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iowa cubs logoThe transfer of Junior Lake to Iowa did open the door for a minor league outfield prospect to make his long awaited major league debut, but as it turns out that that prospect is not Jorge Soler. In fact, he is just about the opposite of Jorge Soler. If Cubs fans do not expect Soler level production, though, I think there is a chance that they will like what they see from Matt Szczur.

Iowa Cubs : 67-62

Iowa needed to start opening a lead on the rest of the division this week, and instead they slid a little find themselves a game behind Omaha. Oklahoma City lurks a game and a half back of the Cubs, and Colorado Springs is very much out of it.

Here’s the problem: the schedule hates the Cubs. After wrapping up their current, must-win homestand against last place Salt Lake, the Cubs hit the road for four against 70-win Reno (who, curiously, is only a .500 team at home) and four against 67-win Tacoma. Both of those teams have been playing pretty well lately.

If, somehow, the Cubs survive that road trip with their playoff hopes intact, they will come home to meet an Oklahoma City team who will also, in all likelihood, be playing for their playoff lives.

The Cubs schedule is terrible, in other words, and they really could have used a cushion built from the games they played over this past week. Instead, they went 4-6 in their last ten.

Iowa is still very much in this race, but their race track is all uphill. And they might have to climb that hill without Kris Bryant.

Tennessee Smokies : 29-26

The Smokies, meanwhile, did exactly what they needed to do and opened a two game lead over Chattanooga. Birmingham is three back, and Huntsville and Jackson are four behind. The division is still very much up for grabs, but as we enter the final turn the Smokies have the lead, arguably the best hitter in the league, and a very potent and playoff tested pitching staff that is finally healthy.

Even the schedule is helping out the Smokies, if only for a few more days. They hit the road for five games this week, and those games are in Montgomery, home of a .436 winning percentage and a 10-15 home record.

After that, though, it gets tough. This weekend is the final homestand, a five game series against Jacksonville. The Suns are a game behind Mobile in the other division and have the most second half road wins in the league. Then Tennessee travels down the road to second place Chattanooga to wrap up the season.

I like Tennessee’s chances better than Iowa’s, but it won’t be easy for the Smokies.

Daytona Cubs : 31-22

Daytona was bad in the first half of the season, but they took great advantage of the second half record reset to secure first place in second half standings. Their lead over Tampa is at three games now, and it is five over Dunedin and Brevard County.

Clearwater comes to town for four games this week, and even though Clearwater has an over all sub-.500 record, their road record is in positive territory. Then again, given that it is the rainy season the Florida coast, the Cubs may not actually play all four of those games. Wet or dry, they leave Daytona for a road trip through league doormat Lakeland and first half winner Dunedin before finishing up the season at home against second place Tampa.

With a fairly soft schedule and a decent lead, Daytona should be able to finish this off and claim the right to defend their 2013 Florida State League Championship.

Kane County Cougars : 33-20

Kane County won five times this week and is back in possession of first place. Their late season drama won’t be as dramatic as it is for the other Cubs teams, given that the Cougars have already secured a trip to the postseason, but winning both halfs of the season would be a nice touch.

The Cougars play a doubleheader against third place Wisconsin (four games back) today, then head home for the rest of the week. Burlington, comes to town first, and even though the Bees have a losing record they have played well on the road this season. That could be a tough series. Clinton follows Burlington to Kane County, and the LumberKings have a similarly decent road record. The Cougars need a good homestand to put the division away, but they will have to earn it.

Next week the Cubs journey to Cedar Rapids for three. The Kernels are half a game behind the Cougars and, like the Cougars, are a fantastic home team. If Kane County can’t open a lead during their homestand this week, that series next week could all but decide the division.

Boise Hawks : 11-12

Boise is still in last place in the division, but they are just 3 games behind leading Salem-Keizer. Not surprisingly, the Hawks are playing their best baseball at home this summer, but they have to improve on that 5-10 road record if they are going to have a chance to win this division.

