*NOTE* This is the third of a multi-part series by Cougars PR Director Shawn Touney that provides updates on former and current Kane County Cougars players in Minor League and Major League Baseball. This third part chronicles some of the players who were part of the Cougars’ first season of affiliation with the Chicago Cubs in 2013. While Opening Day is 6 months away, we’ll also take a look at some players who could potentially open the 2014 season at Kane County.
With the exception of the Cougars’ inaugural season in 1991, there may not have been a more highly-anticipated Opening Night than there was in 2013. That’s because last fall, both the Cougars and Cubs signed a two-year player development contract, bringing the Cubs’ Class-A farm team to the western suburbs of Chicago.
While the team’s final record of 55-80 fell well below expectations this season, fans were able to see 10 of the top 30 prospects in the Cubs’ organization according to a pre-season list compiled by Baseball America. Even more impressive, 4 of the top 10 prospects on that list played with the Cougars for a significant portion of the season, giving fans an opportunity to see some of the brightest young talent.
In The Show: Well, nobody is there quite yet – although time will tell on several of the ’13 Cougars and the pace with which they move upwards on the Cubs’ organizational ladder in the next few years. Many of the Cougars players on the aforementioned Baseball America list are quite young, ranging from 19 to 21 years old. But others such as pitcher Pierce Johnson could be on the fast track. Following a mid-season promotion from Kane County last summer, Johnson dazzled in the second half of the season, going 6-1 with a 2.22 ERA in 9 starts with Class-A Advanced Daytona. The 2015 season, at the earliest, would be the expected year to potentially see one or more of the ’13 Cougars get a crack with the big league club.
Worth Watching: OF Albert Almora, 1B/DH Dan Vogelbach, IF Jeimer Candelario, IF Gioskar Amaya, P Rob Zastryzny, P Pierce Johnson, 1B/DH Rock Shoulders, P Tayler Scott, P Armando Rivero
Albert Almora, along with Javier Baez, Jorge Soler and Kris Bryant, arguably form the “Core 4” of Cubs prospects who garner the most attention. There was a deflating feeling when Almora suffered a hand injury early in spring training, partly because the injury prolonged his arrival to Kane County as Almora was expected to be part of the Opening Day roster. But towards the end of May, Almora was here, as well as thousands of excited fans who were anxious to see the Cubs’ 1st round pick in the June 2012 draft.
Almora played in 61 games last season before a groin injury ended his 2013 campaign several weeks early. But fans saw a player worthy of the hype as Almora brought virtually every tool you look for in a bonafide big league prospect, in addition to intangibles such as being a clubhouse leader. Almora, who will be just 19 years old on Opening Day 2014, seems likely to open the 2014 season in his home state of Florida at Class-A Advanced Daytona. He will, without question, command the most attention among the ’13 Cougars as his career progresses above and beyond Class-A.
Dan Vogelbach saw time at Daytona towards the end of the season and helped bring a Florida State League championship to the Cubs’ High-A home. Whether he played first base or served as designated hitter, Vogelbach was a constant in manager Mark Johnson’s lineup while at Kane County, playing in every game from Opening Night in April up until the first week of August. At the time of his promotion, Vogelbach was batting .282 with 14 home runs and 51 RBI. Similar to Almora, Vogelbach struck me as being one of the true leaders within the confines of the clubhouse.
Much has been made of Vogelbach’s limitations defensively, but solid hitters such as Vogelbach will always be in the discussion as long as he continues to do at the plate what he’s done so far in his professional career. He’s one of the best gap-to-gap hitters I have seen at Kane County. Vogelbach will also be just 21 years old on Opening Day next spring.
It amazes me when people say that the presence of Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo means that there will have to be a plan to put Vogelbach elsewhere. Folks, that’s a considerable ways away. Let’s not assume that there will be an inevitable “2 trains colliding” personnel decision involving both players down the road. Too many circumstances are involved, in this case with a budding minor league prospect and a player who has been the Cubs’ everyday first baseman for just a year and a half, and will be coming off of what can be considered a slightly disappointing 2013 season.
Like Vogelbach, Jeimer Candelario was an everyday player in the Cougars’ lineup last season. While some Cougars/Cubs fans are still grumbling that Candelario’s presence at third base this summer prompted the Cubs to send 2013 first round pick Kris Bryant straight from Short-A Boise and Daytona, it’s important to know that a.) the Cubs value Candelario as a prospect too and b.) Bryant’s performance for Daytona at the end of the season certainly justified the leapfrog jump over Kane County. We’re like you – we would have loved to see Kris Bryant play here, even if it was for only a week or two.
