Chicago Cubs Hitting

The 7 Series – Iowa Cubs Produced Prospects in 2017 but Changes Are Coming

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By Todd Johnson

Overall Record – 67-72

For the second straight year, manager Marty Pevey had to assemble a starting rotation made out of spare parts until August. Injuries and promotions at both the major and minor league levels cut his starting rotation short. The I-Cubs did have a potent offense led by the Cubs minor league player of the year, Victor Caratini. Starting pitcher Jen-Ho Tseng put together the best half by a pitcher in AAA since Kyle Hendricks was there.

The Iowa Cubs are still producing prospects to help Chicago every year. This year we saw, in addition to Caratini and Jen-Ho, Ian Happ, Eddie Butler, Jeimer Candelario, Mark Zagunis, Dillon Maples, and several relief pitchers help out the big club in some capacity. I expect more prospects will help out again in 2018, likely they will be just in bench roles. I don’t see anyone with the everyday playing career path of Ian Happ in the upper parts of the pipeline. Caratini looks to make the 25 man roster in Chicago next spring but just as the backup catcher. I am curious as to what the plans for Mark Zagunis are as he doesn’t have much left to prove in AAA.

Here are seven things to know about the 2017 Iowa Cubs.

1. Bijan Rademacher had the quietest best second half of any prospect in the system. I was a little surprised he wasn’t named the July player of the month as he hit almost .400. He can play all three outfield positions and I think he has one of the best outfield arms after Eddy Martinez. The issue is that he doesn’t project to be anything other than a fourth outfielder. Then again, he hasn’t really been given the chance to show that he can be something else. He has begun to hit for more power and I like what he can do at the plate. He can hit for average and he knows how to work an at bat.

2. I would not be surprised to see the big league club continue to clean house again at Iowa. The 2017 roster at Iowa only had a few position players that might project to make it to Chicago. Most of the roster were journeyman players looking for one more opportunity to get back to the big leagues. With Tennessee sending anywhere between 6 and 9 position players to Iowa next year, I don’t think there are going to be too many roster spots available for any player or prospect nearing 27 years of age. Already, Jake Hannemann, Pierce Johnson, and Felix Pena have new homes for 2018. I don’t know if John Andreoli will be back again either.

3. I still believe in Chesny Young despite his up-and-down year. I think that he has some adjusting to do at this level and I’m confident that he will do well in his second go around at AAA in 2018.

4. Unless Eddie Butler can add some sort of out pitch, I don’t know if he’s going to be anything more than a fill-in at the major-league level. He had his moments this year in Chicago, but he never went much beyond five innings. He needs to be more efficient to get outs quickly and go deeper into games.

5. I am still pulling for Ryan Williams to make it. I just like the kid. He has a bulldog mentality that I love. However, after basically missing two full seasons, I wonder if returning to the bullpen might be best for his long term health. In 2018, we will see.

6. Dillon Maples is going to be close to making the Chicago Cubs 25 man roster next spring. I like the fact that he’s going to get more instruction from big league coaches that will only enhance his chances.

7. For me, the highlights of the year were the second halves of Jen-Ho Tseng (1.80 ERA) and Taylor Davis (.297 avg with 62 RBI). I am glad Davis got the call to make it to Chicago. His story is a tale of perseverance and he is an outstanding teammate and hitter that I think can play somewhere in the majors. I don’t know if Tseng will be given a true opportunity to pitch in the big leagues next year but he should get a few starts with the club in spring training. A lot of his future is tied to what the Cubs do to add starting pitching this offseason.

What to Watch for in 2018
There are going to be at least six position players from Tennessee who should start in Iowa next year. I think many will benefit from playing in the Pacific Coast League but none more than catcher Ian Rice. If you dismiss his batting average and just look at his power numbers and on base percentage, you begin to see his value and how much greater he is than his fellow prospects (17 HRs, .353 OBP). I think he is really going to benefit from playing in the hitter friendly Pacific Coast League more than any other prospect in 2018.

