The Weekly – Playoffs Loom Large and Some Interesting Trends

By Todd Johnson

Wow! Three weeks from tomorrow the minor-league baseball season ends. That’s a hard thing to fathom. I am not really sure I am ready for that. When it comes to teaching, I am not sure I am ready for that, either. This past week, I set up my classroom and come Wednesday, I have the first of two institute days. The kids arrive for their first day on Friday the 17th. Then, the month begins to take off.

Then MiLB Playoffs will be kicking off soon. Tennessee is still holding on. Heading into today, the Smokies are 5.5 games back. South Bend is fading very fast. They are seven games back. South Bend is going to need an incredible run and some help to get over five teams. Eugene has an excellent shot of joining Mesa in the postseason. They are just two games behind Salem Kaiser. The Cubs 2 team in Mesa is very quietly moving up the ladder. They now stand 1 games behind first place. However, that division is so jumbled with five teams within 2 games of the lead. Mesa’s season ends a week early on the 27th. 

This past week, Baseball America released their rankings of the top farm systems in the minors. The Cubs came in at #28. Even though Miguel Amaya made two top 100 lists, the system itself still lacks elite talent. BA, however, did mention both Nico Hoerner and Brailyn Marquez as possible players who should be ones to watch next year.

Interesting Trends Happening

Even though there are three weeks still left in the season, Jared Young seems to have sewn up the Cubs’ Minor League Player of the Year Award. He won back-to-back monthly awards in June and July. Aside from hitting .306 with a .368 OBP for the year, Young hit his 15th HR on Friday while also crossing the 70 RBI plateau. Young has completely dominated two levels at South Bend and Myrtle Beach. The only player who is even in the same discussion for the award is Jason Vosler, who leads the Cubs’ system in both HRs and RBI with 18 and 73.

On Friday night, it was strange seeing Trevor Clifton throw a no-hitter for 5.2 IP. He gave up 2 consecutive hits before he was pulled. All the while, I kept thinking, “I only have one more baseball card to make of him and that is from his MLB debut.” Got a little misty thinking about his journey and how close he is to getting the call to Chicago.

Every summer down in the Dominican, one prospect usually garners a lot of inquiry about their stat line. Last year, that prospect was Fernando Kelli who stole 58 bases. This year, pitcher Luis Rodriguez is raising some eyebrows. For the season, he has a 0.70 ERA and 0.70 WHIP in 51.1 innings. He’s struck out 46 and walked only 6 all summer. Even more impressive, as a starter, he has a 0.24 ERA!!!! I was hoping the 18-year-old lefty gets a shot to come north to play in Mesa once his team is eliminated from the DSL playoffs.

Zack Short is killing it AA the past month. The 23-year-old shortstop is doing what he normally does – hitting dingers and taking walks. But this year, he’s had a couple streaks where he’s hit about .300 for long stretches at a time. He’s in one of those runs now (9 for his last 30). His K rate has fluctuated throughout the year. In May it was at 42% but is back down into the low 20s now to go along with his ungodly walk rate, which in August is in the upper 20 percents. He’s going to be in Iowa next year and with his power potential (he has 14 HRs so far in 2018), he could earn his way to Chicago very soon. Check out this cool piece about Short by the greatest self professed scout ever.

It sure seems like South Bend has been playing with 24 guys on the roster most of the year. In addition, for the past month, they have only had 2 catchers suiting up. Miguel Amaya gets the call behind the dish most days and Cam Belago, who is in his first year of receiving behind the plate, spells Miguel once or twice a week. Amaya, even though he’s just 19, has to be feeling the effects of catching 80% of the time. Hopefully, a third catcher will find their way to Indiana. They will need a new bullpen arm as Garrett Kelly is on his way to Myrtle Beach after last night’s game.

