By Todd Johnson

Random Notes from Sunday’s Action – Clifton, Hoerner, and King Impress

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By Todd Johnson

Yesterday was an exciting day throughout the Cubs’ system – From the Cubs playing in San Diego all the way down to Arizona. I traveled from my home to Indiana to see South Bend play and to hang out with my friend Rikk and take some pictures. Here are some random thoughts about yesterday’s action across the system.

1. I haven’t done a lot of writing about the major league club this year, I am pretty excited about the record and standings at the All-Star break. While the Cubs are playing decent ball , Milwaukee was not as the Brewers went 2-8 over their last 10. As a result, the Cubs have a 2.5 game lead over the Brew Crew and the best record in the NL heading into the second half. If they get their starting pitching figured out, it could be a magical 10 weeks.

2. Trevor Clifton had his best start of his tenure at AAA Iowa yesterday. He only gave up two hits and walked to, but struck out six and did not allow her run in five innings. His ERA for the month is a clean 2.30. I’m excited to see him do well at this level so quickly! Should be interesting to see what happens in September if he continues this trajectory.

3. This year my wife and I broke down and bought a camera with part of our income tax refund. Yesterday, the camera made its maiden voyage to South Bend to break it in with baseball pictures. I still have a lot to learn about the settings, but I got some cool pictures of the young Cubs in action. Here is a link to the folder of all the decent pictures I took yesterday.

4. In the late morning, I had a great interview with South Bend reliever Garrett Kelly. When I get back home, I’m going to have to transcribe the interview because it was really good about how he went from being non-drafted to the Twins to Independent ball and then back to the minor leagues. That should be out Wednesday or Thursday. It might even be in two parts.

5. I tend to get a better feel for a pitcher when I see them in person. It’s hard to pick up on TV the depth that breaking pitches get and to get the full effect of how batters swing against said pitches. Yesterday, South Bend Cub pitcher Brendan King impressed me with his off speed arsenal. He was getting a lot of ugly swings as his pitches dive bombed out of the zone in the last 10 to 15 feet. Yes, he did give up a run, but those breaking pitches are very promising. I hope to interview him later this week and see what all he is throwing and how he is throwing them.

6. The main object of my attention yesterday was shortstop and first round pick Nico Hoerner. You have to be impressed by his play so far. On Sunday, he hit a home run to left center field as he went 2-for-4 on the day. In using the camera, I began to pick up or some little idiosyncrasies that showed up. One of them is, as he’s getting ready on defense for the pitch, he does this little hop to get himself ready. I also picked up that he does not use his lower half to its fullest effect yet as a hitter. That will come in due time. He is doing very well at South Bend and he should be there for this month.

I was in such a rush to get on the road to head to South Bend yesterday that I forget to post the players of the week in Sunday’s “The Weekly.” So, here they are in all of their glory.


The Weekly – Nico at South Bend, Debuts and Promotions, and a Busy Week Ahead

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By Todd Johnson

Around the System
Tennessee and Mesa Cubs 1 continue to do well as both were in first place heading into last night’s games. South Bend is still looking to put together a streak or two as they are just three games out of first. If Myrtle Beach can get their bats going, the Pelicans now have enough pitching to get them back in the hunt for a playoff spot for the fourth consecutive year.

But the Big News…
It was all about Nico this week. The Cubs’ #1 draft pick was promoted to South Bend on Wednesday and made his debut on Thursday where he made this spectacular catch. Hoerner went 2-for-4 in his first game for South Bend. On night number two, he went 1-for-3 with a walk. Having watched him now for the better part of two weeks, his athleticism is the attribute that stands out. Yes, he can hit. Yes, he can field, throw, and run. But he is a far, far better athlete than we were initially lead to believe by the Cubs. When I first saw him at Eugene, I remarked about his size and musculature. In fact, with his size and skill sets, he could play almost anywhere you want him. The only question I have about Nico is this: How much power will he have?

