Triple-A baseball is typically the last step for a player before he reaches the Major Leagues and the Iowa Cubs had a good year before promotions depleted the roster in the second half and down the stretch.
The second interview with the broadcasters in the Cubs system is with Triple-A Iowa’s Randy Wehofer.
Randy Wehofer has been calling Iowa Cubs games since 2008 with Deene Ehlis and has seen many of the players come through the system during his time with the I-Cubs.
Randy recently took the time to answer several questions for Chicago Cubs Online about the prospects in the Cubs’ system he saw this year with the Iowa Cubs.
Chicago Cubs Online: Let’s start with the best player in the minors this past season, Kris Bryant. To the best of my knowledge you saw and called every one of his games with the I-Cubs, what was the biggest improvement you saw him make after his promotion?
Randy Wehofer: I can’t think of an “improvement” that stands out, because I think the amazing thing about what he did this year was start at a high level – and stay there. The fact that he reached Triple-A in his first full year in pro ball and was as consistent as he was is pretty spectacular. I was really impressed at how short he kept his swing. The combination of his height, long arms, and an approach aimed at hitting the ball in the air, should be a recipe to fall into ruts of having a long, loopy swing from time-to-time. I never saw that with him. Keeping his swing short allows him to handle fastballs that might overpower some hitters, but his long arms also help him maintain good plate coverage on breaking pitches. Keeping his swing short will probably be an emphasis with him throughout his career.
CCO: How is Kris Bryant’s defense at third?
RW: He works hard on his defense and was a solid performer at third base in his time with Iowa. He has a very strong and accurate arm. His range to both sides seemed to improve throughout the year. He has repeatedly said that he is determined to be a good third baseman, so I am interested to watch his continued development there.
RW: Compared to the average Triple-A hitter, he has a fairly disciplined approach at the plate and does work counts. In the context of this being his first full pro season, he has a tremendous command of the strike zone compared to what you will see out of his “peers” in his draft class. He led all I-Cubs hitters with 43 walks this season, even though he played just 70 games with the team. Some of his strikeouts come from being in deep counts and those are easier to accept. He chased some, but I never felt it was at an alarming rate. I wouldn’t be surprised if he turns into a Jim Thome-type hitter that annually will have both high walk and high strikeout totals, and both categories will be afterthoughts in the context of his overall production.
CCO: The addition of Manny Ramirez garnered a lot of attention, mostly negative at the time that the front office signed him to be a player/coach for Iowa. During the season and after Ramirez left the team, he reportedly had a very positive impact on the players. What impact did you see Ramirez made with the players? And do you think he could be a full-time coach?
RW: I can’t speak for the players as to what may or may not have been Manny’s direct impact on their performance. From what I saw with my own eyes, Manny brought a presence, an energy, and a work ethic with him to the ballpark every day that couldn’t help but be a positive influence. He was on the field early every day and lived up to his reputation for tireless work in the cage. Even if the players learned nothing new mechanically or mentally from Manny, watching how hard he worked to maintain his own swing was hopefully a good indicator for the young hitters of how much work it takes to be a great hitter. It also seemed pretty clear that Manny was working that hard because he still wants to play. He was happy to mentor young players and share his wisdom, but he is planning on going to Winter Ball and believes he can hit. Only he will know if being a full-time coach will be enough to energize and motivate him down the line. I don’t think he’s ready to be a traditional coach yet.
CCO: The front office has added power arms to the system, primarily relievers for the backend of the bullpen. Armando Rivero finished the season with Iowa and pitched rather well after dominating the Southern League. What did you see from Rivero and do you think he has the stuff and makeup to be successful in the backend of the Cubs bullpen?
RW: Rivero is successful because he has above-average command to go along with mid-90s velocity. He has good sinking action and throws what the players describe as a “heavy” ball. That pitching style typically keeps the ball in the ballpark and limits big innings because teams have to string together singles and avoid double plays when they have men on base to be successful against him. He was a closer in Cuba and at double-A to start the year, so he has that back-end calm and presence, even in a set-up role. With that good sinker, he may be most effective in a set-up role so he can be used as a guy that can come in with men on base and get a double play or a strikeout to end a threat.
CCO: And speaking of pitching, Iowa’s staff had a good year under new pitching coach Bruce Walton. What impact do you think he had on the pitching staff?
RW: Bruce came to us after spending 11 seasons on the big league staff in Toronto as their bullpen coach and pitching coach from 2002-2012. Even though he was new to the Cubs’ organization, that background gave him instant credibility with the pitchers. Bruce was a very positive guy and has a great ability to help pitchers simplify the game. He preached “pounding down” in the zone and making each pitch with conviction. These are certainly not new developments in the pitching world, but this group bought in early and through hard work and sticking with that plan, were able to translate that into good results in games.
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?
