Surprise Players of the Year – Starting Pitchers

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Part Two of Three

Usually, it’s very odd for a starting pitcher to make the surprise list. Most pitchers that made the list in the past were converted from being a reliever to being a starter or had a dramatic turnaround in taking care of themselves. Sometimes a pitcher made this list by developing a new pitch and mastering it in a very short time period. Or, the pitcher came from some low profile college. This year’s surprise pitchers are a collection of all four types plus one pitcher who slid under the radar via a trade.  The only surprise starting pitcher last year was Duane Underwood. It’s a good sign, I think, that so many starting pitchers made the list this year.

martinez 74 2Jonathan Martinez came to the Cubs in the Darwin Barney trade in 2014. He pitched great at Kane County down the stretch in August of last year, but this year he’s surprisingly done it at Myrtle Beach. A rule five eligible right-hander, Martinez  has a 3.00 ERA. Martinez throws in the low 90s. He doesn’t really have a go to pitch but he knows how to pitch. It will be interesting to see what happens with his rule 5 status. The Cubs will not place him on the 40 man roster nor do I think any team will pick him up and place him on their 25 man roster. The 21 year old should be at AA Tennessee to start next year.

Brad Markey is in his second year in the system from Virginia Tech. Markey arrived at South Bend in May after spending six weeks in extended spring-training. He was later promoted to Myrtle Beach at the beginning of July where he’s started three games and has 0.76 ERA at high A. It’s been a strange year for Markey. He has gone from an afterthought reliever to a starter at low A and then at Myrtle Beach. He has done it all on performance. Markey throws strikes. That all he does. He has a nice plus curve to go with his low 90s fastball and can go throw both for strikes at any time.

NUll 65Jeremy Null had an excellent first half with a 2.33 ERA in 12 starts at low A South Bend. He was promoted to Myrtle Beach after being named All-Star of the Game at the Midwest League All-Star Game in Peoria. At Myrtle Beach, Null has struggled with minor injuries where he’s only made five starts in seven weeks. Null, at 6’7”, is a ground ball machine. Coming into this year, nobody knew that Null could rise so quickly in such a short time. Next year, I think, he starts out at Myrtle Beach but he won’t be there for long.

I never heard much about Oscar de la Cruz until this year. I tend to take Dominican stats with a grain of salt. Last year he had a 1.80 ERA in the DSL. I didn’t think much about him making it in the states, let alone skipping rookie league. Now every time I write about that Eugene Emeralds, I have to write about Oscar De La Cruz. The 6’4” righty is now allegedly closer to 6’6”. As the 20 year old continues to grow he is picking up more velocity on his fastball. He has been between 93 and 95 this year. Currently at Eugene, he has an ERA of 2.72 and has struck out 40 in 43 innings. It will be interesting to see how he continues to develop the rest of the year. He could be a candidate who rises quickly next year like Jeremy Null and Ryan Williams did this year.

Michael Wagner has come out of nowhere; not literally, but figuratively. The 6’3” right hander is from the University of San Diego. He was on the same college team as Kris Bryant and was drafted in the 15th round in 2013, the same as Bryant. Up to 2015, Wagner had been used as reliever. As a starter this year, Wagner has been near dominant. He has an ERA of 2.75 and opponents are only batting .237 against him. It should be interesting to see if the Cubs continue to have him start games next year. He has punched his ticket for a promotion for 2016.

thorpe 79 1Tommy Thorpe did not look good as a reliever for South Bend early in the year. Let’s be honest here, I wondered if he was going to stick with the organization beyond 2015. His ERA splits of 4.22 in April and 4 .86 were not impressive out of the pen. On June 4th Tommy was pressed into a starting role and he’s never looked back. It is a role that suits him. A 2.70 ERA for June and a 3.00 ERA in four July starts makes him a starter for the rest of the season. It is amazing to watch him use three pitches rather than just two, which he did as a reliever. It has made all the difference.

Zach Hedges is another pitcher I have gushed about all summer. He has pretty much come out of nowhere even though I knew the Cubs drafted him last year. He pitched in rookie ball last year for a little bit and skipped short season A ball this year. He throws his fastball in the 90-94 range. When he has command of the fastball, he is hard to hit as he mixes in a PLUS slider along with a solid change and a developing curve ball. There’s still some physical projection left, too, to add a couple ticks to his fastball. His ERA splits this summer are outstanding at 3.23 in June, 3.62 in July, and 2.57 in August.

