The 5 Series: Brendan King and the Art of Pitching

By Todd Johnson

As Sun Tzu once said, “Win all without fighting.” Most bullpen pitchers want to empty the tank trying to fool hitters, but the main objective for any pitcher is always going to be to let the hitters get themselves out. Get ahead, keep them off balance, and get them to swing at pitches they can’t do much with. Sun Tzu never saw a baseball game, but his teachings can be readily applied.

One of the great things about covering the minor leagues is that you can see a prospect grow fairly rapidly in one season. It’s usually in that first full season of class A. Last year, one player who I saw grow immensely, especially in the second half, was utility pitcher Brendan King. He did some starting, did some piggyback starts, long relief, and even sat at the back end of the bullpen a few times. I don’t know if Brendan has ever read The Art of War by Sun Tzu, but King seemed to embody many elements of Sun Tzu last summer.

Over the second half of the year there were only a couple of pitchers coming out the bullpen who had a better half than Brendan King. The 2017 20th round pick out of Holy Cross had several things going for him including a very tight breaking ball that devastated right handed hitters. That one pitch had the ability to get guys to get themselves out.

For the second half, King produced ERAs of 2.61 in both July and August, despite giving up 4 HRs in August. In addition, he was striking out close to one batter per inning.

Here are five Sun Tzu quotes that could embody what King might be doing this summer.

Never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake.
Here’s a short summation of Brendan King’s pitchability: If he keeps the ball down, he’s fine. As result, King’s arsenal is geared to that end. In watching him pitch most of the summer, he tended to attack the bottom part of the zone. His GB % is pretty high at 36.1%. With a K rate of 33%, it doesn’t leave much room for liners or fly balls.

The nature of war is constant change.
Based on his usage last summer, Brendan came to the ballpark ready to pitch each day  in a variety of roles. He could start, he could work anywhere in any role throughout a game. And like most pitchers, he was always looking to add to his arsenal. He knows that getting a guy out in the first inning with a curve will be hard to replicate in the fourth with the same pitch.

All war is deception.
I really liked watching him pitch last year. His delivery does have some effort but he looks to have a pretty consistent release point. If he added a pitch this winter, getting that release point in line with his pitches will be essential for deception.

Balk the enemy’s power, force him to reveal himself.
In this case, balk means “to hesitate.” One thing Brendan was able to do last year was to change speeds pretty well. He sat 89-92 most games. If he can add a couple ticks to his fastball this year, his curve and change will hopefully be offset enough to make them even more effective. Brendan’s curve is his best pitch, but his changeup showed some potential last summer as the season went along. The change is the pitch that hitter’s least suspect he will throw based on the success of his curve throughout the year.

In the midst of chaos, there is also opportunity.
Brendan’s greatest assets last year were his ability to adapt day-to-day and month-to-month as a pitcher. However, his success last year also came as a result of his strike percentage last year. At 65%, his strike rate was one of the highest rates in the system last year. The Cubs will take that every day of the week and twice on Sundays. This year, King is going to be in an intense competition to earn a spot at Myrtle Beach. And there’s a deluge of prospects coming up behind, thanks to the addition of a second Mesa team. But Brendan’s ability to do the aforementioned things like throwing strikes, deceiving hitters, having hitters get themselves out, and his ability to adapt and change should be what separates him from the pack.

Ultimately, that separation is what should propel him up one level this spring.

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The Podcast: Looking at Pitchers Who Could Be in Chicago in 2-3 Years

By Todd Johnson

It is really going to be a pivotal year for pitching in the system. There’s competition for starting spots at every level.  The Cubs signed 16 additional arms this winter for depth at AAA, although most won’t make the roster but a few will. This is going to result in a lot of arms trying to get to Chicago as starters and relievers.

This week’s podcast looks at which Cub pitching prospects who could be headed to Chicago in 2-3 years (2019-2021). I did end up focusing mostly on AAA arms who are nearly ready now.

