Tennessee Smokies 2016 Preview: Is a Three-peat in Order?

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In 2015, the Tennessee Smokies were one of the hottest teams in the Southern League in the first half before injuries and promotions derailed their playoff hopes. The team went 76-63 and finished one and a half games out of first. Kyle Schwarber began the year at Tennessee before his brief promotion and ascent to stardom.

Willson Contreras hit .333 and lead the team and entire Southern League in hitting while Kyle Schwarber lead the team with 13 HRs in his short 58 games. Contreras also lead the team with 75 RBIs. Reliever PJ Francescon was the top reliever with 22 saves while posting a 1.69 ERA. Ryan Williams became the ace of the staff after skipping Myrtle Beach. Williams put up a 2.76 ERA in 16 starts and while striking out 61 in 88 innings and going 10-2.  

The 2016 Smokies are to have 17 players who’ve won back-to-back titles at Kane County and Myrtle Beach. Does that mean anything? Not at this level. Manager Mark Johnson moves up to AA with those players to see if they can win three years in a row.

Two players could have very short tenures as Smokies this year. Dan Vogelbach and Billy McKinney could very likely only be Smokies for a month or two. This would open up some playing time for other players like Cael Brockmeyer, Jacob Rodgers, and Shawon Dunston, Jr. With no designated hitter in the Southern League, positions are harder to come by 2016. I don’t think anybody’s going to replace Jake Hannemann in the outfield or move two time Gold Glove winner Trey Martin out of a spot. However, while those two may be great in the field, they have not been so lucky at the plate.

caratini78To me the key players to watch all year long will be Chesny Young, Mark Zagunis, and Victor Caratini. All three carried the Pelicans at different points in last year. I expect them to do the same in 2016 with Caratini showing the most improvement as he is now settled in at the catcher position.

Position Spots
C: Victor Caratini, Cael Brockmeyer, Ben Carhart
1B: Dan Vogelbach, Jacob Rogers
2B: Danny Lockhart
SS: Carlos Penalver, Bryant Flete
3B: Chesny Young, Jason Vosler
OF: Billy McKinney, Shawon Dunston Jr, Jake Hannemann, Trey Martin, Mark Zagunis

tennessee six

Five the Hard Way
The biggest difference in moving to AA Tennessee for Manager Mark Johnson will be that he will only have five starting pitchers. The problem is he’s got about eight starting pitchers who could be on his roster. I don’t think you can leave anybody behind in Myrtle Beach as some of the players are just too old and too experienced and none of them really had a poor season in 2015.

I tend to think that Duane Underwood, Johnathan Martinez, and Brad Markey are the best of the eight. Jen-Ho Tseng slides in the four spot. After that it gets a little tricky trying to separate Skulina from Blackburn. It is likely that Daury Torres could easily slide to the bullpen and Rob Zastryzny could go along with him (or Zastryzny could go to Iowa with a good camp). I think spring training is really going to separate these eight pitchers from each other. I would hate to see any stay behind. Markey could be at Iowa because of their age and command, but that’s a steep jump to skip AA. I look forward to seeing him in Tennessee.

SP: Duane Underwood Jr, Tyler Skulina, Jonathan Martinez, Daury Torrez, Jen-Ho Tseng, Paul Blackburn, Brad Markey, and Rob Zastryzny

RP: Corey Black, Jasvir Rakkar, David Berg, James Pugliese, Tyler Ihrig, Juan Carlos Paniagua , David Garner, James Farris, Josh Conway, Cole Brocker, Miguel Mejia, and Jose Rosario

Sleeper/Breakout Pick
skulina 73 2015You would think it would be really hard to breakout at AA, but look at Willson Contreras in 2015. I liked the year Tyler Skulina had last year. Don’t judge him by his won-loss record. Rather, look at the 3.09 ERA in a somewhat injury plagued second half, the 77 strikeouts in 78.2 innings, the 1.16 WHIP, and 5 shutout innings in a postseason start. In 2013, tendinitis in his knee took some of his velocity. Most of was back last year as three in the low 90s, topping out at 95.

