By Todd Johnson
Over the past two weeks, I wrote about the draft so much that I was a little burned out, even on the word. So what do I do on my first off day from writing in a while? That’s right, I go on the radio and talk about it. And tonight, I am talking with Sean Holland of Cubs Insider and Cubs Den on his podcast about it even more. Then….I am done. I swear!
So, today I wanted to write some random things down as June is usually a month of change in baseball in the majors and minors. Without anymore babbling, here are six things that have been coursing through my brain the past few days.
1. I originally wanted to do a full-fledged profile about Vimael Machin. Machin is currently killing it since his promotion to AA Tennessee. In 18 games for the Smokies, the somewhat organizational journeyman is hitting .375 with OBP near .500 in 19 games. Machin, drafted in 2015 from VCU after a messianic CWS run, has bounced around the system the past three years. His identity as a prospect vs. a journeyman was questioned as he moved around freely playing everywhere from Eugene to Iowa. He finally got a steady gig at South Bend in the spring of 2017 and hit .320 in the first half. Machin was then promoted to Myrtle Beach shortly after the All-Star Break. At Myrtle Beach, his walk rate was astounding in spite of his bat. Now at AA, Machin’s bat has returned and he is still walking more than he strikes out, a trait the Cubs covet. Keep an eye on Vimael the rest of this month. He’s looking like a future utility piece as he can play all four infield positions.
2. Promotions – When the 25-30 players from the “you-know-what” sign, several players will be moving to make room. A few pitchers already have gone up a level along with Machin. Next should be Jared Young from South Bend. He’s killing it right now. Over his last 10, he’s hitting .343 with 3 HRs and 10 RBI. For the year, he’s at .291. The problem is the promotions for position players will be scarce as the system is a little log jammed, especially at Catcher.
3. International Free Agency (IFA) – The Cubs are considered to be the favorites to sign pitcher Richard Gallardo, ranked as the #5 international player by MLB Pipeline. The Cubs should be able to sign some pretty good talent this year after two years of penalties. Now, a hard cap is in place for all teams. However, teams can trade bonus pool money. It would not surprise me to see the Cubs trade some prospects for some IFA money. If they do, the Cubs could easily outdo their talent haul from this week’s “event I refuse to call by its name.”
4. The Bullpen/Starter Conundrum in Chicago – While watching the game yesterday, I saw Joe Maddon trot out Cishek, Duensing, Wilson, Strop, and Morrow (not in that order) to seal the victory. It’s a scene I’ve witnessed far too often this year. A starter doesn’t make out of the fifth or into the sixth and the bullpen is used for the rest of the game. If this continues, there will be no bullpen left. I checked how many games these guys already pitched in and everyone was over 25 with 103 left. At the rate they are going, the five aforementioned guys will make between 70-75 appearances in the regular season. They will be gassed for the postseason. The starters have to go longer so the bullpen can pitch less.
As for help, Dillon Maples has been much better of late the past three weeks. He has not allowed a run over his last six games. Also, now that Dakota Mekkes is just a phone call away, expect that call to come to Chicago sometime later this summer.
5. The Art of a Deal – The Cubs, more than likely, are not going to be making a big deal this summer unless it’s for a bullpen arm or a bench player. There’s not going to be a big name guy coming to town. I just don’t see Theo giving up what’s left of the system this year. This is pretty much the team as it is. Help, if needed, is more than likely to come from Iowa.
6. Ryan Williams – He is getting very close to returning to playing in a game that matters. Yesterday, he threw 67 pitches in extended spring training. He’s one of my favorite Cubs to watch pitch. He’s such a bulldog out there. Still, he’s missed the past two plus years with shoulder issues. I was wondering if he was ever going to return. He’s not quite ready, but we could see him rehabbing up through the system in July. That would be a great sight to see.
I will be back tomorrow with a preview of Trevor Clifton’s AAA debut. On Sunday, “The Weekly” looks ahead at Theo’s latest interview and the last week of the first half of the MiLB season. And a peak at the Eugene and Mesa rosters is coming next week as they begin play a week from today.
