Arizona Rookie League
By Todd Johnson
When it comes to prospect lists this winter, beauty is definitely going to be in the eye of the beholder. As prospect lists begin to come out over the course of the next three months, you could see 20 different Cubs make a top 10 list. And you could see four or five different Cubs atop each of those lists. In a post-Eloy world, it’s going to take a long time for those lists to settle down. With the possibility that the Cubs might make another trade this offseason, more chaos could soon enter those lists.
Baseball America is getting ready to drop their latest Top 10 Cubs Prospects List on Monday or Tuesday, in addition to their top tools in the system. I thought I might beat them to the punch at their own game and come out with my prediction of their list of top MiLB tools and try to guess who they will select as their top 10 Cubs prospects.
🔸Best Hitter for Average: Victor Caratini – No one else is even close.
🔸Best Power Hitter: Nelson Velazquez – 10 HRs in 6 weeks ought to get him the title.
🔸Fastest Baserunner: DJ Wilson – Watch him hit a triple and you will see how fast he flies.
🔸Best Athlete: Jacob Hannemann is now but might not be for long. Nelson Velazquez could overtake him in a year.
🔸Best Fastball: Adbert Alzolay – Sitting at 96 in the sixth and seventh innings is pretty impressive.
🔸Best Curveball: Dillon Maples – To him, this is his fastball as he commands it and throws it in fastball counts.
🔸Best Slider: Dillon Maples – This will be the pitch that makes him a killer pro.
🔸Best Changeup: Jose Albertos barely gets the nod over Eugene teammate Jesus Camargo. Both are excellent and get some ugly, ugly swings.
🔸Best Control: Adbert Alzolay – It begins and ends with the ability to put his fastball where and when he wants. Jen-Ho Tseng comes in a close second.
🔸Best Defensive Catcher: Miguel Amaya – While blocking might be a small issue, his arm is clearly not. PJ Higgins is next. It will be interesting to watch Will Remillard come back and to see what recent international signee Alexander Guerra can do
🔸Best Defensive INF and Best INF Arm: You might think that Aramis Ademan would get the nod. However, Luis Vazquez is better and more consistent. I’ve only seen him make a few plays, but he shows much more range, fluidity, and athleticism than Ademan.
🔸Best Defensive OF: Now that Trey Martin is gone and Jake Hannemann is back, Hannemann barely gets the nod over Charcer Burks, DJ Wilson, and Nelson Velazquez. In a year, Velazquez could win almost every hitting and outfield award.
🔸Best OF Arm: Eddy Martinez – 2018 is going to be his year. Don’t be shocked to see him get a chance in Chicago later this summer.
Baseball America’s top 10 list is going to be a little bit different than mine as I do not consider Victor Caratini to still be a prospect. While he technically is, he has spent enough time in the majors to not be, just not the prerequisite 130 at-bats. After Caratini, it could be a free-for-all. It just depends on what value one sees in a prospect.
Where all these prospects are going to be ranked is a complete mystery to me. I’m having trouble reconciling whether to put Ademan in the top five and whether to include Dillon Maples in the top 10. I know other people like pitcher Adbert Alzolay a lot (as do I), but I think that Jose Albertos is a better high-end and prospect and would be my top prospect overall. I would expect the two young pitchers to be 2A and 2B.
Then, all bets are off.
In thinking of how I would do my own list, I’m half tempted to put Nelson Velasquez at number four. Just based on his little six week stint of 10 home runs in Mesa, you have to love the praise he garnered from evaluators and Jason McLeod in the Mark Gonzalez article.
There at least a dozen players who could make their way into Baseball America’s top 10. Mark Zagunis might be the most ready for the majors after Caratini. Thomas Hatch could more than likely be in the top 10 along with the Cubs two first round picks from 2017, Brendon Little and Alex Lange. MLB.com’s number one prospect, the oft-injured Oscar de la Cruz, should be in the top 10 as well as shortstop Aramis Ademan. Cases could also be made for Dillon Maples, Jen-Ho Tseng, Trevor Clifton, Duane Underwood, Jr., D.J. Wilson, and Justin Steele as top 10 prospects this winter.
Their analysis should make for some very interesting discussions in the coming week.
