Chicago Cubs Pitching
By Todd Johnson
Heading into spring training, there are a few things that still need answered. Some are about roster positions, some are about roles, and some are just glimpses into the future. Considering how sloth-like the off-season went, I was finding it hard to get pumped up for spring training until Saturday’s signing. However, these answers could be very different in June and July than they are now.
1. The Yu Effect on the Bullpen
With Darvish in the rotation and Mike Montgomery heading back to the bullpen, there will be an odd man out. It could by Justin Grimm. It could be Dillon Maples. Although, Grimm’s long term future as a Cub might just a synonym for his last name and his outlook as a Cub. Clearly, Maples has MLB stuff and he’s ready to be ready. He was the minor league star of the convention. Dillon was all over the place that weekend, giving interviews, signing autographs, and taking questions. I would love to see Maples break camp and head off to Miami. He has the pitches needed to succeed. Now, he just needs the opportunity.
2. Is the backup catcher position Victor Caratini’s to lose?
At first, yes. Now with Yu in tow, I wonder if Chris Gimenez will get the roster spot. Caratini’s bat is going to play well enough for him to make the team. The only questions about Victor’s game are on the defensive end. At Iowa last year, he caught 15 out of 40 baserunners and 2 out of 6 in the majors. Those are decent enough numbers to get him the backup job. However, the Yu signing changes things.
There just aren’t enough at-bats for three guys considering Contreras’ brilliance at the plate and behind it. I doubt if the Cubs carry both Gimenez and Caratini. It is likely one or the other. You can also add in the fact that the Cubs may need to carry an extra pitcher until arms are stretched out a bit. As a result, I think the Cubs break camp with 13 pitchers and only 2 catchers.
3. Are there going to be any kind of defined roles coming out of the pen?
This is not going to be answered for quite a while and most certainly not in spring training. In fact, the bullpen on Opening Day could be drastically different in August depending on their ability to throw strikes. Right now, Brandon Morrow is the closer. Whether he can do that on a regular basis is up in the air, but Theo Epstein is extremely confident that Morrow can. I really don’t care about who is closing games in spring training as it not a realistic setting to establish roles.
Still, a lot of the roles are going to be fluid this year. With the addition of Cishek and Morrow, Maddon can mix and match on a daily basis depending on the situation and hitter. As the summer goes on, the pen could have a new cast of characters depending on who can throw strikes.
4. Who is going to bat leadoff?
I would like to see someone consistently in that position that can get on at a decent pace for Bryant and Rizzo to drive in. Right now, I am not opposed to most of the team in that spot except for Bryant and Rizzo. In a perfect world, I would like to go with Willson at the top. Ideally, though, you want a left-handed bat to balance Bryant and Rizzo. If Willson leads off, that would require Rizzo batting second and Bryant third. I am not sure if I would like that. As a result, I am sure Maddon will go with Schwarber at several points this spring as well as Happ, Heyward, Almora, Bryant, and Baez. If you watch Joe speak, you can tell he wants Schwarber there. As well as the Cubs hit, it shouldn’t be an issue. But, it’s the issue that is not going to die.
5. Which minor-league starting pitchers are going to shine in the major league Spring Training games?
There will be several minor league arms that will get a chance this spring. Jen-Ho Tseng, Alec Mills, Duane Underwood, Eddie Butler, Luke Farrell, Rob Zastryzny, and Oscar de la Cruz could all take a couple of turns on the bump. However, the arm everyone wants to see out there is Adbert Alzolay. While Alzolay has no shot of breaking camp with the big leaguers, his spring will tell the Cubs how close he is and what he needs to work on (changeup).
As spring training goes on, I am sure more answers will be needed as events will unfold that change how the complexion of how the team looks and feels heading into the season. Who knows? There might be more answers needed at the end of spring training than at the beginning.
By Todd Johnson
I am still so excited! I haven’t been this pumped up since November of 2016!
Cubs fans are now just 4 days away from meeting Yu Darvish and him taking part in his first official practice this Thursday. Now, with Yu in the rotation, Mike Montgomery heads back to the pen. It makes me wonder who Dillon Maples has to get past to earn a spot. It also makes me wonder how much this could affect Justin Grimm, who no longer has a guaranteed contract after losing his arbitration case.
