I am not quite sure what went down in Kodak, Tennessee this summer. In April and May, they were close to being the best team in the system and were competing for a playoff spot against Chattanooga. Then, in one series, they were swept by Chattanooga and that doused any first half playoff hopes. Several prospects struggled in June and July and yet the Smokies were still in the thick of the playoff hunt again until mid August when the Montgomery Biscuits put some distance between themselves and the Smokies. Pitcher Jake Stinnett, who missed most of the year, returned in late July as a reliever and shined in his new role (0.61 ERA in 9 games). There could be something there.
Still, there was a lot of development that took place in 2017 for a team that was not considered to have a lot of elite prospects. Here are seven things about the Smokies talented roster.
1. Outfielder Charcer Burks was one of the prospects who came out of the gate extremely well in spring training playing with the big league club. That carried over into April and May as Burks made his way onto MLB Pipeline’s top 30 cubs prospect list after hitting .293 and .286 and then .333 in June. Then July happened. He hit .135 for the month but he did rebound some in August. For the year, he hit .270 with a .370 OBP.
2. Trey Martin – He has been around for a while and he has improved at every level. It is not been a rapid ascent, though, but a slow steady climb. Along the way, he’s won two gold gloves and struggled with minor issues like this year’s hamstring strain that caused him to miss two months. Upon his return, his bat showed a marked improvement and I am really excited about what he might be doing at Iowa next year.
3. David Bote exploded in the second half of 2016 and that carried over into April and May 2017. Like Burks, he went down a little bit in the summer but rebounded well in August hitting over .280. I like the fact that he can play multiple positions in the infield. He has shown some power, but I prefer the fact that he is hitting the ball up the middle on a consistent basis.
4. Jason Vosler – He led the Cubs’ system in home runs this year with 21 but he also hit less than .200 in August. He came on like gangbusters this spring and then faded over the course of the rest of the summer. I am looking forward to seeing his batting average/OBP bounce back in 2018. It seems the more home runs he hit in July and August the lower his batting average got. Considering the fact that he never had more than 10 home runs in a season before 2017, it was interesting to see him produce at such a prodigious rate.
5. Yasiel Balaguert – We should just rename him Mr. Second Half. If he ever had a good first half, he would hit over 25 homers and drive in100 every year. That’s basically his second half pace when prorated out to a 162 game schedule. Maybe he’s just one of those guys it does better when it’s warmer. I look forward to him playing first base and the outfield next year for Iowa in a hitter’s league.
6. Ian Rice – You have to be picky when looking at his stats. You can hone in on the on-base percentage, the power numbers, and games played behind the plate that all point to him being one of the most improved prospects the past year. He played in 114 games this year with a .353 OBP and hit 17 homeruns. Considering that he was a last-minute addition to the Tennessee roster, he did an outstanding job transitioning over to catching almost full-time. I am really looking forward to seeing what he can do in Arizona Fall League this October and November.
7 – Which starting pitchers will get promoted to Iowa with Duane Underwood? I don’t know who that’s going to be. I honestly don’t. It should be determined in spring training. I think Zach Hedges will get a crack at Iowa again if I was to make a bet. If Adbert Alzolay and Trevor Clifton shine in spring training, they could also find their way there. I think a lot of it depends on who the Cubs sign, or trade for, in the offseason to replace Arrieta and Lackey. Right now, Alzolay, who is pitching well in relief in Arizona, might have the inside shot. Clifton, who was brilliant in the first half of the year and struggled in the second, could turn his career around quickly with a good spring. I would not be surprised to see all four get a shot in spring training to make a start with the big league club.
Smokies to Watch in 2018
Now 22, Eddy Martinez will be the player to watch in 2018. He’s finally acclimated to playing baseball again and playing baseball in the United States. It’s been a huge cultural shift for him and he is now able to relax and just play. In the second half of 2017, he hit .276 with 7 HRs and an OBP of .333. I imagine that the Eloy trade was tough for him as they were inseparable as teammates. The trade also may have helped him realize he is on his own now. I am looking forward to seeing him do his own thing in AA in 2018.
SS Zack Short, Pitchers Dakota Mekkes, Michael Rucker, Duncan Robinson, Thomas Hatch, Pedro Araujo, C Tyler Alamo, and 3B Jesse Hodges also bear watching in Tennessee. All will be at critical junctures in their development.
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.
By Todd Johnson
Nelson Velazquez Gets Some McLeod Love
Over the past few weeks, I’ve written several posts and have them ready to go. As I begin to publish them, I am starting to notice a few trends. One is that I am writing a lot about Nelson Velasquez. And the second trend is that I am also focusing more on Jose Albertos. I think when I redo the top 21 list in a few months, Nelson could fly up a few more spots.
