Cubs Draft 2017

Leveling Up Series: Austin Upshaw Just Hits

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By Todd Johnson

When I interviewed Austin Upshaw last summer, he was tearing up the Midwest League. In 24 games in July, the second baseman from Kennesaw State hit .284 with an on-base percentage of .354. He upped both of those in August and over the last 10 games he hit .351 with a .390 on base percentage. It was a pretty solid debut.

Defensively, he played a little first (25 games), a little second (16 games), and even some third (11 games) while  showing a decent enough arm to make all the plays. I don’t think he’s going to have wide range but he’s going to be a good defender.

What really sticks out about Upshaw is just his approach to the game. He does everything very well as South Bend Cubs announcer Darin Pritchett commented to me last summer. When I interviewed Upshaw, I was impressed on how he walked me through what he’s trying to do at the plate. Upshaw talked about how every pitch is different and how every situation is different. He just tries to stay relaxed and comfortable at the plate.

Basic Info
6’0″ 175 pounds
Bats Left
Throws Right
Kennesaw State
13th round pick 2017

Leveling up for 2018
There’s no question that Upshaw is going to be at Myrtle Beach to begin 2018. His performance after signing was one of the highlights of the second half in 2017. I don’t really think he’s much of a power hitter but when it does come, his power comes from making good contact. He hit four home runs between Mesa and South Bend last year. And in 56 games, he struck out only 31 times. Then again, he only walked 14.

I do wonder what position he is going to play for the Pelicans. Showing versatility works for now, but second might be where his bat plays best.

The thing about Upshaw is that he does have some room to add some muscle. It’s not that he was gaunt, but he’s not going to be in any bodybuilding competition soon either. If he could put on 10-15 pounds and not affect his swing whatsoever, that would be great.

The big thing I like the most about Upshaw is he has the ability to focus in the moment. Some might refer to him as a baseball rat, but I think he’s just a darn good baseball player. He can identify a pitch and, if it’s the right pitch, he can do something with it. IF not, he’s going to let it go by. Upshaw is very patient and, like Ian Happ, Upshaw hits strikes. Upshaw could be one of those players who hits better at the higher levels because the quality of pitching is better.

The fans at Myrtle Beach are going to love watching him work a count. That may not sound that sexy, but it’s pretty fun to watch him hit. If he can walk a bit more, and hit a few more home runs this year, that would be great. Above all else, he just needs to continue to hit.


Leveling Up Series: Jared Young Is Mentally Strong and Getting Stronger

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By Todd Johnson

Seems like I just wrote about Jared Young last month. When I look back to see the actual article, it was over six months ago.

In 2017, Young had an up and down first season at Eugene. What I really liked about him was how he approached every at bat. Even when he got off to such a poor start after signing, he worked every count that he possibly could and in August it paid off.

Young’s future has a Cub could go several different ways. He is a second baseman with pretty good size. At 6’2” and 185 pounds, he has the ability to put on more weight and to produce more power. Whether he stays at second base or not, is a discussion for a later day.

I think it would be easy to forget his first six weeks as a pro. It’s a lot easier to remember his August where he hit .323 with a .357 on base percentage. He only hit one home run for the year, but he drove in 11 in his last 23 games. That’s a pretty good pace that would be close to 80 runs driven in at full class A.

Basic Info
Bats Left
Throws Right
6’2” 185 lbs
Old Dominion
15th Round Pick 2017

Leveling Up for 2018

One other thing I like about Young and his fellow position player draft picks is that they seem to be a bit more mature than your average prospect. Last year, the Cubs drafted several college position players that included Young and most of them played at Eugene last summer.

While I don’t think Young is going to get through the system fairly quickly, I do think he’s going to learn fairly fast. As a result, his ability to pick up things quickly will only enhance his profile throughout the course of the year. The player we saw last summer is going to be different from the player we see this spring and the player we will see in June will also be different.

Another advantage is Young’s favor is the path he’s taken to get this point. He is used to being a new guy in a new place every year. Originally from Prince George in British Columbia, Young attended three colleges before he was taken by the Cubs last summer. He first played at Minot State in North Dakota where he hit .398 with 5 dingers. He then transferred to Connors State College. He put together an amazing 2016 with a .480 average and 11 homers. In 2017 at Old Dominion, he cranked 7 home runs while hitting .384. He’s got this moving thing down.

As for the batter’s box, Young told the Prince George Citizen how he is trying to master the mental aspects of the game.:

I’ve been working with (hitting coach) Chris Valaika and (manager) Jesus (Feliciano) on just the mental aspect of the game. And it’s just taking that to the plate and seeing a fastball and making sure you don’t miss them. I didn’t have the greatest of starts, and I’ll admit that. It was definitely mental, too. It’s been a couple of mechanical things that I’ve been working on, but to go on a streak like this, I think it’s more mental, staying the course and not staying too high or too low.