The Tennessee starting rotation has been other worldly later. Every night, it seems like the starter goes 6 innings with 1 run allowed and strikes out 5-8 hitters. Keegan Thompson, Matt Swarmer, Michael Rucker, and Duncan Robinson might be the most under-reported story of the past six weeks. If not for one horrible start at the end of July, Rucker would have been pitcher of the month. Thompson was right there with him while Robinson is in his second month with a sub-2.00 ERA. Their success on the mound at AA should make things quite difficult for the powers that be next year as AAA should be swimming in quality starters.

When it comes to the walking wounded, Bailey Clark is back on the bump. He made two one inning starts in Mesa this week. He is slowly building up his arm before he goes back to Myrtle Beach.

Getting Back to the Compass

One thing I really like to write in the second half of the year is a prospect profile. A lot has been happening in the system and I have gotten a few in, but not as many as I want. This week, however, profiles are filling the post docket and most of the them are about players in Eugene. In the past two weeks, I looked at Luke Reynolds and Grant Fennell. This week, Jake Slaughter gets profiled along with Andy Weber (hopefully) while Nelson Velazquez and Jose Albertos get updates.

Player of the Week

Card of the Week

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The Weekly – PDCs and Playoff Chases Start Off August

By Todd Johnson

Between the trading deadline, all-star teams, baseball cards, and watching the big league club everyday, it was a very busy week. Add in the fact that I begin teaching next week finally hit home, I have a lot going on inside my head.

The MiLB season ends exactly four weeks from tomorrow on Labor Day. It will be here quick. WIth that in my mind, I also began to overthink what I need to do to get ready when that happens. There are usually posts on breakouts, all-star teams, a new Top 21 List, Baseball Cards of the Year, affiliate reviews, and other odds and sods. It can be a busy month. But it can wait. Be mindful of the future, but not at the expense of the moment.

The Playoff Chase
As the big league club continues to lead the NL Central, the MiLB system is having a bit of a rough time. Cubs 1 in Mesa already has a spot reserved in the postseason. It is not looking good for a few affiliates. Iowa is 20 games back. Myrtle Beach is 9. Neither of the DSL teams is even close. However, four affiliates still have some hope.

The Smokies are just three games back. They were on fire to start the second half. Then the bullpen imploded in July. They have the starting pitching to get it done. Will the pen straighten itself out long enough?

South Bend just ended a seven game losing streak. One would think there is no way they could get back in it. Lo and behold, they are just four games back from tying for the final playoff spot and five from taking the lead. I think they have a pretty good chance. They just need to get the hitting going to help their pitching staff and excellent bullpen.

In the great Northwest League, college hitters from this year’s draft have rejuvenated the Emeralds’ lowly offense. They are just two games back from tying Salem-Keizer for the wild card and three from the division lead. It is going to be a most exciting race.

Out in the Arizona League, Cubs 1 leads their division again.  Cubs 2 is currently at 4-5 but they need to make up 3 games in just 17 games while leapfrogging 4 teams. It can be done as last year’s Cubs’ team won 9 in a row to make it to the postseason. The Arizona League will end their season August 27th.

Is Affiliate Roulette is Coming?

Every even year, many MLB organization often switch affiliates. The Cubs are no different. The last big change the Cubs had came at the end of 2014 when the organization went from Kane County to South Bend, Daytona to Myrtle Beach, and Boise to Eugene. This year, that is not happening. In fact, it ought to be very boring. Iowa, Myrtle Beach, and South Bend are all signed up through 2020. Yesterday, Eugene announced they have re-upped with the Cubs through 2022.

Tennessee is next. It should be just a matter of time before both parties announce another four-year extensions.

Looking Ahead
A couple weeks ago, I wrote about who the Cubs might send to the Arizona Fall League. This week, I will explore more postseason happenings as I discuss who the possible prospects are that might get added to the 40 man roster. A Luke Reynolds profile should be coming this week and I also examine which prospects are in the lead for breakout prospects of the second half.

Players of the Week

Card of the Week

July All-Star Team Has a Heavy Dose of Pelican Pitching

By Todd Johnson

This was a bit of a crazy month in the minors.

