Cubs Bullpen

The Weekly: September Callups and the Playoff Push

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By Todd Johnson

There are just three weeks left in the MiLB season. With the Iowa Cubs out of the running, the Cubs will have some callups once September arrives and rosters expand. I would not expect too many players considering the Cubs are in the midst of a pennant race. Here are five players I think the Cubs will add for the final month. All but one are on the 40 man roster and a space will have to be made to add that one player.

Mark Zagunis – I think he is the only position player who gets added since Caratini arrived to replace Willson.

Jack Leathersich – A lefty, he’s been lights out at Iowa but I doubt he would pitch in Chicago except in a blowout.

Eddie Butler – I like adding him as a long man or backup starter.

Rob Zastryzny – He was just up for a day and should be up all September now that he is healthy.

Dillon Maples – He is the only one who is not on the 40 man roster. Then again, he could be added long before September comes the way he is pitching.

Outside shot of being added – Catcher Taylor Davis – I don’t think Manager Joe Maddon wants to go into the playoffs with a couple of run down catchers. Hopefully Willson will be back in a month. In the meantime, Davis would provide a day off for both catchers or an inning or two of relief in blowouts down the stretch to keep them fresh as well.


A month ago, I published an article about the Arizona Fall League and 40 man roster implications. At first, I thought about revisiting that post in the wake of the trades, but Eloy Jimenez was the only player affected from the post. Instead, the only possible outcome would be that there might be one more 40 man roster spot available. In the article, I predicted who the Cubs might protect from the Rule V Draft by adding them to the 40 man roster. I also suggested some possible prospects who could play in the AFL. The Cubs may want to save a spot for Willson Contreras to rehab considering how  well that worked for someone else last year to come back for the World Series.


In other news this week, Baseball America produced a new top 100 prospect list that includes this year’s draft picks. There are still no Cubs. I don’t think there will be until the middle of next year.


Coming up at Cubs Central.
School starts for me this week. After two days of institute on Wednesday and Thursday, the students arrive on Friday.  I have a couple of posts already in the queue ready to go. One is an interview with Myrtle Beach Pelicans pitcher Duncan Robinson. The other is a post about investing in Cubs prospects. I will also examine possible names of some DSL players who should be headed north for Fall Instructs. That could be the week after. You never know how news flows.


Saying Goodbye
Yesterday morning, my wife and I had to put down one of our dogs. Phoebe was a terrier mix who was almost 13. She lived a good life of walks, treats, and belly rubs. In the past year, she had lost her sight and most of her hearing. We miss her already.


Around the Minors:
Iowa – 4-3: Jen-Ho Tseng continues to roll and reliever David Garner was promoted to AAA.

Tennessee – 3-3: 3.5 GB of a playoff spot – Yasiel Balaguert was named Southern League Hitter of the Week while Duane Underwood might be named Pitcher of the Week tomorrow.

Myrtle Beach – 1-5: It is rough all around in South Carolina. Reliever Pedro Araujo was promoted to AA Tennessee. I hope to see some infusion of talent from South Bend to give the Pelicans a shot at winning back-to-back-to-back titles.

South Bend – 4-2: I am seeing some growth and development from DJ Wilson, Kevonte Mitchell, and Bryan Hudson that is extremely promising. In addition, pitcher Tyler Peyton is on a great streak of pitching well the past three weeks. He has put himself into contention to make the monthly all-star team. Tomorrow’s post will be about how South Bend can help Myrtle Beach win the Mills Cup.

Eugene – 2-5: 1 Defensive woes derailed their week but they are still just one game away from a playoff spot. Brandon Hughes is starting to warm up again.

Mesa – 2-3: The kids are getting experience even if it doesn’t show up in wins. Delvin Zinn seems to be back in a groove hitting over .300 this month.

