When the Chicago Cubs managed to pry Dillon Maples away from a commitment to North Carolina, it marked a turning point in the organization. It showed fans they were finally willing to spend the money to develop a farm system that had been void of top prospects for seemingly ever. Heading into the 2011 MLB draft, the right-handed flame thrower was considered one of the top arms in the draft. His strong commitment to UNC caused him to slip, and when he fell out of the top two rounds, most teams figured they would be wasting a pick on a kid who would never sign. The Cubs grabbed him in the 14th round, gave him first-round money and ended up being one of the winners of the draft, having locked up a boatload of talent.
At Pinecrest HS in North Carolina, Maples went 17-2 over his final two seasons with a 0.77 ERA, 0.69 WHIP and 245 K/50 BB over 121.1 innings. He also held opponents to a .083 BAA. He was a 2010 AFLAC All-American, a 2011 second-team Baseball America All-American and a member of the 2010 U18 Team USA, where he pitched 11 innings, allowing just one run on two hits, while striking out 12. He has a fastball that sits in the mid-90s, and a hammer curve that sits in the 78-80 range and is already a plus pitch.
On Sunday, he made his pro debut for the AZL Cubs. He went an inning, gave up a run, walked two and struck out one. Not a dominating performance, but one that marked another turning point. With fellow draft mates Javier Baez, Daniel Vogelbach, Shawon Dunston, Garrett Schlecht, Zeke DeVoss, Tony Zych and others already into their pro careers, Maples was the last of the bunch to start his, but could end up being the best.
When Aramis Ramirez signed with the Milwaukee Brewers in the off season, the Cubs received the 56th pick in the 2012 draft as compensation. They used that pick on Paul Blackburn, a 6’-2”, right-hander out of Heritage HS in California. As a senior, he went 10-3 with a 0.93 ERA, 0.78 WHIP and 100 K/18 BB over 83 innings. A superb command pitcher, he was shooting up draft boards heading into the draft because of his strong spring and three above average pitches. His fastball can reach the mid-90s, and both his curve and change-up have big-time potential. He is also a great athlete, and his smooth delivery allows him to stay within the strike zone, a great sign for future success.
Blackburn made his pro debut for the AZL Cubs on July 14 and the 18-year-old went one inning, allowing one run on two hits. Over his last two appearances, he has tossed 4.1 scoreless innings, striking out three to no walks, as the Cubs are letting his pitch count go higher with each game. Because of his age, the Cubs are going to be patient with him and move him up slowly. He does have the size, repertoire and make-up to be a front-line starter at the next level, and along with Maples, fans should start taking notice of these two young guns who they will be cheering for in a couple of years.
Other prospect news:
- 2011 first-round pick Javier Baez continues to show off his impressive hitting abilities, as well as his speed on the base paths. Over 26 July games at Class-A Peoria, the 6’-1”, 205-pound shortstop is hitting .367 with five doubles, three triples, seven home runs, 20 RBI and eight stolen bases. On the season, he is now hitting .333 with 11 home runs, 31 RBI, 19 stolen bases and a .599 SLG over 52 games.
- Daniel Vogelbach recently got a promotion to short-season Boise after the 19-year-old left-hander abused opposing pitchers at the Arizona League. Over 24 games in the AZL, the 6’-0”, 250-pound first baseman hit .324 with 12 doubles, seven home runs, 31 RBI and had a .686 SLG. In his six games at Boise, he is 8-for-22 (.364) with three doubles, two RBI and two walks.
- Ian Dickson, a 6’-5”, 205-pound right-hander, has been brilliant over his last three starts for Boise. A 35th-round draft pick by the Cubs in 2011, he has allowed just one run over his last 16 innings with 14 strikeouts to four walks.
- Garrett Schlecht, a 2011 draft pick, hit his first pro home run on July 26, and over his last 10 games, the 6’-2” left-hander is hitting .306 with four walks and a .419 OBP. Already owning a great batting eye, he could develop some serious power from the left side as he matures.
- After hitting .493 over 17 games in the AZL, 2011 draft pick Timothy Saunders is still raking at class-A Daytona. Over his last three games, the 6’-0”, 180-pound shortstop is 5-for-10 with two doubles, two walks and two stolen bases. On the season, he is hitting .424 over 24 games with three home runs, 19 RBI, seven stolen bases and a 1.059 OPS.
- Michael Heesch, the team’s eighth-round pick this year, is flashing the same remarkable control at Boise as he did at South Carolina Beaufort CC, where he went 9-3 with a 2.21 ERA, 1.05 WHIP and 118 K/13 BB over 122.1 innings as a senior. Over his 14 innings as a pro, he has yet to allow a run or walk while striking out 15 batters. The 6’-5”, 245-pound left-hander has a low-90s fastball and an above-average slider.
- Gioskar Amaya, a 19-year-old shortstop signed out of Venezuela, is hitting .327 over 41 games at Boise with eight triples, five home runs, 20 RBI, eight stolen bases and a .952 OPS. Amaya is considered a top-10 prospect in the organization and hit .377 over 52 games in the AZL last season.
- Many thought Jorge Soler would have been a top-five pick in the 2012 draft had he been eligible to enter. The 20-year-old Cuban defector is a five-tool prospect, and at 6’-3”, 200-pounds, has the size to be a major run producer in the future. Over his first seven games as a pro, he has gone 8-for-27 (.296) with a double, two home runs, six RBI and two stolen bases playing in the AZL.