Chicago Cubs

Leveling Up Series – Austin Filiere Already Knows It’s a Game of Less than an Inch

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By Todd Johnson

There were fans who snickered and chortled when the Cubs selected Austin Filiere, a third baseman from MIT, in the 2017 draft. After a few at bats, it was pretty clear why the Cubs selected Austin Filiere. In addition to having some power, the young third baseman also showed an adept eye at the plate.  In his short tenure as a Eugene Emerald in 2017, Filiere hit .261 with an outstanding .392 on base percentage. He hit six home runs and drove in 25 in just 49 games. He is going to play three times as many games at South Bend this season. He can improve his defense some for 2018, but for now, he is sufficient.

Maybe the most encouraging sign about Filiere’s development last year was that he seemed to be better every time I saw him. He was one of the best two players on the team the last month of the season. He drove in 14 runs but he also walked 17 times…that month! He also cranked 4 HRs to go with an OBP of .405 for August.

Basic Info
6’1″ 190 lbs.
Bats Right
Throws Right
2018 Affiliate: South Bend
8th Round Pick in 2017 from MIT

Leveling Up
Filiere probably does not have that many people writing about him. With the potential to hit 20 home runs in the Midwest League, Filiere could change some minds in the first half of the year. Not that he’s a breakout prospect, but he is one who could be. His mix of power and plate discipline reminds me of Zack Short and Ian Rice. However, I think Filiere might have more juice than the aforementioned prospects who were at South Bend the previous two years.

With his approach, he comes across as doing everything he should be as an entry-level prospect.

The well-renowned Peter Gammons did a profile on Filiere before the Cubs took him. It is an interesting look at Filiere’s MIT career, his time in the Cape Cod League, and his potential as a pro. What has always stayed with me is this quote from Filiere on the intricacies of plate coverage:

“I know that if it’s 88-90 miles an hour, I can try to handle a ball an inch out of the zone, but I can’t if it’s an inch and a half. Of course, when you’re facing the really good pitchers from the big programs, there’s a major learning curve involved.”

To know that your plate coverage is that minute at such an early age is pretty telling of how well he knows the zone, hitting, and his own strengths and limitations.

Here’s the Catch
What might separate Filiere from other prospects will be a full off-season of immersion in the Cubs way. No offense to MIT coaching, but there’s no comparison as to the things he can learn from his professional coaches as a Cub. Whether that’s nutrition, physical training, or mental training, he is going to be more prepared as a hitter this year than he was last year. I’m very excited to see how much he’s improved since last August.


A Preview of the Upcoming Affiliate Previews

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By Todd Johnson

Last night, my busy season at school officially came to an end. While I do have the conference tournament for Scholastic Bowl next Thursday night, I finally have some time to write more during the school week. The main objective I have now is to begin writing the affiliate previews for Iowa, Tennessee, Myrtle Beach, and South Bend.  This will take place over the next three weeks.

Starting on Monday, April 1, I will begin posting a preview a day for each of the Cubs affiliates. This year, I decided to wait to put together the previews because I was really unsure of who is going to pitch at which affiliate and who is going to pitch in what role. Once the major-league roster is set on Thursday morning of the 29th, writing the affiliate previews will get much easier.

When it came down to begin prewriting the previews, I decided that I wanted to do them differently for 2018. I knew I wanted the previews to be something that was enjoyable, informative, surprising, and quick to read, and to write. Those are not easy objectives to meet in one single post.

So, to that end, I decided to come up with some possible headings. I also wanted to make each preview a bit different rather than a rote exercise of fill in the blank writing. As a result, I have some different section headers I have been kicking around. I will not use every section header in every post. Instead, I will try to make each preview unique. Here are a few possible section titles.

Big Names – This section will be about from the highest ranked and well known prospects who should be on that affiliate. It’s not going to be a full-blown scouting report on them. Instead, it’s just going to be some blurbs about this length.

Possible Sleepers – It is rare for a player to break out at the higher levels, but it does happen. Most recently, Willson Contreras tore up AA in 2015 to breakout. Usually, the sleeper section will be the hardest part to complete. At the lower levels, there could be plenty of guys who could bust a move in 2018.

First to be Promoted – It seems strange, but sometimes prospects don’t stay very long at an affiliate. This has been known to happen quite a bit at South Bend and Myrtle Beach early in the year. Some are gone by mid-May.

The New Guy – This will be the first prospect who gets promoted to that affiliate from a lower level.

