Cubs Down on the Farm Report – 04/02/12

Minor League Predictions

Another year has passed, and once again I will step away from my reporter’s role to the less comfortable one of predictor. As for last year’s predictions, well… all I can say is that I’ll probably never get rich in Las Vegas.

The season ahead appears to be an exciting one for fans of the minor leagues. With successes at some of the lower levels last season, contending teams at all levels can be expected this season.

So, pull up a chair, grab your cup of coffee, and let’s see how I do this year … in this week’s Down on the Farm Report.

First Call-up: Dave Sappelt, OF
While it’s usually a safe bet to predict that a pitcher will be among the first call-ups, because most of the pitchers in line for that honor will have Major League experience, it took a little thinking outside of the box.

With five outfielders on the wrong side of 30-years old, the odds that one of them pops or pulls something is greatly increased. That’s why I chose Dave Sappelt in this spot. First, because he is already on the 40-man roster, calling him up will not mean the organization has to create a space. He also has previous major league experience, and there isn’t as much concern about his qualifying for Super 2 status like Brett Jackson. The organization has already used one of Sappelt’s minor league options and the move would still keep their plans in line for Jackson. Lastly, since Sappelt is a better hitter and defender than a player like Tony Campana, he’s a better fit as an injury replacement.

Surprise Call-up: Rebel Ridling, 1B/OF
In a similar line of reasoning that brought me to Dave Sappelt, if the Cubs are in need of production, an early call could go to Rebel Ridling. This can be especially true if there is an injury to Alfonso Soriano or a lack of offense out of the first base position. General Manager Jed Hoyer learned his lesson last season by bringing up Anthony Rizzo before he was ready. He will not want that to happen to Rizzo again.

Enter Ridling as the proverbial ace-in-the-hole. While he hasn’t been above Double-A before this season, his track record of a .289 batting average, 63 home runs, and 307 RBI over four minor league seasons indicates he has a shot at being a productive player. He could help buy time for the organization while better prospects continue to gain in experience. The only downside is that he is not on the 40-man roster. However, if the parent club needs him badly enough during the season, they will probably find a way to add him.

Player on the Spot: Junior Lake, IF/OF
Some may not think a prospect like Junior Lake can be on the spot. However, at 22-years old, there are still a lot more questions than answers with Lake.

Consider that the right-hander started out hot at High-A Daytona last season, hitting .315 with six home runs. After he was promoted to Double-A Tennessee, he batted only .248 in 67 games. He then bounced back in the Arizona Fall League, going .296 with five homers and 18 stolen bases in 28 games. Which is the true indication of his offensive ability?

Then there is his defense, which has left a lot to be desired at all levels. Lake was still lining up at shortstop in Spring Training, a position he fielded only .937 with 33 errors there last year. Some have suggested a move to third base. But if he is having that much trouble, can moving him closer to home plate help? Others have suggested a move to the outfield; however, his only experience is a handful of AFL games this fall.

There is no question that Lake has talent. Where he ends up on the diamond and whether he can sustain his offensive production are problems that have to be solved.

Fastest Risers: Tony Zych, RHP and Rafael Lopez, C
Tony Zych has the one thing that most scouts look for in a relief pitcher, a fastball that tops out at 98 MPH. Usually, a young pitcher with that kind of speed has issues with control, but not so with Zych. His main concern is his secondary pitches, which include a not-ready-for-primetime slider and change-up. Once he is able to establish a complete repertoire, he could enjoy a quick rise through the system.

The book on catcher Rafael Lopez following the draft was that he was a really good defender, but had little projection with the bat. However, in 54 games at Short Season-A Boise, Lopez batted .316 with six home runs, 37 RBI, and a slugging percentage of .449. Whether the 24-year old Lopez had an advantage due to his age remains to be seen. If he continues to hit that way, it can force the organization to make some decisions about Juan Apodaca, Michael Brenly, Welington Castillo, and quite possibly Geovany Soto.

Bounce-Back Players: Michael Burgess, OF and Pierre LePage, 2B
Looks can be deceiving when it comes to Michael Burgess. His .225 batting average was more of a reflection of a poor first half, considering his post All-Star break average of .263. His 111 strikeouts led the Daytona Cubs, but his 60 walks were second on the team. If fact, he had 34 more walks than leadoff hitter Evan Crawford. The lefty was tied for fourth in the system with Rebel Ridling in home runs, slugging 20. Forty-five of his 96 hits went for extra bases; and his 68 RBI were good for seventh in the minors. On defense, his 11 outfield assists showed that he is not an arm to be challenged. This 23-year old has a ton of ability, and hopefully he can put it all together in Tennessee.

