Cubs Down on the Farm Report – 09/17/12

Second Half Minor League Report

In looking at the Cubs’ minor league system for the second half of the 2012 season, one can break things down into three phases.

First there are the AZL Cubs and the Boise Hawks, which received the greatest influence of the Cubs’ new front office team. With their rosters heavily populated by players from the 2012 draft and international free agent signings, both ended up in the playoffs at the end of the season, with Boise losing in the finals.

Next there were Peoria, Daytona, and Tennessee which fell under the influence of executives left over from the previous administration. Clinging to the “star” system, which focused mainly on promoting pitchers and “targeted” prospects, each affiliate floundered. In the end, it cost Vice President of Player Personnel Oneri Fleita and scouts Tom Borque, Joe Housey, Tom Shafer, and Richie Zisk their jobs.

And then, there was Iowa. While it can be debated as to who was ultimately responsible for this fiasco, the person left holding the bag ended up being manager Dave Bialas. Bialas, along with Peoria’s manager Casey Kopitzke and hitting coach Barbaro Garbey, Daytona pitching coach Marty Mason and the AZL Cubs’ hitting coach Jason Dubois and pitching coach Frank Castillo were all terminated at the end of the season.

In a two-part report, here’s how the affiliates in the Chicago Cubs’ organization performed in the second half of the minor league season.

Triple-A – Iowa Cubs (53-87)
Overview: After finishing the first half of the season 12 games under .500, the Iowa Cubs staggered to a 24-46 record in the second half. Not only did the I-Cubs finish last in their division, but finished dead last in the Pacific Coast League. Whether they were following orders or based faulty scouting, neither Oneri Fleita nor Dave Bialas (who was also the former Field Coordinator) are staying. The results were an understaffed squad that had to rely on waiver acquisitions Horacio Ramirez, Seth McClung and Jeff Frazier, as well as plucking the likes of Yoanner Negrin from the Mexican League, to flesh out the team after the promotions of Josh Vitters, Brett Jackson, Chris Rusin, and Brooks Raley. The results were a mish-mash of underachieving Major League veterans, some career minor leaguers playing out of position, and a lack of promotion of deserving talent.

Position Players: While the numbers for Josh Vitters (.304) suggested the he was ready for call-up, Jackson’s (.256, 158 strikeouts) stretched most fans’ reasoning. It is speculated that the two were promoted not because they were ready, but because there was no more they could learn from the staff at that level. Whatever the reason, their departure left a huge void, along with the unfilled hole left by the promotion of Anthony Rizzo, who spent the first half in the I-Cubs lineup. Some relief was found in IF/OF Greg Rohan, who batted .290 with four homers and 24 RBI in 27 games for Iowa. Also stepping up his game was OF Dave Sappelt. Struggling all season and hitting .260, Sappelt became a leader after the promotions and hit .290 with three home runs and 17 RBI in the month of August, which were more indicative of his career numbers. Minor league vets like OF James Adduci and C Juan Apodaca may have earned another year in the organization by batting .306 and .280 respectively. Former major leaguers such as IF Alfredo Amezaga and OF/1B Jeff Frazier might also get a look in the off-season with each hitting around .275. However, other experienced players like Matt Tolbert, Diory Hernandez, and Brian Esposito failed to justify any further consideration.

Pitching: The pitching staff in the first half was practically crushed under the weight of some underachieving, over-the-hill members who were, gratefully, released during the second half. What remained turned in decent performances. Jairo Asencio (0-1, 1.35 ERA, 13 strikeouts, and five saves in 12.1 innings) and Michael Bowden (3-2, 2.76 ERA, 35 strikeouts, and two saves in 32.2 innings) had a solid end to the season and the I-Cubs received promising pitching from repurposed Ryan Rowland-Smith and Ty’Relle Harris, as well as from prospects Brooks Raley and Chris Rusin. While the 1-5 record and 4.93 ERA in his final ten appearances (seven starts) by Rowland-Smith wasn’t anything special, it was a complete improvement over the Triple-A numbers put up by Chris Volstad, Rodrigo Lopez, Seth McClung, Jay Jackson, and Randy Wells. With only nine starts in his career that began in 2009, Harris started five games for Iowa and showed he was a work in progress by going 2-3 with a 4.88 ERA (26 strikeouts in 31.1 innings). Raley and Rusin are promising left-handers. Raley was 4-8 with 69 strikeouts and a 3.62 ERA in 83 innings while Rusin led the club by fanning 94 batters with an 8-9 record and a 4.55 ERA. Esmailin Caridad, Frankie De La Cruz, and Yoanner Negrin all have plenty of experience, but had ho-hum performances rather than dominating at a lower level. Inexplicably, 24-year old righty Marcus Hatley shows up on some top prospect lists despite an 8.22 ERA in 12 appearances for Iowa and a 4.62 ERA in 60.1 innings. The bullpen was such a revolving door with the parent club that noting everyone would take a completely separate article.