I could have talked even more about arms at AA who could be in the mix, too. Names like Bailey Clark and Michael Rucker as bullpen guys. Then there are possible starters like Erick Leal, Alex Lange, Cory Abbott, Keegan Thompson, Erling Moreno, Manny Rondon, Thomas Hatch, and a few more. Maybe I will do part 2 in a couple weeks. Have a listen.

Next week’s topic is the draft…I think. If you have questions about the draft, send them to me via Twitter or leave a comment down below.

I will be back tomorrow with more of the 5 Series.

Position Breakdown Series: Relief Depth Is Growing Quickly

By Todd Johnson

With over 50+ guys to pick from, this is always the hardest breakdown to do. Unlike the starting pitching posts, the lefties and righties are all jumbled together. The Cubs have been pretty successful in developing bullpen arms the past three years. Cub fans have seen guys like James Norwood and Dillon Maples figure it out and take off. Dakota Mekkes made it to Iowa in just two years after being drafted. Then, we’ve also seen guys dominate out of the pen at Myrtle Beach and fall flat at Tennessee. You just never know. That’s why ranking relievers is so hard.

Last year, I had Dillon Maples on top followed by Dakota Mekkes, Jake Stinnett, and Corey Black. Mekkes and Maples had good years while Black was injured and Stinnett struggled in Tennessee. John Romero got pegged as a guy to watch and he wound up being traded mid-season to the Nationals.

Even though they are currently starters, I would not be surprised to see Adbert Alzolay and Michael Rucker come out of the pen at some point in Chicago this summer. Alzolay has natural talent with upper 90s stuff while Rucker has a mid 90s fastball, good control, and can throw almost 70% of his pitches for strikes. Both should get plenty of looks in Mesa in Spring Training as starters before transitioning to relievers.

This year, the rankings are going to go a little bit deeper in terms of guys profiled.

Help for Chicago – Maples, Mekkes, and James Norwood definitely are the top of the list with Norwood moving to the front of the line. Norwood has the best combination of stuff and command of the three. I still like Dillon Maples and his arsenal but his future success is more than likely between his ears at this point. Then again, if Maples commands the fastball, you can forget about the space between his ears. As for Mekkes, I am waiting for him to get a shot. That is likely to come in spring training. Considering the Cubs still have needs for the pen with Spring Training less than a month away, these three guys will get opportunities early next year to help Chicago.

Up and Coming – Bailey Clark’s performance in 2018, when healthy, was an impressive leap over 2017. His stuff ticked up due to weight training and he sat 95-96 most days and was hitting 97 at times. I wonder if he is going to work on adding a 4th pitch to go with his deadly slurve thing he has going on. Maybe a cutter would be a nice pitch to jam some lefties.

Brian Glowicki improved greatly in 2018. After struggling in 2017 a bit at Eugene, he was a beast the second half at South Bend and did not allow a run all of August. I like that he can attack down in the zone and he is not afraid to throw inside a lot.

When it comes to the future of Manny Rondon, it is still unclear to me what he is going to do in 2019. At times, I think he could be a good loogy as he was in 2018 at Myrtle Beach. Against lefties, he had a 1.13 ERA and hitters only averaged .160 against him. Then there are times where I think he is going to go back to being a starter like he was in 2016 at Eugene. What made it more confusing for me was that he did both in the Arizona Fall League.

Not Sure What to Expect – Jordan Minch, Wyatt Short, and Tyler Peyton had their moments in the sun in 2018. Peyton and Short did them at Myrtle Beach and Minch was excellent in the second half at Tennessee. Keep an eye on all three in 2019.

Unsure Roles – A lot can happen in an off-season and spring training. For a lot of relievers, things can change greatly from year-to-year and level-to-level and sometimes month-to-month. Sean Barry and Brendan King are two guys who I am curious to see what their roles are going to be in 2018. Barry could skip South Bend while King could start, be a swingman, piggyback, or be a setup guy in Myrtle Beach.

The New Guys

That first full season as a reliever has been an eye opener for recent draft picks. The Cubs drafted several last year in Riley McCauley, Ethan Roberts, Cam Sanders, Jake Reindl, and Josh Sawyer. They all bear watching next year and all have something to build on as relievers. I really like McCauley’s demeanor on the mound, Roberts’ cutter is fantastic, Sanders has a very live loose arm that the ball comes out so easy. But for Reindl and Sawyer, the two pitched in the College World Series and did not pitch again once they signed. Sawyer underwent a procedure in early January while Reindl is not pitching at Winter Instructs either.

The Comeback Kid

Chad Hockin missed 99.33% of 2018 after TJS. He started throwing in October and should be ready to go opening day. Hopefully, he will be back to his college velocity of 95. He was close to getting back last spring and I am really pulling for him to get back because he did have some pretty good movement on his stuff. When I last saw him pitch live in August of 2017 in Beloit, he was starting to get his velocity back. The movement was definitely there, and when he kept it down, he was fine.

Out Of Nowhere
As usual, there will be guys who make one adjustment and take off as relievers. It always happens. Sometimes, they start the year as a reliever, and others move from the rotation and just take off. You just never know.

The 5 Series: Yovanny Cruz Is 2019’s Pitcher to Watch in South Bend

By Todd Johnson

I saw a lot of great performances last summer when it came to starting pitching. But the single most impressive performance that really stuck with me was from Yovanny Cruz at Eugene. In fact, it was his only start for the Emeralds as he spent most of the year in the Arizona Rookie League. Combined, he threw 49 IP last year with a 2.57 ERA and 55 Ks. But on that one hot August night, Cruz went 5 IP, gave up 4 hits, struck out 5, and got some of the ugliest swings I saw all season.

Here’s what we do know about Mr. Cruz. He was signed as an international free agent in 2016. He debuted in the Dominican in 2017 and pitched 56.1 innings with an ERA of 3.51. In 2018, at the ripe age of 18 he graduated to Mesa and just after his 19th birthday he made his only start for the Emeralds.

But in that one start, Cruz looked like a veteran pitcher who was just toying with opponents. He’s not a strikeout machine, but he has excellent command of a fastball, curve and changeup. His ability to mix speeds was very impressive for the young right hander.

Heading into 2019, I do have several questions about Yovanny Cruz.

1. Path – As polished as he is, I wonder how fast the Cubs are going to push him through the system. One would think that he’ll be given the opportunity to start at South Bend, but will more than likely begin in extended spring training. Then again, if he’s that polished, he should be able to win a spot at South Bend.

2. Size and Weight – As with many kids from the Dominican, Cruz is not done growing. It’ll be interesting to see how he continues to physically develop and how that impacts his pitching. Right now, he throws in the low 90s. I wonder how much that will tick up if he continues adding some weight through his 21st year.

3. Arsenal – Right now, he has three pitches he can spot at any time in any count. I wonder if the Cubs will add other pitches to his repertoire.

4. The Grind – It’s hard to really judge a pitching prospect until they played in the Midwest League. It’s there you get a sense of how their arm is going to hold up in just one season. I am curious as to how Cruz will learn to adapt to that type of grind. Considering he barely has a 100 IP in total for his career. He will be asked to stretch it to just 100+ in 2019.

5. Experience – To go along with question number four, I’m excited to see just how the actual experience of pitching every six days for five months shapes how Cruz pitches. Right now, he seems to have a pretty good feel for how to get guys out and where he can throw the ball. As with most many young international free agents,, they do lack a lot of game experience that their American counterparts tend to have growing up. As Cruz gets more game experience, I wonder how that will reshape him and how he attacks the hitter from the mound.

I labeled Cruz as one of my 10 guys to watch for 2019 and for good reason. It’ll be fun to see these questions answered and that hopefully will begin in April. And for those of you that have watch the Midwest League in the first couple weeks of April, it can be quite the adjustment for kids from Latin America as they experience the tail end of the northern Indiana winter for the first time.

Convention Day 3 – MiLB Session Fruitful and a Podcast Pops Up

By Todd Johnson

It is always fitting and ironic that the session about the Cubs minor league sessions is always last. When I sat down in my chair to check out the festivities, I was not sure what I was going to get from Jason MacLeod, Jaron Madison, and whoever else would be on the panel (It would be just them). And I wondered what kind of questions Tennessee Broadcaster Mick Gillispie would field from the audience.

I started out watching the video feed from the Eugene Emeralds. It was tough to hear the questions, but Jason McLeod came through pretty clear. That lasted for about 16:37 before the feed cut out. After that, I relied on tweets from Evan Altman, Tony Andracki, the South Bend Cubs, and a few others.

For the first ten to twelve minutes, pitching was the main focus of the panel. McLeod said,

“After developing no pitching in 7 years and money becoming issue at the major league level, there’s definitely a sense of urgency. It’s on us. We can’t just keep celebrating Kris Bryant. It’s so obvious it’s not even an elephant in the room.”

He later added that the Cubs were too conservative in the pitchers they selected in 2012 and the he takes the blame for that. However, both McLeod and Madison feel good about where the pitching is at now and Brailyn Marquez’s name came up several times throughout the session.

As for who could help the MLB squad this year, Madison and McLeod mentioned Adbert Alzolay, Dakota Mekkes, and James Norwood. McLeod said they would all likely be used out of the pen. Duncan Robinson even got a bit of pub at one point in the conversation.

When it came to Nico, Madison quipped that Nico should move through the system quickly. The two men on the panel were also high about Hoerner’s makeup and potential leadership skills. McLeod and Madison threw out Miguel Amaya, Cole Roederer, and Brennen Davis as names to keep an eye for 2019. McLeod also said that there were several kids in the DSL but he didn’t want to name any of those hitting prospects by name just yet.

A couple of other discussions involved David Bote’s incredible work ethic along with Jason Vosler and Charcer Burks. A good sign also occured when the discussion turned to Jose Albertos.

Another aspect of their discussion I enjoyed, even though it was very brief, was that by having a second rookie league team in Mesa, it is going to allow the Cubs to be more aggressive in the draft. Last year, the Cubs signed over 30+ players including several high school and junior college picks.

Jaron Madison also spoke highly about the future for 2017 top picks in Alex Lange and Brendon Little. Madison said that Lange needs to improve his consistency. As for Little, Madison said, “He has all the upside in the world. He spent nearly the entire offseason in Arizona working his butt off and showing us what he can do.” Everyone I talk to in the system just loves Little and his desire to improve through hard work and using tech.

There was one funny bit where McLeod told how Cole Roederer in Arizona asked one guy where he played in 2018. The player responded, “Chicago, Wrigley Field.” It was Ben Zobrist.

The Baseball America Podcast
While I did find the reports and video for the session fun to listen to, I got an outsider’s perspective of the system via a podcast on Baseball America. I started checking it out as soon as Down on the Farm ended. I found it very enlightening. Kyle Glaser and Josh Norris talked about the system and several of the Cubs top prospects in detail.

The views from beyond the Cubs’ universe also like Nico Hoerner a lot. Norris sees Nico as a fast mover like many of us do. Both writers also praised Miguel Amaya for his first half of 2018 and  talked of his overuse in the second. Zack Short even got some high praise later in the podcast for his defense and power.

In addition, the head scratching seasons of Aramis Ademan and Jose Albertos were discussed in detail. I really like Glazer’s analogy of Ademan. “He looked like an 8th grader playing high school varsity football.” By that Glazer meant that Ademan had the tools to play, he’s just not physically strong enough to hang with them on a day-to-day basis.

As for Jose Albertos, Norris very much still believes in him. He stated, “I bet on upside, I bet on tools.” Norris quoted scouts who said that Albertos’ problem was more mental than physical.

The biggest plaudits in the podcast came later for 2018 pick Cole Roederer who Norris thought of putting Cole at #2 if he would be in a really aggressive mood. The Andrew Benintendi comp came up again about Cole and Norris stated he thought Cole would begin 2019 in South Bend.

Davis got a lot of praise too. While both Roederer and Davis have high ceilings, Davis’ floor is a bit lower. Based on conversations with scouts, Roederer might move a faster pace than Davis who has his own set of skills to work on that Cole has already mastered.

I will be back tomorrow with the 5 Series. This week’s prospects to be analyzed are Yovanny Cruz and Jared Young. I am not sure who goes first yet. On Friday, relief pitchers close out the organization breakdown series and hopefully Baseball Prospectus releases their Top 10 Cubs prospect list this week. Lots of good stuff coming your way.

Position Breakdown Series: LHSP Is Young and Loaded with Talent

By Todd Johnson

This has always been the most volatile position from year to year. And by volatile, I just mean change. A guy could be ranked first one year and off the list the next. The Cubs don’t have a lot of left-handed starters in the system. Over nine minor league teams, there might be 13 or 14 guys who start on a regular basis that are left-handed.

The most interesting trend with this category is that the Cubs did have a lot of young left-handed starters in rookie league ball in 2018. Most of them will be at either South Bend or Eugene to start 2019 and two could be at Myrtle Beach.

A year from now, this list could be topsy-turvy as well. It almost makes me afraid to rank them but I’m going to anyway.

The Top 4
Brailyn Marquez – This kid will be 20 years old to start 2019 and he will be bring his 95-97 mph fastball and wipe out slider with him. He’s always had talent, but the 6’5” lefty began to put things together last year at Eugene. He still needs to be more efficient and use less pitches so that he can go deeper in the game. More than likely, he starts at Myrtle Beach in April.

Justin Steele – I did not expect to see him starting at all in 2018. The fact that he started and dominated was amazing. Add in that he throwing 95 mph was the cherry on top. He has to be thrilled heading into 2019 at AA. I am. In fact, he’s not that far away from Chicago now that he’s on the 40 man roster.

Brendon Little – Do not look at his ERA. After spending close to ten games in a two week stretch last summer, I came away very impressed with Little. When I saw him start in the Quad Cities, his curveball was outstanding as hitters had no chance to square it up that night. He struck out 5 in 5 innings. 2019 will be all about getting his fastball velocity back and commanding said fastball. FYI – He has a great work ethic, too. I wonder what he worked on this winter?

Bryan Hudson – OK. OK. OK. He’s still only 21. It seems like he’s been around forever, but he’s still a pup…so to speak. I thought he had it figured out at Myrtle Beach in July. Over 5 starts he had a 1.27 ERA that month. Then in August, it ballooned to over 7. Once he gets that consistency down, he should begin to take off. We have seen glimpses of the “ground ball machine” from time to time, it just needs to happen most every night.

The New Guys
When I watched Eugene play last year, I came away extremely impressed with Faustino Carrera. The then 19-year-old looked very polished and efficient. He put up a 2.53 ERA in 13 games for the Ems while opponents only hit .198 off him. Didier Vargas, who was also 19 last year, put up the same type of performance in Mesa including a 6.2 IP and 7 K performance in an elimination game in the playoffs to put the Cubs 1 team in the title game.

2018 Draft Picks
Chris Allen and Jack Patterson
got some work in last year. Allen had an innings restriction but did very well with a 0.63 ERA. I cannot wait to watch him pitch. Allen could be one of the top lefties in the system a year from now. Patterson did very well with a 2.83 ERA in 35 IP and was great down the stretch for Eugene and again in the playoffs.

The DSL Squad
Maisel Garcia
got a lot of praise for his improvement from Baseball America’s Ben Badler last year. He struck out 46 in 45.2 IP as a 17-year-old. He is still growing as are many kids in the DSL.

At 18, Luis Rodriquez led the DSL 1 team in ERA with a 0.73. He will be 19 when 2019 begins. Andres Bonalde missed all of 2018 with an injury. He was very good at the end of 2017 and I was looking forward to seeing him in Mesa. He will be 21 when 2019 begins.

Joel Machado was one of the Cubs’ top international free agents they signed last summer. Still growing at 16, he is adding weight, height, and mph to his game. More than likely, he starts out next year in the DSL. He’s a long shot to make it to Mesa.

Position Breakdown Series – RHSP Part 2: Arms Waiting to Break Out

By Todd Johnson

When I originally started writing this series, today’s post was supposed to be from South Bend on down. However, Tennessee and Iowa were so strong, that first article didn’t leave any room for Myrtle Beach. Unlike the last week’s list, which had a clear-cut pecking order, this list does not. I’m unsure of who is going to be where and that might be a good thing for the system. Spring training could be organized chaos as arms move between levels frequently. In the end, though, here are some names that I am going to keep an eye on as right-handed starting pitchers from class A on down.

Because of the log jam at Iowa in Tennessee, Erich Uelmen will more than likely begin 2019 at Myrtle Beach. Uelmen looks to be the odd man out after struggling somewhat after being promoted from South Bend. I still like his off-speed stuff especially his sinker that kept Midwest League hitters off balance.

Riley Thompson is another one of my guys. The big righty out of Louisville sits at 95 and if he develops any kind of secondaries this year, he’s going to do very, very well. He may be the most promising pitcher from last year‘s draft class. He’s not a finished prospect but he could really take off in 2019.

Derek Casey was drafted out of Virginia and got in some work last summer at Eugene. However, he didn’t even throw 10 innings. Still, his experience in the ACC and throwing on a downhill plane makes it hard for hitters to square him up. I have been saying since August that he could skip South Bend and start 2019 at Myrtle Beach.

Erling Moreno – This guy has a ton of talent but he just can’t stay healthy for an extended amount of time. Moreno has pro type stuff. He’s got a plus curve and can sit 93 to 95 with his fastball. The only thing stopping him is him. He should begin 2019 in the Carolina League.

Richard Gallardo -The Cubs top international signing from last summer has been drawing a lot of praise in recent prospect lists. Both Fangraphs and Baseball America have Gallardo debuting in Mesa and not the DSL in 2018. He is going to be one to watch in 2019. Now that Anderson Tavarez is the new Mesa pitching coach, I am a little excited about his prospects.

Yovanny Cruz – I came away extremely impressed with Cruz from just 1 start. After he spent most of the year in Mesa, he got a spot start in Eugene and just baffled guys with a curve, a changeup, and great command. At only 19. I want to see more of him, a lot more.

Paul Richan – He got a lot of work in early in the summer for Eugene and then met his innings limit. He does have a plus curve and a nice change and he commanded his fastball well The problem is I don’t know if his fastball is going to be enough once he gets to Myrtle Beach. His off speed stuff will be fine in South Bend, but after that I don’t know what the future holds for him. That fastball needs to get up around 93 consistently.

Peyton Remy is a guy who attacks the strike zone. He spent most of the summer in Mesa last year and the junior college product looked extremely polished sitting at 91-93. He was amazing for Eugene in long relief in the playoffs and he should be starting at South Bend to begin 2019.

Danis Correa – Two summers ago, he was the talk of the Dominican Summer League as he was pushing the upper 90s. An injury last spring sidelined him for most of 2018 but he was able to rebound and pitch two scoreless outings for Mesa. He will only be 19 and should be at Eugene to start 2019.

Jeremiah Estrada – 2018 was a blank season for the young California kid, but everyone is still anxious to see how his pro career is going to go. I expect to see the 2017 6th round pick to 2019 in Eugene as the Cubs will probably take it slow with him coming off Tommy John surgery.

Blake Whitney is probably the guy everyone is saying, “Who the hell is Blake Whitney?“ Well the 29th round pick out of South Carolina Upstate did very well as a starter last year in Mesa for the Cubs 2 team and should be in competition to start in South Bend. He had an ERA of 2.30 in 31.1 IP with 37 Ks. That bodes well..

Part of me wonders if I’m only halfway through this list. I don’t know how Jaron Madison, the Cubs director of player development, is going to get these guys innings this summer to continue their development. I didn’t even mention names like Javier Assad, Eury Ramos, Jesus Tejada, Jesus Camargo, Jose Albertos, and Kohl Franklin.

The Cubs have a lot of arms in play and some of these guys could start anywhere from Eugene up to Myrtle Beach. It will be interesting to see who is assigned where and for how long. These are good problems to have. I remember 7 winters ago, it was a system devoid of pitching. Now, it’s brimming with it.