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.

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Eugene’s Roster Is Ready for Opening Night…With Room for More Changes

By Todd Johnson

At the end of spring training when I did my roster previews for each affiliate, I always do a preview of what Eugene’s preview two months down the road might look like. I was pretty close on who I thought would be on the opening day roster for the Cubs’ short season class A affiliate. However, there are always a few things I can not foresee like Delvin Zinn getting a shot to stick at South Bend.

This year, two factors are in play to affect the roster. One is that there are two Mesa teams now. And the second is that the MLB Draft was last week which allows more time this year for the picks to sign. The draft signees will trickle in and out as they ho through a short training camp in Mesa and begin to make their way up the system.

Usually, upwards of 50-60 players file through Eugene’s locker room in a year. Many go on to South Bend, but 35 are stationed in Oregon at a time. The affiliate can only have 25 activated per night (10 of which must be pitchers), but it is a good proving ground to move on to the next level and it is the beginning stop for most draft picks coming out of a 4 year college.

As of today, there are still 8 roster available out of the 35.

Who did I get right?

Most of the young Latin position players that I predicted will be at Eugene to start the year. They include Nelson Velazquez (after a month in South Bend), OF Jonathan Sierra, SS Luis Vasquez, OF Fernando Kelli, 3B Christopher Morel, and 2B Luis Diaz.

While not currently on the roster of 27, SS Nico Hoerner and other collegiate picks like 3B Luke Reynolds and 1B Tyler Durna are probably not too far behind from getting their careers started in Eugene.

Who did I miss?

By this point in the 2018 season I thought Jose Albertos would be on the verge of heading to Myrtle Beach at just 19 years old. But some issues with his fastball command and release point will have him at Eugene after opening at South Bend and then heading down to Extended Spring Training to work on that issue.

Catcher Jonathan Soto is a bit of a surprise, but according to Arizona Phil, Soto was one of the best hitters this spring. The backstop will turn 20 next month.

In addition there are several returning players. Relievers Jake Steffens and Casey Ryan along with closer Luis Aquino are back. First baseman/catcher Gustavo Polanco returns and will try to break through Eugene to make it to South Bend. It also looks like Cam Belago, who was one of the better hitters for Mesa last summer, will see some time behind the plate and at first as well.

As for the pitching…

Card made from a photo by John Arguello

It will have a distinct Latin feel for a while. Brailyn Marquez and Faustino Carrera, who both pitched at Mesa last year, are two young lefties who could not be more different. Marquez, who is just 19, has a plus fastball (95) and a plus curve that has had command issues in the past. When he’s on, he’s brilliant. Carrera can command his stuff and at 19 is a promising youngster with a plus changeup who throws in the upper 80s, low 90s.

Joining them in the rotation will be a mixture of 2018 draft picks and swingmen until the roster gets settled. It usually takes a month before things calm down. But you could see 9th round pick Derek Casey and compensation pick Paul Richan get in some starts in addition to several relievers like Riley Thompson and Ethan Roberts.

It will be interesting to watch how this team evolves over the next two months. While development is always the essential objective at this level, just as important this year will be who plays for Eugene and for how long. 

Will Nico Hoerner’s tenure as an Emerald/Monarch be something that last weeks or months? The same question holds true for Reynolds and even Jose Albertos. I have a soft spot for Jose, but he’s still only 19. He still has excellent stuff. When he leaves Eugene, Jose has to be able to command his arsenal. Whether if that’s in a month or next spring, it doesn’t matter, just as long as he does.

I am looking forward to tomorrow night!

The Annual Preview of a Preview: The Ems Are Just Loaded for 2018

By Todd Johnson

 

Every year, I look forward to the Eugene Emeralds’ season with great anticipation. This year is no different. And, like every year, I do a preview of the team two months before they begin play. It’s kind of my thing. What is different about this year is the number of elite prospects that could be headed Eugene’s way.

Normally, the Eugene roster is a mix of young international players and recent college draft picks. This year’s team has some highly anticipated players who won a championship in Mesa and who dominated in the Dominican Summer League in 2017. A few of the players were selected in the draft out of high school; they’ve been the exception rather than the norm the last few years.

Let’s take a sneak peek at who might be playing in PK Park this summer.

