Prospect Update: Nelson Velazquez Getting Back in a Groove

By Todd Johnson

I just fawned over Nelson Velasquez all last winter and spring. I was not the only one, and there was a lot to fawn over. He is quite the physical specimen, who in a short six week span, cranked out 8 home runs and helped lead the Mesa Cubs to the Arizona League championship last September.

Went 2018 came, Velasquez was in spring training and playing with the South Bend squad. In reports by Arizona Phil, Velasquez was looking good and then he was injured. He missed about six weeks. When he was healthy, he was sent to South Bend on May 8th and I could not have been more excited to see him play based on 2017.

Things did not go well in Indiana. Velasquez got off to a poor start and looked over matched against more advanced players. He struggled catching up to fastballs and was dominated by any pitch that began with a C.

When short season ball came in mid-June, I was not surprised to see him reassigned to Eugene.  However, that’s where today’s story begins.

The Cubs have been known to reassign players from time to time. For Jeimer Candelario, it was probably the best thing that happened to him. Jeimer was sent from Daytona back to Kane County where he got back in the swing of things and is now playing for the Tigers.

For Nelson, things are beginning to work out. To his credit, he arrived in Eugene with an intense focus at the plate. If you look at his two months in Eugene, he’s improved every 10 to 15 games. Once he settled into short season ball in July, the the promise started coming back. First came the extra base hits and then came the homers. In June he hit .148 with 1 home run and 1 RBI while striking out 17 times in 31 at-bats. His K rate of 30.1% last year was a concern heading into this season.

In July, the wormed turned and he was second in the Cubs organization in runs batted in for the month with 18. He hit for a decent average at .248 with a .311 OBP and his strikeout rate actually went up in July to 33%. But that’s not the end of the story.

In the first two weeks of August, Velasquez is just terrorizing the Northwest League. A .306/.468/.528/.996 slash line is very impressive. He has 8 BBs and 12 Ks in 11 games. Both are decent rates for him.

Photo by Jared Ravich

Going Forward

He’s still just 19 and maybe too much was expected out of him too soon based on the small data set of Rookie League. However, when you see his tools in action, it’s easy to see his potential.

Hopefully, he can finish strong this month and get off to a good start in 2019. I would be willing to just let things unfold naturally next year as he learns how to a professional hitter. He might have ups and downs for a couple of years. Just be patient as Velazquez develops at his own pace.

Previous Articles on Nelson

Nelson Velazquez Makes His South Bend Debut and Flashes His Five Tools

Leveling Up Series: Nelson Velazquez Is Powering Up for 2018

 

 

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Prospect Profile: Jake Slaughter Is Betting on Himself and the Cubs

By Todd Johnson

Jake Slaughter. That just sounds like a baseball name.

It is not every day that a baseball prospect gets selected in the MLB draft, let alone twice. For Eugene Emeralds third baseman Jake Slaughter, he was first taken by the Cubs in the 2016 draft. Slaughter was a two sport star player in football and baseball in high school. The Cubs took him in the 36th round and the odds of signing him out of high school were slim. Instead, Slaughter stuck to his commitment to LSU.

Is rare for a freshman to see major playing time at a major college program. But Slaughter did. In 2017, he played 53 games at shortstop. He hit .257 with a .358 OBP and cranked 3 HRs. He spent that first summer in college playing on the Cape, but that did not go well. When he returned as a sophomore, Slaughter moved over to third base and hit eight home runs in 2018 for the Tigers. His batting average dropped just a few bits as did his OBP. Because of his age (21), Slaughter was a draft eligible sophomore. With his permission, the Cubs took him in the 18th round in hopes of continuing his development at the minor-league level rather than at college.

Basic Info
Height 6‘3“
Weight 200 pounds
Bats and throws: Right
2018 affiliates: Eugene and Mesa
Top skill: Power Potential

Jake Slaughter’s first month at Eugene was not very good. He only hit .172. He is not the first college prospect to go to Eugene and struggle. Last year, that distinction fell to Jared Young, who didn’t start to turn it on until August. This year, Slaughter is echoing that type of season.

The first month that I watched Slaughter, he just looked over matched. He was just a little too late on the fastball, he was being fooled by offspeed pitches, and he looked like he was in over his head. However, when he hit the ball, he hit it very hard. It didn’t necessarily go out of the ballpark, but he did put a charge into it. His BABIP was well under .300.

Considering the fact that he came out after his sophomore year versus a normal junior year, I thought Slaughter might be behind for a while and it could take him a year or two to catch up. But things don’t always go according to plan.

