This Week In The Minors: Early Season Check-up

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This Week In The Minors: Early Season Check-up

Chicago Cubs

kris bryant cubsIn the Minor League Daily for May 1, regular reader and commenter Edwin posted the following question:

So if you could grade the top 10 prospects so far, how would they grade out for April?

The more I thought about it, the more I liked the question and the more I realized I did not have an answer. It sounds simple, but what would the grades mean? What am I grading against? On what scale? They more I thought about it, the more I found to think about.

I still like the idea, though, and so I decided to use it as the basis for today’s article, but with some slight modifications.

Each player on the list will be graded against my expectations for that player coming into the season. That’s still a fairly arbitrary standard, but at least it is a defined one. Rather than stick with a classic (and, in this context, undefined) grading scale of A/B/C/etc., though, I will keep it simple and grade along the lines of ‘Above Expectations’, ‘As Expected,’ or ‘Below Expectations.’ I’m also expanding my sample for grading to include all of this past week and not cutting off the data at the end of April.

To make up a little for not quite answering the question as asked, though, I’ll expand my grades from the Top 10 to the Top 15. Naturally, the rankings used will be the latest Bleacher Nation Top 40 list.

So, Edwin, I’m five days late with this one, but your answer is coming up right after the weekly survey of the system.

Iowa Cubs : 15-12

Even though they’ve lost a few games lately, Iowa still clings to first place in the division by a margin of .004. They’ve played the fewest road games in the PCL, though, so there are some significant tests for this team yet to come.

They finish off a series in Nashville on Monday and then head for last place New Orleans for a four game set. They are back in town on Saturday to start another eight game home stand against Nashville and Round Rock.

Tennessee Smokies : 16-13

It has been a week since the Smokies lost a game. They have now won six in a row and are just two and half back of Huntsville for the lead in the North Division.

It may be tough to keep that up.  The Smokies schedule is entering one of the roughest phases of this season. They come home from Chattanooga on Monday to face Birmingham, and then hit the road for games at Jackson and at Mississippi before finally getting a day off on May 20.

Daytona Cubs : 9-17

The Cubs have yet to play a game in the month of May. Rain, more rain, and yet more rain has wiped out all their games for the past three days. At least they’ll be well rested as they attempt to turn around their current three game skid.

Nine of their next eleven games, weather permitting, are at home. If they are going to climb back into the first half division race, they probably need to win a bunch of those eleven games.

Kane County Cougars : 20-9

The first team in the Cubs organization to reach 20 wins is the Kane County Cougars, the best team in the Midwest League. Not only does Kane County have the best over all record and a two game lead in the Western division, their 13-2 home record is by far the best in the league. No other MWL team has more than eight home wins.

The Cougars stay at home for the first part of this week, finishing off a series with Burlington today and playing three against Wisconsin starting tomorrow. On Thursday they head to Burlington for three.

And Here Are The Grades

1. Javier Baez. As Expected.

My take on Baez has not changed since I wrote his Prospects Progress piece last November.

He’ll head to Iowa and open the year posting a K% in the mid to high 30% range again, and many fans will label him a bust and rail at the front office for not trading him while they had the chance. Baez will make adjustments and pull his K% down into the mid to low 20% range. And, after it stays there for 100 PAs or so, he will head to Chicago.

So far Baez is right on track. The injury slowed things down a little, but to be honest I thought his strikeout rate would be even a little higher than it is at this stage. His BABIP is much lower than an expected as well, so even if the K% doesn’t change his overall line should start to tick up noticeably soon.

2. Kris Bryant. Above Expectations.

I expected Bryant to dominate Double A, but not quite this quickly or to this degree. The strikeout rate and power are about what I thought they would be, but I did not anticipate this strong of a walk rate. I didn’t expect him to have nearly as many stolen bases as home runs, either.

3. Jorge Soler. No grade to give (Injury).

I thought we would have more than one at bat from Soler by this point. The injuries are more frustrating than concerning for me, and I don’t think they lower his stock as a prospect at all, but I really did think we would see him on the field this spring. Hopefully he will return to the Tennessee lineup soon.

4. C.J. Edwards. No grade to give (Injury).

This injury is a little more concerning. I’m not prepared to strike Edwards’ name off the future starters list just yet, but concern about his shoulder probably does make a move to the bullpen, if only for a time, more likely. When he was on the mound, though, he was pitching quite well.

