Minor League Preview: Low-A Kane County and High-A Daytona
Good Morning to everyone at the CCO! Today is the second of a three part installment previewing the 2013 minor league season. We will be discussing each level’s strengths, weaknesses, and things to look for this season. Please note that the 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.
In the first part of this series, we took an overall look at the system, with three areas to keep an eye on this year, as well as the Rookie level and the Boise Hawks.
Low-A – Kane County Cougars
They may be the most anticipated Single-A class in team history. With a number of high draft picks and success in the Northwest League last season, expectations are high. Given their proximity to the home of the parent club, the stands at Kane County should be filled all season long.
Pitching – Most organizations might be satisfied with having an ace pitching prospect at each level. The Cubs have at least three pitchers bound for Kane County that could have that designation in right-handers Jose Arias, Pierce Johnson, and Juan Carlos Paniagua, and what appear to be waves of more to follow.
Jose Arias was tenth in the Northwest League with a 3.25 ERA, ninth in WHIP at 1.28 to go along with a 4-2 record that included 46 strikeouts in 63.2 innings. The Cubs brought Pierce Johnson along slowly by pitching him only 11 innings over six starts between the rookie league and Boise. Johnson posted a 3.27 ERA and 14 strikeouts over that span. Upon clearing up a cloud of suspicion over his true age, Paniagua had a two game tune-up in the rookie league after signing with the Cubs. He then made Northwest League batters look silly in a playoff appearance with Boise by blowing them away with an upper-90s fastball and a dazzling slider.
A second wave of righties includes Tayler Scott, Felix Pena, and James Pugliese. The 20-year old Scott has some of the best command in the entire system, as his 5-1 record and 2.52 ERA, sixth in the Northwest League, can attest. After bouncing around for a few years, Pena finally found his spot as he piggybacked Pierce Johnson to begin his stay at Boise. Pena then moved into the starting rotation and became one of its dependable performers. Pena went 4-2 with a 3.43 ERA and a 1.30 WHIP that included 42 strikeouts in 63 innings. And speaking of strikeouts, 20-year old Pugliese has one of the best K rates in the organization at 28 percent. Pugliese is still a little raw, as shown by his 5.37 ERA and 1.68 WHIP.
Should promotions or injury affect those six pitchers, a third wave of right-handers Ian Dickson and Ben Wells, along with lefties Michael Heesch and Gerardo Concepcion are available. Dickson tied Scott for the Hawks lead with fifteen starts, and was 3-3 with a 5.60 ERA and a 1.50 WHIP that included 48 strikeouts in 62.2 innings. Wells should be returning to Low-A after an injury shelved him for the better part of the 2012 season. The 20-year Wells went 3-2 with a 3.27 ERA and a 1.36 WHIP in 12 games last year, striking out 36 batters in 44 innings. Drafted in the eighth round in 2012, Heesch was mainly used as a reliever at Boise but can project to the rotation. Heesch was 3-1 with a 2.66 ERA, a 1.10 WHIP, and struck out 19 batters in 23 innings. After signing last off-season, Concepcion had a rough go at Single-A Peoria before contracting mono. Concepcion posted a 2-6 record, 7.39 ERA, and a 1.91 WHIP. Hopefully, Concepcion will be at full strength this season.