By Todd Johnson
This gets harder and harder to do every year. There’s so much information available that it is rare for a prospect to sneak up and have a good year. I don’t like to rely totally on statistics, although I do think they are a valuable tool. When it comes to identifying players who I think could break out or be identified as sleepers in an organization, I prefer seeing them play live. I get a better sense for their approach at the plate, their swing plane, the ability to see the ball into the zone, and the sound of the ball coming off the bat. I also like watching the fluidity of their athleticism.
In 2017, there were a few key prospects who broke out in some form or fashion. Shortstop Zack Short comes to mind along with catcher Ian Rice, third baseman Jason Vosler, outfielder Charcer Burks, and shortstop Aramis Ademan. The biggest breakout was fifth round pick Nelson Velasquez who destroyed Arizona Rookie League pitching in his short tenure as he pummeled 10 HRs in a 7 week span after being drafted.
When it comes to 2018, there are several prospects who could show a marked improvement in their performance. There are several players who, at times in 2017, showed that there might be more there than the level at which they were currently performing. Then there were other players who seemed to come on strong in the second half of the season, or at the very least, in the month of August.
Here are several names of hitting prospects who I think could break out in 2018 to make their way onto a top prospect list.
At AA Tennessee
I really think that 2018 will be the summer of Eddy Martinez. In the second half of 2017 he hit .276 with seven home runs and I think he is finally acclimated to playing professional baseball and living in the United States. He is still young as he will just be 23 in January.
At Class A Myrtle Beach
DJ Wilson – I think this is the year where his physical maturity along with his baseball maturity mesh to produce his best year. I don’t know if he’s going to hit a lot of home runs this year because the Carolina League is just not a hitter’s league. However, I do think his batting average will improve as well as his approach. The one thing I don’t have to worry about is his defense.
Kevonte Mitchell – I think his time has come. He has grown into a physical specimen at 6’5″ and probably about 240 pounds. He is just a beast. But what impressed me most about his performance in 2017 was the way that he was able to track the ball into the catcher’s mitt. He did have an up-and-down year but behind the scenes he was putting in a lot of work to make himself more consistent. It would not surprise me to see him hit 20 home runs at this level and to begin to carry a team for games at a time.
At Class A South Bend
Miguel Amaya – Once you see him, you tend to fall in love with his arm behind the plate. However, his bat was sorely lacking to begin 2017. When he was moved to the seventh spot in the lineup, he did much better hitting almost .300 in the month of August. This leads me to believe that he is going to come into 2018 with a much better approach than he had at short season Eugene. I would not be surprised to see him hit 12 to 15 home runs in the Midwest League.
Jared Young – He is the perfect example of don’t scout the stat line. After being drafted, he began his pro career at Eugene last summer as he got off to a terrible start batting average wise hitting .131 in July. However, if you watched his at-bats, you saw an outstanding approach that saw him work counts to see a lot of pitches, but the balls just were not dropping in for hits. My friend John and I would comment to each other about what bad luck he was having. Then, in the last two weeks of August, he tore the cover off the ball hitting .323 for the month.
In August, one of the highlights of watching the Eugene Emeralds play was to watch Austin Filiere hit on a nightly basis. The 2017 draft pick out of MIT still has some work to do on defense, but his approach at the plate is top notch. He hit .261 with a .392 OBP. Add in his short quick stroke and he has the potential for 20 home run power next season. I’m not saying he’s going to hit 20 homeruns, but he could.
In June and early July, my favorite hitter at Eugene was none other than Joe Martarano who hit .340 for the Emeralds. When he went to South Bend, the poor guy just got off to a horrible start. When I saw him play in Beloit, he had a super high leg kick that didn’t necessarily show up on video. Thankfully, that turned into a toe tap a bit later and he hit much better in August (.273) including his first Midwest League home run. He should start out at South Bend unless he completely terrorizes spring training pitching. I just love the way the ball jumps off his bat and the sound is immense.
Jonathan Sierra is long and lean at 6’3″ and a physical replica of Darryl Strawberry. He just turned 19 in October and should be better next year than last. His approach comes across as fine. He hit .259 in rookie ball with a .332 OBP. His power is what will determine his breakout. He only hit two in 48 games and needs to do better. Hopefully, he breaks out in 2018 but it is more likely to bust out at South Bend in 2019.
