MiLB Mailbag – Episode III: Examining the Developmental State of the Cubs

By Todd Johnson

Today’s question is from Rikk Carlson.

“It’s been said , I believe by Theo, its not about winning league championships, it’s about developing a few good prospects that can help Cubs win another World Series. How can you do that by shoveling players through the system and only hope something good happens?”

I asked Rikk a couple follow up questions just to be sure what he was wanting to discuss. Luckily for me, it was the developmental process.

So, here I go…With some context.

The first four summers of the initial rebuild saw the Cubs’ farm system produce like never before. Kris Bryant, Albert Almora, Kyle Schwarber, Wilson Contreras, and Javier Baez all played in important part in the Cubs winning the 2016 World Series. Then, in 2017, Ian Happ was the latest prospect to come up and contribute right away.

Now that the Cubs are drafting at the back of the first round, rather than the front they are not getting the elite talent they once did back in 2012 to 2015. In fact, in 2016, the Cubs did not draft until the third round. In addition the Cubs traded top prospect Gleyber Torres to the Yankees for Aroldis Chapman that lead to a world championship.

And in 2017, the Cubs continued trading away a lot of their elite talent in hopes of bringing about another championship. Eloy Jimenez, Dylan Cease, Isaac Parades, and others were traded right out of the system to acquire players Theo thought could help get back-to-back titles. The Cubs’ MiLB system has not recovered yet.

After the trades of 2017, I thought it would take 3-4 years to rebuild the system with a heavy lean to the four.

Now to answer the question…

Rikk definitely has a valid concern about the developmental process. Based upon the quality of players the Cubs selected the first four years of the Theo regime, those first round picks all wound up in Chicago and rightfully so because they were elite talents. But when you start to look deeper, there was a glaring hole in that developmental process and it had to do with pitching and that hole later impacted hitting.

Part of that hole was by design because the market in 2012 was that hitters brought in more bang for their buck at the top of the draft. They were more projectable and the Cubs went with those type of players. But once 2016 came, the front office realized the pitching hole was glaring. To fix that hole, the Cubs went overboard in 2016 and 2017 in the MLB Draft to right the ship when it came to pitching. They selected over 50 pitchers in two years.

When the Cubs selected those 50+ arms, the hitting in the system struggled as a result, especially when seven of your first eight picks in 2016 were pitchers. Then a hitting deficit began to show up in 2018 as a result. The Cubs are going to get rectify that in the next couple years after getting back to drafting hitters high in the draft in 2018.

Add in the fact the Cubs’ international free agent budget was restricted for two years because of overspending in 2015 and you have a whole host of other issues. However, those elite 2015 international kids will soon be hitting full season ball en masse in 2019 and 2020.  

In addition, there have been three separate pitching coordinators the past three years. Derek Johnson left after 2016 to join the Brewers and Jim Brower did the same after one year to be on the Mariners’ staff. Now, the Cubs have Brendan Sagara. As for the hitting side, the Cubs have to hire a new hitting coordinator next year after Jacob Cruz just left after one year on the job as well.

The shoveling which Rikk mentions in his question has more to do with covering holes the Cubs created. The brass knew what they were doing in trading away Gleyber and Eloy to shore up pitching at the MLB level. They then attacked pitching in the draft because they weren’t developing pitching like they wanted.

The Cubs’ brass knew that if they built a productive system once, they could do it again.  The combination of pitching holes, trades, IFA penalties, and bulk drafting pitchers created issues in development. Hopefully, there will be some consistency in MiLB coordinators soon, too. The shoveling around and trying to fill holes should stop very soon.

Then again, things are going to get very competitive this spring. The extra rookie league team in Arizona should help developmentally strengthen the system. There will be a lot more prospects competing for spots in South Bend and Myrtle Beach. I like the fact that every player will now know that there are several prospects waiting right behind them and, if, as a prospect, you develop and produce, you move up. Those are important messages to be sending.

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Do the Cubs Have Payroll Woes or a Pitching Development Problem?

By Todd Johnson

$90 Million plus is a lot of money to put out for a starting pitching rotation. In 2019, six  starting pitchers will be taking up 3/5 of a payroll estimated to be over $160 Million. No wonder Theo dropped the bombshell earlier this month that the Cubs may not be in on some high priced free agents this winter like Bryce Harper and Manny Machado, no matter how much a perfect fit one of them is. However, once you start looking beyond this year, the money is there after 2019 and there will be lots of it.

