Cubs

Cubs prospect notes: Vogelbach, Alcantara and Pierce Johnson

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Cubs prospect notes: Vogelbach, Alcantara and Pierce Johnson

As The Plan comes to fruition in Chicago, it's easy for Cubs fans to wonder what - or who- is next.

Kris Bryant and Addison Russell are already up. Javier Baez is back on track at Iowa. Carl Edwards Jr. (formerly C.J. Edwards) is adjusting well to his new bullpen role with a 2.66 ERA and 13.7 K/9.

Joe Maddon already said Kyle Schwarber - who is posting a 1.020 OPS in 42 games at Double-A this season - could be a bat that helps the Cubs late in 2015.

But what about Dan Vogelbach? Pierce Johnson? Arismendy Alcantara?

All three guys have made a name for themselves as under-the-radar prospects in the Cubs system.

[RELATED - Cubs see Addison Russell taking a big step forward]

Vogelbach is enjoying a breakout season with Double-A Tennessee, creating a bash brothers duo with Schwarber at the plate.

Vogelbach, 22, has posted a .320/.436/.497 slash line entering play Thursday, with a whopping 32 walks and only 38 strikeouts in 43 games. He also has 17 extra-base hits (12 doubles, one triple, four homers), 24 RBI and 21 runs.

The bat has never really been the problem for Vogelbach, who has an .865 OPS across his minor-league career since being taken in the second round of the 2011 MLB Draft (just after the Cubs selected Baez).

Vogelbach is listed at 6-foot, 250 pounds and with Anthony Rizzo locked up through at least 2019 at first base in Chicago, some wonder if Vogelbach could move to the outfield.

Cubs senior vice president of scouting and player development Jason McLeod shut that down Wednesday at Wrigley Field.

"With the mobility and only being a first baseman, we're not considering [a switch to the outfield] at this time," Jason McLeod said. "He's another kid who's had a phenomenal start to the season these first two months.

"Our plan is to leave him where he is, doing what he's doing right now."

The same can be said for Pierce Johnson, the injured right-hander considered to be one of the Cubs' Top 2 or 3 pitching prospects in the system.

[RELATED - Why Cubs think Javier Baez is in a good place in Iowa]

Johnson, 24, was shut down in spring training with a strained lat muscle and still has yet to report to a minor-league team while the Cubs try to get his back to cooperate.

McLeod said the Cubs are aiming for the first week of June for Johnson to rejoin Double-A Tennessee.

"He's been throwing down in extended spring training," McLeod said. "It's been a longer process than we had hoped with lower back soreness. But knock on wood right now, he'll be out early June."

Johnson has had trouble staying healthy since the Cubs took him in the supplemental first round of the Draft in 2012. He has only appeared in 49 games (46 starts) in his four pro seasons, tossing a combined 232 innings.

Johnson has had success when he has been on the mound, with a 16-11 record, 2.68 ERA and 9.2 K/9 throughout his career. Like Edwards, he could have been an option for a bullpen boost in Chicago late this season before the back injury erased the first two months of the campaign.

Alcantara began the season in Chicago, but had just one hit in 26 at-bats and was sent back down to Triple-A Iowa to right the ship.

That's exactly what he's been doing lately, with a .333 average and .973 OPS the last 10 games, including seven runs, two homers, five walks and a pair of stolen bases.

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The 23-year-old has lived up to his versatility again, moving all over the diamond with games at second, short, third, left field and center field for Iowa.

There may not be a chance for everyday playing time in the big leagues (especially depending on Baez's situation), but the Cubs view Alcantara as another guy who could provide a boost late in the season serving in a utility role.

"I think 'Mendy' is a guy, with his twitchiness and his athleticism, who can move around," McLeod said. "I think with him, coming up here last year, probably not expecting to be up here on a major-league team, I think it was a whirlwind for him. Certainly an eye-opening experience."

"Probably his confidence [suffered]; he was probably doubting himself a little bit. That's really what we're working with him on - believe in yourself, believe in your talent. And I think he'll come back up here later on."

Cubs still owning second place in the NL All-Star vote standings

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USA TODAY

Cubs still owning second place in the NL All-Star vote standings

One Cubs player is within shouting distance of starting at the 2018 MLB All-Star game. But this time around, as compared to last week, the vote deficit is a bit larger.

MLB updated its second round of All-Star ballots for the National League. Catcher Willson Contreras trails Giants catcher Buster Posey by 90,000 votes. The margin was only 22,000 votes at this time last week.

