The MiLB First Half All-Star Team Came Right Down to the Wire

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By Todd Johnson

In compiling the stats and possible prospects who might make the First Half All-Star Team, I started with a spreadsheet to get a head start. The 20 something players who made the list did not change much, but who would become the hitter and pitcher of the first half changed from week to week. The reliever of the first half was pretty much set in stone since the first month of the season.

It’s been interesting to watch players shoot up, down, or stay steady throughout the past 2.5 months. Still, it came down to the weekend to see who would make the team when it came to starting pitching (I had 12 at one point and it didn’t end up too far from that).

The biggest surprise the past two weeks has been the surge of Jhonny Bethencourt. Bethencourt is a 21-year-old infielder who plays 3B, SS, and 2B for South Bend. He can definitely handle a stick. He’s hitting almost .350 in June alone to bring his average up to .280. His issue, though, is his defense. He tends to rush plays with his arm. He can get to and field the grounder, it’s just the quality of his throws. However, as long as he hits, he is going to play somewhere.

I really like Jared Young and have been on the “Jared Young Train” since before he began to take off last August. His approach is too good. Not only can he hit for average, he can hit for power. Most teams in the Midwest League already employ a shift against him every night and it is not stopping him from going off. He is the hitter of the first half. I am ready for him to add 10-15 pounds of muscle this winter to add even more power to his game. He cranked out 8 HRs and lead the system in RBI this spring and also lead with a wRC+ of 146 while hitting .302.

Pitcher Matt Swarmer has been pretty steady. He’s had a couple of tough starts, but that is it. The lean and lanky starter already got promoted to Tennessee after being named the April Pitcher of the Month with a 1.72 ERA and 26 Ks in 20.2 IP. In May, he had a 2.92 ERA. In his first start at Tennessee, he got touched, but in his second start, he was scoreless through 3 before the rains came and delayed the game. For the first half, between the two levels, the pitcher of the first half put up a 2.47 ERA and had 65 Ks in 59.1 IP with a WHIP of 0.95.

Dakota Mekkes is the reliever of the first half. He had a 0.98 ERA between Iowa and Tennessee along with 36 Ks in 26.2 IP. His only issue is walks. He’s given out 15 free passes this year, but only 3 in Iowa (5+ BBs/9). Expect to see him in Chicago shortly.

Without further adieu, here is Cub Central’s First Half All-Star team.

 

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The Weekly – The First Half Comes to a Close, Brandon Hughes, and Fernando Kelli

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By Todd Johnson

As the first half of the year comes to a close today, the future is hopeful. At the end of April, times were rough in the system. Only one team had a record over .500. But over the course of the last six weeks, some hitters broke out, several pitchers excelled, and where there was once darkness, there is now some light. After today, 3 of the 4 full season teams could have a .500 record or better for the first half. That did not look possible on May 1.

Although no team made the playoffs, a few should make a run for it in the second half. The draft picks could add a little boost to the system once they sign and go through their camp.

Iowa – 2-4 (25-41)
Tennessee – 4-3 (35-34)
Myrtle Beach – 2-6 (34-35)
South Bend – 3-4 (34-34)
Eugene – 2-0 (2-0)
DSL 1 – 3-3 (7-6)
DSL 2 – 4-2 (5-8)

Eugene began their season on Friday night and it is an extremely young team. That should change once the draft picks go through an orientation camp for one week. For now, though, there is some promise. Fernando Kelli is an extremely exciting player and Nelson Velazquez looks more at ease. I can’t wait to watch them develop. Kelli is already causing havoc on the basepaths everytime he gets on base. Whether it is good baserunning, stolen bases, or his presence, he is just plain exciting.

Meanwhile, out in Arizona, the two rookie league teams in Mesa begin play tomorrow. It will be interesting to see the rosters tomorrow. One could assume one team might be a normal team while the other could have the rehabbing players and the draft picks coming in and out. We will find out more tomorrow.

Who’s Hot at the Plate Right Now?

Brandon Hughes hit .222 in April and slumped to .188 in May. The 2017 16th round pick from Michigan was highly thought of because of his athletic prowess. The poor start did not dampen his development. A switch hitter can sometimes be hard to fix. For Hughes, though, he seems to be on the right track  in June. He’s hitting .389 with 1 HR for the month. His average was at .199 on June 2. Two weeks later, he’s brought it up to .241.

I asked South Bend Cubs broadcaster Brendan King what about Brandon changed? He said, “They’ve changed the batting stance a bit, he’s standing more straight up in the box but other than that, just constant repetition.” Like many Cubs prospects, one reason Hughes was selected was his athleticism, another was his makeup. King would also add that Hughes is an extremely hard worker. I look forward to seeing if he can maintain this level of performance as I think there could be something with his size and his speed. The coaches are going to have to bring it out and it sounds like things are improving. Good for him.

