Last Wednesday, the CCO’s very own Tom U was invited to talk minor league outfield prospects with South Bend Cubs play-by-play man Darin Pritchett on WSBT in South Bend’s Sportsbeat program. Here are some excerpts from that interview.
Darin Pritchett: We are going to focus on some of the better outfielders in the Chicago Cubs minor league organization. At the end, we’ll kick around a couple of players that might end up in South Bend. But let’s talk about a guy that is already debuted in the majors, Jorge Soler. He had quite an impact with the Cubs late in the year, with a home run in his first at bat. He’s just 22 years old. Tom, the sky is the limit for this young man, what do you believe will be the ceiling for Jorge Soler with the Chicago Cubs team?
Tom Usiak: Well, Jorge is probably going to open up the year as the Cubs’ starting right fielder. Some of the things that we saw out of Jorge when he came-up, is that he definitely has the make-up of a right fielder. He’s that big, strong-armed player out there. He has good mobility for a big guy; hits line drives, just really wicked shots off of his bat. The sky is the limit as far as his power goes.
Speaking with some advance scouts, back when he was in Single-A, they thought that his power was not the “jump off the bat” type of power that we see out of somebody like Javier Baez. But with that nice line-drive swing that he has, he is going to be able to reach the fences on regularity.
DP: Would you perceive him (Soler) as an All-Star of the future?
TU: If he continues to show this rate of progress, that’s always a possibility. He has the ability to hit for average. He has the ability to generate in the 20’s of home runs, maybe even more than that. He’s going to be a good run producer. Those numbers are always something people look for with their All-Star players. Besides that, too, he is also going to be very good in the outfield. He’s going to cover the ground in right field very well. He’s going to have the arm that going to have people think twice about taking a second base on him. There is definitely that potential.
DP: Tom, let’s dig into the minors and there is a chance the Double-A Tennessee Smokies might have three pretty good outfielders, at least starting off the 2015 season. Let’s start with a guy Cubs’ fans have heard about, Albert Almora. He is a young man with some tremendous up-side. He just 20 years old, he finished off last year in Double-A with Tennessee. He played 36 games, and only hit .234. But you look at some of the other stops, including in the Midwest League in 61 games in 2013 at Kane County. He hit .329 with a .376 on-base percentage. What is your perception of Almora?
TU: Rick Carter last week asked us about players the front office is looking for, that fit their mold. If you want to find a player that is a prototype, here it is in Albert Almora. He’s definitely a “grinder” type of player. He’s going to be a player when he’s at bat is going to see a lot of pitches, foul off a lot of pitches, make the pitcher work very hard against him. He’s someone that has very good batting potential. He’s going to be able to hit very well for average. He hasn’t shown a lot of pop yet, but has enough. As he matures, that going to translate into maybe about 10 or 15 home runs per year at the Major League level, once he’s able to get there.
The best thing about Albert Almora is that he has a very high baseball IQ. He’s a very smart player, very smart outfielder. He knows when to lay out for balls, and knows when to be able to lay back on them and play them. He’s got a very good arm in center field, and takes very good routes on balls out there. He has very good reads off the bat. People are going to really enjoy watching Albert Almora play once he gets to the Major Leagues.
DP: A quick follow up, is it fair to assume Tom that [Jed] Hoyer and [Theo] Epstein bought Almora some time by acquiring Dexter Fowler form Houston? Fowler with one year left on his contract and likely will play center field for the Cubs this year.
TU: Absolutely! This was a great deal that Epstein and Hoyer made this past week. They dealt their third baseman Luis Valbuena along with a pitcher they got in the Jeff Samardzija deal last summer in Dan Straily. They were able to pick up Dexter Fowler. Dexter is going to be able to go right into that leadoff position. He’s got a very good on-base percentage and very good speed still. He’s still a young player at 28-29 years old. Right now, what it looks like they are going to do is they are just going to have him the length of his contract. He’s only under contract for this year. Then, if they are not going to be able to sign him to like a one year extension, or something like that, they will just take the sandwich pick that they will get out of giving him a qualifying offer.
DP: I mentioned a moment ago that Double-A Tennessee could have a handful of prospects in the outfield. We talked about Almora, who also can be stationed in the outfield at Double-A Tennessee?
TU: The Tennessee outfield has two young left-handers that are both going to be ranking in the Top 20, as far as top prospects go for the Cubs. One of them is going to be 20-year old Billy McKinney. McKinney also came over in that Jeff Samardzija deal last summer. When he was with the Oakland A’s, he didn’t do very well at their Advanced-A team. He only batted .241. But when he came over to a very powerful Daytona team, he definitely blossomed. He hit .301, and he was able to drive in 36 runs in only 51 games. He has played center field mostly through his career. With Almora firmly entrenched in center field, we are looking at him probably going to left field. He had a little trouble last year with an arm injury that kind of limited power and his throwing once he came over. But, from what I have heard, he has overcome that, and we should see more power out of McKinney. And we should see a little bit better outfield play out of him.
The other player that is kind of like flying under the radar for most of the fans out there is a guy named Bijan Rademacher. Bijan was drafted back in 2012, and has worked his way up the system. Last year, when he was at Daytona, Almora started off a little bit slow. Some of the other prospects like Dan Vogelbach started off slow there too, and Rademacher was the person that kept that whole team together. And was [Rademacher] able to, once they got prospects like Kyle Schwarber up with the team, was able to kind of like take a back seat to them and still be able to help the team out in whatever way he could. And that team ended up going to the league championship. Rademacher batted .281 with 10 home runs and 56 RBI. But the big thing about Rademacher is that he has probably the best throwing arm out of anybody in the Cubs’ minor league system as far as an outfielder goes. Now I can give you a really quick story. You know before the games how they sometime throw out these little soft balls to the fans? I was standing next to Rademacher when he was doing some of that and he kind of accidently put a few of them out of the stadium.
DP: [Laughing] Not bad! You know when I saw the name Shawon Dunston Jr., I was doing a little research and ran across Shawon Dunson, the former Cubs shortstop, and I can’t believe he’s 51 years old now, which makes me feel very, very old. But Shawon Dunston Jr., Tom, is a player on the rise in the Chicago Cubs organization. What type of player can Dunston Jr. be?
TU: Dunston Jr. is a player that the Cubs are very high on. A couple of years ago, I spoke with [Director of Pro Scouting] Joe Bohringer, who is one of the front office people for the Cubs. He said that when they were looking at their prospects that they inherited when they came to the team, they were really intrigued by Dunston Jr. He really came on in the second half of last year for the championship team, the Kane County Cougars. He moved into the leadoff position and batted .288 out of that position and stole 20 bases in the second half of the season. He could be a very dynamic player. He’s got a lot of speed, and he played the outfield pretty well. He’s mainly a left fielder. You can use him in center field. His arm strength is okay, you can get away with him at both of those positions, but it’s not his strongest suit. His strong suit is his speed. And he has been able to start working the counts a little bit more, and that’s been since he’s been put into the leadoff position.
DP: Tom, let’s talk about possibly some outfielders who could line up for the South Bend Cubs in 2015. Let’s start with Jeffrey Baez.
TU: Jeffrey Baez is a player that I’ve been watching since the Cubs signed him way back in 2010. He’s been working his way up through the minor league system through the Dominican Academy and all the way up to Kane County last year. Jeffrey has gotten 104 career stolen bases in only four seasons of playing professional ball. Last year, when he started the season with Short-Season Boise, he was among the league leaders in the Northwest League in both home runs and stolen bases. And with that success, Chicago Cubs Online named him our Short Season Player of the Year. He ended up batting .255 with 13 home runs and 17 stolen bases, and, just behind Rademacher, he’s got a gun for an arm.
DP: So new manager Jimmy Gonzalez might have his lead-off man right there in Jeffrey Baez. One hundred and four stolen bases in four seasons! That is awfully impressive. Let’s go to another player who sort of has an interesting story. I guess, we can say he’s trying to make a baseball comeback, and that’s Kevin Encarnacion.
TU: Kevin has got an interesting background. He too came up through the Dominican Academy. In 2013, when he was with Boise, was the second straight Boise player to win the batting championship in the Northwest League, batting .355 for them. He also was among the league leaders in home runs in the Northwest League with eight home runs. However, in the off-season between 2013 and 2014, he got into a serious car accident down in the Dominican Republic. The car was on fire, and he got pulled out of the car by a fisherman nearby. He ended up with second and third degree burns over a majority of his body. He spent a big portion of his time in a burn center out in Arizona. Just this past fall, Kevin was able to make it back onto the field in the Fall Instructional League. He only came up to bat an only batted from the left side; he was a switch-hitter before that. But, we don’t know for sure whether he’s going to be able to go back to that. But if he is able to return to the level that he had prior to the accident, you are looking at a player who can line up in either center field or right field. He’s got the arm strength for right field, and he’s got the mobility for center field. He’s a very disciplined hitter, with some power to him too. So we wish the best for Kevin Encarnacion, and we would really like to see him get his career back on track this year.
DP: We are getting a little short on time, maybe some quick hits on three other guys. We will start with Rashad Crawford.
TU: Okay, Rashad was a player that was drafted in 2012. Only going to be 21 years old coming up there. The scouts really liked him coming up in the Northwest league. He scrapped switch-hitting and is now only hitting from the left side, and he’s a player that is on the rise right now. He most likely will be playing left field, but can play centerfield a little bit.
Another young player that may or may not make it up to South Bend is Charcer Burks, who’s a ninth round pick in 2013. Charcer did very well splitting his time between the rookie league and Boise last year, batting .311 with 30 RBI. Charcer can also play both left and centerfield. He may be held back a little bit because of his age. He’s only 19 years old, he will turn 20 in Spring Training.
Now another guy that again, too, is a speedy outfielder that they drafted last year in the 21st round, his name is Charlie White. Charlie played at the University of Maryland and he’s a local person out of Naperville North high School. Charlie, when he came over to Boise, he was assigned directly there, batted only .200 with eight RBI. But one of the things that was impressive was about Charlie was that he literally came out of left field. He was playing left field one game and they needed a pitcher in extra innings. He pitched three innings, struck out three, and was the winning pitcher in that game. So, you have an outfielder who has a 2.25 ERA also.
DP: Wow! So when the South Bend Cubs are up 15-2 in the ninth inning, maybe Charlie White comes in to get the final three outs? You never know.
TU: He could be like that, yeah
Darin Pritchett again was able to give the CCO an opportunity to let all the listeners know about Chicago Cubs Online and what it has to offer. Darin said that he looked forward to bringing Tom U on again to talk about pitching.
To be able to listen to the interview in its entirety, click here: Chicago Cubs Online on WSBT Radio