Zak Hermans, righthanded pitcher, 6-2, 190
Drafted in the 30th round in 2013
Potential landing spot in 2014: Boise
Yesterday, I was reading a preview of the 2014 Ivy League baseball season, because that's what I do when it's 4 below zero outside. In the Princeton section, the writer bemoaned how difficult it will be to replace senior Zak Hermans, who had signed with the Cubs after four years of college ball. I'll be honest, I haven't looked up a scouting report on Hermans. However, I've three guesses on him. He's an Ivy League graduate, so he's probably really smart. He probably has a much more prestigious job lined up than playing minor league ball. And, since he actually played for the Arizona League Cubs, despite his degree, he probably really likes the game.
For now, that will do.
As it happens, that night was the night when the minor league Top-100 prospects list was released. I will guarantee you, for each Kris Bryant, Albert Almora, and Javier Baez, there are a handful of Zak Hermans longshot types. While the praise and acclaim (justifiably) go to the (presumed) best, there are loads of guys who will never get a major interview on MiLB.com. While Almora and Bryant were representing on Twitter, Hermans was getting ready for his first full season of pro ball. In Texas. In weather under 40 degrees.
One of my occasional soap-box topics will come next, and it will be a shortened version. Those of you who already know it, hold off on the criticism until I'm done. For those of you still unaware, I'll review how the minors work, briefly. We all know about Triple-A, Double-A, High-A, and Low-A. All MLB teams have one of each of those four. Well beneath that, there are the Venezuelan League (the Cubs have one squad) and the Dominican League (where the Cubs have one squad). Above that is what I heard someone refer to as the "Compound League." Whoever used it, and I stole it from them, I love the term, and thanks so much. The Cubs have a spiffy new complex in Mesa, and it's beautiful and state of the art. Al has had a few features on it, and players from any and every level can spend time there. Everyone seems to like it.
The Florida and Arizona Summer Leagues are the official names for the Compound Leagues. Above those are the New York/Penn League and the Northwest League, which houses the Boise Hawks. Shoehorned in between the New York/Penn and Northwest League and the Compound Leagues are the Pioneer League and the Appalachian League. The Cubs aren't represented in either of those leagues, both considered Rookie Leagues.
There isn't much difference between the Short-Season (like Boise) and Rookie Leagues (like the Appalachian League). I've watched a bit of Rookie League ball. They are comparable to the Northwest League, but probably a bit weaker., especially in pitching consistency
This soap-box topic: I would like the Cubs to get into either the Appalachian League or the Pioneer League in addition to being in the Northwest League. The reason I would like a team in either league goes back to Mesa.
Once the draft takes place, Mesa is the home to a wide variety of ballplayers. Some are guys preparing to head off to short-season ball. This will leave somewhere around 50 players in Mesa. Then, drafted players start to arrive. Some, like Kris Bryant, stay less than a week before heading off to Boise or Kane County. Some will be college pitchers who are on rather tight pitch counts. Some will leave to another spot, and others, like Hermans, will remain through the rest of the season. Some will be high school players, who aren't going much of anywhere for about a year. Some are international players, who may stay for the summer, or may head somewhere else. Others will be college hitters, drafted often to fill out a short-season roster. As hitters don't need to mind their innings, they grab two months of quick baseball, and hope to catch someone's attention in that time.
Eventually, the season ends, and everyone heads home for the winter. In February or March, they re-convene, aiming for spots on one of the full-season squads (Low-A through the majors). Many don't make the trip to full-season ball, and some of the players get released. Then Mesa is, again, home for rehabbing players, and guys with nowhere else to go. Like Hermans, most likely.
In his brief time in Mesa last year, he struck out more than a hitter an inning. He also gave up more than a hit an inning. This was coming off of a full college season. As noted, he is preparing for a job where he hopes to get paid very little, riding buses from town to town, in pursuit of a dream, that will likely spit him out before he survives to High-A Daytona. Or that's what math tells me.