I think relievers Josh Conway and David Garner were pretty special in the second half last year at Myrtle Beach along with closer Dave Berg. James Farris could even shake a few heads this year. When it comes to Corey Black, reliever, the jury is still out on his move to the bullpen. The talent is there, he just has to put it together. Any of these relievers could move quickly this year.

Overall, this team is about team. Two straight titles is a major accomplishment. I find it even more astonishing because they have done so without a major offensive prospect supplying power and a lo of RBIs. They have worked together to win two straight.

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Cubs Central 2016 Spring Training Preview – Just a Few Targets

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Photo for the card courtesy of John Arguello
Photo for the card courtesy of John Arguello

By Clark Lorensen and Todd Johnson

If you have been reading some predictions about the upcoming season, you would know the Cubs are favorites by several publications to win the World Series. That’s a lot to put on a team, but Manager Joe Maddon has already “embraced that target” placed on the Cubs.

Heading into spring training, there are not too many unknowns this year. Most of the roster is set, which is different from the past four years. Still, there’ll be some interesting things to keep an eye on. Clark and I have put our heads together to come up with a few things we’re interested in taking a look at it during spring training.

Clark’s Thoughts
1. The Heyward Acquisition
I saw some of John Arguello’s videos of Heyward in Cub blue, got me pretty excited. The picture by John Arguello of Heyward walking out onto the field at Sloan Park set the Twitterverse ablaze, and, needless to say, he looked good. He looked even better taking BP.

Heyward’s role is still up in the air when it comes to where he will bat in the lineup. In addition, it will be interesting to see later in the spring where Heyward will play in the late innings. Will he move to right? Will Javy replace him in center or will it be Szczur? We have a few questions about his role.

2. The Addison Russell Renormalization
Hopefully, the hamstring is fully healed, tested, and ready to go. Russell’s range at SS was such a valuable part of the transformation of the club in the second half of last year. It would be nice to see him show his range early and often in camp.

3. The Starting Rotation Rotation
It appears to be set with Arrieta, Lester, Lackey, Hammel, and Kyle Hendricks. On the other hand, there are four other pitchers likely to get starts or piggyback outings to stretch themselves out as starters this spring. They are Travis Wood, Trevor Cahill, Clayton Richard, and Adam Warren. Are Hammel and Hendricks good enough to hold off the four of them?

4. The Arrieta Anamoly
I expect him to be strong as he is a tough worker. Last year’s innings jump is a slight concern as he went from 156 innings in 2014 to 229 innings plus 19.2 more innings in the playoffs in 2015. Optimistically, the workout routine over the winter likely kept him in peak physical form. The great thing about his exercises is they are more about flexibility than adding muscle.

5. The Maddon Expedition: Part 2
Will Joe get bored this year? What’s this man, that a lot of us consider the best manager in baseball, have up his sleeve? Last year it was “Respect 90.” This year his mantra is “Embrace the Target.” I can dig that. We shall see how it works out.

maddon 65 2016

Todd’s Thoughts
1. The Bullpen Postulate
While I do think several relief pitchers have sewn up a spot, I also think they’re going to head north with the eight best relievers they possibly can. Cahill and Warren really complicate the matter from last year. Throw in the fact that Zac Rosscup and Carl Edwards, Jr. could be ready, too. It really could be a dogfight for those eight spots. And then when it warms up in May, and the starters are all stretched out, is there a reliever that then heads back down in May?

2. The LaStella Anomaly
I have to say this first, I am not a fan of Tommy LaStella. I don’t dislike him because he’s been injured. He only appeared in 33 games and had 75 plate appearances while hitting .269. While La Stella does bat left-handed and he can play three infield spots, I just don’t know how much production he’s going to get. I wonder if Christian Villanueva might be a better fit. Then again, Villanueva doesn’t hit left handed. Arismendy Alcantara hits left handed, although my use of the word “hit” as it refers to Alcantara is tenuous at best. I think this backup infield position is open for someone take this spring. Logan Watkins anyone? Theo and Jed may have to go outside the organization to find some one they like.