According to Sportrac, the Cubs are only on the hook for $115 Million in 2020 and a measly $60 Million in 2021. That is a huge financial windfall that does not include arbitration numbers for Bryant, Baez, and Contreras.

The biggest drop off in monies comes from starting pitching contracts running out. Cole Hamels is only signed through this season and then Chatwood, Hendricks, and Quintana come off the books after 2020 while Lester’s deal has a vesting option for 2021.

On the surface, the Cubs could spend this winter if they back-loaded the contracts to take a bigger payroll hit in 2020, 2021, and beyond. The Cubs could also alleviate some of that $160 million through some shrewd trades.

However, the most likely contract that would alleviate some financial pressure would be that of Jason Heyward. I don’t see the Cubs really being able to unload Heyward and his $22 million unless there are some hardcore elite prospects being thrown. Even then, that would be a tough sell.

The biggest problem for the financial future of the Cubs is that Theo and Jed willingly pay top dollar for starting pitching. The whole idea of the minor league rebuild was create a farm system that would be self-sustaining through the draft, international free agency, and trades. That is happening on the position player side, but not when it comes to starting pitching.

In 2012, Jed Hoyer and Jason McLeod promised that there would be “Waves of Pitching” on the shores of Chicago. Those waves have yet to appear. However, in 2016 and 2017, the Cubs drafted 50 arms to address that issue and those pitchers will now be at AA and AAA in 2019. Still, there’s not really a top of the rotation arm among them. The Cubs have a lot 3s, a ton of 4s, and even more 5s. To look for a number 1 type starter, the Cubs might only have two in 16-year-old Richard Gallardo (who has yet to throw a professional pitch) and 19-year-old Brailyn Marquez, who might be (keyword being “might”) at high A Myrtle Beach in 2019. And, if Jose Albertos can also get fixed, he could be another top of the rotation type guy.

When 2020 and 2021 comes, the question I have going forward is this: Will the Cubs go out and get more high priced arms to fill the rotation or will they be developing their own? If they have to pay for pitching, the Cubs are going to always have payroll issues even with their own TV network.

Over the next two summers, Adbert Alzolay, Justin Steele, Cory Abbott, Duncan Robinson, Thomas Hatch, Matt Swarmer, Keegan Thompson, Thomas Hatch, Alex Lange, Tyson Miller, and more will likely see some time at Wrigley to help the big league product on the field and the bottom line for the future as well. They will likely fill in as sport starters in case of injury and basically audition for Cole Hamels’ spot in 2020 along with Mike Montgomery.

So, the moves that Theo and Jed make this offseason will be to make the 2019 roster the best it can be to win the division next year. The challenges are going to multiply after next year as their current MLB pitching assets begin to leave. Will the Cubs be self sustaining or will they have to go out and spend, spend, and spend again?

 

MiLB Mailbag – Episode II: All About Pitching Coming Soon

By Todd Johnson

In today’s mailbag post, I am going to kill two birds with one stone thanks in part to two queries about pitching. David Spellman asked, “Any pitching help for the major league level on the horizon?” In the same post, Jason Anderson wondered, “How is @adbert29 rehab coming?  When will he be back? Where do you think he starts his season?  Could he see time with the big league club next year? Possibly in bullpen?” Luckily for me, the two questions kind of share a common component. So, I will answer them at the same time.

I remember in 2012 when Jed Hoyer and Jason McLeod would talk about one of the goals of the farm system was to produce waves of pitching for the major leagues. Well, that time is finally here. It’s a few years later than expected but in 2019, there will be plenty of arms in contention to make it to Chicago next spring and summer. The main arm I see on the horizon is Adbert Alzolay.

Alzolay missed most of the 2018 season just as it looked like he was figuring things out at AAA Iowa. In his last start in May, he took a no hitter into the fifth. It was his fourth such outing last spring. The Cubs shut him down in mid-June when his lat strain was not recovering. Alzolay continued to work hard and shared rehab stories and videos on his own Instagram and Twitter accounts. The Cubs would love it if Alzolay could make it to Chicago as a starter since he sits 95-96 deep into games. That sustainability is a key part of his likability but so are an improving curve and changeup.

However, there is no spot for him in the rotation right now. Alzolay would be awesome coming out of the pen. When I first saw Alzolay pitch in 2015, it was a long reliever for Eugene. He was brilliant most every night for the Ems. Alzolay has improved since then. He would not have any issues transitioning to such a role.

