To Arms; To Arms - The I-Cubs Are Coming!

I had a nice chat before Jeff Samardzija's return engagement in Des Moines Saturday night with I-Cub pitching coach Mike Mason. We talked about Jose Ascanio's pitch counts, Samardzija's repertoire, the organization's pitcher pecking order and the effect, if any, of yo-yoing between the bullpen in Chicago and the rotation in Des Moines on young arms and minds.

Ascanio was the first order of business. It took him until his 6th start to record a win, despite a 1.01 ERA, because his pitch count leash was still so short. After a high-water mark of 81 two starts ago, he'd been pulled after 76 last time out even though he fanned the side in the 4th and 5th, his last two innings of work. Why wasn't he allowed to come out for the 6th?

"He was still closing in winter ball," Mason noted. "When the decision was made in camp to start him this year, the plan was to give him a couple starts at each pitch count level - 60, 70, 80 - as he went along and see how he handled it. The other day we figured why trot him out for the 6th just to pull him after half a dozen more pitches."

Mason had lots more to say about Ascanio before Chad Fox's elbow came undone again later that same night in Milwaukee. I asked him if the organization saw Jose as a pleasant surprise at this point.

"Pleasant is a huge understatement. He's done way better than expected," he grinned. "All along the thought was that the [Chicago] Cubs' 6th starter would come from the organization, but nobody thought 'Hosie' was the guy. Well, he's the 6th starter now. He's passed Atkins."

What about Samardzija? Passed him too?

"Ascanio is a four pitch guy. He throws a curve, a slider and a change-up that's his best offspeed pitch," Mason said. "Jeff and I are talking about him working to develop a curveball to go with his fastball and split." Apparently Samardzija's change-up isn't the complement yet to his high-nineties heat that Ascanio's is to his.

"'Hosie' used to start with Atlanta through Double A," Mason recounted. "Then he went to relief, but he's been throwing multiple pitches longer than Jeff. Jeff's attitude coming back here is great and he understands what he's got to work on."

Later that night of course, Mason's ranking of the trio of proteges in his care was borne out when Ascanio was summoned to the big leagues in the wake of Fox's latest, and maybe last, breakdown.

Yesterday Atkins responded to his snub with probably his best start of the year in pitching the team to a 9-2 win over Memphis. After a rocky start he settled down to last seven innings, the last six of them scoreless.

I asked Mason about Jeff Stevens, who appears to be the best early dividend of the DeRosa trade, although he won't be filling in at 3rd for Aramis Ramirez as DeRosa could capably have done. Stevens still has a non-existent ERA, having allowed only four hits in 14 innings. Batters are 4-45 against him for a BAA of .088, 3rd best right now in professional baseball among pitchers who've thrown at least 10 innings.

"Jeff's been very good, but he's young and he knows he wouldn't get by in the big leagues with essentially one pitch like he is here right now," said Mason. "Down the line if the bullpen keeps struggling in Chicago, I suppose they might give him a shot, but right now there's probably guys ahead of him." Mason named Kevin Hart as one of those, despite his uneven pattern so far this spring.

What about guys like Ascanio and Samardzija ping-ponging between short relief and starting?

"That's a bigger issue in terms of mental preparation than physical." according to Mason. "And even the physical part might be more with the legs than the arm because you just don't run as much if you're in the pen as you do if you're starting every five days. You have to have a different approach with your legs and your head as much as your arm if you know you might pitch any day you come to the ballpark."

I asked Mason if he mostly carries out orders from above or if he has latitude in how he works with his pitchers at the Triple A level.

"I talk with Larry [Rothschild] all the time, and he might say, like with Jeff [Samardzija], 'he's gotta develop secondary pitches,' but it's up to me what pitches we work on. That's why Jeff and I are talkin' about maybe workin' on a curveball for him. They give me assignments, but it's up to me how I work on them." he explained.

Given the ongoing bullpen turmoil in Chicago it doesn't appear Mason's workload will let up any time soon.

