The Weekly: Eugene Wins, Cubs’ MiLB Players of the Year, and Nothing on Tennessee

By Todd Johnson

Reliving Eugene’s Improbable Championship
I am still finding it hard to believe that Eugene won the Northwest League title. I know they did it because I watched them do it. This was a team that had to overcome the roughest of starts to a season I’ve seen in a while. The first three weeks of the season were not good. They were last in the league in hitting. However, they improved greatly in July. This year‘s draft class and two non-drafted free agents solidified the defense in the infield and behind the plate and lengthened the lineup. They also added some depth to the starting pitching from the draft and later the Emeralds got some relief help from Mesa. I will have more on the Ems remarkable season in a couple of weeks when I do the affiliate reviews of the 2018 season. 

This year’s “Cubs Central’s Player of the Year” awards are pretty straightforward.  

Infielder Jared Young won his award for “Hitter of the Year” through a combination of an excellent approach and his bat to ball skills. He did so at South Bend where he dominated with a wRC+ of 150 and again at Myrtle Beach where he secured himself a spot on Tennessee’s roster for next year. For the season he hit .300 with 16 home runs, 76 RBI.

While “Pitcher of the Year” Cory Abbott can get his fastball up into the mid 90s on occasion, he has an excellent slider and he misses a lot of bats. I think what gets under sold on him is his makeup. He is fierce on the mound and he might be the most competitive arm in the system. He had a 2.50 ERA with 131 strikeouts in 115 innings as well only walking 39 on the season between South Bend and Myrtle Beach. He should begin 2019 at Tennessee at the age of 23.

By the beginning of next summer, “Reliever of the Year” Dakota Mekkes should be pitching out of the bullpen in Chicago 3 days a week. The 6‘7“ deceptive right-hander began the year just dominating AA with a 0.81 ERA in 22.1 innings. When he began June at AAA Iowa, he had some adjusting to do, but he started to figure things out in short order. Between the two affiliates, he had a 1.17 ERA and 71 Ks in 53.2 innings. His walk rate improved from 5.24/9 in Tennessee to 4.60/9 in Iowa which is probably the only thing holding him back from getting the September call up. 

Other Post Season Awards
Only 2 Cubs prospects made Baseball America’s post-season all-star teams by levels (not leagues). In the Dominican, Pitcher Luis Rodriguez made it with a 0.73 ERA and South Bend closer Brian Glowicki made it at low A. Congrats!

Crickets from Tennessee
No news is coming out of Tennessee about the Cubs and the Smokies extending their professional development contract beyond this season. It’s starting to get late in terms of announcing a deal. Hopefully one will come this week.

Darvish
Yu Darvish had a procedure called a debridement done in Texas this week. It basically cleaned up his elbow without doing Tommy John Surgery. As a result, Darvish could return in 2019 at the beginning of the season.

This Week on Cubs Central
Starting tomorrow, the off season posts begin with the “Breakouts of the Second Half” series. There will be three articles this week on some guys who stepped up their game in the second half of the minor league season. Hitters kick it off on Monday, followed by starting pitchers and relievers later in the week.

Also, the baseball cards just keep coming this month. I will have more this week of Eugene players from the NWL championship. Here is this month’s album of cards. For the year, since spring training, there are over 800 cards made this year…my most ever! I need to get out some more.

Card of the Week

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2nd Half Breakouts: Tough Choices for a Breakout Hitter

By Todd Johnson

Jared Young easily won the breakout hitter of the first half with a mix of average, power, and a god like 150 wRC+. Picking a winner for the second half was not so clear cut. Usually, most hitters tend to break out at class A ball. This year, though, I actually considered a couple of players as low as rookie ball. It took a lot of debate and thought over about a two week period at the end of the season to come up with this year’s second half break out hitter.

The Contenders
Mesa –
The reason why most rookie ball hitters don’t get chosen for being a breakout hitter is that success there does not necessarily translate to the upper levels. Still, there were a few players worth mentioning.

One is Rafael Mejia. The first baseman, began the year at Eugene until the college players came. Then he went down to Mesa and just destroyed the baseball including a .355 clip in August. He wound up with eight home runs and 31 RBI in just 48 games.