I’d like to see him play some first base this summer just to enhance his profile as a possible utility guy. What I want to see most is for him to continue his excellent approach at the plate and to develop more power as the year goes on. I’m not asking for 20 home runs every year from him. But I would like to see is a gradual increase from year-to-year.

He really seems to have the right mental makeup to do well. I cannot wait to pick his brain about hitting later this summer when he is at South Bend.

Leveling Up Series: Alex Lange Has a Killer Curve and a Lot of Questions to Answer

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By Todd Johnson

With the 30th pick in the 2017 MLB draft, the Cubs selected pitcher Alex Lange from Louisiana State University. The number one starter for the Tigers, Lange came to the Cubs with what was considered to be the best curveball in the draft. He only got nine innings of work in last summer after pitching 130 innings for LSU. As a result, the Cubs just gave him a small taste of the minor-league life.

Heading into 2018, there are a lot of questions about Lange and just exactly who he is, what he will be doing, where he will be doing it, and how fast he can get to the next level?

After watching him pitch last year at LSU, and once on MiLB TV, I fell in love with his curve. That being said, Lange is not a fully formed prospect. He still needs to work on developing a third pitch that he can throw consistently for strikes. And, he has to put to rest any health issues as the Cubs discovered something wrong in his physical that resulted in a lower signing bonus. Still, it’s hard to deny the potential that he has.

Basic Info
6’3” 197 lbs.
Throws Right
1st Round 2017 Draft

Leveling Up
At the convention, I asked Jaron Madison, the Cubs farm system director, just exactly where the Cubs were planning on putting Lange to start the 2018 season. Madison did not hesitate in answering that question as he quickly quipped South Bend. I wonder if the experience and struggles of Thomas Hatch had at Myrtle Beach last year had anything to do with Madison’s quick response. Part of me thinks it did, while another part of me thinks that Lange has some things he needs to work on before he goes up to high class A Myrtle Beach.

Fangraphs speaks to Lange’s future here:

[…] evaluators had some concerns about Lange’s ability to pitch in a big-league rotation, requiring better fastball command and a yet-to-develop third pitch to project him as a starter. Lange used his curveball as a crutch at LSU and never developed feel for his changeup, though a source who saw him in the Northwest League, where Lange used his change more often, thought it had promising movement.

Aside from his curve, I really love Lange’s competitive nature on the mound. He is literally intensely into the game on every pitch. However, that intensity carries over into a violent delivery the Cubs could try and smooth out a bit. He is going to be very exciting to watch this year.

Another question that I have about Lange going forward is just exactly what his role is going to be. I’m pretty sure the Cubs are going to have him start on the mound at South Bend. That is the best way for him to work on developing a third pitch and for improving his fastball command. On the other hand, Lange could easily be a power reliever and his stuff that might tick up a bit coming out of the pen 2 to 3 times a week. I shudder to think of a minor-league hitter trying to get any solid contact against his curve. It could get ugly.

As a result, Lange’s future role is not written in stone. I  tend to think of his duality as a win-win for the Cubs. Right now, though, there’s no rush to get him to the majors as a fast track. It would be nice if he could advance through two levels a year, but I think expectations might need to be dampened until his changeup gets to where it needs to be first.

John Sickels’ Top 20 Prospect List Takes Over “The Weekly”

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By Todd Johnson

I was all set to begin uploading “The Weekly” on Saturday night when I thought I would jump onto Twitter to see if there was a trade or signing. I should have known better. 15 minutes later, I finished reading John Sickels’ ranking of Cubs prospects and realized I would have to write a whole new column. Damn you, John Sickels!

To begin, Sickels’ list has a different top prospect than other recent prospect lists and his contains several rankings that are quite different from Fangraphs and Baseball America.

Pitcher Adbert Alzolay is fittingly ranked number one. And not surprisingly, Sickels did not give out one grade of “A” to any of the Cub prospects. In fact, he only handed out just six Bs. That’s quite an indictment of the Cubs’ system. Then again, just three of his top 10 prospects began their season above A+ last year.

Card made from a photo by Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The top prospect for both Baseball America and Fangraphs, shortstop Ademan, came in at number two and 2017 draft pick Alex Lange came in at number three. Lange’s inclusion so high in the list likely has to do more with his ability to move fast through the system based on one single dominant pitch, his curveball. I really like the placement of Lange this high. I love his competitiveness just as much as his curve.

