Cubs Down on the Farm Report – 02/10/14

Greetings to everyone at the CCO! With the Winter League seasons over and Opening Day for the Minor Leagues weeks away, it’s time to step away from reporting and move to more feature articles.  For the fourth year, the Down on the Farm Report returns to a popular feature entitled Bubble Players and Bubble Busters.

Each year, a number of players are on the bubble as to making the Major League roster out of Spring Training. This article takes a look at whom some of those players could be, and which players could bust their bubble.

Bubble Players and Bubble Busters

Infield

Bubble Player: Mike Olt – The eyes of the Cubs’ faithful will be on Mike Olt, one of the centerpieces of last season’s Matt Garza deal, this spring. The former first round draft pick was rated the 43rd best prospect by MLB.com prior to the 2012 season. And Olt belted 28 home runs for the Rangers Double-A team that season. But all of that promise turned into a question mark after Olt was beaned while playing winter ball in the Dominican Republic. Olt suffered a concussion and began experiencing vision problems. After seeing several specialists, it was determined that Olt’s eyes were not producing enough fluid and as a consequence he was blinking more frequently. Both Olt and the Cubs hope his vision issues can explain why Olt was only able to hit .201/.303/.381 for the 2013 season while having some noticeable problems in the field. Olt believes he has the problem corrected with the use of prescription eye drops. The Cubs are hoping that he can win the Opening Day spot at third base with the big league club.

Bubble Buster: Logan Watkins – This is the second year that Logan Watkins has been in this spot, but coming in this year he may have more advantages than last spring. Watkins had a puzzling 2013 after he was sent to Triple-A Iowa following Spring Training. Watkins was miscast as the I-Cubs’ leadoff man, a role he had rarely performed in during his minor league career. As a hitter with good bat control and a slightly aggressive approach, the switch from his familiar number two slot did not suit him. Watkins hit a career low .243, while recording a career-low in stolen bases (10). Nevertheless, Watkins was promoted to the big league club at the beginning of August where he essentially rotted on the bench. Even when the rosters expanded in September, Watkins saw very little playing time. There are some that feel the manager Dale Sveum’s handling of Watkins (along with a couple of other prospects the previous year) was a contributing factor that led to his firing. The 2012 Cubs Minor League Player of the Year has some fans in the front office, and hopefully, a fresh start with new manager Rick Renteria.

Outlook: It is hard to parse this situation out, but here are some of the factors to consider. While the Cubs want Olt to win the third base job, with Luis Valbuena and Donnie Murphy available, the position would be in capable hands if he doesn’t. What happens to Olt if he can’t make the Major League club is a bigger problem. With the organization committed to having Christian Villanueva at third for Iowa and first round draft pick Kris Bryant manning the hot corner for Double-A Tennessee, there would be only two options in dealing with Olt. One option would be sending him to Iowa where he could receive playing time at third base, first base, and DH in order to get enough at bats while not taking away too many from another prospect. The other would be placing Olt at High-A Daytona, where they have a potential opening at third base. Olt could get his at bats there under less pressure, and move up to Triple-A for a few weeks when he is ready before taking another trip to The Show.

As for Watkins, all he may need is a good showing in spring to make the club, even if Olt appears ready. The club brought in a bushel full of infield non-roster invitees, the most notable being Ryan Roberts. This front office does seem to reward the good soldier-type of players, and Watkins put up with a lot last season. A spring where he is even offensively with the other candidates may be all that Watkins needs to travel north. Out of all the infield options, Watkins may be the most versatile. Primarily a second baseman, he is also a better than average shortstop and a very good centerfielder. With 94 career stolen bases in six seasons, he has the speed you look for in a pinch-runner and with 22 home runs the past three seasons, some pop as a pinch-hitter.

