The Cubs’ Mesa Experiment: How Did 2018 Go?

By Todd Johnson

2 teams
1 League
What could go wrong?

Not much did, actually.

In 2018, the Cubs added a second affiliate in the Arizona Rookie League. The impetus behind the addition was to give prospects more at bats and innings while still allowing rehabbing players a place to play.

From a purely wins and losses standpoint, it was a huge success as Cubs 1 had the best record in the league and Cubs 2 was over .500 and just two games out of the playoffs. But the Arizona Rookie League is not about winning. It’s about development.

At the end of the year, there were over 70 players on the rosters between the two teams. Before 2018, the Cubs usually only had about 35 guys. As a result of having two teams, it created a lot more exposure and game experience for many young Cubs.

In 2016 and 2017, the Cubs could not go out into the international free-agent market and sign a player for more than $300,000. They still had money to spend. So, the Cubs used their money to buy quantity rather than quality free agents with a huge investment in Mexico. Over 75 international free agents were signed in the two-year period. Just over 40 of them arrived in Mesa to begin their stateside career in 2018. Having two teams also allows players who reached the age limit in the Dominican to get another year of professional baseball.

In addition, one immediate impact is going to be seen in spring training 2019. That is competition. Having the second team in 2018 gave 35 guys more experience. Combined, those 70 guys will be competing with 35 guys from Eugene and another 25 from South Bend for a spot somewhere in class A at either short season Eugene or full season South Bend or Myrtle Beach.

While the short term effects of having a second team will be seen this year in their competitive aspect, it’s going to take a few years to see year how having that extra team for development is going to play out.

One aspect I did not foresee is that it also will allow the Cubs to draft and sign more younger players. 2018 saw the Cubs take several young high school players as well as some junior college guys, which they’ve not done a lot of under Theo. The Cubs have tended to go for the college experience but selecting more younger players could open up the draft pool a little bit wider than just targeting the normal college guys.

Having that second team also gave the Cubs a good reason to sign most of their draft picks. In years past, the Cubs usually signed between 20 and 25 guys. In 2018,  the organization signed 32 players and a few non drafted free agents. Who knows, the Cubs may even continue to dip down into independent leagues. It will be interesting to see how they fill out the rosters annually with this second affiliate.

I am looking forward to seeing how the players from Mesa this year are distributed to the affiliates next year. Some could stay in Arizona, but the majority will go to Eugene and a few to South Bend. It’s going be a long wait until early April to find out who goes where.

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The Weekly: Transactions, a Hall of Fame Ballot, and Upcoming News

By Todd Johnson

The only Cub news this week came on Tuesday when the Cubs traded for pitcher Rowan Wick from San Diego in exchange for 3B Jason Vosler. That same day, the Cubs claimed pitcher Ian Clarkin off of waivers and selected pitcher Justin Steele for the 40 man roster to protect him from the Rule V Draft on December 13.

The draft takes place on the last day of the GM meetings and that week is probably when things will start cooking in free agency. I don’t see the Cubs making a major move until then. Most deals before then will be a minor-league transaction such as what happened this week when Alberto Baldonado re-signed with the Cubs on a minor-league contract.

H.O.F.
I filled out my fake Hall of Fame ballot this week. If I could have voted for 15 guys, I would have. I think I am over the steroids thing and enough time has passed to move on as a fan. It was, and always will be, a popularity contest of memories. These type of things are not my forte, I vote too personally.

Website News and Upcoming Series
This will also be the last “Weekly” until the minor league season starts in April. Until then, I will be having regular posts on Sundays on one topic until “Spring Training News and Notes” begins in February and lasts through March. 

The “Position Breakdown Series” kicked off on Friday the 23rd with my look at catchers in the system. Next week, the first baseman will be on Friday the 30th.

In addition, this year’s off season prospect series begins on Tuesday the 27th. It is called “The 5 Series.” What I like about the premise is that I am only going to write about five things about a prospect. They can be questions, statistics, concerns, or maybe even things to work on for 2019. 

Card of the Week
When it came to making baseball cards in the off-season, I didn’t think I would be making a lot every month. I got that wrong. I have made almost 100 cards since October 1. I think I’m going to go ahead and do a top cards of the off-season post at some point next month. 

See you Tuesday for the debut of the 5 Series. 

