Minor League Update 4.17-19.15
Storyline of the Weekend: Addison Russell: Second Baseman
Technically it first happened on Thursday, but the move to start top shortstop prospect Addison Russell at second base continued into the weekend. Any time an elite prospect goes through a change, be it a promotion, positional switch, etc., it’s noteworthy. Because it involves young Cubs players, it gets extra scrutiny.
This is both about and not about Javier Baez. That will be the natural inclination for most Cubs fans, to assume that Russell’s shift across the keystone is somehow an indictment on Baez’s progress in Iowa. Obviously there is no such thing after a week’s worth of games, but Baez has yet to even play in a game this season after leaving to be with his family after the tragic passing of his younger sister. To say that Baez’s past struggles play no role in such a change would be naïve, as even the Cubs might say that they are exploring all options in case their strikeout-plagued rookie never figures out how to rein things in.
But in the shorter term, this is about options. The Cubs have instituted an organizational philosophy of wanting their minor league players to learn to play multiple positions. They don’t know how this organizational logjam will play out any more than you or I do. What they do know is that any number of their young players could reach their potential or fall short. In the meantime, the more positions their other players can play, the more options they have moving forward.
Russell at second base doesn’t mean that the Cubs are done with Baez. It doesn’t mean that there is a promotion pending for Russell. It doesn’t mean that he’ll be double play partners with Starlin Castro by Memorial Day.
What it does mean, however, is that all of those things are possible, and that’s what the Cubs need. Will Baez hit at the major-league level? Will Castro continue to play like an all-star? Can Bryant stay at third? Is Mike Olt a thing? The Cubs don’t have any certain answers because these are ever-moving variables that refuse to give definitive answers.
But by doing things like giving players like Russell experience at other positions, it keeps the Cubs’ options open. And given the amount of variables they have in their current equations, the more options they have the better.
Roman Quinn, OF, Phillies (Reading, AA): 2-4, 2 R, BB, K, 3 SB. The speed is nothing new for Quinn, but he’s putting it to much better use this season. In the small sample size that is April baseball, he’s improved his approach at the plate and driven the ball with more authority. He’s never going to be a true power threat, but it’s important that he show enough pop to keep pitchers honest and from jamming him on the inner half.
Raimel Tapia, OF, Rockies (Modesto, A+): 3-5, 2 R, 3 2B. By any definition of the hit tool, Tapia is one of the top hitting prospects in the minors. A natural hitter who struggles not to swing at pitches he knows he can hit, he is one of the few hitters talented enough to get away with such an approach. He’s an elite prospect whose hit tool is among, if not, the best in all of the minor leagues.
Trey Ball, LHP, Red Sox (Salem, A+): 6 IP, 0 H, 0 R, 2 BB, 5 K. For Ball, the downward plane generated by his 6-foot-6 frame is perhaps his most important attribute, as he doesn’t miss the amount of bats you’d expect from someone with his velocity. He remains a work in progress as he works towards controlling his body and repeating his delivery more consistently.
Aaron Nola, RHP, Phillies (Reading, AA): 6 IP, 4 H, 0 R, BB, 5 K. Nola isn’t as much proving his worth at the minor-league level as he is getting his work in as the Phillies delay for his inevitable big-league promotion. He’ll need his time at Double-A, of course, but it won’t be a full season and he is just a phone call away from the big leagues. Fastball command can always be improved, but at this point, there’s not a ton more the Phillies can expect Nola to improve upon before eventually giving him the call.
Jake Thompson, RHP, Rangers (Frisco, AA): 6 IP, 2 H, 0 R, 0 BB, 4 K. The Tigers farm system didn’t have a lot to boast at this time last year, but Thompson was one of the crown jewels. He went to the Rangers in the Tigers desperate attempt to fix their bullpen (in exchange for Joakim Soria), but he will be missed in Motown. Boasting a pair of plus pitches (fastball and slider), Thompson looks to be able to remain a starter and has the potential to land in the upper half of a big-league rotation.
Wilmer Difo, SS, Nationals (Potomac, A+): 5-6, 3 R, 2B, HR, K, 2 SB, CS. A dynamic player, Difo is coming to epitomize the late-blooming prospect. He didn’t break out until age 22, last year in Low-A ball. That’s late for a player with his tools, but I had multiple scouts tell me how much they regretted missing out on him as an amateur. Hindsight may be a powerful force, but so is Difo’s swing. He attacks the ball aggressively and can put a drive into it despite his small stature. He’s off to a hot start at High-A Potomac and could hit his way to Double-A this season to help speed up his timetable.
Albert Almora, OF, Cubs (Tennessee, AA): 5-5, R, 2B, SB. No one has ever doubted Almora’s bat-to-ball skills, and when he’s on, his hit tool gets elite grades from scouts. It’s the in-game application that has come under fire. We got excited over some early walks on his part, thinking that it may be the emergence of a new approach at the plate, but after three walks in his first four games, he hasn’t had one since. He doesn’t strike out a ton either, so he has a chance to get by without earning extra trips on base, but he’ll still have to prove he can hit .300 with an aggressive approach in order to be an everyday player.
Adam Brett Walker, OF, Twins (Chattanooga, AA): 2-4, 2 R, 2 HR, 2 K. Perhaps no one in the minors squares up a fastball better than Walker. He has plus-plus raw power and a dynamic swing that lifts the ball to create big time home-run trajectory. Where he struggles, however, are on pitches that don’t go straight. There is a ton of swing and miss in his game and enough holes that the power may never play. At best, it looks like a platoon or part-time bat at the major-league level. Still, when he squares up a fastball, it goes a mile, and power is hard to find.
Casey Meisner, RHP, Mets (Savannah, A-): 6 IP, 4 H, R, 2 BB, 8 K. Scouts drool on Meisner because of his 6-foot-7 frame and long, lean body, though there is still a large gap between present and future ability. He’s more athletic than his lanky frame would suggest, however, and repeats his delivery well. That gives him a chance for success as he attacks full-season ball for the first time, and he has a track record of throwing strikes.
Victor Roache, OF, Brewers (Brevard County, A+): 3-5, 2B, K. Roache showcased some of the best power in the Florida State League last year, but it came with a .226 batting average and 138 strike outs. The power has never been in question for Roache, but its in-game application has been questioned from the start. At best, it will work against left-handed pitching. Against same-side pitching, he will be extremely susceptible to breaking balls, which he fails to recognize out of the hand and doesn’t stay enough on pitches on the outer half of the plate. He’s a one-dimensional player whose one dimension (power) likely won’t play enough in games to make it worthwhile.
Bubba Starling, OF, Royals (Wilmington, A+): 2-4, R, HR, SB. Something about blind squirrels and nuts. Starling is off to a nice start, hitting .313 in the early going, but that’s infused by a .563 BABIP, which successfully masks a 15:4 K:BB ratio. That’s 15 strike outs in 32 at-bats. Despite this being his second stint in the Carolina League, Starling still has not solved his pitch recognition issues. He’ll still run into his occasional extra-base hit, but they will be too few and far between.
Sean Newcomb, LHP, Angels (Burlington, A-): 6 IP, 2 H, R, BB, 5 K. Newcomb gets more recognition than most pitchers with his profile because he’s one of the few projectable starters in an exceptionally weak Angels system, but I’m ok with that because I like seeing players from the America East conference (the conference I coached in) get some exposure. Newcomb’s ceiling isn’t high, but he does feature two above-average pitches and two more to keep hitters honest. Getting out of the northeast and its cold weather can only help Newcomb, who could move quickly this season once he establishes himself.