By Todd Johnson

Cubs Add Another Reliever in the Veteran Cishek

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By Todd Johnson

The Cubs signed free agent reliever Steve Cishek this morning. The side slinging righty could fit one of several roles next year including setup man and/or closer.

In 2017, the 31-year-old veteran pitched for Seattle and Tampa for 44.2 innings and put up a WHIP of 0.896. With an ERA of 2.01 and a FIP of 3.34, he will give Manager Joe Maddon another nice, but somewhat fragile, arm to mix and match at the back end of games. What I like most is that Cishek has a K to BB ratio of 2.96, something Theo Epstein has emphasized in collecting this winter.

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Leveling Up Series – Jose Albertos Should Excel in 2018

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By Todd Johnson

When thinking about 2018 and what could happen in South Bend, I get pretty excited thinking about seeing Jose Albertos pitch. With most of the teams in the Midwest League connected to the MiLB .TV network, I will be able to see most of his starts as long as he is stationed in South Bend.

It is easy to put into words why I am so giddy. Last year, I was extremely excited to see Dylan Cease pitch for South Bend. But this year, I am even more excited to see Albertos. In watching Jose pitch for Eugene last year, it’s quite evident that he does not put forth much effort to throw between 91 and 96. He looks free and easy. His changeup is straight out filthy and is easily the best changeup in the Cubs’ system. His curveball is still a work in progress and will be the focal point of his development in 2018. If he can consistently get his curve over, he will be at Myrtle Beach very, very quickly as that would give him 3 plus pitches that he can command.

Basic Info
Age: 19
Ht: 6’1″
Wt: 185
Reynoso, Mexico

It’s no secret that I think Albertos is the Cubs’ top prospect. His current floor is extremely high and, at just 19-years-old, he is not even close to his ceiling as a top of the rotation starter. In 2017, between extended spring training, Mesa, and Eugene, Albertos threw 60+ innings. For the most part, he stayed healthy. There was one stretch where he did miss two starts after working on his curveball. He came back, he whipped out the changeup on a more regular basis, and just dominated the Northwest League in August (1.96 ERA in 5 starts).

Albertos averaged pretty close to a strikeout per inning in 2017. What was most impressive was that he got better as the year went on.

Heading into 2018
Albertos should have three goals for next season. First, stay healthy. In 2016, he only pitched four innings and, ideally, you would like him to have him right around 100 innings in 2018. That puts him on pace for 130 innings in 2019 and then he could arrive in Chicago the year after. He would only be 21/22 years old at that type of pace.

His second goal should be to work on his curveball. Last year, it could be a 55 footer, it could sail over the catcher’s head, or it could be your classic Uncle Charlie. The more he threw it, the better he got and that is likely what is going to happen in 2018.

The third goal that should take place next year would be for him to move the ball up and down in the zone. He’s able to work the ball in and out with ease. His fastball command is pretty good and he can move the ball in and out of the zone. Now it’s a matter of changing eye levels with command if he doesn’t add a fourth pitch like a four seamer.

South Bend fans should be extremely excited to see what he can do. He is much more polished than any of the pitchers that the Cubs have sent out to the mound at South Bend the last three years, including Dylan Cease. I just hope that when I go down to Peoria for the first weekend in May that he will still be with the team. I’m pretty sure he will. However, all bets are off after Memorial Day.

Out of all the Cub prospects, Albertos is the most likely to MLB.com’s Top 100 Prospect List this summer.

Cubs Add Pitcher Drew Smyly, More for 2019 than 2018

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By Todd Johnson

After undergoing TJS last summer, the odds of Drew Smyly starting for the Cubs in 2018 are very slim. However, the Cubs inked the 6’3″ starting pitcher to a two-year deal tonight. If his rehab is spectacular, he could appear in August or September of 2018.

In his brief career, the 28-year-old left-handed Smyly has started for Detroit and Tampa and was recently a Mariner but did not appear in any regular season games in 2017. He has a career 3.74 ERA in 85 games.

It looks like the Cubs are just getting started wheeling and dealing. The GM Meetings conclude Thursday with the Rule V Draft.

Baseball Prospectus’ Top 10 Cubs Prospect List is Pitching Heavy and Young

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By Todd Johnson

The prospect list season is going quick this year. Usually, the major lists are spread out over four months. Not this year. So far, four of the six major lists have been published leaving only MLB Pipeline and Keith Law to go. On Monday, Baseball Prospectus joined the early crowd with their list of top 10 Cubs prospects.

However, despite the current state of the Cubs system, there is still plenty of room for hope and plenty of time for these prospects to develop into players that can contribute at the major-league level.