With all that being said, don’t get in a rush to get him to Chicago as fast as possible. Yes, he’s advanced as a college hitter. Yes, he should do well at South Bend. Sure, he could end up in Myrtle Beach this August depending on playoff races. He will not be in the Arizona Fall League. He’s going to instructs in Mesa. The Cubs hitting instructors will tinker with his swing mechanics a bit to generate some more power.

Nico’s got a lot to learn, let him learn it first. He should be better next year because of how he goes through this year.

There were a lot of other promotions this week 
James Norwood made his Chicago Cubs debut. Will Remillard was promoted to AAA Iowa. PJ Higgins got a much deserved promotion to AA Tennessee. Rollie Lacy made his way from South Bend to Myrtle Beach and had an outstanding debut. And finally, Clayton Daniel and Derek Casey became the latest draft picks to debut at Eugene while Andy Weber played in his first game down in Mesa.

The promotion craze is definitely not over. Usually, there’s a lot of player movement in July. Come August, the promotions settle down as the affiliates will play out the last month of the season. There might be a few changes to get Tennessee some extra help if it continues its winning ways in search of a Southern League championship.

More International Free Agents
The Cubs also signed a couple more international free agents. Not much is known about them other than their agent position. The two signees are 19-year-old pitcher Gabriel Jaramillo and 18-year-old switch-hitting infielder Ronny Simon. That brings the Cubs’ total to seven this year.

Coming Up
It is going to be an exciting week. As you’re probably reading this, I am in my car on my way over to South Bend for a couple of days. On Wednesday, I’ll also be traveling to the Quad Cities to see South Bend play a couple more times. Then next Sunday, I’ll be in Geneva to see the Cubs play the Kane County Cougars. So it’s gonna be a lot of baseball and a lot of driving.

When I’m done, I hope to have some interviews to transcribe. There will definitely be a whole lot of photographs which will be in an album over on the Facebook page. And I might make some cards from said photographs. All in all, it’s going to be a busy week.

Card of the Week

Trade Talk – 3 Questions About What the Cubs Have to Offer

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By Todd Johnson

With less than three weeks left until the MLB non-waiver trade deadline, the Cubs have yet to make a move. They have been shuttling players back and forth between AAA Iowa and Chicago frequently to fill in DL stints, occasional spot starts, and to rebuild the bullpen. At one point, there were three relievers from AAA in the Cubs’ pen.

The main reason the Cubs have not gone out and made any kind of deal is that the brass is unsure of the exact needs. Yes, they could need a starting pitcher to replace Yu Darvish and he could be healthy by the end of the month or early August. That kind of uncertainty could be detrimental if the Cubs don’t make a move and Darvish can’t go. Then again, they could look like geniuses if they hold off on a deal and he is healthy.

While pitcher Drew Smyly is close to returning from the DL and beginning his rehab games, the Cubs could rely on him, which is a huge gamble considering the severity of TJS. He would be a better fit in the bullpen than as a starter.

Asa result, the Cubs are going to wait until the final week or few days before they make a deal due to Darvish’s health and/or the performance of Tyler Chatwood.

If and when the Cubs do make a deal, there are a few questions that need asked.

  1. Do the Cubs have enough to go get a Jacob deGrom or other elite starters?
  2. Do the Cubs have any untouchables when it comes to prospects?
  3. What value might other teams see when examining Cubs prospects?

Do the Cubs have enough to go get a Jacob deGrom or other elite starters?

In order for this to happen, the Cubs would have to include major league talent, maybe even as many as two current MLB position players, in addition to prospects. If I was the GM of another team, I would want Victor Caratini in a deal. Switch hitting catchers don’t grow on trees, let along one that can  actually hit. Utility guy Ian Happ is another name that other teams will surely bring up.

deGrom is signed through 2020. The Cubs would be getting a top of the rotation starter for 2.33 years. That might be something the Cubs can’t pass up. If it was on minor league prospects alone, the Cubs do not have that elite MiLB position prospect(s) the Mets crave.

