Chicago Cubs Pitching
By Todd Johnson
The prospect list season is going quick this year. Usually, the major lists are spread out over four months. Not this year. So far, four of the six major lists have been published leaving only MLB Pipeline and Keith Law to go. On Monday, Baseball Prospectus joined the early crowd with their list of top 10 Cubs prospects.
However, despite the current state of the Cubs system, there is still plenty of room for hope and plenty of time for these prospects to develop into players that can contribute at the major-league level.
Baseball Prospectus can be a little bit out there in it’s ranking of Cubs prospects. In 2015, they ranked Addison Russell at number one ahead of Kris Bryant. In 2015, BP placed Gleyber Torres first and followed that up with Eloy Jimenez last year. Heading into this year’s list, I thought it would be one of three prospects: Adbert Alzolay, Aramis Ademan, or Jose Albertos.
There was nothing shocking in the list. Right-handed starting pitchers dominated the list followed by one lefty starter, a switch-hitting catcher and a soon to be 19-year-old shortstop.
The Top Ten
1. Adbert Alzolay, RHP; 2. Jose Albertos, RHP; 3. Aramis Ademan, SS; 4. Brendon Little, LHP; 5. Alex Lange, RHP; 6. Victor Caratini, C; 7. Thomas Hatch, RHP; 8. Oscar de la Cruz, RHP; 9. Jen-Ho Tseng, RHP; and 10. Alec Mills, RHP
In years past, Twitter exchanges could get hot and heavy over which Cubs prospect made a list or did not make a list. I don’t think anyone’s going to be fighting over whether Alec Mills is at number 10. Times have changed. And more importantly, that goes to show just how much focus is now on the major league club.
One key to understanding the system and just how raw it is comes from the fact that many of the prospects who might eventually make a top 100 list are 18-19 years old and only Ademan has played in South Bend and full season baseball. A year from now, this list is going to be totally different and filled with Albertos and other young prospects like Jeremiah Estrada, Nelson Velazquez, and Javier Assad. That’s where the hope is.
BP discussed many of them in their “second ten” section. There’s a lot of depth in the system just based on this section.
Who Is Missing?
It’s stunning what two months of a rough stretch in baseball can do to career, as well as an injury. For Trevor Clifton, he had an outstanding first half (2.84 ERA in 12 starts) at Tennessee and then fell apart in the second. I am still hopeful that he can get it back to what he was like in the first half of 2017. I don’t know how one could give up on him so fast.
Jake Stinnett missed most of the year but came back in August and also pitched in the Arizona Fall League. He showed that he could possibly be a reliever.
I’m looking forward to MLB Pipeline’s list which should be out sometime in January. It’s a little bit more extensive in that they rank 30 prospects. Keith Law usually waits until February to publish his list and I had not planned on doing an updated Top 21 list this winter unless there’s a trade. Who knows, anything could happen this week.
By Todd Johnson
This week’s mailbag has just one question and it’s a doozy.
Shawn Cline: Is South Bend going to be stacked at pitcher next year?
By the time the 2018 minor league season begins, I could answer this question four or five different ways. There are a myriad of combinations of pitchers who could start at South Bend in 2018. Just off the top of my head, I counted 13 possible arms who could take the bump every sixth day. Not all of the 13 are going to start the year at South Bend. Some could find their way to Myrtle Beach to begin 2018.
So, Shawn, the simple answer to your question is yes.
The complicated answer would be that I have no idea which six will make the opening day roster.
The Cubs have targeted pitching in the last two drafts and the last two international free-agent signing periods, especially in the Mexican market. The dividends of those investments will begin to come to fruition at South Bend. In 2017, Duncan Robinson and Michael Rucker were the first wave of arms to breakout and both will be at AA Tennessee next year along with 2016 third round pick Thomas Hatch.
As for South Bend, here are 13 pitchers who could wind up in the rotation.
Alex Lange, Jose Albertos, Javier Assad, Jesus Camargo, Brendon Little, Cory Abbott, Erich Uelmen, Bailey Clark, Rollie Lacy, Keegan Thompson, Enrique de los Rios, Matt Swarmer, and Carson Sands.
The starting rotation for South Bend will be determined in spring training. Some of the arms could skip South Bend and wind up in Myrtle Beach to begin the year. Alex Lange and Jesus Camargo would be the two most likely selections based on their age and experience.