By Todd Johnson
One good month does not a promotion make. Two months, … maybe.
So far, there has not been a lot of movement up and down in the Cubs’ system this year. However, Bailey Clark moving from South Bend to Myrtle Beach was one of domination at South Bend. But most other promotions that took place were related to injury.
In the next few weeks, there will be a lot of movement as the MLB Draft takes place and 20+ new Cubs begin their careers. In addition, the first half will come to a close. I don’t expect a lot of movement when it comes to hitters, but there should be plenty of pitching movement – especially when it comes to relievers. In addition, there could even be a few players released at the higher levels.
Look for the following players to get bumped up a level fairly soon.
Tennessee to Iowa
Dakota Mekkes has been impressive since the beginning of the 2017 season. He has dominated three levels in the last 14 months. And the only reason to keep him in Tennessee would be to work on his walks. In 17.1 innings, he has walked 12. However, in the past, that hasn’t stopped the Cubs from promoting Carl Edwards, Pierce Johnson, and Dillon Maples. Mekkes is ready for the next level and could be in Chicago fairly quickly this summer if needed.
Thomas Hatch has looked much better this year. He looks pretty comfortable on the mound and with what he’s throwing. What I like most is that he is gone deep in the games this year And with solid results as he’s posted a 3.06 ERA in 9 starts. His WHIP might be a little high, but I like his ability to get out of jams. He’s also pitched 89 pitches or more in 5 of his last 6 starts. That’s big fo him as the Cubs kept him on a short leash and a 5 inning limit in 2017. He gets bumped around every once in a while, but when you start breaking down his starts, he looks to be fairly consistent. He’s more of a candidate to go at the All-Star break then he is in the first week in June.
Myrtle Beach to Tennessee
Tyler Peyton has been an eye-opener for some at Myrtle Beach. I saw this coming last summer at South Bend as he was pretty dominant the last six weeks of the season. Part of me hopes he would get a chance to start, but as a reliever he is throwing 96 mph consistently out of the pen. Add in a killer ERA of 1.29, and he should find his way to Tennessee shortly after Dakota Mekkes heads to Iowa.
South Bend to Myrtle Beach
2017 second round pick Cory Abbott is missing a lot of bats in the Midwest league, 44 Ks in 36.1 IP. He should be on the first plane to South Carolina fairly quickly at the rate he is going. His slider and fastball command are just wiping out hitters as he has posted a 2.72 ERA in 7 starts. His WHIP is 1.06 and opponents are hitting only .206 against him.
On the Edge
The main problem in promoting prospects is that there is nowhere to go for many of them. For the following list of prospects, they still need some more time to simmer in their respective affiliates before being promoted. While they may not be promoted in the next two weeks, look for their names to be bumped up in late June at the end of the first half.
Tennessee: Zack Short, Charcer Burks, and Jeffrey Baez – All three would need a place to play. Right now, there are no spots in Iowa.
Myrtle Beach: Jhonny Pereda, Wyatt Short, Casey Bloomquist, Bailey Clark, Connor Myers, and Tyler Alamo – Bloomquist has been a nice surprise out of the pen this year, along with Short, while Alamo and Pereda are part of the logjam at first and catcher in the system. Bailey Clark has been a stud throwing between 95-97. He had a couple of adjustments to make at high A but looks to have righted the ship. If Baez and Burks go to Iowa, look for Connor Myers to head west to Tennessee.
South Bend: Tyler Thomas, Javier Assad, Rollie Lacy, and Austin Filiere – All four have shown flashes of potential and have put together some impressive performances along with some befuddling ones. The pitchers probably move before Filiere does.
It will be interesting to see how this shakes down in a couple of weeks both before and after the draft.
By Todd Johnson
Happy Mother’s Day!
It was a good week across the entire organization. The big league club looks like it’s beginning to put things together at the plate. Meanwhile, in the minor leagues, pitching dominated the week as three of the four affiliates had winning weeks.
It was a full week of games so several starters got in two starts. Duane Underwood dazzled in both starts. It seemed like every day someone was going six innings with several strikeouts. As a result, picking the pitcher of the week was a very hard choice.
