Archive for the ‘ Minor Leagues ’ Category

From the Pages of Vine Line: Strength in Numbers

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Javier Baez got his first taste of major league action this summer. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

When Theo Epstein sat in front of the assembled media last October and announced, “The story [around the league] is that the Cubs are coming fast, and the Cubs are coming strong,” many had trouble stifling laughter. How could Epstein suggest a team fresh off its third-consecutive 90-loss season was on the rise—especially during a press conference announcing the firing of the club’s manager, Dale Sveum?

It seemed preposterous at the time, but Epstein was hardly joking. He knew what he and his staff had built over the previous two seasons, and he believed it wouldn’t be long before that lofty statement was accepted as fact—even by those not paying close attention to what’s been happening in the Cubs system.
Sure enough, while the 2014 season didn’t produce a dramatic increase in wins, the media and fans finally got a chance to see what the Cubs have been building, as the first wave of prospects finally funneled into Wrigley Field.

It all began with Arismendy Alcantara and Kyle Hendricks, two somewhat under-the-radar prospects, but intriguing players nonetheless. Next, one of the best power hitters in the minors, Javier Baez, arrived in the big leagues—along with the corresponding media maelstrom. Finally, the Cubs called up Cuban slugger Jorge Soler toward the end of August.

Not every one of these young players immediately took the National League by storm. There have been ups and downs. But each has provided a spark and shown the potential to be a big contributor to the next Cubs playoff run—which is exactly how the front office drew it up.

“It’s a lot of fun, and there’s definitely a lot of energy,” Hendricks said. “I’m just glad a lot of us have been able to perform well. I think that’s a testament to the coaching we have in the minor leagues. The guys got us ready for this level.”

Epstein understands that this process, which has included many losses, has been tough for both the players and the fans. That’s why finally being able to display the fruits of the front office’s labor has been so rewarding.

“These are players who have been part of our plan, part of our vision, for a while now,” Epstein said. “Now that they’re up here, people can get excited about it. It creates a little bit of momentum, which is nice to have around the organization.”

MASTER PLAN
So what exactly is the Cubs’ vision, and what has the organization been doing to realize it?

When Epstein was first introduced as president of baseball operations in late October 2011, he laid out his plan for how he wanted to rebuild an organization that had gone from being the toast of the National League to 91 losses in just three years.

“Our goal will be to build the best scouting department in the game—one that makes an annual impact in the draft and internationally,” Epstein said at the time. “As far as player development goes, we will define and implement a Cubs Way of playing the game, and we won’t rest until there is a steady stream of talent coming through the minor league system trained in that Cubs Way making an impact out here at Wrigley Field.”

Epstein didn’t waste much time in following through with those promises. A week after his introduction, he sat in front of the media yet again, this time introducing Jed Hoyer as his new executive vice president and general manager and Jason McLeod, a man Epstein referred to as the “rarest commodity in the industry—an impact evaluator of baseball talent,” as his senior vice president of scouting and player development.

The three men spent the next year evaluating what they were working with from the bottom of the organization all the way to the top. After a year, they made a few tweaks to the scouting department, and completely revamped the player development side. Brandon Hyde was brought in as the farm director, but has since moved on to become manager Rick Renteria’s bench coach, while Jaron Madison has transitioned from amateur scouting director to Hyde’s old position.

Under Hyde, the Cubs hired four new minor league coordinators and had one of their better developmental seasons throughout the system in 2013.

Of course, it certainly helped that so much talent had been added to the mix—and continues to be added to this day—through astute trades, the amateur draft and international signings.

“In order to have success in this game, the foundation has to be through scouting and player development,” Hoyer said when he was introduced as general manager. “There’s no shortcut. There’s no magic bullet. All three of us believe in the philosophy wholeheartedly.”

Hoyer acknowledged the ultimate goal is to win a championship, so the baseball operations department first had to build a team that went into Spring Training every season with a realistic shot at making the playoffs. Less than three years later, it appears the Cubs are on the verge of achieving that goal.

