The biggest jump for a young player is from High-A to Double-A and Mick Gillispie has seen several of the prospects in the Cubs system make the successful transition to the higher level of minor league ball.
Mick Gillispie has been the voice of the Tennessee Smokies since 2007 and has called Cubs Spring Training games with Len Kasper on Cubs.com since 2011. Mick not only saw the first half of Kris Bryant’s tremendous season but the addition Addison Russell to the organization and the promotion of Albert Almora in the second half.
Mick recently took time out of his day to talk Cubs prospects with Chicago Cubs Online.
Chicago Cubs Online: You had a front row seat for the first half of Kris Bryant’s season, what impressed you the most?
Mick Gillispie: That’s a good question. I think it was a lot of things that impressed me just about his ability to play baseball. But the most impressive thing is Kris’ personality. He is a class act. He’s a great team player. He’s a guy that goes above and beyond for his teammates. He shows up to work every day. He shows up ready to work every day. He is the type of guy that you build a franchise around.
I guess before we even talk about anything that he does on the field, it’s the stuff that he does to get ready for the field that stands out the most when you know him. The fact that he takes time to sign autographs. He understands how important fans are to the game. A lot of guys don’t really care. If you want to get down to it, and I’m not naming any names, but understand there are a lot of guys who could care less about who is out there and who is not. Kris cares about every minor, major detail. Kris cares about it. Kris does things the right way. I’ve said this before too. I wonder when you are watching him if this isn’t what a Hall of Famer looks like when you see him as a minor leaguer.
As a player, Kris’ ability to hit for power the other way is probably the thing that stands out the most. He can pull the ball. He makes in bat adjustments. You can get him out, but he will make an adjustment and change through the course of the game, sometimes through the course of an at bat. A pitch that might fool him he will be able to turn it around and drive it somewhere. I don’t remember any player have the power like he does the other way where you are talking about home runs that leave the park by, to right field, by feet. Hundreds of feet sometimes. He could hit a 400-foot shot over a wall that’s 315 down the line in right. Even some of your biggest power hitters can’t do that. I was surprised that he hit for as high an average as he did in the Southern League. I don’t know if he will hit .355 for an entire season in the Southern League, but he hit that for half a season. In the big leagues I don’t know if he will hit for that kind of average, but with that said if someone could do it, it would be him.
He’s the man. I’ll just put it like that, in a three-word answer. He is the man.
CCO: What improvements did you see Bryant make defensively?
MG: He got better at third base. He just looked like a guy to me that was out of position. He got better at staying down on low balls hit at him. He had trouble fielding bunts, but he has a great arm. He’s in good position. His footwork got better too as the season wore on. He just really looked like a guy to me that has a tough time being out of position. He looks like an outfielder, or a first baseman, and he was playing third. I saw him in some sim games [simulated games] in the outfield and he looks like, it was in left field, he looks like and excellent left fielder. I am not a scouting guy, but he just never looked like a third baseman to me.
CCO: You saw him play sim games in the outfield?
MG: Yes. With a sim game when someone is rehabbing and they need guys to go play in the outfield, just a simulated game. Those games are for pitchers just to see if you are ready to come back. I saw him play left field and he was very impressive. I don’t know if it was something the Cubs assigned him to do. I don’t have that kind of information. I can tell you that a lot of times guys just help out by playing in those sim games and you may only have three fielders. He may have been one of the guys that said I will go out and play. You watch his feet in the outfield. You watch his instincts toward the ball, and these aren’t batting practice balls, anyone can look great in a batting practice. These are actual game speed balls because the guy is really pitching. He was a catcher. He’s played everything growing up. Wherever the Cubs need him to play, he will be able to play there. He’s played third, maybe he’s gotten better since I saw him, but that’s the one area of his game to me that just doesn’t look as dominating as his offensive stuff I guess is the best way to say it.
CCO: What improvements did you see him make offensively?
MG: I never thought of him as a guy that had problems with pitch recognition. I think he just has a lot of swings and misses. He’s good at picking out the pitches to swing at but he just doesn’t him them all. I think that is a much better problem to have than what [Javier] Baez has, I love Baez too, where his slumps were he couldn’t hit anything. He just got to the point where he was being overmatched and overmatches that he can’t determine what is a ball and what is a strike. I felt like with Kris is that he did a really nice job, for the most part and got better as the season went on for sure from where he was when he first got there, but I felt like he had a much better idea of the strike zone. I just think with his swing and as big as he is you are not going to make contact every single time. With that said, he still made contact and awful lot.
CCO: The Cubs acquired arguably the best shortstop prospect in the game during the season, what were your impressions of Addison Russell at the plate?
