2nd Half Breakouts: A Few Bullpen Arms Emerge in the Latter Half

By Todd Johnson

Breakout hitters got their due on Monday and yesterday it was breakout starting pitchers. Today, it is all about some surprising relievers.

In the second half, there were not a lot of new relievers bursting on the scene. There were some pitchers who had nice stretches like Jordan Minch and James Norwood, but those two guys have been around awhile. When when it came to new faces in new roles, the list is pretty short.

At Myrtle Beach, Manny Rondon switched into a new role as a Cub. Manny had been a starter for most of his Cub career but moved to the bullpen this year after some arm troubles last year at South Bend. Rondon flourished in the second half making two all-star teams in July and August. He had a 1.95 ERA in 18 games for the Pelicans and looks like he could be a left-handed specialist fairly quickly if he can get through Tennessee.

South Bend seems to be where relievers are born the past few years. This year saw the emergence of three arms in the bullpen. Brian Glowicki had an outstanding year as the closer. He did not allow run in August. Next year should be his test. His greatest strength is his bulldog mentality on the mound and he really seemed to step it up as this year went on.

Brendan King has a curveball that is deadly. For most people, that might be all you need to know about the 24-year-old out of Holy Cross. He didn’t have the most dominant year, but he had the most dominant pitch. If King can get his secondaries to roll out on command, to get his fastball down in the zone, and to maybe develop another breaking ball to go with his curve, he could impress and impact the system over the next year.

Sean Barry of Eugene had a nice summer in the Northwest League striking out 42 in 35.2 innings while being named a Northwest League All-Star. The 23-year-old righty out of San Diego. Barry has good size and good life on his low to mid 90s fastball. However, Barry’s greatest asset is his demeanor. He just attacks the zone.

But the winner this year is someone everyone had no clue was coming.

Garrett Kelly was released by the Twins at the end of rookie ball in the Gulf Coast League in 2016. He spent 2017 hanging around the Frontier League with the Schaumburg Boomers. The Cubs signed Kelly at the end of spring training in 2018 and assigned him to South Bend. Once he debuted, it was quite evident as to why he was signed.

Kelly features a 95 mph fastball and has two developing secondaries including a slider and a change. The most telling aspect of his dominance was that opponents only hit .161 off him across 2 levels. He still has a few command issues, but is working to improve his consistency.

I would not be surprised to see his stuff tick up a little bit with an off-season “Cubs” training regimen this winter. Kelly has only been in the Cubs’ system for five months and is just now beginning to reap the benefits of being a Cub. He was promoted to Myrtle Beach. Here is to hoping he continues to improve greatly through fall instructs and spring training.


2nd Half Breakouts: Cubs Have a Lot of New Arms on the Way Up

By Todd Johnson

Yesterday, breakout hitters of the second half were covered. Today, it is the pitchers.

Usually once a pitcher has a spike in their development, they don’t get to breakout again. By that definition, I had to rethink who the breakout pitcher of the second half was going to be Matt Swarmer easily won the breakout pitcher of the first half. But Keegan Thompson and Cory Abbott also had breakout campaigns at their first full season affiliate. So, by definition, all three could not win the award for the second half, even though they all did have another spike in their development in the second half of the year at a new affiliate.

This is the first year in a long while I can remember so many pitchers in rookie league having a pretty decent season. This year‘s crop includes some junior college players and young international free agents. I’m excited to see if these guys are going to end up next year in Eugene or at South Bend.

To begin, Peyton Remy was somewhat of an ace for Cubs 1. He led the team into the playoffs and was pretty dominant in July and August. For the season, Remy struck out 59 in 52.1 innings with an ERA of 2.58. He even got to roll with Eugene in the playoffs and was brilliant in the Hillsboro series throwing 3 scoreless in relief and 4 more scoreless against Spokane in the clinching game.

Blake Whitney played for Cubs 2 and had a pretty decent season after being drafted from South Carolina – Upstate. His campaign was surprising because most pitchers that were drafted as starting pitchers only go 2 to 3 innings or 50 pitches. He went 5 innings in 3 of his last 4 appearances. Whitney had a 2.30 ERA and struck out 37 in 31.1 innings.

Jesus Tejada and Didier Vargas were both excellent starters for Cubs 1. I still think they’re both busting out next year. Vargas puts himself in to contention because he just misses him a lot of bats at 19 years old. Both will be pushing for a spot in South Bend next spring.

