On Wednesday, the CCO’s very own Tom U began the first of a five week series 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. The first program addressed the outfield prospects in the Cubs’ system. Here are some excerpts from that interview.
Darin Pritchett: We are going to start a series of conversations on the Chicago Cubs minor league system and today we are going to focus on the outfield. Tom Usiak from chicagocubsonline.com spoke to us last January, breaking down the Chicago Cubs’ minor league system. And he is kind enough to join us this year, as we talk some hot stove baseball on the Wednesday. Tom, it’s Darin Pritchett, good to talk to you once again, how are you today?
Tom Usiak: I’m doing fine, Darin, how are you and Rick?
DP: We’re doing okay despite the snow.
TU: Yeah, it always seems to be on the coldest day of the year that we start something like this.
DP: I think you’re exactly right. Well, it’s a positive to talk some baseball on this Wednesday.
We’re going to focus on outfielders in the Chicago Cubs minor league system today. We’ll get to the South Bend possibilities in just a couple of moments. But I think first, we need to touch on some of the more recognizable names that many Cubs’ fans know about that are in this minor league organization, starting with a guy that there has been high hopes for the last couple of years, and that is Albert Almora. Tom, is it fair to say at this stage of his career, that the glove is a little farther along than the bat?
TU: Absolutely! Albert Almora has been at Double-A for a little bit more than a year and a quarter. He has made an improvement at the plate, but it is still very far away from what you would like to see out of somebody who was the first draft choice of this front office.
Albert Almora played for the Smokies last year. He hit .272, but that was basically buoyed by his last month of the year, especially a very hot week and a half where he hit about .450. For the rest of the season, he hit a little more down in that range around .260-.250 or so. But he really needs to improve with his on-base percentage. He doesn’t strike out very much, but he doesn’t walk a lot either. Only 32 walks in 452 plate appearances last year. That’s not going to get it done at the major league level, so he has to work on his approach.
Rick Carter: Tom, I’m intrigued by the fact that Almora is so good defensively, and I believe he is Major League ready defensively, that he can play centerfield in situations at the big league level and maybe the rest of the offense can carry him, and he wouldn’t have to put up huge offensive numbers to justify being there. And that could happen as a result of an injury or a trade. What do you think about that?
TU: That is always a possibility. What you’re really concerned about at that point is whether you are going to overwhelm a young player. The Cubs had a very young player that was similar back quite a few years ago by the name of Felix Pie that they did want to put in there for his defense and hoped that his offense would catch up, and he just ended up getting overwhelmed.
DP: Sort of the forgotten guy in the Jeff Samardzija deal, Billy McKinney. I tell you what, Tom, this guy is turning to be not just a throw-in in this deal. This guy could be an impact guy down the line. Your impressions of McKinney?
TU: Well, absolutely as far as being an impact guy. Right now, a lot of projections have Billy McKinney as the number two prospect in the entire Cubs’ system. Billy started out at Advanced-A last year. He was there for about a month, month and a half or so, and then got promoted up to Tennessee, and did very well until the very end of the season when he fouled a ball off his knee and had to end his season early.
But, Billy was able to hit a combined .300 with a great on-base percentage of .371. Some people worry a little about his power at this point, but he did hit seven home runs and had 31 doubles all last year. And he is only 21 years old, so there’ plenty of room to grow with him.
RC: Is McKinney a guy that’s going to be a victim right now of just a loaded Major League level club? It’s seems like he is a corner outfielder. If you hold on to Soler and Schwarber, would he be a guy who comes in off the bench or platoons? Where do you see his role over the next two or three years considering things stay close to the same?
TU: Well if things stay close to the same at the Major League level, you do have an awful dilemma with McKinney; because McKinney provides for the Major League club what they kind of lack. We saw this in the playoffs last year, when they went up against a really solid pitching team. The Cubs have a lot of sluggers, but when it comes to somebody who can work counts, that can dink-and-dunk against a pitching staff, they don’t have that. That’s something that McKinney would be able to provide. That way, they can’t be overwhelmed by a pitching staff like they were in the National League Championship last year.
DP: Tom, let’s turn our attention to Mark Zagunis. He’s a third round pick of the Cubs in 2014 out of Virginia Tech. One thing that stands out about his numbers this year, the walks! Pretty much doubled from the previous year when he was in two different levels. He had 80 walks in 413 official plate appearances. His on base percentage at Myrtle Beach ended up being .406. What type of upside does Zagunis have? Right now, we haven’t seen enough power. He had eight home runs in 115 games.
TU: Mark Zagunis was drafted by the front office in the third round in 2014 as a catcher. So, he made the conversion to the outfield last year. Last year was the first time he full-time played the outfield and he did very well, considering the fact that he was making such a big position change.
Mark Zagunis is well known for his plate discipline. That .406 on-base percentage is exactly what the front office is looking for when they are talking about “grinders.” Somebody who can take pitches and that can make pitcher work. And that is something that Zagunis is able to do.
As far as defensively, he’s fairly athletic, and he’s got a good arm. He just needs experience in the outfield.
DP: I was front-and-center for Jeffrey Baez for most of his 2015 season. This is a young man that in the first half that just struggled offensively, hitting below .200. And then, in the second half Tom, he was a different player. [Manager] Jimmy Gonzalez put Jeffrey in the leadoff spot, he took off. I mean, he had multi-hit game after multi-hit game in the second half. Power/speed combination. With the success he had in the second half, are you seeing his name pop up at all on prospect lists? Because, when you look at his first half numbers, I don’t think that anybody believed that would be even a consideration after the start he got off to.