DSL 1 – 3-4 – OF Luis Hidalgo got the call to Mesa this week.
DSL 2 – 2-4 

Baseball Card of the Week

Players of the Week

My Other Stuff on the Web From This Week
Cubs Insider:
Austin Upshaw Profile
MiLB Pitcher of the Year Discussion
Duane Underwood

Cubs 2017 Draft Update: 19 Pitchers Taking Over the Lower Part of the System

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By Todd Johnson

It is easy to get a sneak peek at pitchers that have recently been drafted. However, their roles are not really going to be laid out for another year or two. Adjustments will be made at instructs this fall and again in spring training. The pitchers they are now will not resemble the pitchers they are next year or the year after

The thing I like to remember is that they have already pitched a full season of baseball. Some, like Alex Lange, have already thrown over 120 innings. Then again, there are relievers who fit right in when it comes to workloads this season. Of the 19 pitchers signed via the 2017 draft, only four have been given an opportunity to start in some capacity. In addition, two of the arms selected and signed have not thrown a pitch in game action.

Here is an update on how the young pitchers are doing.

Impressive

Alex Lange – The first round pick dominated in his two inning debut. While it was at Eugene, I felt that he should not be there much longer in that it really wasn’t a challenge for him. Hopefully, he can go up to South Bend and make it a start of two innings  and the Cubs can reevaluate from there. I tend to think he’ll begin next year at Myrtle Beach with an outside shot of Tennessee. However, Tennessee might be too aggressive.

Ricky Tyler Thomas – I love, love, love, love, love his changeup. Going forward, I tend to see him as a reliever. But don’t be surprised to see him get a shot at starting next year at South Bend.

Rollie Lacy – He is pitching only in relief in Mesa and he hasn’t allowed a lot of baserunners with a WHIP of 0.66. As a 22-year-old, he should dominate rookie ball and he is. I think there is a pretty good chance he’s in northern Indiana to begin the year.

Ben Hecht – He has been a most impressive reliever as he has swing and miss stuff. At Eugene, he has pitched 6.1 innings and struck out an amazing 15 batters. With that kind of firepower, I think long term that he is a reliever with closer or setup potential.

Jake Steffens – To date he’s pitched up 10.2 innings and is look good doing so. He had one bad outing in his eight appearances and opponents are only hitting .108 against him. It’s pretty good for a 29th round pick.

Brendan King – He is just getting going and he is making short starts. Right now, his ERA is 1.59 and he’s struck out 13 and 11.1 innings while only giving up two earned runs. Depending on how he does this fall and next spring, I think he has an outside shot at making it to Indiana for the summer.

Pretty Good

Erich Uelmen – He has only made three appearances. His first outing was a bit rough, but his second  saw him strikeout five in two innings. He is currently at Eugene and I expect him to be in South Bend starting in 2018.

Mitch Stophel – Currently, he is in rookie ball in Mesa. He has pitched nine innings in a relief it is struck out 13. He walked five, but for a 25 round pick, I’m not gonna complain. He could be in South Bend next year.

Cory Abbott – He debuted Monday night. He flashed a four pitch mix and struck out three in two innings but did give up a homer, his only hit. His fastball sat in the low 90s topping out at 93.

Depends on the Day

Kegan Thompson – After missing all of 2016, I was surprised the Cubs let him pitch after he threw 98 innings for Auburn this spring. He’s being used in relief and he has only made two appearances so far. I see him starting next summer in the rotation for South Bend.

Brian Glowicki – The closer from the University of Minnesota has had some ups and downs in that role for the Emeralds. He has shown the ability to miss bats and I think he will get better as the season goes on.

Casey Ryan – Take away one outing where he gave up four runs in 1/3 of an inning, and he’s been really good. He is a reliever in a starter’s body.

Jeffrey Passantino – I am not sure what his role is going to be. In Mesa, he hass been relieving. I don’t know if they’re going to try and turn him into a starter as a pro or leave him in the bullpen with his bulldog mentality. I guess we’ll find out next year.

It’s Early

Brendon Little – He has been lit up in his two outings. After only pitching four innings in college plus the cape cod league in 2016, he threw 80+ innings this year. I thought we might see him out of the pen to begin with, but he is taking the bump to begin the game twice. I would not be too alarmed that his performance so far. You still have to remember he’s only 20 years old and has been basically shut down for two months.