My Guy – I admit that I have favorite players that I like to watch. They are not always a top prospect, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be good baseball players or exciting.

Best of – If included, it could include some “best of” like best curve, best strike zone discipline, best fastball, best power, best speed, and many more. Part of me wants to do a whole team preview like this.

Numbers – For the South Bend Preview in 2017, I did a “10 Things I Think” post and I liked doing that kind of preview post. I expect only one preview will be like that again this year.

Lineup Card – It is what it sounds like and probably will not contain a whole lot of content. Rather, it’s just gonna be a list of the possible starters at every position.

Most Likely – I thought of this one in the tub (I do a lot of my best thinking there). This could just a small section where I analyze a prospect by attaching the phrase “Most Likely” to predict a certain kind of performance or arc in in a player’s development.

Themes – I haven’t decided on any type of a theme. Rather, I began thinking about common threads that connect the prospects together; something that connects their personalities together.  I have a couple of ideas but no fully fleshed-out ideas.

My hope is that each preview will be distinctly different from the one before and the one after.

I will start with Iowa on Monday, April 2nd, Tennessee will be on Tuesday while Myrtle Beach is scheduled for Wednesday. South Bend will be profiled just in time for their debut on Thursday. And as usual, I will have my annual preview of a preview for Eugene on Friday that week (That usually ends up on their website as well). On Saturday of that week, I will conclude opening week with my Pre-Season First Half All-Star Team.  It should be a fun week to post some writing. I will give a glimpse of the two Mesa teams when they begin play in the middle of June. As for the two Dominican teams, I will, more than likely, just list their rosters in “The Weekly” some sunny Sunday.

Spring Training Notes – Week 2: Lester, Happ, Gimenez, Underwood, and Some Draft Risers

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By Todd Johnson

My busy season now has just a week left. After last Saturday’s history fair and two sets of Scholastic bowl matches, it is nice to get some rest this weekend and catch up on everything in the Cubs’ universe. This week will be my busiest week as I have the IHSA Scholastic Bowl regional on Monday and then five conference matches over two nights on Tuesday and Thursday. By Friday, my butt is going to be dragging.

Meanwhile, the Cubs starting pitching rotation looks to be set. Manager Joe Maddon coronated veteran Jon Lester to be the Cubs’ opening day starting pitcher. While Lester is clearly not at the peak of his performance in terms of velocity anymore, I think he’s going to have a much better year under new pitching coach Jim Hickey than he did in a conflicted 2017 with Chris Bosio. After Lester, Hendricks, Darvish, Quintana, and Chatwood will follow. I thought that was an interesting way to break up the lefty-righty combos. And it also looks like a way to take pressure off of Darvish and Quintana in the three and four spots. It’s almost as if the Cubs have four number two pitchers and a number five.

As for the action on the field, Ian Happ has been the center of attention the first week plus. Cranking out three home runs from the leadoff spot will do that.  Theo Epstein even called him his breakout player for 2018 on 670 The Score the other day. In addition, Happ has been flashing the leather and looks a little bit leaner as a center fielder.

Most pitchers that have seen any action have only gone one inning. As a result, it’s really hard to evaluate what is happening as the Cubs have mainly relied on arms that should be at AAA Iowa in 2018. Still, Zach Hedges and Duane Underwood, Jr. have each been impressive in their two outings. The Cubs starters really haven’t gotten much work in other than an inning or two apiece. Yu Darvish has yet to pitch.

Catcher Chris Gimenez has destroyed the baseball in the first week of camp. Then again, he is not exactly been facing major league pitching. It’ll be interesting to see how he does over the next 3 and 1/2 weeks. I think as he sees more major league arms in spring training games, Gimenez might struggle more than he is right now.

In an article on the Cubs website, Carrie Muskat did a great job talking about Duane Underwood and his new physique and mental outlook this spring. Even Joe Maddon chimed in on the new Duane:

“His body is better, he’s leaner. When he came into camp this year, he had a different look about him. This is a guy with a high ceiling, and he hasn’t realized it. There’s a lot of conversation from the front office, coaches, etc. I think this winter he went home and did a little soul searching. He’s much more assertive, he’s attacking the zone.”

The Allen Webster signing on Friday made little sense to me as it could possibly take a AAA roster spot from a prospect the Cubs drafted and developed. The Cubs are taking a lot of gambles on some former big names this spring like Webster and Danny Hultzen in hopes that the player can either salvage their career or catch lightning in a bottle. Odds are that most of them will be cut in early April. The low risk/high reward flyer has been part of the Cubs’ modus operandi since 2012 with little effect other than Hector Rondon.

