Five Players to Watch: Double-A Tennessee and Triple-A Iowa
The three-part series that looks beyond the Top 20 Prospect lists and explores other players in the Cubs organization that may have an impact on the Major League club concludes today with the upper levels of the minor league system.
Over the years, the CCO has profiled players such as Arismendy Alcantara, Kyle Hendricks, and Armando Rivero among others, before they were recognized as top prospects, in these series of reports
The players are listed in alphabetical order, and as they are presently listed on rosters. Inclusion in this list does not necessarily reflect where each player will start the season.
Sometimes, if you hang around long enough, you just might get your opportunity. That may be just what happens with Gioskar Amaya.
Amaya has had either a charmed or cursed career, depending upon your point of view, in that he has always been around some of the organization’s top prospects. Along with players such as Javier Baez, Brett Jackson, and Josh Vitters, Amaya has been teammates with eight of the players ranked in the latest Chicago Cubs Online Top 21 Prospects list. Being around that much talent, it becomes difficult to make an impression.
Signed as an international free agent in 2010, Amaya spent time in both the Dominican Summer League in 2010 and the Arizona Rookie League in 2011 partnering with and trading infield spots with Marco Hernandez. In 2012, it was finally decided to place Hernandez at short and Amaya at second base, as the two batted 1-2 in the lineup for the Boise Hawks in 2012, who fell one game short of winning the Northwest League Championship. Amaya made it into several of the league’s top offensive categories. He was fifth in both hitting and stolen bases, sixth in on-base percentage, and ninth in home runs. Amaya’s totals for the season were .298/.381/.496/.877 with six doubles, 12 triples, eight home runs, 33 RBI, and 15 stolen bases.
Great things were expected of Amaya in 2013 as he moved into his first full season as a professional with Low-A Kane County. However, Amaya, like several members of that squad, found the going a little tougher than they expected. Amaya struggled in all phases of the game, as he failed to take command of either the leadoff or number two spot in the batting order while suddenly being error prone in the field. For the year, Amaya’s numbers took a nose dive as he hit .252/.329/.369/.698 with 26 doubles, six triples, five home runs, 28 RBI, and 13 stolen bases. Amaya also committed 22 errors at second base with a disappointing .959 fielding percentage.
Given his struggles, it was somewhat surprising that the organization promoted Amaya to High–A Daytona for the 2014 season. But Amaya was able to put the bad year behind him and bounce back with some numbers more in line with his career averages. What’s more, Amaya was able to put up solid numbers batting second in the order, while producing even better in the eighth and ninth spots. In 112 games, Amaya batted .276/.379/.369/.747 with 16 doubles, three triples, four home runs, 35 RBI, and 14 stolen bases. Amaya also cleaned up his defense too, posting a career high .972 fielding percentage.
Amaya will be 22 years old this season and is slated to begin at Double-A Tennessee. Just exactly how he will be used remains to be seen. With an overload of second base prospects in the majors and at Triple-A, it is quite possible that the Smokies starting second baseman in 2014, Stephen Bruno, will return. In the Fall Instructional League this past October, Amaya took reps both at third base and at catcher, but those will probably belong to Christian Villanueva and Kyle Schwarber at the season’s onset. With Amaya’s former double-play partner Hernandez traded to the Red Sox, don’t be too surprised to see Amaya back at his original position of shortstop.
At this point in his development, Amaya bears a lot of similarities to recently traded Luis Valbuena. At 21 years old, Valbuena had played Double-A ball in the Seattle organization, but with averages of .252 and .239 in High-A and Double-A, he may have been rushed a bit. Valbuena spent the next five seasons bouncing between Double-A, Triple-A, and the majors before landing a regular position last year at age 28. Amaya may have the same non-linear developmental path. Hopefully, he can remain a Cub throughout that process.
A relatively unknown quantity to Cubs’ fans, Matt Brazis has a chance to make the most of a fresh start with a new organization.
Selected by the Seattle Mariners in the 28th round of the 2012 draft out of Boston College, Brazis was placed with Pulaski of the Appalachian League after he signed and tossed 8.1 innings of shutout ball with 19 strikeouts. Brazis was quickly moved to Low-A Clinton for the remainder of the season where he chalked up five saves in 11 appearances while going 1-0 with a 0.83 ERA and a 0.78 WHIP that included 32 strikeouts in 19.1 innings.
The 2013 season saw Brazis with High-A High Desert where he ran into a bit more resistance. Brazis lost out on the closer role to fellow draft classmate Dominic Leone and floundered a bit in middle relief. For the year, Brazis was 2-3 with a save in 42 appearances with a 4.50 ERA and a 1.50 WHIP (57 strikeouts in 58.2 innings).
