Chicago Cubs Pitching
For the second straight year, manager Marty Pevey had to assemble a starting rotation made out of spare parts until August. Injuries and promotions at both the major and minor league levels cut his starting rotation short. The I-Cubs did have a potent offense led by the Cubs minor league player of the year, Victor Caratini. Starting pitcher Jen-Ho Tseng put together the best half by a pitcher in AAA since Kyle Hendricks was there.
The Iowa Cubs are still producing prospects to help Chicago every year. This year we saw, in addition to Caratini and Jen-Ho, Ian Happ, Eddie Butler, Jeimer Candelario, Mark Zagunis, Dillon Maples, and several relief pitchers help out the big club in some capacity. I expect more prospects will help out again in 2018, likely they will be just in bench roles. I don’t see anyone with the everyday playing career path of Ian Happ in the upper parts of the pipeline. Caratini looks to make the 25 man roster in Chicago next spring but just as the backup catcher. I am curious as to what the plans for Mark Zagunis are as he doesn’t have much left to prove in AAA.
Here are seven things to know about the 2017 Iowa Cubs.
1. Bijan Rademacher had the quietest best second half of any prospect in the system. I was a little surprised he wasn’t named the July player of the month as he hit almost .400. He can play all three outfield positions and I think he has one of the best outfield arms after Eddy Martinez. The issue is that he doesn’t project to be anything other than a fourth outfielder. Then again, he hasn’t really been given the chance to show that he can be something else. He has begun to hit for more power and I like what he can do at the plate. He can hit for average and he knows how to work an at bat.
2. I would not be surprised to see the big league club continue to clean house again at Iowa. The 2017 roster at Iowa only had a few position players that might project to make it to Chicago. Most of the roster were journeyman players looking for one more opportunity to get back to the big leagues. With Tennessee sending anywhere between 6 and 9 position players to Iowa next year, I don’t think there are going to be too many roster spots available for any player or prospect nearing 27 years of age. Already, Jake Hannemann, Pierce Johnson, and Felix Pena have new homes for 2018. I don’t know if John Andreoli will be back again either.
3. I still believe in Chesny Young despite his up-and-down year. I think that he has some adjusting to do at this level and I’m confident that he will do well in his second go around at AAA in 2018.
4. Unless Eddie Butler can add some sort of out pitch, I don’t know if he’s going to be anything more than a fill-in at the major-league level. He had his moments this year in Chicago, but he never went much beyond five innings. He needs to be more efficient to get outs quickly and go deeper into games.
5. I am still pulling for Ryan Williams to make it. I just like the kid. He has a bulldog mentality that I love. However, after basically missing two full seasons, I wonder if returning to the bullpen might be best for his long term health. In 2018, we will see.
6. Dillon Maples is going to be close to making the Chicago Cubs 25 man roster next spring. I like the fact that he’s going to get more instruction from big league coaches that will only enhance his chances.
7. For me, the highlights of the year were the second halves of Jen-Ho Tseng (1.80 ERA) and Taylor Davis (.297 avg with 62 RBI). I am glad Davis got the call to make it to Chicago. His story is a tale of perseverance and he is an outstanding teammate and hitter that I think can play somewhere in the majors. I don’t know if Tseng will be given a true opportunity to pitch in the big leagues next year but he should get a few starts with the club in spring training. A lot of his future is tied to what the Cubs do to add starting pitching this offseason.
What to Watch for in 2018
There are going to be at least six position players from Tennessee who should start in Iowa next year. I think many will benefit from playing in the Pacific Coast League but none more than catcher Ian Rice. If you dismiss his batting average and just look at his power numbers and on base percentage, you begin to see his value and how much greater he is than his fellow prospects (17 HRs, .353 OBP). I think he is really going to benefit from playing in the hitter friendly Pacific Coast League more than any other prospect in 2018.
Jason Vosler will also benefit from playing in such environs. After a poor second half, Vosler should look to recapture what made his first half so fantastic in 2017. In the first half, he hit at a .274/.375/.521 clip with 13 HRs and 49 RBI. In addition, Yasiel Balaguert, David Bote, Trey Martin, and Charcer Burks should be starting everyday in Des Moines next summer.
