This is going to be a busy week for the Cubs’ organization. I suspect we will hear about the first batch of official 2015 draftee signings soon, and there may be additional rumors and leaks from the upcoming International Free Agent signing period, and in the middle of the week some of the Cubs’ youngest prospects will take the field for the first time as part of the short-season Low-A Eugene Emeralds.
And then we have the first half playoff races … though really we are down to just one for Cubs’ affiliates. Tennessee, unfortunately, has all but fallen out of the hunt in the Southern League.
Finally, the players in the Venezuelan Summer League have logged just about enough experience this season that it is useful to take a look at their performances. There are not a lot of standout stat lines (remember, the Cubs had a limited IFA budget last summer), but there are a few worth noting.
We’ll note them right after a quick check on the records.
Iowa : 32-29, 2nd place.
The Pacific Coast League is a single-season league, so the Cubs have all summer to try to catch first place Oklahoma City. And they may need it. Despite the Cubs playing pretty well lately, they remain eight games out of first place. It may be somewhat comforting to note that they are the best second place team in the league, but that is swamped by the fact that they are chasing the best team in the league.
The Cubs face a road challenge this week. A trip to Omaha, a team they lead by just half a game, starts on Monday. After that Iowa heads down to Round Rock to face off against the second best team in the league.
Tennessee : 33-29. 2nd place.
That awesome series against Chattanooga gave the Smokies a chance to claim the division, but they immediately gave that opportunity right back to Chattanooga. Tennessee now sits four games back in the division; Chattanooga’s magic number is five. Realistically, the Smokies need to win out the rest of the first half and hope that Chattanooga complete melts down now that Buxton has been promoted. That is not a likely scenario.
A good Mississippi team comes to town this week for the final series of the first half of the season. The Smokies have played well at home, and their offense is loaded enough to clobber anyone in the league on any given day, but sweeping this one will be a tall order. Chattanooga, a team still loaded with talent even after Buxton moves to the majors, is at home against a somewhat subpar Jacksonville team. Advantage Chattanooga.
Myrtle Beach : 35-26, 1st place.
The Pelicans have stumbled a few times in the past week or so, and as a result their division lead is down to three games. The magic number for Myrtle Beach is seven. That should be enough to hang on and secure the playoff spot, but if they opened this week with four or fine wins in a row I certainly wouldn’t complain.
The Pelicans are generally a good road team, so a week opening series in Winston Salem may be just the thing to get them back on the winning track. They then return home to try to clinch the title in front of the home fans against Lynchburg.
South Bend : 26-33, 7th place.
This week the Cubs were rained on or were on the wrong end of the final score. Or both. They have been eliminated from first half contention.
The records reset for the second half of the season, and about that same time the Cubs may receive some extra help from the Cubs’ 2015 draft class. South Bend has played some very good baseball this season, but a lack of consistency (particularly from the defense and the bullpen) has sabotaged them in too many games. With a little more experience behind them, it would not be at all surprising to see South Bend make a run at a second half division title.
That is not just a fan talking, either. Every year we see teams do very poorly in one half of the season only to be near the top of the standings in the other half.
Prospects In Venezuela
The VSL Cubs play in the four team Venezuelan Summer League. They currently sit in second place with a 12-12 record while trailing the Rays by five and a half games.
Their roster is not as prospecty as some Caribbean league teams we have seen in recent years (thanks in part to the restrictions on the Cubs over the past year), but there is some talent here. Unfortunately for us, information from this corner of the baseball world is not readily available, and it tends to be sketchy when we get it. That means we have little choice but to rely almost entirely on the statistics accumulated by the players. This is a very dangerous and often misleading practice, but it is the best we’ve got. You’ve been warned.
With one exception the stat lines are either not terribly impressive or come with some significant caveats. Let’s start with that one exception.
If there is a Cubs’ prospect turning heads in the VSL right now, it is likely Jhonny Bethencourt. Bethencourt is a right handed hitting infielder (and occasional outfielder) who just turned eighteen in February. So far this season (which is just 65 plate appearances for him, so sample size warnings apply) he has ten walks against nine strikeouts and a line of .291/.406/.382. He has been adventurous on the base paths, but those adventures only ended positively once in six tries. There are no home runs to report, but a quarter of his hits have gone for extra bases. As he gains experience and adds muscle we should be able to expect some additional power to develop, but it remains to be seen how much.
On the pitching side, one of the better performers has been Carlos A. Rodriguez. Incredibly, even though this lefty does not turn twenty for another month yet, he is already in his fourth season with the Cubs. After dominating the DSL in 2012 the Cubs brought him to the Arizona Rookie League in 2013. He struggled that year, and last season the Cubs sent him to the VSL where he remains this year.
I would like to see him get another shot stateside, though, due to his 0.99 WHIP last year and his 0.67 WHIP this season. In 22.1 innings in 2015 he has struck out twenty three and granted precisely zero walks. He is a native of Venezuela, and it is possible that the recent difficulties in that country are making it more difficult for the Cubs to move him up the system. I am speculating on that, I have no hard information, but it would explain why he is again cruising through a league where he is simply not being challenged.
Luis Ayala, an outfielder who turned nineteen in December, is another Venezuelan native who could be in need of a promotion (if that is politically feasible) soon. His batting average is not great, but the rest of his .266/.417/.380 line is worth noting. The strikeout rate is a little high, but the large amount of walks help offset that. Given that he is 6’0″ and just 176 lbs I am not at all surprised at the lack of home runs. The ten steals in fifteen tries are nice bonus, though.
Ayala, who hits from the left side, spent last season in the VSL as well. In 2014 he only managed an OPS of .539, but even then the potential for an elevated OBP was in evidence. Now that he’s cashed in on that promise, I hope he can get a look in Arizona or Eugene sometime next season.
Right handed hitting outfielder Jose Rojas is older than we typically like to see in the VSL, but given that this is his first season as a professional with an affiliated organization I’m willing to ignore that he turned twenty one in April for now. Rojas has the frame of a slugger, and he does in fact have a home run to go with his .299/.329/.377 line. In roughly 80 trips to the plate he has four walks and seventeen strikeouts. Those are acceptable figures for this level, I think.
Right handed pitcher Gabriel Lima just turned nineteen last month, and I think he is also ready to be challenged further up the system. Another Venezuelan natives, Lima stands 6’2″ and has held opposing hitters to just a .212 average this season. He has given up three walks, no home runs, and has struck out fifteen in his 17.2 innings of work. The ground ball rate is very strong and has led to a GO/AO of 1.64. I see all the signs here of a guy who could fit the Cubs’ organizational pitching profile perfectly… if they can get him moving up the system.
And finally we have left handed pitcher Alex Pacheco (from Venezuela). At 6’3″ he certainly has the size we like to see in a potential starter, and this season he has posted a WHIP of 0.89 with nineteen strikeouts in 18 innings on the hill. He has walked just three.
This is the second season for Pacheco, and between this season and last he has significantly improved his strikeout totals and slashed the walks. He is already twenty, though, so he has some added age considerations. Still, if the Cubs can get him moving up the system, he has a profile that makes me think he could move fairly quickly for a few levels.
The Cubs do have a team in the other Caribbean League, the Dominican Summer League, but that one started some time after the VSL. We need another few weeks before we can examine those stats with any kind of confidence. When we can, I think there will be some stats well worth examining. Like the VSL, the talent is a little thinner for the Cubs than we have seen in previous years, but there is definitely some quality there.