Archive for the ‘ Minor Leagues ’ Category

1000 Words: Happy Birthday Jorge

Soler

(Photo by Stephen Green)

Cubs prospect Jorge Soler turns 22 years old Tuesday. The La Habana, Cuba native signed a nine-year deal with the club in the summer of 2012 and has been viewed as one of baseball’s top prospects since his arrival. MLB.com recently named him the Cubs’ No. 3 prospect and No. 26 in baseball.

Injuries shortened what looked to be a promising 2013 campaign, where he hit .281/.343/.467 (AVG/OBP/SLG) with eight home runs, 13 doubles and 35 RBI in 55 High-A Daytona games. A member of the 40-man roster, Soler has been in Mesa with the major league side, though it’s likely he’ll start the 2014 season in Daytona or Double-A Tennessee.

From the Pages of Vine Line: Cubs system is hitting its stride

epstein

The following is from the Inside Pitch section of March’s Vine Line.

From 1929-38, as the world suffered through the Great Depression, the Cubs ironically experienced their last sustained run of on-field prosperity. Over that 10-year stretch, they had the best record and most World Series appearances (four) of any NL team.

Since then, whether the organization has attempted a quick fix or a measured reconstruction, efforts to rekindle that flame have produced only flickers.

Two and a half years ago, Ricketts family ownership hired Theo Epstein as president of baseball operations and Jed Hoyer as general manager to end the organization’s 75-year drought of inconsistency. Now entering their third season, Epstein and Hoyer realize the progress they see internally isn’t always obvious to fans.

“We take grief from friends, family and critics,” Epstein said. “But we know what’s coming. We have to continue to build with our group, because it’s going to be a lot of fun when we get there.”

The Cubs’ aim all along has been to become baseball’s next model organization, and, unfortunately, there isn’t a quick fix for that.

“We feel great about the people we have in place now,” Epstein said. “We’re talking about our scouting department, player development, professional scouts and major league staff. You’re constantly looking for new ways to improve. We look to do this by putting people in the right place, promoting the right guys and making sure everyone gets better at their job every year.”

Epstein’s goal is not to generate a single World Series title, but to create a consistent contender as he did in Boston. In his nine seasons there, the Red Sox made six postseason appearances and won both World Series in which they played. Moreover, almost half of Boston’s 2013 World Series championship roster was traceable to Epstein and his BoSox staff.

“We’re looking to be in position to win 90 games every year, which puts you in postseason [range],” Epstein said. “Winning 95 games gives you a chance to win your division. That’s our plan—not only to win a World Series, but to get into the postseason every year.

“Our group concentrates on a 10-year period, and we hope to be in contention at least eight out of 10 years, rather than going for one super team that might be fleeting—disappearing the next year and getting old the next.”

That’s why the Cubs have concentrated so heavily on amateur draft picks, international free agents and minor league prospects.

“We want to build a core that can be our nucleus for a long time,” Epstein said. “We’re not going to define our organization by scouting major league free agents. By the time they’re free agents, the good players are mostly 30 or older and huge investments. Our goal is to be an organization that doesn’t need to go into free agency that often because it has homegrown players.”

Since 2011, Jim Hendry’s final season as GM, the Cubs have enjoyed the bittersweet gift of drafting high after finishing low. But this process is already starting to bear fruit. Their last three No. 1 picks—Javier Baez, Albert Almora and Kris Bryant—rank among baseball’s top 20 prospects, and the club has seven players in the top 100, according to MLBPipeline.com.

Despite falling short in a valiant winter effort to land Japanese pitching prize Masahiro Tanaka, Epstein’s energetic group remains undeterred.

“You first and foremost cannot put together a successful organization without drafting well,” Epstein said. “Most of our trades in this phase will be about acquiring prospects.”

Just as the little things that win games don’t always show up in the box score, small details that produce a winning organization seldom make hot-stove headlines.

“Our group looks to find something every day to make this organization healthier,” Epstein said. “Hiring a good scout or making the right choice on a 10th-round draft pick, adding a quality coach or player development person—all are good short-term goals to become a great system. Finding a better bunt play to run or picking up a guy on waivers is all part of what we do to put us in a position to have more homegrown talent coming through our system—and to provide preprime and prime-age players to our roster and core.”

