Prospects’ Progress: Szczur and Jokisch

Matt Szczur, Photo by Mark LoMoglio/MiLB.com

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

Pre-Season Evaluation

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.

Post-Season Evaluation

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.

Future Prognosis

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

Pre-Season Evaluation

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.

Post-Season Verdict

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.

Future Prognosis

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.

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

85 responses to “Prospects’ Progress: Szczur and Jokisch”

  1. ETS

    Great stuff Luke. I’d feel better about Szczur if he were younger, but again, it’s so hard to project 2 sport guys that convert late (and then change from catcher to OF to boot). I hope he does well – next year’s rule 5 could be interesting if he has a mediocre season.

    I’m excited for some of the pitchers that will probably be in Iowa this year. Cub farm followers have generally said the system lacks MLB ready talent but has some interesting lower level prospects. While not all those will translate, it will be exciting to watch this wave of younger talent try to break through.

    Again, thanks Luke.

  2. Good Captain

    Thanks for the report Luke! I understand from your article that Jokisch lacks an awesome pitch but could you tell us his what his stable of pitches are and do you have any estimate of the velocity of these pitches? Thanks.

  3. Spriggs

    At what point is it time to retool Matt’s swing? He is going to have to develop at least some kind of gap type power if he’s going to make it as a starting outfielder. I don’t see that happening with his current swing. In my opinion his speed is not nearly “elite” enough (or elite at all) to carry him into a starting MLB OFer.

    1. Cedlandrum

      I think his speed is pretty elite. It would be elite in the NFL let alone in MLB. Guy is super fast. In fact he needs to steal 50 a year and may once he learns the craft better. Runs a 4.3 forty which is really fast.

      1. Spriggs

        I’ve read about the 4.3 speed, but sure didn’t see anything close to that on the field in the AFL this year. Do you know if by chance he was nursing a leg injury around that time? Sure seems like a super nice kid.

      2. Kyle

        People who see him play, both professional scouts and fans, repeatedly report that his on-the-field speed is significantly slower than his NFL scouting 40-time. He doesn’t play that fast.

        1. Spriggs

          It sure didn’t look anything special to me. At all.

        2. itzscott

          >> his on-the-field speed is significantly slower than his NFL scouting 40-time <<

          I think that has more to do with reaction time, which I feel is more important than overall speed.

    2. DocPeterWimsey

      In my opinion his speed is not nearly “elite” enough (or elite at all) to carry him into a starting MLB OFer.

      I would question whether anybody’s speed is elite enough to make him a starting MLBer. 30 years ago during the era of dead-air cookie-cutter parks, elite speed might have been enough: but the really fast guys who cannot hit (Campana, Dee Gordon, etc.) cannot stay in lineups.

      1. Spriggs

        I agree, but you do have guys like Pierre and a few others that hang around because of their speed. That is why Matt needs to fix that swing.

        1. hansman1982

          Pierre was also getting on base at a .350-ish clip. You can be fat and slow and hang in the bigs with that OBP.

          1. cub2014

            he also stole almost 40 last yer and 68 a couple years ago
            i think the cubs would take that

    3. JBarnes

      His speed is elite, make no mistake about it…got to see it first hand in Peoria. It surprises me this kid doesnt hit for more power than he does because of his size. Not a huge kid but well built and has forearms like an NFL linebacker. Like was said in the article I’m sure that has to do with his swing and not his strength. Great person tho, type of guy I’m sure teammates look up to so that said I really look forward to see what he can do because he deserves a shot.

  4. Beer Baron

    How does Jokisch measure up to Iowa’s other 2 lefty starters, Brooks Raley and Chris Rusin? I haven’t seen him play but your description sure makes him sound like basically the same kind of guy.

    Speaking of which – with the surpluss of possible starters in Iowa and the shortage of any lefties in the Cubs’ pen, I have to think there is a decent chance one of them makes the team as a reliever this year?

  5. MightyBear

    Thanks Luke. What about Szczur’s swing? There have been reports that his swing is screwed up. Is that true? If so, why don’t they fix it now? Just curious.

    1. Kyle

      You can’t always just “fix” a swing. When you watch video of Szczur, it really seems obvious that he’s a guy who did not play baseball full-time during some key formative years. It’s like learning a foreign language: If you wait until you are older to be exposed, you’ll never be fully fluent and accent-less.