MG: Russell has an extremely fast bat. He’s got really good bat speed, just elite bat speed, particularly on inside fastballs. If you try to bust him in and he gets around on it, he has the ability to keep a ball fair, the inside fastball fair, which he is holding back on at the same time he’s still driving through it and hitting tape measure shots down the line. I think his ability to hit that fastball puts him in an elite category because not a lot of guys can do that and keep it fair. Others foul it off or they hit it somewhere or they miss it, but not him. He can hit a fastball. Middle in he is a very, very good hitter. Middle away, he is maybe above average, or maybe average, average to above average. Away, he still has a lot to work on to me. Just the ability to drive the ball the other way. He can hit the ball the other way but to get a lot on it, he is still working on that. Offensively he was still a great hitter. But he is not as progressed as like a Kris Bryant, not many guys are.
CCO: And in the field?
MG: Defensively, I thought he got better as the season went on. We didn’t see him because he was in the Texas League before the trade but when he first got there I had watched Elliot Soto. And Elliot Soto is honestly the best defensive infielder that the Cubs have. Holding that against anyone else is really unfair because of all the guys I’ve ever seen play shortstop, when you watch Elliot over an amount of time the amount of ground he can cover it’s unprecedented. He [Soto] can do a little with the bat, someone is going to put him in the big leagues as a 25th man and he’s going to be a benefit to a winning team because he catches everything. When Russell came up he was about a step, step-and-a-half less range than Elliot both ways and I didn’t think his arm was that great. But he made some adjustments, maybe he got just more comfortable, the arm got better. It really wasn’t as much the arm as much as it was the way the ball would come out of his hand. You saw him working hard on it before games by the time the season came to an end I thought he was an excellent defensive shortstop. The thing with him that separates him from a lot of the other shortstops I’ve seen, he has like the strongest hands. I’ve described those as like mandible claws. You shake his hand and it honestly feels like your shaking a boxer’s hand. He just doesn’t miss the ball if it comes to him. I mean if it’s in his range and he gets a glove on it he just picks it up and I think that it’s because his hands are so powerful. It’s like a little suction cup where like I said the mandible claw clamps down on it and picks it up.
CCO: And he’s only 20 years old.
MG: Yeah, he’s a young guy and a good kid too. He doesn’t strike me as the type of guy that you are going to have trouble with outside of baseball. I just don’t see it. You know he’s 20 but he kind of has a little bit more maturity than you would expect from a 24-year old let alone a 20-year old. I think he’s pretty dedicated to being an excellent player and understands the other things that go along with who he is besides just baseball. That’s just my assessment.
CCO: And while we are talking about 20-year olds, the front office also promoted Albert Almora from Daytona to Tennessee during the season. Almora struggled offensively, but seemed to be figuring things out toward the end of the year. What adjustments did you see Almora make at the plate?
MG: I will say this at first this was the most baseball he’s ever played in a year. I think that his body was, he’s a high school guy and he’s still growing up and was definitely changing as the summer went on. I think that for Albert that was as much of an adjustment and also his dad’s health. His dad was very sick. He had to deal with that. He is very close with his family and so that was part of it too. His dad is fine but when you are going through it baseball becomes secondary. I think that kind of maybe factored in to his numbers not being as good as they’ve been but as far as learning goes he said he had a great season. I saw a guy that played an amazing outfield, that showed up to work every day, that wants to win, that is a natural leader. I saw a guy that was struggling and trying to figure it out. He got more confident as the season went on. He’s got to work on pitch recognition a lot during the off-season and his approach and being comfortable with his approach. I think those are the things that if you talk to him he will probably say. He had those moments where you could tell that being the youngest guy on the team and being at times physically in the process of going from a boy to a man and playing with guys that on an average were four and a half years older, at times was definitely something he had to negotiate through but I think all in all when you take the numbers away he had a very productive year. I would definitely think that next year is going to be one of those years where he puts it all together. He’s too good not to.
CCO: You mentioned his defense, so it is as good as advertised?
MG: Oh yeah. He’s the best outfield prospect the Cubs have. Maybe the arm isn’t as good. I mean, how many centerfielders have a giant arm? He’s got a good arm. He’s got the ability to make big plays in big moments in important games. And a lot of guys don’t have that. He also is excellent on his first step reads off balls. He’s got speed. He takes good routes to the ball. He’s smart. He’s a 20-year old and you see with some of these guys even on our team that can’t figure out when to throw to the cut-off man and when to try to make that out at home and when it’s worth taking a risk and when it’s not worth taking a risk. When you look at the Major League game that’s something that is important every single time and you have to know that, he does. He’s more advanced than his statistics would represent. He made a catch in a game against Montgomery this year out on the warning track with the bases loaded. He made a sliding catch with two outs and it would have meant three runs. Everyone just stood there and could not believe he caught it, I couldn’t believe he caught it. No one could believe it and he did. He’s a smart guy. It’s all going to come together for him, it will. I don’t know when it’s going to happen, but it will.
