Minor League Preview – Rookie and Short Season-A Ball
Good Morning to everyone at the CCO! Today is the first of a three part installment previewing the 2013 minor league season. A brief overall look at the system will precede the team summaries. We will be using a new format, discussing each level’s strengths, weaknesses, and things to look for this season. Please note that the previews are based on current roster assignments and anticipated Spring Training success. All assignments, both as to position and level, are subject to change pending the completion of Spring Training.
The front office of Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer, and Jason McLeod deserve credit for improving the overall talent level of the minor league system. However, that does not give them a free pass on some of the mistakes they have made in handling the minor leagues. Hopefully, the re-structuring of player development, including the hiring of Brandon Hyde, will help minimize any future gaffes. Here are three general things to look for in the minor league system for 2013.
1. Triple-A Roster Management: The roster for the Iowa Cubs sets the tone for the entire system. Player movement within the system comes to a complete halt unless there is room at the top for prospects. The front office has gone on record in saying that Triple-A is where they want their minor leaguers to finish their development. But in 2012, 22 of the 39 players appearing in ten games or more for Iowa were 26 years old OR OLDER. It will be interesting to see if management is true to their word in 2013 or if the I-Cubs continue to be a receptacle for has-beens and never-weres.
2. Player Movement: The minor league teams throughout the Cubs’ organization belong to leagues that have teams from some of the best player development systems in the Major Leagues. But organizations such as Atlanta, Tampa Bay, Minnesota, and St. Louis work things differently than the Cubs have for years. These teams utilize the unlimited player movement rules like playing a xylophone, moving players up and down depending on how hot or cold they are. This can accelerate development or help correct flaws that may not be apparent. Here’s to hoping that this season, some Cub minor leaguers are promoted based on performance, and not some unidentifiable criteria known only to organization insiders.
3. Going Young: The previous Cubs’ front office created a talent gap in the minor leagues, roughly between High-A Daytona and Double-A Tennessee. The present administration has done a good job to help close some of that gap with the 2012 draft and some mid-season trades. That lag can be further closed in 2013 through player promotion and even more trades. That would place the emphasis of the 2013 draft at the bottom of the organization. Look for the Cubs to target college underclassmen, high school players, and international players when the draft rolls around this year.
Rookie – AZL Cubs
Predicting at this level is especially challenging, as many of the players usually come from the draft. However, there is enough young talent in the organization to make a few educated guesses here.
Pitching – One of the best things about the amount of pitching taken in last year’s draft was that there was enough to cover three levels. Headlining the AZL Cubs’ staff should be 18-year old second round draft choice Duane Underwood, who pitched in 8.2 innings after signing last season. Joining him should be soon-to-be 22 year old Joshua Conway, as the fourth round pick is rehabbing from Tommy John surgery. Three hurlers from the Dominican League also figure prominently: Daury Torrez, Alexander Santana, and Luis Villalba. Torrez was one of the top pitchers in the Dominican Summer League, going 6-3 with a 1.21 ERA and a 0.82 WHIP. While only having a record of 1-3, 19-year old Santana had 51 strikeouts and a 1.10 WHIP to go along with a 2.88 ERA. Twenty-year old Villalba was the top lefty, going 3-1 with a 1.93 ERA and 1.14 WHIP. The Cubs also have a lot of other arms floating around that could surprise at this level.
Catching – Some may consider 19-year old Neftali Rosario’s second tour of duty at this level a step backwards. He was considered a very raw when drafted in the sixth round in 2011, which was evidenced by his .214 batting average in 14 games last season. Many feel he has the same potential as current Cubs’ starter Welington Castillo. Eighteen-year old Alberto Mineo will gain a lot of experience representing Italy in the World Baseball Classic, and is still a work in progress. Polar opposites are switch-hitting Erick Castillo and Steven De La Cruz. Capable of playing several positions (outfield, first base) Castillo is a defensive whiz (45% caught stealing) that showed some offensive promise in the Venezuelan Winter League. De La Cruz was coming back from an injury and has a lot of offensive potential, batting .357 with five RBI in ten games. Also on hand may be Jhonny Pena, who could also see time at first base. Pena hit .294 with two home runs and 25 RBI in the DSL.
Infield – At this point, the make-up of the infield is a mystery. Two players that may be in the mix in the middle infield are a pair of 20-year olds, right-handed hitter Jenner Emeterio and switch hitter Bryant Flete. Both are coming off of successful seasons in the DSL. Flete batted .296 with 14 RBI and ten stolen bases for Cubs-2, while Emeterio hit .283 with two homers, 20 RBI and 12 steals for Cubs-1.