3. Prospectolooza
It’s really rare to keep an eye on prospects in the big league camp. Albert Almora, Willson Contreras, Duane Underwood, Ryan Williams, and Pierce Johnson are the prospects most likely to help in the next two years and all are in camp this spring. I think Almora will be playing everyday, even starting some, this spring along with Contreras. Both have a chance to be everyday players in the next year or two. On the other hand, I think Underwood and Johnson will see most of their action as piggyback and split squad starters. Williams is the wild card. I don’t know if he is slotted to start or relieve as a Cub as a non roster invitee? To be honest, I don’t think it matters to him, either.

4. 25th Man Indeterminacy
Is it going to be Matt Szczur? Are the Cubs going out and getting one more player? I tend to lean towards the acquisition of one backup outfielder – preferably a center fielder who can hit left handed. I don’t know if the Cubs will go out and trade for someone close to the end of spring training or whether they check the waiver wire once the season begins. Then again, Javy Baez could change everything about this question this spring.

baez 82 20155. The Javy Baez Percolation
Both Clark and I put Javy on our lists. To say that his transformation to center field is a pertinent part of the spring would be an understatement. In addition, for him to just play center would be a waste. Both Clark and I think he is versatile enough to play all three outfield spots. Centerfield is the most difficult of the three outfield spots. He should get a look at all three spots, giving him six or seven places to play on a daily basis. The best part of this – his bat plays at all spots.

It should be an exciting six weeks of camp as all ten of these issues play out and lead into the season.

Tip of the year – The team they break spring training with will not be the same team as in August. The roster will change. How much remains to be seen.

10 Things I Think – The February Edition

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Here are some random thoughts I have been having on a variety of topics at the major and minor league levels.

dan 2015 861. Is the DH coming? There’s been ramblings, soundbites, and even the commissioner talking about possibly adding the DH in the National League after 2016. I used to consider myself a traditionalist when it came to baseball, but I think I’ve grown out of it. At 52 years of age, I think the DH might actually save or create new fans when it comes to National League Baseball. Most of these pitchers don’t even hit in the minor leagues. It’s not until in AA national league minor league ballparks that there is a pitcher hitting. I can’t imagine that 30-year-old traditionalist me would like it very much at all. Part of me supports it because of the personnel the Cubs have, but if baseball is to attract new fans, a DH in both leagues is the way to go.

2. A taxi squad – As it stands as of right now, each major league baseball club rosters 25 men each day. A taxi squad could allow for 3 to 4 more players to be on the roster each day. Baseball is in an age of specialization than ever before. From relievers to defenders to hitters, the manager has several options to tweak the ballclub each day. What a taxi squad would do basically would allow each team to have more relievers or bench players at their disposal. Likely the taxi squad would be made up of three starting pitchers, maybe four, and possibly a bench player that would not require a DL stint. It would also help save the arms of many relievers, too. I can’t imagine what Joe Maddon could do with a taxi squad.

3. I can see an international draft on the horizon. This off-season has just been ridiculous when it comes to the amount of money that young Cuban ballplayers are getting. With Lazarito yet to sign along with Jorge Ona, Adrian Morejan, and Norge Ruiz, the price to sign is getting to be astronomical. So much so that a team could blow it’s entire international pool just on one player. Teams are willing to go way past signing pool allotments to sign one of these young kids. Another key issue for an international draft is that there are so many Latin players aiming to play in the US. MLB is going to have to do something before every team will blow through their pools every two years or three years. With more and more players coming from Cuba, I can see redoing the rules this fall.

Hot take alert
4. I am not a Tommy LaStella fan. I see some value being that he is a left-handed hitter, and that he plays 2-3 positions. While his AA and AAA stats look very good, he has yet to produce at the major league level; let alone even play much (33 games in 2016). To be honest I would rather see Christian Villanueva play that utility role even though he is right-handed. Villanueva has a lot more pop and power in his bat than LaStella ever will.

