Category: Cubs Prospects

AFL Snap Judgments: Russell Impresses as Solar Sox Fall

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One game sample-sizes are a terrible way to judge the merits of a baseball player, but since my time in Arizona is so brief, I’m being forced to evaluate players based on just one game of action. Here are my snap judgments on some prospects for the Chicago Cubs, who fell in Arizona Fall League action to the Scottsdale Scorpions by a score of 2-1 on Monday night in Scottsdale.

Zach Cates

Cates only faced one hitter in the bottom of the fifth inning, retiring Roman Quinn on a groundout to shortstop. It was a very well located pitch that he induced the grounder on, and I really wish that he had faced more batters in the game.

Jacob Hannemann

Unfortunately for me, all three of the Cubs’ hitters who started this game struggled at the dish. Hannemann was just 1-for-6 entering the evening, and he left without helping his average at all. In fact, Hannemann hit with runners in scoring position on three different occasions in the game, and he grounded out to first base, flew out to center field, and struck out in those situations.

Vogelbach bats vs. the Scottsdale Scorpions in AFL action.

Vogelbach bats vs. the Scottsdale Scorpions in AFL action.

Even though he had an off-day at the plate, Hannemann made up for it with a couple of nice defensive plays, including a slicing ball down the right field line that he was able to cut off and hold Tyler Austin to just a single. His throw to Addison Russell wasn’t perfect, but it got the job done as the Solar Sox looked to keep their hopes of winning the game alive.

Addison Russell

Out of the four Cubs prospects that I saw on Monday, none impressed me the way that Russell did. No, he didn’t blow me away at the plate (although his sharply hit single to left field and his ninth-inning walk were both good to see), but his work with his glove was jaw-dropping.

In the bottom of the fifth inning, Russell (playing second base in this game) was positioned at normal depth against right-handed hitting Blake Miller. On an outside pitch, Miller lifted a fly ball that sliced down the right field line and looked like it was headed for trouble. Getting to full acceleration in just a few steps, Russell was able to somehow get under the ball and make a remarkable running catch to retire the batter.

Not content to let that be his only web gem, Russell came up with an even better one in the bottom of the seventh inning. Elias Diaz smacked a ball up the middle of the field, just eluding the pitcher. Sliding on one knee, Russell made an excellent pick of the ball, and from that knee he rifled a throw over to Dan Vogelbach at first, and when the Cubs’ first base prospect was able to scoop it out of the dirt, the runner was retired.

Hannemann bats for the Solar Sox in AFL action.

Hannemann bats for the Solar Sox in AFL action.

Both of those plays showed why Russell is such a highly touted shortstop. His range is incredible, his arm is strong, and most impressively of all, he made it look ridiculously easy. If Starlin Castro is looking over his shoulder during the 2015 season, fans will know why.

Dan Vogelbach

Vogelbach’s immediate comparison player is Javier Baez. He strides up to the plate looking like he can hit the ball a mile, but if anything offspeed came near the plate in this game, he was swinging and missing. He struck out with runners on second and third in the first inning, struck out again in his next at-bat in the third, and grounded out softly to third base in this third trip to the dish. He finished off the evening by grounding into a fielder’s choice in the top of the eighth inning.

Even though Vogelbach has struggled at the plate during AFL play (he’s now 1-for-11 with seven strikeouts and three walks), his glove work did give him something positive to build on. When pitcher Felipe Rivero fielded a high chopper near home plate, he ended up throwing the ball directly down the base line. Vogelbach not only was able to pick up the ball out of his hand (not an easy thing to do with a baserunner bearing down on you), but he was able to pick the one-hop throw out of the dirt to get the out at first base.

 

Soler, Baez Help Boost Cubs TV Ratings

The Chicago Cubs are not only starting to make some real progress on the field, but apparently the emergence of players like Javier Baez, Kyle Hendricks, and Jorge Soler this season has caused more fans to tune into games. Here is what Ed Sherman had to say on the subject:

“With the three young players leading the way, the Cubs’ 6-3 victory over Milwaukee did a 3.20 rating on Comcast SportsNet Wednesday. That means an estimated 115,000 homes tuned into an otherwise meaningless September game for the Cubs.”

