The minor league system was the focal point for the Chicago Cubs over a majority of the 2014 season. And many of the players in the organization took steps forward with their development.
Even with the advancement of MiLB TV and the ability to listen to just about every minor league game, unless you are able to attend the games it is difficult to get a gauge on how the teams and players are performing from reports, box scores and stat lines.
Chicago Cubs Online reached out to the broadcasters for each of the full-season affiliates in the Cubs system to get firsthand accounts from the play-by-play guys that saw the players on a daily basis. We have not been able to connect with Kane County yet, but we are still hopeful that interview will happen at some point this off-season. Our interview with Tennessee Smokies broadcaster Mick Gillispie will be posted Thursday and our Q & A with Iowa Cubs broadcaster Randy Wehofer will be posted Friday.
Robbie Aaron called the action for the 2013 Florida State League Champions and just completed his fourth season as the Voice of the Daytona Cubs.
Robbie recently answered a few questions about the players he saw this year in what turned out to be the last season of the Daytona Cubs.
Chicago Cubs Online: Daytona had a very talented team in the second half. The run the D-Cubs went on also showed the talent was able to mesh well together. There have been reports about Kyle Schwarber’s make-up and leadership being off the charts and maybe second in the system to only Kris Bryant. What did you see from Schwarber in the clubhouse?
Robbie Aaron: Kyle arrived with immediate attention on him, and he handled it extremely well. He got along with every player, and found a great balance of knowing that he was one of the “new guys” while executing his natural leadership qualities, daily. After just a few days, it had seemed like Schwarber was there for months with the chemistry he had developed with everyone.
CCO: Staying with Schwarber, he reportedly made a big adjustment in late-July, early-August to his swing. What adjustments did you see Schwarber make at the plate?
RA: Kyle shortened his load. He simplified things in his routine as the pitch was being thrown which allowed him to see the ball better and go on that unbelievably torrid stretch.
CCO: And lastly on Schwarber, he’s said he would like to stay behind the plate. Dave Keller had him catch Rob Zastryzny over the last month of the season. What did you see from Schwarber as a catcher? And do you think he helped turn Zastryzny’s year around?
RA: Kyle absolutely loves catching, but at the same time, preaches that he’ll do whatever the organization feels is best for both his and the team’s success. I think he had some fantastic games behind the plate – with a cannon of an arm – but also needs to work on mechanics (which makes sense since he just drafted this year). Keller (as told by Chicago) used Kyle behind the plate once every four or five days to save his legs since he had caught all year dating back to the IU season. As far as turning Z’s season around, I think they meshed very well together, but Zastryzny figured out who he was a professional pitcher before Schwarber arrived. Z’s second half was tremendous and a huge positive heading into 2015.
CCO: Dan Vogelbach quietly had a good year at the plate. How do you think he improved during the season offensively? How was his defense at first base?
RA: Dan really did have a great year at the plate – especially after the slow start over the first five or six weeks. His final numbers, including power & run production, were amongst the league leaders. Vogey continued to preach that all he wanted to do was keep things simple at the plate which allowed him to do more. His defensive numbers were very good – leading all FSL first basemen in fielding percentage – but his range is only average. I absolutely love his effort and enthusiasm, though. There is a lot to be said for that.
CCO: There were three high-profile outfielders on Daytona’s roster this season: Albert Almora, Billy McKinney, and Jacob Hannemann.
Albert Almora had a slow start to his season, what adjustments did you see him make and what did you think was the biggest improvement he made before he was promoted to Double-A?
RA: Albert’s fielding / range / fly ball judgment is the best I’ve seen for anyone his age, and maybe anyone in the FSL. Offensively, he thrived in the 2-spot after Dave Keller moved him there. He also improved on hitting to the opposite field and judging off-speed pitches which I think helped raise his average. He and Mariano Duncan worked very hard on his hitting & approach every day.
CCO: Billy McKinney really excelled with the D-Cubs after he was acquired in the trade from Oakland for Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel. What were your impressions of McKinney at the plate? And in the field?
RA: Like Albert, Billy was very young for the FSL. At 19 years-old, being traded is not something you think about at all, and he handled it extremely well. Dave Keller continuously called him the “quiet leader” of the club and the guy who he always knew would get the hit when the Cubs needed it. Everyone (scouts / staff / players) loved McKinney & I think he has a bright future in the organization. He showed decent power, but I’m more impressed about how he maintained a fantastic average – and obviously his clutch hitting with RISP & the bases loaded speaks for itself. He has a good arm and is a very strong fielder.
CCO: Jacob Hannemann was called up when Albert Almora was promoted to Double-A, what were your impressions of Hannemann in his first 36 games in High-A?