The Cubs starting rotation is now very deep at the major league level. A staff of Hendricks, Quintana, Darvish, Lester, and Chatwood puts the team on par with any staff in the majors. They aren’t going to go 162-0, but I could see the Cubs winning 95+ games in 2018. A week ago, without Darvish, the Cubs were predicted to win 89 games by Pecota. Darvish has to increase that win total at least 5 or 6 games.
About an hour after the signing, I began shifting my thoughts on the organizational impact this signing has. It puts in place a staff for at least the next two years, depending on when Darvish could opt out of his deal. It buys the Cubs time to develop several young arms. After the 2020 season, Darvish is the only current Cub in the rotation signed to a contract. Lester, Hendricks, Quintana, and Chatwood’s contracts all expire at the end of the 2020 season.
As a result, the Cubs’ young arms can be brought along and developed as assets, as Theo always intends. With so many young arms, the Cubs could have a large stockpile they could use in a deal later down the road while still being able to cherry pick the best of their own to keep. It’s a win-win scenario.
And finally, there is no compensation pick attached to Darvish. Because he was traded mid-season, the Cubs do not lose their second round pick. So, it looks like the Cubs will be picking up a pick should Arrieta sign soon. That would give them 4 picks in the top 75-80 selections.
In Prospect News…
Baseball Prospectus released their Top 101 prospects for 2018 and one Cub made the list. Adbert Alzolay came in at #95. Here is what John Eshleman of BP had to say about Adbert:
Alzolay has a starter’s delivery in a reliever’s body with a change-up that could push him to either role. Currently, the pitch is not playable to turn over MLB rotations, but he could right now get outs from a bullpen with his FB/SL combination, playing to higher end of velo band in short stints. The relative quietness of his delivery given his size, a result of plus athleticism and a strong lower half that stabilizes his delivery. I project change up and command improvement enough to keep Alzolay in an MLB rotation.
While Theo Epstein and the Cubs see Alzolay as a starter for now, Adbert still has some work to do to get there.
MLB Pipeline announced they will release their latest Cubs’ Top 30 Prospect list on Thursday February 22. Over the offseason, I have been keeping track of the prospect rankings and assigning points to where each player has been ranked. Using Baseball America, Fangraphs, John Sickels, Keith Law, Pipeline, and Baseball Prospectus, the leader in points right now is Adbert Alzolay followed by Aramis Ademan. Only one point separates the two. Pitcher Jose Albertos rounds out the top three. Then it is a while until fourth place. Here are the top nine point values so far.
Ademan – 55
Lange – 36
de la Cruz – 30
Little – 27
Caratini – 25
Hatch – 19
Tseng – 12
I did include my Top 21’s top 10 in these results. However, I did not include Caratini as I don’t consider him a prospect. Normally, I usually include Cubs Den’s rankings, but this year Michael Ernst’s did not rank them. Rather he placed them in tiers. Although, Michael did have Jose Albertos as the lone Tier 1 prospect. I don’t think that his ranking them would have changed the list and its point totals and rankings much.
I don’t really think MLB Pipeline’s list will change many people’s perceptions of either prospect or the Cubs as a whole. It has been a while since the Cubs did not had a clearly defined top prospect, let alone a top 100.
I hope that this summer sees some prospects like Albertos, Ademan, and Lange matriculate up to full season ball and onto prospect lists. Maybe next winter the Cubs could get 3-4 names on a list.
Also in prospect news, Fangraphs released their KOTAH projections. The list is a projection of WAR for the next five years at the MLB level. Two Cubs made the list. Charcer Burks came in at #61 with a projected WAR of 5 and Victor Caratini came in at #35 with a 6.7 WAR projection. I did not see Burks like that, but I like that he is highly thought of after a brilliant first half in 2017.
Just throwing this out there…
I am wanting to do profiles of two prospects but I don’t have pictures of them, yet. One is of Danis Correa, a pitcher who threw in just two games for Mesa after coming over from the DSL. The other is Jesus Tejada, who threw in the DSL the past two summers.
This week, come Wednesday, Fernando Kelli gets profiled in the “Leveling Up” series. I really enjoyed profiling the excitement for the young outfielder. I also have two spring training previews for the major league camp and the minor league camp in the works for this week. The major league post hits Monday, the minors on Friday.