Baseball Prospectus can be a little bit out there in it’s ranking of Cubs prospects. In 2015, they ranked Addison Russell at number one ahead of Kris Bryant. In 2015, BP placed Gleyber Torres first and followed that up with Eloy Jimenez last year. Heading into this year’s list, I thought it would be one of three prospects: Adbert Alzolay, Aramis Ademan, or Jose Albertos.

There was nothing shocking in the list. Right-handed starting pitchers dominated the list followed by one lefty starter, a switch-hitting catcher and a soon to be 19-year-old shortstop.

The Top Ten
1. Adbert Alzolay, RHP; 2. Jose Albertos, RHP; 3. Aramis Ademan, SS; 4. Brendon Little, LHP; 5. Alex Lange, RHP; 6. Victor Caratini, C; 7. Thomas Hatch, RHP; 8. Oscar de la Cruz, RHP; 9. Jen-Ho Tseng, RHP; and 10. Alec Mills, RHP

In years past, Twitter exchanges could get hot and heavy over which Cubs prospect made a list or did not make a list. I don’t think anyone’s going to be fighting over whether Alec Mills is at number 10. Times have changed. And more importantly, that goes to show just how much focus is now on the major league club.

The Hope
One key to understanding the system and just how raw it is comes from the fact that many of the prospects who might eventually make a top 100 list are 18-19 years old and only Ademan has played  in South Bend and full season baseball. A year from now, this list is going to be totally different and filled with Albertos and other young prospects like Jeremiah Estrada, Nelson Velazquez, and Javier Assad. That’s where the hope is.

BP discussed many of them in their “second ten” section. There’s a lot of depth in the system just based on this section.

Who Is Missing?
It’s stunning what two months of a rough stretch in baseball can do to career, as well as an injury. For Trevor Clifton, he had an outstanding first half (2.84 ERA in 12 starts) at Tennessee and then fell apart in the second. I am still hopeful that he can get it back to what he was like in the first half of 2017. I don’t know how one could give up on him so fast.

Jake Stinnett missed most of the year but came back in August and also pitched in the Arizona Fall League. He showed that he could possibly be a reliever.

Coming Up
I’m looking forward to MLB Pipeline’s list which should be out sometime in January. It’s a little bit more extensive in that they rank 30 prospects. Keith Law usually waits until February to publish his list and I had not planned on doing an updated Top 21 list this winter unless there’s a trade. Who knows, anything could happen this week.

Episode V of the MiLB Mailbag: Is South Bend’s Pitching Stacked for 2018?

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By Todd Johnson

This week’s mailbag has just one question and it’s a doozy.

Shawn Cline: Is South Bend going to be stacked at pitcher next year?

By the time the 2018 minor league season begins, I could answer this question four or five different ways. There are a myriad of combinations of pitchers who could start at South Bend in 2018. Just off the top of my head, I counted 13 possible arms who could take the bump every sixth day. Not all of the 13 are going to start the year at South Bend. Some could find their way to Myrtle Beach to begin 2018.

So, Shawn, the simple answer to your question is yes.

The complicated answer would be that I have no idea which six will make the opening day roster.

The Cubs have targeted pitching in the last two drafts and the last two international free-agent signing periods, especially in the Mexican market. The dividends of those investments will begin to come to fruition at South Bend. In 2017, Duncan Robinson and Michael Rucker were the first wave of arms to breakout and both will be at AA Tennessee next year along with 2016 third round pick Thomas Hatch.

As for South Bend, here are 13 pitchers who could wind up in the rotation.
Alex Lange, Jose Albertos, Javier Assad, Jesus Camargo, Brendon Little, Cory Abbott, Erich Uelmen, Bailey Clark, Rollie Lacy, Keegan Thompson, Enrique de los Rios, Matt Swarmer, and Carson Sands.

The starting rotation for South Bend will be determined in spring training. Some of the arms could skip South Bend and wind up in Myrtle Beach to begin the year. Alex Lange and Jesus Camargo would be the two most likely selections based on their age and experience.

While having Albertos skip South Bend would be interesting, he is going to be just 19 years old next year and there’s no rush to move him up the system.  He needs to refine his curve and basically get his work in. He needs to throw close to 100 innings after missing most of 2016. Whether he does that at South Bend or Myrtle Beach, I don’t care. But either way, it will be riveting.

The same is true for Javier Assad, who could be one arm at South Bend to really break out. I really like Assad a lot. Out of all the pitchers I watched at Eugene last summer, he improved the most in his arsenal and command. Now 20, he struck out 72 in 66 IP. He has a nice live mid 90s fastball and a good curve. If he commands his fastball down in the zone, he misses a lot of bats. He struck out 9 batters three times in short season ball where pitch limits are just 70-75 pitches. That is extremely impressive.

Top 2017 draft pick Brendon Little should be in South Bend most of the year as he works on his command and control.