Sean Barry – He’s only made three appearances so far in Mesa. All were in relief. I don’t have a good read on him yet.

Peyton Remy – He made his first appearance on Sunday night when he threw a scoreless one third of an inning.

Crickets…They have not pitched yet and might not.

Jeremy Estrada – He has not been rostered yet. I think Estrada will more than likely be in Mesa at worst and Eugene at best.

Brady Miller – No roster has been assigned for Miller yet, either.

Braxton Light – He has been assigned to Arizona but has yet to see any action.

19 arms is a lot about pitching to accommodate in an organization at one time. We will know more next year at this time than we do now about these arms. I think this summer’s performances have kind of given us a sneak peek and there’s a lot to be encouraged by past month, and even the last week. And I think once the starters are stretched out next year, it will be even more impressive. With a lot of the young arms at Eugene and South Bend, this collection of arms will create quite the competition for spots next spring. So far, I find their performances encouraging for the organization.

 

Now That Jeimer Is Gone, Which Cubs Prospects Have “Next” in Chicago?

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By Todd Johnson

Eloy is gone.

Dylan Cease is gone.

Ian Happ is gone.

Albert Almora is gone.

Jeimer Candelario…gone.

Four months ago, they were the top five guys in the Cubs’ system. Two made it to Chicago while the other three were used in trades to obtain players that will hopefully bring another World Series trophy this year and/or next.

In looking at who might be the next group of players to make it to Chicago, one only need to look at AAA Iowa and AA Tennessee to see the next possible candidates who could arrive over the next year to help out.

I feel confident in saying that we can rule out any position players. No one in Chicago is going anywhere until at least after 2018. And that is not a even certainty.

So that leaves pitching.

The Cubs will have several openings in the bullpen and starting staff next year. I think the Cubs will use all avenues of talent acquisition to fill those spots. Still, here are five to seven prospects to watch the rest of August, fall instructs, and spring training as they could be in the discussion for a roster spot in 2018, or maybe even a bullpen spot this year.

Dillon Maples – It took a while, but he’s got it. In fact, he has always had “it.” Now he has confidence and a cutter to go with his upper 90s fastball and slider/curve “thingy” (That’s what Maples calls it). He has dominated two levels this year and is now working on a third. Based on his talent and ascension, he will get a precious 40 man spot this winter to escape being selected in the Rule V draft.

Jen-Ho Tseng – I loved him in 2014 as an 18-year-old at Kane County. The changeup fell off the table then. He will turn 23 this fall and should have a shot to compete for a starting spot at the back of the rotation in 2018. More than likely, he will probably be used as starting pitching depth for next season and be stored at Iowa. Still, I cannot wait to see him in camp next spring.

Craig Brooks – He is in Tennessee right now. In July, the right handed reliever did not allow a run and struck out 25 in 13.1 IP. It took him several months to figure it out at Myrtle Beach. It took him just 4 weeks at AA. I cannot wait to see what his mid to upper 90s heat will do at Iowa and in spring training.

Adbert Alzolay – Long term, I like his stuff better out of the pen. But for now, he’s starting and doing it very well throwing at 96 in the 6th and 7th innings. The secondaries still need some work. Hopefully, he can get those improved at AA before the spring. He is stretched out now in his second year of starting after being a reliever/piggyback starter in Eugene in 2015. He’s pretty healthy despite his small frame.

Matt Carasiti – He came over this summer in the Zac Rosscup trade from the Rockies. I have watched him pitched a couple of times. He throws in the middle 90s but doesn’t have that “out” pitch, but he does know how to pitch. You don’t get to be the closer in the All-Star game in a hitter’s league for nothing.

Long Shots – Duane Underwood and Trevor Clifton

They have both been around for a while. Underwood in his second season at AA and Clifton, his first. For Underwood, he still throws in the upper 90s that either he commands or he doesn’t command and that can change from inning to inning. He just turned 23 so don’t expect the Cubs to give up on him anytime soon.

