Have you gotten your Christmas shopping finished yet? Not to brag here, but I’ve been done for a couple of weeks. Of course, I do have to load up the car and make a 14 hour drive back to the Midwest this weekend, but at least I have my shopping done.
And speaking of the holiday season, don’t forget that Baseball America releases their Cubs Top 10 Prospects just after the holidays on January 7. I don’t expect any major surprises this year, but then, if I did expect them, would they be surprises?
One of today’s prospects has a chance to factor into that list. Matt Szczur is one year removed from being named the #64 overall prospect in all of baseball by Baseball America, but many Cub fans already consider him to be a total bust and are demanding that the team put him on waivers. It is rare we see that wide a range of opinion on a single player. On the other end of the controversy spectrum is Eric Jokisch. This lefty does not draw the headlines, but for a fairly unknown starter he has been putting up some very nice numbers.
Matt Szczur, OF
Szczur is a potentially elite athlete who chose baseball over the NFL. The Cubs had to pay extra to land him, and that extra resulted in a second contract. Thanks to that second contract, Szczur has to be kept on the 40 man roster, else the Cubs risk losing him in a Rule 5 draft. And make no mistake, they would lose him. Szczur’s ceiling is high.
Unfortunately, his floor is somewhat low. There is wide range in which we can project Szczur, a range that includes career minor leaguer on the low end all the way up to regular center fielder and lead off hitter in Chicago at the high end. That high ceiling and extreme athleticism led to his inclusion on a number of top prospect lists in the pre-season. Unfortunately, his performance during the season has left many fans giving up on him entirely after just 247 professional games.
Coming into the season, Szczur needed to show significant improvement in two areas: drawing walks and stealing bases. And that is exactly what he did.
But before we get to that, let’s talk defense. Szczur is not a great defender in center today, but he has the makings of one. While he has the range, the arm, and appears to get good jumps, he’s still learning to read balls in the air. His routes can look a little shaky at times, but that is exactly what I would expect from a guy who was a catcher in college. His game is improving, though, and I see no reason to worry about his future in center.
And that’s good, because I doubt Szczur will ever hit for enough power to play in the corners. His game revolves around getting on base and using his speed, and in both areas he is showing plenty of capability. Through 78 games in Daytona to start the season, Szczur hit .295/.394/.407 with 38 steals in 50 chances. He also drew 47 walks against 50 strikeouts in 352 trips to the plate. Compare those figures to his season numbers for 2011 (.293/.335/.423, 24 SB, 26 BB, 48 K) and we immediately see improvements in getting on base and using his speed once he got there. So far, so good.
The problems appeared when Szczur went to Tennessee late in the season. In 35 games for the Double A Smokies (158 plate appearances), Szczur hit just .210/.285/.357 with 4 steals in 6 chances and 14 walks against 29 strike outs. Those are not good numbers, but they don’t worry me at all. I’ve seen this before.
In 2010 Szczur was promoted to Peoria for six games at the end of the season. He did not hit well, and finished with an OPS of .608. In 2011 he opened the season in Peoria and posted an OPS of .796 before moving on to Daytona. In 43 games for Daytona that year he again struggled to an OPS of .694. In 2012, he opened in Daytona and complied an OPS of .801. Then came the promotion to Tennessee and his lackluster OPS of .641. It looks to me like Szczur is guy who takes some time to adjust to a league. Any judgement about his ceiling or his future based on his 2012 Double A numbers would be very premature.
And then we have his 2012 Arizona Fall League numbers. He only hit .264 in the prospect heavy league, but his entire final line read .264/.368/.363 with 14 BB, 10 K, and 9 SB in 12 chances. When a player posts an OBP of .368 with more walks than strike outs in the AFL, I have no qualms about calling him a prospect.
That said, I do have some concerns. Chief among those concerns is power. A lead off hitting center fielder who gets on base and wrecks havoc with his speed does not need 20+ HR power, but he does need to show he can consistently drive the ball deep into the gaps. Knocking 10-15 a year into the bleachers wouldn’t hurt either. So far, Szczur has not shown that kind of power. His swing has a lot of slap to it, and that in turn saps the power that he should be producing. He needs to find a way to unlock more power without losing the high walk rate or high OBP percentage.
Also on my wish list for 2013 would be continued improvements in his base stealing and defense. I have confidence that he can do very well in both departments, but we do need to see additional improvement. Ultimately, his ticket to the majors will be as a quality defensive center fielder who can consistently find a way to get on base, and then steal a bunch of bases once he gets there. The Cubs need some guys like that at the top and bottom of their lineups, and Szczur might be the best internal candidate to fill that need.
Given the plate discipline and speed, I think a reasonable projection for Szczur is someone in the range of Reed Johnson or the ’08/’09 edition of Jacoby Ellsbury. That is not a bad player. If that does turn out to be what the Cubs get, I’ll be fairly pleased. Trading Szczur is always a possibility, but the front office seems to like guys who can get on base. If he does stay with the Cubs, look for Szczur to open the 2013 season in Tennessee, progress to Iowa in the middle of the season, and make his major league debut as a September call up. After another half season in Iowa in 2014, he could be up to stay in the second half of that season.
Eric Jokisch, LHP
In the summer of 2011 I went to Peoria to watch Hayden Simpson pitch. I came away encouraged by what I saw from Simpson that day, but I was more impressed with Eric Jokisch. No one noticed when the Cubs snagged Jokisch out of Northwestern in the 11th round of the 2010 draft, but people are starting to notice now. This is not just a local kid playing for his home town team. This is a serious left handed starting pitching prospect who is showing real upside as a potential mid-rotation starter.
Jokisch was another rapid riser in 2011. He made it all the way to Tennessee for three games (that did not go terribly well) after spending most of the season in Peoria. In 2012 the Cubs sent him to Daytona as a full time starter. He didn’t stay long. After just nine games he was back in Tennessee, and this time the result was markedly different.
Focusing on his 18 games at Double A, Jokisch was impressive. His finished with an ERA of 2.91, a WHIP of 1.133, a BB/9 of 2.8, and an HR/9 of just 0.6. His SO/BB was only 1.91 (soundly on the low side of things), but he made up for it by only allowing 7.4 hits per nine innings. Combine the low WHIP and low HR/9 with a GO/AO of 1.41, and it is not hard to understand how he succeeded despite a relative lack of strikeouts.
He is already emerging as something of a workhorse as well. He tossed a total of 159.1 innings in 2012, and he has an easy delivery that seems likely to stay healthy as the years go by (although, of course, there are no guarantees). He lacks any true standout pitches, but by throwing strikes, avoiding walks, keeping the ball in the stadium, and earning the ground ball, he manages to be consistently effective anyway.
I think he’ll start the 2013 season in Iowa (or will be there soon after the season begins), and then things get interesting. I doubt he’ll receive much consideration as a potential spot starter in Chicago in spring training, but that could all change by midsummer. If the Cubs find themselves depleted by trades and injuries in August, do not be surprised to see Jokisch’s name appearing in some conversations. He won’t be at the top of the list of options, but he should be on it by then.
When spring training 2014 rolls around, Jokisch should be in a good position to push for a fourth or fifth starter slot. Eventually, I think he’ll get a chance to keep one of those slots. With a good infield defense behind him, I like his chances of sticking around in Chicago’s rotation… if he isn’t traded first. Lefty starters with success in Double A tend to have some value on the open market. He won’t be the centerpiece of any deal, but he would be a nice part in many packages.