The Weekly: A Few Thoughts on Pitching as June Inches Closer

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By Todd Johnson

Over the past five years, Theo and Jed have always struck early in the trade market. I don’t know if I see that happening this year. I think the Cubs will wait to see how much things cost before they go all in the water. A new and improved fourth starter could lengthen the rotation quite a bit and make them more formidable in the postseason. Eddie Butler did well this week in his bid to stay in Chicago. I don’t know if the Cubs are going to  rely on Butler to be that player. I wouldn’t think so. However, it’s a long wait between now and the end of July when the trade deadline ends.

Down in Des Moines, the Cubs DFA’d Jake Buchanan. He was promptly picked up on the waiver wire by the Reds. The I-Cubs have been hit by pitching injuries again this year. Juan Paniagua made two short starts in the past week. I don’t know how much longer they’re going to continue doing that with relievers as Steve Perakslis also made a start. With Tennessee in first place, I don’t think anybody’s going to be coming up soon from AA.

670 the Score’s Bruce Levine got everybody talking this weekend about the possibility of bringing back Jeff Samardzija as a fifth starter. Jeff is owed $66 million over the next three years and his ERA has been near five since he left the Cubs in the trade for Addison Russell. Although Samardzija did do his best work with pitching coach Chris Bosio, I don’t think he is the best pitcher the Cubs could get on the market this summer. I like that Jeff wants to win, I just don’t think his stuff is good enough to do so. You don’t get a 5+ ERA by accident.

While I trust Theo to go out and make the best deal, I think the deal to get a new pitcher is going to be balanced between winning in the present and not giving up too much for the future.

Coming up at Cubs Central
I think June is my favorite month to write and to cover the Cubs’ system. There is the covering of the major league draft over three days. Three of the four affiliates finish the first half on June 18 and have their All-Star game on the 20th. I publish the first half All-Star team and break out players of the first half and do predictions of both for the second half. Four New affiliates start playing in Mesa, Eugene, and the Dominican Republic. And, as always, there is player development.

Around the System This Week
Iowa: 3-4; 22-26 – They seem to be running out of starters. Then again, Jeimer came back and began hitting as soon as he touched down in Iowa.

Tennessee: 5-1; 29-19 – Zoomed into first place behind excellent starting pitching and Jeffrey Baez who has been on a tear this month. Both Trevor Clifton and Preston Morrison have ERAs under two for the month of May.

Myrtle Beach: 5-2;  27-23 – Daniel Spingola and Justin Steele are playing great! This Eloy guy is doing OK when he is healthy. Oscar de la Cruz struck out ten on Thursday night and Adbert Alzolay keeps rolling along.

South Bend: 4-3; 28 -18  – They need some consistent starting pitchers. Jose Paulino and Manny Rondon struggled most of May. Duncan Robinson is ray of hope and it looks like Dylan Cease will be back very shortly. Tyler Peyton got his first start of the year last night and gave up 2 in 4 IP. 

Extended Spring Training – Joe Martarano got on base five times on Friday. He seems to be picking up the hitting thing after missing all of 2016. There are only three weeks until spring training ends and the players get divided up between Mesa and Eugene.Remember the name Miguel Amaya. He will be a fast riser on the Prospect Lists this summer. He’s an 18 year catcher who can do it defensively and offensively. Javier Assad is a pitcher who has been near dominant in the box scores this spring as well.

Players of the Week

Card of the Week

My Posts on Other Sites This Week
Cubs Insider
Duncan Robinson
Bryan Hudson
Alex Scherff

BP Wrigleyville
Grading the 2016 Draft

Prospect Profile: Jason Vosler – A Start to Remember

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By Todd Johnson

When I first saw Jason Vosler it was in 2015 at South Bend, all I could think of was Mark Grace. That was not a comp for his swing, rather it was the fact that Vosler originally did not wear batting gloves his first couple of years in the system. This year, he has them on and is having his best start as a Cubs prospect.

Fangraphs is one site that loves Vosler. Carson Cistulli stated:

Over the first month of his 2017 campaign, Vosler has continued producing his characteristically strong contact rates. He’s also recorded his typical marks at third base. As for the power, however, it has been something much better than “non-negligible.” After recording only three homers over 483 plate appearances last year while splitting time between High-A and Double-A, Vosler has already hit seven home runs in 2017. The result? The absolute highest isolated-power figure among qualified Double-A batters.

