By Todd Johnson
The off-season continues to move at a snail’s pace. Nothing much happened at the major-league level again this week, but the Cubs did add some more depth by signing two players to minor league contracts. Outfielder Peter Bourjos is a veteran who has played with Tampa, St. Louis, and Anaheim. First baseman Efren Navarro last played with the Tigers. Both will be non roster invitees to spring training. I don’t look for either to make the club. And if they don’t, I’d expect them to choose free agency rather than go to AAA Iowa.
Right now, I just don’t have a good feel for who is going to be where. A lot of that stems from who will be at Iowa and Tennessee. The Cubs have signed several starting and bullpen arms this offseason to minor league contracts. As a result, I am holding off on doing any affiliate previews until either the last week of March or the first week in April. It is going to kill me to not write about South Bend’s starting rotation until then.
As for some some of the minor league free agents the Cubs signed this winter, Daniel Camarena is extremely intriguing to me. The young lefty comes from a stacked Yankees system that saw him make 7 decent starts at AAA with a 3.28 ERA last year. He is only 25. Like the Cubs, the Yankees cannot hang onto every prospect in perpetuity. After 5 years in the minors, the prospects can elect free agency and that is what Camarena did. The Cubs will hopefully benefit from that.
Sometimes, I can be quite blunt. Right now is one of those instances. A lot of the pitchers the Cubs signed this winter don’t have much of a chance to make the 25 man roster in Chicago or even be stashed at AAA Iowa. The Cubs are taking a gamble that some magic can happen with either Jim Hickey or Jim Benedict (the pitching whisperer) during spring training. Don’t be counting on Dario Alvarez or Alberto Baldonado to be trotting out of the bullpen this summer, let alone dancing on camera. The odds are just not in their favor.
However, I could see lefty Randy Rosario ending up in Iowa for some bullpen depth. And Kyle Ryan, who was decent for Detroit out of the bullpen in 2015 and 2016, could also work out his issues in Des Moines and return to the show. Both are nice lefty bullpen options that could be worth keeping.
It was a banner week for making baseball cards as I had time to scour the Internet for more pictures. It turned out to be a bonanza of new pics and a nice crop of new cards. Before spring training begins, I will do a best of list for the second half of the offseason. There are a few cards I think that turned out to be classics. Go to the Facebook account to check out the album.
More Thoughts on Mesa
This week, I kept thinking about how the second Mesa team in the Arizona Rookie League could create a whole juggernaut of players coming stateside that I did not foresee. I started to make a post about possible players who could be heading north. I had to stop myself when I got to two pages and still had 5 or 6 guys to go. I may turn that into 2 posts (hitters and pitchers) later this spring.
Before MiLB Spring Training Begins…
This week, come Wednesday, catcher Miguel Amaya gets profiled in the “Leveling Up” series. I am really enjoyed writing about the young backstop prospect. I also have two spring training previews for the major league camp and the minor league camp in the works. I am not sure when those will be published but I am leaning towards the 9th and the 16th, respectively.
Baseball Card of the Week
By Todd Johnson
Out of all the positions in the breakdown series, relief pitcher is the most unpredictable. I don’t think anyone foresaw the phoenix-like ascendance of Dillon Maples last year to go from class A all the way to Chicago. One pitch can sometimes be the difference.
I went back-and-forth on how to organize this breakdown. First I was going to rank what I thought were the top 5 arms and then list of some potential breakouts. Then, I thought I had a great idea of putting them in categories until I thought about it some more. Then I went back to rankings. But after sifting through each affiliate, I began to wonder out loud how much more time the Cubs are going to give some of these relievers a chance to be a Cub. As a result, I wound up with four categories.
Kind of a Big Deal
1. Dillon Maples – Armed with upper 90s stuff and a devastating slider, he is technically not going to be a prospect very much longer. 2017 saw him harness his physical and mental skills to perfection at Myrtle Beach, Tennessee, Iowa, and Chicago. He does have closer type stuff but will probably be treated with kid gloves his first full year in Chicago.
2. Dakota Mekkes – The 6’7″ reliever from Michigan State dominated two leagues in 2017. For 2017, he put up an ERA under one and struck out 92 hitters in 73.1 innings. His deceptive delivery makes a 91 to 93 mile an hour fastball seem more like 96 to 98. The ball just sneaks up and creates a rushed decision. It should be exciting to watch him go at it in AA Tennessee this year. If he can cut down on his walks, the big league club could be calling very soon.
