MiLB Starting Rotation Roster Projections Are Just Pure Madness for Now

By Todd Johnson

It’s hard to come up with an analogy or metaphor about what it’s like to try and figure out the starting pitching rotations for the Cubs’ minor-league affiliates in 2019. It is going to be a big challenge and I have given it some thought and eventually gave it up as a futile attempt. I made a spreadsheet to make it easier to sort and move players from one affiliate to another. It did not go well, not at all.

It got to the point where I became extremely flustered and thought, “How is Jaron Madison going to do this come the first week in April? How is he going to sort them during spring training?“

The Great Backup
The reason for the backup is a good one. The Cubs are producing minor league pitching. Their own prospects have filtered up through AA and now into AAA and in short time. They are not going to filter up to the major leagues fully, so that’s creating the log jam that is going to clog up the system for the next couple of years.

There are about 10 guys who could start at AAA Iowa this year. Iowa will, more than likely, go with a five man rotation. The odds of the AAA affiliate going with a six-man rotation just to get guys work are very slim. Adbert Alzolay and Alec Mills are going to be at the top of the list followed by Trevor Clifton and Duncan Robinson. That leaves one spot for a plethora of names that include Keegan Thompson, Thomas Hatch, Michael Rucker, and Matt Swarmer.

As a result, whoever doesn’t make the AAA squad is going to be kept down at AA. And that trickles down and clogs up the system.

The Cubs have to have a pretty good idea of who they want to see at AAA. I doubt if it’s already decided, but it has to come down to just a couple of pitchers and how they perform in spring training. Maybe the pitchers have worked on something in the off-season and that could buy them a one-way ticket to Des Moines.

However, the most interesting staff might be in Myrtle Beach. There, a collection of holdovers from last year’s club and fast risers from the 2018 draft could be on display as a six-man staff. As well, Brailyn Marquez could sneak up and earn a spot in high A as a 20-year-old. I am also interested in seeing if Derek Casey and Paul Richan are good enough to basically skip South Bend.

Down in South Bend, there could be 14 guys competing for six spots. Those that don’t make a squad this spring will either end up in one of two places – extended spring training or the bullpen. It will probably be a mixture of both.

Because of the log jam and competition for spots, fans could see the best collection of pitching in the Cubs’ System in quite a while. This will be one of the main stories in the minor league camp when it begins in a  couple of weeks.


Spring Training Presser Opens Up Camp

By Todd Johnson

It was a strange afternoon.

While blizzard conditions whipped around northern Illinois, I sat down in my recliner to watch Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer, and Joe Maddon kick off Spring Training with a press conference. The first 20 minutes were about as surreal a baseball chat as I’ve seen in recent memory.

The presser began with just manager Joe Maddon. He started by talking about the players and what “great condition” they are in. Then, like always, Joe laid out his theme for 2019, “Own It Now.” Filled with anagrams, this year’s perfunctory slogan is meant to get players into the moment. “A big part of our success this year is going to be the fact that we own each moment. And if you take the word ‘now’ and turn it around, it becomes ‘won.’”

Eventually, Theo and Jed arrived at the table and questions about baseball soon to a back seat to Addison Russell and Joe Ricketts. Theo spoke for about 15 minutes (see the video below), and quite eloquently at times. I don’t think that’s what Theo would rather be talking about. Baseball should be the order of the day, but it wasn’t.

I did like what Theo said at one point in his “monologue” about what the Cubs are doing in response to Mr. Russell’s actions and responsibilities. Theo said, “We hold Addison Russell to an extremely high standard and we expect him to abide by that or he won’t play another major league game for the Chicago Cubs ever again.”

Theo spoke with both a sense of firmness when discussing all the things the Cubs are doing as an organization in regards to domestic violence.

Eventually, the presser did get down to talking about baseball. Joe Maddon explained that he’s going to be doing a bit more coaching this summer rather than having the coaches do it all. Joe went on to explain that he wants his hitters to be versatile. He wants them to hit dingers, go the other way with two strikes, hit away for the shift, and to make productive out with runners on third.

Joe also spoke about he wants the team to play two bases at time, both at the plate and on the baseballs. He wants his offense to be aggressive to put pressure on the other team to make mistakes or to make good plays to get outs.

Late in the press conference, Jed Hoyer did announce that Adbert Alzolay would be about two weeks delayed due to a pinge in his side. It is nothing serious, the Cubs are just being cautious.

Watch the video for the whole presser.

Spring Training News and Notes – Part 1: A Preview

By Todd Johnson

In just three days, the Chicago Cubs open spring training when pitchers and catchers officially report. I say “officially” because many players have been in Mesa since mid-January getting in shape and working out.