Mark Gonzalez of the Tribune talked with Cubs director of Scouting Jason McLeod about Nelson’s potential. Here is what McLeod said:
“He’s got power, speed and physical tools, and we can’t be more excited about how the rest of summer went. It’s inherent upon us and him to develop those skills. He’s going to end up being 6-2, 215 (pounds) and really strong and physical.”
I didn’t expect that last sentence as I thought he was already physically maxed out.
Arizona Fall League
Play began on Tuesday with Alec Mills getting the start for the Mesa Solar Sox. He got beat around pretty good in a little over two innings of work. He gave up four runs in his short stint. However, there was good news that night. Adbert Alzolay was phenomenal in relief. He pitched two innings and struck out four batters. On Saturday, he went two more innings and whiffed three more. I hope he continues to do well as 60% of the players in the league in the past have gone on to play professional baseball. I know if Adbert is going to start next year at AAA Iowa. Adbert has taken a huge step in his development this year and I could see him pitching in Wrigley at some point next summer. He could start or he could relieve, but I think he might be best suited to relief role.
On Wednesday, David Bote went 3/4 with a HR and 3 RBI in his debut. He played 2B. Things are really looking up for him. Bote also had a good day Thursday, this time at third base. He went 2/4 with and 1 RBI. he continued doing well on Friday and Saturday he hit another HR, his third in 5 days. For the week, he hit .500 with 6 RBI. It is a very impressive showing for the 24-year-old.
Ian Rice went 1/3 with a double and a walk on Wednesday. He also drove in one run. Jason Vosler has struggled band has been playing mostly at 1B. He has yet to get a hit in 4 games while Charcer Burks has yet to play. Jake Stinnett struggled in his lone appearance (2 IP, 4 H, 2Ks) while Pedro Araújo picked up a save on Friday in one of his two games (2 IP, 3 Ks).
The Seven Series
Starting on Monday, there will be three posts this week that look back at each affiliate’s 2017 season. Each posts examines seven issues about the affiliate and/or the prospects and the year they had. Monday, Iowa gets their due followed by Tennessee on Wednesday, and then Myrtle Beach’s season is relived on Thursday or Friday.
Baseball Card of the Week
I began my off-season card work this week. I have about 15 new cards uploaded to the Facebook page. You can see them right here. This one is my favorite…so far.
By Todd Johnson
Last week I looked at some big picture ideas in part one of my state of the Cubs minor-league system. Today’s analytical activities involve breaking down what the Cubs are doing well in their minor-league structure and where they need to improve.
Young toolsy outfielders, plethora of catchers, long and lean physically projectable Latin starting pitching, no rush, or need, on getting anyone to the majors soon.
There are probably more strengths that I could list but these are the biggest strengths. Sometimes I look at what’s left of the Cubs’ system and I get a little scared. It’s not a fear of failure. I know that not every prospect is going to make it. The anxiety that I have is that when the current minor-league talent is ready in 3 to 4 years, it is nowhere near the talent level of the players they’re going to be replacing. Yes, the Cubs have until 2021 to start producing more position players. But the Cubs don’t have anyone even projected to be even close an Addison Russell or a Javier Baez or Kris Bryant. There is no one that could even be as good as Albert Almora right now. However, that could all change by 2020/21.
To me, Nelson Velasquez holds the most promise. No one else has his power but he’s only played rookie ball. In another year, he could be the one. If he can start producing at full season A ball, then the Cubs will have something. But that’s just one player. The Cubs need several more high value position prospects.
Areas of Concern
Underdeveloped pitchers, stagnation of several prospects at the upper levels in AA and AAA, few top of the rotation starters in the pipeline, lack of overall power
The fact that the Cubs have not produced any MLB starting pitchers that they drafted or signed in the last five years is raising several questions. Are they doing something developmentally wrong? Are the Cubs taking too big of risks with the pitchers they select? Or could it be that the Cubs are not willing to pay big money to sign bigger named arms in the draft?
I’m going to answer the last question because I think the Cubs statistically know that selecting a pitcher is a big gamble and a huge risk over time. In the last two years they have tried to remedy the lack of pitching by over drafting and compensating with two high picks in the 2017 draft. The fruits of those two drafts will be at AA next year and also filling up South Bend and Myrtle Beach’s rotations. Add in several arms that should be coming stateside from the Dominican Summer League, the Cubs could have a ton of pitching coming ashore. Remember the names of Jesus Tejada, Danis Correa, Emilio Ferrebus, and Didier Vargas. Correa and Ferrebus actually helped Mesa win the Arizona Rookie League title.
Next year is going to be another transformative season in the minors. It’s going to be a season in which there’s a lot of movement up-and-down prospect lists. While prospects should be judged on talent and projection, performance is going to have a huge impact on how some people see the Cubs prospects in the post Eloy world. Doing well in low A ball is not a prerequisite for MLB stardom, but it doesn’t hurt.