The Cubs ended up being the third-highest viewed program in the Chicago area on Wednesday night, and those ratings spikes are coming at a good time. With renegotiation with WGN ongoing for their TV rights, as well as the possibility of a massive new TV deal in 2019, the Cubs are going to be looking to increase their footprint, and this is a good start.

Theo Epstein has also brought up how getting more money from television and other sources will impact the team’s ability to compete when he discussed their plans for the year ahead:

“As we get closer to a new television deal, and as we realize some of the revenues associated with a renovated Wrigley Field, I believe that will only enhance our flexibility.”

With work set to begin on those renovations in the next few weeks, and with players like Kris Bryant and Addison Russell still primed to be called up next season, things are about to start accelerating quickly for the Cubs on multiple fronts, and clearly fans are tuning in to see the progress that the team has made over three lackluster seasons.

Alcantara, Arrieta Shine as Cubs Youth Movement Continues to Impress

Jorge Soler bats against the Milwaukee Brewers September 3rd

Jorge Soler bats against the Milwaukee Brewers September 3rd

Unlike the past few Septembers, the atmosphere around Wrigley Field has been electric in recent weeks, and Tuesday night was no exception as the Chicago Cubs trounced the Milwaukee Brewers by a score of 7-1.

While plenty of the headlines will focus on the injury that Starlin Castro suffered in the first inning of the game, the contest was yet another showcase of the myriad of young players that the Cubs have working their way up through the system. Headlining that list was pitcher Jake Arrieta, who bounced back from a rough start against the Cincinnati Reds last week with a strong outing in this one. Outdueling Yovani Gallardo, Arrieta scattered five hits over six innings, allowing just one run and striking out four batters.

He varied up his speeds well, topping out at 95 MPH on his fastball and ratcheting down by 15-20 MPH on his offspeed stuff. His command was solid through most of the game, and even in tough situations like the one he faced in his final inning of work, he never strayed from his plan. With runners on second and third with two outs in the sixth inning, Arrieta struck out Gerardo Parra and got out of the jam with his team’s lead still intact.

Arismendy Alcantara warms up prior to September 3rd game vs. Brewers

Arismendy Alcantara warms up prior to September 3rd game vs. Brewers

Arrieta wasn’t the only youngster that shone in the game either. Arismendy Alcantara also had a nice night, slugging his eighth home run of the season to put a finishing touch on the rout. With Castro’s injury, we could end up seeing more of Alcantara at second base, but with the way he’s taken to playing center field in the big leagues, that might end up being a longer-term answer than some folks previously thought. 

Javier Baez was also impressive in the game, despite only reaching base once. He looked much more patient at the plate, and he made some really good contact with the ball, including a shot to center field in the second inning that would have been a long home run on most nights at the ballpark. He also transitioned seamlessly from second base to shortstop when Castro left the game, and he fielded the ball perfectly in those eight innings of work.

Jorge Soler also continued his torrid start with the Cubs, picking up an RBI single in the first inning and nearly hitting a home run in the fifth inning. Unfortunately for him, the wind held the ball in the yard as Khris Davis made a warning track snag, but his bat speed and sharp eye at the plate were both on full display. He also made a couple of spectacular grabs of his own in the outfield, including a diving catch that ended a potential Brewers rally in the seventh inning.

With so many young and exciting players in the lineup, Cubs fans are a much more optimistic bunch these days, and even though the paid attendance was below 30,000 on Tuesday, the crowd was still engrossed in the game. The Cubs aren’t going to make the playoffs this season, but if they continue to show the kind of improvement they have over these past few months, next season could be a lot more exciting on the North Side.

Should Rizzo, Castro Be Shut Down by Cubs?