Still, Epstein realizes fans judge the front office by what occurs on the field.

“You can’t put in all your systems the first year,” he said. “It takes time. The market is different in each major league city. That’s part of the adjustment tour people must make when coming here. Take player development. You start a development program, bring in people and create a manual. Still, it takes years for the plan to be completely institutionalized and ingrained.

“Our analytics department took us a while. We wanted to make sure we had the right people. … We now have a full-fledged department working to get an advantage on our competition, and that only this year has come into play. We’re just hitting our stride in prioritizing player development and scouting first. We were objectively behind in those areas.”

So how do you gauge progress?

“Two and a half years into this,” Epstein said, “we’re spending a lot less time in our meetings talking about the process we have to go through.”

—Bruce Levine and Joel Bierig

Baseball Prospectus lauds Almora’s baseball makeup

Albert_Almora_by_Charles_Sollars

(Photo by Charles Sollars)

Baseball analytics website Baseball Prospectus continued its Top Tools series Thursday, naming Cubs prospect Albert Almora as an honorable mention for his makeup. The 19-year-old, who was the organization’s top pick in the 2012 draft, has always been seen as a player with a good baseball mind. On many occasions, the club’s front office has applauded Almora for his ability to get quick reads on fly balls and his vast understanding of the game. While in high school, he played on a record six national teams for USA Baseball.

Here’s what BP had to say about Almora:

Among the best prospects in the game, Almora, [Dylan] Bundy, and [Reese] McGuire offer makeup that is universally lauded by scouts, coaches, and teammates alike. Each player demonstrates the work ethic, confidence, leadership, and on-field demeanor that defines positive makeup in the scouting industry.

The site listed Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter as the current major league gold standard for makeup, while Jackie Robinson assumes the role as best all time.

Cubs prospects cover Baseball America’s Top 100

Alcantara

Arismendy Alcantara has established himself as a top 100 prospect. (Photo by Rodger Wood)

At this point, fans shouldn’t be surprised to see Cubs farmhands taking up some prime real estate on baseball’s top prospect lists. Throughout the offseason, various publications and websites have released their top 100, and the Cubs routinely land seven players among the best in the game.

Baseball America unveiled its Top 100 list Thursday, and the Cubs’ elite seven were again present—and that included two in the top eight. BA also provided fans with an estimation of when to expect these minor leaguers to arrive at Wrigley Field. According to the publication, six of the seven could be at the Friendly Confines sometime in the next two years.

Here’s what BA had to say about the Cubs seven:

5. Javier Baez
Major League ETA: 2014
Slow down—not his bat, the minors’ fastest, but the rest of the game, especially at shortstop. Otherwise, Baez’s task will be learning to play another position.

8. Kris Bryant
Major League ETA: 2014
Bryant could have a successful season even if he doesn’t match his 31-homer season in college; a move to the outfield could be in the offing.

28. C.J. Edwards
Major League ETA: 2015
Edwards can’t post better results than he did last year, when he moved from the Rangers to the Cubs in the Matt Garza deal. He’ll aim to reach 150 innings while maintaining his high-quality stuff and control.

36. Albert Almora
Major League ETA: 2016
Almora is another prospect who just needs to show he can stay healthy. Evaluators love his bat and defense in center—when he’s on the field.

41. Jorge Soler
Major League ETA: 2015
It’s easy to be satisfied when you’ve already signed a $30 million contract. If Soler plays with an edge, he’ll be a big league right fielder sooner than later.

87. Pierce Johnson
Major League ETA: 2015
Durability is at the top of the list for the slender Johnson, who could beat the similarly built C.J. Edwards to Chicago if he can repeat his 2013 production at higher levels.

100. Arismendy Alcantara
Major League ETA: 2015
With a crowd ahead of him at shortstop, Alcantara’s best path to the majors is as an everyday second baseman. Honing his skills on the right side of the infield is job one.

