Because the 4th of July fell on a Monday, I’m bringing you the Minor League Report a day late this week, and I am extending it through Monday. That means this week’s report covers eight days, and next week’s will cover six. It also means we will have two fantastic pitching performances fighting it out for Line of the Week honors tomorrow.
Things are looking up on the farm system. After a rough start to the second half of the season we’re starting to see some better play all over the system, and as a result all five teams are either in first place or within five games of the lead. We are heading into trade season, and that could have a big impact on the Cubs minor league system.
Iowa Cubs (41-44) Pacific Coast League (AAA) North: 4th place
Iowa won five of seven over the past week, and they are still hanging around in striking distance of first. We’ve been waiting all season for the Iowa pitchers to string together some good performance, and at long last our patience is paying off. If the Cubs are going to come from behind and take the division, though, they need to win on the road. This week they have a chance to do just that.
Jay Jackson took a game into ninth to pick up a win, and Robert Coello carried another strong outing into the seventh. Jackson’s start is particularly welcome for the Cubs. Going into the season, he and Casey Coleman were the most likely backup starters for Chicago. Up until recently, however, Jackson has not looked at all like himself. Now that he is turning in more consistent performances, he could ready for the majors just as the Cubs are getting nailed with another rash of pitching injuries.
At the plate, D.J. LeMahieu has adapted quickly to Triple A pitching. In his first five games for Iowa, he is hitting .361. Marwin Gonzalez, his double-play partner in Tennessee, is hitting .321. I don’t think it is any coincidence that Iowa has started playing better as more talent arrives from Tennessee. The bulk of the Cubs talent is in the lower ranks of the farm system, but it is moving up. Don’t be surprised if a few more Smokies are on the Iowa roster before much longer.
Tennessee Smokies (7-5) Southern League (AA) North: 2nd place (tie)
The Smokies went 6-2 in the past week to jump up near the top of the division where we are used to seeing them. After a miserable start the second half, the Tennessee offense has come back to life. This week they are on the road in Montgomery.
Josh Vitters has gotten some negative press lately, including from Baseball America, and it was mostly due to a miserable week he had at the end of June when nearly the entire Smokies roster was slumping. Even with that bad week, he still hit .313 for the month, and slugged .493. That success is carrying into July, and so far he has an OPS of 1.000 for the month. It is looking less likely that he will be able to stick at third defensively, but first shouldn’t be a problem. If Vitters does move to first full time, Ryan Flaherty will be more than happy to take over third. With LeMahieu profiling more as a second baseman, Flaherty could be the answer at third for the Chicago Cubs. Vitters, LeMahieu, Castro, and Flaherty could easily form one of the most potent infields in the National League in a year or two.
Daytona Cubs (7-5) Florida State League (High A) North: 1st place (tie)
Daytona went 5-3 and jumped back on top of their division, and there is no reason to think that they will give up that position any time soon. They are starting on a long home stand, and for Daytona that could easily turn into another long winning streak. Even after sending some of their best players to Tennessee, this team still has more than enough talent.
On July 1 the Daytona Cubs played a double-header. In the first game four pitcher led by Angel Guzman combined to beat the Tampa Yankees 2-1. And in the second game, Dae-Eun Rhee pitched a complete game shut-out in a 1-0 win. The Cubs expect some very good things from Rhee, and this twenty-one year old right hander is showing he might be up to the task. If Tennessee needs an arm, don’t be surprised if Rhee gets the call.
Peoria Chiefs (4-7) Midwest League (Low A) Western: 5th place (tie)
Peoria played .500 baseball the past week, but that’s a positive sign for a team that is still recovering from a long losing streak. With just three road games through July 18, the Chiefs have a chance to recover themselves and get into the thick of the post season race if they can go on a winning streak at home.
Hayden Simpson has been moved down to the Arizona Rookie League. The Cubs have been careful with Simpson largely as a result of his severe illness last winter. I suspect that they moved him to Arizona simply to continue to limit his workload, but we will keep an eye on him.
Meanwhile, Austin Kirk turned in a pitching jewel of his own by tossing a no-hitter on July 4th. He struck out 10, walked 2, and set every Daytona Cubs fan counting down the days until he gets promoted. Kirk is among the best lefties in the Cubs farm system and is emerging as one of their best pitching prospects.
Boise Hawks (10-8) Northwest League (Short-Season A) East: 1st place (tie)
Boise also played .500 ball over the past week, and they are locked in a tie for first. They are at home through July 11th, though, and that should give them a chance to open up a lead on the rest of the division.
Keeping track of the Boise Hawks is proving to be a challenge. The Cubs have shuffled players from Boise to Peoria and Daytona, added players from Arizona, Peoria, extended spring training, and the 2011 draft already this season, and the Hawks have only played 18 games. By my count 34 players have stopped in Boise and that number could climb much higher as more draft picks sign throughout the month of July. Wes Darvill has put up some good numbers in the early going, and Reggie Golden hasn’t had a bad start himself. Both of those guys could make it to Peoria by the end of the season. On the mound, Yao-Lin Wang is the top story, but Luis Liria and Willengton Cruz can’t be ignored. Nor can Benjamin Wells.
Be sure to check back on Wednesday for the Cubbies Crib Minor League Line of the Week.