Usually, a President says in the State of the Union address that the state of the nation is strong. I don’t think I can attach those kind of adjectives to the Cubs’ system right now. I think if I could attach one word it would be rebuilding. Promising would be another good word to throw in, too.
I do feel good about that since the current regime did it once before starting in late 2011.
Sometimes, the games don’t seem so important.
Cubs Prospect Tyler Alamo was one of those in attendance last week at the shooting in Las Vegas. Tim Huwe (@tim815) first reported on this a couple of days ago. Included in Tim’s article was a link to an interview where Alamo recounts the harrowing events of that night including the loss of his friends.
Felix Pena was DFA’d this week to make room for pitcher Luke Farrell, son of Red Sox Manager John Farrell and brother of South Bend Hitting Coach Jeremy Farrell. Farrell appeared in nine games for the Reds last summer and had a 2.61 ERA in 10.1 IP, all in relief.
At fall instructs, the Cubs prospects are playing sim games but with pitching machines. Although, Koji Uehara, on a rehab assignment, did face a few batters.
The Arizona Fall League begins play on Tuesday. The Mesa Solar Sox have 7 Cubs on the roster: Relievers Pedro Araujo and Jake Stinnett, starter Alec Mills, catcher Ian Rice, infielders David Bote and Jason Vosler, and outfielder Charcer Burks. Their schedule goes through mid-November. I will try and keep up with their performances every Sunday.
Baseball America Offseason Prospect Lists
Baseball America has been publishing their top 20 prospects in each minor league the past couple of weeks. In the first week, Victor Caratini made it in the Pacific Coast League. And last week, Adbert Alzolay made it for the Carolina League. This week saw a large number of prospects make it for the Midwest League and the Northwest League. The problem was not all the prospects are still with the franchise. In the Midwest League, Isaac Paredes came in at number nine and Dylan Cease at number 11. No current South Bend Cub made the list.
For the Eugene Emeralds, the Cubs hit the motherlode. Jose Albertos was ranked number four, Aramis Ademan came in at number eight, and Miguel Amaya was number 16. None of those three selections were surprising. However, at number nine, pitcher Javier Assad was a stunning selection as BA’s Michael Lananna praised Assad’s improving arsenal.
On Thursday, the Arizona League post was published. It’s not surprising that Nelson Velasquez was on the list. However, he was ranked at number 20. He is still a bit raw, but he still does have a lot of upside and room for improvement in his game.
The DSL list should be published this next week. It will be interesting to see if any young Cubs make it.
I think what the six lists do show is that the Cubs are not devoid of talent. There may not be a lot of prospects at the top of each league, but the Cubs do have several players who could be on their way up the lists.
Top 20 Chat Post
There was an interesting question in the Northwest League chat that accompanied the post. A Cub fan from Pasadena California asked about whether the Cubs should be concerned about Brendon Little’s performance in the Northwest League. Here is the response to that question:
Michael Lananna: Mildly concerned, but don’t press the panic button yet. He’s the same guy. His control was erratic throughout his college career, and that’s still going to remain his biggest hurdle to the next level. This summer was just a small snapshot of that, and I’m sure the Cubs will work with him on his strike throwing going forward. He’s still an exciting left handed arm with power stuff.
Coming Up This Week at Cubs Central
I have three posts scheduled to be published in between playoff recaps over the next five days. The Cards of the Year post should be out Monday. Later in the week, Shohei Otani and his impending free agency gets previewed. Part 2 of the State of the Cubs MiLB System will hit the Internet as well at some point in the next five days.
A Mock Draft Already?
Baseball America also posted their first mock draft for 2018. I was surprised to see that they had the Cubs selecting wiry high school pitcher Cole Wilcox at 24 considering that OF Travis Swaggerty from South Alabama was taken at number 25, I would’ve preferred the Cubs have gone with the college outfielder rather than the high school pitcher. Then again, it was only a mock draft but it is interesting to see where players are falling now and then compare that to a few months from now.
At some point, shortly after the season ends, Theo Epstein will address the media to talk about the state of the Cubs system, both the major and minor league systems. He’ll mention a few prospects he likes and he’ll talk about how excited or disappointed he was. For the most part, it will be a mostly transparent procedure. It will be an insider’s’ analysis of a system with which he is very familiar.
If I was to do said analysis about the MiLB system, I would not be privy to a lot of information that Theo gets from Jason McLeod and Jaron Madison. Still, there are obvious things that you can see taking place throughout the system. I think the analysis begins with more big picture themes…like these:
Big Picture Themes
1. Ability to Develop Talent
I think the Cubs do well at this. I think they can take a player and suddenly make them all seem worthwhile. They have shown the ability to take talent in the draft, international free agency, or in a trade, and polish them up to get them ready for the majors. On some days, you can find six position players the Cubs drafted in the lineup. In 2012, catching was a definite weakness of the system and now the Cubs have developed that weakness into a strength.
