By Todd Johnson

The Weekly: Oscar is Back, So Are Mills and Stinnett, and Lots of Good Pitching

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By Todd Johnson

Two Cubs pitchers returned to action in Mesa last night. Alec Mills from Iowa went two innings with 2 Ks and Oscar de la Cruz from Myrtle Beach made his first appearance since May 25. Oscar threw 2 IP with 1 K. Those were good to read about! Based on Oscar’s rehab last year, I would expect them to work their way through the system before getting back to their respective affiliates.

Jake Stinnett seems to be flourishing as a reliever thanks in part to coach Ron Villone’s advice in Mesa. Stinnett has a 1.35 ERA in relief in his short time for the Smokies. Things are looking up for the 2014 second round pick.

The MiLB season is winding down with just two weeks to go for most of the affiliates. The DSL teams end next Saturday, the 26th. I started back to teaching this past week. However, it is always an adjustment transitioning from summer to school. I hope to write about three posts a week once I get settled at school a bit more. 

There was a lot of good pitching this week. It was hard to pick a pitcher of the day every day this week. Duncan Robinson threw 5 scoreless and didn’t get pitcher of the day on the 17th. Jesus Tejada in the DSL struck out 10 on Friday while Erling Moreno Kd 8 in his lone start this week.

While I did not write much that was published the past week, I did some pre-writing activities. I began researching splits for the August All-Star Team and 2nd Half All-Star Team. I also narrowed down players for the second half breakout prospect awards.

For the breakout hitter, I am completely undecided. I have some thinking to do as no one in the states really stood out that hasn’t been on someone’s radar. As for starting pitching, Duncan Robinson and Michael Rucker are the finalists just for the second half. Dillon Maples, David Garner, and Craig Brooks are the relievers who earned serious props in the second half. Here are the first half breakout players.

I also began assembling some “Names to Know” for 2018. It is a collection of names from Mesa and Eugene with a few other players mixed in. Basically, these are the players who I can’t wait to see play. There are several names you already know. I will break that down into pitching and hitting storylines.

I don’t know when any of the posts listed above will be out, but I am leaning towards the early and middle parts of September. They would fit snugly alongside the year end affiliate reviews.

Around the Minors This Week:
Iowa – 6-3: Jen-Ho Tseng continues to do well. He could push the issue to start in Chicago at some point next year.

Tennessee – 2-4: Some hitters seem to have had a resurgence down in Tennessee after some poor second halfs. Jason Vosler, Charcer Burks, and David Bote seem to be turning it on to keep up with Yasiel Balaguert, who has been hot all second half.

Myrtle Beach – 7-1: They are getting hot just in time to defend the Mills Cup. Tyler Alamo is quietly putting together a great season.

South Bend – 5-2: If you take away June and the first two weeks of July, this would have been  a playoff team. There’s a lot of talent here even if the record doesn’t show it.

Eugene – 2-5: Poor defense and a dormant offense are derailing their playoff chances. Miguel Amaya, on the other hand, seems to be finding his bat.

Mesa – 4-3: They are still very young and very raw. Catcher Marcus Mastrobuoni has been the team’s best hitter.

DSL 1 – 3-2: DSL 2 – 3-2

I will have a post out Tuesday summing up some possible prospects to keep an eye on at Fall Instructs from DSL 1 and DSL 2.

Baseball Card of the Week

Players of the Week

My Other Stuff on the Web From This Week
Cubs Insider:
Prospect Stock Investment
September Roster Expansion

BP Wrigleyville
Duncan Robinson Part 1

Duncan Robinson Interview Part 2 – A Year of Adjustment and Adaptation

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By Todd Johnson

I think every year is a series of continual adjustments in the game of baseball. The first full season as a professional for Myrtle Beach pitcher Duncan Robinson echoes the sentiment. He began the year as a reliever at South Bend, then he transitioned to a starter. He made the Midwest League All-Star team and shortly thereafter was promoted to Myrtle Beach. His first two starts as a Pelican did not go as planned, but since the middle of July he has been one of the best pitchers in the Carolina League. His ability to adapt to new situations and maintaining his daily routines are the keys to his success.