Outfield

Bubble Player: Ryan Kalish – As the case in the infield, the Cubs have signed a passel of fringe Major League outfielders to compete for a roster spot. One of the more intriguing signings is former Red Sox prospect Ryan Kalish. Drafted in the ninth round in 2006, Kalish was named the 96th best prospect in 2008 by Baseball America. In 2009, Kalish was the Red Sox Minor League Offensive Player of the Year after hitting .279/.364/.457/.820 with 18 home runs, 77 RBI, and 21 stolen bases between High-A and Double-A. Kalish was hitting a at a .294/.356/.476 clip in 2010 between Double-A and Triple-A when he got the call to the big leagues and hit .252/.305/.405 with 11 doubles, four homers and 10 stolen bases in 53 games for the Red Sox. With a crowded outfield in 2011, Kalish was returned to the minors where he injured his shoulder making a diving catch and was lost for the season. Kalish made the Red Sox squad in 2012, but hit only .229/.272/.260 in limited duty and returned to the minors. Kalish played in only 33 more games that season while dealing with his injuries. In January 2013, Kalish underwent arthroscopic surgery on his shoulder, which was followed up with cervical fusion surgery in August of that year. While Kalish hasn’t seen any meaningful action since 2011, his signing was a good gamble. Kalish is only 25 years old and if he is fully recovered he has game changing speed and leadoff potential. The major concerns are whether he can physically return to the player he was, and whether or not his style of play could contribute to future injuries.

Bubble Buster: Josh Vitters – While Josh Vitters didn’t suffer the severity of physical problems that Ryan Kalish has, he can identify with his situation as a player on the cusp of making the majors, only to fall short because of injuries. Despite what some of the critics may think, Vitters was closer to making the Opening Day roster for the 2013 Cubs than they would care to admit. Vitters was coming off of a monster 2012 season, his first at Triple-A, where he hit .304/.356/.513/.869 with 32 doubles, 17 home runs and 68 RBI (along with a career high six stolen bases) in 110 games. Vitters was called up to the Cubs at the beginning of August 2012 and was misused by the since-departed coaching staff and appeared in only 36 games. Vitters was primed to challenge for a roster spot in the spring of 2013, and the front office promised that he would get a full chance at winning the starting spot at third base. However, Vitters hurt his leg early in training camp, and was never able to compete. That same leg ended up giving Vitters trouble all season and he appeared in only 28 games for Iowa. But Vitters played well in spurts and hit .295/.380/.511 with five home runs and 12 RBI. The Cubs have given up on Vitters being able to play third base, so they have shifted him to the outfield.

Outlook: The outfield situation for the Cubs is interesting with Junior Lake, Ryan Sweeney, Nate Schierholtz, and Justin Ruggiano hitting 51 home runs and driving in a total 153 runs last season. Of that quartet, only Schierholtz could have been considered a regular starter, so there is a possibility that those numbers could improve. With the offensive balance and defensive versatility those four provide, the need for a fifth outfielder, especially early in the season, may not be there. This is where being able to play several positions, as pointed out with Logan Watkins, may be an asset. While he may not be the best option there, Vitters can still play third base in a pinch and has experience at first base. That could tip the balance to Vitters if he is able to show he is fully recovered for last year’s injuries and mentally ready for the big time. Kalish’s speed would also be welcome on a team that lacks that quality overall. As said earlier, both prospects are in a battle with several others with Major League experience, including former 2009 NL Rookie of the Year Chris Coghlan.

Catcher

Bubble Player: Eli Whiteside – With a roster spot possibly in play, a lot of teams like to carry a third catcher. It allows them to use a catcher as a pinch-hitter without having to worry about a back-up, and it assures a starter a full day off when he needs one. If that is the way the Cubs are thinking, that could open a door for Eli Whiteside. Drafted by Baltimore in 2001, Whiteside has enjoyed a 13-year baseball career in which he earned a World Series ring with the 2010 Giants. A light hitter with a .215/.273/.335 career slash line in the majors, the 34-year old is mainly known for his defense. Whiteside has fielded .989 over his career and has a 31 percent caught stealing percentage.

Bubble Buster: John Baker – Like Whiteside, John Baker is a baseball veteran that is looking to latch on to one more team. Baker was drafted by Oakland in 2002, and has bounced from the Athletics to the Marlins, back to the Athletics, back to the Marlins, to the Padres and Dodgers, and has ended up with the Cubs. Baker may have some advantages over Whiteside in that he hits left-handed, and he is a little better of an offensive player. While hitting only .150 in 16 games for the Padres in 2013, Baker has a career slash line of .258/.342/.364.

Outlook: The Cubs made a great pick-up in the 2013 Rule 5 Draft in catcher Charles Cutler from the Cardinals’ system. The Cubs will probably pair Cutler with highly regarded prospect Rafael Lopez to split the catching duties at Triple-A Iowa. That could mean it’s the majors or go home for both Whiteside and Baker. The Cubs could possible hang on to one of them if they happen to get ‘hurt’ in spring training.