Slide445. In the past six weeks, the one prospect evaluation that stands out to me is of Ryan Kellogg by John Sickels of minorleaguebaseball.com. I kind of understand the selection based upon his college performance. Kellogg’s first tour of duty as a Cub was not anything to write home about (4.98 ERA in 21.2 innings). On the other hand, it’s always unfair to judge a college pitcher in their first year as a pro because they have been shut down for 4 to 6 weeks before playing ball again in rookie league or short season A ball. I am looking forward to seeing what Kellogg can do just based on Sickels’ strange evaluation.

I think his velocity WILL increase, not up to 97 or anything, but into the 90-94 range. Add that to his three strong secondary pitches and his mound instincts and you have a mid-rotation starter with advanced command who will zip through the minors fairly quickly. I think pro instruction and a mechanical tweak or two will add that extra zip to the heat Kellogg needs to live up to his full potential. And I think that velocity gain will be obvious and in place by the end of 2016

It will be interesting to see him in spring training and then where he will be assigned; most likely South Bend.

6. Clark is going to spring training and I can’t wait to see what storylines he finds in Mesa. I will be staying at home and teaching before the season starts.

7. In doing two team previews for Cubs Insider and four for this site, I have come to the conclusion that there will be a lot of players cut at the end of spring training. Most of them will likely be the relievers that were signed to minor league contracts. However, a few cuts could be some long-term prospects who have been in the organization four to five years.

Hot Take Alert
8. I don’t know how much more patience the Cubs will have with Arismendy Alcantara. To me, his 2015 season was very sad, especially after he just tore it up at AA Tennessee in 2013 and made it to the majors in 2014. Unless he learns to hit the other way, his days as a Cub could be over at the end of this year.

9.I think the Cubs were very wise not to trade any of their top prospects this offseason. However, come July, that might be a different story. A lot of that will depend on where they are in the standings, injuries, and performance.

eloy 6510. Eloy. Eloy. Eloy. Eloy. Eloy. Eloy. Eloy. Eloy. Eloy. Eloy. Eloy. Eloy. Eloy. Eloy. Eloy. I can’t wait to see him hit in spring training. I can’t wait to see him it in the regular season. I can’t wait to Periscope about it @cubscentral08. Baseball season is almost here!

Next weekend, we will have a Tennessee Smokies preview, a Preston Morrison profile, and a spring training preview from Clark and I.

Keith Law’s Rankings Are Pretty Ballsy

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Keith Law has some serious balls. Why do I say that? One need only to look at his rankings this week to realize that he doesn’t view players/prospects in the same manner as everyone else. In fact, Law leans heavily to potential with some manifestation of performance and development. Other evaluators of talent tend to run more to the performance and development side rather than attention to the potential. 

gleyber 70 2015 2This week Law released his top 100 prospects and ranked all of 30 MiLB farm systems. Compared to other lists, it was kind of refreshing. I don’t know if I necessarily agree with his rankings, but I clearly understand Law’s potential argument. For the Cubs, Law has them as the number four system in minor league baseball. This was quite different from Baseball America, who I thought had the Cubs way too low at number 20. On the other hand, Law may have the Cubs higher than I think they are. I tend to think the Cubs system lies somewhere between 10-12 in MiLB. It is a system with a lot of prospects who have yet to blossom. The key, though, is that it is a deep system.

When it comes to his ranking of the top 100 prospects, Law showed his cojones by ranking Gleyber Torres 15th and then projecting Torres to possibly be in the top five by the end of the year if everything goes well.

That’s a big projection! I say that for the following reasons:

  1. I know that a lot of the top 20 players are going to end up in the major leagues by the end of the year. I don’t know if that justifies Gleyber Torres just automatically moving up, but it is an interesting thought.
  2. I think the biggest attributes that Gleyber has are his age, 19, and his right-center field stroke. I think if he shows a little more pop and the ability to drive the ball into the gap for doubles, he could be a top 20 prospect in my mind by year’s end. To get into the Top 10, it is going to take a lot of things to have to go right for Torres to get there.

