By Todd Johnson

Leveling Up Series Finale: Brandon Hughes Should Take It Up a Notch in 2018

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By Todd Johnson

Rule number one: Draft all the athletes.

Brandon Hughes is most definitely that. The young 2017 draft pick from Michigan State is arguably the best athlete the Cubs selected in the draft since Jacob Hannemann, way back in 2013. In addition to speed, Hughes has the potential for power. As a lead off hitter at Michigan State, he was never asked to hit that way. That’s something the Cubs might want to change this year.

Upon his arrival at Eugene, Hughes burst onto the scene with a scintillating July before cooling off in August. He hit .299 the first month, and .190 the second. It’s not like he’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, but turning pro can be a tough experience when you’ve already played a full season of baseball; your body is just not used to the grind of playing eight months versus five.

Hughes will have some definite competition for an outfield spot in South Bend but is best suited to right field. His arm is considered above average, but he definitely has the ability to go get the ball.

Basic Info
6’2″ 215 lbs.
Bats: Switch Hitter
Throws: Left
16th Round 2017 from Michigan State
Just turned 22 in December 2017

Leveling Up

It is hard to evaluate someone just on 40 games in short season ball. By the time the middle of June rolls around this year, Hughes should have 60 games in at South Bend. In that span, he needs to improve getting on base. Some of that will come from a solid approach, which he should’ve been working on over the off-season, and some of that will come with a familiarity with the league.

Most importantly, the Cubs need to figure out what kind of hitter Hughes is going to be. Is he going to be a leadoff-speed kind of guy like he was at Michigan State? Or, Is he going to be a guy they’re going to try and develop into a power hitter? Will he be the hitter we saw in July or the one in August? Or, is he going to be some sort of multi-dimensional player that has both speed and power?

If I had to guess, I would go with the last one. One thing  South Bend manager Jimmy Gonzalez has been able to do the past few summers is to develop hitters with good pitch recognition skills. I don’t know if part of that comes from computer games the players play or just their own natural development. Whatever the case may be, Gonzalez gets results and those hitters go on to do well at Myrtle Beach.

For Hughes, I am looking forward to seeing just who he is as a hitter and how he approaches each plate appearance. I’m interested to see how he handles a Midwest League curveball and changeup.

Out of the almost 30 signees from last year’s draft, I think Hughes is the one who will change the most this year. Last summer, I wrote the following for BP Wrigleyville and I still think it holds true for Hughes’ future:

Hughes’ style of hitting reminds me of a story by Ryne Sandberg. Ryno often talks about his conversations with Jim Frey and how Sandberg used to pound the ball into the Astroturf and dirt to try and use his speed to get on base. One day at the batting cage, Frey suggested Sandberg  should change his swing to create more lift to hit for more power. And that one piece of advice transformed Sandberg’s career.

I am not saying that Brandon Hughes is going to be a Hall of Famer. And I am not comparing him to Ryne Sandberg, but their original hitting styles are similar. Hughes is physically gifted. He has the frame and the musculature to hit home runs. It will be interesting to see what his swing is next year.

His natural physicality will allow him to do a variety of things in the field, on the basepaths, and at the plate. His development is going to be a multi-year process that will hopefully take advantage of his natural athletic talent.


Cubs Central Draft Prep: Beyond #24 – David Lebron Can Hit Some Spots and Miss Some Bats

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By Todd Johnson

With five picks in the top 100 selections in this year’s draft, the Cubs have a legitimate opportunity to remake their farm system at 24, 63, 77, 78, and 99. The draft’s strength lies in a collection of college bats and high school arms. The Cubs are going to get five very good players by the end of the third round. Considering they’ll have two more picks in the top 150, and one more in the top 200, that is eight very good players. Eight!

So far this spring, I have focused on who the Cubs might take at number 24. To go beyond the first round, several factors besides performance come into play as to whom the Cubs might select. Signability is one. Another is projection, and the third is makeup.