He is just 20 years old, but Delvin Zinn is one player I think everyone should watch in 2018. He played in Mesa last summer and played mainly at short and second. He is an extremely athletic player who did have an up and down season. If he can learn to be more consistent, he is going to be a force on the base paths.
Others to Watch
Brandon Hughes is a switch hitting speedy outfielder who has the perfect size (6’2″) to develop a power stroke. Whether he will or not, I don’t know, but it’s not all going to happen next year. Improving his approach next year at South Bend should help.
Cam Balego – He played all over the infield in 2017 for Mesa and converted to catcher this fall at instructs. He was extremely consistent at the plate as he hit .286. I’m interested to see what he can do in a larger sample size.
Marcus Mastrobuoni – He led Mesa in almost every hitting category until Nelson Velasquez passed him up late in the season. The young catcher should be at Eugene in 2018. The problem for him is that there is nowhere to go in the now catching rich system.
By Todd Johnson
An Arizona Rookie League Championship is an especially nice way to end the season. In the first half of the season, Mesa had the second worst record in the league at 9-19. The Cubs turned it around in the second half going 16-12 and then storming through the playoffs scoring 44 runs in five games.
In 2018, most of these players will move on up to Eugene and South Bend. It is a talented bunch and probably has the most prolific hitters the Cubs have seen in rookie ball in the Theo Epstein era.
Here are several prospects who could be flying up prospect lists this winter and next summer.
1. Nelson Velazquez – Just 18 years old, he hit nine home runs in basically six weeks for Mesa. He was named the Cubs’ minor league player of the month in August as he drove in 16 with six homeruns for the month while hitting over .300. He might not be physically maxed out, but the Cubs fifth round pick from 2017 can flat out hit. I would not be surprised to see him shooting into the top 10 on a lot of prospect lists this winter.
2. Jonathan Sierra – While he did flash some power this year, he continues to show an excellent approach. At 18 years of age, his future is still very bright as he has a long ways to develop physically. At 6’2” and left-handed, he always gets the Darryl Strawberry comp. His game is nothing like Darryl Strawberry’s. I tend to think he’ll be at Eugene next year, but if he begins to develop some power at instructs, spring training, and, then again in an extended spring training, he could be in South Bend late next May. For an 18-year-old, a lot can happen developmentally in 7 to 9 months.
3. Delvin Zinn – He got off to a great start this year for Mesa, slipped a little bit in the middle of the season, and finished strong hitting over .500 in the playoffs with a .630 to on-base percentage. He played shortstop and second base most of the year and I think he really begins to catch fire in 2018. I’m excited to watch him play either at Eugene next year. I just don’t know what position he’s going to play.
4. Cam Balego – Although I have yet to see him play, he showed up every day and played three infield positions for Mesa this year and hit for a high average all season long. The 30th round pick from Mercyhurst has been learning how to play catcher this fall in instructs. I am really excited about getting a look at just how well he does hit next year. He hit .286 with a .385 OBP this year.
5. Marcus Mastrobuoni – He has to be one of the most surprising players in the Cubs’ system this year. The catching corps is getting to be pretty deep and a player has to really make themselves stand out in order to be noticed. Marcus did that this year as he was the leading hitter in all of the four major hitting categories for Mesa until the last couple weeks of the season. I’m glad he was so successful this year. With Miguel Amaya ahead of him, I don’t know how fast he can move up in the system with his hit tool.
6. Brailyn Marquez – After listening to scouts and seeing some of them tweet, it’s obvious that Marquez has swing and miss stuff. It’s also obvious that he still needs to learn how to pitch with what he has. At 6’5” and just 18 years old, there’s a lot of time left for the lefty to fill out and work on his combination of pitches and approach on the mound.
7. Luis Hidalgo – He played in the states for the first time and did not disappoint. Originally an outfielder, he played mostly first base and tore the cover off the ball all of August for Mesa with 13 RBI. With his ability to hit, I don’t think he needs to go to Eugene next summer. I tend to think he’ll be just fine at South Bend playing first and doing some DH.
Bonus – Luis Vazquez was drafted by the Cubs this summer. The 17-year-old shortstop drew rave reviews for his fielding this summer. The bat needs some work but he did hit well in the playoffs going 5 for 7. He should more than likely be at Eugene next summer.