In theory, part of me wants to make that deal because of how dominant deGrom can be. Cub fans saw it in 2015. It might be worth trading some of that young MLB position player depth for a clear-cut #1 guy. Key word there is “might.”

In reality, the Mets probably want more than what the Cubs would be willing to part with. It would be a miracle if Theo could pull it off, but at what cost?

Do the Cubs have any untouchables when it comes to prospects?

One part of me says “no.” That lasted for about two seconds. Then reality kicks in. After the Jose Quintana trade of almost exactly a year ago took the Cubs’ top two prospects followed by the Avila/Justin Wilson trade that took another two, the prospect cupboard was emptied of four top 100 guys. It’s been a year and the Cubs still don’t have a top 100 guy on any prospect list. However, three are close.

Adbert Alzolay was getting a lot of pub over the winter and before a lat injury spoiled his season. Miguel Amaya is on pace to crank out 20 HRs in the Midwest League at the age of 19. On the other hand, Amaya might be on his way to Myrtle Beach soon at the rate he is performing. You can also add in recent first round pick Nico Hoerner who looks very polished so far.

Based on their potential, these three would be the only ones who could be off the table in any negotiations.

What value might other teams see when examining Cubs prospects?

That depends on what the other team is looking for in a trade. Do they want immediate impact, guys who are close to MLB-ready? Or do they want players with higher ceilings but are willing to develop that talent?

Tennessee and Iowa have several prospects who are close to MLB ready. Some, like David Bote, Mark Zagunis, and Duane Underwood are close to ready now. Others, like Jason Vosler, Trevor Clifton, and most of the AA roster need another year of seasoning before they could join a major league roster.

However, if you want the players with the highest ceilings, they can be found from Mesa on up to Myrtle Beach. They are extremely raw as prospects but are quite young at 18 and 19 years old. On the other hand, it is going to take 3-4 years before they will be ready. But when they are, they could have a big impact on a MLB roster.

Based on past trades, Theo might go out and make an under the radar trade for a pitcher who can both start and relieve. The cost of such a deal is something the Cubs could easily absorb as the price would be minimal.

There’s still a lot of time left and a only a few things to figure out with regards to pitching before the deadline. If the Cubs do not make a deal before the August 1 deadline, they can still make a deal by the end of August as long as the player they seek clears waivers. That option is more likely to happen considering the health and performance of the Cubs’ pitching staff.

2018 Draft Class Signings and Assignments Update

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By Todd Johnson

Now that a week has passed since the 2018 MLB draft signing deadline, it is a good time to take a look just to see what all the Cubs were able to get for their system. On the surface, they signed 32 players, the most in the Theo era. They also signed 3 non-drafted free agents.

Here they are in all their positional glory:
C (2): Brennon Kaleiwahea, Caleb Knight
1B (1): Tyler Durna
2B (2):Andy Weber, Clayton Daniel
SS (3):Nico Hoerner, Levi Jordan, Miguel Pablon
3B (3): Luke Reynolds, Jake Slaughter, Grant Fennell
OF (9): Brennen Davis, Cole Roederer, Jimmy Herron, DJ Artis, Ezequiel Pagan, Jamie Galazin, Dalton Hurd, Drew Wharton, Edmond Americaan
P (15): Paul Richan (R), Ethan Roberts (R), Kohl Franklin (R), Zach Mort (R), Derek Casey (R), Riley Thompson (R), Cam Sanders (R), Riley McCauley (R), Josh Sawyer (R), Jake Reindl (R), Chris Allen (L), Carlos Vega (R), Blake Whitney (R), Niels Stone (R), Jack Patterson (L)

In the Theo era, the Cubs attacked college hitting in the draft from 2012-2015 and then college pitching in 2016-17. This year, it’s a bit of a mix. Of the 35 signees. 15 are pitchers and 9 outfielders lead the position player collection. This was also the first year since 2012 that the Cubs signed a first baseman.