Draft News

Baseball America beefed up their top 200 draft prospects to a top 300 list. As usual, they redid some of the rankings near the top just based on how some of the college players are doing. The biggest riser so far has been Stanford pitcher Tristan Beck. The big right-hander is skyrocketing up their list and might soon be out of reach of the Cubs. In addition, Wichita State third baseman Alec Bohm has gone from the late 20s to the low 20s. Considering that most high school teams, especially in the north, don’t start for a couple more weeks, these moves up could be temporary or they could be permanent. But both players bear watching. Missouri State Shortstop Jeremy Eierman and Duke OF Griffin Conine could be on the Cubs radar now along with Kentucky pitcher Sean Hjelle. 

Topps Heritage

As an avid fan of baseball cards, and not so much a collector anymore, I have been checking out the Topps Heritage Series as it kind of resembles what I have been doing for the past six summers. Topps, however, has been doing it since 2001. It takes old cards and puts current players in them. Over the course of the past week, I downloaded a few cards and made a couple adjustments to some players the Cubs picked up over the winter. While Topps only does one season per year in the series, they do change the throwback card every year. 

What I am Working On

Once I survive this week, I have a couple things that I have been quietly assembling. The first one is my preseason minor league All-Star team. So far, I just added pictures/cards of who I think will be the top Cubs players in the first half. Because Eugene does not start until the second half, a few of the Cubs’ top prospects won’t be on that list. I am also adding two breakout players who I think will really shine at either South Bend, Myrtle Beach, Tennessee, or Iowa.

And as for the affiliate previews, I have done a little more than to assemble the position players. With minor-league camp just starting, I think it’s too early to try and figure out just exactly which prospects are going to be pitching where. With as many arms that they have selected in the draft and signed internationally the past two summers, there is going to be a ton of competition for what amounts to be 22 spots from AAA down to low class A. 

Coming Up Next Week

Because of my schedule, I already have this week’s posts pre-written and uploaded, it’s just a matter of clicking the publish button. On Monday, I take a look at a few high school bats that the Cubs could be interested in following this spring. On Wednesday, Austin Upshaw returns. This time I will profile him in the “Leveling Up” series. And on Friday, if all goes well, I return with a post about the Latin infusion of talent coming north of the border at some point this summer.

Baseball Card of the Week


Cubs 2018 Spring Training Preview: Just a Few Answers Still Left

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By Todd Johnson

Heading into spring training, there are a few things that still need answered. Some are about roster positions, some are about roles, and some are just glimpses into the future. Considering how sloth-like the off-season went, I was finding it hard to get pumped up for spring training until Saturday’s signing. However, these answers could be very different in June and July than they are now.

1. The Yu Effect on the Bullpen
With Darvish in the rotation and Mike Montgomery heading back to the bullpen, there will be an odd man out. It could by Justin Grimm. It could be Dillon Maples. Although, Grimm’s long term future as a Cub might just a synonym for his last name and his outlook as a Cub. Clearly, Maples has MLB stuff and he’s ready to be ready. He was the minor league star of the convention. Dillon was all over the place that weekend, giving interviews, signing autographs, and taking questions. I would love to see Maples break camp and head off to Miami. He has the pitches needed to succeed. Now, he just needs the opportunity.

2. Is the backup catcher position Victor Caratini’s to lose?
At first, yes. Now with Yu in tow, I wonder if Chris Gimenez will get the roster spot. Caratini’s bat is going to play well enough for him to make the team. The only questions about Victor’s game are on the defensive end. At Iowa last year, he caught 15 out of 40 baserunners and 2 out of 6 in the majors. Those are decent enough numbers to get him the backup job.  However, the Yu signing changes things.

There just aren’t enough at-bats for three guys considering Contreras’ brilliance at the plate and behind it. I doubt if the Cubs carry both Gimenez and Caratini. It is likely one or the other. You can also add in the fact that the Cubs may need to carry an extra pitcher until arms are stretched out a bit. As a result, I think the Cubs break camp with 13 pitchers and only 2 catchers.