The Rockstar Outfield
19-year-old Fernando Kelli made a sensation last summer in the Dominican Summer League when he stole 58 bases and had an on base percentage of .437. He has mad speed and will be fun to watch once he gets on base. Another 19-year-old outfielder for Eugene should be Nelson Velasquez. In just a six week span in 2017, he hit eight home runs over six weeks last summer at Mesa in helping to lead Mesa to an Arizona Rookie League championship. While he does need to cut down on the strikeouts, Velasquez is pure power.

Two other outfielders that could see plenty of time in the field and at DH are Jonathan Sierra and Jose Gutierrez. Both played with Velasquez last year in Mesa. Sierra looked like Darryl Strawberry when the Cubs signed him in 2015 as a 16-year-old. He’s filled out quite a bit since but is still working on his hitting after two full seasons between the Dominican and at Mesa. He’s an outstanding defender with the potential for immense power. As for Gutierrez, he really turned it on in the second half of 2017 as the leadoff man for Mesa and was one of the reasons they were able to score a lot of runs down the stretch to win the title.

A Young and Athletic Infield
The Cubs liked Delvin Zinn so much, they selected him twice; once in 2015 and then again in 2016. Zinn is one of the most athletic players in the system and should be at second base. Playing beside him will be one of my favorite young players to watch this year in Luis Vazquez. The first thing you notice about Luis is he is a tall, rangy shortstop who patrols the left side of the diamond like a panther. Not much gets by him. His bat is going to need some work. So, Emeralds’ fans need to be a bit patient with him. 2B Christian Donahue, who attended Oregon State, but was not drafted, could be a part of the Ems squad this year as well.

Any number of players could fill in at first including Fidel Mejia and if 1B Luis Hidalgo does not make it to South Bend, and is healthy, he could destroy NWL pitching just as he did in the AZL and DSL last summer. 18-year-old shortstop Luis Diaz could also could back up Vazquez and Zinn.  The powerful Christopher Morel should be at 3B. He has immense power but is still working on hitting offspeed stuff.

Very Young Pitching
Like last year, Eugene is going to have a lot of 18 to 19-year-old pitchers. The most prominent name on the list is Jeremiah Estrada, who the Cubs picked up in the 2017 draft after they talked him out of going to UCLA. He can throw in the low to mid 90s and has a plus-plus changeup.

In addition, youngsters Danis Correa, Brailyn Marquez, Emilio Ferrebus, and Didier Vargas will be competing for spots in extended spring training.

Card made from a photo by John Arguello

Correa, 18, is from Columbia and can throw in the mid to upper 90s. He saw a little time in the states last year at Mesa and seemed to hold his own. Marquez, also 19, is a 6’5″ lefty who misses a lot of bats and at times, the strike zone. Marquez played at Mesa last summer and drew raves at times for his talent; and other times he struggled to find the plate. Ferrebus, who just turned 20, held his own last year in two leagues and started in the playoffs for Mesa. Didier Vargas is another 19-year-old who did very well in the Dominican Summer League with an ERA of under one for the summer.

One player who I cannot wait to see pitch is Jesus Tejada. The 6’2″ righty had a ERA of under two in August in the Dominican, and he also threw a no-hitter. He is one of the top pitchers on the rise in the Cubs system. My hope is that he makes the squad.

Faustino Carrera is another 19-year-old lefty who does have command and can put the ball where he wants it. Unlike Marquez, Carrera sits in the low 90s.

One pitcher that will be hard to miss is 6’8″ Stephen Ridings, a 2016 draft pick out of Haverford.  Last year was his first as a Cub and he improved as the season progressed at Mesa. He can start or relieve.

Add in 5 draft picks from the top 98 picks in this year’s draft and that’s a ton of talent.

It’ll be interesting to see how this extremely young group of players develops in extended spring training the next two months. Most of them should make the Emeralds, a few might make it to South Bend, and a few might stay in Mesa. No matter who makes it, it’s gonna be very exciting to watch them grow and develop every night.

In addition, here are two things to take note of this summer:
1. For every Tuesday home game this summer, the Ems will transform into the Monarcas de Eugene as part of MLB’s Copa de la Diversion.

2. The Cubs now have two teams in the Arizona Rookie League. This will create a lot of playing time for a lot of young players. It will also make it harder to get to Eugene as there will be a lot of competition to do so.

Myrtle Beach Pelicans Preview: Is a Four Peat™ Possible?

