Prospect Update – Javier Assad Off to a Great Start in 2019

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Pitcher Javier Assad is having himself a month at Myrtle Beach. Dating back to the 27th of April, he’s thrown 21 straight scoreless innings. Included in there are a wave of 20 strikeouts in those 21 frames. WIth a 2.19 ERA and falling, Assad is in the running for the Cubs’ MiLB Pitcher of the Month for May.

Basic Info
Ht: 6’1”
Wt: 200 lbs.
Throws: Right
Signed as an IFA in 2015
From: Tijuana, Mexico
Age 21

When I last wrote about Javier at the end of 2017, he had just finished Eugene and I said he would have his work cut out for him in 2018 at South Bend. And he did.

He came out on fire for South Bend with an 0.95 ERA in 4 starts in April and was decent in May with a 3.91 ERA. He began to labor through things a bit in June with a 5.87 ERA. Then, all of a sudden, he turned it back on in July with a 2.55 ERA In 5 starts. It looked like he figured things out. Then, he bottomed out in August as he was shelled with a 9.00 ERA. It was tough to watch at times.

Heading into this season, Fangraphs said that Assad was “a maxed-out righty with advanced pitchability for his age. His stuff is average.” His stuff doesn’t appear so average at this stage of the season.

Something is clicking for Assad this year. Part of it could be maturity, part of it could be he’s in better shape, and part of it could be his stuff.

Currently, Assad has a 2.19 ERA over 7 starts. Take away his worst start where he gave up 5 runs in 5 innings and his ERA drops to 1.41 over 32 innings. Going back and re-watching him, I noticed some things about Assad that are happening.

1. Conditioning
He just looks more trim than in previous seasons. He used to carry, for lack of a better term, some baby fat. The upper part of his frame looks more athletic. Last fall, the Cubs changed up their offseason program for their prospects. Instructs were no longer in the fall. Instead, conditioning took its place. Assad looks to have benefitted from that change. Now, instructs take place a few weeks before spring training. Any changes he made over the winter and in instructs now carry right into spring training and the season.

2. Spots
He is hitting them with regularity. Rarely will Miguel Amaya or Teddy Payne adjust their glove for his fastball. Having good fastball command is always a key at this level.

3. Walks
He is not giving up many. He’s averaging around 2.5 per nine innings.

4. Efficiency
6, 6, 7. Those are his last three inning totals this season. In April, he made 4 starts with a 4.50 ERA. In 5 starts, he only managed 19 innings. And in those five starts, his innings and pitch totals are quite different when compared to May. For April – 5 innings, 75 pitches; 4 innings, 81 pitches; 4 innings, 86 pitches, and 5 innings, 86 pitches. Contrast that with May – 6 innings, 80 pitches; 6 innings, 85 pitches; and 7 innings, 85 pitches.

What to Watch for in the Future
Considering the streak Assad is currently on, I am not concerned when it will end but more so how it will end. Will it be a big blowout or just a simple run or two in a single game? Finding that consistency is key. Throwing in the low to mid 90s with his fastball, he is going to head to AA at some point in the future. Could it be this summer? With the plethora of pitching the Cubs have, and the fact that Assad is still just 21, he should be at the Beach all year. You never know, though, stranger things have happened in this system.

Overall, I would just like to see him be consistent from month to month and to stay healthy. AA is going to be the big test of how his stuff could play at the MLB level. One area of concern that I have, that in spite of his troubles or successes, he is still throwing about 62-63% if his pitches for strikes. He’s going to need to bump that up to 66-67% to succeed at the higher levels of the minors.

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Prospect Update: Tyson Miller Is Leap-Frogging Pitching Prospects


It was about a year ago that I wrote a post about then Myrtle Beach pitcher Tyson Miller. He had put some weight on, specifically muscle, and his pitches were ticking up a little bit. The great thing about that increase in velocity was that he also had command of those pitches. He had a pretty good year for Myrtle Beach. When it was announced in spring training that he might be in the bullpen for AA Tennessee, I just could not fathom why.

