Cubs Down on the Farm Report – 03/12/12

Minor League Preview – Rookie and Short-Season A-Ball

Good Morning to everyone at the CCO! Today is the first of a three-part installment previewing the 2012 minor league season.

With a Dominican Summer League team making the playoffs in 2011, a 2011 rookie team narrowly missing the playoffs, and the most celebrated draft class for the Cubs in recent memory; the 2012 rookie and Short Season-A teams figure to garner more attention than ever. Here’s how both teams look for the up-coming season.

Please Note: previews are based on current roster assignments and anticipated Spring Training success. All assignments, both as to position and level, are subject to change pending the completion of Spring Training.

Rookie – AZL Cubs
Heading up the roster for the AZL Cubs is infielder and 2011 first round pick Javier Baez. While some anticipate Baez playing at a higher level due to his advanced offensive skills, the fact that he hasn’t a well defined defensive position and that he is only 19 years old may make this his first stop. Baez should get his first professional challenge from soon to be 18-year old Venezuelan Carlos Penalver. The slick fielding Penalver hit .272 in the DSL last summer and will vie with Baez for the shortstop position. Also looking for playing time at shortstop will be tenth round pick Danny Lockhart. Lockhart, too, has a reputation as a good defender and should be the primary second baseman, with Penalver also seeing action there as well as good hit/no D Brian Inoa. Third base looks like a mixed bag at this point, with Baez, Lockhart, and maybe even Rock Shoulders and Trevor Gretzky seeing action there. Shoulders should be the primary first baseman, but Gretzky will also see plenty of playing time there, in the outfield and at DH.

The catching position should be filled by sixth round pick Neftali Rosario. The 18-year old batted .294 with three home runs and 17 RBI in 25 games for last year’s club. However, a less than favorable showing in the Fall Instructional League should have him returning to Arizona to refine his game. He’ll be backed by international free agent Alberto Mineo of the Italian League. However, don’t be too surprised if Javier Baez or Rock Shoulders “don the tools” more than a few times this summer.

Fans in Arizona will be treated to possibly the fastest and most athletic outfield they have ever seen. It all starts with 11th round draft pick Shawon Dunston Jr. The speedy Dunston has an arm best suited for left field, which may push natural left fielder Garrett Schlecht over to right field. The 18 year old left-hander has power potential. Centering for the pair will come down to a battle between 13th round pick Darien “Trey” Martin and 18-year old Jeffrey Baez. Martin has the range built for centerfield, but his offense needs to improve from the .243 average he had in 18 rookie league games. Baez stole 32 bases in 42 attempts to rank fourth in the Dominican Summer League, and hit .282 in 68 games. Another player who can see time in Arizona this summer is Delbis Arcila. The 18-year old Venezuelan hit .258 with five homers and 44 RBI as the primary first baseman for the Cubs-2 team in the DSL, but has also seen action in all three of the outfield spots. Also on hand will be 21-year old Korean strong man Dong-Yub Kim and Cuban defector Yasiel Balaguert. A dark horse to make the squad will be 20-year old switch-hitting Dominican speedster Kelvin Encarnacion.

The other headliner in Arizona may be 14th rounder Dillon Maples. The 20-year old (May 9) righty slipped in the draft due to signing concerns, but already has a mid-90’s fastball and big-league curve. South African Tayler Scott should also be a starter, gaining the experience to go with his raw skills. From the Dominican Republic, right-handers Amaury Paulino, Jose Arias, and Alexander Santana should round out the rotation. Paulino had three appearances in a “cup of coffee” with the AZL Cubs last year. Arias and Santana had a 2.28 and 2.67 ERA respectively in the DSL in 2011.

The rookie league relies on a regular rotation, limited pitch counts, and plenty of relievers. Leading the way are right-handed holdovers Felix Pena, Ramon Garcia, and Alvido Jimenez, joined by draftees Ryan Hartman, Scott Weismann, and Austin Urban. Also available will be righties David Henrie, Ethan Elias, Arturo Maltos-Garcia, and Eric Rice; while left-handers Luis Villalba, Carlos Martinez, and Luis Montano-Perez will also be on hand.

Short-Season Class-A – Boise Hawks
After returning to the playoffs for the first time in five years last season, fans in Boise can look forward to another strong team. The Hawks look to have an explosive offense and deep pitching staff.

