Minor League Preview – Rookie and Short Season A
Good Morning to everyone at the CCO! Today is the first installment previewing the 2016 minor league season. A brief overall look at the system will precede the team summaries. Please note that the previews are based on current roster assignments and anticipated Spring Training success. All assignments, both as to position and level, are subject to change pending the completion of Spring Training.
The pipeline to the majors was a gusher last season, with the Cubs producing not only National League Rookie of the Year Kris Bryant, but eventual starters Addison Russell and Kyle Schwarber. Adding them to young contributors Kyle Hendricks, Jorge Soler, and Javier Baez has given fans a youthful hope not only for the future, but the present.
However, the murky waters that fans were warned of in last season’s preview became a little muddier this past off-season. The front office brought in six players over the age of 28 to the Major League roster, along with several signed to minor league contracts, and lost only one player below that threshold (Starlin Castro). This abrupt change in direction has delighted some fans, who are happy to see the team in a go for it mode. But management has all but ruled out any future breakthrough performance like the ones that buoyed the Cubs all the way through to the NLCS last year. It seems that only a disaster would preclude any rookies from impacting the big league club in 2016.
This does not bode well for a system that continues to thrive, and turn the concept of position redundancy on its ear. Put in as a safeguard against prospects under-performing, the Cubs have gotten the somewhat unplanned result having more prospects meet or exceed expectations than originally thought. Just how the Cubs maximize the value of everyone will be something to watch for this season.
The off-season reflected the progress made in the minor league system last year. The Cubs have had many players rated among the top 100 prospects in baseball, as well as in the top 10 at several positions, depending on whose list you read. The player class that was at High-A Myrtle Beach won their second straight league championship and led their league in pitching, also for the second time. The rookie team in Arizona made the playoffs. And Triple-A Iowa, Double-A Tennessee, and Short Season-A Eugene were in playoff contention up to the final weeks of the season. With an abundance of talent, all the Cubs’ affiliates are expected to contend for the post-season, with the exception of Triple-A Iowa.
Predicting the rookie and Short Season-A level at this point is always a challenge, considering that both seasons will not start for another three months. Making the challenge greater was the fact that the Cubs selected very few teenaged prospects in the mid-to-late rounds of the 2015 draft. Add to that the fact that rosters change very rapidly following the June draft. Based on very early reports from Spring Training and last season’s results, here is an educated guess as to how some of the lowest teams in the Cubs’ minor league system will look.
Rookie – AZL Cubs
Infield – The AZL Cubs should have the benefit of two Dominican League All-Stars to form the foundation of their infield. Eighteen-year old Rafael Mejia is a stocky right-hander that should open at third base, but may also see time at first. Mejia had a solid professional debut, batting .263/.379/.381/.765 with 12 doubles, four home runs, and 30 RBI in 54 games. Joining Mejia on the All-Star squad was shortstop Yeiler Peguero. Also 18 years old, the switch-hitter has demonstrated a fine understanding of the position while hitting .284/.389/.369/.758 with eight doubles, six triples, 18 RBI, and 15 stolen bases in 64 games. While still raw defensively, 19-year old second baseman Jhonny Bethencourt just oozes with offensive potential. A member of the VSL Cubs in 2015, Bethencourt was among the league leaders hitting .319/.410/.398/.808 with 11 doubles, three triples, 15 RBI, and 15 stolen bases in 61 games. While he expects to see time in the outfield, international free agent Kwan-Min Kwon will also get some turns at first base. The 18-year old Kwon has already displayed his power potential and competitive nature in the Fall Instructional League. Although a very young player at 17 years old, switch-hitter Fidel Mejia acquitted himself very well in his first professional season. In the highly competitive DSL, Mejia batted .275/.360/.331/.691 with four doubles, two triples, 13 RBI, and six stolen bases in 37 games while playing third, second and shortstop. It was a season to forget for Ho-young Son, as the Opening Day shortstop for Eugene last year did not seem ready for that level. The 21-year old struggled both offensively and defensively as he hit only .218/.291/.277/.568 with seven doubles, eight RBI, and four stolen bases in 39 games. Son figures to return to the rookie league and work at both short and second base.
