Breakout Pitching Prospects Getting Harder and Harder to Find

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By Todd Johnson

mission-2017

It’s getting harder and harder to sneak up as a prospect and have a breakout season. There are eyes, ears, evaluators, and video everywhere. For 2017, the Cubs have several 18-year-old prospects who could redefine every prospect list, even mine, in the second half of the year.

As for the first half of 2017, the names on this list should be very familiar. For them to break out, most of them will be playing their first full season at South Bend or Myrtle Beach. Add in some 2016 draftees who did not see any action last year and this year should be an exciting one for breakout pitching prospects.

Image may contain: 1 personAs for Michael Rucker, the former BYU righty saw a little bit of action last year in Mesa and Eugene after signing late. He throws in the low 90s with good movement. He could bounce up a couple more miles an hour this year. I don’t know if the long-term plan for him is to be a starter or reliever. I think he’s experienced enough to start in the low minors. 

When it comes to Stephen Ridingsbut, he’s got a rifle attached to his right shoulder. He can throw 95 with ease but the question is where the ball is going. I tend to lean towards him beginning the year in Eugene and going from there. Or he can stay in Extended Spring training. He’s a bit of an unknown in most respects because of the school he pitched at in college (Haverford). But I think he’s going to stay in extended spring. Right now, I tend to lean towards him relieving rather than starting.
After missing the better part of two years, Erling Moreno came back in a big way in 2016 at short-season Eugene. As long as he is healthy, I expect him to put up some dazzling stats at South Bend in 2017. He has what I think might be the best curve (12-6) in the Cubs’ minor league system. Opponents batted under .200 against while he put up a WHIP 0.70 last year. He was just plain filthy. He just turned 20 in January.

Colton Freeman is a lefty reliever out of Alabama who missed all of 2016  after season after being drafted by the Cubs. He throws in the low 90s and is one of a few new lefties in the system. It will be interesting to see what he can do as a reliever.

Thomas Hatch and Dylan Cease both come into 2017 highly hyped. Hatch is the Cubs 3rd round pick who has a mastery of four pitches he can throw for strikes. After throwing 131 IP in college, Hatch was shut down for the year. 2017 should see him make his debut at either South Bend or Myrtle  Beach. Cease, on the other hand, finally will have no restrictions at South Bend. I don’t think you can really call Cease a breakout pitcher, but he will not have limited pitch counts and hopefully fans can see him pitch beyond inning number 5. As a result, he will shoot up many of Top 100 Prospect list.

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Jose Albertos – Photo by Bill Mitchell
Jose Albertos is more like a mystery man. The just turned 18-year-old made his Cubs debut in Extended Spring Training and Mesa last year at the age of 17. He pitched only 4 innings in rookie ball. But those four innings created a mythical figure in the minors. I will let Jim Callis and Jonathan Mayo explain the mythos of Albertos.

Callis:I guess the guy I’m most intrigued by is [right-handed pitcher] Jose Albertos with the Cubs. This is a guy they purchased from a Mexican League club in 2015. He made his U.S. debut as a 17-year-old in the Arizona League: four innings, one hit, one walk, seven strikeouts, hit 97 miles per hour, worked both corners, showed a well-above average changeup, a pretty good slider, and that was the only game he pitched all year. He was shut down as a precautionary measure. He had some forearm soreness. It’s weird because, and Jonathan you can help me with this … there have been other outlets that have written that he wasn’t really hurt and the Cubs had some ulterior motive for shutting him down, which I actually asked the Cubs about this and they say: ‘No.’ I mean, he had some forearm stiffness, and they shut him down as a precaution.’ But I couldn’t even think what would be the upside? He’s not eligible for the 40-man roster. Like, I don’t even know why you would shut the guy down if you didn’t need to.  I mean, can you think of any reason why you would make up an injury for an 18-year-old kid so he wouldn’t pitch anymore the rest of the summer?

Jonathan Mayo: I’ve got nothing.

I just love Mayo’s answer! They continued talking about possible reasons Albertos was shut down. Still, the interest created in Albertos has been unreal as most Cubs prospect lists have him in their top ten just based on that small sample size. But if he throws 95-97 with control and can command two other pitches, then sign him up as the Cubs breakout pitcher of the year.

The only real issue will be where Albertos will play. Will it be in Eugene? Will it be in South Bend? I don’t know. I tend to lean towards him doing EST and then Eugene if the injury really was that serious to shut him down for a whole Rookie League season. Otherwise, if his stuff is that good, the Cubs should put him in EST and let him go to South Bend in late May when it warms up.

