2019 Draft Grades – Still Waiting for the Second Wave of Prospects

It is hard to believe that this is the sixth year that I have been handing out draft grades. Every year things change as players come and go, especially earlier in the Theo era. While some of those first classes produced bats, no class since 2014 has a player currently on the 25 man roster. However, a year from now, that all could change.

2011 – Previous Grades – B, B+
Baez and Maples are all that is left. Last year there were 4 guys, but attrition happens quicker than you think in the minors. Still, this class is far from done. With the Vogelbach trade bringing Mike Montgomery, that adds a little more to the class. Javy amd Monty are going to be around for a at least 2 more seasons.
2019 Grade – A.

2012 Previous Grades – B+, A-, B, B-, B-
I used to think this class was going to be really special but it just did not pan out. Albert Almora still is the headliner, but David Bote really seems to be stealing the show. Duane Underwood is still hanging around the minors, but I don’t know for how long.
2019 Grade – B.

2013 Draft Class – Previous Grades – A, A, A+, A+, A+
This draft class brought a MVP, a Rookie of the Year, and a World Series title. And that’s just Kris Bryant. Down in the minors, Trevor Clifton is knocking on the door while Jake Hannemann and Charcer Burks are still plugging away at AAA and AA respectively.
2019 Grade – A+

2014 Draft Class – Previous Grades – A-, A, A, B
There are still nine guys in the system left from this draft. That’s quite a bit for 5 years, but just two are currently on the 25 man roster. Both Kyle Schwarber and Mark Zagunis play in the OF in Chicago, but most of the others are still hanging on at AA and AAA hoping for a chance.
2019 Grade – B-.

2015 Draft ClassPrevious Grades – B, B, C
12 guys remaining from this class are still in the game for the Cubs. However, the impact at the MLB level is nil this year. While Ian Happ struggled in April, May has seen some improvement by him. Meanwhile, PJ Higgins and Craig Brooks are off to great starts this year. While there is still hope for this class, they are stuck in the logjam that is the Cubs’ system now.
2019 Grade – C-

2016 Draft ClassPrevious Grades – B-, B+
16 guys still remain with many of them having a legitimate shot at Chicago in the next two years. Tyson Miller looks to be at the head of the line as a pitcher and could be the first Cubs’ draft pick in the Theo era to stick in the rotation in the next two years. Zack Short leads the hitting side, but he is probably slated more for a utility role in the future. Dakota Mekkes, Duncan Robinson, and Matt Swarmer are at AAA and the top pick, a third rounder at that, Thomas Hatch is at AA with Bailey Clark and a few others. Eventually, there could be 3-4 guys make it from this class which outpaces any class on this list.
2019 Grade – B+

2017 Draft Class  – Previous Grades – B-
In just two years, this class is all over the place. There were several cuts already, some surprises, some injuries, some trades, and some players who look close to being Chicago-ready just two years after signing. Cory Abbott, right now at least, has the makings of a rotation guy in the next two years. Some of the other big arms the Cubs took in this draft are not having their best year or a year at all in some cases. Jeremiah Estrada hopefully will be ready to go for Eugene in a few weeks and Nelson Velazquez is off to a great start at South Bend to begin this season. I am still waiting for Keegan Thompson and Erich Uelmen to start it back up this year.
2019 Grade – B-.

2018 Draft ClassThey will get their own post and grade next Tuesday. And it’s a good and very hopeful one that involves some hitting, for a change, and some surprising pitching.


Prospect Update – Javier Assad Off to a Great Start in 2019

Pitcher Javier Assad is having himself a month at Myrtle Beach. Dating back to the 27th of April, he’s thrown 21 straight scoreless innings. Included in there are a wave of 20 strikeouts in those 21 frames. WIth a 2.19 ERA and falling, Assad is in the running for the Cubs’ MiLB Pitcher of the Month for May.

Basic Info
Ht: 6’1”
Wt: 200 lbs.
Throws: Right
Signed as an IFA in 2015
From: Tijuana, Mexico
Age 21

When I last wrote about Javier at the end of 2017, he had just finished Eugene and I said he would have his work cut out for him in 2018 at South Bend. And he did.

