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 2014 minor league season. A brief overall look at the system will precede the team summaries. 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.
In only two seasons, the management team of President Theo Epstein, General Manager Jed Hoyer, and Vice President of Player Development Jason McLeod has turned the Cubs’ minor league system into one of the best in all of baseball. Moreover, some of the Cubs’ top prospects, such as Javier Baez and Arismendy Alcantara, are on the cusp of the major leagues while players such as Kris Bryant, Jorge Soler, and Albert Almora are getting close. The organization is also moving closer to positional redundancy, with excellent depth at third base, first base, and in the outfield.
The system has also produced on the field, with High-A Daytona winning the Florida State League Championship. Short-Season A Boise appeared in the Northwest League Championship for the second straight season, while Double-A Tennessee and the VSL Cubs also made the playoffs. The Cubs had two players win its league’s batting championship in Roney Alcala and Kevin Encarnacion; two RBI champs in Alcala and Yasiel Balaguert; three no-hitters by Matt Loosen, Eric Jokisch and Kyler Burke; and the Minor League Player of the Year in Javier Baez.
However, some issues remain. There is a serious lack of catching prospects; a need for more pitching, especially left-handed pitching; a logjam of middle infielders from Single-A up through Double-A; and the organization investing far too much in fringe major-leaguers to both pad the parent club’s roster and stash at Triple-A. The latter is the most troubling, as the situation could cause gridlock if there happens to be breakout performances by one or more prospects.
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.
Infield – The focus of the infield should be Venezuelan batting an RBI champ Roney Alcala, if he actually ends up in Arizona. At just 20 years old, Alcala can possibly skip the rookie league and head straight to Short Season-A Boise after batting .353/.386/.544 with 15 doubles, nine homers and 49 RBI in 64 games. The switch-hitter spent most of his time at third base last season, but he has experience at first base, second base, outfield, and catcher. If Alcala is not at first base, it should be his VSL teammate Delbis Arcila. The 21-year old (April 30) left tied for third in the league with 10 home runs while hitting .321/.394/.533 with 42 RBI. Another player from Venezuela, 21-year old Bryant Flete, has a good chance at starting at second base after tying for fifth in the league with 17 stolen bases while batting .271/.383/.356 with 23 RBI. Shortstop remains a mystery at this time, with holdover Francisco Sanchez having the inside track after hitting .208/.242/.369 with 22 RBI as a 19-year old last season. Switch-hitting Varonex Cuevas could also press for playing time after hitting .260/.374/.358 with 11 doubles, a triple, a home run, 20 RBI, and 13 stolen bases in the Dominican Republic last year.
Outfield – It should be a blending of the past and present in the Cubs’ outfield, headlined by 2013 ninth round pick Charcer Burks. The just turned 19-year old (March 9) had a good debut, batting .269/.344/.296 with three doubles, seven RBI and six stolen bases in 31 games last year. Raw but promising 2012 eleventh round pick Rashad Crawford didn’t fare as well, hitting only .210/.299/.275 with three doubles, eight RBI and 10 stolen bases in 42 games. However, the switch-hitter is only 20 years old. Joining them should be 21-year old Shamil Ubiera, a consistent hitter who batted .301/.375/.441 with 18 doubles, four homers, 56 RBI, and 13 stolen bases in the DSL last season. Ubiera’s Dominican teammate Roberto Caro regressed a little last season by hitting only .254/.378/.376 with 18 RBI and 18 stolen bases. Twenty-year old Arnaldo Calero has shown both power and offensive potential, hitting five home runs and batting .297/.347/.454 with 33 RBI and 12 stolen bases in the VSL last summer.
Catching – After bouncing through all four infield positions, Mark Malave is back to his original position of catcher. The 19-year old switch-hitter was second among AZL Cubs prospects last season with a .270 batting average (.381/.339/.720), along with 15 RBI. Splitting time should be 2013 24th round pick Tyler Alamo. The 18-year old is definitely seen as the future at this position but saw action in only 11 games last season. It is unclear whether 21-year old switch-hitter Erick Castillo will return to the rookie league or move on to Boise this season. Castillo played in only 16 games last year and batted .265/.280/.367 with a home run and five RBI.