As for Trevor, he was outstanding through the All-Star Break at AA. Since, he’s struggled in his six second half starts. I still believe in his talents. At times, he is humming right along and runs into the big inning or a big fly. His walk rate is up a bit after being way down last year. He’s a mentally tough kid. At just 22, he’s worked hard to get here. He will continue to do so. This might be just a bump in the road for him to go around.

 

The Morning After: Wilson Looks Good and a New Top 21 List

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It is the morning after the Cubs big trade for reliever Justin Wilson and catcher Alex Avila. I don’t feel dirty. There is no walk of shame to be had. I actually feel pretty good about the trade despite giving up two valued prospects and a possible third one later.

Wilson gives the Cubs something they don’t have in the bullpen which is a power lefty arm. As for his season, Wilson has thrown thrown 40.1 innings and struckout 55. Right handers are only hitting .131 against him. His fastball sits in the upper nineties with a slider around 90 to go with a 2.68 ERA. Add in the fact, he is signed through next year and you have a deeper pen for this year and the next.

As for Avila, he’s not coming in to be the savior of the catching corps. His job will be to keep Willson Contreras well rested for the playoffs. Any offense he provides the rest of the year will be a bonus. It’s about his ability to handle the pitching staff. I don’t really care about his bat or lack thereof. His role, while important, will be limited even more in the postseason.

I think the impact on the farm system is minimal with this trade. I did redo my top 21 list last night and I could redo it again tonight if something else happens later this afternoon.

I don’t know if the Cubs are done dealing. I have a sneaking suspicion they are not.

Trade Alert: Cubs Get Justin Wilson and Alex Avila

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The Cubs picked up hard throwing lefty reliever Justin Wilson and backup catcher Alex Avila from the Detroit Tigers late Sunday night. The Cubs filled two needs with the trade. It only cost the Cubs two prospects in 3B Jeimer Candelario and 18-year-old SS Isaac Paredes. There is also a player to be named later from the Cubs and/or cash heading to Detroit.

The Cubs will have to make room on the 25 man roster for the new players. Since the Cubs don’t play tomorrow, they have some time to sort that out.

I still don’t think the Cubs are done dealing. I think Theo might possibly have one more deal in him.

I will be back in the morning with a new Top 21 list that could be out of date by the end of tomorrow afternoon if the Cubs go after another starting pitcher. I doubt if they do, though.

The Friday Six Pack – Six Reasons for the Cubs’ Surge Into First

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By Todd Johnson

The All-Star Break seems like an eternity ago. The Cubs were 43-45 and 5.5 games behind Milwaukee and 7.5 behind Colorado. What a difference the last two weeks have been. Heading into today’s game in Milwaukee, the Cubs are 1.5 games ahead of Milwaukee and don’t have to worry about the Wildcard. Here are six reasons for the “surge” into first place.

1. The 11-2 record since the break is built on the dead bones of teams under .500. Every single team they have played since June 14 had a losing record. Today’s series is the Cubs’ first and only series this month against a team with a winning record. In August, things look rosy, too, as they only play nine games against teams with a winning record. In September, it is just 7 games.

2. The starting pitching has been excellent. In addition to an ERA under 2.00, they are taking the heat off the bullpen by pitching into the seventh and eighth innings.

3. Health – Heyward and Zobrist are back and the lineup is doing OK despite Joe’s machinations on how he constructs it on a daily basis. The Cubs got lucky with Bryant’s finger as it was only a sprain, but I am sure everyone breathed a sigh of relief at the x-rays.

4. The Trade – As if there were any other trade, it had to energize the team for the long run to come. I like the trade for beyond 2017, but I was sad to see Eloy go, but it was the best thing for the team. If you can a #2 starter locked up for a few years at rock bottom prices, I think you have to take that chance. As a result, the burden is lessened and it allows Montgomery to slide into the pen and be a weapon late in games.

5. Milwaukee hasn’t been lighting up the scoreboard and their bullpen has imploded a few times. The league took its sweet time in figuring out how to defeat this team and Eric Thames. But I think Shaw is still a factor and so will be a healthy Ryan Braun. The Cubs caught the Brewers at the most opportune time. Let me make this perfectly clear – The Brewers are not going anywhere. They have a loaded farm system and will be a thorn in the Cubs’ side for years to come. The only question is, can the Brew Crew compete with the financial flexibility and power of the Cubs’ economic engine?

