Cubs’ prospects review: Vogelbach, Blackburn, Johnson, Soler

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cubsWith the recent promotion of 2B/CF Arismendy Alcantara to the Cubs, and the positive early returns, Cubs’ prospect watching has taken on more excitement.  Today, we are featuring the most likely player in the system to serve as the Cubs’ designated hitter if the National League, as has been rumored, adopts this rule.  We will also feature two blue-chip prospects who have recently returned from injuries and another prospect who is putting together a solid season at a lower level of the system.

Let’s get to work:

1B/DH Dan Vogelbach:  A second round pick in the 2011 draft, Vogelbach lost thirty pounds during the offseason from his listed 250 pound frame to try to make himself a more viable defensive player and shed the “DH only” label that had been fastened to him.  The results have been positive, as Vogelbach has a career-high .994 fielding percentage in the 63 games he has played at first base this season for High A Daytona.  He has been used as a designated hitter on 23 occasions.

vogelbach

Vogelbach’s hitting production has regressed marginally from his first two seasons in the Cubs system, largely attributable to an awful start this season.  In 359 plate appearances through Saturday, Vogelbach was averaging .274  with 21 doubles, eight home runs, 44 RBI and 43 BB.  His OPB was .365 and slugging percentage .426.

The slugger whose compact swing and ability to hit with power to all fields has earned him the distinction as  one of the best pure hitters in the Cubs’ system is tied for fifth in doubles in the Florida State League, tied for seventh in homers, is 12th in RBI and tied for third in walks.

In 500 plate appearances for Low A Kane County last season, Vogelbach hit .284 with 21 doubles, 17 homers, 56 walks, 71 RBI a .364 OBP and a .450 slugging percentage.  While he will likely finish with fewer homes than last season, Vogelbach will easily eclipse last season’s doubles total, is walking at a higher percentage this season and could raise his average over the next couple of months to or above last season’s .284.

While it is highly unlikely that Vogelbach will ever displace starting Cubs 1B Anthony Rizzo, he could be a viable designated hitter for the Cubs if the National League adopts that rule.  Otherwise, due to his defensive limitations–he has never played a position other than 1b–Vogelbach could have excellent trade value to an American League team.

RHP Paul Blackburn:  While Vogelbach was losing weight this offseason, Blackburn, a 2012 first round selection, added fifty pounds to his previously lean frame in order to gain strength and stamina.  It appears the physical transformation has paid off for Blackburn, 21.

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Blackburn has appeared in 16 games for Kane County, all starts, and has fashioned a record of 8-2 with a 2.79 ERA and an exceptional WHIP of 1.079.  In 80.2 innings, he has yielded 67 hits (four homers) and 21 walks while fanning 61.  While his SO/9 innings of 6.8 is slightly below the 7.4 that he recorded at short-season Boise last year, his ancillary numbers have improved in every other category.

His BB/9 innings has been reduced from 5.7 to 2.3; his SO/BB ratio has improved from 1.31 to 2.90; and his H/9 innings has dropped from 8.0 to 7.5.

Scouts laud Blackburn’s change-up and sinking 90-93 MPH fastball, predicting that it will induce a lot of ground-balls.  They also believe his athleticism will allow him to complete his delivery repeatedly without deviation.  In a system replete with hitting prospects, Blackburn has an opportunity to establish himself as a viable pitching prospect moving forward.

RHP Pierce Johnson:  The lanky Johnson, also a first-round pick in 2012, has been plagued by hamstring and calf injuries after a dominant 2013 campaign that earned him a place among MLB.com’s top 100 prospects before this season.

Now healthy, Johnson, 23, is pitching for AA Tennessee.  A strong finish by Johnson could lead to a promotion to AAA next season.

In 9 games (8 starts) for Tennessee, Johnson has produced a 3.74 ERA and 1.385 WHIP.  In 43.1 innings, he has yielded only 28 hits and fanned 38, but he has allowed 32 walks.  Last season, in 23 games (21 starts) between Kane County and Daytona, Johnson tossed 118.1 innings and allowed 103 hits and just 43 walks while fanning 124.  His WHIP was 1.285 and ERA 2.74.

While Johnson’s H/9 innings is down from 8.3 to 5.8, his BB/9 has doubled from 3.3 to 6.6, his SO/9 has dropped from 9.4 to 7.9 and his SO/BB ratio has plummeted from 2.88 to 1.19.

Part of Johnson’s struggles might be attributable to injuries and the fact that they have kept him from getting into a consistent rhythm, and he is also pitching at a higher level this season.

pierce

Johnson’s pitching arsenal still portends well for his future in the organization.  His four-seam fastball sits between 91 and 94 MPH and bores in on right-handed hitters.  He has a cut fastball used to induce weak contact and a developing change-up that registers in the low 80’s.  Johnson’s best pitch is a slider whose velocity is also in the low 80’s.  Better control and command are the areas Johnson must improve upon to realize his talent.

RF Jorge Soler:  Soler, also ranked among MLB.com’s top 100 prospects before this season and beset by injuries, is finally healthy and is crushing Southern League pitching for AA Tennessee.

Soler was legging out a double for Tennessee in his first at bat this season when he injured his left hamstring.  After missing several weeks, he returned and was producing solid numbers when he tweaked his right hamstring.  These injuries followed his 2013 season, which was cut several months short after he suffered a stress fracture to his left tibia.

Before returning to Tennessee, Soler participated in a fitness program to promote “better muscular balance,” according to the Cubs.

The results have apparently paid off.  In 52 plate appearances, Soler is hitting .426 with a .491 OBP and .936 slugging percentage.  He’s walloped nine doubles and five homers and has 17 RBI.

In 237 plate appearances for Daytona last season, Soler averaged .281 with a .343 OBP and a .467 slugging percentage.  He belted 13 doubles and eight home runs, produced 35 RBI and stole five bases in six attempts.

soler

The former Cuban National Team standout, just 22, sports some of the most impressive raw power among all minor league prospects.  Soler will likely finish out the season at Tennessee and start next year at AAA Iowa.

Check back next week as we continue our Cubs’ prospects analysis.

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