When it comes to pitching, the Cubs mostly took arms that are not so established but the pitchers do contain at least one important attribute to build around just like most of the pitching projects the Cubs have taken the past two draft classes. Those past arms are now paying big dividends from South Bend all the way up to Iowa.

The one group that stands out to me is the age of many of the players the Cubs were able to sign – 8 players are 20-years-old and younger. In years past, the Cubs have gone with a large portion of college juniors and seniors interspersed with 4 or 5 high school and junior college picks. The signings of pitchers Kohl Franklin, Chris Allen, and Niels Stone gives the Cubs three young arms to develop. In addition, the Cubs hit the jackpot with young outfielders in Brennen Davis, Cole Roederer, Ezequiel Pagan, and Edmond Americaan along with shortstop Miguel Pablon. The Cubs can take their time with them.

With most of the Cubs daily lineup and position players signed through 2021, there’s no rush to get any draft pick to the show. This is going to be a class that is going to take time to develop. There will be a couple of exceptions. And, it’s also going to be a class that has a bit higher ceiling, especially when it comes to position players as compared with the past two draft classes.

After a pick officially signs a contract, the Cubs have 15 days before they have to place them with an affiliate. 2B Andy Weber, one of the late signees, was assigned yesterday to Cubs 1 in Mesa. The following late picks have yet to be given an official assignment: P Chris Allen, P Riley Thompson, P Jake Reindl, P Josh Sawyer, P Niels Stone, and OF Edmond Americaan. They should all have a spot by a week from tomorrow.

Remember, you can keep track of how all the draft picks are doing on one web page by MLB here.

Prospect Profile: Luis Vazquez Is One to Watch Wherever He Plays

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By Todd Johnson

There’s always one…always.

Every year at short season ball, there’s always one prospect who catches my eye. There are always several that I like, but just one who I am just fascinated to watch. That prospect might not be fully formed or developed, but for some reason, I cannot take my eyes off of them. In the past, it’s been Trevor Clifton, Zack Short, Eloy, and Jose Albertos.

This year is no different. No, it’s not Nico Hoerner, nor is it Nelson Velazquez, Brailyn Marquez, Fernando Kelli, or Jonathan Sierra, though I like them all very, very much. This year, it is Luis Vazquez.

Basic Info
Shortstop/Second Base/Third Base
6’1” 165 lbs.
Bats/Throws – Right/Right
Age: 18
Alberto Melendez Torres School, Puerto Rico
14th Round Pick 2017
ETA – 2022-ish

Initial Contact
The first look I got of Vazquez was in his promo video (down below). He was just a scrawny kid who looks very fluid in his movements. You see him running, hitting, fielding, throwing. It looks like most other videos of players from the Caribbean and Latin America. What sets Vazquez apart is the way he moves. It’s not awkward. It’s not mechanical. It’s very fluidic, very natural, almost earthy. It’s not forced at all. And he looks like he could gain a few pounds. And based on how he looks this year, he’s no longer 6’1” and he’s no longer 165 pounds.

The Arizona Rookie League
The first look I got of Vazquez was in a video by Baseball Census of pitcher Mitch Stophel. At 1:32, Vazquez comes out of nowhere to make a couple of nice plays. I was amazed at his range and his quick release. For a 17 year-old in the Arizona Rookie League, Vazquez survived. He started out hot hitting .346 in July before cooling off. In August , he only hit .135. A plus, though, was that his strikeout rate was decent at close to 20%. That’s not too bad for a kid playing against pitchers with much better stuff than he was accustomed to seeing in Puerto Rico. In the playoffs, Vazquez went 4-for-5 in 2 games as the Cubs won the title.

In Spring  Training this year, heads turned in Mesa this spring when the young shortstop played in actual game with the big league club. He went 0-for-2 at the plate but looked like he belonged out there at shortstop.

June in Eugene
Things have not gone exactly as planned at short season Eugene. Originally, Luis was going to largely play shortstop and solidify the infield. For the first two weeks, he did just that. He showed great range, a good arm, made good decisions, and was looked to by the rest of the team as the de facto defender. His bat, however, did not do so well. Hitting in the bottom of the order for 13 games, he only hit .154 and struck out 10 times in 39 at-bats.

