Chicago Cubs

The 7 Series – Iowa Cubs Produced Prospects in 2017 but Changes Are Coming

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By Todd Johnson

Overall Record – 67-72

For the second straight year, manager Marty Pevey had to assemble a starting rotation made out of spare parts until August. Injuries and promotions at both the major and minor league levels cut his starting rotation short. The I-Cubs did have a potent offense led by the Cubs minor league player of the year, Victor Caratini. Starting pitcher Jen-Ho Tseng put together the best half by a pitcher in AAA since Kyle Hendricks was there.

The Iowa Cubs are still producing prospects to help Chicago every year. This year we saw, in addition to Caratini and Jen-Ho, Ian Happ, Eddie Butler, Jeimer Candelario, Mark Zagunis, Dillon Maples, and several relief pitchers help out the big club in some capacity. I expect more prospects will help out again in 2018, likely they will be just in bench roles. I don’t see anyone with the everyday playing career path of Ian Happ in the upper parts of the pipeline. Caratini looks to make the 25 man roster in Chicago next spring but just as the backup catcher. I am curious as to what the plans for Mark Zagunis are as he doesn’t have much left to prove in AAA.

Here are seven things to know about the 2017 Iowa Cubs.

1. Bijan Rademacher had the quietest best second half of any prospect in the system. I was a little surprised he wasn’t named the July player of the month as he hit almost .400. He can play all three outfield positions and I think he has one of the best outfield arms after Eddy Martinez. The issue is that he doesn’t project to be anything other than a fourth outfielder. Then again, he hasn’t really been given the chance to show that he can be something else. He has begun to hit for more power and I like what he can do at the plate. He can hit for average and he knows how to work an at bat.

2. I would not be surprised to see the big league club continue to clean house again at Iowa. The 2017 roster at Iowa only had a few position players that might project to make it to Chicago. Most of the roster were journeyman players looking for one more opportunity to get back to the big leagues. With Tennessee sending anywhere between 6 and 9 position players to Iowa next year, I don’t think there are going to be too many roster spots available for any player or prospect nearing 27 years of age. Already, Jake Hannemann, Pierce Johnson, and Felix Pena have new homes for 2018. I don’t know if John Andreoli will be back again either.

3. I still believe in Chesny Young despite his up-and-down year. I think that he has some adjusting to do at this level and I’m confident that he will do well in his second go around at AAA in 2018.

4. Unless Eddie Butler can add some sort of out pitch, I don’t know if he’s going to be anything more than a fill-in at the major-league level. He had his moments this year in Chicago, but he never went much beyond five innings. He needs to be more efficient to get outs quickly and go deeper into games.

5. I am still pulling for Ryan Williams to make it. I just like the kid. He has a bulldog mentality that I love. However, after basically missing two full seasons, I wonder if returning to the bullpen might be best for his long term health. In 2018, we will see.

6. Dillon Maples is going to be close to making the Chicago Cubs 25 man roster next spring. I like the fact that he’s going to get more instruction from big league coaches that will only enhance his chances.

7. For me, the highlights of the year were the second halves of Jen-Ho Tseng (1.80 ERA) and Taylor Davis (.297 avg with 62 RBI). I am glad Davis got the call to make it to Chicago. His story is a tale of perseverance and he is an outstanding teammate and hitter that I think can play somewhere in the majors. I don’t know if Tseng will be given a true opportunity to pitch in the big leagues next year but he should get a few starts with the club in spring training. A lot of his future is tied to what the Cubs do to add starting pitching this offseason.

What to Watch for in 2018
There are going to be at least six position players from Tennessee who should start in Iowa next year. I think many will benefit from playing in the Pacific Coast League but none more than catcher Ian Rice. If you dismiss his batting average and just look at his power numbers and on base percentage, you begin to see his value and how much greater he is than his fellow prospects (17 HRs, .353 OBP). I think he is really going to benefit from playing in the hitter friendly Pacific Coast League more than any other prospect in 2018.

Jason Vosler will also benefit from playing in such environs. After a poor second half, Vosler should look to recapture what made his first half so fantastic in 2017. In the first half, he hit at a .274/.375/.521 clip with 13 HRs and 49 RBI. In addition, Yasiel Balaguert, David Bote, Trey Martin, and Charcer Burks should be starting everyday in Des Moines next summer.

