Arizona Rookie League

The Weekly – Notes on Debuts, Signings, Awards, Nico, Justin Steele, Cards, and Grant Fennell

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By Todd Johnson

*Friday was the final day underclassmen and high school players drafted by the Cubs’ this year could sign a pro contract. The Cubs had around $85,000 in extra bonus pool money and they stunned everyone by getting 35th round pick OF Edmond Americaan from Chipola JC in Florida for just over $200,000. The Cubs also signed 27th round pick Niels Stone from Indian River State College, a junior college. He is right-handed pitcher. Even though the deadline has passed, the Cubs still can sign Catcher Hunter Taylor from South Carolina, who was a senior. They own Taylor’s rights until next June.

So, in total, the Cubs signed 32 drafted players (the most in the Theo era) and 3 non-drafted players. That will be a lot of new Cubs to keep track of the next two months.

*Nico Hoerner, the Cubs’ first round pick last month, just continues to get on base at an unreal clip in Eugene. After missing four games from jamming his pinky finger sliding into third base, Hoerner came back on Friday and did not skip a beat going 2/4 with a BB, a run, and 2 SBs. Then, last night, he cranked his first HR as a Cub.

*In a bit of perplexing and sad/bad news, the oft-injured pitcher Oscar de la Cruz received an 80-game suspension after testing positive for Furosemide, a masking agent. Although he was struggling a bit at AA Tennessee, this was also the first year he had stayed healthy since his breakthrough at Eugene. It will be interesting to see how the Smokies replace Oscar in the rotation and how the Cubs deal with Oscar on a personal level in the future.He will not be eligible to play until mid-May of 2018.

*In good news, South Bend 1B/OF Jared Young (who was promoted to Myrtle Beach yesterday) and Tennessee pitcher Duncan Robinson were named the Cubs’ minor league player and pitcher of the month, respectively. In what is becoming an annoying trend this year, I am picking the hitter correctly in my monthly All-Star teams. My pitchers are not usually close. For June, I had South Bend’s Rollie Lacy while in April I had Javier Assad to the Cubs’ Matt Swarmer. I will get it right someday (as I did in May with Cory Abbott).

*I also went a little bit nuts on making my baseball cards the past two weeks. I finished my June cards of the month post a few days early. As a result, I had a weekend’s worth of cards to add into July’s album. With addition of Eugene now playing along with  3 new photographers contributing pics, I had plenty to do. Right now, I have an amazing 76 cards just one week into the month. Here’s an amazing tidbit to that number…I still have an album of Eugene pics from their last homestand to sort through and turn into cards. You can see all of July’s cards here.

*I am beginning to have some thoughts about who the Cubs might protect on the 40 man roster to avoid losing in the Rule 5 Draft in December. The Cubs have until November to make their declarations. Usually at the end of July/early August, Cub fans get a sneak peak when 7 players are usually selected to participate in the Arizona Fall League. Justin Steele is no-brainer selection for Arizona. The young lefty missed most of this season after TJS last August. He came back this week and pitched three scoreless in Mesa. I am excited for him as he worked hard to get back. As for who else might be on the list, there’s still a lot of baseball to be played before that is figured out.

*Because of Trent Giambrone’s massive 3 HR and 9 RBI outburst, he is going to get the hitter of the week award, and deservedly so. Coming in second was Grant Fennell of Mesa 2. The IF/OF from Nevada was signed as an non-drafted free agent and is doing very well in the AZL. He hit over .500 this week and drove in 5. He’s going to be a bat worth watching the rest of the summer. I am thinking of doing a profile on him later this week. We’ll see.

*In addition, several young Cubs made their debuts this week including Cole Roederer, Zach Mort, Paul Richan, Ethan Roberts, and Jimmy Herron. To see how all the draft picks are doing this year, click here.