And it’s not just the players who have reached the majors this year that have so many people both inside and outside the game optimistic about the Cubs’ immediate future. While the influx of top-notch talent is undeniable, it’s quite likely the best is yet to come.

Last year’s top draft pick, Kris Bryant, dominated every level of the minor leagues, making it all the way to Triple-A Iowa in his first full professional season. His otherworldly stat line of .325/.438/.661 (AVG/OBP/SLG) with 43 home runs and 110 RBI has pushed the third baseman to the top of the national prospect rankings. Shortly after the season, he was named both USA Today’s and Baseball America’s Minor League Player of the Year. Addison Russell, a consensus top 10 prospect in the game, was acquired in early July via trade and has continued to excel, hitting for both power and average while playing strong defense at shortstop.

Kyle Schwarber was the fourth pick in June’s amateur draft and has already shot up two levels in the Cubs system. So far, he has displayed an impressive combination of power and patience at the plate and appears to be on the fast track to the majors.

And that’s not all. The regime’s first draft pick from 2012, Albert Almora, made it to Double-A at the tender age of 20, and the international scouts flexed their muscles in 2013, as the Cubs spent more money than any other organization. Thanks to those efforts, they added big-time prospects like Jen-Ho Tseng, Eloy Jimenez, Gleybar Torres and Jefferson Mejia, all of whom are proving advanced for their age and are ranked as top 20 organizational prospects by MLB.com.

The system is not only loaded with talent, it’s also deep, ensuring that as the Cubs continue to graduate players to the big leagues, the cupboard won’t suddenly be left bare. It looks like Epstein and Hoyer have built the scouting and player development “machine” they promised to work toward when they were first brought into the organization.

CALL TO ARMS
Of course, since the majority of the Cubs’ young players grabbing headlines are bats, there are still questions about where the organization is going to find the right combination of arms to lead the charge. But even on that front, the team is better off than most people realize.

The front office has now divested the organization of the many onerous contracts from the Hendry regime—meaning there is money to spend—and has proven quite adept at identifying and acquiring undervalued pitching talent. Names like Paul Maholm, Scott Feldman and Jason Hammel, who all excelled under the tutelage of pitching coach Chris Bosio, have been used to acquire players who fit into both the short- and long-term plans.

Feldman, in particular, netted a huge piece in pitcher Jake Arrieta. A former top prospect, the 28-year-old underwhelmed during parts of four years in the majors with the Baltimore Orioles. Though Arrieta was perhaps at his lowest value at the time, the Cubs were bullish about the struggling righty. After missing the first month of the 2014 season with shoulder soreness, Arrieta went on to make the move look like a stroke of genius, putting together a season that rivals those of some of the best pitchers in the game.

Hendricks, acquired from the Rangers in the 2012 Ryan Dempster deal, also opened eyes with a strong run of starts to begin his major league career. Though many had the 24-year-old pegged as a fringe major leaguer and back-end starter at best, his poise and control are making some wonder whether he can exceed expectations and become a big part of the rotation’s future.

“He’s doing exactly what he did in the minor leagues,” Epstein said. “He’s as polished and prepared as you’ll see with any rookie. We speculated that he might even take it to another level when he got to the big leagues because he uses all the tools available to him as well as anybody.

“We have video in the minor leagues, but we don’t have this much video. We have scouting reports in the minor leagues, but we don’t have scouting reports this extensive. He just attacks the video and attacks scouting reports. They’re a huge weapon for him. You see the confidence he has. No matter how good a hitter he’s facing, he’s likely to have identified one area he can attack and put [himself] in a good position to have a chance to get him out. I think that’s been big for him. We’re awfully proud of how he’s adjusted.”

Epstein has acknowledged that while he doesn’t think the Cubs’ position player group is a finished product, he certainly feels great about the nucleus the organization has built. Even with Arrieta, Hendricks and the surprisingly impressive Tsuyoshi Wada (who will be 34 next season, but could still find himself competing for a spot in the Cubs rotation), the obvious focus becomes how to build up the front five.