3. Are there going to be any kind of defined roles coming out of the pen?
This is not going to be answered for quite a while and most certainly not in spring training. In fact, the bullpen on Opening Day could be drastically different in August depending on their ability to throw strikes. Right now, Brandon Morrow is the closer. Whether he can do that on a regular basis is up in the air, but Theo Epstein is extremely confident that Morrow can. I really don’t care about who is closing games in spring training as it not a realistic setting to establish roles.

Still, a lot of the roles are going to be fluid this year. With the addition of Cishek and Morrow, Maddon can mix and match on a daily basis depending on the situation and hitter. As the summer goes on, the pen could have a new cast of characters depending on who can throw strikes.

4. Who is going to bat leadoff?
I would like to see someone consistently in that position that can get on at a decent pace for Bryant and Rizzo to drive in. Right now, I am not opposed to most of the team in that spot except for Bryant and Rizzo. In a perfect world, I would like to go with Willson at the top. Ideally, though, you want a left-handed bat to balance Bryant and Rizzo. If Willson leads off, that would require Rizzo batting second and Bryant third. I am not sure if I would like that. As a result, I am sure Maddon will go with Schwarber at several points this spring as well as Happ, Heyward, Almora, Bryant, and Baez. If you watch Joe speak, you can tell he wants Schwarber there. As well as the Cubs hit, it shouldn’t be an issue. But, it’s the issue that is not going to die.

5. Which minor-league starting pitchers are going to shine in the major league Spring Training games?
There will be several minor league arms that will get a chance this spring. Jen-Ho Tseng, Alec Mills, Duane Underwood, Eddie Butler, Luke Farrell, Rob Zastryzny, and Oscar de la Cruz could all take a couple of turns on the bump. However, the arm everyone wants to see out there is Adbert Alzolay. While Alzolay has no shot of breaking camp with the big leaguers, his spring will tell the Cubs how close he is and what he needs to work on (changeup).

As spring training goes on, I am sure more answers will be needed as events will unfold that change how the complexion of how the team looks and feels heading into the season. Who knows? There might be more answers needed at the end of spring training than at the beginning.

The Cubs Get Their Man in Yu

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By Todd Johnson

It only took three months, but the Cubs finally get their man in Yu Darvish. The big right-handed ace comes at a steep price and I think Yu now becomes the anchor of the rotation for the next 4-5 years. At 31 years of age, I kind a like where this is going.

Positives to the Signing
+ Darvish has five pitches with you which he can throw for strikes and they all come from the same arm slot. He is a top of the rotation starter and someone you could pencil in for 30+ starts a year for the foreseeable future.

+ While it’s not an exorbitant price, I think the signing does give the Cubs a little relief after 2020. Considering most of their current rotation is signed through that year, Darvish’s contract goes a little bit beyond and provides a little cushion to develop some arms in the minors.

+ I like that he throws near 200 innings a year. He did miss a year and a half but came back fine.

+ With the Astros outing the fact that Yu was tipping his pitches in the World Series, they may have done the Cubs a favor. As a result, future hitters should never know what’s coming.

+ Most pitchers that come over from the American League tend to do well in the National League. There’s a small period of adjustment and Darvish got a head start on that period last summer as a Dodger.

+ With the Cubs defense behind him, his ERA might actually improve.

+ He misses a lot of bats averaging almost 11 every 9 innings as a Dodger last year.

+ I really like his sense of humor as seen on his Twitter account and I think he’s going to fit in just fine in this clubhouse.

– When the contract has one or two years left, you can ask me then. But for the next 3 to 4 years, all systems are go.

The Weekly: Keith Law, MLB Pipeline, and NRI Lists Highlight the Week

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By Todd Johnson

Lists, Lists, and More Lists

It was a pretty exciting week as far as lists go. On Monday, Keith Law released his top 100 prospect list. Two Cub prospects, Aramis Ademan and Adbert Alzolay, found their names in the second half of the list. In addition, Jose Albertos later made Law’s “Just Missed List” of 10 prospects outside the top 100. That is a great sign heading into the season for Jose and the Cubs. On Friday, Law ranked the Cubs very low in his annual farm system rankings (subscription required). No shocker there.

Over the past two weeks, MLB Pipeline listed their top 10 prospects at each position in the minors. Catcher Victor Caratini was the only Cub prospect to make any position list and he came in at number 10.

And then last night, MLB Pipeline released their top 100 prospects. I did not expect to see any Cubs make the list as Jim Callis spoke previously that it would be very hard to get a Cub on there. And no Cub made it.

