Chicago Cubs Hitting

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.

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Prospect Update: Zack Short and His Hot Streak Opens Up Some Cool Questions

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By Todd Johnson

It has to be hard to be a position player in the Cubs’ minor league system. With most of the daily regulars signed through 2021, there’s not a lot of hope to make it onto the 25 man roster. However, things sometimes change. Ian Happ made the Cubs keep him on the roster. David Bote has been up twice this year as a utility player. If you perform, things will take care of themselves. You just have to go about your business and do the best you can while waiting for your shot.

In 2016, the Cubs selected SS Zack Short in the 17th round out of Sacred Heart. Over the last 2 years, Zack Short has quickly made his way through the Cubs system at the pace of a top prospect. Along the way, he’s shown a penchant for getting on base at a near .400 clip along with showing some power. Short spent 2016 mostly at Eugene. He split 2017 at South Bend in the first half, where he lead the league in walks. In the second half, he continued his fast rise at Myrtle Beach. As a result, he quickly made it to AA to begin this year.

2018 has been a strange year for Short.

For the first time in his pro career, he struggled in getting on base and producing his power game. In April, he hit .187 with a .322 OBP while only hitting .187. May was a little better. He hit .233 with a very good OBP of .365.

When June began, his hitting troubles bottomed out on June 8 when his average bottomed out at .198. The very next night, he went 3-for-4 with 4 RBI and he was off. Over the last three weeks of June and, so far, the first week of July, Short has been the hottest Cub minors hitting .380 with 3 HRs and 18 RBI. In addition, his OBP in that span is an amazing at .470.

What Happened?
Simply put, Zack Short was striking out instead of hitting the baseball.

In April and May, he was whiffing at almost a 33% rate. Over the last 4 weeks, he’s only striking out at a 22% rate. Take away two nights when he had the triple sombrero, his K rate goes down to 15%, which is very good.

What I like most about Short is that, despite his troubles hitting, his walk rate was consistent. His 14.7% rate is a bit above last year’s 15.4% but not as high as his 18.0% at South Bend. Still no matter his troubles, he still did not change his approach at the plate. His monthly walk counts of 13, 15, and 16 are still impressive and that bodes well for the future anytime he gets in a slump.

In Zack’s career, he has never hit for a high average. He’s always sat .240 to .260 and had OBP splits between .360 to .400. This current four week stretch is the highest stretch of his career, by far. It will be interesting to see how long Zack can keep this going.

Will his average remain high the rest of this month? If he can sustain it, does that earn him a ticket to Iowa one step from Chicago or the bigs? And when he gets there, what position will he be playing? He’s played some third in the minors, some second, too, but mostly short…pun intended.

Short’s performance has been exciting to track and watch this month. It will be equally exciting to see what he can do this month and the year.

June MiLB All-Star Team: Consistency and Adaptation Abound

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By Todd Johnson

June was a rough month at times. It began with three affiliates in contention for a playoff spot for the first half. None of them made it. In the meantime, five additional teams began play this month. Two teams in the DSL started in early June while Eugene and two Mesa teams began June 15th and 18th respectively.

In selecting players for this month’s all-star team, the hitting definitely took a downturn except for second basemen. Pitching, meanwhile, continues to be the strength of the system. There were four arms in contention for pitcher of the month up until Wednesday this week. Not surprisingly, most of them were at South Bend. The relief corps dominated at almost every level with the largest contingent of players on the list.

If I was to come up with a theme to this month’s team, it would have to be something about finding consistency and adapting. I was really pleased to see Michael Cruz of South Bend make the team as he finally hit for average at this level. He has always hit for power at every stop, but his willingness to go the other way is really changing his profile.

in addition, another pleasant surprise included the play of outfielder Brandon Hughes. I detailed his changes and adaptations earlier in the week at Cubs Central.

The hitter and pitcher of the month both had dominant performances. 1B Jared Young of South Bend drove in 27 runs in 27 games while teammate Rollie Lacy owned the mound in every start striking out more than 10 per nine innings with an ERA at 0.78. Dillon Maples is the reliever of the month as he was just overpowering with his immense K/9 inning ratio of 17.61 this month. Not allowing an earned run helped.

When the July All-Star team rolls around, there will be lots of new faces to consider and statistics for nine teams to sort through. I expect to see the pitching continue to dominate throughout the system and the newly promoted arms to adjust. As well, the hitters taken in the draft should begin to display their talents from Mesa on up to South Bend in the coming weeks. It should be very exciting.

As usual, this month’s team is once again on film, the digital kind.

