The focus of late has been on the major league team (see video of Brett Jackson's new swing here) but it's also spring training for the minor league squads, so today I want to start the minor league previews and we'll start with Kane County and move our way up.* This is the team many of us are looking forward to seeing as it should be the most prospect laden team of all the Cubs affiliates this season. For those of us in the Chicago area, it's also a chance to see the prospects live and up close.
I bought a season ticket package this year and will be in my usual spot -- behind home plate. If you haven't been to Kane County, you really should go check it out. The team, as mentioned, should be very good, especially since many of the players will be coming from Boise, who advanced to the league championship series despite being the youngest team in the league.
It's also a great experience. There really are no bad seats. The players are more accessible to fans. The ballpark itself is a first-rate facility with good food and good beer. They have a nice selection from a very good local brewery, Two Brothers, on tap and late last summer they had put up a walk-in beer cooler with a good selection of craft beers. If you catch me at the park early, you'll likely see me with a foot-long Bobek's polish in one hand and a pale ale in the other.
Okay, back to baseball. Here is a quick overview of the Kane County preview and the rest of this series...
Some prospects are "locks" (or at least near-locks) to start at certain levels but others will have a chance to impress and move up. Others will have to try and play their way on to the team. Minor league rosters tend to be fluid in both directions. As such, the Cougar team you'll see on opening day will very likely be quite different than the one you'll see in August. As such, instead of listing an opening day roster, I listed the players you are likely to see at some point as well as prospects who may just leapfrog Kane County and start in Daytona.
I'll list the top prospect and sleeper at each position as well as other prospects with a good chance to see time in the Midwest League this season.
Consider this a primer for our minor league recaps, which will once again cover every game, highlight the top performers, and include on-the-spot, updated scouting reports throughout the year.
Because of my familiarity and fondness with Kane County -- and also because it's the introduction to the series, I'll do this affiliate in 3 parts. Part 1 covers catcher and the infield. Part 2 will cover the OF and that will come later today. Part 3 will be the pitching staff and that will be out tomorrow.
With that, this is part 1 of my 2013 Kane County preview...
Top Prospect: Wilson Contreras is the most physically gifted catching prospect in the Cubs system but he's raw on offense and defense. It's possible he stays in Arizona for a while to hone his craft before making the move. He moves extremely well behind the plate with a good arm and shows potential for average power.
Others to watch: Chadd Krist played just 40 games in the MWL last year, so it's possible he returns, but is advanced enough to where he may just move right on to Daytona. He's also 23 years old, which would be old for this league. Carlos Escobar is a good bet to start the year in Kane. He's a good catch and throw guy and has the size and frame (6'2", 185) to grow into some pop at the plate. He also gets good marks for his leadership skills. Lance Rhymel has the potential to be a good receiver who can handle a pitching staff, but his bat is a big question.
Sleeper(s): I'm going to start with an unorthodox pick here. Stephen Bruno saw some time at catcher in instructs and showed the instincts and work ethic to be able to pick up the position quickly. I haven't heard or read much since and so my guess is that it will depend on how far he's advanced at the position. It's also worth noting we may not see Bruno at all. His bat is so advanced that he may just skip Kane County altogether and go to Daytona. My other pick here would be Justin Marra. He has a shorter, stocky build. At the plate , he has a good bat with doubles power and an excellent approach (.337/.467/.474 between AZ and Boise). The question is whether he can stick at catcher. He may not have the athleticism to play another position.
Top Prospect: Dan Vogelbach has top of the scale power and the fundamentally sound swing and approach to hit for average as well. He's trimmed down and that should help his mobility on defense. If he shows he can hit at the full season level and continues to work on improving his defense at first base, Vogelbach will silence many of his critics. To see the "new" Dan Vogelbach check out this video from Boys of Spring...
Others to watch: Rock Shoulders is a solid 1B prospect in his own right. Because of Vogelbach's presence, he's likely to rotate between 1B, DH, and the OF. Shoulders has very good power and a patient approach at the plate, though he does have some holes in his swing and will strike out often. Jacob Rogers is 23 with big power and and advanced approach, so Daytona is more likely.