Javier Baez bats against the Milwaukee Brewers September 3rd.

Javier Baez bats against the Milwaukee Brewers September 3rd.

The Chicago Cubs knocked off the Milwaukee Brewers by a score of 7-1 on Tuesday night at Wrigley Field, and even though the performance was arguably one of the team’s best of the season, there was still bad news that put a damper on the festivities.

That’s because Starlin Castro, who has had a resurgent season after chafing last season under Dale Sveum, was injured in the first inning of the game on an awkward slide into home plate. The shortstop was able to limp to the dugout under his own power, but he was understandably removed from the game. X-rays were negative after the game, but he will undergo an MRI on Wednesday to see if there’s any structural damage to the leg.

Add to that the frustrating back injury that continues to hamper first baseman Anthony Rizzo, who is sidelined for at least the next 10 days after an MRI revealed a muscle strain, and the Cubs are looking as though they could be without their two best players for a good chunk of the remainder of the season. The team has declined to rule either player out for the remainder of the campaign, but it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the team is going to play each injury cautiously.

The real question for the Cubs is this: even if Rizzo and/or Castro can come back and play this season, would the team be smart to just sit them both for the duration? After all, Rizzo already has 568 plate appearances this season, and he’s set career highs in home runs, on-base percentage, and OPS. He clearly is more dialed in at the plate than he ever has been in his career, and as such he doesn’t really have much left to prove for the team down the stretch.

Chris Valaika on the other hand could earn himself a reserve spot on the team next season if he can have a strong finish to the season. He only has 71 plate appearances with the Cubs so far this season, with two home runs, seven RBI, and a .185 batting average. Those numbers aren’t all that great, but he has shown signs that he could be better than his numbers would indicate, and more plate appearances would be a nice audition for him.

Castro is also a player without much left to prove, as he has shown increased power and plate coverage in his fifth MLB season. He has a very respectable .290 average, 153 hits, and a career high .774 OPS. His defense still needs some work, but with so little time left in the season, it’s unlikely that he would get much more time at the position anyway, so cutting him off now would be a savvy move.

In addition to those factors, getting Javier Baez some more reps at shortstop could only be a good thing for the rookie. He looked perfectly comfortable at the spot on Tuesday after being forced to switch from second to short following the Castro injury, and he could really thrive if given some more reps at the spot.

Whatever the Cubs decide to do, they have the benefit of not only being out of the playoff hunt, but of having players capable of filling in if Castro and Rizzo have to sit out. That is a luxury that most teams would love to have at this point in the year, and the Cubs should take full advantage of the chance.

Cubs’ Six Man Rotation Enables Youngsters to Shine

Jake Arrieta warms up prior to the Cubs' September 3rd game against Milwaukee

Jake Arrieta warms up prior to the Cubs’ September 3rd game against Milwaukee

The Chicago Cubs’ pitching rotation was supposed to become a weak point of the squad after they dealt away Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel in a blockbuster July trade, but despite the loss of two of their top pitchers, the team’s staff has remained a strength rather than a liability.

Now, with just a few weeks left in the season and numerous games remaining against teams in the playoff hunt, the Cubs will apparently be going with a six-man rotation for at least the next few weeks. According to Chicago Cubs Online, the team will have Jake Arrieta, Kyle Hendricks, Tsuyoshi Wada, Felix Doubront, Travis Wood, and Jacob Turner as their starters for at least two starts apiece, and Dan Straily and Eric Jokisch, who were both called up by the team as the roster expanded to 40 players, could each get a start sometime before the end of the campaign as well.

The decision to start six pitchers instead of five has several benefits, not the least of which is to give guys like Turner and Doubront a chance to showcase their stuff. Arrieta and Hendricks are both going to be part of the rotation next season, and in all likelihood Wood will be as well. Unless the Cubs make an insane splash and add several guys to the rotation from outside the organization (something that Theo Epstein hasn’t explicitly ruled out doing, but still seems unlikely anyway), a guy like Doubront or Turner could feasibly become the fourth or fifth starter to begin next season.