As someone who has been following the draft very closely the past several years, I can never tell you what’s going to happen. One reason is some teams are cheap while others gamble on a prospect and even more tend to take the safe route. As a result, it’s hard to predict what’s going to happen.

The Cubs’ draft tendencies have been changing a bit the past couple of years. While USA Baseball and succeeding in wooden bat leagues have been key components in selecting players in the past, the Cubs have also been exploring secondary markets more so than usual. Last year, the Cubs made inroads into high schools in Puerto Rico and picked Nelson Velasquez and Luis Vasquez. The Cubs also went more into Division II schools. Then again, they’ve also gone hog wild on selecting pitchers. I do believe the Cubs will ditch that trend in 2018 as there are several impact bats in the top 100.

Photo courtesy of the University of Tampa

When it comes to pitching beyond the top 100, two arms have caught my attention. One is the University of Tampa’s David Lebron and the other is Cal Baptist’s Justin Montgomery. At the earliest, both could be considered third or fourth-round picks, or, for that matter, anywhere on Day 2 of the draft. Today’s post looks just at Lebron.

Lebron is a senior who has had an interesting collegiate career. Originally from the Miami area, Lebron had Tommy John Surgery at the end of his senior year in high school. He sat out a year and then attended College of Central Florida where he played for two years. In addition to his accolades on the field, he was an honor student off the field.

At 5’11” and 190 pounds, Lebron doesn’t project much physically. However, that does not preclude him from being taken in the draft. While he does not have a starter’s prototypical body, he misses a lots of bats. As a junior, he struck out over 100 hitters in 90 innings and 40% of those he caught looking, an amazing statistic. This spring, Lebron has been striking out hitters at a higher rate than last year at 14.05/9 innings. So far, he has struck out 63 in 41 innings while only walking 10 hitters. A 6.3:1 K/BB rate is outstanding.

Lebron told the Tampa Bay Times that Tommy John surgery actually changed how he pitched. He can still throw in the low to mid-low 90s but Lebron tends to focus on command. Lebron also told the paper:

“… It’s not always about blowing guys away. When you get to the professional level, anybody can hit a 95 mph fastball. It’s about consistently hitting your spots, knowing your location, keeping hitters off balance. That’s what I have learned.”

For Lebron, his own personal story reflects a kind of character of the Cubs look for in their draft pick. His father died when Lebron was in his early teens and his mother has worked hard to support him since. He has worked hard for his own success and he is still trying to improve every outing. On Friday the 16th, he went 7 innings with 11 Ks and no walks while giving up an earned run.

I am really enjoying checking up on how he does every week. It’s hard to tell if he’s going to be a starter at the next level but I think it might be worth a shot to let them try that first before trying to make him a reliever just because of his size.

Next week, I will dig a little deeper into Justin Montgomery’s season.

Spring Training Notes: MiLB Teams Get Some Action In and Rosters Begin to Take Shape

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By Todd Johnson

Getting Some Action In
While the major league players have just 10 days left in camp, the Cubs minor-league prospects are just now getting in the swing of it after 10 days as there season does not begin until April 5. Games started being played this week out in Mesa and the surrounding areas like Scottsdale in Yuma. Two key highlights of the week were four perfect innings from Jen-Ho Tseng and three scoreless from Jose Paulino. In addition, both Zack Short and Wladimir Galindo each cranked out home runs. And according to Arizona Phil, the source for all the Cubs minor-league news this spring, outfielder Eddy Martinez is off to a really strong start.

In the major league camp, the Cubs cut the roster down to 37. One of those cuts was World Series champion Justin Grimm. The writing has been on the wall for a little bit since he actually wound up going to arbitration against the Cubs. As a result, Grimm’s contract was not guaranteed this year. I don’t think the Cubs are going to try and re-sign him to a lesser deal. On Thursday this week, I wrote about who could possibly be the last reliever standing. Grimm’s cut narrows it down to Eddie Butler and what looks to be dark horses in Anthony Bass and Justin Hancock. Not quite sure how that is going to play out over the next 10 days but there are only 3 non roster invitees left in Bass, Kyle Ryan, and the hard throwing Hancock, who pitched at Tennessee and Iowa last year.