The Weekly: Hot Prospects, Debuts, Promotions, and IFA a Day Away

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By Todd Johnson

It has been an exciting week in the minors. There were several promotions, some draft signings, and lots of debuts of players in new uniforms. From Chicago to Mesa, new was the word. Then again, there will be several more in the weeks ahead as only 13 of the players the Cubs signed from this year’s draft debuted. More are coming.

Tomorrow, the 2018-2019 International Free Agency signing period begins. The Cubs are expected to sign a few top prospects in pitchers Richard Gallardo and Joel Machado along with outfielder Jose Lopez. The Cubs have almost $5 million to spend. It is also the first time since 2015 that they can sign a player for more than $300,000. They will not blow through all of their pool tomorrow. Only a few big names will be released tomorrow, most of the list will be released in October.

No New Top 21
Normally, I would do a new Top 21 list after International Free Agency begins, but not this year. All of the players the Cubs will sign will not play until 2019. So, I decided to wait to think about adding them to the list unless their name is Victor Mesa…and it’s not.

But if I did, there would be a few additions and a few subtractions. Jared Young has played himself into consideration for a spot while Eugene OF Fernando Kelli bears watching along with fellow teammate Jonathan Sierra. In addition, Chesny Young looks to be playing himself back into contention and Duncan Robinson is definitely an arm to watch as he is having big success at AA this year. Pitchers Rollie Lacy, Erich Uelmen, and Tyler Thomas are also worthy of consideration as well.

Who’s Hot at the Plate Right Now?

The second half just started ten days ago. Several players are busting it out of the gate. Zack Short of Tennessee is ripping the cover off the ball (.360+ with 3 HRs and 12 RBI) along with teammate Eddy Martinez (.333 with 2 HRs and 9 RBI). In Myrtle Beach, Andruw Monasterio over his last ten is lighting up a box score at close to .400. Roberto Caro (.400)  of South Bend leads a parade of hitters in northern Indiana  who are putting balls in play over their last ten games including Brandon Hughes (.289), Austin Filiere (.314), and Michael Cruz (.308). At AAA Iowa, Mark Zagunis is currently in the midst of one of his nicest streaks of the year after a rough May. Chesny Young also looks to have regained his stroke hitting .289 for the month (heading into last night’s game).

Around the System

While Tennessee and South Bend got off to decent starts in the second half, Myrtle Beach has not at 2-8. Their bats have pretty much gone silent except for Monasterio. Iowa is still finding who will be on the roster from day-to-day with the Cubs’ injury issues in Chicago. Eugene started out hot and then cooled off as the bats and pitching are struggling. The Ems have lost 7 in a row and are now at 5-10.

Meanwhile, down in Mesa, the Cubs Mesa 1 team looks to be doing well at 6-4 while the 2 team has some pitching issues at 4-6. Both teams in the DSL are at 9-15 and 10-15 respectively as they struggle at the plate and in the field. SS Fabian Pertuz is back after missing almost two weeks. He immediately hit when he got back on the lineup. He will be one to watch the next two months.

The June All-Star Team

I will put it out later today. Check back around 4:30-5 Central time.

Players of the Week

Card of the Week

 

Prospect Profile: Fernando Kelli Excitement Is for Real

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By Todd Johnson

One thing that the Cubs have lacked in recent years in the system has been speed. Last summer, a then 18-year-old Fernando Kelli stole 58 bases in the Dominican Summer League. In addition, he hit .320 with an on-base percentage of .437. He’s not big by any means at 6’ and 180 pounds, but prior to his breakout, he’d only been seen a little bit in spring training of 2017. No one knew that much about him before. That has all changed.

I had a lot of questions about him and was extremely interested to get a good look at him. During spring training, he actually got into a couple of games with the big league club and held his own. Being that he now plays late at night for Eugene, I am getting a pretty good look at what he can and cannot do. There are a lot of things to like and there are a lot of things that he needs to improve on. Then again, he’s just 19 playing one level above most of his peers.

Things He’s Doing Well

The first thing you notice about Kelli is his speed. In his first ten games, he had the opponent’s attention within seconds. It affected how fielders fielded and threw. It affected a pitcher’s attention span. Kelli’s speed totally disrupts the flow of the defense. So far, in just 11 games, he has 8 SBs which puts him on pace to steal 50. He has been caught stealing twice and picked off once as he continues to adjust.

He’s a pretty decent defender. He also uses his speed in the field to go get some balls. He already has one outfield assist as he gunned down a runner heading back to first. Kelli is not just a one-trick pony. He’s an all-around baseball player.

I like his hitting profile, too. He can hit the ball with authority to right field and has 1 HR to date. He doesn’t necessarily spray the ball as only 12% of his batted balls go to center. Most of his contact goes to left (41%) and right (45%). He also gets the ball in the air as a hitter. He barrels up the ball regularly with 50% of his contact being line drives and fly balls. After last night’s game, he’s hitting  on the young season with an OBP of .348.

