2nd Half Breakouts: Cubs Have a Lot of New Arms on the Way Up

By Todd Johnson

Yesterday, breakout hitters of the second half were covered. Today, it is the pitchers.

Usually once a pitcher has a spike in their development, they don’t get to breakout again. By that definition, I had to rethink who the breakout pitcher of the second half was going to be Matt Swarmer easily won the breakout pitcher of the first half. But Keegan Thompson and Cory Abbott also had breakout campaigns at their first full season affiliate. So, by definition, all three could not win the award for the second half, even though they all did have another spike in their development in the second half of the year at a new affiliate.

Arizona
This is the first year in a long while I can remember so many pitchers in rookie league having a pretty decent season. This year‘s crop includes some junior college players and young international free agents. I’m excited to see if these guys are going to end up next year in Eugene or at South Bend.

To begin, Peyton Remy was somewhat of an ace for Cubs 1. He led the team into the playoffs and was pretty dominant in July and August. For the season, Remy struck out 59 in 52.1 innings with an ERA of 2.58. He even got to roll with Eugene in the playoffs and was brilliant in the Hillsboro series throwing 3 scoreless in relief and 4 more scoreless against Spokane in the clinching game.

Blake Whitney played for Cubs 2 and had a pretty decent season after being drafted from South Carolina – Upstate. His campaign was surprising because most pitchers that were drafted as starting pitchers only go 2 to 3 innings or 50 pitches. He went 5 innings in 3 of his last 4 appearances. Whitney had a 2.30 ERA and struck out 37 in 31.1 innings.

Jesus Tejada and Didier Vargas were both excellent starters for Cubs 1. I still think they’re both busting out next year. Vargas puts himself in to contention because he just misses him a lot of bats at 19 years old. Both will be pushing for a spot in South Bend next spring.

Eugene
Yovanny Cruz only made one start for Eugene, but he flashed an amazing curveball for a 20-year-old kid. I came away extremely impressed with his command and ability to keep hitters off balance. 2018 draft picks Paul Richan and Riley Thompson each had their moments of dominance this summer. I came away especially impressed with Thompson who is being converted from a reliever to a starter. Right now Thompson is a little bit on the effectively wild side with his secondaries, but he has pretty good command of a 95 mile an hour fastball. It’s pretty dangerous and pretty cool at the same time.

And the winner is…from South Bend…sort of.
A lot of people were aware that Brailyn Marquez had some talent. He could throw in the low to mid 90s but had huge command issues in the Dominican and at Mesa last year. When he arrived at Eugene in June, I was excited to see the 19-year-old lefty have a go at it.

Marquez had a nice jump in velocity this year as he sat 94 to 97 most games and he did so with decent command. He used a slider with a nice 10 to 4 break, sometimes 10 to 5. Against a right-handed hitter, it was just devastating at times. He didn’t throw his changeup a lot, but when he did he seem to have better consistency with it as the year wore on. With just a couple weeks to go in the season, Marquez was promoted to South Bend and he did OK in 2 brief starts. I’m pretty pumped to see him go at it for about 120 innings next year. If he can control and flash 3+ pitches, which is what Marquez has, he might be flying through the system as a 20-year-old. The keys are just command and efficiency for him.

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Prospect Update: Erling Moreno Starting to Pile Up Some Innings

By Todd Johnson

It seems like Erling Moreno has been around forever. He was part of the stellar 2013 international free-agent class that also included Eloy Jimenez and Gleyber Torres. Now at 21 years of age, Moreno is finally starting to come into his own the past two months. That former 16-year-old boy with a 95 mile an hour fastball and a plus curve has been pitching deep into games for South Bend the last 6 weeks and is starting to fulfill the potential that scouts saw in him back in 2013.

Basic Info
6’3” 200
Throws Right
Age: Just 21
2018 Affiliate: South Bend
Home: Cartagena, Colombia
Signed as an International Free Agent 2013

It’s All About Innings
Moreno‘s career technically began in 2014. But in reality, he didn’t really begin to take off until 2016. He missed most of 2014 and 2015 recovering and rehabbing from Tommy John Surgery. He pitched a total of 16 innings at Venezuela, the Dominican, and Mesa.

