I haven't been on this Earth for as long as many of you who will read this piece today, but I have to imagine that this past July was as exciting a month as a sub-.500 Cubs team has ever played through. Though the MLB Cubs may have only gone 10-16, their minor league affiliates absolutely went off in the month of July.
Nearly every Cubs prospect took big strides forward, a top-10 stud was added to the system, and for possibly the first time in this rebuilding period, the majority of the excitement was coming from either AAA or Chicago.
As everyone expected, the Cubs made a handful of trades at the deadline, and the returns were better than we could have reasonably hoped for. Indeed, in light of what the Rays received for David Price, it's nearly impossible to argue that the Cubs could've done better in trading away Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel for Addison Russell, Billy McKinney, Dan Straily, and a PTBNL.
The newcomers have made an immediate impact on the Cubs' system and plans for the future. Russell is a potential plus defender at short, something that can't be said about either Starlin Castro or Javier Baez. If he can hit (and he's hit .292/.327/.542 with Tennessee so far), Russell will be pushing those two to new positions or new teams in the near future.
The others acquired in the trade, Billy McKinney and Dan Straily, figure to be valuable pieces as well. McKinney has the upside of a well-above-average outfielder, and Straily could be a 4th/5th starter type, something the Cubs have plenty of use for.
Beyond the Samardzija/Hammel trade, the Cubs also traded away James Russell and Emilio Bonifacio for a young catching prospect in Victor Caratini. Caratini doesn't project to be a star, or even much above average, but getting a guy who could be a league-average catcher out of a few months of Emilio Bonifacio and James Russell is quite a return.
Russell, McKinney, and Straily were fun additions to the system, and seeing the Cubs' farm ranked by ESPN's Keith law as the #1 system in baseball is incredibly exciting...but that's not what gets people tweeting in bursts. That's reserved for dingers, and man were there a lot of them for 2000 people to tweet about at once in July.
Javier Baez hit ten this month, Jorge Soler eight, Kris Bryant seven, Addison Russel six, and Albert Almora five (those are roughly 60, 48, 42, 36, and 30 HR season paces, by the way). I know we all talk about accumulating power hitters as the main strategy of this front office a lot, but sometimes I'm even shocked by the numbers being put up in the system.
A Litter of Legitimate Pitching Prospects
For me, the story of the Cubs' farm this season has been the emergence of a bunch of legitimate* pitching prospects within the system. Even though CJ Edwards hasn't pitched in months, and though there's no top-of-the-rotation caliber arm to tout, the stable of developing arms in the system is as impressive as it has been in a very long time.
Kyle Hendricks has debuted in the majors already, as has Dallas Beeler, who has pitched to a 2.08 ERA in July. In Tennessee, Pierce Johnson had a great month, posting a 1.87 ERA and striking out 35 in 33.2 July innings, and Corey Black continued tearing through Southern League hitters.
The most intriguing arms are far lower in the system, though. In Kane County, Jen-Ho Tseng continues to decimate MWL hitters with a mix of 3 potentially-plus pitches. Tseng posted a 1.47 ERA and 0.596 WHIP in July, which is obscene. His staffmates Duane Underwood (1.93 ERA) and Daury Torrez (2.10 ERA) have also garnered the attention of scouts who've seen them.
As the year rolls on, the great seasons of guys like Tseng look more and more substantial. They're forever away, but highly-thought-of pitching prospects are necessary if you're looking to trade for pitching in the future.
*Calling someone a legitimate prospect is a weird and nebulous phrase, but I usually use it to describe a player who could realistically play in the majors at some point.
I think the reason the month of July was so exciting for prospect fans was the incredible movement within the organization. It's exceedingly rare that seemingly half of a system earns a promotion by the end of July, but here we are. The speed with which guys have been promoted speaks to the quality of the prospects we're dealing with. Yes, sometimes that means guys are getting rushed, but it sure doesn't seem like that's an issue at this point.
The vanguard of the prospect wave headed towards Chicago made their debuts this month. Arismendy Alcantara Wally Pipped the heck out of Darwin Barney, who took only two days off to see the birth of his child. Alcantara hit a ton in those two days, and hasn't stopped hitting since.
The young second baseman has hit .253/.324/.407 since his promotion, good for a 103 wRC+, which is more than enough for a second baseman with his glove. If he hit like that for his career he'd be a very valuable piece of the future, and everyone expects him to hit quite a bit more than that.
Kyle Hendricks also debuted, and has turned in four solid performances, compiling an ERA of 2.05 through his first 26.1 innings as a big-leaguer. Hendricks still has a long way to go to prove his marginal stuff can play at the major league level, but good early returns are always encouraging.
Outside of MLB call-ups, the Cubs also promoted (take a deep breath here) Jorge Soler to AAA, Albert Almora to AA, Felix Pena to AA, Kyle Schwarber to High-A, Juan Carlos Paniagua to High-A, Jacob Hanneman to High-A, Tyler Skulina to High-A, and Jeffrey Baez to Class-A.
The biggest promotions may be yet to come, though. Due to the unique nature of his contract, Jorge Soler is immune to service-time games and concerns. As a result, he's a candidate to be called up whenever he's deemed ready, which may be as soon as this August.
Soler has hit at all levels of the minors, and is on a particularly crazy tear in 2014. If Cubs brass feels like he's not being challenged in the minors anymore, they could easily move him up and get him a full August and September's worth of games.
The other name being discussed for a possible late-season call up is Javier Baez. Though it would've sounded unfathomable a few months ago, Baez may be showing that he's improved to the point where PCL pitchers can't beat him anymore. Given that the PCL allowed a .300/.344/.655 line to Baez in the month of July while allowing him to cut his K/BB to 23.7%/6.6%, that may be the case.
Furthermore, given the volatility of Baez's profile, I doubt anyone expects him to hit enough to stay in the MLB forever upon promotion. If you assume he may need more time after an initial callup, there is less reason to worry about service time considerations.
Players of the Month
Is it cheating to name the top 5 hitting prospects in the system as the top 5 hitting prospects of the month? When they hit like they did, probably not. It's easy to get excited about the future when the big guys are doing things like they did this month.
Most Exciting Quotes on Cubs Prospects
"Congratulations, you just got Barry Larkin." - Billy Beane on Addison Russell, reportedly after completing the Samardzija/Hammel deal.
"could be a J.D. Drew-type player in his prime." - BaseballProspectus' Jeff Moore on Billy McKinney.
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Filed under: Minor League News