Mesa Cubs to Watch in 2018
It’s a little hard to predict who’s going to be in rookie league but the four players the Cubs signed as international free agents on July 2 would be the best bet to watch in 2018. Pitcher Florencio Serrano, shortstops Luis Verdugo and Fabian Pertuz, and outfielder Alexander Ovalles should begin in Mesa along with many other young international players. One, in particular, that intrigues me is 18 year-old Carlos Pacheco. The young outfielder hit for both power and got on base in the DSL this past summer with a .366 OBP while slugging 9 HRs in 67 games.
By Todd Johnson
One of the cool things about the Cubs’ system is that you can watch players develop in increments. There’s so much press, coverage, and statistical information, it’s hard for a prospect go unnoticed at any stage. Last year (2016) at Mesa, an 18 and then a 19-year-old Javier Assad sort of became the de facto ace of the young rookie league squad. His fastball, at that time, sat around 88 to 91 according to John Arguello.
In 2017, Assad continued his development at short season Eugene. Now 19/20, his fastball crept up a little bit more as the year wore on. It was not uncommon for him to top out at 94/95 in a game. Still, he sat most of the time in the low 90s often working easily up to 93..
What I took away from watching him in 2017 was that he’s got a little “dog in the fight.” He’s competitive and he attacks the zone. As the year progressed, he tended to quicken his pace, à la Adbert Alzolay, as he didn’t waste a lot of time between pitches. I think in 2018, we are going to start to see a much more fully developed pitcher.
Statistics can sometimes be irrelevant for a lot of minor-league players. There are instances where certain statistics can point out a weakness or a strength. I think a lot of time, people get hung up on just looking at one or two stats for the Cubs’ minor league pitchers, I tend not to get too hung up on either the velocity readings or ERA. Those are nice, but I think other statistics hint to where a prospect is at a certain point in their development. I like to look at statistics and how they compare in smaller splits as adjustments are continually made.
For example, Assad’s monthly ERAs in 2017 went from 2.45 in 3 June starts to 5.00 in 5 July starts and back down to 3.72 in 4 August starts. However, when you start digging deeper, his batting average against went down each month despite a roller coaster ERA. All the while, his K and BB rates remained consistent.
Pitching in Eugene was a bit treacherous this year and even more so when Aramis Ademan left to go to South Bend. It was not the best defensive unit on the face of the Earth. As a result, I don’t think it’s fair to evaluate Assad’s 2017 solely on his ERA or WHIPs which did go down each month. Instead, I think FIP and xFIP are likely more representative of his current development. They stood at 3.03 and 3.27 respectively. Both of those are very respectable.
When I saw Assad pitch several times in August, I was impressed by how much he had changed. Aside from quickening his pace, his curve had taken on a sharper bite. His fastball was not as wild and tailing up and away as it had earlier in the year. Even though he is 6’1” and 200 pounds, he is far from physically sculpted. I think as time goes on, his musculature could tighten up and he could gain a couple more ticks on his fastball.
As I start thinking about his future, I also noticed a set of stats that show some promise for the future. In 2016, 39.3% batted balls were pulled. In 2017, that percentage of balls was close at 39.1%. The biggest change occurred in opposite field hits increased by 5%. That tells me that hitters are not getting around him as much. It’s a stat and trend to watch for 2018 along with his BB rate.
The hardest thing for Assad to do in 2018 will be to earn a starting spot in South Bend. Alex Lange, Brendon Little, and Jose Albertos are most likely to be assigned there along with Bailey Clark and Jesus Camargo. Two 2017 draft picks, Keegan Thompson and Cory Abbott, will also be there to make the competition fierce in spring training. Assad is going to have his work cut out for him.
By Todd Johnson
One of my favorite things to watch this summer was Jesus Camargo’s changeup. Thrown anywhere from 79 to 82 miles an hour, it seemed to roll off a table and into the mitt of the catcher. Coming in at 10-13 miles an hour slower than his fastball, it was a thing of beauty that allowed him to dominate most Northwest League hitters.
Camargo missed all of 2016 after being the ace of the Mesa Cubs in 2015. The 21-year-old right-handed pitcher has to feel good about his success in 2017. He should begin 2018 in South Bend.