Cubs prospect Baez possesses best power tool

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(Photo by Aldrin Capulong/Daytona Cubs)

Baseball Prospectus continues to lavish praise on Cubs top prospect Javier Baez. A few weeks after naming the 21-year-old the No. 4 prospect in the game, the baseball analysis website ranked the shortstop as having the best power tool of anybody in the minors. For some perspective, BP gives Marlins slugger Giancarlo Stanton the nod as having the top major league power tool, while the all-time standard is set by Yankees legend Mickey Mantle. Here’s what they had to say about Baez:

Top Power in the Minor Leagues: Javier Baez (Chicago Cubs)
Among the prospects in the game with elite raw power, Baez takes the cake because of his ability to translate that power to game situations. Despite being an ultra-aggressive hitter, Baez’s ability to consistently make contact allows him to tap into his raw power and could lead to him dropping 35-40 bombs a year in the majors. Elite raw power is rare, but the ability to bring that type of raw from batting practice into games is even rarer. Of the players considered for this list, Baez is clearly the best bet to actualize his top-of-the-scale raw power, and he could begin doing that as soon as this summer.

In 130 games at two levels last year, Baez recorded a .578 slugging percentage, along with 37 homers, 34 doubles and 111 RBI. He was named the organization’s Player of the Year in 2013. Baez is currently with the big league club at Spring Training, and he will start the year in Triple-A Iowa.

Fellow prospect Kris Bryant (No. 17 overall prospect) was one of five players listed in the “others considered” group.

Bryant’s raw power rests a half grade behind the others, but he should bring a significant portion of his raw pop into games, allowing him to hit 30-plus home runs a season.

The 2013 first-round draft pick (second overall) led the country in home runs with 31 during his final college season at the University of San Diego. In 36 games at three different levels (rookie ball, Short-Season A, High-A), the 22-year old hit nine homers in 36 games, along with 14 doubles, 32 RBI and a .688 slugging percentage. Bryant also excelled during his time in the prospect-laden Arizona Fall League last offseason, picking up league MVP honors.

Cubs add Emilio Bonifacio to the mix

Bonifacio

(Photo by Brian Kersey/Getty Images)

The Cubs signed IF/OF Emilio Bonifacio to a minor league deal with an invitation to Spring Training over the weekend.

The 28-year-old has spent all or parts of the last seven seasons in the majors, splitting time between Toronto and Kansas City in 2013. Known for his versatility, Bonifacio has played regularly at six positions throughout his career. He made the majority of his appearances at second base last year but has also played third base, shortstop and all three outfield spots.

Career Appearances/Starts:
2B: 165/143
3B: 134/121
CF: 110/92
SS: 97/81
LF: 66/46
RF: 28/20

Offensively, Bonifacio is a career .262/.322/.340 (AVG/OBP/SLG) hitter who could prove to be a threat on the basepaths. Last season, he stole 28 bases while hitting .243 with three home runs and 22 doubles. The switch-hitter’s finest season came in 2011, when he batted .296 with five home runs, 26 doubles, 78 runs scored and 40 stolen bases (second in the NL) in 152 games.

Stolen Bases:
2007: 0
2008: 7
2009: 21
2010: 12
2011: 40
2012: 30
2013: 28

Bonifacio could push for an Opening Day bench spot, with his defensive versatility and speed proving valuable in the later innings.

From the Pages of Vine Line: 2014 Minor League Prospectus, Ready to Break Out

Duane-Underwood

Duane Underwood has one of the highest ceilings of all the Cubs arms. (Photo by Scott McDaniel)

For many Chicagoans, February means cold weather. At Vine Line, it’s all about the Cubs minor league prospectus. In the February issue, fans can check out frequent contributor Sahadev Sharma’s player breakdowns for more than 45 of the organization’s top prospects, from teenagers like Eloy Jimenez to elite talents like Javier Baez. This is our final online installment. For more information, pick up the February issue of Vine Line.

Also from the Series:
2014 Cubs Minor League Prospectus – The Elite
2014 Cubs Minor League Prospectus – Close to Big Leagues
2014 Cubs Minor League Prospectus – International Impact
2014 Cubs Minor League Prospectus – Pitching Depth

READY TO BREAK OUT

Not every name in the Cubs system sits atop prospect lists like Javier Baez and Kris Bryant. But the best organizations not only have top talent and balance, they also have players not everyone has heard of who have a chance to blossom into very good major leaguers.

