The Weekly: 40 Man Spots, Jhonny Pereda, and Upcoming News

By Todd Johnson

Monday is a big day. On the 19th, the Cubs’ 40-man roster could contain  a few new names to protect them from being taken in the Rule V Draft slated for December 13. Expect to see Trevor Clifton, Justin Steele, and Jason Vosler get added. PJ Higgins, Erick Leal, and Jhonny Pereda are longshots to be put on the roster. The Cubs will likely roll the dice by leaving the last three off. A year from now, Pereda probably will get added and the same for Leal, if 2019 goes well.

I am really starting to dig Jhonny Pereda more and more. He had a great first half at Myrtle Beach this year. Like most catchers, he slipped a little in the second half as the grind begans to wear the catcher down. However, Pereda’s season wasn’t done as he was assigned to the Arizona Fall League. Pereda only played in 8 games there but hit a reasonable .278 with a .354 OBP..

While some may be focusing on his bat, Pereda handles a pitching staff fairly well. He caught some of the Cubs’ best prospects in 2018 and managed their games in an excellent fashion. He also caught an outstanding 38% of base runners stealing this year.

Pereda will be at Tennessee in 2019. It should be interesting to see how he does at AA. Considering he held his own in the AFL, the odds are in his favor. Hopefully Pereda can stay strong all year and see some more time at first to keep him a little fresher down the stretch.

Prospects Lists Getting Closer – I saw where Baseball Prospectus will be publishing their top 10 Cubs prospects on December 11, Baseball America started releasing their lists this past week, and Minor League Baseball has 4 done and more to come. I don’t have any idea about Fangraphs while MLB Pipeline is going for January 1 for their top 30, the same date as my new Top 21.

As well, Baseball America released their Draft Grades for the Cubs. I did very well in my predictions. I only whiffed on a couple, but then again, I might be right.

MiLB Transactions – The Cubs did have two transactions this week of the minor league variety. The Cubs re-signed speedy outfielder Wynton Bernard and reliever Jose Rosario, who was injured most of the past two summers.

The Mailbag – Those posts are going well. I have one I am working on about the developmental process in the system based on a question from Rikk Carlson. Then, after that, I have questions about pitching in the last draft and a Zach Hedges query. Still, I could go for more questions to write about and more posts. Those questions help beat the doldrums of winter and writer’s block. They actually make me energized! The next mailbag will be the week of the 26th. It would not bother me in the slightest to answer them all winter long!!!

Position Breakdown Series – This popular yearly series returns with its debut on Friday, the day after Turkey Day. I am read to get the catchers out there first. 

Other Stuff on the Web – I am trying to write more original content for Cubs Insider this winter. This past week, I wrote about Erick Leal and Trent Giambrone. Over at BP Wrigleyville, my last two articles were on the Arizona Fall League and the 2015 International Free Agent Class.

The 5 Series – Originally, Levi Jordan was going to be the first player profiled in this off season series. Instead, I changed my mind and decided to go with Jimmy Herron, whom I have a lot of questions about. I haven’t written one word on Herron. Then again, on Saturday (yesterday), I was watching the snow come down and all I could think of was Jose Albertos. Who knows what I will do? The 5 Series debuts on the 27th. Stay tuned!

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MiLB Mailbag – Episode II: All About Pitching Coming Soon

By Todd Johnson

In today’s mailbag post, I am going to kill two birds with one stone thanks in part to two queries about pitching. David Spellman asked, “Any pitching help for the major league level on the horizon?” In the same post, Jason Anderson wondered, “How is @adbert29 rehab coming?  When will he be back? Where do you think he starts his season?  Could he see time with the big league club next year? Possibly in bullpen?” Luckily for me, the two questions kind of share a common component. So, I will answer them at the same time.

I remember in 2012 when Jed Hoyer and Jason McLeod would talk about one of the goals of the farm system was to produce waves of pitching for the major leagues. Well, that time is finally here. It’s a few years later than expected but in 2019, there will be plenty of arms in contention to make it to Chicago next spring and summer. The main arm I see on the horizon is Adbert Alzolay.

Alzolay missed most of the 2018 season just as it looked like he was figuring things out at AAA Iowa. In his last start in May, he took a no hitter into the fifth. It was his fourth such outing last spring. The Cubs shut him down in mid-June when his lat strain was not recovering. Alzolay continued to work hard and shared rehab stories and videos on his own Instagram and Twitter accounts. The Cubs would love it if Alzolay could make it to Chicago as a starter since he sits 95-96 deep into games. That sustainability is a key part of his likability but so are an improving curve and changeup.

However, there is no spot for him in the rotation right now. Alzolay would be awesome coming out of the pen. When I first saw Alzolay pitch in 2015, it was a long reliever for Eugene. He was brilliant most every night for the Ems. Alzolay has improved since then. He would not have any issues transitioning to such a role.

