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.

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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.

Prospect Update: Is This Bailey Clark’s Year?

By Todd Johnson

It’s not a secret that I have prospects I write more than others. Trevor Clifton is one, as was Eloy. I really enjoy writing about Jose Albertos and today’s prospect update subject, Bailey Clark. When he debuted for Eugene, I really liked what I saw that August in 2016. However, nagging injuries that offseason kept him getting his strength training in to get ready for 2017.

I thought for sure he would begin 2017 at South Bend. Instead he was in Eugene until the last week of the season. For most of last year, he was magically frustrating. But in the middle of July last year, he began to get healthy and turn it on.

This year, Clark made quick work of South Bend and is now at Myrtle Beach.

Having been a starter for most of his Cubs’ career, the 2016 5th round pick out of Duke switched to the bullpen to begin the year. After spending the offseason weight training and settling into married life, Clark came out guns-a-blazing to begin 2018. He hit 95-96 on the gun with regularity and his 1-to-7 slider devastated both righties and lefties.

For South Bend, he threw 14 innings over 5 games striking out 19 hitters. His 1.26 ERA earned him an All-Star nod for April on Cubs Central’s All-Star team. Bailey made a quick exit to Myrtle Beach near the end of April and assumed a piggyback-starter role for the Pelicans.

Adjustments were to be made, as hitters are little more polished in the Carolina League. Somewhere in the third game, he kicked it into another gear. He looked vicious going after hitters while hitting 97-98 on the radar. He pitched backwards, in and out, up and down. Every batter he began to face looked very uncomfortable in the box. That night, on May 21, against Lynchburg, Bailey whiffed 6 batters in 3.1 innings.

Bailey’s next appearance would be as a starter, replacing Jose Paulino in the rotation. He did fine. He went 4 strong, gave up 1 run and struck out three. He only threw 58 pitches. It is going to take some time to get his arm built back up to 80-90 pitches.

For now, Bailey looks to be a starting pitcher for the near future.

Then again, he looked comfortable as a reliever, too.

What I Like About Bailey Clark This Year
1. Confidence
– He’s throwing any pitch in any count this year. That tells me he has faith to get a hitter out in a variety of ways. He’s throwing over 60% of his pitches for strikes this year. I’d like to see that higher, but where he is at is fine.

2. Ground Ball Rate – At South Bend, he averaged over 4 ground balls to 1 fly ball. At Myrtle Beach, his ratio is decent at 1.67. While he is getting a lot of Ks, he’s also getting a lot of worm burners as no one is really squaring him up. Over 50% of batters ground out against him.

3. Attack, Attack, Attack – He looks to be going right after guys this year. He’s not nibbling but is attacking the zone. He still walks a few, but he’s getting outs and stranding 72% of runners.

He does need to lower his walk percentage, which is a touch over 5 at Myrtle Beach. However, taking what he is doing right now is fine.

I am really looking forward to Bailey’s start tonight to see him get a lot of outs and to watch some more ugly swings against the slider.

Prospect Update: Michael Rucker – By the Numbers

By Todd Johnson

A year ago, I wrote a profile of Michael Rucker shortly after his first full month as a starter in the Carolina League for Myrtle Beach. Previously, Rucker was a shutdown reliever for South Bend before getting promoted to the Pelicans. Rucker went on to make 15 starts in Myrtle Beach and put up 82 innings in that role for Myrtle Beach with a 2.52 ERA to become the breakout pitcher in the second half of the year in the Cub system.

Here is what Fangraphs said of Rucker heading into 2018:

Rucker has terrific command — especially to his glove side — of a deceptively hard fastball that will creep into the mid-90s, and he mixes in two slurvy breaking balls and a moving changeup, all of which are fringe to average. He largely lives off of his fastball and his deceptive, slingy delivery, but he pitched well in long relief and got a look as a starter mid-year. 

Now at AA Tennessee for 2018, the 11th round pick in 2016 out of BYU is having a very good season starting for the Smokies. His stats are a little misleading. Once you start digging into them, you can see how good Rucker has been on the mound. And, you can also see that he’s just beginning. Yes, he has some things to work on, but he has built himself a nice AA foundation to add more to his pitching resume.

1. Workload
Rucker has been pretty consistent this year when it comes to how much action he gets in every start. He averages 84.63 pitches per start while getting in 5.21 innings per start. His shortest start of the year was 4.2 innings while his longest was only 6.

2. Strike Percentage of Pitches Thrown
Michael averages over 1 K per inning with 43 Ks in 41.1 innings. Of his 667 pitches thrown this year, he has 438 strikes or 65.7%. For South Bend, he was 66% in 2017. At Myrtle Beach last year, he came in at 67.3%. Those are all good numbers, but his walks this year have increased to just over 3 BBs per nine innings.

3. Batting Average Against
In April, hitters barely hit him with a .216 average. In May, that dropped down to .193. That 23 point difference explains the varying levels of success he’s had this year.

4. Earned Run Average
For the year, he’s posted a 4.16 ERA. However a 2.86 ERA in May is more indicative of his work across 41.2 innings this year. On April 20 in Montgomery, Rucker was charged with 6 earned runs in the fifth inning where he only got 2 outs before being lifted. Take away that 2/3 of an inning outing and his ERA drops from 4.10 on the season down to 2.85.

