WTNYOctober 18, 2004
Cubs Winter (1 of 2)
By Bryan Smith

Sending players to winter league baseball offers numerous perks for Major League organizations. You can get more work for players that were injured, or get perspective on just how good a player is. You can decide where a player fits in your scheme of things, or even send your first round draft picks there. Today, I will evaluate five Cubs players that are fighting for 40-man spots, or risking to be unprotected for Decembers Rule 5 draft.

First, here are the eligibility rules for the draft, as told by Rob Neyer in the always-valuable Transaction Primer:


A player not on a team's Major League 40-man roster is eligible for the Rule 5 draft if: the player was 18 or younger when he first signed a pro contract and this is the fourth Rule 5 draft since he signed, OR if he was 19 or older when he first signed a pro contract and this is the third Rule 5 draft since he signed.

First, lets look at the current state of the Cubs 40-man, which encompasses 39 players, and two on the 60-day DL (Borowski, Hollandsworth). Most recently, southpaws John Koronka and Will Ohman were added to the list. Both left-handers spent the entire season in Iowa, putting together solid seasons, convincing Cubs brass to protect their rights.

Ohman was highly thought of after putting together a solid 2000 season in AA, culminating in a brief stint in the Majors. In 59 appearances, Ohman had a 1.89 ERA, posting a solid K/9 to boot. He spent 2002 and 2003 on the DL, only to return to AAA this season. In 52.1 innings, Ohman put together a 4.30 ERA with 75 strikeouts. Koronka, acquired from the Reds for Phil Norton, had a 4.34 ERA while starting all season. His peripheral numbers were nearly identical from 2002-2004, with a H/9 around 10.00, and a K/9 of about 6.50. Are these players worth keeping?

Another question mark comes from Carlos Vasquez, a 21-year-old right-hander from Venezuela that spent all season in Daytona. If unprotected, Vasquez could fall victim to being drafted in the Rule 5 draft. But, after posting a H/9 of 10.80 in the FSL, the chance of a team taking a flyer isnt great.

Battling Ohman and Koronka for the 40-man LOOGY spots will be Russ Rohlicek, formerly acquired from the Houston Astros for Tom Gordon. This season, the 6-5 southpaw put together a season similar to Ohmans 2000: 2.02 ERA, 5.74 H/9, too many walks. His lack of control, and inability to have a K/9 over 9.00, has raised questions on his future with the organization. So far in the AFL, Rohlicek has struck out 8 in 5.2 innings, although he has surrendered 9 hits and 4 walks.

Of the four winter league position-players Ill talk about today, only one is currently on the 40-man: Ronny Cedeno. A great defensive infielder, Cedeno has never played 120 games in a season. Furthermore, this season was the first since 2001 where Cedeno hit over .220, after hitting .350 in the Arizona League. This year, his line of .279/.328/.401 is definitely not enough to be protected, and must convince the Cubs front office otherwise in the AFL. Hes doing so thus far, putting together a line of .364/.440/.500 in 22 at-bats.

Cedenos primary infielder competitor is Matt Craig, a third-round pick in the 2002 draft from the University of Richmond. In his second full season of professional baseball, Craig hit a solid .275/.363/.509 in the pitcher-friendly Southern League. Primarily a third basemen, I love the fact that Craigs ISO jumped to .234 this season. While he completely lacks the athleticism to play other positions on the diamond, Id love to see what Craig does in Iowa next year. Definitely more so than Ronny Cedeno.

Two other players from that West Tenn AA roster that will compete for spots are Adam Greenberg and Geovony Soto. Chosen six rounds after Craig in that 2002 draft, Greenbergs line of .295/.385/.415 in the FSL stayed consistent from 2003-2004. And that, solid plate discipline and no power, is what Greenberg offers as an outfielder. He also offers decent speed, going about 25/35 each of the last two seasons. But does that kind of player have a future in this franchise?

The Cubs system isnt exactly flush in catching prospects, so you can understand their reluctance to open the possibility of losing Geovany Soto. A 21-year-old Puerto Rican catcher, Soto put together a decent .271/.355/.401 line in the Southern League. This isnt very far from Greenbergs line in Daytona, and hes three years younger and plays a much more valuable position. But, he had been terrible in 2003, so the Cubs arent sure which Soto to believe in. So, hell play in the AFL (4/17 so far), and then follow that up with some games in the Dominican League.

If I was Oneri Fleita, I would protect Rohlicek rather than Will Ohman, as hes a lot more projectable. I would also drop Cedeno and Vasquez from the 40-man, and take the risk that neither will be selected and kept in the Rule 5 draft. I would leave all three other players unprotected, gambling that none are good enough to hang around the Majors all season long. That leaves 37 men on the 40-man, leaving room for all the free agents I want the club to sign this offseason.

Comments

I didn't realize Soto hit so well; that's not a bad line for a young catcher, I'd guess.

No, that's a pretty good line for a catcher, on the outside. But I did a little investigative research today, and found these month-by-month batting average splits:

April: .280 (14/50)
May: .224 (15/67)
June: .242 (15/62)
July: .357 (25/70)
August:.250 (18/72)
Sept.: .273 (3/11)

So, for most of the season, Soto proved to be just about a .250 hitter, or what he's been most of his career. But for July, Soto turned into a hitting machine, and dragged his season average up past .270.

Furthermore, I did some research on his defense behind the plate. Amazingly, baserunners attempted 100 stolen bases on Soto this year, nearly one per game. He threw out 39% of these would-be stealers, a pretty good percentage overall. This includes a May where he only threw out 3/17.

In conclusion, I think this 'research' tells me that Soto isn't the hitter he proved this year, and is pretty good behind the plate. He's still just 21, but my hope in him to blossom slightly declined today.

Everything I've heard about Soto is that he's excellent defensively but only projects as a Major League backup catcher because of question marks over his hitting.

Here's a good article on Cub hitting prospects:
http://www.northsidebaseball.com/Articles/ArticleText.php?ArticleID=62

John--
Thanks for mentioning the NSB article, it's funny the Cubs actually could associate the word 'depth' with their catching prospects, seeing as how it was so depleted two years ago. With that being said, they are far from actually having a player worth something behind the dish.

Not to question the article's credibility, but the Diamond Jaxx day-by-day box scores had Soto hitting .357 in July, a far cry from their reported .406. If one month, and particularly a 15/28 eight-game stretch, makes a season, is there something to get excited about?

Yes, Soto is young, and maybe he is a .270 hitter after all. But show me a bit more consistency to make me believe. I'll take Tony Richie.

for every player the cubs "pick up" this off-season via FA, another player will fall off via the same route (or through a trade). I am not so sure that the cubs need to worry about making room for FA's because of this.