Spring Training News and Notes – Week One

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By Todd Johnson

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Quick Minor League News

Baseball Prospectus released its Top 100 Prospects List this week. Trevor Clifton came in at 87, Albert Almora was at 77, Ian Happ, 54, and Eloy was in the top ten at #9. I was excited to see Eloy so high before the season begins. As for Trevor Clifton, I think this is only the beginning for him. He will be on many more lists before the year is out. And, there could be several more Cubs join him. The biggest surprise for me was that there was no Dylan Cease.

MLB Pipeline will release their top 30 Cub prospects this Thursday, the 23rd.

John Sickels of Minor League Ball released his Top 200. Eight Cubs made the list. Jeimer Candelario was at 194 and Mark Zagunis at 192, Oscar de la Cruz garnered a spot at 134 and Albert Almora missed the top 100 at 102. Ian Happ was back to back with Trevor Clifton at 74 and 73 respectively. Dylan Cease came in at 60 and Eloy just missed the top ten at #11. That’s a pretty good showing for the organization.

Now on to spring training…

Tuesday was the first official day of spring training. For some reason, Joe Maddon was grilled about how he handled the bullpen in games 6 and 7 of the World Series. Really? The Cubs won. I think it’s time to let that go. No good can come from reliving those choices.

Around camp…..

Kyle Schwarber was cleared to catch by team doctors. He did a session with John Lackey on Friday. I don’t have a video of it, but I do have a picture.

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Picture by Carrie Muskat

I feel better about him catching, but it still scares me to think of the pressure catching puts on his rebuilt ligaments. I think the less he catches, the better.

I think the big story around camp actually happened in Las Vegas when Greg Maddux pranked Kris Bryant.

Earlier in the week, we mentioned a tweet about Eddie Butler going back to his old delivery. More information came out about the actual changes this week when Sahadev Sharma of The Athletic (free article) talked with Butler about what was happening:

“That’s our main focus right now. Every time I step on the mound right now I’m trying to get my arm slot back where it needs so it’s comfortable and producing the action that I used to have. [Bosio has] been here for almost all my bullpens and been watching me. He’s thrown a few tips out there to try to work on and see where it leads. So far it’s feeling really good, just got to continue it and make it consistent.”

I think the slower the Cubs work with Butler, the better. They can take their time to get him right. He doesn’t have to be ready to go on April 2, 2017.

Jason Heyward looks pumped and ready to go after spending three weeks retooling his swing. According to Theo Epstein, the Cubs look to craft a swing for Heyward that will allow him to create lift and backspin that will keep the ball from slicing or hooking foul while also creating a more reliable contact rate. And Theo wasn’t the only one talking about Heyward, Jon Lester chimed in about how much pressure he put on himself his first year as a Cub, too. If Heyward starts hitting like he did in St. Louis and Atlanta, his left-handed bat would change some things in the bottom half of the lineup.

Jon Lester was also seen doing some fielding drills and throwing to first base with the other pitchers. That’s a good sign.

Coming Up in Camp
“Don’t Forget the Heartbeat” became the first Maddonism to be released around camp. Manager Joe Maddon wants the players to remember that their human emotions helped to win the World Series. I am sure he will have a few more including something to do with “Authenticity” which Maddon spouted around the Cubs Convention.

The first games will be next Saturday, the 25th.

Upcoming Posts

– Breakout prospect series – Pitchers

I did some work on prospects who could breakout in the first half at 2017. I decided to split the posts into two parts. The first article will be published Tuesday and will strictly look at some pitchers to watch. The hitter article will be out the 28th.

– MLB Pipeline’s Top 30 Cub Prospect Evaluation

– Draft Profile Series – David Peterson – Pitcher – Oregon

Draft Profile: Jake Burger Has the Right Makeup

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By Todd Johnson

2017-draft-header

The best bat in February is not always the best bat in June MLB Draft. Projection is a fickle thing. Sometimes scouts can predict a player’s career track. Other time, they cannot. For Jake Burger, he went undrafted coming out of high school. He went to Missouri State and in just two years is a player to keep an eye on for this year’s draft.

Burger’s freshman year saw him hit 4 jacks with 50+ RBIs as a freshman. In what is probably his greatest asset, Burger worked hard and took instruction over the next year. As a sophomore, Burger cranked out 21 HRs and drove in 72 while improving in the field. Burger’s performance catapulted Burger onto the USA Baseball National Team last summer. While Burger did not hit a HR, he did benefit from the experience.

