Random Thoughts – Spring Training Edition

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Spring training is officially underway and the effect of Joe Maddon in camp is everywhere in the first week. One of the first things done by the grounds crew was to paint “Respect 90” along the first base line of the main practice field.

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Maddon had tweeted back in December about the importance of treating the game the right way and it will treat you back with the same respect:

When I see reports on CSN, or any of the Chicago channels, from spring training, you can feel a different vibe about everything from the players to the coaches to the management. It is exciting to feel that energy coming out in the interviews, but also to see that energy. from Theo to Rizzo to Lester to Montero, it is like there is a whole new team and the last three years have all been forgotten. It is, to them, all about now. And I, for one, am excited to get the games underway next weekend. Click on the pic to play Jen Lada’s interview with Anthony Rizzo.

Random Notes
According John Arguello over at Cubs Den, Javier Baez has lowered his hands in his stance. His swing has not changed but it hoped that by lowering his hands, Baez will be quicker to the ball. I am still concerned that Baez’s issues will not be fixed in spring training. We will see how what his approach is when the games start. I think the Cubs are going to want to test out that approach thoroughly down in Des Moines for a while before he gets into MLB action.

This past week, the Cubs hired Manny, along with Kevin Youkilis, to be part time hitting instructors. Manny will be in Chicago one weekend a month. This should be good for Baez, Soler, Bryant, Alcantara, and even Castro.

Yoan Moncada sadly signed with the Red Sox for $31 million despite getting a $35 million offer from the Dodgers if he waited until July 2nd to sign. I am disappointed a little, but I was sure that getting him to the Cubs was a long shot.

Yadier Alavares, on the other hand, is not a long shot. This week, the Cuban prospect touched 98 in a workout. The 6’3″ righty will not come cheap in spite of concerns about his command. Can July 2 get here fast enough?

My favorite random note of the week is the rise of Dillon Tate in the draft rankings. The studly righty out of UC Santa Barbara has been nothing short of stunning in NCAA action. The former closer and relief pitcher on Team USA this summer has been amazing in three starts. On Friday night, he was hitting 98 regularly.

Add in the injury nicks and bruises of Mike Matuella of Duke, Tate is clearly putting himself into the Top 5. I don’t know where that leaves Matuella.

Kris Bryant was asked to do some outfield prep this spring. He gladly accepted. This does not come as a shock to anyone. His arm might play better in right, but his athleticism might not. Look for him to be in left some. I still think Bryant has what it takes to stick at third. The question is where to put Addison Russell when he is ready. But then again, Joe Maddon loves to play guys all over the field. It keeps it fun.

Also, check out the flow on Pierce Johnson – I’d say he is ready!
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Also, check out this great article over at Baseball America about how the top Cub prospects stack up historically to other vaunted groups.


Next Week – The games will come.

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The Theo Conspiracy: How Tied Together are the 2015 MLB Draft and International Free Agency

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Aside from spring training, there was some news this week that got me thinking. How connected are the Cubs parts of talent acquisition when it comes to International Free Agency and the MLB Draft? Are they mutually exclusive or are they connected – even slightly? It is an interesting set of questions to consider as the Cubs get ready to procure another set of prospects this summer as the first wave of players obtained by Epstein and McLeod take part in Spring Training this week.

Lefty Yasmani Romero Hernandez is still on the market
Lefty Yasmani Romero Hernandez is still on the market

My thinking begins in Cuba. Yoan Moncada is still unsinged, but there are other Cubans out there, lots of them, waiting to come to America to play baseball. Some names are well known and have created quite a bit of interest (Hector Olivera), while others like Yasmany Romero Hernandez have been hanging in the breeze for several months. Over the past month, Jesse Sanchez of MLB.com and Ben Badler of Baseball America have written wonderful profiles of the Cuban market.

However, when it comes to the Cubs the past year, they have been left out of the market, so to speak, because of the penalties imposed by MLB because of their 2013 International Free Agent spending spree involving Eloy Jimenez, Gleyber Torres, and others. When it comes to Moncada, the Cubs are effectively shut out of the market until July 2, when they can begin spending again, and Moncada will likely be signed in the next few weeks. The Cubs could be in the Hector Olivera market if they wanted because he is 29 and outside of the spending limits, but I don’t think the Cubs are looking at him at all. They want something a little younger, make that a lot younger, and someone they can control for several years.

This week, two Cubans were put into the 2015 International Free Agent pool by MLB for this summer – Yadier Alvares and Vladimir Gutierrez, both young pitchers. Alvares, only 18, is a righty who has been impressive in workouts in the Dominican the past month (see video below). As Alvares establishes residency, he can build up his long, lean, 6’3” frame and add to his already impressive repertoire. Kiley McDaniel of Fan Graphs estimated that Alvares could cost over $10 million to sign (*I have seen his name spelled Alvares by Baseball America and Alvarez by FanGraphs).

Gutierrez is the lesser known of the two. But along with right-handed pitcher Jorge Despaigne,
Jorge Soler’s best friend outfielder Guillermo Heredia, and lefty Yasmany Romero Hernandez, the Cubs could make a killing acquiring talent this summer. To do so would require them to blow past their international pool money and this is only just for Cubans. And from events in the news, there are more names to come. With recent decisions by the Obama administration towards Cuba along with recent defections, it could be a wave of players.

But that’s not the best part of it. This doesn’t include the Cubs signing other Latin/Caribbean players from the Dominican Republic, Colombia, or Venezuela. These countries are also part of the International Free Agent spending pool. The Cubs would then be paying a dollar for dollar penalty if (when) they exceed the allotment given to them by Major League Baseball. It might be worth it this summer.

Here’s why – this year’s MLB draft is devoid of high end bats at both the college and high school levels. Sure there are some nice bats who will make excellent pros, like my favorite Joe McCarthy of Virginia, but there is no Kris Bryant, no Kyle Schwarber, nor a Javy Baez or Addison Russell. It doesn’t mean there won’t be as there is a lot of baseball yet to be played. However, when looking at the International Free Agents, there are a lot of high risk, high reward bats who could be the type of players the Cubs are looking for. When it comes down to draft strategy this year, I think the Cubs are really looking at who they can acquire in international free agency and that could affect who they take in round in one.

That strategy begins in the Dominican Republic and his name is Starling Heredia. The Cubs have already been linked to him in several reports on Baseball America by Ben Badler. A beast at 6’4”, Heredia wowed Scouts last summer at the Under Armour game at Wrigley Field. Like Eloy Jimenez, Heredia is still raw but is a great athlete and shows plus power and decent enough arm strength (see video below). At only 16, he could be the bat the Cubs are looking to add this summer. Add in another Dominican outfielder in Franklin Reyes, who is similar in size to Heredia, and the Cubs could make a killing in acquiring high end talent this summer before the draft begins even though the signings won’t be announced until after the draft.

Fast rising college arms like Dillon Tate and Luke Gillingham and projectable arms like high schooler Mike Nikorak are going to make it very hard for the Cubs to pass on one of them to go for the more projectable bat. Jason McLeod has stated unequivocally that bats are easier to project to the majors than arms. Taking an arm is much more of a risk. And in a year devoid of high end hitters (so far), those arms look mighty good…or do they?

One thing the Cubs have done under Epstein and McLeod is rebuild the scouting system. I think, in conspiracy theory terms, Epstein and McLeod could foresee this two events converging over the past few months based upon the reports of the scouts. Now, in my opinion, the emergence of so many international free agents and the lack of bats in the MLB draft is just pure coincidence. On the other hand, taking advantage of the situation is not!

The Cubs truly lack a prospect in their organization who is considered a #1 starting pitcher. Duane Underwood might be the closest things but he will only be at High A Myrtle Beach this year. There’s a lot of baseball between High A and the majors. This year’s draft has some nice pitchers, but is there truly a #1 type pitcher? Is Alvares or Guitierrez?

Could Chris Betts be the best pick at number 9?
Could Chris Betts be the best pick at number 9?

SS Brendan Rodgers is the consensus top player in this year’s draft. After he goes #1, there are a plethora of arms to take: Matuella, Aiken, Buehler, Funkhouser, Kirby, Allard, Ashe Russell, Fullmer, Bickford, Ponce, Hooper, Ferrell, Tate, Gillingham, and LeMoine; to name a few. And to be honest, there is not much separation between them. I like Funkhouser a lot, but is he a 1? He’s solid, but does he have a high ceiling to go with his high floor? This is the type of question the Cubs have to ask themselves before they pick at #9. Do Ashe Russell, Mike Nikorak, Justin Hooper, or Kolby Allard have the pitches it takes to transition to be a pro pitcher? How projectable are they? Or, would the Cubs be better off going with a high quality bat with great makeup like Catcher Chris Betts despite the now plethora of catchers in the Cubs organization? Is Isiah Gilliam an option again in rounds, one, two, or three? There are lots of things to consider.

Then again, I think the bigger question out of all the questions will be, “Who do we already have signed from the International Free Agent Market?” Why is this the better question? It’s easy – that is where the better talent is this summer. Starling Heredia, to me, is more of a high end prospect than anyone in the draft save Demi Orimoloye. The Cubs are not taking Demi at #9 – too much of a reach right now. They could take Betts or a pitcher, but their choices for a bat at #9 are slim. Trenton Clark and Nick Plummer are nice bats, but they don’t project much. Daz Cameron, who has slipped the last year, could have a good spring and make all these questions obsolete.

The odds of finding a higher end bat are better in the Caribbean. And those choices might be a part of the plan, or they might be because of the plan.

