Continuing on with our look at the Cubs' four full-season minor league teams, I present to you your defending 2011 Florida State League Champions, the Daytona Cubs. The Chiefs are the "High-A" team which is one step above Peoria. The D-Cubs will look to make it two championships in a row this summer.
You can say that the minor leagues aren't about winning and losing, but that championship meant a lot to the players on that team. If you need proof, look at the twitter feeds of the minor league players the day in spring training they got their championship rings. The rings weren't anything like a World Series ring. In fact, they looked a lot closer to a senior class ring than a World Series ring. But those players were beaming with pride over this symbol of what they had accomplished last season. If Theo and Jed are truly serious about building a "Cubs Way," what happened in Florida last summer is a good foundation to build upon.
You can listen to the Daytona Cubs on WSBB 1230, the "Great Voice of Volusia County" or of course at daytonacubs.com. I haven't heard if last year's team of Robbie Aaron, Dan Acheson and Chad Seely will be back this season, but they're also good guys who do a great job of re-creating the fun of a minor league ballpark. (They love to interview random fans in the stands, for example.) I must say that the ad they have asking why you love to stay in New Smyrna Beach drove me to the brink of insanity last year. Kind of like "Cubs six-packs" only going on for a whole season.
The D-Cubs also have new uniforms and a new logo of a surfing bear this season. Personally, I love it, as you can tell since I've been using it as my avatar since last fall.
Their opening game on Thursday is already rained out. Their season opener is now Friday.
A reminder: The numbers after the players is where they rank on my top 20 prospects list or if they're in the next ten.
After the jump, the Daytona Cubs
The Daytona Cubs new manager this season is former major league catcher Brian Harper, who you probably remember from the Twins teams of the early 90s. Both he and pitching coach Marty Mason were at Double-A Tennessee last year where they took the Smokies to a Southern League Northern Division Championship. They're joined by hitting coach Desi Wilson who was the hitting coach for Boise last year.
While most of the attention in Daytona will be on their collection of hitters, some of the pitchers will be under a lot of scrutiny. None more so than Hayden Simpson, the first round pick two years ago who has had nothing but bad luck since. He first came down with mononucleosis that cost him the rest of 2010. Then he started in Peoria last season, admittedly still weak from the mono, and he could barely hit 90 mph on the radar guns. Then as the season went on, his arm strength got worse and worse until he was barely hitting 80 mph. The Cubs shut him down and sent him back to Mesa to figure out what was wrong. It was only then that Simpson admitted he had been pitching through elbow pain all season. Fortunately it just required rest and not surgery.
It's hard to consider Simpson a top prospect now and I don't have him in my top 30. (He'd be in my top 40 if I went out that far.) He needs to prove that the velocity and breaking ball he showed in college wasn't just a fluke. When the Cubs drafted him he was compared to Roy Oswalt. Now we'd settle for him just pitching effectively. The potential is still there though.
The rest of the rotation isn't really clear cut (and honestly, Simpson could pitch out of the pen as he builds up his arm strength.) But Zach Cates should start, who was the other player we got from San Diego in the Cashner/Rizzo trade. Cates has a plus fastball that can hit 96 mph (it sits around 92-93) and a very good changeup. He needs to develop a breaking ball if he's going to be an effective starter. He seems to have some control problems as he walked 53 in 118 innings, but he did add 111 strikeouts to that total. He has the potential to be a solid mid-rotation starter if he can find his control and a breaking pitch.
Austin Kirk is a crafty left-hander with good control who was 5-12 with a 4.29 ERA in 28 starts in Peoria last season. He pitched a no-hitter for Peoria last July. His curve is probably is best pitch. Eric Jokisch was piggy-backing Simpson in Peoria last season, and the Central Illinois native (and Northwestern alum) outpitched him and earned a promotion to Tennessee last year. The left-hander is most effective when he keeps the ball down. Matt Loosen is back in Daytona after pitching for Peoria, Daytona and Tennessee last season.
The biggest prospect among the pitching staff is right-hander Tony Zych (20+) who was the Cubs fourth round pick last season. Zych throws hard, up to 97 mph, with a funky delivery that makes it hard to pick up. If he can improve on his slider, he's a potential future closer. Zych should move up the system fast. It's not out of the question that Zych sees Wrigley Field this season, but a 2013 arrival is more likely.
It's good to see Ty'relle Harris pitching again, who was a pitcher the Cubs acquired from Atlanta for Derrek Lee a few years ago. Last season Harris was pitching fairly well for Tennessee (albeit with some control problems: 27 walks in 29 innings) when he was the victim of a hit and run driver in June that left him seriously hurt. He did manage to return to the mound for one appearance at the end of the season. At this point, he just needs to get back to where he was before. I'm pulling for him.
Brian Schlitter is back in the Florida State League after pitching out of the bullpen at Wrigley back in 2010. He was claimed by first the Yankees and then the Phillies before the 2011 season before he was diagnosed with an elbow strain that caused the waiver claims to be voided. He missed all of last season and will be looking to regain his form.
Eduardo Figueroa was a mainstay of the Yankees rotation of the late 70s "Bronx Zoo" World Series teams . . .oh wait, wrong Ed Figueroa. This Venezuelan returns to Daytona after a 2-2 record with 2.42 ERA in 36 relief appearances. Finally, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention his fellow Venezuelan Larry Suarez, who I believe is that last Cub minor leaguer remaining from when I first starting doing the minor league wraps on BCB in 2007. (Well, there's Randy Wells back in Iowa, but you know what I mean.) He's still only 22 years old though. He used to be a solid prospect who was called "a young Zambrano" because of his stuff, nationality and a strong physical resemblance to the Big Z. (Check him out if you don't believe me.) I imagine he probably doesn't want that nickname in the Cubs organization any more. He's still young enough that he could make something of a career for himself.
The biggest name on the D-Cubs is outfielder Matt Szczur (#4). Szczur is a controversial prospect among those who write about prospects for a living. Some live his athleticism, hit tool, speed and makeup. Others say he's going to be a 23 year-old prospect who has never played above high-A, his speed is only good, not outstanding and he's never going to hit for power. Personally, I tend towards those who are excited by him. I think he's still raw as a ballplayer (he was a star football player for Villanova) and that with experience, he'll improve his pitch recognition skills and learn to use his quick wrists to drive the ball. He'll never be a slugger, but I think he'll have good doubles power and some of those balls in the gap will eventually start leaving the park. He's not without risk and he doesn't have any one outstanding skill. But he could end up as an above-average center fielder in the majors.
Joining him in the outfield is Cuban Rubi Silva, who struggled in Daytona last season in 29 games after being promoted from Peoria, where he did hit .300, albeit with few walks, little power and little speed. The Cubs have been trying to make a second baseman out of him with mixed results, and he would be more interesting if he could stick there. He's joined by another Cuban Elieser Bonne, whom I know nothing about other than he played in the DSL last season and he appears to be a leadoff-hitter type with a .385 OBP and 17 steals in 39 games. However, he's already 25 years old, so I wouldn't expect much out of him.
Right fielder Nelson Perez is back in Daytona for his third season. He's got good power and a good arm, but he just doesn't make contact often enough to be taken seriously as a prospect. His strikeout to walk ratio was almost 6:1 last season. John Andreoli rounds out the outfield. The 17th round pick out of UConn hardly played last year due to injuries, so he'll be tested in Daytona. I honestly think he's here because they needed another outfielder in Daytona.
The top infielder would be second baseman Ronald Torreyes (#17) who the Cubs acquired from Cincinnati in the Sean Marshall trade. Since he came over from Cincinnati I haven't seen him play, but from his description he sounds like a Jose Altuve clone. He's a little guy with not much power and a potentially outstanding hit tool. Torreyes hit .356 in the Midwest League last season, albeit in only 67 games. But no matter where he's played, he's hit for an outstanding average. He's so good at making contact that he neither walks nor strikes out very much.
Corner infielder Greg Rohan (he plays both first and third) hit .323/.378/.478 between Peoria and Daytona last season. That would make him a pretty good prospect if he didn't turn 26 in May. Being right-handed doesn't help either. Still, Rohan's hit tool is pretty good and he's got some versatility, and guys who can hit don't grow on trees.
First baseman Richard Jones moves up to Daytona after crushing 24 home runs and 98 RBI for Peoria last season. He even hit .306. He's got excellent power and being left-handed going for him. He's got his age (24) and his inability to make consistent contact (125 Ks in 472 ABs) working against him.
Arismendy Alcantara will play shortstop. He's got youth going for him (20) and above-average speed. But he's a little guy without much upside.
The catcher is Micah Gibbs, who has a reputation as a good defensive catcher and a team leader. He won the Chiefs' Ryne Sandberg Award last season, given to the player who best exemplifies Sandberg's beliefs in professionalism, work ethic and dedication. His biggest problem is that he's never really hit as a professional. At least he can draw a walk.