While having Albertos skip South Bend would be interesting, he is going to be just 19 years old next year and there’s no rush to move him up the system. He needs to refine his curve and basically get his work in. He needs to throw close to 100 innings after missing most of 2016. Whether he does that at South Bend or Myrtle Beach, I don’t care. But either way, it will be riveting.
The same is true for Javier Assad, who could be one arm at South Bend to really break out. I really like Assad a lot. Out of all the pitchers I watched at Eugene last summer, he improved the most in his arsenal and command. Now 20, he struck out 72 in 66 IP. He has a nice live mid 90s fastball and a good curve. If he commands his fastball down in the zone, he misses a lot of bats. He struck out 9 batters three times in short season ball where pitch limits are just 70-75 pitches. That is extremely impressive.
Top 2017 draft pick Brendon Little should be in South Bend most of the year as he works on his command and control.
While Albertos, Assad, and Camargo pitched well in full extended starts last year at Eugene, the one player who I am going to be fascinated with this year is the Cubs 2017 second round pick Cory Abbott. I was impressed with him last year as it pertained to his physical presence on the mound along with his actual talent and demeanor. He made five starts for Eugene, never throwing more than 3 innings and he exceeded 50 pitches only once.
While Little and Alex Lange got all the headlines from the draft, Abbott is an under the radar type who grew by leaps and bounds the last two years thanks in part to an uptick in his velocity and a slider that he modeled after Noah Syndergaard, his idol.
Fangraphs said the following about Abbott’s potential just last week:
Abbott has terrific glove-side control of his average slider and fastball, and can loop a 12-6 curveball into the zone for strikes. He’s not a great athlete but repeats his delivery well and could have plus command and control at peak. If he does — and he could move quickly — he’ll be a No. 4/5 starter.
Another possible breakout pitcher who did not get much time in Eugene in 2017 is Erich Uelmen. Uelmen was the Cubs fourth round pick out of Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. After his selection, he got in 17.2 innings of work with a 2.04 ERA and 23 Ks. He was just used in relief. Next year, his role could change.
Fangraphs’ Eric Longenhagen also liked him. Longenhagen said:
The club’s 2017 fourth-rounder out of Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo, Uelmen’s college stats are remarkable. He allowed just three home runs in 212 career innings at Cal Poly and struck out a batter per inning as a junior there, just as he did the prior summer on Cape Cod. He was up to 95 on the Cape but pitched more in the low 90s as a junior. His delivery is odd but effective. Uelmen is basically a side-armer, but has a shorter, quicker arm stroke than most of his low-slotted peers. It creates deception/extension which, along with his fastball’s significant arm-side movement, makes the fastball effective despite middling velocity. He also has an average slider, which he locates consistently to his glove side, and feel for creating movement on his changeup but not for locating it. There’s a chance Uelmen ends up with a starter’s repertoire and command. Ultimately, the very thing that has many skeptical about his chances of remaining a starter — his delivery — is precisely (because of its deception) what might allow him to be one.
Keegan Thompson out of Auburn is a third pitcher who I think will do extremely well at South Bend. He missed all of 2016 after undergoing Tommy John surgery and came back last year and was the Cubs third round pick. He pitched well in his debut in Eugene (mostly in relief) and he should come back stronger from the surgery than he did in 2017.
One of my own personal favorites from this list is Bailey Clark. Drafted out of Duke in 2016, Clark debuted that summer for Eugene but returned to school to finish his degree that fall. Due to finishing his degree and some nagging injuries and an inability to weight train, Clark came to camp late in the the spring. He pitched well in Eugene, especially in August where he had a 1.69 ERA in 3 starts. This offseason, Clark is injury free, improving his strength and his velocity should be back in the mid 90s when spring training rolls around. As a result, he could be either at South Bend or Myrtle Beach, depending on his camp.
So, here are my six to start the year for South Bend: Albertos, Assad, Little, Abbott, Thompson, and Clark or Uelmen. It’s still extremely hard to call this some 3 1/2 months away. However, I think Lange will go up and start at Myrtle Beach and Camargo and his plus changeup will be there, too.
I didn’t even get to the relievers in this post but here are three names to watch for out of the pen: Ricky Tyler Thomas, Jake Steffens, and Ben Hecht.