TU: Absolutely, he is coming into the bottom part of some of the top prospect lists. What they are seeing is a lot of that raw ability that you talked about. You saw Jeffrey Baez up-and-center. He’s very big. And, despite his size, he is very fast, an extremely good base runner. He could average over 30 stolen bases a year. What the big concern about him is that he does seem to be so raw, and whether he can polish up his game to the point where he can be an asset at the minor league level. He has to polish himself defensively too. But there is one asset we didn’t mention is that powerful right arm of his.
DP: No doubt!
TU: He just intimidates people with that arm. They don’t want to even try anything on him.
RC: Tom, it’s a loaded Major League outfield right now. We are talking about a lot of these top prospects. Do you think a couple of these guys could wind up in a package, maybe in a midseason deal for a pitcher? Who do you think might be the most enticing of that group?
TU: It all depends on exactly what you are looking for, as far as a trade. My idea always is this, is that people are like to have people in a trade that have a good track record. So, you can actually see somebody who is at the Major League level be traded, and get a lot more, than somebody who is at the minor league level. That being said, there is a lot being said about Albert Almora and Billy McKinney. So, those are the players that teams are going to be enquiring about when they are looking for somebody in a trade.
DP: Alright Tom, let’s turn out attention to players that might see time at Four Winds Field, playing for the South Bend Cubs in 2016. We’ll just throw some names at you, and we’ll let you talk about these players. And maybe you can throw in if you see this guy as a possible player on the opening day roster? Let’s go with Donnie Dewees first.
TU: Donnie Dewees was picked in the second round last year out of the University of North Florida. A lot of people had him projected as a first round pick. They were very impressed with his bat. They thought that he projected very well to the Major Leagues. He came in and played the entire minor league season at Short Season-A Eugene. Batted .266, but did show that he has that blend of power and speed that you are looking for possibly at the top of the order. He had five home runs and stole 19 bases in 66 games. So, there’s still some work that he has to do with that, but you like what see as far as the package that he brings.
Defensively, he’s somebody you can possibly get away with in centerfield. But he projects more as a left fielder. He’s got speed to cover ground, but there is just some concern about his arm strength, and that makes you feel that the best position you can put him in is left field. But he’s definitely looks like somebody who, at least for the beginning of the season, could end up being with South Bend, and most likely being their lead-off hitter.
DP: Tom, these next two guys are very, very intriguing. First, let’s go with Eddy Julio Martinez, who some believe was the best international signee in major league baseball. I’ve seen the comparisons that he’s a young Andruw Jones, who of course, burst on to the scene with the Atlanta Braves at the age of 18. Since we’ve built him up, what are your impressions of Martinez?
TU: Eddy Julio Martinez was part of a big bidding war between the Giants and the Cubs that the Cubs won out on. The projections, like you said, of Andruw Jones have popped up ever since then. What we know about Eddy from what we learned from Cuba is that he has fantastic speed. He is able to cover the outfield, which is what you are going to be looking for as a centerfielder. He’s got a very strong arm. So that even if there are some issues with whether they have somebody else they were thinking of for center field, or something like that, he can actually play right field too.
What a little bit of a concern right now, is Martinez is that even though he is a big player at 6-foot-1, 195-pounds, he hasn’t shown some of that pop you that would like to see out of him. He’s got some gap power, but he’s going to need have a lot more experience at a high level to be able to drive the ball a little bit more.
Right now, we think that he is going to be at South Bend because of his age and his International experience. But, you never know exactly how things happen in spring. He may have a very good spring, and may actually go ahead to Advanced-A Myrtle Beach. They may be concerned about some things and may hold him back a little bit. Right now, he looks very intriguing, and we think that he is going to be at South Bend. But you just don’t know for sure.
DP: I guess Eloy Jimenez will always be sort of bunched together with Gleyber Torres. They were both signed in the same year. Both considered top international signees. And from what I was told last year, being the South Bend Cubs broadcaster, that Gleyber was a little more mature than this guy. Maybe that was the difference why Torres is farther along than Jimenez. But it sure looks like, Tom, what he was able to accomplish in the Northwest League with Eugene last year, it looks like he is starting to find his stride in this country, and it looks like he could be a big time contributor for South Bend this year.
TU: I believe so. Eloy has got tremendous power. Most people, myself included, consider him the best power hitter now in the Cubs’ system. So you’ve something to look forward as a right fielder coming in to South Bend.
Eloy, when you talk about maturity, I think you talk a little bit more as far as his approach. Gleyber Torres had a very mature approach at the plate. I think that Eloy is a very mature person. The reports I have heard from him in extended Spring Training and in the Fall Instructional League, is that he likes to take other younger players underneath his wing and kind of show them the ropes a little bit. So you do have somebody who has a strong maturity factor to him, it’s just that his approach was not as advanced as Gleyber Torres.
That being said, he still did fantastically in the Short Season-A Northwest League last season. He hit .284. He had seven home runs, 33 RBI in 57 games. So, the talent is there, the focus is there too. It’s more of a question of kind of harnessing it a little bit.
DP: Tom, the final guy we’ll ask you about. Alex Bautista, a twenty-second round pick last year. His name has popped up as a possible player for South Bend. Your thoughts on Bautista?
TU: I like Bautista an awful lot. He is a very hard worker. He is out of Brooklyn, New York. He came from a small college in Kentucky called Lindsay Wilson College. He came to the Cubs in the 22nd round and did very well both at the Arizona Rookie League and with Eugene. He hit a combined .255 with three home runs and 21 RBI. He can project all across the outfield, all three positions. He got nice size at 6-foot, 200-pounds, a good arm, and good speed in the outfield. He just looks like somebody that you would be able to plug if somebody needs a break, somebody gets promoted and you need somebody at that position right away. I think that he’s going to make a very good fourth outfielder for South Bend, and he will be able to produce. And, hopefully, maybe advance his career a little bit more outside the shadow of some of those big names.