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.

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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

The Weekly: No Tennessee PDC Yet, Baseball Cards, and Cubs Announce Awards

By Todd Johnson

Is No News Good News?
I have not heard anything yet about the Cubs and the Smokies renewing their player development contract. It’s not like the Cubs in the Theo era to wait this long to renew a player development contract. The Cubs tend to do it in season as they did with Eugene earlier in the summer.

There have been rumors of the Smokies ownership buying land in downtown  Knoxville. I wonder if that could have anything to do with the delay? I really like the Smokies, their apparel, and Broadcaster Mick. It would be strange not to have those elements as part of the Cubs minor-league brand.

It would take a lot of getting used to if they did not renew. There are currently four other cities who have not signed with a major league club for 2019 either. They are Midland and Amarillo, both in the Texas League, and Chattanooga and Pensacola are without affiliates in the Southern League.

Baseball Cards Grind to a Halt
It’s been over a week since the Eugene Emeralds won the Northwest League championship. As the last team to finish playing, they were also the last affiliate to get some press. As a result, it looks as if the pictures for the baseball cards dried up about in the middle of this week. I still wound up with over 100 cards for the month with a lot of cards being Eugene players. A few more pics will trickle through before the end of this week.

Photo by John Conover

Cubs Announce Two Awards
Last week, I announced my hitter, starting pitcher, and reliever of the year awards. This week, the Cubs announced their player and pitcher of the year awards. Jared Young was given the player of the year while Matt Swarmer won the pitcher of the year award.

Cubs Insider and BP Wrigleyville
Over at CI, my goal for the off season is to write more original content for that site. This week, I published a review of the 2018 draft class’ first season. Check it out!. At Baseball Prospectus Wrigleyville, I also put up a recent post about the comeback of Justin Steele.

Coming Up This Week
Last week, I released my second half break out awards for hitter, pitcher, and reliever. Tomorrow, I’ll be taking a look at some guys who were injured this year and the hopes for their comebacks in 2019. On Wednesday, I’ll check out some guys who had some poor years in 2018 and their chances for a comeback in 2019. On Friday, 19-year-old infielder Yonathan Perlaza gets the prospect profile treatment.

In addition, the affiliate season reviews are all written, they just need edited. I’ll do the full season affiliates the first week of October and the short season clubs get examined the second week.

Card of the Week

The Weekly: Eugene Wins, Cubs’ MiLB Players of the Year, and Nothing on Tennessee

By Todd Johnson

Reliving Eugene’s Improbable Championship
I am still finding it hard to believe that Eugene won the Northwest League title. I know they did it because I watched them do it. This was a team that had to overcome the roughest of starts to a season I’ve seen in a while. The first three weeks of the season were not good. They were last in the league in hitting. However, they improved greatly in July. This year‘s draft class and two non-drafted free agents solidified the defense in the infield and behind the plate and lengthened the lineup. They also added some depth to the starting pitching from the draft and later the Emeralds got some relief help from Mesa. I will have more on the Ems remarkable season in a couple of weeks when I do the affiliate reviews of the 2018 season. 

This year’s “Cubs Central’s Player of the Year” awards are pretty straightforward.  

Infielder Jared Young won his award for “Hitter of the Year” through a combination of an excellent approach and his bat to ball skills. He did so at South Bend where he dominated with a wRC+ of 150 and again at Myrtle Beach where he secured himself a spot on Tennessee’s roster for next year. For the season he hit .300 with 16 home runs, 76 RBI.

While “Pitcher of the Year” Cory Abbott can get his fastball up into the mid 90s on occasion, he has an excellent slider and he misses a lot of bats. I think what gets under sold on him is his makeup. He is fierce on the mound and he might be the most competitive arm in the system. He had a 2.50 ERA with 131 strikeouts in 115 innings as well only walking 39 on the season between South Bend and Myrtle Beach. He should begin 2019 at Tennessee at the age of 23.

By the beginning of next summer, “Reliever of the Year” Dakota Mekkes should be pitching out of the bullpen in Chicago 3 days a week. The 6‘7“ deceptive right-hander began the year just dominating AA with a 0.81 ERA in 22.1 innings. When he began June at AAA Iowa, he had some adjusting to do, but he started to figure things out in short order. Between the two affiliates, he had a 1.17 ERA and 71 Ks in 53.2 innings. His walk rate improved from 5.24/9 in Tennessee to 4.60/9 in Iowa which is probably the only thing holding him back from getting the September call up. 