This spring, Burger’s bat is ascending in a draft devoid of big college hitters.

Image may contain: one or more people, people playing sports and baseballThis Week’s Profile
Jake Burger
6’2” and 220 pounds
Bats: Right
Throws: Right

Strengths:
21 HRs last year as a sophomore at Missouri State
72 RBIs in 56 games in 2016
Reliable Arm
Work Ethic
Takes Instruction Well

Areas of Concern:
Not the most athletic guy on the field
Lack of speed

What Others Say

MLB.com say this on his prospect page:

Though he went homerless with the U.S. college national team during the summer, scouts still recognize Burger as one of the top power sources available in a Draft class short on college hitters. He generates his pop more with strength than bat speed, and there are some worries about an hitch in his right-handed swing. He controls the strike zone well and makes reliable contact for a slugger, so he should hit for some average as well.

While Burger isn’t the most graceful player, and one scout compared him to Hunter Pence for his ability to get the job done in less than pretty fashion. Despite his large frame, he has close to average speed and decent range at third base. With his solid arm, reliable hands and admirable work ethic, he should be able to stay at the hot corner.

From everything I read over the past week about Burger, what impressed me most is his coachability. With that in hand, Burger definitely has the type of makeup the Cubs want in a player. His coach discussed his work ethic and desire to improve on the USA Baseball site:

“He spent a lot of quality time with our hitting coach Nate Thompson to figure that out. I think some of it is just his natural maturity of his pitch selection, while not trying to do too much has really helped him. It’s helped him get more balls into the air,” he said. “For him right now, it’s not so much mechanical as it is just figuring out how are people trying to get me out, what adjustments do I need to make in my at bat, etc. He just understands the game. He grew up with it and he can talk about it.”

In profiling Burger, he could become one of the best college bats in the draft if he has a good season. As a result, he could rise from the lows 30s. The question is whether other players rise, too.

Upcoming Draft Profiles: College Pitchers

These will be through the end of March

Next Up Series Finale – Eddie Butler Needs the Bosio Effect

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By Todd Johnson

mission-2017

In 2014, MLB Pipeline said the following of a young Eddie Butler:

Butler throws his fastball in the mid-90s and can reach 99 mph. His wipeout slider is his best offspeed pitch, and his changeup and curveball give him a chance for four average-or-better offerings. Butler has had command problems in the past, but his walk rate improved throughout 2013, and his loose, easy delivery should make it possible for him to pound the zone at a high rate.

What a difference a year made…John Sickels at the end of the 2015 season said:

“Although he can still hit 96-97 MPH, observers who have watched him pitch frequently report that his slider is not as sharp as it was two years ago, his fastball doesn’t have as much action low in the zone, and the decline in his harder stuff has reduced the efficacy of his change-up.“

Large ERAs and HR totals were alarming and in contrast to actually very low numbers in the minors.

When the Cubs made the trade for Butler, I thought that Chris Bosio and Jim Brower could get Butler to return to his 2014 form. It only took one day (apparently). Bosio had them go back to his old windup. According to Twitter, he was getting his old movement on his pitches. I have some slight hesitation in believing that, but I’m excited to see what other physical and mental adjustments Bosio and Brower employ.

For me, I don’t think there’s a rush, I think the Cubs have a year to get him corrected. If they can fix him, the former top 2014 MiLB prospect could be a boon to the Cubs for the next four to five years. And, Butler still has an option to go to the minor leagues. The Cubs may use that as they will likely err on the side of caution.

butler-trade-17Current Info
Eddie Butler
6’2″ 205 lbs.
Bats: Right
Throws: Right

Strengths
95-97 mph fastball
Only 25 years old

Areas of Concern
Command
Control
Lack of movement

Next Up in 2017
Iowa and/or Chicago

What I would like to see

I would like to see him return to his 2014 form when he threw between 95 and 97 with his fastball and a slider that has a lot of movement. Sometimes a change of scenery does a player good. In this instance, I think it’s going to be a change of voices. While he is technically not a prospect, if Butler returns to form, he could easily be the top young pitcher in the system.

I get a little giddy thinking about the fact that the Cubs maintain control of his contract for several years. For a pitcher, he’s just getting ready to enter his prime years and all the Cubs gave up for him was a relief pitcher, a good one at that.