I had the opportunity to talk to Duncan about all the adjustments he has made this year and how they have affected his routine and what he throws in games.

TJ: How much has your daily routine been apart of your success?

DR: Being able to go into the start of this season with a routine that I can do with my eyes closed, it makes every start seem like it’s just another start. Your body is able to recognize where you are in the week and it allows you to prepare for each start.

TJ: When you went from being a reliever at South Bend to being a starter, how much did your daily routine change?

DR: It changed. I started a few games in spring training. I had a similar routine as a reliever, a piggyback back starter, where I had the five day rotation of coming in early to a game. But once I moved to a starting role, I did feel a little more comfortable. Once I finished my start, I could lay out my plan for the next five days and the goals I wanted to achieve. I definitely felt more comfortable. But at the end of the day, you just have to execute no matter what my pitching role is.

TJ: What was the biggest change from South Bend to Myrtle Beach?

DR: Probably the weather….When you go up a level, you have a heightened sense of competition where everyone is better, and they are better. In the grand scheme of things, probably the hardest thing is getting back into the routine of when you get to the field of where you are living and trying to get settled in as quickly as possible. The Pelicans have helped me do that. The staff has been great and so have the guys on the team.

Coming into the season, Robinson mainly threw  his fastball, sinker, and what I think is a beautiful curve. This year, he has added a cutter thanks to South Bend pitching coach Brian Lawrence. And, he is also working on a changeup in his side sessions.

TJ: How much are you throwing the cutter? Just here or there or in side sessions?

DR: When I first started throwing it, I didn’t expect to throw it too much this season. I threw it in a game against Fort Wayne. I had a lot of success with it. So, I figured the best way to develop a pitch is to try it in a game. It’s become a quality pitch for me at this level to both lefties and righties. I’m trying to make it a pitch in my repertoire as much as anything else.

I just need to execute like I have been doing.

TJ: You had a really nice run the second half of July that showed that you made some changes. Was there something that you were doing in game that allowed you to succeed at a higher level?

DR: I think just being able to feel more comfortable being at a higher level…Once I got those first two starts out of the way, I felt like I had been here since the beginning of the year. It’s not one of those things where you feel like the new guy all the time. Guys on the team are very accepting to guys moving up, like guys like me. Once you get on the same page with the catcher, and my defense has been spectacular – They’ve turned some key double plays and they’ve been consistent throughout for me and that’s been a huge part of my success.

What I like most about Robinson’s season has been his ability to adjust. I also like that he throws inside a lot and can do so with any pitch. I think his ability to adjust is only going to help him next year at AA Tennessee. Even though he will only have half a season at South Bend and a half season at Myrtle Beach, his track record suggests he has the wherewithal to adapt to any situation. In the Darwinian sense, it is not those who are most likely to adapt that survive, but those who are most responsive to change. 

*Cards made from pics by Rikk Carlson in South Bend and Larry Kave/Myrtle Beach Pelicans.

Which Cub Prospect Would Be Worth Investing In Over the Next Year?

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By Todd Johnson

Last week, Baseball America released its new top 100 prospect list that included draft picks from the 2017 MLB Draft. There was not a Cub to be seen. There were three former Cubs, but no one who is currently in the system. Over the next year, I tend to believe that one or two Cubs prospects might make it onto either MLB.com’s Top 100 list or Baseball America’s Top 100. If I was to invest money into who those prospects might be, I would have a wide array of choices in which to invest.

The Cubs have a lot of prospects who are on their way up. By that I mean, they are ascending players as their skills and tools begin to improve. There are other prospects who have shown glimpses of immense talent but have not put it all together yet. They are still developing.

At first I tried to organize my investment choices into categories based on risk and reward. There were players who I thought were a high-risk vs. investing in others who were a low risk. I scrapped that idea pretty quickly. 

Categories

I narrowed the categories down to three. The first one would be long-term investments. These could be recent high school pics like Luis Vazquez and Nelson Velasquez to go along with several young international free agents who are currently in the Dominican Summer League or in Mesa. It’s going to take awhile for them to approach Top 100 status.