Players of the Week

Card of the Week


2018 Draft Update: As the Signing Deadline Nears, Where Are The Picks?

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By Todd Johnson

A month ago today, the Cubs finished up the 2018 MLB draft by selecting 42 players. Today is the final day for almost all of those players to sign. Currently, The Cubs have signed 30. That’s the largest draft class in the Theo era. But they are not done yet. By the end of today, the Cubs could add more players, and one of them doesn’t have to sign today.

One player who could sign is pitcher Layne Looney, a reliever from the University of Richmond, is one player who I thought would have signed a long time ago. Drafted in the 19th Round, his signing was a no-brainer, but for some reason it has not happened. Catcher Hunter Taylor had a deep run in the College World Series for South Carolina. A senior in college, Hunter technically does not have to sign today. The Cubs could sign him all the way up until almost next year’s draft because he is a senior.

Another possible sign is pitcher Niels Stone from Indian River Junior College. A lefty, taken in the 27th round, the Cubs could sign him to a deal fairly quickly. The Cubs were thought to be using some of their overage to sign 28th round pick high school pitcher Mitchell Parker from the Albuquerque area to an oversight deal. That deal fell through on July 4th when Parker announced he would be going to college instead.

The players listed above are from rounds 11-40, Those who sign today can sign for bonuses up to $125,00 and not have it count against the Cubs’ bonus pool. However, there is just $83,955 of overage left for the Cubs to help sway someone’s mind.

As for the rest of the draft class, of the 30 that signed, most of them were assigned a club except for a few stragglers who just signed this week. The stragglers, like fifth round pick 2B Andy Weber from Virginia, will have to go through an orientation for about a week before they are assigned an affiliate.

To see how all the draft picks are doing in game action, has a site for each team that you can track them all on one page. It’s pretty cool not to have to go from team site to team site to see how they are doing.

Here are the actual assignments so far of who has “officially” been put on a roster. FYI – Most of the pitchers have been given a limit of only 30 innings the next two months before they get shut down after already having pitched this spring.

Made from a photo by Jared Ravich

Nico Hoerner, Riley McCauley, Zach Mort, Paul Richan, Ethan Roberts, Cam Sanders, Carlos Vega, Tyler Durna, and Jake Slaughter.

Mesa 1
Clayton Daniel, Jack Patterson, Luke Reynolds, Jamie Galazin, and Dalton Hurd.

Mesa 2
Blake Whitney, Levi Jordan, Miguel Pabon, Ezequiel Pagan, Drew Wharton, Brennen Davis, and DJ Artis.

No “Official” Assignments for: Jimmy Herron, Kohl Franklin, Cole Roederer, Derek Casey, Andy Weber, Riley Thompson, Josh Sawyer, Jake Reindl, and Chris Allen.

Non-Drafted Free Agents – Grant Fennel is playing for Mesa 2 and Brennon Kaleiweaha is playing for Eugene. Caleb Knight has not been “officially” assigned an affiliate.

Debut Night in Eugene: Getting a First Look at Nico Hoerner and More

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By Todd Johnson

When a prospect debuts in Mesa in the Arizona Rookie League, there is not a lot of press there to cover it. Usually, there are not even 10 people in attendance. For three games in anonymity, Cubs first round pick Nico Hoerner hit .250 with a .400 on base percentage with two stolen bases. It was a pretty unassuming start to his pro career.

Yesterday afternoon, I broke the word that Hoerner had been placed on Eugene’s roster. And lo and behold, there he was in all his tie-dye glory at 9 PM central playing shortstop for the Cubs’ short season Class A affiliate. In addition, Nico was joined by fellow 2018 draft picks Tyler Durna and Jake Slaughter.

As for Nico…

Hoerner went one-for-four on the night. His lone hit was a single to right. He was also hit by a pitch. One would think that playing shortstop that Hoerner would have more than two chances in the field, but that’s all he got. Showing good range, he made a nice play going to his left and the other assist was on a routine grounder.

What surprised me most about Hoerner was that he is a little bit bigger than I first thought. He’s not some Dustin Pedroia or Ryan Theriot clone. He’s much bigger than them.

