In a little over two weeks, the Cubs short season team at Eugene and its Rookie League team in Arizona will begin regular season play. The majority of both rosters are in extended spring training and have been since the beginning of April playing odd games against other teams and even intrasquad games. The rosters for both team have not been finalized but will be after the MLB draft takes place. Several position players will join the squads and a few pitchers will have limited work in Arizona due to already having pitched a season.
Every summer these two teams are a showcase for several prospects who are either just signed or just beginning to play. While this spring has seen breakout stars in Jeremy Null, Ryan Williams, Gleyber Torres, James Farris, and Chesny Young, several more prospects will break out this summer. They could be recent draftees or international signees.
Last year saw breakout stars like Trevor Clifton, Kevonte Mitchell, and Josh Conway get headlines at Boise and in Arizona. In addition, Cubs fans also got their first looks at Gleyber Torres and Eloy Jimenez. Sometimes a breakout can be a prospect who has more skills that previously thought and that talent shines through as was the case for Trevor Clifton. Other times, it can be a prospect who is already highly thought of that explodes and vaunts up the prospect list like Gleyber Torres did last summer and continues to do this spring.
At Eugene, the young crop of high school pitchers the Cubs selected in the top third of the draft will be on display. Carson Sands, Justin Steele, and Austyn Willis will all take the mound as starters at Eugene. At times they will be overmatched and other times they will dazzle as they face a wide variety of players ranging from kids just out of high school to college juniors and seniors to international players with 3 years of experience. It is really a crapshoot as to who you will face.
To me, Sands is already a polished pitcher. He is not going to surprise anyone. He will be around the plate, moving the ball in and out, up and down, and changing speeds. That is what he does. But Steele on the other hand, is a bit rawer. He has more speed on his fastball and a bigger break on his curve. The problem for Steele is his command is not as good as Sands, but Steele’s stuff is better – when it is on. If Steele can begin to harness his arsenal, he could shoot up ahead of Sands on many prospect lists.
For me, though, the breakout pitchers at Eugene will be Austyn Willis and Oscar de la Cruz. Willis was drafted by the Cubs last year and at 6’6” works on a good downhill plane. He still has some projection left in his body. He will be able to add some weight and some speed as he moves through the system. The young 18 year old out of Barstow, California might have a similar rise to Trevor Clifton’s of a year ago where one start he is brilliant, and the next start, not so much. But, either way, keep an eye on him.
Oscar de la Cruz is a big young man. At 6’4” and 200 pounds, the 20 year old Dominican right hander will make his stateside debut after an excellent spring. In 2013, de la Cruz made his Cubs debut in the Dominican Summer League. Used mainly in relief for four games, it was not good with an ERA over 6. In 2014, the then 19 year had a dominant season going 8-1 with a 1.80 ERA. Take away one start where he gave up six runs in 4 innings, his ERA could have been 1.14. He also struck out 64 in his 75 innings of work. Dominican stats always need to be taken with a grain of salt, but nonetheless, it was impressive season for only being 19.
As for position players at Eugene, this summer should just be renamed “The Summer of Eloy.” Eloy Jimenez was the labeled as the #1 international prospect in 2013 when the Cubs signed him at 16 years old. He’s now 18 and has been pulverizing baseballs all spring in Arizona.
When short season A Eugene opens play, Jimenez gets to work on his weakness, playing games. Prior to signing with the Cubs, Jimenez had not really played in a lot of games. In 2014, Jimenez played in 42 games, hit 3 HRs, and drove in 27 while he hit only .227. Based on spring training reports, that will change this summer. I expect Jimenez to display immense power and to shoot up the Cubs prospect list to top 7 status. I don’t expect him to stay long in Eugene either – he should be in South Bend by the middle/late of July if all goes well.
One of last summer’s breakout prospects was 2014 draftee Kevonte Mitchell. The 6’4” outfielder converted from 3B and showed great speed. His spring was not as good as hoped, and I, for one, was disappointed that both Mitchell and Jimenez did not head north to South Bend when spring training ended. I expect Mitchell to improve over last season’s .294 average and 19 SBs in 39 games.
Also expected to be in Eugene are two infielders who could break out. SS Ho-Young Son has been dazzling at the position in the field and at the plate this spring. His double play partner, Frandy Delarosa, has been hitting up a storm. With all these high value prospects and a few draftees, Eugene should be an interesting team to watch.
Meanwhile down in Arizona…
All eyes will be on two pitchers who are recovering from Tommy John surgery in Dylan Cease and Erling Moreno. I have discussed my profuse admiration on several occasions for Mr. Cease, but Mr. Moreno is turning heads this spring as well. The 6’3” righty just turned 18 in January, and along with Cease, will be spending most of the summer in short appearances with specific pitch counts in the Arizona Rookie League.
However, the name to watch at the plate in Arizona is Wladimir Galindo. The 6’3” 3B/1B has power and lots of it. Last summer at age 17, he hit 7 HRs in the Venezuelan Summer League, which is not known for its power. In addition to Galindo breaking out, 2 other international signees could breakout – Carlos Sepulveda and Yohan Matos. Sepulveda signed this past winter out of Mexico and will play 3B and 2B at Arizona and has a great hit tool. Catcher Yohan Matos, also part of the great 2013 International Free Agent Class with Jimenez, Torres, Moreno, and Galindo, will make his stateside debut. He hit .289 in 53 games in the Venezuelan Summer League with 6 HRs.
And then the New Guys Come…
After the draft on June 8-10 and international free agent signings on July 2, more players will enter the system who could breakout and surprise some people. Last year saw Kevonte Mitchell, Chesny Young, Mark Zagunis, and Kyle Schwarber bust through as position players. This year, 2014 draftee Andrew Ely is getting his chance in South Bend to break out and he is looking good so far (.353, 2 HRs, 9 RBIs, in just 14 games).
It should be an interesting summer as the Cubs attempt to fill up a void left behind by several top prospects making it to the majors.