The Cubs have shown a design to take four types of players in the draft under Epstein and McLeod:
1. High end bats (Bryant, Schwarber)
2. Baseball Rats (Almora, Zagunis, Chesny Young)
3. Athletes (Mitchell, Burks)
4. Waves and Waves and Waves of pitching

I don’t think this year is going to be any different after the first round. They could surprise us and take an arm, but the odds are stacked against that. The two parts of talent acquisition are tied together, and they are also mutually exclusive, but how much? I think the answer is some. And even if they are, I don’t think you will ever hear Theo say this summer that because we got Starling Heredia or Yadier Alvares that we went with whomever they take in round one. He would also never say that because there were no big bats, we went out and got Starling Heredia and/or Franklin Reyes

But I am sure it has some influence on the risk they take in both parts of acquiring talent. I think the international free agents might influence who they might take in round one only from a risk standpoint. But if a bat emerges between now and the draft, the Cubs are going with the bat and that point is moot. Never the less, the Cubs know the bats lacking in the draft might place more urgency on acquiring a bat in International Free Agency. It is almost a paradox of parallelism. Regardless of the talent, the Cubs are going to go for that talent because it is there to be taken whether it’s the draft or the international market. This year, though, it is a strange convergence of the two markets with inequities in each.

Spring Training Preview: Make No Mistake, This is Joe Maddon’s Camp

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Just five days remain until pitchers and catchers report to Spring Training. I, for one, am excited for Spring Training to begin. There are position battles to play out and prospects who have some development issues to work on. However, something else is quite different. Expectations are quite high for the team heading into the 2015 season. Sporting News picked the Cubs to win the World Series. Anthony Rizzo stated that the Cubs will win the NL Central and Theo Epstein told season ticket holders that the Cubs will contend.

I am excited, but I am also realistic. I think this Cubs team, as it is currently constituted, needs a lot of things to go right for them to contend. Most projections have the Cubs coming in with anywhere between 78 and 84 wins. I think that is reasonable. If the Cubs find themselves in, or close to, contention come July, they could go out and make a trade to get a couple players to increase from 84 to 87 wins. In addition, they could also have prospects like Addison Russell, CJ Edwards, and Pierce Johnson waiting in the wings for a boost, too. However, how many wins is Joe Maddon really worth? Can Joe take them from 73 wins to 87?

When it comes to spring training, there are only four certainties. One, the starting pitching is solid and deep. Two, the bullpen is loaded with arms all the way into Iowa. Three, Rizzo and Castro can hit. And four, Joe Maddon will be the manager. His influence on the players has yet to be put into a verifiable statistically significant number.

Maddon’s influence on a lot of the young players like Soler, Baez, Alcantara, and soon-to-be Bryant, will be a huge item to analyze in spring training. I think Soler is phenomenal and will do very well in his first full year. I don’t know quite what to expect from Maddon’s first camp, but I am sure it will not be dull. And I am sure he will not waste any time putting the players, and prospects, in positions to succeed. The Cubs will have to answer several questions/dilemmas by the end of Spring Training, and some questions may linger into July.

  • The Baez Insufficiency – What to do at 2B? baez 2015

It is hard to know where to start with Javy Baez but let’s start with where he is at as a prospect. He is “near ready.” During this offseason, the Cubs sent hitting coach John Mallee and Manager Joe Maddon to Puerto Rico to advise the young hitter. He hit .233 with 2 HRs, 7 RBIS, and a .306 OBP in 11 games. He struck out 21 times. I don’t think that is the recognition the Cubs envisioned. I am one of many who believe Baez will begin the year at Iowa at 2B playing alongside Addison Russell.  Down in Des Moines, his season will be about pitch recognition and pitch selection. The Cubs are trying hard to keep his swing together while adjusting his mind and approach. If Baez can’t figure it out by July, then what?

I am not sold on Tommy LaStella either. I think Alcantara would be a better fit at 2B for now until Baez comes up. LaStella, a left-handed hitter, played 93 games for the Braves, but he is not a stats machine. He was known in the minors for his OBP but did not get many walks last year as he hit .251 with a .328 OBP. Those are not comforting numbers. If LaStella is the starter coming out of Spring Training, the chances of making the playoffs drop dramatically to me.

  • The Third Base Recombination – Who plays 3B for a month?

Kris Bryant will be up by May 1. His promotion will solve a lot of problems at this position then. But for now, who will the Cubs play there? And if that person plays well, does that mean Bryant goes to Left Field? Looking at the roster, Mike Olt clearly has the job for one month. He won the position in Spring Training last year and then lost it with a Baez like batting average and a large strikeout rate. After going down to Iowa in late July and August, Olt widened his stance and it has made all the difference. The only other option for April is Chris Valaika. LaStella, a second baseman, and Alcantara have never seen an inning at third. I don’t expect them to either. So, when Bryant comes up, I think Olt stays and Valaika goes down.

  • The Alcantara Fluctuation – Does he stay up and where does he stay?

I think he does. The question will be if he will start at 2b or be a super utility guy or both. I think it is both. He should start 4-5 games at second, sub in the outfield for a couple of days, and then he takes a day off. Whenever the topic of Alcantara is brought up to Maddon, he just smiles  ….widely. Maddon loves him! On the other hand, Alcantara has a lot to work on. His quick hands allow him to generate a massive amount of power for such a small player. In 70 games, he hit .204 with a .254 OBP – not very inspiring is it? The 10 homers were a nice touch, but Alcantara’s 93 strikeouts were on a 170 K pace for a season. That is unacceptable. Alcantara could head back down to Iowa, but I think that is a last gasp move. Like Baez, Alcantara will need to make some changes this spring to stay on the roster.

  • Fifth Starter Congruence – Who should stay and who should go? turner 71

Jacob Turner, Tsuyoshi Wada, Travis Wood, Edwin Jackson, and Felix Doubront will be battling it out for two things this spring – a spot in the rotation and a spot on the roster. My money right now is on Tuner and Wada making the club. I think Wood could, but he might bring something back more valuable in a trade. I give Doubront a better chance as a reliever to make the team. I don’t see him making it as a starter.

I picked Turner to make the team because his stuff is versatile. He could be another arm to add to an already loaded pen and his stuff plays well as a starter. It is really about command. I think a reliever he might be. For Wada, he is my fifth starter for two reasons. One, he earned it last summer. Two, he adds a second lefty option with Lester. I think if he makes it as a starter, there are two ways Maddon could play it. He could make Wada the #4 to have a lefty in every series or he could put Wada at #5 and have lefties back to back. Then you would have three very different righties in a row. I like that versatility better. Wood could stay, Jackson could be DFA. Wood still has some value as a long reliever and spot starter.

  • The Bullpen Extrapolation – Only one gun and too many bullets

This bullpen is fully loaded! Rondon, Strop, Motte, Grimm, Ramirez, Turner, and a lefty or two means that the Cubs can now turn a lot of games into five or six inning games. There has been word this week that Cubs are likely to carry 13 pitchers in April while the weather is cold. That means eight bullpen arms. That means the newly acquired Drake Britton will compete with Zac Rosscup, Eric Jokisch, Joe Ortiz, and Francisley Bueno for one of two left handed spots in the bullpen. If Travis Wood and Tsuyoshi Wada are not starters, this complicates things a lot more. However, I think this is the least of the Cubs problems. Add in fireballer Armando Rivero at Iowa, Duck Dynasty’s Brian Schlitter, and a few other arms, there will be no shortage of arms or the outages of Marmol and Veras. This spring, it is about finding the right mix of arms to start the season.

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  • The Castillo-Jackson-Wood Triangulation – Trades in Waiting

These three players likely won’t be on the team once the season begins – let me take that back. I think two out of the three won’t be on the team. I think the Cubs hang on to Wood but lose Castillo and Jackson. I think Castillo can bring a nice low A or rookie ball player. Jackson is not going to bring much unless the Cubs throw in a lot of money in that trade. I think Maddon, who has managed Jackson once before, is Jackson’s only hope. I love what Jackson can do with a baseball, I just don’t like how he does it. His constant nibbling is not needed when he has a great slider and breaking ball. Hopefully, Maddon can get inside Jackson’s head, and along with pitching coach Chris Bosio, simplify Jackson’s approach. I think they should just turn Jackson into a two pitch pitcher – fastball and slider. If Jackson is on his game, he can be a quality #3 starter. Cub fans have not seen that Edwin Jackson.

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  • The Maddon Manipulation – How will his style translate into wins?

When looking at this year, and the projections, I don’t think the influence and effect of Joe Maddon’s managerial prowess has truly been thought about. It is almost impossible to quantify what he brings to a team. In Tampa Bay, he had rosters filled with young players and I think his influence on the Cubs’ younger players will be immense. There will be ups and downs, as there were in Tampa, but how he gets those players through those struggles will be the difference this year. All of the questions above will answered this spring, but this last question will be answered all year.

For now, his style will be seen quickly in Spring Training as he tries to get Alcantara, Baez, Jackson, and others straightened out. Out of all the things I am looking forward to this spring training, what Maddon can do, I think, is the most important. It will really be his camp and he is going to put his own stamp on this team in a very short order. That is what he was brought here to do. He is take the players the front office provides and turn them into a winning team by doing what Joe Maddon does. He was not brought here to do wacky lineup cards or fancy themed travel plans. Rather, he was brought on board to get the players to be productive on a daily basis over the course of a long season to get the team to the playoffs. That is the expectation.