And for other Cubs players such as Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, Javier Baez and others, the margin is a little more substantial.

Rizzo is behind Braves first basemen Freddie Freeman by nearly 870,000 votes. Baez trails Braves second basemen Ozzie Albies by 148,000 votes.

Bryant trails Rockies third basemen Nolan Arenado by 447,000 votes. At shortstop, Addison Russell is in third place, trailing the Dansby Swanson of the Braves and Giants shortstop Brandon Crawford.

In the outfield, Jason Heyward moved up to the seventh spot with 447,359 votes, dropping Kyle Schwarber to eighth with 442,471 votes, and Ben Zobrist ranks ninth with 434,943 votes.

There will be another All-Star ballot update for the NL next Monday, and voting ends on July 5 at 11 p.m. Central.

 

Addison Russell may be polarizing, but he's also one of the Cubs' most important players

Addison Russell may be polarizing, but he's also one of the Cubs' most important players

ST. LOUIS — Addison Russell is the most polarizing player on the 2018 Cubs.

Now that Jason Heyward has found his groove again at the plate, Ian Happ isn't striking out every other at-bat and Yu Darvish has spent the last month on the disabled list, it's Russell's cross to bear.

Mind you, Russell is still 24 and far from a finished product as a Major League Baseball player.

But he's had such an up-and-down run with the Cubs over the last year and a half, ever since the 2016 World Series. That includes an accusation of domestic violence last spring, though Russell denited it and MLB's investigation into the matter ended when his ex-wife declined to participate with the league.

This is the guy who collected 4 hits in the weekend series in St. Louis, including a pair of doubles, a homer and 2 walks. He's also hitting .333 with a .395 on-base percentage and .882 OPS in June.

But then again, this is also the same guy who had throwing issues in the sixth and eighth innings Sunday night (including not throwing to third base for the force out in the sixth inning) and struck out looking with runners on second and third and only one out Saturday night.

Russell currently boasts career best marks in walk rate, strikeout rate, batting average, on-base percentage, line drive rate and opposite field hit percentage. He's also sporting a 104 wRC+ (which measures runs created per plate appearance and takes into account league and park factors, with 100 being average), which is the best mark of his career.

All told, Russell is in the midst of his best offensive season. 

Then again, he still only has a .744 OPS and is on pace for just 7 homers and 38 RBI, down numbers for a guy who hit 21 bombs with 95 RBI as a 22-year-old in 2016.

Over the weekend in St. Louis, Russell said he feels good at the plate, both mentally and physically. He liked where his head was at and can feel the progression he's made as a hitter since last season.

With or without Javy Baez (who just took a 90 mph fastball off the elbow in Sunday night's game), Russell is one of the Cubs' most important players.

He's so integral to what the Cubs do on defense and currently ranks as the second-best defender in baseball with 13 Defensive Runs Saved, behind only Oakland's Matt Chapman.

Russell also has the power to completely change the landscape of a Cubs lineup that is still searching for consistency on a daily basis.

Right now, he's doing exactly what the Cubs want him to do at the plate: Walking more, striking out less and using the whole field.

"When he came in after that line drive down the right-field line [Friday], I gave him a high five twice," Joe Maddon said. "That's the whole thing with these young hitters that we have. As they learn the opposite field on a consistent basis, they'll be able to sustain high numbers. They'll also be able to sustain high walk rates.

"When you're doing that, you're giving yourself more time to make a decision. Ball inside that you're pulling, you have a longer swing to get to with less time to make up your mind. Ball away that you're gonna go the other way with, you have a shorter swing to get to it with more time to make a decision. 

"It's all part of the equation. As our guys learn the value of the middle and opposite field from a hitter's perspective, their numbers are going to continue to increase."

As it stands right now, Russell is a Gold Glove caliber shortstop with a .277 batting average and .351 on-base percentage. That's a pretty solid player, even with the low power.

With the way the Cubs' roster is currently constructed, Russell will play a huge part in whether or not the Cubs can win their second World Series in a three-year span.

But he will also have to continue to maneuver through the mental hurdle of seeing his name thrown about as part of trade rumors this summer (and possibly beyond). And he'll have to stay mentally checked in during every at-bat or play in the field.

Russell's main takeaway roughly 40 percent of the way through the 2018 campaign?

"That it's a long season," he said. "We had a really good run in 2015, '16 and '17 as well, but this year, I'm really taking my time.

"Patience is the real thing in the clubhouse — on the road, at home, doing my routine, knowing that it's all gonna work out over time."