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Spring training stats are, at best, hard to interpret. Drawing an accurate conclusion from Cactus League stats is so difficult it may as well be impossible. The situation becomes worse when we consider minor league players who generally receive less playing time than the guys preparing for a major league season. Writing an entire article about prospects based on little more than Spring statistics is a really bad idea.

Unfortunately, it is the middle of March. We are weeks away from having any meaningful data about the Cubs’ prospects, and Spring Training numbers are what we have to work with. As the saying goes, when life hands you lemons…

… make life take the lemons back! Demand to see life’s manager! Make life rue the day it thought it could give you lemons!

I really hope someone here got that reference.

Anyhow, even though Spring statistics are generally unreliable and nearly meaningless, I think we can squeeze a little information out of them. At worst, it is never a bad thing to keep an eye on the future of the franchise, even if we can’t be sure what that eye is telling us.

Catchers

If there is any one fact we can establish from Spring statistics, it might just be this: the Cubs’ young catchers came to camp ready to compete for a job. When Geovany Soto went down to an early strain, the battle for backup catcher was quite suddenly thrust into the spotlight. Welington Castillo and Steve Clevenger quickly turned that battle into a two man race, and what a race it is. Through six games (12 ABs), Clevenger has an OPS of 1.133. Castillo isn’t too far behind, with an OPS of 0.941 in 8 games (17 ABs). Both have one home run. Clevenger is the more patient hitter, so I am not surprised to see that he has already collected a pair of walks.

It is still too early declare a winner here, but Castillo should be regarded as the favorite. Clevenger has yet to spend a full season in Triple A, and Castillo has nothing left to prove at that level. In tournament speak, this is a 7 vs 10 match-up with Castillo as the higher seed. Even so, don’t be surprised if Clevenger and his left handed swing pull the upset. (Note from Brett: I see Clevenger as the favorite thanks to what appears to be a slightly more polished approach behind the plate, and a left-handed bat. It’s close, though, as Luke says.)

Infielders

Not only has Junior Lake proven to be surprisingly tall and in possession of surprisingly good defense at shortstop, he also has put together a very surprising stat line. Through Wednesday’s games, Lake had reached base three times (Brett: and he ended up homering on Thursday). Two of those came via walks. He has made good use of his time on the base paths, however, picking up two steals and scoring twice. In a nut shell, that is going to be Lake game. On the one hand we will see plenty of extra base hits and steals, and on the other hand we will see lots of strike outs (four so far this spring). He will be equal parts exciting and frustrating to watch.

I want to come back to those two walks. Alone, that data point means nothing. The sample is so small that these numbers fade into statistical irrelevance. However, that data point does not stand alone. When we look at numbers across the team, the data is hinting at an underlying story that I think we should keep an eye on as this season progresses.

We know that the new Cubs’ new regime are going to emphasis getting on base, and that drawing walks is a significant part of that strategy. We also know that the Cubs have a handful of players in camp who are not, by any means, known for their plate discipline or their ability to draw walks. Junior Lake is a perfect example, and he already has two walks this Spring. Josh Vitters is another great example. He has also collected two walks and just ten at bats. Blake DeWitt posted an OBP of .305 in 2011. He has three walks in eleven at bats. Joe Mather has a career OBP of .283. He also has two walks in fifteen at bats.

This is exactly the sort of results we would expect to see if the Cubs were now stressing plate discipline and the player were responding. I am not calling this a trend yet, but it is a story line that is worth keeping an eye on. It could be that we are seeing four separate statistical flukes that are all trending in the same direction. Or it could be that the change in organizational emphasis is already starting to pay dividends. The regular season will tell the real story.

Pitchers

The bulk of the attention in the Spring has focused on the starting rotation or on the second left handed reliever in the bullpen, but there is one more pitching question we need to watch. Can Lendy Castillo stick in the majors?

Lendy Castillo was a Rule 5 Draft selection by the Cubs this year. That means the Cubs need to keep him on the 25-man roster or risk losing him back to the Phillies. In many cases this would not be that big of a deal, but Castillo is an exception. Even though Castillo has five years in the minors, he has only been pitching since 2010. In his entire professional career, he has pitched only 111 innings. That lack of experience will make it more difficult for the Cubs to keep him in the majors, and yet his success despite that lack of experience is a powerful indicator of how much promise this guy has. Baseball America ranked him 8th among the Cubs deep pool of right handed relief prospects, ahead of better known pitchers such as Aaron Kurcz (now departed for the Red Sox) and Blake Parker. If the Cubs can keep him around, Castillo could easily evolve into a very good late inning reliever.