Iowa Cubs 2015 Preview: The Pit Stop – Green, Yellow, and Red

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johnson 65Fifty. That’s how many different players I came up with who could possibly start the season at AAA Iowa. 50!!!!! My mind is shifting trying to figure out who the 25 are going to be for opening day. In the Theo Epstein era, AAA was not a place where the top prospects in the organization played on a daily basis in their development. It was predominantly a place to stash depth for the major league club. It was filled with players who had some experience at the MLB level.

Last year changed all that. In 2014, prospects came up, went down, got called up, and returned from Chicago to work on some things. With Baez, Alcantara, Olt, Lake, Szczur, and Soler making pit stops at AAA in 2014, the purpose of Iowa changed greatly. Baez, unless he has an amazing spring training, will be back to start the year at Iowa to work on his pitch recognition and selection. The thing Epstein and Hoyer have done is to admit there is no shame in having to go back down to Iowa, or Triple A, with Rizzo being the ultimate example. If Baez has to do so, he will not be alone, and he will not be the last to go work on some things.

This year, some of the top prospects in the organization will be in Des Moines, at least for a little while. Some will be hoping for a chance at the majors. Others will be on their last chance in the organization, while other players at Iowa will be stashed as depth for the major league team, or just plain guys filling out a roster – aka – AAAA players.

Previous team previews this year focused on the position starters, the rotation, and the bullpen. For the Iowa Cubs, I am going to do something a little different. Since Iowa can be seen as a pit stop before hitting the big time, I am going with Green, Yellow, and Red signals for the prospects that could be at Iowa.

Green means that the prospect is well on the road to Wrigley and the pit stop is just a temporary one, if even for a year. Yellow means caution as there are some concerns about the prospect or player. Red means stop. In other words, this could be the end of the line and the big leagues will escape them unless there is a drastic change.

The 25 Man Roster Effect

When spring training begins, the Cubs big league camp will have a lot of new faces in John Lester, Miguel Montero, Chris Denorfia, Dexter Fowler, and others. But when it comes to the 25 man roster, only second and third base will be up for grabs along with some bench positions, the fifth starting pitcher, and a spot or two in the bullpen. Some top prospects will be sent to Iowa to work on things or to play every day. A lot of the minor league signings from this winter will bide their time waiting for a bench position to open. If one does not open, they could ask for their release. But with 50 possible players fighting for those five to seven big league spots, there will be plenty of spots available in Iowa and Tennessee when it’s over.

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By labeling these prospects green, I think they are ready to go to Chicago. Let’s be honest, Kris Bryant is ready and the only reason he will spend three weeks in Des Moines this spring is so that he can spend an extra year in his prime in Wrigley. For the fan, it is a good call. The only weakness Bryant still has is a hole in his swing in on his waist on the inside. He knows, the coaches know, he is working on it. It will be OK.

For Armando Rivero, at 27, the Cuban reliever is ready for the show. The problem is there no spot for him yet. Someone will get injured and Rivero should be call #1. His upper 90s heat will play well in Wrigley along with the other gunners.

For Addison Russell, his season should be a series of targets to accomplish. In addition to his great defense and bat, staying healthy should be a premium goal for Russell. By now, Russell is acclimated to the Cubs system and what is expected of him. I think if Chicago is in the playoff hunt this summer, Russell could see the big leagues this year. He would be just as big an acquisition as any major leaguer at a deadline deal. Out of all the hitters who could be on this roster for more than a month, he is the one I look forward to seeing what he can do in a whole year. I really think he is something special.

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Dallas Beeler just needs a spot. In two starts last year at Chicago, Beeler did fine. He will never be more than a #4 or a #5 type starter. I think he will be given a shot to win the 5th starter position in spring training, but his odds are slim. His strength is he does have a sinker that is built to play at Wrigley in any weather. If that pitch is not working, his low 90s fastball gets hit hard. If he comes back to Iowa, he will be at the top of the speed dial for the Cubs.

Yellow

Just because I labeled a prospect a yellow doesn’t mean I don’t like the prospect, I do. In fact some of the yellow prospects are my favorites. It just means that the prospect has something that is a concern and needs to work it out in Des Moines this summer. For some it is about putting in the innings or working on location or just getting the experience.

Grade A Yellow – Pierce Johnson, CJ Edwards, Eric Jokisch, Zac Rosscup, Corey Black, Brian Schlitter, Blake Parker, Blake Cooper, and Frank Batista

Notice the pitching? Yeah, I did not at first. Pierce Johnson might be the starter closest in my opinion because of the lack of concerns. He has the right mentality, the right pitches, and the only thing he needs to work on is avoiding minor injuries to other parts of his body beside his arm. He has yet to throw over 120 innings in the minors. I don’t see him making it to Chicago this year because of the lack of innings. I don’t even foresee him making it in a bullpen role because of his profile as a starter. Set him up, let him pitch, and build that experience. Ideally 150 innings would be a great goal. Then next year, I see him coming into camp to compete for a spot on the roster.

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As for CJ Edwards, he has the stuff – that devastating curveball and mid 90s heat. His problem is similar to Johnson’s. He has hasn’t pitched more than 120 innings despite playing last year in the Arizona Fall League. He has better stuff than Johnson but will he profile as a reliever at the major league level or as a starter? After listening to him at the Cubs Convention, his confidence in his stuff is reassuring and noteworthy; he really wants to make it as a starter. I don’t know if he will until he does. Like Johnson, CJ needs to push that 150 inning limit in 2015. After he does that, I would move him well above Johnson.

Eric Jokisch will have a chance at the number 5 starter this spring as well as a spot as a reliever. If he does not make the 25 man roster, Iowa will await. The same holds true for Zac Rosscup but only for the bullpen.

Black 85For Corey Black, much has been written about how he profiles better as a reliever because of his size. However, for argument’s sake, Black has not had an injury worthy of missing large amounts of time. He had control issues last spring but wound up working over 120 innings and being the most reliable starter in Tennessee with K/9 ration of 8.68. I see the concern and I understand it, but he has no history injury. The major concern I have for him is leaving the ball up in the zone.

For Brian Schlitter, Blake Parker, Blake Cooper, and Frank Batista, their chance of making the bullpen out of spring training is slim, but not unwarranted. Schlitter has shown he can do it at the MLB level if he isn’t overworked like Renteria tended to do with him. Parker had an up and down year in 2014 and I expect the same in 2015. For Cooper and Batsista, both had sub 2 ERAs as relievers at Tennessee last year and they should continue in that role this year at Iowa. They are a year away in their development.

When I look at this collection, it kind of warms my heart knowing there is some depth. The bullpen, which got off to terrible starts the last two years with Marmol and Veras, is much more secure. And with the arms at Iowa, it is quickly becoming a strength within the organization.

Grade B Yellow – Javier Baez, Mike Olt, Stephen Bruno, Ivan Pineyro

These guys are close to being Grade A but their development is not quite done. Javy Baez’s struggles are well known and documented. Unless Joe Maddon magically fixes his pitch recognition and pitch selection skills in six weeks of spring training, I expect Baez to begin the year at Iowa playing second base.

olt 82As for Mike Olt, I think he might sneak onto the 25 man roster with his wider stance. With Bryant not coming up initially, Olt has a shot starting the season at third base. He can play first and third and some outfield. But let’s be real, he needs to play every day. And when Bryant comes up, Olt might be the one going down unless he is too productive at the MLB level. In rearranging his stance, he might get over the problems he had last year at Chicago.

Stephen Bruno will be at Iowa for the entire year. Last year was great for him after coming off of TJS in 2013. After a .291 avg. in the first half, Bruno hit only .256 the second half. The problem will be where to play him. Naturally a second baseman, I think he can adapt quickly to playing all over the field. Like Alcantara, Bruno has the bat to play any position. He just needs the experience in the field.

Last year was Ivan Pineyro’s first full year in the Cubs system. It was not a good one as he spent the year fighting off injuries. He did have a nice run in the Arizona Fall League and that gives hope to a good year in 2015. In seven games in Arizona, Pineyro started 4 and had a 1.98 ERA. He might not start the season at Iowa because of the depth of pitching. So, he could find his was to Tennessee to begin the year. Developmentally, Tennessee might be the smarter thing to do with all the arms that could be at Iowa.

Grade C Yellow – Christian Villanueva, Rafael Lopez, Taylor Davis, and Junior Lake

villanueva 73You really have to pull for Christian Villanueva. His glove is already MLB ready. He should begin the year at Iowa at 1B and return to 3B when Bryant goes up. Let’s hope he returns to 2013 Christian Villanueva when he led the Southern League in doubles. If he can get back on track, he could be a valuable bench player moving forward.

As for Lopez and Davis, they are here in case of injury to David Ross or Miguel Montero. With Schwarber’s ascendency, their hopes of making the big leagues are between slim and none this year. Lake is seeing the window close for himself, too. He could be a bench player if needed this year and that might be all they ever will be. I would not give up on him yet. This off season found him turning into a walk machine in the Dominican. He is only 24. He, like Soler, is a physical specimen with both speed and power. However, Lake has to learn he can’t hit every pitch.

Grade D Yellow – Hunter Cervenka, Francisley Bueno

The two lefties are a commodity the Cubs need. However, there is some work to do, especially for Cervenka. A 3.78 ERA does not endear him to a loogy role, but there is some hope as the Cubs do not have a lot of lefties in the system. For Bueno, he was released by the Royals despite having a drop dead changeup. If he can get his other pitchers over, he could be an asset the big league team lacks.