Surprisingly, Kelli is not a big bunter. The defense comes in on him at the corners to guard against him bunting and he takes advantage of that by lining balls in those gaps in the infield.

I really like watching him play. There is no one quite like him in the Cubs’ minor league system and you never know what will happen on each play.

Things to Work On

It didn’t take teams long to catch on that Kelli has some major league wheels. He got thrown out at second twice in one game and is now learning how far he can lead off and how to pick his spots to steal a base.

In his first eight at bats, he struck out four times. Now that he’s got an a little bit more larger data set, his K rate is still high at 38% while his walk rate is at 7.7%. Those numbers are going to have to change. As a leadoff hitter, 38% is not sustainable, but it is getting lower.

Game experience – He can make a really good play in the outfield tracking down a fly ball and then there have been a couple of moments where he completely loses the ball or takes a poor route to get to a ball. The Eugene outfield is not the easiest place to play because the outfielders are staring directly into a setting sun. Still, he is going to have to improve.

Approach – Right now, he’s struggling with a breaking ball or offspeed pitch down and away. It’s also odd because he takes a fastball to right field with ease. He needs to learn to do the same with pitches that don’t start with a F.

Seeing a curve In the US is a lot different than say the DSL. In the DSL, most of the pitchers are 17 to 19-year old kids while in the Northwest League, a lot of the arms have some level of college experience. And the pitchers that came out of high school have much more game experience versus kids from the DSL.

It’s an interesting adjustment that sometimes takes 2 to 3 years to catch up. Kelli will play at Eugene this year, go to fall instructs, and then play winter ball where he will continue to improve over time as he gains experience. Who knows, he might catch on this season.

He could be a different hitter next spring in South Bend or even as early as mid-July as he improves his pitch recognition skills. It just depends on how fast he can adjust. For now, though, he’s very exciting. It is hard to imagine that he could be more exciting, but he most certainly can.

Which Prospects Could Breakout for the Cubs in the 2nd Half?

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By Todd Johnson

Yesterday, I wrote about who  broke out in the first half for Cubs Insider. But trying to predict breakouts prospects for the second half of the minor league season is a bit tougher. Most of the players one would expect to breakout will be playing for Mesa, Eugene, or South Bend. Some of them are 18 to 20-year-old kids while others are recent draft picks.

If I was to pick one hitter, one pitcher, and one reliever to break out in the second half, I would more than likely be wrong come the end of August. So, to hedge my bets, what I’m going to do is to pick three hitters, four starting pitchers, and three relievers who might make some waves in the Cubs’ system the next two months. Hopefully, one or more in each category will make it.  

On with the prospects.

Hitters

Everyone is going to be watching Nico Hoerner once he signs. The fans will watch his bat, his glove, his arm, and his speed, grit, and hustle. That kind of takes the pressure off of everyone else.

The batter that will impress everyone is Luke Reynolds, the Cubs tenth round pick out of Southern Mississippi. I would expect him to be a fast mover. He, like Hoerner, will probably start at Eugene, but neither will be there long as their approaches and skills will be too dominant.

Another hitter that could break out this summer is Fernando Kelli. While we know some about Kelli after his 58 stolen bases last season in the DSL, it is different playing in the US, especially skipping Mesa. The hardest adjustments for an 18-19 year old prospect from the DSL to make are just playing against quality competition. Kelli will need to adapt to quality changeups and curves; and guys trying to get him out in the batter’s box and also on the basepaths. In just 5 games, he has caused some havoc between the bases. His defense, on the other hand, might be better than we thought.

My third selection is Jonathan Sierra. Originally, he looked like Daryl Strawberry clone when the Cubs signed him in 2015 at 16 years-old. Now, he is getting his physique into something resembling Jorge Soler. What I really like about him so far is his approach. He shows to have a pretty good knowledge of the zone at 19 and he is not afraid to walk to this early in his career. The issue he has now is that his swing is a bit long. He needs to shorten that up or he will be eaten alive as he moves up the ladder. For now, though, game experience and seeing as many pitches as possible will be the goals for 2018.

Bonus Hitters – Kevin Moreno from Cuba (who is only 17) and Reivaj Garcia are two young hitters who have been tearing up EXST. They will both be in Mesa to begin the year. I love Luis Vazquez’s defense already. The fact that he got experience at SS in a major league spring training game says how highly the Cubs already think of him. He is in Eugene to start 2018. Focus on his defense, not the bat.