Alzolay is one arm I can see pitching in Chicago regularly in 2019. The other is Dakota Mekkes. The 6’7” behemoth is pretty close to ready. He’s dominated four levels the pasts two years as a pro with a 1.16 career ERA and 190 Ks in 147 IP. The former Michigan State reliever only needs to cut down on his walks and he could be a 6th-7th inning kind of guy to begin and he could also easily go 2 innings if needed.

Alec Mills and James Norwood look to be names to know after getting a sneak peak in the pen last summer. Duane Underwood worked out of the pen some in Iowa after getting a spot start for the Cubs. And, as usual the past two years, Dillon Maples is still lurking.

However, there is a new wave of arms who could be ready at some point in 2019.

Trevor Clifton seems to be getting closer and closer as a starting pitching. Efficiency will be a key for him to get to the 6th and 7th innings on a regular basis. Duncan Robinson is not far behind Trevor in terms of experience, but his control and versatility could be a key to his arrival. I really like Michael Rucker as a swing guy who can start and relieve with his ability to throw strikes at almost a 70% rate and be in the mid 90s while doing so.

 

Three guys could be longshots to make it this year. Matt Swarmer and Keegan Thompson both went through 2 levels last year at Myrtle Beach and Tennessee with great success. Thomas Hatch, the third, pitched like a man possessed in August with an ERA of 2.51 in 5 starts.

Relievers Bailey Clark and Manny Rondon are still about a year or so away and Justin Steele is going to be the one I am going to keep an eye on the most at Tennessee to begin 2019. The lefty starter came back quickly from TJS and was dominant in the second half while hitting 95 most days to go along with his plus curve.

The pitchers are coming. What I like most is that they are all so different. There is no cookie cutter approach. It should be fun to watch them get their shots in 2019.

Prospect Update: Matt Swarmer Finishing 2018 Strong

By Todd Johnson

Three months doesn’t seem that long of a time. But in a minor-league baseball player’s career, that’s half a season. That’s a lot games to play, and for Matt Swarmer, 2018 has been an eye-opening experience. He arrived at AA in late May after a dominating two months at Myrtle Beach. And as reported earlier, Swarmer added some weight last winter and that strength ticked his fastball up to 94 miles an hour. With his improved heater, a tightened up curve, an already plus changeup, and his funky delivery, Swarmer’s been the biggest surprise this spring and summer.

However, when he arrived in AA Tennessee Tennessee, his outstanding 2018 season needed some adaptations. AA is such a huge step in development for a minor league player. It’s a big leap in talent, and for Matt Swarmer, he needed to make some adjustments and quick.

His first month was not even close to the success story of the spring. In his four AA starts, he had a 5.63 ERA and his secondary stats were ironically were mostly similar to his first two months. He struck out 16 in 16 innings and walked only four. But the innings per appearance average of four was a bit disconcerting along with a WHIP of 1.50.

Swarmer’s 2018 season got back on track in July. Swarmer began to locate and keep hitters off balance again. In his second month at Tennessee, Swarmer put up an ERA of 3.16 with 25 strikeouts in 25.2 innings over 5 starts. . It was an impressive turnaround from June and made many begin to take notice that Swarmer could just be for real. It was not all smoke and mirrors.

In August, he continued what he started in July. In fact, he’s been even better. He is currently at five starts and is averaging about six innings per appearance this month with a 2.73 ERA and 30 Ks in 29.2 IP. He will likely have one more start before the season ends Monday. For the year, he is neck and neck with Myrtle Beach’s Cory Abbott for the minor-league pitcher of the year. It’s coming down to the final start.

The most impressive thing for me about Swarmer is the number of guys that he has made miss versus walked. In 122.2 innings, between Myrtle Beach and Tennessee, Swarmer has struck out 130 batters and only walked 20. That’s basically just over a 6 to 1 ratio; that is just astounding.

Considering his advanced development this year at such a quick pace, sometimes I wonder if he could be a candidate (as a reliever) to go to the Arizona Fall League. Then again, he’s thrown a career high number of innings and will wind up with almost 130. I wonder how his stuff reacts coming out of the pen. However, based on what he’s been able to do at AA, a relief role might not be in his future.

Come 2019, it should be fun to see how he shows up next spring and if he’s continues to add weight and clicks to his fastball, or if he stays the same size and maintains his current flexibility and pitches. He is one of the great stories of the year.

Prospect Profile: Delvin Zinn Has Only Just Begun

By Todd Johnson

Once the Cubs latch onto a prospect that they like, they never really let them go. If the Cubs draft that player and the player doesn’t sign, that doesn’t mean it’s the end of the relationship. In fact, many times, the Cubs have gone back and re-drafted that player. Delvin Zinn is one of several prospects the Cubs have drafted twice.