Red

The red means something did not go right in 2014. For most of these prospects, this could be their final year in the Cubs system. Some players like Adron Chambers might be a free agent after spring training ends if he doesn’t make the major league roster. Many of the players have not shown that they can sustain a season at AAA, AA, or in the majors. I think some of these players should float back to Tennessee like Dustin Geiger and Barret Loux where they can regain some of the form they had earlier in their career and thus can gain some confidence to move back up the organization.

For many of these players, this is it for them. After five to six years, they have hit the wall in their development and there is not much left.

AAAA Players – Adron Chambers, Jonathan Herrera, Chris Valaika, Taylor Teagarden, Jorge DeLeon, Anthony Carter, Donn Roach, Daniel Bard

These guys all provide temporary depth for the big league club. All have some skillset which the Cubs find valuable. Bard would be the exception as he is trying to rebuild his career. What these players do provide is some power in the bullpen. Chanbers is interesting in that he is still young and has speed. He has produced at AAA just not in the big leagues.

End of the Line –John Andreoli, Anthony Giansanti, Pin-Chieh Che, Jae-Hoon Ha, Rubi Silva, Matt Szczur, Jeffry Antigua, P. J. Francescon, Zach Cates, Jeff Lorick, Tony Zych, Yoanner Negrin, Carlos Pimentel, and Trey McNutt

Aside from Trey McNutt who was injured in 2014, all of these players are close to the end. This could be their last year in the system and many may be released coming out of spring training. I think the Cubs will hang on to Szczur, Silva, and Francescon one more year, but the others’ days are doomed unless they can turn it around from their poor 2014s. In the past few days, I have seen pics on Twitter of Anthony Giansanti looking ready for Spring Training. Here’s to hoping some of them stay around a little longer.

Could/Should Go Back Down to AA – Elliot Soto, Dustin Geiger, Andres Santiago, and Barret Loux are four players who should start out at AA. For Geiger, who hit under the Mendoza line in 2014 after two 17 HR seasons, this would be the perfect opportunity, along with Soto, to be leaders on a young team with a lot of potential. For Santiago and Loux, they would get the ball every fifth day, something they need to do to overcome their difficult 2014. For Santiago, he needs to develop some consistency, and for Loux, he needs to stay healthy.

When it comes down to it, this Iowa team’s strength will be in the infield. Once Bryant goes to Chicago, the lineup could look something like this:

C – Lopez

1B – Olt

2B – Baez

SS – Russell

3B – Villanueva

LF – Szczur

CF – Adron Chambers

RF – Junior Lake

U/DH – Bruno

SP – Beeler, Johnson, Edwards, Black, and Jokisch

That’s a pretty solid AAA team. Over the course of the year, Olt, Baez, and Lake have a shot at returning to Chicago along with Beeler and Jokisch. Unlike recent years, the Cubs literally have a chance to pull players for every position for use in Chicago. And what I like most is there are more players right behind them in Tennessee: Redundancy is the name of the game from here on out.

South Bend Cubs 2015 Preview: Big Leaps

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gleyber 15One of the best parts of last summer was listening to Mike Safford’s call of the Boise Hawks on the Internet. He is an exciting announcer! He made the games come alive twelve hundred miles away. I was saddened to hear that the Cubs were moving from Boise to Eugene because I would not be able to hear Safford’s enthusiasm for the games and his knowledge of the prospects on a daily basis. Then the killer stab through the heart came that same week when the Cubs announced they would be moving from Kane County to South Bend. I was devastated. My one hour trips through the corn to Geneva would end. I got over it after a while. This week helped a lot especially when I heard that South Bend could be joining the MiLB.TV network! That’s another 70 home games to see!

When looking at 2015 South Bend roster, the 2014 Boise Hawks made the playoffs because of a strong collection of pitchers and an influx of pitchers from the 2014 draft. In assembling who I think will be on the team, I am torn between players who will be, who should be, and who could be on the roster. Likely, I will be wrong on about 5 names. However, this year’s low A affiliate will be built around pitching just like last year’s Midwest League Champion. When it comes to hitting and defense, they might be putting that side of the roster together with very young players.

The Starting Pitching ApproximationStinnett 692
I counted ten arms that have a shot at starting for South Bend in April. Likely six will be in the rotation, one will not be around long and two could be in the bullpen or in extended Spring Training waiting for Eugene to start up. They all have the potential to do well, and they all pitch very differently.

Won’t Be ‘Round for Long
1. Jake Stinnett – Last year’s second round pick won’t be around South Bend long if he even starts there. With an upper 90s fastball and a plus-plus slider, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him skip South Bend and go straight to Daytona.

The Mainstays
2. Josh Conway – He finally got off the injury bug after two years to put in 13 starts with a 1.96 ERA. He was limited to 3 innings a start and he did wonderfully commanding his fastball. He struck 24 for a K/9 rate of 5.9 while allowing only 1 HR all season and walking 2.2/9 innings. This year, I expect him to extend his starts to 5 innings during the cold months and then they can unleash him when it gets warm. In end, the righty has earned the right to start at South Bend. At 23, he could move quickly to Daytona. Problem is, I don’t think there will be a spot there.

conway 69

3. Trevor Clifton – I have chronicled Clifton’s strengths and weaknesses often the past year. He can let his fastball rip between 93-95 and it peaks around 97. Last year, he really began to command it better and he will work on that again this year. Also, the Cubs have rebuilt his motion since he signed in the summer of 2013. There is still one lingering issue – his curveball. When he commands it, he is almost unhittable. When he can’t, he gets pummeled. He has learned to work with men on base. His ERA of 3.69 was due in large part to excellent pitching by stranding runners the last four starts. His WHIP of 1.46 is extremely high due in large part to his lack of curveball command. I cannot wait to see his fastball in Burlington, Peoria, and/or Beloit this summer! His curve should be an interesting visual, too.

Clifton 64

4. Erick Leal – Leal is the more successful of the two pitchers who came from Arizona in the Tony Campana trade. He might have been the most improved pitcher at Boise last summer. The 6’3” righty had a 1.53 ERA after the all star break and a total 2.36 ERA in the second half. He doesn’t miss a lot of bats (4.5/9) but he gets a lot of outs. His fastball, which he commands very well, is between 88 and 90 most days.

Who I would like to see Start
5A. Jeremy Null – The Nulldozer might be the best nickname in all of the organization. At 6’7+”, he throws a heavy slider on a downhill plane. He fell down in the draft because of some early season injuries, but the VCU prospect had no trouble disposing of some big name schools like North Carolina. As a pro in 2014, Null saw limited action due to a full college season, but he did strike out 11 in 15 innings and made 1 start in the Northwest League playoffs

Who Might Start
5B. James Norwood – The SLU product has been known to throw in the mid to upper 90s. Injury concerns last spring caused his stock to fall. He did get some time in at Arizona and Boise, but it was clear after a season of college ball that he was trying to make adjustments as his stats were not very good. However, stats are misleading at short season and rookie ball levels as most pitching prospects are working on something in their repertoire. When spring comes this year, Norwood might be in line to start at South Bend, if not, Eugene for sure.

5C. James Farris – The Arizona righty was the ace of his college team. He doesn’t knock you out with any one pitch, but he can control and command them all. That will play well in South Bend. However, it may not play much beyond South Bend as he needs a little zippity in his do-da. To show you how well he commands the ball, in 14 innings of relief at Boise, he struck out 21!!!!!!!!! That is 14.5/9 innings!!! Then again, he was playing against 19-20 years old kids. He won’t do that at South Bend, but he will put the ball where he wants it. He reminds me of Kyle Hendricks in how they approach pitching. He is not as physically big as Hendricks, but mentally and command wise, Farris is a miniature version of the big leaguer.

Who Could Start sands1971
5D. Carson Sands – Sands will be 20 in less than a month. In rookie ball, last year’s fourth round pick was deadly in his 19 innings of work at Arizona where pitchers are on strict counts and often piggyback with other starters (Each goes three innings back to back). Sands showed great control with a 1.89 ERA and striking out 20. He is pretty polished and likely could start at South Bend. Spring Training will tell but the odds are in his favor.

5E. Justin Steele – Picked one round behind Sands, the lefty might be better than Sands in the long run. Steele struck out 25 in 18 innings at Arizona last summer and still has to work on his command a lot more than Sands does. A 2.89 ERA is nothing to sneeze at but he did walk 8 in only 18 innings or 4 BB per 9 innings. I would like to see what he can do in South Bend by improving his command to lower that walk rate.

5F. Dillon Maples – I usually make excuses for Dillon Maples, but last year he was terrible. A rib injury derailed what was to be a promising season and he just got shelled at Boise when he came back. I think he came back too quickly (there is that excuse). The 2011 draft pick might be in his last year in a Cub uniform if the ship is not righted. But then again, he is still only 22 and he has yet to make it to a full season of low A ball. In 2013, he was flat out brilliant at Boise along with Paul Blackburn and Duane Underwood. I thought he was really going to break out last year before the rib injury. Hopefully, he has made adjustments and is healthy and ready to go this year. It is hard to watch a kid with a fastball that gets up into the mid 90s and a plus curve just crash and burn in the organization.

I’d say that the first four pitchers listed above are shoe-ins and that Null, Farris, Sands, Maples, and Steele will duke it out for the final two spots. Once Stinnett is gone to Daytona, another spot opens up. If I was a betting man, I’d go with Sands and Steele. I think that would be the most exciting to see. But, here’s the thing; I am not a betting man. Therefore, I am going with Null and Sands. Steele will likely start out in Eugene and Farris and Norwood will go to the pen. Once Stinnett leaves, up comes Steele.

