By Todd Johnson
There is a lot of big news to get to this week…
First, the Myrtle Beach Pelicans clinched a playoff spot by winning the first half Southern Division title in the Carolina League, The Pelicans will now have an opportunity to win their third Mills Cup Championship in a row! Sadly, Tennessee and South Bend fell short in their aspirations to make it to the playoffs when both were eliminated on Friday night.
The MLB Draft took place this week and the Cubs selected 41 players including two pitchers in the first round in lefty Brendon Little and Alex Lange. The key now will be to sign between 25-30 of those picks. The deadline looks to be July 15.
EUGENE EMERALDS DEBUT
The Eugene Emeralds opened up their season on Thursday night. They have a couple of elite prospects in catcher Miguel Amaya, who threw out three runners in his first game, and Aramis Ademan, a shortstop who is a defensive stalwart. In addition, 2016 5th round pick Bailey Clark is also on board to anchor the rotation. He had a rough first inning last night before settling in. He should be in South Bend before too long.
This is an extremely young team that needs game experience. I watched most of the first half of each game this week and it is clear that Miguel Amaya is going to be a star. The kid has it all ready to go on defense. On offense, he has a nice inside-out swing that reminds me of Gleyber Torres. In the next two weeks, this roster will change quite a bit as the draft picks come in. Look to see 2B Jared Young, 3B Austin Filiere, OF Chris Carrier, 1B Austin Young, and OFs Brandon Hughes and Chris Singleton, to name a few. There will be several pitchers who arrive in early July.
DILLON MAPLES AND HIS CURVE
I saw one of the best performances all season on Thursday night. Reliever Dillon Maples came into the game for the Smokies in the top of the ninth to close the game. From pitch one, it was evident he did not have command of his fastball. He hit the first batter. The, on cue, Maples began relying almost exclusively on his curve. It is a deadly MLB ready pitch for him. He struck out the next two batters in humiliating fashion, went back to the fastball again and walked a batter. Up came Nick Gordon, one of the top prospects in the game. Maples struck him and made Gordon like silly trying to hit the curve. It was a breathtaking display that showed me that Maples could make it to the majors sooner than we think.
After the All-Star games on Tuesday, get ready for several promotions. Zach Hedges was sent from AA to AAA this week. His debut was a bit rough as he gave up 6 runs in 2 innings before settling down. Expect to see a few names move up in the next ten days. It won’t be a lot, just a few.
- I finally decided to keep the baseball cards housed on Facebook. It is just easier and faster to load over there. On the Cards page above, I will be putting just the Cards of the Month.
- Tomorrow, the first half All-Star Team will be published
- Over at BP Wrigleyville, I have an update on Thomas Hatch’s amazing June
- On Tuesday, I have some breakout prospects to watch for in the second half
- Then, on Wednesday, I will be publishing a profile on Jesse Hodges.
- I will have a second half preview of the major affiliates on Thursday
- Friday’s post examines the DSL teams
- On Saturday, I have a preview of the Mesa team
Players of the Week
Card of the Week
By Todd Johnson
Usually most breakouts occur in the lower levels of the minor leagues. A prospect comes out and begins to let his talent shine for all to see. In the first half of 2017, this is mostly the case. This year, there are several prospects who are putting together some eye-popping performances, somewhat out of the blue. And many of them are showing that they could be assets at the MLB level.
Charcer Burks – He has just been outstanding as the lead off hitter for Tennessee. He is hitting .314 with a .412 OBP. I don’t think he is in Tennessee much after the All-Star break. If he can add some more power, I wonder if he’s closer to Chicago then anyone thinks, a lot closer. Add in a gold glove defense and he is becoming someone to think about at the next level.
Zack Short – He reminds me a lot of Mark Zagunis. He leads the Midwest league in walks (49) and put up an on-base percentage of over 400. Once he went into the leadoff spot, South Bend took off.