Jason Vosler will also benefit from playing in such environs. After a poor second half, Vosler should look to recapture what made his first half so fantastic in 2017. In the first half, he hit at a .274/.375/.521 clip with 13 HRs and 49 RBI. In addition, Yasiel Balaguert, David Bote, Trey Martin, and Charcer Burks should be starting everyday in Des Moines next summer.

Remember the name Adbert Alzolay. Out of all the prospects at Tennessee, I think he might be the most ready for Chicago. Even though he is currently a starting pitcher, I can see him coming out of the bullpen in Chicago as early as the middle of next summer. With a fastball that sits 95-97, there’s a lot to like.

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NLCS Game 2: Questionable Bullpen Moves End It for the Cubs

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By Todd Johnson

I am tired.

As a result, this post is not going to be a long one.

I can understand why Joe Maddon didn’t go to Wade Davis in the ninth. I am sure Joe will say he was saving Wade to actually save the game. However, that doesn’t mean I have to like it just because I understand it. And right now, I don’t like it.

If Davis is fresh for the next four games and saves everyone of them, then Joe will look like a genius.

While the bullpen moves are questionable, the lack of hitting is really the story of the game. If the Cubs’ hitting woes continue, it is not going to matter who comes out of the pen in the ninth. The Dodgers’ pitching has really shut down the potent bats of the Cubs and Manager Dave Roberts is going to his outstanding bullpen after five innings. The Cubs are going to have figure out how to score some runs or this series may not get back to LA.

The Weekly: The Nelson Velazquez Fan Club Has a New Member and Arizona Fall League Begins

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By Todd Johnson

Nelson Velazquez Gets Some McLeod Love

Over the past few weeks, I’ve written several posts and have them ready to go. As I begin to publish them, I am starting to notice a few trends. One is that I am writing a lot about Nelson Velasquez. And the second trend is that I am also focusing more on Jose Albertos. I think when I redo the top 21 list in a few months, Nelson could fly up a few more spots.

Mark Gonzalez of the Tribune talked with Cubs director of Scouting Jason McLeod about Nelson’s potential. Here is what McLeod said:

“He’s got power, speed and physical tools, and we can’t be more excited about how the rest of summer went. It’s inherent upon us and him to develop those skills. He’s going to end up being 6-2, 215 (pounds) and really strong and physical.”

I didn’t expect that last sentence as I thought he was already physically maxed out.

Arizona Fall League

Play began on Tuesday with Alec Mills getting the start for the Mesa Solar Sox. He got beat around pretty good in a little over two innings of work. He gave up four runs in his short stint. However, there was good news that night. Adbert Alzolay was phenomenal in relief. He pitched two innings and struck out four batters. On Saturday, he went two more innings and whiffed three more. I hope he continues to do well as 60% of the players in the league in the past have gone on to play professional baseball. I know if Adbert is going to start next year at AAA Iowa. Adbert has taken a huge step in his development this year and I could see him pitching in Wrigley at some point next summer. He could start or he could relieve, but I think he might be best suited to relief role.

On Wednesday, David Bote went 3/4 with a HR and 3 RBI in his debut. He played 2B. Things are really looking up for him. Bote also had a good day Thursday, this time at third base. He went 2/4 with and 1 RBI. he continued doing well on Friday and Saturday he hit another HR, his third in 5 days. For the week, he hit .500 with 6 RBI. It is a very impressive showing for the 24-year-old.

Ian Rice went 1/3 with a double and a walk on Wednesday. He also drove in one run. Jason Vosler has struggled band has been playing mostly at 1B. He has yet to get a hit in 4 games while Charcer Burks has yet to play. Jake Stinnett struggled in his lone appearance (2 IP, 4 H, 2Ks) while Pedro Araújo picked up a save on Friday in one of his two games (2 IP, 3 Ks).