RA: Hannemann is a natural athlete and a guy who works extremely hard – he honestly couldn’t be a more genuinely nice guy. Built of pure muscle, Jacob has tremendous range in CF & will lay out for any ball if he thinks he can catch it. He made a game-saving catch in Lakeland that was the best we saw in 2014. At the plate, Hannemann makes hard contact and is a very good baserunner. Not only in terms of stealing, but also going home-to-third or first-to-home – his cuts around the bases give him a huge advantage. His days as a football player show when he plays baseball.
CCO: Bijan Rademacher is arguably the best prospect in the Cubs system that receives the least amount of ink. What type of player is Rademacher? How is he offensively? Defensively?
RA: Bijan has taken on the role of the underdog. He has not received much attention throughout his career, and he knows that, so he’s always playing with a chip on his shoulder which fuels a little extra motivation. Rademacher is a very very very smart baseball player. He studies the opponents very well and is always prepared. Bijan began & ended his 2014 season extremely hot, and essentially carried the Cubs (along with Kyle Schwarber) to a second-half championship in August. I expect him to start in AA next season and hopefully continues to produce. Defensively, he reads fly balls well, robbed two home runs this year, and especially thrives on throwing runners out on the basepaths.
CCO: One of the first pitchers signed by the current front office was LHP Gerardo Concepcion. After dealing with illnesses, injuries and ineffectiveness, he had a good half season that saw him finish the year pitching out of the D-Cubs bullpen. Concepcion is going to make up for some of his lost time in the Arizona Fall League. What were your impressions of Concepcion? Do you think he is more than a lefty specialist (LOOGY)?
RA: Gerardo showed some signs that he can be very effective. He struggled with his command at times, especially down the stretch, but I expect him to continue to improve as he remains healthy and pitches into the fall. Very nice guy too.
CCO: Another reliever that began the season with Kane County and finished the year with the D-Cubs was Zack Godley. The right hander was rather effective out of the pen. How is his command? Velocity? And do you think he has the stuff to pitch in a big league bullpen?
RA: Zack is a character. In college, he took on the role of being an intense pitcher, and it has stuck with him into his professional career. He really does use it to his advantage – sprinting from the ‘pen to the mound & the mound to the dugout, and also using a fiery mentality when delivering the pitch. Godley is a two-pitch pitcher with a strong fastball (94-95 – sometimes 96) and a very good slider in the mid-80s. He can change the speed of his slider very well. His command is good and he loves taking pride in closing games. I think he could certainly have a big-league future.
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?
RA: Austin Reed had an unfortunate abrupt end to his season out of the ‘pen for Daytona when he needed TJ. If he can come back healthy & pitch like he was prior to the surgery, he’s certainly a candidate. His build & velocity were much improved from 2013 when he pitched in Daytona as well. Another candidate might be Jose Rosario (as a reliever only). It may be a stretch since his numbers were mediocre, but his stuff improved throughout the season, and he really thrived when Dave Keller used him out of the ‘pen – admitting he liked relieving as well.
CCO: Which player did you see make the most improvement during the season?
RA: Gioskar Amaya & Willson Contreras. Amaya was consistent, but also took to hitting 2nd extremely well after Almora was promoted, finishing T5 in OBP in the league. Great great great guy and his defense improved immensely, making plays in the playoffs that some big leaguers wouldn’t make. Contreras, in his second season at catcher, really showed that he’s a prospect. His offense got better, his arm is a missile, & he’s always functioning at full-intensity. His work-ethic & mentality fuels his team & his pitching staff.
CCO: Which player made the biggest impression on you that you might not have known much about when he arrived in Daytona?
RA: Probably Marco Hernandez. Great guy, great player & tons of potential.
CCO: Is there a player that you label as under-rated? If so, why?
RA: Bijan Rademacher, just because he never gets ranked in any prospect list & doesn’t get the respect from the organization that he deserves.
CCO: What changes did you see the last four seasons with how the Cubs system was run?
RA: I think the biggest difference I noticed was the amount of video work & preparation the players do off the field. Whether it’s studying themselves or the opponents, a lot of fans don’t realize how much the players work off the field as well. Also, I’ve found that the organization has made a clear effort to not only draft, sign & trade for talented players, but also men with great character. Just look at the past two drafts & trades – In the first three rounds I’ve seen Bryant (amazing guy), Z (amazing guy), Hannemann (amazing guy), Schwarber (amazing guy), McKinney (amazing guy) & Edwards (amazing guy). I think that speaks volumes of what Chicago is looking for and what the front office is trying to build.