At 6’1″, he stands pretty straight up in the batter’s box. He’s pretty trim and muscular and carries his weight well. He has a nice smooth stroke to the ball. Although, in his Eugene debut, he didn’t really square one up. He struck out twice and grounded out to third.

Mstt Dompe, the Emeralds TV/radio announcer, explained that Hoerner, Durna, and Slaughter all got off a plane just a couple hours before gametime. There is no game for Eugene tonight due to a Grateful Dead concert, hence the jerseys. Hoerner and the Ems will play two on Sunday against the Everett Aqua Sox. That will give us an extended, and probably better, look at the Cubs’ first pick.

I wouldn’t put too much stock in one game, but it was fun to watch him and to get some first looks at how he swings, plays D, and his overall demeanor.

As for Durna and Slaughter…

Tyler Durna debuts for the Ems

I came away impressed with Durna, a 15th round pick, as he has a nice short stroke to the ball. He went two-for-four with a triple. The night before he drove in six runs for Mesa. For a 1B, he’s only 6′ tall, but he made every play at first just fine. However, like most 1B, his bat will need to be his calling card.

3B Jake Slaughter was originally drafted by the Cubs in 2016 but instead he chose to go to LSU. The Cubs redrafted him this year after his sophomore year. He is a lot bigger than I thought. At 6’3” and only 200 pounds, the 21-year-old third baseman has some room to add on to his big frame. He had a decent night going one-for-three with a walk and a strikeout.

Jake Slaughter’s Debut AB for Eugene

Going Forward

In the future, I am excited to see more of what Hoerner can do. I’m excited to see him square one up, sprint to second, make more plays to his right. I’m excited to see Nico sprint down the line after a pop up,  come in on a slow roller, fire a laser to first, and to see him take charge in crucial situations. It’s hard to get all that in just one game. Last night was just his debut. He got his feet wet. It’s just gonna take time to see what all he can do, along with his teammates.

Several Draft Picks Start Their Careers in Mesa This Week

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By Todd Johnson

It all happens so quietly.

There is no fanfare, no tweet, no Facebook post, no press release, nor a press conference. Their name just appears on the roster or in the lineup and their careers begin.

With 42 draft picks this year and almost $5 million to spend, the Cubs front office could sign a lot of its picks. It looks like that number could reach 30+ by the deadline on July 6. Most of the position players that have signed have seen action this past week. In addition, the Cubs signed 3 non-drafted free agents (NDFA), 2 of which are catchers.

On Tuesday night, first round pick Nico Hoerner’s name appeared in the lineup for the Cubs’ AZL 1 rookie league team. For the night, he went 2 for 3 with a triple, a RBI, a HBP, and a walk. That amounted to an .800 OBP for the night. He also cleanly fielded his five chances at shortstop. That’s an all-around decent debut. For his second night, it did not start out well as he hit into double plays in two of his first three at-bats. However, his sole hit in five at-bats came in the ninth and moved fellow draft pick Clayton Daniel to third. Daniel would later score the winning run on a single.

Second round pick Brennen Davis, an OF, saw his first action Tuesday as well. He batted leadoff and played in center for the AZL 2 team. Davis went 2 for 3 with a stolen base.  In his second game, Davis went 0-1 and was replaced in the top of the third. There was no word to the reason why.

Lefty Jack Patterson, a 32nd round pick from Bryant, became the first pitcher from this year’s class to debut. He pitched a scoreless 0.2 of an inning in relief on Tuesday, Carlos Vega got in some work on Wednesday as he walked two and struck out two in one inning of work.

Other players to debut include OF Jamie Galazin, 2B Clayton Daniel, 1B Tyler Durna, OF Drew Wharton, OF DJ Artis, 3B Jake Slaughter, and NDFA Grant Fennell. C Brennon Kaleiwahea, a NDFA, has been assigned to Eugene’s roster but has not played.  