The Seven Series

Starting on Monday, there will be three posts this week that look back at each affiliate’s 2017 season. Each posts examines seven issues about the affiliate and/or the prospects and the year they had. Monday, Iowa gets their due followed by Tennessee on Wednesday, and then Myrtle Beach’s season is relived on Thursday or Friday.

Baseball Card of the Week

I began my off-season card work this week. I have about 15 new cards uploaded to the Facebook page. You can see them right here. This one is my favorite…so far.

State of the Cubs’ MiLB System – Part 2: Strengths and Areas of Concern

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By Todd Johnson

Last week I looked at some big picture ideas in part one of my state of the Cubs minor-league system. Today’s analytical activities involve breaking down what the Cubs are doing well in their minor-league structure and where they need to improve.

Strengths

Young toolsy outfielders, plethora of catchers, long and lean physically projectable Latin starting pitching, no rush, or need, on getting anyone to the majors soon.  

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

There are probably more strengths that I could list but these are the biggest strengths. Sometimes I look at what’s left of the Cubs’ system and I get a little scared. It’s not a fear of failure. I know that not every prospect is going to make it. The anxiety that I have is that when the current minor-league talent is ready in 3 to 4 years, it is nowhere near the talent level of the players they’re going to be replacing. Yes, the Cubs have until 2021 to start producing more position players. But the Cubs don’t have anyone even projected to be even close an Addison Russell or a Javier Baez or Kris Bryant. There is no one that could even be as good as Albert Almora right now. However, that could all change by 2020/21.

To me, Nelson Velasquez holds the most promise. No one else has his power but he’s only played rookie ball. In another year, he could be the one. If he can start producing at full season A ball, then the Cubs will have something. But that’s just one player. The Cubs need several more high value position prospects.

Areas of Concern

Underdeveloped pitchers, stagnation of several prospects at the upper levels in AA and AAA, few top of the rotation starters in the pipeline, lack of overall power

The fact that the Cubs have not produced any MLB starting pitchers that they drafted or signed in the last five years is raising several questions. Are they doing something developmentally wrong? Are the Cubs taking too big of risks with the pitchers they select? Or could it be that the Cubs are not willing to pay big money to sign bigger named arms in the draft?

I’m going to answer the last question because I think the Cubs statistically know that selecting a pitcher is a big gamble and a huge risk over time. In the last two years they have tried to remedy the lack of pitching by over drafting and compensating with two high picks in the 2017 draft. The fruits of those two drafts will be at AA next year and also filling up South Bend and Myrtle Beach’s rotations. Add in several arms that should be coming stateside from the Dominican Summer League, the Cubs could have a ton of pitching coming ashore. Remember the names of Jesus Tejada, Danis Correa, Emilio Ferrebus, and Didier Vargas. Correa and Ferrebus actually helped Mesa win the Arizona Rookie League title.

Next year is going to be another transformative season in the minors. It’s going to be a season in which there’s a lot of movement up-and-down prospect lists. While prospects should be judged on talent and projection, performance is going to have a huge impact on how some people see the Cubs prospects in the post Eloy world. Doing well in low A ball is not a prerequisite for MLB stardom, but it doesn’t hurt.

Usually, a President says in the State of the Union address that the state of the nation is strong. I don’t think I can attach those kind of adjectives to the Cubs’ system right now. I think if I could attach one word it would be rebuilding. Promising would be another good word to throw in, too.

I do feel good about that since the current regime did it once before starting in late 2011.

A Regular Season Review by the Numbers

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By Todd Johnson

92-70 was a good enough record to earn the label National League Central Division Champions in 2017. The Cubs finished six games ahead of the Milwaukee Brewers and nine ahead of the St. Louis Cardinals. It was strange year numerically as Kyle Schwarber struggled in the leadoff spot yet wound up with 30 HRs and people fixated on Kris Bryant’s RBI from the number two spot in the lineup. Still, in spite of all the pressure to repeat a division title, the Cubs did.