Wladimir Galindo – I have always been intrigued by Wladimir’s power potential. This year, he showed he can hit for average. He hit .290 with 4 HRs and 19 RBI before a broken leg ended his season. He will be back next year.
Jason Vosler – Hitting 12 home runs will get anyone noticed. Add in a .400 OBP at AA and you have Jason Vossler in 2017. He already tripled his HR output from last year and needs 2 RBI to equal last year’s as well. He has a nice smooth, quick stroke to the ball and hits lefties (.305) better than righties (.257). That’s not a skill you see everyday (except Rizzo).
Daniel Spingola – He adjusted his swing a little bit to create a little more lift and that has made all the difference this year. Every month he has hit between .280 and .300. He’s been the model of consistency.
Bryant Flete – As the lead off hitter for the Pelicans, he has made the team go. He is proven this year that he is more than just an organizational defensive player. He can hit and his average is testament to his hard work. He is stronger than people give him credit as he has 6 HRs to date.
Dillon Maples – It looks like he finally has it altogether after 5 years. He carved up the Carolina League this spring as a setup man and then a closer. Now off he his Tennessee doing the same. I watched his curveball destroy several hitters’ will to live or even swing a bat. Maples confounded the Twins’ top prospect, Nick Gordon, so much that it looked Gordon screwed himself into the ground swinging. Combined, he’s struck out 50 batters in 34 IP. He’s basically become a fastball/curve reliever. His FB comes in at 96-98 and his curve is in the mid to upper 80s at over 2000 RPM per Scott Kornberg.
Duncan Robinson – He has a monster curveball and an upper 80s/lower 90s fastball that runs in on the hands of right-handed hitters. He dominated the Midwest League, first in relief, then as a starter. I don’t know how long he’s going to be at South Bend, but I would say not much longer.
Michael Rucker – I really like what he can do on the mound. He attacks hitters with a low to mid 90s fastball all in the zone. He rarely walks anyone. His ability to throw strikes constantly inside has been the key. I wonder how long he is going to start this year versus being a reliever? He consistently hits 95/96 in relief and that could change the conversation about his usefulness.
Dakota Mekkes – He has been ungodly for South Bend and his first two outings at Myrtle Beach followed suit. He still needs to cut down on some walks, but his deceptive delivery allows him to strike out batters at an alarming rate.
Justin Steele – It looks like he is finally putting it together. He’s made 13 starts and has a 2.32 ERA. For the last two months, his monthly ERAs are 1.63 and 1.62. Outstanding! He has MLB type stuff and it looks like his harnessing both the physical and mental aspects of the game. However, his WHIP is a little high (1.39) but that tells me he is able to pitch out of trouble now.
Breakout Player of the First Half
Adbert Alzolay – He has been fantastic this year at Myrtle Beach. His fastball has been hitting 96 to 97 regularly and he is able to keep that up throughout the game – 6 to 7 innings deep. He’s struck out 67 in 70 IP with an ERA of 2.83. The three keywords to his success are: tempo, tempo, and tempo. There are other breakout pitchers who have put up better ERAs than Adbert, but they lack the power fastball that Adbert has been able to control and use efficiently to pitch 7 innings like a major league starter needs to do.
Most of these players will be on Monday’s All-Star Team for the First Half. Their performances have been year long and not just a flash in the pan. Though some have worked their way onto a prospect list, others above have not and they may never do so. However, they still have something to offer and their play is speaking volumes.
On Tuesday, I will be back to talk about some prospects who I think could break out in the second half. Most of them are going to be draft picks and players in Eugene and Mesa.
By Todd Johnson
Hope is a powerful thing.
Right now there is not a lot of it at the major-league level for the Cubs. With 100 games to go, they are mired in mediocrity. Throughout the rest of the organization, hope is everywhere. The MLB draft this week will see the Cubs select 40 new players including two in the first round. Three of the Cubs affiliates are in the hunt for playoff spots this week as their seasons wrap up on Sunday the 18th. And, you can also add in that short season Eugene and rookie league Mesa begin play this week.