He came out on fire for South Bend with an 0.95 ERA in 4 starts in April and was decent in May with a 3.91 ERA. He began to labor through things a bit in June with a 5.87 ERA. Then, all of a sudden, he turned it back on in July with a 2.55 ERA In 5 starts. It looked like he figured things out. Then, he bottomed out in August as he was shelled with a 9.00 ERA. It was tough to watch at times.

Heading into this season, Fangraphs said that Assad was “a maxed-out righty with advanced pitchability for his age. His stuff is average.” His stuff doesn’t appear so average at this stage of the season.

Something is clicking for Assad this year. Part of it could be maturity, part of it could be he’s in better shape, and part of it could be his stuff.

Currently, Assad has a 2.19 ERA over 7 starts. Take away his worst start where he gave up 5 runs in 5 innings and his ERA drops to 1.41 over 32 innings. Going back and re-watching him, I noticed some things about Assad that are happening.

1. Conditioning
He just looks more trim than in previous seasons. He used to carry, for lack of a better term, some baby fat. The upper part of his frame looks more athletic. Last fall, the Cubs changed up their offseason program for their prospects. Instructs were no longer in the fall. Instead, conditioning took its place. Assad looks to have benefitted from that change. Now, instructs take place a few weeks before spring training. Any changes he made over the winter and in instructs now carry right into spring training and the season.

2. Spots
He is hitting them with regularity. Rarely will Miguel Amaya or Teddy Payne adjust their glove for his fastball. Having good fastball command is always a key at this level.

3. Walks
He is not giving up many. He’s averaging around 2.5 per nine innings.

4. Efficiency
6, 6, 7. Those are his last three inning totals this season. In April, he made 4 starts with a 4.50 ERA. In 5 starts, he only managed 19 innings. And in those five starts, his innings and pitch totals are quite different when compared to May. For April – 5 innings, 75 pitches; 4 innings, 81 pitches; 4 innings, 86 pitches, and 5 innings, 86 pitches. Contrast that with May – 6 innings, 80 pitches; 6 innings, 85 pitches; and 7 innings, 85 pitches.

What to Watch for in the Future
Considering the streak Assad is currently on, I am not concerned when it will end but more so how it will end. Will it be a big blowout or just a simple run or two in a single game? Finding that consistency is key. Throwing in the low to mid 90s with his fastball, he is going to head to AA at some point in the future. Could it be this summer? With the plethora of pitching the Cubs have, and the fact that Assad is still just 21, he should be at the Beach all year. You never know, though, stranger things have happened in this system.

Overall, I would just like to see him be consistent from month to month and to stay healthy. AA is going to be the big test of how his stuff could play at the MLB level. One area of concern that I have, that in spite of his troubles or successes, he is still throwing about 62-63% if his pitches for strikes. He’s going to need to bump that up to 66-67% to succeed at the higher levels of the minors.

The Weekly: Players Return from the IL and Some Roster News

Despite raindrops falling all over the midwest US, Cubs affiliates still got several games in this week. There was a not of lot of big-time news happening, though. It was just a week of players trying to improve and grind away.

The highlights of the week when it came to hitting involved the HR. The Cubs system does not have much power hitting, but this week, there seemed to be a lot more. Delvin Zinn, who had 1 career HR before Thursday, cracked two of them Thursday night. Kevonte Mitchell cracked them on back-to-back days.

Pitching, on the other hand, had a great week. Paul Richan, Colin Rea, Javier Assad, and Tyson Miller all had excellent starts and have begun moving ahead of the pack when it comes to being Pitcher of the Morning nth. All three likely have 2 starts each before June arrives.

There was one promotion this week. Pitcher Ryan Lawlor was moved from South Bend to Myrtle Beach. Good for him! The big lefty has been used mainly in relief for the Cubs but I would not be surprised to see him do some piggyback/long relief outings with the Pelicans’ Erich Uelmen, who is set to come back to Myrtle Beach very soon.

Roster News
Adbert Alzolay had a rehab start for Myrtle Beach early in the week and found himself at Des Moines by week’s end. Neither start went particularly well. But for Alzolay, this is pretty much his spring training for 2-3 more starts.

