The 7 Series: Tennessee Smokies Show Some Deep Talent in 2017

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By Todd Johnson

Overall Record – 68-70

I am not quite sure what went down in Kodak, Tennessee this summer. In April and May, they were close to being the best team in the system and were competing for a playoff spot against Chattanooga. Then, in one series, they were swept by Chattanooga and that doused any first half playoff hopes. Several prospects struggled in June and July and yet the Smokies were still in the thick of the playoff hunt again until mid August when the Montgomery Biscuits put some distance between themselves and the Smokies. Pitcher Jake Stinnett, who missed most of the year, returned in late July as a reliever and shined in his new role (0.61 ERA in 9 games). There could be something there.

Still, there was a lot of development that took place in 2017 for a team that was not considered to have a lot of elite prospects. Here are seven things about the Smokies talented roster.

1. Outfielder Charcer Burks was one of the prospects who came out of the gate extremely well in spring training playing with the big league club. That carried over into April and May as Burks made his way onto MLB Pipeline’s top 30 cubs prospect list after hitting .293 and .286 and then .333 in June. Then July happened. He hit .135 for the month but he did rebound some in August. For the year, he hit .270 with a .370 OBP.

2. Trey Martin – He has been around for a while and he has improved at every level. It is not been a rapid ascent, though, but a slow steady climb. Along the way, he’s won two gold gloves and struggled with minor issues like this year’s hamstring strain that caused him to miss two months. Upon his return, his bat showed a marked improvement and I am really excited about what he might be doing at Iowa next year.

3. David Bote exploded in the second half of 2016 and that carried over into April and May 2017. Like Burks, he went down a little bit in the summer but rebounded well in August hitting over .280. I like the fact that he can play multiple positions in the infield. He has shown some power, but I prefer the fact that he is hitting the ball up the middle on a consistent basis.

4. Jason Vosler – He led the Cubs’ system in home runs this year with 21 but he also hit less than .200 in August. He came on like gangbusters this spring and then faded over the course of the rest of the summer. I am looking forward to seeing his batting average/OBP bounce back in 2018. It seems the more home runs he hit in July and August the lower his batting average got. Considering the fact that he never had more than 10 home runs in a season before 2017, it was interesting to see him produce at such a prodigious rate.

5. Yasiel Balaguert – We should just rename him Mr. Second Half. If he ever had a good first half, he would hit over 25 homers and drive in100 every year. That’s basically his second half pace when prorated out to a 162 game schedule. Maybe he’s just one of those guys it does better when it’s warmer. I look forward to him playing first base and the outfield next year for Iowa in a hitter’s league.

6. Ian Rice – You have to be picky when looking at his stats. You can hone in on the on-base percentage, the power numbers, and games played behind the plate that all point to him being one of the most improved prospects the past year. He played in 114 games this year with a .353 OBP and hit 17 homeruns. Considering that he was a last-minute addition to the Tennessee roster, he did an outstanding job transitioning over to catching almost full-time. I am really looking forward to seeing what he can do in Arizona Fall League this October and November.

7 – Which starting pitchers will get promoted to Iowa with Duane Underwood? I don’t know who that’s going to be. I honestly don’t. It should be determined in spring training. I think Zach Hedges will get a crack at Iowa again if I was to make a bet. If Adbert Alzolay and Trevor Clifton shine in spring training, they could also find their way there. I think a lot of it depends on who the Cubs sign, or trade for, in the offseason to replace Arrieta and Lackey. Right now, Alzolay, who is pitching well in relief in Arizona, might have the inside shot. Clifton, who was brilliant in the first half of the year and struggled in the second, could turn his career around quickly with a good spring. I would not be surprised to see all four get a shot in spring training to make a start with the big league club.

Smokies to Watch in 2018
Now 22, Eddy Martinez will be the player to watch in 2018. He’s finally acclimated to playing baseball again and playing baseball in the United States. It’s been a huge cultural shift for him and he is now able to relax and just play. In the second half of 2017, he hit .276 with 7 HRs and an OBP of .333. I imagine that the Eloy trade was tough for him as they were inseparable as teammates. The trade also may have helped him realize he is on his own now. I am looking forward to seeing him do his own thing in AA in 2018.