And then July came…
…And so did shortstop Nico Hoerner, the Cubs’ #1 draft pick this year. Hoerner slid right into the starting shortstop position. But instead of it being the downfall of Vazquez, it was the beginning. Luis began playing second and showed he could play there at an elite level without a hitch. Third base? No problem! I am amazed at how easily he slid into those spots and displayed elite skills on day one. The ability to thrive in that situation really speaks to his makeup and desire.

What has changed the most for Luis, though, is his bat. For July, he’s hitting .364 with 1 HR and 5 in his last 10 games with only 3 Ks in 22 ABs. I am excited to see if he can maintain that high level of production and keep his strikeout rate low. I really like how he handles the bat. Sometimes, he might push an at-bat too hard. He just needs to learn when to be aggressive and when to not be. It is still a work in progress. He will have good games and bad games.

And just as soon as Nico came, Nico left. Luis was penciled right back in at shortstop last night. He went 1-for-4 with a HR and 2 RBI.

Vazquez is going to stay at Eugene all summer. Give him time to finish growing. His physicality should grow with it. He’s still pretty raw at the plate but the more pitches he sees, the better he is going to be. He’s just 18. But it’s an extremely impressive 18.

How is the 2 Teams in Mesa Thing Working Out for the Cubs?

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By Todd Johnson

The big change in the Cubs’ minor league system this year is the addition of a new rookie league team in Mesa. The impetus behind the new affiliate in the Arizona Rookie League was to provide more playing time for the team that uses that plays and trains at the Cubs’ Sloan Park. In the past, players that have injuries of a more serious nature get their work in at the Cub’s training facilities and begin playing games there. The problem with that is that a rehabbing player would take away at-bats and innings from young Cub prospects, sometimes for a week or two at a time. A second affiliate at this level was supposed to open up opportunities for those prospects while still allowing other players to rehab.

So How’s That Working Out?

So far, it seems to be working out on the surface. Each rookie league affiliate is assigned 35 roster spots. On the AZL Cubs 1 team, only pitchers Ryan Webb, Corey Black, and Justin Stelle are rehabbing. Before, OF Chris Coghlan spent some time with the club before heading back to Iowa. On Cubs 2, 1B Tyler Alamo from Myrtle Beach is getting some work in. He’s played in 7 games to date and I would expect him to not be there much longer. At some point, Drew Smyly ought to be working some things out soon.

Last summer, the Cubs signed over 40 international free agents after signing 35 the year before. Add in 32 new draft picks and 3 non-drafted free agents, the Cubs have a lot of spots to fill. About 1/3 of each roster is filled with recent draft picks and the other 2/3 is made up of international free agents, mostly from the past 3 years.

As for the Product on the Fields…

By having two teams, there was the thought that the Cubs would have watered down a team, but that is not the case at all. Heading into Tuesday night, Cubs 1 was in first place in their division at 11-6 and Cubs 2 is 7-11 and just a few games back in a different division. At some point, the two will play each other a few times.

However, some panic did set in the first two weeks of the season as the Cubs thought they would have enough pitchers signed from the draft to fill out the roster. Those picks did not sign fast enough. So, the Cubs had to muster up some arms in a rush from Cubs 1 and the DSL, a couple of whom have stuck with the team.

In addition, draft picks DJ Artis and Brennon Davis were injured in their first couple of games and haven’t seen action since.

On the other hand, 31st round pick 2B Clayton Daniel has been outstanding hitting .370. Other players off to good starts include Fidel Mejia, Grant Fennell, Yonathan Perlaza, and Luke Reynolds. Meanwhile, Pitchers Jesus Tejada, Didier Vargas, and 2017 round draft Peyton Remy look like they might have something.

And most recently, this happened:

It’s been a weird three weeks so far, but adding the second affiliate in the AZL seems to be working out and doing everything it is supposed to – giving prospects a spot to play and helping rehabbing players get back in shape.