Double-A – Tennessee Smokies (71-68)
Overview: A team that went to their league championship series in 2011 and was being fed by the Florida State League Champion Daytona Cubs, Tennessee should have been a juggernaut in the 2012 Southern League. Hit heavily by injuries and hindered by a questionable promotion policy, the Smokies struggled all year long but saw a late season surge. Credit can be given to a late infusion of talent, but the main reason had to be manager Buddy Bailey. Once given a decent set of tools, Bailey piloted the club to a 37-33 second half.

Position players: In a lesson of “don’t believe everything you read”, Tennessee’s season received a boost not from players trumpeted by national reporters, but by lesser known players. Off-season prospect lists will most certainly include IF Junior Lake and OF Matt Szczur, but each underperformed for the team. Lake simply didn’t step forward, with his .279 batting average, ten home runs, and 50 RBI almost identical to last year’s numbers, which also include 32 errors. Just beyond the spotlight focused on Lake, 2B Logan Watkins (.281, nine home runs and 52 RBI) and OF Jae-Hoon Ha (.273, six home runs and 47 RBI) put up similar numbers, while each was sparkling on defense. Promoted mainly due to a signing error by the previous management team, Matt Szczur showed he wasn’t ready for this level, as his .210 average negated his number one asset, his blazing speed. In nearly an equal amount of playing time to Szczur, OF Rubi Silva hit better (.263), drove in more runs (13) and stole more bases (3). Above it all, the CCO’s Minor League Player of the Year 1B Justin Bour led the team in hitting (.283) and home runs (17), while driving in a league leading 110 runs. Matt Cerda had a reputation as a top-notch defender, but didn’t live up to that billing as he committed 24 errors splitting time between second and third base while batting .266 with three home runs and 15 RBI in 85 games. Outfielder Michael Burgess and C Michael Brenly seem to be gravitating more toward being system players than prospects.

Pitching: As with the position players, Trey McNutt has grabbed national attention while taking away from teammates who have just played better. The CCO’s Minor League Pitcher of the Year Nick Struck led the entire system by going 14-10 with 123 strikeouts, as well as posting a 3.18 ERA and 1.18 WHIP. Promoted about a month before the All-Star break, lefty Eric Jokisch went 4-2 in the second half in route to a 10-6, 115-strikeout season with a system leading ERA of 3.11. Joining the club in mid-August, Austin Kirk, another left-hander, went 2-0 and finished second to Jokisch with a 3.12 ERA. A starter in the Florida State League All-Star game, Kirk ended up 9-3 with 91 strikeouts and a 1.29 WHIP for the year. Somewhat disappointing were Dallas Beeler and Dae-Eun Rhee. It was a combination of hard luck and inconsistency for Beeler as he went 6-7 with 70 strikeouts and a 4.24 ERA. Inconsistency also plagued Rhee. Rhee was billed as a strikeout artist but only fanned 78 batters while posting a 9-8 record with a 4.81 ERA. As for McNutt, after struggling as a starter, he seemed to find himself in the bullpen. Trey McNutt posted a 4-1 record with a 3.81 ERA and 26 strikeouts in 28.1 innings out of the pen.

Once again, the bullpen was a strength for Tennessee. Frank Batista led the league with 24 saves and posted a 2-0 record with a 2.22 ERA and 1.12 WHIP in 52.2 innings. As Batista tired toward the end of the season, Brian Schlitter, on the comeback trail, stepped up and had six saves (3.00 ERA, 3-4 record in 42 innings). Kevin Rhoderick continued to struggle in the second half, winding up at 2-8 with a 4.99 ERA and eight saves in 57.2 innings. The bullpen workhorse was lefty Casey Harman. Harman tossed 55.1 innings and ended up with a 1-4 record and a 4.88 ERA. Hard throwers Casey Weathers and Tony Zych were unreliable … Weathers with a 6.6.2 ERA while Zych was hammered for 26 hits in 24.2 innings. Another player on the mend, Zach Rosscup, tossed 22.1 innings with a 4.84 ERA.