“I like some of the pitchers we have coming along in the minor leagues, and I think our big league staff has done sort of an underrated job this year,” Epstein said. “There are some bright spots. But we’ve been open about the fact that it would be nice to add an impact pitcher or two. When you look over the next 18 months or so, that’s certainly a priority for us. Whether we develop one from an unlikely spot like might be happening with Arrieta or acquire someone who’s already at those heights remains to be seen.”

FINISHING THE JOB
Surprise success stories like Arrieta and Hendricks, coupled with bounce-back years from Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro, have certainly boosted the optimism around the team as the prospects are rising to the big leagues.

“It’s good for the fans,” Hendricks said. “They’ve needed some winning the last few years, and unfortunately we haven’t been able to give it to them. I think with a lot of us young guys coming up—a lot of young hitters especially—they’re doing an unbelievable job. And there’s more to come.”
While the narrative may have recently changed as far as the media and average fans are concerned, nobody within the Cubs organization considers the work done.

“Our fans deserve to get excited. I’m happy for them,” Epstein said. “Ultimately, the only thing that matters is winning. That’s what’s on our mind, and we’re working hard to get there. Having young players that are worth following and at-bats you can’t miss, we’re human and that makes us feel good that our fans have something like that in their lives at this point, because certainly there’s been some tough times that they’ve had to endure.”

Epstein and company know they’ve still got work to do. They’re aware that pitching is a need, as is a veteran presence in the clubhouse to lead by example. But they strongly believe they’re on the right path and have felt that way for some time now. Still, the ultimate goal has yet to be accomplished.

“We’ve felt really good about it for a period now, and we also feel like there’s so much more work to do that we don’t deserve any kudos or pats on the back,” Epstein said. “On the other hand, we’re all human, and we feel the optimism of our fans and our players. It only makes us want to work harder and finish it off. We’ll feel like it’s finished when we win the last game in October.”

—Sahadev Sharma, Baseball Prospectus

Cubs AFL Recap: 10/7/14

The Arizona Fall League opened up on Tuesday, with Glendale getting the best of the Mesa Solar Sox, 9-3. The Cubs had a trio of prospects in action. Addison Russell drove in two Solar Sox runs, while outfielder Jacob Hannemann rounded out Mesa’s scoring with a sac fly in the losing effort.

  • DH Addison Russell went 1-for-4 with a two-run single in the top of the second inning, scoring Boog Powell (Athletics) and Dalton Pompey (Blue Jays). He also reached on a fielder’s choice in the first.
  • LF Jacob Hannemann entered the game as a defensive replacement in the seventh and recorded a sacrifice fly to left, scoring Kaleb Cowart (Angels).
  • 1B Dan Vogelbach came into the game in the bottom of the sixth. He struck out in his only at-bat of the game.

 

From the Pages of Vine Line: The Arizona Fall League is back

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A lot of eyes will be on the Cubs’ top pitching prospect C.J. Edwards this fall. (Photo by Roger C. Hoover)

The prospect-laden Arizona Fall League kicks off Tuesday. Be sure to follow the Vine Line blog all AFL season for recaps on how the Cubs prospects fared the night before. The following story can be found in the October issue of Vine Line.

The Arizona Fall League has always been a launching pad for major league careers. Every fall, organizations send their top prospects to the offseason showcase. Javier Baez hit four home runs in 14 AFL games in 2012, and Kris Bryant took home league MVP honors in 2013.

This year, the Cubs will send a new batch of up-and-coming farmhands to Arizona to see how they fare against the best players the minor leagues have to offer.

Addison Russell will headline the group—and could very well headline the league, as he’s baseball’s No. 6 prospect, according to MLB.com. Despite missing the early part of the season with a hamstring injury and adjusting to an early-July trade, the 20-year-old never missed a beat, hitting .295/.350/.508 (AVG/OBP/SLG) with 13 homers over 68 games, all while playing elite defense at shortstop. This will be his second appearance in the AFL, as he represented Oakland last year.

