Last Tuesday, the CCO’s very own Tom U was invited to talk minor league infield prospects with South Bend Cubs new play-by-play man Darin Pritchett and Rick Carter on WSBT Sportsbeat program. Here are some excerpts from that interview.
Darin Pritchett: We’ve got to start at third base, because, everybody that is a Chicago Cubs fan is extremely excited about Kris Bryant, the first round pick of the Chicago Cubs two years ago. Power hitting machine throughout the minor leagues and, we’re assuming, if he’s not a third baseman he’ll end up being a corner outfielder for the Chicago Cubs. But we’ll use him in our conversation to talk about some of the top prospects at third base.
Let me just start with this simple question. Everybody loves prospects. Not every prospect turns out the way we expect. But is there any way Kris Bryant does not live up to the high expectations?
Tom Usiak: Well, it’s always difficult to make that final jump, going from Triple-A to the Major Leagues. However, we are very fortunate here at Chicago Cubs Online because we have spoken with two of your colleagues, Randy Wehofer over at the Iowa Cubs and we have also spoken with Mick Gillispie over at the Tennessee Smokies, both of whom seen Kris Bryant over the past year. Both say as far as his preparation goes, as far as his game awareness goes, he looks like he’s going to be able to translate very well into the major leagues.
Rick Carter: One more thing on Kris Bryant, as there is some talk about him switching positions. Is it getting any closer to figuring out if he can be an every-day Major League third baseman from a defensive standpoint?
TU: Well, I think we are going to see a lot about that come Spring Training. According to what we learned from both of the broadcasters, Mick saw him early in the season and he felt that while he (Bryant) was improving at third base, that he looked like he was playing out of position. However, when Randy saw him later in the season at Iowa, he (Randy Wehofer) said that he looked fine at the position; looked like he was working very hard, still had a few things work on, but his footwork was improving, and that he was doing well at third base. He has the arm for both third base and the outfield, so he’s going to do well wherever he’s going to be at.
DP: Thomas, beside Bryant, in the Cubs’ system, is there a third baseman or two that you will be watching closely; and do you project anybody in particular that could be the starting third baseman for the South Bend Cubs in April?
TU: As far as third base goes in the organization, the Cubs are very high on a prospect that’s probably going to start this year at Double-A Tennessee, Christian Villanueva. They got him in the Matt Garza deal a couple of years ago (Note: Villanueva was acquired from the Rangers along with Kyle Hendricks in the Ryan Dempster deal). He’s considered one of the best defensive players in their entire system. This wintertime, he has been working in the Mexican League. He understands that he may not be at third base entirely, especially with Kris Bryant there, so he’s been working in the outfield and at first base also. Shows a lot of pop in his bat for a guy who’s a little bit smaller, only about 5-foot-11; but still, he’s very skilled as a third baseman.
Now as far as the projected third base position goes at South Bend, the third baseman who played for the Boise Hawks, their Short Season-A team last year is somebody named Jesse Hodges. Jesse was signed in 2012 as an undrafted free agent after Cubs management saw him in a junior tournament out in Asia, playing shortstop for Canada at the time. He’s been developing through their minor league system. Last year at Boise he did very well. He hit seven home runs, had 44 RBI, improving on his defense, batted .265. He’s a player that’s going to be improving.
RC: Let’s move to shortstop, where the Cubs have an everyday guy signed long term, Starlin Castro. But a load of talent at the shortstop position in the minor leagues and I guess that starts with Addison Russell, who may or may not change positions himself like Kris Bryant.
TU: As far as Addison Russell goes, I’m not sure about him changing positions. He fielded awfully well when he was at Tennessee. In 50 games for them, he only played a short part this past year because of a leg injury, he fielded .990 as a shortstop, and that’s almost unheard of for the shortstop position. According to what Mick said in his interview, Addison can field everything that he gets to, has very strong hands, a true arm, so that he can be capable of making any of the plays at the position. I’m not sure whether he is going to be a superstar shortstop, but he’s going to be able to play that position well.
DP: I do want to mention that there is a shortstop Baseball America ranked number eight on the Cubs prospect list, and that is Gleyber Torres. He is someone that can possibly end up in South Bend. Thomas, is that fair to say?
TU: Absolutely! Gleyber was signed in 2013 as an International free agent. Most people thought that Gleyber would be going to the Dominican Academy last year. Well, he surprised everybody in extended Spring Training and started with the Cubs’ rookie league team. He did very well with them; he batted .279 with a home run and 29 RBI in 43 games and was promoted up to the Short Season-A Boise team. He played very well for them too. He started seven games for them and started all three of their playoff games.
RC: How about second base?
TU: Second base for Torres, or second base…
RC: No, second base in the organization.
TU: Second base is a very deep position within the organization. Right now, we saw a little bit of a second baseman up in the majors last year named Logan Watkins. He’s a very versatile player. He can play all four infield positions, all three outfield positions. He’s got speed. He has decent pop with his bat; he can hit about ten home runs or so.
As far as the other levels, the next best, I would have to say, would be somebody who’s going to be at Tennessee this year. His name is Gioskar Amaya.
DP: As you think about South Bend, do you project anybody for second base at this point?
TU: Well, there are a couple of players that look good for South Bend right now. One is called Bryant Flete. The Cubs signed him back in 2011, and he’s worked his way up the system. Now, with Flete they’ve played him both at shortstop and second base. He can be a dynamic player. He hits very well, hit .315 in the rookie league this past season. Didn’t do as well up in Boise; he hit .256. But he’s got a lot of speed, and he could be an option for South Bend’s leadoff man at the beginning of the season.