Baseball Cards of the Week
By Todd Johnson
— Jerry Crasnick (@jcrasnick) February 10, 2018
It only took three months, but the Cubs finally get their man in Yu Darvish. The big right-handed ace comes at a steep price and I think Yu now becomes the anchor of the rotation for the next 4-5 years. At 31 years of age, I kind a like where this is going.
Positives to the Signing
+ Darvish has five pitches with you which he can throw for strikes and they all come from the same arm slot. He is a top of the rotation starter and someone you could pencil in for 30+ starts a year for the foreseeable future.
+ While it’s not an exorbitant price, I think the signing does give the Cubs a little relief after 2020. Considering most of their current rotation is signed through that year, Darvish’s contract goes a little bit beyond and provides a little cushion to develop some arms in the minors.
+ I like that he throws near 200 innings a year. He did miss a year and a half but came back fine.
+ With the Astros outing the fact that Yu was tipping his pitches in the World Series, they may have done the Cubs a favor. As a result, future hitters should never know what’s coming.
+ Most pitchers that come over from the American League tend to do well in the National League. There’s a small period of adjustment and Darvish got a head start on that period last summer as a Dodger.
+ With the Cubs defense behind him, his ERA might actually improve.
+ He misses a lot of bats averaging almost 11 every 9 innings as a Dodger last year.
+ I really like his sense of humor as seen on his Twitter account and I think he’s going to fit in just fine in this clubhouse.
– When the contract has one or two years left, you can ask me then. But for the next 3 to 4 years, all systems are go.
By Todd Johnson
In last Monday’s look at comeback players for 2018, I examined the walking wounded which consisted mostly of players who were injured for most of the year, if not all of it. Today, it’s all about players looking to get back some semblance of consistency in their production. Most of this group will be at either AA Tennessee or AAA Iowa.
When I examine how a prospect is doing, I have several things that run through my head. There is a part of me that wants to be an objective writer, then there’s part of me that’s a fan, and then there’s part of me that is a teacher, and it’s really hard to shake the last one. I always look for the good and then I try to pick out things that need to be worked on. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t. And like teachers, sometimes writers see the promise of a prospect and hopefully they don’t get blinded by it. I know that’s a flaw that I have.
Most of the Cubs’ current prospects have been in the system for several years. To be honest, it’s hard not to get attached when you watch them go from a scrawny 175 pound kid to a 225 pound man. We watch them grow up and we want them to succeed. It’s hard when they don’t.
This week’s comeback list is filled with a lot of prospects who fit the above description.
I really like watching Zach Hedges pitch. He’s got a plus slider, pretty decent fastball command, and he’s a likable kid. He’s done really well the past two summers at AA, but he’s only gotten one chance at AAA and it did not go well at all. I am hoping he begins 2018 at AAA Iowa as there really is not much left for him to prove in Tennessee. For him to succeed in AAA, Hedges is going to have to keep his fastball down and use his slider to set hitters up. He’s never been a big strikeout pitcher, he’s always been a ground ball machine. I hope he can be that in Iowa this year.
I have been a fan of Trevor Clifton ever since Mike Safford used to call his games online when Trevor was with the Boise Hawks. When Trevor came to South Bend, he got off to a rough start. But after he righted the ship in the second half, Clifton didn’t let up for the next two years through the middle of June 2017. Then it was like he had four flat tires at once. He struggled keeping the ball down, he struggled overthrowing, and he struggled to just find the zone. It was as if he was trying fix his release point, landing spot, and self-confidence all at once. I have no doubt Trevor is going to work hard to return to form in 2018. He’s a great young man with a plus curveball and a developing change. Getting back to knowing, and believing, in himself and his pitches will be the key.
A roller coaster season would be the best way to describe what Chesny Young went through in 2017. The 2014 14th round pick out of Mercer always seemed to just fall out of bed and lace a single to right for his Cub career. From his debut in South Bend through Myrtle Beach, Young showed no sign of the type of season he endured in 2017. April, bad. May, good. Rinse and repeat for a season and a .256 average. It was a bit of a shock for a player whose lowest season before was .303. While Young did play 7 different positions in the field last year, at times he looked clueless at the plate, And at other times, he looked…like Chesny Young. He did not walk as much last year when he struggled, and he did walk when he was hitting well in May and July. As a result, a consistent approach for 2018 should be the key to getting off to a good start in the batter’s box and is what could propel him to Chicago in a bench role.