Injuries derailed much of right-handed pitcher C.J. Edwards’ Double-A season, but he was lights out once he returned to action in late July. Baseball’s No. 56 prospect finished the year with a 2.35 ERA in 58.2 innings, striking out 54 batters.

First baseman Dan Vogelbach got off to a slow start, but picked things up as the season progressed. The slugger, who slimmed down in the offseason, hit .268/.357/.429 with 16 homers and 76 RBI for High-A Daytona.

Right-handed pitchers Ivan Pineyro and Zach Cates, lefty Gerardo Concepción, and athletic outfielder Jacob Hannemann have also been invited to the AFL. Outfielder Bijan Rademacher will serve as a member of the taxi squad, which means he’s available to play only twice a week.

Hot Off the Presses: October Vine Line featuring the Cubs’ young talent

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It’s not always easy to stick to your guns. Especially if the decisions you’re making aren’t all that popular.

When Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer and Jason McLeod first came aboard with the Cubs, they were hailed as conquering heroes who could do no wrong and would soon (and inevitably) carry the organization to the promised land. The Chicago Sun-Times even ran a tongue-in-cheek image of Epstein walking on water.

The new baseball operations men quickly laid out their plan, set a clear course of action and got to work. Their stated goal was to hire the best people in the business, stockpile young talent and build a player-development machine to get that young talent on the fast track to Wrigley Field.

Once the brain trust started making their first moves, the fan base gave them the benefit of the doubt. Not everyone loved seeing favorites like Andrew Cashner, Ryan Dempster and Sean Marshall go, but people figured everything the front office touched would turn to gold. On the plus side, the Cubs picked up first baseman Anthony Rizzo, signed Cuban free agent Jorge Soler and drafted outfielder Albert Almora, among other, less-heralded moves. Despite finishing 2012 with 101 losses, baseball ops stayed the course.

By the time the 2013 campaign came to a close, the voices of dissent were growing louder. The Cubs traded Matt Garza and Alfonso Soriano and fired manager Dale Sveum after a 96-loss season. Yet, the front office remained steadfast. While people grumbled, the team acquired players like Jake Arrieta, Corey Black, C.J. Edwards, Justin Grimm and Pedro Strop; drafted Kris Bryant; and locked up Starlin Castro and Rizzo with team-friendly long-term deals.

Though the win-loss record didn’t improve dramatically in 2014, the Cubs’ collection of young talent—augmented by players like Billy McKinney, Addison Russell and Kyle Schwarber—hit critical mass. Now it’s undeniable the Cubs are coming fast, and people around baseball are taking notice. National columnists, local pundits and sports pages across the country are lauding the organization’s elite system.

For the past several years, if you were unwilling to look beyond the team playing at Wrigley Field, it was hard to see what the Cubs were building. When the major league team was losing, the idea of “top prospects” was too nebulous to provide much comfort. But once those same prospects started arriving in the bigs, it was hard to deny their energy, enthusiasm and raw talent.

Not every call-up posted huge numbers, but they all made strong impressions. Kyle Hendricks was occasionally dazzling, Jorge Soler demonstrated impact potential, and guys like Javier Baez, Arismendy Alcantara and Eric Jokisch all showed flashes.

Through everything—all the losses, all the complaints, all the stories about the Cubs’ struggles—the front office never wavered from their plan, even when it would have been easier (and much better PR) to hold onto some of their veteran talent and/or throw money at risky free agents. Now that patience is starting to pay off.

I’m in no way saying the Commissioner’s Trophy should be on its way to Clark and Addison next season. Baseball is far too random to guarantee anything like that. But it’s undeniable the Cubs have built a formidable foundation of talent that is the envy of the baseball world.

