Before the season started, I was thinking about who could breakout this year among the Chicago Cubs prospects. We all knew Javier Baez, Albert Almora and Jorge Soler were going to continue their progression as elite prospects and future cornerstones of the franchise. I was thinking more about the second tier of guys who had all the tools and were ready to take that next development step. The first name that came to mind was Shawon Dunston Jr.
Dunston was an 11th round pick by the Chicago Cubs in 2011 out of Valley Christian HS in California. He would have went a lot higher but he had “Vanderbilt” attached to his name. The baseball powerhouse has a tendency to keep its recruits, and teams often take a flier on a kid later in the draft in hopes of wooing him away with money and the opportunity to begin their pro careers right away. Of course, the new Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) all but put the kibosh on that strategy as teams now have a set bonus amount they can offer to draft picks. The Chicago Cubs outspent everyone in 2011, and Dunston was offered a $1.275MM signing bonus — early second-round-slot value in today’s system.
The 6’-2” left-hander with 6.5/60 speed and a canon arm, just like his dad, had some of the best speed in the 2011 MLB draft. He played the game with an all out aggressiveness and once scored from second base on a dropped third strike. He was an outlier of sorts having grown up around the game. Being able to pick the brains of guys like Barry Bonds, Justin Upton, Jose Reyes, as well as his dad, has to give you an advantage over your peers in some way. He knew the ins and outs of baseball — the nuances of the game. He also had talent.
Shipped off to short-season Boise to begin his pro career, Dunston struggled out of the gate. Over 19 games, he hit .185 with four walks to 14 strikeouts and a .577 OPS. The Cubs sent him down to the Arizona League to work on his game and regain his confidence. He hit .286 with a .767 OPS over 39 games for the AZL Cubs and finished the season strong.
He entered this season with a lot to prove. His second go-around with Boise has been nothing short of spectacular. Over his first 23 games, he is hitting .318/.414/.435 and has dramatically improved his approach at the plate. After drawing 22 walks to 47 strikeouts over 255 plate appearances last season, he has drawn 14 walks to nine strikeouts over 99 plate appearances this season. He has essentially flipped his strikeout percentage and walk percentage from last year.
I asked Shawon about his progress this season, and he told me that last season was a very humbling experience. He said he spent the offseason trying to sort of find himself and his game again. He added 15-18 pounds of muscle without losing a step of his speed. When I asked about his approach, he said he was just being more selective at the plate, not forcing it and taking what the pitchers give him. He wants to grind out every at bat and not waste a single one.
The Chicago Cubs have built up one of the best farm systems in baseball over the past two seasons, and Dunston is a real part of their future. He offers something the organization lacks at all levels — speed and patience at the top of the order. While some will call it a small sample size, the results speak loud and clearn and, if he continues at his current pace and progression, his rise through the system will be as fast as him scoring from second base on a called third strike.
The other player I thought of as a breakout candidate was Paul Blackburn. The 6’-2” right-hander was the Chicago Cubs second-round pick last year out of Heritage HS in California. He went 10-3 his senior season with a 0.93 ERA, 0.78 WHIP and 100 K/18 BB over 83 innings. His fastball sat in the 91-93 mph range, and he also added two potential plus pitches in a change-up and curveball. A great athlete, he was known for his pinpoint command, poise on the mound and sound delivery.
Blackburn made his debut in the Arizona League and posted a 3.48 ERA, 1.46 WHIP and 13 K/7 BB over 20.2 innings for the AZL Cubs. Like Dunston, he spent the offseason bulking up and added almost 30 pounds to his frame. The added weight allowed him to add a couple of ticks to his velocity and it also helps with his stamina and ability to go late in games — key for a future front line starter.
He started this season at Boise and, through his first three outings, had 20 K/2 BB over 15 innings without allowing an earned run. Over five starts, he has a 1.17 ERA, 1.00 WHIP and 24 K/8 BB over 23 innings. His coaches rave about his aggressiveness on the mound and ability to attack hitters without fear. A student of the game, he works as hard on his off days as he does on the mound. Never satisfied, every start is a learning experience for the next one.
Both players are flourishing in a system suddenly loaded with talent. The rebuilding process is going better than anyone could have expected and the future looks incredibly bright for once on the North Side of Chicago. The major-league club is playing better of late but, at 40-49, is still on pace to miss the playoffs and select among the top 10 again in the 2014 MLB draft. In a couple of years, however, when the stars align and winning baseball is being consistently played on the North Side — or wherever they may end up — both Dunston and Blackburn will be playing a big part in the success of the Chicago Cubs.
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