April is an awesome month. It is the month that, finally, after a long winter, brings us daily and meaningful baseball. The spring training games of March are nice, but ultimately mean little. In April the games count. Pitchers aren’t working on pitches, they are working to get hitters out. Managers around the league who did little of it during the spring suddenly start calling for shifts, hit and runs, and sacrifice bunts (to the consternation of many) in an effort to squeeze every run out of their lineup.
April means baseball, with all of the beauty and history that goes with it, is back. That’s the good part of the month.
The bad part is the waiting. Baseball is back, but we still can’t do much of anything with the numbers. Jacob Hannemann has a strikeout rate of 37.9% in Low A, but it isn’t source of conversation because he only has 29 plate appearances. Kris Bryant is on pace for 40 home runs and has walked in almost 18% of his trips to the plate, but small sample sizes keep me from writing incoherent articles chock full of irrational excitement.
Baseball is back, but the season is so new that it is hard to know what any of it means. Even at the major league level, depending on the day you visit the comments on the front page here you’d think the Cubs either have replaced their lineup with nine random people from the bleachers, or that the ’27 Yankees have been recreated Jurassic Park style and are rampaging about the ballpark. It would be nice to think that Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro are going to post wRC+ of about 130 all season, for example, but we run back into that sample size issue again. The numbers are tantalizingly close to being ready for study, but they just aren’t quite there yet.
And so I watch some games, listen to other games, and wait. Watching and listening is as enjoyable as ever, but working with the numbers is also a part of enjoying baseball. And that part just hasn’t arrived yet.
Fortunately there have been some good games to watch and listen to on the farm this season. With the exception of Daytona every team in the system is around .500, and I think Daytona is better than they’ve been playing. There are some notable challenges on the schedule in the coming weeks for the Cubs organization, though. We should know quite a bit more about these teams in two or three weeks than we do now.
But while we’re waiting, we may as well survey the system.
Iowa Cubs : 5-5
The Cubs are in the Pacific Coast League American Northern division this year, so instead fighting Memphis and Nashville as division foes, they now have Oklahoma City (Houston) and Colorado Springs (Colorado). Omaha (Kansas City) also switched into the American Northern division. So far it has proven to be a close division, and at .500 the Cubs are hanging out just a game and a half out of first (if still in last place).
The Cubs have not yet been tested on the road, though. 8 of their 10 played games were at home, and their .500 record while at home doesn’t exactly breed confidence in their ability to win consistently on the road (most teams tend to play better at home). After they complete their current series in Memphis the Cubs head right back home for 8 more games, so it will be some time before we really get a sense of how this team will fare on the road.
As you might expect given the Cubs huge imbalance in home games to start the year, there is a reckoning in their schedule. The Cubs have a doubleheader at home on July 27, and then do not return to the state of Iowa until August 12. If the team in still in contention for a playoff slot that will likely prove to be a crucial road trip, but there is a lot of baseball to be played before that happens.
Tennessee Smokies : 4-5
It hasn’t been the smoothest of starts for the Smokies, but they now sit comfortably in third place in the division, 3.5 games back of first place Huntsville (Milwaukee). Expectations are always high for Tennessee, and it seems that every year of late they have either made the playoffs or been in contention for a slot late in one of the halfs of the season, but those expectations are even higher this year. The core of these Smokies is the same group of players who just won the Florida State League with Daytona last summer, and there is no compelling reason why they can’t claim a title in Double A as well.
The Smokies will be home for much of this next week as they wrap up a series with Chattanooga and then welcome Jackson to town. They head for Birmingham on Saturday, and then come home to face that first place Huntsville team next weekend.
Daytona Cubs : 2-7
Daytona fans are not used to seeing a team in next to last, but that is exactly where the Cubs have wound up a bit over a week into the season. Surprisingly, they are still looking for their first home win.
The Cubs have been in the middle of the pack league-wide in pitching this season, ranking 7th of 12 in ERA, 5th in strikeouts, and 8th in runs allowed, but their offense has struggled a little. The Cubs are 8th in both OPS and runs scored. The season is early yet, and I think this team has more offense on it than we are seeing so far. In each of the past two seasons Daytona has been a very streaky team at times; if these Cubs follow that trend than we could be looking at a five or six game winning streak one day soon.
If that winning streak is going to start soon, though, it will have to happen on the road. Between today and April 25th the Cubs play just three home games (all against Tampa) while facing Dunedin, Clearwater, Brevard County, and Tampa on the road. After two games on the 26th and 27th against Brevard County, they hit the road again for Lakeland. Of course, 12 of their first 14 games in May are at home, so the schedule evens out in a hurry.
Kane County Cougars : 6-3
What a difference a year makes. The Kane County Cougars are in first place. Last season this team was the doormat of the league despite an offense that put up some quality numbers, but as of today they sit tied for the top spot in the Western division with Cedar Rapids (Minnesota).
But will it last? Small sample size alerts do of course apply, but the numbers behind the win/loss column are not encouraging. The Cougars’ have a team OPS of .623, and that ranks them fourth from last. Despite that they have scored the second most runs in the league. That sort of differential is unlikely to continue, and history suggests it will be the runs that come down to meet the OPS rather than the OPS that rises to meet the runs.
On the mound things are similarly cloudy. Kane Count leads the league in walks allowed and is second in home runs allowed. Unsurprisingly they have the fourth worst runs allowed total as well. As more talented pitchers drift up from extended spring training I suspect we’ll see those figures improve, but it could be challenging for this team to maintain a hold on first place if those improvements are slow in coming.
This week the Cougars are on the road, first in Bowling Green and then into Dayton for the weekend. Those games in Dayton will be one of your few opportunities to see this team on MiLB.TV this season. Of course, if you happen to live in Central Ohio you could always head out to the ballpark to see them first hand instead. You could even swing by to visit the aliens while you’re there.
First, if you haven’t looked through the Top 50 draft prospects on MLB.com, then go look through the Top 50 draft prospects on MLB.com. It isn’t impossible that we are three months away from two of those guys joining the Cubs’ system.
Of course amateur rankings are very changeable things, particularly now that we are in the middle of an amateur season, so for the latest rankings keep an eye on Baseball America. The latest 2014 Draft Update, for example, kicks Aiken into the stop spot, slides pre-season number one Rodon to three and Vanderbilt ace Beede (sometimes linked to the Cubs) to six.
While many websites dabble in draft coverage from time to time, few remain as focused as Through The Fence Baseball throughout the year. Dan Kirby (who is worth a follow on Twitter) recently posted a very in-depth look at most of the Cubs possible options at No 4. That list is twenty names deep, so deep in fact that it is possible that some of them could slide down to the Cubs in the second round.
Scout.com also posts some quality coverage of the top amateur names, the most recent example being this piece on the big names playing in North Carolina. Those campaigning for the Cubs to take Trea Turner should probably stop reading about halfway through that article, but I have a hard time arguing with the conclusions.
Wondering how the Cubs’ organizational pitching will stack up if they draft a top arm or two in June? Baseball America starts to answer that in a recent Ask BA.
Need more draft goodness? Head for Twitter and follow Ben Badler and John Manuel. Both pass on plenty of draft relevant information via that channel, and by following Badler you’re also tuning into the leading source for international free agent information on the internet.
By this time last season I had already locked in on Bryant as my choice for the Cubs first round choice in the draft, but the field is not as clear cut this year. If I had to pick today I would probably go with Beede or Aiken, in that order, but it is early yet. We have a lot of waiting to do, and that means there is plenty of time for the draft picture to come into a clearer focus.