Minor League Predictions
It’s time once again for me to look into my crystal ball. 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 upcoming season has the looks of an exciting one for fans of the minor leagues. With a number of high level prospects and continued successes at some of the lower levels last season, contending teams at all levels can be expected this season.
Last season, I didn’t do too badly in this area, so pull up a chair, grab your cup of coffee, and let’s see how I do this year … in Down on the Farm.
First Prospect Call-up: Arismendy Alcantara, IF
First, I have modified this category slightly to reflect the spirit in which the predictions are made. It is quite likely that some player with Major League experience who is biding their time on a minor league contract gets called up earlier. For the purposes of his article, focus will be on players with little to no Major League experience.
In assessing this prediction, I quickly discounted any pitching prospects due to the Jake Arrieta ‘situation.’ With Arrieta starting the year on the disabled list, his open slot will gave a chance to Brian Schlitter to begin the season on the active roster and could lead to Chris Rusin being the first call-up if Carlos Villanueva, Hector Rondon, Brian Schlitter or Justin Grimm struggle early in the year. Since all of those players already have major league experience, they weren’t considered for this prediction.
That leaves the position players. The Cubs optioned three to Triple-A Iowa: Arismendy Alcantara, Matt Szczur, and Logan Watkins. Presently, Szczur is not ready for the majors. It is my feeling that if Cubs management were sold on Watkins, they wouldn’t have paraded fringe major-leaguers such as Ryan Roberts and Chris Valaika and minor league vets Walter Ibarra and Jeudy Valdez through training camp.
This leaves us with Alcantara left on that list. Before we discuss him, a reminder that super-prospect Javier Baez is not on the 40-man roster. While Alcantara does not have any outfield experience, the presence of Emilio Bonifacio makes that a moot point. Even if it is Bonifacio who makes the first trip to the DL, he most likely would be replaced with an infielder. If not, than Bonifacio would see more time in the outfield as an infielder, my prediction Alcantara, is brought up.
Surprise Call-up: Dallas Beeler, RHP
As stated above, the injury situation with Jake Arrieta has control of the final pitching spots on the Major League roster. With that in mind, there can only be a narrow window in which any other player can be considered. If another pitcher is injured, and management wishes to give someone with no Major League experience some brief exposure, the player they may turn to could be Dallas Beeler.
Beeler is also on an optional assignment in Iowa, so there will be no trouble with 40-man roster space in recalling him. The Cubs also got a good look at Beeler in spring training, as he pitched the second most innings among relievers (as of March 26) and faced mostly Major League competition. Beeler pitched well in the Arizona Fall League after spending most of 2013 on the DL, as he was 4-1 with a 2.49 ERA in 21.2 innings.
Player on the Spot: Nick Struck, RHP
After being named the 2012 Minor League Pitcher of the Year, there were high expectations for Nick Struck. Some of the fuel for those expectations came from the fact that Struck already had experience at Triple-A. Struck went 2-4 with a 5.20 ERA and a 1.57 WHIP that included 38 strikeouts in 62.1 innings as a 21-year old in 2011.
Fast forward to 2013, as Struck opened the season with the I-Cubs. Things got ugly quick for Struck as he went 6-8 with a 6.17 ERA and a 1.77 WHIP that included 56 strikeouts in 109.1 innings in Iowa. Struck was demoted to Double-A Tennessee for the last month of the season, but was a disappointing 1-2 with a 3.95 ERA and a 1.46 WHIP (12 strikeouts in 27.1 innings).
Struck had a career 3.68 ERA prior to his Pitcher of the Year season as well as a career 1.44 WHIP. However, Cubs’ management had Struck change his pitching motion in the 2012 Arizona Fall League which resulted in a 5.51 ERA and 1.47 WHIP in 16.1 innings.
Whether it is Struck needing more time to adjust to his new mechanics, or hitting just catching up to his stuff, Struck must put 2013 behind him and find the form that allowed him to toss a no-hitter in 2010.