Right-Handed Pitchers

Bubble Player: Hector Rondon – A year ago, Hector Rondon had no worries about making the Major League roster. As a Rule 5 Draft pick, Rondon had to stay on the big league roster all season, or be offered back to Cleveland, the team he was picked from in the draft. For his part, Rondon performed much better than the Cubs’ previous Rule 5 selection. Rondon appeared in 45 games and was 2-1 with a 4.77 ERA and a 1.41 WHIP that included 44 strikeouts in 54.2 innings. Rondon showed a lot of improvement after the All-Star break. Rondon appeared in 20 games (25.1 innings) and ended up posting a 3.20 ERA and a 1.15 WHIP (21 strikeouts, 10 walks). But now that Rondon is property of the Cubs with a minor league option left, he will have to do much better in order to carve out a spot in what is becoming an increasingly crowded bullpen. Rondon pitched well in the Venezuelan Winter League and went 2-0 with a 3.65 ERA and a 1.62 WHIP (10 strikeouts in 12.1 innings).

Bubble Buster: Justin Grimm – Along with Mike Olt and Neil Ramirez and C.J. Edwards, Justin Grimm was acquired in the deal that sent Matt Garza to Texas. Selected in the fifth round of the 2010 draft by the Rangers, Grimm progressed well through their system. Grimm compiled a career 21-12 minor league mark with a 3.28 ERA and a 1.23 WHIP that included 275 strikeouts in 323.1 innings. In his first full season in the majors in 2013, the 25-year old was 7-9 with a 5.97 ERA and a 1.57 WHIP with 76 strikeouts in 98 innings. This off-season, the front office has said that they wanted Grimm to prepare as a starter, but most scouts feel that Grimm will eventually end up in the bullpen.

Outlook: As with the infield and outfield, management has spent a lot of time this off-season signing players to compete for the pitching staff. With Jose Veras joining Pedro Strop and Carlos Villanueva, there should only be one open spot for a right-hander in the Cubs’ pen. It is also important to remember the Alberto Cabrera is out of options and Kyuji Fujikawa can possibly be available later in the year. There will also be competition from minor league signee James McDonald. Both Rondon and Grimm are probably part of the future, but the future may not be here yet.

Left-Handed Pitchers

Bubble Player: Tommy Hottovy – For the most part, the players the front office acquired this off-season appear that they will at least make Spring Training competitive. And then, there is Tommy Hottovy. Selected by the Red Sox in the fourth round of the 2004 draft, Hottovy has never realized his potential. Hottovy pitched for seven years in Boston’s minor league system, and had Tommy John surgery in 2008. He saw his first big league action in 2011 and pitched four innings and with a 6.75 ERA. He became a minor league free agent and signed with Kansas City prior to the 2012 season. That year, he split time between the Royals and their Triple-A club. Hottovy tossed tossing 9.1 innings for Kansas City with a 2.89 ERA. He was then dealt to the Rangers for cash considerations, who then designated him for assignment. Hottovy was picked up on waivers by the Toronto Blue Jays, who then designated him for assignment. Hottovy passed through waivers and spent the first two months of the 2013 season as a 31-year old in Double-A. He was then promoted to Triple-A Buffalo and was a combined 0-1 with a 4.19 ERA (42 strikeouts in 43 innings). The sidearm pitcher has both a two-seam and four-seam fastball that sits in the mid-to-high 80s, along with a change-up and a curve.

Bubble Busters: Brooks Raley – With opportunities to pitch in the majors in both 2012 and 2013, Brooks Raley is hoping the third time is the charm. Selected by the Cubs in the sixth round of the 2009 draft, Raley has shown some pretty steady numbers in the minors, but only once has produced a winning season. It is fair to say that during his minor league career, Raley has often lacked support due to the talent level he was surrounded by. Nevertheless, his minor league career 3.92 ERA and 1.40 WHIP are rather ho-hum as prospects go. After spending practically all of his minor league time as a starter, the Cubs say they want to look at Raley as a reliever. Raley appeared in nine games for the Cubs in 2013 and did not record a decision but finished with a 5.14 ERA and a 1.36 WHIP that included 14 strikeouts in 14 innings, all in relief. With a high 80s-low 90’s fastball, slider, change-up, and curve, less exposure over the course of a game may make Raley more effective.