Other players to make the top 10 included Jose Albertos, Victor Caratini, Oscar de la Cruz, Thomas Hatch, Brendon Little, Jen-Ho Tseng, and Mark Zagunis. In Sickels’ second 10, his selections get a little bit more adventurous.

Coming in at number 16 is pitcher Michael Rucker. Rucker started out as a reliever at South Bend in 2017 and wound up going to Myrtle Beach mid-summer and later replaced Oscar de la Cruz in the Pelicans’ starting rotation. Based on his summer split of a 2.51 ERA in 15 starts at Myrtle Beach, Rucker doesn’t seem to be letting go of the rotation at all. It’s a pretty meteoric rise one year after being drafted. He throws a lot strikes, something the Cubs seem to lack.

Sickels also gives some love to pitcher Keegan Thompson out of Auburn at number 17. Drafted in the 4th round in 2017, Thompson pitched some in relief at Eugene last summer. After missing all of 2016, Thompson came back as a different pitcher as he relied more on experience than a purebred 95 mph fastball. Instead, command and control became his calling card. He only threw 19 innings while striking out 23 in short season ball. He did make one start, a three inning scoreless affair.

I was a little surprised to see Sickels’ list so early this offseason, even more so in the wake of Fangraphs’ list, which just came out on Thursday. Sickels’ list does prove a few things about what I thought would happen this winter. One, not every evaluator is going to agree on who the Cubs’ number one prospect is. In addition, I don’t even think there’s a consensus on who the top Cub  prospects are. DJ Wilson, who came in at number nine for Fangraphs, did not even make Sickels’ top 20 and graded out of with a C+.

I’m starting to get a kick out of the differentiation amongst the lists.

Two players who I thought might see a little love just based on their 2017 performances were Ian Rice and Zack Short. Neither has yet to make a list.

Then again, while offseason lists are fun to discuss the value of prospects, I tend to prefer mid-season rankings as you tend to get a better feel for players drafted the year before. This was true last year for Short, Rucker, and pitcher Duncan Robinson. I wonder what will be said about Little, Lange, Cory Abbott, and Keegan Thompson in the middle of next summer?

No word on when MLB Pipeline or Keith Law will publish their new lists. However, Baseball Prospectus is set to drop their top 10 Cubs prospect list on December 11. Hopefully, there will be a new name on the top of that list, like… say, Ohtani. That would be great!

Cubs Central Mailbag – Episode II: Estrada, Velazquez, and Some Relievers

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By Todd Johnson

Welcome to episode two of the offseason minor league mailbag. Last week, I answered questions about Ian Rice, Bryan Hudson, and the 40 man roster. This week gets a little bit more specific with questions about players that I have not seen play yet.

Rikk Carlson
How many prospects in the system are worth trading for top pitching?  Or is it going to be flat out cash deals?
It is not going to be cash deals,. If the Cubs are going to acquire some starting pitching and reliever help, they can get by with prospects in exchange for a reliever. If the Cubs try to get a starter in a trade, they are going to have to throw in major league talent to get major league talent.

If I was a GM for another team, there is no sure thing in the Cubs minor-league system right now. There are some prospects that could turn into something, but the Cubs don’t have a top 100 prospect right now to bring in a top flight starter on their own. On the other hand, while the Cubs may have a bottom five ranked system, they also have a lot of depth and redundancy in order to make a trade or two. Their issue is the lack of current elite talent.

Cory Alan
Early expectations for Estrada?
He did pitch some in the Arizona Rookie League last August. However, he had two wacky stats. While his ERA was good at 1.42 in 6.1 IP, his WHIP was all over the place at 1.74 as he walked 6 and gave up 5 hits in a small sample size. In 2016, he was one of the top young prep arms on the summer circuit. He did not have a good senior season in 2017.

Still, the Cubs talked him out of his commitment to UCLA. I would bet the Cubs saw something that they could fix or tweak to get him back on track. Honestly, I did not expect to see him pitch last year.  With just one month of pro experience, he should be at Eugene to begin 2018. He needs to build up arm strength this year up to about 75 innings. It would not surprise me to see him take the ball every sixth day at Eugene.

It would be safe to say that he might be a little inconsistent this year as he begins to develop and adjust to pitching professionally. My advice would be to not get too high as a fan and not get too low. He is going to have to work through some things.