In mid July, new players came to Eugene. At the same time, Slaughter‘s performance at the plate began to improve dramatically. He started catching up to fastballs. He began recognizing pitches. He began laying off of pitches out of the strike zone. He began to strike out less and walk more. He doubled the number of his walks in one week. On Thursday the 9th, Slaughter had a 3-for-5 night with a grand slam and 6 runs batted in. That’s a pretty good night for anybody, regardless of level.

Going forward. When I look at Slaughter, I don’t see who he is right now. He’s a guy who could add muscle very easily to his large 6’3″ frame. He’s a guy who could respond to coaching very easily. And I think, most importantly, he’s a guy the Cubs picked twice. They see something that they like and like a lot.

In trying to assess the type of player that Slaughter is going to be, more than likely, is going to come down to the ability of the Cubs’ development staff and his own desire to improve. He looks like a serious hard-core athlete. Everything he does looks very fluid and not forced. Nothing looks mechanical. It’s like he was born to be an athlete. How far that athleticism takes him remains to be seen.

The next year in his career will be very telling. He needs to get his walk rate well above the lowly 4% it is now and to keep lowering his K rate. However, there are bigger questions. Will he add on some weight to his frame? Will he continue to improve at the plate? Will he stick at third or will he go to first base? Slaughter took a big chance on himself to come out of school after his sophomore year. Slaughter is betting on himself and he’s also betting on the Cubs to help him get where he wants to be. 

David Bote: A History in Baseball Cards

By Todd Johnson

I have written about David Bote some since he began to take off in the summer of 2016 at Myrtle Beach. But today is not about writing down a bunch of words. Rather, it is about appreciation of what it takes to make it. Because every time I see David Bote, I still see the baseball cards I made the past 5 years. They show a young man grinding it out to fulfill his dream. Bote spent 4 summers at some level of A ball before getting to Tennessee in 2017. Let’s take a look back at his incredible journey via some Cubs Central Topp’s recreations.

It all started back in Boise, Idaho with a 1970 frame…

The actual first time I remember seeing him in person was in Clinton, Iowa in the summer of 2014 when he played for Kane County. He was at shortstop that day (but not in these pictures).
 

In 2015, the Cubs moved their low A affiliate to South Bend and Bote was there all year. This is where his transformation into power hitter began.

 

In 2016, he bounced around a bit in the first half before Ian Happ was promoted from Myrtle Beach to Tennessee. In that moment, Bote found a home to ply his craft for the rest of 2016 and he was amazing for the Pelicans. He hit .351 in the second half and lead them to their second straight league title.

 

The hitting continued in 2017, first at Tennessee and then for the Mesa Solar Sox in the AFL. He was put on the 40 man roster late last fall.

And then, in 2018, he got off to a great start in spring training with the big league club and again at AAA Iowa.

 

And then there was last night…

Unbelievable! Just unbelievable!

The Weekly – Playoffs Loom Large and Some Interesting Trends

By Todd Johnson

Wow! Three weeks from tomorrow the minor-league baseball season ends. That’s a hard thing to fathom. I am not really sure I am ready for that. When it comes to teaching, I am not sure I am ready for that, either. This past week, I set up my classroom and come Wednesday, I have the first of two institute days. The kids arrive for their first day on Friday the 17th. Then, the month begins to take off.

Then MiLB Playoffs will be kicking off soon. Tennessee is still holding on. Heading into today, the Smokies are 5.5 games back. South Bend is fading very fast. They are seven games back. South Bend is going to need an incredible run and some help to get over five teams. Eugene has an excellent shot of joining Mesa in the postseason. They are just two games behind Salem Kaiser. The Cubs 2 team in Mesa is very quietly moving up the ladder. They now stand 1 games behind first place. However, that division is so jumbled with five teams within 2 games of the lead. Mesa’s season ends a week early on the 27th. 

This past week, Baseball America released their rankings of the top farm systems in the minors. The Cubs came in at #28. Even though Miguel Amaya made two top 100 lists, the system itself still lacks elite talent. BA, however, did mention both Nico Hoerner and Brailyn Marquez as possible players who should be ones to watch next year.

Interesting Trends Happening

Even though there are three weeks still left in the season, Jared Young seems to have sewn up the Cubs’ Minor League Player of the Year Award. He won back-to-back monthly awards in June and July. Aside from hitting .306 with a .368 OBP for the year, Young hit his 15th HR on Friday while also crossing the 70 RBI plateau. Young has completely dominated two levels at South Bend and Myrtle Beach. The only player who is even in the same discussion for the award is Jason Vosler, who leads the Cubs’ system in both HRs and RBI with 18 and 73.

