Cubs Draft 2017

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!

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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 cubscentral2016@gmail.com.

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.

Expansion
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.

State of the Cubs MiLB System: Part 1 – Big Picture Themes

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By Todd Johnson

At some point, shortly after the season ends, Theo Epstein will address the media to talk about the state of the Cubs system, both the major and minor league systems. He’ll mention a few prospects he likes and he’ll talk about how excited or disappointed he was. For the most part, it will be a mostly transparent procedure. It will be an insider’s’ analysis of a system with which he is very familiar.

If I was to do said analysis about the MiLB system, I would not be privy to a lot of information that Theo gets from Jason McLeod and Jaron Madison. Still, there are obvious things that you can see taking place throughout the system. I think the analysis begins with more big picture themes…like these:

Big Picture Themes
1. Ability to Develop Talent

I think the Cubs do well at this. I think they can take a player and suddenly make them all seem worthwhile. They have shown the ability to take talent in the draft, international free agency, or in a trade, and polish them up to get them ready for the majors. On some days, you can find six position players the Cubs drafted in the lineup. In 2012, catching was a definite weakness of the system and now the Cubs have developed that weakness into a strength.

2. Elite Talent
With the trades of this past summer, the Cubs really are devoid of elite talent right now. There is only one player that I can foresee making a top 100 list this winter and that is Jose Albertos. I think what the past five years showed us is that the Cubs can find and sign some of the top players in the game. I just don’t see anybody that is currently at AA or AAA that fits that bill. Sure, there are a lot of nice players who could be bench players or bullpen pieces at the major-league level, but there’s not a top of the rotation starter or anyone who could become an everyday position player over the next year. There may be a backup catcher and several fifth outfielders, but that’s it. However, at the lower levels, there are several prospects, both pitching and hitting, who could fill some roles in 2-3 years.

3. Risk and Reward
This is the biggest theme in the system and trend of the past two years. Since the Cubs are not going to be drafting near the top of the first round, they have to be a little bit riskier and select players who they think have high ceilings but are not safe bets. For most of the past five years, the Cubs have signed mainly college players from the draft. A few times, they selected and signed high school players, most notably the collection of Carson Sands, Justin Steele, Dylan Cease, and Austyn Willis. Only two of them are still Cubs. Sands did not have a good 2017 season coming off bone spur removal and Steele had Tommy John surgery in late August. Selecting four pitchers in one draft from high school carried with it a lot of risk and explains why the Cubs tend to focus on college arms.

However this past year, the Cubs selected several high school picks and signed them. Nelson Velasquez is a physically maxed out outfielder with immense power. He was named the August Minor League Player of the Month after cranking out six home runs for Mesa that month. Shortstop Luis Vasquez had an up and down season for Mesa but he’s physically gifted and went five for seven in two playoff games. Pitcher Jeremiah Estrada (6th round 2017) was the highest ranked high school pitcher the Cubs selected since Bryan Hudson in 2015 in the third round.

4. International Free Agent Strategies


The Cubs invested heavily in the Mexican market the past three summers I don’t know how much that will change next summer under new CBA rules where there is a strict cap. In 2013 and 2015, the Cubs went over their spending limit but also acquired a lot of talent in doing so. Most of them are just now reaching stateside, some all the way up at Myrtle Beach. That type of binging cannot be done anymore.

I will be back next week with part 2 as I look at the strengths and weaknesses of the Cubs MiLB system.

Prospect Profile: Jared Young Improving by Leaps and Bounds

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By Todd Johnson

Going 14 for 18 over a four game span will get you noticed. That is what Eugene Emeralds’ second baseman Jared Young did last week. Add in one home run and eight RBI and you can see why he will probably be named the Northwest League Player of the Week today.

The Cubs drafted Young in the 15th round of the 2017 MLB Draft out of Old Dominion. At 6’2″ tall, Young is pretty good sized for a second baseman. He shows a good approach at the plate and at 21-years-old has shown an excellent ability to adjust in a short period of time.   

Basic Info
6’2”, 185 pounds
Bats left, throws right

Strengths
Approach
Size
Potential for power
Smooth swing

Originally from British Columbia, Young played at three schools in his three years of college. His first year saw him at D2 Minot State in North Dakota where hit .398 with 5 HRs and 35 RBI as a pitcher/infielder. As a sophomore, he hit 11 home runs and drove in 54 for Connors State Junior College in Oklahoma. This spring, he was at Old Dominion where he hit 7 home runs and drove in 34. But at each stop, he displayed a mix of power, average, and a 2 to 1 walk to strikeout ratio.

When he arrived at Eugene this summer, you could see the smooth swing and you could see him watching the ball into the mitt. But something was off. My friend John commented how much he really liked Young’s approach and stroke. But the results were not there as he just .135 in his first 16 games. When digging deeper into Fangraphs, John noticed that his batting average of balls in play (BABIP) was in the low 200s. So, in other words, Young was extremely unlucky.

However, in August, his BABIP exploded up over .300 and his average did, too. For the month, Young hit .323 and continued his good fortune into September going 14 for his last 18 with one home run and 8 RBI just last week. In August, his average went from .131 to .230 and just in September, it’s risen to .257.

Despite his early struggles, Manager Jesus Feliciano stuck with Young batting him second most of the past six weeks after originally betting him sixth or seventh. In the two spot, he’s hit .333 with a .397 OBP while only striking out ten times versus 7 BBs. He is currently averaging 3.96 pitches per plate appearance. I think that will improve more as he settles in as a pro.

Photo from @MiLB

Going forward

I really like watching him play. I can see several comps to him from Chase Utley to DJ LeMahieu but I think he’s his own kind of player. And based upon his track record, I think he’s only going to get better with pro instruction. I’m excited to see him in the playoffs this week and at South Bend every day next year.

As for his future, I don’t think it’s determined the type of player he’s going to be. With his frame, you would think that there’s a lot of potential for power there and he has shown in the past to be able to hit the ball over the fence. But how much he’s going to do that, I don’t know yet. I am sure fall instructs and spring training will advance his development in the next seven months.

Cubs’ August MiLB All-Star Team Has 16 New Faces

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By Todd Johnson

What a difference the last two months had on the look of the Cubs’ system. A lot of familiar names are gone and new ones have taken their place. You would think that this month’s All-Star team would be pitching centric but it’s not. Instead, there are a plethora of hitters who rose to the occasion in August.

Surprisingly, the position of catcher saw the greatest highlights out of all Cubs prospects. Five years ago that was a huge pit of emptiness and now has become a position of strength at every level. Outfield play was also outstanding along with the reliever corps.

While there were several hitters over .300, only a few displayed any kind of power and only one power prospect made the team. The great thing about that is he’s only 18 years old.

As for starting pitching, most MiLB pitchers tend to get run down in August but several arms had a very good month with four outstanding hurlers putting up ERAs under 2.00. This month’s team is structured a little different as it has more than one player at a few everyday positions.

Team Breakdown
Myrtle Beach, South Bend, and Eugene each have 6 reps.
Tennessee, Iowa, and Mesa each have 5. The DSL has 1.

Upcoming posts
Saturday – Cards of the Month
Sunday – The Weekly
Monday – Prospect Profile: Jared Young