Infield – Cubs fans have not seen an infield as talented as this one move up the system together. Among veteran minor league followers, it is drawing comparisons to the famed Los Angeles Dodgers infield of the early 1970s. It all starts with burly first baseman Dan Vogelbach. Before being promoted to Short Season-A Boise, the 20-year old started out 2012 in the rookie league, and hit .324 with seven home runs and 31 RBI in just 24 games. Then, the big lefty tore the Northwest League apart by blasting 10 homers and driving in 31 runs while compiling a .322/.423/.608 slash line with a 1.031 OPS. Across the diamond at third, switch-hitting 19-year old Jeimer Candelario led the Hawks with 47 RBI and spent his first season in the States hitting .281 with six home runs to go along with a .396 slugging percentage and .741 OPS. Leading off for Boise was second baseman Gioskar Amaya. The 20-year old was fifth in the Northwest League in batting at .298, as he slugged eight homers, drove in 33, and stole 15 bases. Holding things all together is 20-year old shortstop Marco Hernandez. The switch-hitter was a little out of his element as he started 2012 at Peoria, but he regrouped well with the Hawks. His .286 average was good for ninth in the league, and the 38 runs he drove in were good enough for third on the team. The primary back-up is huge Rock Shoulders, who most likely will be the Cougars’ DH while seeing action at first base and the outfield. The 21-year old left-hander tied Vogelbach for the team lead with ten home runs last season, while driving in 37 runs and hitting .250/.342/ .447 with a .789 OPS. Providing the depth should be a pair of returning players in Wes Darvill and Brad Zapenas. Darvill was asked to play out of position at third last season after injuries depleted the position. The 21-year old lefty hit only .224/.285/.306, but had three home runs, 33 RBI, and 11 stolen bases as he now settles in as a middle infield reserve. Zapenas is considered a good defensive infielder but he is coming back from Tommy John surgery, which cut his 2012 season short after 24 games.
Catching – There will be a lot of options at this position for Kane County this season, but the bulk of the playing time should go to Willson Contreras. Originally signed as a catcher, Contreras spent a lot of time playing third base before moving back behind the plate in 2012. The 20-year old returned to Boise last season and developed into a clutch hitter, as his 39 RBI were second on the team to go along with a .273/.316/.357/.653 line and three home runs. His defense at the dish needs some ironing out, fielding .976 with eight passed balls but nailing base-runners at a 47 percent rate. Contreras is also capable of playing the four corners (first and third base, left and right field) as well as catching. Backing him up most likely will be Lance Rymel. The 22-year old hit only .188/.246/.344/.590 with two home runs and 10 RBI in 26 games for Boise … so he’ll have to step up his game or end up being labeled a system catcher. Also available are Yaniel Cabezas and Sergio Burruel. Both are considered excellent receivers that handle pitchers well. Cabezas will be 24 years old shortly after Opening Day and is working his way back from a broken ankle. Left-handed hitting Burruel has been in the system for four years, but is still only 21 years old and hit .249/.314/.302/.615 in 53 games between Low-A Peoria and High-A Daytona.
Outfield – What was once a position of curiosity has now turned to a major concern thanks to a hand injury to Albert Almora. The 2012 first round draft pick crushed pitching in the rookie league to the tune of .347 with a home run and 13 RBI in 18 games. The soon-to-be 19-year old didn’t slow down upon arriving in Boise, hitting .292 and slugging .446 with another homer and six RBI in 15 games. Almora is expected to back in action at the end of May. Centerfield should now be in the hands of Trey Martin. The 20-year old is considered to be one of the best defensive outfielders in the system. He had a good season for Boise last year, batting .270/.318/.377/.696 with three homers, 23 RBI, and six stolen bases. Someone who could also feel the pinch of Almora’s injury is Pin-Chieh Chen. The left-hander led the Peoria Chiefs in hitting and stolen bases last season. Unfortunately, he had only a .259 average, along with two homers, 51 RBI, and 36 stolen bases . At 21 years old, returning to Single-A isn’t the end of the world for Chen and will give him an opportunity to work on his .345 on-base percentage. The other positions are up for grabs, with 21-year old Reggie Golden as one of the leading candidates. The 2010 second round draft choice was out most of 2012 with a leg injury, but blasted seven home runs and 39 RBI in 63 games for Boise in 2011. Also in the mix are Bijan Rademacher and Oliver Zapata. Rademacher is a 21-year old lefty with the speed to play center and a cannon of a throwing arm. After batting .333 in a three game rookie league tune-up, Rademacher pounded Northwest League pitching at a .396/.411/.566 clip in 14 games before hitting the wall at Peoria, batting .221/.280/.295 with 11 RBI in 35 games. Switch-hitting 20 year old Zapata has some tools to work with. Built like a bowling ball, Zapata slugged four home runs, drove in 29 runs, and stole 19 bases but hit only .225/.305/.282/.586. He did have nine outfield assists and committed only two errors in 201 chances.