Taking the lessons learned in his first full professional season, Brazis was a better pitcher in 2014. Returning to High Desert, Brazis split closing duties with lefty Will Mathis and Grady Wood. He went 3-0 with four saves and a 2.97 ERA in 23 appearances. Brazis was then promoted to Double-A Jackson where he returned to a middle relief role, this time, more effectively. In 17 appearances, Brazis was 1-1 with two saves and a 1.67 ERA. In total, Brazis went 4-1 with six saves and a 2.36 ERA and a 1.00 WHIP (84 strikeouts in 72.1 innings).
This past December, the Cubs acquired Brazis from the Mariners for OF Justin Ruggiano. The 25-year old throws a low- to mid-90s fastball that scouts say has a lot of deception. Brazis also has a curve and a slider that he commands well, but tends to fall in love with his slider which gets him into trouble. However, Brazis does throw strikes, and has a career strikeout to walk ratio of 192 to 50. If Brazis can work on sequencing his pitches better, he could open the season as Double-A Tennessee’s closer. Brazis projects as a middle reliever if he makes it to the majors, with a high end of being a set-up man/alternate closer.
One of the biggest surprises of the Cubs’ 2014 draft class, Andrew Ely is also one of toughest projections for this off-season as he has the possibility of opening the year at one of several levels.
A two-sport star (baseball, football) as a high school player from Eagle, Idaho, Ely hit .417 with six home runs and 30 RBI as a senior shortstop, and was known as a “field general” type of player. As a freshman at the University of Washington, Ely saw his main action as a pinch-hitter, batting .250 with a home run and eight RBI in 38 games. Ely started 53 games as a sophomore, with most of his time at third base as he hit .338. In his junior year, Ely moved over to second base and garnered several honors, including All PAC-12, All PAC-12 Defensive, and second team All PAC-12 Academic. Ely lead the nation with 26 sacrifice bunts and led the PAC-12 in turning 45 double plays. His 2014 season capped a college career in which Ely batted .311/.391/.384/.775 with 13 doubles, four triples, four home runs, 56 RBI, and five stolen bases.
The Cubs selected Ely in the 32nd round, and the left-handed hitter was assigned to the Arizona Rookie League after signing. There, Ely did what a player of his experience is supposed to do. Ely ran roughshod over rookie league pitching, batting .326 with four home runs and seven RBI in 25 games. It is what happened after his fast start that made observers sit up and take notice.
With a shortage of middle infielders toward the end of the season, Ely was jumped all the way to Triple-A Iowa to lend a hand. Ely responded by getting a hit in his first at bat and went on to hit .229 with a home run and nine RBI in nine games. For the season, Ely put up a line of .298/.348/.479/.828 with five doubles, a triple, five home runs, 16 RBI, and a stolen base in 34 games.
Andrew Ely is also considered a top notch defensive player, fielding .993 as a college player and .981 in his first pro experience.
At 22 years old, Ely presents quite a dilemma in projecting his starting point for 2015. Logic would dictate that Ely begins at either Low-A South Bend or High-A Myrtle Beach. The problem is that both of those squads seem chock full of middle infielders. That is why it is not out of the question that Ely starts 2015 at Double-A Tennessee. The Smokies’ infield appears to be in flux, and will be very dicey if Christian Villanueva is promoted to cover third at Triple-A Iowa once Kris Bryant is ready for the majors. Ely’s versatility and left-handed bat would be a plus, but how he performs in Spring Training may be the final deciding factor. Another scenario may have Ely biding his time in extended Spring Training in anticipation of injury or poor performance opening a slot. Ely can become one of those “out of nowhere” stories that provides so much color to sports.
Sometimes the odds are against a player as baseball’s front offices seem to give multiple chances to players with “potential” that underperform. Felix Pena is one of those pitchers that the odds seem always against, but has found a way to advance.
Pena was part of a very good international signing class in 2009, which included players such as Arismendy Alcantara, Frank Batista, Willson Contreras, Jae-Hoon Ha, Hak-Ju Lee, and Dae-Eun Rhee. However, Pena has taken some time to find himself as a pitcher. His first two professional seasons were in the Dominican Summer League where he had 1-4 and 1-2 records respectively. Pena did see both his ERA and WHIP drop to 1.17 and 0.97 during that span. But the organization seemed to be confused as to just how to use Pena effectively, as he started seven games and closed out nine over 34 appearances.
Pena moved stateside for the 2011 season and was part of the Arizona Rookie League, going 3-2 with a 6.92 ERA and a 1.46 WHIP that included 32 strikeouts in 39 innings, closing out nine of 17 appearances. It was somewhat of a surprise that Pena earned a promotion for the 2012 season, as he was assigned to Short Season-A Boise after a brief fling with Low-A Peoria. With the Hawks, Pena played an important role as a piggyback starter, coming into the game after a starting pitcher had reached a pre-arranged inning or pitch count limit. Pena was instrumental in aiding the development of newly drafted pitchers Pierce Johnson and Michael Heesch in that role, so much so that he was rewarded with a spot in the starting rotation as Boise vied for the playoffs down the stretch. For the season, Pena was 4-2 with a 3.43 ERA and a 1.30 WHIP (42 strikeouts in 63 innings).