Roster Fluidity
With just 37 players left on the major league roster, minor league rosters are starting to take shape. They are far from final, though. For example, Iowa currently has 37 players on its roster along with four players on rehab. Let’s say that 7 out of the 10 nine roster invitees get signed to minor-league deals for 2018, that puts the roster at 44. Close to 15 of those players are going to have to either be moved down to Tennessee or cut. That will start a chain reaction to adjust the rosters for opening day of the minor league season. However, that’s not going to happen for another two weeks. I imagine rosters will be released on April 1 or 2 for most of the minor-league clubs.

A New Toy
My wife and I broke down and used some of our income tax refund to buy a new camera. We got a Canon EOS T6 with 3 additional lenses to zoom in. She wants to use it for the birds in the backyard and I want it for baseball…imagine that! I cannot wait to take some pics with it next month.

On a Personal Note…
My busy season at school officially ended on Thursday night when my academic team won the conference tournament!!! It was a pretty sweet victory and I have a mostly young team that loses just two seniors, but my leading scorer this year was a sophomore. I also had three underclassmen in the starting lineup every night. It was fun to watch them grow by leaps and bounds.

As a result, I have all kinds of free time now. I began flushing out the affiliate previews a little bit more this week and I also had time to write two articles. One was for Cubs Insider on the recent minor-league pace of play changes and the other was for BP Wrigleyville on which minor league affiliate to watch this spring.

My Annual Fantasy Team
I used to play in a lot of fantasy baseball leagues. Now, I have it narrowed down to one. It’s the same ten team league I have been playing in for years and we held our live draft yesterday. I think my team looks decent, although I am one starting pitcher short. Here is who I have:
C – Salvador Perez, Welington Castillo
IF – Votto, Altuve, DeJong, Moustakas, Starlin Castro, Chapman
OF – Judge, Reddick, Hoskins, Austin Hays, Marwin Gonzalez,
U – Logan Morrison
Bench – Eloy Jimenez, Gleyber Torres, Ronald Acuna, and Nick Senzel
SP – Yu Darvish, Kyle Hendricks, McCullers, Arrieta, Taijuan Walker
RP – Wade Davis, Edwin Diaz, Sean Doolittle, and Brandon Kintzler (I will be replacing him with a starting pitcher in the next week)
Bullpen – Walker Buehler, Zach Britton

I like my team better for the summer than I do for April as I took some risks in adding a lot of future rookies on the bench and drafting Britton, who is currently injured.

Coming Up Next Week
The final article in the “Leveling Up” series comes out on Wednesday. Outfielder Brandon Hughes, who should be at South Bend in 2018, has his possible future profiled about what kind of player he’s going to be.

After that, I don’t have anything planned for two more weeks until MiLB opening week+. Nothing is pre-written as most of the off-season is. So, I’m just gonna go with the flow of what is happening for about 10 days. It should be a lot of fun for a change. And I will probably make some cards … just like this jem.

Baseball Card of the Week

Made from a photo by Jen Nevius

Who Is Going to Be the Last Reliever Standing?

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By Todd Johnson

There are now exactly two weeks to go in Spring Training. Basically two roster spots remain open. The backup catcher spot is a competition between Chris Gimenez, who looks to have the advantage of having been a backup before, and Victor Caratini, whose bat and experience in the organization will make it tough to pick just one. But when it comes to the final reliever spot, all bets are still off.

In the big scheme of things, the bullpen on March 29th is not going to be as important as the bullpen six months later on October 1. Between injuries, performance, promotions, and trades, a lot can go down (or up) underneath the bleachers and on the mound.

Over the past week, the Cubs whittled down their roster some. Several non-roster invitees were sent back to Iowa and Tennessee and others, like Rob Zastryzny, were optioned to Iowa.

Who Is Definitely In?