SS Zack Short, Pitchers Dakota Mekkes, Michael Rucker, Duncan Robinson, Thomas Hatch, Pedro Araujo, C Tyler Alamo, and 3B Jesse Hodges also bear watching in Tennessee. All will be at critical junctures in their development.


The 7 Series – Iowa Cubs Produced Prospects in 2017 but Changes Are Coming

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By Todd Johnson

Overall Record – 67-72

For the second straight year, manager Marty Pevey had to assemble a starting rotation made out of spare parts until August. Injuries and promotions at both the major and minor league levels cut his starting rotation short. The I-Cubs did have a potent offense led by the Cubs minor league player of the year, Victor Caratini. Starting pitcher Jen-Ho Tseng put together the best half by a pitcher in AAA since Kyle Hendricks was there.

The Iowa Cubs are still producing prospects to help Chicago every year. This year we saw, in addition to Caratini and Jen-Ho, Ian Happ, Eddie Butler, Jeimer Candelario, Mark Zagunis, Dillon Maples, and several relief pitchers help out the big club in some capacity. I expect more prospects will help out again in 2018, likely they will be just in bench roles. I don’t see anyone with the everyday playing career path of Ian Happ in the upper parts of the pipeline. Caratini looks to make the 25 man roster in Chicago next spring but just as the backup catcher. I am curious as to what the plans for Mark Zagunis are as he doesn’t have much left to prove in AAA.

Here are seven things to know about the 2017 Iowa Cubs.

1. Bijan Rademacher had the quietest best second half of any prospect in the system. I was a little surprised he wasn’t named the July player of the month as he hit almost .400. He can play all three outfield positions and I think he has one of the best outfield arms after Eddy Martinez. The issue is that he doesn’t project to be anything other than a fourth outfielder. Then again, he hasn’t really been given the chance to show that he can be something else. He has begun to hit for more power and I like what he can do at the plate. He can hit for average and he knows how to work an at bat.

2. I would not be surprised to see the big league club continue to clean house again at Iowa. The 2017 roster at Iowa only had a few position players that might project to make it to Chicago. Most of the roster were journeyman players looking for one more opportunity to get back to the big leagues. With Tennessee sending anywhere between 6 and 9 position players to Iowa next year, I don’t think there are going to be too many roster spots available for any player or prospect nearing 27 years of age. Already, Jake Hannemann, Pierce Johnson, and Felix Pena have new homes for 2018. I don’t know if John Andreoli will be back again either.

3. I still believe in Chesny Young despite his up-and-down year. I think that he has some adjusting to do at this level and I’m confident that he will do well in his second go around at AAA in 2018.

4. Unless Eddie Butler can add some sort of out pitch, I don’t know if he’s going to be anything more than a fill-in at the major-league level. He had his moments this year in Chicago, but he never went much beyond five innings. He needs to be more efficient to get outs quickly and go deeper into games.

5. I am still pulling for Ryan Williams to make it. I just like the kid. He has a bulldog mentality that I love. However, after basically missing two full seasons, I wonder if returning to the bullpen might be best for his long term health. In 2018, we will see.

6. Dillon Maples is going to be close to making the Chicago Cubs 25 man roster next spring. I like the fact that he’s going to get more instruction from big league coaches that will only enhance his chances.

7. For me, the highlights of the year were the second halves of Jen-Ho Tseng (1.80 ERA) and Taylor Davis (.297 avg with 62 RBI). I am glad Davis got the call to make it to Chicago. His story is a tale of perseverance and he is an outstanding teammate and hitter that I think can play somewhere in the majors. I don’t know if Tseng will be given a true opportunity to pitch in the big leagues next year but he should get a few starts with the club in spring training. A lot of his future is tied to what the Cubs do to add starting pitching this offseason.

