the minors was a little less than desired. In four seasons, he fielded only .983 with 12 errors and 21 assists.

Bubble Buster: Dave Sappelt – Acquired from the Cincinnati Reds in the Sean Marshall deal, Sappelt was drafted by the Reds in the ninth round in 2008. He was named the Reds’ Minor League Hitter of the Year in 2010 after batting .361 for Double-A Carolina. He was also named to the All-Star team and was awarded the Southern League’s Most Valuable Player in 2010. The right-handed hitter just missed making the Major League cut out of spring training in 2011, but was recalled at the beginning of August.

Sappelt hit .243 in 38 games after posting a .313 average at Triple-A Louisville. Sappelt brings with him a very good all-around set of skills. He can hit for average and has 86 stolen bases in four minor league seasons. He displayed good defense, with 14 errors and a .988 fielding average for his minor league career. Sappelt also had 36 assists including 11 double plays.

Outlook: The make-up of the Cubs’ bench will take a whole new complexion this spring. Normally, with the right-hand leaning Cubs, hitting left-handed would make you a shoo-in. However, the additions of lefties Ian Stewart, David DeJesus, and Bryan LaHair to the line-up may bring more balance to the bench. With Alfonso Soriano, Marlon Byrd, and Reed Johnson, along with DeJesus, secure on the roster, the slots for a left-handed bat will narrow. Can Tony Campana’s speed be the deciding factor? Or will Sappelt’s more well-rounded game win out?

Infield
Bubble Player: Alfredo Amezaga – The Cubs’ management signed a bevy of middle infielders to compete for a back-up role, including Edgar Gonzalez, Matt Tolbert, and Bobby Scales. However, the one I find the most intriguing is Alfredo Amezaga.

Selected by the Angels in the 13th round of the 1999 draft as a shortstop, Amezaga struggled to find a footing in the first four major league seasons in Anaheim, Colorado, and Pittsburgh. Signed as a free agent by the Florida Marlins in 2006, he was recast as a centerfielder. He posted batting averages of .260, .263, and .264 in three seasons in Miami. However, the switch-hitter’s 2009 season was cut short by a devastating knee injury that required microfracture surgery.

Amezaga attempted to come back in 2010 as a minor leaguer in the Dodgers’ organization, but winded up on the disabled list for the year. He was re-signed by Colorado in 2011, but failed to make the team out of camp. He was called up to the Rockies at the end of April, but designated for assignment a month later. Amezaga was then picked up by the Marlins again, were he finished out the 2011 season. This past winter, he batted .274 for Mexican champ Obregon, while returning to the shortstop position. Amezaga brings versatility to the table, having played every position in the majors except pitcher and catcher. He’s a so-so hitter who is able to free up another roster spot with his ability to switch hit. While he no longer has the great speed that used to be a big part of his game, at 33 years-old, he can still steal a base or two.

Bubble Buster: Adrian Cardenas – The Cubs recently picked up the 24-year old Cardenas off of waivers from the Oakland A’s. The former 2006 first round draft pick of the Philadelphia Phillies was traded in 2008 with left-handed pitcher Josh Outman and current Cubs’ farmhand Matt Spencer to the A’s for pitcher Joe Blanton. He was named to the 2007 All-Star Futures game squad in a season in which he would hit .295 with nine home runs, 79 RBI, and 20 stolen bases for Single-A Lakewood. Cardenas owns a lifetime .303 hitting average in six minor league seasons, along with 77 stolen bases. However, there are some concerns over his defense.

While Cardenas has mainly played second base during his first five minor league seasons, with a .976 fielding average, he had also lined up at third and shortstop. But in 2011, Cardenas spent the bulk of his playing time in left field, where he only fielded .974. Even more curious was that the player receiving more playing time at second rated as both a worse hitter and a worse fielder. Cardenas ended up the season hitting .314 with five home runs, 51 RBI, and 13 stolen bases.