Whether they’re lacking the flashy tool that garners headlines or are just a little raw and haven’t yet put everything together, there are definitely names worth watching in the Cubs system. And many of these prospects could become much more familiar to fans over the next nine months.

STEPHEN BRUNO
DOB: 11/17/1990
POSITION: 2B
HIGHEST 2013 LEVEL: DAYTONA
2013 STATS: .362/.436/.478 (19 GAMES)

There’s no two ways about it, this kid can flat-out hit. With a front-to-back stroke, Bruno uses the whole field, attacks the fastball and has the ability to stay on the breaking ball. Unfortunately, his season ended early with an elbow injury that required Tommy John surgery. If not for that, it wouldn’t have been a surprise for Bruno to hit his way up to Double-A.

He likely won’t be ready by Spring Training, but the hope is he’ll be able to get on the field early in the minor league season. When he does, expect him to once again hit line drives all over the field.

ROCK SHOULDERS
DOB: 9/26/1991
POSITION: 1B
HIGHEST 2013 LEVEL: KANE COUNTY
2013 STATS: .258/.352/.445 (117 GAMES)

The man with the best name in the system mashed at a tough park for hitters in Kane County early on, earning organizational Player of the Month honors in April. A full-figured kid, Shoulders is more athletic than many realize. He played third base as an amateur, and there are those in the Cubs organization who believe he could have some value in the outfield.

With a winning combination of patience and power, the bat will always be enticing. Now it’s a matter of developing versatility on defense or finding one place to play and really focusing on it.

DUANE UNDERWOOD
DOB: 7/20/1994
POSITION: RHP
HIGHEST 2013 LEVEL: BOISE
2013 STATS: 54.1, 4.97 ERA, 36 K, 27 BB (11 STARTS, 14 APPEARANCES)

Outside of C.J. Edwards and perhaps Pierce Johnson, Underwood may have the highest ceiling of any pitcher in the organization. Unfortunately, he came into Spring Training in less-than-ideal shape, which led to inconsistent performance throughout the season. The hope is that he learned his lesson and will prepare appropriately this offseason so he can come into the spring ready to take off.

As far as the stuff is concerned, when he’s on, the fastball is 92-96 mph, and he has a knee-buckling curve. But consistency is an issue, and he didn’t get as many whiffs as you’d expect from a guy with his stuff.

“He’ll come into next season as a 19-year-old, and we’re just waiting for the light to come on,” McLeod said. “His upside is as high as anybody we’ve got.”

CHRISTIAN VILLANUEVA
DOB: 6/19/1991
POSITION: 3B
HIGHEST 2013 LEVEL: TENNESSEE
2013 STATS: .261/.317/469 (133 GAMES)

Already a big league-caliber defender at third, Villanueva showed some pop for the first time in his career in 2013, hitting 41 doubles and 19 home runs. There are some swing mechanics the Cubs will continue to work on with him, and they’d like to see him improve his plate discipline as far as controlling the strike zone. But Villanueva has the profile teams look for at third base, especially if the power output remains at the level he showed this season. Defensively, his hands and feet are as good as anyone’s.

DAN VOGELBACH
DOB: 12/17/1992
POSITION: 1B
HIGHEST 2013 LEVEL: DAYTONA
2013 STATS: .284/.375/.449 (131 GAMES)

Vogelbach grew up playing baseball in the Florida sun, so the cold late spring in Kane County was a shock to his system this past season. Many balls that normally would have cleared the fence or fallen for doubles became easy outs. However, his struggles in a cold and rainy April helped him grow immensely as a player. By the end of the year, his numbers were solid, and he’d done enough to earn a promotion to Daytona.

The bat has always been a plus for Vogelbach, as he shows light-tower power and can drive the ball to all parts of the field. Of course, the biggest question will always be his body and whether it will keep him from sticking at first base. While he’ll never be mistaken for slender, there have been some positive signs of late.
“He was probably the best I’ve ever seen him look [in November for instructs] in Arizona,” McLeod said.

McLeod pointed to next season as being a huge year for Vogelbach. He’ll have to continue to stay in shape and prove his bat can carry him to the bigs.