Right now, the Cubs, according to MLB, have “officially” signed 24 of their 42 selections. I could see them signing 6-8 more including Andy Weber, Josh Sawyer, Jake Reindl, Layne Looney, Hunter Taylor, and Neils Stone. Yesterday, @Savermetrics reported that the Cubs did ink Levi Jordan and Dalton Hurd (they were listed as not signed in the MLB link).

One player who could also sign might be Mitchell Parker from Manzano HS in New Mexico. The only question is whether there will be enough money left over to dissuade him from going to college.

The Weekly – The First Half Comes to a Close, Brandon Hughes, and Fernando Kelli

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By Todd Johnson

As the first half of the year comes to a close today, the future is hopeful. At the end of April, times were rough in the system. Only one team had a record over .500. But over the course of the last six weeks, some hitters broke out, several pitchers excelled, and where there was once darkness, there is now some light. After today, 3 of the 4 full season teams could have a .500 record or better for the first half. That did not look possible on May 1.

Although no team made the playoffs, a few should make a run for it in the second half. The draft picks could add a little boost to the system once they sign and go through their camp.

Iowa – 2-4 (25-41)
Tennessee – 4-3 (35-34)
Myrtle Beach – 2-6 (34-35)
South Bend – 3-4 (34-34)
Eugene – 2-0 (2-0)
DSL 1 – 3-3 (7-6)
DSL 2 – 4-2 (5-8)

Eugene began their season on Friday night and it is an extremely young team. That should change once the draft picks go through an orientation camp for one week. For now, though, there is some promise. Fernando Kelli is an extremely exciting player and Nelson Velazquez looks more at ease. I can’t wait to watch them develop. Kelli is already causing havoc on the basepaths everytime he gets on base. Whether it is good baserunning, stolen bases, or his presence, he is just plain exciting.

Meanwhile, out in Arizona, the two rookie league teams in Mesa begin play tomorrow. It will be interesting to see the rosters tomorrow. One could assume one team might be a normal team while the other could have the rehabbing players and the draft picks coming in and out. We will find out more tomorrow.

Who’s Hot at the Plate Right Now?

Brandon Hughes hit .222 in April and slumped to .188 in May. The 2017 16th round pick from Michigan was highly thought of because of his athletic prowess. The poor start did not dampen his development. A switch hitter can sometimes be hard to fix. For Hughes, though, he seems to be on the right track  in June. He’s hitting .389 with 1 HR for the month. His average was at .199 on June 2. Two weeks later, he’s brought it up to .241.

I asked South Bend Cubs broadcaster Brendan King what about Brandon changed? He said, “They’ve changed the batting stance a bit, he’s standing more straight up in the box but other than that, just constant repetition.” Like many Cubs prospects, one reason Hughes was selected was his athleticism, another was his makeup. King would also add that Hughes is an extremely hard worker. I look forward to seeing if he can maintain this level of performance as I think there could be something with his size and his speed. The coaches are going to have to bring it out and it sounds like things are improving. Good for him.

Down in the Dominican

I am never quite sure what to make of some stats in the Dominican. The league is made up of a mixture of 16-21 year old kids who are need of game experience. Development can occur rapidly and the play is not always the best. There are lots of errors, wild pitches, and TOOTBLANs. As a result, I always take the stats with a grain of salt. Still, there are some eye-popping numbers coming out of there by several prospects. I will go over some of those in more detail, hopefully next Saturday, as more data comes in.

The Podcast Is Up

The Podcast I did with Cubs Insider and Cubs Den writer Sean Holland is up. There are some technical difficulties but it is still decent. I never can stand the sound of my own voice; I always find it weird. Give it a listen.

Busy Week Ahead

Tomorrow, I will publish the First Half All-Star team followed by the Baseball Cards of the First Half on Tuesday. Wednesday will see the Breakouts of the first half and Thursday will see some second half breakout predictions.