OTHERWISE: Greg Reinhard will start in today's noon matinee in the wake of Ascanio's call-up. In 18 innings out of the bullpen he's compiled a 0.49 ERA with 26 strikeouts and only five BB's...the PCL American North is a nice parallel to the NL Central with Iowa [16-13], Memphis [17-11] and Nashville [17-14] jockeying in the standings like their counterparts in Chicago, St. Louis and Milwaukee...Jake Fox has been day-to-day since catching some broken bat shrapnel on Friday night and taking a few stitches to close a leg wound. He's expected back in the lineup today...catcher Chris Robinson is not only hitting .394, he's also swiped five bases! For what it's worth, he's only nabbed 2/15 stealing against him...couldn't help but notice that the redhead is till red hot. Matt Murton is hitting .411 at Colorado Springs. Sometimes we take our stats with a grain of salt in the PCL...MW

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Comments

Good report from AAA Mike!

Javier Lopez was just DFAed by the Red Sox, he has struggled this year, but has been money for the last three. I wonder if the Cubs will take a look at him.

Iowa Mike, love the AAA Report! Way to get the inside scoop.

Isn't Stevens a little old to be a one-pitch pitcher? Obviously he's got a good fastball with excellent movement to survive just on that.

It's good to get scoop behind the numbers; we hunger to know if the great starts by Ascanio, Stevens, and Reinhard are due to real improvement, or just small sample size

Really excellent stuff, Mike. Thanks.

I thought my BA Prospects handbook said Stevens had 2 pitches. Any more info on what his 2nd pitch is supposed to be, and if they're scrapping it and looking for a different one?

Thanks, Mike!

according to this 2008 scouting report stevens has 4 pitches including a fb between 92-95 and a "whiffle ball" slider: http://www.indiansprospectinsider.com/2008/01/jeff...

I took Mason's comments re: Stevens to mean that he's maybe just over-relying on his fastball here because he's mostly used for one-inning stints & getting good results w/ that. He spoke fondly of Wells, for instance, & expressed the hope, just sentimentally, that somehow things break so he can stay up. Maybe he's battling w/ Stevens about over-reliance on the fastball & not getting through to him. Maybe he's sort of saying, "I don't give a damn how good his numbers are, I'm not gonna recommend him for call-up until/unless he diversifies some more. I've only seen a couple of Stevens' outings & I'm not enough of a scout type to tell you precisely what he was throwing on those occasions...

excellent piece Mike, thanks for the info...

Stevens best pitch seemed to be his curve/slider when I saw him briefly in spring training...Wilken says he's basically a 2-pitch pitcher.

He added that Stevens is primarily a two-pitch pitcher.

“In the last two years, we’ve seen semblance, a fiddling around with the changeup but not a lot,” Wilken said. “It’s been basically fastball, curveball. At times, he seems to dabble in a pitch that you might want to call a slurve-slider, but the curveball is his pitch and he’s got power to it. Whereas I think he had more of a slurve-slider before, he’s kind of tightened it up and throws it pretty hard velocity-wise.

“It’s anywhere from 82 to 86 (mph), and a lot of people say, ‘Well, that can’t be a curveball.’ Yeah, it can, but some people, even though it’s got a curveball break, will refuse to call it one because of the hardness of the velocity. Stan, who is

Ridiculous! I hope I get to see him pitch, if for no other reason to see this 82 MPH curve. Cue up comparisons to Ben Sheet's curveball.

I hope the Cubs get serious about the bullpen. The Cubs need to win some close and come-from-behind games and they can't do that if the bullpen is giving up runs like they're Mexico.

I have no idea what that means, but it sounds raunchy and borderline xenophobic, so I thought it was cool. Yay me.

F'real though... and let's hope we're seeing the start of Bradley's bat warming up, because he's going to have to step it up with our big bats gone (Zambrano & Ramirez). Go Cubs!

Neal Cotts = Montezuma's Revenge?