The strength of their record came at home as the Cubs went 48-33. While they were 44-37 on the road, they went 4-11 on the road against the National League West. Otherwise, the road record was 40-26 against everyone else. The Cubs also struggled against the Phillies going 2-4. Against the whole National League East, the Cubs were 21-13 including 3-4 against their upcoming opponent in the NLDS. That means that they were 16-5 against the Mets, Braves, and Marlins.

Another key to the Central Division championship was the Cubs record against the Central at 46–30. The Cubs feasted against St. Louis going 15–4. The Cubs were 12-6 against the Reds, 10-9 vs Milwaukee, and they bested the Pirates 10-9 on the season.

In interleague play, the Cubs went 12-8 this year. Against right-handers, the Cubs were 71-56, and against lefties, the Cubs put up a 21–14 mark.

The Cubs struggled in the first half of the year. At the All-Star break, the Cubs were 43-45. After the break the Cubs caught fire going 49-27. That included a 13-3 record in July right after the break, 17-12 in August, and 19-9 in September.

Hitting Stats

As for individual statistics, most of the hitting stats we’re dominated by Kris Bryant. In addition to a 6.0 WAR, he also led the Cubs in weighted runs created plus at 172, weighted on base at .399, and on-base percentage with an outstanding .409 thanks in part to 95 walks. Anthony Rizzo led the team in home runs with 32 and RBIs with 109. Even though Albert Almora probably won’t qualify with enough at-bats, he did lead the team with a .298 average. John Jay, who had over 400 at bats, was next at 295. Ian Happ lead the team in isolated power at .261 and Alex Avila pleased the BABIP Gods at .388.

The thing that I was most surprised about was not that the Cubs had six guys who could hit over 20 home runs, because they’ve always had potential. Rather, I was surprised that they actually went out and did it. To have Rizzo and Schwarber hit over 30 home runs is a nice capstone to their power, but when Happ, Bryant, Baez, and Contreras crank out 20+ homers, that was quite remarkable. Where do they go from there? They are all so young.

 

My two favorite player performances this year were Javy Baez hitting .273 with 23 HRs and 75 RBI. For a second baseman, that is phenomenal production. Then there was Ian Happ who just shocked everybody a year ahead of schedule. Happ hit 24 HRs with 62 RBIs and hit .253. He did strike out over 30% of the time, but he will be even better next year. The fact that Happ just turned 23 is amazing.

Pitching Stats

As next weekend’s playoffs loom, my only concern is how the starting pitching is going to hold up. Over the last month, Hendricks and Quintana pitched well along with Lackey while Jake Arrieta struggled with an injury and Jon Lester looked tired. 

For the first half of the year, all the pitchers looked tired. I don’t think they began to look normal until after the All-Star break. Kyle Hendricks struggled with velocity early in the year and the Cubs relied on Eddie Butler for most of the first half in tandem with Mike Montgomery when free agent Brett Anderson did not work out. I liked the fact that management did not panic in their pursuit of starting pitching at that point in the year. When the deal came in for Quintana, I liked it as Jose is going to be a Cub for a while.

For the year, Lester lead the team in innings pitched with 180.2 in strikeouts with 180. Hendricks led the team in ERA at 3.03 while Quintana lead the team in FIP (3.15), xFIP (3.23), batting average against (.228), and WHIP (1.10). When it came to WAR, Lester had the best one on the staff at 2.7.

There were times this year when I didn’t think the bullpen was ever going to pull it together. However, they looked pretty good in the second half thanks in part to Carl Edwards, Jr., Wade Davis, and Brian Duensing. Edwards led the team in appearances with 73 and also had the most strikeouts out of the pen with 94 and a 1.01 WHIP. Wade Davis had the lowest bullpen ERA at 2.30 to go along with his 32 saves.

