Chicago Cubs’ prospects Albert Almora, Kris Bryant showing promise

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In continuing our overview of the Chicago Cubs’ minor league system, last week we profiled several players on the rosters of the Iowa Cubs, Tennessee Smokies and Daytona Cubs.  Today, we evaluate three prospects playing for the Cubs’ lower tier minor league teams of Kane County or Boise.
Kane County:
Albert Almora:  CF Almora, 19,  carries the distinction of being the initial first round selection made by the Theo Epstein regime after it took over the Cubs’ baseball operations in the Fall of 2011.  The player with elite fielding and hitting instincts has certainly not disappointed the Cubs’ brass.  Almora has established a reputation as a team leader, not of the vocal variety but one who comports himself so professionally and prepares so diligently that he gains the respect of teammates.  He hits the ball to all fields effectively and gets a tremendous jump on balls hit to the outfield to compensate for his lack of blazing speed.  In 172 defensive chances, Almora has committed just two errors, and his seven outfield assists evince a strong and accurate throwing arm.
Almora split last season between the Cubs’ Arizona Rookie League team and Boise of the short-season Northwest League.  In 145 plate appearances, the slender-framed right-handed hitter combined to bat .321 with two home runs, nineteen RBI and twelve doubles.  On the downside, he walked only twice even if he struck out just thirteen times.  His start to 2013 was delayed by a hand injury, but he has improved in every offensive department since beginning the year at Kane County.  In 272 plate appearances, Almora is batting .329 with three homers, 23 RBI, seventeen doubles and four triples.  He has walked seventeen times while limiting his strikeouts to 30.  His on-base-percentage (OBP) has spiked from .331 to .376 and his slugging percentage has inched up from .464 to .466.  One area of his game that Almora needs to burnish is his base stealing ability.  In 94 games, he has attempted only fifteen steals, nine successfully.
Michael Heesch:  LH starting pitcher Heesch has regressed as the season as wound down.  Despite having a less-than-dominant fastball that ranges between 88 and 91 MPH, the eight round selection in last year’s draft quickly developed a reputation as a pitcher with outstanding command.  In 25.2 innings for Boise and the Arizona League Cubs, Heesch walked only one batter while fanning 22 last season.  He did allow 26 hits but no home runs and produced an ERA of 2.45 and a WHIP of 1.052  to complement a record of 3-1 pitching exclusively out of the bullpen.
This season, although run support has been scarce, Heesch got off to a fantastic start.  However, in five of his last eight outings, all starts, his game ERA has exceeded his season ERA of 4.03.  Overall, Heesch has appeared in nineteen games (seventeen starts) and 102.2 innings.  He has yielded 114 hits but only three home runs.  He has walked 29 and fanned 56.  While his walks-per nine-innings remains relatively low at 2.5, his strikeouts-per-nine-innings has dipped from 7.7 last season to 4.9.  His WHIP sits at a mediocre 1.393.
Heesch has several positive attributes that suggest a bright future, including good natural movement on his pitches and a quality slider and fastball.  He also works with a fast tempo on the mound that will likely keep his defense fresh and focused.  With about one month left in the season, we will have to see if Heesch can churn out a few good starts heading into the offseason.
Kris Bryant:  3B Bryant, 21 and a right-handed hitter, could not have had a more inauspicious debut in the Cubs’ system.  After the 2013 first-round pick signed with the Cubs on July 12, he played his first game for the Arizona League Cubs, where he went 0-3 with three errors.  But that hiccup did not dissuade the Cubs from promoting Bryant to Boise after only two games and seven plate appearances.  With Boise, the 6’5 Bryant has begun featuring the offensive prowess that had Cubs’ manager Dale Sveum boasting that his team had acquired the best hitter in the draft.  Bryant, who played at The University of San Diego, clubbed 31 homers, nine more than the runner up, in addition to hitting .329 and driving in 62 runs in his final college season.  Various Cubs’ personnel noted that the new BBCOR bats being used in college that make it more difficult to drive the ball and hit home runs convinced them that there was nothing cheap or misleading about Bryant’s production.
In 54 plate appearances for Boise, Bryant has fourteen hits, eight of them for extra bases (five doubles and three home runs), and has driven in eleven runs.  His batting average is .292, his OBP .353 and slugging percentage a muscular .583.  He has committed just one error in 36 defensive chances.
Scouting reports vary from effusively praiseworthy to skeptical on Bryant’s future.  The skeptics question whether he has sufficient bat speed and doubt whether he can play third base.  The advocates site that same bat speed as the main reason they think he will excel in the major leagues and contend that he can seamlessly adjust to the outfield but also perform well at third base.  While he has many rungs to climb before we know whose assessments are correct, so far Bryant is off to a good start.
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