Starting Pitchers

One of the more interesting stories in August last year was the maturation of Jesus Tejada in the DSL. He was a stud with an ERA just under 2 for that month and he also threw a no-hitter. Now, the 19 year old will be stateside. This spring, one of the more interesting reports over time from Arizona Phil has been the growth in each performance of lefty Brailyn Marquez, who is really dialing it up as the spring goes along. Now that summer is here, the young 19-year-old pitcher is in Eugene as the ace of the staff. He can dial it up in the mid-90s. The issue has always been his command.

I liked the Cubs taking Derek Casey of Virginia in the ninth round of the 2018 draft a lot. He’s experienced, a senior, and he should be a valuable arm next year. This year, he will more than likely just pitch 2 or 3 innings a game in Eugene or South Bend. He should do well in those spots.

Faustino Carrera is not going to blow you away with his fastball, but he can make you swing wildly at his changeup. The 19-year-old lefty (I am noticing a theme here) has good command and can get hitters to do what he wants when he can control his upper 80s to low 90s heater. He also has a curve that comes in around 82 and he seems to hide the ball well to make it appear to have more zip than it does.

Bonus – In what is his third season as a Cub, Nathan Sweeney is back in the Arizona Rookie League. But here’s the thing, he’s still just 20 and, if he had gone to college, he would just be finishing his sophomore year. After two years of instruction from the college of pitching coaches in Mesa, he should start to put it together this year. His fastball has been clocked in the low 90s consistently.

Relievers

All three of my breakout reliever choices were taken in the draft this year. Ethan Roberts, Riley Thompson, and Layne Looney all had excellent careers in college in the bullpen. I would not be surprised to see any or all 3 get a chance at starting next year. But this year, they are just going to relieve. Thompson, who can bring it at 95, will need the most time to develop. Roberts might need to rest a bit after Tennessee Tech almost made it to Omaha for the College World Series. And Looney should be good to go as he was already playing summer ball. Expect to see Thompson to get in a game first and it should be at Mesa.

Here are a few other names who could break out as legitimate prospects this summer.

DSL
Alexander Ovalles – OF; Carlos Morfa – OF; Fabian Pertuz – SS; Carlos Paula – SP

Mesa
Luis Verdugo – SS; Carlos Pacheco – OF (who is injured to start the year); Raidel Orta – SP; Eduarniel Nunez – SP; and Luis Hidalgo 1B/OF

Eugene
Luis Diaz – 2B and Jonathan Soto – C

The MiLB First Half All-Star Team Came Right Down to the Wire

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By Todd Johnson

In compiling the stats and possible prospects who might make the First Half All-Star Team, I started with a spreadsheet to get a head start. The 20 something players who made the list did not change much, but who would become the hitter and pitcher of the first half changed from week to week. The reliever of the first half was pretty much set in stone since the first month of the season.

It’s been interesting to watch players shoot up, down, or stay steady throughout the past 2.5 months. Still, it came down to the weekend to see who would make the team when it came to starting pitching (I had 12 at one point and it didn’t end up too far from that).

The biggest surprise the past two weeks has been the surge of Jhonny Bethencourt. Bethencourt is a 21-year-old infielder who plays 3B, SS, and 2B for South Bend. He can definitely handle a stick. He’s hitting almost .350 in June alone to bring his average up to .280. His issue, though, is his defense. He tends to rush plays with his arm. He can get to and field the grounder, it’s just the quality of his throws. However, as long as he hits, he is going to play somewhere.

I really like Jared Young and have been on the “Jared Young Train” since before he began to take off last August. His approach is too good. Not only can he hit for average, he can hit for power. Most teams in the Midwest League already employ a shift against him every night and it is not stopping him from going off. He is the hitter of the first half. I am ready for him to add 10-15 pounds of muscle this winter to add even more power to his game. He cranked out 8 HRs and lead the system in RBI this spring and also lead with a wRC+ of 146 while hitting .302.

Pitcher Matt Swarmer has been pretty steady. He’s had a couple of tough starts, but that is it. The lean and lanky starter already got promoted to Tennessee after being named the April Pitcher of the Month with a 1.72 ERA and 26 Ks in 20.2 IP. In May, he had a 2.92 ERA. In his first start at Tennessee, he got touched, but in his second start, he was scoreless through 3 before the rains came and delayed the game. For the first half, between the two levels, the pitcher of the first half put up a 2.47 ERA and had 65 Ks in 59.1 IP with a WHIP of 0.95.

Dakota Mekkes is the reliever of the first half. He had a 0.98 ERA between Iowa and Tennessee along with 36 Ks in 26.2 IP. His only issue is walks. He’s given out 15 free passes this year, but only 3 in Iowa (5+ BBs/9). Expect to see him in Chicago shortly.

Without further adieu, here is Cub Central’s First Half All-Star team.