CCO: The Smokies began the season with four of the top pitching prospects in the system: C.J. Edwards, Pierce Johnson, Corey Black and Ivan Pineyro. Injuries shortened all but Black’s season. What did you think of the year Black put together? And do you feel he could pitch in a big league rotation or would his stuff play better in the backend of the bullpen? It appears Black’s stuff would play better in the backend of a bullpen.
MG: I would say that is true. The thing about the guys that we had, all of those guys, none of them are even as advanced as say even Addison Russell, who you figure will be at Spring Training, won’t make the team but could make a good enough impression and could start in Iowa. Russell could come back to the Smokies but he has a chance for a call-up next year. I don’t see any of those guys being at that spot yet. I think they are good. I think there is a lot of talent there but even with Corey, who was the only guy of that group who stayed healthy the entire year, there is too may walks. He’s got to do a better job of throwing all of his pitches for strikes and commanding the ball a little bit better. But his stuff is great. He gets out of a lot of jams. His numbers with runners on base and batting average against numbers are tremendous and would be great to kind of having those things coming out of the bullpen. I think that is why you would say, well, and his size too. Is he going to hold up to be a starter in the Major Leagues or would you rather just have him come in in spots and get some strikeouts? When he starts commanding the ball, I would say when you throw 25 pitches you want 20 of them to be where you tried to throw them and if you miss you want to miss either down or up where you are out of the zone up, not where you can hit it up. I don’t think he’s even close to that yet, but I think there were days where he was and there were days when he was the best pitcher in the league when he was commanding the ball.
CCO: What did you see from C.J. Edwards this year? Do you think he could pitch toward the top of a big league rotation?
MG: I had a very small sample size with C.J. because he got hurt. He’s the best pitcher in the organization. The way that the ball comes out of his hand it is really, really tough for guys to see and hit it. He’s a swing and miss pitcher and that’s just his natural ability. He just has natural movement on his pitches. Obviously somewhere along the line he’s going to want to put some weight on and he’s still go to grind it out in the minor leagues. He’s got to find innings. He got hit pretty hard towards the end of the season for him. I just think next year will probably be his year where he gets it all put together. But I think of all the guys, all of his pitches are good. He’s got a great demeanor. He’s just a winner. He’s a mature guy. Every time he walks out on the field he expects to win. This was the first time he’s ever dealt with an injury but he came back and maybe he was a little bit rusty coming back but when he’s good you can just tell he’s got the ‘It’ thing as far as maybe he’s a number one or a two starter in the Major Leagues, If he can put on enough weight to be able to weather pitching every five days.
CCO: What about Pierce Johnson?
MG: Pierce was probably the most impressive guy the Smokies had. He dealt with some issues and when he got back up for the second time there were just nights where Pierce, against some of the best teams in the league, just didn’t give up runs. But it goes back to the same thing when he’s throwing his pitches for strikes and he’s putting the ball where he wants to put it he’s another guy with swing and miss stuff. Even maybe when he doesn’t get it exactly where he wants it he can make mistakes and guys still have a tough at Double-A doing much about it. It’s just consistency, when he’s good he’s great but when he was off the walks, just way, way too many walks, way too many counts where he is pitching with one-ball, two-ball counts. Even though he is good enough to get out of it in the Southern League, he’s just got to get better at throwing strikes on a consistent basis. I mean he’s another guy, when he learns to really command the ball then all of the sudden you’ve got a number one or a number two starter. He’s got that ability but he’s got to stay healthy and just keep working on control and command. It’s just basic issues that young guys have to go through when it comes to pitching. I like all of his stuff. I like his breaking ball. I like his changeup. I like his cutter and I like his fastball.
CCO: Is there a starter or a reliever that you saw this year that flew under the radar that you think could help the big league team down the road?
MG: I think pitching wise there were a lot more disappointments with the Smokies. There is not an Eric Jokisch this year where you are going ‘Okay this guy is going to fool somebody.’ Or last year when I was talking about Kyle Hendricks. I sent a video with Kyle Hendricks and I said ‘Hey just trust me, put this video up’ and they put it up and now they know. I don’t know if there really were any of those guys this year. There were more guys that should have had better years then guys that kind of came out of nowhere. No one that stands out in my mind out of that pitching staff, maybe Frank Batista, the closer. I like Frankie I just don’t know why he hasn’t had success when he goes to Triple-A. I am just not convinced enough on anyone that’s not listed on the prospect guide to say ‘Hey here’s a guy and you should take a look at him.’ I hope that changes.