Remember the name Adbert Alzolay. Out of all the prospects at Tennessee, I think he might be the most ready for Chicago. Even though he is currently a starting pitcher, I can see him coming out of the bullpen in Chicago as early as the middle of next summer. With a fastball that sits 95-97, there’s a lot to like.
By Todd Johnson
I am tired.
As a result, this post is not going to be a long one.
I can understand why Joe Maddon didn’t go to Wade Davis in the ninth. I am sure Joe will say he was saving Wade to actually save the game. However, that doesn’t mean I have to like it just because I understand it. And right now, I don’t like it.
If Davis is fresh for the next four games and saves everyone of them, then Joe will look like a genius.
While the bullpen moves are questionable, the lack of hitting is really the story of the game. If the Cubs’ hitting woes continue, it is not going to matter who comes out of the pen in the ninth. The Dodgers’ pitching has really shut down the potent bats of the Cubs and Manager Dave Roberts is going to his outstanding bullpen after five innings. The Cubs are going to have figure out how to score some runs or this series may not get back to LA.
By Todd Johnson
Nelson Velazquez Gets Some McLeod Love
Over the past few weeks, I’ve written several posts and have them ready to go. As I begin to publish them, I am starting to notice a few trends. One is that I am writing a lot about Nelson Velasquez. And the second trend is that I am also focusing more on Jose Albertos. I think when I redo the top 21 list in a few months, Nelson could fly up a few more spots.
Mark Gonzalez of the Tribune talked with Cubs director of Scouting Jason McLeod about Nelson’s potential. Here is what McLeod said:
“He’s got power, speed and physical tools, and we can’t be more excited about how the rest of summer went. It’s inherent upon us and him to develop those skills. He’s going to end up being 6-2, 215 (pounds) and really strong and physical.”
I didn’t expect that last sentence as I thought he was already physically maxed out.
Arizona Fall League
Play began on Tuesday with Alec Mills getting the start for the Mesa Solar Sox. He got beat around pretty good in a little over two innings of work. He gave up four runs in his short stint. However, there was good news that night. Adbert Alzolay was phenomenal in relief. He pitched two innings and struck out four batters. On Saturday, he went two more innings and whiffed three more. I hope he continues to do well as 60% of the players in the league in the past have gone on to play professional baseball. I know if Adbert is going to start next year at AAA Iowa. Adbert has taken a huge step in his development this year and I could see him pitching in Wrigley at some point next summer. He could start or he could relieve, but I think he might be best suited to relief role.
On Wednesday, David Bote went 3/4 with a HR and 3 RBI in his debut. He played 2B. Things are really looking up for him. Bote also had a good day Thursday, this time at third base. He went 2/4 with and 1 RBI. he continued doing well on Friday and Saturday he hit another HR, his third in 5 days. For the week, he hit .500 with 6 RBI. It is a very impressive showing for the 24-year-old.
Ian Rice went 1/3 with a double and a walk on Wednesday. He also drove in one run. Jason Vosler has struggled band has been playing mostly at 1B. He has yet to get a hit in 4 games while Charcer Burks has yet to play. Jake Stinnett struggled in his lone appearance (2 IP, 4 H, 2Ks) while Pedro Araújo picked up a save on Friday in one of his two games (2 IP, 3 Ks).
The Seven Series
Starting on Monday, there will be three posts this week that look back at each affiliate’s 2017 season. Each posts examines seven issues about the affiliate and/or the prospects and the year they had. Monday, Iowa gets their due followed by Tennessee on Wednesday, and then Myrtle Beach’s season is relived on Thursday or Friday.
Baseball Card of the Week
I began my off-season card work this week. I have about 15 new cards uploaded to the Facebook page. You can see them right here. This one is my favorite…so far.
By Todd Johnson
It won’t be long before Shohei Otani will begin his courtship of major-league teams. Once he is posted by the Nippon Ham Fighters, every major league team will match the posting fee for him. Who Otani picks is anybody’s guess at this point. From what I have read, money is not the issue. What Otani wants is to play in the major leagues. Unlike most American athletes, he is not driven by money. If he was, he would wait until he turns 25 in the summer of 2019 and he could sign a contract with any team for any price.