Aside from those two, the guy that will be most intriguing to watch is Wada. In nine starts with the Cubs so far, Wada has a 4-2 record, a 2.79 ERA, and has a WHIP of 1.084. His SO9 is a respectable 7.7, and his strikeout to walk ratio of 3.14 is just as impressive. The 33-year old could be the type of guy the Cubs could feasibly trade for younger pitching help, and giving him a chance to showcase his stuff at least a few more times is a savvy move by Epstein and company.

Hendricks will be the next Cubs pitcher to take the bump when he tries to help the Cubs sweep the Milwaukee Brewers on Wednesday night at Wrigley Field.

Could Valbuena Be Trade Bait for Cubs with Bryant Coming?

Over the past several seasons, the Chicago Cubs haven’t really been in a position where they’ve had to jettison players to make room for others, as their young talent was still spread out throughout the minor league system.

Beginning next year however, some of those decisions are going to start popping up. Kris Bryant is all but a shoe-in to start the year as the Cubs’ third baseman, Arismendy Alcantara will either be playing second base or center field for the north siders, and players like Albert Almora and Billy McKinney will soon be vying for outfield spots for the team.

All of those youngsters coming up through the system are obviously great for the club, but the news isn’t as good for players like Luis Valbuena. He has 16 home runs and 46 RBI in 540 plate appearances this season, and he’s already got career highs in both of those categories. He does strike out a lot, with 97 punchouts this season, but he does walk quite a bit, and his .325 OBP isn’t exactly terrible when you consider the amount of power that he provides at the dish.

Valbuena once again showed off his value on Monday afternoon as the Cubs tried to knock the Milwaukee Brewers out of first place. After watching Starlin Castro strike out looking to lead off the eighth inning against Brewers reliever Jeremy Jeffress, Valbuena deposited a 1-1 pitch into the center field bleachers to give the Cubs a critical insurance run. That breathing room allowed Hector Rondon to come in and nail down the save against the heart of the Milwaukee order, and the Cubs were able to knock off their rivals to the north 4-2.

Valbuena’s bat is a really good asset for the Cubs, and his glove is as well. With plays like the one he made Sunday afternoon against the St. Louis Cardinals (he took a step back on a sharply hit grounder, picked it cleanly, and started a 5-4-3 double play), Valbuena is capable of turning a game with the leather too.

Unfortunately for him, none of that is going to matter when the 2015 season comes around. The fact of the matter is that Valbuena might be too talented of a player to simply use in a utility role, and the Cubs might be better off trading him away. There are plenty of teams who could use a slick fielding third baseman with the potential to hit 20 home runs a season (the fact he’s under team control until 2017 is another selling point), and the Cubs could enrich their pitching rotation or bullpen if Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer play their cards right.

Losing Valbuena would stink, especially considering how much he’s done for the Cubs while they’ve been mired in mediocrity while waiting for their youngsters to make it to the big leagues, but it would be equally unfair to him to make him a bench player as other players come into the fold. Trading him would be the most fair way to go about things, and both parties would benefit in the long run from that kind of move.

 

 

Soler Call-Up Yet Another Reason for Hope for Cubs Fans

For fans of the Chicago Cubs, there is this weird feeling that is currently settling into the collective psyche. An emotion that many haven’t felt since the 2008 season, when the team won 97 games and looked poised to make mincemeat out of their World Series drought (spoiler alert: it didn’t happen).

That emotion: optimism.

Sure, the old refrain from Cubs fans is “there’s always next year,” but after many years of that being a hollow premise, it seems as though there might finally be some validity to the maxim. After all, the Cubs have called up several of their biggest prospects this season, including Javier Baez and Arismendy Alcantara (whose two-run homer on Tuesday helped lift the Cubs to victory), gotten a 30 home run season out of Anthony Rizzo, and have several prospects still in the minors, including Kris Bryant and Addison Russell, that are going to make a massive impact on the team in coming seasons.

