Season Preview: Peoria Chiefs

I'm going to try to get back into the swing of things by starting you out with a look at the minor league team that the largest number of you will get a chance to see: the Midwest League Peoria Chiefs. Over the next few days I hope to do a preview for all four full season minor league teams. There is no way that I'm going to be able to get these all done by the time the minor league season starts on Thursday, but I hope to have them all done by sometime this weekend, although I do have my in-laws arriving on Thursday. But I will try to get these out as soon as possible.

Next, I'm going to have to issue an apology for letting you down. I had promised that I would do my Top 20 Cub Prospects this off-season, but it never got done. While I have to blame procrastination for some of that, some of my hesitation was because I was waiting for the Theo Epstein compensation to get settled. (Both Carpenter and Kurcz would have been in my #10-20 range.) I was also waiting on Jorge Soler, which might never get settled. (If the Cubs sign Soler, he would rank #3 on my list behind Jackson and Rizzo.)

So what I'm going to do in these previews is when I'm talking about a player on the team, I'm going to list what number they are on my list. If I write (20+), that means they would have made the next ten list if I had gone out to 30 players.So when you see a number after a player's name, that's the number that I ranked him on the Cubs prospect list. Not Baseball America, not Baseball Prospectus and certainly not Ladies Baseball Daily. Then next week sometime when I don't have a heavy load of games to write up, I'll give you the full list in a separate article and then give you a quick write-up of the guys who are being held out for short-season ball. There are more of those this year than in years past because of the Cubs big spending splurge at last year's draft.

So after the jump, I'll take a look at the Peoria Chiefs.

The Chiefs are the Cubs' Midwest League affiliate and have been since the 2005 season. The Midwest League is in the lowest level of leagues that play a full-season schedule.

You can listen to all Chiefs games at peoriachiefs.com with Nate Baliva. Nate is a friend of this blog and he does a great job calling the Chiefs, so give him a listen. And don't forget, you can see the Chiefs in person at Midwest League stadiums in Kane County, South Bend or Davenport or in other places where many of you live.

The Chiefs are managed by Casey Kopitzke, who is now in his third season managing the team. Barbaro Garbey is the hitting coach. Fifteen-year major league veteran Ron Villone is the pitching coach. Villone just took over from twelve-year Cubs coaching veteran Tom Pratt last week when Pratt was diagnosed with brain cancer. Pratt's prognosis sounds about as good as you could get for brain cancer, but of course he has a long road back.

The Midwest League is a tough league to hit in, especially in April. This leads to some fans overvaluing pitchers in Peoria and undervaluing the hitters. But you're not going to do that once the games start being played, are you?

Pitchers

The two big names in the Chiefs rotation are a pair of right-handers, Jose Rosario (20+) and Ben Wells (20+). Both pitched for Boise last season. Wells was a Cubs 7th round pick in 2010 who they gave $530,000 to sign away from the University of Arkansas. His fastball was in the mid-to-upper 80s throughout high school before it exploded into the mid-90s his senior season. With Boise last season, it was back in the upper 80s early before he gradually built up his arm strength and started throwing around 92-93 again. His fastball is also "heavy" which gave him an groundball/flyball ratio of better than 3:1. He's a big kid who should have the stamina to stay in the rotation as he moves up the ladder.

Rosario throws harder than Wells, but is farther behind in his secondary pitches. He's also wiry, to put it mildly. He needs to put on some mass and work on his secondary pitches to stay in the rotation. Both are possible but even if he doesn't, he's got a fastball around 96-97 mph that should make him a valuable pen piece.

One of the more interesting pitchers is left-hander Kyler Burke, who returns to the Midwest League after destroying it in 2009 as an outfielder with a .911 OPS. However, after he failed to hit in Daytona, they converted him to a pitcher last season. He went 2-1 with a 2.86 ERA for Boise last year and struck out 47 batters in 44 innings with low-90s heat. He pitched entirely in relief last season, but it sounds like the Cubs think his secondary stuff has come along far enough to try him in the rotation this season. We'll see once the games start.

Those of you who read my reports about Boise last year will remember righty Yao-Lin Wang, who was one of my favorite pitchers on the Hawks. Wang went 4-4 last season with a 3.22 ERA and struck out an impressive 77 hitters in 67 innings. His control wasn't bad either. If he repeats those numbers in Peoria this year, he'll start moving up prospect charts.

Other candidates to start are lefty Willengton Cruz, who has been tough to hit but plagued with control problems and Jeffrey Lorick, who's back in Peoria after bombing out in Daytona last year. Finally, I have no idea what the Cubs are going to do with Michael Jensen, whom the Cubs signed away from USC last year from a California Junior College. He only pitched four times for the Cubs last season, but when he signed it was reported he had a low 90s fastball and what little video I'd seen of him showed a nice 12-6 curve ball. He might start or relieve.