GIOSKAR AMAYA (2B) – Amaya had an up-and-down 2013, but he has bat speed, power for a second baseman, solid plate discipline and the speed to steal a base here and there. He’s a very hard worker, but he can be too tough on himself from time to time. Still, he’s an intelligent ballplayer with tools and plus-makeup.

SHAWON DUNSTON JR. (OF) – Dunston grew up a lot in 2013 after struggling early in his professional career. He had a strong first half in Boise but fell off toward the end. He has all the tools, drew a lot of walks and can steal bases. The Cubs are working on his bat path, as Dunston tends to get a little pull-happy.

KEVIN ENCARNACION (OF) – Encarnacion hit for average and power, drew walks and stole bases in a strong year at Boise. He’s a switch-hitter with a corner-outfield profile. Though he was a little old for the Northwest League, his confidence improved this season after a strong performance. He shows a fluid swing with a very good idea of the strike zone.

DUSTIN GEIGER (1B) – This streaky, big-bodied power hitter mashes lefties and holds his own against righties. Geiger should move into a hitters’ park in Tennessee next year, so he needs to keep putting up offensive numbers and improving defensively.

JACOB HANNEMANN (OF) – Hannemann was a surprise third-round pick in last summer’s draft. He flew under the radar because he hadn’t played for a few years due to a Mormon mission and commitment to the BYU football team. He has a strong left-handed bat and a good feel for the strike zone. From a tools standpoint, he’s a dynamic guy with tremendous speed, a Jacoby Ellsbury-type body and athleticism. He’s raw because of limited playing time, but the Cubs are betting on his upside.

CARLOS PIMENTEL (RHP) – Recently named the Dominican Winter League Pitcher of the Year, this strong-armed reliever has proven to be a tough match-up. He’s a short-arm guy, and hitters often have a tough time picking up the ball. He has been up to 94 mph with the fastball, which he complements with a slider and a solid change-up. His command and control can waver, but he’s a pitcher who gives opponents an uncomfortable at-bat.

IVAN PINEYRO (RHP) – Acquired in a trade with the Nationals for Scott Hairston, Pineyro is a strike thrower with an impressive change-up. He’s not a stuff guy, but the belief is he can end up at the back end of a good major league rotation.

—Sahadev Sharma

From the Pages of Vine Line: The Cubs next wave of talent

Almora1

Albert Almora could be part of the next big Cubs renaissance. (Photo by Jason Wise)

The following can be found in the Inside Pitch section of February’s Vine Line.

“The good ones get to the big leagues fast. The great ones come faster,” said Cubs superscout Hugh Alexander, circa 1987.

For Cubs fans, the great ones can’t arrive fast enough.

A total of 288 losses—the most of any three-year period in franchise history—has tested everyone from ownership to the beer vendors. There is, however, hope on the horizon.

After two years of aggressively building the minor league system, many of the organization’s prized draft choices and international free agents are getting closer to Wrigley Field. Fans might want to circle the third week in June for the possible big league debuts of No. 1 picks Javier Baez (2011) and Kris Bryant (2013).

It’s been at least 30 years since the last meaningful renaissance in Cubs player development. In the mid-1980s, GM Dallas Green produced a succession of big league stars, including Greg Maddux, Shawon Dunston, Joe Carter, Rafael Palmeiro, Mark Grace and Jamie Moyer.

But you have to go all the way back to GM John Holland to find the Cubs’ longest stretch of player development success since the 1930s. He kept the franchise over .500 for six consecutive seasons between 1967-72.

Under Holland, eventual Hall of Fame third baseman Ron Santo arrived in 1960, followed by two Rookies of the Year—HOF outfielder Billy Williams in ’61 and second baseman Ken Hubbs in ’62. Even after Hubbs’ death in a 1964 plane crash, Holland’s astute trades fortified a talented nucleus of Santo, Williams and Ernie Banks.

Now, having drafted in the top 10 three years in a row, the organization hopes to launch another golden age. President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein and GM Jed Hoyer generally believe hitters need 500 Triple-A at-bats before they’re major league ready. Still, exceptions arise.