Basic Info
Bats/Throws: L/R
Ht: 6′ 1″ Wt: 190
Draft: Round 16 (2014, CHC)
School: Northeastern

Great Feel for the Zone
Short, quick stroke
Power to all fields

Areas of Concern
Hitting for Average

Heading into 2017
For the better part of three seasons, Vosler had flashed the ability to hit for power at certain times. I was surprised in 2015 when he was promoted mid season from South Bend to Myrtle Beach. At the time, I did not think he had done anything to warrant a promotion. He proved me wrong by slugging .441 the rest of that summer.

In 2016, he returned to Myrtle Beach for half of summer and moved up at the same time as Jeimer Candelario did from Tennessee to Iowa. Vosler flashed powered from time to time but his batting average was still stuck between .240 and .250 most months. The 10 home runs he hit in 2015 dwindled to just three for the entire 2016 season.

Going Forward
In May, Vosler is hitting over .329 with a slugging percentage of .481. For the year he is hitting .305 with seven homeruns and 29 RBI.

When I saw him wear gloves for the first time I did a double take. I am not sure how much of an influence they are having on his hitting, but I’m sure there is some correlation.

Right now, I am cautiously optimistic about his season. While he did hit five home runs in April, he has only hit two so far in May, but his batting average increased by over 100 points this month. His on base percentage is now over .400. For three of the four previous seasons, it was usually in the mid-.300s.

Along with Daniel Spingola, Vosler has improved greatly at the plate. He will more than likely make the Cubs Central All-Star team and end up as a runner-up for Hitter of the Month to Victor Caratini or Chesny Young. That is nothing to sneeze at but I would like to see Vosler replicate those stats in June before I fully jump on his bandwagon. I don’t see any reason why he should not be able to do so. He is well known as a student of the game. I am really looking forward to his June.

I see some future for Vosler as a Cub. However, he does play a position where he is blocked by two people already. In order to move up, Vosler is going to have to make himself stand out even more. That could include becoming more versatile and a consistent force at the plate.

The Friday Six Pack – It’s Been a Great Month for Pitching

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By Todd Johnson

The trade talk for the Cubs right now surrounds the acquisition of a starting pitcher, preferably one who is signed beyond this year. Jon Heyman wrote an interesting article yesterday that listed some possible candidates who might be available this summer. Names included Gerrit Cole, Zack Greinke, Jose Quintana, Chris Archer and every Tampa Ray known to man. The price will be steep if the Cubs decide to go that route.

On the other hand, I was watching/listening to the Myrtle Beach game last night and I started to work on a post for next week. My monthly minor league All-Star team for May has some intriguing options. Usually, for a starting pitcher to be considered to make the team, the ERA is most often near or below three. This month four players who met that standard would not make the team. Zach Hedges is at 3.23, Adbert Alzolay, 2.91, Seth Frankoff, 2.76, and Jen-Ho Tsen, 2.70.

Granted, the month is not over. With six days to go, all of the pitchers listed in this post have one start left. So, it is technically still in a state of flux. That being said, today’s six pack shows just how deep and rich the Cubs starting pitching has been this month at AA Tennessee and high A Myrtle Beach.

Here are the six leading candidates to make Cubs Central’s May All-Star Team. They also could be considered to move up a level here in the next month around the draft. None of them should come as a surprise if you have been reading as I have written about all of them but one this month.

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Oscar de la Cruz 2.63 ERA
What impresses me most is that he works fast. He gets in a rhythm and just throws. He doesn’t necessarily rely on the strikeout, but he can if needed. Last night he struck out ten.

Preston Morrison 2.50 ERA
As usual, he had a crappy April and has had three quality starts in May. I wrote about him earlier this week. He gets great movement on all his pitches and he combines that with great strategy to baffle hitters.

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Trevor Clifton 1.85 ERA
He might be my favorite pitcher to watch. When he is on, it looks like his arm is made of rubber as to how effortless he throws. He also has the best pickoff move in the organization. It’s a bit of an under reported weapon for him. He is off to his best start as a Cubs prospect.

Bryan Hudson 1.23 ERA
He stayed in EXST to begin the year. He made 2 starts in April and his ERA was 10.13. In May, he’s been a ground ball machine averaging over 10 a game. In four starts, his 1.23 ERA is more indicative of the type of pitcher he’s becoming. The 6’8” lefty is moving up lists this summer. He just keeps gaining more and more confidence.

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Justin Steele 1.19 ERA
Good for him! He is the kind of kid you can root for. He is still working on some things, but his stuff this year has been compared to Lester’s. However, he still needs to get his command down. Even though opponents are hitting .250 against him, he’s stranding them on base this year.

