This Week In The Minors: Bragging Rights

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This Week In The Minors: Bragging Rights

Chicago Cubs

javier baez aflAs you probably already know, Javier Baez is now a Tennessee Smokie.For Baez this is a well deserved promotion that he earned not just by beating up on High-A pitching, but by making the changes that significantly improved his plate approach from the beginning of the season to now.

This is a significant promotion.  His performance so far has been nice, but none of that matters now that he is in Double A.

The simple fact is that Baez was supposed to dominate A ball. That is what very good prospects with great bat speed do – they dominate the lower levels of the minors. As great as Baez had been over the past few weeks in Daytona (and they were some pretty great weeks), he was only performing up to expectations. Very high draft picks and very good prospects should perform that way at that level. Baez gets credit for meeting expectations, but that’s about it.

Double A is a completely different story. This is the level where major league talent separates itself from the prospect pool. The jump to Double is generally considered the most difficult jump of them all, greater than first turning pro, greater even than the final jump to the majors [Brett: I think I’ve heard that the leap to the Majors is the tougher one, but we’re in the ballpark.]. It is generally the most prospect heavy level. It is a level populated by players who are one phone call away from the majors, and who know it. Triple A has more players with major league experience, but some will tell you that Double A has a higher overall talent level. Succeeding here is not easy for anyone, no matter the skill set.

That said, I expect Baez will succeed in time. He may need to make some more adjustments first (many do), and that process may take half a season or more. In the end, though, I think Baez will handle this challenge just fine.

But this promotion also raises another question. Since the season started, I have been referring to the Kane County infield as the most talent rich in the Cubs’ organization. The only infield that really came close to Kane County was … Tennessee. Now that Baez is in Tennessee, who has the most-prospecty infield bragging rights?

We’ll figure that out after our weekly survey of the organization.

Iowa Cubs : 45-45

Iowa is back down to .500, but they are still in first place with a two game lead over the Redbirds. I’m not sure what the best part of that is – in first place or ahead of the Cardinals Triple A team. Either is good, both are great, and if they can keep this up the rest of the season I’ll be one happy fan.

Tennessee Smokies : 10-6

The Smokies are in first place with a two game lead over the Birmingham (White Sox) Barons. And with the addition of Baez, even if he does need time to make adjustments, their lineup just went from good to scary. Factor in some pitching that has been consistenly getting better as the season wears on and it is easy to imagine Tennessee simply running away with the division in the second half. The Smokies added a familiar face this week: infielder Nate Samson, 25, who had been playing independent ball. Until this year, Samson had been a member of the Cubs’ organization since he was 18, spending parts of four seasons from 2009 to 2012 with Tennessee.

Daytona Cubs : 10-4

Daytona is also in first place by two games, but Tennessee’s gain is their loss. Daytona had already lost Jorge Soler to a stress fracture, and now they lose Baez to promotion. It will be tough for Daytona to keep up the scoring with those two enormous bats out of the lineup. There is still a lot of talent here, but if the Cubs are going to make it into the postseason the pitching may have to be the stars of the show.

Kane County Cougars : 4-12

The good news is that they are still only eight games back of first place and do not quite have the worst record in the league. The bad news is that they have just four second half wins. Most of those losses are on the road, though. They have played fairly well at home. If this team can finally get going during a home stand and keep that momentum up on the road, anything is possible. Unlikely, but possible.

Boise Hawks : 11-12

Boise is proving to be a bit of a streaky team this year. Right now they are on the downside of one of those streaks and it has left them in second place, five games out. The season halves in short-season ball are very brief, so the Hawks only have a few weeks to close that gap. One really good winning streak at the right time could make it happen.

Arizona AZL Cubs : 7-7

.500 is not a bad record, and in the case of the AZL Cubs it is good for third place, 4.5 games out. There are no halves at this level of the minors.  It is just one short season with a post-season at the end, so the AZL Cubs have plenty of time to make up ground.

Infield Throwdown

Who has the best infield talent in the organization, Kane County or Tennessee? There is one only way to settle this. Let’s run down the positions one by one and see how they stack up.