The Weekly: 40 Man Spots, Jhonny Pereda, and Upcoming News

By Todd Johnson

Monday is a big day. On the 19th, the Cubs’ 40-man roster could contain  a few new names to protect them from being taken in the Rule V Draft slated for December 13. Expect to see Trevor Clifton, Justin Steele, and Jason Vosler get added. PJ Higgins, Erick Leal, and Jhonny Pereda are longshots to be put on the roster. The Cubs will likely roll the dice by leaving the last three off. A year from now, Pereda probably will get added and the same for Leal, if 2019 goes well.

I am really starting to dig Jhonny Pereda more and more. He had a great first half at Myrtle Beach this year. Like most catchers, he slipped a little in the second half as the grind begans to wear the catcher down. However, Pereda’s season wasn’t done as he was assigned to the Arizona Fall League. Pereda only played in 8 games there but hit a reasonable .278 with a .354 OBP..

While some may be focusing on his bat, Pereda handles a pitching staff fairly well. He caught some of the Cubs’ best prospects in 2018 and managed their games in an excellent fashion. He also caught an outstanding 38% of base runners stealing this year.

Pereda will be at Tennessee in 2019. It should be interesting to see how he does at AA. Considering he held his own in the AFL, the odds are in his favor. Hopefully Pereda can stay strong all year and see some more time at first to keep him a little fresher down the stretch.

Prospects Lists Getting Closer – I saw where Baseball Prospectus will be publishing their top 10 Cubs prospects on December 11, Baseball America started releasing their lists this past week, and Minor League Baseball has 4 done and more to come. I don’t have any idea about Fangraphs while MLB Pipeline is going for January 1 for their top 30, the same date as my new Top 21.

As well, Baseball America released their Draft Grades for the Cubs. I did very well in my predictions. I only whiffed on a couple, but then again, I might be right.

MiLB Transactions – The Cubs did have two transactions this week of the minor league variety. The Cubs re-signed speedy outfielder Wynton Bernard and reliever Jose Rosario, who was injured most of the past two summers.

The Mailbag – Those posts are going well. I have one I am working on about the developmental process in the system based on a question from Rikk Carlson. Then, after that, I have questions about pitching in the last draft and a Zach Hedges query. Still, I could go for more questions to write about and more posts. Those questions help beat the doldrums of winter and writer’s block. They actually make me energized! The next mailbag will be the week of the 26th. It would not bother me in the slightest to answer them all winter long!!!

Position Breakdown Series – This popular yearly series returns with its debut on Friday, the day after Turkey Day. I am read to get the catchers out there first. 

Other Stuff on the Web – I am trying to write more original content for Cubs Insider this winter. This past week, I wrote about Erick Leal and Trent Giambrone. Over at BP Wrigleyville, my last two articles were on the Arizona Fall League and the 2015 International Free Agent Class.

The 5 Series – Originally, Levi Jordan was going to be the first player profiled in this off season series. Instead, I changed my mind and decided to go with Jimmy Herron, whom I have a lot of questions about. I haven’t written one word on Herron. Then again, on Saturday (yesterday), I was watching the snow come down and all I could think of was Jose Albertos. Who knows what I will do? The 5 Series debuts on the 27th. Stay tuned!

Card of the Week

The Weekly: Affiliates Inked, Upcoming Lists, Travel Plans, the 40 Man, and MiLB Free Agency

By Todd Johnson

Affiliates Get All Inked
It was a bit strange to see, but the Cubs put to rest any chances of affiliate roulette by extending their five major affiliate PDCs through 2022. The Cubs extended Iowa, Myrtle Beach, and South Bend by two more years as Tennessee and Eugene just had their PDCs extended in recent months. I like the fact that the Cubs synced them up to expire all at the same time. That ends the bi-yearly carousel that has been taking place the past 6 years.

Here Come the Lists
It is getting to be that time of year as publications begin to put out their winter top prospect lists. Baseball America started with the American League East. It’ll be fun to see who has which prospect where on a list. The differentiation between the lists and who some outliers might be are also of interest.

In addition, Baseball America will also be publishing their draft grade for the Cubs for 2018. The Cubs should do alright. I look forward to seeing how they evaluate the pitching the Cubs took this year.

I was thinking of changing my Top 21 list when the AFL ends but I think I will just let it be for awhile until the trades are all done this winter.