Fastest Risers: Kris Bryant, IF/OF and Rob Zastryzny, LHP
Management has a lot at stake with Kris Bryant and Rob Zastryzny, the top two selections of the 2013 draft. Each will be given an opportunity to advance at an accelerated pace. However, it isn’t as if either player hasn’t earned their present assignment.
Bryant will open as the starting third baseman for Double-A Tennessee. After signing last summer, the 22-year old blew through both the rookie league and Short-Season A Boise. Getting to skip past Low-A Kane County, Bryant held down third base as High-A Daytona blasted through the last part of the season and the playoffs to capture the Florida State League Championship. Through 36 games, Bryant hit .336/.390/.688/1.078 with nine homers, 25 extra-base hits, and 32 RBI. While Bryant batted only .111 this spring, it was in only 18 at bats in 11 games with the Major League squad. The two hits Bryant did manage where home runs.
Also 22 years old, the organization played it a little more conservatively with Zastryzny, making sure the pitcher did not get overworked. Assigned straight to Short-Season A Boise, Zastryzny appeared in eight games (seven starts) and had a 3.14 ERA with a 1.33 WHIP that included 16 strikeouts in 14.2 innings. Moved up to Low-A Kane County, Zastryzny made three more appearances and was 1-0 with a 0.93 ERA and a 1.35 WHIP (six strikeouts in 9.2 innings). Daytona is where it looks like this Canadian will start 2014.
Bounce-Back Players: Trey Martin, OF and Ryan McNeil, RHP
Both of these players experienced season ending injuries and surgeries early in 2013. With a full season and off-season to recover, it appears both players are primed for a big 2014.
Drafted in the 13th round in 2011, 21-year old Trey Martin was looking to build on a very good 2012 when he needed surgery on his non-throwing shoulder. Considered a premier defender, Martin batted .270/.318/.377/.696 with three homers, six stolen base, and 23 RBI in 57 games for Short-Season A Boise two seasons ago. In 2013, Martin appeared in only 11 games and hit .200 with five RBI before his shoulder could bear no more. Martin looks like he will pick up in 2014 where he left off in 2013 at Low-A Kane County.
A third round pick in 2012, Ryan McNeil was the top-of-the-rotation starter for an AZL Cubs team that reached the playoffs. McNeil out-pitched some more well-known names on the squad, including Paul Blackburn, Dillon Maples, Anthony Prieto, and Duane Underwood. In six appearances, McNeil was 1-0 with a 1.35 ERA and a 1.45 WHIP (18 strikeouts in 20 innings). With McNeil looking like he would be at least the Opening Day starter for Short-Season A Boise in 2013, he experienced arm trouble in Spring Training that required Tommy John surgery. Now 20 years old, McNeil was still limited in training camp, but was assigned to the Daytona squad for Spring Training. If McNeil can return to form, it is possible he could appear with Kane County somewhere around mid-season.
Worth the Wait: Kevin Encarnacion, OF and Duane Underwood, RHP
What more can you say about a 22-year old switch-hitter who has won a batting championship, increased his RBI total every year, doubled his home run output, and still maintained a career .402 on-base percentage? How about get well, soon!
Outfielder Kevin Encarnacion seems to have all the makings of a five-tool player. The reigning Northwest League batting champion (.355) showed he could hit for average. His nine home runs in 2013 were one more than his career total of eight, and Encarnacion has 66 career stolen bases in four minor league seasons (only 239 games). Most observers feel that his defense is better than his numbers indicate, and he has the arm strength to handle right field. However, Encarnacion was in a serious automobile crash in the off-season, and is recovering from burns to his arms and torso. How severe the damage is and whether it will affect his ability is anyone’s guess.
As far as Duane Underwood is concerned, the wish is that his physical maturity comes in a hurry. When a 19-year old can throw a fastball in the upper 90s, you have to wonder what he will be capable of when he grows into his body and gains some strength. At only 18 last year, Underwood was 3-4 with a 4.97 ERA with a 1.64 WHIP (36 strikeouts in 54.1 innings) for Short-Season A Boise. Underwood is receiving his education at the professional level. Even if his developmental plan calls for him to repeat with the Hawks, he won’t be in Boise long if he learns his lessons well.