And I still can’t.

Luckily, Miller began to get stretched out at the end of spring training and earned a spot in Tennessee’s rotation. All Miller has done this year is to come out and dominate AA for the last six weeks. He had a 1.42 ERA in April and was the Cubs pitcher of the month. In May, he’s even better after 3 starts at 0.47. He has been dominant enough that he will be the biggest riser on my top 21 list come in the middle of June. In fact, he should be in the top 10.

Basic Facts
Ht – 6’4”
Wt – 215 lbs.
Throws – Right
Drafted in 2016, 4th round out of Cal Baptist

Besides his low ERA, opponents are only hitting .142 off of him and his strike out rate is 26% compared to a low 7% walk rate. Even more impressive is that 67% of his pitches are for strikes and his FIP Is 2.43. There is not one area that he is not excelling.

Miller’s productivity is a combination of pure talent, mental fortitude, and hard work. Tyson had put in the time and the effort to improve his body and mind while working on his pitches. I’ve only seen him pitch three  times this year and each time everything looked relaxed and easy. I even thought he could add another 10 pounds and tick up some more mph as he continues to get older and his body matures.

The Big Question
While Miller’s ascension is not an elephant in the room, he has moved up and cut in line in front of a few other pitchers towards the top of the system. My friend John and I always had a saying “call me when they get to AA.” Well, he’s here and he’s doing great. The saying explains that if he can make it at AA, his odds of getting to the majors are very, very good. He’s still got to do the work, but I am excited to see him continue his current path.

I don’t see him heading up to Iowa anytime soon, but he looks to be the first one to get the call. Miller‘s key to get there is going to be to continue to have great command of his pitches.

It is almost as if that Miller is playing a game of leapfrog. He’s jumped over several pitching prospects this year with his performance and there are a few more to go. I do see Miller having a shot at Chicago in the next two summers. Which summer is now the question?

Prospect Update: Cory Abbott Is Polishing Up His Resume for Chicago


Cory Abbott looks like he is going to be the best second round pick the Cubs have made in the Theo Epstein era. Until yesterday, he had been just flat out filthy for AA Tennessee to start the year. Armed with a fastball that he can locate and a plus slider, Abbott has been missing a lot of bats in the Southern League.

The modus operandi for Abbott the past year and a half has been pretty standard. Abbott would arrive at an affiliate, struggle for two-three weeks, make adjustments, and then dominate. He did that at Eugene in 2017 after being drafted, he did it again at South Bend last April and May, and he did it at Myrtle Beach in June, July, and August of 2018. I had him as Cubs Central’s Pitcher of the Year after posting a 2.50 between the two affiliates with 131 Ks in 1115 innings. In fact, I was a little surprised he didn’t get to see a little bump to Tennessee at the end of the year. 

Basic Info
Height – 6’2”
Weight – 220 lbs.
Bats – Right
Throws – Right
Age – 23
Drafted – 2017 – 2nd round, Loyola Marymount
ETA – 2020

Abbott  ticked up his senior year of college and the Cubs took him in the second round. He’s been very successful at every stop so far in the Cubs system. While Abbott does have a 92-94 mile per hour fastball that he can spot, it is his slider/slurve/cutter that is his go-to pitch. 

Here is what MLB pipeline had to say this spring about Abbott. They ranked him as the Cubs 18th top prospect.

Hitters don’t see the ball well against Abbott, who has a deceptive delivery and generates swings and misses without a true plus pitch. His best offering is his improved cutter, which sits in the upper 80s. He added velocity to his four-seam fastball last year, pitching at 90-93 mph, and also has a decent curveball and a fringy changeup.

Going back to his early days in college when he didn’t have his weaponized cutter, Abbott challenged hitters and filled the strike zone. He has a strong build and is efficient with his pitch counts, so he should be able to log plenty of innings toward the back of a rotation.

