Minor League Preview: Low-A Kane County and High-A Daytona
Top o’ the Morning to everyone at the CCO! Today is the second of a three part installment previewing the 2014 minor league 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.
Low-A – Kane County Cougars
Last season’s Cougars team was a disappointment after coming in to 2013 with high expectations. The 2014 version doesn’t have the high profile prospects, but it comes in riding similar success. The biggest difference for this season is pitching, and lots of it.
Infield – The fans in the western suburbs should have a dynamic double play combination to root for in shortstop Carlos Penalver and second baseman Danny Lockhart. Penalver is only 19 years old and is the type of defender that is better than his numbers indicate, and the likes of whom Cubs’ fans haven’t seen in quite a long time. His style of play has already been compared to former All-Star Omar Vizquel. Penalver hit .261/.338/.358/.697 with 16 doubles, a home run, 21 RBI, and nine stolen bases last season, but that is also a little deceiving. After a rough start to the year, Penalver settled in and hit .341 in the final month of the season. And Penalver led Boise with 43 runs scored. Thought to be a light-hitting infielder, Lockhart surprised everyone by hitting .290/.346/.331/.676 with 23 RBI and seven stolen bases. The 21-year old had to play some third base and shortstop, but his main position is second base. Management sees David Bote as a potential multi-position player, but for now he will have to fill in a third base. At 20 years old, Bote saw action at eight positions (did not play catcher) and made appearances with Boise, Kane County, and Daytona last season. Spending the bulk of his time with the Hawks, Bote showed some surprising pop with six home runs, 31 RBI and six stolen bases, while hitting .250/.337/.366/.703. The anchor to the infield should be 24-year old Jacob Rogers. Providing maturity and leadership, Rogers finished second in the Northwest League with 47 RBI and tied for second with eight home runs. Rogers also hit .278/.394/.413/.807 while providing solid defense in his first full year at the position. Back-ups at this time are unknown, and will have to wait until Spring Training shakes out a little more.
Outfield – The outfield should be the prime focus for the Cougars during the upcoming season. The unit will begin the year without Kevin Encarnacion. The 2013 Northwest League batting champion is currently recovering from injuries sustained in an off-season accident, and has not yet resumed baseball activities. That doesn’t mean that the outfield will be short-handed, as a pair of legacy players in Shawon Dunston Jr. and Trevor Gretzky will be in the spotlight. Both 21 years old, Dunston was among the Northwest League’s leading hitters when he suffered a deep thigh bruise after colliding with a teammate. Dunston ended up hitting .290/.378/.358/.736 with eight doubles, a triple, a home run, 19 RBI, and 12 stolen bases in 49 games. It was a surprise when Gretzky was promoted to Kane County for the last part of the 2013 season after hitting only .256 with six RBI for Boise. But management knew something as Gretzky went on to bat .306/.333/.408/.741 with a home run and two RBI in 14 games. Gretzky can also back-up first base. Providing the big bat for the Cougars should be right fielder Yasiel Balaguert. Also 21 years old, Balaguert lead the Northwest League with 48 RBI and tied for second with eight home runs while hitting .261/.331/.433/764. Battling for time in centerfield should be Trey Martin and Jacob Hannemann. Sitting out most of 2013 after surgery on his non-throwing shoulder, the 21-year old Martin will be out to show he is ready to build on the 2012 season he had when he hit .270/.318/.377/.696 with three homers, 23 RBI, and six stolen bases in 57 games. Martin is also considered one of the best defensive outfielders in the system. Prior to missing time with a partially torn ligament in his right elbow (non-throwing), the 22-year old Hannemann appeared to be on the same fast track as first round pick Kris Bryant. Hannemann hit .290/.313/.468/.780 with a home run, five RBI, and three stolen bases in 14 games at Boise.
