Minor League Predictions
It’s like the Sports Illustrated cover jinx, only in reverse. Every season, I wildly grope to try and make some prescient comments concerning the approximately 300 players that will don a uniform in the Cubs’ minor league system.
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.
But, people seem to enjoy predictions, 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: Chris Rusin, LHP
First, let me start out by saying that given the nature of things, there will probably be a veteran pitcher or position player called up before any prospect. Of the prospects to be tapped by the parent club this season, I believe Chris Rusin will be the first.
The choice this year boiled down between Rusin and reliever Jaye Chapman. The deciding factor came down to this. If the Cubs need help in the bullpen, they will most likely plug with a veteran until one of their starters, such as Matt Garza or Scott Baker, are ready to go back into the rotation. Then, either Scott Feldman or Carlos Villanueva will be moved to the pen and the veteran either returned to Triple-A or released. Chapman would have to be blowing hitters away in the minors to alter that thought process.
This leads us to the 26-year old left-hander, Chris Rusin. There will be some that say that Rusin actually out-pitched some of the other players that made the staff. Should there be any concerns in the rotation, Rusin’s experience as both a starter and a reliever can open up more options. The Cubs could plug Rusin directly into the rotation or ease him in through the bullpen, allowing veteran LHP Hisanori Takahashi to move into the rotation.
Surprise Call-up: Greg Rohan, IF/OF
The drama that is Ian Stewart figures to have a prolonged effect on the roster, especially if Stewart continues to prove to be a slow healer. If Steve Clevenger replaces Stewart’s left-handed bat, Greg Rohan could be the next player up should any position player become injured.
Timing would be everything if this move were to happen. After languishing at High-A Daytona for most of last season, Rohan was rapidly moved through the system to Triple-A Iowa after a shake-up of the Cubs’ minor league management. The right-handed hitter was able to get 107 at bats with the I-Cubs last season. Rohan hit .290/.330/.449/.779 with four homers and 24 RBI during that time with the I-Cubs. Rohan led the Cubs’ minor league system with 21 home runs and was second with 106 RBI. If a replacement is not needed for the first five weeks or so, Rohan would turn 27 years old and have about 250 Triple-A at bats. That may be enough for Rohan to get some consideration, that and the fact that he can play first base, third base, and both right and left field.
Player on the Spot: Trey McNutt, RHP
Two years ago, the scouting world was abuzz over Trey McNutt as he compiled a 10-1 record with a 2.48 ERA and a 1.12 WHIP that included 132 strikeouts in 116.1 innings. Cubs’ management felt so highly of McNutt as he blew through Low-A Peoria, High-A Daytona, and Double-A Tennessee, they turned down a request by the Tampa Bay Rays to include him in a deal for RHP Matt Garza, inserting RHP Chris Archer into the trade instead.
With high expectations, McNutt started the 2011 and 2012 seasons at Double-A Tennessee and, well, flopped. Nagging injuries played their part, but the control and stamina that was present early on just didn’t seem to be there. In two seasons, McNutt has posted only a 14-14 record with a 4.40 ERA and a 1.52 WHIP that included only 131 strikeouts in 190 innings. McNutt was banished to the bullpen, but failed to record a save.
It appears that McNutt will return for a third season with the Smokies in 2013. This time, he will battle Tony Zych for the closer role. Hopefully, he can put some of his injury issues behind him and return to the form he displayed in 2010.
Fastest Risers: Javier Baez, IF and Pierce Johnson, RHP
In the case of both of these two high profile players, their movement this season will boil down to three things: production, production, and production.
The show put on by Javier Baez this spring leaves no doubt that he has a Major League bat. His power display has wags all over the media drooling and falling over themselves. Caught up in the wash has been his defense, which has been described as everything from outstanding to so-so. If the 20-year old can be more patient at the plate, go the opposite way with pitches, and smooth out his defense, he could be in Tennessee by the end of the summer, knocking at the door to the big leagues.
The spotlight hasn’t been as big on Pierce Johnson, but that doesn’t mean he hasn’t left an impression. The Cubs babied their first round pick last season, starting him four times at Short Season-A Boise and allowing him to go only two innings at a stretch, but he fanned 12 in those eight innings. The 21-year old will start the season at Low-A Kane County. Johnson has impressed the Cubs’ brass this spring, and with any success could follow the same pattern that saw Nick Struck move up three levels in 2011.
Two other players to watch for are infielders Tim Saunders and Steven Bruno. Both are 22 years old and experienced rousing success last season. If either or both start out the same way this season, they could be rapidly advanced in order to fill holes at higher levels.
Bounce-Back Players: Taiwan Easterling, OF and Evan Crawford, OF
After he was drafted in 2011, Taiwan Easterling hit the ground running for the Cubs’ organization. The Former Florida State wide receiver batted .500 in seven games in the rookie league, then was quickly promoted to Low-A Peoria. He then hit .277/.305/.361 with two home runs, 16 RBI, and nine stolen bases in 40 games. Easterling was then moved up to High-A Daytona, and although he only hit .200/.200/.200/.400 in five games, he became a starting outfielder for the D-Cubs in the Florida State League playoffs, as Daytona won the championship. In 2012, Easterling was nursing some injuries during Spring Training. He was assigned to Peoria, but hit only .243/.316/.366/.681 with four homers, 28 RBI, and 18 stolen bases in 70 games before ending the season on the disabled list. Reports from this year’s Spring Training are that he is injury free and producing well. At 24 years old, there is still time to get his career back on track.