That evaluation and analysis gives us a better idea of just what makes him so effective on the mound and what could possibly make him effective at the major league level.

However, it is the mental aspects of the game where Abbott really stands out. He’s tenacious, competitive, and driven. When he pitches, Cory doesn’t really exert maximum maximum effort, but you can see his brain working just as hard as his body. He is a fierce competitor as he attacks the strike zone with every pitch.There’s a ferocity and an intensity that’s almost unmatched in the system.

To that end, his strike percentage is pretty good as well. At Eugene, it was 64%, South Bend 65%, Myrtle Beach 64%, and this year it is humming along at 64%.

Currently, he has a 2.86 ERA in 28.1 innings. In his five starts, he’s pitched into the sixth in all but one. While he did give up a four spot yesterday, Abbott will make adjustments and be ready for the next start and he will go deep into the game. He has only hit 90 pitches once this year. He is going to get stretched out very soon as the weather warms.

What about Chicago?
Anything is on the table at this point, but Abbott needs to get through AA first. The Cubs have to love what he has been able to do in less than two years. His intangibles really make him stand out from all the other pitchers, and he does have major league pitches. With Cole Hamels’ contract expiring at the end of this year, there could be an opening for the rotation next year. Mike Montgomery, Kendall Graveman, Adbert Alzolay, and a host of others will be competing along with Abbott for that spot. It is going to be fun.

Cubs MiLB Pitching Thoughts – Why Haven’t the Cubs Opened the Door to Chicago?

Clifton 15 2017 Tenn
On Saturday night, I was watching AAA Iowa’s game against Oklahoma City. At the same time, I was also messaging back-and-forth with my friend John. Most of the conversation pivoted around why the Cubs don’t seem to trust their own pitching at the major league level. There are several arms who are close to being ready and are not being given the chance. John and I began brainstorming several possible reasons why the Cubs have not been able to produce long-term success at that position.

To say the Cubs have not been able to produce success at the pitching position is a bit misleading. Carl Edwards has definitely had success at the major-league level and he started out at Daytona and pitched at three levels in the Cubs’ system. Kyle Hendricks did well in Tennessee and Iowa before joining the Cubs’ starting staff. And Paul Blackburn and Zak Godley have had success elsewhere. Even James Norwood was successful along with Alec Mills last late last summer in Chicago. Still, they were not given much of a chance to earn a spot in the bullpen this spring.

Here are some of the things we thought of as possible reasons.

Drafting – The Cubs have drafted plenty of guys who can throw hard and pitch. But to break this down, I think you have to look at how they drafted arms from 2012 to 2015 and then 2016 to the present. Up to 2015, those pitchers seemed to fit into a box as to the type a pitcher they were. The Cubs did not go for the Kellogg’s variety pack of arms in getting different types of pitchers. They also tended to shy away from big-name arms, especially in the first couple of rounds.

Jason McLeod, the Cubs Director of Scouting, admitted their mistakes openly at the Cubs Convention (per Mark Gonzalez of the Trib) this past January.

“We put so many checks on guys that I feel we probably walked by some guys that didn’t meet certain criteria at the time (referring to mechanics, health and strike-throwing efficiency). That probably hamstrung us a bit.”

The thing about that quote is that can be taken in two ways. One, obviously, is looking past guys. The other way to analyze it is how they evaluate their own pitchers. There have been many times I wondered why certain guys got promoted over others. I thought Trevor Clifton should have been at Iowa after dominating the Southern League in the first half of 2017.

Since 2016, the Cubs have tended to take more risks in drafting pitchers. When you draft 27 pitchers in 2016 that’s a huge risk to the strength of your organization. And then you repeat it again in 2017. Most of those guys are now at AA and AAA.

Even the 2018 class is quite different as the Cubs look like they went for some electric arms like Riley Thompson and Cam Sanders along with guys with excellent plus pitches like Paul Richan and Ethan Roberts. It was really an eclectic mix and there are still a few guys who I haven’t seen yet like Kohl Franklin, Chris Allen, Jake Reindl, and Josh Sawyer.

Development – I distinctly remember in 2016 when Buddy Bailey started managing at Myrtle Beach that he told his pitchers that they were going to throw inside and own the inner half of the plate. Needless to say, several Pelican starters had their best year that year. Trevor Clifton was the Cubs MiLB Pitcher of the Year and the Pelicans won the Carolina League for the second year in a row.

The thing is this – you don’t hear enough stories like that about the system. Occasionally, you will hear stories about minor adjustments like speeding up the time between pitches, adding a cutter, a four seamer, or changing arm slots. There is no organizational philosophy on pitching. Add in the fact that the Cubs, at one point, had 4 different minor league pitching coordinators in 4 years. That should raise a red flag.

Adbert 07 2018 IowaTrust – When it comes right down to it, the Cubs success at the major league level doomed developing pitching at the major league level. If a pitcher is deemed ready to come up and pitch in Chicago, the Cubs major league squad does not have the luxury of time, or patience, to develop him. That arm has to earn the Cubs’ trust on day one. This is about winning and winning now. And it’s been that way since 2015-2016.

Now just who isn’t trusting these guys to come up and stay is another story. It could be the MiLB staff or Theo and Jed thinking they are not ready. It could be Joe Maddon who might be hesitant to do more than pencil them in for a spot start and to do mop up duty in a blowout.

It’s a little of both.

But here’s my take – The Cubs want arms who can get major leaguers out. Those pitchers are not going to be able to do that in AAA Iowa. They have to learn how to do it in Chicago. There’s nowhere else to do it. And, more than likely, the Cubs have shown time and time again that they don’t have the time to develop arms at the MLB level because they have to win now.

clark 99 2018 mbThe Cubs have at least 5 guys who could be in Chicago (Maybe not all at once, but you get my drift). Dakota Mekkes, Dillon Maples, James Norwood, Trevor Clifton, and Adbert Alzolay (when healthy) all are just sitting there waiting to develop in the majors. Duncan Robinson had 7 IP of 1 run ball the other night and he could be a guy as well.

Chicago is the final step in development and it seems the Cubs are not willing to take the time to finish that final step just yet. And that’s just for guys at Iowa. Tennessee has Cory Abbott, Tyson Miller, and Bailey Clark just tearing it up to begin 2019. They will be knocking on the door soon. The question for the future is, when will the Cubs open the door to let them develop in Chicago?

 

The Weekly: Injuries Mount, Replacements Shine, and Other Impressions


There was a lot of rain this week in the eastern half of the country and that wiped out several games. On Friday, Iowa was the sole team in the system that got a game in. As a result, there were a lot of baseball games on Saturday for Myrtle Beach, Tennessee, and South Bend. And once again, rain reared its head.

The first part of the week saw a lot of player movement throughout the system. Injuries and paternity leave resulted in several players making their season debut. At Iowa, Carl Edwards hit the IL for seven days and hopefully he’ll be back sometime this week. For Tennessee, Keegan Thompson is on the IL along with Justin Steele. As a result, Zach Hedges and Brad Markey were pushed into starting roles for the Smokies.

At Myrtle Beach, new faces seemed to have invigorated the offense. The Pelicans actually won a few games this week. Zach Davis made his season debut last weekend and Cam Belago came in and put up numbers all across his box scores this week including 7 RBI.. At South Bend, Christopher (now being called Chris) Morel replaced Fidel Mejia in the lineup and Morel has been impressive in just eight games.

Speaking of Impressions
Here are a few things about some performances so far this year.
Iowa – (10-6; 4-3 this week) Without looking, I can’t remember the last time Iowa had a winning record for any substantial amount of time. A lot of the minor league free agents the Cubs signed last winter have been impressive at the plate. Johnny Field drove in 4 runs the other night and Zach Borenstein seems to have found his stroke after a couple of weeks. Add Dixon Machado tearing it up and Iowa’s got a nice little trifecta to go along with Trent Giambrone who now has 5 dingers on the year.
Tennessee (8-6;  3-3 this week) The Smokies have been impressive with their starting rotation doing well. Their issue right now is the middle relief corps is really struggling to hold leads. That’s going to need to get that shored up quick.
Myrtle Beach (6-11; 4-3 this week) To be quite honest I really like what I’ve seen from Bryan Hudson. He’s not quite dominant yet but he’s pretty sturdy for the Pelicans. I still can’t fathom that he’s just 21 years old but he is starting to pitch like he’s not. He starting to pitch like this is going to be his career. As for their recent surge of wins, I attribute some of that to the solid starting pitching of Paul Richan, Hudson, Javier Assad, and the rehabbing Oscar de la Cruz.
South Bend. (8-8; 3-3 this week) The only thing they really need to do is to shore up the back end of the rotation. Like other Midwest League teams, pitching in 30° to 40° weather is not ideal. Sanders, Thompson, and Marquez all have been outstanding in the first month in the front half of the rotation. If Derek Casey and Eury Ramos can get it going, South Bend might have something there to push for a playoff spot.

In the News
Riley Thompson got some free pub this week as MLB Pipeline called him the Cubs’ closer of the future. They said, 

“Thompson is a starter for now but had trouble staying healthy and throwing strikes in college. He can reach triple digits with his fastball and spin some well above-average curveballs when he’s at his best.”

Fabian Pertuz also got some love from Baseball America who called him one of the top 20 prospects coming out of the Dominican Summer League. Pertuz is a SS who should be at Mesa to begin 2019. He’s all of 18. Here is the link to the subscription article by Ben Badler.

Coming Up This Week on Cubs Central
I only have a couple of things planned for right now. Tuesday’s draft prep examines some high school bats who could be available at number 27. I’m not sure what the Midweek Report holds on Wednesday, I might talk about Nico for a bit. The Friday 6 Pack will be all about possible promotions at the end of April. Next Saturday’s affiliate update will look at what is happening with the Pelicans in Myrtle Beach.

Players of the Week

Card of the Week
Made from a picture by Rikk Carlson

2019 Affiliate Preview: Smokies Ready to Roll Out Some Stars

Photo by Todd Johnson

It’s almost as if the Smokies were in a bit of purgatory. Over the past 3 summers, very few prospects went through AA and had success at AAA. For most Cub prospects lately, AA tends to be the peak of their career. That trend looks to be coming to an end. Waves of pitching prospects are now filtering up from AA to AAA. In 2019, two of the Cubs’ top hitting prospects look to call Tennessee home to start the year. 

In 2018, the Smokies went 36-34 in the first half and 31-37 in the second for a combined 67-71  record. They fell short of the playoffs for 5th straight year. This year, Jimmy Gonzalez takes over the manager’s seat in place of Mark Johnson. Jimmy’s familiarity with the players from his South Bend days should only help.

The optimism for 2019 starts on the pitching mound as the Smokies will have quite a few of the Cubs’ top pitching prospects. When it comes to hitting, Jared Young will get his first big test after excelling at two levels of class A last year.

However, the big draw is going to be my number one prospect, Nico Hoerner. With a whopping total of 149 at-bats, he’s gonna be playing at AA after a stellar Arizona Fall League and an even more impressive spring with the big league club. The thought of Nico playing in Chicago is a bit giddy. Two things to watch Nico for this year are how much second base he will play and how much he uses his lower half in his swing. To be quite honest, when he’s ready for Chicago, he will go. No need to waste time at AAA. 

When It Comes to Pitching
Justin Steele got a bit of a late start to spring training. The Cubs are not going to take any chances with that rebuilt elbow and he could begin in extended spring training for a bit, but he will be at Tennessee eventually. For Steele, I really like how he is maturing mentally from season to season. I am concerned with how many innings they let Steele throw. Last year, he got in 65.1 after coming off of TJS. Don’t expect him to throw more than 100 this year.

Bailey Clark has to have an identity crisis going. First, he’s a starter, then a reliever, back to starting, relieving, and now starting. Whatever role he pitches, Clark is armed with a mid 90s fastball and a sharp 2-7 slurve that can dominate when it is going well. The key for him in 2019 is to stay healthy.

Meanwhile, Thomas Hatch, Keegan Thompson, and Corey Abbott are all extremely fierce competitors and they will fill out the back end of the rotation. They will give Tennessee one of the deepest rotations in the Southern League, especially when Oscar de la Cruz returns late this spring.

While the minors are all about development, the Smokies will have a shot at doing some serious winning with this staff. The only question to answer is if they can hit enough.

The Hitting
Johnny Pereda is another bat that I am really looking forward to seeing in action at this level. He’s not gonna hit a lot of homeruns, but he is going to put the ball in play and he’s going to walk quite a bit. Pereda is also an excellent defender throwing out almost 40% of base stealers last summer in Myrtle Beach.

While Hoerner has SS locked down, it looks like Ian Rice will be at first base while Christian Donahue,  Robel Garcia, and Vimael Machin play all over the place. Expect to see PJ Higgins get some time at first and third, as well as doing some catching. It’s a pretty versatile group.

As for Donahue, his inclusion on this roster makes me smile. He only played at Myrtle Beach for about a month and impressed enough this spring to earn this spot. He is not a big power guy, but he is a spark plug for any offense as he has a very good eye at the plate and some nice OBP numbers  (.353) and walk rate (11%) from last year at two levels of class A.

Jared Young looks to play more LF than 1B this summer. After his breakout season of 17 HR, 20 dingers would be a reasonable expectation for Young. However, that total has to come as a result Young being Young and not losing his approach at the expense of a HR. After having seen Young hit the past two summer, that will not be a problem.

Young will be joined out in the grass by Roberto Caro, Charcer Burks, and Eddy Martinez. It will be one of the better defensive outfields in the system, especially with Burks. I really like to watch Burks play defense and I also enjoy what he can do with the bat. All Burks needs to work on is to develop some consistency from month to month at the plate.

Burks 85 2017 tenn
Most Likely to Promoted First
Nico – I don’t think that is any surprise. Based on the last two experiences in his development, he looks like he is being fast tracked to the majors. If he comes out playing a lot of second base, his future could already be predetermined. It is exciting to think of him in Chicago at some point this year.

Iowa Preview

 

Kyle Hendricks Gets an Extension!

By Todd Johnson

Oh, yes! I love this deal!

While the deal is cost efficient, the Cubs sew up a pitcher beyond the 2021 season. Before today’s extension, only Yu Darvish was signed beyond 2021.

Hendricks, who just turned 29, was originally in the Rangers’ organization before being acquired in the Ryan Dempster trade. He gets by on pinpoint control, a devastating changeup, and a lot of movement on all his pitches. As a Cub, he has posted a career 3.07 ERA over 5 summers. :Last year saw him get off to a poor start, but he recovered thanks in part to a very low 1.99 BB/9.

When the deal is complete, Hendricks will still be in his prime at 33 or 34, dependinging on his option. Considering that he doesn’t have a violent delivery or need a 95 mph to dominate hitters, this is a very good deal for a pitcher who should be a peak performer for several more years. I also like the deal as it secures a great role model for up and coming starters who could, and should, be arriving within the next two years.

Hendricks’ original deal was set to expire after 2020. The deal has no impact on this year’s “budget.”

It’s a win-win for everybody.