Ryan Kellogg was near brilliant in the second half of 2016 (1.99 ERA in 11 starts) but he could not put it together except for August (his only monthly with a sub 4 ERA) at Myrtle Beach in 2017. I am not sure of what his role will be and where it will be in 2018. He could start, he could relieve. It probably all depends on how he looks this spring.
OF Jeffrey Baez had a horrible season at Tennessee last year as he fought off minor injuries and failed to adjust after a scintillating second half at Myrtle Beach in 2016. Hitting below the Mendoza line for a whole season is not a good way to get to Chicago. Still, Baez just turned 24 (I find that to be amazing) and can rebound if he can stay healthy to use his mix of power and speed.
PJ Higgins is currently the finest overall defensive catcher in the system. In 2016 at South Bend, he also showed a deft eye at the plate. In 2017, he threw out 33 runners for Myrtle Beach. However, his bat seemed to go missing as his walk rate plummeted along with his batting average (.237). To be quite frank, Higgins’ strength has always been his defense. The converted infielder is a natural behind the plate. I am sure the Cubs would like some improvement on offense. Prior to last season, he hit between .280-.300 at every stop. Hopefully, last year was an aberration.
156 official at-bats is a very small sample size. That’s what Joe Martarano got in last year. Before last year, he only had 69 trips to the plate in 2015. To go two full years without seeing live hitting, let alone moving up to class A from rookie league, is a bit of a culture shock.
In 2018, I expect Martarano to do much better. For one, he cut out a high leg kick and turned that into a toe tap for a better timing mechanism. The result was an August where he hit .273 with 1 HR in 13 games. His K rate needs to come down. Except for July at South Bend, where he hit only .161 for the month, he crushed the rest of the year at EXST (.324) and Eugene (.385). I was impressed watching him work hard in batting practice to drive the ball up the middle. The ball just jumps off his bat with “that sound.” There’s not many Cub prospects who have “that sound” now, but Martarano does.
By Todd Johnson
2017 was a topsy-turvy year for some of the Cubs more established prospects. Injuries took their toll on some and several former top prospects struggled to produce consistently. 2018 could be a big year for a lot of these somewhat established players, many of them will be in the upper echelon of the system.
Part 1: The Walking Wounded
Corey Black recently started throwing on flat ground after missing all of 2017. He received high praise from farm director Jaron Madison at the Cubs Convention for his maturity and 4 pitch arsenal. Black said on Twitter that he feels more comfortable heading into this year than he has in recent memory. It should be exciting to see what he can do when he is ready.
Ryan Williams missed two straight years with shoulder issues. I really liked his tenacity as a starter and his ability to control the zone. After flying through South Bend and Tennessee in 2015, he’s never really had a chance to get it going at Iowa. As a result of the injuries, I don’t know whether he’s gonna be down in the bullpen or if the Cubs will let him be a starter again.
I remember seeing reliever Tommy Nance for the very first time in Clinton, Iowa when he pitched for South Bend. You could just hear the opponent’s bats crack or splinter consistently. He can throw in the mid to upper 90s, but he sits comfortably at 93 with a hard sinking fastball and reminds me of former Diamondback Brandon Webb. I bet if I could actually hit his pitches, my hands would be numb for a week after making contact. Hopefully, he can return to normalcy this season.
Jake Stinnett missed four out of five months last year and, when he did return, he was relegated to working out of the bullpen. He had more success as a reliever than as a starter. In the Arizona Fall League, Stinnett continued his rebirth and could be a possible piece this summer as a reliever.
When I watched Carson Sands struggle last year up in Beloit Wisconsin, I felt really bad for the kid. He missed most of 2017 after having elbow splints removed and he just did not look right nor did he look comfortable on the mound, especially when a man got on base. He was shut down after a just a few weeks at South Bend and Eugene. Hopefully, he can get back to the pitcher he was in April and May of 2016 before the elbow splints begin to affect his performance.
