Cubs Down on the Farm Report – 03/19/12

Minor League Preview – Low-A Peoria Chiefs and High-A Daytona Cubs

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

Like in last week’s report about the Boise Hawks, another team that will benefit from great seasons by the DSL Cubs, AZL Cubs, and Boise will be the Peoria Chiefs, as some of their talent will filter up to them. The defending Florida State League Champion Daytona Cubs continue to look strong with plenty of returning players augmented by some top-ten prospects.

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.

Low Class-A – Peoria Chiefs
Last season was a frustrating one for the Chiefs and manager Casey Kopitzke. Although Peoria placed seven players on the Midwest League All-Star team, injuries and promotions contributed to a seven-game losing streak at the break. The loses continued to pile up in the second half, as a 2010 draft class that wasn’t ready to help contributed to their last place finish. This year should be different, as the holes in the everyday lineup have appeared to be closed, and a non-existent bullpen should be beefed up.

The lineup will revolve around a pair of talented first basemen, Paul Hoilman and Ryan Cuneo. Hoilman set a Northwest League record for home runs with 17 last season, while hitting .252 with 44 RBI. He’ll have to work on getting more contact, as other first base prospects are coming up fast behind him. More of a line-drive hitter than a power prospect, Cuneo batted .263 with two homers and 28 RBI in 52 games for the Chiefs in 2011; he was sent back to Boise and hit .347 with six home runs and 29 RBI as they pushed to the playoffs. Cuneo is also considered by some as the best defensive first baseman in the system.

Joining them in the infield is a very good double-play combination of Wes Darvill and Brad Zapenas. While Darvill’s numbers don’t seem that impressive (.256, 12 RBI, seven stolen bases), the 20-year old brings loads of intangibles. Management actually sat down number one draft pick Javier Baez for Darvill during Boise’s playoff run, as his hustle and infectious style of play helped carry the team. Twenty-two year old Zapenas is your classic “good D” infielder that is looking to improve his offensive punch from .238 with a homer and 18 RBI for Boise. However, he was 9-for-9 in stolen bases. Backing them up would be 44th round draft pick Kenny Socorro. The 22-year old signed quickly after the draft, but struggled to get playing time in Boise. A late season call-up to Peoria saw him bat .289 in 10 games. Manning third base will be 20-year old Dustin Geiger. The 24th round draft pick is a prototypical power hitting third baseman who raked for the AZL Cubs, hitting .324 with two home runs and 20 RBI in 19 games. However, he struggled with the Chiefs, going .227 with a homer and 13 RBI in 43 games. Also on-call will be Dustin Harrington. The 34th round pick in the 2010 draft has yet to find his way offensively and defensively, and may settle into the role of being a system player.

Catching should be a three-headed monster for Peoria early on, as Rafael Lopez looks to start the season here while the organization sorts the position out. Considered a good defensive catcher when he was drafted in the 16th round in 2011, Lopez surprised people by hitting .317 with six home runs and 37 RBI for Boise. The 24-year old will be fast-tracked as soon as the organization feels comfortable with his replacements. First in line will be Anthony Giansanti. Voted the best throwing arm in the Midwest League, Giansanti brings his cannon from the outfield to the backstop. He hit a disappointing .232 last season, but cracked 11 home runs and drove in 56. Also in the mix will be Yaniel Cabezas. A top-flight defensive catcher, Cabezas had a hard time adjusting to life in the U.S. after defecting from Cuba. He hit a combined .202 with one home run and 18 RBI between the rookie league and Boise.

Starting in the outfield for your Peoria Hawks, um…Boise Chiefs, uh…well, the same guys that started at Short Season-A last year. Batting leadoff and moving back to left field should be the dynamic Zeke DeVoss. In 38 games for Boise, the switch-hitting 21-year old stole 14 bases while hitting .311 with a .458 on-base percentage. He will also probably also see some time at second base. No longer a second baseman, Pin-Chieh Chen will probably patrol center, as he has taken to the position like the proverbial “duck to water“. Although he yielded the leadoff position to DeVoss, Chen still batted .301 with two homers, 30 RBI, and 20 stolen bases for the Hawks. Flanking Chen looks to be Reggie Golden. The 2010 second round pick didn’t look ready to start last season, but by season’s end he was flashing his huge potential. While the 20-year old only hit .242, his seven home runs tied him for ninth and 39 RBI tied him for eighth in the Northwest League. Reserves appear to be scarce at this time, until the last cuts of Spring Training will make the final determination. Cuneo and Giansanti, as well as Darvill and Zapenas, could see some action there. Cuban Mayke Reyes may perform the same duties as Smaily Borges did last season, a player-coach to act as a mentor for some of the Caribbean players.