The team’s decision to call up Jorge Soler to be their starting right fielder for the stretch run is yet one more example of that forward progress. Soler is a really good hitter with plenty of power, and after years of experimenting with a multitude of players, team management has to be hoping that Soler will finally lock down a position of weakness on the roster.

With eight home runs and 29 RBI in just 32 games for the Iowa Cubs this season, Soler has shown that he is ready to make the next leap forward in his development. Much like they have with their other top prospects, the Cubs have taken it slowly with the Cuban outfielder, and the 22-year old has certainly paid his dues as he made his way up the ladder. His bat is definitely a tantalizing addition to the lineup, and the thought of him hitting behind Rizzo and Starlin Castro in the Cubs’ lineup could make for a very interesting September.

Sure, Soler’s debut in the majors is likely to be fraught with growing pains, but Cubs fans that have already waited so patiently for these guys to make their way up to the majors aren’t going to panic over a September slump. There is still palpable excitement in the air when Baez strides to the plate, and he’s had four four-strikeouts games already in just 21 big league contests. If those kinds of struggles can’t dampen the enthusiasm of a fan base, then frankly nothing will.

No, Soler isn’t going to single-handedly bring the Cubs back into the wild card hunt. No, he probably isn’t going to sock 10 home runs in a month and make everyone in Chicago forget about Jose Abreu. No, he isn’t Kris Bryant. None of those things matter. All that matters is that the Cubs are clearly gearing up to make a serious leap forward in the 2015 season, and getting Soler his first MLB at-bats is yet another reminder that brighter days are ahead on the north side.

Edwards, Russell Highlight Cubs Arizona Fall League Participants

The Chicago Cubs have been cultivating their farm system for several seasons now under the regime of Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer, and Jason McLeod, and this fall the fruits of their labor will once again be on display when the Mesa Solar Sox take the field in Arizona Fall League action.

As part of the Solar Sox roster, the Cubs will send seven of their best prospects to compete in the league, and the list is an impressive one. The name that jumps out right away is shortstop Addison Russell, who was acquired by the Cubs in the Jeff Samardzija trade in July. Russell has been raking since being acquired by the team, slugging 12 home runs and driving in 35 RBI for West Tennessee. He also is sporting a very nice split of .297/.339/.560 in the 44 games he’s been there, and his defense has dazzled scouts and fans alike.

Russell will be joined on the Solar Sox roster by pitcher C.J. Edwards, who is arguably one of the top arms in the team’s farm system. In nine starts with West Tennessee, Edwards has a 2.25 ERA, a 1.00 WHIP, and is striking out 9.2 batters per nine innings. He has also surrendered just one home run in those 44 innings (he allowed one home run in 116 innings pitched in 2013), and even though his strikeout-to-walk ratio is a tad higher this season, he still is wowing fans at just 22 years of age.

First baseman Dan Vogelbach (15 home runs, 72 RBI in high-A ball this year), pitcher Gerardo Concepcion (3-2 with a 3.39 ERA in 58.1 minor league innings), pitcher Zach Cates (3-2 with a 4.15 ERA in high-A and Class-AA), outfielder Jacob Hannemann (8 HR, 49 RBI, 37 SB), and pitcher Ivan Pineyro (0-5, 5.46 ERA in 56 IP) round out the Cubs’ representatives on the Solar Sox.

The Solar Sox will kick off their season on Tuesday, October 7 at 2:35pm Central time against Glendale, and their first home game will be played the next day against Glendale at Cubs Park.

Baez Call-Up Means More than Just More Power for Cubs

Ever since the Chicago Cubs were eliminated from the 2008 playoffs by the Los Angeles Dodgers, every new season has come complete with a ton of disappointment for fans of the team. Whether it was the acquisition of Milton Bradley, the complete meltdown of Carlos Marmol, or the wasted last few seasons of Alfonso Soriano, there has been plenty for Cubs fans to be sad about in recent years.