6. Who doesn’t like dingers? I love home runs and the Cubs have been clouting lots of them including several by a young boy from Ohio who hit 2 last night, along with triple, and has 5 of them in July. In addition, he’s hitting .280 for the month with a .368 OBP and an OPS of 1.048.

Things are looking very good now, very good.

Over the next 10 days, the Cubs have their longest stretch the rest of the year against teams with winning records (Milwaukee, Arizona, and Washington) and that is nine games. Thankfully, the Cubs will be at home for six of them with one day off.

And then there’s the matter that the front office still has almost four full days before the non-waiver trade deadline Monday afternoon to add a couple of players to strengthen the team.

Things are looking up, way up.

Dakota Mekkes Interview Part 2: His Future Is Getting Close

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By Todd Johnson

I think Chris Mitchell of Fangraphs predicted Mekkes’ current success best when he said,

As you’re certainly aware, a strong college performance doesn’t come close to guaranteeing success at higher levels. But certain characteristics — such as strikeout rate — are predictive of success in the majors. Mekkes posted one of the top strikeout rates in the country in one of the top college conferences in the country. My math says that bodes very well for his future.

In part one of my interview last week with Dakota Mekkes, Mekks talked about his daily routine, differences in coaching in the Cubs’ system, the adjustments he made moving up a level, and using video . Today, in part two of that interview, Mekkes discusses his deceptive delivery, the effect it has on hitters, and possibly being promoted to Tennessee.

In talking with other people, Mekkes’ biggest strength is his deceptive delivery. He throws his fastball in the low 90s. Former South Bend teammate Chad Hockin said, “He just hides the ball really well. He doesn’t pitch from his height, though. He really gets deep on his stride.” In other words, a 92 mph fastball from Mekkes could look 96 or 97 to a hitter.

Mekkes said the following about the evolution of his deception and delivery.

“I’ve just kind been like this my whole life.I don’t really use my height to my advantage, I think I really use my length. I kinda crouch down, but I get a nice long stride and try to stride as far as I can and then I release the ball as close to home as I can. I try to give the hitter a split second less time. I try to cut down the time as much as possible. I’m not a guy that throws too hard.”

I discussed some of the swings I have seen and how I could not believe the ugliness of the swings. He responded, “It’s kinda confusing to me almost. I will throw a fastball like 90 and he’ll be behind it. I just attribute that to my length.”

After talking about the differences in temperature and humidity between South Bend and Myrtle I asked him if he uses rosin out on the mound.  

“I’m not a real rosin guy. I like to have complete control of the ball. Sometimes, I will lick my fingers. The rosin could be too sticky or not sticky enough. I never know what I might get. I am a big guy and I sweat a lot but I find another way to keep my arm and hand as dry as possible.”

At Myrtle Beach so far, Mekkes has made 13 appearances and thrown 22.2 innings. Amazingly, he has yet to allow a run in that span. He’s struck out 25 and opponents are only hitting .154 against him. He has walked 12. At South Bend, h made 18 appearances with 31 IP, 47 Ks, 14 BBs, and a .133 batting average against. His ERA was 0.55 when he was promoted.

As for the next step, I talked to Dakota about being promoted and whether the Cubs talked to him about what he needs to accomplish to get to AA Tennessee.

“They haven’t really said too much. I just go about my business and hopefully let my performance speak for itself. Whatever happens, happens. If I get moved up I do. If I stay here, either way, I’m happy.”

With less than six weeks left in the season, I would think a promotion to AA would have to happen in the next two weeks. Then again, if the Cubs want to see how he does against advanced competition, the franchise could use one of their eight spots in the Arizona Fall League to see him in action against elite players.

Aside from issuing less walks, I don’t think there is much left for him to prove in Myrtle Beach. He has utterly dominated two levels in one year.

His future looks pretty close after this year.