Youth – Last season’s Boise Hawks were the youngest team in the Northwest League, with an average age of 20.5 years old. They will make up the core of this year’s Cougars squad. Their average age may decrease even more if older players such as Stephen Bruno, OF Izaac Garsez, RHP Eduardo Orozco, and RHP Hayden Simpson are jumped up to High-A Daytona. If you add the most likely players to be promoted early, 22 year olds RHP Jose Arias and Juan Carlos Paniagua, along with soon-to-be 22 year old RHP Pierce Johnson, the roster could get even younger. While Kane County may not lack in talent, that inexperience may end up costing a few games. In the Midwest League last season, the youngest team, the Lake County Captains (Cleveland), were only two games over .500 for the season thanks to a big second half surge. With an average age just a shade under 24 years old, the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers (Milwaukee) won the championship. That may or may not translate to big league success in the future for the players of those teams. But with the hype over last year’s success, along with moving the team closer to the parent club, fans may bring some unrealistic expectations with them to the western suburbs.
What to Watch for
Bullpen – With all those starting pitchers, some will end up spending time in the bullpen. Just who that will be an interesting thing to watch for. Aside from that, the late inning chores will also have some intrigue. Boise closer Eduardo Orozco most likely will be bumped up to High-A Daytona, leaving the position wide open. First dibs may go to 22-year old lefty Nathan Dorris. The 2012 17th round draft pick split his time between the rookie league and Boise, striking out 21 in 24 innings, picking up five saves along with a 1.88 ERA and 1.29 WHIP. Coming from the right-hand side could be 22-year old Steve Perakslis. Selected in the 21st round in 2012, Perakslis was promoted to Single-A Peoria after going 4-0 with two saves, a 3.20 ERA and 1.15 WHIP, and 26 strikeouts in 25.1 innings in the rookie league. However, Perakslis was only able to see an inning of action with the Chiefs, giving up an earned run. Also available is 23 year old Tyler Bremer, who was 0-2 with a 5.71 ERA and 12 strikeouts in 17.1 innings between Boise and the rookie league. Another option could be 23-year old undrafted free agent Matt Iannazzo. The left hander had some modest numbers last year with a combined 1-2 record with a 4.32 ERA and a 1.52 WHIP that included 25 strikeouts in 25 innings. However, he ended last season at High-A Daytona where he had a 0.00 ERA and a 0.94 WHIP in 5.1 innings.
Promotions – Enjoy them together while you can, because if there are some hot starts, they may not be around for long. Pitchers such as Arias, Johnson, and Paniagua are prime candidates, but Vogelbach and Almora (when ready) moving up are not out of the question.
High-A – Daytona Cubs
Both questions and anticipation will abound in central Florida this season. The number one question will be how to find playing time for all the infield prospects that may end up on the roster? After that, such questions as “Who will be in the outfield and at first base?” and “Will the pitching hold up?” will have to be answered.
Infield – It all centers around shortstop, where three players can lay claim but the top story will be Javier Baez. After starting the season in extended spring training, Baez blew away Midwest League pitching, batting .333 with 12 home runs, 33 RBI, 20 stolen bases, a .596 slugging percentage, and a .979 OPS in just 57 games. Things didn’t go as well for Baez after a promotion to Daytona, as the 20-year old struggled to hit .188/.244/.400/.644 with four homers and 13 RBI in 23 games. Challenging him will be a pair of 22 year olds in Stephen Bruno and Tim Saunders. Bruno joined the Boise Hawks directly after signing with the organization, as he was selected in the seventh round of the 2012 draft. Bruno then went out and led the Northwest League in hitting with a .361 average (.442/.496/.938), along with three home runs and 37 RBI. Coming from a small college, Saunders was brought along more cautiously, starting in the rookie league after being chosen in 32nd round. That proved to be no challenge as he hit .493/.532/.690/1.222 with three home runs, 17 RBI, and five stolen bases in 17 games. Bumped all the way up to Daytona, Saunders was not overwhelmed as he hit .310/.362/.381/.743 with four RBI and four stolen bases in 12 games. Flip-flopping with Baez, Saunders finished out the season with Single-A Peoria, smacking two home runs, driving in another 12 runs, stealing eight bases and batting .321/.380/.481/.862. Both Bruno and Saunders are capable of playing second, third base, and the outfield … and Bruno added catching to his resume in the Fall Instructional League. Joining those three in the infield should be Ronald Torreyes and Dustin Geiger. The 20-year old Torreyes is considered by some to be destined for the Double-A level, but at .264 with only a .326 on-base percentage and .385 slugging last season, a repeat with the D-Cubs seems in order. Like Baez, Geiger started the season in Extended Spring Training after having hand surgery (same procedure that Albert Almora just had). Once the 21-year old was ready to move up to Peoria, he delivered with 17 home runs and 53 RBI in 75 games, hitting .251 and slugging .465. Geiger is more of a classic, power-hitting third baseman who has also seen some action at first. The organization also likes the potential of Zeke DeVoss. Drafted in third round in 2011 as an outfielder, the switch-hitter has had a bumpy transition to the infield, committing 28 errors at second base last season. What they like is the 22 year-old’s speed and patience at the plate, witnessed by his 35 steals and .382 on-base percentage. DeVoss hit only .249 with six home runs and 38 RBI, and will have to improve his defense to avoid being shipped back to the outfield.