Yonathan Perlaza put together a pretty solid year. After being injured in the first part of the year, he was actually assigned to South Bend’s roster. He never made it there. Instead, the 19-year-old did very well in Mesa hitting .317 with 1 home runs and 26 RBI. He is going to be part of a log jam next year in the lower part of the system thanks in part to there being two rookie league teams.

Cole Roederer – There is a lot to be excited about so far. A 129 wRC+ is a great place to start. Add in 5 dingers, 24 RBI, 13 SBs, and a .354 OBP. This was all in just 36 games. That is impressive, even in that small sample size. For 2019, the next logical step is Eugene. The Ems don’t begin until June 15ish. Roederer could be busting out of his skin by then..

Eugene – While this team struggled to hit for the first few weeks of the season, three guys came aboard in July that revitalized the offense. Andy Weber, the Cubs fifth round draft pick out of Virginia, showed a nice left-handed stroke while he played a variety of positions in the infield. Luke Reynolds also showed the ability to to hit and to hit for power as he turned into a doubles machine. Non-drafted free agent Grant Fennell hit with patience and with power in the top part of the Emeralds’ lineup.

South Bend – Delvin Zinn really turned it on in the second half of the year. After arriving in June, Zinn played a variety of positions in the infield before getting a full-time gig in July after  overcoming a series of nagging injuries, including a finger. Zinn showed the ability to put the bat on the ball hitting .286 for the half and made things happen in August hitting .322 with a .406 OBP. In addition to his natural athletic abilities, I am excited to see what he can do in Myrtle Beach next year. It took him a couple of years to get going. Now that he has, I am hoping that he can’t be stopped.

Myrtle Beach – Christian Donahue is a non-drafted free agent out of Oregon State. Signed last fall, Donahue arrived to South Bend in May and flourished in the utility bench role before solidifying a utility starting role because of his bat. Donahue plays with a high motor that is exciting to watch. His greatest asset is his ability to use all fields when hitting. As a result is hard to pitch him any place in the zone. In August, Donahue was promoted to Myrtle Beach and he kept right on hitting there as well.

Tennessee – While it’s rare for a player break out at AA, it does happen as it did with Willson Contreras in 2015. This year, Trent Giambrone looks to have found some more power (17 HRs) and a high walk rate over 13% in the second half. I’m excited to see what Giambrone can do in the more hitter friendly Pacific Coast League in 2019.

And the winner is…
For a few days this past week, I actually thought of not naming a prospect as nobody went out scorched the Earth with their play over 70 games. At another point, I was going to go with Zinn, then Giambrone. In the end, I decided to go with the kid, Cole Roederer.

I wouldn’t necessarily call it a breakout. That will happen when he plays a larger set of games. However, it is definitely a very, very impressive debut. I am hoping that he sees South Bend as his home for most of 2019. I am excited to see what he can do in an entire season. It is going to be a challenge for him and a grind. If I make it to the convention in January, my question for the “Down on the Farm” panel is where they envision him playing in 2019.

 

MiLB Playoff Action: Bad News Ems Win Game 1!!!

By Todd Johnson

It was a weird night. To begin, the Ems wore their road tie-dyed jerseys and gray pants at their home field. Spokane was the home team due to a fair being held at their ballpark. Add in the fact that the sun was still on the field when the game began, I was all out of sorts.

The game began with Andy Weber returning to the lineup after missing about a week. He hit the first pitch he saw in right center for a fly out and the series was underway. Nelson Velazquez singled but was forced out on a grounder by Luke Reynolds who was then forced at second on a Levi Jordan grounder. On to the bottom of the first.

Riley Thompson got off to a good start to begin his night. A two-pitch AB will do that as he coaxed a grounder to second base. He got his first K on the night with  a mix of fastballs, keeping his offspeed in his back pocket. I like when a pitcher does that the first time through the order. He was sitting at 95 when he gave up a line that barely glanced off the diving glove of SS Luis Vazquez. There went the no-hitter. Thompson got the next guy  to hit a soft liner to Vazquez to end the inning. 12 pitches is a good start.