Outlook: One of the most consistent criticisms of Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer is that they seem to over-value players they have a history with. This off-season appears to be no different, as Epstein and Hoyer have brought in players such as Darnell McDonald, Ryan Kalish, Mitch Meier, and John Baker. However, none of those players seems as gratuitous as Hottovy. With veteran lefties Jonathan Sanchez and Tsuyoshi Wada also in camp, developing pitchers such as Raley, Chris Rusin, and Zac Rosscup will be squeezed for playing time. To counter some of the critics, three other teams over the past two years have also seen something in Hottovy to at least give him a look.

Caribbean World Series

The round-robin play in the CWS ended on Wednesday with Team Cuba being eliminated. On Thursday, Team Mexico gained their third appearance in the Caribbean World Series finals in the last four years by defeating the Dominican Republic 3-2. Designated Hitter Zelous Wheeler (Orioles) drew a bases loaded walk in the bottom of the eighth inning to score catcher Sebastian Valle (Phillies) with the tying run. A single by Valle in the ninth brought in shortstop Yuniesky Sanchez (ex-Diamondbacks, Pirates) with the winning run.

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Friday saw underdog Team Puerto Rico score a huge upset as they defeated Team Venezuela 2-0. Pitchers Giancarlo Alvarado (Mets), Steve Smith (Dodgers) and Tyler Herron (Nationals) held Venezuela to just three hits in the shut out. Puerto Rico went ahead for good in the top of the eighth as centerfielder Eddie Rosario (Twins) singled home ex-Cub Luis Montanez and Miguel Abreu (Phillies).

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In the winner-take-all final on Saturday it wasn’t even a close contest as Team Mexico blew away Team Puerto Rico 7-1. Once again, it was Sebastian Valle coming through with the big hit as his sixth inning Grand Slam provided four of the six runs Mexico scored that inning. Ex-Cub Daryle Ward joined in the fun as he was 2-for-4 with an RBI and two runs scored. Mexican League veteran Juan Delgadillo tossed seven scoreless innings and struck out five batters. Congratulations to Naranjeros de Hermosillo!

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Australian Baseball League

Canberra routed the Sydney Blue Sox 9-1 on Sunday to set up a rematch of last year’s ABL Championship with the Perth Heat. This year it was Perth regaining the title with a sweep of the Cavalry in the best-of-three series to win the Claxton Shield, awarded to the Australian Baseball League champions. The Heat were led by outfielder Brandon Tripp (ex-Phillies), who was second in the league with a .333 average and 10 home runs while leading the league with 41 RBI during the regular season.

The opening game on Friday was a four-hour, 14-inning marathon that saw shortstop Joey Wong (Rockies) hit a walk-off double for the game-winner. Starter Jack Frawley (ex-Astros) went seven innings and allowed three earned runs while striking out four batters. Brendan Wise (ex-Tigers, Twins) struck out five and chewed up four scoreless innings in relief.

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In game two on Saturday, Perth starting pitcher Brian Baker (ex-Brewers) held Canberra to an earned run over 6.1 innings as the Heat clinched the championship 2-1. Perth broke a 1-1 tie in the sixth inning as first baseman Matt Kennelly (Reds) tripled and scored on a single by catcher Allan de San Miguel (Orioles).

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Attention CCO Readers

The Down on the Farm preliminary reader’s poll is underway. Please post the names of the minor league players you would like the Down on the Farm Report to follow during the upcoming season. The CCO will take the top 20 names and run a special poll for the final month of Spring Training. The CCO will then track the progress of the top ten vote getters throughout the entire season. A representative sample of positions and levels of play is optimal. You can name as many players as you like, but remember, only ten will eventually be chosen. The field continues to grow, with now 56 players represented. For the third consecutive week, pitchers C.J. Edwards and Pierce Johnson remain tied for the lead. So from Luis Acosta to Tony Zych, all nominations will be accepted and given equal weight.

Race to Wrigley

For the second straight year, I will be competing in the Race to Wrigley 5K run on April 12, 2014. If anyone is interested in making a donation, please visit ChicagoCubsOnline – Race to Wrigley to register. All proceeds go to Chicago Cubs Charities and Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago (formerly Children’s Memorial Hospital).

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Quote of the Day

"Logic will get you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere." - Albert Einstein