Outlook: Once again roster make-up will play a big role in who comes North with the team. Bear in mind the veteran Jeff Baker is virtually a lock for one infield spot. Also looming in the background are Rule 5 draftees Marwin Gonzalez and Ryan Flaherty, who will have to be offered back to the Cubs if they don’t make the Major League rosters of the Astros and Orioles, respectively. The competition this spring will be fierce. Will Amezaga’s experience and switch hitting ability win out? Will Cardenas’ offensive potential and left-handed bat be the call? Or will another candidate step forward?

Catcher
Bubble Player: Welington Castillo – Like third base prospect Josh Vitters, catcher Welington Castillo is a prospect Cubs’ fans have seemed to have heard about “forever”. The soon to be 25-year old was an international signing out of the Dominican Republic in 2006. He played only ten games in the Arizona Rookie League and Short Season-A Boise that year. His first full professional season was spent in Single-A Peoria in 2007, where he batted .271 with 11 homers and 44 RBI in 98 games. Castillo rose quickly in 2008, playing at Advanced-A Daytona, Double-A Tennessee, and a game at Triple-A Iowa; hitting a composite .287 with 19 home runs and 37 RBI.

Castillo struggled offensively in 2009 and 2010 at Double-A Tennessee and Triple-A Iowa, hitting .232 and .255 respectively. In 2011, he seemed to be turning things around at Iowa, hitting over .300 in the early part of the season. However, injuries caught up with him and he ended up at .298 with 15 home runs and 35 RBI in 61 games. Defense has always been Castillo’s forte, with throwing out runners a specialty.

Castillo nailed 44% of base stealers in 2009 and 39% in 2010. That dipped to 29% in 2011, but with a smaller sample size. There are causes for concern in Castillo’s game. While he is good at thwarting the running game, he has averaged 11 passed balls a season over his career. There also have been well documented accounts of problems with game-calling. Offensively, he seems to hit in bunches and generally does better the more he plays.

Bubble Buster: Steve Clevenger – Clevenger came to the organization in 2006, drafted as a second baseman in the seventh round. After playing his whole first season at second for Short Season-A Boise in 2006, he returned to Boise in 2007 and split time between first base and catcher. After 18 games, he was moved to Advanced-A Daytona, again dividing his time between first and catcher. Through it all, Clevenger kept hitting, a combined .340 in 2007 and .298 in 2008.

In 2009, Clevenger first saw his career intertwine with Welington Castillo. Clevenger played 26 games at Double-A Tennessee and moved up to Triple-A Iowa, batting .265 in 68 games. The organization then flipped catchers in 2010, moving Clevenger down to Tennessee while moving Castillo up to Iowa. Once again Clevenger stayed strong offensively, hitting .317 with five home runs and 47 RBI in 88 games. This past season saw the 25-year old open again at Tennessee. However, he was moved up to Iowa twice due to Castillo’s injuries and raked Triple-A pitching, hitting .407 with a homer and 15 RBI in 25 games. Overall, the left-hander hit .319, eight home runs, and 54 RBI in 120 games.

While not in the same defensive class as Castillo, he can hold his own in the running came, tossing out 28% of all base stealers in his career. He also appears to be more agile behind the plate, with a .992 fielding percentage and averaging five passed balls a season. He also has experience at first, second, and third base.

Outlook: As in the infield and outfield, how many left and right-handed hitters are wanted on the bench may determine this battle. Also figuring into the mix is switch-hitting 29-year old Jason Jaramillo, who was signed to a minor league contract. Castillo has the ability to totally erase another team’s running game. However, his overall make-up may not be suited for a back-up role, and his game may regress with inactivity. If there is one thing Clevenger has demonstrated, he can hit. His defense at catcher is adequate, and his versatility could mean that the team doesn’t lose its back-up catcher if they use him as a pinch-hitter.

Right-Handed Pitching
Bubble Player: Manny Corpas – In an effort to bolster their bullpen, the Cubs signed former Rockies’ closer Manny Corpas this off-season to a split contract. The Panamanian was signed by Colorado at the tender age of 16 in 1999. Corpas made his debut in the Rockies system in 2002, and spent five seasons in the minors compiling a 14-15 record with 26 saves and an overall ERA of 4.01. He came to the majors in 2006, going 1-2 with a 3.62 ERA in 32.1 innings. In 2007, Corpas took over the closer role after the All-Star break due to the ineffectiveness of Brian Fuentes. He ended up at 4-2 with 19 saves in 22 chances and a 2.08 ERA. Corpas and Fuentes battled again for the closer spot in 2008, with Corpas ending the season at the position.

As 2009 arrived, Corpas again found himself in competition, this time with Huston Street. Street eventually ended up as the closer while Corpas was 1-3 with a 5.88 ERA in 33.2 innings as a set-up man. Corpas and Street again vied to be the Rockies’ closer in 2010, as he posted 10 saves along with a 3-5 record and 4.62 ERA in 62.1 innings. The Rockies released Corpas following the 2010 season, and he signed a minor league contract with the Texas Rangers. However, he would miss the entire 2011 season, needing Tommy John surgery.

The now 29-year old brings a contrast to the bullpen. With his low-90’s fastball, cutter, and slider, he’s more of a ground ball pitcher, compared to strikeout pitchers Carlos Marmol and Kerry Wood.

Bubble Buster: Chris Carpenter – When it comes to having a blazing fastball, Chris Carpenter has the stuff to be able to challenge current Cincinnati Reds pitcher Aroldis Chapman. Carpenter was actually drafted twice before the Cubs selected him in the third round in 2008 (2004 by the Detroit Tigers and in 2007 by the New York Yankees). What ended up scaring other teams away were Tommy John Surgery in 2005, clean-up surgery in 2006, and a tired arm in 2007.

By the time that Carpenter became property of the Cubs in 2008, he had put all of that behind him. He made his organizational debut in July 2008, and ended up 4-2 with a 4.64 ERA in seven starts in the Arizona Rookie League and Short Season-A Boise. In both 2009 and 2010, Carpenter continued as a starter. He was 6-7 with 118 strikeouts and a 2.82 ERA at three levels (Peoria, Daytona, Tennessee) in 2009 and 8-6 and a 3.41 ERA and 112 strikeouts at two levels (Tennessee, Iowa) in 2010. He was invited to the Arizona Fall League after the 2010 season, where he was used in relief and made scouts sit up and take notice with his 100 MPH-plus fastball.

Carpenter began the 2011 season in Iowa, but returned to Tennessee to adapt to his new bullpen role. He was called up to the big leagues on June 14th, and had ten appearances with a 2.79 ERA, eight strikeouts, and seven walks. Upon returning to Iowa, minor injuries reduced his effectiveness and ended his season early. However, Carpenter was ready for action again for the 2011 AFL season, and once again impressed scouts with 18 strikeouts in 13.2 innings while regularly hitting 100 MPH. Control has always been an issue for the 26-year old, as his 1.384 career WHIP can attest.

Outlook: As with the position players, roster make-up will have an effect on the decision making process. If Corpas is able to demonstrate he is injury-free and a can get big league hitters out, the Cubs may try to have the best of both worlds. The club can start with taking Corpas north with them and building up his résumé, making him attractive to teams at mid-season. In the mean time, Carpenter could sharpen his skills at Triple-A Iowa. The thought that Corpas may be coming back too early from surgery remains to be seen. But his split contract gives management the cushion of retaining him and furthering his recovery in the minors. If Carpenter breaks camp with the big league club, he’ll bring the biggest fastball Wrigley Field denizens have seen since Kyle Farnsworth in 2004. Whether he is as inconsistent as Farnsworth or becomes the next Goose Gossage remains to be seen.

Left-Handed Pitching
Bubble Player: Scott Maine – The 2011 season may be a crossroads for 27-year old Scott Maine. Acquired from the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2009 for pitcher Aaron Heilman, Maine had a similar draft history to Chris Carpenter. Maine was originally drafted in 2003 by the Seattle Mariners in the 15th round. He was also was drafted by the Colorado Rockies in the 23rd round in 2006 before signing with Arizona after being drafted in the sixth round by them in 2007. He spent three years in the Diamondbacks’ system before being dealt to the Cubs.

In 2010, Maine split his time between Tennessee and Iowa, going 4-2 with 10 saves and a combined 3.14 ERA. He also had 13 appearances with the parent club, and posted a 2.08 ERA with 11 strikeouts and five walks. Maine returned to Iowa to start the 2011 season, but was recalled in mid-May and had seven appearances, serving up four home runs and posting a 10.29 ERA for the Cubs.

Maine was back down in Iowa at the beginning of June and was placed in a set-up role to John Gaub. Maine contributed five saves to end up with a total of 12, while ending with a 3-4 record and a 3.68 ERA. The 6-foot-3 University of Miami product sports a low to mid-90 MPH fastball, along with a curve, slider, and change-up. Scouting reports state that he has a hard time repeating his delivery, which leads to inconsistency.

Bubble Busters: John Gaub – The Cubs acquired John Gaub in 2008, along with pitchers Chris Archer and Jeff Stevens from the Cleveland Indians for Mark DeRosa. Gaub was originally drafted by Minnesota in the 23rd round of the 2003 draft. He chose not to sign with the Twins and was 21st round selection of the Indians in 2006. He split his first year in the Cubs’ organization between Tennessee and Iowa, going 4-2 with a 2.25 ERA and five saves. He spent the 2010 season dealing with minor injuries and was 3-4 and a 6.52 ERA in 29 innings at Iowa.

As 2011 came around, several pitchers were contending for the closer role at Iowa, including Scott Maine, Marcos Mateo, Chris Carpenter, and Blake Parker. However, the decision was made to turn the reins over to Gaub shortly after Maine returned to Triple-A. From early June on, Gaub was 2-3 with six saves and a 2.93 ERA and finished at 4-4, 3.42 ERA and seven saves before a September call up to the majors. Gaub ended up pitching 2.2 innings for the Cubs, surrendering two earned runs while striking out three batters.

Prior to a shoulder injury in college, Gaub was able to throw in the high-90MPH range and occasionally touch 100 MHP. Now, he has a more modest lower-90 MPH fastball, along with a biting slider and a curve he uses like a change-up.

Outlook: What happens here will depend a lot on how the new management views James Russell and Jeff Beliveau. Russell is the odds-on favorite to take the left-handed set-up role vacated by the trade of Sean Marshall. The 2011 minor league Pitcher-of-the-Year Beliveau also figures prominently, but his role is less certain. Recent reports indicate that the organization sees Maine as more of a specialist, while Gaub would be a multi-inning pitcher. If Beliveau looks more like a specialist, Gaub would have the upper-hand; vice-versa for Maine. Both will have to look over their shoulders in Spring Training, as the organization also signed veteran Trever Miller.

Caribbean World Series
Congratulations to Dominican champions Leones de Escogido on winning the Caribbean World Series. Their victory marks the 20th series victory for the Dominican Republic, the fourth for Escogido, and second for manager Ken Oberkfell. The Lions won the title with a 4-2 record in round robin play on the hot hitting of Detroit outfield prospect Andy Dirks. They were followed by Puerto Rico and Venezuela at 3-3, with a 2-4 record for defending champion Mexico.

Australian Baseball League
The best-of-three championship between the Melbourne Aces and the Perth Heat began on Friday. In the first game, Perth had a complete game five-hitter tossed by right-hander Virgil Vasquez, as the topped Melbourne 4-1. Game two saw the Aces second baseman Brad Harman single in first baseman Josh Davies in the 13th inning to squeak past the Heat 3-2 to force a game three. In a pressure packed final, Perth centerfielder James McOwen raced home on a wild pitch in the 13th inning to give the Heat back-to-back championships with a 7-6 victory.

Attention CCO Readers
When the minor league season begins, I will track the progress of ten players throughout the entire season. Let me know which minor leaguers you would like to see tracked in a post. I would like a representative sample of positions and levels of play, and I’d prefer to track at least one player acquired by the Cubs in the off-season.

The CCO’s Top 20 Cubs Prospects for 2012

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Quote of the Day

"You can’t sit on a lead and kill the clock. You’ve got to give the other man his chance. That’s why baseball is the greatest game." - Earl Weaver