The top of the second didn’t see much action. Jonathan Sierra grounded out to begin the inning. After Grant Fennell just missed a HR by a few fact, he got caught looking. Fernando Kelli flied out to left to end the frame. At this point, the Ems were making contact, just right at someone.

After almost losing the first hitter in the second, Thompson put the ball in the zone to get a groundout to Vazquez at short. The next at bat saw Thompson use 9 pitches to get a K to make it two outs. Thompson picked up his third K to end the inning as he began using his slider some more. He sat at 30 pitches through 2.

Catcher Caleb Knight singled to begin the third. Luis Vazquez then tried to push a bunt for a hit down the first base line. The pitcher couldn’t get it done and the Ems had men on first and second with nobody out. Andy Weber smoked the first pitch again but it went right to the shortstop who was playing behind the bag. The double play didn’t end the inning as Knight made it to third. It was up to Nelson velazquez to get Knight home. velazquez hit a ball back up the middle but the shortstop again was positioned perfectly to end the rally.

Two pitches into the bottom of  the third and Thompson had his first out. Strike out #4 soon followed and he was through the order the first time. Another two pitch at bat ended when the batter flew out to Kelli in center. Thompson looked like a world beater at this point sitting 94-95 regularly. HIs slider was a bit inconsistent, but his fastball was hard to square up.

In the top of the fourth, the Ems hitters started getting a little antsy and they were not grinding out at-bats as Engler of Spokane through just 7 pitches that inning. It seemed like Thompson sat down only to go back to the mound and it showed. Spokane’s Juan Pablo Martinez took Thompson deep to stake the Indians to a 1-0 lead. After a strikeout, another ball left the yard by Diosbel Arias made it 2-0. Hopefully, the offense could get the Ems back in it in the top of the fifth and give Thompson some time to relax.

After a Fernando Kelli doubled in the fifth, he moved to third on a Caleb Knight groundout. Luis Vazquez beat out a ball to deep SS to get the Ems on the board and halve the lead. Andy Weber then singled on the first pitch and Vazquez was standing 90 feet from tying it up. This time, Nelson Velazquez ripped his second single of the night to tie it up. Now with men on first and second, the Ems had a chance to take the lead. However, Luke Reynolds gave the ball a ride, but it was not enough to get out.

Thompson came back in the bottom of the inning sitting at 52 pitches. After a pop up, Thompson struck the second batter out but the ball slipped past Caleb Knight and the Indians were back in business. Then after a 13 pitch at-bat by Jax Biggers resulted in a single to right, Thompson was done after 71 pitches. Derek Casey came in to relieve Thompson. Casey, the Cubs’ 9th round pick out of Virginia this summer, had been severely limited as to how much he could pitch this year, struck out his first batter and Luis Vazquez then tracked down a pop up to shallow center.

Grant Fennell managed a single in the top of the 6th but the Ems’ offense looked to be stuck in mud again. After Derek Casey took care of the Indians again, another inning flew by when Cam Sanders replaced Casey in the bottom of the seventh. A leadoff walk is usually a harbinger of bad juju. Somehow, Sanders got the next guy to ground the ball to Vazquez to get the lead runner at second. When Sanders was able to get the next batter to strike out, the runner tried to steal second and Knight skipped the throw into center to put a man at third. Sanders was able to get out of the inning with a grounder  to second and a nice scoop at first by Grant Fennell.

In the top of 8th, it looked to be another nondescript inning until Levi Jordan took a 2-2 pitch to left and it got out in a hurry to give the Emeralds a 3-2 lead heading to the bottom of the 8th.

Ivan Medina came in for the Emeralds to keep the lead. The first batter struck out after an exciting foul ball that saw catcher Caleb Knight fly into the opposing dugout in an attempt to to catch the ball. Medina got the next guy to strike out, too. Andy Weber ended the inning by catching a smoking hot liner at third base.

To begin the ninth, Grant Fennell took a four pitch walk to get things going. Fernando Kelli flew out to right for out #1. and Caleb Knight popped up on the infield for #2. Luis Vazquez ended the inning with a pop up.