In 2010, Pierre LePage led the system in hitting with a .345 average. At Single-A Peoria last season, the righty was hitting .281 and named a Midwest League All-Star in early June. However, a nagging leg injury contributed to his batting average decreasing to .252, as he only played 18 more games before going on the disabled list for the rest of the season. The 23-year old had been with the Double-A Smokies for Spring Training, but has since returned to extended spring training for further rehab. When injury-free, the 5-foot-8, 168-pounder is an offensive spark-plug, with a .303 career average to go along with a .350 on-base percentage and a .414 slugging percentage.

Worth the Wait: Dillon Maples, RHP and Javier Baez, IF
Most observers were surprised that the Cubs landed 19-year old Dillon Maples, with a football scholarship at North Carolina in the offing. At 6-foot-3, 195 pounds, the 14th round pick sports a fastball that peaks at 96 MPH, an advanced curve, change-up, and slider. According to reports, Maples needs to work on his control, and his velocity tends to dip at times. The general opinion is that he will at least be a bullpen arm, if not a front end starter if he can improve his command and secondary pitches.

National scouts are already raving about the bat speed of Javier Baez. The 19-year old first round pick has been compared to Texas Rangers’ infielder Michael Young. He has a quick bat that should generate natural power and considered to have the agility and arm for short, but not the range. Offensive shortstops tend to stay there until they demonstrate that can no longer handle the position (see Junior Lake). With the system loaded at shortstop, including Arismendy Alcantara, Elliot Soto, Marco Hernandez, and Carlos Penalver; projections to either third base or catcher may be the way to go.

Deep in the Bushes: John Ortega, IF and Mark Malave, C
Signed late in the season last year, 17-year old John Ortega so impressed the staff of the Cubs-1 team in the Dominican Summer League, they immediately installed him as their leadoff hitter. This was over outfielder Kelvin Encarnacion, who was among the top five in stolen bases in the league. The switch hitter would only end up batting .227, but stole 16 bases in 21 attempts in only 27 games. Playing primarily second base, the speedster will be getting a look at shortstop this season. If he can improve his hitting, he has the skills to make a quick rise through the system.

The 17-year old Venezuelan Mark Malave appears to have advanced offensive traits, including being able to work the count and get on base. A switch-hitter, he demonstrates more ability from the right side. He has natural power, but it has yet to show up in games. Defensively, he has a plus arm and has shown some ability to also play third base. He has a lot to work on in that part of his game, but a lot of time to improve.

Minor League Pitcher of the Year: Dae-Eun Rhee, RHP
The Cubs’ top starting prospects, Trey McNutt and Robert Whitenack, are coming back from injuries and may not be ready at this point. Other well regarded pitchers, such as Ben Wells, Hayden Simpson, and Dillon Maples will have to come a long way in order to receive this type of accolade. Twenty-three year old Dae-Eun Rhee is now two years removed from arm surgery, and looked impressive in Major League camp. Strikeout pitchers usually catch people’s eyes. Rhee’s mid-90’s fastball and super change allowed him to ring up 117 batters last season. He is slated to start the season at Double-A Tennessee, so he should be able to pile up some numbers. Other candidates could be relievers Kevin Rhoderick, Frank Batista, and Tony Zych.

Minor League Player of the Year: Matt Szczur, OF
With his experience as a Division I-AA football player, Matt Szczur showed no jitters about being in his first big league camp this spring. His speed, athleticism, and arm strength will probably push excellent defensive centerfielders Brett Jackson and Jae-Hoon Ha over to the corners. Depending on how final assignments are made, Szczur may begin at High-A Daytona, where he ended last season. That can have him putting up some big numbers before the organization sorts out the position and allows him to advance. Some consideration can also be given to Jae-Hoon Ha, who has been able to adjust at every level, and will probably replace Brett Jackson when he finally gets the call to the big leagues. Anthony Rizzo could also be in the mix, but he appears to be destined for a big league call-up sometime this season. For those looking for a true dark horse candidate, keep an eye on infielder Ronald Torreyes.
This concludes the off-season portion of ChicagoCubsOnline’s Down on the Farm Report. Next Monday, bi-weekly coverage of all minor league games begins with the season openers for the Peoria Chiefs, Daytona Cubs, Tennessee Smokies, and Iowa Cubs.

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