Minor League Predictions
Once again it is time for me to step out of my comfort zone and make some predictions. Every season, I wildly grope to try and make some prescient comments concerning the approximately 300 players that will don a uniform in the Cubs’ minor league system.
The upcoming minor league season looks like one of transition for both the parent club and the system. Expectations are high as a number of high level prospects are making their way to the top, and contending teams at all levels can be expected.
So pull up a chair, grab your cup of coffee, and let’s see how I do this year… Down on the Farm!
First Prospect Call-up: 3B/OF Kris Bryant
Well, duh! With possibly the easiest prediction I have ever made, the number one prospect in all of baseball, 23-year old Kris Bryant, will be the first minor leaguer to make it to Wrigley. We all know the numbers by now: a .325 (?line) line, ?doubles, 43 home runs, 110 RBI last year, and a .425 (?line) line with nine home runs in spring training.
It would take a disaster of epic proportions for another player to beat Bryant to “the Show” this season.
First Pitching Prospect Call-up: RHP Armando Rivero
The unique situation the Cubs have with RHP Edwin Jackson and LHP Travis Wood will make it less likely that a starting pitcher is recalled from Iowa if something happens to a pitcher in the rotation. Because of this, I decided to pass on LHP Eric Jokisch, who seems on the verge of the majors but still needs some time to develop.
Because the front office likes power arms in the bullpen, Armando Rivero could fit in nicely. The 27-year Cuban national had a fine season last year, striking out 100 in only 65 innings while posing a 2.22 ERA and 1.09 WHIP as he split his time between Double-A Tennessee and Triple-A Iowa. Among his weapons, Rivero has an upper-90s fastball, two-seam fastball, and slider.
Player on the Spot: 1B Dan Vogelbach
One of the last, and highest ranked of the prospects left over from the previous front office, Dan Vogelbach will have a lot to prove this season. Playing in his own back yard for High-A Daytona last season (Vogelbach grew up four hours away in Ft. Myers), the 22-year had both the lowest batting average (.268) and home run total (16) of his career. Vogelbach followed that up with a less than stellar performance in the Arizona Fall League, batting .261 with no home runs and only eight RBI in 21 games against some of baseball’s best prospects. Vogelbach has had an incremental decline in his offensive numbers every season. The burly first baseman is also very limited defensively as he does not project to any other position.
It appears that Vogelbach will start the season with Double-A Tennessee, but there has to be some concerns. Considering that the front office has thought so little about the first base position at Triple-A the last two seasons, you have to wonder whether if they feel that the position can be covered by other prospects. If “position redundancy” forces players such as Kris Bryant, Jeimer Candelario, Billy McKinney, Mike Olt, or Kyle Schwarber to look for playing time, first base may become a “safety valve.” And that could place even more pressure on Vogelbach.
Fastest Risers: C/OF Kyle Schwarber and RHP Jake Stinnett
It might be asking too much, but 21014 first round pick Kyle Schwarber could have a similar developmental path that Kris Bryant took last season. For those who may forget, Bryant played only 36 games after singing in 2013, 16 at Advanced-A Daytona. There were also concerns over Bryant’s defense and which position he would play.
The 22-year old Schwarber played exactly twice as many games as Bryant, 72, including 44 at Daytona. Schwarber batted .302 (?line) with 10 home runs and 28 RBI for the D-Cubs, which was approximately the same pace that Bryant exhibited a year earlier. After there was some doubt, Schwarber has received praise for his defense at catcher this spring. Schwarber looks capable of sticking at the position, at least for the early part of his career. Do not be surprised if Schwarber gets a ticket to Iowa in the middle of the summer.
The next player selected after Schwarber, Jake Stinnett did not make as big of a splash. After signing, Stinnett pitched only 11 innings between rookie ball and Short Season-A, were he had a 2.84 ERA (?line). It has since been learned that Stinnett was dealing with an injury at the time, but appears to be ready to go for this season. Many national scouts have said that Stinnett already has the best slider in the Cubs’ system, along with both a four-seam and two-seam fastball that has been clocked in the mid-90s. Stinnett should start in Low-A South Bend, but may get a quick promotion to High-A Myrtle Beach if he dominates.
Bounce-Back Players: OF Kevin Encarnacion and RHP Tyler Skulina
By now, most should know some of the background story for Kevin Encarnacion. For those who don’t here is a quick recap. In 2013, Encarnacion was the second straight Boise Hawk (Short Season-A) to win the Northwest League batting title. Encarnacion hit .355 and tied for second with eight home runs, while tying for eleventh with 30 RBI in 42 games. In that off season, Encarnacion, along with prospects Frandy Delarosa and Jose Zapata, where involved in an automobile accident. Encarnacion was pulled from the fiery wreck by a passerby and suffered second and third degree burns on the majority of his body. The 23-year old has spent the last year rehabbing, and is no longer switch-hitting due to his injuries. Encarnacion was on the verge of breaking through as a very talented two-way player prior to the accident. It now appears that Encarnacion will start his comeback with Low-A South Bend.
The question some may have is “How can a pitcher that threw a no-hitter be someone considered for a bounce-back player?” While Tyler Skulina tossed 7.1 no-hit innings and was the winning pitcher in mid-May, the rest of his season was not that great. The 23-year old was only 4-7 for Kane County with a 3.21 ERA (?line). When Skulina was promoted to High-A Daytona, things got worse. Skulina was hit hard in the Florida State League, going 0-2 with a 7.56 ERA (?line). It turns out Skulina was dealing with an injury that effected him most of the season. Now with a clean bill of health, Skulina has been looking good in training camp and should be a part of High-A Myrtle Beach’s staff.
