I had something else planned for this introduction, but my wife just brought me a freshly baked chocolate chip cookie and all other thoughts floated right out of my head. You are allowed to be insanely jealous. I don’t mind.
While I enjoy this warm, tasty, and slightly melty piece of delectableness, let’s review the basics of Prospects’ Progress. This series takes a look at many of the prospects in the Cubs farm system and considers the improvements (or lack of improvements) made over the course of the past season. I’ll get to player rankings and top prospect lists in a few weeks (my how time flies), but those will be a separate series entirely. All prospects, from the top of the heap to players you have barely heard of, are eligible to be considered in this space.
Lately we’ve been on a run of the more elite prospects, so for today I think we’ll dig a little deeper in the system for a couple of guys who are high on potential but have yet to emerge as potential impact players. Matt Loosen is a fairly anonymous pitching prospect today, but that may not last another season. Likewise, shortstop Marco Hernandez may be a breakout season waiting to happen.
Of course delectableness is a word. Now put that dictionary down, we’ve got some prospects to discuss.
Matt Loosen, RHP
The Cubs took Loosen out of Jacksonville University in the 23rd round in 2010. He signed early enough to pitch in 14 games (seven starts) for Arizona and Boise that year. In 2011 the still-Hendry-led Cubs started the righthander in Peoria and let him pitch his way rapidly up the system. He made it to Tennessee for two starts, but spent most of his time in Peoria and Daytona. Across those three stops he struck out 8.5 batters per nine innings and walked 3.2 (a rate that is somewhat inflated by a 6.5 BB/9 in Tennessee).
Those are solid numbers. Despite his rapid rise and relative success in 2011, though, he did not appear on Baseball America’s list of Cubs right handed starting pitching prospects prior to the 2012 season. Were there just too many names to list them all, or is Loosen a non-prospect who just happened to have a good year?
It was probably a numbers issue. Loosen certainly has flaws in his game, but his 2012 season demonstrated that there is potential here worth monitoring. The new Cubs front office decided to slow Loosen’s rise up the farm system down a bit and sent him to Daytona for a full season. Loosen responded with a 1.145 WHIP, 8.8 K/9, 0.6 HR/9, and a very respectable 6.6 H/9. Those quality numbers are only slightly tarnished by his age; at 23, he was slightly on the old side for High A. His walk rate (3.7 BB/9) was higher than I like to see as well.
Neither the age nor the walks are my largest concern with Loosen, though. That honor goes to his season GO/AO of 0.58. That figure trickled upwards as the season wore on, but at this point I think we can safely classify Loosen as a fly ball pitcher. As he heads for the tougher competition of the Southern League and, eventually, the small ballparks and high elevation of the Pacific Coast League, more and more of those fly balls are likely to find a way over the wall.
On the other hand, 2012 he gave up home runs at the rate of just 0.6 HR/9. Combine that with reports of a nasty slider and his career high total of 12 hit by pitch and a picture starts to emerge. I suspect Loosen spent much of 2012 learning to attack hitters and jam them with his fastball. His relatively moderate line drive percentages and relatively high infield fly ball percentages lend credence to that theory. We’ll find out when he hits Double A.
As a fly ball pitcher who was slightly old for his league and who beat up on younger competition, Loosen’s season was only good. If, though, he is type of hurler who can consistently jam hitters with his fastball and get the swing-and-miss strikeout with his slider, things look quite a bit different. That latter description is that of a potential number three starter, and that is how I am classifying Loosen for now. If he has success in Double A, we could be talking about him as a rotation candidate in Chicago as soon as July of 2014.
He should open 2013 in Tennessee, and Tennessee will tell the story. If he can repeat his formula from Daytona, he could become one of the most talked about break through stories in the Cubs farm system this year. If he can’t, there is an army of pitchers with similar potential waiting in the wings to steal that spotlight.
Marco Hernandez, SS
The Cubs have a lot of shortstop prospects, but many of them I list as Infielders or SS/3B because there is some debate regarding that player’s ability to stick at shortstop. Shortstop is the most defensively demanding position on the diamond (not including catcher, which is an entirely different kettle of fish) and players who can play here at a major league level are somewhat rare.
Marco Hernandez is one of those players. He is also a switch hitter. It isn’t hard to see why he attracts attention from the national prospecting publications.
In a bit of a surprising move, the Cubs opted to let Hernandez open the season as the everyday shortstop in Peoria. He struggled for a time, and just when it seemed he was adjusting to the league and having some success the Cubs demoted him back to extended spring training in order to clear the position for Javier Baez. He was eventually reassigned to Boise where he was the regular shortstop and finished the year with a line of .286/.310/.416. He capped off his time in Boise with a very strong August, hitting .324/.360/.472 over 27 games. Those numbers are not great, but for a 19 year old true shortstop, they are not bad at all.
I like the defensive potential and I love that he is a switch hitter (even though his splits are problematic), but I have serious concerns with Hernandez’s viability long term. Take a look at his Boise numbers again, and focus on the OBP. .310 for the season is not good for a guy with little power, and even that .360 in August does not look quite as shiny beside a batting average of .324.
On the other hand, Hernandez weighed in this year at 6’0″ and just 170 lbs. There is plenty of room there to pack on enough muscle to raise his power totals considerably. He is likely to always be more of an Alex Gonzalez than an Alex Rodriguez, but his career SLG of .373 is not the final word. Nor is it quite fair to say that a 19 year old player is not going to learn to control the strike zone more effectively. There is clearly some up[side here.
Hernandez should return to Low-A in 2013 as a member of the incredibly loaded Kane County team, and I expect he will fare much better his second time in the league. OBP related warning signs aside, this is a guy with a potentially bright future ahead of him. If he can improve his pitch selection, I would not be surprised to see him break out in a big way in a year or two.
I would not be surprised to see him traded, either. The Cubs are set at shortstop well into the future, and true shortstop prospects are not that common. When the Cubs think Hernandez’s value is at its highest, I suspect he’ll be dealt. That is likely two or three years down the road, but you never know. If a team falls in love with him tomorrow, there is no reason the Cubs could not pull the trigger.