From the Pages of Vine Line: Minor League Prospectus, Part 3 – A Phone Call Away
As evidenced by the additions of players like Jon Lester and Miguel Montero, the Cubs front office is transitioning from a period in which it focused primarily on bringing in assets to help improve the future of the franchise to an extended period in which they expect to compete every year at the big league level. However, if you were to suggest to baseball president Theo Epstein or general manager Jed Hoyer that this transition means they are now less inclined to build through their farm system, they would be quick to correct you.
Just because Cubs fans may finally start seeing wins accumulate at Wrigley Field doesn’t mean the minor league pipeline is suddenly going to go overlooked. In fact, for the second year in a row, the North Siders will have arguably the best system in all of baseball. Boasting the top prospect in the game, an overabundance of high-profile shortstops and a suddenly large group of interesting arms at the lower levels, the Cubs have built the scouting and player development monster they promised to deliver more than three years ago.
In our annual minor league prospectus, Baseball Prospectus’ Sahadev Sharma helps us break down the names to know at all levels of the system. As the month progresses, we’ll unveil player bios on a section-by-section basis. Here is Part 3 of the Cubs minor league prospectus:
A Phone Call Away
While prospects are always fun to follow, no player dreams of a long career in the minor leagues. The ultimate goal for each is to help out at the big league level. Most everyone is aware that guys like Bryant and Russell will be making an impact at Wrigley Field in the near future, but there are other, less-heralded players who could contribute this year as well in a variety of roles.
Dallas Beeler – RHP
Beeler isn’t the kind of prospect who wows you with his stuff, but he still made his major league debut last season after missing much of 2013 with a finger injury. His ability to work down in the zone, primarily with his sinker and splitter, means he has a chance to induce a significant number of ground balls, which could offset the fact that he’ll likely never be a big strikeout guy. And that’s where Beeler must live—down in the zone—if he’s going to carve out a career in the back end of a major league rotation. His modus operandi is relying on his defense while coaxing weak contact from hitters. The big righty is well aware of this fact and does his best to always work to his strengths. He’ll likely enter Spring Training contending for a spot in the big league bullpen.
Eric Jokisch – LHP
Jokisch is often called a left-handed version of Kyle Hendricks, and the comparison works for multiple reasons. Both pitchers are highly intelligent and attended acclaimed colleges (Jokisch went to Northwestern, Hendricks to Dartmouth), both rely more on command than stuff, and both soak up knowledge, using every bit of information they can get their hands on to try and make themselves better at their craft. Jokisch works hard on scouting the opposition, learning hitters’ tendencies and working to expose their weaknesses. While he could find success at the back of the rotation, he has the advantage of being a southpaw, which many believe will allow him to be most effective out of the bullpen. The Cubs, like most teams, could certainly use more left-handed help in the late innings.
Armando Rivero – RHP
Rivero has a solid chance to join a big league bullpen that rapidly improved throughout the 2014 season. He has an explosive fastball that hitters have difficulty picking up, especially when it’s down in the zone. It’s a special pitch with late cutting life, and he combines it with a power slider that’s one of the best breaking balls in the organization. No matter where he ends up, Rivero will likely rack up strikeouts (as evidenced by his 38 percent K rate last season). He also has a change-up that grades out as average or better, leading some to believe he could be a starter. However, he rarely uses it out of the bullpen, and the Cubs have determined that his best role right now is as a reliever. After missing some time following his defection from Cuba, Rivero has moved quickly through the Cubs system. It’s not unreasonable to think he could have a significant impact at the major league level this summer.
Christian Villanueva – 3B
After Villanueva enjoyed an impressive 2013 campaign that had many projecting a bright future, the 23-year-old struggled in his first taste of Triple-A action in 2014 and was eventually sent back to Tennessee when Bryant earned his promotion to Iowa. One thing that will never be in doubt is his glove. He offers plus defense at the hot corner—the type that could garner a Gold Glove or two if the bat ever comes around to the point where he’s getting regular playing time.
However, the bat does leave major question marks, as Villanueva struggled even when sent back to Double-A. He needs to stop giving away at-bats if he’s ever going to live up to the potential some saw after his breakout 2013 season. Either way, his glove makes him a valuable piece, and he could provide some versatility, as he did see time at second base last season and in the outfield in the Mexican Winter League.