The second category is players who could take a couple years to develop before they hit the top 100. Miguel Amaya is one player whose defensive attributes garner attention but the bat still lags behind a little bit.  First-round pick Brendon Little is a perfect example of someone who is going to take a couple years to develop and a lot of that is because of his age and lack of experience. Then again, his curveball could accelerate his development.

The final category is players who I think have a decent shot at being included on a top 100 list by the middle of next summer. I call these these One Year Bets.

Jose Albertos – Currently at short season Eugene, I think the 18-year-old pitcher is the top prospect in the Cubs’ system. He should be a top 100 prospect by the middle of next year if he continues to pile up innings and gain experience. I think he’s getting that experience this year, but next year will really propel him up a list. If things go well the last month, he could make a list this winter.

Adbert Alzolay – I am extremely impressed that he has been able to maintain his velocity and health over the course of this year as a starter. He doesn’t have the biggest frame which makes his ability to sustain a 96/97 mile an hour fastball into the sixth and seventh innings that much more impressive.

Duane Underwood – Over the past month, something is happening for the 23-year-old right-hander. I don’t know what it is specifically. But I do know that he is able to command his pitches better, get more strikeouts, and work deep into games. Over the past month he has a 1.33 ERA in five starts. If he can do that at the beginning of next year for AAA Iowa, he may find himself in Chicago by the middle of the summer. He just turned 23.

Aramis Ademan – I think he has the most tools of any position player currently in the system. He’s yet to put everything together. We see have seen brief glimpses and runs of greatness as well as stretches of inconsistency. I think his bat is further along at this point then many people thought it would be and his defense has not peaked where others may have thought it should be.

Alex Lange – I really like what he brings to the table and I think once he gets going as a full-time pitcher next year, he is going to shoot up the rankings. Even though he was drafted behind Little, Lange’s experience in the SEC will move him along at a much faster rate. I would not be surprised to see him be on the list before anybody else.

The Longshots

Mark Zagunis – Right now, I don’t think there’s a better pure hitter and a better eye at the plate in the organization than Zagunis. He’s going to be close to a 20 home run pace this year in spite of starting the year somewhat injured. I don’t really know if he fits the mold is a top prospect, but his performance and his exceptional approach at the plate raise him high above any other prospects. The problem is not his floor, it’s his ceiling.

Kevonte Mitchell – We have seen glimpses of Kevonte busting out this season. Of the five months that make up the 2017 season, he’s had one good one, two mediocre ones, and two excellent ones. He’s been very impressive in the second half especially in August. I think if he comes into camp ready to go, he could take the Carolina League by storm next year. Physically gifted, he is an imposing figure as anyone in the Cubs system. It’s just a matter of him putting it together which he has started to do this year with better pitch recognition and approach.

Oscar de la Cruz – Injuries look they put his career in slow motion. It was a shoulder strain this season, forearm tightness last year. But when healthy, he throws 93-95 with ease. He can command a curve and a change along with his fastball. For him to make any list, he has to get healthy and put in some innings.

Myrtle Beach Could Use Some South Bend Assistance

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By Todd Johnson

One of the things the Cubs management has shown a proclivity to do is to promote their top prospects in the waning weeks of the season to participate in the MiLB playoffs. This year, Myrtle Beach clinched a spot back in June by winning the first half. Eugene is just one game behind Boise for another spot while Tennessee is 3 1/2 back. Iowa is nowhere near a spot and South Bend is 10 games back despite having the best record of any Cubs affiliate this year.

No one is going to move up from Myrtle Beach to help Tennessee win. There are few players in the Arizona Rookie League who could wind up in Eugene to give the Emeralds a little push. But the biggest transition of talent is likely to come from South Bend to Myrtle Beach. The Pelicans were brilliant in the first half. Promotions, trades, and injuries remade the roster as they have limped to the worst record in the Carolina League in the second half.

Myrtle Beach is in need of some offense from the outfield, a starting pitcher, and some bullpen help. Here are a few players who could matriculate their way to Myrtle Beach to help the Pelicans win their third straight Mills Cup Championship.