I am pretty geeked to see all of these guys throw next year. It should be very interesting to see who goes to what affiliate to begin the year and what their roles will be.
Next week’s mailbag will be just one question again. I will be comparing and contrasting the system now to 2011, just before Theo took over. That has brought back some ghosts.
The Cubs went and got themselves another pitcher this afternoon in reliever Brandon Morrow. Morrow signed a two-year deal (which I like) with an option and he fits the mold of a strike thrower (which Theo Epstein likes).
Morrow pitched last year with the Dodgers as a setup man and could be the closer with the Cubs. A former starting pitcher with Seattle, Toronto, and San Diego, Morrow has struggled in the past with injuries. In 7 seasons as a starter, he only threw over 100 innings 3 times, never coming close to 200 innings. Ironically, he started relieving in 2016 with the Padres.
He remained healthy all of last year as a reliever. With the Dodgers, Morrow appeared in 45 games throwing 43.2 IP. He struck out 50 and walked only 9 as opponents managed to hit .192 against him.
In the 2017 NLCS, Theo got a close up look at Morrow’s talents as Morrow consistently hit the upper 90s on the radar gun. Almost 70% of his pitches find the strike zone. His strikeout rate of 29.4% is impressive as is his walk rate of 5.3%.
Right now, Morrow slides into the back of the pen as a power arm with pitching experience but little experience as a closer. In his second year (2008) as pro in Seattle, Morrow saved 10 out of 12 games, 6 out of 8 in 2009, and just 2 out of 3 last year. As a result, the Cubs are taking a slight gamble and banking on Morrow’s track record the last two years out of the pen.
The Cubs are far from done in filling out their roster. They should be adding at least one more arm to the bullpen this week, likely a left-hander. It will interesting to see how that arm fits in with Morrow.
By Todd Johnson
What a week!
Between the Cubs attempted signing of Shohei Ohtani, the possibility that Giancarlo Stanton briefly wanted to come to the Cubs, and the signing of Tyler Chatwood, I am worn out. It was nice to sleep in on Saturday morning, if only to get some rest. Starting tomorrow, the General Manager meetings will take place in Orlando, Florida. As a result, there will be no respite next week.
From trade rumors to free agents, the internet has been a buzz of activity and speculation now that Ohtani and Stanton have cleared the marketplace.
Later, on Thursday the 14th, the Rule Five Draft will take place. There will be two parts – a minor-league phase and a major-league phase. The Cubs have 48 players eligible to be selected in the major league phase. However, most teams are not gonna want to take a chance on the Cubs’ talent except for maybe a few players like reliever Pedro Araujo and utility man Chesny Young. Then again, Araujo has never pitched above Class A Myrtle Beach while Young had an up and down season at AAA. Jacob Hannemann, who got a cup of coffee last year with Seattle, could be selected as well.
The Cubs could take a chance and select a pitcher like Kohl Stewart from Minnesota who they could put in the bullpen and develop him into a starter. The former 2013 first round pick (#4) of the Twins is someone the Cubs could take a gamble on in hopes of future performance. If it doesn’t work out, the Cubs return him back to Minnesota at the end of spring training. Ideally, the Cubs would hope to find a left-handed strike thrower and hope they get lucky like they did with Hector Rondon in 2012.
When it comes to the minor-league phase of the draft on Thursday, the Cubs only have 24 players eligible to be selected by other minor league systems. Any of the Cubs eligible prospects could be selected. Most likely, other organizations could select one of the Cubs eligible catchers that include Ali Solis, Cael Brockmeyer, Erick Costello, Alberto Mineo, and Will Remillard. The Cubs might try to stockpile some AAA and AA bullpen arms.
On Tuesday this past week, many of the prospects that were released in the Braves international free agent scandal began signing with other teams. Going into the weekend, there were still six players left. The Cubs currently have $930,000 left in their 2017-18 international free agent bonus pool per Arizona Phil. It looks like the bidding has been pretty high as the first six prospects all signed for bonuses over $1 million. The Cubs could be shutout on getting one inked.
In addition to the meetings next week, Baseball Prospectus will be releasing their top 10 Cubs Prospect List at some point. It was originally scheduled for Monday the 11th, but it looks like it’s going to be backed up to later in the week. I will be analyzing that list for this site, Cubs Insider, and BP Wrigleyville.