There was a lot of movement as the draft picks began play. Tennessee got off to a great start in the second half and had a 2 game lead before bullpen problems began to plague them. South Bend currently was in the lead for a playoff spot for a bit while Myrtle Beach tried to find some hitting and some consistency to go along with their outstanding pitching.

But the big news, aside from Nico Hoerner’s debut and subsequent injury, was the play out in Mesa. The 1 team finished the first half with a division title while the 2 team got back to .500 and started the second half in style.

As for hitting, Ryan Court just tore the cover off the ball hitting almost .600 during one ten game stretch. Keegan Thompson of Tennessee is showing he might be the most consistent pitcher currently going for the Cubs as he showed no dip in performance at AA. But it was Bryan Hudson who stole the show for the starting pitcher of the month award. A 1.27 ERA over 27+ innings was impressive for the 21 year-old lefty. Several relievers did not allow a run all month, but it was an unknown arm in Mesa who struck out almost 2 batters an inning in relief that captured my attention. His name is Maikel Aguiar.

Jared Young took a few games to adjust to Myrtle Beach and then he started hitting again. He has to be in the lead right now for the Cubs’ Player of the Year Award. He’s the only Cub prospect who is consistently hitting for power, average, and drive in runs.

Here is the breakdown of the All-Star team by affiliate:
Iowa – 5
Tennessee – 3
Myrtle Beach – 9 (lots of pitchers)
South Bend – 5
Eugene – 1
Mesa 1 and 2 – 6

Enjoy another Cubs Central Films Production.

There were a lot of good performances this month, but not everyone made the team. The following players received honorable mentions:
Iowa – Taylor Davis, Jake Hannemann, Chesny Young
Tennessee – Matt Swarmer, Michael Rucker
Myrtle Beach – Michael Cruz
South Bend – Rafael Narrea, Delvin Zinn (missed half the month but hit almost .300), Clayton Daniel, and Zach Davis
Eugene – Jeff Passantino, Paul Richan, Zach Mort, Sean Barry, Riley McCauley, Derek Casey, and Nelson Velazquez
Mesa – Edmond Americaan, Yonathan Perlaza, FIdel Mejia, Reivaj Garcia,

The Weekly: Draft Picks Impress and Miguel Amaya Makes 2 Lists

By Todd Johnson

The good news for the week is that Miguel Amaya became the first Cub prospect in over a year to make onto a Top 100 list. Miguel did so at 97 for MLB Pipeline and again over on Baseball America at 100. That’s kind of exciting for a system on the rebuild. The bad news is he’s been in a slump for about two weeks. For a few days this week, Miguel was the only active catcher at South Bend. The 19-year-old has been going non-stop for two weeks since the Futures Game. He needs a little breather.

Meanwhile, Down in Mesa

The Cubs 1 team in the Arizona League brought home a first half division title and a playoff berth this week. That’s pretty exciting. The team is a mix of recent draft picks, some juco players from 2017, and several international guys. 

Draft Pick Play

Tomorrow, I am publishing my interview with 31st round pick Clayton Daniel. Daniel, who is currently at South Bend is doing fairly well through great bat-to-ball skills. But Daniel is not the only draft prospect beginning to make a name for himself.

This week, Eugene’s Zach Mort and Riley Thompson both had good starts on the mound for the Emeralds. Mort went 3 IP with 7 Ks while Thomson flashed a 95-97 mph fastball in two scoreless frames as he converts from being a reliever into a starter.

Jimmy Herron, a former Duke OF and the Cubs current 3rd Round pick, was promoted to South Bend Monday and immediately inserted in CF for the Cubs. I was there for his debut on Monday and he looked a little nervous at the plate. He calmed down over the course of the week. What I like most about Herron is that he can go get a ball in CF and he has an amazing eye at the plate. In his first three games, he was able to draw four walks by laying off pitches out of the zone. The bat should come around quickly.