Remember the name Adbert Alzolay. Out of all the prospects at Tennessee, I think he might be the most ready for Chicago. Even though he is currently a starting pitcher, I can see him coming out of the bullpen in Chicago as early as the middle of next summer. With a fastball that sits 95-97, there’s a lot to like.

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The Weekly: The Nelson Velazquez Fan Club Has a New Member and Arizona Fall League Begins

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By Todd Johnson

Nelson Velazquez Gets Some McLeod Love

Over the past few weeks, I’ve written several posts and have them ready to go. As I begin to publish them, I am starting to notice a few trends. One is that I am writing a lot about Nelson Velasquez. And the second trend is that I am also focusing more on Jose Albertos. I think when I redo the top 21 list in a few months, Nelson could fly up a few more spots.

Mark Gonzalez of the Tribune talked with Cubs director of Scouting Jason McLeod about Nelson’s potential. Here is what McLeod said:

“He’s got power, speed and physical tools, and we can’t be more excited about how the rest of summer went. It’s inherent upon us and him to develop those skills. He’s going to end up being 6-2, 215 (pounds) and really strong and physical.”

I didn’t expect that last sentence as I thought he was already physically maxed out.

Arizona Fall League

Play began on Tuesday with Alec Mills getting the start for the Mesa Solar Sox. He got beat around pretty good in a little over two innings of work. He gave up four runs in his short stint. However, there was good news that night. Adbert Alzolay was phenomenal in relief. He pitched two innings and struck out four batters. On Saturday, he went two more innings and whiffed three more. I hope he continues to do well as 60% of the players in the league in the past have gone on to play professional baseball. I know if Adbert is going to start next year at AAA Iowa. Adbert has taken a huge step in his development this year and I could see him pitching in Wrigley at some point next summer. He could start or he could relieve, but I think he might be best suited to relief role.

On Wednesday, David Bote went 3/4 with a HR and 3 RBI in his debut. He played 2B. Things are really looking up for him. Bote also had a good day Thursday, this time at third base. He went 2/4 with and 1 RBI. he continued doing well on Friday and Saturday he hit another HR, his third in 5 days. For the week, he hit .500 with 6 RBI. It is a very impressive showing for the 24-year-old.

Ian Rice went 1/3 with a double and a walk on Wednesday. He also drove in one run. Jason Vosler has struggled band has been playing mostly at 1B. He has yet to get a hit in 4 games while Charcer Burks has yet to play. Jake Stinnett struggled in his lone appearance (2 IP, 4 H, 2Ks) while Pedro Araújo picked up a save on Friday in one of his two games (2 IP, 3 Ks).

The Seven Series

Starting on Monday, there will be three posts this week that look back at each affiliate’s 2017 season. Each posts examines seven issues about the affiliate and/or the prospects and the year they had. Monday, Iowa gets their due followed by Tennessee on Wednesday, and then Myrtle Beach’s season is relived on Thursday or Friday.

Baseball Card of the Week

I began my off-season card work this week. I have about 15 new cards uploaded to the Facebook page. You can see them right here. This one is my favorite…so far.

NLCS Game One – A Strange, Strange Game Ends in a Cub Loss

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By Todd Johnson

Usually, players make the difference and are the centers of attention, especially in the playoffs. In game one of the NLCS, the managers took center stage with a series of puzzling substitutions that made for one of the strangest games I have seen in awhile.

It started well for the Cubs. Jose Quintana was cruising along scoreless through 4 innings. A 2-run HR by Albert Almora gave the Cubs an early 2-0 lead.

Things changed much later. In the 5th, a big double by Yasiel Puig brought the Dodgers within 1 run and a SF by Charlie Culberson tied it up. Surprisingly, Clayton Kershaw was lifted for a pinch hitter after 5 innings in a 2-2 game.

I was actually surprised to see Hector Rondon enter during a tight game since he did not pitch in the NLCS. As a result, I was not surprised when Rondon gave up a leadoff HR in the 6th to Chris Taylor. After getting Justin Turner out, Rondon was lifted in a double switch. Montgomery came in and pitched while Ben Zobrist replaced Albert Almora in the lineup. I told my wife that Schwarber would get that run back in the 7th. I didn’t get that idea quite right.

At this point, I kept thinking the Cubs had 6 outs to get the lead back before Kenley Jansen entered. Jansen has been “Wade Davis-like” in relief this year getting 41 out of 42 save opportunities with a 1.32 ERA. When Schwarber made the second out in the seventh, I thought we had the heart of the order coming up one last time in the eighth.

