Cubs Bullpen

Cubs Sign Reliever Brandon Morrow – It’s a Slight Gamble

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The Cubs went and got themselves another pitcher this afternoon in reliever Brandon Morrow.  Morrow signed a two-year deal (which I like) with an option and he fits the mold of a strike thrower (which Theo Epstein likes).

Morrow pitched last year with the Dodgers as a setup man and could be the closer with the Cubs. A former starting pitcher with Seattle, Toronto, and San Diego, Morrow has struggled in the past with injuries. In 7 seasons as a starter, he only threw over 100 innings 3 times, never coming close to 200 innings. Ironically, he started relieving in 2016 with the Padres.

He remained healthy all of last year as a reliever. With the Dodgers, Morrow appeared in 45 games throwing 43.2 IP. He struck out 50 and walked only 9 as opponents managed to hit .192 against him.

In the 2017 NLCS, Theo got a close up look at Morrow’s talents as Morrow consistently hit the upper 90s on the radar gun. Almost 70% of his pitches find the strike zone. His strikeout rate of 29.4% is impressive as is his walk rate of 5.3%.

Right now, Morrow slides into the back of the pen as a power arm with pitching experience but little experience as a closer. In his second year (2008) as pro in Seattle, Morrow saved 10 out of 12 games, 6 out of 8 in 2009, and just 2 out of 3 last year. As a result, the Cubs are taking a slight gamble and banking on Morrow’s track record the last two years out of the pen.

The Cubs are far from done in filling out their roster. They should be adding at least one more arm to the bullpen this week, likely a left-hander. It will interesting to see how that arm fits in with Morrow.

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The Cubs’ Bullpen Looks to Be Gutted

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By Todd Johnson

Pedro Strop.
Carl Edwards, Jr.
Mike Montgomery.
Justin Grimm.
Justin Wilson.

Those names don’t exactly exude confidence to get the final three to nine outs of a game. After yesterday’s announcement that the Cubs did not tender a contract to reliever Hector Rondon, new pitching coach Jim Hickey’s job just tougher, a lot tougher. At over $6 million, Rondon’s contract was getting too pricey to just be a setup man. The Cubs essentially said, “Thank you for service, but no thanks for 2018.” As a result, Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer now have their work cut out for themselves this offseason.

Originally, just Wade Davis and Brian Duensing had left via free agency. The Cubs now have to replace half their pen and add depth to stash at AAA Iowa, which appears to be well underway.

Since the end of last season, the Cubs have taken some flyers on some arms with minimal MLB experience. Righty Luke Farrell could relieve, he could start. He has 13 career MLB innings. Righty Cory Mazzoni has 16 career innings to go with his shiny 17.28 career ERA. Lefty Randy Rosario’s career ERA is a whopping 30.86 in just  2.1 innings. And this week, the Cubs signed 29-year-old lefty Dario Alvarez. He might be alright. He threw 16 IP in 2017 with a 2.67 ERA but also put up an unsustainable whip of 2.02. He walked 14 batters. I thought his signing was a little odd as Theo talked about adding strike throwers in his offseason press sessions. I don’t think that is what he had in mind.

After seeing those stats, I am not brimming with confidence. I am not in sheer terror either, but I am concerned. The Cubs will need to find a closer and a couple of setup men while adding depth at AAA.

Theo is going to have hit the free agent market and maybe use the Rule 5 Draft (Kohl Stewart of Minnesota is one name I like) as a cheaper option. Theo has been able to find arms in the past rather cheaply and I am sure he will again. In addition, I would not be surprised to see Theo make a trade for an arm or two rather than overpay in the free agent market or in an international free agent.

Here are some free agent names to look for to see if the Cubs are associated with or show interest in over the next month:
Brian Shaw, Brandon Morrow, Pat Neshek, Brandon Kintzler, Addison Reed, Juan Nicasio, Luke Gregerson, Fernando Rodney, Matt Albers, Tony Watson, and Jake McGee.

