Special Assignment – Kane County Cougars v. Dayton Dragons
Recently, I had the pleasure of being able to cover the series between Kane County and the Dayton Dragons. I’d like to thank Shawn Touney, Director of Public Relations and the Kane County Cougars.
I’d also like to mention reporter Mike Knapp of the Beacon News, who has been an excellent resource, a great baseball conversationalist, and was a welcoming presence in the press box. Another tip of the cap to John Arguello from Cubs Den, who helped provided the analysis on pitcher Michael Heesch.
This was my first time back to Fifth Third Bank Ballpark since Kane County had become an affiliate of the Cubs (it had been the affiliate of Kansas City), and I could see some of the changes. The most notable were the video cameras, two each stationed on either foul line and another from the press box focused on home plate. The team not only someone game tracking on a laptop computer, they also had someone tracking each pitch. On top of that, pitchers for the next scheduled game tracked on a laptop up in the box, as opposed to the traditional pen-and-paper charting from the dugout. The press box was expanded to include an area for scouts, who had usually taken seats among the crowd in the past.
With the 2013 season so young, I eschewed trying to secure a player or two for a formal interview for a chance on getting to know more of the players.
The two players that stopped to talk the longest were catcher Willson Contreras and third baseman Jeimer Candelario. Contreras said that he is finally starting to get comfortable catching again after moving around to several positions over the past few years. Contreras had been moved to third base and also played first base, left field, and right field. He was worried a little about his batting average, but soon after our interview he went on a tear at the plate. Contreras also said that his overall comfort level with his position, along his teammates, had contributed to him being more confident at the plate and hitting with more power.
Candelario was also a little worried about his batting average, but agreed that as long as he kept his on-base percentage up, the hits would start to fall. He also remarked about how close everyone on the team was, and that he was working hard and taking pride in his defense.
I was a little concerned to meet Rock Shoulders, as the rumors were that he tried to crush everyone’s hand that he shook. Whether it’s because he has moved on from that, or perhaps because I am almost as big as he is (Shoulders still has about sixty pounds on me), my hand survived the meeting. Shoulders said that the plan for him was to get at least one start at first base and in the outfield a week.
Bijan Rademacher acknowledged that he remembered talking with me in the past, and would only stop briefly before heading out for drills. He related that he felt better adjusted at this level than he did last season, and that using yoga has help with his conditioning and flexibility. It has also been the subject of some good-natured teasing by his teammates.
One surprise was pitcher Ian Dickson, who recognized me after I had introduced myself from the CCO’s new minor league Twitter feed.
One disappointment was Dan Vogelbach, who I met outside of the clubhouse. His answers to questions seemed straight out of Bull Durham, and basically not worth noting. Given the fact that he was getting ready for a game, and that he appeared to be very gregarious with his teammates, he gets a pass for now.
The Scouts’ Corner
One of the perks of covering a minor league team at the ballpark is meeting scouts from several other organizations. There were about a half a dozen scouting the Kane County series, and a majority of them had just come from the Florida State League. Here is what they had to say about some of the Cubs’ prospects.
They spoke at great length about Javier Baez and Jorge Soler and, unfortunately, confirmed just about every red flag that has ever been mentioned about them. One NL East scout emphatically said that the Cubs should stop ‘fooling around’ and move Baez to third base. He reported that Baez loses concentration in the field and can’t make routine plays. Baez has good hands and a strong arm, but little else defensively. Baez’s power and speed are considered on the plus side, but that he is now “Hollywooding” after going to the big league camp, and not hustling on the basepaths. His relationship with the other players isn’t the best, running hot and cold.
One scout reported that he saw the incident that Soler got into (Soler was suspended earlier for a bat-swinging incident) and said that if he was in their system, he would have stayed in Arizona for the rest of the season in order to ‘grow up’. Another said that Soler ‘was paid about 29 million too much’. All agreed that Soler has tremendous defensive ability, but that he is lazy. Soler is also reported to have a very bad attitude, glaring at the umpires every time they call a strike on him, trying their patience. Of the two, they like Baez’s power better, saying that Soler is more of a line drive hitter.