In the October issue of Vine Line, Baseball Prospectus’ Sahadev Sharma examines the work the front office has been doing to assemble the top system in the game. We also give readers a sneak peek into a true baseball treasure, as we take a tour through the famous Wrigley Field manual scoreboard with the men who work inside. Finally, we go back to June 23, 1984, when Hall of Fame second baseman Ryne Sandberg made the entire baseball world and a national TV audience take notice with two memorable home runs in the fabled Sandberg Game.

You can always find news on Wrigley Field, the Cubs’ storied past and the organization’s bright future in Vine Line and on Twitter at @cubsvineline. And stay tuned this offseason—things are about to get fun.

—Gary Cohen

Now Playing: Kyle Schwarber had a breakout rookie campaign

People around the game were surprised when the Cubs selected Kyle Schwarber with the fourth-overall pick in the 2014 MLB Draft. In some scouts’ eyes, he was taken a half-round too soon. However, the catcher/outfielder quickly dispelled the notion he was a reach, playing at three levels and finishing his first professional season with a .344/.428/.634 (AVG/OBP/SLG) slash line and 18 home runs in 311 plate appearances. In the September issue of Vine Line, we caught up with Schwarber to discuss his whirlwind of a season, his first experiences as a pro, and whether or not he can stick at his original catcher position.

Cubs reach PDC deal with Eugene

The Cubs agreed with Eugene (Ore.) Friday on a new Player Development Contract to become the organization’s Single-A Northwest League affiliate. Eugene previously was affiliated with the Cubs in 1999-2000. The contract runs through the 2016 season.

“We are looking forward to working with Allan Benavides and the entire Emeralds organization, and are eager to begin working with the local community,” said Jason McLeod, the Cubs senior vice president of scouting and player development. “The Eugene ballclub offers a first-class facility at the University of Oregon—one of the most impressive facilities in short-season baseball.”

The Eugene Emeralds have been an affiliate of the San Diego Padres since 2001. The club began play as an independent team in the inaugural Northwest League in 1955, and has since partnered with nine major league organizations in its 60-year history. A three-time Northwest League champion, the Emeralds moved into their current ballpark, PK Park, in 2010.

“The Emeralds could not be happier to announce this new partnership with the Cubs,” said Emeralds General Manager Allan Benavides. “We are excited to introduce a new brand of baseball at PK Park and look forward to a long-lasting relationship as the Cubs Northwest League affiliate.”

The Cubs reach a player-development deal with Single-A South Bend

On Thursday, the Cubs agreed with South Bend, Indiana, on a new Player Development Contract to move the club’s Single-A Midwest League affiliate. The contract runs through the 2018 season.

“We are excited to partner with South Bend and look forward to a productive relationship with the team, as well as the entire South Bend community,” said Jason McLeod, the Cubs senior vice president of scouting and player development. “Making the decision to switch minor league affiliates is never an easy one, but we are confident that this agreement will further strengthen our farm system.

“The Cubs are fortunate to have had the opportunity to play in Kane County the past two years, and we thank Dr. Bob Froehlich, the entire front office and all of the Cougars fans for their support. We are proud that our relationship culminated with a Midwest League title this past season.”

The South Bend Silver Hawks have claimed five Midwest League titles and 12 division titles in their 26-season history, most recently in 2005. The club had been an affiliate of the Diamondbacks since 1997. South Bend broke into the league in 1988 as a Chicago White Sox affiliate, a partnership that ran through 1996.

“Today is a turning point,” said South Bend Silver Hawks Owner Andrew Berlin. “I made a promise to the thousands of people and local government officials who welcomed me with open arms three years ago. I promised that I would return the team to its former glory days. And I promised that I’d do everything I could to bring people back downtown and prove that this is a wonderful place to invest in.

“Now, one of the best and most beloved brands in the history of Major League Baseball is making a bold statement about this place too. The Chicago Cubs are giving this region a big vote of confidence.”

The South Bend franchise will unveil a new name, logo and uniform on Thursday, Sept. 25, during a press conference beginning at 9 a.m. ET at the local St. Joseph County Chamber of Commerce.

