Time has passed quickly, as we are now halfway through the minor league season. The system has endured a rash of injuries, as 16 players who were at Single-A or higher last season were either inactive or on the disabled list to start the year. Among the positions most depleted were catcher and third base. The injury bug plagued mostly the offense, as players such as Matt Cerda, Evan Crawford, Dustin Geiger, Anthony Giansanti, Micah Gibbs, Reggie Golden, and most notably, Junior Lake, have missed time. Their loss, and others, has caused the organization to scramble to fill spots and in some cases place individuals in situations that may have been a little over their heads. The results have been inconsistent offense across the board, while pitching has suffered from lack of run support.
While injuries have played a part, there appears to be some double-standard the new management has had with promoting players. When speaking of their prospects when they came on board, management stated that they were not rushing players through promotion. However, last year’s first round pick, Javier Baez, was jumped two levels. International signee Gerardo Concepcion was placed at Single-A and struggled, while other players off to good starts have had to wait. To this date, only outfielder Tony Campana, infielder Adrian Cardenas, and pitchers Travis Wood and Casey Coleman have been significant call-ups from Triple-A. Further, only pitchers Brooks Raley, Eric Jokisch, PJ Francescon, Jeffrey Lorick, catcher Taylor Davis and Baez were promoted within the system. With the opening of seasons in the Dominican Summer League, the Boise Hawks, and the Arizona Rookie League, along with the draft, it is felt that the organization should have been more aggressive with player movement.
Here’s how the affiliates in the Chicago Cubs’ organization performed over the first half of the minor league season.
Triple-A – Iowa Cubs
Overview: Like a breath of fresh air, the organization’s new management team has replaced the fringe major leaguers and minor league vets that used to populate the Triple-A roster with some actual prospects. However, there is still some of the “reserve squad” mentality that has contributed to the inconsistent performance on the field. While experienced position players have generally played well, their pitching counterparts are mostly responsible for their losing record. On the whole, the prospects have done well, with several being called up to the majors on what can be considered a permanent basis.
Position Players: It seems as if the entire fan base of the Cubs had been waiting for the Chicago debut of first baseman Anthony Rizzo. To use the words of Vice President-Player Personnel Oneri Fleita, Rizzo has put up “video game-type numbers” by batting .355 with 23 home runs and 62 RBI. Recently promoted Luis Valbuena was following close behind, as he was .303 including eight home runs and 31 runs driven in, while demonstrating he can defensively handle the shortstop position. Adrian Cardenas has ridden a .320 average to his first trip to the majors; however, he has been recently brought back to Iowa with Rizzo’s promotion. Some pleasant surprises have been the development of third baseman Josh Vitters and minor league veteran outfielder Ty Wright. Vitters has adjusted well, as his 11 home runs and 37 RBI are second to Rizzo, with his batting average at .287 while playing the best defense of his career. Wright has always been on the periphery, but the 27-year old his having one of his best seasons as his 29 RBI are now tied for third on the team, as he is hitting .284 with five homers. Disappointing have been outfielders Brett Jackson and Dave Sappelt. Both are enduring the worst season of their professional careers, as Jackson now has 101 strikeouts to go along with a .257 batting average; while Sapplet, a career .309 hitter in the minors, is sporting a .232 average for the year.
Pitching: Veteran pitching has been the Achilles Heel for the I-Cubs, as players with Major League experience account with 27 of the team’s losses against only 18 wins. When you toss in wayward prospect Jay Jackson’s 2-5 record, the situation gets even worse. Among the biggest culprits … the since released Nate Robertson, Mike MacDougal, Esmailin Caridad, Ryan-Rowland Smith, Manny Corpas, and Rodrigo Lopez. Iowa’s pitching has had its moments, as Travis Wood, Casey Coleman, and Blake Parker were all promoted to the big leagues. Also showing some promise have been left-handers Chris Rusin and Brooks Raley, who are 6-5 and 4-2 respectively, with ERA’s of 4.50 and 4.14. An excellent pickup prior to the season was Frankie De La Cruz, who has gone 1-2 with a 2.68 ERA.
Outlook: With the parent club in dire straits, it should be time for Iowa to shed some of their veteran players and bring people up for experience.
Double-A – Tennessee Smokies
Overview: Considered last season to be the jewel in the Cubs’ minor league crown, the Smokies have struggled as most of the 2011 squad are with other franchises. Tennessee has also been one of the teams that have been harder hit by injuries. The Smokies have labored offensively all season with a lack of a leadoff hitter. They have truly missed OF Evan Crawford, who was projected to occupy that spot. Tennessee has also received an inconsistent effort form their starting staff. It has been a testament to the managing skills of Buddy Bailey to keep the team at the .500 mark for most of the season.