High Class-A Daytona Cubs (59-74)
Overview: Hopes were high for Daytona in 2012 after coming off a championship in 2011, adding a respected manager in Brian Harper as well as hot-shot prospects OF Matt Szczur and 2B Ronald Torreyes, as well as high profile acquisitions RHP Zach Cates and OF Elieser Bonne. But injuries and poor performances took their toll, as the D-Cubs finished up with a 29-36 record in the second half. Weather was also a factor, as storms and Hurricane Isaac led to the cancellation of nine games, and the postponement of several others. However, it doesn’t seem as if Harper is being held responsible by the front office, as he was named the hitting coach for the Mesa Solar Sox in the Arizona Fall League and is the top candidate for the manager opening at Iowa.

Position Players: Daytona had the glare of the spotlight with high profile prospects Matt Szczur and IF Javier Baez. However, OF John Andreoli shone the brightest, as his 52 stolen bases led both the league and the system. Andreoli ended up hitting .289 with an on-base percentage of .402 and scored 68 runs on the year. Baez became somewhat a symbol for the “star” system of promotion. Held back from starting the season with Peoria, Baez joined the team a month later and hit.333 with 12 home runs, 33 RBI and 20 stolen bases in 57 games. Promoted to Daytona, he flopped, batting .188 with four homers and 13 RBI in 23 games. Baez replaced SS Arismendy Alcantara, who went out with an undisclosed leg injury after hitting .302 with seven home runs, 51 RBI and 25 stolen bases in 85 games. Ronald Torreyes regrouped in the second half and ended up hitting .264 with six home runs, 47 RBI and 13 stolen bases. Late season arrivals C Rafael Lopez and 3B Christian Villanueva showed some promise. Lopez hit .269 in 35 games while Villanueva was in Daytona for 25 starts and went .250 with four homers and nine RBI. The rest of the roster was fleshed out by minor league veterans Vladimir Frias, Nelson Perez, Rebel Ridling, and Elieser Bonne. The 25-year old Bonne may have some usefulness down the road after hitting .275 with three homers, 40 RBI, and 24 steals as a player-coach and mentor to some of the young Cuban players in the system.

Pitching: Matt Loosen, a 23-year old right hander, labored in the shadows of some higher profile pitchers in the system, but had a good year. Loosen was 11-5 with a 4.07 ERA and a 1.14 WHIP while striking out 110 batters. Two pitchers Loosen was obscured by were lefty Kyler Burke and rehabbing righty Robert Whitenack. Converted from the outfield last year, Burke was promoted from Peoria at mid-season and went 1-7 with a 4.92 ERA in 56.2 innings. Whitenack, coming back from Tommy John surgery, was 1-6 with a 5.96 ERA. Another mid-season promotion, the right-handed PJ Francescon, was more hard luck than ineffective with a 3.75 ERA despite a 3-6 record. Late season acquisition Kyle Hendricks rounded out the rotation and was 1-0 with a 4.24 ERA and 1.18 WHIP in five appearances (four starts).

After Tony Zych was promoted, the D-Cubs fell more into a “bullpen by committee” approach with AJ Morris leading the way. Morris had seven saves and finished with a 5-2 record with a 2.24 ERA, 0.97 WHIP, and 42 strikeouts in 52.1 innings. His left-handed counterparts were Scott Weismann and Jeffrey Lorick. Weismann had four saves and a 3-5 record to go along with a 5.63 ERA while Lorick was 2-4 with two saves and a 4.58 ERA. Doing the heavy lifting were bulwarks in lefty Frank Del Valle and the right handed Eduardo Figueroa. Spot starter and main piggyback pitcher Del Valle may have found his place as a long reliever. Del Valle went 5-5 with a 3.26 ERA, a 1.01 WHIP, and 84 strikeouts in 99.1 innings. Figueroa has always been a jack-of-all-trades (five starts and two saves) and he finished with a 4-5 record that included a 2.90 ERA, a 1.16 WHIP, and 59 strikeouts in 77.2 innings. Ryan Searle struggled to find his niche. Searle was demoted in mid-May and went 8-5 overall between Daytona, Tennessee, and Iowa with a 3.87 ERA in 90.2 innings. A player to be named later in the Marlon Byrd trade, left handed Hunter Cervenka came to the organization from the Red Sox and ended up 3-3 with a 4.31 ERA (71 strikeouts in 62.2 innings) between three teams. Another outfield conversion, Matt Spencer battled injuries in his first full season as a pitcher and was 0-1 with an 8.76 ERA in 12.1 innings. Undrafted free agent Matt Iannazzo made it all the way to Daytona after starting out in the rookie league and finished the year with a 1-2 record with a 4.32 ERA (25 strikeouts in 25 innings).

Thursday’s report will take a look back at how the Peoria Chiefs and Boise Hawks finished the season, plus the organizational All-Stars for the second half of the season.

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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