From the Pages of Vine Line: Top pick Schwarber impressed in his rookie campaign

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(Photo by Aldrin Capulong)

The first thing you notice about Cubs 2014 No. 1 draft pick Kyle Schwarber is that no one will say a bad word about him. And it takes all of about 30 seconds to understand why.

On a rainy July day, Schwarber’s Kane County team had just lost a 3-2 affair in gut-wrenching fashion, after Tyler Marincov smashed a two-out, two-run, ninth-inning homer to give visiting Beloit the victory. It was a frustrating day all around, and the fourth-overall selection in this year’s draft had probably the worst showing of his nascent professional career, logging an 0-for-4 that included an ugly three-pitch strikeout.

As members of the media entered a quiet clubhouse filled with players licking their wounds, Schwarber stood with a plate of food in his hands. After a few seconds, the newest of the Cubs’ elite prospects realized the media scrum was there for him. He politely put down his tray, walked over to the gathering and ushered them into a small storage room outside the clubhouse so as not to disturb his teammates—most of whom he’d known for less than three weeks.

Even though he’d been a pro for only a short time, the Indiana University product was surprisingly poised, professional and conscientious. He has always been comfortable in his own skin, and he just wanted to make sure everyone else was comfortable too.

“It happens—0-fors can happen,” Schwarber said, shrugging his large shoulders. “I’ve got to realize that. You can’t be too negative on yourself because that can happen sometimes. … It’s a long season. You’ve just got to keep grinding each and every at-bat.”

The next thing you notice about Schwarber is how polished he looks at the plate. The Cubs rated the 21-year-old left-handed slugger as the best hitter in the 2014 draft, and he’s more than justified their confidence in him since he made his professional debut with Short-Season A Boise on June 13. In the Northwest League, Schwarber hit .600 with four home runs and 10 RBI in just five games. After that scorching start, he was quickly promoted to Low-A Kane County, where he played another 23 games, compiling a .361/.448/.602 (AVG/OBP/SLG) line with four homers and 15 RBI. In mid-July, he was bumped up to High-A Daytona, where he finished the season hitting .302/.393/.560 with 10 homers.

But when people are asked about Schwarber, the thing they generally rave about is not his powerful bat—it’s his selfless team-first attitude and the presence he brings to the clubhouse.

“We’re really happy with the quick adjustment he’s made to pro ball,” said Cubs President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein. “The on-field stuff takes care of itself with how he’s handled things mentally. He’s been through a lot this past month, and he’s been consistent, steady, and he’s off to a great start.”

TEAM FIRST
For former Indiana University coach Tracy Smith, it was virtually love at first sight. After hearing of a hulking catcher from Middletown, Ohio, who was posting huge numbers and consistently making hard contact, Smith figured he’d check it out. Though Schwarber was also recruited on the gridiron as an All-State middle linebacker, his first love was always baseball.

“I went to see a game, and he was facing a high school guy that ended up being drafted that year, a left-handed pitcher,” said Smith, who recently accepted the head-coaching job at Arizona State University. “The game I saw him, Schwarber took him out to left field, center field, right field. So that [scholarship] offer came on his way home.”

Indiana is generally known as a basketball school, but the baseball program has transformed into a national power in the past three seasons, largely behind the play of Schwarber.

From 2012-14, the catcher and outfielder hit .341/.437/.607 with 238 hits, 40 homers and 41 doubles, all while drawing 116 walks and striking out just 91 times in 180 games. He was named to multiple All-America teams, and Perfect Game, an amateur scouting company that hosts top-level national baseball showcases, named him the best college catcher in the country in 2013 after he bashed a school-record 18 home runs. That same season, Schwarber and his teammates reached baseball’s elite eight, advancing Indiana to the College World Series for the first time in program history.

All the while, the Cubs were watching.

At first, all eyes weren’t necessarily on Schwarber. The 2012 Indiana roster included eight players who eventually got drafted by major league clubs. But for Cubs scout Stan Zielinski, just knowing that the big catcher was batting second piqued his interest.