Here is Butler in the future’s game a few years ago.

Spring Training Preview – The Honeymoon Is Just About Over

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By Todd Johnson

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Spring Training begins today for the defending World Series Champion Chicago Cubs. Over the next 6 weeks, the Cubs will be assembling a 25 man roster and getting peeks at players and prospects who could help them throughout the 2017 season and beyond. For the first few hours, there will be lots of smiling and laughing, but sooner than later, the Cubs will get down to work.

There will be competition for starting spots in the rotation. The bullpen arms will be assessed as well as the bench players. Jason Heyward will get to hit against live pitching with his new swing. Things will even get down to a microscopic look at Kyle Schwarber’s knee. These should be the key stories of Spring Training 2017.

butler-trade-17Starting Pitching – This could be a very interesting spring training when it comes to starting pitching. On the surface, it would appear that the Cubs are looking for third through six starters for this and next year. With Arrieta and Lackey set to leave after this season, the Cubs get a sneak peek at arms like Eddie Butler and Alec Mills. Then again, this year takes precedence. While Mike Montgomery could be slated for the fifth spot, he is going to have a lot of competition including Brett Anderson. Throw in a possible sixth starter for later in the summer and you have a lot of arms doing a lot of things for the next six weeks.

Last night I saw this “gem of a tweet.”

I am so glad Chris Bosio is the pitching coach of the Cubs. Now, I cannot wait to see Eddie pitch. If he gets back to his 2014 repertoire, look out!

Bullpen – With the way the bullpen unraveled in the playoffs due to injuries, Theo went out and got several arms this winter. Not all will make the 25 man roster, but like the starting pitching spot, there will be lots of competition and depth. I think Davis, Edwards, Grimm, Strop, and Rondon are locks, that still leaves 2-3 arms depending on how many starters you keep. With Travis Wood now in Kansas City, that opens the door for Rob Zastryzny to make the club out of spring training.

Bench spots – I think this storyline will involve Tommy LaStella and Matt Szczur as the key players to watch this spring. I think John Jay is definitely in, but I am interested to see how Chesny Young does as his bat is close to ready. However, Chesny doesn’t hit left-handed, LaStella’s saving grace. The Cubs could also add a third catcher based on the next paragraph.

schwarber-2016-wsSchwarber’s knee – Cubs Insider had some nice video and pictures of Schwarber getting a head start over the past week. We also discussed how his knee might not be ready to catch yet. As a result, This could necessitate a need for a third catcher. The Cubs could go out and get one or they could use Cael Brockmeyer, Victor Caratini, or Taylor Davis to fill in for a while.

Jason Heyward – It will be all about his rebuilt swing does in games. If it works, he could really lengthen the lineup.

Albert Almora/John Jay – I am not quite sure how this is going to work and if there’s gonna be some set rotation. What I do like is that both can play all three outfield spots on defense. I think the biggest effect will be how it affects Matt Szczur.

Other Unknowns: Injuries, Trades, Iowa

Outside of Schwarber’s knee last year, the Cubs were very lucky when it came to injuries. The Cubs have built up a lot of pitching depth and they already have plenty of position player depth built in through versatility and the minor league prospects.

I still think we will see another prospect for prospect trade this spring as the Cubs will use their position depth, especially in the outfield, to acquire another SP who likely could be in AA or AAA.

Iowa should be well stocked with arms as a result of this offseason. In acquiring all these arms, it will be interesting to see how prospects Ryan Williams, Trevor Clifton, Duane Underwood, and Zach Hedges navigate through the depth this spring.

So, without further adieu….

Play ball!

The Weekly: A Few Random Thoughts Before Spring Training

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By Todd Johnson

mission-2017

Baseball America released their Top 100 prospects on Friday night. Four Cubs made the list – Dylan Cease at 97, Albert Almora at 64, Ian Happ at 63, and Eloy at 14. I don’t think there are any surprises. The list got me thinking, though. “Which Cubs could enter the Top 100 later this year?” That question sounds like it could be a full-fledged post in the near future. 