Prospect Update: Could Jason Vosler Have “Next?”

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By Todd Johnson

David Bote’s arrival in Chicago has been a very pleasant surprise this summer. He is flashing his bat, power, approach, glove, arm, and base running skills while endearing himself to millions of Cub fans with his play. But there is something else that is at work. Out of the Cubs everyday players, only Bryant and Russell were given everyday spots from the get go. Javy and Schwarber had to work their way in through the bench. The same was true for Willson Contreras, Albert Almora, and Ian Happ.

As a result, who might be next to get the call to help off the bench? One would think that once Bryant is healthy, that Bote would go back down to Iowa and that Bote will be available to head back to Chicago at a moment’s notice. However, there is another player down in Iowa who might be a name we could hear more of in the coming months. That is Jason Vosler.

Vosler’s biggest asset is his left-handed bat. Armed with a beautiful swing, power, and the ability to play first and third bases, Vosler is having a great two month stretch in 2018 – First at Tennessee and now at Iowa.He’s hitting .290 in July and is currently the Cubs’ MiLB RBI leader.

The Cubs drafted Vosler in the 16th round out of Northeastern in 2014. He played at Boise that first summer. While he only hit .266, his OBP of .361 was quite good. In 2015, he was at South Bend, which is where I got my first look at him. He showed a good approach, had a beautiful swing even back then. I didn’t take him to be an elite prospect at that point. In fact, when he was promoted mid-season to Myrtle Beach, I was taken aback. He had not lit the Midwest League on fire. Sure, he had 6 dingers in 38 games, but nothing earth shattering was going on in the box score. He would hit 4 more homers for the Pelicans the rest of the year. But sometimes, the stat line doesn’t tell the whole story.

In 2016, he played 93 games for Myrtle Beach and hit .250 with a .314 OBP and 2 homers. Still, he found his way to Tennessee for 26 games. At this point in his career, he was not striking out much. For all of 2016, he only whiffed 78 times in almost 120 games. That’s not bad. His swing still looked great. I thought that it was only a matter of time before he began hitting for a higher average.

The next spring, Vosler found his way back to AA Tennessee. The summer of ‘17 saw Vosler’s power numbers explode. He hit 21 HRs and drove in 81 and that earned him a trip to the prestigious Arizona Fall League. Despite those numbers, not everything was on track for a promotion. He struck 120 times in 129 games and only walked 53 all the while hitting only .241. His average was a little misleading. Hit he .270 in the first half and .211 in the second. In addition, his power production dropped precipitously in the second half, going from 13 homers and 49 RBI in the first half down to 8 dingers and 32 driven in for the second half. In the fall league, he hit 2 home runs and drove in 13 in 23 games where he played a mixture of first and third base.

It looked like he would start 2018 back at Tennessee.

However, Jason still had that beautiful swing. The power surge was something most people did not see coming. He had gone from 2 HRs in 2014, to 10 in 2015, 3 in 2016, and 21 in 2017. Could it be sustained in 2018?

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

Things did not start out so well for Jason this year. In April, he hit .182 but smacked 4 HRs with 15 RBI. May was not very good until something just clicked in the middle of the month. Over the next six weeks, Vosler’s average went up 50 points. By the time June ended, Jason Vosler hit .273 and had a very impressive .371 OBP while hitting 5 HRs with 26 RBI. It is easy to see why he was promoted. That approach I first saw at South Bend along with that same swing was now producing at an elite level.

Vosler has not stopped hitting in July. After 8 days, he’s hitting .290 for the month with 2 HRs and 7 RBIs. He has yet to take a walk at Iowa while he has struck out 21 times in 14 AAA games since he was promoted. That is something he will surely be working on the next two months.

Going Forward

Vosler is close to being the next guy. He has an excellent command of the zone and he already has the ability to hit for the power from the left side, something every franchise needs. It should be exciting to see how his AAA career continues and whether or not he will get a shot to help the big league club this year and next.