2019 Draft Grades – Still Waiting for the Second Wave of Prospects

It is hard to believe that this is the sixth year that I have been handing out draft grades. Every year things change as players come and go, especially earlier in the Theo era. While some of those first classes produced bats, no class since 2014 has a player currently on the 25 man roster. However, a year from now, that all could change.

2011 – Previous Grades – B, B+
Baez and Maples are all that is left. Last year there were 4 guys, but attrition happens quicker than you think in the minors. Still, this class is far from done. With the Vogelbach trade bringing Mike Montgomery, that adds a little more to the class. Javy amd Monty are going to be around for a at least 2 more seasons.
2019 Grade – A.

2012 Previous Grades – B+, A-, B, B-, B-
I used to think this class was going to be really special but it just did not pan out. Albert Almora still is the headliner, but David Bote really seems to be stealing the show. Duane Underwood is still hanging around the minors, but I don’t know for how long.
2019 Grade – B.

2013 Draft Class – Previous Grades – A, A, A+, A+, A+
This draft class brought a MVP, a Rookie of the Year, and a World Series title. And that’s just Kris Bryant. Down in the minors, Trevor Clifton is knocking on the door while Jake Hannemann and Charcer Burks are still plugging away at AAA and AA respectively.
2019 Grade – A+

2014 Draft Class – Previous Grades – A-, A, A, B
There are still nine guys in the system left from this draft. That’s quite a bit for 5 years, but just two are currently on the 25 man roster. Both Kyle Schwarber and Mark Zagunis play in the OF in Chicago, but most of the others are still hanging on at AA and AAA hoping for a chance.
2019 Grade – B-.

2015 Draft ClassPrevious Grades – B, B, C
12 guys remaining from this class are still in the game for the Cubs. However, the impact at the MLB level is nil this year. While Ian Happ struggled in April, May has seen some improvement by him. Meanwhile, PJ Higgins and Craig Brooks are off to great starts this year. While there is still hope for this class, they are stuck in the logjam that is the Cubs’ system now.
2019 Grade – C-

2016 Draft ClassPrevious Grades – B-, B+
16 guys still remain with many of them having a legitimate shot at Chicago in the next two years. Tyson Miller looks to be at the head of the line as a pitcher and could be the first Cubs’ draft pick in the Theo era to stick in the rotation in the next two years. Zack Short leads the hitting side, but he is probably slated more for a utility role in the future. Dakota Mekkes, Duncan Robinson, and Matt Swarmer are at AAA and the top pick, a third rounder at that, Thomas Hatch is at AA with Bailey Clark and a few others. Eventually, there could be 3-4 guys make it from this class which outpaces any class on this list.
2019 Grade – B+

2017 Draft Class  – Previous Grades – B-
In just two years, this class is all over the place. There were several cuts already, some surprises, some injuries, some trades, and some players who look close to being Chicago-ready just two years after signing. Cory Abbott, right now at least, has the makings of a rotation guy in the next two years. Some of the other big arms the Cubs took in this draft are not having their best year or a year at all in some cases. Jeremiah Estrada hopefully will be ready to go for Eugene in a few weeks and Nelson Velazquez is off to a great start at South Bend to begin this season. I am still waiting for Keegan Thompson and Erich Uelmen to start it back up this year.
2019 Grade – B-.

2018 Draft ClassThey will get their own post and grade next Tuesday. And it’s a good and very hopeful one that involves some hitting, for a change, and some surprising pitching.


The Weekly: Players Return from the IL and Some Roster News

Despite raindrops falling all over the midwest US, Cubs affiliates still got several games in this week. There was a not of lot of big-time news happening, though. It was just a week of players trying to improve and grind away.

The highlights of the week when it came to hitting involved the HR. The Cubs system does not have much power hitting, but this week, there seemed to be a lot more. Delvin Zinn, who had 1 career HR before Thursday, cracked two of them Thursday night. Kevonte Mitchell cracked them on back-to-back days.