The Relief Recombination

Is Ryan Williams one of the prospects to see in 2015?South Bend will not be short of relievers; both lefties and righties. Brad Markey, Jordan Brink, Sam Wilson, Tommy Thorpe Tanner Griggs, Michael Knighton, and Zach Hedges headline a list of about 15 relievers who could be at South Bend but there are six who need elaboration.

1. Ryan Williams benefited a lot from scouts coming to see East Carolina starter Jeff Hoffman, a top pick in last year’s draft. Williams and his 6’4” and 235 lb. frame did well in relief last year at Boise. A 1.35 ERA in 26 innings is not a full measurement of his talent. Some bloggers do not like him, but I do. Here’s why: He’s a bulldog. He is just fierce on the mound. You want that big kind of imposition staring down a hitter in the last three innings. Just turned 23, he should do fine in the Midwest League as a setup man and a closer. Because of his age, he might move to Daytona a little faster than other players.

2. Daniel Lewis’s life story is like a Disney movie. The man from the Air Force via Pensacola JC who throws 100 mph came out of nowhere. Yes, I would like to see what he can do all year long. Surprisingly, last year, the undrafted free agent made it to Boise where he struck out 13 in 10 innings of relief with a 0.87 ERA. With that arm, he might not be long for South Bend.

3. There was no way I thought Jordan Minch would sign with Cubs last summer. He was drafted in the 35th round and I figured he would return to Purdue for his junior season. The 6’3” lefty signed and he gives the Cubs something they don’t have in the organization – a power left handed arm coming out of the bullpen. I think he will be at South Bend all season.

4. Trey Masek – Like Josh Conway, the 2013 draftee has spent most of his time in a Cubs uniform injured. This year he is healthy. This year the former Red Raider starter shifts to the bullpen to show off that toughness he epitomized on the mound at Texas Tech. Gone is the funky delivery and awkward landing and in its place is a more refined delivery. I look forward to seeing what he can do.

Trey Masek at Boise
Trey Masek at Boise in 2013

5. Brad Renner is another injury recluse like Trey Masek. Drafted in the 28th round in 2013, the 6’6” righty could make another imposing presence coming out of the pen. He just has to stay healthy.

6. Anthony Prieto – Still only 21, the lefty has had the injury bug like Renner and Masek. This year will be interesting to see if he can regain the mid 90s fastball he had coming out of high school in 2012. At only 5’11, he just may be a pitcher who might just be injury prone. 2015 will tell.

Now I don’t know if any of these six are going to light South Bend on fire but they are all interesting story lines to watch due to missed time.

There is one thing most talent evaluators have been missing when looking at the Cubs system is this: The Cubs are loading up on arms on the mound. In fact, they are overflowing with arms at short season A, low A, and high A. I expect McLeod and Epstein to draft another 15-20 arms this summer. The fact that I had 10 arms to select just for starters from at South Bend in 2015 is an indication of the depth now inherent in this organization.

The Hitting Transmogrification
After losing Schwarber, Zagunis, Chesny Young, and Jeffrey Baez, it sure seemed as if Boise was done for on offense. Yet, they found a way to make the playoffs in 2014. A big reason for that came from the leadership of Manager Gary Van Tol. In August, OF Charcer Burks and then 17 year old phenom SS Gleyber Torres lead the parade of hitters from Boise into the playoffs last year and now into South Bend for this year. Along with super sub Alex Tomasovich, 1B Danny Canela, C Justin Marra, and 3B Jesse Hodges, Boise came from back in the standings and their development was a key to that turnaround.

torres 71To me, there are two keys to this infield. One is shortstop Gleyber Torres, who just turned 18. He only played only 7 games plus the playoffs at Boise, but he showed Scouting Director Jason McLeod enough to declare that Torres will be in South Bend. Keith Law ranked him #4 on Cubs Top Prospect List. He has great skills with the bat and solid defensive skills. As he gets older, I think his skills might be better suited for second base. However, his bat plays either position.

The other player I like a lot is Alex Tomasovich. He was the Ben Zobrist of Idaho last summer while hitting .311. The 6’3” 2014 draftee out of Charleston Southern was a nice find by Cubs scouts. He is not going to wow you with his athleticism. However, he does a little bit of everything well, but nothing that stands out…except hitting. He still has some room to physically fill out. He did not hit any home runs, but the body is there to do so. He is a grinder and just a nice player to have on your team. Tomasovich is a sure handed defender who has moved off of shortstop and did not stop producing. He played 10 games at 2B, 18 at 1B, 3 at 3B, and 1 at SS. He will likely continue this trend in 2015.

tomasovich 78

3B Jesse Hodges comes to the Cubs via Canada and he showed last summer he has some pop in that bat. He hit 7 HRs, second on the team to Marra’s 9, and drove in 47 runs second to Canela’s 48. While Hodges only hit .265, he does take his walks, but his average needs to come up. However, if he hits HRs and drives in runs, I don’t think it really matters. Hodges is just going to grind it out. He is not a typical 5 tool athlete, but he has a great attitude and that sought after power.

Hodges 79

At 24, 1B Danny Canela is an organizational guy who provides some leadership and a steady force in the lineup. He hit .295 and should provide a nice depth and some veteran presence for the young team. However, I don’t know if there is much of a future for him. He and Jacob Rodgers of Myrtle Beach are in the same organizational boat.

When it comes to catcher, this is where things start to get ugly. Justin Marra can hit extremely well as seen by his .279 avg. with 9 HRs and 38 RBIs in short season A ball. However, the 5’10” 190 lb. dynamo is not the best defensive catcher. He spent the better part of three seasons trying to escape Boise and he finally figured it out. Only 21, he really needs to improve his battery skills or his only option would be as an undersized 1B/DH.

I think when it comes down to it, Will Remillard will be back in South Bend in order to play a full season of low A ball. Last year, he was a stud for the first half at Kane County hitting almost .320 and driving in 25 runs in 35 games. Then the back injury limited him to 14 games where he hit a weak .204. Putting Remillard here makes sense as it makes room for Caratini at Myrtle Beach and it gives this pitching staff a guy who I like a lot for his leadership behind the plate.

remillard 71

The player who will likely play second base is Andrew Ely. Ely played all over the organization after being drafted out of the University of Washington last year. Look for him to bring his exciting glove work and steady bat to be an outstanding double play man with Gleyber Torres. I think people are going to like how he goes about his business of being a ballplayer.

When it comes to the outfield of South Bend, I could be dead wrong or I could magically be right. Taken in the 9th round of the 2013 Draft, Charcer Burks was an athletic pick who struggled his first summer in 2013 at Arizona hitting only .269. Last year was a different story. He started out in Arizona where hit .309 and swiped 9 bases in 20 games. He then went to hit .313 at Boise with an outstanding OBP of .416! He should be in left field every day at South Bend.

Now comes the tricky part. Looking at depth charts and experience, Kevin Brown and Jeffery Baez should really be at Myrtle Beach. Rashad Crawford and Charlie White are not quite ready for the 140+ game seasons of low A ball. However, I do know two players who I think might be ready to play every day in the sun of northern Indiana. My boldest prediction of all the previews is that Kevonte Mitchell and Eloy Jimenez will begin the year at South Bend. I want to see it, I hope they do it, the odds are slim, but in the end, it is best for their development, and best for the team. There, I said it!

Eloy Jiminez is currently 18 years old but is already 6'4"
Eloy Jiminez is currently 18 years old but is already 6’4″

What Jimenez lacks is game experience. The former #1 International Free Agent of 2013 is physically ready. The 6’4” 205 lb. right handed hitter should play in South Bend all year. If Jimenez’s weakness is game experience, he could waste a year in Boise playing only 76 games. He can almost double that experience in the Midwest League playing for South Bend. I do get the argument that he is not baseball ready. After all, he only hit .227 with 3 HRs in 42 games in Arizona, but he also drove in 27 which is a 104 RBI pace for a 162 games. But stats can be misleading for a minor leaguer. For me, he simply needs to play games. He needs to improve his 6% walk rate, that .227 avg, and an abysmal .268 OBP have to change. I get that he should play in Eugene, but the competition at South Bend is a year older and he gets an additional 70 games, which is another season of short season ball. Plus, he is such a physical specimen, his body should hold up to the rigors of that long of a season.

For Kevonte Mitchell, it is a giant leap, too. A sensational athlete, Mitchell was outstanding moving from his 2014 drafted position of 3B to CF. The 6’4” 18 year old hit .294 in 42 games while stealing 19 bases. I heard great things all July and August about Mitchell. I cannot wait to see him play in South Bend. Mitchell would also provide some comfort for Jimenez having played beside him all last year.

Now, I could be dead wrong about these two kids skipping short season A. There is no rush for them to get to the big leagues, they are both just 18/19 year kids. But if I am correct, South Bend will be a great place to be this summer with the pitching and the young, athletic position players. And most importantly, the players will develop and play winning baseball.

If I am wrong, Kevin Brown and Rashad Crawford will likely man those spots this summer. Crawford brings some serious speed while Brown is more a disciplined hitter who saw time as high as Tennessee last summer filling in for a week here and there. I guess we will find out the second week of April who will be in the outfield.