Catching – It isn’t certain as to where Willson Contreras will be assigned this coming season. Just 21 years old, Contreras played fairly well in his first full season back at his original position with Kane County last year. Contreras hit .248/.320/.423/.742 with 11 home runs, 46 RBI, and eight stolen bases in 86 games. Contreras has not reported to camp yet and his availability for the season of the upcoming season in unknown. Backing Contreras up most likely will be Lance Rymel. The 23-year old is a leader behind the plate, who handles pitchers and the defensive alignment well. But Rymel isn’t a great offensive player and hit only .253/.337/.315/.652 with a home run and 18 RBI in 46 games for Boise last year. Although he didn’t play catcher last season, Rony Rodriguez has previous experience at the position and is another mature player that can provide leadership. At 24 years old, Rodriguez will probably be the oldest member of the squad. Seeing time in the outfield and at DH for Boise last season, Rodriguez hit three home runs and had 23 RBI in only 46 games while batting .270/.341/.405/.747.
Pitching –The Cubs received some good pitching performances at Short-Season A Boise last year, and they augmented that staff with a slew of prospects selected in the 2013 draft. Battling for the Opening Day nod should be James Pugliese and Paul Blackburn. Twenty-one year old Pugliese had a brief call-up with the Cougars at the end of last season after compiling a 4-3 record with a 2.32 ERA and a 1.08 WHIP (47 strikeouts in 62 innings) with the Hawks. A sandwich pick in 2012, 20-year old Blackburn enjoyed a good season with Boise. Blackburn went 2-3 with a 3.33 ERA and a 1.522 WHIP that included 38 strikeouts in 46 innings. Slotted behind those two should be the talented but enigmatic Dillon Maples. The 21-year old has some of the best stuff of any pitcher in the system, but has yet to put it to good use on the field. Maples actually had to take a demotion to Boise last season after posting an 8.31 ERA in 11 outings for the Cougars. Maples posted a 5-2 record with a 2.14 ERA and a 1.33 WHIP (41 strikeouts in 42 innings) in 10 games for the Hawks. The youngest pitcher in the rotation should be 20-year old Daury Torrez. Like Pugliese, Torrez received a ‘cup of coffee’ with the Cougars at the end of 2013 after going 4-2 with a 3.31 ERA and a 1.10 WHIP (49 strikeouts in 49 innings) for the AZL Cubs. Rounding out the rotation could be left hander Sam Wilson. An eighth round pick last year, the 22-year old did not start a games but was 3-1 with a 3.33 ERA and a 1.60 WHIP (25 strikeouts in 24.1 innings) for Boise. As with another lefty last season, Michael Heesch, the organization would like to give Wilson as many innings as possible and prove he isn’t a starter before moving him to the bullpen.
It should be quite a competition as to which pitchers emerges as the closer for the Cougars, but they would most likely begin with a couple of more mature relievers in Josh Davis or Zak Hermans. An undrafted free agent, the 23-year old Davis was one of the workhorses for the AZL Cubs’ pen. Davis tossed 20 innings and was 3-1 with a 4.50 ERA and a 1.25 WHIP (10 strikeouts). Hermans appeared in six games after signing as a 30th round pick in 2013. The 22-year old Hermans went 1-1 with a 3.12 ERA and a 1.62 WHIP (10 strikeouts) in the rookie league. Lefty Tyler Ihrig, also 22 years old, signed early after being the 23rd round pick and dazzled AZL hitter with his lollipop curveball. Ihrig was 2-0 with a 0.72 ERA with a 0.80 WHIP that included 30 strikeouts in 25 innings. Drafted in the fifth round with closing in mind, 22-year old Trey Masek saw the bulk of his 2013 action at Boise. Masek put up a 1-0 record and 2.16 ERA with a 1.14 WHIP that included 19 strikeouts in 16.2 innings. Another 22-year old with a chance to close is the 6-foot-7, 215-pound righty, Scott Frazier. The sixth round pick was assigned straight to Boise after signing with the organization. Frazier went 1-2 with a 2.61 ERA and a 1.16 WHIP. Frazier notched a save while picking up 19 strikeouts in 20.2 innings. However, the youngest player in the bullpen may rise to the top, CCO Short-Season Co-Pitcher of the Year Corbin Hoffner. Just 20 years old, the 6-foot-5, 235-pound Hoffner dominated Northwest League hitters in 2013. Hoffner went 2-0 with a save and a 1.74 ERA with a 0.90 WHIP (42 strikeouts in 46.2 innings).