Mesa OF Edmond Americaan went on a tear this past week. So far in 8 games, the former Chipola JC player, who hails from Curacao, hit .357 in that span with a .438 OBP. It will be interesting to see how fast he progresses. Americaan was signed by the Cubs on the last signing day with an overslot deal even though he was picked in the 35th round. The 6’1” lefty has room to grow and a good track record playing for one of the best JC programs in the country.

There is always a surprise. Every year. It never fails. This year, the pitching surprise goes to Blake Whitney. Whitney hails from an obscure college known as South Carolina-Upstate. But that does not matter. What does is his performance in July. He’s put up a 1.26 ERA in 5 starts for Mesa 2. In addition, Whitney has struck out 19. He has walked 8 which accounts for his 1.40 WHIP, but he is getting better every start. On Tuesday this week, he went 4.2 IP and struck out 9 in an outstanding performance.

It took him a few games, but non-drafted free agent Grant Fennell, who demolished balls in Mesa, is now in a groove for Eugene. I really like what I have seen from his bat this week along with his ability to play all over the field. He went 11 for 25 from the 22nd through the 29th. That’s pretty impressive! He earned the hitter of the week award for his efforts!

You can always check out how all the draft picks are doing here, which has their cumulative stats.

Coming This Week at Cubs Central
On Wednesday – The July All-Star Team
On Thursday – The Cards of the Month
On Friday – 40-Man Roster Considerations

Players of the Week

Card of the Week

Cubs’ MiLB System Buying into Pitching Tech to Gain an Edge

By Todd Johnson

Over the past couple of years, the Cubs have been taking technology, once relegated to the major league club, to their minor-league system. Cubs insider Evan Altman described how the Cubs were using technology to monitor Jose Albertos and, at that time, BP Wrigleyville’s Jared Wyllys once detailed how then Cub prospect Donnie Dewees was using neuroscience to increase his bat to ball skills. Teams are trying to find any edge they can to help develop their players and improve performance.

Over the past two weeks, I’ve interviewed several Cub pitching prospects who swear by technologies they use to improve their performance. Garrett Kelly, Brendan King, and Jake Steffens all swear by Trackman, a technology that is available in all minor league ballparks. In addition, the Cubs also have their own system that monitors all bullpen and side session activities. I was fortunate enough to talk with South Bend’s video coordinator Ben Sampson about what the programs do, how they work, and more details on how the players use them.

In speaking with a few pitching prospect this week, they mentioned some technology they use to help them. Can you talk about a couple programs that you are using?

We have a lot, especially that focus on pitchers, that picks up numbers, the ball out the hand. Every stadium we play in has a trackman system. We get all that game data. So that’ll pick up speed, spin rate, release point, and vertical and horizontal movement of the pitch. There’s a lot that players can use. It’s used a lot by the front office, too. It’s always good to see players taking an interest in it, too, and looking at how their different pitches are working from outing to outing.”

Are there other programs that you can talk about?

“We use another anonymous program of our own at all of our affiliates and we use it during all of our bullpens, for the most part. It gives a lot of similar data to trackman. It doesn’t do as much. It does more in other areas. You can look at the ball almost out of the hand and the movement and compare it to other pitchers and a ball that is thrown without spin. So you can see how the spin on your ball creates movement.”

So your job is to compile all that data. What does it look like when the player sees it? Is video or three dimensional?

“Both. We do video of everything. We have 7 camera angles during the game and a video of all of their bullpens. They can match up real time video and match it with the data and can see, for example, “What did this pitch do? Did it feel good? This one didn’t feel good. What’s the difference? Does feeling good or not feeling good have a correlation to with how the ball actually moves?” It’s that kind of sense of “Was that a good pitch versus did it  actually look good in the video and in the data?”

“Trackman spits out a CSV file. It looks like a whole of numbers and we pair that up with the video for the games so that it gives practical numbers that you want to see like speed or spin rate, stuff like that.”

Before coming to the Cubs this season, Ben actually was at Vanderbilt finishing his degree. He was familiar with how the technology worked. He spent all of spring training learning how to make sense of the data and video. While the players were getting ready for the season, Ben was getting ready, too.

How have the players bought into it? Some more than others?