Doesn’t get rattled
Signed in 2014, Camargo debuted in the Arizona Rookie League in 2015. In 11 games, he threw 46.1 innings with a 3.30 ERA. He was considered to be the number one starter on a team that didn’t have a lot of starters. He struck out 57 batters and only walked 12 all season. He made the Cubs Central All-Star Team for August.
As a result, I was pretty excited to see him in Eugene in 2016. But an injury in spring training ditched that and he missed all of the season.
Heading into 2017, I wasn’t sure what his role was going to be. Would he get the opportunity to start? Would he be a long man out of the pen or a piggyback starter? Or would he be a straight up reliever?
He was two out of those three things this year. Eugene was all the better for it.
He began the year starting and, when some of the Cubs’ top draft picks came to Eugene, he moved to a piggyback role. When they have reached their inning limits, he went back to starting where I thought he should have stayed. His stuff was too good.
In 60.1 innings, he struck out 73 and walked only 24. With a 2.29 ERA, he was a Northwest League All-Star and was probably the most unheralded arm in the system. Opponents only hit .182 off him this year and he did not allow a HR all year.
Camargo has what I would call baseball maturity. Watching him on the mound it is very apparent that he knows how to set up and attack a hitter. He is not trying to do it with smoke and mirrors, but rather he is able to get the hitter out on his toes and control the pace of play through movement and location along with changing speeds.
When 2018 begins, Camargo will be a full year removed from his injury. I don’t think there will be any restrictions on him starting and trying to get over 100 innings in 2018. He still needs to work on his breaking ball more to accentuate the speed of his changeup. If he can do that for next year, he is going to dominate Midwest League hitters just like he did in the Northwest League.
by Todd Johnson
The Mesa Cubs won the Arizona Rookie League Championship last night with an awesome display of hitting! The first four hitters (Jose Gutierrez, Carlos Sepulveda, Jonathan Sierra, and Nelson Velazquez) in the lineup each drove in two runs as the Cubs scored runs in bunches to defeat the Giants 13-3 and win the series two games to one. Delvin Zinn scored three times and Luis Vazquez scored twice while going 4 for 5. Jeffrey Passantino, Eugenio Palma, and Ivan Medina held the Giants scoreless over the last five innings to secure the win! This is the Cubs’ first rookie league title since 2002.
Cubs win first AZL title since 2002. Final 13-3 pic.twitter.com/6pYkQhsE5W
— Eric Longenhagen (@longenhagen) September 8, 2017
Meanwhile in Hillsboro…
The Emeralds got on the board early against the Hops in game two of their series thanks in part to a Brandon Hughes home run to take a 3-0 lead. The Hops came right back to tie at three apiece. Each team would tack on another run with the Hops tying it in the bottom of the eighth. In the top of the ninth, the Ems blew it open by scoring six runs to win 10-4. Chris Singleton had a bases clearing double that put the game out of reach. The Emeralds will now face Vancouver in the championship. No dates have been announced as of yet.
In the Carolina League
Things did not go well for Myrtle Beach in their quest to go back-to-back-to-back. The Wood Ducks scored three runs on 5 hits in the fourth to take a 4-0 lead and held on to defeat the Pelicans 4-1. The Pelicans only managed four hits. The Pelicans and Wood Ducks will play two tonight in order to avoid Hurricane Irma in the best of five series.
By Todd Johnson
After being held to two hits through the first six innings, the Mesa Cubs erupted to score 9 runs in the last three frames to defeat the Giants 10-4 in Game 1 of the best of 3 series. Delvin Zinn went 3 for 4 with 3 RBI and Nelson Velazquez homered as the Cubs are now one step away from a championship! Game two is tonight.
9 strikeouts will decimate any offense and that is what the Giants’ Jose Marte did to the Cubs through 6 IP. The Cubs’ Alfredo Colorado ‘s best pitching effort kept the Cubs within striking distance at 2-1 when Marte left the game. The Cubs pushed across 1 run in the 7th to tie it, then exploded for 5 in the 8th and 3 more in the ninth. Cam Balego scored three times for the Cubs and the Cubs took advantage of four errors by the Giants to win.
In other Playoff News…
The Myrtle Beach Pelicans start their series vs the Down East Wood Ducks tonight with Michael Rucker on the mound.
The Eugene Emeralds, after being smoked out due to forest fires, host Hillsboro tonight with Jesus Camargo taking the ball.