The 2014 Kane County Cougars had a memorable rotation that featured Duane Underwood, Paul Blackburn, Jen-Ho Tseng, and Daury Torrez. That rotation, in all likelihood, will move up to High-A
Daytona Myrtle Beach together this season, and they will justifiably draw much of the early season prospect spotlight for the Pelicans. That really is a very nice group of pitching prospects.
But don’t forget the bats. While not quite as prospect-rich as pitching staff, the lineup for Myrtle Beach should feature a nice assortment of intriguing talent (and maybe even a breakout candidate or two). [Note: minor league rosters are not final yet, so we’re using some best guesses here.]
The biggest unknown with the most upside for the Cubs in High-A this year might be Jeffrey Baez. Baez has just 31 games in the Low-A Midwest League, so he is no lock to make Myrtle Beach for Opening Day. If he stays healthy, though, I have a hard time imagining a scenario that has him missing the South Carolina coast altogether in 2015. Known mostly as a speed guy through much of his Cubs career, Baez showed off ample power with both Boise and Kane County last season. He has some contact issues that keep him off of most Cubs top prospect lists, but after his 2014 campaign he is a definite candidate to break out in 2015.
The story of Jeimer Candelario is one typical of prospects generally, but also one that is commonly under-discussed. Candelario is a switch hitting third baseman (for now) who showed a surprising amount of patience and strike zone comprehension at an early age, not to mention a fair dose of power. He moved up the system smoothly until he ran into High-A last season, and there he stalled. Ultimately he dropped back a notch to Kane County for about half the season.
The easy thing is to label Candelario a pure bust and dismiss him from the prospect conversation, but I don’t think that is the right call for two reason. First, prospects struggle. It happens, and not just to the pedestrian organization-filler kind of prospect either. Players in the minor leagues, no matter their talent, have things they need to learn, bad habits they need to break, and aspects of their game that sometimes have to undergo major improvements. That’s why we have the minors. The upshot of that reality is that we will see legitimate prospects struggle from time to time. Candelario is no exception to that, and it’s worth remembering that he was just 20 years old in that first taste of High-A.
Second, Candelario’s High-A struggles were a little odd. His walk rate over 244 plate appearances at that level was a very healthy 9.4%, and his strikeout rate was perfectly reasonable 18%. The power was down compared to his numbers at lower levels (ISO of .133), but not significantly when we account for the Florida State League effect. In other words, the peripherals were pretty good for a 20-year-old hitting High-A for the first time.
Unfortunately, his BABIP was an unsustainably bad .218. Even for a guy who is somewhat speed challenged, a .218 BABIP is probably too low. That means it is very possible that bad luck, at least to some degree, was stealing some hits from Candelario. If that is the case (and bad luck is not the only explanation, but given the peripherals I think it is certainly part of it), then this guy could be in line for a nice bounce back season in 2015.
Outfielder Shawon Dunston Jr. made a splash when the Cubs signed him away from Vanderbilt, but he has not drawn many headlines since then. While still overall outclassed by some of the other outfielder options in the Cubs organization, Dunston does offer one thing that is lacking in many of his fellow prospects: speed. This guy swiped 27 bases in 96 games for Kane County a year ago, and if he can improve on his 2014 OBP rate a little I would not be surprised to see him emerge as a 40 SB threat down the road.
And there is reason to think his OBP could tick up. After posting a 12.6% walk rate for Boise the previous summer, Dunston walked at just a 5.0% rate for the Cougars. If he can bring that figure back up while holding onto a healthy strike out rate (16.4% in 2014) while a Pelican, Dunston will have chance to elevate his stock back into the range of the Cubs Top 30 or so.
Joining Dunston in the outfield will be 2013 draftee Jacob Hannemann. Hannemann is older than we expect for a legitimate prospect in High-A (almost 24 already), but in his case that is misleading simply because he was drafted at a later age (due in part to taking off two years for a mission trip). The Cubs were content to let him fly up the system as fast as his bat could take him, though, and he touched three levels last summer (Low-A, High-A, and Arizona Fall League) including 36 games with Daytona.
Given that the Smokies are already going to be loaded with outfield talent at the start of the season, I tend to think that Hannemann will return to High-A to begin 2015, but there is no reason he can’t advance again by mid-season. Like Dunston, Hannemann has a speed-oriented game that has racked up 41 steals as a professional. There are still some questions regarding his bat, but now that we’ll be able to watch video of his games we should start to get some of those questions answered.
The prospectiness continues behind the plate with 2014 trade acquisition Victor Caratini likely to get a large number of the starts. Caratini is a switch hitter who, like fellow catching prospects Kyle Schwarber and Mark Zagunis, needs some work behind the plate. He is already showing some ability at the plate, though, by showing both good patience and a nice strikeout rate in Low-A. Splitting time with Caratini behind the plate might be Will Remillard, a catcher the Cubs drafted in 2013 who made his professional debut for Kane County last season. Other than showing a little light in the power department (ISO of just .095), Remillard put up perfectly acceptable numbers at the plate (.286/.372/.381) while playing pretty well behind it. He isn’t in the top tier of Cubs catching prospects, but he isn’t one to ignore either. (Mark Zagunis is another possibility for Myrtle Beach, but, with just 14 games at Low-A last year and the slow-and-steady nature of catching development, it’s unlikely Zagunis starts above South Bend.)
And finally, we can’t have a Cubs prospect article without a middle infielder. Myrtle Beach will miss out on the best of the Cubs’ infield talent (unless Gleyber Torres makes it there by the end of the year, that is), but they will have a very intriguing guy in second baseman Daniel Lockhart. Lockhart hits left handed, and, while he doesn’t have a lot of power, he does pretty much everything else right. He rarely strikes out, frequently walks, can steal a base, and has enough defensive flexibility to fill at short (or probably at third) if needed. That suggests a long-term future as a potential utility guy, but if he develops just a little more power, he could yet lay claim to a share of the conversation as a future starter. (You may also see glove-first shortstop Carlos Penalver spending some time at Myrtle Beach this year, and hopefully improving with the bat.)
All in all, that’s not a bad group. The pitching class is richer in overall prospecty goodness, and it will probably be the pitchers we talk about the most this summer. But don’t forget about those hitters. Myrtle Beach will inherit much of the team that rampaged to a 90+ win season (in a 140 game league) and a Midwest League title, after all. That offense was good, and it could be quite good again when it moves up a level this summer.