2. Elite Talent
With the trades of this past summer, the Cubs really are devoid of elite talent right now. There is only one player that I can foresee making a top 100 list this winter and that is Jose Albertos. I think what the past five years showed us is that the Cubs can find and sign some of the top players in the game. I just don’t see anybody that is currently at AA or AAA that fits that bill. Sure, there are a lot of nice players who could be bench players or bullpen pieces at the major-league level, but there’s not a top of the rotation starter or anyone who could become an everyday position player over the next year. There may be a backup catcher and several fifth outfielders, but that’s it. However, at the lower levels, there are several prospects, both pitching and hitting, who could fill some roles in 2-3 years.
3. Risk and Reward
This is the biggest theme in the system and trend of the past two years. Since the Cubs are not going to be drafting near the top of the first round, they have to be a little bit riskier and select players who they think have high ceilings but are not safe bets. For most of the past five years, the Cubs have signed mainly college players from the draft. A few times, they selected and signed high school players, most notably the collection of Carson Sands, Justin Steele, Dylan Cease, and Austyn Willis. Only two of them are still Cubs. Sands did not have a good 2017 season coming off bone spur removal and Steele had Tommy John surgery in late August. Selecting four pitchers in one draft from high school carried with it a lot of risk and explains why the Cubs tend to focus on college arms.
However this past year, the Cubs selected several high school picks and signed them. Nelson Velasquez is a physically maxed out outfielder with immense power. He was named the August Minor League Player of the Month after cranking out six home runs for Mesa that month. Shortstop Luis Vasquez had an up and down season for Mesa but he’s physically gifted and went five for seven in two playoff games. Pitcher Jeremiah Estrada (6th round 2017) was the highest ranked high school pitcher the Cubs selected since Bryan Hudson in 2015 in the third round.
4. International Free Agent Strategies
The Cubs invested heavily in the Mexican market the past three summers I don’t know how much that will change next summer under new CBA rules where there is a strict cap. In 2013 and 2015, the Cubs went over their spending limit but also acquired a lot of talent in doing so. Most of them are just now reaching stateside, some all the way up at Myrtle Beach. That type of binging cannot be done anymore.
I will be back next week with part 2 as I look at the strengths and weaknesses of the Cubs MiLB system.
By Todd Johnson
This will be the first time that I’ve had a September post for baseball cards. What made this month unique was that I had a backlog of pictures that I had not turned into cards yet. Add in the fact that Eugene, Mesa, and Myrtle Beach all played into the first half of September, there were a plethora of pictures to do another post.
In this picture taken by the late John Arguello, Gutierrez was one of the stars for Mesa in helping them win the Arizona Rookie League title. The outfielder batted leadoff I just love how the red pops. I talked to John a couple of times during spring training about that quality of his pictures this year. He gave all the credit to his new camera. I still have a backlog of his pictures (40+) from spring training that I have not make cards from yet.
Coming in at number 10 is Thomas Hatch in an away uniform. The picture was taken by Stephanie Lynn at Frederick, Maryland. After the sunlight, what I like most about this picture is that it is an away uniform. I don’t get too many pictures of Pelicans in the road greys. The Eugene Emeralds come in at number nine with their picture of Alex Lange warming up. This type of picture began last year with them. I like how the sky creates a blank backdrop. Jared Ravich gets in the top 10 with his picture of Gustavo Polanco as the ball enters his mitt. I think that just makes the shot.
Jared Ravich comes in back to back at number seven with the ball about to enter catcher Will Remillard’s mitt. As a huge fan of Will, I’m a little bit particular to seeing a picture of him playing since being injured in the summer of 2014. Dylan Heuer captured Bijan Rademacher getting ready to bat for the Iowa Cubs. What I love most about the shot is the red compression stocking on his arm. At number five, South Bend photographer Rikk Carlson comes in with a close-up of DJ Wilson shortly after hitting the ball and beginning to run to first base. I just love the intensity!
Ironically, Rikk comes in back-to-back at number four as Aramis Ademan begins to turn a double play. I love the extension of the young shortstop’s arm as he gets ready to release the ball towards first. I think number three is one of the top pictures of the year just for color and light. It comes off of Eddy’s Instagram account and I love the contrast between the blues via the sunlight. At number two, the Eugene Emeralds return to the countdown with a shot of pitcher Ben Hecht just as he releases the ball to the plate while warming up. This is one of the best action shots of the year.
At number one, Jose Albertos comes in with a card that I just love for the shades of brown and gold. I also love the fierceness of Albertos in his face. To me, what is captured and contrasted makes the card.
I will be back next week with the top 10 cards of the year. Expect to see the top three cards from above make it into the final year end countdown.