3. Jake Stinnett – After missing four months at AA Tennessee, Stinnett returned late in the season in a relief role and appeared to be reborn as a pitcher. He then went to the Arizona Fall League and did very well against elite competition. He always struggled as a starter in his previous three seasons as a prospect. Coming out of the bullpen, I think his stuff plays up a little bit better as most of his pitches have some sort of wiffle ball type movement to them. Along with Mekkes, he is going to be an interesting prospect and test case to see how the Cubs deal with just what his role is going to be.
4. Corey Black – Something Jaron Madison said at the Cubs convention has stayed with me for the past two weeks. In talking about Corey, Madison mentioned an “emotional maturity” that seems to bode well for Corey’s future. Now at 26 years of age, Black should be on the precipice of making it to the majors as Madison spoke very highly of Black’s potential and Madison was high on Corey’s 4+ MLB type pitches. If that’s the case, Black could be a guy. Sometimes an injury can turn your career around for the better.
Been over a year since I’ve stepped on a mound but boy let me tell you that’s the most comfortable I’ve felt on the mound in a very long time.
— Corey Black (@CblackCHC) January 23, 2018
Who the Hell Is This Guy?
Jhon Romero flew under the radar in the second half of 2017. He began his season in June at Eugene and ended up in South Bend. After Maples and Mekkes, Romero was this relief pitcher I enjoyed watching the most in August. He can throw 93 to 95 and has a beautiful tight breaking ball that just devastated hitters. He struck out 53 hitters in 41 innings and opponents only hit .109 against him. He should be at Myrtle Beach to begin the year.
How much longer?
James Pugliese, Daury Torrez, Ryan McNeil, Tommy Nance, Jordan Minch, Tommy Thorpe, Kyle Miller, Craig Brooks, Scott Effross, and David Garner
What we have here are several relievers who have been in the organization for at least three years, some of them going on six years. Out of this bunch, Tommy Nance has the best stuff. He throws a hard ball in the mid 90s and breaks a lot of bats. Hopefully, he can return healthy in 2018. Two players who came on strong at some point last year were Scott Effross and David Garner. Effross will be at AA and Garner will be in AAA, along with a spring training invite.
Breakout Relievers for 2018
Jake Steffens, Ricky Tyler Thomas, and Ben Hecht all were outstanding for Eugene last summer coming out of the pen. All three were also draft picks from last year. Steffens is pretty good sized guy with a natural sinking fastball while Hecht was a strikeout machine for the Emeralds. To me, Thomas has the potential and pitches (plus changeup) to be a starter, just unsure about his frame. He might get a shot to stretch it out this year. For these three arms, pitching in the Northwest League is a different animal than the Midwest League. It is usually a pretty good barometer or a pitcher’s acumen.
If I was to pick one more arm, I would go with Ivan Medina who was Mesa’s closer. I am sure there will be an arm that does really well that I did not foresee. There always is.
By Todd Johnson
For three young pitchers in the Cubs system, AA will be the ultimate test of their skills in 2018. All three were taken in the 2016 MLB Draft and all three will arrive in Tennessee after taking strange paths to get there. The Cubs system has not produced any sustained starting pitching they signed as prospects. To date, only Pierce Johnson, Adbert Alzolay, and Paul Blackburn pitched what I would call dominant seasons at AA. Zach Hedges and Trevor Clifton each threw a ½ dominant season in 2016 and 2017. It is not easy.
For Duncan Robinson and Michael Rucker, both began 2017 as relievers in South Bend. Robinson would up in the rotation in May while Rucker was lights out in the bullpen. When both went Myrtle Beach in the middle of the summer, Rucker got the chance to start in place of Oscar de la Cruz and never relinquished the role. Robinson, meanwhile, adjusted well to the change in play after a couple of rough starts and turned in an outstanding second half with a 2.37 ERA in 8 starts. Rucker’s second half ERA was 2.81.
For Hatch, the pseudo-first pick of the Cubs in the 2016 draft, he did not pitch that first season and began his pro career in 2017 at Myrtle Beach. It was as inconsistent a season as one could expect. Hatch did add a 4-seamer to his repertoire but Hatch struggled to get past five innings. Only three times did he make it into the sixth inning, usually throwing 80+ pitches every night. He did pitch seven innings once and eight another time. Once, he struck out 13 in 5.1 innings. His K rate for the season was a very good as he struck out 128 in 124 innings.