“Freshmen aren’t supposed to hit at the top of the order of a [Division 1] program. If they’re trusting a guy to top an order as a freshman, then they must think he’s pretty good,” Zielinski said. “Then he’s squaring up balls, hitting line drives, just playing with a lot of tenacity and just loving the game.”

The longtime scout came away impressed and decided to schedule some time in Bloomington during the ensuing seasons. While there may not have been a signature on-field moment that sold Zielinski on the collegiate star, he said it was a “series of blows” that made him a believer.

After identifying a potential draft pick, the next step the Cubs take is to try to gain a better understanding of that person off the field. Scouts and front office personnel talk to the player, coaches, family and any other influential voices. As Zielinski did his research, it became clear Schwarber’s mental toughness was just as potent a tool as his powerful bat.

When it came time for Zielinski to deliver his report, the scout sold the slugger hard to the Cubs front office—and the decision makers listened. Even though most teams had Schwarber as a mid-first-round talent, the Cubs felt strongly enough about him to take him fourth overall.

“He’s just a genuine All-American kid,” Zielinski said. “To know him is to like him. You can’t walk away without liking the kid. He’s just a fun-loving kid. If the team is too tight, he tries to loosen them up. If the team is too loose, he tells the guys to get their focus back.”

During Zielinski’s time on campus, he and the IU coaching staff had numerous conversations, many of them about Schwarber’s personality.

“Everybody talks about what a great player he is and all that, but he really is … a better person,” Smith said. “I’ve always thought you don’t have a good ballclub unless your best players are the hardest workers, and that’s something Kyle brought to the field every day. He’ll outwork everybody.”

GETTING DEFENSIVE
If there’s one knock on Schwarber, whether it’s justified or not, it’s about his ability to stick behind the plate. The Cubs front office admitted they selected the slugger primarily for his advanced bat. Catchers often require more time in the minor leagues to refine their skills, but team representatives said they didn’t want Schwarber’s defensive development to slow down his offensive process. In other words, if his bat is big league-ready, they might not hold him back waiting for his receiving skills to catch up.

“I love catching, but if they want me to do something else, I’ll do something else,” Schwarber said.

The one thing that is repeated by everyone you talk to about Schwarber—from Cubs front office personnel to college coaches to scouts—is that he is, first and foremost, a team-oriented guy. As such, he’s willing to pass on catching in the long run and make the full-time switch to a corner outfield spot. But that doesn’t mean he’s ready to hang up his catcher’s mitt just yet.

“I want to be able to help the team down the road, when it comes, if that opportunity does come,” Schwarber said. “I feel like if I can get better defensively, [catching] could be in the best interest of the team.”

The argument, for what it’s worth, is that he’s relatively new to calling his own games, and his release on throws is a little long. Those who have seen him play on a more consistent basis, however, say much of that criticism is unwarranted. While he might not ever be a top-tier glove man behind the plate, people who know his work ethic believe he could backstop at the major league level.

“As far as pro ball, there are some things he needs to learn, and he’s so open to it,” said Kane County manager Mark Johnson, who spent parts of eight major league seasons as a catcher. “He wants to learn, he wants to get better, and he busts his butt every day. That’s all you can really ask for.”

From a scouting standpoint, the pieces are there too. It’s evident Schwarber has spent the majority of his life being the field captain. He just needs to hone his game to make it major league-ready.

“Everybody knocks his defense … but everyone is a little afraid to make their own opinion on it,” Zielinski said. “I actually think he can catch. I think the ingredients are all there to make the cake. He needs some refinements and coaching.”

Schwarber spent most of his time in Daytona manning the outfield and logging a few games each week behind the plate. It remains to be seen where he’ll end up defensively, but it will certainly be a topic of discussion this offseason, when it looks like some questions might get answered.

“We’re going to sit down at the end of the minor league season and see whether it’s an appropriate time to make a call,” Epstein said. “That’s a good time of the year, because you can decide then that if catching is something we really want to pursue, we can get him a lot of work daily in the instructional league—a lot of focused attention on his defensive fundamentals.”

