Cubs Pitching

The 7 Series – Iowa Cubs Produced Prospects in 2017 but Changes Are Coming

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By Todd Johnson

Overall Record – 67-72

For the second straight year, manager Marty Pevey had to assemble a starting rotation made out of spare parts until August. Injuries and promotions at both the major and minor league levels cut his starting rotation short. The I-Cubs did have a potent offense led by the Cubs minor league player of the year, Victor Caratini. Starting pitcher Jen-Ho Tseng put together the best half by a pitcher in AAA since Kyle Hendricks was there.

The Iowa Cubs are still producing prospects to help Chicago every year. This year we saw, in addition to Caratini and Jen-Ho, Ian Happ, Eddie Butler, Jeimer Candelario, Mark Zagunis, Dillon Maples, and several relief pitchers help out the big club in some capacity. I expect more prospects will help out again in 2018, likely they will be just in bench roles. I don’t see anyone with the everyday playing career path of Ian Happ in the upper parts of the pipeline. Caratini looks to make the 25 man roster in Chicago next spring but just as the backup catcher. I am curious as to what the plans for Mark Zagunis are as he doesn’t have much left to prove in AAA.

Here are seven things to know about the 2017 Iowa Cubs.

1. Bijan Rademacher had the quietest best second half of any prospect in the system. I was a little surprised he wasn’t named the July player of the month as he hit almost .400. He can play all three outfield positions and I think he has one of the best outfield arms after Eddy Martinez. The issue is that he doesn’t project to be anything other than a fourth outfielder. Then again, he hasn’t really been given the chance to show that he can be something else. He has begun to hit for more power and I like what he can do at the plate. He can hit for average and he knows how to work an at bat.

2. I would not be surprised to see the big league club continue to clean house again at Iowa. The 2017 roster at Iowa only had a few position players that might project to make it to Chicago. Most of the roster were journeyman players looking for one more opportunity to get back to the big leagues. With Tennessee sending anywhere between 6 and 9 position players to Iowa next year, I don’t think there are going to be too many roster spots available for any player or prospect nearing 27 years of age. Already, Jake Hannemann, Pierce Johnson, and Felix Pena have new homes for 2018. I don’t know if John Andreoli will be back again either.

3. I still believe in Chesny Young despite his up-and-down year. I think that he has some adjusting to do at this level and I’m confident that he will do well in his second go around at AAA in 2018.

4. Unless Eddie Butler can add some sort of out pitch, I don’t know if he’s going to be anything more than a fill-in at the major-league level. He had his moments this year in Chicago, but he never went much beyond five innings. He needs to be more efficient to get outs quickly and go deeper into games.

5. I am still pulling for Ryan Williams to make it. I just like the kid. He has a bulldog mentality that I love. However, after basically missing two full seasons, I wonder if returning to the bullpen might be best for his long term health. In 2018, we will see.

6. Dillon Maples is going to be close to making the Chicago Cubs 25 man roster next spring. I like the fact that he’s going to get more instruction from big league coaches that will only enhance his chances.

7. For me, the highlights of the year were the second halves of Jen-Ho Tseng (1.80 ERA) and Taylor Davis (.297 avg with 62 RBI). I am glad Davis got the call to make it to Chicago. His story is a tale of perseverance and he is an outstanding teammate and hitter that I think can play somewhere in the majors. I don’t know if Tseng will be given a true opportunity to pitch in the big leagues next year but he should get a few starts with the club in spring training. A lot of his future is tied to what the Cubs do to add starting pitching this offseason.

What to Watch for in 2018
There are going to be at least six position players from Tennessee who should start in Iowa next year. I think many will benefit from playing in the Pacific Coast League but none more than catcher Ian Rice. If you dismiss his batting average and just look at his power numbers and on base percentage, you begin to see his value and how much greater he is than his fellow prospects (17 HRs, .353 OBP). I think he is really going to benefit from playing in the hitter friendly Pacific Coast League more than any other prospect in 2018.

Jason Vosler will also benefit from playing in such environs. After a poor second half, Vosler should look to recapture what made his first half so fantastic in 2017. In the first half, he hit at a .274/.375/.521 clip with 13 HRs and 49 RBI. In addition, Yasiel Balaguert, David Bote, Trey Martin, and Charcer Burks should be starting everyday in Des Moines next summer.

Remember the name Adbert Alzolay. Out of all the prospects at Tennessee, I think he might be the most ready for Chicago. Even though he is currently a starting pitcher, I can see him coming out of the bullpen in Chicago as early as the middle of next summer. With a fastball that sits 95-97, there’s a lot to like.