Next for the Cubs was Willson Contreras at 27. I thought this was a nice spot for him. The Cubs’ best catching prospect is getting close to the majors. I think the Cubs would like to see the last year was not a fluke and that Willson can handle both the defensive and offensive aspects of the position.

happ 84 2015 4I really like the insertion of Ian Happ at number 47. I say this because I love Happ’s swing. His hands coming through the zone are a thing of beauty and I think the higher he goes in the minors, the better he’s going to hit pitchers who will be around the plate more. This will allow him to take advantage of his good pitch selection. When it comes to prospect lists, I also think that his power profile gives him a little boost if he’s going to play second base

Billy McKinney came in at number 69. I understand his placement considering he’s not really a power hitting outfielder. Albert Almora came in at 88 and I think he could rise higher but it really doesn’t matter because he’s going to be in Chicago soon enough (2017).

Although it’s not a surprise, Dylan Cease made the list at number 91. There’s nobody else in the organization like him. The fact that he is ranked this high without command of a curveball and change up yet is amazing. If Cease can put things together in a nice little five inning packages this year, he is going to explode on the list.

I love the fact that Law thought takes risks with his lists. He’s not always right but I can appreciate the fact that he’s willing to lay it all out on the line. Baseball America’s pretty staid in their projections while Baseball Prospectus is a different kind of weird (They ranked Addison Russell over Bryant last year). Their 2016 list will come out in the next few weeks.

Eddy 2016 1 (2)I said this on Cubs Insider yesterday, and I’ll say it again here: by the end of the year, it would not surprise me to see 8 Cubs in Law’s top 100 later in the year. I don’t think any of these Cubs in Law’s current top 100 are going to graduate this year. Although, other players in the top 100 will. Depending upon performance, several Cubs could shoot onto the list including Eddy Martinez, Eloy Jimenez, Jeimer Candelario, and even Duane Underwood. That would be a pretty ballsy thing to do, and I wouldn’t put it past Law to do so.

In fact, last night, Law released his top ten who just missed the Top 100. First on his list was Eddy Martinez. They are plenty of Cubs prospects right behind him.

Myrtle Beach Pelicans – 2016 Preview: Trying to Put It Altogether

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Winning a championship in your first year as a new affiliate for the Chicago Cubs is a great way to establish a bond. The 2015 Myrtle Beach Pelicans went 81-57 and won the Mills Cup Championship Series in the Carolina League. For manager Mark Johnson and 17 players, it was their second championship in a row, having won the year before at Kane County in the low A Midwest League.

Leading the charge on offense in 2015 was second baseman Chesny Young who led the league in hitting with a .321 average. Outfielder Mark Zagunis also was outstanding with a .406 on-base percentage. In the playoffs, Catcher Victor Caratini led the team hitting .474. On the mound pitchers Duane Underwood, Brad Markey, Jonathan Martinez, Tyler Skulina, and Paul Blackburn all had outstanding seasons as starters. In the bullpen, David Garner, Dave Berg, and Josh Conway shutdown teams most of the year.

gleyber 82 2015 mbThe 2016 Pelicans will be a much different team than what began the year the at South Bend a year ago. That team got off to a great start only to be derailed in the first half by bullpen issues, some inconsistency at the plate, and some road woes. The team finally began to put it altogether in mid July and made a nice second half run but missed out on a playoff spot in the last week. Great starting pitching, speed, and a revamped pen made all the difference.

Newcomers to the squad in 2016 include manager Buddy Bailey, pitcher Preston Morrison, and we will likely see a full season Ian Happ at 2B. The addition of catcher Will Remillard could light a fire under the pitching staff and the defense. It is a team loaded with prospects who scream talent but some have not put it together yet.

The two players everyone will focus on will be Gleyber Torres and Ian Happ.