The Cubs first drafted Zinn in 2015 out of high school in Mississippi. Instead, the young athletic infielder chose to attend Mississippi State. Things did not work out there and Zinn wound up at Itawamba Community College before even playing a game for Mississippi State. At Itawamba, Zinn hit .408 with 32 RBI in 45 games along with 7 SBs. The Cubs redrafted him in 2016. This time, they were able to sign him.

Basic Info
Positions: SS (10 games in 2018), 2B (16 games), and 3B (13 games)
5’10” and 170 lbs.
Bats Right
Throws Right
Hometown: Pontotoc, Mississippi
Age: 21
ETA – 2022

Zinn began his Cubs’ career in the Arizona Rookie League in 2016. He struggled to stay healthy. He only saw action in 11 games and had just 33 at bats. He only hit .182 for that first year. He would repeat at Mesa in 2017. Things went a little better the second time around. He played in 40 games and hit .228 while playing a variety of positions in the infield. He started  at third, short, and second and was part of the championship team that won the Arizona League championship.

Heading into 2018, the 20-year-old was slated to start the year at Eugene. But after an excellent spring training and extended spring training, Zinn debuted at low A South Bend on June 8th.

In Watching Him…
The past three months, Zinn has displayed a unique athleticism that very few Cubs players have. He still has some warts to clean up on defense, but his hitting is coming along for a 21-year-old who skipped short season A ball. He is not going to be a guy that’s going to crank out 15 to 20 home runs, but Zinn is a guy who can put the bat on the ball and put it in play to make things happen.

One trend that I noticed is that Zinn is an all or nothing kind of guy. He might go 0-for-4 on Tuesday, but turn around and go 3-for-4 on Wednesday. He is the “Multiple Hit King of South Bend.” In 45 games, he’s produced two hits or more 13 times. And he has had zero hits 14 times. For the summer, he is hitting .274 in 48 games with 12 RBI and is humming along at .283 in August..

Going Forward
Consistency at the plate is going to be the key for him as he gets older. He should be at Myrtle Beach next year. While his defensive versatility is a plus, he fits best at second. His range and arm fit best there. I am interested to see him play a whole season. When this year ends in two weeks, he will have about 55-57 games in. Next year, Zinn should get in 120+ game experiences and we will see how consistent he can be and if he can tap into his speed.

In my travels with South Bend for 10 days in July, it was pretty easy to pick out where Zinn is at on the baseball field because all you have to do is follow the laughter. He is one of the most positive players to be around as he’s always trying to cheer his teammates up or make them laugh. One of my favorite moments of that trip was in the Quad Cities. Delvin was sitting in a chair next to me at the far end of the dugout as I took pictures. We were just watching Brendon Little’s curveball just devastate the River Bandits that night and all both of us could do was just laugh at the swings he was getting against it.

Prospect Profile: Jake Slaughter Is Betting on Himself and the Cubs

By Todd Johnson

Jake Slaughter. That just sounds like a baseball name.

It is not every day that a baseball prospect gets selected in the MLB draft, let alone twice. For Eugene Emeralds third baseman Jake Slaughter, he was first taken by the Cubs in the 2016 draft. Slaughter was a two sport star player in football and baseball in high school. The Cubs took him in the 36th round and the odds of signing him out of high school were slim. Instead, Slaughter stuck to his commitment to LSU.

Is rare for a freshman to see major playing time at a major college program. But Slaughter did. In 2017, he played 53 games at shortstop. He hit .257 with a .358 OBP and cranked 3 HRs. He spent that first summer in college playing on the Cape, but that did not go well. When he returned as a sophomore, Slaughter moved over to third base and hit eight home runs in 2018 for the Tigers. His batting average dropped just a few bits as did his OBP. Because of his age (21), Slaughter was a draft eligible sophomore. With his permission, the Cubs took him in the 18th round in hopes of continuing his development at the minor-league level rather than at college.

Basic Info
Height 6‘3“
Weight 200 pounds
Bats and throws: Right
2018 affiliates: Eugene and Mesa
Top skill: Power Potential

Jake Slaughter’s first month at Eugene was not very good. He only hit .172. He is not the first college prospect to go to Eugene and struggle. Last year, that distinction fell to Jared Young, who didn’t start to turn it on until August. This year, Slaughter is echoing that type of season.