The big news of the week came in South Bend in three parts.
1. Top 10 prospect Nelson Velazquez popped up in South Bend and immediately flashed his five tools. It is going to be a bit of adjustment for him as he probably has never seen the types of curveballs and offspeed stuff he is going to see in the Midwest League.
2. Pitcher Rollie Lacy made his first start of the year this week after dominating in the bullpen for five weeks. In fact, he made two starts. I really like watching him work as he just seems to pound the zone and keeps hitters off their toes by changing speeds. And he also misses a lot of bats (31 in 27.1 IP).
3. No sooner than I posted an article about Brendon Little did he have his best start of the year. He came out Friday night and just attacked, attacked, and attacked. While he did walk four, he struck out five as the Clinton hitters were stymied by his curve. Little only gave up two hits and looked very impressive doing so. As a result, I am excited to see how he does on Wednesday or Thursday next week – which should be his next start.
This Week’s Records
Iowa 5-2 (11-23)
Tennessee 5-2 (19-16)
Myrtle Beach 2-5 (14-22)
South Bend 4-3 (14-18)
It is also hard to believe that the first half of the MiLB first half is now over on Tuesday the 15th. The minor league season goes by very, very quickly and we should start to see a few pitching promotions soon. I don’t expect anything major, and by major I mean a starting pitcher. It will probably be a reliever.
Dakota Mekkes is the one to watch for and the one that could impact the big league club the most. He’s just dominated the Southern League in six weeks. I don’t know what else he has left to prove. Yes, he could cut down on his walks but he can work on that at Iowa while getting that much closer to Chicago.
I don’t see a lot of player movement happening on the hitting side.
Extended Spring Training
Cuban pitcher Raidel Orta, 22, is starting to get some more action. A little under the radar signing, he might be a bit of a break out prospect in the second half. I have yet to see him pitch, but I am looking forward to hopefully seeing him in Eugene with that talented roster. He comes in at 5’9″ and 180 lbs. Meanwhile, third baseman Christopher Morel keeps hitting dingers and shortstops Luis Diaz and Luis Vasquez keep impressing Arizona Phil in the daily updates at The Cub Reporter. Another name to keep in mind is catcher Jonathan Soto who seems to be coming up big at the most important times. Another name who could be interesting this summer is Kevn Moreno, a 3B from Cuba who sounds like he could stick in Mesa at 17-years-old.
Mock Drafts Coming In
Both Baseball America and MLB Pipeline released full first round mock drafts in the past two weeks. BA had the Cubs taking a HS catcher from Georgia while MLB Pipeline had the Cubs going with Kumar Rocker, an elite athlete and quality HS pitcher. Here is what Jim Callis said of Rocker:
Chicago has pounded college pitching in each of the last two Drafts and still could use more arms, though this time the prep route might be more attractive in the first round. A hamstring injury has slowed Rocker down the stretch, giving the Cubs an unexpected shot at a guy who can bring mid-90s heat and a wipeout slider at his best. Rodriguez and Wilcox are two more comparable options.
While Rocker would be a good selection, the Cubs are most likely to pound college bats with their first four to five picks. In positions slotted behind Rocker were some appealing college bats like Seth Beer and Steele Walker, and Prep bat Connor Scott.
What’s Ahead Next Week at Cubs Central?
On Monday, I will be examining the draft classes of the past few years and re-grading them. I don’t really have much else planned for the week other than to keep an eye on Velazquez transitioning to South Bend.
Players of the Week
Things I Wrote for Other Sites
April Wrap Up
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.
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.
By Todd Johnson
Part of me did not want to do this post. I thought to myself that the changes were so minute that they would be hardly noticeable. I thought that I could probably hold out another two months until early June before I redid it. That way, there would be two months of performance on which to make adjustments. And I started thinking again… “But if I do it in early June, I’ll just have to redo it again after the draft…and then again in early July after international free agency begins.” This will be a never ending crusade because it’s never complete, but that’s the fun inherit in constantly evaluating the organization.