The interesting name in the bullpen is Andrew McKirahan, who was a pretty good reliever for the Texas Longhorns last year. As a professional, McKirahan pitched 16.2 innings between Arizona and Boise and struck out 23. Of course, he did walk eight too. But I wouldn't be surprised if McKirahan ends up with the closer's job; if not to start the season then sometime later. Bryce Shafer could also close for Peoria after pitching effectively in that role for Boise last year before he was promoted to Peoria.

Hitters:

To me, the most exciting player on the Chiefs is switch-hitting left-handed definitely switch-hitting shortstop Marco Hernandez (#7). At 19, Hernandez is raw, but he has all the tools to be an above-average fielding shortstop who can hit for average and steal bases. If he can draw a walk, he might be an ideal leadoff hitter. Even if he doesn't, his glove and left-handedness will keep him in the lineup somewhere. An unfortunate lack of power is probably the only thing limiting his upside. But Hernandez has never played above the Arizona complex league, so Peoria will be his first real test.

(Editors Note: I originally called Hernandez a switch-hitter until it was pointed out to me that every source, including MiLB and Baseball America, lists him as a left-handed hitter. I figured I was mistaken and changed it. But I have now heard back from people who have actually seen him play in Peoria and they have assured me that I was correct and MiLB and BA are in error. Hernandez is a switch-hitter. I have changed it back for the sake of the record.)

Next to him at second base is Zeke DeVoss (#20) who was the Cubs third round pick out of Miami last season. Another potential leadoff hitter, there are far fewer questions about DeVoss' ability to stay at the top of the lineup as he hit .311 for Boise last year and walked more times than he struck out (32 to 28) which I know will put a smile on the face of a lot of people around here. He also has good speed as he stole 14 bases in 18 attempts. DeVoss is also a switch-hitter. The questions about DeVoss are on the defensive end, because while he would seem to have the physical tools to be a decent second baseman, he looks lost there at times. He may have to move to center field, where he would not be as interesting a prospect.

When DeVoss doesn't play second, Wes Darvill probably will. The 20 year old left-handed hitting Canadian hit .256 with a .346 OBP for Boise last year. He doesn't have any power and his speed is just average, so he probably projects out as a utility infielder. Darvill will probably also see a lot of time at shortstop and third base.

When first baseman Paul Hoilman first reported to Boise, he dragged his bat on the ground reporting to the stadium. Thus, the Snake River Canyon was created. Hoilman became a folk hero around here when he broke the Hawks single season home run record with 17 last year. He's 6'4" and 240 pounds. His power is impressive and please, feel free to make up your own tall tales about him. But he's a 23 year old right-handed hitting first baseman who has never played above short-season A ball. Let's appreciate him for what he can do in the minors, but the odds are really against him.

The outfield looks solid with 20 year-old Reggie Golden (20+) whom I probably have ranked too low because he certainly has the tools to be a star. The 5'10, 210 pound right-fielder is built like a tank and Baseball America has compared his tools to Kevin Mitchell. But he just didn't hit that well in Boise last year (.242/.332/.420) and Boise is a pretty easy place to hit. Still, he made some progress in pitch recognition and was able to lay off a lot more bad pitches. Golden is still young and raw and Peoria is going to be a challenge. If he succeeds, he'll probably shoot up and be a top ten prospect next season.

Another exciting player in Taiwan Easterling (20+), who was a wide receiver for the Florida State Seminoles before the Cubs convinced him to give up football for baseball last season after drafting him in the 27th round. Easterling is one of those guys you look at and say "Man, that dude is an athlete" and just hope that he actually becomes a ballplayer. He's returning to Peoria after hitting .277 for the Chiefs last year with a .305 OBP. Right now power is not a part of his game, but he's certainly got the muscle to learn to turn on the ball with authority. In any event, I would definitely buy a pair of jeans from Taiwan Easterling.

Taiwanese center fielder Pin-Chieh Chen rounds out the outfield. The 20 year-old left-handed hitter hit .301/.363/.424 and stole 20 bases in 26 attempts in 60 games for Boise last year. He won a lot of fans around here last year as well as the spark plug lead-off hitter for the Hawks. He could end up as a top 30 prospect next season if he repeats what he did in Boise in Peoria.

Finally, the catching duties will be held by Rafael Lopez and Taylor Davis. Davis went to Morehead State University. You now know about as much about Taylor Davis as I do. Lopez, on the other hand, was a teammate of Easterling's at Florida State and the Cubs drafted him in the 16th round last season. He's known as a strong defensive catcher with soft hands and a good arm. He also hits left-handed and was named a Northwest League Post-Season All-Star after batting .316/.381/.449. The two downsides to him are that he's short (5'9") and already pretty solid. He's also 24 already. There just isn't a lot of projection on Lopez. But catchers do develop on their own time table. Lopez didn't start catching until he transferred to Florida State, where he had the unenviable task of replacing Buster Posey. The odds are stacked against Lopez, but with catchers, you just never want to count them out.

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