Pitching, on the other hand, had a great week. Paul Richan, Colin Rea, Javier Assad, and Tyson Miller all had excellent starts and have begun moving ahead of the pack when it comes to being Pitcher of the Morning nth. All three likely have 2 starts each before June arrives.

There was one promotion this week. Pitcher Ryan Lawlor was moved from South Bend to Myrtle Beach. Good for him! The big lefty has been used mainly in relief for the Cubs but I would not be surprised to see him do some piggyback/long relief outings with the Pelicans’ Erich Uelmen, who is set to come back to Myrtle Beach very soon.

Roster News
Adbert Alzolay had a rehab start for Myrtle Beach early in the week and found himself at Des Moines by week’s end. Neither start went particularly well. But for Alzolay, this is pretty much his spring training for 2-3 more starts.

OF Jake Hannemann is also back in Iowa. Rule 5 pick Alexander Vargas, a pitcher, debuted for Myrtle Beach. His first outing was in relief and his second game saw him throw a 5 perfect innings. My guy, reliever Sean Barry, debuted for South Bend and has been excellent so far. And Erich Uelmen went 4 innings in EXST this week and he should be in Myrtle Beach very, very soon.

And last, but not least, 2B Gioskar Amaya returned to action after 2 years of injuries. He went 1-for-3 in his return to AA Tennessee. He is no longer catching, but is back in the infield.

And in a bit of sad news, Ryan Williams was released after struggling with shoulder issues the past 2.5 years.

Weekly Roundup
Iowa – (1-5; 25-17) – It was a tough week in Des Moines as the pitching and hitting went south in a hurry. The bright spots for the week were pitcher Colin Rea and IF Robel Garcia. Rea is starting to string together good start after good start. His ERA for the year is 2.91 but it is a measly 1.74 in 4 May starts. Garcia, at least offensively, has not slowed down since getting the bump to Des Moines.
Tennessee – (4-3; 21-21) – This team is a little bit Jekyll and a little bit Mr. Hyde. The hitting has plummeted in May with only Vimael Machin and Christian Donahue playing at an All-Star level. As for pitching, Tyson Miller, Cory Abbott, and Oscar de la Cruz keep humming along. The questions should begin to rise about if any of the three will get a shot at Iowa this this summer.
Myrtle Beach – (3-4; 15-28) – Alexander Vargas’ 5 inning no hit start on Friday might be the surprise performance of the year. Vargas is just 21 and was a Rule 5 pick this winter.
South Bend – (4-2; 23-17) – Look out for South Bend! They are playing very well and their bullpen is the unsung hero of this winning stretch with 5 of the 8 having ERAs of 0.00 this month.

Short Season Start Dates
Dominican Summer League – June 3
Eugene – June 14
Arizona Rookie League – June 17

Draft News
It is now just two weeks away. More and more mock drafts are coming out and the first round looks to be getting very crowded with college bats. Some of the high school hitters are falling out of the first at a very fast rate. As a result, the Cubs can get two quality hitters in the first two rounds. However, it looks as though Seth Johnson of Campbell, a pitcher I profiled for Cubs Insider, could be available at the end of the first round. An even more intriguing option might be 3B Kody Hoese of Tulane. I have a profile of him coming up soon over at Cubs Insider as well.

Coming up
On Monday ,I’m going to release a profile update on pitcher Javier Assad. The next day,  I’m going to revisit the draft grades from 2011 through 2017. As for the rest of the week, I will let it just roll out as I have no plans.

Card of the Week

Made from a pic by Dylan Heuer/Iowa Cubs

Players of the Week

Prospect Update: PJ Higgins Looks Like He Is Back in the Infield

While Nico Horner and Robel Garcia were getting all the press down in Tennessee for the Smokies to begin this season, one guy that’s also did well was PJ Higgins. He came out of the gate hot and has cooled off some. This year, Higgins has been playing a mixture of catcher, first base, and third base and he’s been doing it at a high-level.

When the Cubs signed PJ Higgins in 2015, he was the last player to sign and he played a mixture of third and second that summer. Then come 2016, he was behind the plate for South Bend. Even then, I loved his approach and his ability to put the bat on the ball. 

