This will be a bit of an abnormal System Sonogram. I just got back from a pair of days in Davenport, and am really not up for doing homework, especially since the hotel Wi-Fi is reminded me of dial-up. Before I get around to that, though, let's play Tim's favorite game... Hypothetically Speaking.
If you're running a baseball team, and your bullpen is generally underperforming, one of your expected regulars misses the first few weeks, and your power positions are hard-hit by relatively serious injuries, where would you expect to be two months into the season? Just as I thought, second place. The Double-A Tennessee Smokies have had a very uneven performance from their relief corps. Ronald Torreyes missed some time due to whatever reason it was early-on at second base. First baseman Justin Bour and corner outfielders Jae-Hoon Ha and Johermyn Chavez have been out much of the season. The first basemen have been utility infielders, and outfielder Ty Wright was brought back after being released. Starters Kyle Hendricks and Alberto Cabrera have been nails recently, and the above-.500 record the team has fashioned is the second-best in its division.
Wins and losses aren't everything in the minors, but overcoming difficulties are a good sign. The last place teams in both divisions of the Southern League are both NL Central rival affiliates (Reds and Brewers). As much as has gone wrong in the Cubs system this year, it could be worse. And the draft is next week. (If only somebody would step up on the site and pay attention to the draft. When do the Cubs draft on Thursday anyway?)
I'll be honest, the first thing I did on arriving at the park on Wednesday was run to the place Quad City posts the lineups. Alas, no Albert Almora. (Insert sad trombone sound.) I guess I'll have to catch him later in the season. I'm glad he's getting a few days off, as hamstring injuries are dicey. It gave me an opportunity to explain Almora's injury to a distraught Cubs fan looking at the board. After wandering around Quad City's beautiful Modern Woodmen Park, where the Mississippi River serves as the right field backdrop, I settled in to our seats with my dad (who is only somewhat grudgingly following the Cubs again, since that is the safest topic for us to talk about) for the Kane County tilt against the River Bandits (Astros). Pierce Johnson was the Cougars' starting pitcher, and seeing him was enough to make up for missing Almora in the lineup. (I'm guessing if Almora writes the line-up, he would have been in center field hitting second.)
As Johnson was leaving the dugout to start his warmups, a few fans were nearby getting his autograph. I'm quite confident he was personalizing signatures, as when he would reach up to get the ball outside of the dugout, he would bring the ball down to signature level, look back up, and ask something. I'm glad the Cubs seem to be bringing in quality people, as that's the kind of trait that can bring in the 50-50 fan that could cheer for either squad. I complimented FlowBro (Johnson) for being a straight-up guy like that on Twitter last night.
One thing I paid attention to, as it is very important to many BCB readers, is that the Cougars dugout cleared for the anthem, and all the players were standing at attention during the saxophone version of "The Star Spangled Banner". (Goodness, was that kid nervous.)
Mike Hauschild was the starter for the River Bandits, and neither pitcher spent much time in the middle of the plate. The home plate umpire, as in many lower level minor league games, had his own idea of the strike zone. As a hint, Tom Glavine would likely have thrown five successive no-hitters with this guy behind the dish. Outside pitches were strikes far too often, regardless the side of the plate of the hitter. The belt-buckle, though was sometimes high. Hauschild is a good pitcher at the Low-A level. He has a nice mix of pitches, though I have no velocity numbers. Probably 92-93 on both starters would be my guess.
As all Astros affiliates use the 'piggy-back system' (meaning two pitchers are used in the neighborhood of four innings each) in all games, I watched Colton Cain for three innings, as well. I was less impressed with the lefty, but his three innings were scoreless, as well. The Cougar's only run in the 2-1 loss was on a two-out single in the ninth.
My entree to Pierce Johnson was about 12 months ago when he threw a fastball on the black, and two wipeout sliders to a college leadoff man. He still has the wipeout slider, and displayed it in the first against the River Bandits leadoff man. While Johnson was unable to pick anyone off, his pickoff moves are worth minding, especially for the baserunner. Johnson had some nice duels with baserunners.
Carlos Correa was last year's first pick in the June draft, and hitting second for the home squad. he fouled one off his upper shin in the first. The game was delayed about three minutes, and former color commentator Steve Stone would have talked about the pro hitter's closest companion, Ethyl Chloride. Correa's offense was controlled during the game, but he made a sweet 6-4 force-out in the fourth, retiring Gioskar Amaya to end the Cougars' half of the frame.
Rio Ruiz, an over-slot selection by Houston that was available to the Astros only due to financial trickeration in the draft, had two nice outfield singles. He also represented well at third base. I hope they use the same strategy this time around, drafting the fourth best player, giving the Cubs front office 'the pick of the litter' with the second selection.
I was very impressed with Carlos Escobar behind the dish. While he was 0-for-1 in throwing out runners, he made a very impressive catch on a foul tip, for one of Johnson's six strikeouts. (I think three of Johnson's two-strike pitches should have been punch-outs, but the plate ump didn't like breaking balls very much.) Escobar also made good contact at the plate, as both of his hits made the outfield.
Quad City's right fielder Ariel Ovando didn't hustle on a soft-liner to Gioskar Amaya in the second inning. The ball landed a bit short of Amaya, who threw out Ovando at first by two steps. I'm assume he heard about that one.
Reggie Golden played his first game before paying fans in 13 months. He still seems to have trouble with off-speed stuff. Jeimer Candelario and David Bote were badly fooled by quality breaking balls, as well.
Pierce Johnson will be a solid pitcher, if he stays healthy. How solid will depend on him. He won't throw mid-90's stuff as a starter. his ability to mix a slider or a change-up with a 92 or 93 MPH fastball will make him money. His best velocity came in his last inning. It was probably 93 or 94, but was followed on the next pitch by the game's first run, a solo blast by Teoscar Hernandez. Three hitters later, Jonathan Singleton went long-distance to right-center off of reliever Justin Amlung. Marco Hernandez and Escobar combined for four of Kane County's five hits. Dan Vogelbach, Rock Shoulders, and Jeimer Candelario were held in check. Amaya walked twice, but also fanned twice. The Cougars defense was solid, and losing to a solid pitcher is no embarrassment.
If Almora had played, it could have been a different game. This way, though, he stayed healthy. Last weekend was the time for college baseball regionals. I kept track of the contests with San Diego (Kris Bryant), Oklahoma (Jonathan Gray), and Vanderbilt (Cubs roving minor league pitching instructor Derek Johnson was with the Commodores the last decade. I expect a pick or two from their battery in the draft).