Spring Training Presser Opens Up Camp

By Todd Johnson

It was a strange afternoon.

While blizzard conditions whipped around northern Illinois, I sat down in my recliner to watch Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer, and Joe Maddon kick off Spring Training with a press conference. The first 20 minutes were about as surreal a baseball chat as I’ve seen in recent memory.

The presser began with just manager Joe Maddon. He started by talking about the players and what “great condition” they are in. Then, like always, Joe laid out his theme for 2019, “Own It Now.” Filled with anagrams, this year’s perfunctory slogan is meant to get players into the moment. “A big part of our success this year is going to be the fact that we own each moment. And if you take the word ‘now’ and turn it around, it becomes ‘won.’”

Eventually, Theo and Jed arrived at the table and questions about baseball soon to a back seat to Addison Russell and Joe Ricketts. Theo spoke for about 15 minutes (see the video below), and quite eloquently at times. I don’t think that’s what Theo would rather be talking about. Baseball should be the order of the day, but it wasn’t.

I did like what Theo said at one point in his “monologue” about what the Cubs are doing in response to Mr. Russell’s actions and responsibilities. Theo said, “We hold Addison Russell to an extremely high standard and we expect him to abide by that or he won’t play another major league game for the Chicago Cubs ever again.”

Theo spoke with both a sense of firmness when discussing all the things the Cubs are doing as an organization in regards to domestic violence.

Eventually, the presser did get down to talking about baseball. Joe Maddon explained that he’s going to be doing a bit more coaching this summer rather than having the coaches do it all. Joe went on to explain that he wants his hitters to be versatile. He wants them to hit dingers, go the other way with two strikes, hit away for the shift, and to make productive out with runners on third.

Joe also spoke about he wants the team to play two bases at time, both at the plate and on the baseballs. He wants his offense to be aggressive to put pressure on the other team to make mistakes or to make good plays to get outs.

Late in the press conference, Jed Hoyer did announce that Adbert Alzolay would be about two weeks delayed due to a pinge in his side. It is nothing serious, the Cubs are just being cautious.

Watch the video for the whole presser.

https://www.facebook.com/plugins/video.php?href=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.facebook.com%2FNBCSChicago%2Fvideos%2F2272578819622836%2F&show_text=0&width=560

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Spring Training News and Notes – Part 1: A Preview

By Todd Johnson

In just three days, the Chicago Cubs open spring training when pitchers and catchers officially report. I say “officially” because many players have been in Mesa since mid-January getting in shape and working out.

On Wednesday, the Cubs officially announced they invited 27 non-rostered players to camp. Here is the official list. Notice, there’s a glaring SS missing. Don’t worry, Nico will be there. The Cubs are well known for having their top prospects play on the MLB split squads. Expect Miguel Amaya to be there, too.

This might be one of the more interesting camps in recent years. There are a couple of roster spots still open and there is plenty of room, and time, for a trade to take place, or even to sign your basic $300 million free agent.

Here are the big storylines heading into camp.

The Elephant in the Room
The only major talent acquisition this winter was free agent infielder Daniel Descalso. However, the player who shall be nameless has yet to sign with anyone and may not for a couple more weeks. The only clue that something could be happening is if the Cubs make a major trade and shed $20-$30 million worth of payroll. Right now, I just don’t see that happening. I don’t see a team willing to take on that much money in today’s marketplace.

The Bullpen Spots
With Brandon Morrow on the shelf for the first month of the season, there should be one available spot in the bullpen. Preferably, that spot should go to a lefty. Right now, the Cubs only have Mike Montgomery and Brian Duensing to fill that capacity. Then again, Joe could head north with his eight best relievers regardless of their preferential throwing arm. I like that Dakota Mekkes is in the major league camp and I can’t wait to see how he does.

The Bench Spots
As it stands now, the bench spots from the left-handed side of the plate belong to switch hitters Victor Caratini, Ian Happ, and Ben Zobrist. David Bote is the only hitter who hits solely from the right. The question is not who is going to be a bench bat at the end of spring training, it’s who’s going to be a bench bat when a certain SS is eligible to come back in May.

Minor League News
With the big leaguers rolling in, winter instructs are now officially over. Arizona Phil had a few comments throughout the last couple of weeks about what was taking place. Top prospect Nico Hoerner was smacking the ball all over the park but was not throwing overhand in defensive drills. Two interesting names that Phil dropped to watch this year are Alexander Guerra, a soon to be 22-year-old catcher from Cuba who displayed good power in BP and should be at South Bend this year. As well, outfielder Carlos Morfa, who played some last year in the Dominican, also impressed Phil with his power.

