Cubs Down on the Farm Report – 03/26/12

Minor League Preview – Double-A Tennessee Smokies and Triple-A Iowa Cubs

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

With players from the defending Florida State Champion Daytona Cubs and Southern League runner-up Tennessee Smokies, the top two squads in the Cubs’ system look to compete for championships this season.

Here’s how the Tennessee Smokies and Iowa Cubs look for 2012.

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.

Additionally, the preview on the Iowa Cubs will concentrate on minor league prospects only. It is anticipated that Iowa will carry several players with Major League experience once Spring Training breaks.

Double-A – Tennessee Smokies
Tennessee came up short in 2011 in their third straight attempt to win a Southern League championship. Last year, the Smokies had an overwhelming offense and a rock-solid bullpen buoying their chances. This year, it looks as if Tennessee will have to rely on their pitching staff early, as their offense takes shape. To that end, the organization promoted manager Buddy Bailey from High-A Daytona. Bailey has a reputation for building pitching staffs, and most of the 2012 Tennessee squad will have pitched for him last season. He has experience in the Southern League, having managed the Smokies in 2008.

Since pitching would be the primary focus in eastern Tennessee, let’s start with two of the organization’s biggest questions, Trey McNutt and Robert Whitenack.

The 22-year old Trey McNutt looked like he was destined for Wrigley after posting a 10-1 record and 2.48 ERA over three levels in 2010. However, a series of minor injuries set back the 6-foot-4, 220 pounder in 2011, as he went 5-6 with a 4.55 ERA in 95 innings for the Smokies. McNutt should be looking at beginning the season in Des Moines with the Iowa Cubs. However, the parent club’s new management stockpiled starters over the winter. This may mean a return to Tennessee for McNutt (and possibly, a few other Iowa starters) to start 2012.

The 23-year old Robert Whitenack appeared to be on the same track that McNutt was in 2010, amassing a 7-0 record and 1.93 ERA in Daytona and Tennessee to start last season. However, in late May, Whitenack crumpled to the ground while on the mound in Kodak, Tennessee and was found to need Tommy John surgery on his right elbow. Where he is in his recovery and how he will open the 2012 season is anyone’s guess. Oneri Fleita said during the convention that Whitenack was on schedule to begin the season on time.

The rotation for 2012 Tennessee Smokies looks to be a blend of returning players and bright new stars. Heading up the returning performers should be Ryan Searle and Brooks Raley.

The 22-year old Australian Ryan Searle started 2011 in the bullpen for Daytona, and pitched out of there after he was called up to Tennessee. However, when injuries depleted the Smokies, Searle was pressed into service and became one of their most reliable starters. For the year, Searle was 6-5 with a 3.05 ERA and 93 strikeouts in 113 innings. Brooks Raley, a 23-year old lefty is more of a boom-or-bust type, capable of devastating an opponent or falling flat. He was 8-10 and had a 4.22 ERA, but served up 16 gopher balls in his 25 starts for Tennessee. Also looking to return will be left-hander Eric Jokisch.

The 22-year old Eric Jokisch was outstanding for Peoria in 2011, going 9-3 with a 2.96 era, 103 strikeouts, and a 1.163 WHIP. However, after three starts with the Smokies, he ended the season on the disabled list. Joining them most likely will be 21-year old Jeffry Antigua and 23-year old Dae-Eun Rhee. Both spent 2011 at Daytona successfully coming back from arm injuries. The left-handed Antigua started out slowly in the bullpen for both Peoria and the D-Cubs, and was 3-4 with a 3.71 ERA, 1.227 WHIP, and 93 strikeouts in 97 innings overall. Right-hander Rhee spent the entire year at Daytona, and was 8-7 and a 4.02 ERA with a flashy near 3:1 strikeout to walk ratio (117 strikeouts and 43 walks).

The heart and soul of the Smokies last season was their bullpen. Time after time they slammed the door on opponents. While season may not start out as certain in this area, there is still a lot of talent. There should be a competition for the closer role, with the front runner being Frank Batista. The 22-year old right-hander had been a ho-hum starter prior to last season. He was moved to the bullpen and responded with an All-Star season for Daytona, finishing at 5-3 with a 2.36 ERA and 26 saves. However, he will have to battle for the position with Dan Berlind, Larry Suarez, Casey Weathers, and David Cales. Signed late last season to stabilize Peoria’s bullpen, the 24-year old Berlind posted four saves in 16 appearances for the Chiefs before being moved up to Iowa, and then settling at Tennessee. For the year, the 6-foot-7, 215-pounder was 2-3 with a 3.98 ERA and four saves.