First Base
Dan Vogelbach vs Justin Bour

This is without a doubt the easiest win for Kane County. One of these guys is fringe league Top 100 guy, and the other is, well, Justin Bour. Bour is a nice guy to have in the system, but his ceiling is probably that of a major league backup. He reminds me more of Bryan LaHair than Anthony Rizzo.

Vogelbach, on the other hand, has one of the best swings and some of the most usable power in the organization. He has a long to go, but his ceiling is sky high.

Score one for the Courgars. KC 1, Tennessee 0.

Second Base
Gioskar Amaya vs Arismendy Alcantara

Both of these guys are quality prospects in their own right. I ranked Amaya over Alcantara at the beginning of the season, but since then Alcantara has erupted into one of the best stories of in the minors this year. Suddenly Alcantara looks like a potential impact guy in his own right, one who is a candidate to make some league Top 100 lists this winter. Even so, had Amaya performed consistently this year it would have been a close battle between the two.

But he hasn’t, and it isn’t. While Amaya has gone hot and cold in Kane County, Alcantara has wandered between more and less hot with Smokies. This is a clear win for Double A squad.

And so we’re back to even. KC 1, Tennessee 1.

Marco Hernandez vs Javier Baez

Baez, and it isn’t particularly close. Marco Hernandez is another quality prospect – arguably the best prospect likely to stay at shortstop in the organization since Baez is still often seen as a third baseman in waiting – but Baez is candidate for league Top 10. Not 100, 10. Don’t sleep on Hernandez, by any means, but there is just no comparison here. Until Baez moves off short we will continue count him there, and that means he wins this round for Tennessee with ease.

Tennessee takes the lead. KC 1, Tennessee 2.

Third Base
Jeimer Candelario vs Christian Villanueva

This battle is all kinds of interesting. Villanueva entered the season projected as a very good defender with questions about his bat. Candelario entered the season a bat-first prospect with questions about his glove.

Villanueva has responded by hitting 11 home runs to date and posting a season OPS of .768. Candelario, on the other hand, has played very well at third base (surprisingly well for some observers). His OPS is only .673, but he’s doing that in a full season league at the age of 19.

I honestly do not know in what order I will rank these two when I redo my Top 40. Villanueva has really impressed me this season. But for now I can’t overlook the ceiling offered by Candelario’s bat. By the thinnest of margins I’m awarding this one to the teenager in the Midwest League.

And we’re back to even, again. KC 2, Tennessee 2.

I guess we need a tiebreaker. Catchers aren’t really infielders in the usual sense, but they’ll due for this purpose.

Willson Contreras vs Rafael Lopez

Catcher is not a position of strength in the Cubs’ system, and it shows here. Contreras, even though he has the most starts behind the plate for Kane County, is not the most impressive catching prospect on his team (take a bow Carlos Escobar). Contreras is a decent prospect in his own right, though, and one who is worth following as he works his way through the system. His numbers this season are not impressive, but catchers often develop their offensive game at a slower rate than other positions. At worst we would consider Contreras a very solid sleeper for the Cubs, and the same can be said of Escobar (even if I like Escobar’s ceiling more).

Lopez, a Southern League All-Star, has outperformed them both with an OPS of .764. But does he count as a prospect? This guy turns 26 in October. It is just his third season a professional, though, and his wOBA for the Smokies is the highest he has posted with any full season league team. And there is that All-Star award to consider as well.

I’m counting him in the prospect column, and even though I think Contreras may have the higher ceiling, I’m awarding this battle to the Double A All Star.

And it seems we have a winner. KC 2, Tennessee 3.

Pass the torch Kane County. The best collection of infield prospects in the farm system now resides in Kodak, Tennessee. That is a notable shift from the situation at the start of the season, and that in turn is good news for Cub fans.

Maybe, just maybe, help is not as far away as some of you may think.

Author: Luke Blaize

Luke Blaize is the Minor League Editor at Bleacher Nation, and you can find him on Twitter at @ltblaize.