Outfield – As with the infield, there are no certainties to the outfield for this coming season. Speedster Kelvin Encarnacion is a starting point. The 21-year old switch-hitter has developed his all-around game, slugging five home runs and driving in 31while hitting .308 and stealing 12 bases. Twenty-year old Shamil Ubiera also has a lot of offensive potential, leading all Cubs’ players in the DSL with 41 RBI while batting .297 with four home runs. Nineteen-year old Arnaldo Calero opened some eyes in the VWL recently, hitting .429 in seven at bats with a home run and three RBI after going .269 with three homers and 23 RBI in 54 games in the DSL.
What to Watch for
Promotions – If 2012 is any indication, the organization will be moving up players within the first month of AZL play. Last season, Jorge Soler, Dan Vogelbach, Albert Almora, Pierce Johnson, Justin Amlung, and Tim Saunders among others didn’t stay very long in Arizona. Expect more of the same for this season’s top performing players, especially if they are clearing room for the 2013 draft choices.
Short Season-A – Boise Hawks
Boise has made the playoffs for the past two seasons, and was six outs away from a Northwest League championship last year. That was with the youngest team in the league, and this year’s squad will probably be just as young. However, they seem to be loaded with something all winnings baseball teams need … pitching.
Pitching – It looks as if it will be a duel between 2011 fourteenth round pick Dillon Maples and 2012 third round pick Ryan McNeil as to who is the Opening Day starter for the Hawks. Maples is coming off of an injury and was 0-1 with a 4.35 ERA in six games in the rookie league. McNeil was the top pitcher for the AZL Cubs, 1-0 and a 1.35 ERA with 18 strikeouts in 20 innings. Due not only to developmental concerns, but also depth, the pitchers that project as starters will probably piggyback one another. Prospects such as Ethan Elias and lefty Brian Smith could help fill out the spots along with 2012 draftees Paul Blackburn, Corbin Hoffner, Trey Lang, and Chad Martin. Elias was 1-3 with a 3.90 ERA in 13 rookie league games, while Smith saw time with both the AZL Cubs and Boise … sporting a 1.16 ERA and 0.99 WHIP in 23.1 innings. Blackburn saw a lot of action in Arizona, tossing 20.2 innings while going 2-0 with a 3.48 ERA and 13 strikeouts. Hoffner was impressive in 12.2 innings, striking out 13 and posting a 0.71 ERA. Lang had a 3.29 ERA in 13.2 innings, and Martin was 4-2 with a 5.06 ERA in 16 innings. Also on hand could be righties Daniel Adrian, David Henrie, and Carlos Martinez-Pumarino as well as left-hander Hunter Ackerman. As you can see, that’s quite a lot to choose from in the pitching department.
Catching – After hitting .322 with a .457 on-base percentage, a .467 slugging percentage, and .924 OPS for the AZL Cubs, 20-year old Justin Marra seems primed for a breakout season. Marra may need some work but appears to be no slouch defensively, fielding .991and throwing out 16% of all baserunners. Backing Marra appears to be Wilfredo Petit. The 20-year old switch-hitter is definitely a work-in-progress offensively, but club official really love his receiving skills and his ability to cut down base-stealers at a 39% rate. There is a real numbers crunch at this position, so it may not be out of the question to see Lance Rymel return for some at bats after playing for the Hawks for 26 games last season. It is also possible that Carlos Escobar, a fine defensive catcher who, according to his Twitter account, is rehabbing from an injury, might also return to Boise.
Infield – While they may not be as dynamic, Boise fans will have another infield chock full of prospects after being treated to an All-Star infield last season. The focal point will be the corners starting with first baseman Trevor Gretzky. The big left-hander came on strong last season and closed out the 2012 campaign with a .304 batting average. Across the diamond, third base appears to belong to Jesse Hodges. The 18-year old undrafted free agent was impressive in the Fall Instructional League. Lining up a shortstop should be slick-fielding Carlos Penalver. The soon-to-be 19-year old batted .273 with seven steals for the AZL Cubs last season. Battling for second base could be 20-year old lefty Daniel Lockhart and right-handed hitting 19-year old David Bote. Both are considered solid defenders that need work on their offense, and both could see action at either short or third base. Should anyone falter, 23-year old Ben Carhart should be available. Carhart is capable of playing all four infield positions and hit .353 with a home run and 21 RBI in 35 games for the AZL Cubs.