As a result of his decision to come over this winter, his earning potential is limited as an international free agent under the latest collective-bargaining agreement. Otani can sign for as little as $300,000 on up to somewhere close to$3.5 million, depending on how much money some teams have left in their international pool.
While the Cubs may still technically be in the running for his services, they can only offer him $300,000. They can’t make any secret backdoor deal and run the risk of losing Otani.
Let’s just say, for argument sake, that the Cubs sign him. What is it that they get? What does he have that makes him so special?
That’s right, you get three positions in one. That’s one reason I believe that he might actually head to an American League team. Then again, he wouldn’t get to hit when he pitched. So that makes me think he could head to a National League team.
42-15 career record
2.52 ERA/2.78 FIP
624 Ks in 534 IP
.287 average/.360 OBP
70 doubles/48 home runs
13 stolen bases.
From a scouting standpoint, he throws a fastball in the upper 90s and low 100s. This past season though, he only pitched in five games, getting to 124 pitches in his last start but still throwing 101 miles an hour in that start. He does have a wipeout slider to accompany his fastball. He also throws a splitter and a curve but everything runs off his fastball.
David DeFreitas from 2080 Baseball said the following about his pitching skills:
Top-of-the-rotation guy with smooth, easy mechanics; has a chance for plus command of three plus pitches. Double-plus athlete that is still growing into his body and developing coordination. Has the makeup to go with the advanced skill set. Aggressive, will challenge; pounds the zone and locates to all quadrants with plus ability to put hitters away. Comfortable in high-profile position; big-game mentality, competitor; throttles up/back; shows the ability to win without his best stuff. Above-average defender, moves well off the mound and accurate throwing to bases.
As a hitter and outfielder, he is equally as dangerous. From the left side of the plate, he can do anything with a baseball. He can hit for power and he can hit for average.
After a while, he comes across as some super video game player who can do it all. And from my understanding, he can. Whoever lands him will immediately get one of the top five players in the game. He potentially could hit 25 home runs and strike out 200 batters in the same year. He could drive in 80 and pitch in 160 innings.
The Cubs have a chance. Is the chance very good? I don’t know. To try and attract someone not motivated by money by a team that has a lot of it is a little strange. If the Cubs are going to sell Otani on coming to Chicago, the Cubs are going to have to get Otani to believe that he can be Otani as a Cub.
If I were Theo, I would focus on three things in my sales pitch
1. There is a definite young corps of players behind him for the next four seasons. There will be more on their way after that.
2. He could definitely play a position two to three times a rotation. He would pitch one day, take a day off, pinch-hit the next, and then he could play two days in the outfield.
3. He could be the ace of the rotation with a chance to win a World Series every year through 2021.
It what Otani really wants to do is win, there’s no better place than Chicago to win the World Series.
By Todd Johnson
Last week I looked at some big picture ideas in part one of my state of the Cubs minor-league system. Today’s analytical activities involve breaking down what the Cubs are doing well in their minor-league structure and where they need to improve.
Young toolsy outfielders, plethora of catchers, long and lean physically projectable Latin starting pitching, no rush, or need, on getting anyone to the majors soon.
There are probably more strengths that I could list but these are the biggest strengths. Sometimes I look at what’s left of the Cubs’ system and I get a little scared. It’s not a fear of failure. I know that not every prospect is going to make it. The anxiety that I have is that when the current minor-league talent is ready in 3 to 4 years, it is nowhere near the talent level of the players they’re going to be replacing. Yes, the Cubs have until 2021 to start producing more position players. But the Cubs don’t have anyone even projected to be even close an Addison Russell or a Javier Baez or Kris Bryant. There is no one that could even be as good as Albert Almora right now. However, that could all change by 2020/21.
To me, Nelson Velasquez holds the most promise. No one else has his power but he’s only played rookie ball. In another year, he could be the one. If he can start producing at full season A ball, then the Cubs will have something. But that’s just one player. The Cubs need several more high value position prospects.