Brandon Morrow, Steve Cishek, Carl Edwards, Brian Duensing, Pedro Strop, Mike Montgomery, and Justin Wilson.

Who Is Still Left?

Dillon Maples, Justin Grimm, Justin Hancock, Kyle Ryan, Anthony Bass,and Eddie Butler

Out of those six names, one will break camp and head to Miami. It is not going to be Dillon Maples no matter how badly I want him to make the club. He still has some work to do. Justin Grimm, meanwhile, is not looking too promising either. His contract is not guaranteed this year after losing his arbitration case. Hancock is throwing very well but a 40 man roster spot would have to made for him and the same would be true if Bass or Ryan made the club.

That leaves Eddie Butler. Currently, the righthander is out of options. He either makes the club or the Cubs risk losing him on a waiver claim. He’s had a good spring and the benefit of having him in the pen for the spring months is that he, along with Montgomery, could eat up some innings as long men.

Today, Butler would be my pick to make it. That could all change in a week.

However, the tenor of spring training games changes greatly in the next week as the starting pitcher go deeper into games and the hitters get 4-5 at-bats. Whoever comes in to relieve will be facing mostly major league hitters rather than a mish-mash of talent. The Cubs will get a better look at the bullpen and what these arms can do in that time frame.

Later in the Year

The Cubs have two arms in the minors who could remake the pen. One is Adbert Alzolay, who already has a wicked fastball in the mid 90s that could bump up some more in short stints. He should start the year at Tennessee.

Another arm who could be available later this year is Dakota Mekkes. The 6’7” righty has a deceptive delivery that turns a 93 mph into a 97 mph one with his long stride. He dominated at both South Bend and Myrtle Beach. He could do that as well again in 2018.

Regardless of the opening day bullpen, Theo and Jed are going to put together the best pen they can come the end of August. More than likely, that last spot will be fluid and malleable throughout this spring and even more so this summer.

Leveling Up Series – Austin Filiere Already Knows It’s a Game of Less than an Inch

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By Todd Johnson

There were fans who snickered and chortled when the Cubs selected Austin Filiere, a third baseman from MIT, in the 2017 draft. After a few at bats, it was pretty clear why the Cubs selected Austin Filiere. In addition to having some power, the young third baseman also showed an adept eye at the plate.  In his short tenure as a Eugene Emerald in 2017, Filiere hit .261 with an outstanding .392 on base percentage. He hit six home runs and drove in 25 in just 49 games. He is going to play three times as many games at South Bend this season. He can improve his defense some for 2018, but for now, he is sufficient.

Maybe the most encouraging sign about Filiere’s development last year was that he seemed to be better every time I saw him. He was one of the best two players on the team the last month of the season. He drove in 14 runs but he also walked 17 times…that month! He also cranked 4 HRs to go with an OBP of .405 for August.

Basic Info
6’1″ 190 lbs.
Bats Right
Throws Right
2018 Affiliate: South Bend
8th Round Pick in 2017 from MIT

Leveling Up
Filiere probably does not have that many people writing about him. With the potential to hit 20 home runs in the Midwest League, Filiere could change some minds in the first half of the year. Not that he’s a breakout prospect, but he is one who could be. His mix of power and plate discipline reminds me of Zack Short and Ian Rice. However, I think Filiere might have more juice than the aforementioned prospects who were at South Bend the previous two years.

With his approach, he comes across as doing everything he should be as an entry-level prospect.

The well-renowned Peter Gammons did a profile on Filiere before the Cubs took him. It is an interesting look at Filiere’s MIT career, his time in the Cape Cod League, and his potential as a pro. What has always stayed with me is this quote from Filiere on the intricacies of plate coverage:

“I know that if it’s 88-90 miles an hour, I can try to handle a ball an inch out of the zone, but I can’t if it’s an inch and a half. Of course, when you’re facing the really good pitchers from the big programs, there’s a major learning curve involved.”

To know that your plate coverage is that minute at such an early age is pretty telling of how well he knows the zone, hitting, and his own strengths and limitations.

