Greetings to everyone at the CCO! With the Winter League seasons over and Opening Day for the Minor Leagues weeks away, it’s time to step away from reporting and move to more feature articles. For the fifth year, the Down on the Farm Reports returns to a popular feature entitled …
Bubble Players and Bubble Busters
Each year, a number of players are “on the bubble” as to making the Major League roster. This article takes a look at whom some of those players could be, and which players could “bust,” their bubble.
Bubble Player: Mike Olt – For the second consecutive year, Mike Olt comes into Spring Training teetering on the edge of the Major Leagues. After a strong spring in 2014, Olt found himself with the big league club to start, but in 72 games Olt hit only .145 with 12 home runs and 30 RBI. Olt was sent down to Triple-A to regroup and returned when the rosters expanded in September after a brief minor league rehab stint. In his last 17 games, Olt was marginally better, hitting .263 with four doubles and three RBI. With Luis Valbuena gone, third base is wide open this spring, leaving the Cubs with a dilemma. With the looming presence of Kris Bryant, would it be better to start off the season with a reliable defensive third baseman that may be offensively challenged or a platoon of fringe-type players? And even if Olt clearly wins the position in the spring, what happens to him when Bryant arrives? Will Olt get enough at bats backing up the four corners to foster his development?
Bubble Buster: Jonathan Herrera– Playing the other option of the Cubs’ third base dilemma could be veteran Jonathan Herrera. Beginning his minor league career in 2003, Herrera has six years of Major League experience with two teams the Cubs front office seems to value highly, the Colorado Rockies and the Boston Red Sox. A switch-hitter, Herrera has a career line of .263/.324/.329 with a .652 OPS while being an above average defender at second, third and short. Herrera also had a decent winter in Venezuela, batting .254 in 18 games during the regular season and .300 with a home run, stolen base, and two RBI in eight playoff games. With a decent career on-base percentage and strikeout-to-walk ratio (173:94), defensive versatility, and experience, Herrera could play his way onto the Major League roster with a decent spring, especially if no one else steps up their performance.
Outlook: The fate of how this is played out in the spring may rest with two other young players, Arismendy Alcantara and Tommy La Stella. Should both players win the confidence of new manager Joe Maddon in the pre-season, it could sway the argument toward Herrera. While La Stella has no professional experience at third base, there have been reports that he is willing to give it a try, along with the outfield. Should that prove successful, it would give Maddon, a manager who likes to change his line-ups, three options at third base, two of which (Alcantara and Herrera) are switch-hitters. On the outside looking in could be Olt and Javier Baez. Petulantly sticking at shortstop during his time in the minors, Baez has only been a recent convert to second base, and there are some varying opinions as to his defensive ability at either position. Baez has also publically shown his disdain for playing third base in the past, and is currently trying to rebuild his swing. The decision may be to let two young, talented, but struggling players in Olt and Baez get consistent at bats in Triple-A to start the season. That could open the door for Herrera or utility player Chris Valaika.
Bubble Player: Junior Lake – With his career at a crossroads, it will be interesting to watch in Spring Training to see whether Junior Lake has made the necessary offensive adjustments to move forward. As a member of the Cubs’ outfield last season, Lake was a near disaster offensively, batting .211/.246/.351/.597 with nine home runs, 25 RBI, seven stolen bases, and 110 strikeouts in 108 games. In mid-August, Lake was sent back down to Triple-A Iowa in order to get more consistent at-bats. Lake showed some modest improvement, hitting .262/.324/.400/.724 with two home runs and seven RBI. More importantly, in the 14 games Lake played in, he drew half as many walks, seven, than he did in the majors. This trend continued as Lake played for Oriente in the Dominican Winter League. Lake drew 30 walks while striking out only 51 times in 42 regular season games. Lake batted .243/.399/.343/.742 with two homers, 12 RBI, and 21 stolen bases. In the playoffs, Lake maintained his level as he walked 14 times against 27 strikeouts in 23 games and hit .256/.367/.439/.806 with three home runs, 11 RBI, and three stolen bases. Those kinds of numbers, with the level of DWL play, are encouraging. Whether Lake can continue at the Major League level remains to be seen.
Bubble Buster: Mike Baxter – The Cubs signed a number of players to minor league contracts with non-roster invites to Spring Training. One of the more interesting players is OF/1B Mike Baxter. There should be some familiarity with the present front office, as Baxter was drafted by San Diego in 2005 and developed in the Padres system until 2011. Baxter has been claimed off of waivers twice, the New York Mets in 2011 and the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2013. Baxter’s best season in the majors was 2012 when he started 89 games for the Mets and batted .263/.365/.413/.778 with three home runs, 17 RBI, and five stolen bases. In 10 minor league seasons, Baxter has a career .283 batting average, with 51 home runs and 88 stolen bases. Baxter is also above average in the field with 59 career minor league outfield assists and a .994 fielding average at first base.