Chesny Young – With the winter he’s had, don’t be surprised if Chesny Young gets a lot of at-bats with the big league club this spring. His ability to play four positions in the infield enhances what he can do with his bat. He might not be left-handed, but he can still get on base at a high clip

John Lackey – I doubt John Lackey can remain healthy for a full year at 38 years old. Last year, we saw him get skipped a couple times down the stretch as he went from being a number three starter down to a number four. I think the Cubs will look to improve the rotation for this year and beyond throughout the year by acquiring more pitching. Lackey could be a casualty of that search. Anderson, Butler, and Mills are just the start.

moreno-79-2016-eugThe 2013 IFA class – Last year we saw three players in this class break out a little bit. I think we’re going to see that same three break out some more. Erling Moreno and Wladimir Galindo will both be in South Bend this year. Looking back, that class might be seen as the biggest high-end talent grab in the Theo era. The 2015 class should be getting started in the United States this summer at Mesa and Eugene.

Breakout posts – I am trying to do a breakout post of prospects that should surprise in the first half. The problem is most prospects get a lot of press coverage online, including from myself. I am really looking forward to just seeing what names I can come up with. That post should be out in the next couple of weeks.

Eloy at Tennessee – There’s been some chatter on Twitter about Mr. Jimenez getting a crack at making AA Tennessee coming out of Spring Training. I don’t know if he’s fully ready yet, but I think it would be interesting to find out how he does. I think the Cubs want to challenge him and he wants to be challenged. At the end of last year, Eloy questioned why he was never promoted after pretty much destroying the Midwest League all summer long. He did go to Myrtle Beach for the playoffs after South Bend was eliminated. However, that was a very small sample size. 

Good luck to Donnie Dewees as a Kansas City Royal. I am sure Royals’ fans will appreciate his hit tool and hustle.


Upcoming Posts On Cub Central
MLB Spring Training Preview
Next Up Series: Eddie Butler and Alec Mills
Draft Profile Series: Jake Burger


My Upcoming Post on Cubs Insider – Trevor Clifton – Close to Home and Chicago
My Upcoming Post on BP Wrigleyville – Wladimir Galindo Could Bust a Few Moves This Summer

Draft Profile: Nick Pratto Is Another 2 Way Player Who Does Both Well

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By Todd Johnson

2017-draft-header

Last week, MLB held a showcase for prep players. Recent profile Nick Allen did very well, but the star of the showcase was Nick Pratto. Yes, that Nick Pratto who had the winning hit in the 2011 LLWS. Yes, that Nick Pratto who is a lifelong teammate of Hagen Danner. Pratto displayed burgeoning power to all fields combined with a smooth compact swing.

The Cubs have not drafted a first baseman since Jacob Rodgers back in 2012. They prefer to move catchers, outfielders, and other infielders over to first base to get more at-bats.

All that could change this year if the Cubs select Nick Pratto. 

Image may contain: one or more people, sunglasses and outdoorThis Week’s Profile
Nick Pratto
1B/P – Huntington Beach H.S.
6’2” and 195 pounds
Bats: Left
Throws: Left
Committed to USC

Strengths:
Still growing
Makeup
Winning
Developing Power to all fields

Areas of Concern:
Where to play him – Pitcher or 1B?

A two-way player, Pratto’s bat and his projectable frame have him learning towards hitting. Take a look at both videos. One is of him hitting. His short, compact swing is a thing of beauty. I can see why he can go to all fields as he is able to wait on a ball. I watched about five videos on him hitting and everyone was the same except this one, which has him fielding, an underrated part of his game.

He is not a slouch as a pitcher, either. He has more work to do to improve as a pitcher than he does as a hitter.

What Others Say

MLB Pipeline said:

There might be a slight lean in the scouting industry toward Pratto as a hitter. He has an advanced approach at the plate and never looks overmatched, with a smooth, easy swing from the left side and power to all fields. He has excellent footwork around first and could be a plus defender there. He’s no slouch on the mound, with three average or better pitches in his fastball that touches 92 mph, an excellent changeup and a solid curveball. He goes right after hitters and throws a lot of quality strikes. There’s projection to his stuff on the mound should he focus solely on that.

In addition to his multiple talents, Pratto gets very high marks for his makeup and competitiveness, intangibles that could help teams decide to try and sign him away from Southern Cal.

One thing Jason McLeod looks for is USA Baseball experience. Pratto played both 1B and P for last summer’s team. Here is how his coach described Pratto’s efforts on the mound after striking out 8 Australians in 2015. 

“He pitched to contact, pounded the zone and filled it up. We played well defensively but when we made errors he immediately came back and pounded the zone. He didn’t let them get back in it.”

There is no doubt Pratto is a rising option for this summer. Like Danner, I don’t think you have to choose what position you place him. I think you would just let him play.