Impressions from the First Half Of the Minor League Season

Last week, the Cubs Den minor league reports gave you their take on the Mid-Season  All-Prospect team for the Cubs’ system. Today’s, I give five things I have taken away from the first half of the minor league season.

Don’t look back Albert Almora, Charcer Burks is gaining on you!

This is not meant to disparage Albert Almora. He is a fine defensive outfielder. But Almora’s current .259 batting average and .330 on-base percentage (as of Saturday) are more in line with the minor league numbers he put up in 2014 and 2015 rather than his Pacific Coast League inflated .303 average last year. It is believed that what you now see with Almora is what you are going to get, with perhaps a good year or two thrown in. However, the organization operational needs suggest a different path.

For those who have not been paying any attention, the Cubs offense has lacked a consistent leadoff hitter all season. Burks has led off 221 times in his career to Almora’s six times. If you don’t believe something like that matters, ask Kyle Schwarber. In his time at leadoff, Burks has batted .272 with 16 home runs and 48 stolen bases. This goes along with Burks' career .362 on-base percentage and .750 OPS, compared to Almora’s .323 and .740 numbers overall.

As far as defensively, there is not much if any drop off between the two. Burks has won a minor league Gold Glove, and is well on his way to earning another this season. Almora has more assists and perhaps a slightly stronger throwing arm.

In a final note, Burks will have to be added to the 40-man roster at the end of the season or the Cubs could lose him in the Rule 5 Draft.

The development of Jason Vosler has created some interesting options for the Cubs.

This past week, fans had a clear demonstration of “position redundancy” at third base. When Kris Bryant was hurt, the Cubs were able to turn to Jeimer Candelario. Another injury brought in Javier Baez and Tommy LaStella.

But Baez hates playing third and is better used at other positions, while LaStella will not remind anyone of Ron Santo at third. Behind them are journeyman Chris Dominguez and utility player Chesny Young at Triple-A Iowa.

Enter unheralded 2014 sixteenth round pick Jason Vosler. After putting together a nice but non-descript minor league career, Vosler has exploded in 2017. Currently, the left-handed hitter leads the Southern League in both home runs (14) and RBI (55). Vosler has also been named an All-Star, as well as the Southern League Player of the Week. The 23 year old is also improving defensively, jumping his fielding average 30 points to a very respectable .966.

It seems that the switch-hitting Candelario has been the subject of trade rumors since the champagne was popped in the winning World Series locker room. The emergence of Vosler gives the Cubs the option of inserting him in any trade scenario and retaining Candelario, or holding out for a big payoff for Candelario and becoming a solid number two behind Bryant. The Cubs will have to make the decision during the season, as Vosler will also be eligible for the Rule 5 Draft.

The Cubs aren’t going to get any help for their starting rotation from the minors any time soon.

The plan this off-season was to stock the Iowa Cubs rotation with potential-laden youngsters Eddie Butler, Alec Mills, Ryan Williams, and lefty Rob Zastryzny and hope at least two emerge for the potential openings coming at the end of the season. Since then, Butler had to be called up due to an injuries, and Mills, Williams and Zastryzny are all on the disabled list.

All that has thrown plans through a loop, as major league castoffs Aaron Brooks, Casey Kelly, and Williams Perez have all struggled, while Seth Frankoff has some potential but is still inconsistent. On top of that, the recently promoted Zach Hedges has been getting hammered in Triple-A.

While Jen-Ho Tseng has put up good numbers by going 7-2 with a 2.80 ERA and 1.147 WHIP at Double-A Tennessee, the front office’s reluctance to promote him can be taken as a bad sign of their confidence in him. Fellow 22 year olds Trevor Clifton and Duane Underwood have had their moments, both good and bad, and due to that they do not seem ready for the next level.

Because management is unwilling or unable to promote from Double-A, pitchers further down the chain such as Adbert Alzolay, Justin Steele, Duncan Robinson, and Dylan Cease remain stuck in idle at this time.