As for internal options…
Dillon Maples is close to being ready. While he has top flight MLB pitches, it is just a matter of controlling them. At 25, he now stands a better chance of making the 25 man roster. I always thought that Jen-Ho Tseng’s change-curve combo would play better out of the pen than as a starter. He could get that chance in 2018. While Rob Zastryzny is an option, but I don’t know if I see him as a long term option. Justin Hancock is another strong arm. He had an up and down year year for three MiLB teams in 2017, but he does throw in the upper 90s. David Garner finally made it to AAA in August but struggled in his one month there. He is going to need some seasoning at that level. One name I like is Tommy Nance. He spent all of 2017 injured. He reminds me of Brandon Webb in that he throws a “hard” ball that breaks a lot of bats. Nance would be a very longshot to make the team, but I could see him getting a shot later in the summer if all goes well with his health.

In the end, adding three to four more arms to a corps that struggled to find the plate in 2018 is a bit concerning. All last night I kept wondering if Theo would overpay for pen security or would he try to find undervalued arms somewhere. However, heading into day 2 of the Shohei Otani watch, rebuilding the pen could take a while as the Cubs do have more pressing needs at starting pitching. Once the Otani dust settles, it should be interesting to see how the bullpen shakes down.

The Weekly – Three Weeks of Nothing on Player Movement

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By Todd Johnson


Three weeks of next to nothing. The hot stove is very cold as nothing is happening anywhere.  The only transactions the Cubs made were taking a couple of flyers on relievers Randy Rosario and Cory Mazzoni. I don’t think there’s going to be any difference this next week.

The Cubs shopping list is pretty short this off-season. They need two starters, maybe two relievers – preferably left-handed, a backup catcher, and maybe a fifth outfielder.

I think everything’s going to come down to Ohtani. He gets posted by his Japanese club next weekend and then it’s a matter of time until he signs. Once he makes his decision, then everything is going to start to fall in place. Then Darvish will sign, then Arietta. Those three will set the market.

With the Winter Meetings scheduled for the week of December 11, look for a  lot to happen then.

Atlanta Braves Penalized
Commissioner Rob Manfred came down hard on the Braves and their former GM John Coppolella was banned for life and one scout for a year. They also set free 13 young international players including shortstop Kevin Maitan. The Cubs are eligible to go sign any of these players under this year’s bonus pool, or if they choose, next year’s bonus pool. Those players officially become free agents on December 5. I will have a full fledged post on this topic later this week.

Baseball America’s Ben Badler also reported the Cubs are in the lead to sign 15 -year-old SS Rafael Morel this summer during International Free Agency.

MLB and MiLB Rule 5 Lists
The Cubs finalized their 40 man roster earlier this week. They protected Adbert Alzolay, Oscar de la Cruz, and David Bote from the Rule 5 Draft by placing them on the 40 man roster. Below is the list for the major league portion of the draft and the other is for the minor-league portion of the draft. Both come from The Cub Reporter.

Rule 5 MLB Selection Only
Any  of the following players selected will have to be placed on the 25 man MLB roster or returned to the Cubs. The odds are slim that any of the following players are taken on December 14. However, I could see Hanneman, Araujo, and Hancock as possibilities. Maybe Chesny Young or Bijan Rademacher have an outside chance.

C-1B Tyler Alamo, RHP Pedro Araujo, OF Luis Ayala OF Jeffrey Baez, 1B-OF Yasiel Balaguert, RHP Corey Black, OF Charcer Burks, RHP Trevor Clifton, RHP Elvis Diaz, INF Mike Freeman, RHP David Garner, LHP Yapson Gomez, RHP Justin Hancock, OF Jacob Hannemann, RHP Zach Hedges, INF Jesse Hodges, RHP Erick Leal, RHP Brad Markey, 1B-OF Joe Martarano, RHP Ryan McNeil, LHP Jordan Minch, RHP Erling Moreno, RHP James Norwood, LHP Jose Paulino, INF Carlos Penalver, C-1B Jhonny Pereda, RHP Williams Perez, OF-1B Chris Pieters, OF Bijan Rademacher, LHP Manuel Rondon, RHP Jose Rosario, LHP Carson Sands, RHP Pedro Silverio, RHP Jake Stinnett, RHP Daury Torrez, INF Jason Vosler, RHP Ryan Williams, and INF Chesny Young.