The biggest reason for updating the list has been the play of Oscar de la Cruz. The pitcher had a really good spring and that should carry over into the season as he will be AA Tennessee. Oscar threw in 4 big league games in spring training, all in relief, striking out two and and only allowed one hit. He did not give up a run. Over the course of those four games, his velocity went from 89-91 to 93-95.
Another reason for doing the list has been the ascension and play of David Bote as a valuable utility man in the future. Originally, Bote did not make the list in January but he’s been rising for the past year and a half. He began to turn it on in the summer of 2016 at Myrtle Beach, had a good season in Tennessee in 2017, and he didn’t stop in the Arizona Fall League. This spring saw Bote continue to chug along in spring training and he should do just fine in Iowa.
Even though he spent all of camp with the big league club, I think Ian Rice showed his potential on the last Sunday of camp by jacking a ninth-inning two-run home run. I think the Cubs are going to have to live and die with that swing. He may not hit for average, but he’s going to hit a lot of home runs. As a catcher, I wonder what value he is going to have beyond this year. I’m sure there’s some insurance but when you’re blocked by Willson and Caratini, there’s not a whole lot of places you can go.
And last, but not least, Duane Underwood looks to be reborn and on a mission to make it to the majors. Underwood will start the year at AAA Iowa and the 23-year-old seems to have had a change of attitude after talking with Epstein last season. I really his stuff. It is just a matter of him commanding it.
So, today’s list is more about reshuffling the deck chairs than it is about anything else. There will be a new list in June with some new names on it, and there maybe some names that move up or down or even off the list. Regardless, it’s gonna be exciting to see what happens and how having five picks in the top 100 of the 2018 MLB Draft will reshape the organization. A month after that, a couple more prospects will be added to the list now that the Cubs can sign an international free agent for more than $300,000.
A lot of changes will be coming this year.
By Todd Johnson
2017 was a mixed bag for Kevonte Mitchell. He had moments when he looked like a monster at the plate and times when he did not. And if I had to come up with one phrase to describe his season, it would be “confidence building.” For the season, he hit 11 home runs and drove in 59 in 115 games. However, what I was most impressed with was not the work he did on the field, but his work ethic off the field.
Many times writers forget that the minor leagues is about development. It’s often about taking a hitter with raw skills and athletic tools and polishing them up. When I watch all the work Kevonte Mitchell puts in to get ready for a game, I come away extremely impressed at the effort he puts into everything. As a result, 2017 saw improvement in his approach at the plate and his performance on the field. He still has some work to do, but when he goes up a level in 2018, he could really break out as a hitter in Myrtle Beach.
6’5”, 235 lbs.
Bats – Right
Throws – Right
2014 13th round pick
Just turned 22-years-old
For Mitchell, 2017 was a series of adjustments. His monthly splits were very inconsistent but there were glimpses that he is starting to put things together. July saw him hit .295 with two home runs and 16 RBIs. April wasn’t bad either with three dingers and 11 driven in. But August and May were not good at all (.229 and .193 respectively).
When I watch Kevonte, anything can happen. It could be a 500 foot home run, a mile high pop up, a screamer, a weak grounder to first, or a strikeout. But I also see his ability to track the ball better over the course of the season. He is able to identify a curveball and lay off one out of the zone now, but he also struggles with that same pitch and putting it in play if it is in the zone. If he can make that small adjustment in 2018, everything for him is going to change.
One stat that impressed me most about 2017 was the percentage of balls he hit to right field increased to over 30%. Rather than trying to pull everything, as he he has done in the past, he is taking what he is given. In addition, that type of approach fits well with his batting practice approach and routines to drive the ball up the middle.
Playing full season ball in Carolina is a lot different than the Great Lakes region. It’s a lot more humid and it’s a lot warmer at the beginning of the year. For Kevonte, he is going to be playing half his games in a stadium that is known for the wind coming in off the ocean. However, some Cubs’ hitters have been able to hit well at Myrtle Beach. They don’t put up ridiculous power numbers, but they have been able to put up 15 to 20 home runs.
And for Mitchell, I think that is a good range for us to expect in 2018. For me, what I am going to be looking for is for him to put up consistent averages at the plate. I do not expect him to break out and hit .300 for the season. Instead, if he has a good year, he should have consistent splits between .265 to .280. If he can hit 20 home runs, that would be an outstanding season.