But in Chicago…
As I wrote in my recap of the Cubs win today vs. Colorado at BP Wrigleyville, there’s not one place you can point the finger at as to why the Cubs are not achieving. You can’t. Every aspect of the team has been lacking. Luckily, they have the rest of the summer to fix their offense, defense, and pitching.
Playing into November brought the Cubs a World Series championship. However, there have been several side effects of that run. It has taken its toll on the starting pitching. The starting pitching ERA is two runs higher than it was a year ago. That’s hard to overcome. In the next two months I expect the Cubs to make a deal for at least one starting pitcher to finish this year, and I see them picking up an additional arm in a prospect for prospect deal.
Coming into the year, I thought the bullpen would be the weakness of this team. Instead, Wade Davis has been unbelievable as the closer. Carl Edwards, Jr. is a breath of fresh air as has been the Koji Uehara. Sure there have been problems with Grimm, but I think those have been straightened out. I think there is still some (but not much) tinkering left to do as the trade deadline draws near.
As for the offense, not much has gone right. Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, and Jason Heyward seem to be pretty stable. The rest of the team is been a straight up dumpster fire most days. At this point, I don’t even want to look at or even type any of their offensive statistics despite four timely home runs today.
The season is far from over and I still have hope. But it’s not going to change overnight. It could take a while to right the ship.
To be quite frank, I don’t think this gets fixed until after the All-Star break. That means another 3 to 4 weeks of ups and downs. I think those four days off in July should be the difference in the season.
In retrospect, this season is isn’t that much different from the 2015 season where the Cubs just poured it on in the second half to get to 97 wins. I don’t think they can get to 97 this year, but they can win the division.
The schedule in the second half suits the Cubs much better and should provide for a run. That’s what I am hoping for. And, I think it will happen. Right now, it may be ugly to watch, but I think they will come out the other side.
By Todd Johnson
The big league team seems to be having some issues this week. They are 16-14 and still in first place, but the starting pitching looks pretty shaky in the first couple of innings of each game. Brett Anderson looks like his time is close to being done. Mike Montgomery will likely take Anderson’s turn in the rotation.
I don’t think the Cubs are at the point where they feel this is a disaster or need to make a trade. The point I do think they are at is it’s starting to become a concern. The Cubs have the prospects to go out and get another starting pitcher, if needed. However, it is way too early in the year. The logical choice is the Cubs will try and find one within for now.
In addition, the Cubs designated outfielder Matt Szczur for assignment. You would hope that the Cubs could get something for him, but he is most likely going to clear waivers and then he could pick where he lands in 10 days. At best, the Cubs could get a class A or Rookie League pitcher for him. Then again, that’s not very likely.
To beef up the bullpen, The Cubs recalled Felix Pena and Rob Zastryzny from Iowa and sent down Justin Grimm. David Rollins, Zac Rosscup, and Pierce Johnson also remain ready if needed.
International Free Agency
According to MLB Pipeline, the Cubs are rumored to be the top team in the pursuit of shortstop Luis Verdugo. The Cubs are limited The Cubs are limited again as to how much they can spend on a player in the next international free-agent signing period. That sum caps out at $300,000. Verdugo is a 5’11” 168 lb. shortstop from Mexico who is a switch hitter and throws right. He is best known for his defense and his hitting is said to be a work in progress. Here is what MLB Pipeline had to say about the #30 ranked international free agent:
The top position prospect from Mexico, Verdugo is best known for his strong arm and defensive prowess in the middle of the diamond.
He’s athletic with good instincts on both sides of the ball, but he is a below average runner right now. Verdugo is a contact hitter, shows a good bat path through the strike zone and puts the ball in play. However, the belief is that he could still improve on his overall hit tool and that he will once he enters a team’s academy.
Verdugo has been praised for his solid defensive actions and footwork. He has quick hands and makes all of the plays. Scouts also like his makeup and maturity level.