MiLB Rule 5 Only
The minor-league portion of the rule draft is a bit different. I could see anyone of these prospects being taken by another team. To be honest, the catchers are most likely to be selected. While the Cubs do have some depth there, you still hate to lose anyone.

INF Gioskar Amaya, RHP Luis Aquino, C-1B Cael Brockmeyer, INF Stephen Bruno, OF Roberto Caro, C Erick Castillo, INF Kevin Cornelius, RHP Yan de la Cruz, RHP Enrique de los Rios, INF Andrew Ely, RHP Luiz Escanio, RHP Miguel Estevez, OF Robert Garcia, RHP Mark Malave, C-1B Alberto Mineo, LHP Chris Nunn, INF Adonis Paula, C Tyler Pearson, INF Henry Pedra, RHP Stephen Perakslis,  RHP James Pugliese, C Will Remillard, C Ali Solis, and LHP Tommy Thorpe.

Baseball Card of the Week

Cubs Insider
40 man Roster Analysis
DJ Wilson Profile
Catcher Position Breakdown

BP Wrigleyville
40 man Roster Analysis

Trying to Predict Baseball America’s Upcoming Lists

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By Todd Johnson

When it comes to prospect lists this winter, beauty is definitely going to be in the eye of the beholder. As prospect lists begin to come out over the course of the next three months, you could see 20 different Cubs make a top 10 list. And you could see four or five different Cubs atop each of those lists. In a post-Eloy world, it’s going to take a long time for those lists to settle down. With the possibility that the Cubs might make another trade this offseason, more chaos could soon enter those lists.

Baseball America is getting ready to drop their latest Top 10 Cubs Prospects List on Monday or Tuesday, in addition to their top tools in the system. I thought I might beat them to the punch at their own game and come out with my prediction of their list of top MiLB tools and try to guess who they will select as their top 10 Cubs prospects.

🔸Best Hitter for Average: Victor Caratini – No one else is even close.

🔸Best Power Hitter:  Nelson Velazquez – 10 HRs in 6 weeks ought to get him the title.

🔸Best Strike-Zone Discipline: Mark Zagunis. Easy choice but there are several who could gain on him in the next year including Austin Filiere, Jared Young, and Austin Upshaw.

🔸Fastest Baserunner:  DJ Wilson – Watch him hit a triple and you will see how fast he flies.

🔸Best Athlete: Jacob Hannemann is now but might not be for long. Nelson Velazquez could overtake him in a year.

🔸Best Fastball: Adbert Alzolay – Sitting at 96 in the sixth and seventh innings is pretty impressive.

🔸Best Curveball: Dillon Maples – To him, this is his fastball as he commands it and throws it in fastball counts. 

🔸Best Slider: Dillon Maples – This will be the pitch that makes him a killer pro.

🔸Best Changeup: Jose Albertos barely gets the nod over Eugene teammate Jesus Camargo. Both are excellent and get some ugly, ugly swings.

🔸Best Control: Adbert Alzolay – It begins and ends with the ability to put his fastball where and when he wants. Jen-Ho Tseng comes in a close second.

🔸Best Defensive Catcher: Miguel Amaya – While blocking might be a small issue, his arm is clearly not. PJ Higgins is next. It will be interesting to watch Will Remillard come back and to see what recent international signee Alexander Guerra can do

🔸Best Defensive INF and Best INF Arm:  You might think that Aramis Ademan would get the nod. However, Luis Vazquez is better and more consistent. I’ve only seen him make a few plays, but he shows much more range, fluidity, and athleticism than Ademan.

🔸Best Defensive OF: Now that Trey Martin is gone and Jake Hannemann is back,  Hannemann barely gets the nod over Charcer Burks, DJ Wilson, and Nelson Velazquez. In a year, Velazquez could win almost every hitting and outfield award.