In 2016, Moreno was finally healthy for a while, He began the season at Mesa. He started 6 games and pitched 32.1 innings with a 2.76 ERA along with 33 Ks. He was soon promoted to Eugene. In 30 innings of short season ball, Moreno was as dominant as anyone can be. In 6 starts for the Emeralds, he had 30 IP with 22 Ks. But most impressive was opponents hit just .159 against him as his ERA was a very low 0.90.

Things were looking up for Moreno as he headed to South Bend in 2017. However, nagging minor injuries limited his season to just 64 innings across 14 starts. It was a disappointing after his dominating 2016 campaign

When 2018 began, the injuries were still present. So much so, that Moreno was held back to start the year. When he was healthy enough, Moreno got his season going in extended spring training. On June 19, he finally began his 2018 campaign at South Bend.

In June, he made 3 starts with a 9.00 ERA over 13.2 innings. In July, though, things began to turn around. He threw just a shade over 30 innings in 5 starts with a 3.52 ERA. When I saw him throw against Quad Cities, he looked very good mixing pitches as he allowed 2 runs over 6. He looked strong and was throwing 92/93 deep into the game.

The rest of the month saw him go 7 innings and 7.1 innings and that carried over into August. His impressive deep run into the latter third of games has rarely been matched in the system this year. August continued with 6.2, 7, and 6 inning starts. For the month, he’s pitched 19.2 innings with just 1 earned run. Checking the calculator, that’s a trustworthy 0.46 ERA.

For the season, Moreno is sitting at a 3.34 ERA with 40 Ks. Moreno has now matched his career season high in innings at 64. That doesn’t seem like much. In fact, over 5 seasons he has 206.1 innings when he should have been at that level after three. Moreno is also picking up game experience as he goes due to missing parts of four seasons. The key for him will be to just stay healthy. He has the pitchability and pitches to dominate. This year, it is looking like he has the ability to pitch deep into the dark night.

What I like most about Moreno (after his gorgeous curve) is he has the ability to get guys out and to get guys to get themselves out. He is smart enough to realize that he doesn’t need to strike everybody out.

Moreno is eligible for the Rule 5 Draft this winter. I doubt if the Cubs would put him on the 40-man roster to protect him and I doubt if a major league club would select Moreno to place him on their 25-man having never pitched above low A. He’s a pretty safe bet to be a Cub next year.

Previous Profile on Erling.

40 Man and Rule 5 Considerations – Options and Spots Are Limited

By Todd Johnson

Last year, David Bote and Adbert Alzolay were named to the Cubs’ 40 man roster. They were pretty much slamdunk choices. This year, there is no prospect who is an automatic choice. There are, however, several guys who are clear-cut favorites to be placed on the 40-man roster to either avoid losing them to free agency or the Rule 5 Draft.

Spots

Currently there are 42 players on the 40-man roster with 2 of them on on the 60 day disabled list. Once they come off that list, they can either be released or they have to be placed on the 40 man roster. Which means, someone has to go. Drew Smyly is one of the two players on the 60 Day DL and he will start throwing outings this month. Hopefully, he can be back in time for the playoffs in a relief role. Justin Hancock, the other player on the 60 Day DL, lools like he is not coming back this year at all.

Who Is Leaving for Sure?

The Cubs only have three players, Justin Wilson, Jesse Chavez, and Anthony Bass, whose contracts expire at the end of the 2018 season. Wilson will not return, but Chavez and Bass both could come back to Chicago. That means, at most, one spot would be available.

Option Years

There are another four pitchers who have option years for 2019. Pedro Strop, Cole Hamels, Jose Quintana, and Brandon Kintzler can all have their contracts picked up by the Cubs. Strop and Quintana are the most likely to return. It’s just one start, but I really dig what Cole Hamels was able to do in his debut. Hamels could pitch his way onto the roster for 2019, but his $20 million salary stands in his way. I really doubt it if Kintzler will return. His option could only be $5 million. Let’s say that puts the total at 2 spots.