In addition, the Cubs keep adding to their collection of relievers at AAA Iowa by re-signing former first round pick Luke Hagerty. At 37, Hagerty’s story is an interesting one chronicled by ESPN and other outlets this week. The Cubs also signed pitcher Robert Robbins. So far, the Cubs have signed three pitchers who improved their velocity at Driveline this winter.

Cards
I’m pretty pumped to see some pictures coming in of the guys getting ready and we know that means they’ll be some new cards heading your way. I do store them over on Cub Central’s Facebook page. Here is the link to the current album.

Coming up This Week
I’ll be back tomorrow with a look at who the Cubs might redraft this summer. The Five Series continues on Wednesday with Jonathan Sierra and maybe I will record a podcast for later in the week… or it could be a video.

A Saturday Surprise – Keith Law Drops His Top Cubs List

By Todd Johnson

I got up today just like any other Saturday enjoying the fact that I got to sleep in and that my dogs let me. I booted around for a little bit, fed the dogs, and decided I would head to DeKalb get my medicine. When I stopped to eat breakfast on the way home, I took my phone out and I got a nice little Saturday surprise when I saw that Keith Law published his top Cubs prospect listUsually, these kinds of things don’t happen on the weekend. So, let’s take a look. The link does require a subscription. 

About a week ago, Law ranked the Cubs as having the number 29 farm system in the minors. It’s not that he doesn’t have a high regard for the Cubs, rather it’s that he doesn’t see a lot of high-end prospects right now. The Cubs currently don’t have a lot of prospects who contain that star quality that Law wants to see in a system. That could change over the next two summers. Still, I was looking forward to seeing just exactly who he put in his list.

It’s not a surprise who was at number one as Miguel Amaya made Law’s top 100 at 91 a couple weeks ago. And it’s no surprise that Nico Hoerner was at number two as he was included in Law‘s next 10 prospects.

A lot of the usual suspects filled up positions three through ten. The list included Brailyn Marquez, Adbert, Brennen Davis, Cole Roederer, and Aramis Ademan. I was mildly surprised to see Oscar de la Cruz still in the top 10 along with Erich Uelmen, who had a rough second half at Myrtle Beach.

The two biggest surprises were the inclusion of Matt Swarmer on the list and the fact that Law ranked Brennen Davis ahead of Cole Roederer. I can easily see why Law did that. Roederer does have a much higher floor while Davis’ talents are just being tapped into now that he plays baseball full time. Scouts do rave about Davis’ athleticism.

Law did go on to discuss a myriad number of pitchers in the system including Alex Lange, Tyson Miller, Yovanny Cruz, Justin Steele, Keegan Thompson, Brendon Little, Duncan Robinson, and Michael Rucker. He also professed to the talents of outfielder Nelson Velazquez, but held off on coronating the young outfielder as a prospect of the future.

There’s only one major prospect list remaining and that is MLB Pipeline’s. According to the schedule, it’ll be published the 21st February.

I’ve been keeping track of all the major prospect list rankings and it’s interesting to see the variance of where people are slotted. Here are the point totals so far with just one list left.

Trying to Pick First Half Breakouts Is Not Very Easy for 2019

By Todd Johnson

The guy I want to pick as my breakout prospect for 2019 probably won’t play until June. Second baseman Reivaj Garcia is the bat I’m going to focus on later this year. But at 17-years-old, the young switch hitter’s more than likely not going to be starting at South Bend to begin the year. He should be at Eugene come June 15. As a result, trying to pick breakout prospects for the first half could be rough this year.

There are a couple basic rules I follow for a first half breakout. One is there has to be a marked increase in performance from the year before. And while that player can be at any level, it’s rare for a breakout to appear at AAA, but they do happen at AA once in a while (Willson Contreras). Therefore, Myrtle Beach and South Bend are the likely spots to find breakouts in the first half.

Most Cub fans already have eyes on Cole Roederer and Brennen Davis, the Cubs two second round picks from the 2018 draft. Roederer clearly broke out last summer at Mesa with a wRC+ of 129 in 36 games in Arizona. But Davis was injured most of the year after he signed. He only played 18 games but what an 18 games. A wRC+ of 138 predicts a bright future. But like Garcia, Davis likely will not begin his first full season until Eugene plays in mid-June.