Catching – Heading a growing list of prospects at this position, 23-year old Chadd Krist may be the closest to making an impact at the Major League level. Selected in the ninth round in 2012, Krist spent 16 games at Boise and hit .328/.365/.397/.762 before being promoted to Low-A Peoria. There, he finished the season batting .253/.324/.447/.770 with four home runs and 23 RBI. Krist is also advanced behind the plate, fielding at .989 and gunning down 25 percent of all would-be base thefts. If Krist performs well to start the season, he has the ability to leap-frog over some of the catchers ahead of him in the system. Just who will line up behind him remains a puzzle. Anthony Giansanti spent all of extended Spring Training last season converting to catcher, but was used there only twice last season. The 24-year old has one of the strongest throwing arms in the system, and he hit a combined .264/.321/.333/.655 with a home run and 19 RBI in 36 games. Twenty-three year old Taylor Davis hit a combined .257/.339/.369/.708 with three homers and 38 RBI between Peoria and Daytona. He also lined up at third, first, and even pitched an inning of relief. Switch-hitting 24 year old Micah Gibbs appeared to be a little over-matched at Daytona last season, hitting only .200/.338/.297/.635 with four home runs and 16 RBI. His defense remained strong with a 33 percent caught stealing percentage and fielding .985.
First Base – Last season, the Cubs released first base prospects Ryan Cuneo, Richard Jones, and Rebel Ridling, creating a void which will be felt at this level. The player to fill that void has yet to be determined. The favorite appears to be Jacob Rogers, the last player selected by the Cubs in the 2012 draft. The 23-year old lefty performed well last season, batting a combined .326 with four home runs, 27 RBI, a .507 slugging percentage, and .970 OPS between the rookie league and Peoria. Also in the mix is 2011 Northwest League MVP Paul Hoilman. After setting a NWL record for home runs, the 24-year old was a mid-season All-Star in the Midwest League last season. However, injuries curtailed him in the second half, and he wound up hitting .237/.326/.392/.718 with eight homers and 61 RBI. Geiger, Giansanti, Gibbs, and Davis also have some experience at first, so it might be mix-and-match for the D-Cubs this season.
