Cubs Pitching

Prospect Profile: Brailyn Marquez Creating Optimism But Still Needs Some Work

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By Todd Johnson

95…96…97…

Those are some pretty high fastball speeds for a 19-year-old pitcher who disappears when he turns sideways. Right now, Brailyn Marquez can get his FB up in the mid to upper 90s and sustain it. To go with it, he also throws a curve in the low to mid 80s. That’s impressive for age! He is one of the most magnetic pitchers to watch in the lower part of the Cubs’ system, but Marquez will need a lot more as he matures to get to Chicago.

Card made from a photo by John Arguello

Basic Information
6’4”, 185 lbs.
Throws Left
Bats Left
Current Affiliate: Eugene Emeralds
Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic
Signed as an IFA in 2015
ETA: 2022

The Past
Marquez began his career in the Dominican Summer League where he made 12 starts. He raised a lot of eyebrows with his performance. He struck out 48 batters in 54.2 IP. His ERA was 1.48 that summer as he began to learn how to pitch. In 2017, Marquez spent the summer in Mesa playing in the Arizona Rookie League. It was quite an adjustment. He threw in 11 games with 9 of them the starting variety. The results were not even close to 2016. At Mesa, his ERA ballooned to 5.52 despite striking out 52 in 44 IP. An increased WHIP of 1.41 was not sustainable. He sat 93-95 most days but struggled keeping the ball down and getting his curve in for strikes.

2018
The first thing you notice different about Marquez this year is the bump in velocity and increased control. While the FB speeds are eye-catching, they are not the end all of pitching. Then again, they do give Marquez a very nice foundation to build on. So far he’s made three starts this season. Embedded in his stats are some eye-popping numbers.

The first thing that gets your attention is the ERA at 2.08. Then there are the 20 Ks and a WHIP of 1. All of those are very good signs. Then you look at the number of pitches per start of 65, 72, and 77. Then again, in his first start, Marquez only lasted 3.2 innings and 3.1 in his second. His third start was very impressive as he lasted 6 innings and whiffed 8 that game. He looked pretty gassed at the longest game of his career.

Going Forward
There are 3 things Marquez needs to work on in the near future.
1. Efficiency – He has to work shorter counts. He’s only pitched in the sixth inning three times in his three year career and that includes his last start. It’s not that he’s getting beat up, he’s just working deep counts. Some might call it nibbling, but it’s not. He just needs to command his arsenal better for strikes instead of balls. He might be what is called “effectively wild” at 95 mph.
2. A Third Pitch – He should be just fine this year with his fastball-curve combo. When he starts to have the control and command of those two, he should begin developing a third one because Midwest Leaguers will just sit on one of them and he will get eaten alive as a two-pitch starter in the Carolina League.
3. Aggressiveness – In watching him pitch three times, there is no doubt Marquez is a head-turning pitcher. However, when he is not commanding his FB/Curve combo, he’s tough to watch as he struggles to find the zone. When he gets the ball and goes right after hitters, like he did in his last start, he becomes a very promising young pitcher, very promising indeed.

For Now Though…
He should be very exciting to follow this summer when the Emeralds are at home, as only one other team has TV in the league. He is going to fill out eventually and gain some weight and his FB could tick up even more. That might be hard to imagine. But he’s going to need more than just that. For now, though, let’s just take it one start at a time and try not to get dazzled by the radar gun and see how he does in the three aforementioned areas.

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Prospect Update – Is Duane Underwood Close?

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By Todd Johnson

I have been thinking about this a lot. And every time I watch Duane Underwood pitch, that is the question that is on my mind. And there are several other questions to go with it. Like, how close is he to being ready? Will Underwood be successful if he makes it? And to be honest, they are all pretty close to the same question. And the answer is always the same. Almost. 

It is pretty nondescript and as vague as one can get while at the same time being  somewhat positive, but not too positive.

Drafted in the compensation round in 2012, Underwood has had his moments as a Cub prospect. Some of them, early on, were eye-opening about the condition he needed to keep his body in and the talent that he has when he is healthy.

At Kane County and Myrtle Beach he was throwing an easy 95 and was named the Cubs MiLB pitcher of the Year in 2015 at Myrtle Beach. He had a 2.48 ERA that year in 73.1 innings.

Things started going off the rails for him in 2016 as he battled injuries for the better part of of the season. Nothing required surgery, but it was a little alarming.

It was good to see him pitch 131 innings last year and he has looked much more mature on the mound since about the middle of July 2017.