Players of the Week

Card of the Week

Card made from a photo by Tiffany W. (@TiffW96)

The Weekly – MiLB News and 3 Draftable Arms at #24

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By Todd Johnson

There was a lot of news about the minor-league system this week. The Cubs signed outfielder Wynton Bernard to a minor league contract and assigned him to AAA Iowa. He previously played in the Yankee system and is only 25 years old.

I also appeared on a podcast yesterday with my fellow Cubs Insider colleague, Sean Holland. It was a lot of fun as we talked Cubs, prospects, and history. That link should be out on Monday or Tuesday. Look for the link on Twitter and give Sean a follow on Twitter (@sth85) if you haven’t already. 

The Cubs also announced their minor-league coaching and training staff for the upcoming 2018 season. Embedded in the article was an offhand comment that the Cubs will be having a second team in the Arizona rookie league. Yesterday, I wrote an article about how that will impact the Cubs system this summer. And to be honest, I don’t think we’re gonna see the impact at the major-league level for 3 to 4 more years.

Getting back to the coaches list, there were three other things I noticed besides adding an extra affiliate.

1. The Cubs broke up the coaching staff at Eugene after back-to-back playoff appearances. Former manager Jesus Feliciano is now the AA hitting coach and Brian Lawrence will return to South Bend as the pitching coach.

2. The Cubs also put three more players former players back into the system as coaches. Former shortstop Jonathan Mota will be a manager in the Arizona Rookie League. Former catcher and infielder Ben Carhart will be an assistant coach in Tennessee. And, former first baseman Jacob Rogers will be at Eugene as an assistant.

3. Long time pitching coach David Rosario did not appear anywhere on the list. There are two pitching coach spots that have yet to be filled for the Mesa teams. I would think he should be somewhere as he still has a lot to offer. Last year, he was in Eugene.

Order of listing – Manager, Pitching Coach, Hitting Coach, Assistant
IOWA: Marty Pevey, Rod Nichols, Desi Wilson, and Chris Valaika
TENNESSEE: Mark Johnson, Terry Clark, Jesus Feliciano, and Ben Carhart
MYRTLE BEACH: Buddy Bailey, Anderson Tavarez, Ty Wright, and Carlos Rojas
SOUTH BEND: Jimmy Gonzalez, Brian Lawrence, Ricardo Medina, and Paul McAnulty
EUGENE: Steve Lerud , Armando Gabino, Osmin Melendez, and Jacob Rogers
MESA #1: Carmelo Martinez, TBA, TBA, and Leo Perez
MESA #2: Jonathan Mota, TBA, Claudio Almonte, and TBA

In less than five months, Major League Baseball will hold its annual Rule 4 draft. For the Cubs, their system could use a nice infusion of new high-end talent. The Cubs should have up to four picks in the top 75, which could re-energize the system.

Late last week, Baseball America merged their top 100 college player list with their top 100 high school player list to create a Top 200 list. The result is one of the deepest drafts in years. To see beyond the top 30 in their 200 list, you need a subscription.

I have discussed a few bats from the draft earlier in the winter but I keep coming back to Alec Brohm of Wichita State. Baseball America put up some BP work of him in last year’s Cape Cod League. There’s a whole lot for me to love in the video. He has a nice smooth swing that just reeks of power and precision. The issue is Brohm’s lack of athleticism in the field. BA figures he would move to 1B or DH, maybe even LF.

However, when I sat and listened last week to Jaron Madison talk about how the Cubs targeted pitching in the past two drafts, I wondered if the Cubs would take a stab at a pitcher that high in 2018. The risk, especially if it is a high school arm, would be astronomical.

I spent part of Friday night looking at some arms who could be available at #24. I looked at three high school arms and three college pitchers. The three that caught my eye were high school pitcher Cole Wilcox, lefty Tim Cate from Connecticut, and 6’11” Sean Hjele (pronounced Jelly) from the University of Kentucky (Click on their names for video profiles from MLB Pipeline).