The front office has a potential gold mine in relief pitching, if they are willing to develop it.

As with the starting rotation, concerns about the major league bullpen have driven the front office to stack Triple-A Iowa with over-aged major leaguers such as Connor Mullee, Manny Parra, Fernando Rodriguez, along with lefties Jack Leathersich and Dave Rollins. None seem to be any long term solutions. A recent trade has brought a glimmer of hope in closer Matt Carasiti.

If there are any pitchers more overdue for a promotion than Tseng, they are Daury Torrez and James Pugliese, with Brad Markey not far behind them. Both Torrez and Pugliese are eligible to be 6 year free agents following the season, according to Arizona Phil.

Moving all three would give the Cubs a chance to move up All-Star Pedro Araujo, James Norwood, and perhaps Dakota Mekkes from Advanced-A. That can give the Cubs more latitude to promote pitchers like Dillon Maples or Justin Hancock up to Iowa if they can continue to impress.

Gaps are beginning to form at many positions in the minor leagues.

Besides the vast ocean that appears between the major leagues and the Cubs’ pitching prospects, gaps are forming at several positions. Promotions created some of these gaps, but trades, free agent compensation, and international signing restrictions have also contributed.

For now, we will ignore the dearth of talent at first base, as the organization has made it clear that they are happy to cross-train other positions for first rather than stock it. The loss of Wladimir Galindo to injury has left virtually no prospects at third base beyond Jason Vosler. The Cubs have fooled around with shortstop Isaac Paredes, along with big power prospects Joey Martarano, Kwang-Min Kwon, and Kevin Zamudio, but it is not certain any of them will ever stick there.

There is also a rather large gap at shortstop, where utility players such as Chesny Young, Andrew Ely, Trent Giambrone and Zack Short are the only options between major leaguers Addison Russell and Javier Baez, and youngsters Paredes, Aramis Ademan and Delvin Zinn.

But the biggest chasm is in the outfield, where the only player worth mentioning behind top prospect Eloy Jimenez and Charcer Burks is the somewhat overachieving Daniel Spingola. It has been a tough year for other prospects such as Eddie Julio Martinez, Connor Myers, and DJ Wilson, and young players like Jonathan Sierra, Fernando Kelli, and Yovanny Cuevas are a long way off.

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  • great job with this piece.

  • In reply to Hagsag:

    Thank you

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    Really good piece, couple follow-on questions:
    --Isn't Rosscup's DFA a sign of confidence in Leathersich? Leathersich has been dominant lately in Iowa, and wonder if he gets a call, particularly with Monty entrenched in rotation
    --Is a move to bullpen in Underwood's future?

  • In reply to Zonk:

    Leathersich is in kind of the same category as Seth Frankoff and Williams Perez. They are all interesting players that may, and I stress MAY, be useful down the road.

    But do you really want to bank on those type of players? Shouldn't the Cubs organization be at the point where they don't have to?

    I will rely on others to give you the specifics on Underwood. To me, it would be kind of like when the Cubs decided to move Scott Sanderson to the bullpen instead of Dennis Eckersley. Underwood doesn't have the mechanics that would allow him to get ready quickly and be effective from the first pitch, but that's just an opinion.

  • In reply to Tom U:

    The best thing Leathersich has that the others don't is that he is a lefty. And a lefty that misses bats. A lot of bats. I don't see much MLB future for the other two but at the very least I can see Leathersich bouncing around the league like another former Cubs farmand Ryan Buchter. Whenever you get get a guy like that to throw strikes for even a month or two you have a very effective pitcher, even at the MLB level.

  • In reply to Michael Ernst:

    Exactly. Very well put!

  • Isn't Burks more of a LFer as opposed to Almora being more of a CF? I also think it is difficult to compare numbers for Almora when he isn't playing full time. Hard to gain consistency when you are playing 1 or 2 games, then sitting for 2-3. He had a 3 walk game last week which was encourgaing.