Yovanny Cruz only made one start for Eugene, but he flashed an amazing curveball for a 20-year-old kid. I came away extremely impressed with his command and ability to keep hitters off balance. 2018 draft picks Paul Richan and Riley Thompson each had their moments of dominance this summer. I came away especially impressed with Thompson who is being converted from a reliever to a starter. Right now Thompson is a little bit on the effectively wild side with his secondaries, but he has pretty good command of a 95 mile an hour fastball. It’s pretty dangerous and pretty cool at the same time.

And the winner is…from South Bend…sort of.
A lot of people were aware that Brailyn Marquez had some talent. He could throw in the low to mid 90s but had huge command issues in the Dominican and at Mesa last year. When he arrived at Eugene in June, I was excited to see the 19-year-old lefty have a go at it.

Marquez had a nice jump in velocity this year as he sat 94 to 97 most games and he did so with decent command. He used a slider with a nice 10 to 4 break, sometimes 10 to 5. Against a right-handed hitter, it was just devastating at times. He didn’t throw his changeup a lot, but when he did he seem to have better consistency with it as the year wore on. With just a couple weeks to go in the season, Marquez was promoted to South Bend and he did OK in 2 brief starts. I’m pretty pumped to see him go at it for about 120 innings next year. If he can control and flash 3+ pitches, which is what Marquez has, he might be flying through the system as a 20-year-old. The keys are just command and efficiency for him.

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.

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

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.


The Weekly: Eugene Wins, a Fangraphs List, PDCs, and AFL Roster Set

By Todd Johnson

I swore I was going to slow down once school started, but that’s not been the case. Because of the playoffs the past two weeks, I feel like I have been as busy as ever covering Cubs 1 in Mesa and now Eugene. Eugene starts the Northwest League Championship Series tonight against Spokane, a Rangers affiliate. Even though all five games will take place in Eugene, Spokane will be the home team tonight and tomorrow due to a scheduling conflict in Spokane. It is a best-of-five series and the third year in a row the Ems have punched a ticket there. I will have a preview of the series later this afternoon.

Fangraphs Top 10 List
Most major publications and websites start rolling out their top prospects for the coming year in November. But not Fangraphs. This week, in a major surprise, Fangraphs  released their top 10 Cubs prospects. The list itself had a few interesting wrinkles. It had Miguel Amaya at #1 followed by Adbert Alzolay. Putting Justin Steele at #3 was a head turner as was Brendon Little at #6, ahead of Alex Lange, Erich Uelmen, and Duane Underwood. Nico Hoerner came in at #4 and Brailyn Marquez was right behind him at 5. Aramis Ademan, the former #1 SS, rounded out the top 10.

In their “just missed” category, Fangraphs went with Erling Moreno, Keegan Thompson, and Cole Roederer, whom I have not seen play. The omission of Zack Short is a bit of a head scratcher along with Jared Young, Trevor Clifton, and Nelson Velazquez. It’s a pretty fine line between Cubs prospects at #6 through #36 (if Fangraphs went that high). As soon as the MiLB playoffs are over, my new Top 21 will be released.

Tennessee PDC
I am a little surprised that the Smokies and the Cubs have not been re-upped for four more years. Their Professional Development Contract (PDC) expired at the end of the 2018 season. Hopefully, the two sides are just ironing out a few details. All the other Cub affiliates are signed through 2020 except Eugene, whose PDC runs out in 2022. The pickings are slim if the Cubs need to go elsewhere. The Eastern League is all affiliated while the Southern League has just Chattanooga and Pensacola left. In the Texas League, San Antonio and Midland are the only unaffiliated teams for 2019.

AFL Pitching Spots
Now that the minor league season regular season is officially over., the Cubs announced the rest of their Arizona Fall League roster this week.

I am not surprised by any of these. It looks like Steele might be the taxi squad guy who only plays twice a week. Those Cubs join P.J. Higgins, Nico Hoerner, Trent Giambrone, and DJ Wilson. Play begins October 9 and lasts for six weeks.

Coming Up Next Week
Lots of exciting posts are ready, they just keep getting pushed back by the playoffs. A new Top 21 list is ready. Then later, I will have the breakout players of the second half. These include a post on hitters, another on starting pitchers, and a third on relievers. This might be a ways away, but I also have a couple of posts on players making comebacks in 2019 – one is on injured guys and the other is about players who had down years in 2018.

Card of the Week

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.