They are three very different pitchers except for one thing – the ball comes out of their hands very easy. I like the fact that all three can throw in the low to mid to upper 90s with little effort. What I liked most about Wilcox was he’s just a teenager and he looks pretty polished already. Once he transitions to pitching full-time, the sky could be the limit for him. The only issue is he really doesn’t have one over powering pitch, but he does do everything well. He was on USA Baseball’s 18 U team and did really well. There’s a whole lot to like with this young man.

As for Cate, I looked at four videos of him pitching. He hides the ball extremely well and it’s hard for the hitter to pick up the ball coming out of the hand. As a result, he gets some of the ugliest swings I have seen this off-season. His curve destroys lefties with a nice 1 to 6 break in. I don’t know if he’s going to be a full-time starter, but he could move pretty quickly as a reliever. He would be a late first round pick, but he’s not gonna make it back through the second round. And like many players that Jason McLeod selects, Cate does have USA Baseball experience.

For Hjele, the guy is just huge. He was the SEC Pitcher of the Year last year as a sophomore and I think he has someone to keep an eye on this spring. He is very good now, but I can’t figure just what his ceiling would be. MLB Pipeline said of Hjele:

Hjelle’s best pitch is his low-80s knuckle-curve, which has impressive depth. His fastball velocity has improved from the upper 80s as a high school senior to the low 90s at Kentucky, and he intrigued scouts by hitting 96 mph during fall practice heading into 2018. He has good feel for a changeup and throws all three of his pitches for strikes.

Upcoming Posts

Duane Underwood will be the subject of this week’s “Leveling Up” series and on Friday, the Position Breakdown List concludes for the winter with a look at relievers. Starting in February, I’ll begin to take a look at the big league club and some questions about the bullpen and the starting pitching heading into spring training, which is less than a month away.

Baseball Card of the Week

Cubs to Add a Second Arizona Rookie League Team in 2018

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By Todd Johnson

Over the winter, a New York-Penn League short-season affiliate became available. At that time, I thought it would be cool if the Cubs added another short-season team. I wasn’t disappointed that the Cubs did not snatch up that affiliate. I just thought it was a unique opportunity to expand the lower part of the system.

On Thursday, I had a Scholastic Bowl meet and I didn’t get home until about 9 o’clock. As I was reading to get caught up on the days events, I noticed this little blurb an article about the Cubs Minor League coaching staffs for the 2018 season.

I was taken aback a little bit because I was surprised that it was just sort of dropped in the article without any kind of fanfare. “Oh yeah, we added another team.” The more I thought about it, the more I began to really like the level at which they added another affiliate.

The Cubs have been adding around 30 to 35 new international free agents on a yearly basis. Add in another 25 or so draft picks and that’s a pretty substantial number of players added each year. As a result, they have plenty of players to fill that team.

I think it’s important that the Cubs added another team at the rookie level that. Here’s why.

1. Playing Time
I think this is a great opportunity for many young players to get more at-bats and playing time than they would in a normal short season league. The fact that it’s a short season league is a key component of why I like it. Most prospects share playing time over the course of a 50 to 60 season. The players now would be playing almost every day and training their body earlier in their career to get used to the grind. In addition, they would see more pitches, get more at bats, and get more work in the field.

2. Developing Pitching
The idea of creating six more starting rotation positions in the lower minors is very appealing to me. If the Cubs truly want to develop their own starting pitching, this can go along way to providing Key access to the mound on a steady basis and allow them to stretch out their arms a bit earlier in their careers.

3. Competition
I love the fact that this could create more competition within the organization and thereby improve play and performance as players have to compete to get a promotion to Eugene.

4. Rehab
When prospects and MLB players get injured, they go to Mesa to do rehab that includes strength and conditioning as well as getting some work in during the Arizona Rookie League season. To do so, those rehabbing players end up taking away playing time from the young prospects in the Arizona Rookie League. I really like that having two teams allows those prospects to get experience uninterrupted.

When the 2018 Arizona Rookie League season begins in the middle of June, both teams are going to have a huge international flavor to their rosters. I am excited to see how much and what all pitchers make it stateside.