Considering that I spend most of my summer covering the Eugene Emeralds on a daily basis, I have a pretty good grasp on most of the players that will end up on the opening day roster at South Bend. That also makes it hard to pick someone I saw play 60 games last year as a breakout. Add in the fact that I’ve written about several of those players, some multiple times, it’s a little hard for prospects to sneak up on me in the first half.

When it comes to hitters, Andy Weber is going to do very well at South Bend. He’s got a patient eye at the plate and doesn’t seem to get too rattled in any situation. There is some power there, I just don’t know how much. However, I’ve written about Weber plenty of times. He’s not an unknown.

As for pitchers, I think everybody knows I’d pick Riley Thompson, the Cubs 11th round pick out a Louisville, who was pretty darn good at Eugene last summer.  But to me, Thompson has already broken out a bit. But then again, he hasn’t been fully unleashed on the mound for every start.

But if we’re talking a true breakout, by my own definition, the guy I want to see bustout is Jonathan Sierra. The formerly lanky RF is now a muscular RF waiting for everything to click. He’s shown a patient approach but the power everyone foresees hasn’t taken over his game.

Yovanny Cruz is definitely an arm that should be at South Bend. At 19, he looks to have all the poise of a veteran on the mound who can mix and match three pitches. He spent most of 2018 in Mesa but he did make one impressive start in Eugene. I hope that he is good enough to get to South Bend to start the year.

Another possibility is a player Arizona Phil of “The Cub Reporter” recently praised. Catcher Alexander Guerra is becoming known his tool in instructs. Phil stated Guerra has “plus HR power and is a solid receiver…” Guerra played in the Arizona Rookie League in 2018. He hit .267 with an OBP of .355 and 3 HRs in 46 games. He will be 22 shortly after the season begins.

When it comes to pitching, I hope to see lefty Didier Vargas get a crack at South Bend. He was up and down in 2018 at Mesa but he came up big in the playoffs for Cubs 1. Jeremiah Estrada and Danis Correa both missed most of last year and could breakout this year. However, the odds of both getting shots at South Bend early in the year are very slim.

One of the most exciting things about covering the minors is watching a player catch fire and breakout. Sometimes, you can see the player coming. Other years, they can take you by surprise. I am hoping for the former this year…but you never know. The extra rookie league team from Mesa is going to create much more competition for spots at South Bend this spring and we could see some players become breakouts as a result.

Which Prospects Will Get Looks in Big League Camp?

By Todd Johnson

The Cubs are going to issue a press release here in a few days. That release will contain a few names that the team is going to invite to spring training. These players are known as NRIs or non-roster invitees. I keep thinking what that list might look like more and more these days, especially since the convention. The White Sox and a few other organizations have already put out their lists. The Cubs will follow suit any day.

All current prospects on the 40 man will be in camp. So, Adbert, Justin Steele, and Mark Zagunis will be there. In looking at other possibilities, the Cubs are going to basically fill out 2 teams for spring training and slowly whittle about 60-70 players down to 25 by the end of March. In the big scheme of things, the Cubs don’t have to send out invites to players. For some prospects, it’s a reward, for other players it might be a contractual thing if they don’t stick with the Cubs when spring training is over. That way, many AAAA-type guys can get seen playing in the spring.

As for Cub prospects, there are several who should be playing in a packed house at Sloan Park throughout March.

Starting Pitchers
Trevor Clifton, Duncan Robinson, Thomas Hatch, Keegan Thompson, Alex Lange, Cory Abbott, Michael Rucker, and Matt Swarmer are some definite names who should get the call. They could all be piggyback starters as the big league Cubs get stretched out. As well, the Cubs could also get to see how the pitchers fare against big league hitters in those crucial first two or three innings or in split squad games.

Relief Guys
The bullpen arm I want to see most in the big league camp this spring is Dakota Mekkes. The 6’7” righty has a deceptive delivery to go with an elongated stride thanks in part to his large frame. It has worked with great results at every level in the minors so far. I want to see how he does against MLB hitters.

Catchers
As is the case in every spring training, the Cubs are going to need lots of catchers. Miguel Amaya is one guy I want to see get some MLB time in Mesa along with Jhonny Pereda. Both guys have very different hitting profiles but are both very solid defensively. Ian Rice and PJ Higgins should also get the call for the first couple of weeks.