Areas of Concern
Underdeveloped pitchers, stagnation of several prospects at the upper levels in AA and AAA, few top of the rotation starters in the pipeline, lack of overall power
The fact that the Cubs have not produced any MLB starting pitchers that they drafted or signed in the last five years is raising several questions. Are they doing something developmentally wrong? Are the Cubs taking too big of risks with the pitchers they select? Or could it be that the Cubs are not willing to pay big money to sign bigger named arms in the draft?
I’m going to answer the last question because I think the Cubs statistically know that selecting a pitcher is a big gamble and a huge risk over time. In the last two years they have tried to remedy the lack of pitching by over drafting and compensating with two high picks in the 2017 draft. The fruits of those two drafts will be at AA next year and also filling up South Bend and Myrtle Beach’s rotations. Add in several arms that should be coming stateside from the Dominican Summer League, the Cubs could have a ton of pitching coming ashore. Remember the names of Jesus Tejada, Danis Correa, Emilio Ferrebus, and Didier Vargas. Correa and Ferrebus actually helped Mesa win the Arizona Rookie League title.
Next year is going to be another transformative season in the minors. It’s going to be a season in which there’s a lot of movement up-and-down prospect lists. While prospects should be judged on talent and projection, performance is going to have a huge impact on how some people see the Cubs prospects in the post Eloy world. Doing well in low A ball is not a prerequisite for MLB stardom, but it doesn’t hurt.
Usually, a President says in the State of the Union address that the state of the nation is strong. I don’t think I can attach those kind of adjectives to the Cubs’ system right now. I think if I could attach one word it would be rebuilding. Promising would be another good word to throw in, too.
I do feel good about that since the current regime did it once before starting in late 2011.
By Todd Johnson
Kyle Hendricks was the man.
Last night, for five innings, the Nationals’ Stephen Strasburg was the man. He looked like the best pitcher on the planet with 8 Ks and he had not allowed a hit when the sixth inning rolled around. After Javy Baez reached on an error, the Cubs capitalized two batters later when Kris Bryant got the Cubs’ first hit of the night to drive in Baez from second. Strasburg hung a breaker on a two strike count and the Bryant made him pay. Otherwise, Strasburg was near perfect.
The Cubs tacked on a second run on a hit by Rizzo, who also added another RBI in the 8th.
The star of the night for the Cubs was Kyle Hendricks. He kept the Cubs in the game with 7 innings of two hit ball. Hendricks used 6 Ks and a double play to shut out the Nats. Every pitch had a lot of movement and he moved the ball around the zone. In the post-game press conference, Hendricks complimented catcher Willson Contreras about how the two were on the same page in executing the gameplan for each hitter.
Carl Edwards struck out two in the eighth in relief and Wade Davis was Wade Davis in the ninth to get the save.
What I liked most about last night’s victory was that it smashed some narratives.
1. Cubs can’t hit good pitching. They beat the second best right handed starter in the NL by waiting him out and capitalizing on his only mistake.
2. Joe won’t let Kyle Hendricks go deep in the playoffs. Hendricks went seven and looked like he could go nine as he looked so relaxed. He only threw 106 pitches and I liked that Joe let him go that long.
3. Kris Bryant is not clutch. Yeah, his hit was everything and his baserunning was even better than his hitting to get in scoring position for Rizzo to drive him in.
I can’t wait for game two at 4:30 Saturday afternoon. Jon Lester will be dueling Gio Gonzalez. Look for Albert Almora to play a key role in the game.
By Todd Johnson
92-70 was a good enough record to earn the label National League Central Division Champions in 2017. The Cubs finished six games ahead of the Milwaukee Brewers and nine ahead of the St. Louis Cardinals. It was strange year numerically as Kyle Schwarber struggled in the leadoff spot yet wound up with 30 HRs and people fixated on Kris Bryant’s RBI from the number two spot in the lineup. Still, in spite of all the pressure to repeat a division title, the Cubs did.
