I braved the 50 degree spring and went to the minor league opener for the Kane County Cougars to do some amateur (in ability not level) scouting of my own. I had only planned to go for one reason, the Chicago Cubs prospects, including their top young pitching prospect, Pierce Johnson. I knew I was going to get see the “big-boned” 1B Dan Vogelbach, but he was a side reason for going. I was amazingly and pleasantly surprised with the glut of talent I was treated to at the Low-A ballpark.
The two prospects I had planned to see originally, Johnson and Vogelbach, had mixed nights. Vogelbach showed a little bit of a his nice hit tool and power, despite the cold night. He looked like he has lost some weight since he was drafted which is definitely something he could have used since his draft height/weight was 6’0″ 250…on a good day.
Pierce Johnson on the other hand had an absolutely horrid night. I expected to see a fastball in the mid to low 90’s with a nasty curveball (reported to be the best curveball in the 2012 MLB draft) and a developing changeup. Unfortunately, it looks like Johnson was still in pre-season form and not rounding into mid-season form yet. He only walked 1 batter, which was encouraging, but he fell behind in the count often and was lacking timely strikes. The manager of the Cougars, Mark Johnson yanked Pierce after 2.1 innings and a disastrous 2nd inning where he was helped in giving up 5 runs. The defense at shortstop wasn’t particularly strong tonight, but Pierce didn’t have his best stuff either way. One mechanical thing of note that he will need to work on is pitching from the stretch. When he is forced to pitch from the stretch he still has a HIGH leg kick and that really slows down his time to the plate, major league base runners will eat him alive with a huge success rate on steals from 1st to 2nd.
For Cubs fans that may have kept their ear close to the ground in spring training, you may have heard of a little known 18-year old New Yorker named Jeimer Candelario. He is a 3B prospect that has opened some eyes with his play on defense as well as the pop off the bat that he has, despite being such a young prospect. He would do well to add a few pounds, especially to augment his power tool and make it project even better. He was playing 3B for the Kane County Cougars and looked promising to me crude scouting eye. He made a few nice throws look routine and had a decent night at the plate on a cold evening that was limiting power. He went 1 for 3 with a walk and a run scored.
The Cougars played the Quad Cities River Bandits, a Low-A affiliate of the Houston Astros. The most exciting prospect that I got to see will be revealed later, but the Astro’s young pitcher made a much more impressive start than the man I was there to see originally. Vincent Velasquez was drafted in 2010 by the Houston Astros and unfortunately missed all of 2011 with the dreaded elbow injury requiring Tommy John’s Surgery. After taking 2012 to come back from the injury, he looks to be back to form. He was scraping 92 mph on the stadium gun (not particularly reliable I’m sure) and was hitting his spots in the zone. He ended up pitching 5 innings with 4 K and 2 ER. Not bad for a first outing of the year and it looked much more impressive than the stats showed.
The most pleasant of all possible surprises for a prospect junkie like myself was to witness the hitting display put on by Carlos Correa. He was playing shortstop for the River Bandits and made more than one nifty play in the field, but his bat was must see action. Correa ended the night 2 for 5 with 3 RBI and 2 strikeouts. He looked aggressive and powerful in the box despite his slight frame as a young shortstop in Low-A ball. He likely could have taken 1 or 2 walks but looked like he was more focused on making contact in his first outing. He raked a 2-run double down the 3B line in the 2nd inning, when Pierce Johnson gave up 5 runs and was subsequently removed. In his next at bat he found another RBI when he lined a ball that barely bounced once in the infield and headed right past the 2nd baseman. He was in control and looked smooth on the cold night and could one day be an all-star shortstop with a bat that plays that well. The biggest thing that makes me think this is that I can tell how hard he will work. After one particularly bad strikeout where he was fooled by a pitch in the dirt after making solid, albeit foul, contact with 4 straight pitches, I saw him on the brink of throwing his batting helmet into the dugout. That desire not to fail, if channeled correctly, is exactly what he will need to force the Astros’ hand and bring him up next season.
They all paled in comparison to one man though, and he didn’t even play particularly well. The designated hitter…Rock Shoulders. Yes, you read that right, a hitter in baseball named Rock Shoulders, there could be no better name. The highlight of the game was his 2-run jack in the 4th off of a rolling Velasquez. Once the sun went down, the temperature dropped with it and the power numbers got even worse. Even in a small stadium in Low-A where the fence is a mere 335 feet from home plate, Rock crushed a ball that died in the air and made it a good 336 feet. He has a name that was made for chanting at the ballpark.
Overall it was a great experience and I could see myself attending way too many Cougars’ games this season. I hope you enjoyed my VERY amateur scouting and you might even see it improve as I look for the courage to go hang out with the scouts in the seats behind home plate. There were at least 3, likely scouting players like Dan Vogelbach and Jeimer Candelario who don’t project to have a spot on the Chicago Cubs. Rock Shoulders…it really doesn’t get any better than that does it?