Five Players to Watch: Rookie and Short Season-A Ball
It is time once again to look beyond the top 20 lists and explore the other players in the Cubs’ organization that may have an impact on the Major League club down the road. Over the years, the CCO has profiled players such as Arismendy Alcantara and Kyle Hendricks before they were recognized as top prospects.
Here is the first in a series of three articles highlighting some of the players. The players are listed in alphabetical order, and as they are presently listed on teams official rosters. Inclusion in this list does not necessarily reflect where each player will begin the season.
Had it not been for the performance of 2013 first round draft pick Kris Bryant, infielder Roney Alcala would have been the hands-down winner of the CCO’s Short-Season Player of the Year award. The 19-year old Venezuelan simply destroyed pitching in the Venezuelan Summer League, and was only three home runs away from winning the league’s Triple Crown. In 64 games, Alcala led the league with a .353 average while driving in 49 runs. Alcala ended up sixth in the league with nine homers, and third in the league with a .544 slugging percentage. Alcala finished the year with a .353/.386/.544 slash line (.930 OPS).
Alcala’s success didn’t exactly come out of nowhere. He began his Cubs’ career as an 18-year old in 2012 with the C-1 team in Dominican Summer League. The switch-hitter hit .303/.341/.442/.783 with five home runs, 43 RBI, and eight stolen bases in 59 games.
Alcala has played every position on the field, including pitcher, with the exception of shortstop and centerfield. His fielding is considered acceptable for a player of his age. Alcala has evenly split his time between third base and first base in his career, with .943 fielding percentage at third base and a .987 at first. What is intriguing is that Alcala has also fielded .984 with a 36 percent (36%) caught stealing as a catcher, albeit a small sample size (nine games).
Roney Alcala appears to be ticketed to start the 2014 season in the Rookie League with the AZL Cubs. However, a strong showing this spring could have Alcala following the footsteps of his countryman, shortstop Carlos Penalver, and a possible jump to Short-Season A Boise.
With the attention being placed on the 2013 international signings of pitchers Jen-Ho Tseng, Jefferson Mejia and Erling Moreno it was easy to overlook some of the performances of the Cubs’ pitchers in their Caribbean academies. One such pitcher is 18-year old left-hander Frailin Figueroa. A robust teen at 6-foot-2 and 203 pounds, Figueroa was signed by the Cubs for the 2012 season and he was 2-1 with a 5.40 ERA and a 1.86 WHIP that included 13 strikeouts in 18.1 innings for the Cubs-2 team in the Dominican Summer League.
Returning to the DSL this past season, Figueroa was given an increased workload and completed 49.2 innings in 13 games. Due to his low workload, Figueroa did not have enough innings to be mentioned among the top pitchers in the league. But his numbers were very good and he finished with a 5-1 record with a 1.27 ERA and a 1.03 WHIP (53 strikeouts, 24 walks).
As is typical with most that play in the foreign leagues, there is no information as to the ‘stuff’ that Figueroa has in his arsenal. As such, it is not certain whether Figueroa will return to the Dominican or play in the rookie league. What is certain is that if Figueroa keeps putting up numbers like he did last season we should all learn a lot more about him in the near future.
The current front office has always thought highly of the ability of Jesse Hodges, even though his route to affiliated ball was unusual. As a high school shortstop/pitcher from Victoria, British Columbia, he was passed over in the 2012 draft even with most scouts feeling at the time that he should have been selected anywhere past the 20th round. With a scholarship to Grayson Junior College in Texas, Hodges was selected to Team Canada for a Junior International Tournament in Seoul Korea. It was there that Hodges caught the eye of Cubs’ Pacific Rim Scout Steve Wilson, who signed him to a minor league contract.
His late signing limited Hodges to nothing more than workouts in 2012 until the Fall Instructional League, where he joined the likes of Albert Almora, Arismendy Alcantara, Pierce Johnson, Jorge Soler, and Dan Vogelbach. Hodges, who has now moved to third base, played nine games and hit .235 with two doubles, a home run, and three RBI.
Returning to Arizona for the 2013 season, Hodges saw his playing time squeezed by an unusual amount of rehabbing and freshly drafted players. In all, Hodges played in only 38 games for the AZL Cubs and hit .210/.272/.293 with two home runs. Hodges drove in 20 runs which ended up being second on the team.
Jesse Hodges is currently penciled in as the starting third baseman for the Boise Hawks this coming season. But the soon-to-be 20 year old (March 29) could end up back with the AZL Cubs depending on who the Cubs select in the draft. Hopefully, wherever Hodges lands, he will get more develop time.
Acquired last off-season from the Arizona Diamondbacks, along with Jesus Castillo, in exchange for outfielder Tony Campana, the soon-to-be 19 year old (March 17) Erick Leal is a pitcher the Cubs faithful may soon have reasons to be excited about.
Prior to coming to the Cubs’ organization, Leal spent his first professional season as part of a very successful Diamondbacks’ squad in the Dominican Summer League. Despite being only 17 years old in 2012, Leal tied for eighth in the league with 70 strikeouts. The Venezuelan also demonstrated an advanced knowledge of pitching and posted a 0.99 WHIP to go along with a 2.44 ERA in 70 innings (6-2 record). After moving to the Cubs’ system, Leal was a little advanced for the rookie league in 2013, which seemed to have an over-abundance of rehabbing Major Leaguers. Even with the high-talent level, the then 18-year old proved to be up to the challenge. Leal led the AZL Cubs with six starts and tied for third with 13 appearances. Leal went 3-2 with a save, and put up a 2.77 ERA with a 1.19 WHIP while striking out 52 batters in 48.2 innings.
At 6-foot-3, but only 180 pounds, Leal has some growing to do. The scouting report on Leal prior to the trade had him throwing a fastball was in the high 80s to low 90s along with a mid-to-upper 70s breaking ball and change-up. Reports also say that the movement on his breaking ball is advanced for his age, and could end up being a plus pitch. And Leal has apparently gotten the weight issues from early in his career under control.
It will be interesting to see where Leal ends up in early summer. His successes and advanced ‘stuff’ may allow Leal to move up to Short-Season A Boise. However, due to his age, Leal may be held back in Arizona for further refinement.
With a brand new facility and a commitment to develop players in their Dominican Academy, the Cubs are slowly starting to see the fruits of their labors blossom in the lower minor leagues. This is particularly the case in the outfield, where players such as Oliver Zapata, Kevin Encarnacion, Jeffrey Baez, and Jenner Emeterio are advancing through the system. A name that could be added to that list is 21-year old Shamil Ubiera.
Signed as an international free agent in 2012, Ubiera put up good numbers with the C-2 team in the Dominican Summer League. Ubiera hit .297/.380/.450/.810 with four home runs, 41 RBI, and 14 stolen bases in 66 games. Returning to the DSL in 2013, Ubiera built on his previous success and wound up leading the league with 56 RBI. Ubiera also tied for ninth with four home runs and hit .301/.375/.441/.816 with 13 stolen bases.
While Ubiera’s offense has been remarkably consistent, his one flaw at this time seems to be his defense. Ubiera has an overall fielding average of only .942, with his best position appearing to be right field, where he improves slightly to .949.
At 21 years old and with his advanced offense, Ubiera may follow in the footsteps of Kevin Encarnacion and bypass the AZL Cubs and head straight to Boise. If so, Ubiera has a chance to be the Cubs’ third straight prospect to lead the Northwest League in hitting (following Encarnacion and Stephen Bruno).
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. Players can be nominated in the comment section, on Facebook or Twitter. 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 57 players represented. For the fourth 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).