Infielders
I am pretty sure Nico Hoerner is going to get a lot of looks this spring at both second base and shortstop. The Cubs are going to give Nico a preview of what he could be seeing quickly. In addition, Zack Short could be a guy the Cubs want to get more ABs against MLB arms to see how Short’s amazing approach works against big league pitching. As well, Jared Young,Trent Giambrone, and Luis Vazquez will see action, but whether they get invites is up in the air. I would also love to see Luke Reynolds get some swings in as well. However they get in the games doesn’t matter. They should all get into games to show what they can do.

Outfielders
As we saw last year, the Cubs had several young guys get looks from time-to-time throughout the spring. Fernando Kelli played in two games despite not being a NRI. I would love to see Nelson Velazquez get in a few games to practice laying off breaking balls out of the zone.

Considering the quantity of AAAA players the Cubs signed this year, the list of NRI should be somewhere around 20 and be pitching and catching heavy. I don’t expect to see a lot of position players except middle infielders. Hopefully, the list should be out today or tomorrow.

Coming Up on Cubs Central
Friday – Organization Breakdown – Relief Pitching
Sunday – Prospect List Frenzy and other Random MiLB Notes and Signings
Next Week – Podcast #2 – If you have topics you want me to talk about, send me a tweet.

The 5 Series – Don’t Sleep on Jared Young

By Todd Johnson

About a year ago I expected then second baseman Jared Young to have a breakout season at class A South Bend. What happened next was a year that not many people could have predicted. I thought he would hit well when it came to average and he would walk a lot. I wasn’t expecting more than 8 to 10 home runs, tops. He hit 16 HRs with 76 RBI in 120 games with an OBP of .357. For the year, he had a wRC+ of 150 in South Bend and 118 at Myrtle Beach. Those are pretty dominant numbers. The Cubs named Young their minor league player of the year as he flew through two levels of class A. He should be at AA Tennessee to begin 2019.

When it comes to expectations for Young in 2019, I am a little hesitant to throw down some numbers as I’m not sure how he’s going to respond. He can either be very good, average, or struggle. Based upon his approach and eye at the plate, he might be one of those players that improves at each level because pitchers are more around the plate. Here are some numbers that I expect Jared to put up in 2019.

1. On-base Percentage – From the get go, Young showed an outstanding approach at the plate and showed, even at Eugene, that he had a very good knowledge of the strike zone. That does not go away just because he’s at AA. Anything above .350 is going to be great for him. In fact, I would expect him to improve throughout the course of the year as he gains more and more experience in the Southern League.

2. Home Runs – If he added some muscle over the winter, 20 dingers would not be out of the realm of possibility. More than likely, 15 would be a good number for him to sit at when it’s all said and done. Take a look at this video to see how the ball just jumps off his bat. I also love how measured his swing is and the quickness with which he gets the barrel through the zone.

3. wRC+ – His splits for 2018 at each level of class A are a bit stunning. In the first half of the South Bend he put up an amazing 150. When he was at Myrtle Beach, it was still very good at 118. For him to put up a wRC+ between 110 and 120 next season would be very acceptable. If he’s over at 120, he might not be in Tennessee very long. Considering there’s really no left handed bat in front of him, he stands a good shot of moving if he performs at a high level.

4. Position – Drafted as a second baseman, Young began playing first base at South Bend and did so almost exclusively in April and May. Once June got here, Young could be seen occasionally playing left field. In total, he got in 21 games in the outfield last year between Myrtle Beach and South Bend. I’d like to see him get about 33% of his games out in left field. That should make him a little bit more versatile if he makes it to Chicago. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him at third or back at second from time to time.

5. Timetable Year – He is still fairly young at 23. The Cubs are likely to see what he can do at Tennessee and if he dominates he’s going to find a way to Iowa very quickly. The more versatile he can make himself in the field, the more that bat will play. In the end, though, his ability to swing from the left side trumps almost everything else about him. Sure, he’s likely to be a bench guy at the MLB level, but he’s not playing like one right now. He could see Chicago as early at late this summer or early next year.

2019 could be a huge transition year for Jared Young. Everything begins with his bat and that will determine just exactly how much he plays in the outfield and how much he has a chance at moving forward. At 23, that’s about a year below the AA average.

Convention Day 3 – MiLB Session Fruitful and a Podcast Pops Up

By Todd Johnson

It is always fitting and ironic that the session about the Cubs minor league sessions is always last. When I sat down in my chair to check out the festivities, I was not sure what I was going to get from Jason MacLeod, Jaron Madison, and whoever else would be on the panel (It would be just them). And I wondered what kind of questions Tennessee Broadcaster Mick Gillispie would field from the audience.