“We won’t rush our young people,” said Jason McLeod, VP of scouting and player development. “Each is different, though. We view individual development as a combination of a player and a person being ready.”

Shortstop Baez, the ninth-overall pick in 2011, has more experience than third baseman Bryant, the No. 2 overall pick in 2013. But Bryant’s maturity makes him equally worthy of promotion.

To merit a quick jump, a player must dominate the competition. Bryant, 22, was the 2013 College Player of the Year, leading the nation with 31 homers.

He then slugged his way through three minor league stops (.336, nine homers, 32 RBI in 128 at-bats) and helped Single-A Daytona win the Florida State League title. He followed that by being named MVP of the Arizona Fall League, a breeding ground for future superstars, with a .364 average and six homers in 20 games.

Between Daytona and Double-A Tennessee, Baez, 21, was one of the most potent offensive players in baseball. He led the minors in RBI (111) and extra-base hits (75) and tied for second in homers (37).

“This young man will be a monster in the majors when he gets there,” said an AL scout. “His bat is lightning fast. He might not be patient now (147 strikeouts and 40 walks in 577 at-bats last season), but he’ll reduce strikeouts as he moves up and matures.”
For Baez, defense is the greater challenge. He committed 44 errors in 2013.

“He has a great arm, and when he learns to control his responses, he’ll be a reliable fielder,” the scout said.

Though the 6-foot-5 Bryant currently plays the hot corner, many feel he could end up in the outfield.

“Guys over 6-foot-4 generally lack the quickness to stay at third,” an NL scout said. “With his presence and work ethic, I don’t doubt he can play the position. But with his arm, he could easily play a corner outfield spot.”

The goal is to meld the likes of Baez, Bryant, and outfielders Albert Almora and Jorge Soler with young big leaguers Starlin Castro, Anthony Rizzo and Junior Lake.

Almora, who turns 20 in April, was the Cubs’ No. 1 pick in 2012 (6th overall) and hit .329 during an injury-shortened 2013 season at Class-A Kane County. Scouts project some power, and they like his bat control and stroke to all fields. They also rave about his instincts in center. Though he lacks great speed, he makes up for it with quick reads.

Maturity seems to be the hurdle for Soler, who turns 22 in February. In an injury-marred 2013 season with Daytona, he was suspended five games for charging the opposing dugout with a bat and benched one game for not hustling.

The NL scout said Soler, in addition to possessing a strong arm, “has the most natural power in the system.” Some scouts believe the Cuban defector is still adjusting to the U.S. after signing a nine-year, $30 million contract in June 2012.

Contractual control can certainly be a consideration in timing a player’s promotion to the majors. By postponing a big league debut until the end of June, a team guarantees three full seasons of control before that player becomes arbitration eligible.

Though Baseball America ranks just three pitchers—Arodys Vizcaino, Pierce Johnson and C.J. Edwards—among the organization’s top 10 players, there’s little cause for concern.

“They have more right-handed power hitting than anyone in baseball,” said the NL scout. “If all pan out, they’ll be able to add pitching [by trading] hitting depth.

—Bruce Levine and Joel Bierig

Cubs prospects all over Pleskoff’s Dream Team

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Dan Vogelbach is one of baseball’s top minor league first basemen. (Photo by Aldrin Capulong/Daytona Cubs)

Over the last few weeks, multiple baseball outlets have unveiled their respective prospect rankings, but the fun hasn’t stopped there. Some scribes are now taking things a step further.

As Vine Line documented yesterday, ESPN insider Dan Szymborski used his stat projection system known as ZiPS to show some love for Cubs uberprospects Javier Baez, Kris Bryant and Arismendy Alcantara.

On Wednesday, MLB.com’s Bernie Pleskoff unveiled another unique way to look at baseball’s best minor leaguers. He created a National League ‘Dream Team’ of prospects, naming his top player at each position.

Four Cubs farmhands claimed a spot in his starting lineup. Here’s what he had to say about the future North Siders:

First Base: Dan Vogelbach, Cubs, 21 years old

This is not a very deep position in the NL.

Vogelbach can flat-out hit, and he has produced at every level of play. He is a wide-bodied guy at six feet and 250 pounds. Vogelbach’s fielding leaves something to be desired, but in a slim group of first baseman, he gets my nod.

