CHICAGO -- Cubs vice president of scouting and player development Jason McLeod spoke with the media prior to Saturday afternoon's game against the Reds about various players in the Cubs' Minor League system and how they're faring thus far this season.
Of course, the top two names mentioned were outfielder Albert Almora -- the club's first-round pick (No. 6 overall) pick in the 2012 First-Year Player Draft -- and Cuban outfielder Jorge Soler -- who the team signed last month to a nine-year, $30-million deal.
Almora and Soler began playing together at Rookie-level Mesa before Soler was promoted to Class A Peoria on Thursday. He went 1-for-4 with two RBIs in his Class A debut.
"We don't have any big expectations of [Soler] this year, other than to get professionalized, learn his teammates, get assimilated to the country and baseball in the United States," McLeod said. "So far he's handled that part of it very, very well."
Almora, 18, is hitting .262 with four doubles, eight RBIs and four stolen bases in 15 games at Mesa. He started off slow, but entered Saturday with a seven-game hitting streak.
"The two months off, when his high school season ended so early and not signing until mid-July, I think certainly set him back, as far as his timing and seeing pitches," McLeod said. "He's really getting back in the groove. Right now there are no immediate plans, other than to keep him playing every day down there and let him get his timing back."
Another player making waves in first baseman Dan Vogelbach, last year's second-round pick. Vogelbach -- who stands 6 feet and weighs 250 pounds -- has homered in five straight games, the last two of which he has hit multiple home runs. The 19-year-old already has advanced to Class A Boise.
Vogelbach has 15 home runs in 40 games between two levels and might not yet be done rising this year.
"If he continues on this pace, he might force the issue a little bit," McLeod said of another promotion. "He's already hit his way out of Mesa, and in 10 games or so in Boise now, he's doing the same thing there, so we're really proud of him."
The pitching front isn't quite as impressive, which McLeod, president Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer knew when they took over. Although the pitching talent isn't quite as sparse as some believe, McLeod said the system is lacking in upper-level starting pitching.
"We have some pretty interesting bullpen arms, guys that throw hard with offspeed pitches they can get some swings-and-misses with, but we're really trying to build starting pitching that can come up here and vie to be No. 3-type starters, if not better," McLeod said. "Right now, I'd say the majority of those guys are probably at the lower levels."
One of those is right-hander Matt Loosen, who is 10-4 with a 3.62 ERA in 21 starts at Class A-Advanced Daytona. Loosen, a 23rd-round pick in 2010, is "a definite starter candidate for the future" in McLeod's eyes.
"He's what you look for, in terms of the size and the way the delivery and the arm works," McLeod said.
The two players the Cubs acquired from Texas for right-hander Ryan Dempster also have impressed in their short time with the organization. Infielder Christian Villanueva is hitting .308 with two home runs in eight games, while right-hander Kyle Hendricks has allowed only one run in four innings at Daytona.
McLeod said Epstein just returned from Daytona and reported "very well" on the pair.
Sveum, Castro meet to discuss shortstop's gaffe
CHICAGO -- Starlin Castro remained in the lineup Saturday against the Reds, one day after a baserunning blunder angered Dale Sveum to the point where the manager said he'd think about sitting the young shortstop.
Instead, Sveum said he and Castro talked "quite awhile" in a close-door meeting during which Sveum said the 22-year-old admitted to making a mistake.
The gaffe, coming in Friday's sixth inning, happened when Castro attempted to steal second after singling. Josh Vitters singled to right, but Castro couldn't see the ball. He was deked by Reds second baseman Brandon Phillips and didn't immediately round second because Phillips acted like he had the ball. By the time Castro realized he had been fooled and took off, the Reds' relay throw easily nabbed him at third.
The play came with the Cubs down five runs in an eventual 10-8 loss. Castro said he didn't know where the ball was, while Sveum said during his postgame interview, "If you're going to steal a base five runs down, you better [darn] well know where the ball's hit."
Although Castro isn't a rookie like a growing portion of the Cubs' roster, the 22-year-old still is young. But, Sveum said Castro isn't trying to use that to justify his mistake.
"There is that fine line, but even he admits that [being] young ... there's no excuse for anything that went on yesterday," Sveum said.
"With that kind of situation, down five runs, if you're going to steal, you need to know 100 percent that you're safe, that you can see where the ball's at," said Castro, who went 1-for-4 on Saturday.
"He told me that and gave me confidence putting me out there today."
Castro also let a ground ball go between his legs in Friday's third inning for his 17th error of the season, but it's the mental mistakes that continue to be piling up for the talented youngster. Earlier this season, Castro forgot how many outs there were against San Francisco, a game which the Cubs eventually lost.
Sveum admitted the parent in him comes out from time to time when dealing with Castro or any young player. It's just that Castro -- already a two-time All-Star -- always has more eyes on him.
"I don't treat him any different than anybody else. He just happens to be a big focal point of the team because he's our shortstop, and the shortstop is going to be here a long time," Sveum said. "The guy's made leaps and bounds defensively, and has done a good job as far as concentration, for most of the time. A lot of times, myself included as well as the media, blows him up as much as anybody else. Some other people have made some pretty bad mistakes, too, but it doesn't get blown up as much, either."
Sveum said Castro still needs to continue to slow the game down. He has already improved, however, cutting down his errors, and he had been relatively mental-mistake-free in nearly two months before Friday's issue.
"I don't see any of those consistent, consistent mental lapses anymore. That just goes to show you he's in the right place, position wise," Sveum said. "So he's come a long way, that way.
"He's still an elite shortstop in the big leagues. Some people might have less errors, but a lot of people haven't been able to do the things he can do at shortstop, either."
Jackson gets break from starting lineup after collision
CHICAGO -- A ninth-inning collision in Friday's loss kept Cubs center fielder Brett Jackson out of Saturday's starting lineup.
Jackson, left fielder Alfonso Soriano and shortstop Starlin Castro converged on a fly ball in shallow left-center field with one out in Friday's game. Jackson ran into Soriano and fell to the ground -- as did the ball -- and remained there for several moments before getting up and finishing the inning.
Cubs manager Dale Sveum said the rookie is fine and probably would be available for Saturday's game.
"It's kind of basically like he got hit by a truck or something, more than anything," Sveum said. "Kind of a whiplash-type effect."
Jackson, the clubs' first-round pick in the 2009 First-Year Player Draft, has struggled since being called up from Triple-A Iowa on Aug. 5. The 24-year-old entered play Saturday with only two hits in 17 at-bats (.118), and had struck out 11 times.
Vice president of scouting and player development Jason McLeod said part of the reason the organization decided to have Jackson -- who has always struggled with strikeouts -- join the Cubs now was so that he could get a fresh look. The chance for Jackson to work directly with Sveum and hitting coach James Rowson also was a positive, and McLeod said he thinks the promotion will be good for the youngster.
"Brett knows he has things to work on, and he's got the character and makeup to work on those things," McLeod said.