The minor league season opens on Thursday and once again, I'll be providing day-to-day recaps of every Cubs game as well as minor league news. Today I'm taking a look at the rosters of the Cubs' two Class A full-season teams, the Daytona Cubs and the new affiliate, the Kane County Cougars. Tomorrow I'll be looking at the Double-A Tennessee Smokies and Triple-A Iowa Cubs.
I'm going to get the bad news about the Daytona Cubs out of the way now. None of their games are on milb.tv and very few of us live on Florida's Atlantic Coast. So we're going to have to rely on Robbie Aaron and the Daytona Cubs radio team to describe what's happening in Daytona Beach.
And that's a shame because as good as Aaron is, this is the Cubs minor league team you want to see this season. The opening day roster starts out with Cubs top prospect Javier Baez. After destroying the Midwest League last season, Baez got a cup of coffee in Daytona where he struggled, although he did finish with a bang with a two home run game on the final day of the season. He'll look to build off his strong spring training. He needs to keep hitting home runs and be more selective at the plate.
Joining him in the lineup is outfielder Jorge Soler. Soler only played 20 games in Peoria last season, but he hit .338 with three home runs.
As if Baez and Soler wasn't enough, the D-Cubs have two of the most pleasant surprises of the 2012 season, infielders Tim Saunders and Stephen Bruno. Shortstop Saunders was a 32nd-round draft pick out of Divison III Marietta College last year, and he blew through rookie ball and Peoria before finishing the season with 12 games in Daytona, where he hit .310. Bruno was a seventh-round pick from Virginia and he plays all around the diamond. He hit .361 with a .442 OBP in Boise last year, so he's skipping Kane County and going straight to Daytona. He wants to prove those results aren't just a Northwest League illusion.
Third baseman Ben Carhart is another guy who is getting a lot of buzz after he hit .353/.419/.456 in rookie ball last year, although he is already 23 years old. He's skipping Boise and Kane County, which puts him more at his age level. Outfielder John Andreoli is probably a little disappointed to be back in Daytona after a strong season there last year with a .402 OBP and 55 steals. He's probably the victim of a numbers game and will head to Tennessee as soon as there is an opening. He's a bit like a Tony Campana who can draw a walk.
The pitching isn't as strong as the hitters in Daytona, but they've got Starling Peralta, just back from the Diamondbacks after they didn't keep him after taking him with a Rule 5 pick (and the Cubs refusing to work out a deal for Arizona to keep him). Peralta has a fastball that hits the upper 90s and a decent slider. He's started in the minors, but he's almost certainly is a major league reliever as he doesn't have a good third pitch. He needs to work on control, but if he didn't, he'd almost certainly be a D-Back right now.
Other pitchers to watch out for are Ben Wells, Yao-Lin Wang, Sheldon McDonald and Austin Kirk.
The Daytona Cubs are managed this season by Dave Keller, who has been the Cubs minor league hitting coordinator since 2004. This is his first season managing since he was in the Indians organization in the nineties. The hitting coach is Mariano Duncan, who had been the hitting coach for the Smokies in 2010 and 2011. The pitching coach is former major league pitcher Storm Davis, who had coached in the Rangers organization previous to this season.
Kane County Cougars
The team that most of you are excited to see is the Cubs' newest affiliate, the Kane County Cougars. Those who venture out to Geneva will find a very strong team made up of a lot of the players from last year's Boise Hawks team that came one game away from winning the Northwest League Championship. Kane County does not provide video feeds on milb.tv, but you should be able to see them when they play at Wisconsin. Otherwise, you'll either have to go to the game or rely on the dulcet tones of Wayne Randazzo on the radio play-by-play, which is actually a nice problem to have.
Most of you attending Cougars games are going to want to see their two slugging first basemen, Dan Vogelbach and Rock Shoulders. Vogelbach is the better prospect after being drafted in the second round in 2011 and hitting 10 home runs in only 37 games at Boise last season. He also hit .322 with a .423 OBP, so the hit tool is there too. Shoulders may not be the prospect that Vogelbach is, but he's more than just the coolest name in minor league baseball. He hit 10 home runs in Boise too (albeit in 63 games) and posted a solid .342 OBP. Some of his home runs went as far as some of Vogelbach's as well.
Good thing the Midwest League uses the DH.
The rest of Kane County's infield is just as impressive. Third baseman Jeimer Candelario just turned 19 in November and is coming off a successful season in Boise, although he wore down as the season went on. Last year he hit for a better average from the right side but had more power from the left. That's something to look out for this year.
The middle infield is a pair of 20-year-olds, shortstop Marco Hernandez and second baseman Gioskar Amaya. Hernandez is considered a good glove who struggled in Peoria last season, although he hit a respectable .286 with five home runs after being demoted to Boise. Amaya hit .298/.381/.496 for Boise last year and doubled in his only Triple-A at bat when he was assigned there on an emergency basis. He hit 12 triples last year in only 69 games. Amaya is a guy who does everything well: good fielder, strong hit tool, a little pop and plus speed.
Center fielder Trey Martin is a guy who a lot of people (including me) are touting as a sleeper prospect. His defense in center field is probably second only to Albert Almora in the Cubs system. His bat needs to come around, but he's got an athletic body that could fill out and could be something special. He's a lottery ticket, but even if the bat doesn't come in, he's still a plus glove.
Speaking of Almora, when his hand heals he'll probably join the Cougars, making them even more interesting. Maybe pitcher Juan Carlos Paniagua will too, if he ever gets his visa paperwork in order.
Taiwanese outfielder Pin-Chieh Chen is also someone to keep an eye on. Willson Contreras is probably the best catching prospect in the Cubs system at the moment.
If there's one place that Kane County is stronger than Daytona, it's on the mound. The ace is last year's first-round supplemental pick Pierce Johnson. Johnson has a 92-94 mph fastball and a hammer curve. He also throws a cutter and a change. He's got a good chance to be a mid-rotation starter in a year or two if he stays healthy. He does have some health issues in his past, which was why he lasted to the 43rd pick last draft.
Joining him is South African Tayler Scott, who established himself as the ace of the Boise rotation last year. He's an extreme ground ball pitcher who is tall and skinny with a lot of projection left in him. Jose Arias is another starter who succeeded last year in the thin Idaho air.
Then there is Lendy Castillo, whom the Cubs put in Kane County so that it would be convenient for Al to drive out and see his favorite player pitch. But seriously, that the Cubs are placing Castillo in Low-A just shows how over-matched he was in the majors last year. Other pitchers to keep an eye on are Michael Heesch, Brian Smith, and Eddie Orozco.
The Cougars are managed by Mark Johnson, who managed in Boise the past two seasons. The pitching coach is Ron Villone, who played for 12 teams in his major league career; amazingly, none of them were the Cubs. He was Peoria's pitching coach last year. The hitting coach is Tom Beyers, who has been coaching in the Cubs system since 2000 in various roles after coaching in the Dodgers system for 16 years before that.
OK, this isn't a preview of the Hawks because at least half of their roster hasn't even been drafted yet. But they unveiled their new uniforms for 2013 and you can see them here. The new home uniforms are nice and I think I could even get used to those talon-scratch caps. But the road uniforms are ugly and lord please make those alternate uniforms go away now.