The Daytona Cubs take the field on Friday to begin defense of their Florida State League title. The tentative roster gives the team a lot of fire power on offense (with a local flair) as well as some interesting pitchers.
The D-Cubs are managed by Dave Keller, who lead the team to the title last year. Hitting coach Ron Villone, who was the pitching coach for Kane County last season.also returns, but last year's pitching coach, Storm Davis, moved up to Tennessee and is replaced by
Last year's Daytona Cubs won the title on the backs of a pretty awesome pitching staff that was completely unhittable during the postseason. In the six playoff games the D-Cubs played on their way to the title, they only allowed three earned runs, none by any of their starters and all of those were in the one game they lost. The certainly benefited from the pitcher-friendly Florida State League, but every other team in the league had that advantage and none of them pitched that well.
As you can imagine, most of those pitchers are gone for this year and I'll talk about them when I preview the Tennessee Smokies. The pitchers who are here are mostly the ones that were in Kane County last season.
The best prospect among the pitchers is Rob Zastryzny, who was the Cubs' second round pick last year. I was lucky enough to see Zastryzny's professional debut last season in Boise, and I can tell you he doesn't throw very hard, topping out at around 90 mph. But what he does do is change speeds effectively and he hides the ball well so that batters just don't have a lot of time to react, despite the lack of real velocity. He throws mostly fastballs and change-ups although he does have a breaking pitch. The Cubs are using him as a starter right now and they should, but I suspect his actual role in the major leagues will be as a reliever. But I do think he's going to be a major leaguer. In fact, I read one prospect writer quoting the ubiquitous "unnamed scout" as saying he thought Zastryzny could be ready to pitch in the majors this season.
When I say Zastryzny is the best prospect on the D-Cubs, I'm leaving off Arodys Vizcaino, who's starting in Daytona so he can pitch somewhere warm. Vizcaino was, once upon a time, the No. 2 prospect in the Braves system and he finished the 2011 season pitching for the big club. But I'm sure you know the story by now: an arm injury led to Tommy John surgery that convinced the Braves that they could part with him in 2012 as part of the Paul Maholm trade. He was supposed to be ready to pitch mid-season last year, but he had a setback and hasn't thrown a pitch in an official game since those in Atlanta in 2011. Supposedly the mid 90s fastball and hammer curveball returned over the winter. If his command and control return, then his ceiling is still what it was before he got injured: a shutdown closer.
Michael Jensen was a pitcher who, after a strong 2012 season for Peoria, looked like he could be moving up the prospect lists. But he missed all of last season with an elbow injury, although he apparently did not require Tommy John surgery. He'll try to restart his career in Daytona this year. Before the injury, he could hit 93-94 on the radar gun, but his best pitch was his curve ball. If his health holds, his ceiling is a No. 3 or No. 4 starter.
Tayler Scott is a groundball pitcher who is probably best-known for being one of the few South Africans in organized baseball. He got off to a good start last year in Kane County but struggled down the stretch. He needs to improve his control if he's going to make the majors. His best pitch is a sinker and his ceiling is a back-of-the-rotation starter.
Felix Pena was one of the better starters for Kane County last year. He posted a 3.92 ERA over 103 innings last season. Like Scott, Pena needs to keep the ball down. His ceiling is likely also a back-end starter.
Starling Peralta's 2013 season started with the Diamondbacks, who took him in the Rule 5 draft. After Arizona returned him to the Cubs, he went to Daytona where he struggled and then missed a month with an injury. He finished the year in Kane County. Peralta throws hard but often doesn't have a good clue as to where the pitch is going. If he learns some control he could have a future, but there are a lot of guys in the minors you can say that about.
Yao-Lin Wang had a good enough season last year, pitching for Taiwan in the World Baseball Classic and posting a 3.42 ERA over 71 innings for Daytona. He pitched well enough to get promoted, but there are only so many roster spots in Tennessee. He'll start the season here in Daytona and hope to move up by mid-season.
Jose Rosario started to show up on prospect lists after a good 2011 in Boise, but he hasn't been able to get past low A since then. He struggled so much last year in Kane County that they demoted him to Boise.
Right-hander Stephen Perakslis and lefty Andrew McKirahan were both effective relievers for Kane County last season. Lefty Austin Kirk was promoted to Tennessee mid-season last year, but he struggled and is back for his third straight year in Daytona. Right-hander Austin Reed has little in common with Kirk other than a similar name, which means I'm always getting them mixed up anyway. He's repeating Daytona as well. Hard-throwing reliever Zach Cates finishes out the D-Cubs bullpen and is starting his third season in Daytona. Cates is a candidate to be Daytona's closer if they don't go with Vizcaino (presumably because Vizcaino needs regular work).