On Wednesday, the Cubs officially announced they invited 27 non-rostered players to camp. Here is the official list. Notice, there’s a glaring SS missing. Don’t worry, Nico will be there. The Cubs are well known for having their top prospects play on the MLB split squads. Expect Miguel Amaya to be there, too.

This might be one of the more interesting camps in recent years. There are a couple of roster spots still open and there is plenty of room, and time, for a trade to take place, or even to sign your basic $300 million free agent.

Here are the big storylines heading into camp.

The Elephant in the Room
The only major talent acquisition this winter was free agent infielder Daniel Descalso. However, the player who shall be nameless has yet to sign with anyone and may not for a couple more weeks. The only clue that something could be happening is if the Cubs make a major trade and shed $20-$30 million worth of payroll. Right now, I just don’t see that happening. I don’t see a team willing to take on that much money in today’s marketplace.

The Bullpen Spots
With Brandon Morrow on the shelf for the first month of the season, there should be one available spot in the bullpen. Preferably, that spot should go to a lefty. Right now, the Cubs only have Mike Montgomery and Brian Duensing to fill that capacity. Then again, Joe could head north with his eight best relievers regardless of their preferential throwing arm. I like that Dakota Mekkes is in the major league camp and I can’t wait to see how he does.

The Bench Spots
As it stands now, the bench spots from the left-handed side of the plate belong to switch hitters Victor Caratini, Ian Happ, and Ben Zobrist. David Bote is the only hitter who hits solely from the right. The question is not who is going to be a bench bat at the end of spring training, it’s who’s going to be a bench bat when a certain SS is eligible to come back in May.

Minor League News
With the big leaguers rolling in, winter instructs are now officially over. Arizona Phil had a few comments throughout the last couple of weeks about what was taking place. Top prospect Nico Hoerner was smacking the ball all over the park but was not throwing overhand in defensive drills. Two interesting names that Phil dropped to watch this year are Alexander Guerra, a soon to be 22-year-old catcher from Cuba who displayed good power in BP and should be at South Bend this year. As well, outfielder Carlos Morfa, who played some last year in the Dominican, also impressed Phil with his power.

In addition, the Cubs keep adding to their collection of relievers at AAA Iowa by re-signing former first round pick Luke Hagerty. At 37, Hagerty’s story is an interesting one chronicled by ESPN and other outlets this week. The Cubs also signed pitcher Robert Robbins. So far, the Cubs have signed three pitchers who improved their velocity at Driveline this winter.

I’m pretty pumped to see some pictures coming in of the guys getting ready and we know that means they’ll be some new cards heading your way. I do store them over on Cub Central’s Facebook page. Here is the link to the current album.

Coming up This Week
I’ll be back tomorrow with a look at who the Cubs might redraft this summer. The Five Series continues on Wednesday with Jonathan Sierra and maybe I will record a podcast for later in the week… or it could be a video.

Jason McLeod Interview – Pitching Thoughts, Theo’s MiLB Involvement, and Drafting Makeup

By Todd Johnson

Today is turning into a juicy day for MiLB news. After reviewing Keith Law’s Top Ten List, I finished off a Peanut Butter sandwich and sat down to catch up on the day’s events by listening to “Inside the Clubhouse” on 670 the Score. Lo and behold, Cubs Director of Scouting Jason McLeod was the guest of honor for the day. I did embed the interview below but McLeod doesn’t begin his portion until 23:26.

Topics included:
Pitching options for the next 12-15 month.
How most playoff rotation acquire pitching
Zack Short and Trent Giambrone
McLeod’s Relationship with Theo and Jed
Scouting Player Makeup

There’s not a lot of groundbreaking information here, but it is still interesting to hear McLeod talk about how the system is transforming how they do pitching. While McLeod says that changes have been gradual. That may be true for management, but for the prospects, it has to be a shock to have different pitching coordinators each year. Now that Brendan Sagara is in his second year as the MiLB coordinator, fans could see some changes produce this year, especially at the lower levels.

McLeod also talked about starting pitching options and focused on Duncan Robinson and Alec Mills as guys who could help out in the next 12-15 months. I was really happy to hear him name drop Trevor Clifton as a guy. I am never too sure where Trevor stands with the Cubs management. But that was good to hear with him so close to the majors. Still, the thing that sticks with me from this section is how much McLeod seems to love Duncan Robinson and his ability to peruse a scouting report.

An interesting dynamic was revealed by McLeod that Theo, Jed, and McLeod have a text thread where they talk daily about prospects. In addition to phone calls and reading daily game reports, it was interesting to see how involved Theo is on daily basis with the MiLB system.

Overall, it was interesting to hear McLeod talk about some of things in his job description. I would like to have heard more about what kinds of things they are going to be looking for this summer in the draft and international free agency.