He even caught the eye of Fangraphs before 2017. They said,

A viable but unspectacular defensive catcher with a solid hit tool and exceptional approach, Higgins had nearly as many walks as strikeouts in the Midwest League last year but was 23 and his complete lack of power has many skeptical about his ability to sustain his walk rate at upper levels.

At South Bend, Higgins played 77 games behind the plate and 17 at first while also getting a lot of plate work in as the DH. It was a very successful year as he hit .283 with a .389 OBP and wRC+ of 127. At Myrtle Beach in 2017, Higgins had some bad luck in front of the dish but not behind it. His BABIP was an uncharacteristically low .260. He would rebound in 2018 at Myrtle Beach as he had a scintillating first half with a 126 wRC+, thanks in large part to a .381 OBP.

When Higgins got his promotion to Tennessee, he kept on catching as he got in 21 games behind the dish in July and August.

Things went well enough for Higgins last year that the Cubs sent him to play in the Arizona Fall League. That did not go so well as he only hit .158 for the term. Then again, he only played in 10 games out of 38. But 2080 Baseball did get some video of him in action.

Things are changing this year for Higgins, but not when it comes to hitting.

As of May 16, he was hitting .285 with a .364 OBP and a wRC+ of 129. He also had 3 HRs and 16 RBI at that time. Except for 2017, Higgins has always been able to square up the baseball, draw a walk, and get on base at every level. His power may have been a concern but not his pitch recognition skills nor his approach at the plate.

The Cubs have a lot of depth at catching right now, and to stand out, any prospect is really going to have to get noticed on both sides of the ball. That prospect is going to have to throw out runners, manage pitchers, and produce at the plate. Higgins did that at both stops in class A. 

ImageHowever, his fielding position is now different in 2019. He is playing the field much more than catching. This year, he only has five games behind the plate. He’s spent 18 games at first, one at second and 13 at third. He started playing the infield more and more when he was promoted last July. And that trend looks like it is going to continue through this year.

When I start thinking about what Higgins role could be for the Cubs, it is a little cloudy due to the Cubs depth. Still, Higgins could be an asset as a utility guy considering his bat skills, versatility as a fielder, and consistent double digit walk rates throughout his career. Higgins can hit, but can he hit enough to keep moving up? And just exactly what position is he going to play?

It should be an interesting summer in Tennessee.

Prospect Interview: Andy Weber Is Doing Some Adjusting at South Bend

The weird thing about the minor leagues is that success at one level is not a prerequisite for success at a higher level. And success, or failure, one month is not indicative of the next month. In 2018, 5th round pick Andy Weber out of Virginia caught my eye while playing for Eugene. In addition to playing all four infield spots for the Emeralds/Monarcas, Weber showed an adept bat and a quiet approach at the plate. His pitch recognition skills were off the charts. What really garnered my attention, though, was just his calmness at the plate, regardless of the situation.

To begin this year at South Bend, Weber struggled a bit in April. Part of that might have been the weather, part of it might have been advanced pitching, and part of it might have been just developmental. However, for the last week of April, he went 9/21 with 10 RBI. In that short span, his average shot up to .255 from .158. I talked to him about how he was adapting during that streak.

Later, I talked with Andy about some other things going on this year including playing mainly shortstop.

What have been some of the biggest adjustments you’ve had to deal with since coming to South Bend?
I think, first and foremost, weather is something you’ve got to deal with coming from sunny and 75 in Arizona to 30 degree South Bend and I think just adjusting a new routine in a new ballpark with new coaches every day. But overall, I think the adjustments have gone pretty smoothly.

You’ve been playing shortstop most of the year. How did that move come to be an almost a permanent position for you?
I am not really sure how that plays out. I’ve been getting a lot of reps at shortstop, more probably than I have in my career. Primarily being a second baseman in college, and a little bit of third base, it’s new and it’s been a challenge, but I love it and I love shortstop. I think the other thing, too, is that the guys around me like Levi, Morel, Narrea, and Zinn, and just talking fielding with them has also been a big help for me and all of us as a whole.