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NLCS Game One – A Strange, Strange Game Ends in a Cub Loss

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By Todd Johnson

Usually, players make the difference and are the centers of attention, especially in the playoffs. In game one of the NLCS, the managers took center stage with a series of puzzling substitutions that made for one of the strangest games I have seen in awhile.

It started well for the Cubs. Jose Quintana was cruising along scoreless through 4 innings. A 2-run HR by Albert Almora gave the Cubs an early 2-0 lead.

Things changed much later. In the 5th, a big double by Yasiel Puig brought the Dodgers within 1 run and a SF by Charlie Culberson tied it up. Surprisingly, Clayton Kershaw was lifted for a pinch hitter after 5 innings in a 2-2 game.

I was actually surprised to see Hector Rondon enter during a tight game since he did not pitch in the NLCS. As a result, I was not surprised when Rondon gave up a leadoff HR in the 6th to Chris Taylor. After getting Justin Turner out, Rondon was lifted in a double switch. Montgomery came in and pitched while Ben Zobrist replaced Albert Almora in the lineup. I told my wife that Schwarber would get that run back in the 7th. I didn’t get that idea quite right.

At this point, I kept thinking the Cubs had 6 outs to get the lead back before Kenley Jansen entered. Jansen has been “Wade Davis-like” in relief this year getting 41 out of 42 save opportunities with a 1.32 ERA. When Schwarber made the second out in the seventh, I thought we had the heart of the order coming up one last time in the eighth.

I was still hopeful.

Then Yasiel Puig hit a dinger to make it 4-2. Then another run scored by a player who never touched home plate. Maddon got kicked out and things were way past strange heading to the eighth with the Cubs down 5-2.

After two quick outs in the eighth, Jansen entered to face Kris Bryant and the heart of the Cubs’ order. It wasn’t much of a test for him as he set all four batters up and then he set them back down for a 5-2 Dodgers’ victory.

There is the old adage by Pat Riley that states: “A series doesn’t start until someone loses at home.” Last year, the Cubs were down 2 games to 1 against the Dodgers and won it in 6. I am going to sleep well knowing those two things.

The Cubs will get back at it on Sunday with Jon Lester on the mound.

The Otani Decision is Getting Closer – Do the Cubs Have a Chance?

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By Todd Johnson

It won’t be long before Shohei Otani will begin his courtship of major-league teams. Once he is posted by the Nippon Ham Fighters, every major league team will match the posting fee for him. Who Otani picks is anybody’s guess at this point. From what I have read, money is not the issue. What Otani wants is to play in the major leagues. Unlike most American athletes, he is not driven by money. If he was, he would wait until he turns 25 in the summer of 2019 and he could sign a contract with any team for any price.

As a result of his decision to come over this winter, his earning potential is limited as an international free agent under the latest collective-bargaining agreement. Otani can sign for as little as $300,000 on up to somewhere close to$3.5 million, depending on how much money some teams have left in their international pool.

While the Cubs may still technically be in the running for his services, they can only offer him $300,000. They can’t make any secret backdoor deal and run the risk of losing Otani.

Let’s just say, for argument sake, that the Cubs sign him. What is it that they get? What does he have that makes him so special?

Basic Info
23-years-old
6’5” 190 lbs.
Throws – Right
Bats – Left
Positions: Pitcher, RIght Field, DH

That’s right, you get three positions in one. That’s one reason I believe that he might actually head to an American League team. Then again, he wouldn’t get to hit when he pitched. So that makes me think he could head to a National League team.

Stats
42-15 career record
2.52 ERA/2.78 FIP
624 Ks in 534 IP
.287 average/.360 OBP
70 doubles/48 home runs
166 RBI
.862 OPS
13 stolen bases.

From a scouting standpoint, he throws a fastball in the upper 90s and low 100s. This past season though, he only pitched in five games, getting to 124 pitches in his last start but still throwing 101 miles an hour in that start. He does have a wipeout slider to accompany his fastball. He also throws a splitter and a curve but everything runs off his fastball.

David DeFreitas from 2080 Baseball said the following about his pitching skills:

Top-of-the-rotation guy with smooth, easy mechanics; has a chance for plus command of three plus pitches. Double-plus athlete that is still growing into his body and developing coordination. Has the makeup to go with the advanced skill set. Aggressive, will challenge; pounds the zone and locates to all quadrants with plus ability to put hitters away. Comfortable in high-profile position; big-game mentality, competitor; throttles up/back; shows the ability to win without his best stuff. Above-average defender, moves well off the mound and accurate throwing to bases.