I was still hopeful.

Then Yasiel Puig hit a dinger to make it 4-2. Then another run scored by a player who never touched home plate. Maddon got kicked out and things were way past strange heading to the eighth with the Cubs down 5-2.

After two quick outs in the eighth, Jansen entered to face Kris Bryant and the heart of the Cubs’ order. It wasn’t much of a test for him as he set all four batters up and then he set them back down for a 5-2 Dodgers’ victory.

There is the old adage by Pat Riley that states: “A series doesn’t start until someone loses at home.” Last year, the Cubs were down 2 games to 1 against the Dodgers and won it in 6. I am going to sleep well knowing those two things.

The Cubs will get back at it on Sunday with Jon Lester on the mound.

NLDS Game 4: Missed Opportunities

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By Todd Johnson

I really like the Cubs chances in game five. They play a little better on the road in the postseason, and with Kyle Hendricks pitching, I feel even better with what “The Professor” can do to the Washington hitters.

As for game four, I don’t really want to revisit what happened. It all came down to one inning. Before the 8th, the Cubs had several opportunities to score and could not take advantage.

The game starts at six tomorrow and I will be primed and ready to watch the Cubs win.

NLDS Game Two: Bullpen Blows Up But Cubs Still Have Homefield Advantage

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By Todd Johnson

For 7.5 innings, it was a wonderful game to watch as the Cubs led 3 to 1 heading into the bottom of the eighth. Jon Lester pitched in and out of jams, Anthony Rizzo homered, and the Cubs looked primed to sweep the Nats out of their own building. Then the bullpen threw up all over Nationals Park. Between Carl Edwards and Mike Montgomery, the Nationals destroyed two baseballs to score 5 runs in the eighth to take a 6 to 3 victory.

I’m not going to belabor any point of the game other than to say the Cubs had this in hand and lost it. Being a big picture guy, the Cubs head home with a split. Had you asked me on Friday morning, I would’ve taken that outcome before arriving in Washington. It would’ve been nice, though, to sweep in Washington as the Cubs and Cub fans have to feel like they let one get away.

I hope that doesn’t happen again. I am not into this losing thing.

I will be back in the morning with “The Weekly.”

 

NLDS Game One: Precision, Patience, and Destroying Some Narratives

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By Todd Johnson

Kyle Hendricks was the man.

Last night, for five innings, the Nationals’ Stephen Strasburg was the man. He looked like the best pitcher on the planet with 8 Ks and he had not allowed a hit when the sixth inning rolled around. After Javy Baez reached on an error, the Cubs capitalized two batters later when Kris Bryant got the Cubs’ first hit of the night to drive in Baez from second. Strasburg hung a breaker on a two strike count and the Bryant made him pay. Otherwise, Strasburg was near perfect.

The Cubs tacked on a second run on a hit by Rizzo, who also added another RBI in the 8th.

The star of the night for the Cubs was Kyle Hendricks. He kept the Cubs in the game with 7 innings of two hit ball. Hendricks used 6 Ks and a double play to shut out the Nats. Every pitch had a lot of movement and he moved the ball around the zone. In the post-game press conference, Hendricks complimented catcher Willson Contreras about how the two were on the same page in executing the gameplan for each hitter.

Carl Edwards struck out two in the eighth in relief and Wade Davis was Wade Davis in the ninth to get the save.

What I liked most about last night’s victory was that it smashed some narratives.
1. Cubs can’t hit good pitching. They beat the second best right handed starter in the NL  by waiting him out and capitalizing on his only mistake.
2. Joe won’t let Kyle Hendricks go deep in the playoffs. Hendricks went seven and looked like he could go nine as he looked so relaxed. He only threw 106 pitches and I liked that Joe let him go that long.
3. Kris Bryant is not clutch. Yeah, his hit was everything and his baserunning was even better than his hitting to get in scoring position for Rizzo to drive him in.

I can’t wait for game two at 4:30 Saturday afternoon. Jon Lester will be dueling Gio Gonzalez. Look for Albert Almora to play a key role in the game.

A Regular Season Review by the Numbers

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By Todd Johnson

92-70 was a good enough record to earn the label National League Central Division Champions in 2017. The Cubs finished six games ahead of the Milwaukee Brewers and nine ahead of the St. Louis Cardinals. It was strange year numerically as Kyle Schwarber struggled in the leadoff spot yet wound up with 30 HRs and people fixated on Kris Bryant’s RBI from the number two spot in the lineup. Still, in spite of all the pressure to repeat a division title, the Cubs did.