Other Post Season Awards
Only 2 Cubs prospects made Baseball America’s post-season all-star teams by levels (not leagues). In the Dominican, Pitcher Luis Rodriguez made it with a 0.73 ERA and South Bend closer Brian Glowicki made it at low A. Congrats!

Crickets from Tennessee
No news is coming out of Tennessee about the Cubs and the Smokies extending their professional development contract beyond this season. It’s starting to get late in terms of announcing a deal. Hopefully one will come this week.

Darvish
Yu Darvish had a procedure called a debridement done in Texas this week. It basically cleaned up his elbow without doing Tommy John Surgery. As a result, Darvish could return in 2019 at the beginning of the season.

This Week on Cubs Central
Starting tomorrow, the off season posts begin with the “Breakouts of the Second Half” series. There will be three articles this week on some guys who stepped up their game in the second half of the minor league season. Hitters kick it off on Monday, followed by starting pitchers and relievers later in the week.

Also, the baseball cards just keep coming this month. I will have more this week of Eugene players from the NWL championship. Here is this month’s album of cards. For the year, since spring training, there are over 800 cards made this year…my most ever! I need to get out some more.

Card of the Week

MiLB Playoff Action: Eugene Wins Their Second Championship as a Cubs’ Affiliate!!!

By Todd Johnson

Photo by Jared Ravich

Tuesdays in Eugene can only mean one thing…It was time to break out the Monarcas de Eugene jerseys one more time! That was about the only sure thing I was expecting heading into game 3 of the Northwest League Championship series.

Eugene did not name their starter until late in the morning. 20-year-old right hander Eury Ramos would take the mound to try and get Eugene its second title in three years.

Ramos was staked to early lead as Nelson Velasquez doubled and came home on a fielding error by the Spokane shortstop. Velasquez showed his speed scoring all the way from second.

Ramos shows a lot of promise as a young pitcher as he has a decent fastball and a nice tight breaking ball that can miss a lot of bats. The issue is his command of those pitches. At some point during the year, he pitched brilliantly and, at other times, he got lit up like a Christmas tree. It is hard to know which Ramos was going to show up.

Last night, we saw a little of both as he gave up two runs in the first four innings, one of them on a solo home run. The other was what should’ve been an unearned run when Caleb Knight, the catcher, threw a passed ball into right field trying to get the batter. Like many young pitchers, Ramos worked a lot of deep counts but he did flash his curve quite a bit striking out four batters while allowing four hits over four innings.

In the fifth, Peyton Remy came out to pitch for Eugene. It was Remy’s job to keep the score close for Eugene until they could mount a comeback. Remy allowed a single that inning and then hit a batter but was able to strike out the final batter of the inning to keep the score at 2-1.

Eugene’s offense just looked to be struggling against Spokane starter Jack King, who was only making his third start of the year. After the fifth, King was just sitting at 54 pitches. Surprisingly, Cole Uvila came on to take over for King in the sixth. After getting Andy Weber to whiff and Velazquez to ground out, Luke Reynolds was able to coax a walk on 4 pitches. The short-lived rally ended with a Levi Jordan grounder to short where Luke Reynolds was then forced out at second.

Not much happened in the 7th and as Remy and Uvila held serve. Remy looked good again in the 8th. In the bottom of the 8th, Spokane brought in their all-star closer Emmanuel Clase after a walk to Velazquez with one out. Clase came in throwing upper 90s heat. Things did not look so good.

In the 9th, Eugene went to Fauris Guerrero to keep the game close. After getting two outs and putting two men aboard, Guerrero was replaced by Ethan Roberts. After a wild pitch moved the men to second and third, Roberts got the batter to fly to right to end the rally.

The bottom of the ninth was it. The last chance. Throw in any cliche you want, but if Eugene lost, there were still two more games in the series.

But this would be a wild inning. Jonathan Sierra lead off with a walk and then Grant Fennell flew out. Fernando Kelli singled to move Sierra to second. Pinch hitter Yonathan Perlaza grounded into a force out. However, Spokane didn’t see Perlaza stumble or there could have been a double play to end the game. Jake Slaughter was then hit by a pitch to load the bases. Wow!