On Friday night, it was strange seeing Trevor Clifton throw a no-hitter for 5.2 IP. He gave up 2 consecutive hits before he was pulled. All the while, I kept thinking, “I only have one more baseball card to make of him and that is from his MLB debut.” Got a little misty thinking about his journey and how close he is to getting the call to Chicago.

Every summer down in the Dominican, one prospect usually garners a lot of inquiry about their stat line. Last year, that prospect was Fernando Kelli who stole 58 bases. This year, pitcher Luis Rodriguez is raising some eyebrows. For the season, he has a 0.70 ERA and 0.70 WHIP in 51.1 innings. He’s struck out 46 and walked only 6 all summer. Even more impressive, as a starter, he has a 0.24 ERA!!!! I was hoping the 18-year-old lefty gets a shot to come north to play in Mesa once his team is eliminated from the DSL playoffs.

Zack Short is killing it AA the past month. The 23-year-old shortstop is doing what he normally does – hitting dingers and taking walks. But this year, he’s had a couple streaks where he’s hit about .300 for long stretches at a time. He’s in one of those runs now (9 for his last 30). His K rate has fluctuated throughout the year. In May it was at 42% but is back down into the low 20s now to go along with his ungodly walk rate, which in August is in the upper 20 percents. He’s going to be in Iowa next year and with his power potential (he has 14 HRs so far in 2018), he could earn his way to Chicago very soon. Check out this cool piece about Short by the greatest self professed scout ever.

It sure seems like South Bend has been playing with 24 guys on the roster most of the year. In addition, for the past month, they have only had 2 catchers suiting up. Miguel Amaya gets the call behind the dish most days and Cam Belago, who is in his first year of receiving behind the plate, spells Miguel once or twice a week. Amaya, even though he’s just 19, has to be feeling the effects of catching 80% of the time. Hopefully, a third catcher will find their way to Indiana. They will need a new bullpen arm as Garrett Kelly is on his way to Myrtle Beach after last night’s game.

The Tennessee starting rotation has been other worldly later. Every night, it seems like the starter goes 6 innings with 1 run allowed and strikes out 5-8 hitters. Keegan Thompson, Matt Swarmer, Michael Rucker, and Duncan Robinson might be the most under-reported story of the past six weeks. If not for one horrible start at the end of July, Rucker would have been pitcher of the month. Thompson was right there with him while Robinson is in his second month with a sub-2.00 ERA. Their success on the mound at AA should make things quite difficult for the powers that be next year as AAA should be swimming in quality starters.

When it comes to the walking wounded, Bailey Clark is back on the bump. He made two one inning starts in Mesa this week. He is slowly building up his arm before he goes back to Myrtle Beach.

Getting Back to the Compass

One thing I really like to write in the second half of the year is a prospect profile. A lot has been happening in the system and I have gotten a few in, but not as many as I want. This week, however, profiles are filling the post docket and most of the them are about players in Eugene. In the past two weeks, I looked at Luke Reynolds and Grant Fennell. This week, Jake Slaughter gets profiled along with Andy Weber (hopefully) while Nelson Velazquez and Jose Albertos get updates.

Player of the Week

Card of the Week

MiLB Free Agency Is on the Horizon: Cubs Will Have Some Tough Choices

By Todd Johnson

When it comes to 6 year minor league free agents, the Cubs have several this year. Most of them are currently at AAA Iowa while several are scattered throughout the system. Some will re-sign with the Cubs while others will go see if they can break through someplace else.

Today, I’m gonna break down a few names who I think the Cubs are going to try and re-sign of their 20+ minor league free agents.

Here is the list for each affiliate.

Iowa – Alberto Baldonado, LHP; Corey Black, RHP; Stephen Bruno, INF; Chris Coghlan, OF-INF; Casey Coleman, RHP; Ryan Court, INF; Taylor Davis, C-1B; Trey Martin, OF; Bijan Rademacher, OF; Jose Rosario, RHP; Kyle Ryan, LHP; Ali Solis, C; Corey Black, RHP;

Tennessee – Gioskar Amaya, INF; Jeffrey Baez, OF; Yasiel Balaguert, 1B-OF; Wynton Bernard, OF; Erick Castillo, C; Daury Torrez, RHP; Ryan Webb, RHP; Allen Webster, RHP.

Myrtle Beach – Roberto Caro, OF; Erick Leal, RHP; Jose Paulino, LHP; Chris Pieters, OF

Most Likely to Return

Some of these players could actually be coming back. They could be taking leadership roles on the team and helping, somewhat, to coach younger prospects. Taylor Davis and Stephen Bruno definitely could fill those roles.