Shortstop: Javier Baez, Cubs, 21

I saw Baez hit some of the longest home runs ever struck in the Arizona Fall League. He has lightning-quick hands through the ball. Baez will be an offensive force.

Third Base: Kris Bryant, Cubs, 22

I am not convinced Bryant will continue as a third baseman. He’s a big man at 6-foot-5, 215 pounds. Bryant may be best suited using his outstanding arm in right field.

Bryant is a power hitter with a sweet stroke. He has advanced hitting ability with a chance to fly through the organization.

Outfield: Albert Almora, Cubs, 19

Almora has the ability to play an outstanding center field without great fanfare. He’ll hit. He’ll run. He’ll play outstanding defense. Almora is a complete player with knowledge of his role. A line-drive hitter, Almora knows how to use the entire field as his personal playground.

From the Pages of Vine Line: 2014 Minor League Prospectus, Pitching Depth

Kyle-Hendricks-(Credit-Matthew-Shalbrack)

Kyle Hendricks was the Cubs 2013 Minor League Pitcher of the Year. (Matthew Shalbrack/Tennessee Smokies)

For many Chicagoans, February means cold weather. At Vine Line, it’s all about the Cubs minor league prospectus. In the February issue, fans can check out frequent contributor Sahadev Sharma’s player breakdowns for more than 45 of the organization’s top prospects, from teenagers like Eloy Jimenez to elite talents like Javier Baez. We’ll post some of the profiles here on the blog in the coming weeks so you can keep track of all the names to know in the Cubs highly ranked system.

Also from the series:

2014 Cubs Minor League Prospectus – The Elite
2014 Cubs Minor League Prospectus – Close to Big Leagues
2014 Cubs Minor League Prospectus – International Impact

PITCHING DEPTH
The Cubs’ last two drafts kicked off with position players Albert Almora and Kris Bryant, but the next dozen rounds or so were focused heavily on adding pitching depth to the system. While the Cubs still lack a knockout pitching prospect (something missing from most systems around baseball), they have some interesting arms acquired via bulk drafting, trades (both major and seemingly minor ones) and international free agency.

The draft strategy the Cubs have employed over the past two Junes has done two things: It’s increased their chances of finding a gem who can be a big contributor in their rotation and given them options to fill the bullpen with arms who don’t stick as starters. In the long run, this will save the Cubs money and keep them from investing heavily in relievers, who are notoriously erratic from year to year. That way, they can allocate funds in different areas while attempting to improve the major league ballclub.

COREY BLACK
DOB: 8/4/1991
POSITION: RHP
HIGHEST 2013 LEVEL: DAYTONA
2013 STATS: 107.2 IP, 3.93 ERA, 116 K, 55 BB (24 STARTS)

It’s easy for scouts to peg Black as a bullpen arm, because he’s a smaller guy with a slender upper body. However, while he does have some effort in his delivery, he brings premium stuff, including a mid-90s fastball and a big-time slider to complement his very aggressive personality on the mound.

“I love watching this guy pitch,” said SVP of Scouting and Player Development Jason McLeod. “He is a bulldog and a half.”

The most common guess is that Black ends up as a reliever, with the potential to be an elite back-of-the-bullpen arm. But the Cubs are going to keep him in their loaded Tennessee rotation to see if his stuff will play up in a starter’s role.

PAUL BLACKBURN
DOB: 12/4/1993
POSITION: RHP
HIGHEST 2013 LEVEL: BOISE
2013 STATS: 46.0 IP, 3.33 ERA, 38 K, 29 BB (12 STARTS, 13 APPEARANCES)

With a strong delivery, three pitches and good arm action, Blackburn has all the ingredients to be an advanced feel pitcher. He relies on plus command, but the youngster had some outings in which his walk totals perplexed the Cubs front office. While he has room to fill out and possibly bring his average fastball into plus territory, Blackburn still projects as an efficient, innings-eating, athletic pitcher even if the velocity stays where it is now.

He can move the ball all around the zone, but he often nibbles, which creates the high walk totals. If he can trust his stuff on a consistent basis, he has everything it takes to develop into a solid middle-of-the-rotation piece.