What to Watch for
Player Development – Kane County will have a lot of raw talent in Dunston, Gretzky, Bote, Balaguert, Penalver, Blackburn, Maples, Torrez, and Hoffner. Seeing whether these players and others can improve their game and make the system even stronger will be much more important than wins and losses.
High-A – Daytona Cubs
While last year’s Kane County squad failed to contend, its core was part of the 2012 Boise team that played in the Northwest League championship. Add to the some players left over from Daytona’s Florida State League champs, and sprinkle in a whole load of pitching prospects, and you have the makings of another contender.
Infield – The great thing about this Daytona infield is that they begin their third season playing together. It all starts at first base, which will be shared by Dan Vogelbach and Rock Shoulders. The new, slimmer version of Vogelbach has lost thirty pounds in an effort to be a more complete player. The 21-year old played most of last season with the Cougars, but spent the end of the year with the D-Cubs. Vogelbach was a combined .284/.375/.449/.824 with 23 doubles, 19 home runs, 75 RBI, and five stolen bases. Twenty-two year old Shoulders was a little more versatile, lining up both in the outfield and at first base. Playing exclusively at Kane County, Shoulders hit .258/.352/.445/.797 with 27 doubles, 18 home runs and 74 RBI. The next position over, second base could end up being contested between Gioskar Amaya and Tim Saunders. The 21-year old Amaya had a decent 2013 season offensively for the Cougars. Amaya hit .252/.329/.369/.698 with 26 doubles, six triples, five home runs, 28 RBI, and 13 stolen bases. However, Amaya was a little lacking defensively, fielding only .959 with 22 errors. Saunders had an injury marred 2013 campaign, but has a career .299 average and 38 stolen bases in 111 games while fielding a sparkling .985 at second base. The 23-year old Saunders will probably start the season on the disabled list due to elbow surgery. Last season’s starter for the Cougars at shortstop, Marco Hernandez, will be looking over his shoulder at Giuseppe Papaccio. Hernandez, a 21-year old switch-hitter, struggled to find consistency last season with Kane County. Hernandez batted .254/.287/.338/.625 with 17 doubles, three triples, 21 stolen bases, 34 RBI, and four home runs while fielding only .939. Selected in the 18th round of the 2013 draft, 22-year old Papaccio fielded .962 at shortstop and hit a combined .285/.344/.372/.716 with four doubles, a triple, two home runs, 19 RBI, and two stolen bases in 46 games between the AZL Cubs and Kane County. Third base belongs to 20-year old switch hitter Jeimer Candelario. Considered one of the Cubs’ Top 20 prospects, Candelario showed that he is a player in the making after hitting .256/.346/.396/.742 while driving in 57 runs and slugging 11 home runs. Quality depth is provided by 24 year old Brad Zapenas. Coming off of a shoulder injury, Zapenas played 17 games between Kane County, Daytona, and Tennessee and hit .222/.367/.264 while seeing time at second, third and shortstop.
