New faces meet old faces for Cubs
Baez, Vogelbach among prospects on the road to Wrigley
By Robert Emrich / Special to MLB.com
On the surface, it looked like another season of struggles in the Cubs' Minor League system. The Arizona League Cubs and Boise Hawks were the only affiliates to reach the playoffs, with the Cubs falling in the first round and the Hawks falling a game shy of the Northwest League title. Double-A Tennessee missed the postseason by two games, although the Smokies recorded a winning record for the fourth straight year.
However, there were hopeful signs for the future. Jorge Soler, signed out of Cuba in June, showed he was worth the money the Cubs gave him by batting .299 with five homers and 29 RBIs in 34 games between the AZL and Midwest League. Albert Amora, selected sixth overall in the 2012 Draft, batted .321 with 15 extra-base hits in 33 Minor League games.
Catcher -- Juan Apodaca, Tennessee (31 games), Iowa (52 games): Joining the Cubs during the offseason, Apodaca split time between the Southern and Pacific Coast leagues. He was consistent at both levels, posting a .407 on-base percentage while drawing as many walks as strikeouts (40) and batting .291 in 83 games. Jason McLeod, the Cubs' senior vice president of scouting and player development, noted that the signing wasn't about Apodaca's offense.
"It was more for the pitching staff, not so much for his offensive output," McLeod said. "When you're signing six-year free-agent catchers, you want guys who can help a staff, who can help the younger guys on the team, and that's who he is. Great makeup guy and a consummate teammate."
First baseman -- Dan Vogelbach, AZL Cubs (24 games), Boise (37 games): After a six-game stint in the Arizona League, the 2011 second-round pick showed tremendous pop, slugging 17 homers and driving in 62 runs in 61 games. Vogelbach batted .322 with a 1.051 OPS across both levels and was named an AZL postseason All-Star.
"In talking with [special assistant to the GM] Tim Wilken, they felt he could be an offensive force at a position where you need to be," McLeod said. "He does a good job controlling the strike zone -- you can envision him being the high OBP, high slugging guy. He can really hit; he can drive the ball out of the park. That's a huge part of his game."
Second baseman -- Stephen Bruno, Boise (67 games): A ninth-round pick out of the University of Virginia in June, Bruno led the organization with a .361 average and ended the season on a 22-game hitting streak. His .938 OPS paced the Northwest League, and he was second behind teammate Gioskar Amaya with 51 runs scored.
"You don't expect a guy to win the batting title in the Northwest League," said McLeod, who joined the Cubs from the Red Sox last offseason. "He had a strong year in the Atlantic Coast Conference, he had a tough park to hit in and in the summer league he led that league in hitting. He did have a track record, he played in a good conference, and we drafted him with the notion that he'll go out and perform and be productive at the lower levels right away."
Bruno was moved around defensively, playing second base, shortstop, third base and all three outfield positions.
"I envision him being more of a second baseman, but he is versatile," McLeod said. "His best position is probably second, but he played third at the University of Virginia and went in as a shortstop."
Honorable mention -- Logan Watkins, Tennessee (133 games): Watkins was named the Cubs' Minor League Player of the Year after batting .281 with an organization-best 93 runs scored for the Smokies.
"He really encompasses a lot of what we want our players to do -- control the zone, get on base, hit for average, and he played very good defense," McLeod said. "You wouldn't look at him and say he's a 'plus' this, but he's good at a lot of different areas. He's a very smart baserunner.
"I think he led the league in walks, he hit in the .280 range and he's a steady average defender."
Shortstop -- Javier Baez, Peoria (57 games), Daytona (23 game): Like Vogelbach, Baez produced solid results in his first full season as a pro. Drafted ninth overall in 2011, he slugged 16 homers and stole 24 bases while compiling an .888 OPS. The Cubs' top prospect ended the season in style, homering twice in his finale on Sept. 2.
"He excites in every facet, on both sides of the ball," McLeod said. "He's really got very good instincts on defense. He slows the game down -- it's like he sees things before they happen. That was my most happy surprise, seeing how well he played the position.
"Offensively, he's got tremendous upside, he can drive it to any part of the park. ... He has a chance to be an All-Star-caliber player. He's got to work on his approach -- he's very aggressive, he'll swing early in the count at pitches he probably shouldn't."
Third baseman -- Josh Vitters, Iowa (110 games), Chicago (36 games): Vitters tied for third among Cubs Minor Leaguers with 17 homers and finished fourth with a .304 average. He was remarkably consistent, batting .302 with an .866 OPS in the first half and hitting .309 with an .882 OPS in the second.
"He had a productive year, hitting for average and driving the ball in Triple-A," McLeod said. "There are still some things he needs to work on with his approach, and he'll work with the staff in Arizona."