Deep in the Bushes: Frailin Figueroa, LHP and Roney Alcala, IF
A robust teen at 6-foot-2, 203 pounds, 18-year old left-hander Frailin Figueroa was given an increased workload in the DSL this past season. Figueroa tossed 49.2 innings in 13 games. However, this still wasn’t enough to qualify Figueroa for consideration for league leadership in any category despite some lofty numbers. Figueroa went 5-1 with a 1.27 ERA and a 1.03 WHIP with 53 strikeouts against 24 walks.
Nineteen-year old infielder Roney Alcala simply destroyed pitching in the Venezuelan Summer League in 2013, and was only three home runs away from winning the league’s Triple Crown. In 64 games, Alcala lead the league with a .353 average and 49 RBI, and ended up sixth with nine homers. Alcala was also third in the league with a .544 slugging percentage and an OPS of .930. With the exception of shortstop and centerfield, Alcala has played every position in the field, including pitcher and catcher.
Both players figure to be in the rookie league this season, with Alcala having an outside shot at being assigned to Short-Season A Boise.
Minor League Pitcher of the Year: C.J. Edwards, RHP
You would have to go back to 2006 to find a Minor League Pitcher of the Year that did not spend at least a portion of the season at Double-A, where C.J. Edwards looks like he will start this season.
The Cubs think so highly of this 22 year-old, they had Edwards start a game for the parent club this spring. After being acquired from the Rangers as part of the Matt Garza trade, Edwards blew away the opposition at High-A, helping lead Daytona to a league championship. There has been plenty already written about the numbers Edwards posted in 2013, but none may be more impressive than his 155 strikeouts in 116.1 innings. Edwards will have a team in Tennessee that will provide him with both good defense and good run support, so all the “String-bean Slinger” will have to do is concentrate on throwing strikes.
The organization, especially at Tennessee, will not be at a loss for other Pitcher of the Year candidates. Edwards’ potential Smokies teammates Pierce Johnson, Ivan Pineyro, or Corey Black may also emerge, as could the previously mentioned Rob Zastryzny.
Minor League Player of the Year: Albert Almora, OF
While some may not think so, I am going out on a limb a little by predicting a 20-year old with less than 100 games in the minor leagues as the Player of the Year. The reason is because that 20-year old happens to be Albert Almora.
Observers have raved about the advanced approach Almora has shown this spring, as he was not in awe of being in his first big-league camp. Almora played nine games with the parent club, and hit .429/.429/.500/.929 with a double and two RBI. This is on the heels of a 2013 season in which he batted .329/.376/.466/.842 with 17 doubles, four triples, three home runs, four stolen bases, and 23 RBI in 61 games for Low-A Kane County.
The 61 games is one of the concerns raised about Almora, as he was limited last season by a broken hand and a groin/hamstring injury. Almora will have to show that he can keep himself in one piece. The other is whether he can achieve some of the lofty numbers that others can potentially have. Almora has neither great speed nor power, so he will spend most of his time hitting in the two-hole of the line-up. While Almora should continue to hit for a high average, he may not have the home run, RBI, or stolen base totals of some other prospects.
Almora will be returning to his native Florida to be a part of High-A Daytona, at least to start the season. There, Almora will be a part of a strong team, especially in the pitching department, that will contend for a playoff spot. If everyone else pulls their weight, Almora should get his chances to pad his totals.
Among other that can be considered for this award include Tennessee teammates Kris Bryant and Jorge Soler, as well as Triple-A infielders Javier Baez and Arismendy Alcantara. For those looking for a sleeper, emerging prospect Dustin Geiger may fit that role.
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.
Minor League Player Poll
The CCO’s run-off poll closes on Wednesday, April 2, so if you have not voted, make sure to cast your votes for the 10 players you would like to see highlighted by the Down on the Farm Report this season.
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).