The strength of their record came at home as the Cubs went 48-33. While they were 44-37 on the road, they went 4-11 on the road against the National League West. Otherwise, the road record was 40-26 against everyone else. The Cubs also struggled against the Phillies going 2-4. Against the whole National League East, the Cubs were 21-13 including 3-4 against their upcoming opponent in the NLDS. That means that they were 16-5 against the Mets, Braves, and Marlins.
Another key to the Central Division championship was the Cubs record against the Central at 46–30. The Cubs feasted against St. Louis going 15–4. The Cubs were 12-6 against the Reds, 10-9 vs Milwaukee, and they bested the Pirates 10-9 on the season.
In interleague play, the Cubs went 12-8 this year. Against right-handers, the Cubs were 71-56, and against lefties, the Cubs put up a 21–14 mark.
The Cubs struggled in the first half of the year. At the All-Star break, the Cubs were 43-45. After the break the Cubs caught fire going 49-27. That included a 13-3 record in July right after the break, 17-12 in August, and 19-9 in September.
As for individual statistics, most of the hitting stats we’re dominated by Kris Bryant. In addition to a 6.0 WAR, he also led the Cubs in weighted runs created plus at 172, weighted on base at .399, and on-base percentage with an outstanding .409 thanks in part to 95 walks. Anthony Rizzo led the team in home runs with 32 and RBIs with 109. Even though Albert Almora probably won’t qualify with enough at-bats, he did lead the team with a .298 average. John Jay, who had over 400 at bats, was next at 295. Ian Happ lead the team in isolated power at .261 and Alex Avila pleased the BABIP Gods at .388.
The thing that I was most surprised about was not that the Cubs had six guys who could hit over 20 home runs, because they’ve always had potential. Rather, I was surprised that they actually went out and did it. To have Rizzo and Schwarber hit over 30 home runs is a nice capstone to their power, but when Happ, Bryant, Baez, and Contreras crank out 20+ homers, that was quite remarkable. Where do they go from there? They are all so young.
My two favorite player performances this year were Javy Baez hitting .273 with 23 HRs and 75 RBI. For a second baseman, that is phenomenal production. Then there was Ian Happ who just shocked everybody a year ahead of schedule. Happ hit 24 HRs with 62 RBIs and hit .253. He did strike out over 30% of the time, but he will be even better next year. The fact that Happ just turned 23 is amazing.
As next weekend’s playoffs loom, my only concern is how the starting pitching is going to hold up. Over the last month, Hendricks and Quintana pitched well along with Lackey while Jake Arrieta struggled with an injury and Jon Lester looked tired.
For the first half of the year, all the pitchers looked tired. I don’t think they began to look normal until after the All-Star break. Kyle Hendricks struggled with velocity early in the year and the Cubs relied on Eddie Butler for most of the first half in tandem with Mike Montgomery when free agent Brett Anderson did not work out. I liked the fact that management did not panic in their pursuit of starting pitching at that point in the year. When the deal came in for Quintana, I liked it as Jose is going to be a Cub for a while.
For the year, Lester lead the team in innings pitched with 180.2 in strikeouts with 180. Hendricks led the team in ERA at 3.03 while Quintana lead the team in FIP (3.15), xFIP (3.23), batting average against (.228), and WHIP (1.10). When it came to WAR, Lester had the best one on the staff at 2.7.
There were times this year when I didn’t think the bullpen was ever going to pull it together. However, they looked pretty good in the second half thanks in part to Carl Edwards, Jr., Wade Davis, and Brian Duensing. Edwards led the team in appearances with 73 and also had the most strikeouts out of the pen with 94 and a 1.01 WHIP. Wade Davis had the lowest bullpen ERA at 2.30 to go along with his 32 saves.
I’m interested to see how this relief corps shakes down in the playoffs and just exactly who makes the roster for the bullpen. Right now, I tend to think they are leaning towards bringing John Lackey out of the pen in the postseason while Justin Grimm could be left off the roster.
My favorite number of the year, though, is three. This will be the third season in a row that the Cubs are in the playoffs. I am starting to get used to it. Only 11 more wins to go for back-to-back titles. It’s not going to be easy – quite the contrary. It should be exciting to watch it unfold. For some reason, I don’t feel so stressed about it this year…then again, it’s not November.