Outfield – Airtight defense is what the Daytona outfield will provide, but it also has plenty of offensive firepower. It all starts with top prospect Albert Almora. The 19-year old has opened a lot of eyes in Spring Training with his advanced ability. With his 2013 cut short by injury, Almora played 61 games with Kane County and hit .329/.376/.446/.842 with 17 doubles, four triples, three home runs, 34 RBI, and four stolen bases. Flanking Almora should be Pin-Chieh Chen in left and Bijan Rademacher in right. At 22 years old, Chen played at three levels last season, seeing action for Kane County, Daytona and Tennessee. The fleet-footed native of Taiwan hit a combined .265/.357/.331/.688 with 23 stolen bases, two home runs and 30 RBI in 103 games. Rademacher brings a former pitcher’s arm to the outfield, along with some great range. Splitting time between Kane County and Daytona, the 22-year old batted .291/.358/.391/.749 with four home runs, eight stolen bases, and 38 RBI combined. Backing that trio are three players that are long on potential but short on production in Jose Dore, Oliver Zapata, and Reggie Golden. Management is in love with the 22-year old Dore, even though he has played less than 30 games at Single-A in four seasons. A lifetime .217 hitter, Dore has also hit 12 home runs and 57 RBI over his career while playing poor defensive at third base, first base, and in the outfield. Zapata, a 21-year old switch-hitter keeps plugging along. Filling in when others aren’t available. Zapata saw action in 114 games last season and batted .240/.317/.372/.690 with seven home runs, 49 RBI, and 13 stolen bases. A former second round pick in 2010, Golden has battled injuries and a lack of maturity in his four-year professional career. Coming off of a serious knee injury, Golden didn’t start 2013 until mid-season and played in 64 games. Golden hit only .227/.282/.382/.664 but had nine home runs and 29 RBI.
Catching – There will be plenty of options here for Daytona. Just who emerges as the top option will need to be figured out. Selected in the 16th round of the 2013 draft, Cael Brockmeyer was on a similar track as Kris Bryant and Jacob Hannemann before being detoured by a concussion. The 22-year old hit .271/.355/.336/.692 with 14 RBI and two stolen bases in 33 games, and earned a brief call-up to Triple-A Iowa. It isn’t clear as to whether the organization will jump Brockmeyer to this level or start him at Low-A, but his .994 defense will certainly help. Returning to Daytona, but at a different position, will be Ben Carhart. The 24-year old saw time at third and first base with the D-Cubs last season while hitting .248/.298/.337/.635 with three home runs, 51 RBI and five stolen bases. Defensive specialist Carlos Escobar should be called upon to handle the pitching staff. Escobar spent last season at Kane County and the 23-year old hit .237/.293/.387/.680 with four home runs and 23 RBI in 49 games. The wild card will be 23- year old Danny Canela. The left-hander was signed out of the Frontier League after playing for the River City Rascals and batting .360/.455/.582/.1037 with 12 home runs and 53 RBI.
Pitching – One of the biggest decision Cubs’ management will have this spring is whether top prospect C.J. Edwards starts the year at Daytona, or is ready to jump up to Double-A Tennessee. Acquired from the Rangers as part of the Matt Garza deal, the 22-year old dazzled in his six starts at High-A. Edwards posted a 1.96 ERA and a 0.91 WHIP that included 33 strikeouts in 23 innings. And Edwards was virtually unhittable in the playoffs. The front office usually doesn’t advance players with this little experience at a level, but Edwards could be the exception. Almost a certainty to be on the D-Cubs’ staff will be 2013 draftees Rob Zastryzny and Tyler Skulina. The soon-to-be 22 year old Zastryzny (March 26) is a big lefty that was taken in the second round of last year’s draft. In eleven games between Boise and Kane County (seven starts), Zastryzny was 1-0 with a 2.25 ERA with a 1.33 WHIP (22 strikeouts in 24 innings). Also 22 years old, fourth round pick Skulina wasn’t as successful, but he did post a combined 1.30 WHIP to go along with a 4.38 ERA and 19 strikeouts in 24.2 innings pitching for both Boise and Kane County. Twenty-three year old Jose Arias lost most of his 2013 to injury but at 6-foot-6, 235 pounds he has the build of a rotation workhorse. Reports from the Fall Instructional League have Arias back at 100 percent and sporting top-of-the-rotation stuff. Arias was a combined 1-1 with a 3.52 ERA and a 1.37 WHIP (30 strikeouts in 30.2 innings). The Cubs drafted 23-year old Zack Godley in the tenth round last year, and he dominated at a lower level of competition. Godley was a combined 2-0 with 28 strikeouts in 26.2 innings (2.02 ERA, 1.01 WHIP) while playing for the AZL Cubs and Boise after signing. Three pitchers also vying for time as a starter should be Tayler Scott, Felix Pena, and Justin Amlung. The 21-year old Scott started 24 games for Kane County last season and was 6-8 with a 4.22 ERA and a 1.52 WHIP (54 strikeouts in 130 innings). A skinny 6-foot-3 and 165 pounds, Scott may be better suited for the bullpen. Both the 24-year old Pena and 23-year old Amlung are ‘tweener’ types capable of either starting or pitching out of the pen. Pena had 17 starts for Kane County in 21 appearances and was 4-7 with a 3.92 ERA and a 1.30 WHIP (77 strikeouts in 103.1 innings). Amlung started only one game, but logged 72 innings in 32 appearances while going 5-4 with a 3.75 ERA and a 1.39 WHIP (60 strikeouts). An unknown at this time is 23-year old Michael Jensen. Back in Spring Training after sitting out all of 2013 with an undisclosed injury, Jensen caught a lot of attention in 2012 as he went 11-5 with a 3.47 ERA and a 1.12 WHIP that included 115 strikeouts in 140 innings for Low-A Peoria. If Jensen is able to return to that form, he could become an ace-in-the-hole for the Daytona rotation.