🔸Best OF Arm: Eddy Martinez – 2018 is going to be his year. Don’t be shocked to see him get a chance in Chicago later this summer.

Baseball America’s top 10 list is going to be a little bit different than mine as I do not consider Victor Caratini to still be a prospect. While he technically is, he has spent enough time in the majors to not be, just not the prerequisite 130 at-bats. After Caratini, it could be a free-for-all. It just depends on what value one sees in a prospect.

Where all these prospects are going to be ranked is a complete mystery to me. I’m having trouble reconciling whether to put Ademan in the top five and whether to include Dillon Maples in the top 10. I know other people like pitcher Adbert Alzolay a lot (as do I), but I think that Jose Albertos is a better high-end and prospect and would be my top prospect overall. I would expect the two young pitchers to be 2A and 2B.

Then, all bets are off.

In thinking of how I would do my own list, I’m half tempted to put Nelson Velasquez at number four. Just based on his little six week stint of 10 home runs in Mesa, you have to love the praise he garnered from evaluators and Jason McLeod in the Mark Gonzalez article.

There at least a dozen players who could make their way into Baseball America’s top 10. Mark Zagunis might be the most ready for the majors after Caratini. Thomas Hatch could more than likely be in the top 10 along with the Cubs two first round picks from 2017, Brendon Little and Alex Lange. MLB.com’s number one prospect, the oft-injured Oscar de la Cruz, should be in the top 10 as well as shortstop Aramis Ademan. Cases could also be made for Dillon Maples, Jen-Ho Tseng, Trevor Clifton, Duane Underwood, Jr., D.J. Wilson, and Justin Steele as top 10 prospects this winter.

Their analysis should make for some very interesting discussions in the coming week.

Breakout Relievers for 2018 – Eight Arms Ready to Burst

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By Todd Johnson

David Garner – Photo by Drew Gibby/Tennessee Smokies

Let’s cut right to the chase – the Cubs are not known for developing relief pitchers. They’ve only developed a few arms that have stuck with the team for any amount of time in the last five years and most of those came via the Matt Garza and Ryan Dempster trades. Kyle Hendricks, CJ Edwards, Justin Grimm, and Neil Ramirez all came over from Texas. Things are about to change.

In 2017 Dillon Maples broke out and went from class A to the majors in one season. He is set to compete for a spot in the Cubs’ bullpen in spring training. Pedro Araujo is another reliever who broke out last year while at Myrtle Beach. Pedro has been doing excellent in the Arizona Fall league and should be at AA Tennessee to begin 2018. After missing most of 2017, Jake Stinnett was reborn as a reliever and is also turning heads from the bullpen in the Arizona Fall League.

At AAA Iowa
David Garner – He has had one of the quietest rides up through the system. Last year, he advanced to AAA without much fanfare. As a setup man, he throws in the mid 90s and 2018 should be the year he gets a crack at Wrigley. Although, he only got in nine games at AAA in August, his chance at the big-time is going to come later in the year.

Corey Black – No, I haven’t forgot about him and I look forward to seeing how Tommy John surgery has impacted his career and what type of pitcher he will be. As a reliever, he’s only had 1 full season but only 30.1 IP at AAA. His recovery bears watching.

At Tennessee
Scott Effross – Part of me wants to see him start as he does have four pitches he can throw for strikes. Then again, with the second half he had last year at Myrtle Beach, he really put himself on the map with a 2.03 ERA in 44.1 IP. AA Tennessee is going to love him.

At Myrtle Beach
Jhon Romero – He basically got by on two pitches last summer but they were both excellent. Armed with a mid 90s fastball and a hard, biting curve, Romero could move quickly in 2018. He began last season at Eugene in July and was just dominant at two levels. I’m extremely excited to watch him pitch in his first full season.