“Right now, we do more for pitchers than for hitters. Pretty much everybody looks at their video after they throw, whether that is starters or relievers. They’ll come ask me for it and some know how to find it on their own at this point. There are some guys that will look at our database and go a little deeper and go pitch-by-pitch. There are a lot of guys that take that extra time between outings to get into it, dig a little bit, And they can look at other guys too in our organization, including the big league level. They can look at the numbers and see how they match up.”

Ben also added that both hitters are pitchers go back and look at data when they see a team/pitcher the second and third time around.

The Cubs are not alone in their use of technology, according to Ben. Almost every organization/affiliate has their own sort of tech to improve development including sensors on bats.

The current tech is always improving from year-to-year. As the players continue to develop, so will the technology as every team is looking to get the slightest edge in performance.

 

2nd Half Preview: Eugene Resets Roster with 2018 Draft Picks

By Todd Johnson

Yesterday marked the beginning of the second-half for most short season teams. For the Eugene Emeralds, it’s a fresh start with about half the roster turning over the past two to three weeks. Now, college level draft picks abound. When the 2018 season began on June 15, the majority of the roster was manned by 18 to 19-year-old prospects.

As a result, it was a tough first half for the Ems as they went 14-24. The Ems struggled to hit consistently in the first half. They were last in Northwest League team batting with a .216 average. That’s not a typo. .216. Hopefully, the college draft picks can get the bats going now that the season has reset itself.

While the outfield largely remains the same as the first half with Fernando Kelli, Nelson Velasquez, and Jonathan Sierra, most of the infield turned over along with several new pitchers and a new catcher. Let’s take a look at just the new players who are going to try and help Eugene in the second half get back to the playoffs for the third straight year

Catcher: Brennon Kaleiwahea is a non-drafted free-agent out of Tennessee Tech. He stabilized the catching position with his excellent receiving skills as soon as he was activated.

Infielders


Tyler Durna
– He is an outstanding defender and can hit in spurts. Hopefully, he can get something going consistently in the second half. Right now, he is in up mode as he is closing in on .270 from a low of .230.

Jake Slaughter – He came out of LSU after his sophomore year and has struggled so far in Eugene. He’s got good size at 6’3”, but it could take a while for him to adjust. He came out of LSU after his sophomore year and just needs more experience.  

Luke Reynolds – Right now, he’s killing it in Eugene hitting over .300 in just a week. He could be the center of the lineup. Then again, I wonder how long he will stay as South Bend could also use a bat in their playoff hunt.

Grant Fennell – A non-drafted free agent out of the University of Nevada, Fennell hit over .350 at Mesa. He’s been at Eugene about a week and has played all over the field. I look forward to seeing more of him and where he might play.

Levi Jordan – He ought to feel pretty close to home as the University of Washington shortstop looks to get things going. He arrived almost a week ago and has only gotten in a few games to date

Rotation: Derek Casey, Paul Richan, Riley Thompson, and Zach Mort

All four of these college pitchers have made a couple of starts of 2-3 innings apiece. Although, Mort did make a 4 inning one last week. Like last year’s draft pick starters, we won’t get a really good look at these guys until next year when they have no restrictions at South Bend. I really like the Casey pick and hope to see more of him soon. He’s decent sized at 6’2” and his delivery really comes over the top putting the baseball on a steep downhill plane which is to his advantage. Thompson might be the most intriguing as he is converting to a starting role with a fastball in the mid-to-upper 90s. In watching him last night, he looked good throwing his fastball on a steep downhill plane that was hard to square up. His secondaries are a work in progress.

Bullpen: Riley McCauley, Ethan Roberts, Cam Sanders, and Carlos Vega

Part of me was hoping that Roberts and Vega might be moved to starting roles, but for now let them throw in the bullpen and get their work in this year before they are sent to South Bend next year.

