On Wednesday, the CCO’s very own Tom U gave the third of a five week series of interviews talking minor league prospects with South Bend Cubs play-by-play man Darin Pritchett and Rick Carter on WSBT in South Bend’s Sportsbeat program.
Wednesday’s program addressed the middle infield prospects in the Cubs’ system. Here are some excerpts from that interview.
Darin Pritchett: This is a fun conversation today, because, we saw at least two really good players in South Bend man the middle infield positions in 2015. We will start with a guy that many believe is the top prospect in the Chicago Cubs’ organization, Gleyber Torres, who played shortstop for South Bend. He left very late in the season, went down to Myrtle Beach to help them on their pennant push. Very impressive kid, Tom, considering he was playing against guys that, at sometimes were, three, four, or five years older than him. As you take a look back at the 18-year olds’ performance in South Bend, what stood out to you and do you believe that this is a guy that will be a Major League regular at some point?
Tom Usiak: First off, I’d like to break a little bit of news here. I just learned that Gleyber Torres was named one of the top ten shortstops by MLB Pipeline. He ranks ninth on their list, and that was just published a few moments ago. That’s quite an accomplishment for somebody who is 19 years old, and only one year of full minor league experience. That shows you just how well regarded Gleyber Torres is around the baseball world. As far as where he can go from here, the sky is the limit with him. We saw that he does very well at the plate, and he has got a very mature approach at the plate. Even though he struck out 108 times, he still was able to get his average up to .293. He drove in 62 runs even though he was batting second in the lineup most of the time, stole 22 bases and did very well in the field too. He was in the high end as far as shortstops go in fielding with a .960 fielding percentage.
Rick Carter: I wonder if Gleyber Torres is a guy that if, he’s very young, but if he skyrockets through the organization, and he’s becomes 21 and he’s ready to go, I mean, you’ve got a logjam right now at shortstop with the Cubs. What do you think they do with him?
TU: That’s going to be a very good question for the front office if that occurs, because they are going to have to determine what is going to have the better market value at that point. Is it somebody who is going to be regarded as a very high prospect? Or is it going to somebody like Addison Russell, who they have right now, who has two or three years of experience in the majors. That’s where they are going to have to look out and see what they can get for each player and try to make their best deal. My feeling is that perhaps they may even want to move Addison Russell over to second base. That’s what he started out playing last season. He showed that he was very capable at doing that too. They could have a very fine double play combination with Gleyber Torres and Addison Russell.
DP: Tom, next up, let’s talk about Chesny Young. A 14th round pick of the Cubs in 2014 out of Mercer. He started the year in South Bend and hit .315. He had previous Midwest League experience with Kane County the year before, and it was not a surprise he moved quickly. But, he set some records down at Myrtle Beach in the Carolina League. In 102 games, he hit .321 with a .394 on-base percentage. I know there are prospect lists, and you are not going to find Chesny Young on many of those. But I tell you what Tom, sometimes you just have to respect a kid that’s a very smart baseball player that knows how to play the game. I’m betting my money that this guy is going to be a Major League player. Maybe it’s just going to be a utility guy that gets a starting spot down the line. But, he’s to me a player that’s going to stick around for seven, eight, nine years in Major League baseball. Am I over-valuing him?
TU: I don’t think so. I think you said the right word when you said the word “respect.” I consider Chesny Young kind of like the Rodney Dangerfield of the Chicago prospects, he doesn’t get any respect. He went out and hit .320. He had nearly a .400 on-base percentage. He went out and stole 21 bases. Played six positions, all of them well, yet he still is not getting respect from national scouts! Sometimes you just shake your head.
DP: Let’s move to Ian Happ, the first round pick of the Chicago Cubs last summer, out of Cincinnati, another player that spent time with South Bend. He hit the longest home I had the chance to call by opposition or a South Bend Cubs last year, at Wisconsin. In talking to members of our bullpen, when the ball sailed over their head (and their bullpen was behind the center field fence in Wisconsin) the ball left the entire ballpark! They were saying it went 480 or 490 feet. And oh, by the way, he’s a switch-hitter, a natural right-handed hitter, he hit that left-handed. Now, he’s moving, it sounds like, to second base Tom. I know he probably wants to make a little more contact this year, but that ball just flies off his bat.
TU: I saw that home run too and boy, I know how far those fences are in Wisconsin. That was a real poke that Ian Happ had. Back to what we said earlier with Gleyber Torres, Ian Happ yesterday learned that he was ranked third among second base prospects by MLB Pipeline. We’ve got yet another really high level prospect here, and it’s really amazing to see that because Happ has not played second base since he was a freshman in college. Yet he’s still ranking as the third best second base prospect out there. He’s a switch-hitter, and needs to hit a little bit better from that right-handed side. But he did show that if he can’t make it as a second baseman, he was a very good outfielder. He played all three positions, and played them well. The one game I saw him down in South Bend, he was playing in right field, and was just a hair’s breath away from throwing somebody out at home plate. He has all the tools you are looking for, right now. It may take him a little bit time to develop, especially at second base. Which is why, I’d say there is maybe a 15 percent chance you may see him at the beginning of the year at South Bend. But it looks like he is going to be earmarked for Myrtle Beach come April.