Could Be Released and Resigned to MiLB deals

There are another five spots that could be made by trying to get players through waivers and assign them to Iowa. Luke Farrell, Cory Mazzoni, Rob Zastryzny, Jen-Ho Tseng, and Alec Mills could all be waived to make more room. Of those five, Farrell and Mills arguably hold the most value. The other three are some tough choices. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that they keep Mills and Ferrell and try to get Jen-Ho and Rob Z through waivers while releasing Mazzoni.

That creates three more spots which puts us at five spots. The Cubs are not going to try and fill all five spots with their own prospects. At best, they would probably only pick three and take a risk in losing several others.

The whole purpose of adding the prospects to the 40-man is to avoid losing them in the Rule 5 Draft. It was made so teams could not horde players in the minors. If unprotected, they could be picked up by another team in early December. Here is the full list of Cubs eligible for the Rule 5 Draft per Arizona Phil:

Tyler Alamo, C-1B;  Luis Ayala, OF; Casey Bloomquist, RHP; Andres Bonalde, LHP;Craig Brooks, RHP; Charcer Burks, OF; Trevor Clifton, RHP; Alfredo Colorado, RHP; Enrique de los Rios, RHP’ Scott Effross, RHP; Wander Feliz, RHP; Riger Fernandez, LHP; Emilio Ferrebus, RHP; Wladimir Galindo, INF; Hector Alonso Garcia, RHP; David Garner, RHP; Yapson Gomez, LHP; Eric Gonzalez, C; Jose A. Gonzalez, OF; Jacob Hannemann, OF; Zach Hedges, RHP; PJ Higgins, C; Jesse Hodges, INF; Ryan Kellogg, LHP; Vimael Machin, INF; Brad Markey, RHP; Junior Marte, RHP; Marcus Mastrobuoni, C; Ivan Medina, RHP; M. T. Minacci, RHP; Jordan Minch, LHP; Kevonte Mitchell, OF; Erling Moreno, RHP; Preston Morrison, RHP; Rafael Narea, INF; Richard Nunez, C; Pablo Ochoa, LHP; Eugenio Palma, LHP; Tyler Payne, C; Tyler Pearson, C; Henrry Pedra, INF; Yeiler Peguero, INF; Jhonny Pereda, C; Eury Ramos, RHP; Will Remillard, C; Ruben Reyes, OF; Ian Rice, C; Andry Rondon, RHP; Manuel Rondon, LHP; Aneuris Rosario, RHP; Justin Steele, LHP; Jake Stinnett, RHP; Franklin Tineo, INF; Sucre Valdez, RHP; Jason Vosler, INF; Ryan Williams, RHP; Chesny Young, INF

That’s a lot of names, many of which are familiar to minor-league fans the past five years.  The Cubs cannot keep all of them. 

Best Chance to Be Placed on the 40 Man

Trevor Clifton – In a system that still has not produced a viable starting pitcher, Clifton looks to be close to being ready this year. He shown a mental maturity and has erased the second half of the 2017 season from his mind. The only thing he needs to work on is being more efficient in getting into the 6th and 7th innovation innings on a regular basis. For me, he is as close to a sure thing to make the list as the Cubs have this year.

Justin Steele – he has yet to pitch above high A Myrtle Beach. Tommy John surgery in August 2017 set his development back a year. But now, he is back on track and throwing 95 miles an hour out of the pen  with a tight breaking ball and a great mental makeup. The Cubs don’t want to take a chance on losing that kind of left-handed talent.

Jason Vosler – As the most proficient power bat in the upper half of the system, Vosler, more than likely, could be placed on the 40-man based on need. If he is not, someone is going to snag up a power hitting lefty who can drive and runs. The issue is that he has no place to go with Bote, Bryant, and Rizzo ahead of him. Will the Cubs keep him as insurance or take the risk to see if someone else snags him. He is only signed for one more year. He looks to be a good bet to make the 40-man.

