April 17, 2014
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — If Kris Bryant didn’t know what he walked into as the Cubs’ highest draft pick since Mark Prior, he learned quickly when he walked down Michigan Avenue on his first trip to Chicago in July.
‘‘I had a couple people actually recognize me,” said the No. 2 overall pick in June’s draft. ‘‘It kind of opened my eyes.’’
It showed the passion of Cubs fans, he said.
It also showed where Cubs fans are averting their eyes.
Specifically, that’s Class A, where by virtue of the extreme makeover the organization is undergoing, the Cubs have more recognizable, locally famous hitters than they do on their big-league roster — Albert Almora at Kane County, Bryant, Jorge Soler (injured) and Dan Vogelbach at advanced-A Daytona. And that doesn’t count top prospect Javy Baez, who followed an All-Star first half at Daytona with a better second half at Class AA Tennessee.
All that highly rated hitting talent is why the Cubs don’t bother adding significant outside help for their muddled big-league lineup. It’s why it’s largely a moot point to bemoan the Cubs’ inability to hit with men in scoring position or to ‘‘grind out’’ at-bats.
Whether any of those fans who recognize Bryant can name even three pitchers in the system is another matter. Those pitchers might say a lot about if or when this rebuilding process gains traction in the big leagues.
Bryant, who only is a Cub because the brass passed on college power pitcher Jonathan Gray in June, has a message for fans.
‘‘The pitchers [at Daytona] should be famous, too,’’ he said. ‘‘It’s crazy what they can do.’’
Actually, this is crazy: Veteran injury-rehab guy Scott Baker, who started Sunday against the Milwaukee Brewers, became the franchise-record 31st pitcher used by the Cubs this year, including 18 pitchers who weren’t in the organization a year ago.
While Baker pitched well in a game the Cubs eventually lost 3-1 to the woeful Brewers, 1,200 miles away in Port Charlotte, Fla., Corey Black — the right-hander acquired from the New York Yankees for Alfonso Soriano — made Bryant’s point.
Black pitched six more scoreless innings — for 11 this postseason — as Daytona ran its playoff streak to 43 innings without an earned run until the eighth inning of a 3-2 loss to the Tampa Bay Rays’ affiliate.
‘‘We always joke about it in the locker room,’’ said Vogelbach, who drove in the first run Sunday. ‘‘I wouldn’t want to face our arms. I can only imagine what the other teams go through. They’re all power guys. Obviously, I haven’t played in the big leagues, but you watch on TV, and you watch the [Matt] Harveys and stuff — they’re power guys like that.’’
To be sure, the only thing less certain than a can’t-miss Class A hitting prospect is a can’t-miss Class A pitching prospect.
But last year’s supplemental first-rounder Pierce Johnson and three guys picked up in July trades — Black, C.J. Edwards (from Texas) and Ivan Pineyro (Washington) — combined to go 4-0 in their five playoff starts with 30 strikeouts in 28 scoreless innings and just four walks against affiliates of the Toronto Blue Jays and Rays.
‘‘We acquired some arms, but also guys that have a great feel on how to pitch,’’ Daytona manager Dave Keller said.
The pitching in the system hasn’t returned to the Andy MacPhail-regime levels that produced Prior, Kerry Wood, Carlos Zambrano, Kyle Lohse, Sean Marshall, Dontrelle Willis and Ricky Nolasco.
But ‘‘they’re interesting, upside arms,’’ top scouting and player development boss Jason McLeod said of the Daytona staff. ‘‘You get enough of those guys, and some of them are going to matriculate through. You’ve got to have volume.’’