5. Albert Almora. Below Expectations.

Almora’s value at the plate, is heavily dependent on his ability to get on base. He’s not a slugger like Baez or Bryant, and he’s not a great speedster like Andreoli or DeVoss, so his best chance of being a real weapon at the plate will come from just constantly getting on base by any means necessary. So far this spring he hasn’t gotten on base via a walk once, and his batting average is about fifty points shy of where I thought it would be. The very low strikeout rate is encouraging, though, and his status as a prospect does not change for me at all.  Not yet.

But if he could produce a Rizzo style four walk day, I would not complain.

6. Arismendy Alcantara. As Expected.

The walks are down from last year, and the strike outs are up a little, but in general Alcantara is hitting Triple A quite well and showing the same mix of switch hitting power and speed we saw last season. I would wait for the patience to return to his game before calling him to Chicago, but I have little doubt that phone call will come at some point.

7. Pierce Johnson. No grade to give (Injury).

Thanks to an injury delayed start to his season, Johnson has pitched just fourteen innings so far this year. In those fourteen innings he has walked too many and not struck out quite as many as I’d like to see, but it is just three starts. There just isn’t enough there for me to make much of an assessment.

8. Jeimer Candelario. As Expected.

He got off to a slow start, but Candelario is already showing the patience (16.5% walk rate) that has been his hallmark. His power numbers are down a little, but that is to be expected in the Florida State League. I would not be surprised if he finishes 2014 with a very similar to line to what he posted in 2013 despite the more difficult level. And that is not a bad thing at all, particularly given his age.

9. Kyle Hendricks. Above Expectations.

Who is this guy? The 2013 Hendricks was a pitcher who relied on extreme control to generate weak contact by putting the ball where the hitters could not handle it. The 2014 Hendricks is an extreme ground ball pitcher who is striking out hitters at a faster rate than he has since the year he was drafted. He has had some rougher starts this spring, but that’s to be expected and does not diminish from the body of work that has resulted in a FIP of just 2.74.

10. Arodys Vizcaino. As Expected.

The sample size is still small, but he’s been very effective as a late game reliever in High A. Considering he was one of the best young pitchers in baseball when he was injured, that’s exactly as things should be. The real test will come as he moves up the system.

11. Mike Olt. As Expected.

His glove has been good, and he has launched some memorable home runs for the Cubs, but he has also struck out a ton. Based on his minor league numbers and his current BABIP I think we’ll see some more hits and walks out of him than we have seen so far, but to borrow a line from the NFL, he is who we thought he was. Now it remains to be seen how high those stat-predicted extra hits and walks can push his overall line. As I said in the Top 40, I like his glove but I’m not buying into his bat quite yet.

12. Dan Vogelbach. As Expected.

Like Candelario, Vogelbach got off to a slow start, but when his bat woke up he started hitting like, well, like Vogelbach. I’m not concerned about the slightly depressed early power numbers in large part because he is in the Florida State League. On the other hand, I’m pretty happy to see his strikeout rate at a very comfortable 16.7%. I think we’ll see Vogelbach turn in another quality average, high walk rate, low strikeout rate, highish slugging percentage season this year.

13. Corey Black. Above Expectations.

His walk rate is up a touch, but he didn’t allow a hit in two of his five starts this season. Any time a pitcher has a 40% no-hitter rate (does anyone track no-hitter rate as a stat?) he’s doing something right.

14. Rob Zastryzny. Below Expectations.

He is striking out quite a few batters, but he is also giving up a lot of hits and walks. He hasn’t been quite as bad as his ERA makes it seem, but when a FIP of 5.03 qualifies as good news, you know you’re dealing with a rough season. I had thought that he might be in Tennessee for the second half of the year; I now doubt that will be the case.

15. Christian Villanueva. Below Expectations.

This may just be a guy getting off to a slow start, but after leading the Southern League in doubles a year ago, Villanueva’s early season OPS of .608 is somewhat short of what I had hoped for. The glove is as good as ever, but his offensive numbers are markedly down across the board. There is no need to panic yet, some hitters do need time to adjust after all, but right now it is safe to say that he has some work to do before we can start thinking about his major league debut.

Author: Luke Blaize

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