While Albertos, Assad, and Camargo pitched well in full extended starts last year at Eugene, the one player who I am going to be fascinated with this year is the Cubs 2017 second round pick Cory Abbott. I was impressed with him last year as it pertained to his physical presence on the mound along with his actual talent and demeanor. He made five starts for Eugene, never throwing more than 3 innings and he exceeded 50 pitches only once.

While Little and Alex Lange got all the headlines from the draft, Abbott is an under the radar type who grew by leaps and bounds the last two years thanks in part to an uptick in his velocity and a slider that he modeled after Noah Syndergaard, his idol.

Fangraphs said the following about Abbott’s potential just last week:

Abbott has terrific glove-side control of his average slider and fastball, and can loop a 12-6 curveball into the zone for strikes. He’s not a great athlete but repeats his delivery well and could have plus command and control at peak. If he does — and he could move quickly — he’ll be a No. 4/5 starter.

Another possible breakout pitcher who did not get much time in Eugene in 2017 is Erich Uelmen. Uelmen was the Cubs fourth round pick out of Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. After his selection, he got in 17.2 innings of work with a 2.04 ERA and 23 Ks. He was just used in relief. Next year, his role could change.

Fangraphs’ Eric Longenhagen also liked him. Longenhagen said:

The club’s 2017 fourth-rounder out of Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo, Uelmen’s college stats are remarkable. He allowed just three home runs in 212 career innings at Cal Poly and struck out a batter per inning as a junior there, just as he did the prior summer on Cape Cod. He was up to 95 on the Cape but pitched more in the low 90s as a junior. His delivery is odd but effective. Uelmen is basically a side-armer, but has a shorter, quicker arm stroke than most of his low-slotted peers. It creates deception/extension which, along with his fastball’s significant arm-side movement, makes the fastball effective despite middling velocity. He also has an average slider, which he locates consistently to his glove side, and feel for creating movement on his changeup but not for locating it. There’s a chance Uelmen ends up with a starter’s repertoire and command. Ultimately, the very thing that has many skeptical about his chances of remaining a starter — his delivery — is precisely (because of its deception) what might allow him to be one.

Keegan Thompson out of Auburn is a third pitcher who I think will do extremely well at South Bend. He missed all of 2016 after undergoing Tommy John surgery and came back last year and was the Cubs third round pick. He pitched well in his debut in Eugene (mostly in relief) and he should come back stronger from the surgery than he did in 2017.

One of my own personal favorites from this list is Bailey Clark. Drafted out of Duke in 2016, Clark debuted that summer for Eugene but returned to school to finish his degree that fall. Due to finishing his degree and some nagging injuries and an inability to weight train, Clark came to camp late in the the spring. He pitched well in Eugene, especially in August where he had a 1.69 ERA in 3 starts. This offseason, Clark is injury free, improving his strength and his velocity should be back in the mid 90s when spring training rolls around. As a result, he could be either at South Bend or Myrtle Beach, depending on his camp.

So, here are my six to start the year for South Bend: Albertos, Assad, Little, Abbott, Thompson, and Clark or Uelmen. It’s still extremely hard to call this some 3 1/2 months away. However, I think Lange will go up and start at Myrtle Beach and Camargo and his plus changeup will be there, too.

I didn’t even get to the relievers in this post but here are three names to watch for out of the pen:  Ricky Tyler Thomas, Jake Steffens, and Ben Hecht.

I am pretty geeked to see all of these guys throw next year. It should be very interesting to see who goes to what affiliate to begin the year and what their roles will be.

Next week’s mailbag will be just one question again. I will be comparing and contrasting the system now to 2011, just before Theo took over. That has brought back some ghosts.

Cubs Sign Reliever Brandon Morrow – It’s a Slight Gamble

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The Cubs went and got themselves another pitcher this afternoon in reliever Brandon Morrow.  Morrow signed a two-year deal (which I like) with an option and he fits the mold of a strike thrower (which Theo Epstein likes).

Morrow pitched last year with the Dodgers as a setup man and could be the closer with the Cubs. A former starting pitcher with Seattle, Toronto, and San Diego, Morrow has struggled in the past with injuries. In 7 seasons as a starter, he only threw over 100 innings 3 times, never coming close to 200 innings. Ironically, he started relieving in 2016 with the Padres.

He remained healthy all of last year as a reliever. With the Dodgers, Morrow appeared in 45 games throwing 43.2 IP. He struck out 50 and walked only 9 as opponents managed to hit .192 against him.

In the 2017 NLCS, Theo got a close up look at Morrow’s talents as Morrow consistently hit the upper 90s on the radar gun. Almost 70% of his pitches find the strike zone. His strikeout rate of 29.4% is impressive as is his walk rate of 5.3%.