Another big man, the 6-foot-4, 234 pound Larry Suarez saw action at three levels in 2011. The 22-year old had a perfect 0.00 ERA in 10 appearances for Peoria. He was later moved to Daytona and Tennessee, before ending the year on the disabled list. Overall, Suarez was 1-3 and a 3.48 ERA with 46 strikeouts in 41 innings. The Cubs acquired Casey Weathers from Colorado this off-season. The 26-year old has a 96 MPH plus fastball, but also has command issues. Tennessee actually opened last season with David Cales as their closer, but the 24-year old went down in late April and needed Tommy John Surgery. His status for the up-coming season is uncertain at this time.

Long relief appears to be solid, with Marcus Hatley returning to that role. The 23-year old also pitched at three levels last year, and was 5-1 with a 3.32 ERA, 11 saves, and a 2:1 strikeout to walk ratio (60 strikeouts and 30 walks) in three stops (Peoria, Daytona, and Tennessee). Also returning to the Smokies should be Oswaldo Martinez. The 23-year old was 5-0 with a 2.05 ERA and a 1.063 WHIP in 52.2 innings between Daytona and Tennessee. The lone left-hander appears to be Jeffrey Lorick. Acquired from Atlanta late in 2010, the 24-year old was 8-6 and a 5.38 ERA as he battled injuries while with the Daytona Cubs last year. Ty’Relle Harris, acquired in the same deal as Lorick, is also trying to come back as a hit-and-run driver put his career in serious jeopardy last season. For the year, Harris was 1-0 with a 2.17 ERA in 37.1 innings split between Tennessee and Iowa. Also on hand can be Eduardo Figueroa. The 23-year old Venezuelan saw time at both Peoria and Daytona last year, and was 3-3 with a 2.56 ERA in 77.1 innings between them.

While the Smokies offense pounded teams into submission last season, this year may be a work in progress. It all starts out with Jae-Hoon Ha. The Korean native has flown through the system, and at 21 years old is knocking at the door to Triple-A. The converted catcher has won raves from national scouts as the system’s best defensive outfielder. He started 2011 at Daytona, but was moved to Tennessee twice to replace Brett Jackson (once due to an injury to Jackson). Overall, Ha was .279 with 11 home runs, 72 RBI, and 13 stolen bases. Next to him in left should be a familiar player in Evan Crawford. The speedy 23-year old was fourth in the Florida State League with 32 stolen bases. Add to that a .307 average, 24 doubles, six triples, two homers and 50 RBI (from the lead-off position), and you have a heck of a player. The only thing the right-hander will need to go is cut down on his 98 strikeouts. In right, 23-year old Michael Burgess may benefit in a move up this season. While his numbers say he only hit .225 last year, he’ll be moving away from the pitching rich FSL, and he did hit .263 in the second half of 2011. He is a legitimate power prospect, smacking 20 home runs and driving in 68. He also has a cannon of a throwing arm, gunning down 11 runners. Backing them up should be lefties James Adduci and Nelson Perez. At 26 and 24 years old respectively, both can be considered past the prospect stage. However, both are experienced and can be valuable support to younger players. Adduci hit .299 between Tennessee and Iowa last year, while Perez went .272 with 12 homers and 49 RBI with Daytona and Tennessee.

Catching looks like it will be handled by some minor league veterans, starting with 25-year old Michael Brenly. Brenly is known as a good defensive catcher, but only hit .206 with a homer and 24 RBI. The Cubs acquired 25-year old Juan Apodaca in the off-season. Playing for the Double-A Akron Aeros in the Eastern League, Apodaca hit only .184 in 30 games, but is also considered good defensively with a career .989 fielding percentage and erasing 28% of all base runners. Both will be keeping the spot warm until Luis Flores returns from suspension. The 25-year old was on fire in 2011, hitting .275 with seven home runs and 20 RBI in 40 games for Tennessee before being suspended for 50 games for performance enhancing drugs. How he is able to do after all of that is anyone’s guess. Also on hand should be Blake Lalli. More like a player-coach, the 28-year old is a left-handed bat that can line up at third, first, and catcher who hit .287 with nine homers and 52 RBI in 2011.