Alzolay is one arm I can see pitching in Chicago regularly in 2019. The other is Dakota Mekkes. The 6’7” behemoth is pretty close to ready. He’s dominated four levels the pasts two years as a pro with a 1.16 career ERA and 190 Ks in 147 IP. The former Michigan State reliever only needs to cut down on his walks and he could be a 6th-7th inning kind of guy to begin and he could also easily go 2 innings if needed.

Alec Mills and James Norwood look to be names to know after getting a sneak peak in the pen last summer. Duane Underwood worked out of the pen some in Iowa after getting a spot start for the Cubs. And, as usual the past two years, Dillon Maples is still lurking.

However, there is a new wave of arms who could be ready at some point in 2019.

Trevor Clifton seems to be getting closer and closer as a starting pitching. Efficiency will be a key for him to get to the 6th and 7th innings on a regular basis. Duncan Robinson is not far behind Trevor in terms of experience, but his control and versatility could be a key to his arrival. I really like Michael Rucker as a swing guy who can start and relieve with his ability to throw strikes at almost a 70% rate and be in the mid 90s while doing so.

 

Three guys could be longshots to make it this year. Matt Swarmer and Keegan Thompson both went through 2 levels last year at Myrtle Beach and Tennessee with great success. Thomas Hatch, the third, pitched like a man possessed in August with an ERA of 2.51 in 5 starts.

Relievers Bailey Clark and Manny Rondon are still about a year or so away and Justin Steele is going to be the one I am going to keep an eye on the most at Tennessee to begin 2019. The lefty starter came back quickly from TJS and was dominant in the second half while hitting 95 most days to go along with his plus curve.

The pitchers are coming. What I like most is that they are all so different. There is no cookie cutter approach. It should be fun to watch them get their shots in 2019.

And So the Offseason Begins…

By Todd Johnson

The Cubs picked up the $20 million option on Cole Hamels’ contract. It is not a surprise, but the Cubs also traded some of their pitching depth in lefty Drew Smyly to the Rangers to clear $5 million in cap space. No word has come down if the Cubs received anything from Texas in return for Smyly. Had the Cubs not picked up the option, the Rangers would have been on the hook for Hamels’ $6 million buyout.

Earlier this week, the Cubs already made a few small moves as they picked up player options on Jose Quintana and Pedro Strop. The Cubs also claimed two players off waivers. One is outfielder Johnny Field who played last year with Tampa and Minnesota. The other is lefty reliever Jerry Vasto from Kansas City. As well, the Cubs signed IF Robel Garcia to a minor-league deal and inked up Erick Leal who could have become a MiLB free agent today.

There will be plenty of more news coming soon. Odds are MiLB signings might dominate the landscape the next couple of days.

State of the Cubs: MiLB System Could Have a New Hope Coming

By Todd Johnson

In years past, this article was spread out over two or three days. I would individually look at pitching, hitting, and relieving. It doesn’t need to be done that way anymore. Instead, today’s post will discuss how some parts of the system are trending.

Strengths
From AAA all the way down to rookie ball in Arizona, the Cubs have a plethora of starting pitching for 2019. It’s still a little uncertain as to who is going to pitch where next year, but the Cubs are awash with a lot of guys who could be back end of the rotation type guys. They’re only a handful of players who might be considered a 2 or a 3.  

The greatest aspect about the starting pitching strength is that the Cubs have a lot of depth. So much so, there are several arms who will be repeating AA and Iowa next year because of that depth. There are 15 names in play for the 10 spots at AA and AAA. Not everyone is going to make the cut to move up a level.

As a result, that depth is going to trickle down and create somewhat of a log jam in the lower part of the system. It’s also going to create competition and we might see better pitching as a result.

The second strength of the Cub system is its youth. The Cubs attacked the international free-agent signing periods from 2015 to 2018 with a lot of young arms and bats. Those players are just going to be reaching Eugene and South Bend in 2019. It’ll be interesting to see who keeps their head above water.

Concerns
In the summers from 2015 to 2017, the Cubs traded away a wealth of hitting and did not get any in return through the draft. As a result, they really don’t have a lot of impact bats in the system. Zack Short and Trent Giambrone are nice surprises from those drafts, as well as Jared Young, but the Cubs are hurting for hitters from Myrtle Beach on up to Iowa.

Last year saw the Cubs succeed with a few non-drafted free agents and the Cubs may be willing to go out and get more MiLB free agents to fill the middle part of their system. As well, the Cubs used three of their first four picks in the 2018 draft on Nico Hoerner, Cole Roederer, and Brennen Davis. All three, when healthy, seemed to have a pretty good first year in Mesa, Eugene, and South Bend.