Three outs remained and the Ems would own a 1-0 lead. After getting a ground out to begin the frame, Medina gave up a single. Then in a controversial call, Andy Weber caught a ball leaning into the dugout and then dropped it on a transfer but the out stood. However, because the ball went out of play, the runner on first was awarded third base. There couldn’t be any more drama. Two outs, man on third. What could happen next? A ground ball to Luis Vazquez ended the game as he threw calmly to first for the final out.

Wow! When things are going your way, they keep going. Winning game 1 for Eugene is essential because Eugene was basically the road team as Spokane had last at-bats and will do so again tomorrow. The Ems will then be the home tomorrow for the rest of the series.

Lefty Jack Patterson, who pitched mostly in Mesa this summer, will take the ball in his second appearance for the Emeralds. He has a 2.83 ERA on the season with 33 Ks in 35 IP. Gametime moves to 9 pm Central tomorrow night.

 

Under Reported Stories of 2018 Get Some Light

By Todd Johnson

Every year I try to cover the Cubs’ system as best I can. Now with over 300 prospects, it can seem a bit daunting at times to know everything about everyone. It’s pretty much impossible. There are stories that everyone tells and there are other stories that slip through the cracks. Here are a few things I noticed this year but did not devote a full length article to covering.

Duncan Robinson – The 2016 draft pick just flew through the system in two years. Robinson made it all the way to AAA Iowa in part to his excellent command and plus curve. Add in the fact that he’s injury free and a work horse, and there might be something there. I’m excited to see him in spring training as I’m sure he’s going to get a start with the big league club in Mesa.

I know I talked about Michael Rucker this year. They were times where he was utterly brilliant, and then there were times where he was not. Still, he’s very close to making it to Chicago. I called him a guy who could be a guy at one point. He could break in pitching out of the bullpen and then, when given an opportunity, he might be able to start. His stuff plays up pretty good out of the pen. He can throw 96/97 and keep it in the zone which is what Theo likes.

Hitting Collapse – It was pretty clear-cut that from Iowa all the way down to Eugene, Cub prospects did not hit well this year across the board. There might be two or three guys per affiliate each month who could hit between .280 and .300. And some affiliates might have one guy go over .300 in a month. In two straight drafts, the Cubs took 75% pitchers to 25% position players. They are paying the price for that now.

The 2016 and 2017 International Free Agent Classes – The Cubs may have struck it rich in the 2015 international free agent class, but there are some guys that they signed in bulk in 2016 and 2017 who are a little bit surprising. Some of them made it all the way up to South Bend this year like Maikel Aguiar. Most of them are in Mesa and the Dominican where the Cubs had two pretty good teams in DSL 1 and Cubs 1.

The Implosion of Tennessee’s Bullpen – When the Tennessee Smokies lost their three best relievers in the span of about two weeks, it looked like Jake Stinnett was reborn as a closer at the beginning of July. By the middle of the month, things fell apart in the thick of a pennant race. Jordan Minch somewhat recovered in August. He did not allow run the entire month. For the most part, the pen was not good across the board.

Last in Hitting – While Eugene had some individual highlights, as a hitting unit, they were last in the Northwest League. Those first four weeks of 18 to 19-year-old kids in the lineup every day was no match for players with college and junior college experience. It wasn’t until the college draft picks arrived that the Emeralds finally began to get some things going offensively.

Trent Giambrone – I talked about him from time to time, but I don’t really know if I gave him his just due as he is really putting things together at AA. I’m excited to see how he will do next year in AAA with his mixture of power and his newfound walk ability.

Ian Rice – His power and run driven in totals were not impressive this year. However, his ability to hit, take a walk, and catch most every night for the Smokies was quite evident. If the Cubs do not protect him in the Rule 5 draft, you can consider him gone. Someone is going to snap that bat up.

There’s always going to be a player I could’ve written more about or a trend in the system I could’ve identified. Still, I’m excited to see what happens this off-season with the Arizona Fall League, some prospect lists, the rule five draft, and things I can learn at the convention. I am excited to see what stories get the attention.