Outfield – The outfield does not appear to be as set as the infield, but does have some good building blocks. One such player is 19-year old left fielder Samir Lara. Signing late, Lara flashed some power potential in only 28 games, batting .272/.348/.437/.785 with nine doubles, a triple, two home runs, 19 RBI, and six stolen bases. Right field looks like it belongs to 20-year old Luis Ayala. Playing in Venezuela last summer, Ayala was third in on-base percentage as he hit .285/.410/.412/.822 with 13 doubles, eight triples, 23 RBI, and 25 stolen bases in 68 games. Although he will not turn 18 until late July, Yovanny Cuevas showed he is ready to move on from the DSL. In 59 games, Cuevas batted .259/.364/.387/.751 with 15 doubles, three triples, two home runs, 25 RBI, and 15 stolen bases. Cuevas is also a crackerjack defensive centerfielder. Moving over from catcher, 19-year old Yohan Matos is looking to put last year behind him. To say that Matos struggled after hitting .298 in 2014 for the DSL Cubs would be an understatement. Matos hit only .156 in 23 games for the AZL Cubs last season, and was shut down. The front office has moved Matos to outfield in order to relieve some of the pressure on him and tap into his huge offensive potential.
Catching – The catching corps appears to be in good hands with returning receiver Jhonny Pereda. Turning 20 years old shortly after the beginning of this season, Pereda played only 11 games last year and batted .143/.225/.229/.454, but his stock in trade is defense. Nineteen-year old Erick Gonzalez made great strides both offensively and controlling the running game last season. Gonzalez hit .278/.333/.398/.731 with five doubles, a triple, two home runs, and 15 RBI in 31 games for the DSL Cubs. Gustavo Polanco had a fine rookie season for the VSL Cubs in 2015. The 18-year old Polanco batted .282/.332/.333/.665 with 10 doubles and 23 RBI in 53 games. All of the catchers have been cross trained at first base, allowing for some flexibility.
Pitching – The pitching staff has the most question marks at this time. Anchoring the starting rotation should be 20-year old Andri Rondon. Pitching for the DSL Cubs last year, Rondon went 32 in 14 appearances with a 2.41 ERA, 1.05 WHIP, and 67 strikeouts in 56 innings. Lefty Pablo Ochoa also figures to come stateside. The 18-year old Ochoa was only 3-6 in 14 appearances, but had a 2.68 ERA, 1.39 WHIP, and struck out 41 batters in 50.1 innings. Nineteen-year old Gabriel Lima got a taste of the rookie league last year, with three appearances. In 10 games for the VSL Cubs, Lima went 4-2 with a 1.36 ERA, 0.95 WHIP, and 29 strikeouts in 46.1 innings. Splitting his time between the VSL and DSL, Jose Leidenz looks like he will be a part of the bullpen. The 21-year old was a combined 3-0 with two saves, a 3.16 ERA, 1.21 WHIP, and 22 strikeouts in 31.1 innings. Left-hander Eugenio Palma was effective in Venezuela, going 3-2 with two saves, a 2.03 ERA, 0.96 WHIP, and 32 strikeouts in 48.2 innings. Twenty-year old Jesus Castillo seems to have his career stuck in neutral as he is looking at his third season in rookie ball. Castillo actually went backward in 2015, with a 1-2 record and 4.58 ERA, 1.78 WHIP, and 17 strikeouts in 19.2 innings. However, the Cubs are still high on Castillo’s potential. An experienced closer, 21-year old Aneuris Rosario should be a security blanket for what appears to be a young staff. In his second season for the DSL Cubs, Rosario went 2-1 with 11 saves, a 2.01 ERA, 1.38 WHIP, and had 30 strikeouts in 22.1 innings.