OF Jake Hannemann is also back in Iowa. Rule 5 pick Alexander Vargas, a pitcher, debuted for Myrtle Beach. His first outing was in relief and his second game saw him throw a 5 perfect innings. My guy, reliever Sean Barry, debuted for South Bend and has been excellent so far. And Erich Uelmen went 4 innings in EXST this week and he should be in Myrtle Beach very, very soon.

And last, but not least, 2B Gioskar Amaya returned to action after 2 years of injuries. He went 1-for-3 in his return to AA Tennessee. He is no longer catching, but is back in the infield.

And in a bit of sad news, Ryan Williams was released after struggling with shoulder issues the past 2.5 years.

Weekly Roundup
Iowa – (1-5; 25-17) – It was a tough week in Des Moines as the pitching and hitting went south in a hurry. The bright spots for the week were pitcher Colin Rea and IF Robel Garcia. Rea is starting to string together good start after good start. His ERA for the year is 2.91 but it is a measly 1.74 in 4 May starts. Garcia, at least offensively, has not slowed down since getting the bump to Des Moines.
Tennessee – (4-3; 21-21) – This team is a little bit Jekyll and a little bit Mr. Hyde. The hitting has plummeted in May with only Vimael Machin and Christian Donahue playing at an All-Star level. As for pitching, Tyson Miller, Cory Abbott, and Oscar de la Cruz keep humming along. The questions should begin to rise about if any of the three will get a shot at Iowa this this summer.
Myrtle Beach – (3-4; 15-28) – Alexander Vargas’ 5 inning no hit start on Friday might be the surprise performance of the year. Vargas is just 21 and was a Rule 5 pick this winter.
South Bend – (4-2; 23-17) – Look out for South Bend! They are playing very well and their bullpen is the unsung hero of this winning stretch with 5 of the 8 having ERAs of 0.00 this month.

Short Season Start Dates
Dominican Summer League – June 3
Eugene – June 14
Arizona Rookie League – June 17

Draft News
It is now just two weeks away. More and more mock drafts are coming out and the first round looks to be getting very crowded with college bats. Some of the high school hitters are falling out of the first at a very fast rate. As a result, the Cubs can get two quality hitters in the first two rounds. However, it looks as though Seth Johnson of Campbell, a pitcher I profiled for Cubs Insider, could be available at the end of the first round. An even more intriguing option might be 3B Kody Hoese of Tulane. I have a profile of him coming up soon over at Cubs Insider as well.

Coming up
On Monday ,I’m going to release a profile update on pitcher Javier Assad. The next day,  I’m going to revisit the draft grades from 2011 through 2017. As for the rest of the week, I will let it just roll out as I have no plans.

Card of the Week

Made from a pic by Dylan Heuer/Iowa Cubs

Players of the Week

Prospect Update: PJ Higgins Looks Like He Is Back in the Infield

While Nico Horner and Robel Garcia were getting all the press down in Tennessee for the Smokies to begin this season, one guy that’s also did well was PJ Higgins. He came out of the gate hot and has cooled off some. This year, Higgins has been playing a mixture of catcher, first base, and third base and he’s been doing it at a high-level.

When the Cubs signed PJ Higgins in 2015, he was the last player to sign and he played a mixture of third and second that summer. Then come 2016, he was behind the plate for South Bend. Even then, I loved his approach and his ability to put the bat on the ball. 

He even caught the eye of Fangraphs before 2017. They said,

A viable but unspectacular defensive catcher with a solid hit tool and exceptional approach, Higgins had nearly as many walks as strikeouts in the Midwest League last year but was 23 and his complete lack of power has many skeptical about his ability to sustain his walk rate at upper levels.

At South Bend, Higgins played 77 games behind the plate and 17 at first while also getting a lot of plate work in as the DH. It was a very successful year as he hit .283 with a .389 OBP and wRC+ of 127. At Myrtle Beach in 2017, Higgins had some bad luck in front of the dish but not behind it. His BABIP was an uncharacteristically low .260. He would rebound in 2018 at Myrtle Beach as he had a scintillating first half with a 126 wRC+, thanks in large part to a .381 OBP.

When Higgins got his promotion to Tennessee, he kept on catching as he got in 21 games behind the dish in July and August.

Things went well enough for Higgins last year that the Cubs sent him to play in the Arizona Fall League. That did not go so well as he only hit .158 for the term. Then again, he only played in 10 games out of 38. But 2080 Baseball did get some video of him in action.