Surprise Pitcher of the Year
williams 82 2015Out of all the pitchers in the Cubs organization in 2015, Ryan Williams has been the most surprising and the most dominant. He began the year at low A South Bend. He had a 1.17 ERA from April through May for the young Cubs where Ryan struck out 37 in 36 innings. Opponents batted only .190 off him. Williams commanded the bottom of the zone pitching 91 to 93 miles an hour and rarely walking batters. In fact, he only walked two in his tenure at South Bend. Williams was promoted to AA Tennessee in early June. In his 10 starts at AA, he has a 2.98 ERA, striking out 43 in 57 innings, and I expect him to start out 2016 at AAA Iowa. He is physically developed now bat 6’4″ and 235 lbs. He already has pitched 131 innings this year, and he still has about six or seven starts to go. That’s a nice amount of innings (160-170) to make a player ready for the big leagues in a couple of years. I see him as a back of the rotation starter for now, or I could see him as a power reliever where he could add some  2 to 3 mph to his fastball. He has the command to do either.

Next year’s list
Junior Marte and Gabriel Lima are just two of many candidates from the Cubs’ teams overseas who could make the list next August. Scott Effross, a recent draftee, is currently a reliever but he has talked openly about his and the Cubs’ desire to start him next year. Another candidate is fellow 2015 draftee Casey Bloomquist from San Luis Obispo, who once you start digging, has a nice little resume including outdueling first round pick Dillon Tate.

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Surprise Players of the Year – The Hitters

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Part One of Three

With just a few weeks to go in the minor league regular season, today’s a perfect day to look back at the summer and select this year’s All Surprise Team – the hitters. The only prerequisite to being on the team is at this year’s performance was either a steep increase in development or the player exceeded expectations. Last year’s winners included catcher Will Remillard, Jacob Rogers, Kevonte Mitchell, Billy McKinney, and Addison Russell. They were a lot of players from which to cull for this list. The Cubs drafted 29 players this summer and many international free agents made their stateside debut. My first stop is in Arizona.

Outfielder Robert Garcia captured my attention at first with his .358 batting average in addition to his 10 stolen bases. He also leads the Arizona Rookie League team in runs scored. Garcia is only 21 years old and is from the Dominican Republic. He is a switch hitter and comes in at 5 foot 10 and 170 pounds. He previously was named to The Cub Junction July Minor League Organizational All-Star team. Next year I see him at short season A ball in Eugene.

crawford 86rose 67foster draft 2015

Michael Foster is a teammate of Garcia’s on the Arizona Rookie League Cubs. Foster, an outfielder, is the 16th around selection by the Cubs from the 2015 draft out of Northeastern. He’s 21 years old and originally from Canada. What I like about Foster most is he hits for average (.317) and he also has a high on base percentage (.417). It will be interesting to see how he does next year in spring training and where he is assigned for the 2016 season.

Rashad Crawford had a year in which he really did not break out, but he slowly improved himself each and every month. At the time of this post, he was hitting .291 with a .329 on-base percentage and 18 stolen bases. There’s a lot to dig about Crawford’s game. I like that his batting average gets better each month. He started up slowly in April hitting .250, then .267 in May, and 339 in June. Crawford is also versatile as he plays all three outfield spots. Next year, I expect to see him at Myrtle Beach where his versatility will be a plus.

Yasiel Balaguert’s performance this year was a huge surprise to me. This was his third trip to through low A. After two years of Kane County, this was pretty much a make or break year for him. It didn’t help getting off to a poor start. In Late May, Yasiel stepped it up. Currently he is hitting .274 with seven homers and 40 RBIs. He seems to have leveled off this summer. He is at least earned a promotion to Myrtle Beach for next summer. Whether he can succeed or not depends on whether he can hit breaking balls.

