Cubs Draft 2017
By Todd Johnson
There’s always one…always.
Every year at short season ball, there’s always one prospect who catches my eye. There are always several that I like, but just one who I am just fascinated to watch. That prospect might not be fully formed or developed, but for some reason, I cannot take my eyes off of them. In the past, it’s been Trevor Clifton, Zack Short, Eloy, and Jose Albertos.
This year is no different. No, it’s not Nico Hoerner, nor is it Nelson Velazquez, Brailyn Marquez, Fernando Kelli, or Jonathan Sierra, though I like them all very, very much. This year, it is Luis Vazquez.
The first look I got of Vazquez was in his promo video (down below). He was just a scrawny kid who looks very fluid in his movements. You see him running, hitting, fielding, throwing. It looks like most other videos of players from the Caribbean and Latin America. What sets Vazquez apart is the way he moves. It’s not awkward. It’s not mechanical. It’s very fluidic, very natural, almost earthy. It’s not forced at all. And he looks like he could gain a few pounds. And based on how he looks this year, he’s no longer 6’1” and he’s no longer 165 pounds.
The Arizona Rookie League
The first look I got of Vazquez was in a video by Baseball Census of pitcher Mitch Stophel. At 1:32, Vazquez comes out of nowhere to make a couple of nice plays. I was amazed at his range and his quick release. For a 17 year-old in the Arizona Rookie League, Vazquez survived. He started out hot hitting .346 in July before cooling off. In August , he only hit .135. A plus, though, was that his strikeout rate was decent at close to 20%. That’s not too bad for a kid playing against pitchers with much better stuff than he was accustomed to seeing in Puerto Rico. In the playoffs, Vazquez went 4-for-5 in 2 games as the Cubs won the title.
In Spring Training this year, heads turned in Mesa this spring when the young shortstop played in actual game with the big league club. He went 0-for-2 at the plate but looked like he belonged out there at shortstop.
June in Eugene
Things have not gone exactly as planned at short season Eugene. Originally, Luis was going to largely play shortstop and solidify the infield. For the first two weeks, he did just that. He showed great range, a good arm, made good decisions, and was looked to by the rest of the team as the de facto defender. His bat, however, did not do so well. Hitting in the bottom of the order for 13 games, he only hit .154 and struck out 10 times in 39 at-bats.
And then July came…
…And so did shortstop Nico Hoerner, the Cubs’ #1 draft pick this year. Hoerner slid right into the starting shortstop position. But instead of it being the downfall of Vazquez, it was the beginning. Luis began playing second and showed he could play there at an elite level without a hitch. Third base? No problem! I am amazed at how easily he slid into those spots and displayed elite skills on day one. The ability to thrive in that situation really speaks to his makeup and desire.
What has changed the most for Luis, though, is his bat. For July, he’s hitting .364 with 1 HR and 5 in his last 10 games with only 3 Ks in 22 ABs. I am excited to see if he can maintain that high level of production and keep his strikeout rate low. I really like how he handles the bat. Sometimes, he might push an at-bat too hard. He just needs to learn when to be aggressive and when to not be. It is still a work in progress. He will have good games and bad games.
And just as soon as Nico came, Nico left. Luis was penciled right back in at shortstop last night. He went 1-for-4 with a HR and 2 RBI.
Vazquez is going to stay at Eugene all summer. Give him time to finish growing. His physicality should grow with it. He’s still pretty raw at the plate but the more pitches he sees, the better he is going to be. He’s just 18. But it’s an extremely impressive 18.
By Todd Johnson
Pitching in the minors this spring has been stupendous at times. From AAA Iowa on down to class A South Bend. Depending on the day, you could see almost any pitcher throw a one or two-hitter with 8 to 10 Ks. You never know. However, stringing together a series of consistent starts has been hard to find. Last month, Matt Swarmer did it for Myrtle Beach. This month, that distinction falls to Erich Uelmen of South Bend.
When the Cubs announce their Pitcher of the Month for May next week, Uelmen should be at or near the top of the list for consideration In fact, unless a miracle happens, Uelmen is going to be named to Cubs Central’s All-Star Team for May on Friday.
For the month, Uelmen made five starts going 25 innings. He struck out 25 while holding opponents to a .232 average and only walking six. In April, you would not have recognized Uelmen. His ERA of 9.75 was marked by a .320 batting average against and a WHIP of 1.92. In May, his WHIP was 1.12 and Uelmen has not allowed an earned run since May 11. That’s a pretty impressive stretch. Add in a 3-to-1 ground ball to flyout ratio and Uelmen begins to look very promising.
Third Round Pick 2017 Draft
Cal Poly San Luis Obispo
6’3” 185 Pounds
After Uelmen was drafted and signed in 2017, he spent the rest of the summer at Eugene in short season ball. I only remember seeing him pitch a couple of times. I try not to put too much stock into a signed starter’s first go around. But Uelmen threw 17.2 total innings, all in relief, and gave up only 4 earned runs (2.04 ERA) while striking out an outstanding 23 batters.
Over the winter, MLB Pipeline ranked Uelmen at #17 on the Cubs’ Top 30 Prospect List. Here is what they thought of Uelmen.
Uelmen pounds the bottom of the strike zone with a heavy 90-94 mph sinker that has the Cubs wondering if he might be the second coming of Derek Lowe. They’re going to have him add a four-seamer he can elevate to change batters’ eye level. He can get some swings and misses with his average slider but he needs more work on his changeup.
Uelmen operates from a low three-quarters arm slot and has effort in his delivery, so some scouts project him as a reliever. Chicago will develop him as a starter, believing that his athleticism and strike-throwing ability can keep him in the rotation. He could succeed as at least a middle reliever with his sinker, giving him a nice fallback and one of the higher floors among its recent college pitching selections.
Pipeline’s Jim Callis and Jonathan Mayo make an excellent point that Uelmen needs to add a 4 seamer to offset his plus sinker.
What I have seen this month from Uelmen is that he is pitching off that sinker more and more. I am not a big radar gun guy. Yes, sometimes it is flashy to see a guy throw 95-97, but I like to watch the type of swings a pitcher gets. For Uelmen, he gets some of the ugliest swings off the sinker. Most hitters will flail over the top or make weak contact.
However, Uelmen still needs to work on his other pitches. He has a changeup and a slider to go along with his sinker. While Uelmen has put up an excellent month, it is just the beginning of his Cub career. He’s not going to be fast tracked to the majors anytime soon. But another month like May and you have to begin to wonder if he will see Myrtle Beach this year. It’s a possibility. After all, his FIP is 2.87 on the year. In the end, though, for Uelmen it has to be about developing that consistency from start to start and month to month. He’s had a nice three week run in May. He just needs to keep it going.
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.
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.
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.
By Todd Johnson
Even after just one year, it’s sometimes hard to get a good feel for a draft class until you’ve seen them play for at least a couple of years. Last year, the Cubs selected 41 players and signed 29 of them. A couple of young pitchers have yet to debut this year while 3 prospects are all the way up to high A Myrtle Beach. A large portion of the draftees are at South Bend (13) and the rest will likely play for Eugene this summer or fill in at South Bend within the next month.
While the Cubs did take a majority of pitchers last year in the draft (including two in the first round), it has been the hitters who are currently my focus on a daily basis this spring in Austin Filiere, Jared Young, and Nelson Velazquez. In addition, there are some pitchers trying to figure out whether they are going to start or relieve. Those decisions might be ongoing for a couple of years.
Next year’s grade will be more interesting and indicative of this class’ potential.
The Big Pitching Guns
It’s a bit hit and miss so far.
Alex Lange, Keegan Thompson, and Cory Abbott have been up and down. Brendon Little is improving every start. Tyler Thomas was very good in April but seems to be inconsistent to begin May. And Brendan King is just getting to South Bend in a relief role and doing well. Rollie Lacy just made his first starts of the year for South Bend. It’ll be much easier to evaluate a year from now when these arms have 25 to 30 starts under their belt rather than five or six.
If the last few days are any indication, there’s a lot of promise. 2nd round selection Cory Abbott struck out 11 on Saturday night and 18 for the week while 3rd round pick Erich Uelmen went 12 scoreless on the week with 9 Ks.
The Cubs did pick a few hitters who I really liked last year. Austin Filiere seems to have improved the most as he is hitting for average as well as drawing walks. I thought he would hit a lot more home runs but it hasn’t really heated up yet in the Midwest League. Jared Young is another impressive bat who really came on strong in August. He is one of my favorite hitters to watch in the organization because his approach is so good. The same is true of Austin Upshaw who did well at South Bend last summer. However, Upshaw is struggling in 2018 at Myrtle Beach. The approach is still there, but the results are not.
The Young Guns
Outfielder Nelson Velazquez tore it up last summer in Mesa. I thought he would begin 2018 in Eugene and I was really surprised to see him debut at South Bend the week of May 7. You can definitely see the tools and the skill set on display, but he seems to be struggling at the plate as I don’t think he has seen those types of curves or changeups before. Shortstop Luis Vazquez should also be a sight to see this summer in Eugene. He might be the best defensive shortstop in the system. If he can do anything with his bat, he should move pretty quickly with his skill set on defense. I’m looking forward to seeing Jeremiah Estrada pitch for Eugene this summer. He pitched a little bit last year in Mesa but not enough to get a good look at. This summer, seeing him on TV should be an eye-opener to see if the Cubs got a steal in the sixth round.
There are more than 10 other draft picks who make their 2018 debut later this year. That’s 1/3 of the draft class. Part of me says to give them a B and move on, but that is a lot of players who are still getting in the swing of things.
In trying to decide the grade, the one I really wanted to give was an incomplete. And that might be true for most drafts after their first year, honestly. There are many good things happening with this class and there are other picks who really haven’t even gotten going. I thought it would be unfair to the reader to get through this whole article and not even give a grade.
With that in mind, I’m going to throw out a B-. There’s no one who has gone out and consistently dominated. However, depending on how things go this year, the 2017 class could easily be an A at draft time a year from now if Little continues to improve, Lange and Thompson find some consistency, and Estrada flashes at Eugene to go along with the excellent hitting of Young, Filiere, Upshaw, and Velazquez, and the defense of Vazquez.
The Cubs took some chances in the 2017 draft and may hit on a few of them in due time. Just a year from now we’ll know a lot more. For right now, it’s a pretty promising class.
By Todd Johnson
I am kind of digging the Brendon Little experiment. Some of you may look at his stats and wondering what is there to dig? A 6.70 ERA? a WHIP of 1.67? A batting average against of .270? His first start was not something to hang your hat on as he threw 32 pitches in only one inning of work. Since then, he shown a lot of growth, even if it doesn’t show up in some of his stats. Over the course of last month, he looks to be a very fast learner.
Little was the Cubs number one draft pick in 2017. After throwing 85 innings in junior college, Little was limited on to what he could throw for the Eugene Emeralds last summer. Statistically, it did not go well in his 16.1 IP as his ERA was 9.37 and his velocity was down to 89-90 mph.
When I think of Brendon Little, I draw two lines. In between the lines is a big gap – that’s his development. To the left of the left line, that is who Brandon Little was when the Cubs drafted him – a left-handed pitcher who threw 91 to 94, occasionally topping out at 97. He’s also a pitcher who doesn’t have the experience of an average college coming out of the draft. Little only threw four innings for North Carolina his freshman year. He then transferred to State College of Florida, a junior college at Manatee-Sarasota, where he put up 85 innings in what would be his sophomore year. Most college pitchers have three years of experience. Little basically has one with just 89 innings. I am OK in giving him some time to develop and adjust.
What Little is going to be doing the next two years is learning to tap into his talent and development at South Bend and Myrtle Beach. Maybe, if all goes well, he could even see Tennessee. To be honest, there’s no rush to move him along. He’ll turn 22-years-old a couple of weeks before the end of the this season and 23 at the end of the 2019 season. He’s pretty young with a lot to learn.
Regardless of where he is in the Cubs system, it’s really all about fastball command. And for a Little, that has improved in every start this year. You can forget about his ERA, his FIP, his BAA, and his WHIP. Rather than look at the totals, you have to think of his stats more as line graph that shows the differences per game. A few stats I want to see Little improve over time include the number of pitches that he throws, the number of innings, and the number of fastballs he throws for strikes (which I would have to go back and watch).
Here’s what some of those stats were for his five appearances to date in 2018.
Pitches per outing – 35, 40, 79, 84, 92
Innings per outing – 0.2, 2, 4.2, 4.2, 6
Strikes per outing – 18, 21, 48, 52, 61
Add in the fact that batting average against has also improved each start along with his WHIP and Ks and things are getting better.
One thing I’ve always taken into consideration with Little is that there is a huge talent difference between junior college and professional baseball. He looks to be trusting his stuff more and attacking rather than nibbling. When I watched him pitch last Saturday in Peoria, I liked what I saw. He was more aggressive at times.
While he is getting stretched out and his numbers are improving, it is going to take some time to get the run totals down. Another month should do it. Now that he’s at 6 innings, he can work on getting down to 3-4 runs allowed, then down to 2, and down to 1 or zero. He’s not going to throw shutouts every night, but he has come a long way in a very short time.
Getting back to the line analogy: The line on the right is the kind of pitcher that he’s going to become. I don’t think that’s written in stone just yet. I love his curveball and if he can continue to improve each and every start. I don’t know what that third pitch is going to be just yet. It could be a change, a cutter, or even a slider. That is still to be determined and that could take years to figure out and master.
For this year, though, I think there’s gonna be a dramatic difference between the Brendon Little of April and the Brendon Little at the end of June. He seems to be learning and improving at a very quick pace. That’s a good sign.
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.
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.
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.
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.