By Todd Johnson

The relationship between the Chicago Cubs and the Myrtle Beach Pelicans seems to be working out just fine. In the three years the affiliate has been in the Cubs’ system, the Pelicans won two Mills Cup Championships and made a third playoff appearance. Can the Pelicans make it back to the Mills Cup Championship Series for a fourth straight year? I think the odds are very good, but everything has to come together perfectly.

What Needs to Happen
One Good Half: Two years ago, most of the 2018 Pelicans’ roster was part of a team that dominated the short season Northwest League. Last year, several players from that team moved quickly but some of the pitchers seemed to struggle in full season ball at South Bend. For the Pelicans to make it to the playoffs, they have to win a first half title or a second-half spot. And, in a 10 team league, it seems a little bit easier to make the postseason if you get hot for a little bit. That’s what happened last year in Myrtle Beach as the Pelicans were a destructive force in May and June. This year, there are a few key factors that will determine if the Pelicans can get back to the promised land.

Pitching Certainty
It all starts with pitching. Starting pitching and relieving all have to be good. Considering the current backlog of prospects in the organization, most players are not going to be going promoted to AA Tennessee unless they have a completely dominant first half.

To begin, 2017 draft pick Alex Lange should be a great watch every sixth night for a couple of months. He has a devastating curve and, when his fastball command is on, he’s so hard to hit. The issue is if he can develop a change to go with his other two pitches. If he can, he is gone to Tennessee by mid season. One aspect of Lange’s personality that I love is his competitive fire. He has a burning to desire to win and also to dominate. His only issue this year could be overthrowing.

Jose Paulino is a 22-year-old lefty who struggled in the first half of 2017 at South Bend after dominating the Northwest League in 2016.  He rebounded to pitch well in July and August and playing at Myrtle Beach will only help him as long as he stays aggressive in the zone. He put together a great spring and I’m excited to watch him go at it in a pitcher’s park in Myrtle Beach.

Fourth round pick Keegan Thompson will make the rotation and actually pitch opening night. He has great command of all his pitches and works off a 91-93 mph fastball. As for Erling Moreno (who is injured), Tyson Miller, Matt Swarmer, and Bryan Hudson, they need to stay healthy and need to stay consistent from inning to inning.

Catcher PJ Higgins is returning to Myrtle Beach and he should provide excellent leadership for the young pitchers. Jhonny Perada, who has been nailing runners at second like crazy in spring training, could be one of the most improved players this year.

Maturity
Even though the Pelicans are a level higher than South Bend, they have the youngest average age of any of the affiliates this year. Maturity was a factor last year for some of this team at South Bend at the end of the first half. They made a push in August but fell a little short to get into the Midwest League playoffs. Another year older, they should also be another year wiser.

It looks as though 1B Tyler Alamo, who was very good in the second half last year (.306 with 5 HRs), will return and begin 2018 in Myrtle Beach. His maturity and leadership can only help these young guys.

Staying Healthy
I often refer to Wladimir Galindo as “my guy.” He is still rather young but this guy can just put the barrel the bat on the ball and drive it places at will. The issue is that he has to stay healthy. He has yet to play a full season without going on the DL. He missed most of last year with a broken foot. As soon as he hit the ground in spring training this year, he started hitting and hitting well.

The Blossoming of Austin Upshaw
Everyone that watches Austin Upshaw plays comes away very impressed. This kid can flat out rake. There is some potential for potential for power there, too, but that will come in due time. I also like that he can play three infield positions (1B, 2B, and 3B) well. If all goes well, he might not be at the Beach very long.

Breaking Out
While the Cubs don’t have any top 100 prospects, there are three players who should be at Myrtle Beach this year who could be big talents in the organization fairly quickly with a breakout season.

Shortstop Aramis Ademan is already a top four prospect in the system but still needs to develop his bat some more. Defensively, he’s pretty good with his feet and his arm is very good. While he can turn on a fastball, he struggled a bit at the plate in his short tenure at South Bend. He’s still only 19 and should be a Pelican all year.

Outfielder DJ Wilson is an elite athletic talent who has yet to hit with any consistency. He has elite defensive skills and the potential for power, as he showed last summer when he was the Cubs’ July player of the month.