Based on the inroads the Cubs have made the past two summers in Mexico, this prediction looks to be on the money. For those of you who read Spanish, here is a nice history of him and it also where I got the picture of him.
Around the System
Iowa: 3-3; 13-15 overall – 2nd place
The pitching rotation appears to be getting better as Aaron Brooks threw a sixth inning start and only gave up one run. Chesny Young appears to be getting back on track. His average creeped across the .270 mark this week. And, Eddie Butler got back on the mound last night and did very well. He went six scoreless with six Ks.
This team is been looking good the last three weeks. Jacob Hannemann and Ian Rice have both been doing very well. I still think it’s the bullpen that is exceptional on this team. This team looks really strong at the plate the past two weeks thanks to Jason Vosler’s power stroke.
Myrtle Beach: 4-3; 17-13 overall – 2nd place
They’ve taken two in a row from 1st place Buies Creek to close within two games. If the starting pitching can hold up, I don’t think there’s any limit to what this team can do. Still no word on when Eloy could or will return.
South Bend: 4-1: 18-10 overall 2nd place
The schedule says they only played five games this week, but a 19 inning affair sapped the bullpen on Friday night. Then on Saturday, Matt Swarmer came in and saved Dylan Cease’s first win with a four inning save. I am really impressed with Swarmer’s curveball. It’s got a lot of movement down and away from righties.
Extended Spring Training
Jose Albertos made his debut this week. It was just 46 pitches. It may not seem much to write about, but it was good he got back out on the mound in a game. Also, Joe Martarano might be the player to watch once short season ball begins. He is showing power and the capability to hit for average in his full-time return to baseball.
Players of the Week
Card of the Week
Power in Unusual Places
Friday Six Pack
The Reincarnation of Justin Steele
By Todd Johnson
No prospect’s career development is ever a straight line. There are highs and lows and they are often close together. This is true for Myrtle Beach reliever Craig Brooks. In 2016, the young right-gander had an outstanding first half at South Bend and a disastrous second half with an ERA over eight for Myrtle Beach.
Now, on a second go around in Myrtle Beach, Brooks is having his best season yet as a Chicago Cubs prospect.
The Cubs drafted Brooks In the seventh round of the 2015 draft out of Catawba in North Carolina. A former American legion teammate of Preston Morrison, who was drafted one round later, Brooks played shortstop and third-base and pitched for the small school.
In his first year as a Cub, he did well to progress two levels in 2015. He played rookie ball in Mesa and short season ball in Eugene. In this video from then teammate Jared Cheek, you get a great view of Brooks’ delivery and speedy arm action. It is easy to see how he can throw in the mid to upper 90s with his fastball.
5’10” 180 pounds
24 years old
Mid 90s fastball
Can throw up to 4 pitches for strikes
Areas of Concern
In 2016, Brooks was outstanding as a reliever for the South Bend Cubs in the first half. He struck out 42 batters in 32.1 innings pitched. At the All-Star break, Brooks promptly earned a promotion to Myrtle Beach. To say Brooks struggled pitching for the Pelicans would be quite the understatement. His 8.25 ERA was a drastic signal that something was wrong.
In 2017, Brooks returned to Myrtle Beach with several things in tow. His command improved greatly and he attacked hitters at every opportunity. With a fastball that can ride between 94 and 97 most nights, Brooks is hard to hit just on one pitch. Although, he has really taken to throwing any pitch in any county, but he is still pitching off of his fastball.
For the season, he has a 0.52 ERA and two saves in 10 appearances to date. It seems as if his confidence grows after every outing. On Friday night, I got to see him strike out the side for his second save. He came into the game and just annihilated the top team in the Carolina League, Buies Creek.