Sleeper(s): Between Vogelbach and Shoulders there isn't going to be much room for anyone else unless one or both get promoted to Daytona mid-season. Ben Carhart is a good hitter with doubles power and a solid approach at the plate. He dominated rookie league pitchers last season (.352/.419/.456). He has a bit of a stocky build and his range/quickness, but he has plenty of arm to play there.
Top Prospect: Gioskar Amaya moved up the prospect depth charts, surpassing a deep crop of 2Bs to arguably become the best prospect at the position. Amaya sprays line drives all over the field and unexpectedly showed some pull power last season. Defensively he has good hands and solid range and should be at least an average defender, if not more. Amaya is intelligent with great mental makeup. He plays the game with infectious energy and excellent instincts, particularly for his age. Seems to have that "it" factor to me and I believe he'll be a big leaguer in some capacity.
Others to watch: Stephen Bruno can pretty much play all over the field but 2B is his best position and, other than catcher, it's where his bat profiles best. I get the feeling that Dale Sveum is going to really, really like Bruno once he's ready to go to MLB camp. The same could be said of Tim Saunders, but we'll take a look closer at him at 3B.
Sleeper(s): None right now. The Cubs have quite a prospect logjam at 2B so upward mobility won't be easy. If Logan Watkins breaks through to the majors mid-season then it could have a ripple effect on the rest of the organization at 2B. If so, the Cubs like David Bote for his glove, good approach and gritty style of play. He needs to hit better this season, however.
Top Prospect: Jeimer Candelario handled the jump from the DSL to Boise quite well last year. His approach is very advanced for a 19 year old. He has good pitch recognition skills and the discipline to wait for his pitch, quick hands, bat speed, and a fundamentally sound swing. At 6'1", 180 lbs., he has good size and should develop above average power once he matures physically. He showed glimpses of that power at Boise last season but lacked consistency when it came to driving the ball. Defensively he has good hands and a strong arm but not everyone feels he'll retain the range to stay at 3B. To me, he looks better at 3B than Josh Vitters did at the same stage. Unless he outgrows the position and loses some quickness, I believe Candelario will stick there.
Others to watch: If Tim Saunders and Stephen Bruno don't move up to start the season at Daytona, then they'll be factors at 3B and pretty much all over the field. Saunders is a good athlete with speed and a better bat than the Cubs expected. Like many recent Cubs draftees he has strong mental makeup, notably an off the-charts Szczur-esque work ethic. He also showed he can make quick adjustments when he seemlessly handled promotions from Boise to Peoria and then to Daytona as an emergency replacement, filling in for Arismendy Alcantara until Javier Baez was ready for promotion.
Sleeper(s): Ben Carhart (see 1B)
Top Prospect: In my opinion, Marco Hernandez is potentially the Cubs best defensive SS prospect . He's not as athletic or gifted the way Alcantara and Baez are, but I like his fluid actions and solid to good skills across the board. After stumbling at Peoria, the game seemed to slow down for him late in the season at Boise and hopefully that carries into this season. On offense, Hernandez is adept at making hard contact, tough his thin frame doesn't allow for a whole lot of power right now. As he fills out, he could have gap power and possibly double digit HRs. His speed is above average but he's not a burner.
Others to watch: Tim Saunders (see 3B)
Sleeper(s): None, really. Hernandez likely spends the entire year at Kane with fellow top SS prospect Arismendy Alcantara and Javier Baez directly ahead of him. Even in the event those 2 move up, I think the Cubs are more likely to give Saunders the full-time job at Daytona. Carlos Penalver is a deep sleeper because of his speed, athleticism, and defense but his bat, despite a solid approach, looks like it may only allow him to move one level at a time.
Next: The Kane County Outfield
*We'll only do the full season squads for now. There are way too many unknowns in short-season ball at present and we'll do that preview mid-season sometime after the draft. It'll be much more interesting then, anyway.