Pitching – While not necessarily a weakness by definition, Daytona is clearly the line that separates the pitchers favored by the past front office as opposed to the new philosophy. While the D-Cubs have a lot of nice looking pitching prospects, there may not be an impact performer. Vying for the title of Opening Day starter appears to be righties Kyle Hendricks, PJ Francescon, and Michael Jensen. Acquired from the Texas Rangers last season, Hendricks was a combined 6-8 with a 2.99 ERA, a 1.07 WHIP, and 123 strikeouts in 147.2 innings. A soft-tosser with a five-pitch arsenal, the 23-year old might be a part of Double-A Tennessee’s pitching staff if things break right for him this spring. The 24-year old Francescon was a combine 8-7, striking out 95 along with a 3.01 ERA and 1.085 WHIP between Peoria and Daytona last season. At 22 years old, Jensen surprised everyone by posting an 11-5 record with 115 strikeouts in 140 innings, a 3.47 ERA, and a 1.12 WHIP with Peoria last season. Recently returned from the Arizona Diamondbacks, Rule 5 draft pick Starling Peralta now figures in the D-Cubs’ rotation. Another 22-year old, Peralta was only 5-8 at Low-A Peoria but had a 3.44 ERA and a 1.23 WHIP that included 86 strikeouts in 99.1 innings. After converting from the outfield, Kyler Burke got his first taste of the starting rotation last season. A Midwest League All-Star, the 24-year old was 2-2 with a 2.31 ERA, 52 strikeouts, and a 1.07 WHIP. After a promotion to Daytona, the lefty hit hard times and was 1-7 with a 4.92 ERA and 1.52 WHIP. Twenty-five year old Joe Zeller is the curiosity of the system. Last season was Zeller’s first in using the knuckleball, and he had a combined 3.56 ERA and 1.30 WHIP over four levels while posting a 3-5 record. Possessing one of the best fastballs in the entire organization, Zach Cates’ 2012 season was nothing short of a total mess. Acquired from San Diego in the Anthony Rizzo deal, the Cubs’ minor league officials might have been a little overzealous in assigning the 23- year old to Daytona last season. The result was a 0-6 record with a 10.50 ERA and a 2.29 WHIP that included a trip to the DL and then a demotion to Peoria. Cates didn’t fare much better there, with a 5.45 ERA, 1.632 WHIP, and a 0-3 record in nine starts.
Outfield – Daytona got some good news at the start of Spring Training when the organization announced that Cuban Jorge Soler will likely begin his 2013 season with the D-Cubs. The towering 21-year old hit a combined .299/.369/.463/.832 with five homers, 25 RBI, and 12 stolen bases between the rookie league and Peoria in 34 games last season. However, Albert Almora’s injury threw a somewhat dicey situation at the other two positions into borderline chaos. A great defender in Pin-Chieh Chen was expected to line up next to Soler in center, but will now probably cover Almora’s absence at Kane County. Taking his place could either be Taiwan Easterling or Evan Crawford. Both dealt with injuries last season, as Crawford sat out all of 2012 after shoulder surgery. The 24-year old was an igniter for Daytona’s 2011 Florida State League champions, batting .307/.362/.401/.763 with 50 RBI and 32 stolen bases. Easterling had a lot of promise coming into 2012, but hit only .243/.316/.366/.681 with four home runs, 26 RBI, and 18 stolen bases as he was limited to 70 games. At 26 years old, Elieser Bonne would most likely be considered for a spot in Double-A , had a numbers crunch at the top of the system not limited his opportunities. Batting .275/.293/.360/.652 with three homers, 40 RBI, and 25 stolen bases for Daytona last year, Bonne may have to be content to be a mentor for fellow countryman Soler. It remains to be seen just what will become of 23-year old left-hander Izaac Garsez. The 2012 30th round draft choice has been a no-show at spring training after hitting .246/.331/.410/.742 with two home runs and 15 RBI in 38 games between Boise and the rookie league. With the overflow of talent at some of the other positions, don’t be too surprised if Stephen Bruno, Zeke DeVoss, Anthony Giansanti, Paul Hoilman, and Tim Saunders lineup up in the outfield with any regularity.