The Smokies’ infield will revolve, literally, around 22-year old Junior Lake. Currently still listed at shortstop, where Lake lines up this season might make an interesting side show for fans in eastern Tennessee. Lake smoked FSL pitching, hitting .315 with six home runs, 34 RBI, and 19 stolen bases. However, Southern League pitching was a little tougher, as he went .248, again with six home runs and 19 stolen bases, with 17 RBI. His defense is also a little rough, committing 33 errors. The organization may start moving him around to third base or the outfield. Starting at first should be Justin Bour. His 23 home runs were good for second in the Florida State League. The 23-year old lefty also added a .277 average and 85 RBI. Making a big comeback in 2011 was second baseman Logan Watkins. The 22-year old had been a top ten prospect before his 2010 season tarnished his reputation. After a slow start, the left-hander hit .281 with five home runs 45 RBI and 21 stolen bases. He’ll also line up at short and centerfield. Third base should be manned by 21-year old Matt Cerda. Another lefty, Cerda battled some injuries in 2011 but still hit .283 in 109 games. The organization has been trying to move him to second, but has had to play him at third out of necessity. The reserves should be a pair of 26-year olds, right-hander Leugim Barosso and switcher hitter David Macias.

Triple-A – Iowa Cubs
The Iowa Cubs will be taking the field in 2012 with a new manager, Dave Bialas. He comes to Des Moines after spending the past 10 seasons as the Cubs’ Minor League Field Coordinator. Bialas has 13 seasons of minor league managing experience, along with intimate knowledge of the organization’s top prospects. Here’s hoping that he returns Iowa to being the last tune-up for prospects going to the majors, and not the haven for fringe players it has been in the recent past.

Bialas starts the season with the system’s number one prospect on his roster, for now. Brett Jackson was deemed ready for the majors by Chicago manager Dale Sveum after his performance in Spring Training, but he’ll have to wait until the big league squad sorts its roster out. Between Tennessee and Iowa, the left-hander hit .274 with 20 home runs, 58 RBI, and 21 stolen bases last season. While the 23-year old is normally a centerfielder, he may have to move to right field to accommodate the skills of his fellow outfielders. Tony Campana captured the attention of Cubs’ fans last season with his blazing speed, stealing 24 bases in 26 attempts. However, the 25-year old appears to be losing a roster battle and will probably end up in left field for the I-Cubs. The lefty will have to work on his .259 batting average and .303 on-base percentage in the big leagues. Also in the I-Cubs outfield should be Dave Sappelt. The 25-year old was acquired in the off-season from Cincinnati, and hit .313 for their Triple-A affiliate in Louisville and .243 in 38 games for the Reds. Backing all three positions should be Ty Wright. At 27-years old, he may no longer be considered prospect, but he is still a useful player. The right-hander hit .322 with seven home runs and 43 RBI in 88 games at Tennessee and Iowa.

There will also be two other top ten prospects at the infield corners in Anthony Rizzo and Josh Vitters. Acquired from San Diego, the 22-year old Rizzo may have been rushed to the parent club in 2011, hitting .141 in 49 games at first base. Back at Triple-A Tucson, the lefty hit .331 with 26 home runs and 101 RBI. Vitters, the Cubs first round draft choice in 2007, finally started coming into his own last season. The 22-year old became a clutch performer for Tennessee as they appeared in the Southern League championship, hitting .281 with 14 home runs and leading the team with 81 RBI. While he’ll line-up mainly at third base, he will also see time at first and in the corner outfield spots. Trying to muscle in some time at first will be Rebel Ridling. In his first healthy season after an appendectomy, the 25-year old was .309 with 20 homers and 80 RBI for Tennessee last year. The right-hander will probably be the primary DH, and will also see some time in the outfield. Picked up on waivers from Oakland, Adrian Cardenas looks like he will be lining up at second base for Iowa. The 24-year old is a little defensively challenged, playing mostly left field last season. However, the lefty can hit, putting up a .314 average with five home runs, 51 RBI, and 13 stolen bases. Versatility is the hallmark of possible starting shortstop Jonathan Mota. The 24-year old Venezuelan has played every infield position, left and right field, catcher, and even pitched in his seven year minor league career. Between Tennessee and Iowa, the righty batted .270 with seven homers and 38 RBI in 2011. Reserves look to be Nate Samson and Marquez Smith. The 24-year old Samson has experience at third, short, second, and outfield; he hit .236 with five home runs and 31 RBI. Injuries held the 27-year old Smith back in 2011, as he played only 78 games and hit .278 with seven homers and 36 RBI.