Finding a closer will be more of a challenge for the D-Cubs. Twenty-three year old Steve Perakslis, with nine career saves qualifies as the pitcher with the most experience in the role. While only 1-3 at Kane County last season, Perakslis had a 2.83 ERA and a 1.217 WHIP along with 44 strikeouts and seven saves in 58.1 innings. Ranking next with eight career saves is 23- year old Michael Hamann. While he has not reported to camp yet, Hamann has above average stuff to go along with good control which allowed him to compile a 3-4 record with a 1.84 ERA and a 1.57 WHIP (26 strikeouts, seven saves in 29.1 innings) between Boise and Kane County. The organization is hoping though that Juan Carlos Paniagua steps up and takes over the closer role. The soon-to-be 24-year old (April 4) Paniagua had prolonged visa issue last year that caused him to miss more than half the season. That led to a disastrous 2013 season for Paniagua as he was 0-2 with a 6.08 ERA and a 1.95 WHIP, but with 41 strikeouts in 37 innings. Paniagua has one of the best fastball/slider combinations in the system, and the hope is that by spending the winter in the States, he has left his adjustment and legal problems behind him. With the presence of Rob Zastryzny in the rotation, it figures that lefty Michael Heesch will be moved back to the bullpen. As a starter for Kane County last season, the 23-year old had mixed results. Heesch posted a 3-9 record with only 60 strikeouts in 119 innings, but had a decent 3.78 ERA and a 1.387 WHIP. Another left handed arm will be 24-year old Al Yevoli. Signed from the Washington WildThings of the Frontier League, Yevoli provided some quality innings for Kane County last season (3.15 ERA, 1.50 WHIP, 19 strikeouts in 20 innings). Two other lefties that are question marks are Andrew McKirahan and Brian Smith. The 24-year old McKirahan was coming off of Tommy John surgery and went a combined 3-0 with a 2.79 ERA and a 1.03 WHIP (37 strikeouts in 29 innings) between the AZL Cubs, Boise and Kane County. Twenty-one year old Canadian Brian Smith made 23 appearances (seven starts) for Kane County, as well as doing an unusual rehab stint with the independent the Rio Grande Valley WhiteWings. Smith was a combined 3-6 with a 4.26 ERA and a 1.49 WHIP (69 strikeouts in 80.1 innings), but has yet to report to Spring Training. Providing middle relief should be big (6-foot-6, 200 pounds) Orbandy Rodriguez. A previous prospect of the Arizona Diamondbacks under the name Manuel Gil, Rodriguez is on the comeback trail after fracturing an elbow in 2009. Appearing in 15 games between the AZL Cubs and the Boise Hawks, Rodriguez was 4-3 with 3.28 ERA and a 1.26 WHIP that included 31 strikeouts in 24.2 innings.
What to Watch for
Continuity – With so many players that have been teammates, some for several years, the organization can consider them the ‘Second Wave’ to their ‘Core Four.’ Just who emerges to be a part to that wave might be the most fun thing to watch in central Florida.
Minor League Player Poll
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).