What to Watch for
Bullpen – While the starting rotation may be a concern, the back end of the pitching staff for Daytona may be what draws your attention. The all important closer role will be contended among Justin Amlung, Eddie Orozco, Austin Reed, and Yao-Lin Wang. Drafted in the 12th round in 2012, Amlung was used as starter for Short Season-A Boise in order to guarantee innings. The 22-year old projects more as a reliever, and was a combined 0-1 with a 4.00 ERA, a 1.44 WHIP, and 12 strikeouts in 18 innings between Boise and the rookie league. Boise’s closer was 2012 22nd round draft choice Orozco. His numbers were impressive: 2-1 record with six saves, 1.95 ERA, a 1.08 WHIP, and 31 strikeouts in 27.2 innings. However, the soon-to-be 24-year old may have had an advantage in experience, so the High-A level will be a good test. Singled out by Cubs Vice President Jason McLeod this off-season, Austin Reed is the brother of White Sox closer Addison Reed and worked as a set-up man for Peoria last season. The 21-year old was 5-8 with a 3.65 ERA and a 1.48 WHIP in 38 games, but allowed 67 hits over 61.2 innings. When Peoria needed a closer to start 2012, Wang answered the call. A starter in his first professional season, the 22-year old Taiwan native went 3-2 with 12 saves in 28 appearances as a reliever. Wang ended last season in the rotation, and was a combined 4-5 with a 3.92 ERA, 1.269 WHIP, and 82 strikeouts in 78 innings. Also available from the right hand side could be Hayden Simpson and Larry Suarez. The 2010 first round draft pick Simpson has had a rough time dealing with injuries in his professional career, but is reportedly throwing free-and-easy this spring. Battling with some undisclosed arm troubles, the 23 year old was a combined 4-7 with a 6.56 ERA and a 1.89 WHIP while striking out 63 batters in 82.1 innings. After bouncing around the system for five plus years, Suarez seemed to find a home for himself as the closer for Peoria at the end the 2012 season. At 6-foot-4, 245 pounds, the mountainous 23-year old went 3-2 with five saves, a 4.15 ERA and a 1.59 WHIP that included 38 strikeouts in 43.1 innings after taking over for Wang as the closer. Just where Peoria set-up man Luis Liria fits in is uncertain. The 23-year old logged 59.1 innings in 39 appearances, saving five games and going 2-5 with a 4.55 ERA and 52 strikeouts.
The left side of the pen looks just as interesting with Sheldon McDonald and Andrew McKirahan leading the way. Another in the growing list of Canadians in the system, the 24-year old McDonald led the minors in 2012 with a 0.984 WHIP, along with a 1.89 ERA, a 1-3 record, and 57 strikeouts in 62 innings. McKirahan was on his way to an impressive 2012, recording two saves and striking out 11 in 10 innings with a 1.80 ERA, before elbow problems led to Tommy John surgery. The 23-year old Texan has completed his rehab, and will see how his arm responds in live action this spring. Complementing the control of McDonald and McKirahan is power pitcher Hunter Cervenka. Acquired from Boston as part of the Theo Epstein compensation package, the 23-year split his time between Peoria and Daytona last year. Cervenka had a combined 3.06 ERA and 1.38 WHIP in the Cubs’ organization, along with 47 strikeouts in 47 innings, a 3-0 record, and a save. Another converted outfielder, Matt Spencer, experienced a series of arm issues in his first full-time season as a pitcher. The former “Morristown Masher” is now trying to get hitters out at age 27, and was a collective 2-1with a 6.27 ERA and 17 strikeouts in 18.2 innings between Boise, Peoria, and Daytona. Someone who is on the threshold between Daytona and Double-A Tennessee is Frank Del Valle. The 23-year old spot-starter began 15 games for Daytona last season, mainly Game Two’s in doubleheaders. The “Cuban Missile” lived up to his reputation, as he struck out 84 batters in 99.1 innings and posted a 1.01 WHIP and 3.26 ERA. However, his numbers and 5-5 record may have been better if it wasn’t for the 14 home runs he allowed.
Promotions – In most cases, the story would be about the players that will be moving up a level. For Daytona this season, it will be about the players arriving. Depending on how high profile talents such as Javier Baez and Jorge Soler perform in the first half of 2013, they could end up being joined by Dan Vogelbach, Reggie Golden, Jose Arias, Pierce Johnson, Juan Carlos Paniagua, and others. That could make for an exciting second half of the season … and perhaps, another Florida State League title for Daytona.
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Two weeks remain on our poll of the top 20 vote-getters for the Down on the Farm Report. You can cast your vote here or on the right sidebar for the players you would like to be followed throughout the upcoming minor league season. You may vote for as many players as you like, up to 10, but only one voting session per IP address. Only the top 10 will be followed, so make sure to cast your votes …