The mid-point in the season is a good time for reflection.
I wanted to take this opportunity to review the AAA Cubs' roster and to reflect upon the information I've gathered through the team statistics and by following the season's boxscores.
This is by no means an exhaustive analysis. I've only seen the I-Cubs play once this year (early in the season versus Round Rock), and am unable to comment anecdotally or statistically about our position players' defensive abilities, our pitchers's mound presence, or anything of that nature.
Furthermore, my evaluation will rely heavily on primary peripheral statistics, rather than on more sabermetrically sophisticated models of evaluation (simply because I'm not overly knowledgeable of their applications).
What I can offer in this analysis is a fair, thoughtful reflection of the cursory information at hand.
With that in mind:
THE IOWA CUBS PITCHING STAFF
David Aardsma, RHP (24 yrs, 7 months)
2-3, 2.79 ERA
29 IP, 20 H, 9 ER, 1 HR, 11 BB, 29 K; 1.07 WHIP
Aardsma has proven all season that he can get AAA hitters out. This should be no surprise, as he posted very solid numbers at AAA in 2004 (6-4, 3.09 ERA in 55 IPs as a 22 year-old-- I'm still not sure why he repeated AA in 2005).
What perhaps is most encouraging are his peripheral numbers. He's only given up one HR over 29 IP, while walking only 11. To be sure, this is a small sample size, but this season's rate(3.41 BB/9) is about a 20 percent improvement upon his career minor-league walk levels (4.29 BB/9). It seems likely that Aardsma will have to continue that trend to turn his incredible talent (99 MPH heater) into success at the ML level.
Coming into this season, Aardsma had compiled a very solid career minor league ERA of 3.17 over 170 IP (with a career WHIP of 1.37) and with his current success at Iowa, one would hope that he will get a longer look at the Major League level before the 2006 season commences. If anything, it seems clear that Aardsma is more deserving of a roster spot than the older, less accomplished Roberto Novoa.
Thomas Atlee, RHP (26 yrs, 11 months)
0-1, 5.25 ERA
12 IP, 10 H, 7 ER, 2 HR, 10 BB, 6 K; 1.67 WHIP.
Atlee began the season at AA West Tennessee and after handling the competition there (1.67 ERA in 43 IP), the organization rightfully promoted the nearly- 27 year-old. Atlee has always been a tick older than the competition he's faced, so his career minor league numbers (3.21 ERA in 170 IP) likely appear a little better than his actual skill-set. This is Atlee's first attempt at any level higher than AA and he's struggled in his first dozen innings. At 27 years-old by the season's end, it seems Atlee will have to convincingly handle AAA hitters (which he hasn't yet) to give any indication that he might contribute at the ML level.
Brandon Emanuel, RHP (30 yrs, 3 months)
0-2, 2.23 ERA
48 IP, 38 H, 12 ER, 7 HR, 16 BB, 40 K; 1.13 WHIP.
A career minor-leaguer, Emanuel never turned into the kind of pitcher the Angels hoped for when they drafted him in the 2nd round of the 1998 amatuer draft. He's kept a low ERA for the entire 2006 season, but his high HR/9 (1.31) falls in line with a very high carer HR/9-- most likely what's kept him in the minors for 8 seasons (career 5.06 ERA in almost 800 IP). I don't expect Emanuel to do much more than continue to do a decent job pitching at Iowa.
Angel Guzman, RHP (24 yrs, 7 months)
2-4, 4.62 ERA
48 IP, 47 H, 25 ER, 4 HR, 14 BB, 52 K; 1.27 WHIP
Once the crown jewel of the Cubs' Farm, Guzman has found himself fighting for attention among the Cubs' shinier (and healthier) prospects. His star has fallen largely due to injury, but a peek back at his career minor-league numbers re-creates a lot of excitement in his ability.
On the surface, Guzman's AAA numbers aren't overwhelming. A 4.62 ERA is among the team's highest. However, Guzman's HR/9, BB/9, K/9, and WHIP demonstrate that he may be pitching better than his front-line stats might indicate. Add in the fact that this is Guzman's first attempt at AAA after only 106 IP in AA, and that he's still recovering from arm surgery and there's reason to believe that he is still a solid prospect (plus his career minor-league ERA is a very drool-worthy 2.70 in over 400 IPs).
It's my belief that Guzman will benefit and thrive from a full, healthy season at Iowa. It will be interesting to continue to monitor his performance (and health) as the season develops.