The guy I am looking most forward to seeing this year is Kevonte Mitchell. He is turning into a physical beast. Last time I saw him in person in was at Beloit, he looked Hulk-like and was tracking the ball well. Hopefully this year that pays off with a 20 home run season.

It’ll be interesting to see how this team looks at the end of the first half. If they can get it going on the mound, these young position players can score runs in bunches. They just need to be more consistent on a daily basis.

Other Affiliate Previews
Iowa

Tennessee

Tennessee Smokies Preview – 10 Things About This Year’s Very Talented Team

By Todd Johnson

Last year’s Tennessee Smokies looked to be on the verge of a trip to the playoffs in late May before a collapse in early June. This year’s team should be comprised of talented prospects who could help the Smokies return to the playoffs for the first time since 2011. An elite pitching rotation will set the foundation and a couple of possible power bats could put them over the edge.

Here are 10 things I think will help the Smokies get back to the playoffs:

1. Starting Pitching – With Thomas Hatch, Adbert Alzolay, Trevor Clifton, Duncan Robinson, Oscar de la Cruz, and Michael Rucker, the Smokies have some guys who have the potential to get a lot of outs. Five of the six were teammates last year at Myrtle Beach for a short time.

I’m looking forward to see how well Trevor Clifton begins the year along with Thomas Hatch. I still think that Robinson is going to surprise even more people along with Rucker this year – They can really put the ball where they want in the zone.

As for Oscar de la Cruz, he just needs to stay healthy.

2. Time – This is going to be a team that’s going to have to have plenty of time to play at this level. The fact that there are very few prospects at Iowa who could make their way to Chicago this year, there’s really no place for the Smokies to go, at least in the first half.

3. Staying Healthy – It is said all the time, but it’s really an understatement of how much health plays a factor in a prospect’s career. For Oscar, he has not topped 73 IP in a season the past three summers.

4. Bouncing Back – For some of these players, a poor second half in 2017 was hopefully just an aberration on their road to the majors. While Trevor Clifton stands out as a prospect who needs to bounce back, Jake Stinnett is another arm whose career might take off in the bullpen. Zach Hedges even looks like he will be in Kodak again. Hedges just needs to get over the AAA hump as he does do well in AA (2.47 ERA in 2016, 3.49 in 2017) in a starting role. He pitched in relief in big league games this spring.

5. Who Comes Up – Alex Lange is going to be knocking on the door fairly quickly to come to Tennessee. The right hander’s curve might be a little overpowering for the class A Carolina League. The only issue is whether he can develop a third pitch. If he can, he could be in Kodak by the end of May.

6. Impact Bats – It looks like Ian Rice is going to begin the year Tennessee. If he does, I feel sorry for Southern League pitchers. Shortstop Zack Short is another bat who has power and plate discipline. I think this is the year that Eddy Martinez really takes off. Eddy had a great second half at Myrtle Beach hitting over .270 with 6 home runs. The Southern League is a bit more hitter friendly and should be for Martinez. Jason Vosler, Charcer Burks, and Yasiel Balaguert return as a result of a roster pinch at Iowa and they could all provide a lot of power.

7. Defense – The players that were Pelicans last year had some defensive issues down the stretch. Those need to be improved if some of the players plan on moving on to Iowa. Then again, Trey Martin is back and, when he plays, he can get most everything hit his way in the outfield.

8. Bullpen – This is really the strength of the team. There are a lot of power arms and a lot of guys who have wiffleball repertoires. They could turn every Southern League game into a five or six inning affair. With Jake Stinnett, Scott Effross, Preston Morrison, James Norwood, Dakota Mekkes, and Tommy Nance, they’re going to be a lot of disappointed bats at the end of games.

9. Beat Chattanooga – The Twins AA affiliate will be the team to beat. For the Smokies to make it to the postseason, they have to get past Chattanooga.

10. Attrition – Last year, manager Mark Johnson had to deal with a lot of attrition from players moving up, players getting injured, and players who were burnt out. This year, there’s a little bit more depth in the bullpen and position players in the system that should stave that off. WIth 7 or 8 guys who can start on the mound, the Smokies should be good to go.

Bonus: First Prospect to Iowa
It has to be Mekkes. He’s just a stud and so hard to hit. If he can keep his walks down, he’s not going to be around the minors very long. Considering the strength of the bullpen at Tennessee, they will be just fine.

It should be an exciting year to watch these Smokies develop.