Down in the Dominican

I am never quite sure what to make of some stats in the Dominican. The league is made up of a mixture of 16-21 year old kids who are need of game experience. Development can occur rapidly and the play is not always the best. There are lots of errors, wild pitches, and TOOTBLANs. As a result, I always take the stats with a grain of salt. Still, there are some eye-popping numbers coming out of there by several prospects. I will go over some of those in more detail, hopefully next Saturday, as more data comes in.

The Podcast Is Up

The Podcast I did with Cubs Insider and Cubs Den writer Sean Holland is up. There are some technical difficulties but it is still decent. I never can stand the sound of my own voice; I always find it weird. Give it a listen.

Busy Week Ahead

Tomorrow, I will publish the First Half All-Star team followed by the Baseball Cards of the First Half on Tuesday. Wednesday will see the Breakouts of the first half and Thursday will see some second half breakout predictions.

Players of the Week

Card of the Week

Card made from a photo by Tiffany W. (@TiffW96)

Ems’ Debut Shows Some Promise

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By Todd Johnson

I always find it exciting to watch the Eugene Emeralds on MiLB.TV. It is usually my first live look at most of the players. In game situations. For most of them, I’ve read about and maybe saw them in a video, but I like to get a get a live look at their swings, their speed, and their arms.

Here are a few things that stuck out about last night’s opening game.

1. Fernando Kelli had some major league speed. He also has a short quick stroke to the ball. Anytime he gets a single, he’s going to be standing on second base very, very soon. In the bottom of the first, he singled to right, stole second, advanced to third on a sacrifice fly, and came home after a dropped third strike when the catcher threw to first. It was pretty Impressive.

2. Nelson Velasquez looked much more relaxed at Eugene than he did at South Bend. He went one for four, and only struck out once. But he put the bat on the ball pretty consistently.

3. It was pretty clear that defensively Luis Vasquez is going to own the infield. Whether it’s a pop up or a ground ball, he’s going to try and get to it. At just 19, I really like what he can do on the left side of the infield. The bat will come in time.

4. Christopher Morel started at third and I really liked what I saw from his swing. It’s still a little bit long but it does show the potential for power. He went one for four on the night..

5 Skinny Jonathan Sierra is dead. Bulked up Jonathan Sierra is quite alive in Eugene. Like Morel, Sierra also has a long swing that he’s going to crush balls when he hits him. The problem was he didn’t really make much solid contact last night. It’s just one game. There are plenty more to come.

6. Lefty Faustino Carrera has some nasty offspeed stuff. His fastball usually came in about 86 to 90 and a curve came in in the upper 70s/low 80s. But it his changeup that is devastating. I could’ve sworn broadcaster Matt Dompe say that it came in at 72. That’s just unfair. For a 19-year-old kid to throw that kind of pitch is pretty cool. On the night, he went six innings and gave up two hits, zero runs, walked one, and struck out five while also picking a runner off first. He worked some deep counts early but shortened things up in innings three through six. But I liked what I saw yes he used only 71 pitches on the night.

7. Catcher Jonathan Soto looked good behind the plate and he also looked good with a bat in his hands going two for three. He’s got a nice left-handed stroke to the ball and put it in play every time.

At some point late tonight, I’ll see if I can stay awake to watch the second game of the Emerald’s season. I really liked the talent that I saw for just one game. It’s hard to make a full profile of a player just on one game. However, there might be something here. It Will be fun to get more data over time.

The Friday Six Pack – Things I’ve Been Keeping an Eye on Lately

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By Todd Johnson

This is the final weekend of the first half of the minor league season. Only the Tennessee Smokies are still in contention but three teams have a chance to have a winning record for the first half. In addition, the Eugene Emeralds begin their season tonight. The Arizona Rookie League also begins on Monday.

Here are six other things I have been keeping an eye on lately.

1. Keegan Thompson – The Myrtle Beach starting pitcher threw seven perfect innings of no-hit ball. He uses a four pitch mix to get eight strikeouts while not allowing a baserunner of any kind. The no-hitter and perfect game were lost in the eighth, as well as the game. Still, Thompson might be the most polished right now of last year’s draft class. His pitchability is off the charts.

2. Erich Uelmen – Over the last two months, there has been no better pitcher in the Cubs system. He had a 2.16 ERA in May and has a 1.40 ERA in 3 June starts. Currently, his sinker is one of the best pitches of any Cubs’ pitching prospect. If he can command all three pitches, he is going to be unstoppable. I can’t wait to see how his stuff plays at the next level.