I last redid the Top 21 Prospect list shortly after the end of the minor league season. While I see no reason to currently change it, events could take place this week that might necessitate said change. I don’t foresee a lot of movement up my list except for Nelson Velazquez and Alex Lange. However, there’s gonna be a lot of movement in the list next summer. I originally planned on redoing the list in late March, just prior to the regular season beginning. Let’s play it by ear this week. The earliest I could redo it would be Saturday.
It’s hard to believe that we are closer to the draft than we are away from it. MLB Pipeline released their top 50 draft prospects last week and it looks like there will be a lot of good bats for the Cubs to pick from at #24. Pipeline has Florida high school pitcher Carter Stewart ranked #24. What I am intrigued by is the plethora of bats coming right after Stewart that include Greyson Jenista and Alec Bohm of Wichita State, thee Seth Beer, Luken Baker, and possible 5 tool sensation Tristan Pompey of Kentucky. A lot can happen between now and June. The player I am intrigued most with right now is Shortstop Xavier Edwards, a high school shortstop from Florida, who is ranked #38 by Pipeline.
Tomorrow, the Mailbag returns as I answer just one question on South Bend’s possible rotation for 2018. On Wednesday, the “Leveling Up” series is back and looks at pitcher Jose Albertos while the shortstops in the system get ranked on Friday in the position breakdown series.
Baseball Card of the Week
By Todd Johnson
It is the not the news I was expecting to hear today, but signing Tyler Chatwood to be a back of the rotation starter is alright with me.
Chatwood will turn 28 next week on the 16th. The 3-year $38 million deal is a pretty decent sign for a guy whose ERA away from Coors Field last year was 3.49. In 77.1 IP in other parks, Chatwood struck out 62, walked 40, and opponents only hit .200 against him. He does throw 5 pitches. However, after having 2 TJS (one at age 16), he was reaching the mid 90s (averaging 94.84) on his fastball summer, the highest peak since his last surgery in 2014.
Originally drafted the Angels in 2018, he debuted with the Angels in 2011. Chatwood has spent most of his pro career in Colorado – not an ideal location for a pitcher. His best year was 2013 (a year before TJS) when he made 20 starts with a 3/15 ERA.
(Graph courtesy of MLB.com)
Still young, Chatwood will be entering the prime of his pitching career as a Cub.
Hopefully, he will not be the only addition this week to the Cubs’ rotation.
By Todd Johnson
This series is beginning to stretch out longer than I thought it would. Originally, the plan was to do one mailbag, maybe two this offseason. Yet, this is the fourth and I have enough questions for two more after this. Considering there’s no rush to get to spring training, if you’d like to send me a question, go ahead and tweet at me (@CubsCentral08) or you can send me an email to CubsCentral firstname.lastname@example.org.
Does Wladimir Galindo start 2018 in South Bend?
I sure hope not. On Wednesday, Galindo gets centerstage in the “Leveling Up” series. In that piece, I am going to talk about how despite his injuries, he keeps moving up a level every year. A lot of that attributes to his natural power stroke. But the strange thing for me is that he gets better every year. Last year he hit .290 in just 44 games and had 36.9% of batted balls go to right field – that’s very Sammy-esque. As a result, I feel pretty confident in saying that he’s going to begin 2018 in Myrtle Beach.
Coming off a broken leg cannot be easy, but Galindo is already soft hitting off a tee and looks to be on track to be ready.
Should the Cubs promote Buddy Bailey to bench coach in the next couple of years?
While Buddy does have a wealth of experience and a great mind, it’s obvious that he is best suited to teaching prospects. He has done a much better job of getting AA prospects ready to play for AA while he has been in Class A Myrtle Beach the past two seasons. I am excited to see how his work this year with Eddy Martinez, Jesse Hodges, Zack Short, and Tyler Alamo pays off next year in Tennessee. Even though he won’t be there, you can see his fingerprints all over David Bote and Charcer Burks from this past year. I think Buddy is right where he needs to be to help the Cubs organization the most.
Is De La Cruz’s future/projection as a starter or a closer?
This is a great question, Shawn. I have been thinking about this a lot over the past two summers. In that timeframe, Oscar has only pitched 95 innings. He’s look good in doing so, but if he’s going to need a lot of work to be a MLB starter. Consider this – the highest amount of innings he’s pitched in one season is 73. That’s not very many. Ideally, when starters get to the MLB level, they should have pitched between 130-140 innings the previous year at AA/AAA. With Oscar, I am really struggling to keep him a starter if beyond this year if he cannot stay healthy because of his lack of innings.