Things are changing this year for Higgins, but not when it comes to hitting.

As of May 16, he was hitting .285 with a .364 OBP and a wRC+ of 129. He also had 3 HRs and 16 RBI at that time. Except for 2017, Higgins has always been able to square up the baseball, draw a walk, and get on base at every level. His power may have been a concern but not his pitch recognition skills nor his approach at the plate.

The Cubs have a lot of depth at catching right now, and to stand out, any prospect is really going to have to get noticed on both sides of the ball. That prospect is going to have to throw out runners, manage pitchers, and produce at the plate. Higgins did that at both stops in class A. 

ImageHowever, his fielding position is now different in 2019. He is playing the field much more than catching. This year, he only has five games behind the plate. He’s spent 18 games at first, one at second and 13 at third. He started playing the infield more and more when he was promoted last July. And that trend looks like it is going to continue through this year.

When I start thinking about what Higgins role could be for the Cubs, it is a little cloudy due to the Cubs depth. Still, Higgins could be an asset as a utility guy considering his bat skills, versatility as a fielder, and consistent double digit walk rates throughout his career. Higgins can hit, but can he hit enough to keep moving up? And just exactly what position is he going to play?

It should be an interesting summer in Tennessee.

Draft Prep Profile – Mitchell Parker Could Be a Gamble That Pays off on Day 3

In the 2018 MLB draft, the Cubs took a long shot in selecting high school pitcher Mitchell Parker from Manzano, New Mexico. At the time, Parker had a strong commitment to Tennessee. There were rumored negotiations taking place that Mitchell might sign with the Cubs if they met his dollar figure but that did not happen.

Now that 2019 is here, Parker did not end up in Tennessee. Instead, he is pitching for San Jacinto North Junior College in San Jacinto, Texas. He is eligible to be drafted again this year and he is having quite the season.

Basic Info
Height – 6‘4“
Weight – 200 pounds
Throws – Left
Age 19

There’s a lot to like about Parker. He’s tall, lanky, and he could add a few more pounds and still remain pretty flexible. He’s been clocked anywhere from 86 to 92, depending on the day. His secondary pitches still need some work. So, another year of junior college might not be a bad thing as he gains experience. But what I like most about him are his mechanics. Even in high school, the Cubs liked what he flashed in this video from Fangraphs.

While he still needs to fine-tune his release point, Mitchell does not seem to throw the ball with much effort. He’s playing catch in the upper 80s and low 90s and getting some pretty good run. His curve has some good shape to it, but I don’t think it’s a pitch that he can consistently locate just yet.

This year at San Jacinto, Parker is averaging over 15.5 strikeouts per nine innings. To go along with that stat, he’s averaging over 6 walks per nine innings. He’s not giving up a lot of hits, it’s just a matter of command. And that command should come through timing and repetition. He seems like a decent enough athlete that Parker will respond to pro coaching to fine-tune his delivery. And it’s also going to come with experience. He probably comes across more of a project than a prodigy. There’s definitely a lot to work with and that’s the key.

For the Cubs to take him, they’re going to have to have his permission. While his teammate 6’8” righty Jackson Rutledge is likely a first round pick, Mitchell would be a day three pick. The Cubs would have to decide whether Parker would benefit from another year of seasoning in college or developing through professional instruction.

Cubs Look to Be Going with Quality over Quantity Again in the New IFA Market

Since the new collective bargaining agreement changed how bonus pools could be spent in international free agency, the Cubs have shifted their strategy in signing international players.
In the early years of the Theo era, they would sign some elite 16-year-olds and go way over the cap, and then buy in bulk in the penalty years. They did that for five years from 2013-2017. But those days are now gone. Instead, there’s a hard cap that cannot be breached.

Image2018 was the first year of the new way of doing business in International Free Agency. To date, the Cubs have only signed 19 players since last July 2. The Cubs also acquired some $350,000 in additional money that they have to use before June 15 when this year’s signing period ends. 

The 2018-2019 class saw the Cubs sign 3 of MLB Pipeline’s top 30 IFAs. There was no longer the 40+ signees of 2016 or the 35+ of 2017. The Cubs went for bigger but fewer signings in using their pool.