I started out watching the video feed from the Eugene Emeralds. It was tough to hear the questions, but Jason McLeod came through pretty clear. That lasted for about 16:37 before the feed cut out. After that, I relied on tweets from Evan Altman, Tony Andracki, the South Bend Cubs, and a few others.

For the first ten to twelve minutes, pitching was the main focus of the panel. McLeod said,

“After developing no pitching in 7 years and money becoming issue at the major league level, there’s definitely a sense of urgency. It’s on us. We can’t just keep celebrating Kris Bryant. It’s so obvious it’s not even an elephant in the room.”

He later added that the Cubs were too conservative in the pitchers they selected in 2012 and the he takes the blame for that. However, both McLeod and Madison feel good about where the pitching is at now and Brailyn Marquez’s name came up several times throughout the session.

As for who could help the MLB squad this year, Madison and McLeod mentioned Adbert Alzolay, Dakota Mekkes, and James Norwood. McLeod said they would all likely be used out of the pen. Duncan Robinson even got a bit of pub at one point in the conversation.

When it came to Nico, Madison quipped that Nico should move through the system quickly. The two men on the panel were also high about Hoerner’s makeup and potential leadership skills. McLeod and Madison threw out Miguel Amaya, Cole Roederer, and Brennen Davis as names to keep an eye for 2019. McLeod also said that there were several kids in the DSL but he didn’t want to name any of those hitting prospects by name just yet.

A couple of other discussions involved David Bote’s incredible work ethic along with Jason Vosler and Charcer Burks. A good sign also occured when the discussion turned to Jose Albertos.

Another aspect of their discussion I enjoyed, even though it was very brief, was that by having a second rookie league team in Mesa, it is going to allow the Cubs to be more aggressive in the draft. Last year, the Cubs signed over 30+ players including several high school and junior college picks.

Jaron Madison also spoke highly about the future for 2017 top picks in Alex Lange and Brendon Little. Madison said that Lange needs to improve his consistency. As for Little, Madison said, “He has all the upside in the world. He spent nearly the entire offseason in Arizona working his butt off and showing us what he can do.” Everyone I talk to in the system just loves Little and his desire to improve through hard work and using tech.

There was one funny bit where McLeod told how Cole Roederer in Arizona asked one guy where he played in 2018. The player responded, “Chicago, Wrigley Field.” It was Ben Zobrist.

The Baseball America Podcast
While I did find the reports and video for the session fun to listen to, I got an outsider’s perspective of the system via a podcast on Baseball America. I started checking it out as soon as Down on the Farm ended. I found it very enlightening. Kyle Glaser and Josh Norris talked about the system and several of the Cubs top prospects in detail.

The views from beyond the Cubs’ universe also like Nico Hoerner a lot. Norris sees Nico as a fast mover like many of us do. Both writers also praised Miguel Amaya for his first half of 2018 and  talked of his overuse in the second. Zack Short even got some high praise later in the podcast for his defense and power.

In addition, the head scratching seasons of Aramis Ademan and Jose Albertos were discussed in detail. I really like Glazer’s analogy of Ademan. “He looked like an 8th grader playing high school varsity football.” By that Glazer meant that Ademan had the tools to play, he’s just not physically strong enough to hang with them on a day-to-day basis.

As for Jose Albertos, Norris very much still believes in him. He stated, “I bet on upside, I bet on tools.” Norris quoted scouts who said that Albertos’ problem was more mental than physical.

The biggest plaudits in the podcast came later for 2018 pick Cole Roederer who Norris thought of putting Cole at #2 if he would be in a really aggressive mood. The Andrew Benintendi comp came up again about Cole and Norris stated he thought Cole would begin 2019 in South Bend.

Davis got a lot of praise too. While both Roederer and Davis have high ceilings, Davis’ floor is a bit lower. Based on conversations with scouts, Roederer might move a faster pace than Davis who has his own set of skills to work on that Cole has already mastered.

I will be back tomorrow with the 5 Series. This week’s prospects to be analyzed are Yovanny Cruz and Jared Young. I am not sure who goes first yet. On Friday, relief pitchers close out the organization breakdown series and hopefully Baseball Prospectus releases their Top 10 Cubs prospect list this week. Lots of good stuff coming your way.