But can they keep him on the roster all season (without playing games with the disabled list)? The early results look good. In five innings this spring, Castillo has given up just one hit while walking three and striking out four. Those aren’t bad numbers for a middle reliever. His spring WHIP of 0.800 is an encouraging sign. If he continues to enjoy this sort of success in the Cactus League, I strongly suspect the Cubs will take him north with the team. It remains to be seen if he can stay successful as opposing hitters learn how to work against his stuff, but at this stage there is reason for optimism.

Once again, Spring Training numbers are so hard to interpret accurately that they are often useless. Nevertheless, when the calendar says March and the regular season is weeks away, it never hurts to keep an eye on those stats.

  • Packman711

    Portal. That’s gotta be worth some BN points.

    • TWC

      Portal 2.

      • http://www.bleachernation.com Luke

        Amazing game.  Amazing writing.

        • TWC

          I’ve never played it.  My video gaming stopped with the demise of the original NES.  I just know the lemon meme thing … from somewhere on the intertubes.

          • hardtop

            clever maneuver to distance yourself from the nerds. very shrewd. you should run for office. although you most certainly have inhaled ;)

      • SirCub

        Nerds.

    • hardtop

      if by BN you mean big nerd, than yes: your video game knowledge has earned you some nerd points. ;)

  • Noah

    I like Castillo better long term, but I think Clevenger will (and should) win the backup job. Clevenger’s ceiling is as a backup catcher. While his defense will never be above average, if it even reaches average, he is serviceable behind the plate and his decent left handed bat makes him the sort of backup you’re comfortable starting 40 or 50 games. Castillo has the higher ceiling, but could continue improving his game calling (which reportedly has improved significantly over the past couple of seasons) and patience at the plate. I’d just like Castillo to get the everyday at bats in Iowa, where I’m not concerned about that with Clevenger.

    I hope you’re right that the Cubs are preaching patience and that the young guys are taking that in. That would be a huge step in the right direction.

    • Sinnycal

      That’s my thought, as well. Castillo being the better prospect doesn’t necessarily help him in a battle to be Soto’s backup.

  • http://www.bleachernation.com Luke

    By the way, stats in this article are through Wednesday’s game.  If you check the official lines right now, they’ll look a little different than what I quoted here.

  • DocWimsey

    Hey Luke,

    Any idea what proportion of major league relievers were relievers in lower minors as opposed to starters converted to relievers in MLB or sent to AAA to become relievers?

    Superficially at least, it seems like starting pitchers are like SS or CFers: yes, you get the starters/SSs/CFers from those pools, but you also get the relievers/2B+3Bmen/corner outfielders from those pools.

    • http://www.bleachernation.com Luke

      I don’t know the proportion, but I’m not sure it would applicable if I did.  My sense of things is that teams are becoming more willing to draft relievers (especially college relievers) and keep them in that role.  As teams place more importance on the bullpen and on the differing factors that lead to bullpen success versus rotation success, they are adjusting their draft strategy accordingly.

      Starters are still the priority, I think, but I’m not sure I’d want to say beyond that.  I think the comparison to drafting athletic players (SS, CF, etc.) is a good one.  At the same time, when a big bat like Dan Vogelbach comes along, you take him.  And when a very good reliever like Tony Zych comes along, you take him.  Unless there is someone that you have rated more highly, of course.

  • Mick

    I love the catching situation that’s presented itself and it’s time to start the clock on one of these guys. Clevenger continues to impress with his plate patience and solid contact and I think the fact that he bats left-handed gives him the edge if both catchers are viewed equally. Soto’s starting to get up there in Arb years, $$, and age and if he can get out to a solid start could be a decent trade chip. KC’s cathcer situation is bleek at the moment and adding a veteran like Soto could be advantageous. Perfect situation would be to start Castillo at AAA and call him up after June when Soto’s wearing a new KC uniform.

    P.S. I’m still lobbying for a Marlon Byrd for Steve Lomardozzi trade with the Nationals and shipping Garza to the Jays for Henderson Alvarez, Jake Marisnick, and Kyle Drabek. As you can tell, I’m all-in on a Cubs rebuild. And hell while I’m at it, are no teams impressed with Soriano’s torrid spring??? Let’s make some room for the impending Brett Jackson call-up and move Soriano while he’s ripping the cover off the ball.

    • CubFan Paul

      I wonder if KC wants Soto now, to start the season. Then we start the clock on both catchers -very unconventional …& Clevenger will definitely be Soto’s backup if he stays because of the bench situation (maybe a RH Mather over a LH Campy and maybe a RH Barney w/no NO LH Dewitt if Cardenas starts at 2B) & LH bat

      • DocWimsey

        KC (probably) is not a good trading partner for a veteran, even a young veteran like Soto. Realistically, they are a year or two away from competing, and giving up prospects for a guy that they might not be able to afford to keep wouldn’t make sense.

        Indeed, if the Royals get off to a good start (50:50 that they do!), then Moore will have to resist the temptation to go “all in” and blow the future on a longshot.

        • CubFan Paul

          Soto has 2 years of control left. KC could always trade him this July (when Perez and Pina are back & healthy), next winter, or July of ’13

          • DocWimsey

            There is so much “luck” in the tradability of players that I would not risk it. Now, the new WC might change this, but look at last year: there were not any races at the trading deadline, never mind the roster deadline. Then you have to bank on the contending teams needing help at catcher, being willing to trade for a guy that they might not be able to keep AND Soto being healthy.

            That being written, catcher seems to be the one hole in KC’s minor league depth chart, at insofar as I can find.

            • Mick

              KC trading for Soto wouldn’t absolutely mean there going all or nothing and KC is in a much better position than the Cubs to have Soto in their plans. The Cubs are still realistically 3-4 years away from putting together a competing ball club wheras the Royals have a chance to compete 2013 and beyond. Depending on what they get from Gordon, Hosmer, Moustakas, Cain, Francouer, Butler, etc. they could be dangerous this season barring a Verlander injury.

              I’m spent on waiting for Soto to emerge and his injury and production history have been a roller coaster ride. If the Cubs could yield a decent prospect or two from KC or any club, I don’t see starting Castillo and Clevenger’s arb clocks as any issue whatsoever. They’re both too advanced in age to be considered “prospects” and it’s time to see what they can do.

              • CubFan Paul

                Agreed. Arizona is looking for catching depth (Towers made a cry for help on MLBradio) ..Castillo makes sense for Arizona especially with Towers dangling young arms

        • http://www.bleachernation.com Luke

          KC might more interest in Castillo than Soto, but I’m really not sure they would ask about either one.

          Regardless, I think the Cubs should look strongly at dealing one of those two this summer.  Either extend Soto and deal Castillo, or deal Soto and see what Castillo can do catching four to five games a week.

          • CubFan Paul

            i agree. but gambling on Soto’s health until this summer is crazy risky.

            • http://www.bleachernation.com Luke

              That cuts both ways.  Other teams are going to be leery of his health as well.

  • AB

    Matt Cerda seems to have become a forgotten man. He seems like a guy who might get more attention with the new regime.

    I assume the AA infield will be Bour-Cerda-Watkins-Lake?? Really interested to see how those guys do at the plate.

    • http://www.bleachernation.com Luke

      I like Cerda, but I’m not sure where he plays.  If he can stay at second, then the Cubs have a bunch of good hitting second base prospects.  That’s a good problem to have.

      That AA infield sounds about right.  I think we’ll see Watkins at second, Cerda at third and Lake short for now.  Lake is far enough away from the majors that they don’t need to start converting him to third quite yet.

      • CubFan Paul

        What about Lake playing 3B everyday in 2013 (May/June -control reasons)? He’s been quoted saying he doesn’t want to play in Iowa and wants to jump straight to the Show. He has to be salivating at the opportunity to play 3B now (a position not blocked by a stud)

        • http://www.bleachernation.com Luke

          If the Cubs see that as a possibility, then Watkins moves to short and Cerda plays second.

          I can understand Lake wanting to jump straight from Tennessee to Chicago.  After all, his good buddy Castro did it.  I just don’t see it happening.  That said, he could still be playing third in Chicago by June 2013 if he has a great 2012.  He’ll start in Tennessee, but if he shows he can handle himself at the plate and produce against Southern League pitching, I think he’ll be promoted to Iowa in the second half.  That would set him up to take over as the Cubs every day third baseman sometime in 2013.

        • TWC

          Hey, Paully, I’ve been quoted as saying that I’d prefer to skip AAA and go right to the majors.  Whaddya think my odds are?

      • ty

        Matt Cerda,former Williamsport Little League star, is a versatile athlete who goes deeper into the count than any player in our organization. He is a terrific two strike hitter. An excellent third baseman but if we want power at that position than he may have to switch. A 100 per cent fundamental player and was at age of 18. Not your prototype second baseman but he will earn his way to the bigs somehow–class act.

  • THEOlogical

    Hey Luke, wanted to ask who you thought we should be expecting to play at the MLB level, come 2013? Barring any player making a noticeable leap. Just wondering who, in the minors, we should watch out for come 2013.

    • http://www.bleachernation.com Luke

      That could an article in itself.

      Actually, it will be built into a series of articles.  I’m going to start reviewing the talent the Cubs have at each position in the not-too-distant future, and major league ETAs will be built into that series.

      • THEOlogical

        Sounds like a great article(s) to read. I was just curious, because of all the Minor leaguers I was hearing about. Couldn’t get a grasp of how far off they were. Also I didn’t want to get my hopes up of seeing them in the bigs next season just to know they needed a few more yrs to develop.
        Thanks very much! I’m very glad Brett was able to snag you when he could. I love reading your posts.

        • http://www.bleachernation.com Luke

          Thanks.

           

  • http://none me

    Brett, why the need to chime in during the kids’ article? Not trolling, just wondering. It’s your site, man. If you feel the need to edit his work, then edit it, but it gets kind of choppy with your inputs.

  • Dick

    In Mesa, I was awfully impressed with Rebel Ridling. He looks like an awesome hitter. I have never seen him listed in any of Cubs prospects lists, but he has good stats wherever he’s played. Getting Rizzo has probably hurt his chances, but, if he can play the outfield ok, he might be a big leaguer this year or next.

    • Noah

      I believe the knock I’ve heard on Ridling is that he’s a complete non-athlete. That, plus the fact that he was drafted out of college and been essentially a level a year guy who started in Boise means he’s always been old for the level of ball he’s been playing in. The Southern League stats were impressive, though. He played some LF in Tennessee last season, but I don’t know how he fared. He actually might have some future in Chicago if he can play LF and Rizzo has issues hitting LHPs.

      • http://www.bleachernation.com Luke

        I see Ridling as a power bat off the bench in the majors.  The Cubs appear to be building a lefty heavy lineup in Chicago, and I think that plays into his chances.  I’m told he wasn’t pretty in left for Tennessee, but he wasn’t terrible either.  He sounds like a Matt Stairs type of guy; if he can keep hitting, someone will find a place for him.  Given that the Cubs have a serious lack of power bats in the upper minors, I think there is a good chance we’ll see him in Chicago in the next two years.

  • ty

    Rebel is a strong kid and has had his hitting highlight moments at each level but his future is probably of a filler–but if he can hang around you never know–he is fun to watch as a power stroke hitter!

  • ferrets_bueller

    I’d say there is pretty much zero chance of Soto being traded to the Royals.  Perez, their catcher of the future, is only going to be out for a relatively short time, and they are not interested in parting with any of their prospects at this time.  Dayton Moore wants to see what he has for one more year, then he will begin acquiring veterans and  using some of his young players as trade chips.  This move makes absolutely no sense, on any level, for KC.  And it doesn’t for the Cubs either, as it would be selling low on Soto, and would not bring nearly as much as he would at the deadline if he plays the way he should.

  • Mike

    Luke, or anyone really… I am trying to determine which Cubs prospect has the highest overall, offensive potential in the Majors. I have a fantasy draft keeper league and Rizzo, B. Jackson, and Vitters (I have Rizzo!) are taken already. Baez will likely be drafted before I can, so who is left…? Szczur, Lake, Vogelbach. Who should I draft?

    • Kyle

      Pure offensive potential? No defense or position involved?

      Vogelbach.

      • ferrets_bueller

        I have to agree.  I love, love, love Vogelbach.  Kid has the potential to be an absolute monster.  Remember, people had the same exact concerns when Fielder came out.

        • DocWimsey

          True, but they also had the same concern about a lot of guys who never made it. There have been a handful of guys built like that who have succeeded (remember Boog Powell?), but they are exceptions to the rule.

          • ferrets_bueller

            I dunno, man…Just looking at his swing…its a thing of beauty, IMO.  He’ll make it, just in what capacity is the question, IMO.

      • http://CubbiesCrib.com Luke

        Have to agree. Vogelbach has the kind of power that can translate into 50 HR a time or two.

        The downside is that he is years away from the majors. If his plate approach is as advanced as some have suggested, he could make it to the majors to stay in 2014, but right now I think 2015 is more likely.

        Szczur could start paying for you as soon as next season. Right now I think you could pencil him in for 10+ HR and 40+ SB on the year. That’s not quite as valuable as Vogelbach in most fantasy leagues, but he’s a safer pick and not a bad asset nonetheless.

        • Mike

          Thanks for the input. What does everyone think about Lake? In the next three years, what is everyone’s top 5 or 10 prospects to make it to the Majors. I love this discussion either way…

        • DocWimsey

          What is Vogelbach’s pitch recognition like? (I like the name: very summery!)

  • ty

    I saw Vog. hit the longest home run in a game that in ten years of living at Fitch Field -had never witnessed any major leaguer–including B.P. hit such a bomb. By the way a wonderful kid to be around.

    • Cheryl Price

      Vogelbach looks like the future first baseman to me. That is why I see LaHair as interim. Rizzo may be talented but if he is the future first baseman, what do you do with Vogelbach? If he has the power for 50 HR you can’t afford to trade him. You have to put him in, as Luke says in maybe 2014. Can Theo and company be so attached to Rizzo that they overlook Vog.?

      • http://CubbiesCrib.com Luke

        Vogelbach has yet to so anything in the minors. We don’t know if he can play defense at first, or if he can lay off high heaters, or if he can hit professional breaking pitches, or any of a number of other factors that will heavily influence his ultimate degree of success. He could turn out to be an All-Star first baseman for the Cubs, but on the other hand he may never make it out of High-A.

        Rizzo is likely the future at first base, but that doesn’t mean he is guaranteed the position for life. Eventually, he may have to defend it against Vogelbach, or Vitters, or Candelario (if he can’t stay at third). If it turns out that the Cubs have more first basemen than they can use, then they’ll pick the one they want to keep and trade the others for talent that they have a spot for. The Cubs would thrilled to have that sort of a problem.

        • DocWimsey

          Is there any early scouting data concerning Vogelbach’s pitch discrimination?

          Another thing to consider is that the Cubs are going to start needing a DH quite regularly, given that interleague play will always be happening with two 15 team leagues. I’m not certain how many more AL-style games the Cubs will be playing, but this might get the NL teams to throw in the towel on the DH. After all, one of the many reasons why the AL dominated the NL in interleague play over the years was the fact that many NL teams simply didn’t have a decent DH. (There were several other factors, too, but those are for another day!)

          • http://www.BleacherNation.com Luke

            Vogelbach’s all-to-brief appearance in the Arizona Rookie League yielded encouraging but non-conclusive results.
            http://www.baseball-reference.com/minors/player.cgi?id=vogelb000dan

            Reports out of the instructional league are that both Vogelbach and Baez have an advanced approach for their age, and that both are willing to take pitches and work counts. That is also encouraging, and if that proves to be the case, then Vogelbach especially could leap through the farm system in a hurry.

            Bottom line, we’ll start to find out in a few weeks. As of now, I still expect both Vogelbach and Baez to open the season in Peoria. Boise is certainly a possibility, but I suspect it will be Peoria.

            • DocWimsey

              Yeah, I saw that, and I’d love a 0.292/0.370/0.542 line: that’s a guy with 100 runs scored and 100 RBI on a good team.

              However, that is 27 PA, which means that the isoD of 0.08 reflects all of 2 walks! That might have been one wild pitcher in one game.

    • daveyrosello

      Presumably you’ve seen the video of Vogelbach winning the HR Derby contest last year, right? The big kid hit some unbelievable bombs, including a couple of 500+ foot jobs.

      • ferrets_bueller

        The best thing about all of that is that he does it without a huge swing.  The guy is unbelievable- launching balls 500ft with a short, compact swing.  The guy hits so much like Prince Fielder that its scary.

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