3. Jared Young – in April, he was hitting over .400 before an injury. When he came back in May, it took him a couple weeks to get back in the swing of things. He only hit .229 for the month. He’s back to destroying the ball and hitting .298 for the first half as well as 39 RBI, second only to Jason Vosler in the system.

4. David Bote – He definitely has power as he hit another home run last night. His bat to ball skills clearly put him at the top of the Cubs’ call up from AAA list.

Card made from a photo by Tiffany W. (@TiffW96)

5. Jason Vosler – He should find his way to AAA soon. For the past six weeks, he’s been hitting for average and power while leading the system in home runs and RBIs. He’s been taking his walks all year, now balls just seem to be falling in for him at a much higher rate. He should be fine at AAA as long as he can hit somewhere between .250 and .270 to go along with his power.

6. Jake Hannemann – He’s never been a hitting machine until this year. At 27-years-old, things are really beginning to click for him. In May, he hit .313 and, so far in June, he cruising along at a .400 clip.

Bonus – I have not been spending as much time on Twitter since the draft. That will probably continue as I seem to be enjoying doing other things like getting the back yard fixed up. If you send me a message on Twitter, I will get a notification on my phone and I can message you back. Other than that I think I’m enjoying cutting back the amount of time I spend there.

Coming up Sunday in The Weekly
Who’s Hot – Jhonny Bethencourt, Brandon Hughes, Michael Rucker, Duncan Robinson, and Jacob Hannemann, to name a few. I will also check out how Eugene did and take a short look at trends in the DSL.

Eugene’s Roster Is Ready for Opening Night…With Room for More Changes

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By Todd Johnson

At the end of spring training when I did my roster previews for each affiliate, I always do a preview of what Eugene’s preview two months down the road might look like. I was pretty close on who I thought would be on the opening day roster for the Cubs’ short season class A affiliate. However, there are always a few things I can not foresee like Delvin Zinn getting a shot to stick at South Bend.

This year, two factors are in play to affect the roster. One is that there are two Mesa teams now. And the second is that the MLB Draft was last week which allows more time this year for the picks to sign. The draft signees will trickle in and out as they ho through a short training camp in Mesa and begin to make their way up the system.

Usually, upwards of 50-60 players file through Eugene’s locker room in a year. Many go on to South Bend, but 35 are stationed in Oregon at a time. The affiliate can only have 25 activated per night (10 of which must be pitchers), but it is a good proving ground to move on to the next level and it is the beginning stop for most draft picks coming out of a 4 year college.

As of today, there are still 8 roster available out of the 35.

Who did I get right?

Most of the young Latin position players that I predicted will be at Eugene to start the year. They include Nelson Velazquez (after a month in South Bend), OF Jonathan Sierra, SS Luis Vasquez, OF Fernando Kelli, 3B Christopher Morel, and 2B Luis Diaz.

While not currently on the roster of 27, SS Nico Hoerner and other collegiate picks like 3B Luke Reynolds and 1B Tyler Durna are probably not too far behind from getting their careers started in Eugene.

Who did I miss?

By this point in the 2018 season I thought Jose Albertos would be on the verge of heading to Myrtle Beach at just 19 years old. But some issues with his fastball command and release point will have him at Eugene after opening at South Bend and then heading down to Extended Spring Training to work on that issue.

Catcher Jonathan Soto is a bit of a surprise, but according to Arizona Phil, Soto was one of the best hitters this spring. The backstop will turn 20 next month.

In addition there are several returning players. Relievers Jake Steffens and Casey Ryan along with closer Luis Aquino are back. First baseman/catcher Gustavo Polanco returns and will try to break through Eugene to make it to South Bend. It also looks like Cam Belago, who was one of the better hitters for Mesa last summer, will see some time behind the plate and at first as well.

As for the pitching…

Card made from a photo by John Arguello

It will have a distinct Latin feel for a while. Brailyn Marquez and Faustino Carrera, who both pitched at Mesa last year, are two young lefties who could not be more different. Marquez, who is just 19, has a plus fastball (95) and a plus curve that has had command issues in the past. When he’s on, he’s brilliant. Carrera can command his stuff and at 19 is a promising youngster with a plus changeup who throws in the upper 80s, low 90s.

Joining them in the rotation will be a mixture of 2018 draft picks and swingmen until the roster gets settled. It usually takes a month before things calm down. But you could see 9th round pick Derek Casey and compensation pick Paul Richan get in some starts in addition to several relievers like Riley Thompson and Ethan Roberts.