Peoria will also start their season with a piggyback system for their rotation. Experienced starters Hayden Simpson, Graham Hicks, Luis Liria, and Starling Peralta look to be the front end of that system. Despite persistent rumors all winter, there is no indication at this time that Simpson won’t be ready for his second professional season. The 2010 first round draft pick had a rough go of it last season, as he struggled to recover from an off-season illness. Hicks, a string bean-like lefty, also has a lot to prove after losing most of last season to injury. The 22-year old Liria split time between Boise and Peoria last season, and posted a 5-4 record with a 3.44 ERA, a 1.047 WHIP, and a 2:1 strikeout to walk ratio (58 strikeouts to 27 walks). Fellow Dominican Peralta didn’t have the same level of success as Liria, going a combined 5-6 with a 5.27 ERA in both the rookie league and with the Chiefs.

Yao-Lin Wang was among the pitching leaders in the Northwest League last season, and should start in one of the piggyback roles. Joining him should also be fellow Boise rotation mates Willengton Cruz and Jose Rosario. The left-handed Cruz had only a 1-2 record in 13 starts, but had a 3.71 ERA and 50 strikeouts in 53.1 innings for the Hawks. Rosario’s 3.53 ERA was good for ninth in the league, while his six wins (6-3 overall) were good for fourth. The 21-year old also struck out 50 while walking only 18 in 63.2 innings. The newly signed Cuban left-hander Gerardo Concepcion figures to be the last piggyback starter. The 20-year old has a low-90’s fastball, along with a curve and a change-up.

The bullpen for the Chiefs last season resembled a nightmare, as injuries and promotions demanded constant reshuffling. This season, it looks to be a little deeper, starting with Bryce Shafer. The 23-year old was second in the Northwest league with 12 saves, and he had 35 strikeouts in 25.2 innings along with a 2.45 ERA. Converted outfielder Kyler Burke made a smooth transition to left-handed reliever in Boise, going 2-1 with a 2.86 ERA and 47 strikeouts in 44 innings. Burke could also get some consideration as a piggyback starter if Concepcion is not ready. Charles Thomas and Matt Spencer are also converted position players. Thomas showed a little less command than Burke in 2011, as he had a 4.36 ERA with 22 strikeouts and 21 walks in 20.2 innings in Boise. The 26 year-old lefty Spencer hasn’t had any previous pitching experience other than mop-up work in 2011, but has been working with the advanced prospects in minor league camp.

Another left handed arm could be 33rd round draft pick Sheldon McDonald. The 23-year old tossed 19 innings for the AZL Cubs and Boise Hawks last year, and had a 3.79 ERA with nearly a 3:1 strikeout to walk ratio (16 strikeouts, 6 walks). Getting some reps at the closer position in 2011 for Peoria was 21-year old Roderik Pichardo. The right-hander rose up from the Dominican Summer League and posted a 1.96 ERA with six saves and 53 strikeouts over 46 innings through three levels last summer. Also in the mix is Tarlandus Mitchell, the Cubs 22nd round pick in the 2008 draft. The 5-foot-8 righty sports a 96 MPH plus fastball, but has dealt with injuries and control issues since being drafted.

High Class-A – Daytona Cubs
Last year’s Florida State League Champions are looking to repeat, and they’ve brought in a new man to do it. Brian Harper was able to guide the Tennessee Smokies to the Southern League championship series by juggling a roster full of talent at Double-A. Now, he seems to have the same situation with the D-Cubs as they move into the 2012 season.

Harper will have to start with an infield that has more bodies than positions. Anchoring the bunch should be first baseman Richard Jones. The 24-year old lefty was a contender for the Midwest League Triple Crown last season, as he hit .309 with 24 home runs and a league leading 98 RBI. A name that has caught the public’s attention has been second baseman Ronald Torreyes. The 19-year old Venezuelan was acquired in the Sean Marshall deal and he batted .356 with three homers, 41 RBI, and 12 stolen bases in Single-A last season. He may have a fight on his hands, as 23-year old Pierre LePage will stake his claim on the position. The left-hander led the entire minor league organization for the Cubs in 2010 with a .345 average, but after making the Midwest League All-Star team in 2011, he suffered through injuries to finish out the season. Lining up on the other side of the bag should defensive ace Elliot Soto. The 22-year old opened some eyes as he hit a combined .271 between Peoria and Daytona last season. Third base appears to be a mixed bag, with 25-year old Greg Rohan leading the way. The late emerging prospect put it all together offensively, as he put up a .323 average with 11 home runs and 71 RBI at both Peoria and Daytona last year. He could also see playing time at first base and the outfield. Another option is Arismendy Alcantara. The 20-year old switch-hitter is a very good athlete and hit .271 with two homers, 37 RBI, and eight stolen bases while seeing time at second, third, and shortstop. LePage, Soto, and Torreyes have also seen time at third during their careers.

Even though they may be just keeping a spot warm for Rafael Lopez, Daytona will have two good young catchers in Micah Gibbs and Sergio Burruel. The 23-year old switch-hitting Gibbs was the Cubs third round selection in 2010. He had his first full season in 2011 and wound up hitting .245 with two home runs and 28 RBI. He is considered to be a tireless worker who had an outstanding fielding percentage of .991 and caught 25% of base stealers. Burruel is considered to be the best defensive catcher in the system. Managers like to have him catch their top pitching prospects, and he has nailed 33% of all base runners. The 20-year old lefty hit only .203 with 10 RBI in 2011.