As for guys who will actually suit up to play, pitcher Kyle Ryan might be worth another look. He has been up-and-down this year, but I still think there is something there and he is still only 26.

Depending upon how he does the next month in Mesa, Corey Black should continue his rehab from Tommy John surgery with the Cubs. Hopefully, Black still wants to give it a go and there’s something left in his arm.

Erick Leal has had a great year at Myrtle Beach coming off Tommy John surgery. I would love to see how he does at AA Tennessee next year. 

Roberto Caro has had a bit of a breakout year and could find his way back to the Cubs’ system to see if he can get it done at Tennessee. If you can hit .350 at two levels, the odds are pretty good.

Several other familiar names have just been sitting and spinning at AAA and AA for a few years now. Daury Torrez and Bijan Rademacher deserve a shot at the majors in some capacity. Unfortunately, it is likely to come with someone else. Along with Trey Martin, they could stick around for one more year, but the odds are slim they could break through with the Cubs.

There’s always two things to keep in mind. One, what is in the best interest of the player? And two, what is in the best interest of the organization?

When Jaron Madison and the rest of the crew sit down to make those determinations, they will have to keep those two questions in mind. While many of these players might not have a chance at the big league level, they can help fill out a roster. Considering that the Cubs’ system does not have a lot of elite talent, some of the other players are just not ready to go to AA or higher yet. As an organization, you want to put players in positions at which they can succeed. These free agents could be seen as place holders until the younger prospects are ready.

 It’ll be interesting to see what happens as to the direction(s) the Cubs take this winter when all these players listed above become free agents.

Why Cubs Central Is Not Making a New Prospect List Until the End of the Season

By Todd Johnson

Early Wednesday afternoon, MLB Pipeline released this bit of news.

“With David Bote graduating from the ‘ Top 30 Prospects list, 19-year-old RHP Jeremiah Estrada enters: http://atmlb.com/2GSeHiE “

Normally, when a prospect is certified as no longer being a prospect due to service time or at-bats, I redo my Top 21 List. Normally.

This year, every time I think about my prospect list, I tend to just stare at all the names in the spreadsheet. It is not that the names of the players are not good. The Cubs have several good prospects who can most certainly help the major league club in the near future. But that’s not the issue of why I have only redone the list once this season.

After spring training, I touched up the list a bit and then again after the draft. Those are excellent points in time to redo a list. Normally, I also touch it up during the summer after the International Free Agency signing period begins as well as after a trade.

I decided against doing the list at any and all occasions this summer. Here’s why.

1. As a teacher, I teach US History every day and one of the questions I always get asked every year is, “Why do Supreme Court Justices get to serve for life?” I tell them that the Court System is set up that way to take popular opinion about the Constitution out of the equation. A justice can’t be looking over their shoulder about a decision worrying about re-election or when their term ends. They cannot think about a decision based on political means to get elected or re-appointed. The justice has to base their ruling on how it fits the framework of the Constitution and not on a whim. I am sort of the same way. I would rather the Top 21 list reflect talent evaluation rather than performance. If I was to do the list every month or so, it wouldn’t mean as much as performance would have way more influence on a monthly list rather than on talent evaluation.

2. The Cubs’ minor league system is very deep. While the Cubs lack the elite talent they once had in 2015, I have almost 50 names on my list to ponder when it comes to picking just 21. However, there is not a lot of separation between them. Once I start getting out of the top 10, I could have 40 prospects in contention for the next ten spots. Arguments could be made for 20-30 guys for the #17 spot. It is a bit mind blowing, but it is true.

3. Change comes quickly in the minors in the second half. With all the draft picks now signed and playing, I want to see how they do over a larger sample size. This year, though, I cannot see several of them play as they are going at it in the Arizona Rookie League. I am hearing great things about Cole Roederer and Brennen Davis, but I have yet to set my own eyes on them. The shame is I probably won’t get to see them until they get to Eugene next summer or if they miraculously make it to South Bend beforehand. It is hard for me to evaluate someone very well if I haven’t seen them. I did get to see top pick Nico Hoerner for about a couple of weeks and in person. He’s very poised and polished. If not for an injury, he could have been my #1 prospect (and he still might be).

4. Doing well at the lower levels of the minors is nice for a prospect to hang their hat on, but it is not a precursor of future success nor is it a prerequisite. Some lines a friend of mine and I have been saying this summer go like this: “See me when they get to Tennessee,” and/or “Let me know when they are at Myrtle Beach.” Those levels are much more reliable in predicting a player’s ability to help the organization and in assessing their talent. I don’t want to have a list filled with 18-19 year old kids who have never seen the quality of pitchers and bats at a higher level.