Hermans is a proxy for any of a various number of pitchers who are better than the average high school draftee in a draft. And, likely, about as good as many of the mid-to-late round college bats. As a 30th-rounder, he is a long-shot to be a big leaguer, but a scout in the system saw enough in him to bring him along for the ride. Hermans will not make Kane County this April. Making Boise will be a coin flip as well, requiring a good showing in extended spring. He is, though, probably better than many of the campers in the compound leagues.
The best way for a pitcher to get better, to become a valid consideration, to move up the ladder, to get mentioned in trade talks, is to pitch. Hermans may not reach High-A. However, if he (or another more noted, somewhat earlier drafted option) is to make a name for himself, those types of players have to get off the compound. As the Cubs get more benefit from the Dominican Academy, the amenities in Mesa, the early draft positions, and the mother lode of pitchers they've been drafting, at some point, this extra talent will need a place to pitch.
In a counter to standard practice, where affiliations change in September of even-numbered years, division rival Pittsburgh bought the White Sox' rookie-league affiliate in Bristol this off-season. The Royals, who have a team in the Pioneer and Appalachian League (which does seem excessive, even to me), could be looking to cease their affiliation with their team in Burlington, North Carolina, though details are sketchy, even for the internet.
I'm not saying the Cubs should add a Pioneer League team so Zak Hermans can throw his repertoire at guys not yet ready for full-season ball. If a player, realistically, doesn't project to have High-A talent at the very least, a solid argument can be made for releasing him. The Cubs will release players from their system this April, and some will likely be better now than Hermans will probably ever be.
So, again, why the soapbox?
People who disagree with me are probably right. More than likely, adding a new Rookie League team wouldn't move the needle much on Hermans, Eloy Jimenez, Gleyber Torres, Jefferson Mejia, or any of the upcoming talent. Funneling them through Boise would probably not harm the product much at all. And, likely, the brass will agree with this reasoned argument.
So why, other than having another game to not be able to listen to, would I care?
Adding a new squad would give five more kids per year a chance to pitch five or so innings every fifth night, representing the Cubs, without stealing innings from anyone. Working on their off-speed stuff, and command. Twelve or so more hitters would get to play 50 or so games in front of fans, getting to work on their stroke, their defensive routes, and their baserunning. Many of these kids would, like Hermans, have college experience. (The Cubs have certainly been selecting a few pitchers these last few drafts, and that doesn't figure to change.) If a player isn't mature enough to leave Mesa, keep them there. However, when it's time to get out of the compound, it's time to get out of the compound.
These not-quite-good-enough-for-Boise types would get to show their stuff, on road trips, and fighting for playoff spots, like baseball players are supposed to. And, quite possibly, get released because they aren't good enough pro ballplayers. However, some would improve their control, their power, or whatever it is they needed to improve. An added team could be a step along the way for some prospects. At least for six or so years, while the team churns through the added incoming talent.
Will it move the needle or be a tipping point? Probably not much. However, if the Cubs scouts and coaches are better than the ones before, they ought to be able to develop something out of the players being funneled through the system. With more talent, adding another team shouldn't be that out of line. Especially if Kansas City wants out of the Appalachian League at the same time rival Pittsburgh wanted in.
This was one of my first ideas here. It got ridiculed, and I'm good with that. The Cubs system is highly ranked, and rather deep. Dallas Green tried to expand the minor league system, and was doing just that, until Tribune Co. clamped down on his efforts. Having more teams allows more players to get more looks against more opponents. Even if I stand alone, I'll still want that. This September, minor league affiliations are extended or adjusted. As I finish this article, I finish my periodic campaign to get another team added to the pipeline
Why is it important?
Because Zak Hermans is pitching in January in Texas in thirty-something degree weather instead of working at his future real job. If a similar kid drafted in June 2014 is doing the same thing in January 2015, I hope he gets a chance to pitch in the Appalachian League in front of whatever fans would show up. It might not be worth the expense, but I'd like the kids to at least have a chance to try. Against players of similar talents.
Otherwise, he'd just have to go get a real job like the rest of us. Which he'd prefer to put off for another year.
And as tight as I am with my finances, I might even buy a hat of the new team. Feel free to hold me to it, if it happens.