This year, he looks to be in great shape. His curveball looks great. And, most importantly, he’s throwing pretty much where he wants when he wants. When he occasionally gets the ball up , that’s when he runs into trouble.

He can start a hitter off with a curve ball on strike one or he can finish them off with the change up for strike three. It’s good that he’s pitching in a variety of ways but he’s keeping the ball down. And when he does that, he is almost unhittable. This year, he has a 3.98 ERA in 110 starts with 56 K in 61 innings. He’s only walked 15, which is amazing.

He’s just a phone call away now. Even though it seems like he’s been around forever, it has only been six years. He is still just 23 years old. The only thing he has left work on is to have consistency from start to start to start to start. For awhile this year, he gave up either 4 runs or 0 runs for six straight starts. As a result, his ERA is not a true indication of his season other than his inconsistencies. 

Last Friday, for example. He got hit hard in the first inning and gave up four runs. However, over the next four innings, he struck out a total eight guys (10 total) while not allowing anything else. The issue that first inning was he lead off the game with two walks, then he gave up two singles. He wasn’t hit hard, he just couldn’t get the ball where he wanted before striking out the last two batters. The damage, though, was already done.

The Cubs are only going to put him in Chicago if they feel that he can succeed. I don’t know when that will be, but I do know that he is almost there. It’s all about consistency now.

The Midweek: Day 3 of the Draft Coming Up, Promotions, Machin is Cranking, and Morfa Emerging

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By Todd Johnson

Today’s going to be a hectic day. Starting around 11 Central, Day 3 of the MLB draft begins. If you go online to MLB.com, it’s like listening to a giant conference call because that’s exactly what it is. There is no time between picks and it is sometimes hard to keep up. I will be live blogging starting around 11 and, at some point, I will need to take a break as the day wears on. I hope to see a surprise or two today in the draft.

Around the System
Unfortunately, the minor league system does not shut down while the draft takes place. Tennessee and Myrtle Beach are playing well right now and both are closing in on playoff spots with 12 games to go. Tennessee is three games back of arch-rival Chattanooga while Myrtle Beach is 4.5 games back of Winston-Salem. South Bend has won three in a row and it’s two games below .500, also with 12 games left. But they are 9 games back.

The big story this week has been the parade of pitching prospects moving up and down the system. Southern League All-Stars Trevor Clifton and Dakota Mekkes are now at AAA Iowa. That is pretty exciting. It is pretty cool that both of them are one step away from realizing their dreams. I will hopefully be traveling out to Iowa some point in the next two weeks. Most likely, Monday or Tuesday next week.

In addition, Matt Swarmer heads from Myrtle Beach to Tennessee along with reliever Jordan Minch who now gives Tennessee their first left-handed on the roster this season. Pitcher Cory Abbott takes off his South Bend uniform and will put on Myrtle Beach Pelicans jersey for a while. I cannot wait to see how he does in a pitcher’s park.

Even though he was promoted a few weeks ago to AA Tennessee, infielder Vimael Machin has been on fire since arriving in Kodak. In 16 games as a Smokie, he’s hitting at .432 clip. I will have a profile of him in the next few days. I also have one ready to go on Trevor Clifton.

Down in the Dominican, the two teams have played 3 games. Outfielder Carlos Morfa is stealing all the thunder hitting 3 HRs, 2 of them yesterday, while hitting close to .600. His OPS is 2.199!!! Be wary of DSL stats, but this is an interesting story to follow as Morfa needs to builds up a larger sample size of data. This is about the only thing I can find about Morfa and it is his prospect video from the DPL. First thing you notice in the video. He’s just 17.

Meanwhile, on Cubs Central, the draft is hogging the website for just one more day. After today, I will have a new top 21 list tomorrow and then I think I might take a day off from writing as it feels like it’s becoming a full-time job the past three days.

Right now, I’m going to go for a walk. It’s a little brisk here in northern Illinois as it got down into the 40s last night. The cool air ought to wake me up and get me ready for 30 new Cubs to be selected starting in less than 3 hours.

Prospect Profile: Erich Uelmen Is on the Rise with His Sinker

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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.

Basic Information
Third Round Pick 2017 Draft
Cal Poly San Luis Obispo
Age 22
6’3” 185 Pounds
Throws Right

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.

A Magical Night of Pitching from Iowa on Down to South Bend

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By Todd Johnson

In yesterday’s article, I talked about how the hitting was struggling at each affiliate.

Last night, the pitching took center stage and it was very impressive.

For Iowa, Duane Underwood went 6 innings and only gave up 1 run while striking out 6. he gave up 4 hits and lowered his season ERA to 3.35. This month Underwood still has a bit of that good start/bad start thing going on. More starts like Wednesday’s will fix that.

Down in Pensacola, Trevor Clifton continued his very good season for AA Tennessee. Clifton’s ERA for May is 3.05 after throwing 4 scoreless with 3 Ks. Except for a couple bad innings this season, he’s been one of the best pitchers in the system. Unfortunately, Trevor’s outing yesterday was cut short by rain and the game will be finished today. His ERA for the season is 3.55.

The highlight, or should I say highlights, of the evening actually involved last year’s two first round picks.

Brendon Little’s May ERA is now down to 3.75 and he is throwing with a lot of assertiveness. Last night Little threw 7 scoreless innings with 5 Ks and did not allow a run on 82 pitches. Little attacked with his fastball-curve combo and an occasional changeup. Rather than nibble like he did in April, he’s going right after hitters, challenging them, and moving the ball all around the zone. Little has become must-see MiLB.TV and he looks like first round material the Cubs envisioned. Some fans were a little concerned about his early troubles in Eugene in 2017 and in April this year.

Be concerned no more.

Meanwhile, down in Myrtle Beach…

Alex Lange of the Pelicans had his best start as a Cubs prospect. Lange went 6 strong, allowed 6 hits without any runs while striking out an amazing 10 batters. While his fastball location was iffy, his use of a changeup seems to be helping his curves because hitters were flailing at his 2 curves all night long. He was devastating against lefties as his curve broke down and in. They stood no chance. It was one of the most impressive starts and pitches of any prospect this season.

Tonight, more of the Cubs top pitchers are back at it. Duncan Robinson goes for Tennessee, April Pitcher of the Month Matt Swarmer goes for Myrtle Beach, and one of my faves, Rollie Lacy, goes for South Bend.

In other news, pitcher Erick Leal will be returning to Myrtle Beach after missing all of 2017. Pelicans’ pitchers Kyle Miller and Elvis Diaz were released while Jose Paulino, also of Myrtle Beach, was placed on the DL.

Are There Any Expectations for Alzolay on Saturday?

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By Todd Johnson

It looks like all systems are go for Adbert Alzolay to make his major league debut on Saturday against the Cincinnati Reds. Alzolay will pitch one game of the doubleheader and head right back to AAA Iowa when the weekend is over. The 23-year-old right-handed starting pitcher from Venezuela features a mid to upper 90s fastball that he can maintain through the sixth and seventh innings. He can mix and match it with a developing change up and an average curve which seems to have a harder bite this year.

Is there anything to read into this?

Not really. One of the Cubs’ strengths has been to evaluate their own players. The Cubs know what they have in Alzolay and they’re going to take their time with him, but he is close to being ready for the majors. This Saturday will give the Cubs a look at how he does against major league hitters. No more, no less. At 23 years of age, and already on the 40 man roster, this should just be a preview in case there is an injury to one of the current starting five in the rotation. Then again, it could also be a preview in case he is needed in the bullpen.

Why Adbert Alzolay?

Out of all the arms at AAA, he definitely has the best stuff. However, he’s only had that elite stuff and profile for about a year now. In 2016, Alzolay struggled in South Bend in his first year of full season ball. He tired easily, he struggled with the secondaries, and a 4.34 ERA was not conducive to long-term potential.

Between the 2016 and 2017 season, Adbert worked hard to strengthen his lower half. With the help of Myrtle Beach pitching coach Anderson Tavarez, Adbert also quickened his pace. His strength and conditioning over the winter paid off as he kept going deeper and deeper games and his new timing threw off hitters as he destroyed the Carolina League (2.98 ERA) and then did well at AA Tennessee (3.03 ERA)..

Alzolay also spent some time in the Arizona Fall League in 2017 working on his secondaries in relief and then he was invited to major league camp where he just kind of sucked in the atmosphere of being with the big league roster.

He began 2018 a little late due to a minor injury, and he has shown flashes of brilliance taking no-hitters into the sixth inning twice. He has also struggled when he leaves the ball up as evidenced by the three home runs he gave up on Monday night. In five starts so far at Iowa, he has a 4.10 ERA in with 19 Ks in 26.1 innings.

Can he succeed?

The key for him has always been fastball command. When you throw 96 miles an hour, if you put the ball where you want it in the strike zone, you will be just fine. And that has to be the plan for Alzolay on Saturday. He can come up, flash his fastball, change speeds, and move the ball up, down, and around, and he should be good to go. And, like any other pitcher, if he’s all over the place, things are not going to go well.

The Six Pack – Six Relievers Are Dominating This Spring

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Dakota Mekkes – Photo courtesy of the Tennessee Smokies

By Todd Johnson

Last winter, I thought that catcher might be the most dominant position that the Cubs had in their minor league system. When it comes time to reassess the system this fall, I might be persuaded to change my mind based on the work of this year’s relief corps; 3 of whom could find their way to Chicago this year, if needed.

1. Dillon Maples might be the reliever that most Cub fans know about in the minor-league system. He got off to a bit of a rough start this year at AAA Iowa but has been pitching well since the second week of the season. His K rate is astronomical at over 20 per nine innings. Still, when the time has came to bring up a pitcher to Chicago, Maples has been bypassed five times already as he continues to try to cut down on his walks. He’s walked 6 in 10 appearances. At some point this year, he’s going to get another crack at the majors. 

2. Randy Rosario – What I liked about the Rosario signing this winter was that he was young, 23, had some MLB experience, and was a left-hander. The Cubs have kept him down at AAA Iowa, and, over the past six weeks, he has yet to allow run. He is also missing some bats as he’s struck out 10 in 15 innings and his batting average against is a minuscule .173.

3. Dakota Mekkes – If there was any prospect that could skip AAA and go to the majors from AA, it would be Mekkes – although I doubt that happens. However, Dakota has just been dominating AA. And like Myrtle Beach last year, Mekkes has not allowed a run in his 13.1 innings in 10 games. That include Includes Tuesday night’s extra innings save where he began the inning with a man on second base. His walk rate is a little better this year, but, like Maples, Mekkes still has room to improve. But to be frank, I don’t think there’s much left for him to do at AA. He should be in Des Moines and soon.

4. Jhon Romero – As the season goes on, Romero’s two pitch mix, a 93 to 95 mile an hour fastball and a sharp breaking curve, seem to be improving in Myrtle Beach. When I first saw him at South Bend last year, I wondered what he was doing there as he baffled Midwest League hitters. What I like about Romero is that he gets some ugly swings as batters just can’t time him up, especially on the curve ball. I don’t think he’s long for Myrtle Beach either.

5. Bailey Clark has already been promoted once, and at the rate he’s going in Myrtle Beach, he’s not gonna be there long either. Last year, Maples went from Myrtle Beach to the majors. I think Clark could come close to moving three levels this year. But first, he’s got to continue what he’s doing well. He’s using a mid 90s to upper 90s fastball in combination with a hard biting slider that he’s able to command. Right now, between the two levels this year, he has a 1.17 ERA with 28 Ks in 23 IP. The big stat no one is talking about is he is averaging almost 5 ground outs for every fly ball/pop up – an astonishing rate. If he can continue to do that, he should be in Tennessee by mid June. However, the key will be to take it one level at a time.

6. Tyler Peyton – I really liked and enjoyed the progress I saw in him last summer in a relief role in South Bend as he was one of the best relievers in the system in August with a 1.29 ERA. He’s doing pretty much the same thing this year at Myrtle Beach and he’s even moved into the closer role a few times. I don’t know if he’s going to move up this year, but I like what I’m seeing as he continues to flash a 93 to 95 mile an hour fastball with a nice curve and change.

I’m not really surprised these guys above are doing well. I am surprised that they are so dominant to begin the season. As it warms up, things could change a little bit over the next 4 to 6 weeks, but I think their ability to throw strikes is paramount to their success.

I would also have included Rollie Lacy of South Bend on this list. However, he now has a rotation spot in South Bend replacing Jose Albertos. Still, I don’t know if Lacy will do that permanently or for the time being.

Names to Know for May and Early June

Brendan King has only just begun to pitch at South Bend. King pitched well as a starter last year for Mesa. The 2017 draft pick out of Holy Cross has done very well in relief at South Bend. I don’t know if he’s going to get a chance to start, but I would be interested to see how he would do in that role, too. He usually is the upper 80s with his fastball to go along with a curve that he control and throw at will. With his command and a plus curve, he should do well at this level and high A.

There could be other relievers who will pop in the next month from the bullpen. One never knows who is coming and when.