As a hitter and outfielder, he is equally as dangerous. From the left side of the plate, he can do anything with a baseball. He can hit for power and he can hit for average.

After a while, he comes across as some super video game player who can do it all. And from my understanding, he can. Whoever lands him will immediately get one of the top five players in the game. He potentially could hit 25 home runs and strike out 200 batters in the same year. He could drive in 80 and pitch in 160 innings.

The Cubs have a chance. Is the chance very good? I don’t know. To try and attract someone not motivated by money by a team that has a lot of it is a little strange. If the Cubs are going to sell Otani on coming to Chicago, the Cubs are going to have to get Otani to believe that he can be Otani as a Cub.

If I were Theo, I would focus on three things in my sales pitch
1. There is a definite young corps of players behind him for the next four seasons. There will be more on their way after that.
2. He could definitely play a position two to three times a rotation. He would pitch one day, take a day off, pinch-hit the next, and then he could play two days in the outfield.
3. He could be the ace of the rotation with a chance to win a World Series every year through 2021.

It what Otani really wants to do is win, there’s no better place than Chicago to win the World Series.

Prospect Profile: Jesus Camargo and His Changeup Were at the Head of the Class

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By Todd Johnson

One of my favorite things to watch this summer was Jesus Camargo’s changeup. Thrown anywhere from 79 to 82 miles an hour, it seemed to roll off a table and into the mitt of the catcher. Coming in at 10-13 miles an hour slower than his fastball, it was a thing of beauty that allowed him to dominate most Northwest League hitters.

Camargo missed all of 2016 after being the ace of the Mesa Cubs in 2015. The 21-year-old right-handed pitcher has to feel good about his success in 2017.  He should begin 2018 in South Bend.

Basic info
5’11” 170 pounds
Throws – Right.
International Free Agent from Mexico

Strengths
Changeup
Pitchability
Doesn’t get rattled

Signed in 2014, Camargo debuted in the Arizona Rookie League in 2015. In 11 games, he threw 46.1 innings with a 3.30 ERA. He was considered to be the number one starter on a team that didn’t have a lot of starters. He struck out 57 batters and only walked 12 all season. He made the Cubs Central All-Star Team for August.

As a result, I was pretty excited to see him in Eugene in 2016. But an injury in spring training ditched that and he missed all of the season.

Heading into 2017, I wasn’t sure what his role was going to be. Would he get the opportunity to start? Would he be a long man out of the pen or a piggyback starter? Or would he be a straight up reliever?

He was two out of those three things this year. Eugene was all the better for it.

He began the year starting and, when some of the Cubs’ top draft picks came to Eugene, he moved to a piggyback role. When they have reached their inning limits, he went back to starting where I thought he should have stayed. His stuff was too good.

In 60.1 innings, he struck out 73 and walked only 24. With a 2.29 ERA, he was a Northwest League All-Star and was probably the most unheralded arm in the system. Opponents only hit .182 off him this year and he did not allow a HR all year.

Going forward

Card made from a photo by John Arguello

Camargo has what I would call baseball maturity. Watching him on the mound it is very apparent that he knows how to set up and attack a hitter. He is not trying to do it with smoke and mirrors, but rather he is able to get the hitter out on his toes and control the pace of play through movement and location along with changing speeds.

When 2018 begins, Camargo will be a full year removed from his injury. I don’t think there will be any restrictions on him starting and trying to get over 100 innings in 2018. He still needs to work on his breaking ball more to accentuate the speed of his changeup. If he can do that for next year, he is going to dominate Midwest League hitters just like he did in the Northwest League.

The Cubs All-Injured Team Ready to Come Back in 2018

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By Todd Johnson

Strange things quietly happen in the MiLB offseason. Players are added, dropped, signed, retired, and cut without much fanfare or precession. Probably the quietest thing to happen is the rehabilitation of an injured player. The Cubs’ minor leagues have always had their fair share of injuries. Whether it’s Tommy John surgeries, knees, shoulders, or ankles, the injuries go to show the physical demands of the sport that requires you to grind for 140 games in the minors.

Here are some Cub prospects who should be returning to action next year. 

