With four teams playing daily (or close to it) and over one hundred players to follow, it is easy to lose track of some of what happens in the minors. Even those who follow the minors on a daily basis can lose track of some of the slower developing and more subtle of organizational storylines. Today’s article will not catch you up on everything, but after surveying the system we will explore three developments that every Cubs fan will want to monitor closely.
But first, let’s take care of one of the more disheartening aspects of this April: injuries. Fortunately the Cubs have avoided major injuries to their top prospects, and they seem to be one of the only teams in the league who haven’t suffered badly at the hands of the Tommy John plague, but three of the Cubs top five prospects have already lost time to various issues.
Javier Baez, wielder of possibly the fastest bat in baseball, has been out with a mild ankle sprain. He is due back in the lineup any day now (including, possibly, today), but the fact remains that he missed out on a week of learning to recognize and lay off pitches out of the strike zone. So long as he is fully recovered this sprain shouldn’t set him back too badly, but he is missing experience that the Cubs would love for him to have. Currently he has just 8 games in Triple A and he does have work to do before he is ready for a trip to Chicago. The more he plays, the faster he can make that trip, and the happier a lot of fans will be.
Albert Almora left a game with a nosebleed and remained out for a few games, but he is since returned to action and appears to have picked up where he left off. So far as we know there are no long term conditions that led to the nosebleed. In fact, I have a hard time thinking up a condition that could cause a player to leave a game and would be less likely to evolve into a chronic condition. If this is the worst setback experienced by Almora this season I think the front office (and the fans) will be quite happy. Almora is destroying lefties to the tune of an OPS of 1.262 in the early going, but his numbers against right handers are quite a bit less robust (OPS of .328). He also has quite a bit of work to do before he is ready for promotion.
And then we have the frustrating case of Jorge Soler. His 2014 season lasted just one at bat before he aggravated his hamstring and was shut down again. His season line reads 1.000/1.000/2.000 with a double, but a sample size of one plate appearance is meaningless. The more important number in his case is 90. That’s the total number of games he has played as a professional in the US. That said, he is working out in Arizona and will hopefully be returning to the Smokies soon.
I do not think fans should be using these injuries as a reason to give up on Soler, though. Injuries are unfortunate, but they do happen. None of his injuries have been career threatening, and I am not aware of any concern that he has some sort of a chronic condition leading to these injuries that could threaten his future. When he is healthy he will still be the same player that scouts were loving in spring training. At some point this guy is going to be able to stay on a baseball diamond for an extended period and then, I think, a lot more fans will start to get fairly excited about having him in the system.
Iowa Cubs : 8-8
The Cubs are in a tie for second and 2.5 games back of first place Oklahoma City. The Cubs have primarily been playing at home, a factor that is likely to be padding their very good pitching numbers (more on that in a bit) and depressing their offensive numbers somewhat, but their record at home is currently just 6-7.
They play three more at home against Round Rock this week before taking off for Colorado Springs for a four game series.
Tennessee Smokies : 7-9
Tennessee is in fourth place, 3.5 back of first place Huntsville. Their biggest flaw is their 1-5 road record, but they have a chance to make up some ground in that area as they are playing in Birmingham through Wednesday. They then return home to take on first place Huntsville in a five game set.
Daytona Cubs : 3-13
Daytona managed just a single win last week, and as a result they find themselves in a tie for last place. The Cubs have struggled equally on the road and at home of late, but if they are going to find some wins soon it will have to be on the road. They spend much of the next week and a half away from Daytona.
Kane County Cougars : 11-5
Kane County is playing great baseball. Even though they have lost two in a row they are still in first place by a game and a half and hold the best home record in the Midwest League. They stand to pile on the wins next week as last place Beloit comes to town for four games, followed by second place Wisconsin for three. If you want to see a fun to watch mix of pitching and top of the order speed, make plans to see a Cougars game in the near future.
Early Season Stories
- Iowa has very good pitching.
If you pull up the team pitching statistics for all the teams in the Pacific Coast League, you will be in for a pleasant surprise. While Iowa’s team ERA (3.96) may not be the best in the league, they have some of the best numbers in WHIP, H/9, and BB/9. The real gem , though, is their strikeout to walk ratio, or K/BB (SO/W on the linked chart). That number, as of Saturday, was 3.89. Not only is that the best in the Pacific Coast League, it is nearly a full point higher than any other team. The Cubs hold similarly large leads in WHIP and H/9.
The Iowa Cubs are doing exactly what we want a good pitching staff to do: not allow many walks, not allow many hits, and strike out a lot of batters. This isn’t a particularly old bunch of pitchers, either. Tsuyoshi Wada and Yoanner Negrin are the only pitchers with more than one appearance who are over 30, and six of Iowa’s pitchers are 25 or younger. Wada has the most innings pitched (21.1), but the next three pitchers in that category are all just 24 (Kyle Hendricks, Eric Jokisch, Carlos Pimentel). The Cubs have arguably the best pitching staff in the Pacific Coast League, and the core of that highly effective staff are prospects. That is a very good news for the Cubs.
- Kris Bryant‘s walk rate.
As of Saturday Bryant was up to 55 plate appearances on the season, and it seems he is still a mystery to Double A pitching. He is off to such a fantastic start that I am almost tempted to chuck sample sizes to the wind and declare that he is not being challenged. His strikeout percentage does sit at a very slightly concerning 25.5%, but that is more than made up for by his ludicrous walk rate of 18.2%. Combine that with his fantastic slugging percentage of .643 and he is joining some very special company.
I went looking for other Southern League players who have posted a walk rate over 18% and a slugging percentage over .600 and had at least 50 plate appearances. Through 2006 the only qualifiers were:
2011 Paul Goldschmidt (although he only walked 17.9% of the time)
2010 Giancarlo Stanton
2007 David Cook
Now there is no guarantee that Bryant will maintain these elevated numbers through his Double A career, and these numbers do not guarantee Major League success (had you ever heard of David Cook before this article?), but the fact remains that Bryant is still in very rare position. This sort of combination of patience and power does not come along very often.
- Steals are on the rise.
Going into yesterday’s games the Tennessee Smokies had already stolen 20 bases (good for first in the league), and the Kane County Cougars had swiped 18. Those are not breathtaking totals, but they are higher than what I am used to seeing for a Cubs farm team at this time of year. Led by a handful of speedsters like John Andreoli, Zeke DeVoss, Jacob Hannemann, and Carlos Penalver the Cubs are showing the potential to develop some notable stolen base threats for the first time in quite some time. Speed, even if it is coming off the bench, is a nice asset to have on any major league team. In another season or two we might start to see some help in that department graduate to Chicago. The impact may not be significant right away, but at least I think we can say that the Cubs farm system is starting to trend in the right direction in that department.