And here is their chance to do it. They have two more games at first place Salem-Keizer to make the division close, and then they had across the border to Vancouver for five games. The Canadians are not a particularly good team this year, but in some years the Hawks have had to leave part of their roster behind due to visa restrictions. Hopefully that won’t be a problem this year.

After they return from Canada the Hawks will stay home for the rest of the season. If they are still in the hunt at that point, they will have series against Everett and Salem-Keizer in which to claim the title.

Arizona Cubs : 5-11

The last place Cubs are pretty much toast. They are six and a half games behind the leading Giants, and they are going backwards. In fact, it is quite possible that they could be eliminated outright before next weekend.

Then again, if they get an influx of short-term talent from Boise due to visa issues, they could make a short run this week and maybe even climb … to third place. Barring some really strange things happening, the Cubs are not going to win this division no matter what they do from here on out.

What they can do, though, is beat up on the White Sox in three games over the next two days, and maybe take a couple games from the Brewers later in the week.

Super Szczur?

First of all, Szczur is pronounced Caesar, same as the dead guys who ruled Rome when they weren’t getting stabbed or going insane. Technically, the actual Balto-Slavic lingual pronunciation for that set of characters wouldn’t exactly be Caesar, but like hot dogs and pizza Szczur’s name has been thoroughly Americanized and is now pronounced as if he were a toga-wearing ancient Italian dictator.

Language lessons aside, the Cubs’ Szczur is a glove-first center fielder with speed, a decent plate approach, and almost no effective power to speak of. The Cubs do have a farm system loaded with sluggers, but Szczur is not one of them. In the very hitter friendly Pacific Coast League he managed to post an ISO of just .051. So far this season he has only 18 extra base hits. By comparison, Jorge Soler already has 13 extra base hits in Triple A … and he has just 18 total hits at that level.

While he lacks power, Szczur also lacks the strikeout issues that plague some of the Cubs’ other young players. His strikeout rate has never gone over 18.4% in any one season, and with Triple A was a solid 17.1%. He does not walk a great deal (just 6.6% for Iowa after earning an 8.7% for Tennessee last season), but provided he can hit for enough of an average that may not be a problem in the majors.

His average was pretty dismal to start the year (.217 in May), but it has steadily crept upwards. In July he hit .275, and so far in August he has hit .292. That increased average resulted in a .331 OBP in July; if he can replicate that in the majors the Cubs are going to be very happy indeed.

Surprisingly, even though he is a right handed hitter, he hasn’t hit lefties at all this season. In 148 at bats against them his OPS is just .567.

His biggest offensive benefit is his speed. Through 116 games this year he has stolen 30 bases in 36 tries. He might be the best base stealer to come out of the Cubs system since Tony Campana, but, unlike Campana, Szczur is a true asset in the field.

‘Fun to watch’ is the best way to describe the work Szczur can do in center. Name the incredibly hard play for a center fielder to make, and he makes it look easy. Low liner that he has to charge in for? Piece of cake. Tailing fly ball into the gap? No problem. Diving catch in very shallow center to save a no hitter? That’s what he does best.* He can play the corner outfield slots too. Defense won’t be a problem.

Unfortunately, fans probably shouldn’t expect too much at the plate. When he makes his adjustments I think he could post a line in the neighborhood of .270/.300/.315, but I have to admit that feels like it is on the high end of his range. As a defensive fifth outfielder who can be a weapon the bases, though, I think Szczur could find a spot on the Cubs bench. With any luck he’ll have enough success with the bat to keep that option alive, and for him to become a fan favorite at Wrigley.

*Watching that video of Szczur’s catch to end Chris Rusin‘s no hitter, something jumps out at me that I had not picked up on at the time. Watch it again, but watch the second baseman. That’s Arismendy Alcantara flying in there, and he actually pulls up to clear room for Szczur to make the play. As awesome as Szczur’s catch was, Alcantara’s play on that ball was also pretty impressive.

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