Shortstop Gleyber Torres is the Cubs top prospect and will play shortstop. Alongside at second base is last year’s top draft pick, Ian Happ. The two will be providing a lot of fireworks at the plate. Torres has a natural right center field stroke while Happ is a switch hitter with power from both sides of the plate. MLB Pipeline recently said the following about Happ :

There isn’t much that Happ can’t do offensively. A switch-hitter, he exhibits a quick stroke and good balance from both sides of the plate, and he owns deceptive strength and solid speed. Happ should post high batting averages and on-base percentages, and he has the upside of a 20-20 player.

morrison 85 2015The Pelicans play in the Carolina League, a noted pitcher’s league. It is more than likely that Jeremy Null will return to Myrtle Beach as a starting pitcher. Null spent half the season at Myrtle Beach in 2015, but had minor juries nag him during that time. Null will be back and joined in the rotation by possible starters Trevor Clifton, Jake Stinnett, Erick Leal, and Tommy Thorpe along with Preston Morrison.

In fact, I don’t know if Morrison’s going to be at Myrtle Beach all that long. With his experience at TCU, Morrison dominated short season A Eugene last year. I think he will skip South Bend this spring and bring his ability to dominate hitters to Myrtle Beach. It might not take Morrison long to earn a promotion to test him. Morrison has changed quite a bit since 2014. He became addicted to the weight room and has added 4 mph to his fastball in the last year. It will be interesting to see what he has done this off season to improve his game for 2016.

If Jake Stinnett, who is a little older than the other starters, gets off to any kind of a good start, he could find himself in Tennessee very quickly. The issue for Stinnett in 2015 was that he was just terrible on the road. His ERA was 3.15 at home and 6.75 on the road. Those are some pretty dramatics splits. What is to love about Stinnett is that he does have some great stuff. All of his pitches move, but his slider is deadly.

Trevor Clifton is one of my favorite prospects. With three pitches, and two of them which could possibly be plus pitches, Clifton is setting himself up for a great season in 2016 in a great park. It is all about staying ahead in the count, getting leadoff hitters out, and avoiding walks. It sounds simple on paper, doesn’t it? When Clifton does those three things, he can be a dominant force for 6-7 innings. If he can begin 2016 like he finished the last six weeks of 2015, the Cubs will have some tough decisions to make at the All-Star Break about promotions. 

Pitcher Erick Leal threw a nine inning no hitter last year only to lose the game in extra innings. Leal, like Clifton and Stinnett, showed great promise but struggled at times in May and July. Leal also put together a good second half with a 2.82 ERA in 11 starts. Zach Hedges was the only starter who held it together in June and July with ERAs of under 4.

On offense, and defense, the Pelicans will have a collection of outfielders who have a mixture of speed and more speed in Charcer Burks, Rashad Crawford, and Jeffrey Baez. They are an exciting group of players who can go get balls in the outfield and are demons on the base paths. Baez also has a power element to his game. After hitting .190 in the first half, Baez went on a second half tear that saw him hit .348 with 8 HRs, 28 RBIs, and 25 SBs in just 53 games. It is likely Yasiel Balguert  will man first base while David Bote, who had a great August last year, will be at third along with Jess Hodges.

remillard 65 2016 1The biggest change in the lineup might be at catcher. Will Remillard is returning from Tommy John surgery. In the first half of 2014, Remillard was an All-Star for Kane County in the Midwest League as he led the Cougars in RBIs. He is also a solid catcher who commands defenses and has a great rapport with the pitchers on the mound. I think his experience will only help to push the rotation to greater heights. On the other hand, because of his injury, he will likely be eased back into the position.

Gioskar Amaya is back for his second year behind the plate. His bat should be much better after focusing mainly on the position change last year. Erick Gonzalez catches like a veteran behind the plate. He has a great arm and a great rapport with the pitchers.

I do have some concerns about this team when it comes to consistency. I think their lineup is fine. I think they’re starting pitchers are very good, but it wasn’t until last July that the bullpen finally settled in. Sidewinder/submariner Corbin Hoffner took over the closer’s role and Daniel Lewis and Ryan McNeil were filthy at times in setup roles. Even Dillon Maples became somewhat stable. Michael Wagner was a key cog along with Jordan Minch who had an up and down year. I think consistency is going to be the key to them getting off to a good start.

The Pelicans should be a very exciting team to watch as they do have a mixture of power and speed on offense along with some power pitching. If it all comes together, I think the fans at Myrtle Beach will like this team just as much as last year’s.