In 2011, Evan Crawford was a vital cog of Daytona’s Florida State League championship team. As their leadoff hitter, Crawford consistently set the table by batting .307/.362/.401/.763 with 24 doubles, six triples, two home runs, 50 RBI, and 32 stolen bases. However, Crawford needed to sit out the entire 2012 after shoulder surgery. He is now back in camp, and it is uncertain as to whether he will move up to Tennessee, or remain with Daytona until he can show he’s back up to speed. Like Easterling, Crawford is 24 years old and has a lot of prospects breathing down his neck. That could be the motivation he needs.
Worth the Wait: Justin Marra, C and Ryan McNeil, RHP
As many focused the spotlight on the 2012 Boise Hawks season, lost in that hoopla was the fact that the AZL Cubs were also a playoff team. Two of the reasons for their success were Justin Marra and Ryan McNeil. The Cubs selected Marra in the 15th round of the 2011 draft and the 20-year old Canadian hit .322/.457/.467/.924 with 14 RBI in 29 games. Marra is expected to start slowly, beginning with Short Season-A Boise. However, if he continues to hit well, he could be moved up swiftly.
Nineteen-year old McNeil lead all AZL Cubs starters with a 1.35 ERA and a 1.45 WHIP, striking out 18 batters in 20 innings. The 6-foot-3, 210 pounder has the frame you like to see in a top of the rotation starter. Like Marra, McNeil will probably start with the Hawks, and will compete for the honor of Opening Day starter. Now, both will see if they can help Boise reach the playoffs for the third consecutive season.
Deep in the Bushes: Jesse Hodges, 3B and Garrett Schlecht, OF
A lot of where the Cubs will focus their attention in the 2013 draft will depend on how some of their players perform early this season. One system weakness, power hitting, could improve with the development of several prospects, including Jesse Hodges and Garrett Schlecht. The Cubs signed 18-year old Hodges as an undrafted free agent in August of 2012. Hodges was participating in the World Junior Tournament as part of the Canadian National team, and was hitting .455 with a home run in six games when he signed. A big kid at 6-foot-1, 210 pounds, the right-handed Hodges has the size and power stroke to project as a legitimate home run hitter.
Selected in the ninth round of the 2011 draft, the 20-year old Schlecht chose to sign with the Cubs rather than attend Middle Tennessee State. The left-handed hitter then appeared in nine ballgames for the AZL Cubs and hit .222/.417/.222/.639. This past summer, in his first full year as a professional, Schlecht batted .252/.359/.345/.704 with a home run, 16 RBI, and eight stolen bases in ten attempts, all in 35 games in the rookie league. Scouts say that he has a smooth stroke, good extension, strength in his swing, and uses his whole body. He also has a good frame at 6-foot-2, 190 pounds.
Minor League Pitcher of the Year: Matt Loosen, RHP
The Double-A level has produced the last two Pitchers of the Year for the system (Jeff Beliveau and Nick Struck), so it’s a good place to start when looking at candidates for this award. Of all the pitchers that may be assigned to the Tennessee Smokies, things look like they are setting up well for RHP Matt Loosen.
The most likely opening day starter for the Smokies would be LHP Austin Kirk, which would push fellow LHP Eric Jokisch to the number three spot in the rotation. Cubs’ management has said they would like to start RHP Alberto Cabrera back at Tennessee, and slotting him in to number two spot would seem logical. That would leave Loosen as the number four starter. At 11-5 with 110 strikeouts in 112.2 innings and a 1.145 WHIP for High-A Daytona last season, Loosen would be no ordinary fourth starter.
Faced with pairing their back of the rotation starters against Loosen, Southern League opponents could experience a lot of pressure to start out fast against him. That could result in a lot of mistakes, which could turn into a lot of early leads for the Smokies. Then, Loosen could just put things on cruise control.
A sleeper for this award may be Loosen’s probable teammate, RHP Tony Zych. The 22-year old is being groomed as a closer, and his fastball that can touch 100 MPH should help him in that direction.
Minor League Player of the Year: Jorge Soler, OF
While most of the hype in Spring Training centered on IF Javier Baez, it seemed as if coaches were most impressed by OF Jorge Soler. The 21-year old was signed out of Cuba before the restrictions on international contracts came into effect. Soler had a 14 game warm-up in the rookie league, hitting .241/.328/.389/.717 with two homers, 10 RBI, and eight stolen bases. He was then jumped to Low-A Peoria, where he batted .338/.398/.513/.910 with three home runs, 15 RBI, and four stolen bases in 20 games. What impressed coaches the most this spring was that he did not seem to be overmatched at the plate … and that he had an idea of what he was doing when he stepped into the batter’s box. Soler will be placed at High-A Daytona, in the pitcher’s paradise called the Florida State League. However, this actually could be an advantage for Soler, as many Caribbean players consider Florida a second home due to its climate, location, and culture.
His teammate, Baez, will cast a long, looming shadow over the claim for this award, with a true dark horse candidate being the previously mentioned infielder/outfielder Tim Saunders.
This concludes the off-season portion of Chicago Cubs Online’s Down on the Farm Report. Next Monday, bi-weekly coverage of all minor league games begins with the season openers for the Kane County Cougars, Daytona Cubs, Tennessee Smokies, and Iowa Cubs.