Greetings to everyone at the CCO! With the Winter League seasons over and Opening Day for the Minor Leagues weeks away, it’s time to step away from reporting and move to more feature articles. For the fifth year, the Down on the Farm Report returns to a popular feature entitled …
Bubble Players and Bubble Busters
Each year, a number of players are “on the bubble” as to making the Major League roster. This article takes a look at whom some of those players can be, and which players can “bust” their bubble.
Bubble Player: Tommy La Stella – In late 2014, a right-handed dominant Cubs organization made what can now be seen as a prescient move, trading RHP and future PED abuser Arodys Vizcaino to Atlanta for second baseman Tommy La Stella and international signing bonus slots. Although he had not played any position other than second base, La Stella showed that he could handle third base in training camp and beat out the much hyped Javier Baez for an Opening Day roster spot. After playing two games, La Stella strained an oblique muscle, an injury that would dog him the rest of the season. Fast forward to 2016, as promotions and off-season acquisitions, including now starting second baseman Ben Zobrist, have leaned the roster to the left-handed side. La Stella, who has three minor league options, will not only have to prove that he is injury-free, but that he can be versatile defensively. One of the things working in La Stella’s favor is that on a team of free swingers, he brings a high on-base percentage (.404 in the minors, .327 as a major leaguer). Another is his willingness to do some of the dirty things, like advancing runners, which others can’t or won’t do.
Bubble Buster: Christian Villanueva – Acquired in 2012 along with RHP Kyle Hendricks from Texas for RHP Ryan Dempster, Villanueva has shown steady progress through the system. However, time may be running out for the 24-year old as he is out of minor league options. In the three full seasons that he has played in the Cubs’ organization, Villanueva has an overall batting average of .250 while averaging 16 home runs and 75 RBI per season. One of the things that Villanueva is known for is being an outstanding defensive third baseman. But the numbers are deceiving unless you know the full story. Villanueva has a career .935 fielding average, but has been subject to lack of quality first base play over that time. For example, Villanueva played the most games at both third base and first base for Triple-A Iowa this past season. It is that versatility that may prove the tipping point for Villanueva. Along with playing third and first base, Villanueva has also played in the outfield and has had scant experience at both second base and shortstop.
Outlook: Each of these players has strong points and weaknesses that will make this a tough decision. La Stella is a better hitter and complimentary player, but is less versatile and hits left handed on a team that may not need another left-handed hitter. Villanueva is better defensively, has more power, and is more versatile. There will also be less of a drop-off in ability when Villanueva subs at third base, first base, or left field. In the end, it most likely will come down to minor league options, or the lack of them.
Bubble Player: Javier Baez – Well, better late than never. The mercurial and enigmatic Baez has tantalized Cubs’ fans since he was drafted ninth overall in 2011with his power potential. However, fans do need to recognize that while he has a .288 career minor league batting average, he has only averaged 18 home runs and 60 RBI a year in the minors. Add that to a .201 average over the past two seasons in the majors, and you have to start wondering when production will match potential. In addition, Baez lined up for the bulk of his minor league time at shortstop, where he had an unimpressive .940 fielding average. Baez made some grudging appearances at both second and third base in the minors, and did alright at each. Now, with Addison Russell firmly entrenched as the Major League starter and Gleyber Torres the organization’s number one prospect at shortstop, Baez is trying to reinvent himself as a centerfielder late in the process. The Cubs dispatched minor league outfield coordinator Doug Dascenzo to Puerto Rico to work with Baez this winter. But after only four appearances in the Roberto Clemente League, the jury is still out as to whether Baez can make the transition.
Bubble Buster: Matt Szczur – While Szczur does not bring the “wow” factor that some of the Cubs’ top prospects have the past few seasons, he does provide consistency. A top of the order player for most of his career, the 26-year old has a .281 career minor league average, and averages 32 RBI and 23 stolen bases a year. In very limited Major League experience (only 134 at bats in 80 games), Szczur has hit .224. What sets Szczur apart is that he is a top notch defender, fielding .991 in the minors and a perfect 1.000 in the majors. Szczur is what you would expect out of a 24th or 25th man on a Major League roster, someone who can provide great defense and basically not embarrass himself at the plate. Szczur can also provide some much needed speed on the base paths. Like Christian Villanueva, Szczur is out of options, which can also be a factor for a roster spot.
Outlook: If you buy the argument for Tommy La Stella going back to the minors because he has options, then the same would hold true for Javier Baez, particularly if Baez was going back down to take more time to learn how to play in the outfield. Both players would benefit more with playing regularly and being a call away from the big leagues than playing once or twice a week off the bench during the first two months of the Major League season. On top of that, the Cubs’ outfield appears to be defensively challenged this season, and having someone to shore that up would be a plus. But the parent club also seems set with a roster with at least one sub-.200 hitter. The Cubs may need all the offense off the bench they can get.
Bubble Player: Tim Federowicz – Coming off of knee surgery that forced him to miss most of 2015, Federowicz will have at least one thing in his favor while vying for a place in the organization’s pecking order. The 28-year old was seventh round pick for the present Cubs’ front office when they were with the Red Sox in 2008. In past roster decisions, that seems to have been a factor. As far as Federowicz goes, little more can be expected from him than was expected from Taylor Teagarden last season. Federowicz has a .194 average in four Major League seasons, and while he has hit .308 in Triple-A, that is over five seasons. Considered a top notch defender and receiver, Federowicz may have some use working with a young pitching staff at Iowa this coming season.
