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.


Getting a Clearer Picture of the Cubs’ Draft Classes – The 2018 Grades

By Todd Johnson

Evaluating a draft class can take several years to see the impact that it had on the organization and, most importantly, the major league club. Jason McLeod, the Cubs Director of Scouting, has overseen the acquisition of talent in the draft since Theo Epstein came to Chicago in the fall of 2011. Four out of five of McLeod’s first round picks are now playing in Chicago. Yet, the Cubs have not produced a pitcher via the draft that is on the current 25-man roster. However, they do have three of them on the 40 man roster.

With just three weeks until the 2018 draft, I thought this would be a good time to take a look back at how the Cubs have done in the draft from 2011 through 2016.

GM Jim Hendry’s Final Draft Class
2011 – Previous Grade – B

I didn’t start grading this class until last year. Currently, there are four players left in the organization. Javy Baez is in Chicago, Dillon Maples is in Iowa, and Trey Martin and James Pugliese are both at AA Tennessee. Still, Javy’s emerging bat and overall game is enough to improve the grade along with the possibility that Maples might make it as a reliever helps. Dan Vogelbach was one pick who was traded to Seattle for reliever Mike Montgomery, who then helped a little bit in game 7. So that worked out well.

2018 Grade: B+

Jason McLeod’s First Class
2012 – Previous Grades – B+, A-, B, B-

There are only 6 out of 27 signed players left. Albert Almora heads the list followed by Duane Underwood, Stephen Bruno, Bijan Radmacher, David Bote, and Ryan McNeil. This was supposed to be the class that rebuilt the system. It did, to some extent, but several of the picks have gone on to make it to the majors with other organizations including Paul Blackburn and Pierce Johnson. However, it’s impact on the major league team has been slight but a few them are at AAA Iowa this year. Bote could be a nice utility player while Underwood is having a great season in Iowa. If those two make it, all of a sudden this class goes to an A.

2018 Grade: B –

The Kris Bryant Class
2013 Draft Class – Previous Grades – A, A, A+, A+

There are 8 players left out of the 23 who signed: Kris Bryant, Trevor Clifton, Charcer Burks, Tyler Alamo, Rob Zastryzny, Jake Hannemann, David Garner, and Will Remillard. To be honest, everything after Bryant is gravy. If you get a MVP and Rookie of the Year in one draft with one player, that is a great draft. Hopefully, more of the remaining prospects get a shot at Chicago including Rob Zastryzny who is having an excellent 2018.

2018 Grade: A+(see Bryant)

Schwarbs’ Year
2014 Draft Class – Previous Grades – A-, A, A

12 players still remain, but just as many were released within the last year. Kyle Schwarber was taken as the fourth pick in the draft and the Cubs inked 27 players that year. Mark Zagunis is very close to making it while most picks from this class are struggling in some capacity at AA and AAA. I wouldn’t have thought that a year ago. The trade of Dylan Cease stings a bit along with the loss of Carson Sands due to injuries. What a difference a year makes. Justin Steele had TJS last August and will miss all of 2018. Steele was outstanding for Myrtle Beach in 2017. There are still a lot of unknowns with his class.

2018 Grade: B

The Ian Happ Class

2015 Draft Class – Previous Grades – B, B

16 players still remain and headlined by Ian Happ, who is the clear draw out of this draft. Catcher Ian Rice has been a nice surprise for a 29th round pick. DJ Wilson, who is still just 21-years-old and now at Myrtle Beach, just has not put it together yet at the plate. Defensively, the young OF is a wizard. But, 2017 was a disappointing season for most of the class and only reliever Scott Effross is doing well  this year. Not one player is currently above AA Tennessee except for Happ.

2018 Grade: C

The Year of No First Round Pick
2016 Draft Class – Previous Grades – B-

I said last year that out of all the drafts this decade, this one has the most flux in it. This year, I am beginning to like this class more and more. The plethora of pitching is making its way up through the system, some of them quickly. Thomas Hatch, Duncan Robinson, and Michael Rucker are doing OK at AA. Shortstop Zack Short might be forcing his way to AAA with his hot May and Trent Giambrone has flashed some power at times this year. It is reliever Dakota Mekkes who might be at AAA and Chicago the fastest. Mekkes finally allowed his first earned run of the year yesterday, six weeks into the season. Also, starting pitcher Matt Swarmer has been the breakout pitcher of this year at Myrtle Beach. Right now, this class looks to be the deepest draft the Cubs have had since Theo took over. It’s hard to tell if anyone will be stars, but they will definitely be knocking on the door to Chicago very soon. 19 picks still remain in the system.

2018 Grade – B+ I almost had them at an A, but the class has yet to produce a players for the majors, but that might change by 2019. In two years, this should be McLeod’s best class as a whole.

The 2017 class will get its very first grade next week. The Cubs signed 29 in that class and almost half of them have yet to debut in 2018. It could take a year or two to see how 2017 begins to shake out, especially considering the large amount of pitchers taken and who will start and who will relieve.

Prospect Update: Tyson Miller Getting Stronger

By Todd Johnson

Tyson Miller is really beginning to impress me. The 2016 draft pick from California Baptist is one of the most improved arms in the system this year. His fastball is sitting around 91-93 and topping out at 95. In April, he put up a 3.15 ERA in 20 innings while striking out 22. Miller began May by going 7 innings with 7 Ks on just 3 hits. What I really like about Tyson this year is that his newfound velocity comes from added muscle.

Transitioning from college to pro baseball can sometimes be quick and can sometimes take a couple of years. To go from pitching once every seven days to every six takes some time to adjust. The pitcher also goes from a four month season to what basically amounts to a seven month season. For Miller, he went from Division II to the pros, which carries its own set of differences.

Taken in the fourth round of the 2016 draft, Miller began his career as a limited starter in Eugene. He didn’t impress a whole lot other than his large 6’5” and 200 lb. frame and his athleticism. And that’s probably what the Cubs were banking on. His first year as a pro saw him make 2 scoreless starts at Mesa before he went to Eugene where he got in 22.2 innings and struck out 14 but struggled with a .289 batting average against.

At South Bend in 2017, Miller was a workhorse for the Cubs who took the ball every six days and worked very hard at his craft. When I stood close to him in Beloit, I was impressed with the actual physicality of him. He’s a big dude and there is a lot of room to add some weight and muscle, which he has done the past year. On the mound, though, his performance in 2017 varied from month to month. His best month was in June where he made 5 relief appearances and got in 16.1 innings with a 3.31 ERA and he whiffed 13 batters.

For Miller, though, he has been able as a starter to miss bats at each level. This year, his Ks are coming at a much higher rate. He is striking out over a man an inning. Last year at South Bend, he struck out 99 in 120 innings.

I really like the fact that his innings per appearance this year are also increasing. At South Bend, he averaged four innings per appearance. This year, he is at almost 6. That’s a dramatic shift and one that I like.

All his other stats in 2018 are trending in the right directions as well. K rate up to 9.67 from 7.38. BB rate down to 2.67 from 2.83. K to BB ratio up to 3.63 from 2.61 and HR rate down to 0.67/9 from an already low 0.75. His K% is up to 25% from 19% and the trends continue for walk percentage, BABIP, batting average against, left-on base percentage, and FIP.

At 22-years-old, Miller has all the right attributes for the type of starter the Cubs want. Questions still remain about whether he can fulfill his potential. One month does not a MLB starter make, but Miller needs to continue ascending start-by-start and month-by-month. This year’s improvement is an important step in Miller’s development.

And the key thing I like is that Miller is just beginning to develop.

I look forward to see how he continues tonight, this month, and beyond.