Schwarber admitted the first few months of his professional career have been a whirlwind. Wrapping up a college career, getting drafted, signing a multimillion-dollar contract and jumping through three professional levels would be a lot for anybody to handle. But Schwarber said he appreciates how supportive everyone in the organization has been since he signed, which has helped make the transition from amateur to pro ball as seamless as possible.

“I thought it was going to be a lot different being the new guy, especially being the guy that got picked first by them,” Schwarber said. “It’s a different story for everyone. But these guys … they brought me in. It’s like I haven’t missed a beat with these guys.”

Based on the stories, getting along with Kyle Schwarber hardly sounds like a difficult task. His natural personality, combined with the effort he gives on the field every day, makes it easy for coaches and peers to call him a good teammate.

The comfort level is already there, and everyone around him can feel it.

—Phil Barnes

Cubs reach agreement with Myrtle Beach

The Cubs agreed with Myrtle Beach (S.C.) on a new Player Development Contract to move the club’s Single-A affiliate to the Carolina League on Tuesday. The contract runs through the 2016 season.

“We are excited to reach an agreement with Myrtle Beach and begin working with Chairman Chuck Greenberg and General Manager and Vice President Andy Milovich,” said Jason McLeod, the Cubs senior vice president of scouting and player development. “Myrtle Beach is a well-respected franchise that will serve as a beneficial destination for our young players. We look forward to developing a successful relationship with the franchise and community.

“We would also like to thank Daytona for the organization’s dedication and professionalism in the past 22 seasons. We appreciate all their efforts and have the utmost respect for Andy Rayburn, Josh Lawther and the entire Daytona front office.”

The Myrtle Beach Pelicans have made eight postseason appearances in their 16-season history, including in each of the last four seasons as an affiliate of the Texas Rangers. Myrtle Beach joined the Carolina League in 1999 as an affiliate of the Atlanta Braves, a partnership that would continue through the 2010 season.

“The Cubs are an iconic national brand,” said Pelicans General Manager and Vice President Andy Milovich. “The success of our business is determined by fan interest, the quality of baseball and the impact on Myrtle Beach from a tourism perspective. In each of these instances, the Chicago Cubs clearly offered the most upside. The Cubs strengthen the Pelicans brand in a way that few, if any, other major league franchises could. Cubs fans can now visit their future stars in one of the iconic vacation destination spots in the U.S.”

ESPN’s Law names Bryant top prospect

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(Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)

Cubs prospect Kris Bryant announced his presence in a big way in his first full season of professional baseball in 2014. The slugger, who hit .325/.438/.661 (AVG/OBP/SLG) between Double-A and Triple-A, proved he was the top offensive player in the minors, with many publications naming him their unanimous Player of the Year selection. ESPN Insider’s Keith Law added to the chorus Tuesday, naming Bryant his 2014 Prospect of the Year. Here’s some of what he had to say:

Bryant blew away the field, dominating at two levels, leading the minor leagues in home runs and slugging percentage, finishing second in OBP (behind a 21-year-old in low-A) and ascending the rankings to become baseball’s top prospect, all in his first full year in professional baseball. The second overall pick in the 2013 Rule 4 draft, Bryant probably would have appeared in the majors in September if he were already on the 40-man roster, but the current collective bargaining agreement and major league rules gave the Cubs a real disincentive to promote him for a cup of coffee. He will almost certainly be up by May 2015, however, bringing his 30-plus-homer power and outstanding eye at the plate to the heart of the Cubs’ lineup.

The Cubs top prospect led the minors in home runs (43), extra-base hits (78), total bases (325), slugging percentage (.661) and OPS (1.098). His 118 runs scored were second among all minor league players, while his 110 RBI were third, and his .438 on-base percentage was fifth.

Cubs’ 2014 first-round pick Kyle Schwarber also received honorable mention in Law’s article for his solid campaign.

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