Yeah, Bradley has the signs of coming out of his year long slump (6 for his last 20 - .300), but the Cubs will need more than even his hot bat to keep pace. With no ARam and Lee MIA, Soriano, K-Fuk, Bradley and Soto are going to need to carry the load. There is just not much room for error with the healthy players on the roster right now.

Mike --

Nice job! Very well done.

Mike W: 23-year old RHRP Blake Parker (2006 16th round pick out of U. of Arkansas) has been moved up from AA Tennessee and will be replacing Jose Ascanio on the I-Cubs roster.

Once a power-hitting C-3B-1B-DH, Parker was converted to pitcher at Fitch Park just about exactly two years ago, and he has developed into a fine righty reliever. At the time he made the move to pitcher, he was the EXST Cubs clean-up hitter and #1 run-producer, but one of the Cubs pitching coaches (I believe it was Tom Pratt) saw Parker fooling around throwing off the mound after an EXST game, and the very next day Parker was a pitcher and he hasn't looked back. I remember the other guys at EXST at that time were shocked to see their former clean-up hitter suddenly throwing off the mound, but obviously the Cubs knew what they were doing.

It's interesting that the Cubs have decided to slide Gregory Reinhard into the starting rotation (at least temporarily), since Jesse Estrada was in the I-Cubs starting rotation right up until the end of minor league camp, while Reinhard was primed to work out of the pen.

Reinhard pitched great in minor league camp, getting good results throwing his fastball-slider-splitter combo (while junking his old slider & straight change), and I'll bet his not getting an NRI to ST (getting squeezed out by Esmailin Caridad, Rocky Roquet, J. R. Mathes, and Brian Schlitter) hurts Reinhard's chances to get a call-up now because Piniella & Rothschild haven't seen him throw, and familiarity from Spring Training does make a difference when the brain-trust decides who gets called up to the big club, especially early in the season. But Reinhard should get a shot before too long. He is a definite big league relief prospect, especially if he can throw strikes with his slider and get swings & misses with his splitter.

Reinhard is eligible for the Rule 5 Draft post-2009, so he will get added to the Cubs 40-man roster sometime this year. It's only a matter of when.

Same goes for LHRP John Gaub, presently at AA Tennessee. Gaub has a mid-90's fastball/power-slider combo that works great against LH hitters, and so he would project as a LOOGY in the big leagues. Unfortunately, guys like Gaub aren't used that way in the minors (they usually just pitch innings, regardless of who the hitters are), so Gaub hasn't had a chance (yet) to be used the way he will eventually be used in the big leagues. But with his history of shoulder problems that goes back to his college days, facing one or two hitters per outing would seem to be the perfect mission for him, since his shoulder doesn't bounce back right away when he throws too many pitches per outing.

If the Cubs want to give Gaub a shot as a LOOGY for a week or two at some point and then find that they need to option him back to the minors, it wouldn't have a negative impact on Gaub's option years because (as of now) he is eligible for four minor league options (he has completed only one "full season" through the 2008 season).

Don't tell Lou that Blake Parker used to be a clean-up hitter. If he finds out he might be the #2 PH off the bench after Z. :)

Thanks for input, Phil. The Reinhard's newfound success is associated with replacing a change with a splitter, and an inferior slider with a revised slider, that helps to explain his success.

I'd assumed he was a minor-league roster filler who happened to have a good month; your comments suggesting that he's definitely a big-league prospect are very encouraging.

Usually I associate slider/splitter guys as groundball pitchers. That is definitely not his profile, he's been a strong flyball pitcher both this year and last.

An article on ESPN.com about Wrigley Field. Not bad, or at least as bad as one would expect from ESPN. Al Yellon gets some pub.

http://sports.espn.go.com/travel/news/story?id=414...

Looks like the trend of kids being named Addison Clark is growing pretty good now. I named one of my twin girls born in December: Addison Clark Scott.

Really interesting stuff, Mike, thanks. A question and some comments.