RC: And last thing on second base, since there are a lot of shortstops that are looking for a position to play. Is there a chance, and it doesn’t seem to be Russell, as he’s so good there at shortstop. Is there a chance that one of those guys may move to second base?
TU: That’s quite a possibility. One person that they are looking at right now at a bunch of positions, and could possibly be with you at South Bend is another player they drafted last year in Jason Vosler. He was drafted in the 16th round, and they are looking at him as both a shortstop, a second baseman, and as an outfielder at this point. He did very well in Boise, batted .266 in 30 games with a home run and 11 RBI.
DP: We are joined by Thomas Usiak, minor league correspondent from Chicago Cubs Online, and on to first base and they have got an interesting player in Dan Vogelbach, who had great success in the Midwest League in 2013, hit 17 home runs. With Daytona, the higher Class A team had 16 home runs and hit .268. Now he’s interesting, he’s 6-foot, 250 (pounds), now I saw a lot of people talk about this guy as a possible DH in the future. Do you fell like this is a guy that can turn into a prospect, or is he a guy who can be an offensive weapon who can be traded to an American League team down the line?
TU: I think the second (option) is probably closer to what I’ve seen from Dan Vogelbach. I’ve actually seen Vogelbach play in person a few times. I’ve listened to the broadcast from down in Daytona, and just seems to have a little trouble around the bag. He’s pretty good as a stay-at-home first baseman, but if you are looking for him to make a lot of plays, he just doesn’t have the mobility for that. He does have a very quick bat. He can get around on balls very well. You can tell he’s got a lot of power to him. He looks like he can, maybe, handle the position for a year or two or so, and then move on to a designated hitter position.
RC: With the Cubs’ management talking so much about sabermetrics and on-base percentage being as important as power. You don’t see it as much at the Major League level because, frankly, they didn’t draft a lot of these guys. Are you starting to see some of these minor league prospects, where there are some sabermetric guys you can point to and say ‘this is really the template of what they are looking for, for the future?’
TU: You’re looking at a few of them when you are talking about Bryant and Russell. Those two do very well as far as their sabermetrics go. Bryant has got a .438 on-base percentage. His OPS was 1.098. Russell was very much similar to that while he was at Tennessee, with a .332 on-base percentage and an .868 OPS.
DP: Thomas, let me go back to first base. Any guess who might be a candidate to play first for the South Bend Cubs
TU: Well there are a couple candidates for South Bend. The first one you would have to look at is a little bit older player, he’s 24 years old, named Danny Canela. Danny was signed out of the Frontier League and played with Boise last season mainly. He did very well, but his stock-in trade was a catcher. He reports a little bit out of shape, so they played him at first base. He hit .295 with six home runs and 48 RBI in Short Season Boise. So you can see him at first base for a little while, you might see him at catcher too.
But the other player you need to look for, and is the player that I’m kind of high on to, was drafted in the 20th round last year. His name is Alex Tomasovich. Now Alex came to the Cubs as a middle infielder, but he’s a little bit bigger guy. He’s 6-foot-3, 185 pounds and he batted very well. He hit .311 on 37 games for Short Season A Boise. The thing about what Alex brought to the table was defense. You had a couple of player who were a little bit shaky in the Boise infield, and they brought in Alex to be able to kind of like settle them down. He fielded well, and he was perfect at first base. He didn’t make a single error.
DP: I want to finish up out conversation on just getting your perspective on the major league club in 2015. You go and acquire a Jon Lester, to sit atop the rotation. You bring in, in my opinion, if not the best, the second best strategy manager in Major League Baseball active in Joe Madden. I think we have to put Bruce Bochy at the top right now, with what he has done out in San Francisco. But when you make these types of moves, the expectations has seemed to have moved up a year. Thomas, in a lot of people’s eyes, as you look at the Cubs in 2015, what is your ultimate expectation? Or maybe I should say realistic expectation? And are you looking a little more toward 2016 as their so-called “go” year?
TU: If you are looking at how they are going to develop their prospects and everything, 2016 is going to be a real important year for them. They are going to have a lot of their players that they have brought up this year, and last year, and look to bring up in the following year that are going to make the core of that team. You are going to see people like Jorge Soler, and Bryant, and Russell, all starting to make the team.
What you are going to see out of the 2015 Cubs, for what I hear with Joe Madden as the manager, is a lot of versatility. He’s going to be moving his line-up around. He’s going to be trying to make match-up favorites for the Cubs. He’s got a lot of pieces he can move around. He’s got Arismendy Alcantara, who can play centerfield; he can play shortstop; he can play second base. He got a very good on-base percentage person that they acquired in Tommy La Stella for second base. He’s going to be moving his line-up around and trying to get his best match-ups as he can. Whether this going to work as far as getting an offense going for the Cubs remains to be seen right now. They are going to play good defense. And, of course, their pitching is greatly improved with the signing of Lester and Hammel. They got a couple of good pitchers toward the end of last year in Jacob Turner and Felix Doubront, so it’s going to be an interesting year for the Cubs up at the Major League level.
Darin Pritchett gave the CCO an opportunity to let all the listeners about Chicago Cubs Online and what it has to offer. Darin said that he looked forward to talking with Tom U again in the near future about other parts of the organization.
- To listen to the interview in its entirety, click here: Chicago Cubs Online on WSBT Radio