Whether on the mound or at the plate, lefties are good to have. Fortunately the Cubs have several lefties in the system, both on the mound and at the plate. This edition of Prospects’ Progress will consider two of them.
Remember, Prospects’ Progress is not a player ranking or a top prospects list. It is simply a series of articles that look at the developmental progress made by various players in the Cubs’ farm system.
Rock Shoulders, 1B/OF
The Cubs drafted Shoulders in the 25th round in 2011. That was the second time the slugger had been drafted; the Red Sox took him the year before in the 20th round.Before Shoulders ever stepped to the plate in a Cubs’ uniform he was already overshadowed by fellow slugging first baseman and fellow 2011 draftee Dan Vogelbach. Vogelbach was the higher rated prospect thanks largely to his greater raw power and his impressive bat speed. Shoulders, rightly or wrongly, was seen by many as little more than a nice bonus for the Cubs.The 2012 season was Shoulder’s first chance to show that he had more to offer than an awesome name. His mission for the 2012 season was to establish himself as a prospect worth watching.
He did not completely step out of Vogelbach’s shadow, but he did show me enough that I am looking forward to seeing what he can do next season. Two positive developments stand out in particular: he started playing left, and he drew a lot of walks.Shoulders has virtually no chance of making a long term career at first with the Cubs. Anthony Rizzo has a stranglehold on the job in the majors, and it looks like Shoulders will be moving up the farm system alongside Vogelbach. For Shoulders to establish himself as a prospect, he had to find a position. That process began in Boise where he spent seven games in the outfield. That is not much, but it is a start. Shoulder’s best path to majors probably lies in the outfield, if he can he handle the job defensively.At the plate the young left handed hitter posted a very respectable walk percentage of 11.8%. That was good enough to generate an OBP of .342 despite hitting just .250. On the downside, his K% of 29.1% is high, even given his SLG of .447. Even a lefty slugger cannot afford to be striking out in nearly a third of his plate appearances in Short-Season ball.
Going into 2013, I really want to see more of the same from Shoulders. I want to see progress in the outfield, another high walk rate, lots of time spent on the base paths, and a very strong slugging percentage. I also want to see that K% rate come down a few points; under 25% would be nice. If Shoulders can do that while putting together a full season of long balls and plate discipline, he could enter 2014 as one of the best corner outfield prospects in the system.
Austin Kirk, LHP
Austin Kirk draws a lot of varying opinions. Some look at his lefty stuff and see a potential Number Three starter. Others look at his K/9 and BB/9 and figure he’s a back of the rotation starter at best. I lean more towards the later camp, but I have to admit that there may be something more here… eventually.Kirk spent most of his season in Daytona. He was coming off a pretty good 2011 season in which he compiled a WHIP of 1.199 in 151 innings for Peoria, and all we needed to see in 2012 was more of the same against the tougher competition in Florida.
What we got is a riddle. Compared to 2011 his K/9 dropped (7.27 to 5.43), his BB/9 went up (2.26 to 3.34), and his WHIP rose to 1.299. None of that is good. In fact, that is about as far from good as we ever want to see.And yet his ERA, against tougher competition remember, dropped from 4.29 to 3.13. Both the Midwest and the Florida State Leagues are pitchers leagues; that does not help explain that drop. His GO/AO stayed fairly static (about 0.80) and his batting average against didn’t budge (about .244). The only number that somewhat explains that lower ERA is his HR/9. That dropped from a concerning 1.00 in 2011 to a very healthy 0.4 in 2012.And then he went to Tennessee. He pitched in five games (four starts) for the Smokies and walked away with a 2-0 record. His K/9 fell down to 5.01, his BB/9 rose to a frightening 4.63, his HR/9 soared to an ugly 1.16, and his ERA notched still lower to 3.09. I can write off the five games in Tennessee as an aberration resulting from a meaninglessly small sample size, but I can’t deny that they fit into the larger trend of his season. Somehow this guy is pitching more successfully despite declining peripherals. That’s not supposed to happen.
And it can’t last. In 2013 Kirk really needs to turn some of those numbers back around. Ideally I’d like to see the K/9 crawl back over 6, the BB/9 fall back under 3, and the HR/9 plummet as low as it can possibly go. I expect Kirk will spend much of the season in Tennessee. If Double A hitters fail to figure this guy out by season’s end we will have to pencil him in as a serious contender for a Chicago starting rotation slot in late 2014 or 2015. I still think his ceiling is that of a crafty left fourth or fifth starter, but I would not be at all surprised if he exceeds that.