Candelario, born on November 24, 1993, was the youngest player on the Cougars’ Opening Night roster in April. After leading the Northwest League with 20 errors in 59 games at Boise in 2012, Candelario committed 26 errors in 130 games with the Cougars in 2013 – his first full season of professional baseball. He batted .256 with 11 home runs and 57 RBI, and his 35 doubles tied him for the 6th-most in franchise history.
While he doesn’t get as much of the attention as Almora and Vogelbach, it certainly appears that the Cubs value Candelario as a serious prospect.
Gioskar Amaya served as the Cougars’ everyday second baseman and seemed to hit his peak offensively in July, before tailing off a bit in August. He’s another young guy, just 20 years old, and could potentially be back at Kane County to at least open the 2014 season. I’ve also read some media reports of Amaya being used as a catcher in this fall’s instructional league.
While neither Rock Shoulders nor Tayler Scott were on Baseball America’s Top 30 Cubs Prospects list at the start of the season, both players put in good, full seasons with the Cougars in 2013 and were named mid-season Midwest League All-Stars (Shoulders was named a Midwest League post-season All-Star as well). Shoulders had a torrid start to the season, batting .370 in April while being named Cubs Minor League Player of the Month. There were certainly some peaks and valleys for Shoulders throughout the season, but he finished the season with 18 home runs and 74 RBI, leading the Cougars in both categories. Scott was a rotation regular who led the staff with 24 starts and increased his stock in the organization from a year ago.
Armando Rivero was a Cuban signee by the Cubs and joined Kane County following the mid-season All-Star break. He made 11 appearances and posted a 5.40 ERA. Rivero was promoted to Daytona and actually made it all the way to Double-A Tennessee, doing quite well in a late-season audition with the Smokies.
Rob Zastryzny was a late-season addition and the most high-profile member of the Cubs’ 2013 draft class to play at Kane County this season. The 2nd round pick only pitched in 3 games but looked awfully good in the small sample size, allowing just 1 earned run in 3 relief appearances.
Also In The Mix: P Tyler Skulina, P Lendy Castillo, P Dillon Maples, P Juan Paniagua, IF Marco Hernandez, OF Trey Martin, P Michael Heesch, C Chadd Krist, OF Trevor Gretzky, OF Kevin Encarnacion
In looking at Short-A Boise’s season last summer, the Hawks went 41-35. Some names that jump out as potential Cougars in 2014…
P Paul Blackburn – a 1st round supplemental pick by the Cubs in 2012 (56th overall), Blackburn was a high school draftee who started 12 games at Boise and posted a 3.33 ERA. Entering the 2013 season, Blackburn was ranked #16 on the Cubs Top 30 Prospects List by Baseball America.
P Duane Underwood – another high round draft pick by the Cubs in 2012, Underwood was a 2nd rounder who made 11 starts and posted a 4.97 ERA. He was ranked #17 on the Cubs Top 30 Prospects List going into the 2013 season.
P Dillon Maples – Maples spent the mid-May through mid-July timeframe with the Cougars, and there were some rough patches at times for the right-hander. After Maples was transferred to Boise, things improved dramatically. Maples made 9 starts with the Hawks to close out his ’13 professional season and was 5-2 with a 2.14 ERA.
OF Kevin Encarnacion – struggled in 16 games last summer with the Cougars but similar to Maples, he showed significant improvement after his transfer from Kane County to Boise. Encarnacion batted .355 in 42 games with 8 homers for the Hawks.
OF Shawon Dunston, Jr. – in 49 games with Boise, Dunston batted .290 and split time between LF and CF. Yes, he is the son of former Cub Shawon Dunston.
OF Trevor Gretzky – was promoted from Boise to Kane County in mid-August and batted .306 in 14 games. Yes, he is the son of former hockey legend Wayne Gretzky.
OF Trey Martin – Martin’s 2013 season was an abrupt one. He was on the Cougars Opening Day roster but played in only 11 games before undergoing shoulder surgery. I believe Martin is in the fall instructional league for the Cubs and is bouncing back nicely from his injury.
As always, thanks for reading! My next blog post in this series will take a look at current minor leaguers who played at Kane County, but are not playing for either our current affiliate (Cubs) or more recent past affiliations (Oakland, Kansas City). There’s more players than you think who are still running down the dream.