At South Bend
Jake Steffens – It is hard to breakout in a half a season, but Steffens came close to it. His ascension to closer was definitely one of the surprises of the second half . He saw his stuff tick up a little bit from college. Now in full season South Bend, the Cubs should get a better picture of whether he can stick in the bullpen.

Ben Hecht – At times, this kid has a golden arm and you wonder why he is a relief pitcher to start his career. From southern Illinois, and at 6’5”, he was a strikeout machine at Eugene after struggling in his last season at Wichita State. He struck out 25 in 17.2 IP in his professional debut at Eugene.

Ricky Tyler Thomas – He started every year in college and he did it well until last spring. As a reliever, he was outstanding at Eugene last summer. He has a nice change up and when he can locate his fastball, he becomes even more deadly. Hopefully, his fastball will creep up a click or two this season.

Others to Watch at Eugene
It’s a little hard to project who will be at short season Eugene as there’s a lot of spring training and extended spring training for the young kids to develop and a draft to take place. One who might get some pub is Ivan Medina, the 21 year old closer for the Arizona Rookie League champion Mesa Cubs.

The Weekly: Roster Changes, Otani, the AFL, and Some Breakout Posts Coming

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By Todd Johnson

MLB Roster Moves
8 Cubs declared for free agency after the World Series this week. On Tuesday, the offseason is all set to begin. The Cubs will be active but Yu Darvish and Jake Arrieta will drive the market. Once those two sign, then you will begin to see slots fill up around the league. I hope the Cubs can hang onto Wade Davis and Jake Arrieta, but the odds are slim.

After the declarations, the Cubs announced that they claimed left-handed reliever Randy Rosario off waivers from Minnesota. The newly converted reliever pitch mostly at AA in 2017 but did see an unforgettable 2.1 IP. This has all the markings of a flyer and a gamble. He throws in the mid-to-upper 90s with a 90 mph slider. That, my friends, is worth exploring.

MiLB Roster News
Catcher Alberto Mineo is back on board. However, there is still no word on Trey Martin, Matt Carasiti, or John Andreoli either signing or choosing free agency. The Cubs don’t necessarily have to sign Carasiti to retain his services if they automatically place him on the 40 man roster. It is doubtful, but there’s a small chance it could happen before Tuesday’s signing deadline. Other prospects, who are not free agents but who would but eligible for the Rule 5 Draft, have to be placed on the 40 man by November 20 to avoid the Rule 5 Draft.

Johnson Roster News
In the past year and a half, two of our old dogs passed after short illnesses. On Friday night, my wife and I drove up to Madison, Wisconsin to get a new member for our pack. Socrates is a 4-year-old Spaniel mix who seems to be fitting in nicely. He has some 80 grade deception on his left front paw. He’s a keeper! High floor on his cuteness!

Otani Fever Is Getting Cold
Earlier in the week, the Posting Fee agreement between MLB and NPB (Japanese Professional League) expired without a new agreement in place. As a result, that fact could definitely hamper the career aspirations of P/OF Shohei Otani. Until a new agreement is in place redone, Otani will not likely come to the states unless his home team in Nippon financially benefits in a big way.

Since Otani could only sign a MiLB deal because of his age, the fee would be minimal. As a result, he is staying put for the time being unlike he gets an exception in the new deal.

Breakout Mini-Series
I could have sworn I wrote a post about possible breakout players for 2018. I went back and looked to see who I picked and I could not find it or anything resembling it. Yes, I had some storylines I wanted to follow, but no posts exist about breakouts or sleepers for 2018. So, this week, that is what I am going to write about.

In three different posts, I will breakdown some players I will think will break out next year and shoot up the Cubs system or prospect lists. This will be in three parts. I will do hitters first, then starting pitchers, and I will close it out with relievers.

Arizona Fall League
Pedro Araujo and Jake Stinnett are still going strong. David Bote, Charcer Burks, and Ian Rice have all come back to the pack a bit. Even though Adbert Alzolay had a horrible outing this week (3 HRs and 6 runs in 0.2 IP), he was still in the AFL All-Star Game last night as were Bote and Stinnett. There are only just 2 weeks left in the AFL season. It has been an eye-opening experience as Bote and Rice have done really well against some of the best prospects in all of baseball.