What to Watch for in 2018
There are going to be at least six position players from Tennessee who should start in Iowa next year. I think many will benefit from playing in the Pacific Coast League but none more than catcher Ian Rice. If you dismiss his batting average and just look at his power numbers and on base percentage, you begin to see his value and how much greater he is than his fellow prospects (17 HRs, .353 OBP). I think he is really going to benefit from playing in the hitter friendly Pacific Coast League more than any other prospect in 2018.

Jason Vosler will also benefit from playing in such environs. After a poor second half, Vosler should look to recapture what made his first half so fantastic in 2017. In the first half, he hit at a .274/.375/.521 clip with 13 HRs and 49 RBI. In addition, Yasiel Balaguert, David Bote, Trey Martin, and Charcer Burks should be starting everyday in Des Moines next summer.

Remember the name Adbert Alzolay. Out of all the prospects at Tennessee, I think he might be the most ready for Chicago. Even though he is currently a starting pitcher, I can see him coming out of the bullpen in Chicago as early as the middle of next summer. With a fastball that sits 95-97, there’s a lot to like.

NLCS Game 2: Questionable Bullpen Moves End It for the Cubs

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By Todd Johnson

I am tired.

As a result, this post is not going to be a long one.

I can understand why Joe Maddon didn’t go to Wade Davis in the ninth. I am sure Joe will say he was saving Wade to actually save the game. However, that doesn’t mean I have to like it just because I understand it. And right now, I don’t like it.

If Davis is fresh for the next four games and saves everyone of them, then Joe will look like a genius.

While the bullpen moves are questionable, the lack of hitting is really the story of the game. If the Cubs’ hitting woes continue, it is not going to matter who comes out of the pen in the ninth. The Dodgers’ pitching has really shut down the potent bats of the Cubs and Manager Dave Roberts is going to his outstanding bullpen after five innings. The Cubs are going to have figure out how to score some runs or this series may not get back to LA.

The Weekly: The Nelson Velazquez Fan Club Has a New Member and Arizona Fall League Begins

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By Todd Johnson

Nelson Velazquez Gets Some McLeod Love

Over the past few weeks, I’ve written several posts and have them ready to go. As I begin to publish them, I am starting to notice a few trends. One is that I am writing a lot about Nelson Velasquez. And the second trend is that I am also focusing more on Jose Albertos. I think when I redo the top 21 list in a few months, Nelson could fly up a few more spots.

Mark Gonzalez of the Tribune talked with Cubs director of Scouting Jason McLeod about Nelson’s potential. Here is what McLeod said:

“He’s got power, speed and physical tools, and we can’t be more excited about how the rest of summer went. It’s inherent upon us and him to develop those skills. He’s going to end up being 6-2, 215 (pounds) and really strong and physical.”

I didn’t expect that last sentence as I thought he was already physically maxed out.

Arizona Fall League

Play began on Tuesday with Alec Mills getting the start for the Mesa Solar Sox. He got beat around pretty good in a little over two innings of work. He gave up four runs in his short stint. However, there was good news that night. Adbert Alzolay was phenomenal in relief. He pitched two innings and struck out four batters. On Saturday, he went two more innings and whiffed three more. I hope he continues to do well as 60% of the players in the league in the past have gone on to play professional baseball. I know if Adbert is going to start next year at AAA Iowa. Adbert has taken a huge step in his development this year and I could see him pitching in Wrigley at some point next summer. He could start or he could relieve, but I think he might be best suited to relief role.

On Wednesday, David Bote went 3/4 with a HR and 3 RBI in his debut. He played 2B. Things are really looking up for him. Bote also had a good day Thursday, this time at third base. He went 2/4 with and 1 RBI. he continued doing well on Friday and Saturday he hit another HR, his third in 5 days. For the week, he hit .500 with 6 RBI. It is a very impressive showing for the 24-year-old.