Who did you model your game after when you were growing up?
My favorite player was Robinson Cano. Growing up watching him, he’s always been smooth with the bat and in the field. He was probably my favorite guy to watch.

Were you a Yankees’ fan?
I am a die hard Indians fan and still am.

What’s it like playing for Buddy Bailey? Is there anything he’s trying to pass on to you this year?
Buddy’s been really helpful for all of us. We learn a lot in games and in practices and in our workouts before games. Overall, I think it’s learning about yourself as a whole player.

I am hoping that once the weather heats up Weber will too. In addition, Weber has moved down in the order from hitting third to hitting later in the lineup. Hopefully that takes some of the stress/pressure off of him. Last night, he went 3/4 while batting sixth. When he gets going, he’s a fun hitter to watch when he’s in a groove. 

The April MiLB All-Star Team Is Filled with Some Fresh and Surprising Faces

It takes a while to produce an All-Star team. I usually start culling the list about halfway through the month and I get a rough idea of who is going to be on it. Then check back a week later to begin writing it. Such was the case this month as the 2019 season saw a lot of prospects have their ups and downs including some of the top prospects not making this months list at all.

The one thing I like about doing these teams is that I never know who’s going to be on it from month to month. Players can get hot for a couple weeks and put up enough statistics to wedge their way in. One bad start or outing can take a pitcher off the list and away from the amorous affections of the masses. That happened to several guys this month.

Normally I’d start off with the hitters, but this year I’m going to do things a little different. Pitchers are going to get their just desserts first.

Starters – Trevor Clifton, Cory Abbott, Tyson Miller, Zach Hedges, Oscar de la Cruz, Riley Thompson, and Cam Sanders
Relievers – Craig Brooks,  Ben Hecht, Rowan Wick, Ian Clarkin, Jesus Camargo, Jeff Passantino, and Riley McCauley.

The theme for this month’s all star team is surprise. All the pitchers above easily earned their spot on the squad but half of them were not expected to be there, hence the surprise. Trevor Clifton was supposed to be a reliever at the beginning of spring training. He got a spot start…and another before going back to relieving and now will be starting tonight. Zach Hedges was in the same boat but both guys were outstanding. Cam Sanders was the biggest surprise as he just came out of nowhere as a starter. I knew he would be at South Bend, but not in he rotation.

The only three guys on this list that I expected to be here were Tyson Miller, Cory Abbott, and Riley Thompson. And Miller was touch and go for a while. Early in spring training, I thought it was ludicrous that Miller was slated to be in the bullpen for Tennessee. After the year he had in 2017, I don’t know how the Cubs could doubt his ability to be a starter at the AA level. Maybe it was the depth the Cubs had at the beginning of the year that caused them to make that decision, but it was not the greatest of ideas, as he has proved. Abbott was dominant for his first four starts but stumbled a bit in his last but he still had an ERA for April 2.86, under the 3.00 prerequisite. As for Thompson, I thought that he might do well in South Bend but he far exceeded my expectations.

As for relievers, Ben Hecht has been a big surprise and a key to his success is the most important meal of the day, breakfast. Pelicans announcer Zach Bigley said the following about Hecht’s turnaround:

Nutrition has been a huge thing for Hecht this season. Before this offseason, he never ate breakfast. Now, he is up to 215 pounds and feeling better than ever after “taking care of his body” and working on his breathing.

In addition, Jesus Camargo is in the middle of a nice run going from an ERA of 6.75 on down to 2.12 with an 8.2 scoreless inning streak. Jeff Passantino has the highest K rate of any South Bend Cubs pitcher at 12.74/9.

Position Players
C – PJ Higgins
1B – Jared Young, Cam Belago, Tyler Durna
2B –  Delvin Zinn
SS – Robel Garcia, Dixon Machado, Nico Hoerner, Aramis Ademan
3B – Levi Jordan 
OF – Johnny Field, Nelson Velazquez, DJ Artis, Donnie Dewees, and Zach Davis

There were several surprises for position players, too. I didn’t foresee PJ Higgins and Robel Garcia having the starts they did nor could I have possibly foresaw Dixon Machado’s Phoenix rising at Iowa. And if anyone had a crystal ball, they likely did not see Johnny Field and Levi Jordan making it at the beginning of the month.