The D-Cubs’ outfield promises to be speedy and athletic, and it all starts with top five prospect Matt Szczur. The former wideout proved that he was more than a football player trying to play baseball by hitting a combined .293 with 10 home runs, 46 RBI, and 24 stolen bases. The most telling statistic is that the 22-year old struck out only 48 times in 447 at bats. Lining up in left field should be another former college receiver Taiwan Easterling. The 27th round draft pick signed quickly with the Cubs, and was able to hit .307 with two home runs, 17 RBI, and six steals in 28 games over three levels. Bringing a big arm to right field could be 22-year old Rubi Silva. The left-handed former Cuban national hit .300 at Peoria, and was .285 with five homers and 44 RBI between there and Daytona. Silva may also see extensive time at second base. Looking to rotate in at all spots will be Ben Klafczynski, Abner Abreu, and John Andreoli. The 23-year old Klafczynski’s history is as a great college hitter, along with some crazy athletic skills. However, the lefty hit only .243 with a homer and 13 RBI in 43 games at Peoria. Drafted in the 17th round, the 21-year old Andreoli projects well defensively, but will have to hit better than the .176 in the ten games he played between the AZL Cubs and Peoria. Abreu was acquired from the Indians, and hit .244 with 13 home runs between both organizations, but his 126 strikeouts are a cause for concern.

Daytona won its championship last year with a very deep pitching staff, and that appears to be the same this season. The rotation should feature three 22-year old right handed starters in Matt Loosen, Dallas Beeler, and Zach Cates. Loosen has a four-pitch repertoire and the size to be a front line starter. He did have some minor injury issues last season, but was 4-6 with a 3.55 ERA, 1.195 WHIP, and 74 strikeouts in 78.2 innings over three levels of competition. The 6-foot-5 Beeler is considered to have the best control in the system. He was a hard luck 2-6 with Peoria and Tennessee last season; however, he had a 3.22 ERA and 1.221 WHIP while he also dealt with minor injuries. Acquired from San Diego, Cates is a fire-baller with a 97 MPH fastball. He was 4-10 with 4.73 ERA and 111 strikeouts for Single A-Fort Wayne last summer.

Joining them from the left side should be Austin Kirk and Frank Del Valle. Pitching his first full season in 2011, the 21-year old Kirk tossed a no-hitter for Peoria, but seemed to wear down toward the end of the season. He ended up 5-12 with a 4.29 ERA with a 1.199 WHIP and a nearly 4:1 strikeout to walk ratio (122 strikeouts, 38 walks). Former Cuban national Del Valle pitched at three levels last year, and was 3-4 and a 3.95 ERA and 1.211 WHIP.

What that possible rotation does to last year’s starters Casey Harman, Zach Rosscup, and Brett Wallach remains to be seen. A burly left-hander, the 22-year old Harman saw action as both a starter and a reliever last season, and was 4-5 with a 4.47 ERA in 58.1 innings. The 23-year old Rosscup was acquired from Tampa last season and dealt with injuries. The lefty was a promising 4-2 with a 2.54 ERA and 50 strikeouts in 49.2 innings for the D-Cubs. Also 23-years old, right-hander Wallach had a horrific season in which he was actually demoted to Peoria. Overall, Wallach was 4-9 with a 5.91 ERA and a 1.636 WHIP.

Last season, Daytona started the season with an open competition for the closer position. While Frank Batista grabbed the prize, it also benefitted from Jeff Beliveau and Kevin Rhoderick. This year should be more of the same, with the early nod going possibly to Pete Levitt. The 22-year old was the Cubs’ 50th round draft pick, and is an imposing 6-foot-5, 235 pounds. After a brief stay in the rookie league, Levitt was 1-1 with a 4.55 ERA, 1.229 WHIP, and a 4:1 strikeout to walk ratio (21 strikeouts, five walks) in 27.2 innings at Peoria. Challenging him will 40th round pick PJ Francescon. The righty also got his first taste of professional action at Peoria in 2011. In 34.2 innings, Francescon was 1-4 with a 3.89 ERA and 40 strikeouts. Another candidate could be 20-year old Ryan Hartman. The 16th round pick in the 2010 draft was 3-0 with a 4.39 ERA in 26.2 innings in the rookie league, and it appears that he is being fast-tracked. They’ll be joined by left-hander Brent Ebinger, as well as righties AJ Morris and Jon Nagel. Ebinger really struggled last year, going 6-6 with a 5.70 ERA at Peoria, Daytona, and Tennessee. Morris and Nagel are coming back from injuries.

Attention CCO Readers
This week will be the final time 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.

Follow ChicagoCubsOnline on Twitter: @TheCCO

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