Meet the Mesa Solar Sox: Position Players and Coaches
This is the first of two articles highlighting the players who will be taking part in the 2015 Arizona Fall League, which begins on Oct. 13. Today, the CCO will be looking at the position players and coaches the Cubs have assigned to the Mesa Solar Sox.
Cael Brockmeyer, C
It was a bit of a surprise when Cael Brockmeyer opened the 2015 season with Low-A South Bend. Brockmeyer had already spent 77 games at that level in 2014, and was one of the last non-roster catchers reassigned to minor league camp by the Cubs in Spring Training. The 24-year old (Oct. 8) took the assignment in stride and led South Bend in home runs and RBI through 63 games, earning a Midwest All-Star selection.
However, the Cubs had bigger plans for Brockmeyer, sending him to Double-A Tennessee for seven games and Triple-A Iowa for five before bringing him back to High-A Myrtle Beach for 36 games to finish out the season. In all, Brockmeyer played in 111 games at four levels, hitting a combined .251/.338/.389/.726 with 24 doubles, a triple, nine home runs, 61 RBI, and a stolen base.
At 6-foot-5, 235-pounds, Brockmeyer is one of the many catchers the Cubs are cross-training at first base. Presently, Brockmeyer is more advanced as a catcher, fielding .996 with a 22% caught stealing against only a .983 fielding percentage at first base. The Cubs brass seems to be very high on Brockmeyer, as he has been assigned to the Arizona Fall League as a taxi squad member.
Jeimer Candelario, 3B
The Cubs organization had its share of high profile promotions and breakthrough performances in 2015. But if you asked which player made the most improvement, you would not get much argument if you mentioned Jeimer Candelario. The 21-year old had always been long on promise, as he has been a part of top 20 prospect lists for several years. However, Candelario had not delivered on the promise, posting batting averages of .256 and .223 the past two seasons.
But a change in approach seemed to benefit the switch-hitter, as he was asked to be less selective and to look for more pitches to drive. The change resulted in a .277 batting average at High-A Myrtle Beach and a promotion to Double-A. In Tennessee, Candelario continued to be aggressive, which led to a .291 batting average in 36 games. Overall, Candelario hit .277/.330/.431/.770 with 35 doubles, four triples, 10 home runs, and 64 RBI in 128 games.
It was on defense that Candelario made the greatest improvement. His 13 errors were a career low, and exactly half of what he committed two seasons ago. Candelario also had a 46-game errorless streak and fielded .951 between the two levels, turning in several highlight reel plays. Playing in the AFL will be an important test, as Candelario seems ready for bigger things.
Willson Contreras, C
The 23-year old Willson Contreras turned the minor league world on its ear by leading the Southern League in hitting this season and finishing in the top three of every major offensive category except home runs and stolen bases. Contreras batted .333/.413/.478/.891 with 34 doubles, four triples, eight home runs, 75 RBI, and four stolen bases.
What has remained the same is that Contreras is a crackerjack defender, fielding .987 and erasing 28% of all base runners this past season. Contreras also has an intense personality that will not let his teammates slack off for a moment.
Currently, the Cubs have assigned Contreras to the Arizona Fall League. How he performs there and in winter ball, where Contreras had played the last two years, could affect the Cubs decision process at the position moving forward. Contreras’ defense and offense are what you like to see out of a back-up catcher, and he also has experience at the four corners (third and first base, left and right field) along with some distant exposure to second base. With that versatility, Contreras could make a push to back-up at the big league level possibly by midseason next year. Whether Contreras can be more than a back-up will depend on his showing this off-season and at Triple-A.
Mark Zagunis, OF
The surprise addition to the squad, Mark Zagunis is definitely a player whose star is on the rise. Drafted in the third round in 2014, the former catcher had his first full season as an outfielder. The 22-year old generally played right field, but also had exposure in left and center field, posting and overall percentage of .982 with three outfield assists.
What Zagunis has proven to be since his signing is an on-base machine, with a career OBP of .411. Zagunis’ much recognized plate disciple was on display this season, as he batted .271/.406/.412/.818 with 24 doubles, five triples, eight home runs, 54 RBI, and 12 stolen base in 155 games, his first full professional season. It is believed that Zagunis will hit for more power with experience, and that he has the athleticism to improve on his 54% stolen base success rate.
Zagunis did miss several games this past season after being beaned, so his AFL assignment is in part to make up for some of that lost time. The Cubs will also be looking to see if Zagunis can handle center field to possibly become an unconventional leadoff hitter.
Mark Johnson, Manager
A former catcher, Mark Johnson completed his 22nd year in professional baseball in 2015 as the manager of the Carolina League Champion Myrtle Beach Pelicans.
Johnson was drafted in the first round by the Chicago White Sox in 1994 and had a 14-year minor league career, batting .252 with 39 home runs, and 363 RBI. In an eight-year Major League career as a back-up catcher for the White Sox, Athletics, Brewers, and Cardinals, Johnson had a career .218 average with 18 home runs and 83 RBI in 332 games.
In 2011, Johnson retired as a player and was signed as the manager of Short Season-A Boise, replacing Cubs favorite Jody Davis. Johnson was an immediate hit, guiding the Hawks to the first of a four year playoff run. Johnson shepherded the 2012 Boise team to the Northwest League championship series, falling just short. The following year, Johnson joined his crew as they were all promoted up a level to Low-A Kane County.
The 2013 season was a trying experience for both the Cougars and Johnson, as his young and inexperienced team met up with the more seasoned players of the Midwest League. The result was a dismal 55-80 finish. Johnson was given a new squad in 2014, one that once again challenged for the Northwest League title in 2013. This time, Johnson and the Cougars were ready as they ran roughshod through the Midwest League, guiding Kane County to the best record in the league and undefeated through the playoffs as the champions.
For the third time in 2015, Johnson piloted his team to a league championship series, as the Pelicans led the league in pitching and defense, and were third in hitting. Myrtle Beach also produced a batting champion in Chesny Young and Gold Glove winner Trey Martin. The Pelicans had a slightly harder time in the playoffs, losing their first game before winning the next five straight to claim the championship.
Johnson has managed an impressive list of prospects during his minor league career, including Albert Almora, Paul Blackburn, Jeffrey Baez, Jeimer Candelario, Victor Caratini, Willson Contreras, Pierce Johnson, Jonathan Martinez, Billy McKinney, Bijan Rademacher, Kyle Schwarber, Gleyber Torres, Daury Torrez, Jen-Ho Tseng, Duane Underwood, Dan Vogelbach, Chesny Young, and Mark Zagunis.