Duncan Robinson 0.90 ERA
At the beginning of the month, he was one of the best relievers in the system. Now, the 6’6” righty from Dartmouth has been one of the best starters. He’s gone 13 innings in his two starts and only allowed one run. For the month, he pitched 20 innings combined.I don’t think he is going back to being a reliever. He is the biggest surprise/breakout of the 2017 season.

The next week should be fun to see who makes the All-Star team.

Cubs Central’s Annual Draft Grades Show Some Change

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By Todd Johnson

Photo by Todd Johnson

It is that time of the year where I get ready for the draft by looking back and grading the last few drafts by the Cubs. For the past three years, I have only looked at the selections made by Theo Epstein and Jason McLeod. This year, I’m throwing a curveball into the evaluation process by examining the 2011 draft, the final one of Jim Hendry’s tenure. In addition, with two weeks to go to the 2017 draft, I will be evaluating the 2016 draft class for the first time.

Previous Grade – None
Right before he left his job as general manager, Jim Hendry oversaw a massive financial investment with players the Cubs selected in the 2011 draft. There are 5 players left in the organization in Javy Baez, James Pugliese, Trey Martin, Dillon Maples, and John Andreoli. This was also the draft that saw the Cubs take Dan Vogelbach who was later traded to Seattle for Mike Montgomery. Baez and Montgomery were both outstanding in the Cubs pennant and World Series runs. 

2017 Grade: B

Previous Grades – B+, A-, B
There are only seven out of 27 signed players left. Albert Almora heads the list followed by Duane Underwood, Pierce Johnson, Ryan McNeil, Stephen Bruno, Bijan Radmacher, David Bote, and Steve Perakslis. They are all at AA and above with Almora in Chicago. I don’t think things went as planned for this group. For most of the early years of Theo’s tenure, this group was at the top of the prospect list. Now it looks as though very few of them will make it to the majors. And if they do, it will be in a minor role. Two more years would be about the top end of their tenure as most will be 27 or 28 years old by then.

2017 Grade: B-

Previous Grades – A, A, A+
9 Left out of 23 – Kris Bryant, Trevor Clifton, Charcer Burks, Tyler Alamo, Rob Zastryzny, Jake Hannemann, David Garner, Will Remillard, and Cael Brockmeyer all remain. You already have an MVP/Rookie of the Year in Kris Bryant. Two of the players were on the roster that just won the World Series is it. There are two players currently at AA in Burks and Clifton who are having the best years as prospects. They could reach Chicago in the next two years. To be honest, everything after Bryant is gravy.

2017 Grade: A+ (see Bryant)

Previous Grades – A-, A
With Kyle Schwarber selected at the top of the draft, the Cubs were able to use their large signing pool to ink 27 players that year. 18 of them still remain including selections in the 10s like Chesny Young and the 20s like Zach Hedges. Even though second round pick Jake Stinnett has not worked out as planned, third round pick Mark Zagunis should be available shortly along with Young. Don’t get me started on Dylan Cease’s potential. I think this is the best draft class as a unit and I didn’t even bring up a resurgent Justin Steele.

2017 Grade: A

Previous Grades – B
Ian Happ is the clear draw out of this draft. There are currently 19 of the 27 signees still in the organization. Catcher Ian Rice has been a nice surprise the past two summers, while others just have not put it together yet. There are some players who are beginning to stand out a bit more like reliever Craig Brooks and catcher PJ Higgins. High school picks Bryan Hudson and DJ Wilson just reached low A. It is probably going to be the class that takes the longest to develop.

2017 Grade: B

Previous Grades – None
Out of all the drafts this decade, this one has the most flux in it. The grade could sway easily because the lack of position players and healthy starting pitchers. However, the saving grace, so far, is the relief corps assembled. With Dakota Mekkes, Wyatt Short, Michael Rucker, Chad Hockin, Marc Huberman, Duncan Robinson, and Matt Swarmer, the relievers are deep and powerful. Mekkes should be at Tennessee by year’s end. He is that talented. He just has to cut down on his walks. Rucker and Huberman have already advanced to Myrtle Beach with Rucker standing out.

When it comes to starting pitchers, there are a lot of “what have yous,” and “if everything works out alrights.” Thomas Hatch, the Cubs first pick in the third round has been shelled (ERA of 6+) at Myrtle Beach although I think he has shown very good stuff. He is just working on his command. Tyson Miller has been brilliant and bad in the same week. Stephen Ridings and Bailey Clark have yet to debut in 2017. For me, though, the most intriguing arm is that of Duncan Robinson. He was very good as a piggyback starter and was outstanding starting last week going 7 innings, giving up 0 runs, and striking out 5. Last Tuesday the 16th, he threw four scoreless and struck out 5. This week, he went 6 and only allowed one run. 