Long Shots: Kyle Ryan, PJ Higgins, Ian Rice, and Johnny Pereda

Ryan is a MiLB free agent after the season ends and putting him on the 40 man might be the only way the Cubs can keep him. He has had a mixed year but has a 2.54 ERA in mixed roles in the second half for Iowa. As for Pereda, Rice, and Higgins, catchers tend to get picked up to be backups at the MLB level. They don’t get exposed every day and you can work them in slowly at the MLB level, if selected. Pereda, the youngest of three catchers listed, is the most likely to get a call, but he has yet to play above high A. The Cubs are likely to lose one or two of them.

When the Arizona Fall League ends, will we get the answer. It is an interesting subject to think about the next three months.

Cubs’ MiLB System Buying into Pitching Tech to Gain an Edge

By Todd Johnson

Over the past couple of years, the Cubs have been taking technology, once relegated to the major league club, to their minor-league system. Cubs insider Evan Altman described how the Cubs were using technology to monitor Jose Albertos and, at that time, BP Wrigleyville’s Jared Wyllys once detailed how then Cub prospect Donnie Dewees was using neuroscience to increase his bat to ball skills. Teams are trying to find any edge they can to help develop their players and improve performance.

Over the past two weeks, I’ve interviewed several Cub pitching prospects who swear by technologies they use to improve their performance. Garrett Kelly, Brendan King, and Jake Steffens all swear by Trackman, a technology that is available in all minor league ballparks. In addition, the Cubs also have their own system that monitors all bullpen and side session activities. I was fortunate enough to talk with South Bend’s video coordinator Ben Sampson about what the programs do, how they work, and more details on how the players use them.

In speaking with a few pitching prospect this week, they mentioned some technology they use to help them. Can you talk about a couple programs that you are using?

We have a lot, especially that focus on pitchers, that picks up numbers, the ball out the hand. Every stadium we play in has a trackman system. We get all that game data. So that’ll pick up speed, spin rate, release point, and vertical and horizontal movement of the pitch. There’s a lot that players can use. It’s used a lot by the front office, too. It’s always good to see players taking an interest in it, too, and looking at how their different pitches are working from outing to outing.”

Are there other programs that you can talk about?

“We use another anonymous program of our own at all of our affiliates and we use it during all of our bullpens, for the most part. It gives a lot of similar data to trackman. It doesn’t do as much. It does more in other areas. You can look at the ball almost out of the hand and the movement and compare it to other pitchers and a ball that is thrown without spin. So you can see how the spin on your ball creates movement.”

So your job is to compile all that data. What does it look like when the player sees it? Is video or three dimensional?

“Both. We do video of everything. We have 7 camera angles during the game and a video of all of their bullpens. They can match up real time video and match it with the data and can see, for example, “What did this pitch do? Did it feel good? This one didn’t feel good. What’s the difference? Does feeling good or not feeling good have a correlation to with how the ball actually moves?” It’s that kind of sense of “Was that a good pitch versus did it  actually look good in the video and in the data?”

“Trackman spits out a CSV file. It looks like a whole of numbers and we pair that up with the video for the games so that it gives practical numbers that you want to see like speed or spin rate, stuff like that.”

Before coming to the Cubs this season, Ben actually was at Vanderbilt finishing his degree. He was familiar with how the technology worked. He spent all of spring training learning how to make sense of the data and video. While the players were getting ready for the season, Ben was getting ready, too.

How have the players bought into it? Some more than others?

“Right now, we do more for pitchers than for hitters. Pretty much everybody looks at their video after they throw, whether that is starters or relievers. They’ll come ask me for it and some know how to find it on their own at this point. There are some guys that will look at our database and go a little deeper and go pitch-by-pitch. There are a lot of guys that take that extra time between outings to get into it, dig a little bit, And they can look at other guys too in our organization, including the big league level. They can look at the numbers and see how they match up.”

Ben also added that both hitters are pitchers go back and look at data when they see a team/pitcher the second and third time around.