RW: I thought Eric Jokisch really took a huge step forward in his career this season. He was never in the conversation for a call-up during the year as Kyle Hendricks, Tsuyoshi Wada, Chris Rusin, and Dallas Beeler were all ahead of him in experience and perceived potential. That being said Jokisch took the ball every five days and made steady improvement throughout the year to join that conversation. He would have led the PCL in innings pitched and strikeouts if not for a blister that knocked him out early in his last two games and forced him to miss his last scheduled start. I thought it was great that the organization rewarded him with a September call-up and based on the opportunities he has been given, you can make a claim that he has now firmly on the radar rather than under it.
Out of the bullpen, I think what Blake Parker did this year was amazing. To be called up five different times and still be nearly un-hittable in each stint at Triple-A is so hard to do. Personally, I hope Parker gets the chance to fill a role in the big leagues similar to what Brian Schlitter did out of the Cubs’ bullpen this season. I think he could be equally as effective.
CCO: Eli Whiteside appeared to have a positive influence on the team and pitching staff from a far. Could you see Whiteside staying in the Cubs system and if not as a player, possibly as a coach once he decides he is done playing?
RW: I think it is fair to say that Whiteside was a great asset to this pitching staff. Like Walton, his background (two World Series rings and big league time), built an instant trust with the pitchers. Luis Flores and Rafael Lopez also did a nice job with this staff and benefitted from having Whiteside as a teammate too. Whiteside has a lot of similar characteristics to Mark Johnson in experience and demeanor, so it does seem easy to imagine Whiteside following a similar path following his playing days. Only Whiteside can answer whether or not that is something he will want to pursue. While he isn’t an offensive force, Whiteside is in great shape and still has a lot to contribute as a player with his premium defense skills and intangibles. I would think that his name will be brought up during off-season meetings for any organization in the market for a back-up catcher on their big league club.
CCO: A lot of talent came through Iowa this season while Josh Vitters seemed to struggle the entire season like he never has before. Did you see anything change with Vitters? Did the position change have a big impact on him? Or did the lack of consistent playing time lead to what is perceived as a bad year?
RW: I don’t think playing time can be blamed for Vitters’ struggles offensively. He played 112 games for us this season. Only Matt Szczur (116) appeared in more games in an Iowa uniform this year. Coming into the season, I thought the move to the outfield might have helped his offense. He was limited as a third baseman and you could make the argument that the move to left field might have been a way to take some pressure off of him. He came into the season in the best physical shape of the years I have seen him and got off to a good start through the first two weeks of the year. Once he hit that initial slump though, he never turned it around. The injury history may have taken a physical toll on him or maybe he reached a point where he couldn’t figure out the adjustments he needed to make as opposing teams developed a better plan against him. Probably a combination of those and other factors that we’ll never know about. I think this could be just another example of the human element of this game and the fact that the best players in a group of 18-year-olds are not always going to still be the best when that same group is 25.
CCO: Which player did you see make the most improvement during the season?
RW: I’d say Matt Szczur. The defense with Szczur is a given, but early in the year he struggled at the plate. He ended up being moved out of the leadoff spot and was able to work on some things from the bottom of the order. After Arismendy Alcantara was called up at mid-season, Szczur got another shot to go back to the top of the order and became a catalyst for the offense through the team’s peak production time in July. He made more contact and his speed became more of a factor in helping him reach base more frequently. Once he reached base, his speed was a weapon and a distraction to the pitcher, benefitting the guys in the middle of the order.
CCO: Which player made the biggest impression on you that you might not have known much about when he arrived in Iowa?
RW: For me, Arismendy Alcantara exceeded all expectations. Everyone knew he was a prospect, but his ability to drive the ball for extra-base production – including knocking the ball out of the ballpark – was not what I expected. He has great confidence and poise and his physical tools give him a chance to be a complete player. You don’t find guys that can switch-hit, hit with pop from both sides, steal bases, and play above average defense in both middle infield spots as well as center field very often. I never imagined he would have all of those skills and have all of them show up in games as often as he did.
CCO: Is there a player that you label as under-rated? If so, why?
RW: This team received so much attention this year, it’s hard to think of any individual that could carry that label. While a lot of guys from the pitching staff got at least a big league look this year, I still think the overall quality of pitching is underrated. The PCL is an offensive league, yet this staff set franchise records with 15 shutouts and 79 quality starts while finishing with a 3.88 ERA that was just a few points off of a record pace. Meanwhile, the offense was next-to-last in hitting and runs scored while shattering the franchise record for strikeouts. There is no question that the potential of the offensive prospects is unmatched in baseball right now, but there is more quality on the mound than most people think. I believe there is room in the big leagues for guys that throw under 95, but understand the craft of pitching. This staff has several of those guys.
CCO: What changes have you seen over the last three seasons in how the Cubs system is run?
RW: I think the biggest tangible change is the investment in the video systems that have been installed in each minor league ballpark and the addition of a video coordinator to each minor league staff. The ability for the front office to evaluate players with their own eyes on a daily basis, the individual staffs with each affiliate to use the video as another teaching tool, and for the players to learn how to self-evaluate and scout opponents certainly makes a difference. Technology is playing a huge role in how the game is played, umpired, and consumed by fans, and the Cubs are at the forefront of these advancements.
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