  6. Toby

    Nice post, great read. Thanks!

  7. Chris

    Thanks for bringing Jokisch to my attention, Luke. He’s an interesting case. Any major league comparisons you think you can make for him?

    Cubs have roughly 7 prospects who have made BA’s top 100 list before (Baez, Jackson, Vizcaino, Vitters, Szczur, Villanueva, McNutt and maybe more) and have a couple more who might make it (Almora, Soler). How many could make it on the new one? I’d say at least Baez, Almora, and Soler. I’d prefer if we dominated the list though.

    1. Dumpgobbler

      I’d say Baez, Almora and Soler are locks in the top 100.

      I think you can make a case for Jackson, Vizcaino and Vogelbach all in the top 100 as well.

      Villanueva is a borderline guy. Probably slotted outside by most people.

      McNutt wont sniff another top 100. Szczur probably wont either. I don’t think most scouts are very high in Szczur anymore.

      The one name in the system that will be the most interesting guy to keep an eye on IMO is Jaun Carlos Paniagua. Keith Law, who is usually hard on guys, called him “Electric”.

      Paniagua, Maples, Almaya, Underwood and Ben Wells are all guys that could make big moves through the system.

  8. Norm

    Unless Jokisch gets his K’s back up, he’s a fringe back of the bullpen type for me.

    1. Chris

      I’d rather have a guy who doesn’t strikeout that many as a starter than a reliever.

  9. itzscott

    Szczur….

    Why so focused on power with a projected leadoff man? I’d rather envision this guy being able to set the table for guys like Rizzo, Soler and Baez.

    To me, a balanced lineup with speed, power and OBP trumps a lineup where all players are projected to hit 15+ HR’s/year

    1. Kyle

      Well, for one thing, power always matters at every lineup spot.

      For another, a complete lack of power will make it harder for him to get on base in the future against more advanced pitching.

      1. cub2014

        if you have minimal power then to be leadoff
        you need to have 70 SB type speed

        1. DocPeterWimsey

          “70 SB speed” is like “100 RBI bat”: it doesn’t exist by itself. Guys who steal 70 bases are rare because they not only because of the need for speed, but also because you need a pretty high OBP to do that.

          And on that line, a guy with good enough OBP to steal 70 times should score nearly as many runs without stealing if the #2-#5 hitter are worth anything. That takes us to the important point: power and/or speed are nice, but what a good leadoff man needs is OBP: it is so much more important than any other trait that you can basically stop you list of important traits right there.

          1. cub2014

            you are right OBP is critical though most would argue
            .355 OBP(dejesus) is great but it alone doesnt make
            an ideal leadoff man it needs to be combined with speed.
            if your lead off man is on he should score often with top of
            order behind him and the score% is considerably greater
            at 2nd base with no outs.

            though to your first point you dont have to have high obp to
            get 70 SB though it help

            1. Kyle

              This is one of those baseball orthodoxy’s that make absolutely no sense upon further examination.

              You need speed to score when the players behind you can’t drive you in with power. The leadoff spot, right before the big hitters, is the spot in the lineup that needs speed the *least* to score once he gets on.

              Speed plays better in the bottom of the lineup. If you are the No. 7 hitter and you get on first, you might want to get yourself to 2nd and 3rd, because I doubt a double or home run is coming to plate you from first.

              1. cub2014

                so thats why they put the fast guys at 7 or 8?
                NO they put the fast guy who gets on base in
                the leadoff spot. it is one of the most desired
                spots to fill on a good baseball team.

                1. Kyle

                  The number of teams putting fast guys at the top has dwindled quite a bit in recent decades.

              2. Brett

                Eh. Those big boppers in the middle of the lineup are frequently the best hitters, too.

              3. cub2014

                in the NL speed with low OBP is good in the 8th spot.
                but how often does the 8 hitter leadoff an inning anyway?
                what is a teams record when they have a lead. obviously
                pretty good. you want your speed in the top 2 spots so
                they can score on extra base hits which will likely come from
                3-4-5 hitters.

                1. hansman1982

                  Based on what I have read, if you were to have Pierre and Campana on the same starting 8 (which dear God, help that team and fire the GM) you would want them batting 7,8 (Pierre then Campana) in front of the pitcher.