Drafted in the 11th round from Georgia State, Matt Rose initially looks like Kris Bryant. . The 6’4” and 195 lb. young man first and third base with the Eugene Emeralds where he is the team leader in RBIs. He is having to make a lot of adjustments as his average has gone up and down and back up. Currently, he’s hitting .264 with a .298 on-base percentage. Considering he’s already played a full season of baseball and was also injured, Rose’s development to playing full-time in the field is a small adjustment as he also pitched at Georgia State (not this year).

contreras 76Surprise Hitter of the Year
Willson Contreras is the biggest surprise as far as hitters go. A long time veteran of the system, Willson slowly worked his way up. The catcher’s hitting finally took off this year. When this post was written, he had a .326 average with an excellent 407 on base percentage to go with six home runs and 53 RBIs. In 94 games, he also has 26 doubles and he’s only struck out 49 times for percentage of less than 15%. Willson is rule five eligible this winter and I think the Cubs are going to take a gamble and protect him on the 40 Man roster so as not to lose him.

Next Year
Some candidates from the Caribbean who could breakout next year might be Jhonny Bethencourt, pitcher turned hitter Chris Pieters, OF Edgar Rondon, SS Yeiler Peguero, as well as this year’s international free agent class and the recently signed PJ Higgins.

The Dog Days of August: Looking at the Strength of Schedule

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The Cubs are in a crucial part of their schedule in the next seven days. The Cubs are in Pittsburgh today, tomorrow, and Wednesday to take on the Pirates, and then this weekend, the San Francisco Giants come to town for four games. Cubs are off on the 10th and then take on the Brewers, White Sox, Tigers, Braves, Indians, Giants, Dodgers, and close out the month with the Reds. It is an interesting mix of teams in playoff contention and teams with losing records that’ve already packed it in for the year.

Right now the playoff picture is pretty clear in the National League. The Cardinals, barring a massive collapse, are in. The Pirates and the Cubs are competing for the two wildcard spots. The Dodgers and Giants are both competing for the West Division title and/or a wildcard spot. The Mets and the Nationals are both competing for the National League East championship and a wild-card spot as well. So, that’s six teams for spots. Things could clear up by the end of August or they could become more muddy by September 1. With just a few games separating the teams, one bad month could spell doom.

One key to each team’s success will be their strength of schedule, or lack thereof. Looking at the Cubs schedule, above it’s quite clear that they have points where they can make a run based upon the strength of their schedule. The other teams have varied schedules.

soler 82Giants
The Giants might have the toughest schedule in August out of all six of the teams in the hunt for the playoffs. They have the Braves for the first three games this week, then they take on the Cubs, Astros, Nationals for four, Cardinals, Pirates, the Cubs again, and the Cardinals again, before meeting up with the Dodgers on the 31st. They have half of their games on the road in half at home. It’s almost a make or break month for them.

Dodgers
Most of the Dodgers’ August schedule is spent on the road. In the next week they play the Phillies for three, the Pirates for three, and then they come home for seven days to face the Nationals and Reds. Then they go back out on the road for over 10 days to face the Athletics, Astros, and the Reds,. The Dodgers finish up the month facing the Cubs. Compared to their counterparts, the Giants, the Dodgers should be able to put some space between them and San Francisco this month just based on their strength of schedule.

Nationals
National begin play today against the Diamondbacks for four games. Then they take on the Rockies, followed by the Dodgers, Giants, the Rockies again, then the Brewers, Padres, and Marlins before facing the Cardinals on the 31st. It looks to be a fairly easy schedule. If their pitching is good, they can possibly position themselves for a playoff spot.

Mets
At only five games over .500, the Mets have the longest route to get back into the wild card spot. However, they are in a virtual tie for first in their division with the Nationals. The Mets possibly have the easiest schedule of all six teams in August. They take on the Marlins, Rays, Rockies, Pirates, Orioles, Rockies again, Phillies, and then they close out the month with the Red Sox. The Mets’ pitching is hot right now. For them it all depends on whether they can puts runs on the board (sounds familiar).

Pirates
At first glance, their schedule is almost as difficult as the Giants. They have their three-game series with the Cubs this week, then they take on the Dodgers, Cardinals, Mets, Diamondbacks, Giants, Marlins, before they close out the month against the Rockies with three games. For the next three weeks until August 24, when they face the Marlins, the Pirates will have their hands full.