I’m interested to see how this relief corps shakes down in the playoffs and just exactly who makes the roster for the bullpen. Right now, I tend to think they are leaning towards bringing John Lackey out of the pen in the postseason while Justin Grimm could be left off the roster.

My favorite number of the year, though, is three. This will be the third season in a row that the Cubs are in the playoffs. I am starting to get used to it. Only 11 more wins to go for back-to-back titles. It’s not going to be easy – quite the contrary. It should be exciting to watch it unfold. For some reason, I don’t feel so stressed about it this year…then again, it’s not November.

 

Trying to Build a Playoff Roster: Three Tough Choices Ahead

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By Todd Johnson

It has been quite the run. In the past three years, the Cubs have won 290+ games. In the divisional era (since 1969), this is the second time the Cubs have won back-to-back division titles (2007-2008). It is their third playoff appearance in a row. And, this team is built for many more seasons of postseason play.

For me, it was pretty sweet that the clincher came in St. Louis. It had been a tough year to be a Cubs fan as the team did not live up to expectations in the first half. The Cubs were two games under .500 and 5.5 GB Milwaukee. How they have played since the All-Star break has been very gratifying and exciting to watch.

It is now time to turn attention to who should be the 25 players on the playoff roster. I think 22 players are pretty much a given. So, it all comes down to adding three players. What position player will get the nod and what 2 relief pitchers will make the squad?

Sure Shots to Make the 25
Position players: Wilson, Avila, Rizzo, Baez, Zobrist, Russell, Bryant, Schwarber, Jay, Almora, Happ, Heyward
Pitchers: Lester, Hendricks, Quintana, Arietta, Davis, Strop, Rondon, Montgomery, Edwards, Duensing


Making the Case: Position Players
Who is out? – Rivera, Davis, Freeman, Martin
Outside Looking In: La Stella, Caratini, and Rivera

With the core of 12, I’m not sure whether manager Joe Maddon would rather carry an extra bat or an extra catcher. If it’s a bat, Tommy let Stella would be the best answer. If it’s a catcher, then he goes with Rene Rivera. I tend to think that Maddon will lean catcher but ultimately La Stella’s patient approach will work better in the playoffs. Caratini would be a long shot and would be my personal second choice as he can switch hit. If the Cubs go with La Stella, and an emergency catcher is needed, then Joe has to go with Schwarber. The most logical bat is Tommy La Stella.

Making the Case: Pitchers
Who Is Out: Wilson, Tseng, Zastryzny, Maples, Pena

I do think Dillon Maples making the roster would be amazing. While his stuff might be ready, he is not. I do hope he gets a lot of work the next five days and gets to experience the postseason even if he is not on the roster. As for Justin Wilson, I don’t think he is consistent enough to get on the roster. He was pulled in the middle of a batter Monday night.

That leaves Grimm, Lackey, and Uehara.

This is a tough call. Part of me says that maybe the Cubs should bring Lackey on as a long man rather than pick either of the other two. At times, Uehara has looked good this year and at other times, he’s been very hittable. Grimm, meanwhile, has looked like a train wreck most of the second-half. It doesn’t look like this will be a win-win situation.

I am not sure how this will all shake out over the next week. While I feel pretty good about the La Stella pick, I also know that Rivera is also a good choice based on Maddon’s preferences. As for the pitchers to be on the roster, Maddon could pick any two of them. I do not feel good about those selections at all.

We shall see. Part of me hopes for a surprising pick….or two.

Here is the schedule so far. Times to be released later.

Game 1: 10/6 at WSH

Game 2: 10/7 at WSH

Game 3: 10/9 at CHI

Game 4: 10/10 at CHI

Game 5: 10/12 at WSH

 

Ian Happ’s Emergence Has Changed a Few Things

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By Todd Johnson

The biggest surprise to happen in Chicago this year was not an injury. Rather, it has been the play of Ian Happ and the reliance of the Cubs to depend on him for 105 games so far.

