Cubs prospects learn in Fall League
Hitting coach Sandberg helps educate young Solar Sox
CHICAGO -- The Cubs' 2008 season may be over but for young players like Tyler Colvin and Darwin Barney, there's still plenty of baseball to be played. And they're lucky enough to be able to pick Ryne Sandberg's brain a little.
Colvin, the team's first-round pick in the June 2006 First-Year Player Draft, and Barney, a fourth-round selection in 2007, are among the eight players from the Cubs organization on the Mesa Solar Sox roster in the Arizona Fall League.
Sandberg, the Hall of Fame second baseman who is coming off his second season as manager of the Cubs' Class A Peoria Chiefs, is the hitting coach for the Solar Sox, who play their home games at HoHoKam Stadium in Mesa, Ariz.
Colvin, who had spent the season at Double-A Tennessee, and batted .256 in 137 games with 14 homers, 27 doubles, 11 triples and 80 RBIs. He also struck out 101 times. Dave Keller, the team's Minor League roving hitting instructor, was in Mesa to work with Colvin.
"What [Colvin] has done the last couple years is he's dug himself into a hole early in the year and then he's hit later in the year," Cubs player development director Oneri Fleita said Tuesday. "He's shown that he's a guy who hits when it counts. He needs to be more selective."
The numbers back that up. Colvin hit .238 before the All-Star break and batted .291 in the second half. The outfielder already has an impressive resume, having been named to the U.S. team that played in Taiwan last year.
"Hitting is tough," Fleita said. "He's starting to come into his own and finding out who he can be. You can overthink this game. I talked to 'Ryno' this morning about that and the positive is to have somebody like that around you and talk to you about this game."
Fleita is hoping Barney also can benefit from having Sandberg as his coach. Barney hit .262 in 123 games with Daytona, including 22 doubles, four triples and three home runs. The right-handed-hitting shortstop batted .298 with runners on.
"He's got two College World Series rings," Fleita said of Barney, who played for Oregon State's national championship teams. "A year later, he made it to the finals with [Class A] Boise. Another year later, he's got another ring from the Florida State League.
"He catches the ball, has sure hands," Fleita said of the 22-year-old infielder. "He can do a lot of things with the bat. He's a gamer. That's what we're hoping to see out of him and to be there with Ryne every day and to get a sense of what your daily preparation is about will give him a chance to speed up the dial."
Nate Spears, whom the Cubs acquired from Baltimore in the Corey Patterson deal in January 2006, spent most of the season at Tennessee and batted .299 in 115 games with seven homers, 22 doubles, five triples and 51 RBIs. A left-handed hitter, he wrapped up the season at Iowa, appearing in five games, and hit .278.
Catcher Steve Clevenger was supposed to be on the Mesa team's taxi squad but has been playing every day because the team needed a catcher. He batted .313 in 84 games for Class A Daytona, hitting two home runs and driving in 39. He began the season with Daytona, and was promoted to Tennessee, where he played from April 24-May 29, hitting .247 in 29 games with one homer and 15 RBIs.
Clevenger is another converted catcher; he was a shortstop before. Fleita said the switch was accidental. During instructional league last year, one of the teams needed an extra catcher and Clevenger was volunteered for the job. He ended up catching quite a few games in the AFL last year.
"The more he can be around older players and learn how to slow the game down, I think the more helpful it will be for him," Fleita said. "This will be a positive for him."
As for pitchers, Rocky Roquet, who signed as a non-drafted free agent with the Cubs in May 2006, is on the Mesa roster. Roquet spent most of the season with Tennessee, where he was 4-2 with three saves in 39 games with a 3.70 ERA, all in relief. The right-hander struck out 54 in 48 2/3 innings. He also appeared in seven games for Daytona from May 22-June 7 and posted a 1.74 ERA. Roquet will pitch in relief for the Solar Sox.
"The Fall League is a great tool for us," Fleita said. "We can have a little more control on how frequently a guy pitches and it gives us a chance to have a number of our rovers see these guys with regularity versus if they played out of the country.
"We still feel like [Roquet] is real close," Fleita said. "To be able to monitor him and have [pitching coordinator Mark Riggins] see him more often will be good for him."
Donnie Veal, a second-round pick in 2005, also will pitch in relief for the Solar Sox. He was 5-10 with a 4.52 ERA in 29 starts at Tennessee, striking out 123 in 145 1/3 innings. The left-hander held lefty hitters to a .216 average. On May 1, he threw seven shutout innings against Jacksonville, giving up three hits and striking out five. On May 31, he gave up one unearned run on three hits over eight innings against West Tenn, and on June 17, he threw seven scoreless innings, giving up two hits and striking out six.
"We're trying him as a reliever," Fleita said. "We're doing that because he did throw a number of innings over the course of the year. We're trying to get a different look at him in a different role. Sometimes when you do this, their velocity jumps. He was up to 94 miles an hour last night, which you don't normally see as a starter. I don't want to say it's experimenting, but it is experimenting for these guys to get another look at another job in the game."
Jesse Estrada pitched for Tennessee from April until June, going 4-3 with one save in 17 games and compiling a 4.71 ERA. He finished the season at Triple-A Iowa and was 3-0 with a 5.36 ERA in 22 games, all in relief, and picked up two saves. The right-hander, who was a 31st-round pick in 2004, struck out 46 in 47 innings. He'll be starting for the Solar Sox.
Right-hander Esmalin Caridad began the season at Class A Daytona and was 6-4 with a 4.41 ERA in 14 games, including 13 starts, before he was promoted to Tennessee, where he went 7-3 with a 3.16 ERA in 14 games in relief. He struck out 50 in 82 2/3 innings. He also will pitch in relief for the Solar Sox.
Caridad can speak Spanish, his native language, and Japanese. He spent most of the 2007 season at the Hiroshima Carp's Dominican Academy.
"For a guy who will be in Triple-A next year, this is an opportunity to have him relieve," Fleita said. "I thought it would be better for him to continue to be part of our culture versus going back and being in his culture [in the Dominican Republic], plus he can take some English classes. Hopefully, if he continues to rise the way he has he'll be able to handle the media and coaches in English.
"He's a bright kid," Fleita said. "It's an effort to cover a lot of things all year. He's 24, and I thought we had to speed up the process a little bit."
As for Winter League assignments, outfielder Felix Pie and catcher Wellington Castillo will be playing for Licey in the Dominican Republic. Jose Ceda, who posted a 2.08 ERA in 22 relief appearances at Tennessee, will pitch for Escogido. Ceda, who impressed Cubs manager Lou Piniella in Spring Training, struck out 42 over 30 1/3 innings for the Double-A team.
Angel Guzman, Rich Hill, Justin Berg and Sam Fuld all will play in Venezuela. Hill, Berg and Fuld will play for Buddy Bailey and Dave Rosario, both members of the Cubs' Minor League staff, on the Tigres de Aragua. Guzman will pitch for Magallanes. Casey McGehee was to play for Culiacan in the Mexican Winter League.
Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.