August All-Star Team – Lower Levels Load Up the Squad

By Todd Johnson

August goes by the fastest of any month. Now that it’s done, there’s only three more days of the season. For most players from South Bend on up, it was a disappointing month. Not very many hitters made the all-star team from Iowa, Tennessee, Myrtle Beach, or South Bend. Most of the hitting parade came courtesy of the Cubs’ two teams in the Arizona Rookie League.

First baseman Rafael Mejia of Cubs 1 dominated the league. He originally started his season in Eugene and was squeezed out by the influx of recent college draft picks. Mejia used that opportunity to have a blistering summer including a .355 average in August with a .394 OBP, 4 HRs, and 14 RBI.

When it comes to pitching, there are several players to pick from throughout the system. The most dominant arm was Cory Abbott of Myrtle Beach . Abbott struck out 29 in 27 innings to go along with his 0.67 ERA.

Jordan Minch of AA Tennessee had what was arguably his best month of his career. He did not allow an earned run and kept base runners to a minimum. With such a solid showing, Minch has put himself on the train to Iowa for next April.

The team of the month for August is easily Cubs 1 from Mesa. While they won their division in the first half, they did the exact same thing in the second half and put up the best record in the Arizona League. The shame about their success is that  there is little media coverage except for a few photographers.

Here is this month’s whole squad in video form.

Playoff Roster Thoughts: 4-5 Spots Could Have Huge Implications

By Todd Johnson

maddon 65 2016

My baseball watching preferences are kind of weird. During the first week of the Cubs’ regular season, I watch every game. When the minor league season begins, I tend to wean myself off the major league club by the end of April. Then again, the Sunday afternoon MLB game is always my go to game and I catch games during the week when I can, especially during school.

And the opposite is true starting in late July after the All-Star break as the minor league season winds down, I start to watch more and more major league games. Right now, I don’t think I’ve missed a game for most of August. It’s been a pretty exciting stretch.

I am currently trying to figure out who should be on the playoff roster and who should not. The Cubs might make a roster move or two before the deadline on the 31st for a player to be on the roster and eligible to play in the playoffs. The Cubs could add a veteran catcher and they might even add another relief pitcher.

Here are the definite guys who will be playing in October:
Catcher – Willson Contreras
Infield – Anthony Rizzo, Ben Zobrist, Javy Baez, Kris Bryant, Daniel Murphy,
Outfield – Kyle Schwarber, Albert Almora, Jason Heyward, and Ian Happ
Starting pitcher – Cole Hamels, John Lester, Kyle Hendricks
Relief pitcher – Pedro Strop, CJ Edwards, Jesse Chavez, Steve Cishek, Brandon Morrow, and Mike Montgomery

Bote 65 2018 iowaLikely Guys:
Then there are players who are likely to be on the roster. One is Addison Russell (if healthy) while David Bote is a definite possibility. Based on the past month, I would lean towards Bote being there as well. It would be hard to pass up the defense that Addison provides which allows Baez to slide over to second to put the best defensive line up on the field. Don’t ask me where Murphy plays if those two are on the field.

As for starting pitching, Jose Quintana should also be placed in the likely category, although I am not too high on him right now. Currently, I am split between Montgomery and Quintana as the fourth starter. Thankfully, that decision doesn’t have to be made for a month.

The Bench Roles
The Cubs should be scouring the waiver wire the next two days to find a veteran catcher to complement Contreras or they could call up Chris Gimenez, who needs a 40 man spot. While I like Caratini a lot, I don’t know if he’s quite ready for postseason experience. The Cubs would be taking a huge risk, or they would just be playing Willson every game, which is not a bad idea. They would just have a back up catcher in case of emergency.

The Cubs did go out and get outfielder Terrance Gore and sent him to Iowa. He is someone who could be a base runner late in games. That might be fine for when the rosters expand on Saturday, the first of September, but when you have the kind of bats the Cubs have, it would be very hard to leave one of them off the roster. Right now, Tommy LaStella’s tenure on the bench is in jeopardy with the acquisition of Daniel Murphy.

