In news earlier this week, the Cubs announced who they are sending to the Arizona Fall League. From AA Tennessee, the list includes: Pierce Johnson, Corey Black, Rob Zastryzny, Jeimer Candelario, and Willson Contreras. Meanwhile, Mark Zagunis, and David Garner will be joining them from high-A Myrtle Beach. In looking at these eight players, I think the Cubs have four different things in mind. First and foremost, they’re going to evaluate their own players. What they’re evaluating, however, differs from player to player.
Help in 2016
Pierce Johnson is the most advanced of the Cubs’ pitching prospects. This year he was assigned to AA Tennessee, where he missed the first two months of the season with a lat injury. The 6’3” 200-pound righty out of Missouri State will turn 25 next spring and is also Rule 5 eligible this winter. He’s close to being as fully developed as he can be, but his 3 walks per 9 innings this year is a little concerning.
However, on the year, Johnson went 6-2 with a 2.02 ERA. He has learned to work around the walks and hitters only hit .223 off him while he maintained a WHIP of 1.14. I think Johnson could be a candidate for the fifth starter spot in 2016. On the other hand, he has never been healthy enough to pitch more than 118 innings as a pro. The Cubs could be looking at using the AFL to get him some more innings and to evaluate his long-term future with the club.
Well, what do we have here?
David Garner, Mark Zagunis, and Cael Brockmeyer are heading to the playoffs with Myrtle Beach before they head to Arizona. Garner had a breakout year as a reliever at Myrtle Beach after struggling during his first full year in 2014. In 15 appearances at Myrtle Beach, Garner had a 2.45 ERA and showed a power fastball to anchor his arsenal. Zagunis hit near .300 for most of the year until a disastrous slump in July dropped him down in the .270’s (which is high for the Carolina League – 9th place), but it is his eye that catches a scout’s eye.
For the year Zagunis has an OBP of .405! The converted catcher showed some power in the pitcher’s league with 8 HRs in 113 games. Cael Brockmeyer was an All-Star at South Bend in the first half of 2015 and then was a yo-yo in July playing at Myrtle Beach, Iowa, and Tennessee. He is known as a defensive catcher despite his 6’5” frame. I like him as a player and a leader. He can manage a game from behind the plate. He does have some power and can hit for average, like he did at South Bend.
Arizona should prove a challenge for all three players, but I think they will do fine. Garner will be challenged the most, while Brockmeyer — having played at AA and AAA this summer — will be the least affected. Zagunis should do well, too, as he has a great eye at the plate. In sending them to Arizona, the Cubs are likely just evaluating them against high competition. I, for one, thought Zagunis should have been promoted in July. I think defensively, the Cubs are actually going to look and see how Brockmeyer can do with more advanced pitchers.
Rule 5, trade, or keep
Both Jeimer Candelario and Willson Contreras are eligible for the Rule 5 draft in December. Along with Pierce Johnson, I think all three players will earn a spot. Contreras is a bit of surprise this year, as he had never hit above .273 before AA. In the past, Contreras was just a catcher learning a new position and his bat was thought to just lag behind his natural athletic skills.
Candelario, meanwhile, put it together in 2015 after being reassigned in 2014 from high-A to low-A. Only 21, Candelario will be at AAA next year and the switch-hitting corner man is highly thought of within the organization and valued by others. I think both players will get spots on the 40-man roster this Fall. Whether they get traded this winter is another story for another day.
Re-evaluate to just keep in the system
To say a couple of these guys had poor years would be accurate. Corey Black transitioned from a starter to a reliever in hopes of making it to the big leagues faster. It didn’t work out very well. In the second half, he has an ERA of 8.00+ out of the pen. He is in Arizona to get more work converting to a reliever, and the Cubs are going determine whether to keep him. A Rule 5-eligible player, I doubt he gets put on the 40-man roster; I think he will be exposed and I doubt he gets selected with his troubles this year. He works hard and should recover and be better next year.
Meanwhile, Rob Zastryzny battled injuries to put in only 15 starts with an ERA over 6. The 2013 second round pick out of Missouri will likely be back at Tennessee in 2016. Starting left-handers don’t grow on trees in the Cubs system. The Cubs are likely using Arizona to get him some more work, but it is equally possible they might be assessing his long term future, the same as Black. I think both players will be back in the system in 2016.
It will be interesting to see how they will do this Fall, which is something I like about the minor leagues. The season may end tomorrow, but there is always more time to develop. It could be Winter leagues in the Caribbean, the Arizona Fall League, or Fall Instructs, but the Cubs are pushing their players to improve beyond the season.