It will be interesting to watch how this team evolves over the next two months. While development is always the essential objective at this level, just as important this year will be who plays for Eugene and for how long. 

Will Nico Hoerner’s tenure as an Emerald/Monarch be something that last weeks or months? The same question holds true for Reynolds and even Jose Albertos. I have a soft spot for Jose, but he’s still only 19. He still has excellent stuff. When he leaves Eugene, Jose has to be able to command his arsenal. Whether if that’s in a month or next spring, it doesn’t matter, just as long as he does.

I am looking forward to tomorrow night!

What Cubs’ MiLB Position Is the Strongest?

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By Todd Johnson

The first half of the MiLB season ends on Sunday. It always goes quick. By the end of this week, short season ball begins, some players will be off to All-Star games, some will go home, and draft picks will be signing. 70 games goes by fast.

It especially flew by this month. I finished teaching the 24th of May and I will be on summer vacation 3 weeks as of tomorrow. I got some things done around the house, mostly in the yard and on the deck. And in doing so, I had plenty of time to think while working. Yesterday, for example, I put in three small trees on the west side of the yard. While I was shoveling and moving dirt, I wondered to myself, “If I was to rank the Cubs’ system by position strength, how would that look? Which group is the deepest, is the most talented, and is filled with players with the most projection?”

So, here they are with #1 being the top area. And, yes, this list includes recent draft picks.

1. Starting Pitching
Key Prospects
– Adbert Alzolay, Thomas Lange, Oscar de la Cruz, Trevor Clifton, and many more.
The Cubs targeted pitching in the 2016 and 2017 drafts. That pitching has spread across the system from South Bend all the way up to Iowa already. In putting together my first half All-Star team, there are nine pitchers who have an ERA of 3.25 or lower for the first half and another three between 3.26 and 3.50. That’s some pretty good depth for just four affiliates. Another fact I like is that at AAA Iowa there are four starting pitchers who are 23 years old in Clifton, Tseng, Alzolay, and Underwood. So, the pitching is still relatively young but playing at a high level.

2. Catchers
Key Prospects
– Victor Caratini, Taylor Davis, Ian Rice, Jhonny Pereda, PJ Higgins, Miguel Amaya, et al.
After the Eloy trade, this became the deepest and most productive everyday position in the Cubs system. If the Cubs were to make a trade this summer, you can be pretty sure that one of the Cubs’ many backstops would be included. If Caratini were still eligible to be on a prospect list, he would be the Cubs number one prospect with Miguel Amaya close behind at number three. That’s pretty deep.

3. Relief Pitchers
Key Prospects
– DIllon Maples, Dakota Mekkes, Wyatt Short, James Norwood, Tyler Peyton, Ethan Roberts, and Mike Glowicki.
This group of players made the biggest jump this season. Part of their high ranking is due to the fact that they have two players who are basically ready to head to Chicago at a moments notice in Maples and Mekkes. I am also excited to see what Ethan Roberts can do when he steps onto a mound for Eugene in the next couple of weeks. Recent draft pick Layne Looney might be one worth watching, too.

4. Shortstops
Key Players
-Aramis Ademan, Zack Short, Luis Vazquez, Luis Verdugo, Fabian Pertuz, and Nico Hoerner.
This is easily the youngest group and the one who could shoot up the rankings the fastest. While Short is at AA and Ademan at high A, the rest are all playing short season ball and are 18 or younger except for Hoerner. It will be interesting to see how quickly Horner moves in the system in relation to Ademan and whether they both play a mixture of short and second from here on out. WIth Vazquez, Verdugo, and Pertuz lurking down in short season ball, this should be the number one everyday position in 2-3 years.

5. Third Base
Key Players
– Jason Vosler, Wladimir Galindo, Jesse Hodges, Luke Reynolds, and Austin Filiere.
Four years ago, the Cubs had some great third base prospects in the system. While this position has the most power in the system now, it’s still a bit uneven as it doesn’t have the most depth, yet. I like what Vosler has been doing for the past month at Tennessee and I am interested to see how well Luke Reynolds does this summer in Eugene and South Bend. If Wladimir Galindo can stay healthy, this position gets a lot stronger because of the impact of his bat..

6. First Base
Key Players
– Jared Young, Yasiel Balaguert, Tyler Alamo, Austin Upshaw, Luis Hidalgo, and Tyler Durna.
In the Theo era, the Cubs have only drafted two first baseman and one of them was last week. This is a position where everybody tends to be sent to get some at-bats. This year, Jared Young has really taken off at the plate by showing more power sooner than I thought he would. It’ll be interesting to see how Durna does when he suits up in Eugene.