The strength of their record came at home as the Cubs went 48-33. While they were 44-37 on the road, they went 4-11 on the road against the National League West. Otherwise, the road record was 40-26 against everyone else. The Cubs also struggled against the Phillies going 2-4. Against the whole National League East, the Cubs were 21-13 including 3-4 against their upcoming opponent in the NLDS. That means that they were 16-5 against the Mets, Braves, and Marlins.

Another key to the Central Division championship was the Cubs record against the Central at 46–30. The Cubs feasted against St. Louis going 15–4. The Cubs were 12-6 against the Reds, 10-9 vs Milwaukee, and they bested the Pirates 10-9 on the season.

In interleague play, the Cubs went 12-8 this year. Against right-handers, the Cubs were 71-56, and against lefties, the Cubs put up a 21–14 mark.

The Cubs struggled in the first half of the year. At the All-Star break, the Cubs were 43-45. After the break the Cubs caught fire going 49-27. That included a 13-3 record in July right after the break, 17-12 in August, and 19-9 in September.

Hitting Stats

As for individual statistics, most of the hitting stats we’re dominated by Kris Bryant. In addition to a 6.0 WAR, he also led the Cubs in weighted runs created plus at 172, weighted on base at .399, and on-base percentage with an outstanding .409 thanks in part to 95 walks. Anthony Rizzo led the team in home runs with 32 and RBIs with 109. Even though Albert Almora probably won’t qualify with enough at-bats, he did lead the team with a .298 average. John Jay, who had over 400 at bats, was next at 295. Ian Happ lead the team in isolated power at .261 and Alex Avila pleased the BABIP Gods at .388.

The thing that I was most surprised about was not that the Cubs had six guys who could hit over 20 home runs, because they’ve always had potential. Rather, I was surprised that they actually went out and did it. To have Rizzo and Schwarber hit over 30 home runs is a nice capstone to their power, but when Happ, Bryant, Baez, and Contreras crank out 20+ homers, that was quite remarkable. Where do they go from there? They are all so young.

 

My two favorite player performances this year were Javy Baez hitting .273 with 23 HRs and 75 RBI. For a second baseman, that is phenomenal production. Then there was Ian Happ who just shocked everybody a year ahead of schedule. Happ hit 24 HRs with 62 RBIs and hit .253. He did strike out over 30% of the time, but he will be even better next year. The fact that Happ just turned 23 is amazing.

Pitching Stats

As next weekend’s playoffs loom, my only concern is how the starting pitching is going to hold up. Over the last month, Hendricks and Quintana pitched well along with Lackey while Jake Arrieta struggled with an injury and Jon Lester looked tired. 

For the first half of the year, all the pitchers looked tired. I don’t think they began to look normal until after the All-Star break. Kyle Hendricks struggled with velocity early in the year and the Cubs relied on Eddie Butler for most of the first half in tandem with Mike Montgomery when free agent Brett Anderson did not work out. I liked the fact that management did not panic in their pursuit of starting pitching at that point in the year. When the deal came in for Quintana, I liked it as Jose is going to be a Cub for a while.

For the year, Lester lead the team in innings pitched with 180.2 in strikeouts with 180. Hendricks led the team in ERA at 3.03 while Quintana lead the team in FIP (3.15), xFIP (3.23), batting average against (.228), and WHIP (1.10). When it came to WAR, Lester had the best one on the staff at 2.7.

There were times this year when I didn’t think the bullpen was ever going to pull it together. However, they looked pretty good in the second half thanks in part to Carl Edwards, Jr., Wade Davis, and Brian Duensing. Edwards led the team in appearances with 73 and also had the most strikeouts out of the pen with 94 and a 1.01 WHIP. Wade Davis had the lowest bullpen ERA at 2.30 to go along with his 32 saves.

I’m interested to see how this relief corps shakes down in the playoffs and just exactly who makes the roster for the bullpen. Right now, I tend to think they are leaning towards bringing John Lackey out of the pen in the postseason while Justin Grimm could be left off the roster.

My favorite number of the year, though, is three. This will be the third season in a row that the Cubs are in the playoffs. I am starting to get used to it. Only 11 more wins to go for back-to-back titles. It’s not going to be easy – quite the contrary. It should be exciting to watch it unfold. For some reason, I don’t feel so stressed about it this year…then again, it’s not November.