The Hope
The Cubs may have one of the bottom five ranked systems in the minor leagues. They may lack your basic star impact prospects that we’ve seen in years past. But that doesn’t mean that the current crop of prospects is going to be bad. In fact, there a lot of prospects who should be MLB contributors in 2019. I can see Bailey Clark, Michael Rucker, and Dakota Mekkes pitching in the bullpen. I can see Mark Zagunis in a bench role. I can see Zack Short cranking out a home run or drawing a walk at Wrigley. There are several players who have what it takes.

The New Hope
In getting back to the youth, that’s probably where the next Cubs’ star is going to come from. Right now, Nico Hoerner is a glow-in-the-dark kind of prospect. He’s shining bright in the AFL with minimal experience against elite competition. Nico’s time in the minors could be fast-tracked.

Most of the Cubs MLB core is going to be playing on expiring contracts in 2021. The Cubs can’t sign them all so they do have some time to rebuild that system. The key is going to be the development of that youth the next two summers. Miguel Amaya, Brailyn Marquez, Cole Roederer, Nelson Velasquez, Brennen Davis, Luis Vazquez, Jonathan Sierra, Fernando Kelli, and Richard Gallardo are going to be the guys to watch turn into stars. At least that’s the hope for 2019 and 2020.

State of the Cubs: Major League Team Due for Changes in 2019

By Todd Johnson

While the Cubs won 95 games this year, they certainly didn’t look like a 95 win team for most of the second-half. The offense struggled to score runs while you never knew which bullpen arm was going to blow up. Then again, they won 95 games with everything that went wrong from Darvish to Chatwood to Kris Bryant. The Cubs overcame a lot this season but just looked gassed down the stretch the last six weeks of the season.

As a result of how the season ended, it’s quite clear several things are going to change. As to the amount of change, that remains to be seen. With Bryce Harper’s free agency looming and questions surrounding Addison Russell, a lot could take place this off-season.

Staying the Same
Most of the Cubs’ core will be back. The Cubs brass would be foolish to make a lot of changes to the position players and every day lineup. Rizzo, Bryant, Baez, and Wilson Contreras will be back in the infield. The only major question is what to do with Addison Russell and who will replace him? Will the Cubs go get someone or will they fill with their own MLB players or prospects?

With the starting pitching, Lester, Hendricks, and Quintana are certain to return. Hopefully, the Cubs will have Cole Hamels back and Yu Darvish will be healthy and ready to start 2019. If not, the Cubs have Drew Smyly and Mike Montgomery in reserve.

Not much is going to stay the same in the bullpen. About half the pen are free agents and the Cubs are not sold on everyone else.

Ch-Ch-Changes

As for the outfield, this is probably where the biggest changes are going to be. While the Cubs stand a great chance of luring Bryce Harper to Chicago as a free agent, it’s not 100% certain. If the Cubs do sign Harper, there will be a few roster changes that follow concerning some of the current outfield. There will not be enough room for everybody. We could see players traded and maybe even for parts that will shore up the bullpen.

The opening day roster, as we have seen in past years, is not going to be the final roster as it will be come October. 2018 left a bad taste in the mouths of management, players, and fans. If the Cubs sign Harper, it will totally change the state of the Cubs for 2019. And if they don’t…

This could be the most exciting off-season since the Cubs signed Jon Lester in December 2014.

What Will Be the Top Relieving Storylines in 2019 for Cub Prospects?

By Todd Johnson

It is getting to the point that the Cubs’ minor league system is starting to produce a lot of homegrown relievers. Dillon Maples and James Norwood are the first and soon to be followed by Dakota Mekkes in 2019. And there are more in the pipeline who could be close to ready by the end of next year including Bailey Clark, as long he can stay healthy.

That is just one storyline of many when it comes to relievers for 2019.

1. The Lack of Lefties
The Cubs just don’t have very many guys coming out of the bullpen who can throw left-handed. At one point last year, Tennessee had two with Wyatt Short and Jordan Minch. Anywhere there is a lefty, that prospect has a bright light on them from AAA all the way down to Chris Allen in Mesa. Throw in Manny Rondon and you have some guys to keep an eye out for next summer. If Jordan Minch is left unprotected for the upcoming Rule 5 Draft, he is probably as good as gone.

2. Two New Guys
Jake Reindl and Josh Sawyer both did not pitch after being drafted and signed by the Cubs last summer. I am excited to see them both get their careers going. Both should begin 2019 at South Bend in the pen and I am excited to see how they do.

3. For Reals
Garrett Kelly arrived from the Frontier League throwing gas at 95. He stayed 93-95 all year as the non-drafted free agent worked on improving his secondaries. He was promoted to Myrtle Beach in the second half and held his own in one month of play. For 2019, with an off-season Cubs’ regimen in his veins, I cannot wait to see him let it rip this spring. His story is a great one of perseverance and hard work.