DJ Wilson – The Cubs’ Minor League Player of the Month for July is the most likely prospect to head east. A natural center fielder, Wilson could slide right into the Pelicans’ lineup and provide some much needed punch from the left side. After spending the better part of June on the DL, Wilson returned and has been drawing more walks than before. He would fit right in as a Pelican.

Kevonte Mitchell – Another outfielder, Mitchell would provide some serious right handed power. In the second half, Mitchell is putting together a nice stretch of baseball showing patience and power at the same time. Just this month, he’s hitting .303 with a .425 OBP.

Bryan Hudson – The tall lefty starting pitcher has put together a good second half. In August, he has made two starts with a 0.90 ERA and has allowed only 2 ERs in his last 4 starts. For the year, he has a 3.00 ground ball to air out rate.

Jose Paulino – While he currently is a starter, Myrtle Beach needs bullpen help and that is what Paulino could provide. After struggling as a starter in April, Paulino worked his way back to the rotation over the course of May and June. In July, he had 2.20 ERA in 4 starts.

Wyatt Short
– As the lefty closer at Eugene in 2016, he did not allow a run all season. This year has been a bit of a struggle at times. He has looked much better as of late with a 3.48 ERA in the second half of the year.

Mark Malave – The former catcher looks to be adjusting fine in his third year since switching to pitching. He’s struck out 20 in 20 IP since being promoted to South Bend to go along with a 2.70 ERA.

While it might be nice for the Pelicans to get all six players, odds are it will only be a couple of players arriving. I think Wilson will be get the call for sure. As for who the pitcher could be, I will be just as surprised as you.

The Weekly: September Callups and the Playoff Push

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By Todd Johnson

There are just three weeks left in the MiLB season. With the Iowa Cubs out of the running, the Cubs will have some callups once September arrives and rosters expand. I would not expect too many players considering the Cubs are in the midst of a pennant race. Here are five players I think the Cubs will add for the final month. All but one are on the 40 man roster and a space will have to be made to add that one player.

Mark Zagunis – I think he is the only position player who gets added since Caratini arrived to replace Willson.

Jack Leathersich – A lefty, he’s been lights out at Iowa but I doubt he would pitch in Chicago except in a blowout.

Eddie Butler – I like adding him as a long man or backup starter.

Rob Zastryzny – He was just up for a day and should be up all September now that he is healthy.

Dillon Maples – He is the only one who is not on the 40 man roster. Then again, he could be added long before September comes the way he is pitching.

Outside shot of being added – Catcher Taylor Davis – I don’t think Manager Joe Maddon wants to go into the playoffs with a couple of run down catchers. Hopefully Willson will be back in a month. In the meantime, Davis would provide a day off for both catchers or an inning or two of relief in blowouts down the stretch to keep them fresh as well.


A month ago, I published an article about the Arizona Fall League and 40 man roster implications. At first, I thought about revisiting that post in the wake of the trades, but Eloy Jimenez was the only player affected from the post. Instead, the only possible outcome would be that there might be one more 40 man roster spot available. In the article, I predicted who the Cubs might protect from the Rule V Draft by adding them to the 40 man roster. I also suggested some possible prospects who could play in the AFL. The Cubs may want to save a spot for Willson Contreras to rehab considering how  well that worked for someone else last year to come back for the World Series.


In other news this week, Baseball America produced a new top 100 prospect list that includes this year’s draft picks. There are still no Cubs. I don’t think there will be until the middle of next year.


Coming up at Cubs Central.
School starts for me this week. After two days of institute on Wednesday and Thursday, the students arrive on Friday.  I have a couple of posts already in the queue ready to go. One is an interview with Myrtle Beach Pelicans pitcher Duncan Robinson. The other is a post about investing in Cubs prospects. I will also examine possible names of some DSL players who should be headed north for Fall Instructs. That could be the week after. You never know how news flows.


Saying Goodbye
Yesterday morning, my wife and I had to put down one of our dogs. Phoebe was a terrier mix who was almost 13. She lived a good life of walks, treats, and belly rubs. In the past year, she had lost her sight and most of her hearing. We miss her already.


Around the Minors:
Iowa – 4-3: Jen-Ho Tseng continues to roll and reliever David Garner was promoted to AAA.