Possible lineup
CF – Mitchell
SS – Torres
1B – Canela
DH – Marra
LF – Burks
RF – Jimenez
3B – Hodges
C – Remillard
2B – Ely

This is not bad lineup. There is some speed at the top with Mitchell and Torres, some quality hitters in Canela and Marra, another leadoff hitter in Burks, more power, and two quality guys that can grind out at bats in Remillard and Ely. Throw in Tomasovich, who can play all over the field, and there is some length to this lineup. Sure, you have two big prospects in Torres and Jimenez, but you also have guys that take quality at bats. If there is one thing I have learned in the past two drafts is that the Cubs look for highly athletic players and players who can grind out at bats. This team is filled with both. I think that could be a mixture for even more success in 2015. It’s a big leap.

Coming Sunday: The Iowa Cubs Preview

2015 Myrtle Beach Pelicans Preview: Welcome to the Organization

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underwood 15When Myrtle Beach, the Cubs new high class A affiliate, gets their first look at the ballclub on April 9 against Wilmington, they are going to be pleased with team – very pleased, indeed! In 2014, the Kane County Cougars went 98-49 and were the minor league team of the year. Most of those players will be in Myrtle Beach for the summer. And, it should be an amazing summer by the beach!

Where the Tennessee Smokies will rely on hitting most of the summer, the Myrtle Beach Pelicans will rely on the easily the best collection of starting pitchers in the Cubs organization. Along with 21 year olds Daury Torrez and Paul Blackburn, 20 year olds Duane Underwood, Jen-Ho Tseng, and Jonathan Martinez are a collection of arms, who after dominating the Midwest League, now take aim at the Carolina League – a well known pitcher’s league.

As for the hitters, the pitcher’s league might play to the strengths of the hitters that will be at Myrtle Beach. They do have some players with some pop, but they are more line drive hitters. They also have the best speed in the organization. For me, these hitters are truly a collection of baseball rats. These are the type of players that Theo Epstein and Jason McLeod covet – players who grind out at bats and grind out a season. They are tough minded and athletic and a couple could be on the brink of a breakout season.

The Hitters
zagunis 15The Logjam
This team possibly has four catchers in Will Remillard, Cael Brockmeyer, Mark Zagunis, and Victor Caratini. There is no way all four are going to get playing time behind the plate and there is no way any of the four should stay behind at South Bend. Remillard, to me, is the best of the four behind the plate. However, he spent most of the second half of 2014 injured. Brockmeyer, at 6’5”, showed a lot of growth last year and began to tap into his power potential. I saw him hit two screaming line drive home runs last year that never got more than fifteen feet off the grove. He also saw some time at first base and DH last year.

Zagunis is an on base machine and also plays all three outfield positions. He is one of my favorite prospects to watch in the entire system. A wild option might be to have Zagunis play some infield. If he can already catch and play all three outfield positions, he should be able to play 1B, 2B, or 3B. He could be a Zobrist in development. This could clear up some room all over the field.

Victor Caratini might be the breakout star on this team. He is a switch hitting catcher converted from 3B by the Braves. He his a solid approach at the plate but his stats have yet to reveal it. When you watch him hit, though, it is clear he has a plan at the plate. Unlike most ballplayers, Caratini stands in the middle of the box with his front foot even with the plate. I wonder if he just likes it there, or it makes him react quicker? Whatever the case, I am anxious to see what a full of season in the system will produce for him.

I think when it comes down to it, Remillard might stay at South Bend to get a full season in healthy. This would allow Caratini to get the majority of time behind the plate and Zagunis to move to a utility type role but to have his bat in the lineup every day. Brockmeyer would then catch once or twice in a rotation and get some time at 1B and DH where his burgeoning power might be better suited.

The Rest of the Field

At 1B, 25 years old Jacob Rodgers will man the corner and continue to develop his power stroke. The left handed hitting Rodgers hit 16 home runs to go with a .268 average and OBP of .361. He does strike out close to 25% of the time, but he is also a timely hitter in innings 7-9. He lead the team in the Midwest League Playoffs and was named MVP of the post season. In addition, Rodgers spent some time at DH. Brockmeyer spells Rodgers from time to time against lefties.

The shortstops for this team are not quite interchangeable. David Bote and Danny Lockhart did outstanding jobs last summer controlling the middle of the field. Lockhart did well at the plate hitting .284. Bote spent most of the year playing a utility role while struggling at the plate. However, the best fielder on the team last year was Carlos Penalvar. His smooth reactions and cat like reflexes made hard plays look easy and sometimes he made the easy plays look hard. But when you hit .210 and strike out over 100 times, you are not likely to earn a promotion to high A ball. Look for Lockhart to be the opening day shortstop for Myrtle Beach.

young 70After the MLB Draft, 2014 draftee Chesny Young rocketed up the system and took control of 2B at Kane County when Ben Carhart went to Daytona. Young is one of the grinders I spoke of earlier. Like Zagunis, he also has a high contact rate hitting .324 in 27 games in August. I look for him to pick up where left off last summer.

Third base will be manned by Jeimer Candelario. Still only 21 (November), Candelario had a rough start at high A Daytona last spring and was reassigned to Kane County. After a .193 first half, Candelario rebounded some at Kane County where hit .250 in 62 games with 6 HRs and a very solid 37 runs batted in the second half. The switch hitting corner man still has a lot of potential. Best of all, he has a solid attitude and used the reassignment to improve his approach at the plate.

Watching Trey Martin and Shawon Dunston, Jr., play last summer was like watching children being born. Dunston had defensive miscue after defensive miscue the first half of the season. Martin could not hit his way out of a wet paper bag. But something in them clicked the second half. For Dunston, maybe it was the old hidden ball trick where he got caught off first, but something changed in him. Dunston began taking more efficient routes in the outfield; he began hitting, even showed some power to go with his speed. He hit .241 the first half, .288 the second and was the sparkplug leadoff man for the team. Add in 27 SBs and Dunston gives the Pelicans a legitimate leadoff hitter. I think he could work his way into the top 20 of Cubs prospect lists if he has a first half in 2015 like his second half in 2014.

shawon 1984

Trey Martin was already a great fielder, but after a year off in 2013 due to injury, the rust showed at the plate. The second half was like watching a new player. He went from a .222 hitter in the first half to a .269 hitter in the second half with 4 second half dingers. I expect his progression to continue in 2015.

When it comes to the third outfield spot, Mark Zagunis and his ridiculous .428 OBP will likely be in left field most days. Kevin Brown and Jeffrey Baez will spell Zagunis, Dunston, and Martin. Brown was up and down the system last year from Boise to Tennessee filling in where needed. This year, the .261 hitter will likely stay in one place (maybe South Bend). Baez, could start out at South Bend to play every day, but he really does belong at Myrtle Beach. He hit 13 HRs in 69 games at Boise and Kane County. Jake Hannemann might start at Myrtle Beach, but the 6’1” speedster, I think, should start at Tennessee.

Cuban Yasiel Balaguert will likely fill the DH role. He had an up and down year, but the 6’2” 215 pounder has a lot of potential – mainly power. He needs to much more selective at the plate. He had a great April (.317), a horrible May (.163), a so-so June (.259), a poor July (.217), and an amazing August (.333). He only walked 20 times in 369 plate appearances. He has got to change his approach at the plate and not to try and hit every pitch as hard as he can.

Overall, these hitters rely more on squaring up the ball and hitting it hard. They string together runs and most importantly, they are always in the game. I can’t begin to count how many come from behind wins they had last year. They can with the speed of Zagunis, Dunston, and Martin; they can cause terror on the basepaths. Rodgers, Candelario, and Brockmeyer will supply some power but they are more of a station to station team – they keep the line moving.

daury 15The Pitching
Oh, my!!! Wait until Myrtle Beach gets a load of these starting arms!
At the Cubs Convention three weeks ago, Jason McLeod tempered expectations, and rightly so, that the management is hoping for only 1-2 of these arms to make it to the majors. Although Kane County did have an epic season, the pitchers played a major role but they were not perfect. They have only pitched 110-130 innings a season. Their arms are a long way from being ready. But if they continue along their current paths, I think 3-4 of them could help the Cubs pitching staff in 3-4 years as starters and/or relievers.

One thing you will see this staff do is throw mostly fastballs in the first inning to work on their fastball command. Other teams knew that in the Midwest League. Yet, the team still had an ERA under 3 in the first half. I sometimes find it hard to fathom what would happen if some of the following pitchers came out with an occasional curve ball, changeup, or slider in the first inning.

Duane Underwood is only 20 and right now he had the best starting power arm in the Cubs’ system until Stinnett arrived last summer. Underwood came into 2014 spring training healthy and in shape. By the end of the year, he was throwing his fastball according to Cubs twitter at an easy 95 mph. He can reach 97. His curveball is close to a plus pitch but his changeup is a work in progress. If he can get the changeup smoothed out, he could have three plus pitches. He is a number two starter in development.

Jen-Ho Tseng is another 20 year old who ,according to Baseball America, has the best changeup in the organization. It was laughable the swings I saw against it last year in two starts. The ball comes in like a fastball but has a falling action like a ball rolling off a table. His curveball is almost as good. What Tseng needs to work on is developing some strength and getting his fastball up from 86-90 to 90-92. If he can do that, he could move quickly. With his uncanny command (he only walked 15 in 19 starts), he might be more ready than Underwood to move up the system. However, there is no rush.