Another question that would have been interesting to hear was how will the impending addition of the DH to the National League affect scouting and the type of players the Cubs will be drafting this year and next.

A Saturday Surprise – Keith Law Drops His Top Cubs List

By Todd Johnson

I got up today just like any other Saturday enjoying the fact that I got to sleep in and that my dogs let me. I booted around for a little bit, fed the dogs, and decided I would head to DeKalb get my medicine. When I stopped to eat breakfast on the way home, I took my phone out and I got a nice little Saturday surprise when I saw that Keith Law published his top Cubs prospect listUsually, these kinds of things don’t happen on the weekend. So, let’s take a look. The link does require a subscription. 

About a week ago, Law ranked the Cubs as having the number 29 farm system in the minors. It’s not that he doesn’t have a high regard for the Cubs, rather it’s that he doesn’t see a lot of high-end prospects right now. The Cubs currently don’t have a lot of prospects who contain that star quality that Law wants to see in a system. That could change over the next two summers. Still, I was looking forward to seeing just exactly who he put in his list.

It’s not a surprise who was at number one as Miguel Amaya made Law’s top 100 at 91 a couple weeks ago. And it’s no surprise that Nico Hoerner was at number two as he was included in Law‘s next 10 prospects.

A lot of the usual suspects filled up positions three through ten. The list included Brailyn Marquez, Adbert, Brennen Davis, Cole Roederer, and Aramis Ademan. I was mildly surprised to see Oscar de la Cruz still in the top 10 along with Erich Uelmen, who had a rough second half at Myrtle Beach.

The two biggest surprises were the inclusion of Matt Swarmer on the list and the fact that Law ranked Brennen Davis ahead of Cole Roederer. I can easily see why Law did that. Roederer does have a much higher floor while Davis’ talents are just being tapped into now that he plays baseball full time. Scouts do rave about Davis’ athleticism.

Law did go on to discuss a myriad number of pitchers in the system including Alex Lange, Tyson Miller, Yovanny Cruz, Justin Steele, Keegan Thompson, Brendon Little, Duncan Robinson, and Michael Rucker. He also professed to the talents of outfielder Nelson Velazquez, but held off on coronating the young outfielder as a prospect of the future.

There’s only one major prospect list remaining and that is MLB Pipeline’s. According to the schedule, it’ll be published the 21st February.

I’ve been keeping track of all the major prospect list rankings and it’s interesting to see the variance of where people are slotted. Here are the point totals so far with just one list left.

The 5 Series: Brendan King and the Art of Pitching

By Todd Johnson

As Sun Tzu once said, “Win all without fighting.” Most bullpen pitchers want to empty the tank trying to fool hitters, but the main objective for any pitcher is always going to be to let the hitters get themselves out. Get ahead, keep them off balance, and get them to swing at pitches they can’t do much with. Sun Tzu never saw a baseball game, but his teachings can be readily applied.

One of the great things about covering the minor leagues is that you can see a prospect grow fairly rapidly in one season. It’s usually in that first full season of class A. Last year, one player who I saw grow immensely, especially in the second half, was utility pitcher Brendan King. He did some starting, did some piggyback starts, long relief, and even sat at the back end of the bullpen a few times. I don’t know if Brendan has ever read The Art of War by Sun Tzu, but King seemed to embody many elements of Sun Tzu last summer.

Over the second half of the year there were only a couple of pitchers coming out the bullpen who had a better half than Brendan King. The 2017 20th round pick out of Holy Cross had several things going for him including a very tight breaking ball that devastated right handed hitters. That one pitch had the ability to get guys to get themselves out.

For the second half, King produced ERAs of 2.61 in both July and August, despite giving up 4 HRs in August. In addition, he was striking out close to one batter per inning.

Here are five Sun Tzu quotes that could embody what King might be doing this summer.

Never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake.
Here’s a short summation of Brendan King’s pitchability: If he keeps the ball down, he’s fine. As result, King’s arsenal is geared to that end. In watching him pitch most of the summer, he tended to attack the bottom part of the zone. His GB % is pretty high at 36.1%. With a K rate of 33%, it doesn’t leave much room for liners or fly balls.

The nature of war is constant change.
Based on his usage last summer, Brendan came to the ballpark ready to pitch each day  in a variety of roles. He could start, he could work anywhere in any role throughout a game. And like most pitchers, he was always looking to add to his arsenal. He knows that getting a guy out in the first inning with a curve will be hard to replicate in the fourth with the same pitch.

All war is deception.
I really liked watching him pitch last year. His delivery does have some effort but he looks to have a pretty consistent release point. If he added a pitch this winter, getting that release point in line with his pitches will be essential for deception.