Rich Hill, LHP (26 yrs, 4 months)
6-1, 1.81 ERA
84 IP, 54 H, 17 ER, 2 HR, 19 BB, 107 K; 0.84 WHIP
Hill might be the most controversial Cubs prospect (certainly in BCB). Hill's dominance in AAA this season is clear. What is sometimes overlooked is just how much improved his numbers are in comparison to his career norms. I never felt Hill was much of a prospect until this season, actually. His carer HR/9 and his BB/9 rates seemed way too high to me, particularly for his age and level of competition. But it is in these two specific statistical categories that Hill seems to have made the most improvement.
Career: HR/9: 0.87; BB/9: 4.84
2006: HR/9: 0.21; BB/9: 2.04
These are significant improvements, especially considering it comes at the highest level of minor league play.
It is true that in limited action (43 IP) Hill has not fared well in the Majors. However, it seems clear that Hill has nothing left to prove in the Minor Leagues. It's my opinion that the Cubs need to either commit to giving him a real shot at the show, or trade him to another organization that believes in him. Until then, we'll all continue to argue over what we think Hill will turn out to be.
Kerry Ligtenberg, RHP (35 yrs, 2 months)
2-2, 2.48 ERA
32 IP, 36 H, 9 ER, 4 BB, 22 K; 1.25 WHIP
Journeyman Ligtenberg was signed this season as a minor-league free agent and subsequently made the AAA All-Star team. A look at his peripherals (high H/9 rate, low K/9 rate) shows he's not blowing people away. But his low BB/9 proves he's probably pitching smart, which is what you'd expect of 35 year-old veteran. With his success and experience, I'm almost surprised Dusty Baker didn't pick up Ligtenberg from Des Moines himself, and drive him back to the Friendly Confines. Most likely Ligtenberg will stay at Iowa unless another organization can promise him something better (which doesn't seem likely).
Ryan O'Malley, LHP (26 yrs, 3 months)
5-5, 3.93 ERA
87 IP, 93 H, 38 ER, 6 HR, 21 BB, 55 K; 1.31 WHIP
Signed as an undrafted free-agent in 2002, this 26 year-old lefty never figured to be much of a Major League prospect. But he has steadily worked his way up the organization, and continues his solid work this season in Iowa.
O'Malley began the season in relief and then converted to a starter. I think he has recently returned to the bullpen, but I'm not positive.
He has always been a little older than his competition at every level, so his career numbers are a little deceiving (pre-2006 career ERA 3.76; WHIP 1.32).
His season's K-rate (5.68/9) and H/9 rate (9.62) are marginally less effective than his career rates, which indicate he's not an over-powering pitcher.
This is also the first time he's had success at the AAA level. He was promoted to AAA in both 2004 and 2005, but really struggled both times (allowing 11 HRs in just over 40 IP)-- not a good indicator of Major League success.
I don't know O'Malley's Lefty/Righty splits, but if they are favorable, his numbers lead me to believe he might be crafty enough to have use as a LOOGY or as a spare part in the bullpen. If anything, it is likely he might pitch better than Glendon Rusch.
Clay Rapada, LHP (25 yrs, 4 months)
1-1, 5.79 ERA
4 IP, 12 H, 3 ER, 0 HR, 4 BB, 3 K; 4.00 WHIP
Lefty-reliever Rapada absolutely owned AA hitters (0.82 ERA, 43 IP) before his recent call-up to Iowa. He was the closer at West Tennessee and has excelled as a reliever in the lower-levels since 2004. Rapada is another Cubs pitcher who is a little older than his competition, which blunts the luster on his gaudy stats (10.77 K/9 in 2004 and 2005). He will need to perform better in the second half of the season at Iowa (he has really struggled in his first seven games) to be taken seriously as a Major League prospect. At 25 years old, if he can put together a good half-season at Iowa, Rapada may have the stuff to be a useful spare part in the bullpen.
Jae-Kuk Ryu, RHP (23 yrs, 2 months)
3-6, 3.87 ERA
86 IP, 79 H, 37 ER, 7 HR, 33 B, 69 K; 1.30 WHIP
Ryu is the youngest pitcher currently on the Iowa roster-- which is one reason why I am as optimistic about him as any of the pitchers in AAA. His season numbers are very solid and follow his developmental trend very nicely (his front-line and peripheral numbers are right in line with his career norms).
Ryu has not seen a drop-off in his effectiveness as he's changed levels from AA to AAA. In fact, Ryu made the AAA All-Star team but did not play due to an ankle injury he sustained just before the break.
If Ryu can sustain his level of performance in the second half of the season, I'll feel confident that he can be a solid contributer at the Major League level, giving the Cubs the option to go with a very young, very talented rotation (Z, Prior, Marshall, Marmol, Ryu).