If you watch Oscar throw, it doesn’t look like there’s any kind of over-exertion. He comes across as throwing free and easy in the low to mid 90s. It doesn’t look like he puts much effort into throwing a curve or change. It is easy to see why so many people are so high on him. But if you can’t stay healthy, you can’t stay healthy.
The best thing about Oscar is that he still 23. The Cubs still have about three more years to work with him if they envision him as a starter. I would wager that he gets a crack at starting again this year and next.
As for his assignment in 2018, I don’t know if that’s going to be at Myrtle Beach or Tennessee. I’d like to think it would be Tennessee, but I think how he looks in spring training will determine everything.
Next Week’s mailbag will be devoted to just one question – How does the system now compare to when Theo took over in 2011?
By Todd Johnson
Carl Edwards, Jr.
Those names don’t exactly exude confidence to get the final three to nine outs of a game. After yesterday’s announcement that the Cubs did not tender a contract to reliever Hector Rondon, new pitching coach Jim Hickey’s job just tougher, a lot tougher. At over $6 million, Rondon’s contract was getting too pricey to just be a setup man. The Cubs essentially said, “Thank you for service, but no thanks for 2018.” As a result, Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer now have their work cut out for themselves this offseason.
Originally, just Wade Davis and Brian Duensing had left via free agency. The Cubs now have to replace half their pen and add depth to stash at AAA Iowa, which appears to be well underway.
Since the end of last season, the Cubs have taken some flyers on some arms with minimal MLB experience. Righty Luke Farrell could relieve, he could start. He has 13 career MLB innings. Righty Cory Mazzoni has 16 career innings to go with his shiny 17.28 career ERA. Lefty Randy Rosario’s career ERA is a whopping 30.86 in just 2.1 innings. And this week, the Cubs signed 29-year-old lefty Dario Alvarez. He might be alright. He threw 16 IP in 2017 with a 2.67 ERA but also put up an unsustainable whip of 2.02. He walked 14 batters. I thought his signing was a little odd as Theo talked about adding strike throwers in his offseason press sessions. I don’t think that is what he had in mind.
After seeing those stats, I am not brimming with confidence. I am not in sheer terror either, but I am concerned. The Cubs will need to find a closer and a couple of setup men while adding depth at AAA.
Theo is going to have hit the free agent market and maybe use the Rule 5 Draft (Kohl Stewart of Minnesota is one name I like) as a cheaper option. Theo has been able to find arms in the past rather cheaply and I am sure he will again. In addition, I would not be surprised to see Theo make a trade for an arm or two rather than overpay in the free agent market or in an international free agent.
Here are some free agent names to look for to see if the Cubs are associated with or show interest in over the next month:
Brian Shaw, Brandon Morrow, Pat Neshek, Brandon Kintzler, Addison Reed, Juan Nicasio, Luke Gregerson, Fernando Rodney, Matt Albers, Tony Watson, and Jake McGee.
As for internal options…
Dillon Maples is close to being ready. While he has top flight MLB pitches, it is just a matter of controlling them. At 25, he now stands a better chance of making the 25 man roster. I always thought that Jen-Ho Tseng’s change-curve combo would play better out of the pen than as a starter. He could get that chance in 2018. While Rob Zastryzny is an option, but I don’t know if I see him as a long term option. Justin Hancock is another strong arm. He had an up and down year year for three MiLB teams in 2017, but he does throw in the upper 90s. David Garner finally made it to AAA in August but struggled in his one month there. He is going to need some seasoning at that level. One name I like is Tommy Nance. He spent all of 2017 injured. He reminds me of Brandon Webb in that he throws a “hard” ball that breaks a lot of bats. Nance would be a very longshot to make the team, but I could see him getting a shot later in the summer if all goes well with his health.
In the end, adding three to four more arms to a corps that struggled to find the plate in 2018 is a bit concerning. All last night I kept wondering if Theo would overpay for pen security or would he try to find undervalued arms somewhere. However, heading into day 2 of the Shohei Otani watch, rebuilding the pen could take a while as the Cubs do have more pressing needs at starting pitching. Once the Otani dust settles, it should be interesting to see how the bullpen shakes down.