The biggest surprise, and the biggest production, that I didn’t see coming was Garcia who I profiled last Friday. I keep waiting for him to slump at AA Tennessee. I am beginning to think it might not happen.

As for Aramis Ademan, he’s been on tear the past two weeks hitting over .400 with an OBP of over .560 and he’s driving in runs like crazy. Fatherhood seems to suit him.

It was also cool to see Nelson Velazquez get off to a good start as well as my guy, Delvin Zinn. Delvin really came on in the second half of the month as he began to play more and more. I look forward to seeing him this weekend in Clinton along with seven of his other all-star teammates.

When it comes to the monthly awards, these all came down to wire…and by that I mean last night.

Hitter of the Month

Robel Garcia just lit it up…and he missed 11 days this month. With a wRC+ over 230, 5 HRs, and 19 RBI, he is a beast no one saw coming. Just based on his bat, the 26-year-old infielder is hopefully not long for Tennessee. Then again, with the logjam the Cubs have, there’s not really a place for him to go unless someone gets released or demoted.

Pitcher of the Month

I got a good glimpse of Riley Thompson last summer at Eugene. It’s rare for a college pitcher to come out and stretch it out after signing. But for Thompson, he had been a reliever. I was impressed with his fastball velocity, his command of said fastball, and his breaking ball along with his smooth delivery. For April, he did not disappoint at South Bend. I hope to see him in action in Clinton this weekend.

Reliever of the Month

Craig Brooks put up zeroes all month long for Tennessee as their closer. I didn’t have to think too much about this award as Brooks just dominated the Southern League. In addition to an ERA of 0.00, he struck out 13 in 9.2 innings.

Team of the Month

Iowa Cubs – 14-10 – I am very much surprised as Iowa has gotten to this point because of a lights out bullpen and some timely hitting. They are in first place and don’t look to be giving up that position anytime soon. 

The Midweek Report – What’s Happening with Nico?

So, what is Nico Hoerner up to in Tennessee?

Well, last night, he was he was hit by a pitch in the hand and removed from the game. Hopefully we hear something soon and that he was taken out as a precaution.

Back to the title question, one could look at it in two ways. There is the context of looking at his performance statistically. The other is to identify things Nico is supposed to be working on to get to the next level in the system.

Statistically Speaking…
Things to like – (as of 4/24)
10.4% BB rate
11.9% K rate
.388 OBP
.871 OPS
157 wRC+
.405 wOBA
70 RBI pace

He looks to be on track at the plate. His cumulative marks so far are actually trending up. On April 12, his average sank to .200 and has been on the rise ever since. What the Cubs are likely looking for is domination. The day Tennessee is no longer a challenge for him, he should be gone. To where, that is to be determined later in the article.

What Is It He Is Working on at Tennessee?
At some point this week, Nico will surpass his AB totals from last year this year. Theo said that he expected Nico to be in AA most of the year. Based on Theo’s initial response, he was just being conservative and trying to temper expectations and hype. But based on Nico’s approach and performance, Nico could shred those expectations by the end of May. It is going to be a tough call on when the Cubs make that decision.

As for his development, Nico should be getting his work in about how to adapt to seeing pitchers and teams for a second and third time. In many instances in the Southern League, they play five game series rather than three. That can be a steep learning curve.

As well, Nico needs to get some more work in at second base. So far, he’s not been given any starts there by manager Jimmy Gonzalez. I wonder, as that time draws nigh, if we will we see him start at second base more and more.

As for his hitting, there is still the question of Nico being able to use his lower half to full effect. He still drags his back leg from time to time, but he’s been keeping it planted for the most part. There are no questions or concerns so far about his baseball acumen, aptitude, or speed.