Whereas last year's D-Cubs dominated through pitching, this season's edition is going to have to slug the opponents into submission. Luckily, they have the hitters to do so, headlined by outfielder Albert Almora. the youngest of the "Core Four" prospects.
So far in his minor league career, the 19-year-old Almora has demonstrated a strong hit tool, and in the majors he's likely to hit for a high average and be a good OBP guy with lots and lots of doubles. Some of those doubles might even turn into home runs if he fills out any more. He's not fast, but he uses his baseball intelligence to cover a lot of ground in the outfield and grab that extra base. No mention of Almora is complete without mentioning his leadership qualities and his overall strong work ethic. In fact, the only bad thing you can say about him is that he hasn't been able to stay healthy, as he's only played 94 games over the past year and a half in the minors. But all of his injuries seem to have been more fluky than chronic, so I wouldn't tag him as injury-prone yet.
The Florida native Almora is joined on the team by two more big Florida natives, Dan Vogelbach and Rock Shoulders. We've spent a lot of time debating Vogelbach on this site, but there is no doubt that he can hit. The issue is whether or not he's going to hit enough that you can live with his defense at first base. Yes, he's lost weight this offseason, but his problems in the field go beyond just his weight issues. His dedication and work ethic have never really been questioned, but there's only so much he can do.
Vogelbach has plus power and could hit for a high average as well. He walks almost as much as he strikes out. If Vogelbach's bat lives up to its potential, he's going to find a place in a major league lineup. But if he falls short, even just a little, then questions of his overall value are going to come up. For what it's worth, he's one of the top five first baseman prospects in all of the minor leagues in my mind, although that says a bit more about the state of first basemen in the minors today than it does about Vogelbach.
The other Floridian slugging first baseman is Rock Shoulders. If a name alone could help you get to the major leagues, Shoulders would already be there. He does have a bit more range than Vogelbach and plays the outfield some, although that's entirely to get his and Vogelbach's bats in the lineup at the same time. He's not a major league outfielder. Unfortunately, while Shoulders is a pretty good hitter, being a "pretty good" hitter won't get you to the majors leagues as a first baseman. He's a lot of fun to watch, but he'll have to cut down on his strikeouts and hit for a higher average if he's going to be a serious major league prospect.
Other than Almora and Vogelbach, the best prospect on the Daytona Cubs is switch-hitting third baseman Jeimer Candelario. In fact, a lot of people, including me, rank Candelario higher than Vogelbach. His numbers at Kane County last year don't stand out (.256/.346/.396) except when taking into account that he was only 19 years old. He's got a nice line drive stroke from both sides of the plate and he was starting to turn some of his doubles (he hit 35 last season) into home runs by the end of the year. He's not great at third base, but he's got a chance to stick there. He's going to have to, because I don't think his bat will be good enough to be a first-division first baseman. Still, I like Candelario a lot.
The middle infield has shortstop Marco Hernandez and second baseman Gioskar Amaya, both of whom were much better prospects before last season. Both have good gloves, but both have struggled to produce at the plate. The switch-hitting Hernandez has really been bad at the plate the past two seasons. Amaya hasn't been terrible, but .252/.329/.369 in low A isn't going to cut it if you want to make the majors as a second baseman. Both will have to take a step forward with their bats or lose their prospect status entirely.
Tim Saunders is the utility guy, as he has played second, third, short and center field as a professional. After getting drafted in the 32nd round in 2012, he hit everything in sight and played his way all the way up to Daytona in his first season. Then last year he struggled with Daytona and then missed most of the season with an injury.
Joining Almora in the outfield are Bijan Rademacher, Pin-Chieh Chen and Oliver Zapata. Both Chen and Rademacher split their time last season between Kane County and Daytona, although Chen got a short call-up to Tennessee as an injury fill-in. Both can hit for a decent average and draw a walk, although they're both allergic to power. Chen has better speed and Rademacher has the better arm. Neither figure to be major leaguers, but Chen's speed and ability to play CF give him a slight chance of catching on as an extra oufielder.
Zapata is a short guy with some power and good speed, but he hasn't demonstrated that he can enough contact and hit for a high enough average to be a real prospect.
Catching is a weak spot in the Cubs organization. Willson Contreras is probably the best catching prospect in the Cubs organization, but that's damning with faint praise. He did have 11 home runs in 310 at bats in Kane County last season, so he does have some pop. His defense is considered good with room for improvement. Chadd Krist and Lance Rymel round out the roster.