Pitching – The 2013 AZL Cubs had some young pitching which should be returning for an encore this year, at least to start the season. The leader of the staff should be 20-year old Alexander Santana, who was 0-1 with a 4.58 ERA and a 1.36 WHIP (16 strikeouts in 17.2 innings) last season. Eighteen-year old Trevor Clifton was the Cubs’ 12th round pick in 2013 and had a 6.97 ERA in ten innings after signing. Left-handed pitching is promising with 18-year old Carlos Rodriguez leading the way. Rodriguez was batted around a little as a 17-year old last year and went 1-4 with a 6.97 ERA and a 1.90 WHIP in 13 games. Rodriguez recorded 30 strikeouts in 31 innings. Twenty-year old Anthony Prieto threw only 21 innings before being shut down and posted a 1-2 record with a 4.29 ERA and a 1.48 WHIP with 17 strikeouts. Another 20-year old, Angel Mejias, tossed only four innings in the rookie league after going 3-0 with a 2.45 ERA and 0.91 WHIP in four games in Venezuela. Joining this staff from the Caribbean should be 19-year old Adbert Alzolay, who led the VSL with a 0.88 WHIP while posting a 5-3 record with a 1.07 ERA (61 strikeouts in 67 innings). Lefty Frailin Figueroa put up good numbers in the DSL last season. The 18-year old was 5-1 with a 1.27 ERA and 1.03 WHIP in 13 games. Twenty-year old right-hander Jose Zapata was equally impressive. Zapata was 4-0 with a 1.93 ERA and a 0.80 WHIP that included 49 strikeouts in 56 innings. However, Zapata was involved in a serious off-season accident and his status is uncertain. Also in the mix will be 2013 international signee Jen-Ho Tseng.
What to Watch for
Actual Player Development – The 2013 season saw an inordinate number of rehab assignments to the AZL Cubs. Along with draft choices coming and going, many of the young players were squeezed out of playing time. If the organization does not make a serious return to player development at this level, as they did in 2012, they can be looking at some serious gaps in talent in the coming years.
Short Season-A – Boise Hawks
For the third straight year Boise made the playoffs, and for the second consecutive year lost in the Northwest League Championship series. Gone will be hitting coach Bill Bucker, who retired after coaching two straight league batting champions. However, the talent may be there for yet another run.
Infield – The most interesting decision out Spring Training will be whether infielder Roney Alcala joins the Hawks this season. Barring that, the corner infield spots should be covered by youth and experience. Lining up at third appears to be Jesse Hodges. The organization is very high on this 19-year old, as he hit .210/.272/.293 with four doubles, two homers and 20 RBI in 47 games. Across the diamond at first should be last June’s 17th round pick Kelvin Freeman. The 23-year old can provide a steadying influence in a similar way that Jacob Rogers did last season. Freeman hit .262/.357/.292 with four doubles and 19 RBI in 40 games after signing last season. It appears that the middle infield may be addressed in the draft, as the only players available are the slightly over-aged Trevor Stevens, Alex Sanchez, and Zak Blair. An undrafted free agent, the 24-year old switch-hitting Stevens batted .257/.388/.329 with seven RBI in 24 games. The 22-year old switch-hitting Sanchez played in only six games for the AZL Cubs and hit .267/.353/.333 in those contests. The 20th round draft pick in 2013, 24-year old Blair hit well to begin his career and looked as if he was going to be moved up quickly. However, he tried to play through an injury that eventually shelved him for the season. Blair ended up batting .226/.297/.283 with 17 RBI in 30 games.
Outfield – It appears that at least two spots have been settled, and manning one of the corner outfield spots should be 23 year old Kevin Brown. The Cubs 22nd round pick in the 2013 draft can provide some leadership, as well as see some time at first base. Brown hit .233/.374/333 with five doubles, a home run, 15 RBI, and eight stolen base in 36 games for the AZL Cubs and Boise Hawks. Holding down centerfield most likely will be Jeffrey Baez. The 20-year old was the offensive leader for the AZL Cubs last season. Baez hit .287/.357/.384 with nine doubles, a home run, 12 RBI, and 25 stolen bases in 45 games. With good springs, Charcer Burks and Shamil Ubiera could also make a case to go north with the Hawks. Otherwise, the organization will have to look to the draft to fill the holes.