South Bend Cubs Preview – Power Pitching and Some Hitting Potential

By Todd Johnson

When last year’s Eugene Emeralds team made the Northwest League playoffs, they were riding high on elite pitching and some hot hitters. Those hitters went cold in the championship and the Ems had to settle for second place. This year, most of that team will be in South Bend to try and recapture their winning ways. Led by an elite starting pitching staff, and a mix of college bats and young international players, the South Bend Cubs have a legitimate chance to get in the Midwest League playoffs in 2018.

The Rock Star Pitching Staff
What South Bend has is an outstanding pitching corps. Jose Albertos is only 19 and is already one of the top prospects in the Cubs’ system. Armed with a mid 90s fastball and a devastating change, Albertos just needs to improve his curve this year and to get in 100 innings to continue his development.

Javier Assad and Jesus Camargo are two other Latin pitchers who will be in the South Bend rotation along with the Cubs 2017 second round pick Cory Abbott. Assad has a mid 90s fastball that he is learning to control while Camargo has a changeup that’s on par with Albertos. As for 2nd round 2017 draft pick Cory Abbott, his affinity for Noah Syndergaard inspired Abbott to come up with a slider that began to devastate hitters at the college level. Abbott got in a few innings at Eugene last year, but we will really see what that slider can do this spring.

The Cubs first round pick in the 2017 draft, Brendon Little, should be in the rotation at South Bend. He is going to be working on fastball command. If he gets his fastball control down, he is going to take off as he has a pretty good curve already and has the makings of a good changeup. He may take some time to get his consistency down. Just last week, he was devastating for 5 IP with 5 Ks while only allowing 1 run. Hopefully, he can maintain that kind of performance and develop a good, working rhythm.

 

Bailey Clark, Erich Uelmen (sleeper pick), and Rollie Lacey are still in competition for one starting spot and most will probably be piggyback starters the first part of the year. Clark is back throwing in the mid 90s and has pitched very well at times in spring training.

The Big Time Prospect
Catcher Miguel Amaya will be 19 this year and is armed with a rifle for a right arm. His quick release time and accuracy threw out almost 50% of runners last summer while at Eugene. He got off to a poor start at the plate but recovered to hit almost .300 in August. He has the potential for power as he continues to grow into his body. I cannot wait to see him throw down the second almost every night.

The College Hitters
There were several draft picks from last summer that debuted at Eugene and showed promise. Austin Filiere from MIT played third base and showed that he has the potential for power as well as a very good eye at the plate. He’s been seen playing mostly first base in spring training. One of my favorite hitters to watch last year was second baseman Jared Young. It took him a while to get going at the plate but he never changed his approach even when he was not hitting well. Outfielder Brandon Hughes is an exceptional athlete from Michigan State who is a switch hitter and could develop some power with his size at 6’2″ and 215 pounds.

International Flavor
infielder Johnny Bethencourt was one of my favorite players to watch hit. He’s not going to hit a lot of homeruns but he’s going to spray the ball all over the field. The issue with Bethancourt is just exactly where to play him as he struggles defensively. It also looks like spark plug Yeiler Peguero will be returning to the Midwest League after an injury plagued 2017. He should play a mix of second and short.

First to Get Promoted
I would lay money on Cory Abbott. His college experience should help him to be a bit more dominant than Albertos who is still struggling with his curve at times.

Possible Prospects to Come Up First
Two other players who might make the roster at some point this spring are two guys that had really good camps. Luis Hidalgo played for three seasons in the Dominican and Venezuelan Summer Leagues before coming to Mesa late last year. He destroyed the Arizona Rookie League in a short time there. If he plays at South Bend, I am sure he’s going to do some damage with the bat.

Christopher Morel is a former shortstop who moved over to third-base. He has the power, he just doesn’t have the plate discipline to go with it, or at least not yet. He’s been doing very well in spring training including driving the ball out of the ballpark, his specialty. I would not be surprised to see him at South Bend later.

I feel confident in saying that this team is going to pitch well. I’m not so sure about how the hitting is going to develop, and what the bullpen will look like. But, manager Jimmy Gonzalez has a track record of crafting teams that can put some runs on the board. When it comes right down to it, South Bend is only going to go as far as there are bats will take them. They have plenty of starting pitching.

Other Affiliate Previews
Iowa

Tennessee

Myrtle Beach