                  The thought there is that Piere is more likely to get on base than Campana and more likely to hit a double than Campana. This would then shift the infield just enough to where Campana may have a better chance to reach base on a bunt single, and/or Pierre would be able to steal second and a failed bunt would at least have Pierre on third.

                  This way when the pitcher comes up, he is much more likely to have a guy standing on third where his weak grounder to 2nd or SS would be able to score Pierre.

                  With all of that, I do believe having a “speed” guy at the top of the lineup is about as factual as the leadoff walk being the worst thing a pitcher could do.

          2. JBarnes

            I dont understand your arguement… yes 100 RBI guy’s need help to drive in the runs from other players getting on base but stolen bases?

            I dont understand where a guys OBP has anything to do with another player and allowing him to get on and steal?

            I’m not trying to give you a hard time, just don’t understand the comment.

            1. DocPeterWimsey

              The similarity is that both are products of 2+ independent traits. In the case of SB, it’s a product of speed, jump, endurance and opportunity. Speed alone doesn’t cut it: the jump is important, the player has to be able to do it dozens of times without wearing down, and he has to be on base often enough to get make the attempts. The endurance issue might be under-appreciated: but Rickey Henderson stated multiple times that his total performance fell off each year because of the toll that all of those steals took on his body. (Rickey was a consummate showman and a stupendous egomaniac: he firmly believed that people were paying to see him steal! Of course, the stolen base is one of the most exciting things in baseball, so Rickey might have had a point.)

              We could add to this position in the order and managing philosophy. A lot of managers have come to understand that SB in front of power hitters really do not generate many extra runs. Where they have a greater potential to generate runs is towards the bottom of the order, especially on an NL team: a #8 hitter and a pitcher usually don’t have much power, so a #7 hitter that can steal his way into scoring position will improve his chances of scoring much more than will a #1 hitter.

  10. Kyle

    For like a dozen guys every year it seems, Baseball America likes to go way off board for their top-100 and place a toolsy guy they think might have a breakout season.

    Szczur was the lucky winner of their unreasonable love that year, and it’s caused him to be severely overrated ever since.

    At the end of the day, he’s entering his age-24 season and coming off a sub-.800 OPS in A+ and AA, with the worst of it coming in AA. He’s got a hideous swing that is very problematic, lacks baseball instincts and plays much slower than his 40-time would indicate. His walks are encouraging, but his slappy swing and lack of power will cause more advanced pitching to just knock the bat out of his hands and the walks will dry up.

    He’s basically just the CF version of Bobby Hill. If he can convince teams of his makeup and get the right breaks, he might have a career as a reserve outfielder, but that’s true of a lot of guys in the minors. He’s not worth the 40-man spot.

    1. King Jeff

      I’d take ARam and Kenny Lofton for Matt Szczur right now, and I don’t care how old Lofton is.

  11. When the Music's Over

    People are gaga over Mike Olt, and understandably so (especially given the better D and OBP), but he’s almost exactly one year older than Vitters, which makes me wonder what Vitters would have done in AA if he repeated it again in 2012.

    1. TheRiot2

      It’s funny you brought up Vitters name,because he’s going thru the same thing as Szczur in that they have stumbled at every level, but succeeded the second time around. The players facing critical analysis this season are B Jax.,Vitters and Szczur for varied reasons. If just one player breaks thru I hope it’s B.Jax as our greatest immediate need is outfielders. 3B can be a platoon of sorts between last yrs. sorry incumbents, till new help arrives. Baez or Lake by the end of 2014 works for me.

      1. Kyle

        The huge difference is that Vitters was young for every level and Szczur has been old for every level.

        1. jayrig5

          Age old for every level, but not baseball experience old for every level.

          But that’s just nitpicking, I basically agree with your take above. Nice Bobby Hill reference as well.

        2. JBarnes

          Old by age but not in professional baseball experience. He didn’t start playing pro ball until 22 or so.

          1. JBarnes

            My bad didn’t see jayrig’s comment…didn’t mean to pile on there.

          2. Kyle

            That’s not a point in his favor. That makes it *worse* for his projection going forward.

            The years up to 22 are key formative years in athletic terms. The fact that he didn’t play baseball full time them probably goes a long way to explaining why his speed doesn’t translate well and his swing is so hideous. You can’t just assume he’ll be able to catch that development time up at a later date.