Beginning in 2012 however, Cubs fans began to see signs of life. Whether it was the decision to trade for Anthony Rizzo in 2012, draft Kris Bryant in the 2013 MLB Draft, or the trade that netted the Cubs Addison Russell in 2014, or the signing of Jorge Soler, the Cubs’ front office has made a ton of moves that have strengthened the team for the long-term.

Obviously, those moves have come at a cost, but the benefits are finally beginning to show themselves with the emergence of Javier Baez on the scene for Chicago. Fans who have tuned out because of the lean years that have followed Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer’s arrival in the city find themselves glued to the TV once again as Baez has gotten off to his torrid start, and in equal measure the fans who have ridden out this rough road are being rewarded for their patience with the way Baez has arrived on the scene.

Perhaps more importantly than just the call-up itself or the way he’s started his career with the team, Baez has already shown he is capable of changing the way fans perceive the team. Against the Colorado Rockies on Tuesday night, nobody would have blamed fans for tuning out from the game after Hector Rondon blew his fourth save opportunity of the season by surrendering a run in the bottom of the 11th inning. If they decided to stick with the game though, they were instantly rewarded when Baez ripped an opposite field home run to give the Cubs back a lead that they would never relinquish.

On Thursday afternoon, a similar thing happened for the team as they won yet another game. Leading 4-2 in the top of the 8th inning, Pat Hughes and Ron Coomer were discussing how important it was for the Cubs to get an insurance run or two in the frame (perhaps remembering the Rondon and Wesley Wright struggles in Tuesday’s game). Sure enough, Baez strode to the plate, and somehow muscled a ball that was below his knees over the right field fence to make it a 6-2 game.

With just those two games, Baez has shown that his potential isn’t just as a power hitter; his potential could also be to be the opening salvo in a barrage of new weapons that are making their way to the North Side. A player who can do the things Baez has already shown himself capable of doing has the power to turn around a team’s entire mentality, and Baez’s no-quit attitude and prodigious power are already yielding positive results for the Cubs.

If he can keep this up, and if the Cubs continue to stick to their plan in terms of stockpiling bats, then the fans at Wrigley are going to have a lot to cheer about in coming seasons. Needless to say, the opening act has been a sight to behold.

Alcantara’s Brief Call-Up a Signal of Things to Come for Cubs

The Chicago Cubs are being really cautious with their most prized prospects, but one guy that’s been lighting up the minors this season will get a brief two-game stint with the big league club over the next few days.

That’s because infielder Arismendy Alcantara will be called up to the Cubs to take Darwin Barney’s spot on the active roster. Barney will be leaving the team to be with his wife for the birth of their third child, and Alcantara will start the Cubs’ remaining two games against the Cincinnati Reds.

Alcantara has played 88 games so far this season for the Triple A Iowa Cubs, and he’s been, in a word, excellent. His batting average of .308 and his OPS of .892 are both impressive, and his 45 extra-base hits are a great sign as well. Add to that his 21 stolen bases and his ability to play both middle infield spots and center field, and you have a player that has Cubs fans legitimately excited.

Of course, Alcantara will only be up for two games (although there’s no rule that says he can’t be called up if the Cubs do end up trading Barney before the trade deadline), but there’s still reason for Cubs fans to be optimistic. The team on the field at the big league level is struggling again after the Jeff Samardzija trade last week (although to suggest that one has to do with the other is silly), but the Iowa Cubs have been a treat to watch. Guys like Javier Baez and Kris Bryant continue to rake against the pitching at that level, and even though he isn’t as highly touted as either of those players (or Addison Russell, for that matter), Alcantara is a guy that could very well be in the Cubs’ plans well into the future.

Getting to finally get a brief glimpse of him against big league pitching is definitely something to look forward to, and the hope has to be that he gives Cubs fans something to cheer for in his brief stay with the team. He is an intriguing player, and he’s the first of the team’s many big-time prospects to get a whiff of the big leagues.