I don’t think I’ve ever been this excited for an upcoming season as I am for 2016. Most of that has to do with the major league club’s postseason run and the chance to win a World Series. It’s a pretty exciting time to be a Cubs fan! And when the Cub Convention starts in about a month, I’m going to be sitting in a room listening to Tom Ricketts, Theo Epstein, and Joe Maddon talk about the Cubs opportunity to win a World Series and I am going to believe that it all could happen.
I am also going to be sitting in other rooms at the Convention listening to Jason McLeod and others talk about what is happening in the minor leagues. 2016 is going to be huge for player development. To me the focal point, as far as teams go, will be at AA Tennessee and low A South Bend. It might seem like a lot of hyperbole to say that, but the Cubs invested a lot of time and money into the development of their prospects.
Throughout minor-league baseball, the jump to AA is seen is the biggest jump in talent. If you’re a pitcher in high A ball, you can get by with throwing 95 with a nice curve. AA hitters are going to destroy a two pitch pitcher. AA is also known for having the most talent of all the minor-league system, yet it is still a developmental league. A pitcher who got A ball players to chase after high heat or a curve out of the zone will face more disciplined hitters at AA who lay off the high heat and don’t expand their zone. Pitchers are going to have to throw strikes all the time. They are going to have to hit their spots.
Think about this: prior to last year, Willson Contreras hit .273 at his best in A ball. Last year at AA Tennessee he hit .333 and led the Southern League in hitting. Ryan Williams skipped high A and had an ERA well under three at AA. Conversely, Albert Almora was at AA for almost 2 years before he figured it out. Jeimer Candelario, in 2014,was sent from high A Daytona back down to low A Kane County. He arrived mid season at AA in 2015 and never looked back. Now, Jeimer Candelario is knocking on the door to the majors after his very successful stint in the Arizona Fall League.
In the past 10 years, AA is the starting line, for lack of a better phrase, of where prospects can get to the major leagues quickly. It is not uncommon anymore for a prospect to go straight from AA to the majors.
Last year, Addison Russell wasn’t at AAA very long (11 games) and neither was Kyle Schwarber (17 games). Combined, they each played about month in Des Moines. Once players prove that they can survive the rigors and challenges of AA, prospects pretty much have the talent they need to make it in the big leagues. AAA has become more of a store house and a place to stash players in case of injury than a place of development.
The Cubs currently have several prospects who are very close to helping the big league club. None is of the stature of Kris Bryant or Kyle Schwarber, but the players could help the Cubs win. Making up most of Tennessee’s roster this year will be 17 players who have won back to back championships in A ball. It will be interesting to see them all make the jump to AA. It will also be interesting to see some players make changes to their game or physique or approach at the plate.
However, five sets of players at extremely close to making it to Chicago. Some we don’t need to profile because their development doesn’t need to make a jump. For example, Pierce Johnson just needs to work on better command and staying healthy. Willson Contreras and Jeimer Candelario just need a little more seasoning at AAA. However, other top prospects need a little jump or boost in their development to get them to make the last jump.
Over the next month, our Sunday post will be profiling prospects who need a jump in their development in 2016. They are:
1. Albert Almora, Jr.
2. Duane Underwood, Jr.
3. Chesny Young and Mark Zagunis
4. Ian Happ
5. Dylan Cease