Rosario 08 2018 IowaThe Bullpen
September should be an interesting month as the Cubs bullpen is still in a high flux position. Players are coming in and out, going on the DL coming off the DL. There are about seven names to fill two or three spots. Justin Wilson was left off last year and is a question mark again for this year. Jorge de la Rosa is more than likely to be left off the 25 man but will Randy Rosario? How about James Norwood? Tyler Chatwood and Brian Duensing are likely to not make it either. Luke Farrell and Brandon Kintzler’s roles are still up in the air. It does not look like Drew Smyly is going to be ready unless it’s going to be at the last minute. It could be a mess…or not.

It is a bit unsettling to have the bullpen so up in the air.

And then, Morrow’s availability for the postseason has not been answered, either. Joe Maddon has been able to mix and match fairly well so far. But will he be able to do that much longer.

As September approaches, the questions are few, but the impact of the decisions made about who gets to play in the playoffs could loom large.

Prospect Profile: Delvin Zinn Has Only Just Begun

By Todd Johnson

Once the Cubs latch onto a prospect that they like, they never really let them go. If the Cubs draft that player and the player doesn’t sign, that doesn’t mean it’s the end of the relationship. In fact, many times, the Cubs have gone back and re-drafted that player. Delvin Zinn is one of several prospects the Cubs have drafted twice.

The Cubs first drafted Zinn in 2015 out of high school in Mississippi. Instead, the young athletic infielder chose to attend Mississippi State. Things did not work out there and Zinn wound up at Itawamba Community College before even playing a game for Mississippi State. At Itawamba, Zinn hit .408 with 32 RBI in 45 games along with 7 SBs. The Cubs redrafted him in 2016. This time, they were able to sign him.

Basic Info
Positions: SS (10 games in 2018), 2B (16 games), and 3B (13 games)
5’10” and 170 lbs.
Bats Right
Throws Right
Hometown: Pontotoc, Mississippi
Age: 21
ETA – 2022

Zinn began his Cubs’ career in the Arizona Rookie League in 2016. He struggled to stay healthy. He only saw action in 11 games and had just 33 at bats. He only hit .182 for that first year. He would repeat at Mesa in 2017. Things went a little better the second time around. He played in 40 games and hit .228 while playing a variety of positions in the infield. He started  at third, short, and second and was part of the championship team that won the Arizona League championship.

Heading into 2018, the 20-year-old was slated to start the year at Eugene. But after an excellent spring training and extended spring training, Zinn debuted at low A South Bend on June 8th.

In Watching Him…
The past three months, Zinn has displayed a unique athleticism that very few Cubs players have. He still has some warts to clean up on defense, but his hitting is coming along for a 21-year-old who skipped short season A ball. He is not going to be a guy that’s going to crank out 15 to 20 home runs, but Zinn is a guy who can put the bat on the ball and put it in play to make things happen.

One trend that I noticed is that Zinn is an all or nothing kind of guy. He might go 0-for-4 on Tuesday, but turn around and go 3-for-4 on Wednesday. He is the “Multiple Hit King of South Bend.” In 45 games, he’s produced two hits or more 13 times. And he has had zero hits 14 times. For the summer, he is hitting .274 in 48 games with 12 RBI and is humming along at .283 in August..

Going Forward
Consistency at the plate is going to be the key for him as he gets older. He should be at Myrtle Beach next year. While his defensive versatility is a plus, he fits best at second. His range and arm fit best there. I am interested to see him play a whole season. When this year ends in two weeks, he will have about 55-57 games in. Next year, Zinn should get in 120+ game experiences and we will see how consistent he can be and if he can tap into his speed.

In my travels with South Bend for 10 days in July, it was pretty easy to pick out where Zinn is at on the baseball field because all you have to do is follow the laughter. He is one of the most positive players to be around as he’s always trying to cheer his teammates up or make them laugh. One of my favorite moments of that trip was in the Quad Cities. Delvin was sitting in a chair next to me at the far end of the dugout as I took pictures. We were just watching Brendon Little’s curveball just devastate the River Bandits that night and all both of us could do was just laugh at the swings he was getting against it.