What to Watch For: A lot of help from the 2016 draft. While the AZL Cubs have a potentially very good infield, they need a lot of help everywhere else, particularly in pitching.
Short Season-A – Eugene Emeralds
It should be a very exciting season for the fans in Eugene as the Emeralds appear to be in very good shape, with only minor assistance needed from the 2016 draft.
Infield – Athleticism and offensive ability are the hallmarks of this platoon, which begins with the keystone combination of Andruw Monasterio and Carlos Sepulveda. Both are slick fielding defenders, with 18-year old Monasterio really turning some heads in the workouts leading up to Spring Training. A switch-hitter, Monasterio hit .252/.346/.348/.694 with six doubles, two triples, a home run, 16 RBI, and six stolen bases in 42 games for the AZL Cubs. A product of intensified scouting in Mexico, 19-year old Sepulveda batted .281/.351/.308/.659 with five doubles, 25 RBI, and six stolen bases in 47 games while playing an outstanding second base. A converted pitcher, Chris Pieters racked up some big offensive numbers in his first season as a position player. The lanky 21-year old split time between the DSL Cubs and the Rookie League, he hit .302/.432/.423/.855 with 13 doubles, two triples, three home runs, 39 RBI, and 25 stolen bases in 62 games. While currently working out at first base, Pieters has the speed and athleticism to play the outfield. Although his 2015 season was cut short by a wrist injury, Wladimir Galindo served notice that he was an offensive force. The 19-year old was a scorching .358/. 400/.522/.922 with seven doubles, two triples, and 11 RBI in the first 19 games of the Rookie League before being shut down. Unlike his counterparts, Galindo is still quite raw defensively at third base, and may see some time at first. Backing up at third, short, and second should be 21-year old Edgar Rondon. The lefty was among the offensive leaders of the DSL in his first professional season. Rondon batted .322/.437/.466/.902 with eight doubles, seven triples, a home run, 27 RBI, and 12 stolen bases in 52 games.
Outfield – The attention of the Emeralds’ fans will be on the outfield, which should dazzle with speed and offensive production. The potential lead-off hitter for Eugene looks to be switch-hitter Robert Garcia. The 22-year old has been an on-base machine as a pro, as he hit .341/.409/.445/.854 with four doubles, four triples, two home runs, 23 RBI, and 17 stolen bases in 47 games for the AZL Cubs. Management hopes a rough first year isn’t going to shake young Kevonte Mitchell. The 20-year old played 49 games for Eugene last year, but was just in over his head. Recovering in the Rookie League, the converted third baseman posted a combined line of .176/.279/.248/.527 with eight doubles, two triples, 10 RBI, and 13 stolen bases in 54 games. Fourth round selection Darryl ‘D.J.’ Wilson has been gathering a lot of attention among national scouts, some of whom have the 19-year old creeping into the bottom end of the Cubs’ Top 20 prospects. In 22 games after inking a deal in 2015, the left-hander hit .266/.322/.354/.676 with three doubles, two triples, six RBI, and five stolen bases. Providing depth should be a pair of 22-year olds in Roberto Caro and Michael Foster. The switch–hitting Caro actually got a five game cameo with Triple-A Iowa, but ended up hitting .255/.351/.347/.698 with three doubles, three triples, nine RBI, and eight stolen base in 31 games for the AZL Cubs. Selected in the 16th round, Foster played 25 games for the A-Cubs and batted .241/.343/.287/.630 with two doubles, a triple, 11 RBI, and two stolen bases.
Catching – Behind the plate is where the Emeralds could use some help from the 2016 draft. Twenty-two year old Marcus Mastrobuoni will have first crack as the starter. Drafted in the 25th round, Mastrobuoni hit only .159/.269/.182/.451 with a double and two RBI in 16 games, but seemed to handle the pitching staff well. Twenty-three year old Tyler Payne did not fare much better, as the 30th rounder batted .192/.333/.212/.545 with a double and three RBI as he also appeared in 16 games.