CCO: Jason McLeod spoke highly about Dustin Geiger last off-season, but he struggled this year. Was he dealing with an injury this season? Or did he have trouble adjusting to Double-A pitching?
MG: There wasn’t an injury. You just get to a level where you run into competition that is a little more advanced then where you’re at. I told him this before we left, I think he’s going to be a guy that comes back next year and it’s going to click for him. He had some games where he did well. He looked like himself at the beginning of the year. Then as the competition got better, the adjustments came and guys knew who he was, it was tough to make adjustments. He tried to work on his stance, change the way he would step toward the ball to get to it faster. I think it just comes down to having more at bats against better pitchers. I definitely don’t think he’s a guy you give up on. It was definitely not the type of year that a guy with that kind of talent would want to have, but in the same thing I’ve seen other guys have the same issues. When Casey McGehee was with the Cubs minor leagues he wasn’t really even a prospect. He struggled and it was Triple-A that was he struggle and he got sent back to Double-A and then put it all together. He’s had a great big league career. He’s made a lot of money and he’s played a lot of years. To me, I think Geiger is the same type of player. He’s not going to over-wow you with his talent but he has a lot of tools and he can definitely do some things. He’s a guy who could get there and be a big contributor, but really he’s just hit that league where now all of the sudden guys can locate breaking balls and changeups. Are you guessing for them or are you laying off stuff that’s not strikes? Are they setting you up a certain way? Just adjustments and confidence, I think those two things. I think he will get through those adjustments and confidence. It will be an interesting year. I could see him having a really good next season just being a year older and being a little bit closer to the league average. He is still a young guy.
CCO: Which player did you see make the most improvement during the season? Which player made the biggest impression on you that you might not have known much about when he arrived in Tennessee?
MG: Easy one, Rafael Lopez. He wasn’t with us through the entire year but there came a point where, even going back to the year before and then this year and you’re going okay this guy is going to make it to the Major Leagues and that was fun. For a guy that I thought was a good catcher but not a great catcher to becoming a guy who was really on the verge of something special before he got moved up to Iowa. Lot of hard work, much better behind the plate, was throwing out runners at a 40-something percent-clip, could hit, hit in the in the clutch. You put your catcher low in the lineup, but he just kept hitting and hitting and they kept moving him up and up. Eventually he passed Luis Flores. They sent Flores to the Smokies and him to Triple-A and then when they had call-ups on to the big leagues he went and he earned it. He’s good. And he was a leader too. I mean your catcher has to be a leader. I think he’s your quarterback and that is exactly what Rafy was.
CCO: Is there a player that you label as under-rated? If so, why?
MG: Elliot Soto. Elliot Soto is under-rated. You are talking about a guy that missed some time due to a suspension and came back in and immediately he made our team better, immediately. He is an incredible defensive player. He actually hit the ball after struggling in his first 80 at bats or so. Then after that he was hitting the cover off the ball before he was promoted to Iowa. I think if he figures out how to play the small man’s game, how to bunt more consistently and maybe that is something he has gotten better on and with the way he plays defense, he’s a guy that no one is probably going to talk about but there is a spot on a lot of teams for someone that can come in and basically make your pitchers that much better because they cover so much ground like he does. And he’s smart too. He’s a guy that just understands the game.
CCO: What changes have you seen over the last three seasons in how the Cubs system is run?
MG: Well, I think the biggest thing is these guys, Theo [Epstein] and Jed [Hoyer] and Jason [McLeod], have done a great job of getting premier talent. You have to credit Tom Ricketts for that too for spending the money. You talk about prospects, when you are building your organization around guys that are incredible. They are not just a little bit better than the rest of the team, they are better than every other player in the league. Kris Bryant, Javier Baez, Albert Almora, even though he didn’t dominate at Double-A, he’s going too. Addison Russell is still learning but still. [Kyle] Schwarber, the way he’s played. And [Jorge] Soler, we didn’t even talk about him. These are guys that are so much better than the rest of the minor league players that I think that’s the biggest difference. Honestly, I like the way the Cubs ran the minor league system before and I like the way these guys do it. When you get to this level, these guys are good. Jim Hendry is good. Theo is good. They are good because their intelligent people. They may have different philosophies on doing things some way or maybe these guys don’t care if you have facial hair, you may wear your socks up a certain way, but these guys have gotten into these positions for a reason. And I couldn’t sit here and say ‘Well, one philosophy is better than the other.’ All these guys are trying to do is put a product in Chicago that is going to win. The better the players are the easier it is going to be to do that.