Possible Roster

jefbaez 2015 85C: Will Remillard/Gioskar Amaya/Erick Castillo/Jordan Hankins
1B: Yasiel Balaguert
2B: Ian Happ/Angelo Amendolare/Andrew Ely
SS: Gleyber Torres/Sutton Whiting
3B:  Jesse Hodges/David Bote
OF: Charcer Burks/Rashad Crawford/Jeffrey Baez

SP: Preston Morrison (R), Jeremy Null (R), Trevor Clifton (R), Jake Stinnett (R), Zach Hedges (R), Erick Leal (R), James Norwood (R), and Tommy Thorpe (L)

RP: Corbin Hoffner (R), Dillon Maples (R), Daniel Lewis (R), Jordan Minch (L), Alexander Santana (R), Sam Wilson (L), Ryan McNeil (R), and Santiago Rodriguez (R)

Sleeper Pick

thorpe 70 2015Tommy Thorpe – As a reliever early in 2015, he was a hot mess. As a starter, Thorpe found his mojo and his curveball and was one of the top pitchers in the Midwest League in the second half. He made 11 starts with a 2.36 ERA. He struck out 39 in 61 innings but walked 27 – his only weakness. When he is on, he has a nice curve and tends to get a lot of ground ball outs.

In all honesty, this team has a lot of potential and it will be interesting to see what manager Buddy Bailey gets out of them. It would not surprise me to see Zach Hedges, Erick Leal, or Trevor Clifton bust out along with Rashad Crawford or David Bote.

 

Billy McKinney: Does He Really Need Power to Make the Jump in 2016?

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McKinney 68When Billy McKinney was acquired in the Jeff Samardzija trade in July 2014, reports raved about his bat. Before the trade in short season A ball in 2013, he hit .353. In 2014, McKinney skipped low A to go to high A in Stockton California. In 75 games at that level, he hit .241, But he also had 10 home runs in 33 RBIs in the first half of 2015. It looked as though the Cubs could be getting a developing power hitter. It hasn’t turned out that way. The Cubs have been waiting for that power to return. I don’t know if it is really necessary for him to advance in the system.

McKinney has not been a disappointment, far from it, but there are a few concerns about his lack of power, which he might need to make it at the next level. After the trade to the Cubs, McKinney finished out his first year at high A Daytona hitting .301 with a .390 OBP. He hit one homerun with 36 RBIs in 50 games. In 2015, McKinney began the year surprisingly back at high A at Myrtle Beach, but only for a month. In that month, he hit .340 with a .432 OBP with four homeruns and 25 RBIs. It appeared the power might be starting to come around.

For the rest of 2015 season, McKinney was at AA Tennessee. On the surface, he hit .285 with three homeruns and 39 RBIs. He had a .346 OBP. When you start breaking down his splits, he had a very inconsistent year. In May, he hit .298, in June, .319. He hit a wretched .243 in July only to  rebound to hit .310 in August before a knee injury sidelined him for the rest of the season.

When I watch McKinney’s swing, I see a quality hitter. He does hit for average and he does have a high on-base percentage. The only real negative on a stat sheet is power. Nevertheless, if you watch him live, he goes to all fields, hits well late in games, and has a great eye at the plate because of good pitch recognition.

When I watch McKinney swing, sometime’s there’s a little hitch in his swing every now and then. It might be how he times off speed stuff or if it is a reason why he doesn’t hit for a lot of power. Nevertheless, there’s no question in my mind this kid can rake. He is going to hit for an average whether he is in the field every day or as a fourth outfielder off the bench.

Fan Graphs love his hit tool as well.

At the plate, McKinney really shines. He makes a lot of contact and has a consistent, selective approach. His swing path gives him a lot of room for error on off speed pitches, and he creates enough lift to drive a ton of balls in the gaps. There is not much torque in his swing; instead, McKinney settles for squaring balls up and doing more work with his upper body in a smooth, athletic motion. His actions suggest some added strength or an attempt to create more lift might raise his power ceiling quickly, but I’ll settle for likely average power.