Starting in about a week, MLB Pipeline will be putting out their top 30 prospects for each MLB team. Alzolay looks to be their number one prospect on that list for the Cubs.

Spring Training Invitees

With just two weeks until the beginning of Spring Training, the Cubs began assembling the camp roster this week. In addition to minor league players on the 40 man like Mark Zagunis, Adbert Alzolay, and Duane Underwood, the Cubs invited 19 other non-rostered players to come to camp. They include:

Pitchers: Anthony Bass, Craig Brooks, David Garner, Justin Hancock, Thomas Hatch, Williams Perez, Alberto Baldonado, Daniel Camarena, and Kyle Ryan.

Infielders: Ryan Court, Mike Freeman, Jason Vosler, and Chesny Young.

Outfielders: Jacob Hannemann and Bijan Rademacher.

Catchers: Taylor Davis, Chris Gimenez, Ian Rice, and Ali Solis.

A few names stick out to me in Hatch, Rice, Garner, and Brooks. I am not surprised to see Rice, Garner, and Brooks get invites because they have already played at AA. As for Hatch, I’m gonna look forward to seeing what he can do as he has yet to play at Tennessee. This might be a little crumb for him. I can’t wait to see how Rice does in that setting along with Garner  and Brooks, both who throw in the mid to upper 90s.

Additionally, a few names that were omitted also stand out to me.  Jake Stinnett, Yasiel Balaguert, Charcer Burks, and the newly signed Wynton Bernard did not receive the special invitation. In most years, the NRI is usually just a formality as the Cubs tend to use players from across the system in games. It’s going to be true again this year. Burks should get some playing time and Stinnett will likely pitch for an inning or two just to see how they match up against MLB talent. That might be good for both of their confidence levels.

Coming Up Next Week 

On Tuesday, I have an article coming out for BP Wrigleyville where I talk about 10 things to think about regarding the 2018 draft. On Wednesday, 2017 first-round draft pick Alex Lange gets the “Leveling Up” treatment. The “Position Break Down” series ended last Friday with relievers. So, now I have to come up with some new things to do until Spring Training. One of them involves the year 2021. I may just come right out with one post about that year and what the end of that season means. 

Baseball Card of the Week

Cubs to Add a Second Arizona Rookie League Team in 2018

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By Todd Johnson

Over the winter, a New York-Penn League short-season affiliate became available. At that time, I thought it would be cool if the Cubs added another short-season team. I wasn’t disappointed that the Cubs did not snatch up that affiliate. I just thought it was a unique opportunity to expand the lower part of the system.

On Thursday, I had a Scholastic Bowl meet and I didn’t get home until about 9 o’clock. As I was reading to get caught up on the days events, I noticed this little blurb an article about the Cubs Minor League coaching staffs for the 2018 season.

I was taken aback a little bit because I was surprised that it was just sort of dropped in the article without any kind of fanfare. “Oh yeah, we added another team.” The more I thought about it, the more I began to really like the level at which they added another affiliate.

The Cubs have been adding around 30 to 35 new international free agents on a yearly basis. Add in another 25 or so draft picks and that’s a pretty substantial number of players added each year. As a result, they have plenty of players to fill that team.

I think it’s important that the Cubs added another team at the rookie level that. Here’s why.

1. Playing Time
I think this is a great opportunity for many young players to get more at-bats and playing time than they would in a normal short season league. The fact that it’s a short season league is a key component of why I like it. Most prospects share playing time over the course of a 50 to 60 season. The players now would be playing almost every day and training their body earlier in their career to get used to the grind. In addition, they would see more pitches, get more at bats, and get more work in the field.

2. Developing Pitching
The idea of creating six more starting rotation positions in the lower minors is very appealing to me. If the Cubs truly want to develop their own starting pitching, this can go along way to providing Key access to the mound on a steady basis and allow them to stretch out their arms a bit earlier in their careers.

3. Competition
I love the fact that this could create more competition within the organization and thereby improve play and performance as players have to compete to get a promotion to Eugene.

4. Rehab
When prospects and MLB players get injured, they go to Mesa to do rehab that includes strength and conditioning as well as getting some work in during the Arizona Rookie League season. To do so, those rehabbing players end up taking away playing time from the young prospects in the Arizona Rookie League. I really like that having two teams allows those prospects to get experience uninterrupted.

When the 2018 Arizona Rookie League season begins in the middle of June, both teams are going to have a huge international flavor to their rosters. I am excited to see how much and what all pitchers make it stateside.