Andy Weber then came up to the plate. He had been swinging early in the count a lot since his return from the DL. However, Weber showed excellent poise and patience. I don’t know how he did it, but Weber just didn’t panic and didn’t swing at a bad pitch that at-bat. He drew a walk on a 3-2 count to tie the game at two!

Fittingly, this came down to Nelson Velazquez, Eugene’s HR and RBI leader. I will let the video tell the story.

What an incredible ending!

My congratulations go out to the Ems, the players, coaches, and organization on a miracle ending to the 2018 season. Amazing!!!

MiLB Playoff Action: Game 2 Shutout Puts Ems on the Brink of a Title!

By Todd Johnson

To teach and then report on the happenings of the minor leagues is a bit of a head scratcher at times, especially when the game is at Eugene. The time zones don’t quite mesh as I am two hours behind. I don’t think I am going to get a lot of sleep the next few days. Hopefully, it will all be worth it.

When Eugene announced that Jack Patterson was in line to be the starter, it was a small surprise and it was not. Patterson made only 1 appearance for Eugene and it was over Labor Day weekend against Boise. He went five innings, allowed 6 hits, 2 runs, and struck out 6 while walking 2. In fact, that was the game where the Ems clinched a playoff berth. Because it was at Boise, I had yet to see Patterson pitch before game 2.

Game 2 began with the same weirdness of game 1 as the Ems were visitors in their own ballpark. It didn’t last long.

The Ems struck quickly in the top of the first. After Andy Weber grounded out, Nelson Velazquez singled, then stole second. After a Luke Reynolds walk, Game 1 hero Levi Jordan ripped a double down the left field line to score 2 runs. Jordan later came home on a Grant Fennell single up the middle and the Ems went up 3.

Jack Patterson looked to have some decent action on his off speed stuff but he had trouble getting through the first unscathed. He did, but it took 22 pitches to do it. He struggled with his fastball command but he was able to get two fly outs with men on first and second before securing a third out that he fielded and gunned down at first.

In the second, Andy Weber managed a single but that was it. Patterson got through the second without a run, but not before a walk and some deep counts to end up at 38 pitches after two. I thought to myself, “If Patterson doesn’t get more efficient, it is going to be a long night for the pen.”

In the top of the third, Jonathan Sierra managed a two out single and stole second but was stranded there. When Patterson started pitching in the bottom of the inning, he looked very relaxed as he went 1-2-3 on just 9 pitches. His curve bit hard and down, his fastball looked smooth, but overall, Patterson looked in control of his pitches. That was good to see.

Fernando Kelli looked to be having a rough night at the plate as he struck out to start the fourth. Caleb Knight then tore one down the left field line for a double. However, Knight got no assistance in getting home. Patterson came out and began the inning getting his sixth and seventh straight batters before giving up a pair of singles putting him at 65 pitches. A walk loaded the bases. Patterson went after the #9 hitter and got him on four pitches. That was a bit too close for comfort but Patterson looked to be done for the night despite not allowing a run in 4 innings as he sat at 73 pitches.

The Ems all struck out in the fifth and Eugenio Palma came in to pitch for Eugene. He did give up a walk and a single that inning but he stranded them when he struck out the last batter. The sixth inning didn’t offer much excitement either as both teams struggled to hit the ball.

In the 7th, catcher Caleb Knight of Eugene doubled again, went to third on a passed ball and scored on an Andy Weber sac fly to make it 4-0. In the bottom of the inning, Palma concluded his night by getting the Indians in order.

The rest of the game belonged to Ems’ All-Star reliever Sean Barry.who got to 2 pop ups, 2 ground outs, and 2 strikeouts to seal the game 2 victory and put the Ems on the brink of a Northwest League title with a 2 games to 0 lead!

Overall, it was a great shutout win giving the Ems their longest winning streak of the year. Patterson was able to work out of every jam tonight. That was impressive! I really liked his curve a lot and hopefully that can be an out pitch for him. The key for tonight, though, was giving Patterson a 3-run cushion in the first inning as he showed poise by not allowing a run.

Game three starts Tuesday night at 9 central. No starter has been announced for the Emeralds yet. It could be Eury Ramos, Peyton Remy, or Faustino Carrera. We shall see later.