Les Walrond, LHP (29 yrs, 8 months)
7-2, 3.69 ERA
95 IP, 97 H, 39 ER, 6 HR, 44 BB, 76 K; 1.48 WHIP.
Walrond is another career minor-leaguer (8 career Major League IPs versus 848 career minor league innings) who has pitched well this season at Iowa. His ERA and W-L record are a little deceiving, as he has allowed a relatively high WHIP and a ridiculous amount of un-earned runs score (13). Many of these un-earned runs have scored on Walrond's own miscues in the field-- I believe he has already committed seven or eight errors from the mound. At almost 30 years old, Walrond isn't likely to do more than continue to log innings at Iowa.
Randy Wells, RHP (23 yrs, 11 months)
3-1, 4.15 ERA
21 IP, 21 H, 10 ER, 2 HR, 4 BB, 18 K; 1.19 WHIP
A converted catcher (much like Carlos Marmol), Wells has become one of the organization's best pitching prospects (much like Carlos Marmol). Recently promoted from West Tennessee (where he was 4-2 with a 1.59 ERA in 62 IP), Wells has adjusted fairly well to the advanced league in his first 4 starts.
In his first couple of minor league seasons, he has proven to have really good stuff (9.56 K/9) as well as fairly good control (2.97 BB/9), while pitching mostly as a reliever. These trends have continued this season (7.71 K/9, 1.82 BB/9) in a starter's role at a higher level of play.
If Wells continues to put up solid peripherals at Iowa (and especially considering his lack of experience at the position), he may be a very surprising contributer at the ML level.
Jerome Williams, RHP (24 yrs, 7 months)
2-3, 4.74 ERA
57 IP, 74 H, 30 ER, 12 HR, 18 BB, 30 K. 1.61 WHIP
Williams is an enigma to me. After posting solid Major League numbers for the Cubs last season (6-8, 3.91 ERA; 106 IP), he has totally regressed.
I was hoping that his dismal spring training performance was an abberation, but his poor pitching continued into the season, causing his demotion. And since then, he's pitched poorly in AAA. His 4.74 ERA is the least revealing of his numbers.
He has a season H/9 rate of 11.68/9 and a HR/9 of 1.89/9. Add in a very low K/9 (4.74/9) and all the evidence points to a pitcher who's not fooling anybody. These numbers are troubling for a pitcher who has logged almost 400 ML IPs, and kept his ML ERA under 4 for his career.
Williams is still young (the same age as Aardsma and Guzman and younger than Hill), so he might still be learning. But such a regression in his ability makes me wonder if he's injured or if he's just plain lost something. I have trouble knowing what to expect from him.
Michael Wuertz, RHP (27 yrs, 7 months)
5-0, 1.78 ERA
35 IP, 25 H, 7 ER, 2 HR, 8 BB, 58 K; 0.94 WHIP
Wuertz is another player who could clearly benefit from a shake-up in the Major League roster. After pitching respectably in the Majors in 2005 (3.81 ERA in 75 IP), he was put on a short leash after a miserable spring training and start of the 2006 season. Since being demoted, he's mostly been untouchable at Iowa, with a 7.25/1 K/BB rate and a ridiculous 14.91 K/9 rate.
As with Aardsma and Hill, Wuertz has little left to prove at AAA. It seems appropriate to offer him another crack at the Majors, particularly in this lost 2006 season.
Because of their age, their career numbers, their adjustment to each level of play, and because of their health, I feel most confident about Jae-Kuk Ryu and David Aardsma as positive, long-term contributers to the Chicago Cubs. I also feel that Michael Wuertz belongs on the major league roster right now (especially if it means replacing Roberto Novoa or Glendon Rusch).
At 24 years old, Angel Guzman is still a solid prospect to me, especially if his numbers improve at Iowa during the second half. But I don't feel as confident about his ability, mostly because of his injury history and the resulting time lost in his development.
I also like Randy Wells and look forward to seeing how continues to pitch at Iowa. I think Wells could be a real sleeper for the ML club.
Rich Hill and Jerome Williams have a pitching history that's a little too volatile for me to predict. Hill, mostly because of his age. And Williams because of the wild swings in his statistics. I'm really undecided on what to expect from either of these guys.
O'Malley, Atlee, and Rapada are very marginal prospects, and need to prove a whole lot more at Iowa.
The rest of the staff (Emanuel, Walrond, and Ligtenberg) are not prospects to me, though they have proved to be very useful AAA pitchers.
In all, I think the Cubs have some exciting arms at Iowa. It will be fun to continue to follow their development over the second half of the season.