Daury Torrez pretty much got by on two pitches last year – a 91-94 mph fastball and an 84-86 mph slider. I don’t think he can do that this year. His 2.74 ERA was out of this world for basically a two pitch pitcher. If he can develop that third pitch (changeup) consistently, the 21 year old could double his worth.

blackburn 15Paul Blackburn does do a lot of things well as a pitcher. The problem is doesn’t do one outstanding thing. He has great command, but he lacks that one knockout or plus pitch. He has a solid fastball with a natural sink and a nice 12-6 curve. He gets a lot of groundouts. In 117 innings, he only walked 31 in 24 starts. On the other hand, he only struck out 75. I don’t know if he ever will light up a stat sheet in those categories. And, he may not have to. He just turned 21 in December, and like Underwood and Tseng, there is no rush to move him up in the system.

Jonathan Martinez came over to the Cubs system in the Darwin Barney trade. I think he is going to be a breakout prospect for the Cubs this year. In his 23 innings at Kane County, Martinez had a 2.31 ERA while striking out 15. For the year, he threw 129 innings and struck out 106. At only 20, Martinez already has 4 years of professional experience. I think that experience will pay off this year as he works a solid change and slider off his low to mid 90s fastball.

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I think Tyler Skulina, the fourth round pick out of Kent State in 2013, will be at Myrtle Beach to begin the year. He got a mid-year promotion last year from Kane County to Daytona. Tendonitis in his left knee limited him to three starts at high A. Skulina went from throwing 93-95 in 2013 to 88-90 in 2014 when I saw him. His curveball looked very forced and the arm slot changed from attempt to attempt. It was not pleasant to watch. However, something was still right. In 71 innings at Kane County, Skulina still struck out 68. He has the prototypical starting pitcher’s body at 6’5” and 255 pounds. Some consider him better suited as a power reliever while I think the Cubs are going to see if they can the tendonitis under control in his plant knee and see what he can do as a starter. Manager Mark Johnson and Pitching coach David Rosario, who were at Kane County last year, will be moving up with the team and might be able to get Skulina back on track.

Stinnett 692Come early June, last year’s second round pick Jake Stinnett is likely to arrive in what may be a short stay. Scouts marvel at his mid to upper 90s fastball and plus-plus slider. Like Jeff Samardjiza, Stinnett’s arm is young as he has only been pitching for two years. After pitching over 100 innings at Maryland, Stinnett was used sparingly and even suffered a severe injury in taking one of the team – he almost lost a testicle in the incident.

Here is what Fan Graphs said of the young talent:

Stinnett pitched for the first time mid-way through his junior year at Maryland and was good enough to get drafted, but took off in his senior year, flashing three above average pitches and hitting 96 mph from an athletic delivery, which prompted the Cubs to take him near the top of the 2nd round. The stuff varied in the spring as Stinnett’s arm wasn’t used to the workload, but he was at his best in instructs, has mid-rotation upside and a very fresh arm for a 22-year-old.

Stinnett likely will follow the same pitching path as Pierce Johnson, without the injuries. Out of all the pitchers in the Cubs system, I look forward to seeing what he can do this spring. I don’t know if I will make it over to South Bend (it’s a three hour drive for me) while he is there, but Myrtle Beach does have MiLB.TV for when he gets promoted. If he is still in South Bend in early June, I will catch him over at Burlington or Peoria. Stinnett’s fastball and slider will likely be too much for the Midwest League, and maybe even the Carolina League. It would not shock me to see him arrive at Tennessee in early to mid August.

The Bullpen

When it comes to the bullpen, the collection of arms to be at Myrtle Beach will be solid, but not as spectacular as the bullpen arms at Tennessee. Led by James Pugliese, who is turning into a potent pitching prospect and setup man, his 1.68 ERA was aided by a revamped delivery. Add in Jasvir Rakkar, who finally figured it in the second half, the two formed an excellent back end of the bullpen down the stretch.

Lefties Michael Heesch and Tyler Ihrig, along with righties Tyler Bremer and Francisco Carrillo, round out a very solid bullpen. At 23 years old, Francisco Carillo was solid as a closer down the stretch following the trade of Jose Arias by posting a 1.35 ERA in 12 games and collecting 6 saves. Michael Wagner likely will round out the bullpen along with newcomer Lars Huijer who came over in the Mike Kickham trade. Huijer was a starter at low A Clinton last year before struggling in the high A California League for Seattle. He has good size at 6’4” and could spot start if needed, but he will likely be used in long relief until he gets familiar with Cubs routines and procedures. He throws a sinking fastball in the upper 80s and mid to upper seventies curves and changeups.

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This team is not going to sneak up on anyone. Their reputation as team of the year in 2014 has already announced their arrival. However, this team is up for the challenge. While the team has high end prospects, leaning heavy to the pitching side, they also have three to four position players who could break out in addition to one or two pitching prospects. To me, Mark Zagunis might not stay long at Myrtle Beach. His plate discipline is that advanced and his versatility allows a manager to pencil him at 5 positions (right now) on the lineup card daily. If he leaves, that will be a tough spot to fill in across the lineup.

I look for Martin and Dunston to continue to improve, and for either one, if not both, to breakout this season. I think Cub newcomer Victor Caratini will get to show his true value in a full season. The switch hitting catcher needs to see some extended time behind the plate and increase his power skills. Chesny Young could have a big first full year in the system, too. He is not going to dazzle you with power, but every ball he hits, he hits hard. I saw him twice last fall and he squares up the ball as well as anyone, it just doesn’t go as far or as loud as the others. While lacking power, this team has the hitting ability to get runs across in volume.

JEN HO 15But, let’s get real. This team will be all about the pitching in a pitching league. I really hope Underwood stays at the Beach all summer, but it would not surprise me if one of the starters goes to Tennessee. I think Martinez can show his stuff and it will be interesting to see how Tseng develops in his second full year. I think if Tseng is going to make it as a starter in the MLB, he needs to add a couple clicks, otherwise, he becomes a deadly off speed option out of the pen. Maybe Blackburn develops that one pitch, or Skulina gets his release point down or changes to a slider from his raunchy curve. For pitchers, rapid development can change quickly with one pitch. These six or seven starters at Myrtle Beach already have a strong foundation.

But the thing to remember about five of these starting pitchers is that three of them are twenty, and the other two just turned twenty-one, and they are playing in a league where the average age is 22-23. There should be no rush. If there is not, then playing at the Beach this summer will take on a whole new dimension this summer.

Next Weekend’s Previews: The Iowa Cubs and South Bend Cubs

2015 Tennessee Smokies Preview – Bombs Away!

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Schwarber 15 (2)First off, there is a duality in the title of this post. The 2015 Tennessee Smokies should have plenty of power from their hitters for the second year in a row. In 2014 the team had Kris Bryant, Jorge Soler, and Addison Russell. This year, the Smokies will not be short on power with Kyle Schwarber, Dan Vogelbach, and possibly Ben Carhart. Add in RBI machine Billy McKinney, top prospect Albert Almora, up and comer Bijan Rademacher, the secretive Gioskar Amaya, and athletic catcher Wilson Contreras and you have a team that can put some runs on the board. They did so in my backyard at Kane County two years ago, and again in the second half of last year at Daytona.

The problem is the inability to stop the other team from doing the same thing in 2013 at Kane County and the first half of last year in Daytona. However, the pitching staff may have figured it out in the second half last year as the team made a run to the Florida State League Playoffs losing to Fort Meyers in the finals. Rob Zastryzny put together a string of excellent starts and Tayler Scott might be starting to develop some consistency as well.

But when it comes down to it, this could be the most talented team across the board that Tennessee has seen in a while. While last year’s team was also loaded with top prospects, it was also loaded with injuries to CJ Edwards, Ivan Pinyero, and Jorge Soler. Then later, Kris Bryant was promoted mid season followed shortly by Soler. I don’t see that happening this year at Tennessee. I think it could be a special year for many of the Cubs top prospects.

The Hitters

For me, it all starts with Kyle Schwarber. The 2014 1st round pick of the Cubs destroyed A ball to the tune of a .344 average, a .428 OBP, a .634 slugging percentage and an OPS of 1.061. Astonishing numbers to say the least but these were accomplished in 72 games for three teams after a full NCAA season. Throw in 18 home runs and 53 RBIs and it projects out to almost 40 home runs and 110 RBIs in a 162 game season. Schwarber, who will spend the better part of his time at catcher this year, is fast becoming one of the game’s top prospects, and he is advancing just as quickly in his skills. At the recent Cubs Convention, Schwarber revealed he had two 4 day catching lessons with Mark Johnson at Kane County and then again at instructs after the season. Those lessons will continue this spring training, but Johnson will be at Myrtle Beach as the manager.

While Albert Almora is the highest ranked prospect slated to be in Tennessee, Schwarber has taken most of Almora’s thunder. Almora is easily the best defensive outfielder in the Cubs system and is gold glove caliber already. When Almora was at Kane County, it was like watching a panther in center. He glides to the ball, always takes good routes and makes hard catches look easy. The problem for Almora going into 2014 was his health. He stayed healthy all year in 2014. The Cubs made some adjustments to his swing. To me, he can get wood on almost any pitch, but he doesn’t need to. The Cubs are trying to make him more selective. At Daytona, Almora hit .283 in 89 games with 7 HRs and 50 RBIs – solid on the surface. However, his OBP was only .306. He just doesn’t walk much as he can hit most pitches. The Cubs are trying to retrain his brain to hit only those pitches he can hit well. A mid season call up to Tennessee saw Almora hit .234 in 36 games with a .250 OBP. However, here’s the thing about Almora, he might never walk much. He might not need to. Maybe the Cubs value his defense more. He can hit enough to get to the show. This year Almora could get to Iowa and begin the final phase of his development to arrive in Chicago by the summer of 2016. He needs to hit better than .236 and get on base at a better clip. A 15-20 home run total will suffice.