The Cubs are not alone in their use of technology, according to Ben. Almost every organization/affiliate has their own sort of tech to improve development including sensors on bats.

The current tech is always improving from year-to-year. As the players continue to develop, so will the technology as every team is looking to get the slightest edge in performance.

 

Cubs to Get Cole Hamels

By Todd Johnson

The Cubs have acquired Texas pitcher Cole Hamels according to Jeff Passan from Yahoo! Sports. No details have been mentioned about who will be headed to Texas. Check back later or click refresh as more details become available. Currently, the Cubs top prospect, Miguel Amaya, is still in the game in South Bend.

This year, Hamels has struggled at home (6.41 ERA) but has been fine on the road (2.93). He should fill a spot the Cubs need and give them 4 lefties in the rotation, for now. WIth the uncertainty around Yu Darvish’s status, this acquisition gives the Cubs some breathing room. My only concern with Hamels is just how long he can go per start. This year, he’s averaged 5.1 innings per start. Then again, Hamels will benefit from pitching in the NL with no DH and having the Cubs’ defense doing their thing behind him.

As many people figured, RHP Rollie Lacy will be heading to Texas from Myrtle Beach. Lacy was an 11th round pick in 2017 out of Creighton. He begin the season in the bullpen for South Bend before becoming a starter. He was promoted to Myrtle Beach at the end of the first half. He put up a 2.45 ERA for the year so far with 94 strikeouts in 80.2 innings.

No money was disclosed at this time nor has a date been given for the player to be named later.

Prospect Interview: Brendan King Adjusting Daily as a Utility Pitcher

By Todd Johnson

When I show up to work as a teacher, no two days are ever the same. I expect that to happen. For most baseball players, they like routines. Hitters can adjust to being on the bench or starting as the daily preparations are mostly the same. But for pitchers, it is a lot different. For South Bend pitcher Brendan King, it is never the same. Some days he’s a setup man. Other days, he is a long reliever. He can close and there are days in which he spot starts. It’s a bit dizzying, but Brendan King seems to be handling it just fine in his first full year as a Cubs’ prospect.

Brendan was drafted in the 20th round in 2017 out of Holy Cross. He was a two-time All-Patriot League pitcher for the Crusaders but the Cubs took notice of King when he participated in the Cape Cod League in 2016. That summer saw him pitch 37 innings with K rate of 10.7/9 innings to go along with a 2.92 ERA. That’s pretty impressive against elite competition.

I sat down with Brendan on Friday in Davenport to talk about his experiences in the Cape, the Cubs, and his career.

You played in the Patriot League and on the Cape. How did the Cubs contact you from that experience?

I talked to the Cubs the first time the winter of my senior year. It was kind of a funny coincidence. The Cubs area scout happened to be looking at another guy who was training at a facility I was training at. I guess he recognized me and he gave me a sheet to fill out and all that. And that was the only contact I had with them up until draft day. I think the first time they saw me play was on the Cape and that’s what I owe my professional baseball career to.

What is about the Cape that you think a lot of teams are attracted to?

I think there’s a lot of talent there. Then, on top of that, there’s a lot of proximity there. All the teams are within an hour of each other.

As for starting vs. relieving…

There’s advantages to both. The bullpen can be more of a rush. Starting can be a bit more of a chess game going through the order a couple different times and deciding what pitches to show guys when. They’re definitely different but I don’t really have a preference between them.

You have done a little bit of everything this year. What do you have to do to train yourself to prepare mentally everyday?

Either way it’s pitching, so you just to have to pitch. With starting, you have to go into the day realizing that you have to leave something in the tank, not necessarily physically but plan-wise deciding what pitches you want to throw to guys. Whereas relieving you can throw your whole arsenal right away and do whatever you can to get a guy out at that very moment.

His Cub career so far has been a mixture of roles.

He began last year at Mesa in the middle of July and was a key cog in their championship team. He pitched in 9 games, started 4 and had a 2,82 ERA while striking out 28 in 22.1 IP and getting about 2 ground balls to every fly ball.