4. Lots of Arms Vying to Play in South Bend
Between the two Mesa teams and Eugene, there are a lot of arms who will be competing for a bullpen spot at South Bend and maybe even up to Myrtle Beach. In total, there will be close to 40 to 45 arms competing for 16 spots. Three arms that I look forward to seeing you next year at South Bend include reliever Sean Barry, who was an all-star in 2018 for Eugene. He has a nice cutter/slider combo. Wherever Barry is placed is going to start the dominoes. But is he good enough to skip South Bend? Is Riley McCauley, the former Michigan State closer, good enough to skip South Bend? Has Brady Miller overcome shoulder stiffness in order to get his career going? There are going to be many more questions about the players who will toe the bump in northern Indiana. It should be a pretty fluid place the first part of the year until Eugene is ready.

5. Starter or Reliever?
With the large number of starters in competition at each level next year some of them could be in play for a bullpen spot. Some may just be relieving until a starting spot opens up or it could be a career change that clicks. Michael Rucker is one arm I can see skyrocketing through AAA if he goes to the pen at the rate he throws strikes.

It’s going to be a very competitive spring and summer.

What Will be the Top Pitching Storylines in 2019 for Cub Prospects?

By Todd Johnson


Unlike hitting, the Cubs starting pitching does not have depth issues. When it comes to 2019, there are going to be a lot of storylines to follow at every major affiliate when it comes to pitching. Some of those storylines may take place this off-season and some of them will take place throughout the course of the 2019 regular season.

Moving Up or Staying Put

First, and foremost, Jaron Madison is going to have a tough time deciding which five starting pitchers are going to be at AAA Iowa to begin the year. Adbert Alzolay, Trevor Clifton, Duncan Robinson, and maybe Alec Mills will begin the year in the rotation. But then Keegan Thompson, Thomas Hatch, Matt Swarmer, and Michael Rucker will be competing for a spot or two and it’s going to be a whale of a competition. It’ll be interesting to see how that type of log jam plays out as it trickles down the rest of the system. It will be a very competitive spring. 

If you succeed at AA, odds are your season was not a fluke. Odds are you a legit prospect. In 2018, Matt Swarmer and Keegan Thompson both did very well; first at Myrtle Beach and later at AA Tennessee. Michael Rucker flashed in spurts and Duncan Robinson got better every month and just plain dominated the second half of the year. Thomas Hatch pitched like a man possessed in August. It will be interesting to see who ends up where in 2019.

How Good Can Brailyn Marquez Get?
After having a breakout season in 2018, the 6’4″ lefty is still in a bit of quandry. After regularly sitting 95-97 most nights in Eugene last summer, he earned a late promotion to South Bend. Is he good enough to start out at Myrtle Beach? Can he go deeper and deeper into games? How efficient can he be with his wipe out slider? He will be just 20 next year. As a top 5 system prospect, there is no one quite like him in the minors for the Cubs.

Skippers
Last year, a couple of pitchers skipped a level to begin the year. Alex Lange and Keegan Thompson both started out at Myrtle Beach after playing a little bit at Eugene the year before. They did just fine. The only arm I could see doing that in 2019 is Derek Casey, the Cubs ninth round pick out of Virginia. However, several guys from Mesa could skip Eugene to get to South Bend. I would love to see lefty Didier Vargas attacking the zone in South Bend as a 20-year-old lefty,

South Bend Breakouts
South Bend is going to have a lot of young arms that are going to be extremely talented and also will have some growing to do. This is where most of the breakout arms should debut next season. Riley Thompson, Yovanny Cruz, Didier Vargas, Faustino Carrera, and many more young talented pitchers will be competing for a spot to pitch every six days over 140 games. I am excited to see just exactly what they can do. They  all tend to have one plus pitch and they need to refine the rest of their arsenal.

Young Drafted Guys: Kohl Franklin, Niels Stone, and Chris Allen
All three of these guys should begin at Eugene next year as they are either a high school or junior college draft pick last year. All three had great months ilast August but I don’t think they’re quite ready for South Bend.

Injury Return: Alzolay, Danis Correa, and Jeremiah Estrada
All three of these pitchers will hopefully return to health and have good seasons next year. Alzolay will be at AAA and Chicago while the other two should be in Eugene or South Bend come June.

Question Marks: Blake Whitney, Jack Patterson, and Peyton Remy

The Cubs drafted a lot of arms the past three years and these three are beginning to stand out a little bit. All three did excellent last year in Mesa, but I wonder if they are going to start in 2019 or work in relief. Remy threw darts for Eugene in the playoffs and Paterson went five scoreless in game two of the championship series against Spokane.

Overall, the pitching in 2019 will be the most competitive aspect of the minors come spring. With so many good arms, the Cubs are looking for a few to breakthrough and they might end up using a few of them either in Chicago or as trade chips as they did last summer.