Matt Szczur, Daytona (78 games), Tennessee (35 games): The former two-sport star continued his steady climb up the Cubs' ladder. Szczur batted .267, stole 42 bases and totaled 38 extra-base hits in 113 games. The New Jersey native drew 61 walks while striking out 79 times and finished second in the organization with 92 runs scored. He also showed a strong arm, racking up eight assists.
"Strong, athletic, reminds me a lot of a young Reed Johnson," McLeod said. "He plays so hard. He's got that football mentality -- he's going to leave it all out there, going hard on a ground ball, breaking up double plays. He can steal bases and there is strength in his swing.
"There are still some things he's working on mechanically with his swing. He can really do a lot of things well, and he's still pretty young in terms of games played in comparison to other guys."
John Andreoli, Daytona (121 games): The fleet-footed Andreoli led Cubs Minor Leaguers with 55 steals in 121 games. He posted a .402 OBP, drawing 75 walks, and tied for sixth in the system with eight triples.
"He plays like Matt Szczur," McLeod said. "He's a Massachusetts kid, kind of like that tough, cold weather, almost hockey mentality. He plays very hard. With him, it's just going to be playing, getting his at-bats. He's a strong kid, he just hasn't shown it yet as far as driving the ball and hitting home runs.
"I didn't know much about him coming in, but he opened eyes with the season he had."
Greg Rohan, Daytona (75 games), Tennessee (28 games), Iowa (27 games): Rohan climbed through three levels with ease in 2012, compiling 21 homers and 106 RBIs, both second in the organization. He made his Triple-A debut in style, going deep twice for Iowa on Aug. 1. Rohan put up career highs in nearly every offensive category, including homers, hits, extra-base hits, RBIs, runs scored and walks.
"We felt that he deserved the opportunity to go to Double-A, he earned that promotion and drove the ball while he was there," McLeod said. "By sheer need at Triple-A at the end of the year, he went there. It was a good year to put himself on the radar. He never complained to be in Class A Advanced and went about his business every day and earned the promotion with the performance that he had."
Utility -- Anthony Rizzo, Iowa (70 games), Chicago (87 games): Despite playing only 70 games for the Triple-A Cubs, Rizzo led the organization with 23 homers and drove in 62 runs while batting .342. He was promoted to the Majors in late June and never looked back, going deep 15 times and posting an .815 OPS for Chicago.
"Phenomenal year for him," McLeod said. "More than the numbers he was putting up, he made a conscious effort to work on a consistent approach. The performance was the byproduct of the work and prep he put in, and that was what I was most happy about.
"When you make a swing mechanics adjustment, there are a lot of different ways things can go. And to see him work as hard as he did, I couldn't be happier for him. It was a tremendous year, coming in the trade and putting [together] the season that he did in Triple-A and in the bigs."
Right-handed starting pitcher -- Nick Struck, Tennessee (28 games): The 2009 39th-round pick has earned this honor two years in a row. In 2012, Struck led the organization and the Southern League with 14 wins. He also led Cubs Minor Leaguers with 123 strikeouts while posting a 3.18 ERA over 155 2/3 innings.
"This guy is a bulldog on the hill," said McLeod, who pitched a year in the Minor Leagues for the Gulf Coast League Astros in 1991. "He doesn't have the greatest stuff, doesn't overpower guys, but he's firm. He's got two solid pitches and he's a starter. He worked hard, took the ball every fifth day and would've pitched deeper into the games if there weren't so many pitchers.
"More than anything, he just really competes. He's not afraid of contact, and we rewarded him with our Minor League Pitcher of the Year [award] because he earned it."
Left-handed starting pitcher -- Eric Jokisch, Daytona (nine games), Tennessee (18 games): After a brief stint in the Florida State League, Jokisch teamed with Struck to form a 1-2 punch in the Smokies rotation. The Northwestern University product finished fourth in the organization with 10 wins and third with a 3.11 ERA and 115 strikeouts. Like Struck, this is Jokisch's second straight year as an Organization All-Star.
"It was a solid year for him," McLeod said. "He and Struck were battling it out for Pitcher of the Year. Classic three-pitch pitcher. Once he got to Double-A, he got a lot of strikes and was keeping hitters off-balance."
Reliever -- Frank Batista, Tennessee (43 games), Iowa (six games): Another returnee to this squad, Batista notched a system-leading 24 saves. The 23-year-old right-hander held opponents to a .213 batting average and struck out 44 over 60 1/3 innings to earn Southern League midseason All-Star honors.
"Frank is an aggressive guy. He's another guy that doesn't have electric stuff, but he's aggressive," McLeod said. "He's good at locating his slider, he can throw it low in the zone to get a hitter to chase. More than anything, he attacks the strike zone and he's not afraid of contact. I heard about him and saw him in Spring Training and could see why he had success in his Minor League career."