6’1” 185 Pounds
23 Years Old
11th Round pick out of BYU
6’6” 220 Pounds
24 years old
9th Round Pick out of Dartmouth
6’1” 190 Pounds
23 Years Old
3rd Round Pick out of Oklahoma State
What to Expect for All Three
The key for both Rucker and Robinson is strikes. Rucker’s strike percentage is 67%. That’s outstanding! Robinson is not far behind at 65% while Hatch is at 63%. Looking at their walk rates, Hatch walks 3.61/9 while Robinson is at 2.74 and Rucker at 2.03. At AA, it is going to be crucial for all three to pound the zone. AA hitters won’t chase as much high A and they are patient enough to wait for a pitch they can do something with.
Being that all three arms are just two levels from Chicago, it is also important to work in some serious innings. Hatch threw in 124 last year while Rucker only got in 96 after relieving the first two months of the year. Robinson got in 126 after relieving in April. Getting innings in the MiLB is essential to building arm strength for the MLB level. They hopefully can build to 140 IP in 2018 and 160 in 2019.
What doesn’t get talked about enough at AA is the adjustment that starting pitchers have to make. The Tennessee Smokies are the first stage where starters are on a 5 man rotation. That’s a huge shift from the 6 man staff in A ball and even more so from college where starters get the ball once a week. For some, “dead arm,” or arm fatigue, becomes a daily struggle to overcome in the second half.
As for future success at AA, Robinson has two things going for him that would enable him to have success at Tennessee. First, he’s a pretty smart cookie. Second, he can adapt easily. He knows who he is as a pitcher and he’s not afraid to change something to improve his lot in the organization. Last year, he added a cutter. I would not be surprised to see him add something else this year.
For Rucker, I like that he throws strikes and throws a lot of them. Whether he stays in the rotation or heads back to the bullpen, the skill to put the ball in the zone will get him to Chicago sooner or later.
Out of the three, Hatch easily has the best movement on his pitches. Despite being drafted the same time as Rucker and Robinson, he’s sort of a year behind in the learning curve department. He did throw over 130+ innings his junior year at Oklahoma State in 2016. As a result, the Cubs kept him on the sidelines after signing him due to the fact he missed all of 2015. While the Cubs were being cautious, Rucker and Robinson’s experiences at Eugene allowed them to produce for the summer as potential arms for the future.
Hatch’s numbers last year look better once I start rooting around deeper. While he had an ERA of 4.04, his FIP was an outstanding at 2.95. That’s a huge difference. His groundball rate was very good at 45.7% and he allowed just 2 HRs all year long. his walks per nine inning stat was a bit high at 3.47 and hitters averaged .347 on balls in play. That’s extremely high. And when hitters made contact, almost 50% of balls were pulled. Hatch’s pitches are good enough that he should be able to make adjustments this year. Just how good he can be is the bigger issue.
2018 could be the summer of the starting pitcher in Tennessee. These three arms will go along with a rebuilt Erick Leal to be the foundation of a nice rotation. Trevor Clifton or Oscar de la Cruz could be joining them. That will all be sorted out in spring training. For now, these three arms will be tested at AA beginning in early April.
By Todd Johnson
This has been the slowest off-season I can remember. Not that the Tyler Chatwood is a major signing, but at three years and $38 million, that is not what Cub fans expect to see added to rotation. This week, left-handed pitcher Kyle Ryan announced on his Twitter that he had signed with the Cubs. Ryan was excellent in 2016 but not so much in 2017. What the Cubs seem to be doing most this offseason is building bullpen depth at AAA Iowa. And to be honest, that has been standard operating procedure the last five years.
Jim Callis of MLB Pipeline was on 670 The Score’s “Inside the Clubhouse” yesterday morning. He talked about Cubs and White Sox prospects. Callis called shortstop Aramis Ademan the Cubs best prospect. He called him “more of a solid player than a potential star.” He also talked about the Cubs pitching and that he did not see any immediate help for pitching other than Maples. While Callis did talk about Zastryzny and Tseng, he thought of those two more as pitching depth than someone they can count on to stay in the rotation. He added he liked Albertos and Lange but intimated that those two have more questions than answers at this point in their careers.