For the future, the Cubs are developing a new breed of pitchers that I like to call “utility pitchers.” That type of arm can throw in a variety of roles from starter to long reliever, short inning, and setup. Mike Montgomery fits that bill at the major league level while Rucker does in the minors along with Duncan Robinson, Bailey Clark, and Rollie Lacy. For now, though, Rucker should be starting and throwing as many pitches as he can to strengthen his arm and work on his pitches.

In the short term, I’d like to see him continue in June on the same consistent path he has set forth in May. He could be promoted to Iowa in late June or early July, depending on his performance. The only things he should be working on are these items:
1. Increase strike percentage closer to 70%.
2. Decrease walk and home run rates. As of today, his walk rate is 3 per 9 innings. He can get that a lot lower and it will only benefit him. His HR rate needs to be below 1 per game.
3. Increase his workload to over 90 pitches per start and to get into the 7th inning on a regular basis.

I don’t know what his role is for the future, but for now, he should be starting at AA and getting closer and closer to Iowa.

Rebuilding the System Will Not Be Done Overnight

By Todd Johnson

At times, watching the Cubs’ minor-league system has been a rough go this year. Only AA Tennessee has a winning record while South Bend, Myrtle Beach, and Iowa all had losing streaks of six or more. There have been days where I just turned off MiLB.TV and gone and done other things only to come back and check the scores a little bit later. And then there are other days where we are treated to great pitching performances with double digit strikeouts. You never know what is going to happen from day to day.

While the Cubs do lack a “Top 100” Prospect, that is not why their farm system is ranked in the bottom five of all baseball. Yes, the Cubs did trade away several assets the past two summers, but most of those were international prospects, not guys taken in the draft. The top guys taken in the draft play at Wrigley every home game. Still, despite their round one success, the Cubs have yet to hit on a pick beyond a #1 pick in the Theo Era.

But when it comes to 2018, there are two main reasons for its current state.

1. A Lack of Hitting

The Cubs have emphasized selecting pitchers in the past two drafts. As a result, they have a lot of late round hitters currently at the bottom part of the system. While Zack Short is a nice prospect, he is a 17th round pick. Austin Filiere, a player with a great hit tool, is South Bend’s leading hitter and he was an eighth round pick last year. Add in Jared Young of South Bend and those are the post-first round guys the Cubs have the hit on the past two years that are having some semblance of success.

As a result, the hitting has suffered greatly, With the Cubs are no longer picking players in the top 10 of the first round, the back of the draft is a bit more difficult to find those so-called “Top 100” prospects.

Getting back to the current Cubs MiLB system, the lack of hitting shows up clearly in the stats every night.

Iowa – Their batting average is 14th out of 16 teams at .249. Their OBP of .319 is also 14th.

Tennessee – They are the worst hitting team in the Southern League at .234, Their OBP is eighth out of ten at .318.

Myrtle Beach comes in 7th in the Carolina League at .240 while they are 9th in OBP at .323, again in a ten team league. 

South Bend is number 14 out of 16 in the Midwest League with the worst OBP in the league at .312. 

2. The International Effect

The Cubs have also been hampered in the international market. Penalties in 2013 and 2015 did not allowed the Cubs to sign a player over $300,000 for three of the last four years. This year, those penalties are gone. Also, international players do tend to take a little bit longer to develop. If you think about the 2015 class, Aramis Ademan and MIguel Amaya are still just 19 years old. And they are both in class A as the most advanced prospects from that 2015 class. Most of that class is just now reaching Mesa and Eugene this year. As for the 2013 class that once included Elot and Gleyber, those players are now just turning 21 and getting to South Bend and Myrtle Beach. This about this, Adbert Alzolay was signed in 2012 and has slowly been developing since 2013. International kids take time.

The Remedy

With four picks on day one of the MLB Draft, the Cubs are going to get some good players. While the Cubs say they are going to take the best player available, it’s quite evident they need to lean more on hitting/position players in the early rounds. One of the keys to this year’s draft is that there’s some pretty good depth. A player taken at number 12 is not appreciably much better then who the Cubs will take at number 24. And a pick in the 30s or 40s is not gonna be that much more advanced than who the Cubs are going to take at 62 in the second round and at 77 and 78 in the compensation rounds.

However, rebuilding the Cubs system is not going to be done in this year’s draft alone. While the Cubs will select five top 100 draft prospects, it will take more than that to pump up the system. It’s going to take a two to three year span to regain the some hitting depth. Because the Cubs are going to picking low in the each round, the impact talent is more likely to come through international free agency. 

Also, those international players from 2015 should begin to have an impact as well the next two years. The Cubs won’t hit on every draft pick or international free agent they sign, but names like Fernando Kelli, Alonso Gaitan, Carlos Pacheco, and Luis Verdugo should begin to fill up some box scores in Mesa and Eugene and this summer. Add in some of last year’s high school players like Nelson Velazquez and Luis Vazquez and it should be exciting to see how they develop.

It’s going to take time.