It is tough to watch a player’s career crumble before your very eyes. In many cases, they don’t even know it is happening and they won’t make it to the majors. There are several players in the Cubs minor league system that did not have a very good 2014. Some players suffered through surgeries, other through nagging injuries, some just could not hit the ball, others could not throw it, and others were lucky to be alive, let alone playing baseball. This week’s post examines the road back to the game in 2015 for several young Cub prospects.
The M*A*S*H* Unit – Missed all of 2014 (and most of 20113)
Trey Masek, Brad Renner, Barrett Loux, Anthony Prieto, and Trey McNutt all have been missing the better part of last two years. Injuries and surgeries have derailed their careers and maybe ended some.
For McNutt, he was the prized pitching prospect of the organization heading into 2013. McNutt’s transition to a reliever in 2013 might have been a prelude to what is likely to happen for him in 2015. Like Vizcaino last year, McNutt will see action once every three days. For McNutt, and likely Loux, this could like be their last chance to make it as a Cub
One need only look at how the Cubs handled Josh Conway in Boise in 2014 to see how they will handle Loux. Conway was given a strict three inning limit or 50 pitch limit. Conway did very well with an ERA under 2 in 36 innings in short season A ball. Loux is not going back to A ball. He will be at Iowa, and if healthy, he will follow the Conway starter plan..
For Renner, Masek, and Prieto, their odds are much better in relief roles. Like most pitchers coming back from TJS, shortened but repetitive work like that of a reliever builds more strength with the new tendon. Prieto was a fifth round pick in 2012 and Masek, the same, in 2013. Renner was taken in the 28th round in 2013. Between Tommy John surgeries and mystifying injuries, Masek, Renner, and Prieto were targeted as relievers.
I always thought of Masek, who was a starter at Texas Tech, to be someone who could move quickly through the system as a reliever. Now after missing a year and a half, he still could, but there will always be a cloud hanging over the arm. I think he can still be a positive force for the organization soon. He used to throw between 88-95 with his fastball, but it was a plus curve in the mid 70s that was unfair to hitters. He had not yet fully developed his changeup to accompany his first two offerings.
Similar to Masek’s short size, but left-handed, Anthony Prieto has yet to show what he can do, especially in a relief role. If he is able to return, I see him first at South Bend, then maybe at Myrtle Beach but only as a reliever. To date, he has only thrown 40 innings in three years.
Christian Villanueva, Dustin Geiger, and Jeimer Candelario all had years no one saw coming. It was a shame, too, as all three are very good kids. For Villanueva, his bad year could not have happened at a worse time. After a stellar 2013 in which he killed it at AA Tennessee, Villanueva, who is easily the best defensive 3B in the system, hit .261 with 17 HRs, 72 RBIs and an amazing 42 doubles. He seemed to be ready for great things at Iowa and soon in Chicago – it appeared to be just a matter of time. He hit a paltry .195 in April and he never recovered and was demoted back to Tennessee in the middle of June. For Villanueva, I think the Cubs could have lived with a .250 average as long as he kept his power numbers up. The glove will always be there. He will be back at Iowa in 2015.
Dustin Geiger just plain stunk it up in 2014. After back-to-back years of 17 HRs at Kane County and Daytona, Geiger came across as a steady ship in the system. He played some 3B, some 1B, and DH. His 2013 at Daytona was impressive as his average rose to .281 and he drove in 86. At Tennessee in 2014, Geiger plugged away with a poor April but had a devastating May where hit only .191. He pressed too much after that. I don’t see Geiger as someone who is going to be a star in the MLB, but rather he could be a good role player and pinch hitter. I am convinced he will get a promotion to Iowa to start off 2015, but he will also be on a short leash there.
Jeimer Candelario is a favorite of many bloggers and prospect hounds. Coming into 2014, he was rated in the top 15 of Cub prospects. The then 19 year old switch hitter successfully managed a stint at Kane County in 2013 where hit .256 with 11 HR and a healthy .346 OBP. I saw him play several times that year. He flashed potential, but he also flashed lethargy. He needs to bring intensity and focus to every play. Some things can be forgiven for a 19 year old in the Midwest League where the average age is 21. At Daytona in 2014, the age difference was quite noticeable. He hit .193 in just over 6o games. He was sent back to Kane County where he was serviceable and improved a lot in August and was a star in the playoffs. In 2015, he will be 21 and at Myrtle Beach. Still a pitcher’s league, Candelario will need to continue to be selective at the plate and focused in the field. A good start is needed for him to continue rebuilding his career.