Corey Black – He seemed  to be just starting to find his groove as a reliever with a 2.70 ERA in his last 12 games of 2016. Now coming off TJS, he is bound and determined to be ready when 2018 begins. He will be 26 when next season opens and will likely be unprotected in the Rule V Draft this winter.

Ryan Williams – He has now missed two seasons with shoulder issues. I love his mentality and approach on the mound and I would be OK if he went from being a starter to relief next year. He was a closer in college and always pitched well with that type of attitude. He will be 26 when the 2018 season starts.

Erick Leal – He has gotten better every year as a Cubs pitcher. I was really sad to see him miss all of this season and hope the 6’3” righty can come back next season and start. He should be at AA Tennessee.

Gioskar Amaya – A knee injury ended his season early. The former infielder now turned catcher will be 25 when next season begins. He should be at AA Tennessee. The problem is things are starting to get a little crowded at catcher in the system. I could see him sliding to second to take some pressure off the knee from time to time.

MT Minacci – The young righty reliever made huge strides in 2016 as a reliever at Eugene. Things did not work out for him this spring, but he was assigned to South Bend before he went on the DL for the whole season.

Luis Hernandez (shoulder) – The 6’5” right hander has now missed two seasons due to shoulder issues. I usually cringe when I read that injury. He was so promising in relief in the AZL in 2015 and he even had some nice moments at Eugene that summer.

Chi-Feng Lee (elbow) – The soon to be 20-year-old RHP was signed as an international free agent and has yet to throw a pitch in a meaningful game. There are way more questions than answers here.

Carlos Ocampo (elbow) – The 6’2” lefty was pretty good in June and July in 2016 (3.21 ERA in 7 Starts) before breaking down in August. Just 19, the youngster from Cartagena, Colombia could be an interesting arm even in relief next year.

Pablo Ochoa – Another young lefty, the 6’ 19-year-old had about an inconsistent season as one could have in 2016 in the AZL. He showed some promise in 2015 in the DSL with a 2.58 ERA in 14 games, 7 of which he started. I expect he will delegated to just relief next year.

Alec Mills – He did return at the end of this year to pitch a couple games in Mesa and a couple games for Myrtle Beach. He’s now been assigned to the Arizona Fall League after missing four months of the season due to an ankle injury. Acquired in a trade last winter for Donnie Dewees, Mills holds promise as a starter and might be a possible rotation possibility, or at least a backup, next spring.

When Spring Training rolls around in February 2018, it will be interesting to see how their recoveries are going and whether they can contribute right away or if they need to extend the rehab a little bit. For some of the pitchers, it could be a long road back. 

 

Prospect Update – Bailey Clark Is Finishing Strong

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By Todd Johnson

Technology is pretty cool.

Now that school has started, I don’t get to stay up and watch the Eugene Emeralds every night. Instead, I watch the first couple of innings and I’m asleep by 10 o’clock Central. However, when I get home from school the next day, I can sit down and watch the archived version of the game. I got quite the treat yesterday watching Bailey Clark shut out the Boise Hawks for five innings.

One stat that did show up in the box score was that Clark’s ERA is now under 4. In fact, he has had two excellent starts in a row. Considering consistency is the main thing that he needs to work on, that is hopefully a good sign. While he only struck out three, I was more impressed with things that did not show up in the box score.

1. Weak Contact
While he has been known to throw in the mid 90s, all last night he was in the low 90s with some movement. He also looked to be coming more over-the-top creating more downhill plane on his fastball. As a result, he got high choppers, weak ground balls, and pop ups. In some games for Eugene’s defense, that could be an issue. It was not last night. In addition, most of the fly balls hung up in the air. No one really squared him up all night long. For the evening, he had four ground outs and five fly outs.

2. Getting Out of Jams
In both the second and third innings, he was able to work around two baserunners and avoid the big inning. There have been plenty of times this season where he has struggled with men on base. Last night, his defense helped him out and it never hurts to have Miguel Amaya’s arm throwing out base runners. Still, Clark made the pitches he needed to make for those things to happen. He kept the ball down in the zone and he was able to move it in and out.

3. Pace
I really liked that he had a nice pace in between pitches. He didn’t waste a lot of time. He got the ball, got the sign, and got things going quickly one pitch right after another. He wasn’t rushing, but he did just have a nice steady rhythm which I think kept him loose and kept hitters off balance and did not give them time to think.