5. The eye test is the best test. Just last month, I saw Brendon Little of South Bend in person just mow down guys in the Quad Cities with an ungodly breaking ball. Seeing his pitch live and the effect it has on a swing changes a lot of things. He’s making guys at low A look sick against that pitch. Just on the quality and depth he gets on one pitch, he is a top ten-ish prospect. Who cares about his 4+ ERA right now. That pitch is amazing! It could take a while for the rest of his arsenal to catch up to the quality of that one pitch. Stop scouting a stat line. Scout a player.

With all those things in mind, I am just going to wait a while to replace Bote in my list. I am just going to let the list ride until the end of the season (3+weeks). Then I will see where the prospects are at and that list will hold for quite a few months…I hope!

Prospect Profile: Luke Reynolds Could Be a Force

By Todd Johnson

In 2016 and 2017, the Chicago Cubs’ draft strategy was to go after pitchers in large quantities. As a result, the hitters were basically ignored or an afterthought, in two straight draft classes. In 2018, the Cubs’ draft strategy attacked hitters more evenly with three of their first four picks being position players. That strategy continued the second day of the draft with the selection of Luke Reynolds in the tenth round.

Reynolds plays first base and third base as well as DH. At 6‘1“ and 215 pounds, the left-handed hitter comes to the Cubs after a strange college career. He began at Hinds Community College in Raymond, Mississippi where hit .376 with a .475 OBP and 5 HRs in 59 games. Reynolds then transferred to Mississippi State after the 2014 season. It didn’t go as planned there. As a result, Reynolds again transferred to Southern Mississippi. But due to a technicality, he had to sit out for two baseball seasons. He kept playing baseball in summer leagues in New England, the Perfect Game League, and the Great Lakes.

When Reynolds finally began to play for Southern Miss this spring, the then 22-year-old put up one of the best seasons in recent NCAA memory. He earned third team All-America honors in 2018 along with All-Conference USA and Conference USA Newcomer of the Year awards. In 62 games, he hit .389 with a .551 OBP. He slammed 15 home runs in 62 games. And with stats like those, you have to wonder why he was not a day one pick.

In March of 2018, about a month after the NCAA season began, Reynolds turned 23 years old. Some teams may not have wanted that old of a player taken that high. As a result, everyone’s loss is the Cubs’ gain.

 

After signing, Reynolds went through his orientation and began his pro career playing in the Arizona Rookie League for the Cubs. He was only there for 12 games, and it took him a few games to adjust after two months off. He’s now been in Eugene for almost 2 weeks and I am looking forward to watching more of him now that the Northwest League All-Star break is over.

In just nine games at Eugene, Reynolds has flashed some of those abilities that he displayed at Southern Miss. He shown the ability to drive the ball to all fields. He has a short timing mechanism and then his hands can explode quickly through the zone (see video below). In fact, Reynolds goes the opposite way (39.1%) more than he pulls the ball (32.6%). I really like that in a player, especially one who hits a lot of doubles as Reynolds does. He has only hit one home run and driven in nine so far, but he is displaying some great bat control. His walk rate is at 13.2% heading into tonight.

One aspect of Reynolds’ approach that I really like is that he is hitting .400 when he gets ahead in the count. That’s a pretty substantial advantage in a profession where a 10-15% difference is a significant advantage over the competition.

He does have some issues. He has struggled against left-handed pitching hitting only .200 and striking out at a 40% rate, but that’s a very, very small sample size (10 at-bats). However, in the one game I saw him against a lefty, he struck out three out of four times. He also has trouble with the high fastball which explains his K rate of almost 25%. And right now, his batting average of balls in play (BABIP) is over .400. That’s not going to last. All of those things can be worked on and smoothed out. None of them are long term concerns.

Going Forward
It’ll be interesting to see how he is handled over the next year. There are just a little over three weeks left in this season. Luke should be staying at Eugene the whole time. Then again, a lot of where he ends up this year depends on who is the playoff hunt the last 10 days of the season. Eugene is currently two games back of a spot and South Bend is five back.

However, when next year comes, going to South Bend is not a given. Ideally, the Cubs would want him to start in South Bend, but when the season starts he’ll be 24 years old. That’s about a year to year to a year and half older than the average age of most players in low class A. If he does go to South Bend, I don’t expect him to be there long.

With his bat to ball skills, quick hands, powerful stroke, and the ability to take a walk, Reynolds could skip South Bend if he is proficient in fall instructs and spring training where he can work on his lowering his K rate by laying off the high fastball. I would be pleased to see him begin 2019 as a Pelican where he will, more than likely, be just fine.