Power Hitting – The Boise Hawks led the Northwest League with 64 homers last season. However, that kind of power doesn’t seem to be on the horizon as probable starting right fielder Yasiel Balaguert leads all candidates with three career home runs. Justin Marra, Trevor Gretzky, Jesse Hodges, and outfielder Rashad Crawford all have power potential, but have hit a collective total of zero home runs as professionals.
What to Watch for
Outfield – There are a lot of players to sort through here, but the almost sure thing should be Shawon Dunston Jr. After stumbling out of the gate with the Hawks last season, the 20-year old regrouped well with the AZL Cubs, hitting .286 with two homers and 24 RBI in 39 games. Someone who also should get a lot of playing time is 19-year old Jeffrey Baez. Coming up through the DSL, this speed demon is a player on the rise, stealing 61 bases in 122 games over the past two seasons…while hitting .283 with seven home runs and 66 RBI. The aforementioned Balaguert will provide the team with power, but he needs to improve on his combined 2012 average of .220 and on-base percentage of .258. Crawford is coming back from injury, as the 19-year old switch-hitter appeared in only nine games after being drafted in the eleventh round. Twenty-year old lefty Garrett Schlecht did well for a youngster getting his first professional experience … batting .252 with a home run, 16 RBI, and eight stolen bases. Also on hand may be 2012 Hawks Dong-Yub Kim and Xavier Batista. After battling injuries, Kim was beginning to come into his own last season, smacking five homers and driving in 14 while hitting .250, until a beaning forced him out for the season with a concussion. Batista is a work in progress, but can also be a home run threat if he improves his overall approach at the plate. Batista has hit 24 homers and 118 RBI over the past four seasons, but has only hit .231 over that span. Both Schlecht and Batista could also see some reps at first base.
Bullpen – The incumbents for closer may be Jin-Young Kim and Ryan Hartman. An international signee out of South Korea in 2010, the 20-year old right-hander struggled to find his niche in 2011 before returning to the AZL Cubs in 20112. There Kim was re-invented as a closer and went 0-1 with a 1.53 ERA, a 1.25 WHIP, two saves and 14 strikeouts in 17.2 innings. Hartman had shown some promise in 2011, going 3-0 for the AZL Cubs and being promoted to Single-A Peoria. But he was back in Arizona for 2012 after putting up a combined 5.59 ERA in 2011. Things weren’t much better, as Hartman’s ERA ballooned to 8.10 in 16.2 innings. He was 1-1 with two saves, along with 13 strikeouts. Pushing them will be 2012 twenty-sixth round draft pick Jasvir Rakkar. Rakkar joins a large contingent of Canadians (Marra, Hodges, Elias, and Smith) that could start the season as Boise Hawks. Last year, the 21-year old had a 2.70 ERA and struck out 13 in ten innings while picking up a save for the AZL Cubs. A wild card is 19-year old left-hander Anthony Prieto. Appearing in ten games and starting seven in Arizona, Prieto had a 2.33 ERA, a 1.086 WHIP, and eleven strikeouts in 19.1 innings. At 5-foot-11, 170 pounds, the 2012 fifth round draft choice may be a little small to handle the rigors of being a starting pitcher.
Another Tuesday’s with Tom U. chat from 7:00pm CDT until 8:00pm CDT (that’s from 2:00pm to 3:00pm GMT for our international followers) will take place on Facebook tomorrow, March 12. Join us for a Q & A session.
The CCO has a new Twitter feed dedicated to the Cubs minor league teams, prospects, and players @TheCCO_Minors … and now, minor league coverage has been included on the CCO’s Facebook page. Stay up to date with all minor league happenings by following Chicago Cubs Online on Twitter, Facebook, and Google+.
Attention CCO Readers
The Down on the Farm reader’s poll continues this week. You can cast your votes on Twitter, Facebook, and the site. Infielder/outfielder Tim Saunders has regained the lead, with RHP Dillon Maples and OF Reggie Golden tied for second. There was also a change in the Top 20, as IF/OF/C Stephen Bruno has joined that group. Please post the names of the minor league players you would like the Down on the Farm Report to follow next season. The CCO will track the progress of ten players 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 be chosen. So from Luis Acosta to Tony Zych, all nominations will be accepted and given equal weight.
This is the final week of opening voting. Beginning next Monday, a poll of the top 20 vote getters will be placed on the site to cut the list in half.