Yesterday, MLB Pipeline listed their new top 30 IFAs for this coming signing period and the Cubs are again linked to three of the top 30 prospects including two in the top 11.

Both Quintero and Made have been linked to the Cubs for several months by Baseball America.

These three will not be the only signees the Cubs ink. And like 2018-2019, the 2019-2020 signing period should see the Cubs sign players throughout the year. This past year, the Cubs only signed 12 of their free agents in 2018. And of those 12, 8 were signed in the first two months.

It is more than likely that the Cubs will continue to sign quality players early while still looking for more pool money in trades. As the past year’s signing period is ending, it is worth wondering if the Cubs will try to sign just 1 guy with the money they have left or will they buy in bulk like 2016-2017. Add in the fact that the Mexican market is now back open, anything is still on the table for this year. And who knows what might be floating around for next season. 

Prospect Update: Cory Abbott Is Polishing Up His Resume for Chicago

Cory Abbott looks like he is going to be the best second round pick the Cubs have made in the Theo Epstein era. Until yesterday, he had been just flat out filthy for AA Tennessee to start the year. Armed with a fastball that he can locate and a plus slider, Abbott has been missing a lot of bats in the Southern League.

The modus operandi for Abbott the past year and a half has been pretty standard. Abbott would arrive at an affiliate, struggle for two-three weeks, make adjustments, and then dominate. He did that at Eugene in 2017 after being drafted, he did it again at South Bend last April and May, and he did it at Myrtle Beach in June, July, and August of 2018. I had him as Cubs Central’s Pitcher of the Year after posting a 2.50 between the two affiliates with 131 Ks in 1115 innings. In fact, I was a little surprised he didn’t get to see a little bump to Tennessee at the end of the year. 

Basic Info
Height – 6’2”
Weight – 220 lbs.
Bats – Right
Throws – Right
Age – 23
Drafted – 2017 – 2nd round, Loyola Marymount
ETA – 2020

Abbott  ticked up his senior year of college and the Cubs took him in the second round. He’s been very successful at every stop so far in the Cubs system. While Abbott does have a 92-94 mile per hour fastball that he can spot, it is his slider/slurve/cutter that is his go-to pitch. 

Here is what MLB pipeline had to say this spring about Abbott. They ranked him as the Cubs 18th top prospect.

Hitters don’t see the ball well against Abbott, who has a deceptive delivery and generates swings and misses without a true plus pitch. His best offering is his improved cutter, which sits in the upper 80s. He added velocity to his four-seam fastball last year, pitching at 90-93 mph, and also has a decent curveball and a fringy changeup.

Going back to his early days in college when he didn’t have his weaponized cutter, Abbott challenged hitters and filled the strike zone. He has a strong build and is efficient with his pitch counts, so he should be able to log plenty of innings toward the back of a rotation.

That evaluation and analysis gives us a better idea of just what makes him so effective on the mound and what could possibly make him effective at the major league level.

However, it is the mental aspects of the game where Abbott really stands out. He’s tenacious, competitive, and driven. When he pitches, Cory doesn’t really exert maximum maximum effort, but you can see his brain working just as hard as his body. He is a fierce competitor as he attacks the strike zone with every pitch.There’s a ferocity and an intensity that’s almost unmatched in the system.

To that end, his strike percentage is pretty good as well. At Eugene, it was 64%, South Bend 65%, Myrtle Beach 64%, and this year it is humming along at 64%.

Currently, he has a 2.86 ERA in 28.1 innings. In his five starts, he’s pitched into the sixth in all but one. While he did give up a four spot yesterday, Abbott will make adjustments and be ready for the next start and he will go deep into the game. He has only hit 90 pitches once this year. He is going to get stretched out very soon as the weather warms.

What about Chicago?
Anything is on the table at this point, but Abbott needs to get through AA first. The Cubs have to love what he has been able to do in less than two years. His intangibles really make him stand out from all the other pitchers, and he does have major league pitches. With Cole Hamels’ contract expiring at the end of this year, there could be an opening for the rotation next year. Mike Montgomery, Kendall Graveman, Adbert Alzolay, and a host of others will be competing along with Abbott for that spot. It is going to be fun.