Fall instructs will be different this year. Not only will we lack John's eyes and ears but the organization is also taking a slightly different approach as well. There is no longer a group of Advanced Instructs participants that will compete in formal games against other squads. In recent years the Cubs shared a team with the Angels but the Cubs plan as of now is only to hold simulated games with their own players. I know that readers may find this strange, and some might consider it a step back of sorts, but the goals of Instructs is entirely focused on development of player skills and preparing these youngsters for their next steps on an individual basis. Games against other organizations is superfluous in my opinion and while I enjoy boxscores probably more than most it really doesn't hold much if any value in environments like this. Regardless of the form the action takes place this year, despite not being able to attend, I will do my best to keep everyone in the loop with anything I hear throughout.
As usual, a big thanks to AZ Phil for keeping us plugged in with insane detail of the staff and players assembling down in Mesa. Take a gander at his full list of the participants here. I'm sure any actual or sim games the club participates in during the course of Instructs will be the beneficiaries of a detailed boxscore courtesy of AZ Phil.
I will be taking a look at each position group this week, beginning today with the catchers.
It is an intriguing group of catchers assembled this fall, highlighted by Miguel Amaya. While the 18-year old disappointed with the bat (.228/.266/.328) in 58 games with Eugene this season, he met all expectations I had for him behind the plate. Despite lacking a powerful arm at this stage he still gunned down 41.4% of potential base stealers while handling one of the top staffs in the NWL. He showed no issue receiving the plus velocity or breaking balls presented by the Emeralds hurlers. Amaya has the makings of a very good catcher in my eye especially if his arm strength improves as his body physically matures, which seems like a solid bet.
His bat currently lags behind his defense though. The 6'1" 185 pound Panamanian still has room to add weight to his frame, which should help him not only defensively but at the plate as well, as a lack of strength leading to weaker than expected contact was apparent at times. A strong extended spring training in which he led the team in most offensive categories probably set expectations a tad high for him this season. He is still a work in progress both physically and in terms of approach but if he can develop into even close to an average offensive player his skills behind the dish could carry him a long way.
The group of catchers also includes news of our first position switch. Cam Balego, an infielder chosen in the 30th round out of Mercyhurst (PA), will begin donning the tools of ignorance. He spent time at all four infield positions in 36 games with the AZL club this year while hitting .286/.385/.449 but will now look to further improve his versatility. The Cubs have achieved some measure of success with catcher conversions in recent seasons and it appears Balego will be the newest experiment. Hopefully Balego can take to the new position as quickly and as fully as P.J. Higgins recently did.
Joining those two in Mesa will be Michael Cruz, Jhonny Pereda and two youngsters, Henderson Perez and Jonathan Soto, who spent the year down in the DSL. Cruz is an intriguing offensive catcher that the club selected in the 7th round last year. A left handed hitter, he struggled mightily when given a chance at South Bend out of EXST, but responded by blistering the ball upon his demotion to Eugene. Cruz has displayed a good eye at the plate wherever he has played (9.7-13.1% BB rates) while also showing good contact rates (12.4-15.5% K rates), but it wasn't until arriving in Eugene that he found his power stroke. He hit 8 HRs in just 35 with the team to post a .565 slugging percentage to go along with a .379 on-base percentage. Cruz is nothing special defensively at this point so he will need to continue his second half offensive breakthrough in order to progress significantly through the system.
The 21-year old Pereda is the opposite of Cruz in that he is a solid defensive backstop but his offensive game has been limited up to this point. A solid 2016 at the plate in the AZL (.289/.376/.406) allowed Pereda to skip Eugene and begin 2017 with Soth Bend where he remained all season, but interestingly he started only 32 games behind the plate and 45 at 1B. He performed well when I had a chance to see him as a receiver this season, so I wonder if there was a nagging injury that kept him from taking on a larger workload. The offense he showed in Arizona did not carry through with him to Indiana however. There were still some positives, his walk rate remained above 10% and his K rate raised only slightly to 16.7%, but Pereda was unable to hit the ball with any authority throughout the year. His SLG of .290 and ISO of .041 were among the worst in the organization. Strength is not necessarily the issue though. What is a problem is a swing and approach that leads to shockingly high ground ball rates (above 50% his entire five year career). Pereda simply does not lift the ball effectively or often enough. There is some raw tools to work with in my opinion. Even if he ends up returning to the MWL I expect we will seem some improvement from him in 2018.
Perez is the newcomer I am most intrigued to see in the future. John mentioned during EXST that Perez possessed many of the same raw skills as Miguel Amaya just without the same polish. A member of the Cubs touted 2015 IFA class that included Amaya as well as Jose Albertos, Aramis Ademan, Jonathan Sierra and many others, Perez may not be as advanced as some his fellow 18-year olds in that group, but it is important to keep in mind that not all players advance at the same rate. The development path at catcher can be even more long and grueling. It doesn't mean much now, or anything really, but the $1.25 million bonus the club handed to Perez in 2015 was greater than the one given to Amaya.
I'm afraid I can't provide you with much information on Jonathan Soto at this point. The Cubs signed the 19-year old to a contract back in May then assigned him to the DSL Cubs2 squad. I don't see any record of him playing with another organization prior to this and given his listed size of 5'9" 143 pounds it may be the case that teams previously felt that he was too small to be successful, especially at a physically taxing position like catcher. But to his credit the left hand hitting Soto slashed .284/.350/.383 in 62 games and is now being given an opportunity stateside. I wonder if he perhaps had a late growth spurt that is not accounted for in his listed height/weight or he simply excelled outside of the DSL so much prior to 2017 that the Cubs were willing to overlook his size and give him a chance. The fact he is now in Mesa points to him taking advantage of the opportunities presented to him so far.
Another catcher down in Arizona right now is Ian Rice as one of eight prospects assigned to the Mesa Solar Sox of the Arizona Fall League. Impressive power and plate discipline make Rice a very intriguing sleeper in the Cubs organization. After tearing up the MWL in the first half of 2016, Rice struggled at times with Myrtle Beach, both at the plate and behind it. But the Cubs saw enough this spring to give Rice an aggressive opening day opportunity on the AA Tennessee Smokies roster. The confidence in the solidly built 24-year old paid off handsomely as he continued to show both power and patience, finishing the year with 17 homers and 15.2% walk rate in 119 games. And for a power hitter, Rice does not swing and miss much. His 22.8% K rate would be acceptable in any circumstance, but is mostly a factor of Rice frequently working deep counts rather than swinging through or chasing pitches out of the zone. Rice also made some strides defensively, throwing out a career-high 20.4% of base stealers, but his receiving skills still require refinement. He does not possess the naturally soft hands of a player like Amaya and at this point is close in performance to Kyle Schwarber at the position. But Rice is still relatively inexperienced and if they can get him up to the level of say Victor Caratini then his offensive game could carry him into a bench role with a Major League club.