Position players Michael Cruz and Delvin Zinn are both very projectable players yet the Cubs are not forcing them along the way. Cruz debuted last week in South Bend. Shortstop Zack Short has been outstanding at South Bend as a leader and lead off man.

For now, I would give them a B-. If things go right, that could easily be a B or it could go the other way and be a C or C-. I just don’t know how it’s going to go. And that’s OK for now. Give them some time.

A Few Stats
Players Remaining in the System since 2011 – 81
Players who have made it to Chicago – 7
Current 25 Man Roster – 5
Current 40 Man Roster – 9

Prospect Profile: Daniel Spingola Is the Most Improved Prospect of 2017

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By Todd Johnson

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I don’t think anyone saw Daniel Spingola coming on so strong to start the 2017 season. The Myrtle Beach outfielder is hitting .323 with a .404 on base percentage. He made Cubs Central’s April All-Star team and he should be on the May All-Star team unless there is a complete meltdown between now and the first of June.

The Cubs first drafted Spingola in 2014 in the 24th round of the MLB draft. At the time, Daniel was coming off a very productive junior season at Georgia Tech. He hit .336 and was an All-ACC selection. Spingola did not sign with the Cubs. Instead, he went back to school to improve his draft stock.

His senior season did not go as well as he only hit .259. The Cubs redrafted Spingola in 2015, with his permission, in the 31st round. He played at three levels in 2015 ending up in low A South Bend.

In 2016, he began the year in South Bend where he hit ..308 in 38 games. He was promoted mid season to Class A Myrtle Beach where he struggled to hit only .243. Some adjustments would have to be made in 2017 if Spingola was going to continue as a Cubs prospect.

Basic Info
Bats/Throws: L/L
Ht: 6′ 1″ Wt: 180
Draft: Round 31 (2015)
School: Georgia Tech

Hit for average
Left Handed Hitter

Heading into 2017
Daniel is easily the most improved prospect in the System in 2017. The left-handed hitter has been very consistent since the beginning of the season. In April, he hit 308 and is now hitting 339 for the month of May. He’s on base percentage has also been over .400 for most of the year.

What Has Changed
According to Fangraphs, Spingola has been pulling the ball more than usual (Thanks to Scott Kornberg for this tidbit). It also looks as though he is swinging with more lift. As a result, he has been moved into the middle of the Pelican’s order based on his production. He has hit for a little more power, but I don’t know how much more power he has in his retool the swing.

Announcer Scott Kornberg believes that’s Spingola’s  swing might be more reminiscent of an earlier time than the swing he developed at Georgia Tech as a leadoff hitter. Whatever Spingola has changed since 2016 has definitely worked. His fly ball to ground ball ratio is still tilted more towards ground balls. However, his fly balls just happen to be finding their way for hits. To date, he has 19 extra-base hits for a .529 slugging percentage. Combined with his on-base percentage, that makes for a nice .933 OPS.

He is also playing with some abandon out in left field. Here are two great catches he has made just in this year.

Going Forward
Spingola just turned 24. Being a little older than most prospects on the team, his time is very short. However, that should not limit his effort. In fact, I think it is intensifying it.

Going forward, Daniel reminds me a lot of Bijan Rademacher. Daniel has been able to adapt and improve at each level just like Bijan had to do. I don’t know if he will have an opportunity to reach Tennessee at some point this year. If he does, I think he’s going to succeed at AA. I would not have said that a year ago after his first 48 games for Myrtle Beach.

There are three reasons why I think he can do just as well at the next level:
1 – He has a pretty good idea of what he wants to do at the plate. He’s not afraid to lay off pitches and take a walk. He also seems to be looking for certain pitches in certain zones that appeal to his swing.

2 – He is willing to make changes to improve his odds of moving further up in the organization.

3 – Desire. You can clearly see how much Spingola likes to play baseball. From how he runs the bases to how he plays in the field and to how he attacks pitches, he is going all out, all the time.

The rest of the summer is going to be filled with more surprises from him. I don’t have a clue as to what those might be, but I’m sure he is going to continue what he started back in April. The arrow is definitely pointing up for him.

*Special Thanks to Scott Kornberg

*Cards made from photos by Larry Kave/Myrtle Beach Pelicans and Rikk Carlson.

Profile Update: Preston Morrison Starting to Turn It Back On

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By Todd Johnson

One should never judge Preston Morrison by his performances in April. Last year at South Bend, his April ERA was 6.11. He turned it around in May with a 2.66 ERA and followed that up in June at 0.83. This year, his April ERA was 5.59 and his May ERA is all the way down to 2.50.