      2. MXB

        I am hoping Vitters becomes the 2013 version of Rizzo (goes to AAA, and comes up in May/June and does decently well). I think I can live with his mediocre defense at 3B for now (I think back to watching Ryan Braun play 3B for the Brewers, albeit Braun hit extremely well to make up for his poor defense)

        1. JB88

          That would be absolutely great, but completely unexpected. Rizzo outperformed every level he was at prior to his half-season hiccup at the MLB level in 2011. Vitters doesn’t have that sort of history. Nor does he have the defensive make-up that Rizzo has so that’s another strike against him.

  12. Rcleven

    atmilb.com/VNMHwY
    Whats happening in the winter leagues. Cub Related.

  13. Carne Harris

    I feel a lot better about Szczur after reading this. I’m usually thinking he needs to develop more power, but when you think about it, what is it people say Campana needs to do to be an everyday player? Raise his OBP, learn to take a walk, lose the uppercut and slap the ball into the ground, and improve his defense. Szczur does all of those things well with the exception of his defense which is hopefully a work in progress. Not saying gap power wouldn’t be a bonus, but I’d be just as happy with him maintaining his OBP improvements and steadily increasing his net stolen bases.

    1. Spriggs

      Szczur will never be able to run the bases like Campana can right now.

      1. Carne Harris

        Yeah, TC’s off the charts. Hope Szczur can keep improving and reducing the number of times caught though. He’s got the natural speed for it.

  14. Spoda17

    Nice article Luke. As I read your analysis, I can’t help but ask is there any chance we could put together a competitive trade package in late 2013 for David Price that doesn’t decimate the significant strides we have made in the minors?

  15. lou brock lives

    Hunter Spence was pretty much a speed & slap hitter when he first arrived in Houston. Now he hits for some pretty significant power – of course he plays in a bandbox in Philadelphia.
    Let’s give Szczur a chance to develop & see if he becomes a everyday ML player. If by the end of 2014 season nothing has significantly improved let him try out for the Bears & play the flanker/slot position.

    1. DocPeterWimsey

      Pence homered every 18+ ABs in the minors. The next gut to do that with “slap” hitting will also be the first!

  16. lou brock lives

    Sorry Hunter Pence – my bad

  17. gocatsgo2003

    Maybe this is a silly question since I haven’t really been following Cubs prospects too closely for any kind of duration, but… why did Szczur convert from catcher? Was his defense too poor? Were the Cubs looking to take some of the long-term strain off of his knees? Something else?

    It seems like a catcher that is able to put up a decent OPS and run a bit would be more valuable than a center fielder with the same line. Also easier to slot that kind of guy in the back half of your lineup if he’s at catcher rather than in the outfield (where you feel like he should be contributing more offensively).

  18. The Dude Abides

    Luke – Tony Campana vs Matt Szczur, at this point is Szczur projected to be better? OBP looks better other than that?

  19. Edwin

    Luke,

    Eric’s K/9 in AA was 5.4. Last year in MLB only 8 starters had a K/9 of 5.4 or lower. Each of those starters had a BB/9 lower than 2.8. I would think that as Eric moves up in competition, both his K/9 and BB/9 numbers will get worse. If they do, it’s hard to picture him having a future as a SP.

  20. jbb

    Good to hear Szczur is better than Campana. Very insightful and I am not over stating.

  21. 5412

    Hi,

    The guy who needs to go is Campana. He has never learned to drag bunt with consistency and has no real throwing arm, OBP or anything. At best he would be a designated runner late in the game. Cubs should have traded him after 9/1 to a team in playoff contention that needed a rent-a-speedy to help them down the stretch.

    regards,
    5412

  22. Bazfan1234

    Hayden Simpson, who is that guy? Oh wait…

    Honest question, how many more chances does the current front office give him?

  23. sven

    Last I checked Virginia is not in Chicago. That is his hometown not the home of the Mildcats.

    1. sven

      And I’m pretty sure he grew up a Cardinals fan.

    2. Brett

      Luke was talking about his time at Northwestern, which is in Chicago. And, more to the point, he was emphasizing that it wasn’t a hometown situation (lots of pro athletes consider their college area their “hometown” for the purposes of that expression). But you’re right on your additional facts.