7. Second Base
Key Players – David Bote, Chesny Young, Andruw Monasterio, Trent Giambrone, Vimael Machin and Christian Donahue.
Outside of Bote, this is a position that lacks the biggest impact in power mode. However, there are some players who can hit well for average and get on base.

8. Outfield
Key Players
– Mark Zagunis, Bijan Rademacher, Charcer Burks, Kevonte Mitchell, DJ Wilson, and Jonathan Sierra.
There’s potential here but a lot of that potential is not having a good year outside of Rademacher and Mitchell. Zagunis and Burks have struggled and the lack of HRs from this position is a little disconcerting. There are plenty of young players in A ball on down who can hit and get on base while also showing some glovework, but HRs are rare there, too.

If I redo this in September, and/or a year from now, the rankings  change because of the impact of the younger levels. I don’t expect a lot of change from the prospects in Tennessee and Iowa, but the young kids throughout the lower levels could give some hope to each position.

Pitching will be #1 again as it is just too strong and getting better. With several young Latin pitchers getting ready to start their season in Eugene and Mesa, the starting pitching is only going to get stronger.

Inside the Draft Process: Good Stuff from Sam Hughes Via Mick Gillispie and Eric Cain

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By Todd Johnson

I am not sure how I am writing this post as I thought I was all “draft-ed” out. However, I am going to blame Tennessee Smokies announcer Mick Gillispie for today’s post.

Every Saturday at 11 am central, Mick co-hosts a radio show with Eric Cain called Baseball This Week on WNML Radio. They discuss a panorama of baseball topics including the Cubs, the Smokies, and this last week, the MLB Draft.

Their guest on Saturday the ninth was the Cubs’ national scouting crosschecker, Sam Hughes. Hughes talked about the Cubs’ recent draft and how the Cubs go about finding and selecting the players they do. Both Mick and Eric asked some specific questions about the process and what the scouts look for and investigate in a prospect. I will embed the show at the end of the post if you wish to listen to the excellent interview.

To begin, Hughes talked about how elated he was that the Cubs selected top pick Nico Hoerner. He personally saw him three times down in Texas in the spring and 4-5 times last summer in the Cape Cod League. Hughes claimed that Hoerner is wired right and a “Cubs’ type of player.” According to Hughes, Hoerner comes to play, is athletic, should stay at shortstop, and loves that in talking to Hoerner, Nico mentions winning a lot. Hughes also compared Nico’s makeup to Kyle Schwarber.

It was an interesting discussion between Mick, Eric, and Sam as they broke down how many times they check out a prospect and how makeup goes into making a selection. In addition to an interview and seeing the player in game action, Hughes told of how the Cubs do background and family checks.

Another aspect that goes into selecting a Cub in the Theo Era is neuro scouting which predicts bat-to-ball skills. Theo used to brag about how high Mookie Betts scored on his neuro tests. This year, those highest scores went to second round pick Brennen Davis. Hughes described Davis as super athletic with an amazing presence and an engaging personality.

It was strange to hear a national crosschecker give a lot of thanks to the R&D part of the Cubs’ scouting service, but it is the 21st century.

Hughes also brought up compensation pick Cole Roederer as a pick he really liked. What I found most interesting about this point in the conversation was the Cubs’ scout spent ten days straight watching him play in the Area Code Games. It was a good thing the Cubs scouted him early has Roederer had hamstring and non-throwing shoulder issues most of his senior year of high school. Roederer’s a classic top of the order guy with some pop.

The final three guys Hughes talked about also detailed on why they were picked. Pitcher Paul Richan (Compensation round) was taken for his ability to throw strikes. 2B Andy Weber (5th round) from Virginia was taken as a hitter who has good bat-to-ball skills. Pitcher Ethan Roberts (4th round) flashed an amazing curve and cutter in his work this past weekend in the College World Series. Hughes thinks Roberts’ stuff will play up like Dakota Mekkes’ stuff has done as a pro. That’s a pretty cool comp. And again, Hughes praised the Cubs R&D staff for all the pitch data on Roberts, who could be an elite arm.

Mick and Eric would go on to have a great conversation for the rest of the hour as they talked about the Cubs. I really enjoyed the interview as both Mick and Eric were able to draw out how the Cubs go about scouting, analyzing, and selecting the players they do.

https://omny.fm/shows/baseball-this-week/sam-hughes-6-9-18/embed

Over the next few days, many of this year’s draft class will report for their physicals out in Mesa and then sign their contracts. With Mesa and Eugene starting play on Friday, some of them will begin their pro careers quickly.

If you want to keep up on the signings, I suggest you follow @Savermetrics on Twitter. He has some great info on all the draft picks.