McKinney has a high floor on account of his hit tool alone, and he’s good enough in the rest of his game to project easily as a starter in the big leagues. He looks more like a dangerous doubles hitter than homer threat, but those play at any level, too.

Heading into 2016 you have to remember two things about McKinney. One, he is only 21 years old. And two, there is not much room left for him to fill out at 6’1” and 200 pounds.

What is the projection on him?

McKinney 85It’s still up in the air. He could be a fourth outfielder, or he could be a starter. It is still way too early to decide. I don’t see the lack of power “right now” as much of a game changer. Sure, it would be nice, but it is not essential for him to succeed in the majors or even advance a level.

Fan Graphs said the following about his projection:

He projects well in a corner outfield spot with average speed and good instincts, though his defense will be around average to a bit below there. He draws positive reviews for his instincts, allowing for the possibility of his tools playing up a bit on defense. Though he has average speed, stealing bases isn’t a big part of his game. He will likely continue using good baseball sense to be a decent contributor as a baserunner overall.

When it comes to 2016, I am unsure about where McKinney is going to be placed. He could be AAA in Iowa where he is going to have a chance to be in a hitters league and see if the power develops there? Or will he be in AA Tennessee to work on developing power there? I think it’s six of one, half dozen of the other. If it was up to me he would be in Iowa.

I think for him to make the jump in power development is really asking a lot. I think that his power, since he is already filled out, is just going to develop naturally over time. As a result, I think Iowa might be the best place for him to develop that power in 2015. The only question I have is how much power do the Cubs expect him to have? Will 15 HRs be enough? Or, will getting on base be enough?

Here is what Cubs Executive VP Jason McLeod thinks of McKinney:

mckinney 73“What a professional hitter. Another guy when you watch the way he goes about his game, looks like a veteran already, polished approach. This was a kid who played at Double-A at 20 years old last year. Gap to gap, very fluid left-handed swing, stays on the ball very well. I think the question will be the ultimate power down the road and what type of power it’s going to be. But I think he is going to be a high-average, high on-base, hit for a lot of doubles. Incredible teammate and just one of those … we call him ‘Billy Baseball.’ Guy that just loves being out there every single day and obviously had a very impressive year hitting in a tough environment first in Myrtle Beach and again moved up to Tennessee. The knee, we’re taking it a little slow with him. He’s not exactly where we hoped he would be right now and that’s meaning he’s not going to show up in Spring Training and we’re just going to throw him into a game. I think by the end of Spring Training we’re hoping that he’ll be full go. But we’re going to take it a little slow with him as we start getting on those hard fields out in Arizona.”

Right now, there are much more questions than answers.To be honest, the power question is probably not the question to ask right now. It might just be the knee.

Lazarito: Is something wrong here?

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Today a 16-year-old kid is going to affect the fortunes of a major league baseball franchise. Cuban defector Lazarito is going to decide what team he’s going to play for for the next few years. His price range has been estimated anywhere between $15-$25 million. That’s a lot of money to throw at a ball player who has not played for over two years in an organized game.

As it stands right now, I do not expect the Cubs to be in the market for the youngster if the price ranges between $20 and $25 million. If it’s $15 million, that’s a different story. The Cubs could sign Lazarito for $15 million, then with their penalty, that results in a $30 million total price tag.

The Cubs can afford that money. Other teams cannot. This is why I’m thinking that there may be an international draft on the horizon. As more and more players are leaving Cuba, it appears the teams with the most money can sign the exorbitant price tags. With the collective bargaining agreement set to expire after this year, a draft is one way to deal with these run away prizes. Another way is to either have a hard cap on the amount of money you can spend on international free agents or a hard cap on the amount of money spent on one player without penalty.

I think Lazarito’s case is the perfect example of everything that is wrong with the international free-agent market.  Here you have a 16-year-old kid whose last game was in a 14 and under league now set to make twice as much money as the number one draft pick in major league baseball at minimum.

Somewhere there has to be a balance to allow everyone to compete for his services. Sure, I would love for the Cubs to sign this kid, but imagine being the executive who signs him and he doesn’t pan out at that price. That would not be a fun meeting to sit in on.