Out of all the teams in the Cubs minor league system, the Daytona Cubs are the one whose roster is least set in stone. It is pretty well known who the position players are going to be but the pitching is totally up in the air. It might be one of those years where the path between Boise, Kane County, and Daytona will be filled with players moving up and down and back again. The roster that is established at the end of minor league spring training might look vastly different in June depending on the pitching performances under the Florida sun.
The Position Players
Two top ten Cubs prospects will be showing off their wares in Daytona: Albert Almora and Jeimer Candelario. A third, Dan Vogelbach, who played for Daytona at the end of the season and was integral part of the Daytona FSL championship team in the playoffs, may start briefly at Daytona before moving on Tennessee. In fact, you could say the same for Almora who may be on the fast track to Wrigley if he can stay healthy for an entire season. I am of the opinion Vogelbach will likely start out at Tennessee and spend the whole season there while Almora starts out at Daytona for a brief run.
Last year, most of the projected lineup below could put up some runs at Kane County. The problem was the pitching could not get out of the first inning without giving up several runs. While the offense showed great poise and flashed some power and hitting prowess, the pitching was lacking.
Here is the projected lineup:
C: Wilson Contreras
1B: Rock Shoulders
2B: Gioskar Amaya
SS: Marco Hernandez
3B: Jeimer Candelario
OF: Almora, Kevin Encarnacioin, Reggie Golden, Jacob Hanneman
To describe this offense is that it hits well. Contreras and Amaya showed glimpses that they can handle the bat. Rock Shoulders was on fire to start the year and was the Cubs organizational player of the month in April. 3B Jeimer Candelario, at 19, displayed a good stroke from both sides of the plate as one of the youngest players in the Midwest League. If he ever lifts some weights and strengthens his upper body, he could hit for much more power than the 11 home runs he hit in 2013.
Simply put, Almora is the star. Playing far beyond his age, he may not be long for Daytona and the Florida State League. Despite missing most of last spring, Almora returned from a hamate injury and hit .329 in only 61 games at Kane County before a hamstring injury derailed him until the Arizona Fall League. Against much older competition, Almora hit .307 for the Mesa Solar Sox in 21 games. Almora’s goal for the year should be to get in a full year healthy. Unfortunately for Daytona, he might get most of those games in at Tennessee and maybe even Iowa to end the year.
Kevin Encarnacion will likely skip Kane County and head to Daytona because at 22, he is ready for a challenge after first flailing at Kane County and then hitting .355 in Boise. Another 22 year old likely to end up in Daytona is Jacob Hanneman. Although Hanneman could begin at Kane County, he is likely to spend most of the season in Daytona. His speed and hitting ability will play well but Hanneman really needs to work the count more and draw more walks to take advantage of his amazing athleticism.
For Reggie Golden, this might be his last stop in the organization unless he finally puts it together. Golden, whose biceps are the size of my thighs, is a physical specimen who has battled injuries off and on the last three years. His swing and approach produces either a home run or an out. Though he did hit 9 home runs in over 60 games at Kane County, he also hit only .227 and struck out 77 times in those 64 games. That is not an ideal stat. Golden’s biggest strength besides his physical process is his age. He is still only 22.
The Pitching Rotation Might Rotate a Lot
It is hard to figure out in January on who will be pitching for Daytona in April. An influx of arms in the draft last year might change that. While Paul Blackburn and Duane Underwood are likely targeted to start in Kane County, the same cannot be said of who is targeted for Daytona. It could be Tyler Skulina, James Pugliese, Dillon Maples, Jose Rosario, Jose Arias, Juan Carlos Paniagua, or Tayler Scott manning the mound. The problem is not one of them was successful at Kane County as a pitcher. Throw in several lefties like last year’s second round pick Rob Zastryzny, Gerardo Concepcion, Anthony Prieto, and Michael Heesch and you have quite the quandary. Two others who might crack the rotation state side could include Korean Jen Ho-Tseng or Dominican Jeffery Mejia.
In a way, this might be a good thing as those who produce will play. I think Pugliese and Maples will likely start out at Kane County after rebounding well at Boise after faltering at Kane County. It is hard not to like Pugliese as he is very coachable and makes adjustments at every level. The problem for him is that he has had to make those adjustments. The same can be said for Maples.
Out of all the pitchers, Skulina is the most likely to start at Daytona. The 6’6” righty out of Kent State throws downhill with a fastball sitting around 95 with a plus curveball. His other two pitches need some work. Skulina’s buddy at Mesa, instructs, Boise, and Kane County, Rob Zastryzny out of Missouri, will also be at Daytona. Zastryzny had success at every level after signing last summer and it is still undecided if he will be fast tracked to help in the bullpen or if he will be stretched out as a starter. I think he is open to either and it is likely the Cubs brass wants to see what he can do as a starter who is not a soft tossing crafty lefty.
Jose Rosario is another enigma. Sometimes watching a game, you can tell how good a pitcher is by how the hitters swing and miss or mishit the ball. In 2012, I saw Jose Rosario pitch for Peoria (then the Cubs low Class A affiliate) and he made the Kane County Cougars look foolish on two separate starts. I was surprised he had a bad 2013 winding up back in Boise. Jose Arias is another one of those pitchers who can make hitters look clueless. In 2013, that didn’t happen.
For many of these pitchers, they will likely simplify their arsenal as Pugliese and Maples were taught to do. However, these pitchers all have talent. They all have something but they have to produce on the mound. For Gerardo Concepcion, this is the year. After a disastrous first year and almost a whole other year lost to Mononucleosis, Concepcion is in a make a break year. Whether he is a starter or a reliever, it is yet to be decided, but is more likely he is in the bullpen to build up his arm strength.
Up and Down
The Kane County, Daytona, and Boise Travel Companies should do booming business this summer just on the pitchers alone. It is going to be the kind of year where the position players at Advanced A, Low A, and Short Season A play whole seasons in their respective leagues. The same cannot be said for the starting pitchers. It would not surprise me to see Blackburn, Underwood, and the pitchers mentioned above to go up and down the organizational ladder several times based on their performance.
Ideally, you would like to see the younger starting pitchers build up their arms with around 100-120 innings. Where they do it will be the question. It is hard not to pull for guys like Maples and Pugliese because they work so hard to be better. Skulina, Zastryzny, and Heesch will likely anchor the Daytona rotation. But, nothing is for certain. Blackburn, Maples, Pugliese, and Underwood may make decisions harder.
It is evident that the Cubs organization is starting to build up its starting pitching depth, but who those starters are going to be in 2014 has yet to be seen at the Class A Level. The key for every single pitcher in this article will be to attack the zone, throw strikes, and keep the ball down. Spring training will shake down a lot of who is going where and when. The fact that there are options and competition for starting pitching is something the Cubs have not had in a while. While AAA Iowa and AA Tennessee are mostly set for starting pitching for the year, Daytona will be a constant work in progress. And as a result, Daytona’s pitching will effect who throws at Kane County and vice-versa.