Will Velaquez fill our Eloy-sized hole in our hearts?
I sure hope so. Part of me is hoping that he has a monster spring and starts in South Bend rather than extended spring training followed by Eugene. I’d be ecstatic if he actually did extended spring training and then filled in in South Bend in late May/early June. However, that is not realistic and might not be good for his development in the long run. The Cubs, more than likely, are going to take their time with him as he does have a few holes in his swing. However, 11 home runs in six weeks shows that there’s a lot right about his swing, too. By the middle of July, we should know if he is going to be the new Cubs phenom in place of Eloy. Currently, that is the direction I am also leaning along with Albertos.

Can Stinnett & Maples be an answer for CHC bullpen?
They can be part of the answer, but the Cubs are probably looking for an additional left-hander. Maples should have a legit shot at making the team in the spring. Considering that Stinnett has only thrown one month as a reliever, plus his time in the Arizona fall league, he should be at AAA Iowa to gain a little more seasoning before he is called upon in that role. Spring training should tell a lot for both pitchers: for Maples, it is about whether he makes the team. For Stinnett, it’s about whether they see him as part of the team in the future, a.k.a., later this summer.

I have enough questions for another post next week. You can send your questions to me on Twitter @cubscentral08, or you can just email me at

Breakout Hitters for 2018: Learning to Hit with Consistency

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By Todd Johnson

This gets harder and harder to do every year. There’s so much information available that it is rare for a prospect to sneak up and have a good year. I don’t like to rely totally on statistics, although I do think they are a valuable tool. When it comes to identifying players who I think could break out or be identified as sleepers in an organization, I prefer seeing them play live. I get a better sense for their approach at the plate, their swing plane, the ability to see the ball into the zone, and the sound of the ball coming off the bat. I also like watching the fluidity of their athleticism.

In 2017, there were a few key prospects who broke out in some form or fashion. Shortstop Zack Short comes to mind along with catcher Ian Rice, third baseman Jason Vosler, outfielder Charcer Burks, and shortstop Aramis Ademan. The biggest breakout was fifth round pick Nelson Velasquez who destroyed Arizona Rookie League pitching in his short tenure as he pummeled 10 HRs in a 7 week span after being drafted.

When it comes to 2018, there are several prospects who could show a marked improvement in their performance. There are several players who, at times in 2017, showed that there might be more there than the level at which they were currently performing. Then there were other players who seemed to come on strong in the second half of the season, or at the very least, in the month of August.

Here are several names of hitting prospects who I think could break out in 2018 to make their way onto a top prospect list.

At AA Tennessee
I really think that 2018 will be the summer of Eddy Martinez. In the second half of 2017 he hit .276 with seven home runs and I think he is finally acclimated to playing professional baseball and living in the United States. He is still young as he will just be 23 in January.

At Class A Myrtle Beach
DJ Wilson – I think this is the year where his physical maturity along with his baseball maturity mesh to produce his best year. I don’t know if he’s going to hit a lot of home runs this year because the Carolina League is just not a hitter’s league. However, I do think his batting average will improve as well as his approach. The one thing I don’t have to worry about is his defense.

Kevonte Mitchell – I think his time has come. He has grown into a physical specimen at 6’5″ and probably about 240 pounds. He is just a beast. But what impressed me most about his performance in 2017 was the way that he was able to track the ball into the catcher’s mitt. He did have an up-and-down year but behind the scenes he was putting in a lot of work to make himself more consistent. It would not surprise me to see him hit 20 home runs at this level and to begin to carry a team for games at a time.

At Class A South Bend
Miguel Amaya
– Once you see him, you tend to fall in love with his arm behind the plate. However, his bat was sorely lacking to begin 2017. When he was moved to the seventh spot in the lineup, he did much better hitting almost .300 in the month of August. This leads me to believe that he is going to come into 2018 with a much better approach than he had at short season Eugene. I would not be surprised to see him hit 12 to 15 home runs in the Midwest League.

Jared Young – He is the perfect example of don’t scout the stat line. After being drafted, he began his pro career at Eugene last summer as he got off to a terrible start batting average wise hitting .131 in July.  However, if you watched his at-bats, you saw an outstanding approach that saw him work counts to see a lot of pitches, but the balls just were not dropping in for hits. My friend John and I would comment to each other about what bad luck he was having. Then, in the last two weeks of August, he tore the cover off the ball hitting .323 for the month.

In August, one of the highlights of watching the Eugene Emeralds play was to watch Austin Filiere hit on a nightly basis. The 2017 draft pick out of MIT still has some work to do on defense, but his approach at the plate is top notch. He hit .261 with a .392 OBP. Add in his short quick stroke and he has the potential for 20 home run power next season. I’m not saying he’s going to hit 20 homeruns, but he could.