Drawing the biggest raves from Daytona were John Andreoli and Ben Carhart. An AL scout said that Andreoli has ‘all the tools’ to play any of the outfield positions, good speed, great base-running instincts, and a solid approach at the plate. Carhart is a solid contact-line driver hitter and grades out very well at third, and can also play second and first base. All of the scouts also had a lot of good things to say about Tim Saunders, and felt that he was the best shortstop on the team (Daytona). They also said that while Stephen Bruno wasn’t playing when they were there, he grades out best at third base.
One NL scout felt that Jae-Hoon Ha was an “excellent” prospect, but that the Cubs probably won’t give him a chance. He sarcastically added that the Cubs keep “buying” outfielders to put ahead of him that ‘aren’t as good as he is’.
Many agree that Rock Shoulders has more than earned a promotion already. It was also said Dan Vogelbach has worked to increase his agility at first base. In general, nobody seems to like the Cubs’ offensive approach, feeling it takes away from the hitter’s natural aggressiveness. One scout had a sarcastic little pun about their philosophy that I can’t publish here.
Here are my impressions of the performances of some of the Chiefs, in alphabetical order.
Lendy Castillo – Had an above average fastball, clocking in the 94-95 mph range (by the stadium gun) but breaking pitch looked flat. You could tell the difference between his fastball and breaking ball by arm speed. He has no “out” pitch, and struggles with command. Opposing players can sit on his fastball.
Willson Contreras – Really looks comfortable behind the plate, showing quick feet and good transfer and release. He definitely has the throwing arm to get baserunners out. Offensively, he is still finding his way, chasing some pitches out of the zone. He has good balance and quick hands.
Michael Heesch – He has a fastball that sits anywhere from the high 80’s to low 90’s. His ball has a downward movement that is difficult to pick up. He can throw his slider for strikes. He is very fit and has the frame of an innings-eater.
Marco Hernandez – Insiders have said that he loses concentration in the field during games, so the team has him taking extra practice in order to keep sharp. He is very fluid around the bag and possesses enough arm strength to remain at short.
Felix Pena – Looks more confident his second time around in the league. He can spot his fastball in the zone, which runs in the low to mid 90’s. Sports an average breaking ball but is confident in it enough to throw it for strikes. Like Heesch, he is a big, strong man that looks as if he can pitch a lot of innings.
Bijan Rademacher – Appears to be a man on a mission as he was all over the field offensively and defensively during the series. From a defensive standpoint, he is reminiscent of former Cubs outfielder Jim Edmonds. Broad shouldered and barrel-chested, he doesn’t appear to be going fast but tracks down every ball. Has a very strong throwing arm. He was hitting everything in sight and was adept enough to drop down a bunt for a hit.
Rock Shoulders – He still has a slight upper cut to his swing, but Shoulders has toned down his all-or-nothing approach that he had a Boise last season. Still a little pull conscious. Has decent agility and better range than Dan Vogelbach at first, but isn’t as polished defensively. Insiders informed me that Shoulders is also taking ground balls at third during pre-game drills.
Brian Smith – When with fellow Canadian Wes Darvill, it looked as if the shorter Smith was the middle infielder and the tall, lanky Darvill the pitcher. He had a little trouble with control, but was able to work himself out of a jam. Fastball sits in the low 90’s, while breaking ball seems to roll up to the plate at times. However, he is able to spot his breaking pitch and use it like a change-up when the situation dictates a fastball.
Dan Vogelbach – Quick initial movement allowed him to move around well in a limited area, despite the lack of speed. He is very take-charge in the field, calling out the plays to the defense. Still needs to work on maintaining his concentration, failing to make a catch on a routine pop foul after trying to one-hand it. Still displays a very quick bat, but he is now more willing to stay within himself. Appears to be very well liked among his teammates.