Ian Rice went 1/3 with a double and a walk on Wednesday. He also drove in one run. Jason Vosler has struggled band has been playing mostly at 1B. He has yet to get a hit in 4 games while Charcer Burks has yet to play. Jake Stinnett struggled in his lone appearance (2 IP, 4 H, 2Ks) while Pedro Araújo picked up a save on Friday in one of his two games (2 IP, 3 Ks).

The Seven Series

Starting on Monday, there will be three posts this week that look back at each affiliate’s 2017 season. Each posts examines seven issues about the affiliate and/or the prospects and the year they had. Monday, Iowa gets their due followed by Tennessee on Wednesday, and then Myrtle Beach’s season is relived on Thursday or Friday.

Baseball Card of the Week

I began my off-season card work this week. I have about 15 new cards uploaded to the Facebook page. You can see them right here. This one is my favorite…so far.

NLCS Game One – A Strange, Strange Game Ends in a Cub Loss

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By Todd Johnson

Usually, players make the difference and are the centers of attention, especially in the playoffs. In game one of the NLCS, the managers took center stage with a series of puzzling substitutions that made for one of the strangest games I have seen in awhile.

It started well for the Cubs. Jose Quintana was cruising along scoreless through 4 innings. A 2-run HR by Albert Almora gave the Cubs an early 2-0 lead.

Things changed much later. In the 5th, a big double by Yasiel Puig brought the Dodgers within 1 run and a SF by Charlie Culberson tied it up. Surprisingly, Clayton Kershaw was lifted for a pinch hitter after 5 innings in a 2-2 game.

I was actually surprised to see Hector Rondon enter during a tight game since he did not pitch in the NLCS. As a result, I was not surprised when Rondon gave up a leadoff HR in the 6th to Chris Taylor. After getting Justin Turner out, Rondon was lifted in a double switch. Montgomery came in and pitched while Ben Zobrist replaced Albert Almora in the lineup. I told my wife that Schwarber would get that run back in the 7th. I didn’t get that idea quite right.

At this point, I kept thinking the Cubs had 6 outs to get the lead back before Kenley Jansen entered. Jansen has been “Wade Davis-like” in relief this year getting 41 out of 42 save opportunities with a 1.32 ERA. When Schwarber made the second out in the seventh, I thought we had the heart of the order coming up one last time in the eighth.

I was still hopeful.

Then Yasiel Puig hit a dinger to make it 4-2. Then another run scored by a player who never touched home plate. Maddon got kicked out and things were way past strange heading to the eighth with the Cubs down 5-2.

After two quick outs in the eighth, Jansen entered to face Kris Bryant and the heart of the Cubs’ order. It wasn’t much of a test for him as he set all four batters up and then he set them back down for a 5-2 Dodgers’ victory.

There is the old adage by Pat Riley that states: “A series doesn’t start until someone loses at home.” Last year, the Cubs were down 2 games to 1 against the Dodgers and won it in 6. I am going to sleep well knowing those two things.

The Cubs will get back at it on Sunday with Jon Lester on the mound.

The Otani Decision is Getting Closer – Do the Cubs Have a Chance?

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By Todd Johnson

It won’t be long before Shohei Otani will begin his courtship of major-league teams. Once he is posted by the Nippon Ham Fighters, every major league team will match the posting fee for him. Who Otani picks is anybody’s guess at this point. From what I have read, money is not the issue. What Otani wants is to play in the major leagues. Unlike most American athletes, he is not driven by money. If he was, he would wait until he turns 25 in the summer of 2019 and he could sign a contract with any team for any price.

As a result of his decision to come over this winter, his earning potential is limited as an international free agent under the latest collective-bargaining agreement. Otani can sign for as little as $300,000 on up to somewhere close to$3.5 million, depending on how much money some teams have left in their international pool.

While the Cubs may still technically be in the running for his services, they can only offer him $300,000. They can’t make any secret backdoor deal and run the risk of losing Otani.

Let’s just say, for argument sake, that the Cubs sign him. What is it that they get? What does he have that makes him so special?