Q: Did Reinhard's name come up at all? With 1 run and 26K/5BB in 18 innings, those are some notable numbers. (Especially for a guy who's never been that good previously.) Did Mason mention him, or give any indication whether he's a prospect or not?

Some comments on things that surprised me:
1. The notes that Ascanio is a 4-pitch guy. He's been criticized for being too fastball-reliant in past.

2. The comment that Stevens is a 1-pitch guy and is behind hart on the foodchain. Given that Hart has allowed 11 earned runs in 13 innings (less innings than Stevens), that seems rather puzzling. Hart's didn't all come in one game, either; he's been scored on in each of his last three games and in 6 of 12 appearances. I know he can throw fast, but clearly whatever he's throwing for his 2nd-etc. pitches isn't doing much either. As for Stevens, your point is well taken, maybe Stevens is too stubborn to do what he's told and is just succeeding on his fastball, and until he mixes in a second pitch Mason won't support him. I wouldn't have a problem with that. My guess is that Stevens is probably fighting with his breaking ball. He's walked 7 guys in 14 innings, that doesn't seem like the profile for a guy who's all fastball. More like a scenario where a guy is struggling with his breaking pitch, but having success with his fastball, so for now he's really relying on the fastball. Disappointing feedback, whatever. Either it means that mason is a goofball, or else that Stevens has problems . We've seen plenty of Hart and we know Hart has command/location/deception problems; so if Mason views Stevens as an even lesser prospect than Hart, it follows that we probably shouldn't be too excited about Stevens either.

3. The other surprise is the Samardz comment. In past they always talked about him refining his slider, and working on his change. And of course he has the splitter. Talk about teaching him a curve, in addition to needing to come up with a 2nd pitch, that suggests that they are really giving up on his slider. Curves are normally much harder to control than sliders, of course. So I admit I'm not very encouraged that apparently the slider and change look so hopeless and they are starting over with the curve.

I don't understand the Orgin-I-zations insistance on Samjay being a Starter?

Clearly he throws hard and his slider has its moments. Put the kid in the bullpen and let him try to be the best short reliever he can be.

The odds of him learning 2 new MLB quality pitches at age 24 seem alot longer, than the odds that the Cubs coaches end up ruining his arm/confidence and turning him into Chadd Blasko.

Yes, curves are harder to control than sliders, but unless you're Carlos Marmol, Brad Lidge, or Felix Hernandez, they're also harder to hit if you are able to control it.

His slider isn't very good. It's just not. It's got no vertical movement on it whatsoever more often than not.

I imagine he's played around with a curve at some juncture, he probably just wasn't really happy with the results. Maybe if he can get one of the minor league coaches to work with him on it, it'll come around for him. I think it would suit him nicely to have a nice 80-82 power curve to go with the splitty, honestly.

Good points. Certainly true that curves are harder to hit, and that his slider has been quite bad. During the brief period where he was good last year, was his slider working then? Or was that totally fastball/splitter?

If he could come up with a good curve, obviously that would be great.

I guess I'm thinking that if he hasn't made any progress in 4 years with the easier slider, how likely is it that he'll end up with a servicable curve within 4 years, much less four months?

And where is he going to practice it? Last year he'd been fairly lousy for a couple of years, then one good month and Hendry called him up. This year he was fairly lousy all spring, but two effective outings at Iowa and Hendry called him up. I guess I'm thinking that if you're going to come up with a curve that you'll trust and be able to throw for strikes effectively in the majors, that takes some time. Not sure he'll get that time.

I don't recall him ever throwing a good slider. But he can move that fastball around. Throws the straight 4 seamer. Seen a 2 seamer that runs in to righties and maybe even a few cutters that run away. He's obviously got the splitfinger to go with it.

As far as learning new pitches goes, you've obviously got your bullpen sessions on your side day to iron that stuff out. You've just got to get it to serviceable down there before you pull it out in a game. Work the grip out, work the different arm angle out, and work the timing out with your wrist and elbow on the release and then you can start throwing it to hitters. I'd say it'd be a couple more appearances before we see him use a curve in a game, if that's what they're going to do.