Position players: Without the talents of Crawford, Junior Lake, and Luis Flores early in the season, Tennessee had to rely heavily on Logan Watkins and Jae-Hoon Ha to carry the offense, and the strain showed. A career .281 hitter, Ha saw his batting average drop nearly 30 points as he leads the entire organization in plate appearance. Similarly, Watkins is a about 20 points below his minor league average of .283, but has recently shown life. While stumbling out of the gate, Justin Bour has made a nice recovery and leads the Southern League with 55 RBI. Michael Burgess has also adjusted to the promotion, as he now leads the team with eight home runs to go along with a .267 average. After coming back from injury, Lake has hit a quiet .307, as he has only four home runs and 12 RBI. Minor league veteran outfielder James Adduci is having one of the better years of his career, batting .306 with five homers and 25 RBI.
Pitching: Thought to be the strong point of the team, starting pitching has struggled with consistency. Top pitching prospect Trey McNutt has scuffled as he has battled stamina issues while simply not throwing strikes. McNutt is 4-6 with a 4.11 ERA and only 34 strikeouts. Opening day starter Nick Struck has been inconsistent, not only from game to game, but sometimes inning to inning. While Struck has only a 9-6 record, his ERA is 3.74 and his 72 strikeouts are eighth in the league. After looking good in spring training, Dae-Eun Rhee is having all types of trouble adjusting to Double-A ball (ERA of 5.04). One bright spot has been promoted left-hander Eric Jokisch (3-1 with a 3.38 ERA and 0.99 WHIP through six games). Once again, the strength of Tennessee lies in its bullpen as All-Star closer Frank Batista is third in the league with 12 saves while sporting a 1.52 ERA. Despite some recent bad luck, Kevin Rhoderick hasn’t been far behind Batista with seven saves and a 3.72 ERA. Many like Alberto Cabrera’s “stuff“, but holding leads has been an adventure for him. Cabrera’s 2.52 ERA doesn’t reflect the inherited runners he has allowed to score. Jeffry Antigua, Marcus Hatley, Casey Weathers, and Casey Harman have all had their moments, but none has stood out.
Outlook: The Smokies might be able to make a second half run if they are able to get one of the many speedsters from Daytona to balance their line-up. With more consistent starting pitching, they could go far.
High Class-A Daytona Cubs
Overview: After winning the Florida State League championship last season, the feeling was that there would be enough leftover talent plus the additions of prospects to make a run at defending their title. But the injury bug bit hard, as Daytona was practically giving away outs from the catcher and first base position, which stymied their offense. Add to that a poor showing by prospect Ronald Torreyes and some spotty relief pitching, it’s easy to see how the D-Cubs ended the first half of the season eight games under .500.
Position Players: Along with Torreyes, first baseman Richard Jones, who had an MVP season in Peoria last year, was only .224 with no home runs and 28 RBI and was subsequently released. With an injury to Micah Gibbs and a concussion suffered by Rafael Lopez (who was thought to be a quick call-up after getting his feet wet in Peoria), the catching was turned over to journeyman Chad Noble and defensive whiz Sergio Burruel, who combined to hit .199. Top prospect Matt Szczur also started off slowly before coming around to hit .280 with 23 stolen bases. Keeping the offense afloat was veteran Greg Rohan, who leads the FSL with 63 RBI while hitting .291 with 12 home runs. Also providing a lift was Rubi Silva, who batted over .300 before tailing off to .277 with 35 RBI at the season’s mid-point. With the attention on other prospects, Arismendy Alcantara is flying a bit under the radar, as the 20-year old shortstop has hit .293 with 40 RBI and 22 stolen bases. The surprise of the 2011 draft would have to be outfielder John Andreoli, as he has put up numbers that higher profile draftees wish to have, hitting .273 and leading the league with 26 stolen bases.
Pitching: Starting pitching began the season in a lurch, as right-hander Matt Loosen was ineffective due to an injury and Zach Cates, another righty, was 0-6 with a 10.50 ERA. Paired with poor performances of Hayden Simpson (2-3, 6.98) and Brett Wallach (8.18 ERA) dragged the team down to start the season. Loosen came back and was able to be one of their most effective starters, going 6-2 with a 3.00 ERA for the season. Austin Kirk may have shaken off any doubts of his ability as a potential front-end starter, being name a starting pitcher in the All-Star game while posting a 4-1, 2.28 ERA campaign. PJ Francescon was given the bump from Single-A Peoria, and has gone 0-2 with a 3.23 ERA in seven starts. Lefty Frank Del Valle has also had his moments, as an 11-strikeout performance helped his numbers as he has fanned 47 and had a 3.63 ERA while going 5-3. Tony Zych has experienced the ups-and-downs of his first year as a closer, with six saves and a 3.13 ERA to go with a 3-3 record. Vets AJ Morris and Jeffrey Lorick are coming back from injuries, while lefty Scott Weismann has been rock solid with a 2.01 ERA in 22.1 innings, including a record of 1-2 with three saves.