Here’s the Catch
What might separate Filiere from other prospects will be a full off-season of immersion in the Cubs way. No offense to MIT coaching, but there’s no comparison as to the things he can learn from his professional coaches as a Cub. Whether that’s nutrition, physical training, or mental training, he is going to be more prepared as a hitter this year than he was last year. I’m very excited to see how much he’s improved since last August.

Cubs Central Draft Prep: Let the Rising and Falling Begin

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By Todd Johnson

I know this is going to sound strange, but the Major League Baseball Draft will be taking place in just a little over 2.5 months. I know…it is getting here fast. Originally, I didn’t want to spend too much time this year making full fledge draft profiles as I had in previous years. Instead, I have been doing previews of groups of players. I’ve done college bats, college arms, high school pitchers, and high school bats. I even took a look at some schools who have several prospects the Cubs might be able to take on day one and two.

With the college baseball season in full swing, several prospects are rising and falling. Some top 200 lists have a little itchy trigger finger when it comes to moving prospects up and down. For example, Baseball America used to have shortstop Jeremy Eierman of Missouri State ranked in the teens on their first top 200 list. After a very poor start, Eierman dropped into the mid-to-late 20s after just two weekends of baseball.

In that range, Eierman could be available for the Cubs. He’s playing shortstop now but he could play third. His bat, however, might be best suited for second base. But for Eierman, Baseball America will probably have to move him back up the list. Over the past week, he went 11 for 20 to move his average up to almost .300 and push his OBP over .400. He also hit his first home run of the year. He looks to be back on pace as one of the top bats in the college ranks.

Two players who used to be ranked in the late to mid 20s might be out of reach of the Cubs if they continue their torrid pace. Third baseman Alec Bohm and outfielder/1st baseman Greyson Jenista, both of Wichita State, have averages in the upper .300s and on-base percentages of almost .500. Bohm has cranked out five home runs in less than a month and it’s not even warm out. I really like Bohm a lot but I just don’t think the Cubs will have a chance to draft him.

Two other players that could be heading the Cubs way are outfielders Steele Walker of Oklahoma and Jake McCarthy of Virginia. Both are ascending players with good hit tools who can both play centerfield. Originally, most lists had them in the low to mid 30s and now they are creeping up. McCarthy, whose brother played in AA for the Tampa Bay last year, could have the better long range hit tool out of the two. MLB Pipeline said the following of McCarthy

McCarthy moved into the starting lineup as a sophomore and promptly hit .338 with a .425 on-base percentage and an ACC-leading 27 steals in 29 attempts. While he didn’t hit well playing for Team USA over the summer, he did find his footing with a solid late stretch in the Cape Cod League. Some scouts aren’t in love with his swing, which features a flat bat path, but others point to a pretty good track record of making consistent hard contact. He hasn’t hit for much power to speak of, but some changes to his mechanics could allow him to tap into his raw pop at the next level. He has a fringy arm, but has the speed and instincts to play center field.

Another rising player who is close to getting out of reach is 6’11” Kentucky right-handed pitcher Sean Hjelle, who has been pitching out of his mind. After Friday night’s start, Hjelle’s ERA stood at 1.35 in 4 starts despite giving up 3 of his 4 earned runs this year in that start. He’s struck out 26 in 24 innings this year while walking only 4.

I’ve also been religiously checking on is former 2015 Cubs draft pick John Cresto. The third baseman spurned the Cubs to go to Santa Clara and he has improved every year. As the 2018 season has gone on, Cresto has been getting better. He is currently hitting .328 with five home runs and 11 RBIs to go with a slugging percentage of .603. I think he could easily be a Day Two target of the Cubs, perhaps somewhere between the third and the fifth round. What I like about Cresto is he does have good size (6’3” and 225 lbs.) and he’s not done filling out.

I still think the Cubs are going to go college bat or high school arm in the first round. With college players already having a month’s head start, the high school season is now just getting underway and many of the northern players will not be getting warmed up until mid April. As a result, they are going to be a lot more fluctuations in the draft.