Come September
maddon 71Looking at the strength of schedule for each of the six teams, it is clear to me that the Cub fans should not be focused on the Giants, but rather catching the Pirates. A lot of that all of that has to do with strength of schedule. The Mets really don’t play many winning team all month. There is a short five-game stretch where they play the Pirates and the Orioles and that is it. We know that the Mets have the pitching staff to do well down the stretch. Do the Mets have enough hitting to get them over the hump especially when they end up in Colorado for a few games? San Francisco to me seems to be the odd team out based upon the strength of schedule.

Here’s how it could look on September 1:
Division: Cardinals, Dodgers, and Mets
Wild Cards: Cubs and Nationals

That’s a stark contrast to what it is today.

But here’s the thing: once you get to the first of September, there’s a whole other month of baseball left and most of these teams will be playing within their division. I have a feeling that this thing is going down to the wire. This week’s games will be important to make a run at one of the two teams in the hunt. However, with six teams hustling for four spots, a lot can happen with 58 games left to play.

The Eugene Emeralds: Look at All Those High End Arms – What’s Next?

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morrison 82 2015I could easily subtitle this article “Waves of Pitching – Part Three.” Right now, the Eugene Emeralds are 4-2 in the second half and in first place in the South Division of the Northwest League. Some of that has to do with the resurgent bats of Donnie Dewees and Matt Rose, but most of it has to do with the amazing pitching staff.

One of the quirks of the Northwest League is that you can have 35 players on your roster, but you have to activate them nightly. They’re almost 20 pitchers currently on Eugene’s roster. It’s a collection of 2014 and 2015 draftees and international free agents. Currently, of the pitchers on the Eugene staff, two of them are on the Cubs top 30 prospect list on MLB.com. That could change greatly by the end of 2016.

Of the three big names starters to emerge at Eugene this year, two of them actually were expected to in Carson Sands and Justin Steele. Sands has a 4.36 ERA, mitigated by one poor start, and Steele is brandishing a 2.40 ERA in 6 starts. A surprise breakout starter has been Oscar De La Cruz. Cruz, 20, and from the Dominican Republic, currently has a 3.13 ERA in seven starts. He also has struck out 37 in 37.1 innings. A key for him is he is still growing and gaining speed on his fastball. He is already throwing 92-95 mph.

The Emeralds also use 2015 draftees as starters for two innings a start. Kyle Twomey. Preston Morrison, Casey Bloomquist, Ryan Kellogg, and most recently, Kyle Miller, have all made starts. The Emeralds have to be careful about these pitchers’ workloads as they’ve already had a full season of college baseball, somewhere near 100 innings. As a result, their effectiveness should not be judged solely on their stats. Next year will be a better barometer of their talent. However, Preston Morrison of TCU has dazzled in four games to date and Casey Bloomquist has been extremely effective since his promotion from Arizona.

eregua 73The biggest surprise out of all the staff are players signed from the international free-agent route. Adbert Alzolay has piggybacked as starter and has 26 innings in relief with a 1.04 ERA while striking out 23 with a WHIP of 0.85. Alzolay comes from Venezuela and just recently turned 20 years old. Pedro Arajuo, 22, has also been brilliant as a piggyback reliever lately. He has struck out 45 in 32 innings and 14 appearances! Jose Paulino, 20, has struck out 40 in 32 1/3 innings. All three throw in the mid 90s and are considered developing power arms.

For my money, one of the biggest surprises has been Greyfer Eregua. The 21-year-old from San Carlos, Venezuela has a 2.05 ERA. He’s been in nine games. He’s thrown 30.2 innings with 39 strikeouts and 0.82 WHIP while walking only seven. Opponents are only batting .165 against him. He’s a little undersized and is expected to remain a reliever.

The Emeralds have several recent draftees who pitch in relief including Jared Cheek and Tyler Peitzmeier. The Emeralds also have two recent conversion pichers doing outstanding in relief. Jae-Hoon Ha has a 2.29 ERA in 11 relief appearances. The former centerfielder has struck out 25 in 19.2 innings. He throws in the low 90s. The better story might be Mark Malave, 21, who was recently promoted to Eugene. He is also throwing in the low 90s but is mixing in a really good curveball and throws like he was born to pitch. masek 70 2015

It is also been good to see 2013 draftee Trey Masek make his way back to baseball. After two full years of battling injuries, including a torn labrum. He’s only made eight appearances in Euegene, but on Thursday night he got his first save of the year. Knowing the road he’s traveled to get back to baseball, it is one feel-good story for the summer.