Top Posts of the Year
As the holiday season comes to a close on Monday, I always like to look back at what posts were the most popular for the year. I am always surprised at the articles that get the most traffic. Just when I think I know what type of post gets the most attention, I get proven wrong every time.
2017 was no exception as the most popular post in the history of Cubs Central was published. A draft profile of high school picture Alex Scherff destroyed all previous records. I just find it odd because the Cubs did not select him. Most of the traffic came after he was selected in the draft. Considering Boston took him, I am going to assume that much of the interest came from the Red Sox fans.
Watching a player break out is always exciting as a fan and a writer. This year, three Cubs pitchers had profiles that put them in second, third and fourth place. Pitcher Michael Rucker came in second place with a profile on his breakthrough performance at South Bend. Ironically, he continued breaking out at Myrtle Beach after moving into the rotation. Eugene’s Bailey Clark had a magically frustrating start that put him in third and a Zach Hedges update from early in the year garnered a lot of traffic.
Another top post was actually my favorite interview of the year with Austin Upshaw. The young infielder from Kennesaw State has a beautiful swing and a great head on his shoulders. The return of catcher Will Remillard was one of my favorite posts of the year as I have always been a big fan of his going back to Kane County in 2014. After missing 2.5 years, his bat came back with a vengeance.
Two posts about breakouts made the top ten – one was on possible second half breakouts and the other was on why breakout pitching prospects were getting hard to find. Coming in at number 9 was a post from just two weeks ago on the top shortstops in the system. Also a prospect profile of outfielder Eddy Martinez prior to the 2017 season came in at number ten. Given a few more days, Zack Short’s Leveling Up Series post would get in.
If you have some free time this week you may want to go back and revisit some of these articles. Thanks again for reading.
Coming Up Next Week
On Wednesday, Duncan Robinson, Michael Rucker, and Thomas Hatch get profiled in the “Leveling Up” series. On Friday, relievers get broken down in the position breakdown series. Hopefully, there will be a transaction of some sort this week and it will be a starting pitcher. Maybe it will be Darvish or it could even be a trade.
As for January, The leveling up series will continue on Wednesdays with the position breakdown series on Fridays except during Convention week, when they both get moved up a day.
Also, you can check out the cards I made with new templates this offseason over on Cubs Central’s Facebook account.
Have a happy New Year!
Baseball Card of the Week
By Todd Johnson
Another week in the off-season came and went. No major trade nor did a major free-agent signing take place as Cub fans just sat and wondered whether Yu Darvish would be a Cub and if the Cubs would sign another relief pitcher to be the closer. Hopefully, something shakes down today, but I doubt it.
In the meantime…
New Cubs pitching coach Jim Hickey was interviewed on Inside the Clubhouse on 670 the Score yesterday. Bruce Levine and David Schuster discussed several topics with the experienced pitching coach who spent time in Houston and Tampa before signing with the Cubs this offseason. In the interview, he came across as an old-school pitching coach as he talked about his role with the team and what he’s been doing since he’s been hired.
One thing that struck me early in the interview was that Hickey said he had talked to over 30 pitchers who were going to be in spring training. I found that interesting because the Cubs will only have 12-13 roster spots for pitching. Anyway, I like the fact that he reached out to them in the off-season shortly after being hired.
Later on in the interview, Hickey explained his philosophy about managing a pitching staff for an entire season. He said that he hopes his starters can go 160 to 200 innings and that he can depend on four guys at the back of the pen to go along with “two guys that can give you some length.” I found that statement interesting because he didn’t necessarily say that there had to be closer, just four guys that he could depend on at the end of the game. For the most part, Hickey stayed away from stating any kind of defined roles. However, he did mention Mike Montgomery as one guy who could be a length pitcher.
The Cubs have gone out and signed a variety of arms this off-season – a lot of the pitchers are just depth in case of injuries. If the Cubs have to depend upon Dario Alvarez, he either was lights out at AAA or someone got hurt. I hope most Cubs fans don’t expect anything out of a lot of these signees except for Cishek and Morrow.
In other news…
The Cubs signed a few minor league free agents this week in Ryan Court, Anthony Bass, Taylor Davis, and Mike Freeman. They should all begin the year at AAA Iowa.
I started trying to assemble minor league rosters for who is going to be where in 2018. The position players did not seem to be too much of an issue. But when it comes to pitching, I might be out of my league right now. There’s going to be a lot of assessment and development take place in spring training.