Balk the enemy’s power, force him to reveal himself.
In this case, balk means “to hesitate.” One thing Brendan was able to do last year was to change speeds pretty well. He sat 89-92 most games. If he can add a couple ticks to his fastball this year, his curve and change will hopefully be offset enough to make them even more effective. Brendan’s curve is his best pitch, but his changeup showed some potential last summer as the season went along. The change is the pitch that hitter’s least suspect he will throw based on the success of his curve throughout the year.

In the midst of chaos, there is also opportunity.
Brendan’s greatest assets last year were his ability to adapt day-to-day and month-to-month as a pitcher. However, his success last year also came as a result of his strike percentage last year. At 65%, his strike rate was one of the highest rates in the system last year. The Cubs will take that every day of the week and twice on Sundays. This year, King is going to be in an intense competition to earn a spot at Myrtle Beach. And there’s a deluge of prospects coming up behind, thanks to the addition of a second Mesa team. But Brendan’s ability to do the aforementioned things like throwing strikes, deceiving hitters, having hitters get themselves out, and his ability to adapt and change should be what separates him from the pack.

Ultimately, that separation is what should propel him up one level this spring.

Trying to Pick First Half Breakouts Is Not Very Easy for 2019

By Todd Johnson

The guy I want to pick as my breakout prospect for 2019 probably won’t play until June. Second baseman Reivaj Garcia is the bat I’m going to focus on later this year. But at 17-years-old, the young switch hitter’s more than likely not going to be starting at South Bend to begin the year. He should be at Eugene come June 15. As a result, trying to pick breakout prospects for the first half could be rough this year.

There are a couple basic rules I follow for a first half breakout. One is there has to be a marked increase in performance from the year before. And while that player can be at any level, it’s rare for a breakout to appear at AAA, but they do happen at AA once in a while (Willson Contreras). Therefore, Myrtle Beach and South Bend are the likely spots to find breakouts in the first half.

Most Cub fans already have eyes on Cole Roederer and Brennen Davis, the Cubs two second round picks from the 2018 draft. Roederer clearly broke out last summer at Mesa with a wRC+ of 129 in 36 games in Arizona. But Davis was injured most of the year after he signed. He only played 18 games but what an 18 games. A wRC+ of 138 predicts a bright future. But like Garcia, Davis likely will not begin his first full season until Eugene plays in mid-June.

Considering that I spend most of my summer covering the Eugene Emeralds on a daily basis, I have a pretty good grasp on most of the players that will end up on the opening day roster at South Bend. That also makes it hard to pick someone I saw play 60 games last year as a breakout. Add in the fact that I’ve written about several of those players, some multiple times, it’s a little hard for prospects to sneak up on me in the first half.

When it comes to hitters, Andy Weber is going to do very well at South Bend. He’s got a patient eye at the plate and doesn’t seem to get too rattled in any situation. There is some power there, I just don’t know how much. However, I’ve written about Weber plenty of times. He’s not an unknown.

As for pitchers, I think everybody knows I’d pick Riley Thompson, the Cubs 11th round pick out a Louisville, who was pretty darn good at Eugene last summer.  But to me, Thompson has already broken out a bit. But then again, he hasn’t been fully unleashed on the mound for every start.

But if we’re talking a true breakout, by my own definition, the guy I want to see bustout is Jonathan Sierra. The formerly lanky RF is now a muscular RF waiting for everything to click. He’s shown a patient approach but the power everyone foresees hasn’t taken over his game.

Yovanny Cruz is definitely an arm that should be at South Bend. At 19, he looks to have all the poise of a veteran on the mound who can mix and match three pitches. He spent most of 2018 in Mesa but he did make one impressive start in Eugene. I hope that he is good enough to get to South Bend to start the year.

Another possibility is a player Arizona Phil of “The Cub Reporter” recently praised. Catcher Alexander Guerra is becoming known his tool in instructs. Phil stated Guerra has “plus HR power and is a solid receiver…” Guerra played in the Arizona Rookie League in 2018. He hit .267 with an OBP of .355 and 3 HRs in 46 games. He will be 22 shortly after the season begins.

When it comes to pitching, I hope to see lefty Didier Vargas get a crack at South Bend. He was up and down in 2018 at Mesa but he came up big in the playoffs for Cubs 1. Jeremiah Estrada and Danis Correa both missed most of last year and could breakout this year. However, the odds of both getting shots at South Bend early in the year are very slim.

One of the most exciting things about covering the minors is watching a player catch fire and breakout. Sometimes, you can see the player coming. Other years, they can take you by surprise. I am hoping for the former this year…but you never know. The extra rookie league team from Mesa is going to create much more competition for spots at South Bend this spring and we could see some players become breakouts as a result.