It seems as though Kevonte has been around for quite a while. However, he still is only 22 years old. And he’ll be 22 most of 2018 until late August. He’s still very young, developmentally speaking. Before last year, he had not seen 1500 pitches total in his career. He saw 1700+ pitches in 2017. So, in one season, his eyes saw more pitches than he had seen in his previous three combined.
This will be his fifth season as a Cub and I think the fact that he can see somewhere close to 1800 pitches in 2018 is only going to benefit his long range development. He should be one of the most exciting bats to watch all season.
If all goes well in 2018, the Cubs might take an extended look at him in the Arizona Fall League as he will be eligible for the Rule 5 Draft next December.
By Todd Johnson
Now that the World Series is complete, Cub Central’s Friday 6-Pack returns in a rare off-season appearance. A lot of random baseball things have been going through my mind. From free agency to the draft to things I just can’t stop thinking about, it doesn’t seem like the baseball season ended and for me that might be a good thing.
Here are six things I can’t seem to shake from my brain.
1. Starting Pitching Replacement – The Cubs should be able to replace John Lackey fairly easily this off-season. While free agent Alex Cobb comes to mind to take Lackey’s rotation spot, I am having a hard time figuring out who the Cubs might get as a number one or two starter. I think that is the biggest challenge of this off-season. The more I think about it, the more I lean towards the Cubs making a trade to acquire someone like a Chris Archer who is still young and signed for a while.
2. I don’t think I talked about Jhon Romero this summer as much as I should. Part of that might be hesitation as he has only pitched one year in the states. Then again, he was pretty filthy in doing so. I know that the Cubs have a lot of bullpen arms who could be ready very soon. I wonder how well Romero can do in 2018. Armed with a mid 90s fastball and a tight breaking ball, he should do well at Myrtle Beach in April and May. After that, it should be interesting to see if he can get to Tennessee next year.
3. I think I may have ranked Nelson Velasquez too low. Sometime during the next week, Baseball America should be publishing their top 10 Cubs prospect list. I currently have Nelson at number 10 on my Top 21 List. Part of me wants to take him and move him all the way up to number five, maybe even four. That might be a little presumptuous but after reading some reports about his athletic ability in centerfield, I think the Cubs may have hit the jackpot. Add in the fact that, according to Jason McLeod, Nelson is apparently not done growing. He could be a monster in 2 to 3 years at 6’2 and around 215 pounds.
4. The Draft – I’m not sure what I’m going to do about this topic the next seven and a half months. Part of me doesn’t want to cover it at all. A lot of that has to do with the amount of time spent watching games, online videos, and reading what other people write. There’s another part of me that thinks I should cover it, but only in small bits. I still haven’t decided. On the other hand, my coverage of the draft over its three days in June will not change.
5. Trouble with Starters – I have been wracking my brain as to why the Cubs have not been able to produce some starting pitchers after six full minor-league seasons in the Theo era. I began to ask questions like: Is this a systemic issue? Is there something they’re doing developmentally? Is this a scouting issue? Or, are the Cubs not willing to spend money on pitching? I think this needs to be flushed out in a bigger post. Maybe I’ll do it over at BP Wrigleyville.
6. Summer Itinerary – I started to put together some plans to go watch some baseball next summer. Once school gets out in May, I plan on going over to South Bend for a few days as well as seeing the Cubs’ low Class A affiliate play at Kane County and in the Quad Cities next summer. I also plan on going to see the big league club when they travel to Kansas City as there’s a lot of good barbecue, the Negro League museum, the National Jazz museum, along with the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum. Being a history teacher, the museum trips might be more fun… along with the food… and the baseball – all of my favorite things in one trip (yes, I am a huge nerd!). I also hope to make it out to Des Moines, Iowa next summer when Trevor Clifton or Dakota Mekkes get promoted.
I will be back on Sunday with “The Weekly.” I’ll be talking about Shohei Otani and some breakouts besides John Romero to watch for in 2018.