Remember that every type of pitch is different. Your grip, mechanics, and even something like finger length all impact different types of pitches in a different way. Just because he can't throw a good slider doesn't mean he can't throw a different pitch well. Just because he's battled with trying to learn a GOOD slider doesn't mean he won't learn a good curve, either. It also doesn't mean that it'll take him 4 years to do it.

On the other hand, he may not ever learn a good curve, and he may not ever learn a good 3rd pitch to go with his asssortment of fastballs. We won't know until he tries.

Cubs minor league roster moves: RHRP Blake Parker and 3B-1B Kyle Reynolds move up to Iowa from Tennessee, and RHRP David Cales (Daytona's closer) and 1B Russ Canzler move up to Tennessee from Daytona. Cales is the third Cubs pitcher selected in the 2008 June draft to get promoted to AA (Jay Jackson and Casey Coleman are the other two).

And no word yet on whether Daytona outfielders Tyler Colvin and/or Tony Campana (both sustained concussions in an outfield collision Saturday and were removed via ambulance to a local hospital) will be going on the DL. Campana was apparently knocked unconcious. Colvin (November 2008 TJS) has started playing outfield at Daytona and will likely get a promotion to Tennessee before too long, presuming he has no lasting ill effects from the concussion. 

He is a native Chicagoan and played high school ball at Mt. Carmel, where a close friend of mine coaches. Coach stated that Cales slider is incredible and, while he has coached a first round draft pick and multiple players drafted in the early rounds, he expects Cales to be the first to reach the majors (Cales was drafted in about the 20th round, I believe). He has been dominant so far this year and it is great he is moving up (even if only temporarily) to AA ball.

Thanks for the info, Phil. The Campana/Colvin collision sounds brutal. I hope they are ok.

And...Kyle Reynolds to AAA? Has batting line is deadly (after a terrible season last year at AA). Is he being sent up there specifically to work with Von Joshua?

And I am excited about Cales, am glad he's moving up.

If Reynolds is solid at third, that may explain the promotion.

After all, is any of the following adept at playing third-- Fontenot, Miles, Scales, Freel, K. Hill?

You can't replace Aramis's bat, but a defensive upgrade would be nice.

Outstanding, Mike. Neither the S-T nor the Trib has even scratched the surface of what you've addressed in such depth here.

Mason's comment that Ascanio "has passed Atkins" is remarkably frank. Mason will probably have to be schooled in the art of equivocation if he gets a job at the Major League level.

Again, wonderful post.

Great article, Mike! Keep cornering those coach/management types.

"if for no other reason to see this 82 MPH curve. Cue up comparisons to Ben Sheet's curveball"

How about the infamous "Eephus" pitch? Always loved when Bill Lee served that one up.

"Matt Murton is hitting .411 at Colorado Springs. Sometimes we take our stats with a grain of salt in the PCL..."

Murton's up with the Rockies now.

I still say the dude can hit. But he's like 50 now, right?

MM's @ .273 w/ the Rocks so far...respective elevations of Co. Springs & Denver? Cubs aren't in the mountains 'til August...

The Cubs say they got good news on Sunday's MRI of first baseman Derrek Lee's neck. Lee is said to be significantly improved and that he did not need an injection. Lee has a bulging disc, which is causing the neck to spasm. The MRI confirmed nothing worse, according to the Cubs, who added Lee was in no danger of serious problems.

Is this good news or bad news? I'm not comfortable with Hoffpauir getting knocked out of the lineup till the league figures him out.

On other blogs I've been sort of ranting about the demise of newspapers and "where are those RSS news feeds gonna come from and who's gonna research and pay for finding out when city hall is corrupt and tell us the governor is a low life squeem boy??" blah blah.

But this fucking site is my main source of Cubs news. Not just for the flash so and so got traded that you get in the comments but for the detail in Wellman's, The Doctor's, and AZ Phil's reports.

Unbelievable shit, dudes.

"Unbelievable shit, dudes."

Ditto.

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