The two biggest unknowns for roster assignments I foresee are who the starting pitchers are going to be in South Bend and Myrtle Beach. There are about 20 arms who could be starters in those two levels. When it comes to relief pitching, there are going to be a lot arms competing for coveted spots from Iowa on down. Depending on who the Cubs sign for depth at Iowa, those decisions could ripple throughout the system.
For those of you into podcasts, check out Baseball America’s podcast about the Cubs system. It not as bad as the first three minutes make it out to be. The conversation really takes off at the 3 minute mark when the Cubs pitching prospects get analyzed. Names discussed in detail include Thomas Hatch, Brendon Little, and Alex Lange.
Coming Up Next Week
On Wednesday, Zack Short gets profiled in the “Leveling Up” series. On Friday, outfielders get broken down in the position breakdown series. Hopefully, there will be a transaction of some sort this week and it is a starting pitcher. Maybe it will be Darvish or it could even be a trade.
I’m taking the next couple of days off. I hope you are spending the holidays with your loved ones.
Baseball Card of the Week
By Todd Johnson
Looking back at this week, the Cubs made several moves to enhance their bullpen, but they really did not make the big move for a top of the rotation starter for which everyone has been waiting. To be honest, I don’t know when that big move is coming. Part of me hopes that is a trade (and no, not for Manny Machado), while another part wishes for a free agent signing. I am still looking for that top of the rotation starter. Alex Cobb is not that guy to me. Yu Darvish, on the other hand, would be that guy.
Whatever happens, I just hope there is enough money in the coffers to sign some of next year’s free agent bonanza spectacular.
Despite adding Brandon Morrow and Steve Cishek to the bullpen, I don’t they’re done adding to the pen (preferably a left-hander is added). In addition to those future moves, I still expect Theo to also go out and get a a backup catcher and maybe a fifth outfielder.
On the last day of the GM meetings, the Cubs did not select a player in either the major or minor league phases of the Rule Five Draft. Reliever Pedro Araujo was selected by the Orioles in the Major League phase while Alberto Mineo, Andrew Ely, and Chris Nunn were selected in the Minor League phase. The Cubs will be busy beefing up the minor league rosters later in the winter. It’s definitely not a priority now.
When the Rule Five Draft was done, I felt a little relieved that several prospects were not selected and will still have a chance for at least another year in the Cubs organization. Trevor Clifton and Jake Stinnett are two prospects that come to mind along with hitters Chesney Young and Charcer Burks.
The Cubs system has gotten to the point where it can’t afford to lose too many more hitting prospects. As Baseball Prospectus showed this week, there’s just not a lot of elite hitters in the Cubs’ system. BP’s Top 10 list consisted of eight pitchers and two hitters. Mark Zagunis, surprisingly, was nowhere to be seen in the top 10 while catcher Victor Caratini will probably wear out his eligibility fairly quickly in 2018 as he will likely make the big league club
I also started examining the draft a little bit more this week. Baseball America expanded their top 50 college prospects and top 50 high school prospects to 100 each. I’m still hesitant about doing draft profiles just yet, but there are a lot of interesting bats, specifically college ones, that could be available at number 24. It’s a pretty deep draft. While it might be high school pitching heavy, whoever the Cubs get at number 24, that prospect could be the Cubs’ new number 1 prospect. I wonder if that’s a testament to the talent available in the draft versus an indictment of the current Cubs’ system. Or, it could be both.
Coming Up Next Week
On Monday, I will finish the offseason mailbag, for the time being, as I compare the 2011 system to the Cubs current crew. On Wednesday, Eddy Martinez is profiled in the “Leveling Up” series. On Friday, the third basemen get analyzed in the position breakdown series. Hopefully, there will be a transaction of some sort this week and it could be for a starting pitcher. Maybe it will be Darvish or Arrieta, or it could even be a trade,
Baseball Card of the Week
By Todd Johnson
The Cubs signed free agent reliever Steve Cishek this morning. The side slinging righty could fit one of several roles next year including setup man and/or closer.
In 2017, the 31-year-old veteran pitched for Seattle and Tampa for 44.2 innings and put up a WHIP of 0.896. With an ERA of 2.01 and a FIP of 3.34, he will give Manager Joe Maddon another nice, but somewhat fragile, arm to mix and match at the back end of games. What I like most is that Cishek has a K to BB ratio of 2.96, something Theo Epstein has emphasized in collecting this winter.