AFL All-Star Game
Last night, Nico Hoerner played in the Arizona Fall League All-Star game. The shortstop earned his way onto the squad through fan voting. On the night, he went 1 for 2. In addition reliever Bailey Clark also saw some action out of the bullpen as he was charged with 2 runs in 2/3 of an inning. There are now just 10 games left in the AFL season

Travel Dates…
I started planning out my travel calendar to go see some ball games next spring and summer. I’ve set a tentative schedule and it looks like I will be seeing much more baseball in 2019 than I did in 2018. My trips begin in early May as I go over to Clinton, Iowa for two days. It is a little over an hour for me and I will be getting back from Illinois History Day in Springfield just in time.

Then it looks like I’ll be out in Des Moines the first week in June for a couple of days. Later that month, I will be heading over to South Bend. In July, I’ll be up in Appleton, Wisconsin for three days. After that, I will see South Bend in Beloit for three games, which is only 35-40 minutes from my house.

I am pretty excited about seeing some of the more elite players in South Bend in early May before they get promoted to Myrtle Beach. Over the past couple of summers I haven’t been to games until June or July. This next year will be fun as I get to see players before and after the draft.

Upcoming Dates – 40 Man Deadline Coming Fast
I’m going to keep an eye on November 20 which is when the Cubs have to set their 40 man roster or expose some prospects to the Rule V Draft. The two names I am keeping a lookout for are catchers PJ Higgins and Ian Rice. If either one is left off the 40 man, I feel pretty confident in saying some other team is going to snag them up on December 13th, the day of the draft.

Several things could change who the Cubs select to add to the 40 man roster and most of them will be because of who they add to be on the 25 man roster by then.

Back in August, I thought Trevor Clifton, Justin Steele, and Justin Vosler looked to be locks. I am not straying from those selections. I just wonder if the Cubs will add anyone else besides the aforementioned catchers. Lefty reliever Jordan Minch could be taken if unprotected as could fellow lefty Manny Rondon.

MiLB Free Agency Begins
The Cubs resigned a few of their own players to MiLB contracts for 2019. They inked (per Arizona Phil) Erick Castillo, Gioskar Amaya, Yasiel Balaguert, Roberto Caro, Erick Leal, Chris Pieters, and Danny Hultzen. However, the Cubs let go of Jeffrey Baez, Alberto Baldonado, Wynton Bernard, Corey Black, Stephen Bruno, Chris Coghlan, Casey Coleman, Ryan Court, Mike Freeman, Terrance Gore, Trey Martin, Cory Mazzoni, Jose Paulino, Bijan Rademacher, Jose Rosario, Kyle Ryan, and Daury Torrez. Considering the depth of the system now, letting this many players go is not surprising. Many were hanging on for a chance to get to Chicago or the big leagues. These guys still can re-sign with the Cubs.

Coming Up
There are no big plans this week. I was just going let trades and free agency drive the website for a couple of weeks until Thanksgiving. I do have a couple ideas floating around my head that I may give words to today or tomorrow to put out on Tuesday or Thursday. We shall see.

Card of the Week

2018 Affiliate Reviews: Tennessee’s Rotation Stole the Show

By Todd Johnson

67-71 Record in 2018

Strengths and Highlights
The strength of this team all year was the starting pitching rotation. Beginning with Trevor Clifton, who quickly went to Iowa, and Duncan Robinson, who went to Iowa later, the Smokies had plenty of depth. So much so, they went to a six man rotation in the second half. Matt Swarmer, Michael Rucker, Thomas Hatch, Keegan Thompson, and Justin Steele all shined on the mound for the Smokies. Rucker, and Hatch will likely join Clifton and Robinson in Iowa in 2019. Thompson, Justin Steele, and Swarmer could begin the year in Tennessee after only pitching at Tennessee for just two months in 2018. Or anything could happen depending on spring training.

What Else Worked Well in 2018?
Short, Rice, and Giambrone

These three hitters displayed a patient approach at the plate which allowed them to get on base at high clips. Short and Giambrone both hit 17 home runs while Rice seemed to have a power outage but was still getting on base at over a .400 pace. Hopefully, Rice will be protected in the upcoming Rule Five Draft. Otherwise, some team is going to snap him up.

Returning for 2019
Aside from the aforementioned pitchers and position players mentioned above, there will be a few players returning to AA. Some players may have played their last days as a Cub and they might even be familiar names. The key for this team next year will be at the plate. They will have plenty of pitching, but it will all come down to the bats.