Pitching – At first glance, onlookers may think the Cubs are assembling a basketball team rather than a pitching staff. Leading the pack for Opening Day starter is the man on the mound for the 2015 AZL Cubs’ lid lifter, Austyn Willis. At 19 years old and 6-foot-6, 205 pounds, Willis is just growing into his body and learning to use his leverage. Last season for the A-Cubs, Willis was 3-3 with a 3.45 ERA, 1.30 WHIP, and 23 strikeouts in 44.1 innings. Selected in the third round, lefty Bryan Hudson is the tallest of the squad at 6-foot-8, 220 pounds. Management was very cautious with the 18-year old after signing, pitching him in only five games where he had no record, posted a 2.70 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, and had five strikeouts in 6.2 innings. Twenty-one year old Pedro Silverio is another big body that has the look of an innings-eater. At 6-foot-2, 210 pounds, Silverio split time between the DSL and AZL Cubs, going 2-0 with a 1.98 ERA, 1.00 WHIP, and had 32 strikeouts in 41 innings. At only 6-foot-1, 175 pound, Enrique De Los Rios is the smallest of the potential starting rotation. The 20-year old saw limited duty with the A-Cubs, going 1-1 with a 3.46 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, and with 18 strikeouts in 26 innings. In his second season removed from Tommy John surgery, the Cubs are hoping for a healthy 2016 for Erling Moreno. The 6-foot-3, 200-pound 18-year old saw sparse playing time, but impressed by going 1-1 with a 1.93 ERA, 1.07 WHIP, and two strikeouts in 4.2 innings.
With inning and pitch limits, the Emeralds will make liberal use of the bullpen, especially Jesus Camargo and Junior Marte. Used primarily as starters, both seem aptly suited for the piggyback starter role. Twenty-year old Camargo spent his 2015 in the rookie league and was 3-1 with a 3.30 ERA, 1.03 WHIP and had 57 strikeouts in 46.1 innings. Marte played for both the DSL and AZL Cubs. The 20-year old was a combined 4-1 with a 1.38 ERA, 0.92 WHIP, and 74 strikeouts in 58.2 innings. Providing a left-handed option will be converted position player Ariel Ovando. In his first season as a full-time pitcher, the 22-year old was 4-0 with a 0.43 ERA, 0.95 WHIP, and 33 strikeouts in 21 innings. Back for a second time around should be 21-year old Luis Hernandez. Hernandez pitched four games with the Emeralds last season, and went a combined 1-1 with a 2.12 ERA, 1.23 WHIP, and 27 strikeouts in 17 innings. It was not a very good professional debut for MT Minacci, as the 33rd round pick had a rough time in the Rookie League. In nine appearances (11 innings), the 20-year old had a 7.94 ERA, 1.94 WHIP, and seven strikeouts. Another converted position player, Mark Malave looks to make his return to the Northwest League and Eugene’s potential closer. In his first year pitching, the 21-year old was a combined 1-2 with three saves, a 2.89 ERA, 0.96 WHIP, and 22 strikeouts in 18.2 innings between the AZL Cubs and the Emeralds.
What to Watch For: A fast start. The Cubs’ Short Season-A teams have been second half warriors for a number of seasons. With what looks like a fairly set line up, the Emeralds should be able to avoid some of the sloppy play that can occur in the early part of the season. If the pitching is as good as its promise, Eugene should rack up wins early.
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 in the comment section, Facebook and/or Twitter as there are only two weeks left. The CCO will take the top 20 nominations and run a special poll for the final two weeks of preseason. The CCO will track the progress of top 10 players throughout the entire season. This past week, there was a change among the lead board. Right-handed pitcher Dylan Cease took sole possession of first place. A representative sample of positions and levels of play is optimal. You can name as many players as you like, but remember, only ten will eventually be chosen. So from Aramis Ademan to Rob Zastryzny, all nominations will be accepted and given equal weight.