Bubble Buster: Taylor Davis – An undrafted free agent, Davis has clawed his way through the Cubs’ system, and has gotten better each year. Splitting time between Double-A Tennessee (21 games) and Triple-A Iowa (83 games), Davis had his best offensive season, batting .311 with 26 doubles, two triples, nine home runs, and 43 RBI. Always a top flight defensive player, Davis showed no slacking in fielding .994 with a 35 percent caught stealing rate. What’s more, Davis also played 30 games at first base, three at third base, and once in the outfield. The 26-year old has even pitched twice in his career.
Outlook: Let’s be honest here, what we are talking about is an eight to 12 week insurance policy. With Miguel Montero, David Ross, and Kyle Schwarber in the majors and Willson Contreras the top catching prospect in the minors, neither player stands a real chance to be anything more than a temporary roster filler should anything go wrong. You may see the front office try to kick the decision down the road a bit by either Federowicz or Davis being “hurt” in Spring Training.
Bubble Player: Neil Ramirez – The Major League career of Ramirez has been actually quite impressive, with a 1.87 ERA and 1.10 WHIP, along with 68 strikeouts, a 4-3 record, and three saves. However, the 26-year old has pitched only 57.2 innings in the last two seasons, and only 14 last year. Now, Ramirez is facing a Spring Training in which he is not only coming off of an injury, but is out of minor league options. Ramirez racked up big strikeout numbers in the minors, but was a one game over .500 pitcher with a 4.39 ERA and 1.31 WHIP. Just who is the real Neil Ramirez, and can he stay in one piece, are questions that we just don’t have the answers for.
Bubble Buster: Carl Edwards Jr. – A year ago, Edwards had the world on a string as he was considered the Cubs’ top pitching prospect. Coming off an injury marred 2014 that saw the 24-year old put on a fine performance in the Arizona Fall League, big things were expected for Edwards in 2015. Perhaps, even a mid-season call to the big leagues. But a move to the bullpen made his look go from outstanding to ordinary, as both his ERA and WHIP began to rise. In the end, Edwards went 5-3 with six saves, a 2.77 ERA, 1.21 WHIP, and 75 strikeouts in 55.1 innings. Edwards also pitched in five games with the parent club and had a 3.86 ERA. With a year of experience out of the pen, can Edwards bounce back and be the top pitching prospect that everyone expected?
Outlook: The Cubs have right-handers Hector Rondon, Pedro Strop, Justin Grimm, Trevor Cahill, and Adam Warren in the bullpen. Whether there is room for another righty will depend on performances in Spring Training. The Cubs could get creative if they want to hang onto Ramirez, and possibly use the last option remaining on Grimm. At this point, Edwards’ only hopes would be if injuries hit the back end of the pitching staff, or if they only go with two left-handers.
Bubble Player: Rex Brothers – The Cubs made a deal with the Rockies this winter, sending promising teenaged left-hander Wander Cabrera to the Rockies for Brothers. On a downward spiral, the Cubs hope that pitching guru Chris Bosio can bring back Brothers to his 2013 level. That was the year that the now 28-year old went 2-1 with 19 saves, a 1.74 ERA, 1.29 WHIP, and 76 strikeouts in 67.1 innings. Since then, it has been downhill for Brothers, as he ended up in the minors last year with a 4.46 ERA and 1.67 WHIP in 45 appearances for Triple-A Albuquerque. Brothers has a 2-to-1 strikeout to walk ratio over his professional career, so he has some skills to work with, along with two minor league options available.
Bubble Busters: Zac Rosscup – As the last remaining member of the original Matt Garza deal with the Rays, Rosscup has yet to show that he can get Major League hitters out consistently. The 27-year old has sterling minor league career numbers, with a 16-10 record with nine saves, a 2.64 ERA, 1.12 WHIP, and 316 strikeouts in 262.1 innings. But over parts of three Major League seasons, Rosscup has only posted a 5.40 ERA and a 1.607 WHIP. However, Rosscup does have a 3-1 record and 57 strikeouts in 46.2 innings. Last season, Rosscup fought injuries and only pitched 26.2 innings. Whether he can put that behind him and produce like he did in the minor leagues remains to be seen.
Outlook: Neither pitcher has any guarantees, as the Cubs already have lefties Travis Wood and Clayton Richard in the pen. The Cubs also claimed left-hander C.J. Riefenhauser off waivers and signed LHP Luis Cruz, so both will have to be sharp in the spring to have any hope. What it will most likely come down to is whether the Cubs will carry eight pitchers in the bullpen, and if they want three of those pitchers to be left-handed.
Attention CCO Readers
The Chicago Cubs Online preliminary reader’s poll is underway. This season, the CCO will be posting the Top Prospect Watch in a separate article on Tuesdays. Please post the names of the minor league players you would like the CCO to follow next season. The CCO will then take the top 20 names to run in a special poll for the final month of Spring Training. The CCO will then track the progress of top 10 players throughout the entire season. A representative sample of positions and levels of play is optimal. You can name as many players as you like in the comment section, on Twitter or on The CCO’s Facebook page, but remember, only 10 will eventually be chosen. So from Aramis Ademan to Rob Zastryzny, all nominations will be accepted and given equal weight.