KYLE HENDRICKS
DOB: 12/7/1989
POSITION: RHP
HIGHEST 2013 LEVEL: IOWA
2013 STATS: 166.1 IP, 2.00 ERA, 128 K, 34 BB (27 STARTS)

Recent Dartmouth grad Hendricks is a premium strike thrower who has the ability to cut up both sides of the plate with multiple pitches. He is the type of pitcher who throws to a scouting report rather than relying on pure stuff, and was one of the more efficient pitchers in the Cubs system in 2013. He lasted six innings or more in 19 of his 27 starts and did so while throwing a minimum of pitches.

Though his fastball isn’t light, it isn’t overpowering either, sitting at 88-92 mph. But his ability to locate the pitch with precision, combined with a cutter he can throw to both sides of the plate, keeps hitters from barreling him up too often. He’s never going to rack up strikeouts, but with his four-pitch arsenal, he will keep hitters guessing and could fit nicely in the back end of the Cubs rotation.

PIERCE JOHNSON
DOB: 5/10/1991
POSITION: RHP
HIGHEST 2013 LEVEL: DAYTONA
2013 STATS: 118.1 IP, 2.74 ERA, 124 K, 43 BB (21 STARTS, 23 APPEARANCES)

Johnson did everything asked of him in 2013 and progressed just as the Cubs hoped he would. He showed steady improvement throughout the season and got stronger as the year went on—his velocity actually ticked up when he was promoted to Daytona.

Johnson is getting better at repeating his delivery, an important point of emphasis as he often finishes upright, causing his fastball to be up in the zone. He also developed more consistency with both command and his breaking ball. His focus this offseason has been on adding weight to his frame, as he looks to increase his workload. He should team up with C.J. Edwards to lead a formidable Tennessee rotation.

DILLON MAPLES
DOB: 5/9/1992
POSITION: RHP
HIGHEST 2013 LEVEL: KANE COUNTY
2013 STATS: 76.2 IP, 4.93 ERA, 75 K, 50 BB (16 STARTS, 21 APPEARANCES)

With Maples, the key is and always has been consistency with his delivery. After a very up-and-down couple of months at Kane County, Maples was sent down to Boise in July and turned his season around. It was the best many in the Cubs front office had ever seen him perform in terms of his delivery. During that time, Maples got his curveball over the plate and down in the zone, generating swings and misses.

Not only were the results different, but so was Maples’ attitude. Observers say he looked more confident on the mound in Boise, with a chest-out bravado. He was aggressive in the zone, a stark contrast to the pitcher who seemed to be constantly thinking about his mechanics and worrying about getting hit, which led to nibbling and high walk totals. If the new and improved Maples can carry over this season, he may end up turning into the steal many thought the Cubs had when he was drafted in the 14th round in 2011.

BARRETT LOUX (RHP) – Loux brings a four-pitch mix, but injuries have diminished the stuff that made him a top 10 pick in Arizona just three years ago. Despite shoulder issues, he still proved competitive on the mound last season. He will continue his shoulder maintenance program with hopes of recovering some of the life on his once-plus fastball and other pitches.

TREY MASEK (RHP) – Masek is on the smaller side, so his eventual role could be out of the bullpen. He uses a fastball-slider combo and has a split-grip change-up. He will be given the chance to be a starter in 2014.

NEIL RAMIREZ (RHP) – The former Rangers first-rounder suffered through shoulder and elbow injuries in 2013, so the Cubs are taking a conservative approach with him. When healthy, he shows a typical three-pitch arm, featuring a fastball that sits at 90-94 mph and a hard slider. The focus is on getting him strong and healthy so he can get through a full season.

TYLER SKULINA (RHP) – Skulina is a big man who touches 96 mph with his fastball and has a swing-and-miss slider. At 6-foot-6, his key is getting consistent rhythm to his delivery. He impressed in instructs and could jump up the rankings if he continues to develop his change-up.

ROB ZASTRYZNY (LHP) – Zastryzny is a hard-nosed lefty with a 90-93 mph downhill fastball, plus curveball and solid change. He’s a strong competitor who pitches with a chip on his shoulder and will attack the zone every fifth day.

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