After the 2016 minor league season, I did not think that Happ was ready for the majors let alone AAA. In 2016 in his first full season as a pro, he was devastating at high A Myrtle Beach and was inconsistent at AA Tennessee with a horrid August as he was physically and mentally worn down. When spring training began in 2017, Ian showed renewed vigor and looked like he belonged with the major league club on a daily basis. Had it been a different era, he probably would’ve broke camp with Chicago. Instead, he was sent back to Iowa.

Happ’s situation was far different than Kris Bryant’s from a couple years ago. During Happ’s brief 1.5 year minor league career, he definitely showed that he could hit for power. I first saw him live in Beloit, Wisconsin two months after he was drafted. I came away a bit mystified at how good of an athlete he was and how beautifully his hands went through the hitting zone.

Now that he has a good body of work in the majors, I still am perplexed by how much he has changed things in Chicago. I think his ascension has been a transformational moment for him and for a few other players. I think it’s clear the Cubs love his ability to hit from both sides of the plate and to do so with power. I think the Cubs also love the fact that he he can play all three outfield positions and second base. He was even willing to take a few grounders at third a month ago just in case Bryant’s pinky was not going to heal quickly.

It’s not as if Happ has destroyed the careers of other players on the team but he has clearly jumped ahead of them on the depth chart and on the lineup card. I just didn’t see that coming this year. At the end of last year, I thought he might be ready (keyword there is might) in the middle of 2018 if all went right.

Here is who Happ’s ascension has had a direct impact on:

1. Albert Almora – After the postseason last year, the Cubs let Dexter Fowler go I thought in part to the fact that Almora was more than likely MLB ready. In the last month, Almora has tore it up against right handed pitching. Still, Happ has been the starter in most games in center. Happ has a lot to learn defensively compared to Almora’s capabilities. I don’t think the Cubs have given up on Albert. Rather, I just don’t know if they’re ready to rely on him full-time or as much as they have relied on Happ in a variety of situations. Happ’s ability to switch hit has to be a factor in Almora’s lack of playing time. 22 HRs don’t hurt either.

2. Tommy La Stella – The fact La Stella found his way to Iowa this year says more about Happ than it does about La Stella. I have always liked Tommy’s bat, but he’s not the most athletic player and Happ’s athletic ability to switch hit with power has pushed La Stella further down the Cubs bench. As a back up, La Stella has hardly gotten much playing time this year and the future doesn’t look much brighter.

3. Kyle Schwarber – I think Happ’s rise to prominence in May made it easier to send Schwarber down to Iowa a little over a month later. Had the Cubs not gotten that kind of power and production from Happ, I don’t know if they might have let Kyle work it out in the majors. Manager Joe Maddon seems to have relied more and more on Happ the past two months than he has on Schwarber. From pinch hitting to playing late in games, Happ gets the first call.

4. Mark Zagunis and Bijan Rademacher both put up outstanding years at AAA Iowa. In the second half of the year, neither got a sniff of the majors (even in September) due in large part to Happ’s performance. Going forward, I don’t even think there’s a fifth spot for a couple of years now for them or fellow outfield prospect Charcer Burks, who should be at Iowa in 2018.

5. Ben Zobrist – I don’t know how long the Cubs are going to hang onto Zobrist now. After this season, he has two years left on his deal. I can see him hanging around now more in a bench capacity as a result of Happ’s breakout season.

I think Happ’s emergence and it’s impact will be felt even more this off-season. If the Cubs make a deal to acquire more starting pitching, the Cubs will be doing so with players that I think are not seen as valuable or as essential because of Happ. Now, I’m not saying that Almora or Schwarber will be traded this offseason. I’m saying that Happ’s rise as a Cub has made the trading of other players more probable and easier to swallow.

I am looking forward to seeing Ian in the playoffs. I hope that he can respond as well as the other players listed above him did in 2015 and 2016. I think that’s going to be the ultimate test for Cub fans. For now, though, it has been a pretty impressive rookie season.