In between Aprils, Morrison was one of the best pitchers in the Cubs’ System in 2016. He was promoted mid season to Myrtle Beach again. Morrison had a 1.77 ERA in six starts as a Pelican.

Basic Info
Bats/Throws: R/R
Ht: 6′ 2″ Wt: 185
Draft: Round 8
School: Texas Christian

4 pitches

Lack of Velocity
Command early in the year

Heading into 2017
I don’t know if concern is the right word, but I was pretty interested in seeing how Morrison’s repertoire faced against AA pitching. He has four pitches he can throw for strikes out of the same arm slot

When facing Morrison, most hitters see what looks to be the same type of pitch from an almost ½ arm slot that can go four different ways. His fastball sits 88-90 and has a nice side arm run into a right-handed hitter. His curve comes in a little slower with 12 to 6 action. The slider has more of a 2 to 9 movement that frustrates left-handed hitters.

Because of the lack of velocity, I often wondered how AA hitters would react against his “whiffle ball” arsenal. Just like last year, Morrison adapted very well at each level. I expect him to continue adapting the next couple months.

He is only 23 and I think the Cubs would like him to pitch between 120 to 133 innings at Tennessee unless he is completely dominating by the middle of July.

He is never going to be considered to be an elite prospect. But I still think he can be a very good pitcher and pro if he continues to adapt as he goes through the system. It is fun to watch him he has such great movement on his pitches.

Even though he has struggled a bit earlier this year, opponents are only betting .221 against him. His home rate is quite high compared to other years, but at 1.21/9 innings, it is slowly coming down from April. If his command is off just a little bit, he gets lit up.

Going Forward
His walk rate is the most glaring statistic compared to other years. Last year he walked 33 all season; this year he is already at 14 after just 37.1 innings. That ratio has to shrink from 3+ per every nine innings fairly quickly. I think that is how we are going to measure his success in 2017.

I don’t think he has to have perfect command to succeed, but with four pitches between 78 to 90 mph, he has to have close to excellent. Anything up in the zone becomes BP in AA, but when he is in control, most hitters get extremely frustrated as the ball moves and darts at his will.

Prospect Update: The Exasperations of Eloy

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By Todd Johnson

He had only been a Pelican for a week yet Eloy tweaked his hamstring in the sixth inning of yesterday’s game between Myrtle Beach and Salem. I talked with Scott Kornberg after the game and Scott was not worried at all. For now, he is considered day-to-day.

Last year, at South Bend, Eloy played in 112 out of 140 games. The year before in Eugene, he played in 57 out of 74. So far at Myrtle Beach, he’s played in just eight out of 44 games. For those of you that are exasperated, you probably should revel in the fact that Eloy has never had surgery for any of his ailments. While most of them are hamstring related, this Spring’s bone bruise was the only hard tissue injury.

While fans may get exasperated and fearful of his many minor injuries, I had been thinking something totally different. I was wondering “when” Eloy would be getting out of Myrtle Beach and heading to Tennessee. In just his eight games in 2017, he’s hit .333 with two home runs, drove in five runs while getting on base at a .438 clip.

The only ones who might really be getting worn out are the pitchers in the Carolina League. The book on pitching to Eloy this year begins with a steady diet of curve balls until Eloy hits one, walks, or the pitcher is required to throw a fastball for a strike in the zone. Yesterday, I saw Eloy rip a fastball down and in off-the-wall on a 3-2 count. The ball was hit so hard that Eloy was limited to a single. He didn’t even think about trying to go to second.

Eloy easily recognized how he was being pitched. He seems pretty amenable to it and has not been chasing balls out of the zone. This is something he did not do last year in South Bend. When he gets his chances this year, he is destroying the baseball.

Despite these many levels of exasperation, the one person in all of this who is as cool as a cucumber in a bowl of hot sauce is Eloy.

Going Forward

I think Eloy will be back in a couple of days and he will be bashing baseballs with regularity. I am, for the most part, realistically thinking he will be in Tennessee by the middle of June if he can stay healthy. And to be quite honest, just based upon the spring he had in Arizona, a stop in AAA Iowa is not really necessary for him to get to Chicago. He may be just 20 years old, but his bat far surpasses his age.

It might be quite progressive of me to say that he could be in the major leagues by the end of the year, but it’s not unrealistic with his talent, pitch recognition skills, and the ability to drive the baseball with authority.  He is a manchild. He has his own goals and I think they match up well with the Cubs.

Some people think that there might not be any room for Eloy. As Ian Happ has shown this year, if you can hit, the Cubs will make room.