In June and early July, my favorite hitter at Eugene was none other than Joe Martarano who hit .340 for the Emeralds. When he went to South Bend, the poor guy just got off to a horrible start. When I saw him play in Beloit, he had a super high leg kick that didn’t necessarily show up on video. Thankfully, that turned into a toe tap a bit later and he hit much better in August (.273) including his first Midwest League home run. He should start out at South Bend unless he completely terrorizes spring training pitching. I just love the way the ball jumps off his bat and the sound is immense.

At Eugene
Jonathan Sierra is long and lean at 6’3″ and a physical replica of Darryl Strawberry. He just turned 19 in October and should be better next year than last. His approach comes across as fine. He hit .259 in rookie ball with a .332 OBP. His power is what will determine his breakout. He only hit two in 48 games and needs to do better. Hopefully, he breaks out in 2018 but it is more likely to bust out at South Bend in 2019.

He is just 20 years old, but Delvin Zinn is one player I think everyone should watch in 2018. He played in Mesa last summer and played mainly at short and second. He is an extremely athletic player who did have an up and down season. If he can learn to be more consistent, he is going to be a force on the base paths.

Others to Watch
Brandon Hughes is a switch hitting speedy outfielder who has the perfect size (6’2″) to develop a power stroke. Whether he will or not, I don’t know, but it’s not all going to happen next year. Improving his approach next year at South Bend should help.
Cam Balego – He played all over the infield in 2017 for Mesa and converted to catcher this fall at instructs. He was extremely consistent at the plate as he hit .286. I’m interested to see what he can do in a larger sample size.
Marcus Mastrobuoni – He led Mesa in almost every hitting category until Nelson Velasquez passed him up late in the season. The young catcher should be at Eugene in 2018. The problem for him is that there is nowhere to go in the now catching rich system.

The Weekly: The Offseason Begins, Baseball America Draft Grades, while Bote and Rice Stay Hot

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By Todd Johnson

For most Cub fans, the off season has begun. Theo Epstein did his annual postseason analytical press conference and now it is just a matter of time before he begins reassembling the team for 2018. Yesterday’s letting go of Chris Bosio was a surprise and it won’t be long before the Cubs have a new pitching coach. Then, a week after the World Series is complete, MLB free agency will begin and a new market for players and pitchers will take shape.

There’s a large part of me that enjoys the off-season just as much as I do the regular season. I enjoy the evaluative aspects of free-agent signings and trades just as much as I do breaking down prospects and trends during the regular season.

Another thing I really enjoy about the off-season is it allows me to write more about a specific topic. And I can carry that out over several days or weeks. This off-season is no different. I will again examine the positional depth throughout the system and, additionally, what several prospects need to do at the next level in 2018. Those series will start around Turkey Day.

As for the World Series and who will win, I don’t really have an emotional stake in either team winning. I would prefer that Houston would win just because they have never won a World Series championship.

Arizona Fall League
David Bote and Ian Rice both continued to terrorize pitchers in the Arizona Fall League. While Bote’s exploits continue to lead the league in most every offensive category, Rice is not far behind hitting .375 with a .524 OBP and a 1.086 OPS after two weeks. Jason Vosler looks to have broken through as he had a walkoff triple on Friday night. Adbert Alzolay has been fantastic with a 0.17 WHIP and Pedro Araujo has lowered his ERA from 9.00 to 3.00 this past week. Alec Mills made his second start as he gave up 1 run in 4 IP with 1 K.

Baseball America Draft Grades
John Manuel of Baseball America gave out some superlatives to several 2017 Cubs draft picks this week. In the article (subscription required), Manuel gave several accolades to Austin Upshaw, Nelson Velazquez, Austin Filiere, and Alex Lange. I think some other prospects to watch from this draft class are starting pitchers Cory Abbott and Keegan Thompson, reliever Jake Steffens, 2B Jared Young and SS Luis Vazquez as well as top pick Brendon Little. I really like the quality depth of position players and pitching the Cubs selected and signed this summer. It comes across that the Cubs selected much more athletic players this year than. Outfielders Brandon Hughes and Chris Singleton are just two of those type of players.

The Seven Series

The lower parts of the system conclude the series this week. South Bend is up first, followed by Eugene, and Mesa should be in the hole for Friday. The State of the MLB System series will follow next week.

Yesterday, I began putting together an article for BP Wrigleyville about possible expansion and realignment. I feel as though I was been born to write this article about MLB expansion and realignment. As a teacher, I think I have practiced doodling and outlining this article in many a faculty meeting and teacher institute over the last 30 years. It will be out next Saturday.

Baseball Card of the Week
I only added a few cards this week and I think that might be the pace I work at this off-season. You can see all them right here.

This one is my favorite…for this week.