MLR: Two Weeks Left


We are into the final two weeks of the minor league season, and the Cubs could still place three of their five highest level minor league teams in the postseason. Tennessee and Daytona have their tickets punched, and Boise is just two games out. It’s almost time to start wrapping up the minor leagues and looking forward to next season. in this week’s Minor League Report, we’ll spend a little time looking ahead to 2012 as well.

Iowa Cubs (59-70) Pacific Coast League (AAA) North: 4th place
Iowa swept a road series with Salt Lake City this week, and then promptly dropped the first two of a home stand. It is nice to see Iowa finish the season strong. They have put together winning streaks of four and five games in August, numbers that are even more encouraging when you realize that this Iowa team is much younger than the team that opened the season. The 2012 Cubs should have much more depth to lean on than the 2011 edition.

Ryan Flaherty was a little slow in adjusting to Iowa, but once he did his bat came to life. His August OPS is over .700, and in the last ten games it climbs to over .800. A lot of experts say the Cubs don’t have a replacement for Aramis Ramirez in the minors. I say Ryan Flaherty should get a shot. He has good power, is reasonably patient, hits left handed, and can play all over the diamond. He may not be a perfect third baseman, but I think he can match Ramirez defensively. Long term, Flaherty projects as more of a super-sub / utility guy. For 2012, I’d love to see what he can do with 100+ starts as the Cubs’ third baseman.

Tennessee Smokies (32-24) Southern League (AA) North: 2nd place
The Smokies look like they are in good shape for the postseason. Coming off a five game road sweep of Jackson, they arrive home to play Chatanooga. On the line is the second half division title. The Smokies have already clinched a postseason appearance by winning the division in the first half, and much of that team has been promoted to Iowa. To be fighting for the second half title as well is quite an accomplishment.

When looking at the Tennessee roster for player who can help the Cubs in 2012, Josh Vitters is the obvious choice. He plays first and third, makes excellent contact, and projects to have 20+ home run power in the majors. He is also young, still needs to learn some more patience at the plate, and could use more work on his defense at third. He could be a factor in the second half of the 2012 season.

Rafael Dolis, on the other hand, could be in Chicago from day one. Since converting to the bullpen full time, Dolis has been very good at getting the ground ball outs. His strikeout to walk ratio could be prettier and he would certainly benefit from a season in Iowa, but don’t be surprised if he is one of the last guys to be cut from the Cubs roster in spring training. If a hole appears on the right side of the bullpen, Dolis might just grab it.

Daytona Cubs (25-29) Florida State League (High A) North: 4th place (tie)
With just two weeks before the Florida State League playoffs, Daytona finds itself on the road trying to recover from an uncharacteristic three game slide. The offense appears to be in good shape. If the pitching can rebound, the Cubs should be just fine in September.

Matt Szczur has his first two home run game as a professional out of the way. That is a nice bonus for a player whose game is more about speed than slugging. While Szczur’s numbers in Daytona have not been spectacular, he has not done a bad job since his promotion from Peoria. I think it is very likely that he returns to Daytona to start 2012, but he will likely be promoted mid-season. He could finish the year in Iowa… or possibly Chicago.

There are two relievers I think have a shot of arriving in Chicago ahead of Szczur. Aaron Kurcz has been expected to rise through the minors quickly since the Cubs drafted him in 2010, and he has done nothing this season to slow that pace down. We might see him in the second half of 2012. Frank Batista is a little tougher to project. He came into this season basically unheralded, and is now the All-Star closer for one of the best teams in the minors. His numbers look almost exactly like a closer’s numbers should look. He doesn’t give up many home runs or walks, is good at getting ground balls, and has a batting average against of just .209. He is not a strikeout artist like Carlos Marmol, but at this level he looks like he’ll be a little more consistent. We need to see Batista replicate this success in Double A before we start thinking about him moving to Chicago, but if he can establish himself as a top closer for the Smokies next season, he could finish 2012 with the Cubs.

Peoria Chiefs (22-33) Midwest League (Low A) Western: 7th place (tie)
Peoria has struggled on the road all season, and it is just a cruel twist of the knife that they finish a disappointing campaign mainly on the road. There are just six home games left for the Chiefs, but if you can make the drive you should definitely plan to attend one of them.

It is all but unheard of for a player to finish the season in Low-A and make the majors the following year, but in baseball anything is possible. I don’t see anyone on the Peoria roster rising quite that fast, but if anyone is going to prove me wrong, it might just be Frank Del Valle. The 20 year old southpaw is in his first year as a professional since leaving Cuba, and there is a lot to be excited about. If we throw out his two relieve appearances, neither of which was pretty, we’re left with a 1.32 ERA, .174 batting average against, and 28 strike outs against just 6 walks in 34 innings. He’s walking fewer than one batter a game and giving up a home run every three games. At 5’11” he is smaller than the prototypical starting pitcher, but I do not think that matters. I could see him starting 2012 in Peoria or Daytona. If he continues to have success and can consistently pitch 6+ innings a start, he could move up as fast as Nick Struck did this year. Del Valle is one of many reasons Cub fans have to be excited about the future of the franchise.

Boise Hawks (12-14) Northwest League (Short-Season A) East: 2nd place
The good news for Boise is that they have a great shot to make the post season. The bad news is they they are two games out with twelve to play, and seven of those twelve are on the road. Boise is not a good road team. But if they can figure things out away from home, they could be the third Cub farm team to make the playoffs this year.

At the short-season A level nearly every player is raw bundle of potential. I don’t think there is anyone on this roster likely to help the Cubs before 2013 at the very earliest, but if I had to chose a guy who could prove me wrong, it would be right handed reliever Bryce Shafer. If Shafer makes the majors at all, it will be a bit of a surprise. He was taken in 49th round in 2010 by the Cubs, but despite that inauspicious start there is nothing to complain about on his stat sheet. He is striking out well over one batter an inning, doesn’t give up many walks, and has allowed just one long ball this year. His GO/AO rate is solid, his batting average against is just .230, and that drops to .167 against right handers. He has been the closer for Boise, and picked up ten saves so far. He spent a short time in Peoria this season, and he should definitely be a fixture in Peoria or Daytona in 2012. As a right handed reliever he will face a lot of competition in the Cubs farm system, but if he keeps getting ground balls and strike outs he could start to move up.

Be sure to check back on Wednesday for the Cubbies Crib Minor League Line of the Week.