Dan Vogelbach can hit. That I do know. However, the Florida State League is not a hitter’s league. And Vogelbach proved that in 2014 hitting .268 with only 16 HRs and 76 RBIs. If you ask Vogelbach, he would say he was not satisfied – first, for not winning, and second for not hitting. That’s why I like him a lot. He always has a great attitude and he always focused on team first. He lost 30 pounds between 2013 and 2014 and it affected his swing a little bit. This year he will be in the more hitter friendly environs of Kodak, Tennessee where his power numbers should bloom. We should know quickly what he can do.
For Rob Zastryzny, the months of April and May should be stricken from the calendar. He was 1-4 with a 7+ ERA. June saw a return to form with a 1.90 ERA in 4 starts. He ended the year with a 3.32 ERA after the All-Star break in 12 starts. He needs to pick up right where he left off.
For Tyler Skulina and Dillon Maples, in 2014 both appeared to be heading into breakout years. Skulina started out that way, pitching a combined no hitter with Nathan Dorris, and earning a promotion to Daytona after 18 starts at Kane County where he had a 3.27 ERA. But all was not well. Skulina had tendonitis in his plant (left) knee and it irritated him more on breaking pitches. I noticed when I saw him pitch three times last year that he was really tipping his off speed pitches. Most were unhittable as they were in the dirt or a ball. He missed the last few weeks of the season with only 3 starts in Daytona. Hopefully this year finds the knee healed and the curveball getting over along with a couple of ticks added to his fastball.
For Maples, his season was the opposite of Skulina’s: Injury first, pitch later. A broken rib in spring training destroyed Maple’s season. After appearing to get his act together at 2013 in Boise, Maples’ rib injury could not come at a worse time – he was on the cusp of being a part of a great rotation at Kane County. When he did reappear after a stint in Rookie League, Dillon was horrid. A 12.23 ERA in 6 starts is not good. I hope that he recovered from his rib injury and can make 2015 a successful stint at South Bend.
Lucky To Be Alive
Encarnacion hit .355 at Boise in 2013 and was ready to make the leap to Geneva in 2014. He never did. Kevin Encarnacion was almost killed in a car fire in between 2013 and 2014. He was flown to a special burn unit in Arizona. He is lucky to be alive let alone playing baseball. And play he did at the end of 2014. His comeback came in Arizona at instructs last fall after the minor league season ended. This gives him a good launching pad to head to South Bend this spring.
For both Will Remillard and Jordan Hankins, last year’s first halves were amazing. In just April Remillard had 16 RBIs at Kane County and Hankins was right behind with a great first half where he hit .322. Then June came. Remillard went on the shelf for most of the rest of the year with a back injury and Hankins went to Daytona where he hit a lowly .218. Hankins never made the adjustments in the pitcher friendly Florida State League.
When I saw these two play a few times last spring, I was struck by Remillard’s presence behind the plate and his arm. He was the leader of that team that went 17-8 in April. It was clear who ran the mound. For Hankins, a converted catcher, third base seemed like he needed no adjustment period only to hear at the end of the season he might see some time behind the plate.
The strange thing about last year’s draft was that the Cubs selected four more catchers and signed three. Kyle Schwarber, Mark Zagunis, and Tyler Pearson joined a crowded group of catchers now at Eugene, South Bend, and Myrtle Beach. In what used to be a weakness for the organization, is now a strength. I think Remillard can regain his form and I hope that Hankins can regain his bat as they are both two very positive assets to the organization.
It is tough to watch a prospect struggle especially when you once had hope for them. But not everybody can make it. Theo and company have drafted 120 players for the Cubs the last three years, signed 70+ of the draftees, and inked an additional 20+ young international free agents. That’s around 100 players to revitalize the system. Of their draftees and young international signees, only Jorge Soler has made it to the majors so far. Very few prospects will not struggle in the minors and have to adjust at the MLB level. For those listed above, they struggled last year. If they can overcome, it will only help them and the MLB club in the long run as they learn how to adjust.