Tennessee – 3-3: 3.5 GB of a playoff spot – Yasiel Balaguert was named Southern League Hitter of the Week while Duane Underwood might be named Pitcher of the Week tomorrow.

Myrtle Beach – 1-5: It is rough all around in South Carolina. Reliever Pedro Araujo was promoted to AA Tennessee. I hope to see some infusion of talent from South Bend to give the Pelicans a shot at winning back-to-back-to-back titles.

South Bend – 4-2: I am seeing some growth and development from DJ Wilson, Kevonte Mitchell, and Bryan Hudson that is extremely promising. In addition, pitcher Tyler Peyton is on a great streak of pitching well the past three weeks. He has put himself into contention to make the monthly all-star team. Tomorrow’s post will be about how South Bend can help Myrtle Beach win the Mills Cup.

Eugene – 2-5: 1 Defensive woes derailed their week but they are still just one game away from a playoff spot. Brandon Hughes is starting to warm up again.

Mesa – 2-3: The kids are getting experience even if it doesn’t show up in wins. Delvin Zinn seems to be back in a groove hitting over .300 this month.

DSL 1 – 3-4 – OF Luis Hidalgo got the call to Mesa this week.
DSL 2 – 2-4 

Baseball Card of the Week

Players of the Week

My Other Stuff on the Web From This Week
Cubs Insider:
Austin Upshaw Profile
MiLB Pitcher of the Year Discussion
Duane Underwood

Friday Six Pack – Dillon Maples Leads the Hot List

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By Todd Johnson

The topic for every six pack changes throughout the week. When I woke up this morning I didn’t think that I was going to do a six pack. Since it’s the 11th August, I thought I’d take a look at ten-day splits to see how prospects are doing in preparation for our monthly All-Star team. As a result, the topic for today’s six pack is who’s hot and who’s not.

1. Dillon Maples – In 11.2 innings at Iowa, it looks as though he started to figure things out at this level, too. His K/9 rate is astronomical (15.43) and he’s only walked one batter. I am starting to get the inkling that he might make it to Chicago before the end of the month. Adding a guy in the bullpen who throws 98 to 100 with a wipeout slider is not going to hurt anything.

2. Mark Zagunis – In addition to hitting over .300 the past 6 weeks, he is still a walking machine. I feel pretty good about his chances of being in Chicago in September. But beyond that, he’s not going to be anything other than a fourth/fifth outfielder with who is in front of him. I really hope he gets an extended shot sometime in the next year whether it’s with the Cubs or another team.

3. The South Bend Outfield – Kevonte Mitchell, DJ Wilson, Luis Ayala, and Chris Pieters – Every single one of them is hitting above .321 this month and they are killing it in all phases of the game. Last night, Mitchell hit a grand slam while DJ Wilson tracked ball after ball down in centerfield. The other night, Kevonte threw out a guy at the plate. It has been nice to see them perform so well and it’s almost as if they are trying to one up each other.

4. Four Hitters in Rookie League – First, Luis Vasquez has peaked my interest since the Cubs signed him this summer. The fact that he is hitting .300+ as a 17-year-old tall and rangy shortstop helps as well. The same is true of Delvin Zinn’s athleticism and he seems to be back on track this month hitting over .300. International free-agent Jonathan Sierra seems to have found a groove (still no power) while Jose Gutierrez seems to have done the same hitting over .450 this month. I could also add in pitchers Rollie Lacy, Brendan King, Jeffrey Passantino, and reliever Mitch Stophel for another four.

5. Zack Short – The 23-year-old shortstop has transversed three levels in the past year since he was signed by the Cubs. He seems to be getting better at every level. In the past ten games, he has been on a tear hitting over .400 with 3 home runs. Combined, between Myrtle Beach.and South Bend, the leadoff hitter has 12 dingers this year with an OBP of .391 and this morning was named as having the best strike zone control in the Midwest League by Baseball America.