For catcher Gioskar Amaya, his TJ S could not have come at a worse time. He was getting ready to play AA baseball and he now could be heading back to the infield after spending three summers catching. It will be interesting to see what position he will play this summer and at what level. He should be slated in at AA Tennessee.
The 6’3″ right handed starter Erick Leal missed all of 2017. I’m unsure of what role he’s going to have this year at AA. He could start, piggyback, or relieve, it just depends on his arm and recuperation rates. I really enjoyed his 2016 season at Myrtle Beach (3.23 ERA in 92 IP) as he used solid command of a low 90s fastball. Currently, he is rostered with Tennessee and should be competing for one of five spots in the rotation.
At one point, Keith Law ranked Carlos Sepulveda as one of the top 10 second baseman in minor league baseball. After fighting through an injury for most of April last year, Sepulveda was shut down for three months before returning to rehab in the Arizona Rookie League. I am hopeful that Gioskar will be at Tennessee, but I wouldn’t put any money on it. Because he didn’t really do very well at Myrtle Beach when he was there, I wouldn’t be surprised if he begins the year back in South Carolina for at least a month, at the minimum.
Will Remillard came back last August and just destroyed the baseball for a month and showed no ill effects of missing two and a half seasons because of two Tommy John surgeries. Remillard could end up anywhere in the system. I love his leadership behind the plate and his ability to manage a pitcher on the mound. His arm looked great and I think he is ready to go.
It was a strange year as many of these prospects were at one point all Top 30 prospects, most top 10, at one point in their minor league career. Their resurgence should be a boost to the system.
I will have part two of this series next week as I look at seven players who will try to overcome a poor or uneven 2017 in 2018 at Tennessee and Iowa.
By Todd Johnson
The 2021 baseball season is going to be significant for a number of reasons. The first is that the Cubs currently do not have a starting pitcher signed for that year. Second, the contracts of Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, Javier Baez, Addison Russell, and Kyle Schwarber all expire. And finally, the contracts of Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer, and Jason McLeod come to an end that fall. While not a perfect storm, the year is something of which to be wary in the future.
1. The Pitching Expiration
It’s not that the Cubs will be out of pitching in 2021, they just don’t have any current starters in the rotation signed for that year. Lester and Hendricks both conclude their obligations at the end of 2020 along with Tyler Chatwood and Quintana. Right now, Eddie Butler is under contract, but he is not a current starter, and the same holds true for Mike Montgomery. The Cubs will have plenty of minor league pitchers who could hopefully be ready by then. Adbert Alzolay, Thomas Hatch, Alex Lange, and Jose Albertos are four that come to mind along with the old standards of Duane Underwood, Trevor Clifton, and Oscar de la Cruz.
I am sure the Cubs will have at least one veteran pitcher signed through 2022 by the end of the season in 2018. Whether that is Darvish or Arrieta, or even someone they acquire midseason, that option is still up in the air. It helps to explain why the Cubs have been reticent to commit themselves to an agreement of that tenure.
2. So Much for That Core
The only position players currently under contract for 2022 are Albert Almora, Jason Heyward, Ian Happ, and Willson Contreras. It’s pretty scary to think of the Cubs’ All-Star infield just vanishing in one offseason. I could see all four players testing free agency with Baez and Rizzo possibly being the only ones who would sign an extension beforehand. It’s pretty evident that Bryant and Russell will try to make the most money as this will be their biggest contract of their career, especially with Scott Boras as their agent. And, really, who can blame them. The Cubs cannot sign them all.
There still are a lot of unknown factors that can happen between now and 2021-22 regarding the position players. For example, Jason Heyward’s no trade clause ends for a two-year period after this season. However, no team is going to absorb his contract unless there’s a marked improvement in his performance or the Cubs eat a large sum of that deal or throw in another prospect with him.
Add in the fact that the Cubs are definitely going to go after either Bryce Harper or Manny Machado next off-season. The Cubs have a unique opportunity to get a player in the prime of their career at just 26-years-old. Harper coming to the Cubs is not a given, although I do like their chances to get him. The question is, how long of a contract would Theo be willing to go in order to land either Harper or Machado? Whomever the Cubs sign could be the face of the franchise beyond 2021.