DP: Well Tom, I’ll say this. The one thing I like about Ian Happ, he has a great work ethic. He spent a lot of time with our hitting coach Jesus Feliciano, just talking around the batting cage about hitting the baseball. He seems to be a very bright individual. And again, there’s just something special with him when that ball comes off his bat, it’s just a little different than everybody else. So I think he is going to be a fun guy to watch. And he made a great point to me around the batting cage one day. Because I asked what I thought was a very simple question, and he actually made me stop and think. I asked him “I assume you are a right-handed hitter naturally, and you just learned to switch and hit left-left handed.” He said “I was always been a right handed hitter, but let me ask you this, can you name a guy who was a natural left-handed hitter, that turned themselves into a switch-hitter?” And that’s been a debate amongst some baseball people I’ve been around. (Is there) anybody else before we get to players who could be in South Bend worth noting in the organization at the middle infield position?
TU: Well, one player that I like, I have been following him since the Cubs signed him as a 17-year old, and he’s worked his way up. He was part of that Kane County Champion a couple of years ago, a shortstop by the name of Carlos Penalver. Penalver is a native of Venezuela and he reminds a lot of people of the very famous Venezuelan shortstop Omar Vizquel in the way he plays. He’s very upright in the way he fields, and he has very nice range from side-to-side, a gliding style just like Vizquel, and very good arm strength. The big problem with Penalver is that his bat is really far behind the glove at this point. He hit only .197 at Myrtle Bach last year. He did cut down on his strikeouts quite a bit from the year before. He dropped them nearly 20 percent. But, he still has a long way to go. But I’ll remind people too that Vizquel’s bat also was very far behind his glove and he ended up becoming a very good Major League player. At 21 years old, he’s only two years older than Gleyber Torres. So he’s still a very young player and he still has got a lot of time to develop.
RC: Tom, what about prospects at South Bend this year playing middle infield? Who do you expect?
TU: South Bend is going to be a little different than it was last year, I expect, because they have so many young prospects that are going to be taking part in the outfield. They are going to try to counterbalance that a little bit by bringing in some older players in the infield positions. Which is why I believe that, at least for the beginning of the season, you might see two players that you saw last year for some time at South Bend, and that would be shortstop Andrew Ely and second baseman Angelo Amendolare. Ely played both at South Bend and Eugene last year. He batted better when he was in Short Season-A. He batted .300 and showed he could handle that shortstop position. And at 23 years old, he can bring some of that steadiness and leadership and maturity to the team. Angelo Amendolare only played eight games with South Bend last year, but he actually got into eight games too all the way up at Triple-A Iowa when they needed somebody. He held his own for somebody who was a 27th round draft pick. I think that he would be someone who could come in and show a little bit of maturity and leadership until some younger prospects come along. South Bend can also have some players that they saw last year, such as Vimael Machin and Sutton Whiting. Both of them were draft picks last year that came in and kind of plugged holes throughout the system. They are not the top prospect that you will see at these positions, but they are somebody who can fill the gap until some of the younger players have a chance to develop.
DP: And one thing about Amendolare is that he’s 5-foot-9, and in 85 official at bats at three levels, he had 14 walks. So he is able to get on base, which is obviously very important, a .423 on-base for South Bend in 14 games. So Tom, as we kind of wrap up our conversation here, you mentioned some of the veteran players that could be back in South Bend in the middle infield early on this year. As we project toward the second half of the Midwest League season, are there some guys at the lower level that possibly could make a trip to South Bend before the end of the year?
TU: There are two players that I am looking very hard at and one I really like a lot. The Cubs have really stepped up their efforts scouting in Mexico, and they came up with a really good player in Carlos Sepulveda. He’s a 19-year old who had his first professional season last year, and they put him in the Arizona Rookie League. He batted .281 there with 25 RBI and six stolen base in 47 games, so he did very well. The thing that is really impressive about Sepulveda is that, for a young player, he fielded very well. He fielded .991 at second base. That’s really something you don’t see out of a young position player that often. So he has a good understanding of what he has to do at that position, and it shows he has the potential for growth.
A shortstop, a switch-hitter in 18-year old Andruw Monasterio is also someone who could possibly make their way up into South Bend a little later in the season. He was signed as a 17-year old in 2014, and he batted .292 in his first professional season down in Venezuela. He made the big jump over the Dominican League into the Arizona Rookie League last year, and held his own there. He batted .252 and had 16 RBI and six stolen base in 42 games. And he also, for a young player too, very good defensively, he fielded a very solid .955 at shortstop.
So those are the two players that I see that have a chance of being able to come up later in the season, as some of the other players start moving up in the system and we have the players that are signing in from the draft, needing to fill in behind them. Those two I’m really looking forward to seeing.
DP: One final thing Tom, I’m going to ask you to tease our listeners, because next week, we are going to focus on starting pitching in the Cubs organization. But just give me a couple of sentences to whet the whistle of South Bend Cubs fans. From what I am told, at the start of the 2016 season we could have a very special rotation in South Bend. Would you say that is possible?
TU: I would concur with that entirely. We are looking at, right now, six high level prospects in the starting rotation as far as South Bend goes, and it could be even more!
DP: Just one more tease for me. Could Oscar De La Cruz be on the Opening Day roster?
TU: Oscar De La Cruz can be the Opening Day starter.
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Next week: Starting Pitching Prospects