It's been a while since my last article. There are a few reasons for that. One of them is, I usually don't bother writing something that someone else recently said better than I could have. There's no point putting an article together when Baseball America, our Minor League Wrap section, or someone else just did the same. It would be a waste of my time writing it, Al's time proof-reading it, and your time reading it. Also, since "the trade," all four full season teams are worth monitoring closely enough that I've been pinging between games more than usual. I've been gathering information, and forming ideas, but none have been article-worthy.
Not like that's stopped me before.
Sunday, I made it to Geneva for a glorified scrimmage of a game. West Michigan and Kane County are already in the playoffs and already selling tickets. On the Cougars side, Kyle Schwarber and Jake Hannemann are off to new challenges in the Florida State League with Daytona. Both the visiting Whitecaps and the Cougars brought in similar 1.2 WHIPs into the game. Last year, Kane County's WHIP was over 1.5 for the season, and the much-improved pitching has gone a long way to leading to those postseason tickets being on sale.
(Pitching has dominated my thinking on writing recently. I have a few half-ideas that will probably be on the way soon. For all the justified talk about hitting in the Cubs system, it would largely be a waste if the pitching wasn't equally being accounted for. Which it is. But it's a more theoretical discussion than a "Look at Addison Russell homer twice in a game, again" play. Which is why that's what is, likely, upcoming.)
Back to the game. I had seen Tyler Skulina early in the season and was impressed. He lost that game, but I saw enough of what he was doing to think he was better than the league. Which remains my thought process for both Skulina now, and my thought process on talent evaluation process in general. Skulina is a better pitcher than the league is hitters, and should be starting in Daytona in April if not sooner.
The wind was blowing out a gale to right field for the 2-1 West Michigan victory, but Skulina only allowed three hits and a walk. One of them was a homer by Raph Rhymes, who I remember from his time as a pure hitter at LSU. This just in, Rhymes can still hit. The other name I recognized was Dominic Ficcociello, who played at Arkansas. His "moment" on Sunday was almost beaning a coach sitting in the dugout (on the third base side) with his toss from first base after in-between inning infield practice.
Skulina never hit 94 on the radar gun that I saw, and might not have hit 93, but he was solid anyway. I seem to remember hearing a velocity dip has led to his struggles, and adding another tick or two would help at higher levels, for sure. But the added tempo wasn't much needed today.
Cubs Minor LeaguePitching Coordinator Derek Johnson is all about changing speeds. Skulina was keeping hitters off-balance with curves, change-ups, and varying speeds on his fastballs as well. With the exception of Rhymes and a double by catcher Bennett Pickar, nobody was getting very good swings off Skulina, who fanned seven. The homer wasn't wind-aided, though. The gusts were to right field and the solo blast was to straightaway left, and there wasn't much doubt about it.
As West Michigan is a good squad, I'm totally comfortable with Skulina giving up four base runners over seven. If his velocity improves a bit, he should be better than Florida State League hitters next season. Having pitchers who are better than their level has long been a problem in the Cubs system. That is changing.
Gerardo Concepcion was a bit more erratic in his pitching, but retired six of eight hitters. One was a wind-aided homer in the ninth that provided the margin of victory. After the game, Concepcion was called up to Daytona. Which, from an advancement point-of-view, makes him better than Hayden Simpson. I'm not sold on Concepcion being better than the majority of Midwest League hitters, but the team might as well find out how he will do at a higher level.
Offensively, two hitters stuck out for the Cougars. One was Shawon Dunston, who has greatly benefited from the extra playing time he has received due to injuries and callups. Next year, Dunston should play in the FSL. It may, or may not, be the end of the road for him, but he hit three-of-four balls really well, and is a good enough defender to make the jump next season. Regardless the position or the pedigree, 'worthy of a move up' is a good thing.
The other hitter I'll mention is Jacob Rogers. He is the Cougars first baseman, and leads the team in homers. However, that isn't my note on him. Nobody was taking more professional at bats all day long. He'd work the count to two strikes, then foul off as many pitches as needed to complete his at bat. I think he had three eight-or-more pitch at bats, and that is an offensive trait the brass loves. I expect Rogers to make the jump to Daytona, as well. Not bad for a 40th-round selection.
Most of the regulars on this team should continue to climb the ranks, even Carlos Penalver, who is in a protracted slump, and made a routine error today. He made a few nice plays with the glove, and that's of more value in the system than a batting average that's now below .220.
These have been the two best teams in the league all season. Which should mean an entertaining championship series. However, in the minor leagues, as in the majors, the best teams don't always advance. Congratulations to Concepcion, and I wish him the best in the Florida State League. I imagine I'll be listening.