What Does This All Mean?
I don’t know how the Cubs are going to make next year’s roster at South Bend and Myrtle Beach with all these pitchers. What the Cubs have done at Eugene is to create a collection of up to 20 arms that will be in competition with each other and the pitchers currently at South Bend for those 22-24 spots. The Cubs have created a wave of pitchers to travel up the minor-league system.

In 2016, I could see Sands, Steele, and De La Cruz easily starting at South Bend. The problem is I could also see Bloomquist, Kellogg, Twomey, and Morrison. In addition, there’s Arajuo, Paulino, Alzolay, and Eregua to add to that discussion. It’s a good problem to have. To have 10 pitchers likely competing for five or six spots is a problem many clubs would like to have.

For Eugene manager, Gary Van Tol, his job has been made easy because most of the college pitchers are limited to two innings per start. Next year, that won’t be the case. Those college arm are going to be throwing full tilt from day one. Throw in Dillon Cease and Austyn Willis as competitors and South Bend pitching looks to be out of this world in 2016. Then, you can add in recent draftees Bryan Hudson and Scott Effross, who will be transitioning to a starter next year. That’s a lot of arms for so few spots.

All of these arms reminds me of last year’s Kane County team that had a lot of pitching depth. All but one of those 2014 starters led Myrtle Beach to a first half division title this summer after winning a Midwest League Championship last year.

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Slide44The Cubs’ system, as Eugene shows, and as Myrtle Beach shows, is that the Cubs have lots of pitchers coming. However, they are a few years away, most likely two years for the crew at Myrtle Beach. With Pierce Johnson, Carl Edwards, Jr., and PJ Francescon being the most well-known, and potentially, most ready arms at AA and AAA, the Cubs are going to have waves of pitching coming later rather than sooner. As in the case of the Emeralds, it is too early, and they are still too young, 20 and 21, to predict who has a shot, but they all look promising in their own way.

It will be interesting to see how this collection of high-end arms grow and compete in the system the next month and next summer. Going from playing 78 games in short season A to 140 in low A is quite an adjustment. Most low A starters tend to throw 120 inning in a year. This year has been nice to catch glimpses of what they could be. Next year, we will get a fuller picture of what each can do. Right now, it looks really promising.

By the end of 2016, several of these arms along could be some of the top prospects in the Cubs organization.

Where Do the Cubs Go from Here?

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haren 65

With yesterday’s deadline trades, the Cubs filled two holes on their roster. One, a fifth starting pitcher capable of going out every five days and giving you six innings. Second, a bullpen arm that throws in the mid to upper 90s who has a 2.55 ERA since May 1. Both short term contracts at little or no cost. With those deals done, the Cubs can still add to their roster until August 31. Any player they acquire must go through the waiver process. So, with these two trades in mind, where do the Cubs go from here?

Improve the Lineup and Bench
The Cubs have to improve these positions. Luckily, the Cubs have 3 players waiting in the wings. The problem is they need to get to healthy to help.
1. Miguel Montero – his left handed bat and handling of the pitching staff this year have both been outstanding. With a jammed thumb, it could still take a while for him to return. I expect to see him back in two weeks. When he does come back, Taylor Teagarden disappears and Schwarber stays.
2. Tommy LaStella – he of the mysterious “advanced approach” has not gotten to see a lot of playing time at all due to injuries, rehab, and aggravating the injury again. He recently started his second rehab stint at AA Tennessee. He is close.
baez 82 20153. Javy Baez – With his new approach and stance, Baez is definitely not the same free swinger he was last year. He has made adjustments. Those adjustments, put in place after his bereavement leave for his sister, were paying off with big dividends in May and into early June before he dislocated a finger sliding into second base. He has finished his rehab and is now back at Iowa. In his first game back, he hit two home runs. Last night, he went 1 for 3 with a double and a walk. The walk, believe it or not, was pretty exciting as he worked a 1-2 count to get on base, fouling off several pitches. The old Javy wouldn’t have done that. I expect to see him in two weeks. The other thing Javy has going for him is that Joe Maddon loves what he can do on defense and on the basepaths. It helps to have the manager in your corner.
All three of these players can strengthen the bench upon their return. Along with Denorfia and Ross, the Cubs are much more prepared. I still could see one more bat coming and I don’t think it will be Mike Olt.