Outlook: For the third straight spring, Anthony Rizzo will be coming to camp with no clear back-up at first base. However, this will be the first time that legitimate options would be available. The primary candidate would be Mike Olt, who actually has less experience at the position than Baxter but is seen as part of the future. Should Olt struggle this spring, that would open the door for Baxter as the only other options would be utility infielder Chris Valaika or outfielder Chris Coghlan , who has a mere five games of minor league experience there. But if Olt nails down a roster spot, it all depends on how management wants to make the roster. Lake has speed and athleticism, while Baxter is more versatile. Also available will be Matt Szczur, Adron Chambers, and Ryan Sweeney.
Bubble Player: Taylor Teagarden – It’s been a long time since Taylor Teagarden was considered an up-and-coming player in the Texas Ranger system. A third round pick of the Rangers in 2005, Teagarden burst onto the national scene when he batted a combined .305 with 30 home runs and 93 RBI between High-A and Double-A in 2007. But since then, Teagarden has had a hard time replicating those numbers as he has revolved between the majors and minors. At the winter meetings in 2011, Teagarden was traded to the Baltimore Orioles where he spent two years on the bench before gaining free agency in the 2013 off-season. Teagarden signed with the New York Mets where he spent most of his time in the minors and hit a combined .299 with 14 home runs and 39 RBI in 61 games at three levels, including Triple-A Las Vegas.
Bubble Buster: Rafael Lopez – In the grand tradition that Cubs’ fans have with “mascot” players, Rafael Lopez is an underdog that the Cubs faithful could latch onto. An overlooked 16th round selection in 2011, at 23 years old Lopez was an over-aged prospect in Short Season-A Boise. Needless to say, Lopez tore up the Northwest League, batting .316 with six homers and 37 RBI in 54 games. But Lopez lost a significant chunk of time in 2012 with a concussion. Even with the lost time, Lopez batted .280 with two home runs and 28 RBI in 73 games between Low-A and High-A. Although he had yet to play a full season anywhere, Lopez was assigned to Double-A Tennessee in 2013 where his lack of experience caught up with him. In 95 games, Lopez hit only .247 with career highs of eight home runs and 43 RBI. For the 2014 season, the Cubs challenged Lopez by placing him back with the Smokies and he responded by batting .297 with four home runs and 24 RBI in 45 games. Lopez was promoted to Triple-A Iowa where he kept up the pace, hitting .285 in 61 games. Always considered a fine defensive catcher, Lopez also turned in his best season in the field last year with career highs in fielding percentage (.990) and caught stealing (37%).
Outlook: The Cubs acquired veterans Miguel Montero and David Ross in the off-season, while incumbent Welington Castillo is expected to be traded before training camp breaks. With that, it would appear that the catching position is all but sewn up. But with Montero at 31 years old and Ross at 38, and both with a significant history of injury, the need to have another catcher ready to step in would be prudent.
Bubble Player: Jacob Turner – The Cubs had an unexpected windfall last season when the Miami Marlins designated Jacob Turner for assignment. With no minor league options left, the Marlins had hoped that would scare enough teams away to sneak Turner through waivers and assign him to their Triple-A New Orleans club. But the Cubs made a claim, and were able to swing a deal that sent two Single-A relievers to Miami for Turner. The ninth pick of the 2009 draft by Detroit, Turner was signed to a Major League contract at age 18 and placed on the Tigers’ 40 man roster. Turner made his professional debut in 2010, and was called up to the majors at the end of July in 2011. Almost exactly a year later, Turner was part of a trade that brought RHP Anibal Sanchez and utility player Omar Infante to Detroit and sent him to Miami. From 2012 and 2014, Turner bounced between the majors and the minors, and in the process burned up his options. Despite his promise, Turner never developed the way national scouts expected, as his fastball topped out in the low-90s and both his curve and change-up never improved.
Bubble Buster: Donn Roach – At one time thought of as a Top 25 prospect, Donn Roach is iffy enough as a pitcher to go through waivers twice in about a month but still hold some promise. A third round selection in the 2010 draft by the Los Angeles Angels, Roach was dealt in 2012 to the San Diego organization. In the spring of 2014, Roach made the jump from Double-A to the Padres pitching staff. Roach made one start and was 1-0 with a 4.75 ERA and 1.68 WHIP in 16 appearances that included 17 strikeouts in 30.1 innings before being sent down to Triple-A El Paso. With the Chihuahuas, Roach went 4-6 in 13 starts (19 appearances) with a 5.26 ERA and a 1.79 WHIP with 44 strikeouts in 77 innings. A sinkerball pitcher, Roach has a low 90s fastball, a “slurve” breaking pitch, and a split-fingered fastball.
Outlook: It is hard to get a read as to just how the organization feels about Turner. They ended up swinging a deal for him in the hopes that Pitching Coach Chris Bosio can get him to realize his potential, but the front office spent the off-season acquiring pitchers to challenge for his roster spot. As it stands right now, with the signings of pitchers Jon Lester and Jason Hammel, Turner no longer seems to have a spot in the rotation, and would be used in long relief. Turner is relatively cheap, as the Cubs picked up his $1 million option, and he is under club control until 2019. But even though he cost them two minor leaguers, Turner is not that big of an investment that he can’t be let go if he doesn’t take to Bosio’s coaching. While Roach may be his primary competition, a good spring by Dallas Beeler, Blake Parker, or Brian Schlitter may hasten Turner’s departure.
Bubble Player: Felix Doubront – At the time that the Cubs acquired Felix Doubront last season it was for the ubiquitous “player to be named later.” It has since become that the cost was actually quite high, with the Cubs giving up highly thought of shortstop Marco Hernandez for a pitcher only five games over .500 and with a 4.78 ERA for his career. Doubrant was signed as an international free agent as a 17-year old by Boston in 2005, when Cubs’ President Theo Epstein and GM Jed Hoyer were in charge of the Red Sox. Doubront worked his way up the chain steadily and somewhat unspectacularly, seeing time in the majors both in 2010 and 2011. It seemed that Doubront was in the majors for good in 2012, but back-to back season of 11-10 and 11-6 with ERA’s of 4.86 and 4.32 put him on shaky ground for 2014. Doubront continued his struggles and sent first to Double-A Portland, and then to Triple-A Pawtucket. Doubront returned to the big leagues about a month before the trade, and was moved to the bullpen. The Cubs wanted to stretch Doubront out to be a starter, sending him to Double-A Tennessee and Triple-A Iowa before bringing him back to the majors, essentially when the rosters expanded in September. Doubront made four starts and was 2-1 with a 3.98 ERA and eight strikeouts in 20.1 innings. This past month, the Cubs avoided arbitration with Doubront and signed him to a one-year, $1.925 million deal.
Bubble Busters: Joseph Ortiz – A seemingly insignificant claim made right after the 2014 season concluded, Joseph Ortiz may play a role in shaping the Cubs’ Major League pitching staff. Ortiz was signed as an international free agent in 2006 by Texas, and worked his way up the ladder using experience gained every off-season in the Venezuelan Winter League to aid in his development. By 2012, Ortiz made it all the way up to Triple-A Round Rock and posted a 1.97 ERA in 24 appearances. Ortiz was then a part of the Rangers’ Opening Day roster in 2013 and went 2-2 with a 4.23 ERA and 1.25 WHIP in 32 appearances with 27 strikeouts in 44.2 innings. Ortiz was sent back to Triple-A in early June and returned when the roster expanded in September. A motorcycle accident in January of 2014 resulted in a broken foot, which kept Ortiz out of baseball until late July, when he made 13 appearances with Double-A Frisco. Ortiz had an effective winter with LaGuaira of the VWL, going 3-0 with a save in 23 appearances. Ortiz also had a 2.57 ERA and a 1.24 WHIP that included 10 strikeouts in 21 innings as a left-handed specialist.
Outlook: The signing of lefty Jon Lester has had an effect on both the rotation and the left-handed contingency of the Cubs’ staff. Entertain the thought for a moment that Edwin Jackson can have a bounce-back spring and emerge as the fifth starter. Suddenly, Travis Wood is bumped to the bullpen if the Cubs cannot find a buyer for him in a soft back-of-the-rotation market. The left handed depth for the pitching staff improves with Wood, Tsuyoshi Wada, and youngsters Eric Jokisch and Zac Rosscup. Even if Jackson fails to come through, the recently claimed Drake Britton makes the left side of the bullpen stronger. It would then depend on what you want for your bullpen. Ortiz can be considered a LOOGY, which could be a plus in his favor against the other candidates. Doubront would then have stiff competition from possibly Wood, along with Wada and Jokisch for a long reliever/spot starter role. Don’t let the high trade price, the connection to the front office, or the arbitration figures fool you. If Doubront can’t get more out of his ability, he could have a hard time making the club.
Attention CCO Readers
The Down on the Farm preliminary reader’s poll is underway. Please post the names of the minor league players you would like the Down on the Farm Report to follow throughout the upcoming season. In March, the top 20 names will run in a special poll for the final month of preseason. The CCO will track the progress of top 10 players throughout the entire season. A representative sample of positions and levels of play is optimal. You can name as many players as you like, but remember, only ten will eventually be chosen. After two weeks, our readers have cast 106 votes, with first baseman Dan Vogelbach running away with the voting and has an 11 point lead over outfielders Eloy Jimenez and Billy McKinney, and RHP Jen-Ho Tseng. So from Tyler Alamo to Rob Zastryzny, all nominations will be accepted and given equal weight.