Alzolay is getting more and more love online. Yesterday, his story was the lead on the Cubs website. Late last night, Baseball America published a piece on him.

Baseball Card of the Week

Upcoming Series
There are still about three weeks left before I start posting my two off-season series – the usual MiLB system position breakdown series starts around Thanksgiving as does this year’s prospect series called “Leveling Up.”

Cubs Insider
Rule 5 Draft and the 40 Man Roster Choices

BP Wrigleyville
Expansion and Realignment are not so easy.

The Friday Six-Pack: Six Things on My Mind as the Season Ends

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By Todd Johnson

Now that the World Series is complete, Cub Central’s Friday 6-Pack returns in a rare off-season appearance. A lot of random baseball things have been going through my mind. From free agency to the draft to things I just can’t stop thinking about, it doesn’t seem like the baseball season ended and for me that might be a good thing.

Here are six things I can’t seem to shake from my brain.

1. Starting Pitching Replacement – The Cubs should be able to replace John Lackey fairly easily this off-season. While free agent Alex Cobb comes to mind to take Lackey’s rotation spot, I am having a hard time figuring out who the Cubs might get as a number one or two starter. I think that is the biggest challenge of this off-season. The more I think about it, the more I lean towards the Cubs making a trade to acquire someone like a Chris Archer who is still young and signed for a while.

Card made from a photo by John Conover

2. I don’t think I talked about Jhon Romero this summer as much as I should. Part of that might be hesitation as he has only pitched one year in the states. Then again, he was pretty filthy in doing so. I know that the Cubs have a lot of bullpen arms who could be ready very soon. I wonder how well Romero can do in 2018. Armed with a mid 90s fastball and a tight breaking ball, he should do well at Myrtle Beach in April and May. After that, it should be interesting to see if he can get to Tennessee next year.

3. I think I may have ranked Nelson Velasquez too low. Sometime during the next week, Baseball America should be publishing their top 10 Cubs prospect list. I currently have Nelson at number 10 on my Top 21 List. Part of me wants to take him and move him all the way up to number five, maybe even four. That might be a little presumptuous but after reading some reports about his athletic ability in centerfield, I think the Cubs may have hit the jackpot. Add in the fact that, according to Jason McLeod, Nelson is apparently not done growing. He could be a monster in 2 to 3 years at 6’2 and around 215 pounds.

4. The Draft – I’m not sure what I’m going to do about this topic the next seven and a half months. Part of me doesn’t want to cover it at all. A lot of that has to do with the amount of time spent watching games, online videos, and reading what other people write. There’s another part of me that thinks I should cover it, but only in small bits. I still haven’t decided. On the other hand, my coverage of the draft over its three days in June will not change.

5. Trouble with Starters – I have been wracking my brain as to why the Cubs have not been able to produce some starting pitchers after six full minor-league seasons in the Theo era. I began to ask questions like: Is this a systemic issue? Is there something they’re doing developmentally? Is this a scouting issue? Or, are the Cubs not willing to spend money on pitching? I think this needs to be flushed out in a bigger post. Maybe I’ll do it over at BP Wrigleyville.

6. Summer Itinerary – I started to put together some plans to go watch some baseball next summer. Once school gets out in May, I plan on going over to South Bend for a few days as well as seeing the Cubs’ low Class A affiliate play at Kane County and in the Quad Cities next summer. I also plan on going to see the big league club when they travel to Kansas City as there’s a lot of good barbecue, the Negro League museum, the National Jazz museum, along with the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum. Being a history teacher, the museum trips might be more fun… along with the food… and the baseball – all of my favorite things in one trip (yes, I am a huge nerd!). I also hope to make it out to Des Moines, Iowa next summer when Trevor Clifton or Dakota Mekkes get promoted.

I will be back on Sunday with “The Weekly.” I’ll be talking about Shohei Otani and some breakouts besides John Romero to watch for in 2018.