Catching – Repeating a level is never considered desirable, but 21-year old Justin Marra seems to have learned from last year and appears to be ready to turn the corner. Marra struggled defensively early last season, and had to take a back seat to more experienced players. However, Marra pushed his way back into the line-up with his offense by hitting .224/.313/.482 with six home runs and 16 RBI in 25 games. Backing Marra appears to be Wilfredo Petit. The 21-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 (44 percent last season). Petit hit .209/.253/.233 with 14 RBI in 30 games for the AZL Cubs last year. A sixth round pick in 2011, Neftali Rosario has been bouncing around the system. A charitable evaluation would call Rosario a slow developing prospect that will turn 21 in mid-July. Rosario played in only nine games last season, albeit at Rookie, Short-Season A and Single-A. For the year, Rosario hit .182/.217/.182 with no extra base hits or RBI and struck out ten times in 22 plate appearances.
Pitching – As they did with James Pugliese last season, the organization would probably like 19-year old Duane Underwood to go back to Boise and refine his game. Underwood didn’t pitch badly in his first professional season. In 54.1 innings, Underwood posted a 4.97 ERA with a 1.64 WHIP that included 36 strikeouts and a 3-4 record. Taking Underwood’s place as the youngest on the staff could be Erick Leal. The 18-year old had a very good 2013 season with the AZL Cubs. Leal appeared in 13 games and went 3-2 with a 2.77 ERA and a 1.19 WHIP (52 strikeouts in 48.2 innings). Among the 2013 draft choices that should be available are seventh round pick David Garner, 13th rounder Trevor Graham, and 15th round selection Michael Wagner. Twenty-one year old Garner signed late and only appeared in nine games. Garner went 0-2 with a 7.98 ERA and a 1.91 WHIP (16 strikeouts in 14.2 innings). Graham is 22 years old and was a similar situation to Garner, but with better results. Graham made eleven appearances and posted a 2.01 ERA with a 1.03 WHIP that included 17 strikeouts in 22.1 innings. Wagner advanced the furthest and pitched for the Hawks last season. The 22-year old was 0-3 with a 4.38 ERA and a 1.62 WHIP (22 strikeouts in 24.2 innings). Returning to Boise this season could also be Trey Lang and Jasvir Rakkar. Lang is 21 years old and had all kinds of control issue last season. He posted a 7.81 ERA and a 1.92 WHIP between the Hawks and the AZL Cubs. Twenty-two year old Rakkar was somewhat of a disappointment but put up some decent numbers with a 4-1 record and a 3.58 ERA with a 1.09 WHIP (41 strikeouts in 37.2 innings with a save). Rakkar could be brought back as the team’s closer for 2014. Lefties could include Luis Villalba, Augusto Colina, and Gerardo Concepcion. Villalba and Colina are a pair of 21 year olds that have been part of the organization since 2010. Villalba was successful in the rookie league last season. Villalba finished the year with a 2.52 ERA and a 1.32 WHIP that included 32 strikeouts in 25 innings with a 1-2 record with two saves. Colina split time between the VSL and the rookie league. Colina posted a 1-1 record with a 2.51 ERA and a 1.33 WHIP, but only three strikeouts in 14.1 innings. The 22-year old Concepcion has struggled since signing in 2012, and a career reboot may be in order. Concepcion tossed only 3.2 innings last season, with two strikeouts, a 1.36 WHIP, and 0.00 ERA. However, Concepcion is currently practicing with the High-A Daytona team, so don’t be too surprised if he ends up starting the season at Low-A Kane County. Also available could be currently rehabbing pitchers Ryan McNeil and Josh Conway. Both dealt with arm issues that required surgery last season, so there is no telling at this point as to where they are in their respective recoveries. The pitching staff will also receive a generous helping of 2014 draftees.
What to Watch for
Draft Choices. It appears that the organization has developed a plan as to how they want to run their lower minor leagues: Have a few more mature players to provide leadership, surround them with younger players that need experience, and add draft choices that they want to advance fairly quickly. Whoever management decides to populate the teams at this level, expect plenty of draft choices to get some experience and move on.
Preliminary Player Poll Results
The Down on the Farm closed its preliminary reader’s poll last week, and the following players were the top 25 vote getters:
The CCO’s run-off poll is underway to determine which ten players will be highlighted by the Down on the Farm report this season. You can vote for up to 10 players with the same IP address. So vote early and vote as often as you would like from different computers.
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).