6. Who is not hot? The Eugene Defense
Once Aramis Ademan was promoted to South Bend, this team has been in a tailspin defensively. It’s a struggle for pitchers Alex Lange, Jose Albertos, and Brendon Little to get through an inning. In the past week, routine grounders have been misplayed, balls to first have been airmailed, and assignments and coverages have been blown. Instead of a pitcher getting out of an inning, those mistakes lead to two or three runs being scored, sometimes more.

Honorable Mentions – Yasiel Balaguert, Taylor Davis, James Norwood, Craig Brooks, Tyler Alamo, Bryan Hudson, Tyler Peyton, Brian Glowicki, Chris Singleton, Marcus Mastrobuoni, Cam Balego, Fernando Kelli, Emilio Ferrebus, and Erich Uelmen.

Prospect Update: Duane Underwood Is Back on the Radar

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By Todd Johnson
   
One of the most underreported stories of the summer has been the somewhat resurgence of Duane Underwood. The 2012 draft pick has been healthy all season. And over his last 10 starts, he has compiled a 3.45 ERA. His last start saw him go 7 IP with 7 Ks and no BBs, a rarity for him. What I find most encouraging about the rebirth of Underwood is that he has done it pretty much unnoticed.

Here are six reasons why you could jump back on the “Duane Underwood Top Prospect” train.

1. He just turned 23. It seems like he’s been around forever. Nevertheless, when you are drafted into an organization devoid of pitching, as the Cubs were in 2012, your name moves to the top of the list. Add in his performances at Kane County and Myrtle Beach in 2014 and 2015 and bloggers, writers, and other evaluators were drooling over his potential. As a result, in a system bereft of pitching, writers drifted towards the blinking radar gun in 2014 that said, “Easy 95.”

2. His ability to throw hard has never gone away. In fact, I think the velocity has improved since he was in class A. I think he now throws 95 to 97 regularly and, on an odd occasion, he touches 98-100.

3. Injury Free – He hasn’t missed a start all year. He’s taken the ball every fifth day and pitches between 90 and 100 pitches most of the time. For the year, he has thrown 108 innings and 1776 pitches, 1088 of them for strikes.

4. Pure Stuff – I don’t think there’s anybody in the system that throws three better pitches than Duane Underwood. There are pitchers who have better command, which has been the issue the past two seasons. What I find odd is that he’s never really been a strikeout pitcher with the kind of pitches that he has. One would think that he could just wipe guys out left and right. I don’t know why that is not happening. In 2015 at Myrtle Beach, his last full year, he averaged 5.69 K/9. This year, he is up to 6.79.

5. Command – This has always been his kryptonite or Achilles heel.  In 58.2 IP at AA in 2016, his BB/9 rate was 4.76. This year it is 3.42 which is almost respectable. He needs to get that in the 2s if he is going to go beyond Iowa. In spite of his command, I feel pretty good about his chances to make it to Iowa in 2018. And I feel pretty good about his chances at being a starter at AAA next year.

6. Time to Develop – Sometimes it takes five to seven years to develop a high school pitcher, which was where Underwood was when the Cubs drafted him. Because of his young age, I’m not ready for him to be a reliever, and I’m not ready for the Cubs to give up on him as a starter when he’s only 23. If he was 25, I could see him transition to being a reliever. But here’s the thing: He’s still a young kid and there’s plenty of time to be a reliever later. I still think he’s got a couple years of starter development still in him and that’s fine. If he makes to it Chicago in two years with a 95-97 mph FB that he can command to go along with a plus curve and a change, that’s more than you could ask for in a starter.

Right now, he is improving every month and he’s healthy. That’s a huge improvement from the past two seasons. With just a little over three weeks left in the minor-league season, Underwood will probably make about five more starts. I don’t think there’s anything to look for or expect out of him in those starts other than to just stay healthy.

I think, as a whole, a lot of people of been impatient with him, including myself. But I also recognize that he is an extremely talented and athletic pitcher. The expectation to rush him to the majors has been there for three years. And that expectation hasn’t worked out too well. Maybe it’s time for different expectations. I think those early expectations placed on Underwood were more projections of people wanting him to be something much sooner than later.

I think if he can finish the season healthy, that will go along way towards his own confidence, and, maybe more importantly, the confidence of the Cubs in him.