Now, with a full complement of 35 players, Eugene should be much improved from their 14-24 first half. I am interested to see how well the new pitchers can do in spite of their inning limits. As for the hitters, they should breathe some life into the Ems lineup for a team that struggled to hit. The Emeralds started the second half last night in Eugene against Salem-Keizer, the Giants short season affiliate. The Ems lost 4-3 in extra innings but managed to scrap out 10 hits (.263). It’s a start.

Cub 1 in Mesa Wins First Half Title!!!

By Todd Johnson

News coming from the Arizona Rookie League this year has been sporadic. Occasionally, Arizona Phil at The Cub Reporter will post an article here or there and Phrake Photography/27 Outs Baseball will post a series of pictures, but the pickings are rather slim. Box scores and the occasional tweet just have to do. It has been pretty a pretty intriguing first half for the Cubs two Arizona Rookie League teams.Then yesterday, the Cubs 1 team finished off the first half in style by winning the division championship.

Usually the rosters in short season baseball are like a revolving door. Players come in and out quickly as many of them are draft picks or guys that are just on a rehab assignment. This has been the case this year as the 1 team suited up 61 different players including key hitters Clayton Daniel and Grant Fennell who left the team a week ago. However, some players were the core of the team throughout their five week season.

At the Plate

Alexander Guerra: The Cubs signed the 20-year-old catcher last fall. He had some experience in the Series Nacional in Cuba and was thought he could start his Cubs career all the way to Myrtle Beach. He wound up in Mesa and has been taking off in July. In June, he played in seven games and hit .220 with a .281 OBP. In July in 14 games, he’s cranked out two home runs to go along with 11 RBI and is hitting .286 with an astonishing .444 on-base percentage. His OPS of 1.040 is outstanding and he’s killing lefties with an OPS of 1.265.

Yonathan Perlaza: Perlaza was signed in 2015 as part of the great international free-agent signing class. Originally a shortstop, Perlaza has been manning second base and third-base this year. He hit .286 in June and cruising along at .302 in July. He did get some experience last year in Arizona but he will surpass that experience in terms of games and at-bats by the end of this week.

Rafael Mejia: He began this year with Eugene but was squeezed out by recent draft picks. At Mesa, he’s only hit .240, but he’s also cranked out three home runs and 12 runs driven in over just 15 games.

On the Mound

Didier Vargas: The young 19-year-old lefty had a 0.99 ERA in 2017 in the Dominican. At 6’0″ and 175 pounds, Vargas is working on being more consistent this year. He gave up five runs in his first outing and has not given up more than two rus since. His ERA is down to 2.89 and probably will continue to drop throughout the rest of 2018.

Jesus Tejada: In August 2017, Tejada was probably the hottest Cubs’ pitcher in the Dominican with an ERA under 2 that included a no-hitter. I thought he might have a chance to start this year at Eugene. It didn’t happen form but it doesn’t seem to be phasing him. He has a 2.70 ERA over four starts in July which included two 6 inning starts.

Justin Steele: To be honest, I didn’t think he would throw more than one inning at any time in a game this year coming off TJS. The Cubs are still keeping him on a short leash, to be honest, but Steele is pushing the limits of those starts. He’s thrown 18.1 innings in 5 starts in July with a 1.47 ERA and struck out 27 batters in those 18.1 innings while only walking 4. I wonder if he will stay in Mesa throughout August or move up the ladder to do more rehab work?

Maikel Aguiar: Sometimes luck happens for the weirdest reasons. When the Cubs went to two teams in the Arizona Rookie League, they thought they would have their draft picks signed and ready to go when the season began. That didn’t happen. Instead, the Cubs had to call up a few pitchers from the Dominican Summer League Teams. One was Aguiar. At 21, the 6’0″ and 185 pound righty from Venezuela has been devastating in a variety of relief roles. Sometimes he’s a short relieverer, and sometimes he’s a long reliever. In July, he has a 0.40 ERA with 21 strikeouts in 15 innings and opponents are hitting a measly .103 against him and his WHIP is an ungodly 0.55.

With a playoff berth in their backpack, it should be interesting to see how this mix of international players and recent draft picks shakes down in the second half.