The Cubs’ current weakness in their minor-league system is the lack of elite level hitting talent. Over the past two summers, they traded away their most regarded prospects in Eloy Jimenez Gleyber Torres, Isaac Paredes, and Jeimer Candelario. 19-year-old outfielder Nelson Velasquez could develop into an elite player. Then again, he only has one season of rookie ball under his belt. There’s a lot of swing and miss in his hitting profile right now. On the other hand, that can be remedied with experience.
In between now and 2021, the Cubs have a chance to add a lot of talent through the draft and international free agency. In addition, those players will have plenty of time to develop before they are needed or are ready to play in the majors. This summer, for example, the Cubs will have 4 picks in the top 75 of the draft and some money to go after a top international free agent, something they haven’t been able to do since 2015.
3. The Braintrust
The thought of Theo leaving is a bit disconcerting. Still, over the next four summers he is going to build a major-league team that is going to contend for a World Series championship year-in and year-out. While Theo, Jed, and Jason McLeod rebuilt the farm system once, they are in the process of doing it again.
In some ways, 2021 seems like an eternity away. But in baseball years, it’s not that far. Think back to four years ago when the Cubs just hired Rick Renteria to replace Dale Sveum as manager. In between a lot has happened and it went by very quickly. By 2021, a lot more could happen.
In the end, though, 2021 is just something to keep an eye on in the distance. There is no need to panic about the situation. No one is going anywhere for now. I, for one, am going to sit back and stay hopeful that 2018 is more like 2016.
One deal can change the franchise’s future. Maybe it comes in the next week, maybe this summer, or even this fall. Who knows what will happen? And that’s part of the fun.
By Todd Johnson
With the 30th pick in the 2017 MLB draft, the Cubs selected pitcher Alex Lange from Louisiana State University. The number one starter for the Tigers, Lange came to the Cubs with what was considered to be the best curveball in the draft. He only got nine innings of work in last summer after pitching 130 innings for LSU. As a result, the Cubs just gave him a small taste of the minor-league life.
Heading into 2018, there are a lot of questions about Lange and just exactly who he is, what he will be doing, where he will be doing it, and how fast he can get to the next level?
After watching him pitch last year at LSU, and once on MiLB TV, I fell in love with his curve. That being said, Lange is not a fully formed prospect. He still needs to work on developing a third pitch that he can throw consistently for strikes. And, he has to put to rest any health issues as the Cubs discovered something wrong in his physical that resulted in a lower signing bonus. Still, it’s hard to deny the potential that he has.
6’3” 197 lbs.
1st Round 2017 Draft
At the convention, I asked Jaron Madison, the Cubs farm system director, just exactly where the Cubs were planning on putting Lange to start the 2018 season. Madison did not hesitate in answering that question as he quickly quipped South Bend. I wonder if the experience and struggles of Thomas Hatch had at Myrtle Beach last year had anything to do with Madison’s quick response. Part of me thinks it did, while another part of me thinks that Lange has some things he needs to work on before he goes up to high class A Myrtle Beach.
[…] evaluators had some concerns about Lange’s ability to pitch in a big-league rotation, requiring better fastball command and a yet-to-develop third pitch to project him as a starter. Lange used his curveball as a crutch at LSU and never developed feel for his changeup, though a source who saw him in the Northwest League, where Lange used his change more often, thought it had promising movement.
Aside from his curve, I really love Lange’s competitive nature on the mound. He is literally intensely into the game on every pitch. However, that intensity carries over into a violent delivery the Cubs could try and smooth out a bit. He is going to be very exciting to watch this year.
Another question that I have about Lange going forward is just exactly what his role is going to be. I’m pretty sure the Cubs are going to have him start on the mound at South Bend. That is the best way for him to work on developing a third pitch and for improving his fastball command. On the other hand, Lange could easily be a power reliever and his stuff that might tick up a bit coming out of the pen 2 to 3 times a week. I shudder to think of a minor-league hitter trying to get any solid contact against his curve. It could get ugly.
As a result, Lange’s future role is not written in stone. I tend to think of his duality as a win-win for the Cubs. Right now, though, there’s no rush to get him to the majors as a fast track. It would be nice if he could advance through two levels a year, but I think expectations might need to be dampened until his changeup gets to where it needs to be first.