AA Proving Ground
As with any prospect, AA Tennessee makes or breaks most prospects in the Cubs system. I can see Brooks pitching for the Smokies at some point this season. Myrtle Beach is not challenging him right now, but it is allowing him to succeed and gain confidence for the next level. At 24 years of age, the Cubs are probably not gonna let Brooks pitch too much longer at Myrtle Beach. I think the All-Star break would be a perfect time for him to move up a level. On the other hand, if he continues to pitch like he has the first month of the season, he might be there sooner than later. And with a fastball that sits in the mid 90s, his secondary pitches will determine the real rate at which he moves up to the system.
By Todd Johnson
An interesting thing began developing about two years ago. People began realizing that this Cubs team was very good. That if the Cubs didn’t win today, there was still a good chance they could win tomorrow. They began to level out their emotions and to take things in stride. I think this year, with a World Series ring In tow, Cubs fans are a lot more relaxed about the regular season. In fact, they are extremely confident and are looking forward to the postseason. One close loss in April does not seem so damning anymore.
It was a pretty busy week in the Cubs’ universe as they raised four banners on Monday night and on Wednesday, the players got their rings. Both nights were very emotional and I think the Cubs put on two very classy ceremonies. I shed a few tears when Ryne Sandberg, Billy Williams, and Fergie Jenkins got their rings. I even shed a few more when they announced that Ernie and Ron’s rings would be stored in the Cubs archives for all to see. In fact, I am welling up now just thinking about it.
With the arrival of Brian Duensing back from the DL, a decision will have to be made in the next few days about Tommy La Stella and/or Matt Szczur as Carl Edwards will likely be back from bereavement leave early next week. Odds are La Stella will head down to AAA Iowa.
It should be a good week for Cubs’ hitting as they play Milwaukee Monday through Wednesday. Thursday, they are off and then head to Cincinnati for the weekend where the Cubs tend to hit very well. Let’s hope the bats begin to wake up some more.
Around the System
Iowa: 2-5; 5-5 overall -third place
The young Cubs had a good week as Ian Happ, Victor Caratini, and Jeimer Candelario continued to punish baseballs in the Pacific Coast League. Alec Mills and Eddie Butler were both outstanding in each of their outings this week.
Tennessee: 2-5; 4-6 overall – fourth place
It was a rough week, especially for the bullpen which seems to be falling apart early. The only bright spot was an 8 run ninth-inning as the Smokies came from 7 down to defeat the Mississippi Braves. David Bote and Trey Martin continue to hit well. Trevor Clifton is having “that one big inning issue” again this year, but at least they have only been 2 and 3 runs. Otherwise, he hasn’t given up a run in 8 of his 10 IP.
Myrtle Beach: 3-4; 5-4 overall – fourth place
The Pelicans seem to have trouble getting a lot of runs. The pitching seems to be the strength of this team. Oscar de la Cruz had 10 Ks in 9.2 innings of work this week. Thomas Hatch looked very good except for one inning and Justin Steele looks to be pitching like Justin Steele of 2015.
South Bend: 5-2; 5-5 – fifth place
After being frozen the first three games, the bats started to come around quickly. Isaac Paredes, Yeiler Peguero, and Wladimir Galindo all broke out in a big way this week. The pitching, meanwhile, continues to be otherworldly led by Dylan Cease, Manny Rondon, and my new favorite pitcher, who is the breakout pitcher of the year so far, Tyson Miller.
Extended Spring Training
EXST began this week as the Cubs played two intrasquad games and one game against the Angels.. Bryan Hudson threw six scoreless innings with 10 ground ball outs and 6 Ks. Here is Arizona Phil’s take:
“The 6’8 Hudson (Cubs 2015 3rd round draft pick – Alton HS – Alton, IL) was an absolute ground-ball machine, mixing an 87-89 MPH sinker, a plus-curve, and an occasional change-up to keep the A’s hitters off-balance and constantly beating pitches into the ground. He also threw 70% strikes and averaged only 11.5 pitches-per-inning. Hudson’s outing was simply one of the best performances by a starting pitcher in a Cactus League Extended Spring Training game I have ever witnessed (and I have seen many good ones over the last 40 years).”