Now that Jake Arrieta has signed with the Phillies, the Cubs currently have 5 picks in the top 100. That depth could go a long way to revitalizing the system. Next week, I will go through some possibilities for some picks on Day Two of the Draft (Rounds 3-10).

Spring Training Notes: Happ Stays Hot and MiLB Camp Gets Going

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By Todd Johnson

There seems to be a lot of good things happening in spring training. Ian Happ has just been tearing it up and looks to be the leading candidate for CF and the leadoff spot. Meanwhile, Albert Almora had a pretty good week this week after getting off to a rough start. This week also saw most hitters getting three at bats a game and some starting pitchers were stretched out to about 50 pitches. For Jon Lester, that happened to be 5 innings in an excellent start on Friday.

After a rough first inning Tuesday, Yu Darvish settled down in his Cubs debut and was fantastic in the second inning which resulted in a “Wow!” description from Wilson Contreras to manager Joe Maddon. The Cubs also reassigned a few players back to minor league camp with Adbert Alzolay and Thomas Hatch going to Tennessee after neither saw any action in camp (by design).

There are just a little over 2 and 1/2 weeks until the season begins and I am still a little bit unsure about the two roster spots to be determined. Catcher Chris Gimenez got off to a blazing smart but it seems he has come back to Earth a bit. Fellow catcher Victor Caratini now looks to be catching fire after a homer yesterday. Meanwhile, Dillon Maples seemed poised to breakthrough after last year, but appears to need some a lot more seasoning to get to Chicago after giving up 3 runs last night to push his ERA to 12.60.

One of the highlights of spring for me has been the play of three players who could play utility roles in case of injury later this summer. Ryan Court, Mike Freeman, and David Bote have all put together excellent springs. While Court has the highest average, David Bote has shown to have the most power. Bote’s strength is a bit more than I thought he had at Tennessee. He seems to be evolving every year into a better and better hitter. What makes Bote more attractive as a utility player is that he can play three infield spots very well and he got in 13 games in the outfield last summer. That’s a pretty versatile player to plug in and play.

MiLB News
The minor-league camp now seems to be in full swing. A few things have come trickling back in including some positive news about certain pitchers. According to the message boards at The Cub Reporter, Trevor Clifton seems to be throwing, well, like 2016 Trevor Clifton. In addition, Oscar de la Cruz (who was sent down to Tennessee Thursday) was reaching the mid 90s in his last game with the major league club on Friday. It’s encouraging that Oscar was sitting 92 to 93 and touching 95 after being a couple clicks lower earlier this spring. 

Some prospects got in an exhibition game against the Chinatrust Brothers (from Taiwan) per Arizona Phil. Duncan Robinson got the start and gave up a run in two innings. Trevor Clifton and Michael Rucker also got in two innings apiece. Clifton whiffed 4 while Rucker allowed a 2 run homer. Austin Upshaw went yard and Chris Pieters drove in three runs while Zack Short went 2 for 3 while playing some 3B.

Also, Gioskar Amaya is back from TJS after missing all of 2017. This year, Amaya is not behind the plate and is back at his original position – second base. He switched to catcher after the 2014 season. Now 25, Amaya should be at AA Tennessee to begin the year.

Coming Up Next Week

Tomorrow’s article looks at some guys that are starting to pull away from the Cubs and head towards the top of the draft, some names moving up in range of the Cubs, and some names that are falling down. In addition, I have some info on 2015 draft pick John Cresto from Santa Clara.

Austin Filiere is the next to the last player to be profiled in the “Leveling Up” series this Wednesday. And on Thursday, I have an interesting article coming out on BP Wrigleyville about which affiliate might be the team to watch this summer. 

On a  Personal Note…
My Scholastic Bowl team went 12-6 this year and got the #2 seed for the Conference Tournament to be held Thursday. I will let you know how that goes.

Baseball Card of the Week