    Maybe with Burks on his way, Almora becomes the centerpiece of a trade. A GG caliber CFer is worth quite a bit on the market.

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    In reply to IrwinFletcher:

    Almora did have that 3-walk game but it came against LHP. He clearly has a much, much better approach and pitch recognition against LHP. Against RHP he might run into some hits but he chases too much junk and puts 'pitchers pitches' into play far too often with his over-aggressiveness.

    If Joe were to play him consistently and not protect him against top RHP, his numbers would fall dramatically, IMO. His splits are about as drastic as they come right now.

  • In reply to IrwinFletcher:

    Burks mainly projects to LF due to arm strength. He has been playing a lot CF this season. He has good instincts for the position and better speed than Almora.

    I would like to see Almora get more playing time, but I do not think his numbers will get dramatically better. In the end it is based more on operational needs. The Cubs could use a lead-off hitter and Almora isn't one. Burks is.

  • In reply to IrwinFletcher:

    Love Almora. Kid has such a grea makeup and I'm really pulling for him...but he is what he is at this point. Low OBP and doesn't drive the baseball much. In today's game, that really hurts his value. So, how valuable is a light-hitting, GG caliber CF (which may be a stretch) with no speed? Probably just a little more than Darwin Barney got ya & that didn't turn out to be much.

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    But part of "what he is" at this point is 23 years old at the MLB level. "Power" was never really his game and he is still learning, and playing respectably at the MLB level. When he starts hitting more doubles (and HR as he matures) I believe his OPS/wOBA/wRC+ will start to rise.

  • In reply to Joel Mayer:

    I think one of the issue with Almora is that he's not an on-base guy nor is he a slugger so he's basically relegated to the bottom of the order. That plus the fact that I think coming in his defense was overblown. Fangraphs ranks him as 23rd out of 29 CF in UZR and 21st out of 29 CF in DRS. I do realize that advanced defensive stat are suspect at this point so take it for what it's worth. But his lack of speed will become an issue especially as he ages. I'm not saying he's bad but he's not a Gold Glover either.

  • In reply to Joel Mayer:

    No doubt. Have to believe his best baseball is ahead of him. I hope that for him. Just think it's a big assumption to think he will start to drive the baseball more and get on base more often just because he has matured. That power has never been a part doesn't mean it suddenly will be. Almora is a MLB-level player, but he'll have to show a lot more on the offensive side of the game to be an everyday player. Definitely not rooting against him, though.

  • Anyone have any idea whats up with Alec Mills bruised foot from back in mid April seems strange. I see Sands is in Arizona and another MIA Jake Stinnett. No explanation as of yet. It's not as if these were national secrets. Just like to know whats up.

  • In reply to Andrew444:

    Actually, injuries to minor leaguers often have very little information. There really is no advantage to the team to release the information, so unless the player releases it themselves there is often no other info to go on. It isn't unusual for a player to have surgery during the season and then for the public to not find out about it until after the season.

  • In reply to Michael Ernst:

    That makes no sense to me but thank's

  • This is so interesting, thanks Tom. One question about Cease and Alzolay: What's their ETA to the Cubs? 2019 at earliest? I'd hope the Cubs would promote them regardless of what's happening at the higher levels.

  • In reply to Jimmy Greenfield:

    Jimmy that's hard to say given the way the Cubs manage their minor league players and handle promotions.

    In many organizations both would be ready by the end of 2018. In a small few of other organizations, even before that. But with the Cubs, you just don't know. 2019 sounds somewhat reasonable.

  • Excellent summary of the status Tom - thanks.

    Not that I will ever second guess the decision to trade Torres and the others for Chapman last season,... but that does leave the Cubs thin at 'the next level' in the middle infield. I think Chesney Young could be a fine Utility guy - but he's probably not an everyday SS at MLB levels.