That’s pretty high praise.
Michael Cruz, his bat, and approach look to be no match at either Mesa or Eugene. I cannot wait to see him play in the next couple of months.
Yesterday, Joe Martarano return to playing minor-league baseball. It is been two years and a horrific knee injury since we last saw Martarano. He will play some first base, some third-base, and even somehow outfield this summer, most likely for Eugene. To shake off the rust, He belted a triple in his first game back.
Card of the Week
Made from a photo by Larry Kave
Players of the Week
By Todd Johnson
With the arrival or Brian Duensing in Chicago, the Cubs’ bullpen now contains two actual left-handed relievers and Koji Uehara, whose stats versus lefties make him appear to be left-handed, even though he is a righty. With Duensing at 34 and Uehara at 42, the thought of injury is not far away from my mind. In fact, Duensing just came off the DL. Do the Cubs just ride with these two all year? To me, it doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence.
Based on the roster makeup this year, I thought the Cubs would go out and get another lefty reliever at some point during this summer. I think that’s a good way to look at it. In the meantime, the organization would try and develop one, just in case of an injury. Maybe Theo and Jed thought that one of the pitchers they signed at the winter relief pitcher extravaganza would pull through. Maybe they thought they would give their signings and prospects a few months to earn that coveted spot or two.
Here is what the Cubs have at each level when it comes to left-handed relievers.
Iowa: Jack Leathersich, David Rollins, Rob Zastryzny
Rollins is standing head and shoulders above the other two right now, who have been knocked around pretty good in just 10 days. Rollins has yet to allow run in three appearances. When it comes to Zastryzny, he is having trouble locating. Last year was such a big year for him as he changed his grip on his cutter which revolutionized his arsenal. Hopefully, he can turn it around and make it back to Chicago before the All-Star break. I thought he was excellent last year and was surprised he did not make the club.
Tennessee: Gerardo Concepcion
Concepcion made it all the way to Chicago and had a cuppa coffee in the show. He didn’t stay there, but he did have the step to get there. This year it appears he’s going to have to go through two levels to get back to Chicago. He needs to get his fastball back up to 93 and to continue to be aggressive. So far at Tennessee, it is not going well. He’s made for appearances with a 5.40 ERA.
Myrtle Beach: Jordan Minch, Tommy Thorpe, John Williamson
I really like to watch Jordan Minch pitch. He is deadly against left-handers and if it were not for an injury last year, he would more than likely be in Tennessee this year. So far he’s pitched 4.1 innings and he’s only allowed two hits. Thorpe and Williamson are also loogy specialist but not as dominant as Minch has been the last year.
South Bend: Marc Huberman, Jose Paulino, Wyatt Short
Although Paulino has yet to debut, ’ I think he has the most potential as a reliever from the left side in the Cubs’ system. He throws 93 to 95 with a wicked awesome slider/curve. He dominated in the first half of Eugene’s’ dominating run to a championship before coming to South Bend. He was OK as a starter at South Bend but has been moved to the bullpen this past off-season. He stayed for a little extra time and extended spring training and I cannot wait to see what he does in 2 to 3 inning stints this summer. Short and Huberman are also very dominant. Both have been excellent so far this season. Combined, the trio makes up the best collection of left-handed bullpen arms in the system.
Injured: Manny Parra
I have not heard of a timetable for his return as he is recovering from Tommy John surgery.
Right now, it would be hard to make a judgment just based on three or four appearances. I think Rollins and Zastryzny would be the clear two front runners for the summer. While Rollins is pitching well, I do not think he is the dominant picture of the Cubs are looking for to use in the playoffs. However, he is good enough to help them get there if needed. The same is true for Zastryzny.
As a result, I think the Cubs will be looking to acquire a lefty sometime by the end of July. Next year, however, we could be looking at Paulino, Minch, Short, and maybe even Huberman, as possible options for a left-handed reliever(s).