Expect to see Connor Myers return. The multi-talented defender was up and down at AA at the plate, but he was magnificent in centerfield. Eddy Martinez should be back along with catcher PJ Higgins, who had a short tenure at Tennessee in 2018. Charcer Burks’ assignment might be up in the air depending on his spring as well as he had an up and down year.

What Will Be Left in the Bullpen?
Lefty Jordan Minch will go to Iowa. But who else is going to make up the bullpen next year? Scott Effross should be back along with Wyatt Short to anchor the back end of the pen.

Incoming Position Players
Jared Young, Jhonny Pereda, Roberto Caro
These three guys have earned their promotions and DJ Wilson could be added depending on how he does in Arizona this fall. Then again, having to earn his way to Tennessee might be the best thing for Wilson. I’m excited to see how Young will do along with Pereda and Caro.

Remains to Be Seen – Wladimir Galindo could be a guy who also makes it to AA if he has a good spring training. Based on his 2018 stats, you wouldn’t think so. But then again, he has immense talent and is just waiting for it to click in at any level.

Aramis Ademan is likely to repeat Myrtle Beach. But if Nico Hoerner gets it done in the Arizona Fall League, Hoerner could be the Smokies’ starting shortstop bypassing Myrtle Beach..

Arms Aplenty Coming
Alex Lange, Cory Abbott, Erick Leal, and Tyson Miller should headline a somewhat dominating group of starting pitchers heading to AA. There will not be  much of a drop off between the departing and the returning. Add in relievers Bailey Clark, Tyler Peyton, Manny Rondon, and Garrett Kelly, the Cubs’ AA affiliate should be stacked in the pen.

2019 Sleeper
If 2B Carlos Sepulveda can come back healthy, the young 21-year-old could be pleasant surprise for the Smokies at some point next year. He’s basically missed two full years now but he had elite bat-to-ball skills when healthy at South Bend in 2016.

2018 Affiliate Reviews: Iowa Cubs Get It Done in the Bullpen

By Todd Johnson

It probably doesn’t seem like there would be much to say about a 50-88 team, but this year’s Iowa Cubs had a few things to write home about. AAA is always a level whose main job is to get players ready for the big leagues. In the Theo era, Iowa has become a place where bench players are stashed, elite prospects get a tune up, and where long-term MiLB players hope to get a chance. Sometimes that affiliate model works and sometimes it does not.

What Worked in 2018
Relief Pitchers
– From Randy Rosario to Anthony Bass to Cory Mazzoni to James Norwood, the bullpen was the key to keeping the big league Cubs afloat all summer long in Chicago. Then again, that is really Iowa’s job.

Victor Caratini – I was surprised he made the club out of spring training but not surprised when he was sent down to Iowa. He just needed to get some more at bats in. When he was ready he came up to Chicago and was a key cog in the stretch run in September.

David Bote – Bote came up and made himself into a household name this summer with some dramatic at-bats before fading a bit in September. However, his defense and ability to play multiple positions increased his value. Bote’s ability to play multiple positions is the key to his future in 2019.

Dakota Mekkes – He’s my guy and likely to be called up sometime next spring. The only issue for him right now is that he is not on the 40 man roster to get the call up. When he’s ready next spring, he will be up. He had 41 Ks in 31.1 IP at AAA to go along with his 30 in 22.1 at AA earlier in the year. For the season, his ERA was a spectacular 1.17 with hitters only managing to hit .188 against him.

2019 Returning Guys
Mark Zagunis should return in 2019 if he does not get traded this winter. I really feel for him because I think he’s ready for a major league role. More than likely, it’s not going be with the Cubs.

I’d like to think that Bijan Rademacher will be coming back in 2019, but the odds are against it. At 27, the veteran minor-league outfielder might’ve played his last game as a Cub. Like Zagunis, there is just not a spot for him in Chicago.

A lot of the pitchers at Iowa should be returning. Along with some starting guys from Tennessee, it’s gonna be a pretty competitive spring to see who will be in the starting rotation in 2019 for Iowa. Outside of Alzolay, Mills, and Clifton, I think it’s pretty wide open for anyone to come in and get a spot. For now, it looks like Duane Underwood might be a bullpen piece.

Incoming Position Players
Ian Rice, Zack Short, and Trent Giambrone

I wish there were more. It was a disappointing year for most of the Smokies at the plate. However, these three seemed to transcend their teammates. All three showed a penchant for two things: getting on base and power.