Right now, Morrow slides into the back of the pen as a power arm with pitching experience but little experience as a closer. In his second year (2008) as pro in Seattle, Morrow saved 10 out of 12 games, 6 out of 8 in 2009, and just 2 out of 3 last year. As a result, the Cubs are taking a slight gamble and banking on Morrow’s track record the last two years out of the pen.

The Cubs are far from done in filling out their roster. They should be adding at least one more arm to the bullpen this week, likely a left-hander. It will interesting to see how that arm fits in with Morrow.

The Weekly – Lots of Action and News Coming Up Next Week

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By Todd Johnson

What a week!

Between the Cubs attempted signing of Shohei Ohtani, the possibility that Giancarlo Stanton briefly wanted to come to the Cubs, and the signing of Tyler Chatwood, I am worn out. It was nice to sleep in on Saturday morning, if only to get some rest. Starting tomorrow, the General Manager meetings will take place in Orlando, Florida. As a result, there will be no respite next week.

From trade rumors to free agents, the internet has been a buzz of activity and speculation now that Ohtani and Stanton have cleared the marketplace.

Later, on Thursday the 14th, the Rule Five Draft will take place. There will be two parts – a minor-league phase and a major-league phase. The Cubs have 48 players eligible to be selected in the major league phase. However, most teams are not gonna want to take a chance on the Cubs’ talent except for maybe a few players like reliever Pedro Araujo and utility man Chesny Young. Then again, Araujo has never pitched above Class A Myrtle Beach while Young had an up and down season at AAA. Jacob Hannemann, who got a cup of coffee last year with Seattle, could be selected as well.

The Cubs could take a chance and select a pitcher like Kohl Stewart from Minnesota who they could put in the bullpen and develop him into a starter. The former 2013 first round pick (#4) of the Twins is someone the Cubs could take a gamble on in hopes of future performance. If it doesn’t work out, the Cubs return him back to Minnesota at the end of spring training. Ideally, the Cubs would hope to find a left-handed strike thrower and hope they get lucky like they did with Hector Rondon in 2012.

When it comes to the minor-league phase of the draft on Thursday, the Cubs only have 24 players eligible to be selected by other minor league systems. Any of the Cubs eligible prospects could be selected. Most likely, other organizations could select one of the Cubs eligible catchers that include Ali Solis, Cael Brockmeyer, Erick Costello, Alberto Mineo, and Will Remillard. The Cubs might try to stockpile some AAA and AA bullpen arms.

On Tuesday this past week, many of the prospects that were released in the Braves international free agent scandal began signing with other teams. Going into the weekend, there were still six players left. The Cubs currently have $930,000 left in their 2017-18 international free agent bonus pool per Arizona Phil. It looks like the bidding has been pretty high as the first six prospects all signed for bonuses over $1 million. The Cubs could be shutout on getting one inked.

In addition to the meetings next week, Baseball Prospectus will be releasing their top 10 Cubs Prospect List at some point. It was originally scheduled for Monday the 11th, but it looks like it’s going to be backed up to later in the week. I will be analyzing that list for this site, Cubs Insider, and BP Wrigleyville.

Card made from a photo by Freek Bouw/27 Outs Baseball.com

I last redid the Top 21 Prospect list shortly after the end of the minor league season. While I see no reason to currently change it, events could take place this week that might necessitate said change. I don’t foresee a lot of movement up my list except for Nelson Velazquez and Alex Lange. However, there’s gonna be a lot of movement in the list next summer. I originally planned on redoing the list in late March, just prior to the regular season beginning. Let’s play it by ear this week. The earliest I could redo it would be Saturday.

It’s hard to believe that we are closer to the draft than we are away from it. MLB Pipeline released their top 50 draft prospects last week and it looks like there will be a lot of good bats for the Cubs to pick from at #24. Pipeline has Florida high school pitcher Carter Stewart ranked #24. What I am intrigued by is the plethora of bats coming right after Stewart that include Greyson Jenista and Alec Bohm of Wichita State, thee Seth Beer, Luken Baker, and possible 5 tool sensation Tristan Pompey of Kentucky. A lot can happen between now and June. The player I am intrigued most with right now is Shortstop Xavier Edwards, a high school shortstop from Florida, who is ranked #38 by Pipeline.

Tomorrow, the Mailbag returns as I answer just one question on South Bend’s possible rotation for 2018. On Wednesday, the “Leveling Up” series is back and looks at pitcher Jose Albertos while the shortstops in the system get ranked on Friday in the position breakdown series.

Baseball Card of the Week

Cubs Insider

John Sickels’ Top Prospect List

BP Wrigleyville

Cubs Sign Tyler Chatwood