In the 2013 season, Pena struggled with some injuries at the onset, but was so effective when he did pitch that he was named a Midwest League All-Star. Pena was 2-0 with a 2.11 ERA and 29 strikeouts in the first half, but became a victim of poor support during the second half of the season. The youngest team in the Midwest League that year, Kane County scored a paltry 4.31 runs per game and was one of the worst fielding teams in the league. Pena numbers would suffer as he went 4-7 with a 3.92 ERA and a 1.30 WHIP that incldued 77 strikeouts in 103.1 innings.
It was a little surprising that Pena was named Opening Day starter for High-A Daytona in 2014, as once again he received very little support. Pena lost three straight 1-0 ballgames as the D-Cubs scored only eight runs in Pena’s six losses. Both Pena and OF Bijan Rademacher helped keep Daytona afloat until a few high profile prospect got their act together and OF Billy McKinney and C/OF Kyle Schwarber arrived. Pena was rewarded with a promotion to Double-A Tennessee for the final month of the season after going 4-6 with a 3.19 ERA. Finding the competition in the Southern League a little more difficult, Pena went 2-4 with a 7.48 ERA in six starts for the Smokies. The yearly totals for Pena were a 6-10 record with a 4.15 ERA and a 1.37 WHIP (102 strikeouts in 123.2 innings).
Pena looks to be a candidate for a fifth starter in what could be a very powerful rotation for Tennessee at the start of the 2015 season. Mainly a two-pitch pitcher with a low-90s fastball and a slider, Pena seems best suited for a long relief/spot starter role. But Pena is expected to be very important cog for the Smokies as it is anticipated that there will be a lot of comings and goings for the Tennessee pitching staff through promotions.
With the focus on top 10 pitchers C.J. Edwards and Pierce Johnson, along with promising youngsters such as Carson Sands and Justin Steele, it is easy to overlook Rob Zastryzny.
A product of Calallen High School in Corpus Christi, TX, Zastryzny compiled a career 28-4 record with a 0.71 ERA and 299 strikeouts while batting .401 with 14 home runs and 88 RBI. Moving to the University of Missouri, Zastryzny was on the All Big-12 Freshman team but suffered from a lack of support with the Tigers. Zastryzny posted only a career record of 9-19, but struck out 228 batters in 287 innings.
The 2013 second round draft pick tossed only 90 innings for Missouri when he signed with the Cubs, so they sent Zastryzny straight to Short Season-A Boise to get his feet wet. After posting a 3.14 ERA in 14.1 innings, Zastryzny went to Low-A Kane County to finish out the season. With the Cougars, Zastryzny got his first professional win as he had a 0.93 ERA in 9.2 innings. The combined totals for Zastryzny in 2013 were 1-0 with a 2.25 ERA and a 1.33 WHIP that included 22 strikeouts in 24 innings.
Assigned to High-A Daytona in 2014, the lefty was already struggling in his first full season with an 8.33 ERA through his first six starts when he was struck on the forearm by a line drive. Zastryzny only missed one start and had a 2.78 ERA over his next seven appearances before missing another start to have his arm evaluated at the Cubs’ facility in Arizona. When he came back, Zastryzny played a pivotal part in the D-Cubs push for the playoffs, going 4-0 and averaging five innings over his final 12 starts. For the season, Zastryzny was 4-6 with a 4.66 ERA and a 1.40 WHIP (110 strikeouts in 110 innings). However, he was 4-3 and his ERA was 2.39 with 84 strikeouts after the injury.
Rob Zastryzny has a four seam fastball that he throws in the low-90s, as well as a two-seam fastball. After there was some concern about it when he was drafted, scouts now believe that Zastryzny’s slider is his best pitch, with his change-up giving him four pitches to work with. At 6-foot-3, 205 pounds, Zastryzny is considered an innings-eater that gets better with more work.
Five Minor League Players to Watch
- Rookie and Short Season-A Ball – Down on the Farm Report – 02/23/15
- Low-A South Bend and High-A Myrtle Beach – Down on the Farm Report – 03/02/15
Attention CCO Readers
The Down on the Farm preliminary reader’s poll has been completed, and the top 20 players nominated are part of an online poll to reduce the number down to ten players. Please vote at the CCO home page in order to ensure that that your favorite player is follow by Down on the Farm for the 2015 season.
Race to Wrigley
For the third straight year, I will be competing in the Race to Wrigley 5K run on April 25, 2014. If anyone is interested in making a donation or joining the CCO team, please visit Race to Wrigley – Chicago Cubs Online to register. All proceeds go to Chicago Cubs Charities and Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago.