The Weekly: Playoffs, the AFL, a New Top 21 Is Close, and Awards Galore

By Todd Johnson

It has been a pretty exciting week in the minors between Cubs 1’s hunt for a second consecutive Arizona League title and Eugene’s neck and neck playoff race with Salem-Keizer for a spot in the Northwest League postseason.

Even though Cubs 1 had the best regular season record in the Arizona League, they lost the championship 2 games to 1 to the Dodgers by giving up 5 unearned runs in the finale. Lots of good pitching will be heading up the ladder next year from the team including Peyton Remy, Didier Vargas, Jesus Tejada, and Jack Patterson.

As for Eugene, they took one on the chin last night losing 6-4 to Boise. The Ems lead 3-0 early but could not hold it through the middle innings. Things are still hopeful for the Emeralds, though. They are tied with Salem-Keizer who beat Hillsboro last night. As a result, Eugene’s magic number is 2.

If the Ems get in, they play a best 2 out of 3 against Hillsboro starting on Wednesday. The Emeralds have pretty much  been owned by the Hops this going just 4-8.

Big News Last Night
Tennessee catcher P. J. Higgins hit for the cycle last night against Pensacola in a 10-6 loss. That’s a pretty cool achievement for Higgins who has some other cool news coming later in the column.

As for the Rest of the MiLB System…
The Dominican Summer League ended on the 25th, Cubs 2 in Mesa ended the 27th, while Iowa, Tennessee, Myrtle Beach, and South Bend wrap up their seasons tomorrow afternoon.

In Other News This Week…
Drew Smyly showed up in South Bend and got in an inning in his rehab. He struck out all three batters he faced. Smyly might have to go to Eugene to get work in next week or two, depending on how Eugene does. Otherwise, he’d have just do a series of sim games in Chicago or Arizona as the Cubs won’t have any teams playing.

The Cubs also announced ½ of their slots for the Arizona Fall League. Catcher PJ Higgins, SS Nico Hoerner, 2B Trent Giambrone, and OF DJ Wilson will all get to extend their seasons and, hopefully, get a jump in their development. Hoerner is the surprise pick to attend and play. His inclusion is a sign from the organization of their beliefs in his talents. The Cubs have yet to name any pitchers to throw in the league but the Cubs reserved three spots on the roster of the Mesa Solar Sox. Those names should be announced shortly. The Cubs, more than likely, want to see how some of their rehabbing pitchers are doing when the season ends. Two of the most obvious choices to attend are Justin Steele and Bailey Clark.

A New Top 21 List Is on the Horizon
The newest Top 21 List is currently in flux. All the profiles of the players are written. It is just waiting on what number to attach to the prospects. It will have an ala carte menu like in the past. Part of me wants to wait to see how Nico Hoerner does in the AFL before I publish it. I have a feeling I will have to redo it once the AFL ends. Then again, it would just be moving a couple of prospects either up or down. More than likely, it will be out sometime the week of September 11.

All-Star Nods and Awards

Congratulations go out to Zack Short who was named a Southern League All-Star this week. He was also named by Baseball America as the best defensive shortstop in the Southern League. Jared Young of Myrtle Beach received the same defensive honor honor for playing 1B in the Carolina League. Starter Duncan Robinson was named as having the best control in the Southern League. And Miguel Amaya was named by Baseball America as the best defensive catcher in the Midwest League. As well, pitcher Brailyn Marquez, formerly of Eugene, was named a Northwest League All-Star shortly after his promotion to South Bend. There should be more awards coming.

September Plans…
I love writing in the offseason. There are no deadlines. There’s not a rush to get things done. I can go into depth, be brief, or do whatever I want. September is going to have a few things happening. I will still be covering Eugene and doing game recaps as long as they are playing. After the Ems’ season ends, I have a couple of short series planned. The first series is on breaking players of the second half and the second series is a two part look at players who could be making comeback in 2019 via an injury or just a poor performance in 2018.

In addition, the Cards of August comes out tomorrow and the second half All-Star team drops on Wednesday. I will discuss some trends and stories in the system I didn’t cover as much as I wanted to this summer. And, over at BP Wrigleyville, I have an article coming Tuesday on Nico Hoerner’s AFL assignment. Lots of good stuff is happening.

Players of the Week

Card of the Week


The Weekly – PDCs and Playoff Chases Start Off August

By Todd Johnson

Between the trading deadline, all-star teams, baseball cards, and watching the big league club everyday, it was a very busy week. Add in the fact that I begin teaching next week finally hit home, I have a lot going on inside my head.

The MiLB season ends exactly four weeks from tomorrow on Labor Day. It will be here quick. WIth that in my mind, I also began to overthink what I need to do to get ready when that happens. There are usually posts on breakouts, all-star teams, a new Top 21 List, Baseball Cards of the Year, affiliate reviews, and other odds and sods. It can be a busy month. But it can wait. Be mindful of the future, but not at the expense of the moment.

The Playoff Chase
As the big league club continues to lead the NL Central, the MiLB system is having a bit of a rough time. Cubs 1 in Mesa already has a spot reserved in the postseason. It is not looking good for a few affiliates. Iowa is 20 games back. Myrtle Beach is 9. Neither of the DSL teams is even close. However, four affiliates still have some hope.

The Smokies are just three games back. They were on fire to start the second half. Then the bullpen imploded in July. They have the starting pitching to get it done. Will the pen straighten itself out long enough?

South Bend just ended a seven game losing streak. One would think there is no way they could get back in it. Lo and behold, they are just four games back from tying for the final playoff spot and five from taking the lead. I think they have a pretty good chance. They just need to get the hitting going to help their pitching staff and excellent bullpen.

In the great Northwest League, college hitters from this year’s draft have rejuvenated the Emeralds’ lowly offense. They are just two games back from tying Salem-Keizer for the wild card and three from the division lead. It is going to be a most exciting race.

Out in the Arizona League, Cubs 1 leads their division again.  Cubs 2 is currently at 4-5 but they need to make up 3 games in just 17 games while leapfrogging 4 teams. It can be done as last year’s Cubs’ team won 9 in a row to make it to the postseason. The Arizona League will end their season August 27th.

Is Affiliate Roulette is Coming?

Every even year, many MLB organization often switch affiliates. The Cubs are no different. The last big change the Cubs had came at the end of 2014 when the organization went from Kane County to South Bend, Daytona to Myrtle Beach, and Boise to Eugene. This year, that is not happening. In fact, it ought to be very boring. Iowa, Myrtle Beach, and South Bend are all signed up through 2020. Yesterday, Eugene announced they have re-upped with the Cubs through 2022.

Tennessee is next. It should be just a matter of time before both parties announce another four-year extensions.

Looking Ahead
A couple weeks ago, I wrote about who the Cubs might send to the Arizona Fall League. This week, I will explore more postseason happenings as I discuss who the possible prospects are that might get added to the 40 man roster. A Luke Reynolds profile should be coming this week and I also examine which prospects are in the lead for breakout prospects of the second half.

Players of the Week

Card of the Week

Random Notes from Sunday’s Action – Clifton, Hoerner, and King Impress

By Todd Johnson

Yesterday was an exciting day throughout the Cubs’ system – From the Cubs playing in San Diego all the way down to Arizona. I traveled from my home to Indiana to see South Bend play and to hang out with my friend Rikk and take some pictures. Here are some random thoughts about yesterday’s action across the system.

1. I haven’t done a lot of writing about the major league club this year, I am pretty excited about the record and standings at the All-Star break. While the Cubs are playing decent ball , Milwaukee was not as the Brewers went 2-8 over their last 10. As a result, the Cubs have a 2.5 game lead over the Brew Crew and the best record in the NL heading into the second half. If they get their starting pitching figured out, it could be a magical 10 weeks.

2. Trevor Clifton had his best start of his tenure at AAA Iowa yesterday. He only gave up two hits and walked to, but struck out six and did not allow her run in five innings. His ERA for the month is a clean 2.30. I’m excited to see him do well at this level so quickly! Should be interesting to see what happens in September if he continues this trajectory.

3. This year my wife and I broke down and bought a camera with part of our income tax refund. Yesterday, the camera made its maiden voyage to South Bend to break it in with baseball pictures. I still have a lot to learn about the settings, but I got some cool pictures of the young Cubs in action. Here is a link to the folder of all the decent pictures I took yesterday.

4. In the late morning, I had a great interview with South Bend reliever Garrett Kelly. When I get back home, I’m going to have to transcribe the interview because it was really good about how he went from being non-drafted to the Twins to Independent ball and then back to the minor leagues. That should be out Wednesday or Thursday. It might even be in two parts.

5. I tend to get a better feel for a pitcher when I see them in person. It’s hard to pick up on TV the depth that breaking pitches get and to get the full effect of how batters swing against said pitches. Yesterday, South Bend Cub pitcher Brendan King impressed me with his off speed arsenal. He was getting a lot of ugly swings as his pitches dive bombed out of the zone in the last 10 to 15 feet. Yes, he did give up a run, but those breaking pitches are very promising. I hope to interview him later this week and see what all he is throwing and how he is throwing them.

6. The main object of my attention yesterday was shortstop and first round pick Nico Hoerner. You have to be impressed by his play so far. On Sunday, he hit a home run to left center field as he went 2-for-4 on the day. In using the camera, I began to pick up or some little idiosyncrasies that showed up. One of them is, as he’s getting ready on defense for the pitch, he does this little hop to get himself ready. I also picked up that he does not use his lower half to its fullest effect yet as a hitter. That will come in due time. He is doing very well at South Bend and he should be there for this month.

I was in such a rush to get on the road to head to South Bend yesterday that I forget to post the players of the week in Sunday’s “The Weekly.” So, here they are in all of their glory.

The Weekly – Nico at South Bend, Debuts and Promotions, and a Busy Week Ahead

By Todd Johnson

Around the System
Tennessee and Mesa Cubs 1 continue to do well as both were in first place heading into last night’s games. South Bend is still looking to put together a streak or two as they are just three games out of first. If Myrtle Beach can get their bats going, the Pelicans now have enough pitching to get them back in the hunt for a playoff spot for the fourth consecutive year.

But the Big News…
It was all about Nico this week. The Cubs’ #1 draft pick was promoted to South Bend on Wednesday and made his debut on Thursday where he made this spectacular catch. Hoerner went 2-for-4 in his first game for South Bend. On night number two, he went 1-for-3 with a walk. Having watched him now for the better part of two weeks, his athleticism is the attribute that stands out. Yes, he can hit. Yes, he can field, throw, and run. But he is a far, far better athlete than we were initially lead to believe by the Cubs. When I first saw him at Eugene, I remarked about his size and musculature. In fact, with his size and skill sets, he could play almost anywhere you want him. The only question I have about Nico is this: How much power will he have?

With all that being said, don’t get in a rush to get him to Chicago as fast as possible. Yes, he’s advanced as a college hitter. Yes, he should do well at South Bend. Sure, he could end up in Myrtle Beach this August depending on playoff races. He will not be in the Arizona Fall League. He’s going to instructs in Mesa. The Cubs hitting instructors will tinker with his swing mechanics a bit to generate some more power.

Nico’s got a lot to learn, let him learn it first. He should be better next year because of how he goes through this year.

There were a lot of other promotions this week 
James Norwood made his Chicago Cubs debut. Will Remillard was promoted to AAA Iowa. PJ Higgins got a much deserved promotion to AA Tennessee. Rollie Lacy made his way from South Bend to Myrtle Beach and had an outstanding debut. And finally, Clayton Daniel and Derek Casey became the latest draft picks to debut at Eugene while Andy Weber played in his first game down in Mesa.

The promotion craze is definitely not over. Usually, there’s a lot of player movement in July. Come August, the promotions settle down as the affiliates will play out the last month of the season. There might be a few changes to get Tennessee some extra help if it continues its winning ways in search of a Southern League championship.

More International Free Agents
The Cubs also signed a couple more international free agents. Not much is known about them other than their agent position. The two signees are 19-year-old pitcher Gabriel Jaramillo and 18-year-old switch-hitting infielder Ronny Simon. That brings the Cubs’ total to seven this year.

Coming Up
It is going to be an exciting week. As you’re probably reading this, I am in my car on my way over to South Bend for a couple of days. On Wednesday, I’ll also be traveling to the Quad Cities to see South Bend play a couple more times. Then next Sunday, I’ll be in Geneva to see the Cubs play the Kane County Cougars. So it’s gonna be a lot of baseball and a lot of driving.

When I’m done, I hope to have some interviews to transcribe. There will definitely be a whole lot of photographs which will be in an album over on the Facebook page. And I might make some cards from said photographs. All in all, it’s going to be a busy week.

Card of the Week

The Weekly – The First Half Comes to a Close, Brandon Hughes, and Fernando Kelli

By Todd Johnson

As the first half of the year comes to a close today, the future is hopeful. At the end of April, times were rough in the system. Only one team had a record over .500. But over the course of the last six weeks, some hitters broke out, several pitchers excelled, and where there was once darkness, there is now some light. After today, 3 of the 4 full season teams could have a .500 record or better for the first half. That did not look possible on May 1.

Although no team made the playoffs, a few should make a run for it in the second half. The draft picks could add a little boost to the system once they sign and go through their camp.

Iowa – 2-4 (25-41)
Tennessee – 4-3 (35-34)
Myrtle Beach – 2-6 (34-35)
South Bend – 3-4 (34-34)
Eugene – 2-0 (2-0)
DSL 1 – 3-3 (7-6)
DSL 2 – 4-2 (5-8)

Eugene began their season on Friday night and it is an extremely young team. That should change once the draft picks go through an orientation camp for one week. For now, though, there is some promise. Fernando Kelli is an extremely exciting player and Nelson Velazquez looks more at ease. I can’t wait to watch them develop. Kelli is already causing havoc on the basepaths everytime he gets on base. Whether it is good baserunning, stolen bases, or his presence, he is just plain exciting.

Meanwhile, out in Arizona, the two rookie league teams in Mesa begin play tomorrow. It will be interesting to see the rosters tomorrow. One could assume one team might be a normal team while the other could have the rehabbing players and the draft picks coming in and out. We will find out more tomorrow.

Who’s Hot at the Plate Right Now?

Brandon Hughes hit .222 in April and slumped to .188 in May. The 2017 16th round pick from Michigan was highly thought of because of his athletic prowess. The poor start did not dampen his development. A switch hitter can sometimes be hard to fix. For Hughes, though, he seems to be on the right track  in June. He’s hitting .389 with 1 HR for the month. His average was at .199 on June 2. Two weeks later, he’s brought it up to .241.

I asked South Bend Cubs broadcaster Brendan King what about Brandon changed? He said, “They’ve changed the batting stance a bit, he’s standing more straight up in the box but other than that, just constant repetition.” Like many Cubs prospects, one reason Hughes was selected was his athleticism, another was his makeup. King would also add that Hughes is an extremely hard worker. I look forward to seeing if he can maintain this level of performance as I think there could be something with his size and his speed. The coaches are going to have to bring it out and it sounds like things are improving. Good for him.

Down in the Dominican

I am never quite sure what to make of some stats in the Dominican. The league is made up of a mixture of 16-21 year old kids who are need of game experience. Development can occur rapidly and the play is not always the best. There are lots of errors, wild pitches, and TOOTBLANs. As a result, I always take the stats with a grain of salt. Still, there are some eye-popping numbers coming out of there by several prospects. I will go over some of those in more detail, hopefully next Saturday, as more data comes in.

The Podcast Is Up

The Podcast I did with Cubs Insider and Cubs Den writer Sean Holland is up. There are some technical difficulties but it is still decent. I never can stand the sound of my own voice; I always find it weird. Give it a listen.

Busy Week Ahead

Tomorrow, I will publish the First Half All-Star team followed by the Baseball Cards of the First Half on Tuesday. Wednesday will see the Breakouts of the first half and Thursday will see some second half breakout predictions.

Players of the Week

Card of the Week

Card made from a photo by Tiffany W. (@TiffW96)

The Weekly: Here Comes the Draft, Pitching Dominating, and the DSL Kicks Off

By Todd Johnson

The Draft Is Finally Here!

I will be live blogging each day of the draft. Just keep clicking the refresh button on your device to get the latest news, cards, and analysis. I did an exclusive draft mailbag article for Cubs Insider that was published yesterday. Make sure to check that out as well.

Here is the schedule for the next three days.

Tomorrow Morning – I will begin the day with my top pick for the Cubs at #24 and I have two names skyrocketing into the first round who could have an effect on the Cubs selection.

Monday Night – I will be live blogging from 6pm until the Cubs 4th pick of the night at #78.  I will have a summation and analysis of each pick on the night by the following morning.

On Tuesday, I will start live blogging at 11am. You just need to keep refreshing the page. The Cubs will make 8 picks on the day. There are a lot of good players to be had Tuesday.

When Wednesday gets here, it is a race to keep up, find info on players, write, eat, go to the bathroom, let the dogs out occasionally, and then collapse later in the day. The Cubs make a pick about every 15 minutes.

I also made the card templates for the draft. I am going with a 1975 template. It should be fun making 42 of them this week. Making each card takes just two minutes.  I will have an album over on the Facebook page with all the draft cards. It’s a pretty intense day, though.

When the draft is all done, I will sit down and redo my top 21 list…for at least a month until International Free Agency kicks off. There are going to be a lot of changes coming.

The DSL Begins

Yesterday, the Cubs’ two Dominican Summer League teams began play. It will be interesting see how most of the 42 new international free agents the Cubs signed the last year will do. There are mostly 17-18 year old youngsters on the two squads. For DSL 2 on opening day, Outfielder Carlos Morfa went 3/5 with 3 doubles for DSL 2. On DSL 1, four young Cubs combined to throw a 1 hitter.

International News
MLB Pipeline released their top 30 international free agents. The Cubs clocked in as being the favorites to sign three of the top 30. At number 5 is pitcher Richard Gallardo, the top pitcher in this year’s class. #17 is outfielder Luis Lopez and #28 is pitcher Joel Machado. Also, Ben Badler of Baseball America praised one of the Cubs’ recent international signings from last year in lefty pitcher Misael Garcia who has shot up two inches and put on 25 pounds. His size increase also gave him an extra bump in velocity.

Around the System
Pitching is still dominating the headlines each day. From Iowa to South Bend, the starters are taking over. Usually, hitters tend to get going once the weather warms up. What I am really enjoying about this pitching renaissance are all the arms from the 2016 and 2017 draft classes moving so quickly in the system. That bodes well for the future. Hatch, Robinson, Rucker, and Mekkes from 2016 are already at Tennessee. Thompson and Lange from 2017 are at Myrtle Beach while their fellow draft classmates of Abbott, Lacy, Uelmen, and Tyler Thomas are doing very well in South Bend. It should be interesting to see who gets promoted at the All-Star Break in mid June.

This Week’s Records
– 3-2 (21-32)
Tennessee – 3-3 (28-26)
Myrtle Beach – 5-1 (26-29)
South Bend – 4-3 (25-29)
DSL 1 – 1-0 (1-0)
DSL 2 – 1-0 (1-0)

Stuff I Wrote Elsewhere This Week
@BP Wrigleyville
Draft Preview

@Cubs Insider
2017 Draft Class Grade

Players of the Week

Card of the Week

The Weekly: May Flying By, A Few Promotions, and “The Jinx”

By Todd Johnson

It’s been a rough week in the minors. There were a lot of rainouts and doubleheaders in addition to night games followed by early morning affairs. It was enough to make a prospect’s head spin. As a result, the Cubs’ system did not have a good week.

As May comes to a close, the pitching that was dominating hitters in April took a downward turn as the weather warmed up. In April, the Cubs had eight starting pitchers with ERAs under three and several of those eight had ERAs under two. With just 11 days to go in May, the Cubs only have three pitchers with an ERA under 3.00 for just this month. They are Keegan Thompson at 2.65, Michael Rucker at 2.81, and Alec Mills at 2.89.

There have been plenty of outstanding starts by many pitchers just this week. Last night, Cory Abbott struck out 11 for South Bend while Thomas Hatch threw a 7 inning complete game shutout for Tennessee. Earlier in the week, Erich Uelmen went six shutout innings for South Bend as well, while Duncan Robinson tossed six innings of one run ball. There’s some great stuff happening on the mound. Maintaining that high level of success is easier said than done. We will see if more can get below that 3.00 threshold to make it onto the May All-Star Team.

As for hitting, one would think it would be improving as the weather warmed up. It has a little bit. In April, six Cub position players hit above .300 for the month and Jeffrey Baez posted a .411 average for the span. In May, those numbers increased to eight guys hitting over .300 lead by Tyler Alamo at .366. David Bote hit over .500 for Iowa but that was before his call-up 12 days ago. As a result, he doesn’t have enough at-bats to qualify (3.1 ABs per game). Still, Bote has been extremely impressive at AAA at .455 in just 33 ABs. If you include his 17 MLB plate appearances, he’s at 22 for 52 or .423.

Promotions and Releases
Reliever Ryan McNeil debuted for Tennessee this week. The 2012 draft pick missed most of the year down in extended spring training. However, McNeil’s debut saw the release of long time prospect James Pugliese. Drafted in 2011, Pugliese filled a variety of roles at Kane County, Myrtle Beach, and Tennessee. Hopefully he can catch on with another system in a relief role.

Infielders Vimael Machin and Yeiler Peguero were also promoted from Myrtle Beach and South Bend, respectively. Their promotion saw the release of long time shortstop Carlos Penalver. Penalver was known more for his defense but had trouble hitting at the plate at Kane County, Myrtle Beach, and Tennessee. Good luck to him in his MLB pursuit.

The Jinx
On Twitter, I have been known to tweet out live pitching stats during a game. Well, for about 3-4 days in a row, as soon as I tweeted something out, that pitcher then got knocked around the next inning. It happened to both relievers and starters. I am sure they were just coincidences, but it makes you wonder. Follow the thread on this tweet to see what happened with Dakota Mekkes.

Coming Up Next Week on Cubs Central
On Monday, I’m going to slap a grade on the 2017 draft class. It will be their first one. As for the rest of the week, I am going to let the action dictate the content. I don’t have anything planned for “The Midweek” or The Six Pack.” Although, I do have some thoughts banging around my brain. Maybe you will see a “10 Things I Think” post or a “Prospect Stock Watch.” You could even see an affiliate update.

After Memorial Day, I will be doing some phone interviews with a few Myrtle Beach Pelicans. I always look forward to talking to the players and reporting back on their career paths and stories. I don’t have a definite list of who I’m going to interview, but Pelicans announcer Scott Kornberg and I talked about a few players that fans might want to know more about.

With the MLB draft just two weeks away, I’ll be pouring through some mock drafts and rankings this week. Right now, there’s not a lot of consensus on where players will be falling after the first few pics.

This Week’s Records
Iowa 2-3 (13-26)
Tennessee 3-4 (22-20)
Myrtle Beach 3-2 (17-24)
South Bend 3-5 (17-23)

Players of the Week

Things I Wrote for Other Sites
BP Wrigleyville
Nelson Velazquez

Cubs Insider
Brendon Little

Baseball Card of the Week

A Few Website Changes
As a website, Cubs Central has never been static. I do make changes on what I hope are improvements from time to time. This week I removed the Prospect Pictures and Video Page that was filled with images I took myself. They are now placed in albums on the Facebook page. In addition, I am in the process of uploading any videos I took to my YouTube account (that could take awhile). I am hoping it just makes for a cleaner experience and as it created a lot more memory on the server.