    Was not aware that Baez dislikes playing 3B - he certainly seemed to do some excellent work there defensively last season.

    Good stuff Tom,...

  • In reply to drkazmd65:

    My guess with Javy at 3B is not that he dislikes the playing the position as much as he dislikes the limitations the position puts on what he can do and control. He likes being in the "middle" of the action and being the captain of strategy, positioning, etc. There is so much more responsibility at SS/2B (double-play turns, relay throws, stolen-base attempts) than at 3B, and I think he thrives on the added mental stimulation.

  • In reply to BarleyPop:

    I would agree with that. I think it is more a preference versus a dislike.

  • In reply to BarleyPop:

    not to mention that when he plays there he knows it is just to spell someone....

  • In reply to drkazmd65:

    Thanks!

  • These are so helpful. Thank you very much.

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    Thank you for this update. It's good to have a recap like this because during the season we get so much information that at times it kind of blurs. Here you put it in a concise read for us. thanks.

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    I could be wrong, but in my opinion I would be loathe to move on so quickly from Almora. He seems like a special player to me, the kind that championship teams have. How many guys would have the presence of mind to tag up at first like he did in game 7. Couple that with Baez-like (or pretty close) instincts and the fact that he is still inexperienced at the plate as a big leaguer, and I'd think long and hard before giving him up.

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    What about Thomas Hatch being moved up and Pierce Johnson as a reliever brought up if Rondon doesn't improve the 2nd half of the season?

  • In reply to Jonathan Friedman:

    There was a point not too long ago that it seemed like Hatch was ready. Now, it is probably better that the Cubs waited.

    I don't think Johnson has figured out how to be a consistent contributor. The Cubs have too much inconsistency in their pitching to allow Johnson some on-the-job training.

  • Tom, in terms of trade value at the present time, how would you stack rank the top 5-6? Also, after Eloy, how drastic is the drop off , in the eyes of potential trade partners?

  • In reply to Carl9730:

    Carl it's a good question, but I am the wrong person to ask that. I don't believe in "winning" trades, which is what the current market seems to be all about. Henceforth, I feel that all trades are a drastic overpay.

    It should be sensible that a switch-hitter with power that is able to play above average or better defense at third base be worth a top-of-the-rotation type of starter to a second division team, but the market doesn't see it that way.

    Front line pitching is always going to be the hardest position to develop, therefore making it the most valuable in a trade. But productive switch-hitters and left-handed power hitters run a very close second. The Cubs need to think long and hard before dealing someone like Happ, Candelario, Caratini, Schwarber, or Vosler.

  • Your points are well made. It just seems like there is a timeline mismatch developing where the big-league club needs SP help both now and for '18. As you pointed out, we're probably two years before we can reasonably expect help from the farm on that front. It seems somewhat "wasteful" to go with the wing n a prayer approach to the rotation , when you have such a solid positional core in place. I get that there is a perception that the market may not be valuing our assets in the same way we do but at some point you have to address the roster/organizational imbalance.

    Thanks again for your piece and reply to my comments.

  • Great piece, Tom. Love the summary and very digestible and readable. It's discouraging to see so few Cubs pitchers really advancing/the large gap between ML ready pitching and the need for it and also discouraging to hear about the OFers. I thought that was an organizational strength. Is Hannemann progressing at all? I didn't see him mentioned...

  • In reply to Pura Vida:

    Thank you Pure Vida. The piece was not as easy to write as it may appear. I wanted to stimulate conversation, and not stir controversy, a difficult balancing act.

    I certainly hope Jacob Hannemann can put things together in order to help the Cubs. He seems like a nice person, and he has crazy athletic skills. However, baseball isn't all about athleticism. Hannemann is batting about .290 in the very hitter friendly PCL.

    But even though he has great speed,he is not a lead-off hitter. Because of his lack of a baseball background, his lifetime OBP is just .311, and that will not get it done at the top of the line-up.

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