The unfortunate thing is that Johnathan Herrera’s days are numbered – No more bucket head.

The Bullpen
It’s still not quite right. Even with the addition of Hunter, the loss of Neil Ramirez stings. The Cubs do have Zac Rosscup rehabbing down at Tennessee now. Like the others mentioned above – two more weeks. Rosscup had already been in the Arizona Rookie League terrorizing hitters with his slider for two weeks. The young lefty is close. With his return, it gives Joe a third lefty with Russell and Wood, a rarity in most MLB pens.

With Hunter’s arrival today, Yoervis Medina goes back to Iowa. Who goes when Rosscup is ready? That will be an interesting decision. Soriano? James Russell? Or do they make a trade again?

When it comes right down to it, the Cubs went short term to help them compete for a chance at a one game playoff. I didn’t expect them to go all in on Cole Hamels or David Price. The cost was too great right now. This winter Price might sign with the Cubs and the Cubs could get a bat in free agency or they could use a few prospects in a trade.

It is clear the Cubs are not done building this team. The currency they used yesterday plugged two holes.

I think many people forget what Theo said the goal is every year. It is to put the team in a position to get into the playoffs every year, not just 2015. If you are in the playoffs every year, then you have a chance to win a World Series every year. EVERY YEAR. That’s the goal, not just 2015.

He’s not going to blow it all up when they are only 1 GB San Francisco for a one game playoff.

Here are a few takes from Twitter about the trades yesterday:

And a not so good take

Take this one with a huge grain of salt if you click on the link

I am ready for game time tonight. I love that Milwaukee starts at 6:10 on Saturday.


Post Script
dewees 78Hitter of the Week
Donnie Dewees is heating up in Eugene. He has 4 HRs in last ten games and his average has rising 27 points in a week.
Pitcher of the Week
Paul Blackburn – Seven shutout innings last night with 3 Ks. Since coming off the DL in July, he has a 0.45 ERA in 4 starts and 20 innings.

And One More…For Now…

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hunter tradeRight at the deadline, the Cubs added big right-handed reliever Tommy Hunter from the Orioles in exchange for OF Junior Lake..

Hunter, at 6’3″ and 250 lbs, is a converted 29 year old starter who throws a fastball in the upper 90s. He has played for Texas and Baltimore before coming to the Cubs. Likely, he will be a sixth to seventh inning guy. He could also fit as a long reliever if needed.

This year, Hunter has appeared in 39 games. He’s thrown 44.2 innings while striking out 32. He has a solid 1.15 WHIP. He is also an unrestricted free agent, like Haren, at the end of the season.

Lake, on the other hand, has appeared in 58 games at Iowa hitting .315 with a .409 OBP while hitting 7 HRs and driving in 31.

I like this deal for two reasons. 

1. It gives Maddon another power arm to use early and hold off using Grimm, Strop, or Russell until the 8th.

2. It makes up for the loss of Neil Ramirez without costing very much in a player who had two chances in the majors without sustained success.

Now that the July 31st deadline has passed, any MLB player the Cubs acquire has to go through the waiver process.

One Deal is Done…More to Come?

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12:41 p.m. – Several reports have the Cubs acquiring pitcher Dan Haren from the Marlins. haren 65

Haren has a 3.42 ERA in 21 starts for the Marlins. His contract expires at the end of the year.

I think this is an upgrade over who the Cubs have been running out there in Beeler and Wada. He’s not going blow people away but he will give the bullpen some relief on the days he starts.

The cost for the Cubs is pitcher Ivan Pineyro and infield utility player Elliot Soto – two players that were Rule 5 candidates this fall. There is no dent in the top 30 prospect list for the Cubs. Pineyro at best is a #5 starter, and Soto is a glove only guy off the bench that can play multiple positions. Both were at AA Tennessee. Here’s some reaction from around the web: