MiLB Mailbag – Episode II: All About Pitching Coming Soon

By Todd Johnson

In today’s mailbag post, I am going to kill two birds with one stone thanks in part to two queries about pitching. David Spellman asked, “Any pitching help for the major league level on the horizon?” In the same post, Jason Anderson wondered, “How is @adbert29 rehab coming?  When will he be back? Where do you think he starts his season?  Could he see time with the big league club next year? Possibly in bullpen?” Luckily for me, the two questions kind of share a common component. So, I will answer them at the same time.

I remember in 2012 when Jed Hoyer and Jason McLeod would talk about one of the goals of the farm system was to produce waves of pitching for the major leagues. Well, that time is finally here. It’s a few years later than expected but in 2019, there will be plenty of arms in contention to make it to Chicago next spring and summer. The main arm I see on the horizon is Adbert Alzolay.

Alzolay missed most of the 2018 season just as it looked like he was figuring things out at AAA Iowa. In his last start in May, he took a no hitter into the fifth. It was his fourth such outing last spring. The Cubs shut him down in mid-June when his lat strain was not recovering. Alzolay continued to work hard and shared rehab stories and videos on his own Instagram and Twitter accounts. The Cubs would love it if Alzolay could make it to Chicago as a starter since he sits 95-96 deep into games. That sustainability is a key part of his likability but so are an improving curve and changeup.

However, there is no spot for him in the rotation right now. Alzolay would be awesome coming out of the pen. When I first saw Alzolay pitch in 2015, it was a long reliever for Eugene. He was brilliant most every night for the Ems. Alzolay has improved since then. He would not have any issues transitioning to such a role.

Alzolay is one arm I can see pitching in Chicago regularly in 2019. The other is Dakota Mekkes. The 6’7” behemoth is pretty close to ready. He’s dominated four levels the pasts two years as a pro with a 1.16 career ERA and 190 Ks in 147 IP. The former Michigan State reliever only needs to cut down on his walks and he could be a 6th-7th inning kind of guy to begin and he could also easily go 2 innings if needed.

Alec Mills and James Norwood look to be names to know after getting a sneak peak in the pen last summer. Duane Underwood worked out of the pen some in Iowa after getting a spot start for the Cubs. And, as usual the past two years, Dillon Maples is still lurking.

However, there is a new wave of arms who could be ready at some point in 2019.

Trevor Clifton seems to be getting closer and closer as a starting pitching. Efficiency will be a key for him to get to the 6th and 7th innings on a regular basis. Duncan Robinson is not far behind Trevor in terms of experience, but his control and versatility could be a key to his arrival. I really like Michael Rucker as a swing guy who can start and relieve with his ability to throw strikes at almost a 70% rate and be in the mid 90s while doing so.

 

Three guys could be longshots to make it this year. Matt Swarmer and Keegan Thompson both went through 2 levels last year at Myrtle Beach and Tennessee with great success. Thomas Hatch, the third, pitched like a man possessed in August with an ERA of 2.51 in 5 starts.

Relievers Bailey Clark and Manny Rondon are still about a year or so away and Justin Steele is going to be the one I am going to keep an eye on the most at Tennessee to begin 2019. The lefty starter came back quickly from TJS and was dominant in the second half while hitting 95 most days to go along with his plus curve.

The pitchers are coming. What I like most is that they are all so different. There is no cookie cutter approach. It should be fun to watch them get their shots in 2019.

Advertisements

10 Things I Think: Free Agency, $$$, Trades, Hamels, Nico, Trent, and More

By Todd Johnson

It is been a while since since I did random notes of 10 unrelated things about the organization. There are a lot of things happening with regards to free agency, payroll finances, roster decisions, and other assorted minutia that I really don’t wanna devote an entire long form post to each one. Instead, I’m just going to get a few thoughts out there.

10. I thought about doing a full article about the craziness that is going to be South Bend’s roster construction in 2019. If you take Eugene’s roster of almost 35 guys and take 10 to 15 off of each of the two Mesa teams, that’s about 55 to 65 guys who will be competing for 25 spots to play in northern Indiana come April. It is going to be quite the competition. As a result, I’m pretty sure I’m not going to try to do a preview of the team until the actual roster is released. Then again, I could see who Arizona Phil has playing on the squad during spring training. On the other hand, that Spring Training roster could be extremely fluid.

9. Mentat Theo Epstein – If the Cubs really want a certain free agent this offseason, Theo is going to go make moves to make it happen. Considering the amount of bodies that would be on the roster if certain free agents would be added, the Cubs will definitely make moves (plural) to get who they want and to get rid of who they don’t think they need anymore. It may require a few trades with both major and minor league talent to make the team more financially flexible to take on that salary. Theo has always stated what he has wanted to do. And if he wants Harper, he is going to go get him but he’s not just going to get Harper alone. The Cubs need a few bullpen arms and maybe a backup catcher. There will be several moves before and after any signing ~ plans within plans within plans.

8. Patrick Mooney of “The Athletic” floated the idea that the Cubs might not be done with Addison Russell. It’s not a good idea. Considering that the Cubs have him signed for three more years and Russell is still relatively young, I understand the need that some people may feel to correct his behavior. Not me. If the Cubs did keep Russell, the Cubs would basically go back on everything that Theo said back in September when the suspension began.

7. MiLB Free Agency – The Cubs signed a few floaters who might be considered to be AAAA players to the 40 man roster. Odds are the Cubs will try to get them through waivers so that they can outright them to Iowa. The Cubs let 17 long-term minor league guys go last Friday. I’m not surprised and I’m actually happy for a few of them because there was no hope of them getting to Chicago, considering who is playing in front of them. Hopefully, guys like Bijan Rademacher and Stephen Bruno can latch on with someone to get a shot at the majors.

6. Lots of Shortstops Questions – The Cubs are starting to get all the shortstops again. It could be the strongest position by the end of 2019 with most of that talent being at some level of class A to start the season. The most interesting aspect to the position in 2019 is  just  exactly which affiliate everyone but Zack Short is going to begin the year at. Zack will be in Iowa, but who will be at Tennessee, Myrtle Beach, and South Bend? Will Aramis Ademan do Myrtle Beach? Just how good is Luis Verdugo after his scintillating August for Mesa? And Nico…how much SS will he play in 2019?

5. I originally wanted to devote a whole article to the Cubs having a second rookie league team and what impact that that could have on the organization in 2019. I still may do it later, it could be here or over at BP Wrigleyville. The number one thing to take away from that experiment was how many more pitching prospects popped up on the radar throughout the year. Hopefully, the Cubs will continue to have two Arizona Rookie League teams and to see more positive long-term effects.

4. Nico, Nico, Nico – I am pretty sure everybody’s pretty excited about how he is doing in the Arizona Fall League. Nico is showing a penchant for hitting at the plate and he’s also played second for a game and third for another. One thing nobody talks about is that he doesn’t really walk a lot. He’s only walked 11 times in 116 plate appearances this year. Despite that, it doesn’t diminish his potential. There are some who would love to see him in Chicago by the end of 2019, but I think he really needs to get a full year in the minors working on that plate discipline. If Nico dominates, then he dominates.If he shows he belongs, then keep moving him up but it doesn’t hurt to plan for the majors at the same time.

3. I really liked that the Cubs picked up the option on pitcher Cole Hamels. The $20 million cost is well worth what Hamels can bring to the mound as a Cub. The Cubs now have the most depth of any National League starting rotation.

2. Last night, Gordon Wittenmeyer of the Sun Times tweeted out that Joe Maddon’s contract is not going to be negotiated this offseason. Instead, the issue will be revisited in the 2019 season. Despite all the problems the Cubs had in 2018, Maddon still got 95 wins out of this team. The feeling from the front office might be that he could have gotten one more in April or May that could have changed the entire postseason. That disconnect might be a reason why there has been no extension yet.

1. Trent Giambrone hasn’t played a hell of a lot in the Arizona Fall League but he’s been very impressive when he has. Not only is he hitting for average and hitting for power, he’s also an on base machine machine (.500  OBP). And he’s doing it against some pretty decent competition. When I redo my top 21 prospect list for January 1, Giambrone is more than likely going to have a top 10/15 spot.

Bonus MiLB News
*Corey Black has resigned with the Cubs for 2019 and his tries to work his way back.
*The Cubs also increased their 2018 international free agent signings up to 11 with 3 new signings last week per Arizona Phil. There is still no word on the resolution of being able to sign Mexican players and whether the Cubs can re-sign pitcher Florencio Serrano.

State of the Cubs: MiLB System Could Have a New Hope Coming

By Todd Johnson

In years past, this article was spread out over two or three days. I would individually look at pitching, hitting, and relieving. It doesn’t need to be done that way anymore. Instead, today’s post will discuss how some parts of the system are trending.

Strengths
From AAA all the way down to rookie ball in Arizona, the Cubs have a plethora of starting pitching for 2019. It’s still a little uncertain as to who is going to pitch where next year, but the Cubs are awash with a lot of guys who could be back end of the rotation type guys. They’re only a handful of players who might be considered a 2 or a 3.  

The greatest aspect about the starting pitching strength is that the Cubs have a lot of depth. So much so, there are several arms who will be repeating AA and Iowa next year because of that depth. There are 15 names in play for the 10 spots at AA and AAA. Not everyone is going to make the cut to move up a level.

As a result, that depth is going to trickle down and create somewhat of a log jam in the lower part of the system. It’s also going to create competition and we might see better pitching as a result.

The second strength of the Cub system is its youth. The Cubs attacked the international free-agent signing periods from 2015 to 2018 with a lot of young arms and bats. Those players are just going to be reaching Eugene and South Bend in 2019. It’ll be interesting to see who keeps their head above water.

Concerns
In the summers from 2015 to 2017, the Cubs traded away a wealth of hitting and did not get any in return through the draft. As a result, they really don’t have a lot of impact bats in the system. Zack Short and Trent Giambrone are nice surprises from those drafts, as well as Jared Young, but the Cubs are hurting for hitters from Myrtle Beach on up to Iowa.

Last year saw the Cubs succeed with a few non-drafted free agents and the Cubs may be willing to go out and get more MiLB free agents to fill the middle part of their system. As well, the Cubs used three of their first four picks in the 2018 draft on Nico Hoerner, Cole Roederer, and Brennen Davis. All three, when healthy, seemed to have a pretty good first year in Mesa, Eugene, and South Bend.

The Hope
The Cubs may have one of the bottom five ranked systems in the minor leagues. They may lack your basic star impact prospects that we’ve seen in years past. But that doesn’t mean that the current crop of prospects is going to be bad. In fact, there a lot of prospects who should be MLB contributors in 2019. I can see Bailey Clark, Michael Rucker, and Dakota Mekkes pitching in the bullpen. I can see Mark Zagunis in a bench role. I can see Zack Short cranking out a home run or drawing a walk at Wrigley. There are several players who have what it takes.

The New Hope
In getting back to the youth, that’s probably where the next Cubs’ star is going to come from. Right now, Nico Hoerner is a glow-in-the-dark kind of prospect. He’s shining bright in the AFL with minimal experience against elite competition. Nico’s time in the minors could be fast-tracked.

Most of the Cubs MLB core is going to be playing on expiring contracts in 2021. The Cubs can’t sign them all so they do have some time to rebuild that system. The key is going to be the development of that youth the next two summers. Miguel Amaya, Brailyn Marquez, Cole Roederer, Nelson Velasquez, Brennen Davis, Luis Vazquez, Jonathan Sierra, Fernando Kelli, and Richard Gallardo are going to be the guys to watch turn into stars. At least that’s the hope for 2019 and 2020.

State of the Cubs: Major League Team Due for Changes in 2019

By Todd Johnson

While the Cubs won 95 games this year, they certainly didn’t look like a 95 win team for most of the second-half. The offense struggled to score runs while you never knew which bullpen arm was going to blow up. Then again, they won 95 games with everything that went wrong from Darvish to Chatwood to Kris Bryant. The Cubs overcame a lot this season but just looked gassed down the stretch the last six weeks of the season.

As a result of how the season ended, it’s quite clear several things are going to change. As to the amount of change, that remains to be seen. With Bryce Harper’s free agency looming and questions surrounding Addison Russell, a lot could take place this off-season.

Staying the Same
Most of the Cubs’ core will be back. The Cubs brass would be foolish to make a lot of changes to the position players and every day lineup. Rizzo, Bryant, Baez, and Wilson Contreras will be back in the infield. The only major question is what to do with Addison Russell and who will replace him? Will the Cubs go get someone or will they fill with their own MLB players or prospects?

With the starting pitching, Lester, Hendricks, and Quintana are certain to return. Hopefully, the Cubs will have Cole Hamels back and Yu Darvish will be healthy and ready to start 2019. If not, the Cubs have Drew Smyly and Mike Montgomery in reserve.

Not much is going to stay the same in the bullpen. About half the pen are free agents and the Cubs are not sold on everyone else.

Ch-Ch-Changes

As for the outfield, this is probably where the biggest changes are going to be. While the Cubs stand a great chance of luring Bryce Harper to Chicago as a free agent, it’s not 100% certain. If the Cubs do sign Harper, there will be a few roster changes that follow concerning some of the current outfield. There will not be enough room for everybody. We could see players traded and maybe even for parts that will shore up the bullpen.

The opening day roster, as we have seen in past years, is not going to be the final roster as it will be come October. 2018 left a bad taste in the mouths of management, players, and fans. If the Cubs sign Harper, it will totally change the state of the Cubs for 2019. And if they don’t…

This could be the most exciting off-season since the Cubs signed Jon Lester in December 2014.

What Will Be the Top Relieving Storylines in 2019 for Cub Prospects?

By Todd Johnson

It is getting to the point that the Cubs’ minor league system is starting to produce a lot of homegrown relievers. Dillon Maples and James Norwood are the first and soon to be followed by Dakota Mekkes in 2019. And there are more in the pipeline who could be close to ready by the end of next year including Bailey Clark, as long he can stay healthy.

That is just one storyline of many when it comes to relievers for 2019.

1. The Lack of Lefties
The Cubs just don’t have very many guys coming out of the bullpen who can throw left-handed. At one point last year, Tennessee had two with Wyatt Short and Jordan Minch. Anywhere there is a lefty, that prospect has a bright light on them from AAA all the way down to Chris Allen in Mesa. Throw in Manny Rondon and you have some guys to keep an eye out for next summer. If Jordan Minch is left unprotected for the upcoming Rule 5 Draft, he is probably as good as gone.

2. Two New Guys
Jake Reindl and Josh Sawyer both did not pitch after being drafted and signed by the Cubs last summer. I am excited to see them both get their careers going. Both should begin 2019 at South Bend in the pen and I am excited to see how they do.

3. For Reals
Garrett Kelly arrived from the Frontier League throwing gas at 95. He stayed 93-95 all year as the non-drafted free agent worked on improving his secondaries. He was promoted to Myrtle Beach in the second half and held his own in one month of play. For 2019, with an off-season Cubs’ regimen in his veins, I cannot wait to see him let it rip this spring. His story is a great one of perseverance and hard work.

4. Lots of Arms Vying to Play in South Bend
Between the two Mesa teams and Eugene, there are a lot of arms who will be competing for a bullpen spot at South Bend and maybe even up to Myrtle Beach. In total, there will be close to 40 to 45 arms competing for 16 spots. Three arms that I look forward to seeing you next year at South Bend include reliever Sean Barry, who was an all-star in 2018 for Eugene. He has a nice cutter/slider combo. Wherever Barry is placed is going to start the dominoes. But is he good enough to skip South Bend? Is Riley McCauley, the former Michigan State closer, good enough to skip South Bend? Has Brady Miller overcome shoulder stiffness in order to get his career going? There are going to be many more questions about the players who will toe the bump in northern Indiana. It should be a pretty fluid place the first part of the year until Eugene is ready.

5. Starter or Reliever?
With the large number of starters in competition at each level next year some of them could be in play for a bullpen spot. Some may just be relieving until a starting spot opens up or it could be a career change that clicks. Michael Rucker is one arm I can see skyrocketing through AAA if he goes to the pen at the rate he throws strikes.

It’s going to be a very competitive spring and summer.

What Will be the Top Pitching Storylines in 2019 for Cub Prospects?

By Todd Johnson


Unlike hitting, the Cubs starting pitching does not have depth issues. When it comes to 2019, there are going to be a lot of storylines to follow at every major affiliate when it comes to pitching. Some of those storylines may take place this off-season and some of them will take place throughout the course of the 2019 regular season.

Moving Up or Staying Put

First, and foremost, Jaron Madison is going to have a tough time deciding which five starting pitchers are going to be at AAA Iowa to begin the year. Adbert Alzolay, Trevor Clifton, Duncan Robinson, and maybe Alec Mills will begin the year in the rotation. But then Keegan Thompson, Thomas Hatch, Matt Swarmer, and Michael Rucker will be competing for a spot or two and it’s going to be a whale of a competition. It’ll be interesting to see how that type of log jam plays out as it trickles down the rest of the system. It will be a very competitive spring. 

If you succeed at AA, odds are your season was not a fluke. Odds are you a legit prospect. In 2018, Matt Swarmer and Keegan Thompson both did very well; first at Myrtle Beach and later at AA Tennessee. Michael Rucker flashed in spurts and Duncan Robinson got better every month and just plain dominated the second half of the year. Thomas Hatch pitched like a man possessed in August. It will be interesting to see who ends up where in 2019.

How Good Can Brailyn Marquez Get?
After having a breakout season in 2018, the 6’4″ lefty is still in a bit of quandry. After regularly sitting 95-97 most nights in Eugene last summer, he earned a late promotion to South Bend. Is he good enough to start out at Myrtle Beach? Can he go deeper and deeper into games? How efficient can he be with his wipe out slider? He will be just 20 next year. As a top 5 system prospect, there is no one quite like him in the minors for the Cubs.

Skippers
Last year, a couple of pitchers skipped a level to begin the year. Alex Lange and Keegan Thompson both started out at Myrtle Beach after playing a little bit at Eugene the year before. They did just fine. The only arm I could see doing that in 2019 is Derek Casey, the Cubs ninth round pick out of Virginia. However, several guys from Mesa could skip Eugene to get to South Bend. I would love to see lefty Didier Vargas attacking the zone in South Bend as a 20-year-old lefty,

South Bend Breakouts
South Bend is going to have a lot of young arms that are going to be extremely talented and also will have some growing to do. This is where most of the breakout arms should debut next season. Riley Thompson, Yovanny Cruz, Didier Vargas, Faustino Carrera, and many more young talented pitchers will be competing for a spot to pitch every six days over 140 games. I am excited to see just exactly what they can do. They  all tend to have one plus pitch and they need to refine the rest of their arsenal.

Young Drafted Guys: Kohl Franklin, Niels Stone, and Chris Allen
All three of these guys should begin at Eugene next year as they are either a high school or junior college draft pick last year. All three had great months ilast August but I don’t think they’re quite ready for South Bend.

Injury Return: Alzolay, Danis Correa, and Jeremiah Estrada
All three of these pitchers will hopefully return to health and have good seasons next year. Alzolay will be at AAA and Chicago while the other two should be in Eugene or South Bend come June.

Question Marks: Blake Whitney, Jack Patterson, and Peyton Remy

The Cubs drafted a lot of arms the past three years and these three are beginning to stand out a little bit. All three did excellent last year in Mesa, but I wonder if they are going to start in 2019 or work in relief. Remy threw darts for Eugene in the playoffs and Paterson went five scoreless in game two of the championship series against Spokane.

Overall, the pitching in 2019 will be the most competitive aspect of the minors come spring. With so many good arms, the Cubs are looking for a few to breakthrough and they might end up using a few of them either in Chicago or as trade chips as they did last summer.

2018 Affiliate Reviews: Myrtle Beach Pitching Dominated

By Todd Johnson

Team Record 61-78

What Worked in 2018
2018 was all about pitching. The rotation went six strong throughout the year and the bullpen was very sharp right up to the end. As a result, most of the pitching corps will be off to Tennessee. It’ll be exciting to see Alex Lange, Tyson Miller, and Cory Abbott ply their trade in AA.

Erich Uelmen and Bryan Hudson could start out next year in Myrtle Beach but move quickly to Tennessee if they do well.

As for the bullpen, Tyler Peyton, Manny Rondon, Bailey Clark, Garrett Kelly, and Erick Leal should all began 2019 at AA.

There wasn’t a lot to write home about the hitting.

Catcher Johnny Pereda was outstanding in the first half but slipped a little in the second half. Still, Pereda earned a trip to the Arizona Fall League.

First baseman Jared Young arrived in early July and was the Cubs minor league player of the year for Cubs Central and the Cubs themselves. Depending on how he does in the Arizona Fall League, outfielder DJ Wilson might be bound for AA along with Roberto Caro (if he re-signs as a MiLB free agent).

Returning Guys
Aramis Ademan and Wladimir Galindo should return to Myrtle Beach for a while. Both are still relatively young that repeating Myrtle Beach to begin the year might be a good thing for them. There could be a few others who’ll come back, but some familiar faces might be on their way out of the system Considering the depth of the Cubs have in the lower minors, it is a pretty logical course of action.

Christian Donahue should begin 2018 in Myrtle Beach along with Michael Cruz, who both spent most of 2017 in South Bend. Zach Davis should be back as well in the outfield. All three arrived late in the year.

Incoming Position Players
Delvin Zinn, Miguel Amaya, Austin Filiere

This might be the most interesting group to me. I’m wondering where they are going to play outside of Amaya. Zinn could play some third, some second, and, shortstop at times. I thought he could even play in the outfield but has yet to do so. This is where there’s going to be a bit of a log jam in the system. With only a few position players headed to Tennessee, there’s not going to be a lot of openings at Myrtle Beach either. As a result, that creates a bit of a quandry.

Remains to be Seen – Nico Hoerner
The Cubs are more than likely going to wait until after the Arizona Fall League to make a determination on where Nico plays in 2019. If it goes well in Mesa, he probably could be playing in AA. If it just goes OK, he will more than likely be in Myrtle Beach. It’s rare for someone to go from low A to the AFL with less than 100 MiLB at bats.

Big Jumps
I could see a couple guys that played for Eugene skip South Bend next year because of their advanced hitting profile. Andy Weber is one and Luke Reynolds is another bat who might skip.

Keep an Eye on for 2019
How quickly Erich Uelmen moves in the first half of the year is going to set the tone for the rest of the system as the AA and AAA starting rotations are pretty stacked.  Myrtle Beach should have Uelmen, Hudson, Erling Moreno, Brendon Little, and Javier Assad for sure. Who joins in the six spot should be interesting to see. Will it be Jesus Camargo, Ryan Lawlor, or even Brailyn Marquez? Could Derek Casey or fellow draft pick Paul Richan get a shot? It should be fun.