4. Tight Breaking Ball
I really liked the tightness of his breaking ball last night. It looked to have a sharp descent from 1 to 7. He didn’t necessarily pitch off the breaking ball, but he used the pitch to effect, almost like a changeup. really liked that he threw more breaking balls than usual. He did catch several hitters napping, but everything worked off his fastball command. I

Finishing Strong
Consistency is the big thing for him. Monday was his 11th start and he is likely to have two more starts in the regular season. That’s going to put him close to 55 innings on the year. It doesn’t seem like a lot of innings , because it is not. But it is a start.

For the month of August, he has a 1.69 ERA. That includes an outing where he only lasted 1/3 of an ending yet somehow only gave up one run.

I still think we’re really haven’t seen what all he can do. Short season ball is such a small glimpse into the life of a pitcher. There were a lot of things going on with him last year after poor season at Duke and this month he seems to have found a groove which I really like.

I can’t say this about too many arms in the Cub’s system, but I think he has what it takes. I hope that he does, too. I hope to see him develop a lot over the next year by being consistent from outing to outing. I am really looking forward to getting an extended look in person next year when he gets to South Bend.

Duncan Robinson Interview Part 2 – A Year of Adjustment and Adaptation

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By Todd Johnson

I think every year is a series of continual adjustments in the game of baseball. The first full season as a professional for Myrtle Beach pitcher Duncan Robinson echoes the sentiment. He began the year as a reliever at South Bend, then he transitioned to a starter. He made the Midwest League All-Star team and shortly thereafter was promoted to Myrtle Beach. His first two starts as a Pelican did not go as planned, but since the middle of July he has been one of the best pitchers in the Carolina League. His ability to adapt to new situations and maintaining his daily routines are the keys to his success.

I had the opportunity to talk to Duncan about all the adjustments he has made this year and how they have affected his routine and what he throws in games.

TJ: How much has your daily routine been apart of your success?

DR: Being able to go into the start of this season with a routine that I can do with my eyes closed, it makes every start seem like it’s just another start. Your body is able to recognize where you are in the week and it allows you to prepare for each start.

TJ: When you went from being a reliever at South Bend to being a starter, how much did your daily routine change?

DR: It changed. I started a few games in spring training. I had a similar routine as a reliever, a piggyback back starter, where I had the five day rotation of coming in early to a game. But once I moved to a starting role, I did feel a little more comfortable. Once I finished my start, I could lay out my plan for the next five days and the goals I wanted to achieve. I definitely felt more comfortable. But at the end of the day, you just have to execute no matter what my pitching role is.

TJ: What was the biggest change from South Bend to Myrtle Beach?

DR: Probably the weather….When you go up a level, you have a heightened sense of competition where everyone is better, and they are better. In the grand scheme of things, probably the hardest thing is getting back into the routine of when you get to the field of where you are living and trying to get settled in as quickly as possible. The Pelicans have helped me do that. The staff has been great and so have the guys on the team.

Coming into the season, Robinson mainly threw  his fastball, sinker, and what I think is a beautiful curve. This year, he has added a cutter thanks to South Bend pitching coach Brian Lawrence. And, he is also working on a changeup in his side sessions.

TJ: How much are you throwing the cutter? Just here or there or in side sessions?

DR: When I first started throwing it, I didn’t expect to throw it too much this season. I threw it in a game against Fort Wayne. I had a lot of success with it. So, I figured the best way to develop a pitch is to try it in a game. It’s become a quality pitch for me at this level to both lefties and righties. I’m trying to make it a pitch in my repertoire as much as anything else.

I just need to execute like I have been doing.

TJ: You had a really nice run the second half of July that showed that you made some changes. Was there something that you were doing in game that allowed you to succeed at a higher level?

DR: I think just being able to feel more comfortable being at a higher level…Once I got those first two starts out of the way, I felt like I had been here since the beginning of the year. It’s not one of those things where you feel like the new guy all the time. Guys on the team are very accepting to guys moving up, like guys like me. Once you get on the same page with the catcher, and my defense has been spectacular – They’ve turned some key double plays and they’ve been consistent throughout for me and that’s been a huge part of my success.

What I like most about Robinson’s season has been his ability to adjust. I also like that he throws inside a lot and can do so with any pitch. I think his ability to adjust is only going to help him next year at AA Tennessee. Even though he will only have half a season at South Bend and a half season at Myrtle Beach, his track record suggests he has the wherewithal to adapt to any situation. In the Darwinian sense, it is not those who are most likely to adapt that survive, but those who are most responsive to change. 

*Cards made from pics by Rikk Carlson in South Bend and Larry Kave/Myrtle Beach Pelicans.