The first month that I watched Slaughter, he just looked over matched. He was just a little too late on the fastball, he was being fooled by offspeed pitches, and he looked like he was in over his head. However, when he hit the ball, he hit it very hard. It didn’t necessarily go out of the ballpark, but he did put a charge into it. His BABIP was well under .300.

Considering the fact that he came out after his sophomore year versus a normal junior year, I thought Slaughter might be behind for a while and it could take him a year or two to catch up. But things don’t always go according to plan.

In mid July, new players came to Eugene. At the same time, Slaughter‘s performance at the plate began to improve dramatically. He started catching up to fastballs. He began recognizing pitches. He began laying off of pitches out of the strike zone. He began to strike out less and walk more. He doubled the number of his walks in one week. On Thursday the 9th, Slaughter had a 3-for-5 night with a grand slam and 6 runs batted in. That’s a pretty good night for anybody, regardless of level.

Going forward. When I look at Slaughter, I don’t see who he is right now. He’s a guy who could add muscle very easily to his large 6’3″ frame. He’s a guy who could respond to coaching very easily. And I think, most importantly, he’s a guy the Cubs picked twice. They see something that they like and like a lot.

In trying to assess the type of player that Slaughter is going to be, more than likely, is going to come down to the ability of the Cubs’ development staff and his own desire to improve. He looks like a serious hard-core athlete. Everything he does looks very fluid and not forced. Nothing looks mechanical. It’s like he was born to be an athlete. How far that athleticism takes him remains to be seen.

The next year in his career will be very telling. He needs to get his walk rate well above the lowly 4% it is now and to keep lowering his K rate. However, there are bigger questions. Will he add on some weight to his frame? Will he continue to improve at the plate? Will he stick at third or will he go to first base? Slaughter took a big chance on himself to come out of school after his sophomore year. Slaughter is betting on himself and he’s also betting on the Cubs to help him get where he wants to be. 

Prospect Update: Zack Short and His Hot Streak Opens Up Some Cool Questions

By Todd Johnson

It has to be hard to be a position player in the Cubs’ minor league system. With most of the daily regulars signed through 2021, there’s not a lot of hope to make it onto the 25 man roster. However, things sometimes change. Ian Happ made the Cubs keep him on the roster. David Bote has been up twice this year as a utility player. If you perform, things will take care of themselves. You just have to go about your business and do the best you can while waiting for your shot.

In 2016, the Cubs selected SS Zack Short in the 17th round out of Sacred Heart. Over the last 2 years, Zack Short has quickly made his way through the Cubs system at the pace of a top prospect. Along the way, he’s shown a penchant for getting on base at a near .400 clip along with showing some power. Short spent 2016 mostly at Eugene. He split 2017 at South Bend in the first half, where he lead the league in walks. In the second half, he continued his fast rise at Myrtle Beach. As a result, he quickly made it to AA to begin this year.

2018 has been a strange year for Short.

For the first time in his pro career, he struggled in getting on base and producing his power game. In April, he hit .187 with a .322 OBP while only hitting .187. May was a little better. He hit .233 with a very good OBP of .365.

When June began, his hitting troubles bottomed out on June 8 when his average bottomed out at .198. The very next night, he went 3-for-4 with 4 RBI and he was off. Over the last three weeks of June and, so far, the first week of July, Short has been the hottest Cub minors hitting .380 with 3 HRs and 18 RBI. In addition, his OBP in that span is an amazing at .470.

What Happened?
Simply put, Zack Short was striking out instead of hitting the baseball.

In April and May, he was whiffing at almost a 33% rate. Over the last 4 weeks, he’s only striking out at a 22% rate. Take away two nights when he had the triple sombrero, his K rate goes down to 15%, which is very good.

What I like most about Short is that, despite his troubles hitting, his walk rate was consistent. His 14.7% rate is a bit above last year’s 15.4% but not as high as his 18.0% at South Bend. Still no matter his troubles, he still did not change his approach at the plate. His monthly walk counts of 13, 15, and 16 are still impressive and that bodes well for the future anytime he gets in a slump.

In Zack’s career, he has never hit for a high average. He’s always sat .240 to .260 and had OBP splits between .360 to .400. This current four week stretch is the highest stretch of his career, by far. It will be interesting to see how long Zack can keep this going.

Will his average remain high the rest of this month? If he can sustain it, does that earn him a ticket to Iowa one step from Chicago or the bigs? And when he gets there, what position will he be playing? He’s played some third in the minors, some second, too, but mostly short…pun intended.

Short’s performance has been exciting to track and watch this month. It will be equally exciting to see what he can do this month and the year.