Basic Info
6’5” 190 lbs.
Throws – Right
Bats – Left
Positions: Pitcher, RIght Field, DH

That’s right, you get three positions in one. That’s one reason I believe that he might actually head to an American League team. Then again, he wouldn’t get to hit when he pitched. So that makes me think he could head to a National League team.

42-15 career record
2.52 ERA/2.78 FIP
624 Ks in 534 IP
.287 average/.360 OBP
70 doubles/48 home runs
166 RBI
.862 OPS
13 stolen bases.

From a scouting standpoint, he throws a fastball in the upper 90s and low 100s. This past season though, he only pitched in five games, getting to 124 pitches in his last start but still throwing 101 miles an hour in that start. He does have a wipeout slider to accompany his fastball. He also throws a splitter and a curve but everything runs off his fastball.

David DeFreitas from 2080 Baseball said the following about his pitching skills:

Top-of-the-rotation guy with smooth, easy mechanics; has a chance for plus command of three plus pitches. Double-plus athlete that is still growing into his body and developing coordination. Has the makeup to go with the advanced skill set. Aggressive, will challenge; pounds the zone and locates to all quadrants with plus ability to put hitters away. Comfortable in high-profile position; big-game mentality, competitor; throttles up/back; shows the ability to win without his best stuff. Above-average defender, moves well off the mound and accurate throwing to bases.

As a hitter and outfielder, he is equally as dangerous. From the left side of the plate, he can do anything with a baseball. He can hit for power and he can hit for average.

After a while, he comes across as some super video game player who can do it all. And from my understanding, he can. Whoever lands him will immediately get one of the top five players in the game. He potentially could hit 25 home runs and strike out 200 batters in the same year. He could drive in 80 and pitch in 160 innings.

The Cubs have a chance. Is the chance very good? I don’t know. To try and attract someone not motivated by money by a team that has a lot of it is a little strange. If the Cubs are going to sell Otani on coming to Chicago, the Cubs are going to have to get Otani to believe that he can be Otani as a Cub.

If I were Theo, I would focus on three things in my sales pitch
1. There is a definite young corps of players behind him for the next four seasons. There will be more on their way after that.
2. He could definitely play a position two to three times a rotation. He would pitch one day, take a day off, pinch-hit the next, and then he could play two days in the outfield.
3. He could be the ace of the rotation with a chance to win a World Series every year through 2021.

It what Otani really wants to do is win, there’s no better place than Chicago to win the World Series.

NLDS Game 5: Shadows of Game 7

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By Todd Johnson

“Nobody said it was easy.”

When I woke up this morning, the Coldplay song was running through my head. I was surprised when I woke up at 5:30 that I felt energized after getting just five hours of sleep. As I began to get ready for another day of teaching, that song just kept running through my head. And I kept wondering if that game was as crazy as I remembered it to be.

It was.

In fact, it was that and everything more.

If you wanted the Cubs back in the National League Championship series, they are there. I am sure at some point today, the adrenaline will shut down and I’ll begin to feel exhausted as a result of the glorious torture the Cubs put me through last night.

The whole time during the game I kept thinking this is so reminiscent of game seven of the World Series. In some ways it was just as torturous. Washington was a worthy adversary and you just have to tip your cap. As I laid in the tub this morning, I kept thinking, the Nationals through everything they could at Cubs including two games of Strasburg and 1.5 of Scherzer and yet the Cubs still survived. After all that, the Cubs now get to face Clayton Kershaw in game one of the NLCS.

As soon as the game ended, my thoughts turned to who could start on Saturday. I am pretty sure they will announce it today and it’s more than likely to be John Lackey. I’m hoping Quintana could start. I guess I’ll just have to wait to find out. Considering that Joe Maddon thrrew everything and the kitchen sink to get to the NLCS, it’s just a trade off Cub fans are going to have to deal with for one game.

I’m extremely excited that the Cubs are back for the third straight year in the NLCS. It’s not gonna be easy there either.
I will now need to rest up.