Backups to the Backups: The Cubs’ Angels in the (Iowa) Outfield

When Jason Heyward crashed into the wall in San Francisco, the mid-section of his body contorting like a cartoon accordion, baseball fans everywhere held their breath. It didn’t look good for the Cubs’ slick-fielding right fielder, but after a long wait the next afternoon the results finally came in—no breaks, no tears, no strains, nothing more than a boo-boo and a few days out of the lineup. Exhale.

Heyward returned to the lineup yesterday against the Cardinals in St. Louis and looked just fine—even contributing a two-run double. But the question remains: Who would the Cubs have called up to take his spot, had Heyward required a long stay on the disabled list? It’s worth taking a deeper dive into what’s currently hiding down at Triple-A Iowa, so let’s jump in head first.

Albert Almora, Jr.

Saving the best for first, Almora is head-and-shoulders above all the others when discussing outfield prospects in the Cubs’ system. The first draft pick of the Theo Epstein regime, Almora was taken sixth overall in the 2012 amateur draft out of high school. Fans knew he would be further away as far as prospects go, given that he was just 18 at the time. He was known for his fantastic routes, great jumps on flyballs, and a major-league-ready glove as a young player, as well as a good eye at the plate—meaning high contact rates but also low walk rates.

My colleague Isaac Bennett recently had a fantastic interview with Almora which you should also go read at some point. For those that enjoy the perspective from a scout’s eye, here is a little bit of info from an old scouting report on Almora, via Nick J. Faleris of Baseball Prospectus:

“Advanced feel for barrel—finds the ball consistently; lots of loud contact; approach ahead of competition; aggressive in-game at-bats, but has the hand-eye and pitch ID to hit in all counts; good extension through contact; good balance; natural hitter.

Near-prescient reads off the bat; physical tools should not allow him to get to the balls he reaches; could play a solid MLB center field right now; ultimate ceiling limited due to foot speed and thickening physique, but should have no issue maintaining quality production up the middle; reads, routes, and ability to finish—total package.

Solid-average arm with good accuracy; sets up throws with ease; clean footwork, transfer, and release; arm plays in center.”

The light switch flipped on for Almora in the middle of last season. On June 25th he was hitting .241/.284/.335 in 235 plate appearances at Double-A, but from that point forward he’s been on fire at the plate. From June 26th of last year through today, Almora is hitting .319/.360/.476 with seven homers and 28 doubles in 394 plate appearances between Double-A and Triple-A.

There’s a chance the Cubs bring up Almora late this season, depending on the roster situation and whether there is space to add him onto the 40-man—which currently only has four primary outfielders on it. I wouldn’t think the Cubs would bring him up under other circumstances, such as an injury, just yet. While he’s very talented and really hitting the ball, there are still plenty of adjustments needed in his offensive game before he’s ready for the big leagues.

Ryan Kalish

Here’s a familiar name. Kalish has already seen time with the Cubs this season, and was designated for assignment back when Miguel Montero came off the disabled list earlier this month. He cleared waivers and was sent back to Triple-A on May 15th, and he hasn’t gotten into a game since because of an appendectomy requiring a trip to the DL, according to the Des Moine Register’s Tommy Birch.

You may remember some of the wild story on Kalish. He was a big-time prospect back in the day with the Boston Red Sox, working his way up to the big-leagues in 2010 at the age of 22. He hit .252/.305/.405 in 53 games with Boston that season and appeared to be well on his way to making a career of it until he had a neck injury derailed everything.

Kalish played only 24 games total in 2011, only 69 games in 2012 (including 36 with the Red Sox), and had to sit out the 2013 season altogether. He signed with the Cubs and earned 130 plate appearances in 2014, playing in 144 games between the major leagues and Triple-A. He sat again in 2015, and earned his way back this season with a brief cup of coffee—including a notable two-run single in a game against the Washington Nationals.

If the Cubs needed to add an outfielder to the 40-man roster to call up for a week or two, maybe even longer, Kalish might be the man. The Cubs have already done it once, and there’s no reason to believe they wouldn’t rely on him to fill the gap again. Of course, that’s assuming he’s back on the field and fully recovered from his appendectomy.

Juan Perez

Perez is a 29-year-old former Giants outfielder that the Cubs signed to a minor-league deal last offseason. He’s been primarily a corner outfielder for the Iowa Cubs this season, but has played center field admirably in the past too. Perez is best remembered for making the 2014 Giants postseason roster, despite having a .185 TAv, a .494 OPS, and -0.6 WARP. He actually performed well enough in the World Series against the Royals, knocking in three runs and hitting 3-for-12.

So far this season, Perez has posted an unspectacular line of .273/.300/.445 with three home runs in 123 plate appearances. Like the rest of the names on this list, he’s not on the 40-man roster. He’s not in any way, shape, or form, a prospect or player of interest to keep an eye on down the road. He’s merely organizational filler, or a guy you have to call up in the worst case scenario. Barring a sinkhole opening up in the outfield at Wrigley in the top-half of an inning and eating everyone alive, it’s hard to imagine Perez with the Cubs this season.

John Andreoli

Andreoli was a surprise character of note at Spring Training this season, hitting .270/.341/.649 with a triple, four homers, and two stolen bases. The nearly-26-year-old speedster had a great year with Iowa last season, putting up a .372 OBP with 33 stolen bases. So coming out of the spring, there were some with the expectation that he might build on his success and work toward an eventual call-up to Chicago.

Not so much. Andreoli got off to a rough start and has yet to recover, hitting .206/.309/.342 with five homers and 10 stolen bases. While he still has walked quite a bit—at 13.1 percent clip—his strikeouts have risen from a reasonable 21.7 percent last season to a jaw-dropping 35 percent this year. Andreoli could still be in line for a September trip to the show, but several things would need to happen first—including the strikeout rate dropping, the OBP rising, and some sort of obstacle getting in the way of Almora.

Even now, when the mindset of the Cubs fan has moved away from ‘prospect mode’ and toward the names currently on the big league roster, it’s good to know what you have waiting down at Triple-A in the event of injury. While you hope to never need to see any of these guys in Chicago this year—outside of Almora, who would be a nice cookie for the prospect-hungry fan—at least now you know what to expect if you do.

Lead photo courtesy Dennis Wierzbicki—USA Today Sports.

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