Worth the Wait: SS Gleyber Torres and LHP Carson Sands
Depending on which Top Twenty list you pick up, Gleyber Torres ranks anywhere from seventh to eleventh. That’s pretty high praise for an 18-year old that has only played 50 professional games. But Torres has earned his status by exceeding expectations. Most of the players his age play in one of the Caribbean Leagues for a while after signing. Torres jumped directly to the rookie league and displayed a mature approach, batting .279 (?line) with 29 RBI and eight stolen bases while fielding a respectable .931. Torres earned a brief call-up to Short Season-A Boise as they were making their playoff push and batted .393 (?line)in seven games. Ticketed to open with Low-A South Bend to start the season, Torres will have some growing pains, but has the physical and emotional ability to work though them.
Twenty-year old Carson Sands has also captivated the national scouts, appearing on almost everyone’s Top Twenty list. Drafted in the fourth round in 2014, Sands soon showed that his ability was above the rookie league when he went 3-1 with a 1.89 ERA (?line)and 20 strikeouts in 19 innings against that competition. It appears that the Cubs are being conservative with their left-hander as he will remain in extended Spring Training. Whether he will open with Short Season-A Eugene or be the first pitcher called up to Low-A South Bend remains to be seen.
Deep in the Bushes: RHP Oscar De La Cruz and OF Kevonte Mitchell
At 6-foot-4, 200 pounds, 20 year old Oscar De La Cruz has the appearance of a classic workhorse pitcher. De La Cruz really blossomed in his second professional season, going 8-1 with a 1.80 ERA and a 1.00 WHIP that included 64 strikeouts in 59 innings for the DSL Cubs. Invited to Spring Training, De La Cruz was impressive in drills and seems to be in line to open with the rookie league.
A pleasant surprise of the 2014 draft, Kevonte Mitchell is creating quite a buzz among minor league followers. Selected in the 13th round, the two sport star (baseball, basketball) from Kennett High School in Missouri was drafted as a third baseman. Immediately moved to the outfield, Mitchell displayed his raw athleticism while hitting .294 (?Line) with 12 RBI and 19 stolen bases in 39 games. Presently in extended Spring Training, expect Mitchell to be with Short Season-A Eugene but don’t be too surprised to see him in South Bend toward the end of the season.
Minor League Pitcher of the Year: RHP Pierce Johnson
Although Pierce Johnson is considered a Top Twenty prospect, there are a lot more high profile pitchers such as C.J. Edwards, Duane Underwood, and the staff of Myrtle Beach. Two seasons ago, Kyle Hendricks came off of a non-descript showing at High-A to win the Cubs Minor League Pitcher of the Year. Now Hendricks is part of the Chicago rotation. Johnson is poised to have a similar season to the one Hendricks put together in 2013 if he can stay away from the injury bug.
Johnson was expected be the Opening Day starter for Double-A Tennessee last year, but a hamstring injury caused him to miss the start of the season. After six starts for the Smokies, it was apparent that Johnson was not right and was placed on the disabled list. Johnson did not return until late June, and needed two starts at Low-A Kane County before rejoining Tennessee. Making 12 more starts for the Smokies, Johnson posted a 1.80 ERA and a 1.11 WHIP with 69 strikeouts in 65 innings.
Johnson most likely will return to Tennessee to start the season, where he can possibly put up some big numbers before earning a promotion to Triple-A Iowa.
If you are looking for other candidates than Edwards and Underwood, Johnson’s teammate Ivan Pineyro is also coming off an injury marred season and presented well both in the Arizona Fall League and the Dominican Winter League. Daury Torrez was overshadowed a bit by his rotation-mate Jen-Ho Tseng, the 2014 Minor League Pitcher of the Year. Acquired late last year, Jonathan Martinez was one of the best pitchers of the Midwest League and can be under the radar for most observers.
Minor League Player of the Year: OF Albert Almora
Another player looking to shake some of the doubters will be Albert Almora. After injuries cut short his first full professional season in 2013, it looked like Almora was primed for a big year as he returned to his home state. Almora raised those expectations when he hit .307 in the Arizona Fall League.
But something did not seem right as Almora struggled out of the gate for High-A Daytona to start the 2014 season. Building his numbers, Almora raised his average to .283(?line) with seven home runs and 50 RBI by mid July, as he was promoted to Double-A Tennessee. Almora found the Southern League a bit tougher as he batted only .234(?line) the rest of the way to finish the year with a somewhat disappointing .270(?line) average with nine home runs and 60 RBI. It was later learned that Almora was dealing with the fact that his father was suffering from some severe health problems throughout the season.
With those issues past, the soon to be 21-year old will have something this season that he never has had before, experience. Almora will be repeating a level for the first time in his career, as he is expected to be returning to Tennessee to start the season. This spring, Almora looked like he had his focus back as he hit .320 (?line)in 16 games with the parent club. Though it all, Almora still displays a high level of defensive ability and baseball savvy.
Shortstop Addison Russell is considered to be the number three prospect in all of baseball by most experts. The question will be, will he play enough games in the minors this season to be considered Player of the Year? Almora also will face stiff competition from teammate Kyle Schwarber and outfielder Billy McKinney. Looking for a dark horse? Consider another teammate and fellow outfielder, Bijan Rademacher.
Minor League Previews
Meet the Minor League Managers
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
- Double-A Tennessee and Triple-A Iowa – Down on the Farm Report – 03/09/15
This concludes the off-season portion of Chicago Cubs Online’s Down on the Farm Report. On Friday, the CCO will begin its expanded three-times-a-week coverage of all minor league games with the season openers for the South Bend Cubs, Myrtle Beach Pelicans, Tennessee Smokies, and Iowa Cubs.
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 followed by Down on the Farm Report for the 2015 season. Voting ends at midnight Monday.
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.