Prospects’ Progress: Shoulders and Kirk

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.

Today we take a look at Rock Shoulders and Austin Kirk.

Rock Shoulders, 1B/OF

Pre-Season Evaluation

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.

Post-Season Verdict

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.

Future Prognosis

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

Pre-Season Evaluation

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.

Post-Season Verdict

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.

Future Prognosis

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.

Luke Blaize is the Minor League Editor at Bleacher Nation. He can be found on Twitter as ltblaize.

15 responses to “Prospects’ Progress: Shoulders and Kirk”

  1. ETS

    [joe morgan] Your peripherals can’t measure a player’s heart. It can’t measure his determination. That’s what counts out on that mound. [/joe morgan]

    1. cubchymyst

      Gameness is a great quality to have in a player, but skills still play a large factor in determining how productive a player ends up being.

    2. Tommy

      Your peripherals can’t measure a player’s heart. It can’t measure his determination. That’s what counts out on that mound.

      …said the pitcher before his 70 mph fastball was knocked 500 ft. out of the ballpark.

  2. jt

    At Tenn. Kirk’s go/ao was 0.40 bases empty
    0.73 runners on
    More gb when runners on suggests a change in style.

    1. BluBlud

      Maybe he should pitch out of the strecth at all times.

  3. Tim

    Waddle and silvy mentioned this yesterday and I agree. I dont understand the need to have a lefty in your bullpen if you have rightys that can get leftys out. Roenike learned that from mike socia in L.A. There is no need to be all crazy about having a lefty in your pen

    1. Tommy

      I dont understand the need to have a lefty in your bullpen if you have rightys that can get leftys out.

      Some batters just can’t hit left handed pitching for whatever reason. I think that is probably the main reason. Yes, there are plenty of great right handed pitchers, but if you check the individual stats on players, you’ll find a plethora of them that bat very poorly against left handed pitching. As a manager, having this match up issue serves as a valuable tool.

  4. Fastball

    Well I was a lefty and do agree that some lefties don’t intimidate hitters purely do their style and approach and delivery point. You absolutely got to have a great curveball if your a quality lefty. I threw a 2 seam, 4 seam fastball around 92. I had a Burt Blyleven curveball that was natural for me. I also threw a fork ball (my dad taught it to me when I was young as an off speed pitch way before being allowed to throw a curve ball). I had that fork ball mastered in high school. I beat opposing lefties. Don’t think I ever lost a game to one. Pitching is an art and it’s about ability. It doesn’t matter to me if your right or left handed. I could have relied on my fastball 95% of the time. This Kirk kid is probably getting the art of pitching down a bit more. I hope Kirk has a little more fastball than these other lefties we saw this year including Russell. You got to have something you can rush past a hitter when you need too. These guys never showed me any capability to do that. You can fool them most of the time but you have to blow it by them sometimes.

  5. DocPeterWimsey

    I beat opposing lefties. Don’t think I ever lost a game to one.

    I think that you are leaving out a key line or two here! Did you never lose a game to another left-handed pitcher? Did you never lose a game in which the other team had a lefty batter? Or did lefty batters never create any runs against you? The first one doesn’t quite make sense: how you pitched had no bearing on the other guy. The latter two also seem a bit implausible.

  6. Zach

    Im pretty sure he meant that a left handed hitter has never beaten him to win a game

  7. Tommy

    Luke, do you really think Rock Shoulder’s numbers in Boise can translate into success? Those seem pretty abysmal for short season A ball (thanks for teaching me about short season btw! I haven’t forgotten!).

    I just don’t see this guy amounting to much. Batting .250 with a high strikeout ratio at any level before AAA isn’t very encouraging. The pitching isn’t going to get easier for him as (if) he progresses up the system.

    1. Tommy

      All that being said, I do understand that his name is still Rock Shoulders, so if you’re basing your optimism on that fact, I am with you 100%.

  8. SVAZCUB

    Very skeptical that Kirk can succeed at higher levels as a fly ball pitcher who doesn’t get strikeouts. It’ll be interesting to see how he fares when he reaches the PCL.