Every time I watch and hear Nico hit, I am amazed at the sound of his bat making very loud contact, even on a single. Even though he just hit the inside the parker above, those other HRs will come. What I look forward to most in the coming weeks is seeing him at peak confidence spraying the ball all over. He is pretty close to there now.

Watching Nico play, I am constantly reminded of Dustin Pedroia. There’s a grittiness and toughness to their games. However, that’s where the comp ends. Nico is much bigger physically and a better athlete with the potential for power combined with speed. Standing near him at the Quad Cities last summer, he is a decent size kid. Add in that he’s a bit ripped in the upper half and he stands at 6’1″, he could withstand the 162 game grind.

To Be Quite Frank
Nico was practically ready in spring training. Once Nico reaches and sustains a certain level of performance at Tennessee, he should go to Chicago. Screw going to Iowa. Why waste his time and the Cubs’ time. When he’s ready, he’s ready. It is in the big leagues where he should finish his development.

Prospect Profile: Chris Morel Is Another Toolsy Kid to Watch

When I first saw Christopher Morel at Eugene in the summer of 2018, I thought if he turned sideways he was going to disappear. The then 18-year-old third baseman began the season with the Emeralds/Monarcas and really struggled to hit balls that begin with a C. He struck out 29 times in 25 games. Once the college kids signed from the draft, Morel went down to Mesa to work on his game. And he did fine in Mesa for a kid his age hitting .257 with a .331 OBP.

Here is what MLB Pipeline said about Morel heading into this season:

Morel has some of the best bat speed in the system but will need to add more muscle to his skinny frame before he can translate it into power. He has a nice right-handed swing and bat-to-ball skills, but his NWL experience showed he’ll need to refine his approach at the plate. An average runner out of the batter’s box, he’s a step quicker once he gets going.

Morel’s athleticism and solid arm strength give him a number of defensive options. He broke into pro ball as a shortstop and may have enough quickness to stay there. He spent the majority of his time in 2018 at third base and the Cubs believe he may be able to handle center field in the future.

Basic info
Height – 6’
Weight – 175 (a guesstimate)
Bats – Right
Throws – Right
Strengths – Potential Power, Arm
Acquired – International Free Agent from the Dominican Republic in 2016
ETA – 2023

Fast forward to 2019.
When South Bend third baseman Fidel Mejia went down with a hand/wrist injury after 6 games, Morel was bumped up to South Bend. Now 19 years old, Morel seems to be flashing quite a few tools on both the offensive and defensive side of the ball.

When Morel showed up in South Bend in 2019, my first thought was that this could be interesting. Here’s a 19-year-old kid playing in the cold environs of the Great Lakes region after spending two months in warm Arizona. In the first few games, Morel showed that he was much improved from 2018. He looked more patient at the plate, he did not seem to be trying to cream every baseball.

It’s on the offensive side of the ball that Morel is showing the most improvement. In just 8 games, he is putting up an average of .241 with an OBP of .267 and a wRC+ of 103. It’s a pretty small sample size so his numbers will fluctuate wildly for a while. But for now, he’s hit one home run.

He’s about 3-4 years below league average and seems to be holding his own with some newfound pitch recognition skills.He’s watching the ball into the catcher’s glove. I like it when kids can track the ball the entire way. It helps to develop pitch recognition and teaches them to pick up the spin on the baseball. Morel also is showing off his rifle of an arm at both third and shortstop.

In March, I thought for sure that he would begin the year at Eugene and that he could do well there. But it looks like things are going well at South Bend. If it continues, he could stay with the young Cubs if and when Mejia returns. Here is some video by Prospects Live from spring training.

As for his future, he has a very high ceiling and a lot of things going to have to go right for him to reach that ceiling. When he signed he was only 140 pounds. Now he looks to be carrying around 175 pounds with plenty of room for more. Already, he has a plus arm and  adding more weight will only add to his power profile. It’s little uncertain where he’s going to play in the future. But for right now, playing shortstop and third without favoring one over the other is fine.

Get used to the name Morel as the Cubs signed his little brother Rafael last summer.