Keep an Eye on for 2019
The Starting Rotation Conundrum

There will be 5 spots and about 10 arms who will be competing for said spots. However, either Alec Mills or Adbert Alzolay could be in Chicago to start the year. One of those two will be in the rotation along with Trevor Clifton. After that, that leaves spots for Michael Rucker, Duncan Robinson, Thomas Hatch, Matt Swarmer, or Keegan Thompson.

There are not going be too many guys coming up from Tennessee to pitch in the bullpen to begin the year. I expect Theo will go out and get a lot of arms just like he did in 2018….and 2017…and 2016…

The Weekly: Tennessee PDC, Copa de la Diversion Expands, AFL, and Card Rabbit Holes

By Todd Johnson

Playoffs
Today is the final day of the regular season. But then again, it feels like the Cubs have been in the playoffs for a couple weeks now. If needed, the Cubs will play the Brewers tomorrow afternoon at Wrigley with Jose Quintana on the mound. He pretty much owns them. If the Cubs get to that point, I feel pretty good about their chances to win the division.

Still Nothing Official
There is still no official news out of Tennessee, but the good news is that the Smokies are still tweeting out stuff related to the Cubs most every day. However, yesterday, Josh Timmers tweeted a link to a Pensacola News Journal report. The article said: “The Chicago Cubs earlier this month re-upped with the Tennessee Smokies, located near Knoxville, although it hasn’t been officially announced.”

So, that’s good to know. It’ll be interesting to see whether the deal is for two years or four or if there are any new stipulations to the PDC, such as improved video feed or high-def cameras. I would enjoy those.

Copa de la Diversion
In other big news, the Iowa Cubs and the Myrtle Beach Pelicans are both going to be part of the “Copa de la Diversion” in 2019. The minor-league program is meant to diversify and expand MILB‘s brand to Hispanics. Last year, it was very successful in Eugene. Every Tuesday, the Emeralds transformed into the Monarcas with cool hats and even cooler uniforms. Another side aspect was the amount of pride that players took in wearing the new brands. It was a lot of fun to watch.

The names and uniforms for Iowa and Myrtle Beach will not be released until March.

No Instructs, Just Rehab
For the second year in a row, the Cubs are not partaking in the Arizona Fall Instructional League. There is action going on in Mesa, but that only pertains to players on rehab assignments and players getting ready for the Arizona Fall League. The Arizona Fall League begins play on October 9 for six weeks. I will have weekly updates on the progress of the 9 Cubs playing for the Mesa Solar Sox.

BA League Top 20s and Chats
Earlier this week, Baseball America began releasing Top 20 Prospect Lists for each league in the minors. So far, the Cubs have been shut out in the Pacific Coast League, the Southern League, and the Carolina League. Hopefully, that prospect drought will end this week with Miguel Amaya, Nico Hoerner, and/or Brailyn Marquez in either the Midwest or Northwest Leagues.

In one of the chats about the Carolina League, Baseball America’s JJ Cooper was high on Cory Abbott but not so much on Aramis Ademan and Alex Lange. In the AA chat, Matt Eddy said the following about Zack Short at Tennessee:

Tennessee SS Zack Short ranks as the best defensive SS in the SL and had one of the strongest infield arms. He also clubbed 17 HR and drew 82 walks. I expected those attributes to play better with managers and scouts, but they uniformly expressed skepticism that Short’s straight uphill swing plane would play against better pitchers. Still, he has attributes that could make him a utility type of infielder.

We shall see how Zack does in AAA against better pitchers very soon.

Card Digging
I can go down an Internet rabbit hole with the best of them. This week, it was looking for pictures of Tennessee Smokies . I got a few good ones, especially of Thomas Hatch and Michael Rucker. Those cards should be out later in the week on the Facebook page. If you know of any unseen pics of prospects from local papers or other photographers, send me the link over on Twitter or on Facebook.

Tomorrow, I will be releasing my cards of September post which is very Eugene heavy. Still, there are a lot a great cards/pictures.

Also Coming Up
Last week, I wrote about some players coming back from injuries and poor performances. This week, I am going to remain flexible. I originally wanted to do affiliate recaps this week, but I will wait until the playoffs are over to release those. I am just going to play it by ear for a while.

Card of the Week