This year, Brendan has been used in a variety of roles, or what I like to call a utility pitcher. His monthly splits show some differentiation amongst his statistics. In April, he was very good in relief while in May and early June, he struggled at times. 

However, the past six weeks have seen Brendan start to figure some things out. On the 15th of June, I saw him at South Bend go three innings while giving up three hits and a run. But I also saw something promising. It shows up on TV some, but in person, his 2 seam fastball (actually it is 1 seam – see his grip below) was getting a lot of sink and hitters were flailing away. He did struck out but one hitter that day, but he got them on that pitch and his curve. There were weak grounders, pop ups, and short fly balls as he efficiently threw just 37 pitches that day.

On Friday night in Davenport, he came out in relief and used that sinker to his advantage in an impressive 1-2-3 inning with 1 K.

In July, opponents are only batting .196 against Brendan and his use of pitches down in the zone seems to be working. He said he uses pitch data constantly to gain an edge as he gets to see which pitches are working better for him in a variety of situations.

I am excited to see how he does the rest of the season to gain some momentum and confidence heading into 2019.

Prospect Profile: Ryan Lawlor Raises Some Eyebrows with 11 Ks Yesterday

By Todd Johnson

Ryan Lawlor had 11 Ks yesterday – Photo by Rebecca Snyder

On Monday afternoon, South Bend pitcher Ryan Lawlor “carved up” the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers, according to teammate Delvin Zinn. Lawlor struck out 11 en route to the Cubs’ 9-2 win. It was a brilliant performance that I had to go back and rewatch just to see exactly how he did it.

Lawlor was originally drafted in the eighth round by the Braves in 2015 . The 6’1″ lefty out of Georgia played 2 years of ball before being released. Looking at his stats, they were not that bad. He did well in Appalachian Rookie League with a 2.30 in 7 starts. In 2016, He skipped low A and went to high A Carolina where he struggled a bit with a 4.95 ERA in 14 games, 7 of them starts. In 2017, Lawlor wound up starting the year at low A Rome. He pitched in 11 games, 10 of them starts, with a 4.35 ERA and struck out 61 in 47.1 IP. He only walked 16, all decent stats.

However, the Atlanta Braves are loaded with young pitching and are said to be less patient with their arms as a result. He pitched his last game for that system in late May of 2017 and was released. To get back on track, Lawlor played in the frontier League for the CornBelters in Normal, Illinois. He appeared in 5 games, 3 of them starts, and pitched 20 innings. He had a 3.15 ERA with 31 Ks and just 5 BBs, an amazing 6+/1 K/BB ratio.

Lawlor has been with the Cubs about about two weeks now. He started out in relief and has now made two starts. His first appearance saw him get two innings in. He gave up two hits, but struck out three. He has a nice three pitch mix of fastball (90/91), changeup (around 77), and a looping curve (low 80s) with “ten to five” action that dive bombs, at times, against, right handed hitters.

His second appearance was his first start. He went 5 but gave up 4 runs, all in the third inning. He was not hit around like a rag doll. He only gave up 5 hits and walked two, but all the damage came quickly through 3 singles, a walk, and a double. And that was it. The next two innings saw him go six up and six down. It was an impressive recovery.

When watching him work, you have to come away impressed as he keeps the hitters off balance. He is absolutely devastating against lefties as they have yet to get a hit off him this season. However, he’s only faced 8 of them in 12 innings.

On Monday, Lawlor came out and worked quickly in his five innings. He threw 80 pitches with an decent game score of 74. Out of his 11 Ks, 9 came against righties. While they did struggle with his curve, he was getting more Ks with a well place fastball down and in or up in the zone.

Lawlor’s 11 Ks ties a South Bend Cubs’ season high with Cory Abbott and Tyler Thomas.

At 24 years of age, Lawlor is a bit older than your average Midwest League player. If he can get a couple more good starts in, he will probably find his way back to the Carolina League but this time with Myrtle Beach. He should be a fun watch with his ability to change speeds and move the ball around the zone.