Billy McKinney has taken the organization by storm. As a 19 and 20 year old in the Florida State League, McKinney ripped to the tune of a .301 avg. but he drove in runs at a 120 RBI pace. While he had 10 HRs in California before coming over in the Samardjiza trade, he only hit 1 in the pitcher friendly Florida State League. It will be interesting to see what kind of power McKinney does have. We know he can hit for average and get on base, it would be great to see him develop some 15-20 HR power. McKinney will likely see time in left this year and at DH some. His arm is not strong enough to be out in right every day.

rademacher 71The other outfielder for Tennessee this year will be Bijan Rademacher. Rademacher did not take a giant leap forward last year, but it was a noticeable movement. Rademacher proved he could hit in 2013 and earned a summer promotion to Daytona. He did well enough (.276) in his short time there. In 2014, Rademacher began to show he had some pop to his bat hitting 10 home runs with a .281 average. He also flashed a great glove playing all three outfield positions and had an impressive run in the Arizona Fall League. He will be a steadying force in the Smokies’ lineup.

Gioskar Amaya is a secretive little guy to most Cubs prospect lovers. In 2014, he began to fulfill some of the promise he flashed in 2013 at Kane County. He is not going to hit for a lot of power, but he has a good stick and good defensive skills. Although he hit .276 for the year, he has the potential to do better. Amaya needs to do it consistently rather than in spurts. For example, the last 10 games of the season, Amaya hit .366 in the drive to the playoffs.

Wilson Contreras has a hard row ahead of him in 2015. With Kyle Schwarber at Tennessee, Contreras is no longer the top catching prospect in the system. He does possess the athletic ability behind the plate, his bat has not responded consistently. Like Amaya, it is easy to get lost in the numbers of prospects in the minor leagues. With Contreras you cannot do that. He is a very good defensive catcher who has the ability and the talent, but he also is working on other aspects of hitting at the same time. For example, while Contreras hit .280 in the first half of the season, he hit only .212 in the second half. But in the last ten games Contreras figured some things out in August where hit .412 wth 2 HRs and 8 RBIs. The talent is there, and like Amaya, he needs to be more consistent.

Vogelbach 85Out of all the hitters no one is probably more happy and sad to leave to leave the Florida State League than Dan Vogelbach. Playing close to his family was a dream come true for the young first baseman but playing in a league known for being a pitcher’s league because of the humidity and thick air, Vogelbach had mixed emotions. The 6’ 230 lb. first baseman hit only 16 HRs while hitting .268. While a .276 second half average was better, it was not the season Vogelbach himself wanted. He kept at it though and he will keep at it at Tennessee. The ball flies a little better in Tennessee and hopefully Vogelbach will take advantage of the atmosphere in Kodak. I do feel for Vogelbach a little. He lost a lot of weight in between the 2013 and 2014 seasons and the loss retooled his swing. It took some adjustment.

For me, there is one other player I would like to see start the year in Tennessee and that is Jake Hannemann. I like this kid a lot. The more he plays the better he gets. I saw him last spring at Kane County and liked his play in the outfield a lot. He gets to a lot of balls easily. His bat is slowly adjusting in small segments. He could start out at Myrtle Beach to begin the year, but he should go to Tennessee as his speed is just too much to keep down.

There are a few positions to fill out on the roster. Jordan Hankins, who was awesome in the first half at Kane County, struggled in his first month at Daytona before righting the ship. He and Ben Carhart, a player I like a lot and can play multiple positions with power, will be fighting it out for the 3B job. I like Carhart as a 1B, a DH, even some 2B, and as a leader. With Marco Hernandez going to Boston in the Felix Doubront deal, SS is wide open. I could see Wes Darvill filling this or even Tim Saunders, if he can rebound from a nonexistent 2014, but I don’t even know if Saunders is still a Cub. Even Elliot Soto could come back.

Regardless of whom the SS is, this team is going to put some runs on the board. They will show some occasional power in doing so, but this will be one team that is exciting to watch at the plate.

Pitching

zas 70This is where it gets rough for me in writing team previews. Iowa’s roster is largely contingent upon the MLB roster and depth. As for Tennessee, the hitters are clearly ready for the challenges of this level, the pitchers are a concern. As I sat down to write out who the starters were I struggled on who I would put in the rotation. I got Felix Pena, Rob Zastryzny, and Tayler Scott down and that was it.

Pena had a great year at high A Daytona and Zastryzny had an abomination of a first half but turned it around with a great second half. Scott, meanwhile, seems to be improving slowly, but his odds of making it past AA are slim. A lot has to go right for him to advance. He is athletic enough to repeat his delivery, he just doesn’t have much beyond a fastball and hitters hit .268 against him last year and he only struck out 79.

At 6’3” and 170 pounds, Scott is still a prospect who could fill out and gain some “oomph” to his repertoire. In other words, there is a lot of projection left to him. The thing I like about him most is he takes the ball every fifth day. He has been injury free and he works hard to get better. He is improving slowly (he had an ERA under 4 the second half in 2014) but he is not improving as fast as others in the lower levels who may pass him up this year or next. Hopefully, this will be the year he breaks out!

As for the other two to three starters, it is hard to pick. Nathan Dorris and Justin Amlung were converted relievers who filled in down the stretch last year at Daytona. Otherwise, Jose Rosario is one possibility but he had a horrendous year at Daytona. I don’t see him as a starter long term let alone at the AA level. Matt Loosen will likely repeat at Tennessee for a third year after an ungodly 2014 with a 5.50+ ERA. Loosen is a name who at times is brilliant and just as many times as equally, if not more so, baffling. He has the stuff to throw no-hitters yet has the stuff to give up 8 runs in 3 innings.

Tyler Skulina and Juan Carlos Paniagua got just a few starts at Daytona (10 combined) after being promoted from Kane County, but neither of them is ready for the rigors of AA ball yet. However, that doesn’t mean they have the stuff or the ability to do so. Paniagua is physically ready and old enough to do so. Skulina has some tendonitis issues in his left knee to clear up before he even pitches anywhere.

There are pitchers who are starters who could be at AA quickly this in year in Duane Underwood, Paul Blackburn, Daury Torrez, and Jen-Ho Tseng, but I don’t see the Cubs brass breaking up that 20/21 year old quartet. Johnathon Martinez, who came over from the Dodgers mid-season, is another possibility along with rehabbing pitchers Marcelo Carreno and Barret Loux.

Recent minor league signees could be in the mix, too. Andres Santiago, who has spent most of his career in the Dodgers system, might get a look as a starter. However, a 4.47 ERA at nearby Chattanooga in 2014 doesn’t breed confidence. However, maybe the Cubs saw something in him when he no hit the Smokies.

Anything is possible at this level. In all honesty though, Theo and McLeod are not going to rush Underwood, Blackburn, Tseng, Torrez, and Martinez. Jake Stinnett, on the other hand, could be a name that might surprise at some point this year. The depth of organizational pitching is starting to get staggering at all levels of A ball.

brazis 78The bullpen is the strength of the pitching at AA Tennessee. If Andrew McKirahan does not make the Marlins roster, the Texas lefty comes back to the Cubs and should anchor a bullpen with flame thrower Stephen Perakslis, who I like a lot and had a great second half in 2014. Add in Michael Jensen (2.85 ERA), Gerardo Concepcion (1.17 ERA at Daytona), who progressed greatly last year. Lefty Austin Kirk, and Sterling Peralta are rounding into form, and that’s a pretty solid group. Then there is newly acquired hard throwing Matt Brazis who should delight Smokies fans out of the pen. Add in the lefty Dorris, and the righty Amlung, who was almost unhittable out of the pen at Kane County, and you have quite the deep pen.

The question for the Smokies staff will be, “Who will the number 4-6 starters be?” It could be a mish-mash of rehabbers, cast offs from Triple A, or organizational guys. I think minor league spring training will shake those starters out. If I had to place a bet as to whom they would be, I would go with Carreno, Loux, and Dorris. You might even see Dorris and Carreno piggyback starts (each goes 3 innings) together taking turns who starts.

When the season does begin in Tennessee, it will be very exciting. With Zastryzny, he needs to keep the ball down. His great second half with a 3.32 ERA showed great character and a willingness to make adjustments. Felix Pena, on the other hand, just needs some run support, and Scott needs to add a few pounds and develop his secondary pitches. The hitters and bullpen will handle their end, the rest of the starting pitching needs to develop some consistency.

Having seen most of these players the last three years at Kane County and Peoria, this is their last chance to prove themselves as a quality player in the Cubs organization. Iowa is turning into the place where only the top prospects play along with players that have some experience at the major league level and provide depth in case of injury.

almora 15By mid season, Almora, Schwarber, Brazis, Perakslis, and Zastryzny have a solid chance at moving up to Iowa. However, it would not surprise me to see them stay at Tennessee, either as there is no rush for any of them to get to Chicago. Most of the team will be here for the long haul.

What most of the prospects are beginning to understand is that there is somebody a level down who is pushing to take their place. The redundancy built into the Cubs system is starting to get ridiculous when it comes to hitting, the bullpen, and, at all levels of A ball, the starting pitching.

For Tennessee, their hitters have been the most stable collection of bats in the Cubs system the past two years. The Cubs have let them play and develop together as a team and as individuals. After a year and a half of struggles, it paid off in 2015 with a playoff appearance in Daytona. This year should be no different if the rotation can get settled.

Next Week: Going to Myrtle Beach