The infield should be the center of attention, with a dynamic double-play combination of Marco Hernandez and Gioskar Amaya. Hernandez has made his way onto some off-season prospect lists after hitting .333 while leading the AZL Cubs with 42 RBI and playing a good defensive shortstop. Amaya was the leading hitter in Arizona at .377 and will slide across the diamond from third to second. That’s because Dominican hitting sensation Jeimer Candelario will most likely manning third. He was the DSL’s fifth best hitter with a .337 average, and his 53 RBI were good for second place. Rounding out the infield should be last year’s number two draft pick Dan Vogelbach. His plus power potential may put the Northwest League record for home runs, set last year by the Hawks’ Paul Hoilman, in jeopardy. Providing the back-ups could be Wilson Contreras, Ryan Durrence, and Gregori Gonzalez. Contreras, last year’s starting third baseman for Boise, had a .261 average, two homers, and 27 RBI in 2011. He’s also seen time at first and in the outfield, and is now getting a look at catcher. Undrafted free agent find Durrence was the starting first baseman for the AZL Cubs, and hit .247 with three home runs and 27 RBI in 47 games. Gonzalez was a jack-of-all-trades in Arizona, lining up at third, short, second, and all three outfield positions. In 37 games, he hit .330 with two round trippers and 23 RBI.

Another undrafted free agent, 21-year old Taylor Davis, may have the starting nod at catcher. In 11 games at rookie ball last year, Davis was a .308 hitter with 10 RBI. He was also tested behind the plate and caught 36% of base stealers. Competing for playing time will be Canadian high-schooler and 15th round selection Justin Marra. Marra made his debut in the Fall Instructional League and was “unofficially” .261 in 11 games.

What the outfielders might lack in punch, they’ll make up more in speed and hitting ability. The prime candidate to be the Hawks’ lead-off hitter would be centerfielder Oliver Zapata. With his Kirby Puckett-like physique, the 19-year old switch-hitter batted .324 with 12 stolen bases in 31 rookie league games. However, after a late season call-up, he hit .224 in 24 games for Boise in 2011. In left field, 20-year old Eduardo Gonzalez posted a .336 average for the AZL Cubs, but could stand some work on his defense. Right field should be patrolled by Cuban national Elieser Bonne. While the 25-year old can no longer be considered a prospect, his impact as a mentor to Caribbean players, which may make up to half the roster, will be felt. Hitting .313 in the DSL last season is another plus. Reserves may include the often-injured Blair Springfield and Xavier Batista. A seventh round draft choice in 2009, Springfield has yet to show he can complete a full season, hitting .206 in 32 games for Boise and .333 in 11 rookie league games in 2011. Batista could bring some much needed thunder after cracking 10 home runs to go along with a .259 average and 38 RBI after a full season in the DSL.

At the Short Season-A level, limited pitch counts foster a system in which starters perform in tandem. One will pitch three to four innings to start the game, while a second “piggybacks” on the starter. Because of this, twice the number of usual starters are carried. Looking to head up the two-deep rotation will be returning starters Ben Wells and Austin Reed. A seventh round pick in the 2010 draft, the 19-year old Wells was 4-4 with a 4.66 ERA in 15 starts at Boise in 2011. The 20-year old Reed was 2-7 and a 6.08 ERA in 13 starts. Both are young and have potential, but can use more experience. Joining them could be Koreans Su-Min Jung and Jin-Young Kim. Jung was a combined 7-7 and a 4.96 ERA between Peoria and Boise, and he struggled to find his niche. Kim actually started with the Hawks in 2011, but had to be sent down to the rookie league after going 2-2 with a 7.66 ERA.

The piggyback starters begin with a pair of lefties, Hunter Ackerman and Brian Smith. The 21-year old Ackerman was the Cubs’ fourth round pick in 2010, and was 0-3 with a 3.86 ERA and 49 strikeouts in 44 innings with the AZL Cubs. Smith led all rookie starters with a 3.30 ERA and was 3-4 with 31 strikeouts in 46.1 innings. Righty James Pugliese spent time both in the rotation and the bullpen. He was 2-2 with a 4.62 ERA in 15 appearances (nine starts). Other that can be in consideration as piggybacks or relievers include Joe Zeller and 2011 draftee Ian Dickson.

The relief corps could include two hard throwing 2011 draftees, Tony Zych and Michael Jensen. Zych will be under the microscope in Spring Training to determine which level he starts at. He could go to extended spring training with an assignment to Boise; or start the year at Single-A Peoria with an option to send him to Boise if he struggles. The 21-year old Jensen actually had a short stay with the Hawks last season, striking out two in 1.2 innings. Both will contend for the closer position along with 20-year old Colin Richardson. Richardson tossed 30.1 innings for Boise in 2011, and was 1-0 and a 5.84 with 25 strikeouts and a save. Left-hander and 21st round pick Andrew McKirahan also had a brief stop in the Northwest League last year, with a 2.25 ERA and 6 strikeouts in 4 innings. Dominican Yilver Sanchez (1-3, 2.39 ERA, two saves, 26.1 innings in the rookie league) and Venezuelan Hector Mayora (1-3, 5.29 ERA, 17 innings at Boise) will also be in the mix.

Attention CCO Readers
Please continue to post the names of the minor league players you would like the Down on the Farm Report to follow during the upcoming season. I will track the progress of ten players throughout the entire season. 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. You can name as many players as you like, but remember, only ten will be chosen. Voting will be closed following the next two reports.

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