Outlook: The D-Cubs have started the second half off well, and there team speed has put pressure on opposing pitchers. Along with Gibbs, Taylor Davis (.246, 10 RBI) has helped stabilize the catching position. Daytona is well set at leadoff should Matt Szczur get the call for Double-A. With their stable pitching, they could look to make the playoffs in the second half and defend their title.
Low Class-A – Peoria Chiefs
Overview: Peoria has done fairly well despite the fact that they, too, have suffered through injuries. The Chiefs began the season without third baseman Dustin Geiger and catcher/third baseman Anthony Giansanti. The team also lost outfielder Reggie Golden and catcher Rafael Lopez early in the season. What kept Peoria afloat has been their pitching, as both starting and relief pitching has been consistent. The Chiefs already have had starters PJ Francescon and Kyler Burke promoted, as well as reliever Jeffrey Lorick.
Position Players: The injuries affected both the offense and defense, as Wes Darvill had to play out of position at third base and committed 15 errors, while shortstop Marco Hernandez and outfielder Oliver Zapata seemed a little overmatched, hitting .210 and .247 respectively. With the arrival of Geiger and infielder Javier Baez, Hernandez was sent to Boise while Darvill became more of a rotation player. Both Geiger and Baez were as advertized, as Baez is hitting .299 with four home runs 11 RBI, and 11 stolen bases. Geiger has a .324 average with three homers and 13 RBI. Keeping the offense afloat early in the season was first baseman Paul Hoilman, whose 24-game hitting streak brought a .280 average, seven home runs, 52 RBI and a Start in the All-Star game. Joining him was second baseman Zeke DeVoss. While only hitting .242, DeVoss has an on-base percentage of .365 and 18 stolen bases. Some disappointments have been outfielders Pin-Cheih Chen and Taiwan Easterling. After having good years in 2011, Chen has only managed to hit .246 but has 16 stolen bases and 25 RBI, while Easterling has a .232 average with 13 steals and 20 runs driven in. Both have been outstanding defensively.
Pitching: The entire pitching staff has been the key to the Chiefs’ success this season, as starters PJ Francescon and Kyler Burke and reliever Jeffrey Lorick were promoted to Daytona. Burke was also named a Midwest League All-Star, as he went 2-2 with a 2.32 ERA. A big surprise has been righty Michael Jensen. Thought of as a possible reliever, Jensen was the opening day starter and has put up a 7-3 record with a 3.24 ERA and 64 strikeouts. Tied for the league lead with 80 strikeouts, Jose Rosario has still to translate that into production as he has only gone 6-7 with a 4.22 ERA. The injury bug has also hit the pitching staff, as Ben Wells is now out for the season with Tommy John surgery. International free agent Gerardo Concepcion has had his struggles, as his 7.39 ERA has led to a 2-6 record. After sharing the closer role with Lorick, Yao-Lin Wang has emerged as a sometime shaky stopper, picking up 10 saves to go along with a 3.26 ERA. His set up man has been Luis Liria, who has been successful with a 1.35 ERA in 33.1 innings. Liria’s left-handed counterpart, Sheldon McDonald, has also been effective, with a 0.98 ERA in 27.2 innings. Austin Reed has been a decent season, with a 3-4 record and 4.04 ERA while eating 35.2 innings.
The CCO’s Mid-Season Organizational All-Star Team
- First Base: Anthony Rizzo (Iowa); Paul Hoilman (Peoria)
- Second Base: Rubi Silva (Daytona); Adrian Cardenas (Iowa)
- Shortstop: Luis Valbuena (Iowa); Arismendy Alcantara (Daytona)
- Third Base: Josh Vitters (Iowa); Greg Rohan (Daytona)
- Catcher: Taylor Davis (Peoria/Daytona); Rafael Lopez (Peoria)
- Left Field: Nelson Perez (Daytona); James Adduci (Tennessee)
- Centerfield: John Andreoli (Daytona); Matt Szczur (Daytona)
- Right Field: Ty Wright (Iowa); Michael Burgess (Tennessee)
- Right-Handed Pitcher: Matt Loosen (Daytona); Michael Jensen (Peoria); PJ Francescon (Peoria/Daytona)
- Left-Handed Pitcher: Austin Kirk (Daytona); Eric Jokisch (Daytona/Tennessee); Kyler Burke (Peoria)
- Closer: Frank Batista (Tennessee/Iowa); Kevin Rhoderick (Tennessee); Jeffrey Lorick (Peoria/Daytona)
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