The catcher for Iowa probably won’t be determined until training camp breaks. As for now, Welington Castillo and Steve Clevenger are in a pitched battle for the back-up position for the parent club. Whoever doesn’t go north will be the starter in Des Moines. The back-up should be Jason Jaramillo. The 29-year old switch-hitter was signed in the off-season to provide depth. Unfortunately, he suffered an injury early in camp, and is in no way ready to start the season in the majors. He spent 2011 at both Triple-A Indianapolis and their parent club, the Pittsburgh Pirates. He hit .276 in 46 games for Indy and .326 in 43 games for the Pirates.

It looks as if Iowa’s rotation will be anchored by two players with Major League experience. Casey Coleman has had 31 major league appearances with a 7-11 record, 5.48 ERA, and 102 strikeouts to 71 walks over the past two seasons. At 24-years old, the right-hander still has potential, but he wasn’t able to take advantage of an opportunity last season. He’ll head back down and try to show he belongs in Wrigley. Joining him will most likely be 25-year old Travis Wood. The lefty was acquired from Cincinnati, and was 11-10 and a 4.84 ERA with a nearly 3:1 strikeout to walk ratio (162 strikeouts and 66 walks) the past two years. He had control issues in Spring Training, and a trip down to work on his mechanics seems in order. If 24-year old Jay Jackson doesn’t make the big league squad, he will probably be right back in Iowa’s rotation. The right-hander struggled through injuries last season, and was 8-14 with a 5.34 ERA in 26 starts for the I-Cubs. Lefty Chris Rusin put up some decent numbers between Tennessee and Iowa in 2011. The 25-year old was 8-4 with a 3.96 ERA, 1.298 WHIP, and 95 strikeouts to 30 walks combined. Twenty-two year old Nick Struck was one of the fastest risers in the entire Cubs’ system last season. He rose from Daytona, to Tennessee, to Iowa in slightly less than three months and was a combined 9-7 with 111 strikeouts, 44 walks, and a 3.91 ERA. The real wild card, quite literally, will be righty Alberto Cabrera. The 23-year old continues to impress scouts with his “stuff”, but he has yet to turn it into quality production. For the year, Cabrera was 9-8 with a 6.16 ERA, 1.835 WHIP, 101 strikeouts and 74 walks between Tennessee and Iowa.

The closer role may take some time to sort out, but the front runner should be right-hander Kevin Rhoderick. The 23-year old has plenty of experience at the position, having been a closer since his freshman year in college. As part of an air-tight bullpen for Tennessee last season, Rhoderick was 7-0 with a 3.47 WHIP, 1.316 WHIP, and 58 strikeouts in 57 innings as a set-up man. Challenging him from the right side could be Brian Schlitter. While his 2011 season was lost to injury, the 26-year old led the 2010 I-Cubs with 13 saves and had a 3.15 ERA. Reportedly, he has looked good in minor league camp. Taking over the closer role down the stretch in 2011, left-handed pitcher John Gaub had seven saves and a 3.42 ERA to go along with 75 strikeouts in 55.1 innings. Minor league Pitcher-of-the-Year Jeff Beliveau struggled in his first major league camp. The 25-year old lefty had a 1.57 ERA and 89 strikeouts in 74.1 innings with Daytona and Tennessee, and had a 6-2 record with five saves. Right-handers Blake Parker and Marco Carrillo figure to also see plenty of action. The 26-year old Parker is an unspectacular, but consistent performer. He was 3-3 with a 2.81 ERA, four saves, and 1.288 WHIP with Iowa last season. The rubber-armed Carrillo started nine games and closed 11 in 2011, going 7-5 and a 3.44 ERA with 3 saves, 87 strikeouts, and 1.276 WHIP in 107.1 innings. The final spots will be contested by veteran righties Manny Corpas, Hung-Wen Chen and Esmailin Caridad, and left-hander Ryan Rowland-Smith.

Cubs Down on the Farm Report – Ronald Torreyes Wins Fans Poll

Ronald Torreyes was the leading vote getter in the reader’s poll of the 10 players the CCO will track throughout the upcoming minor league season. Click here for the complete list that was published Saturday.

CCO Minor League Previews

Minor League Preview – Rookie and Short-Season A-Ball
Minor League Preview – Low-A Peoria Chiefs and High-A Daytona Cubs

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