By Todd Johnson
Rule number one: Draft all the athletes.
Brandon Hughes is most definitely that. The young 2017 draft pick from Michigan State is arguably the best athlete the Cubs selected in the draft since Jacob Hannemann, way back in 2013. In addition to speed, Hughes has the potential for power. As a lead off hitter at Michigan State, he was never asked to hit that way. That’s something the Cubs might want to change this year.
Upon his arrival at Eugene, Hughes burst onto the scene with a scintillating July before cooling off in August. He hit .299 the first month, and .190 the second. It’s not like he’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, but turning pro can be a tough experience when you’ve already played a full season of baseball; your body is just not used to the grind of playing eight months versus five.
Hughes will have some definite competition for an outfield spot in South Bend but is best suited to right field. His arm is considered above average, but he definitely has the ability to go get the ball.
It is hard to evaluate someone just on 40 games in short season ball. By the time the middle of June rolls around this year, Hughes should have 60 games in at South Bend. In that span, he needs to improve getting on base. Some of that will come from a solid approach, which he should’ve been working on over the off-season, and some of that will come with a familiarity with the league.
Most importantly, the Cubs need to figure out what kind of hitter Hughes is going to be. Is he going to be a leadoff-speed kind of guy like he was at Michigan State? Or, Is he going to be a guy they’re going to try and develop into a power hitter? Will he be the hitter we saw in July or the one in August? Or, is he going to be some sort of multi-dimensional player that has both speed and power?
If I had to guess, I would go with the last one. One thing South Bend manager Jimmy Gonzalez has been able to do the past few summers is to develop hitters with good pitch recognition skills. I don’t know if part of that comes from computer games the players play or just their own natural development. Whatever the case may be, Gonzalez gets results and those hitters go on to do well at Myrtle Beach.
Out of the almost 30 signees from last year’s draft, I think Hughes is the one who will change the most this year. Last summer, I wrote the following for BP Wrigleyville and I still think it holds true for Hughes’ future:
Hughes’ style of hitting reminds me of a story by Ryne Sandberg. Ryno often talks about his conversations with Jim Frey and how Sandberg used to pound the ball into the Astroturf and dirt to try and use his speed to get on base. One day at the batting cage, Frey suggested Sandberg should change his swing to create more lift to hit for more power. And that one piece of advice transformed Sandberg’s career.
I am not saying that Brandon Hughes is going to be a Hall of Famer. And I am not comparing him to Ryne Sandberg, but their original hitting styles are similar. Hughes is physically gifted. He has the frame and the musculature to hit home runs. It will be interesting to see what his swing is next year.
His natural physicality will allow him to do a variety of things in the field, on the basepaths, and at the plate. His development is going to be a multi-year process that will hopefully take advantage of his natural athletic talent.
By Todd Johnson
There were fans who snickered and chortled when the Cubs selected Austin Filiere, a third baseman from MIT, in the 2017 draft. After a few at bats, it was pretty clear why the Cubs selected Austin Filiere. In addition to having some power, the young third baseman also showed an adept eye at the plate. In his short tenure as a Eugene Emerald in 2017, Filiere hit .261 with an outstanding .392 on base percentage. He hit six home runs and drove in 25 in just 49 games. He is going to play three times as many games at South Bend this season. He can improve his defense some for 2018, but for now, he is sufficient.
Maybe the most encouraging sign about Filiere’s development last year was that he seemed to be better every time I saw him. He was one of the best two players on the team the last month of the season. He drove in 14 runs but he also walked 17 times…that month! He also cranked 4 HRs to go with an OBP of .405 for August.
Filiere probably does not have that many people writing about him. With the potential to hit 20 home runs in the Midwest League, Filiere could change some minds in the first half of the year. Not that he’s a breakout prospect, but he is one who could be. His mix of power and plate discipline reminds me of Zack Short and Ian Rice. However, I think Filiere might have more juice than the aforementioned prospects who were at South Bend the previous two years.
With his approach, he comes across as doing everything he should be as an entry-level prospect.
The well-renowned Peter Gammons did a profile on Filiere before the Cubs took him. It is an interesting look at Filiere’s MIT career, his time in the Cape Cod League, and his potential as a pro. What has always stayed with me is this quote from Filiere on the intricacies of plate coverage:
“I know that if it’s 88-90 miles an hour, I can try to handle a ball an inch out of the zone, but I can’t if it’s an inch and a half. Of course, when you’re facing the really good pitchers from the big programs, there’s a major learning curve involved.”
To know that your plate coverage is that minute at such an early age is pretty telling of how well he knows the zone, hitting, and his own strengths and limitations.
Here’s the Catch
What might separate Filiere from other prospects will be a full off-season of immersion in the Cubs way. No offense to MIT coaching, but there’s no comparison as to the things he can learn from his professional coaches as a Cub. Whether that’s nutrition, physical training, or mental training, he is going to be more prepared as a hitter this year than he was last year. I’m very excited to see how much he’s improved since last August.
By Todd Johnson
I know this is going to sound strange, but the Major League Baseball Draft will be taking place in just a little over 2.5 months. I know…it is getting here fast. Originally, I didn’t want to spend too much time this year making full fledge draft profiles as I had in previous years. Instead, I have been doing previews of groups of players. I’ve done college bats, college arms, high school pitchers, and high school bats. I even took a look at some schools who have several prospects the Cubs might be able to take on day one and two.
With the college baseball season in full swing, several prospects are rising and falling. Some top 200 lists have a little itchy trigger finger when it comes to moving prospects up and down. For example, Baseball America used to have shortstop Jeremy Eierman of Missouri State ranked in the teens on their first top 200 list. After a very poor start, Eierman dropped into the mid-to-late 20s after just two weekends of baseball.
In that range, Eierman could be available for the Cubs. He’s playing shortstop now but he could play third. His bat, however, might be best suited for second base. But for Eierman, Baseball America will probably have to move him back up the list. Over the past week, he went 11 for 20 to move his average up to almost .300 and push his OBP over .400. He also hit his first home run of the year. He looks to be back on pace as one of the top bats in the college ranks.
Two players who used to be ranked in the late to mid 20s might be out of reach of the Cubs if they continue their torrid pace. Third baseman Alec Bohm and outfielder/1st baseman Greyson Jenista, both of Wichita State, have averages in the upper .300s and on-base percentages of almost .500. Bohm has cranked out five home runs in less than a month and it’s not even warm out. I really like Bohm a lot but I just don’t think the Cubs will have a chance to draft him.
Two other players that could be heading the Cubs way are outfielders Steele Walker of Oklahoma and Jake McCarthy of Virginia. Both are ascending players with good hit tools who can both play centerfield. Originally, most lists had them in the low to mid 30s and now they are creeping up. McCarthy, whose brother played in AA for the Tampa Bay last year, could have the better long range hit tool out of the two. MLB Pipeline said the following of McCarthy
McCarthy moved into the starting lineup as a sophomore and promptly hit .338 with a .425 on-base percentage and an ACC-leading 27 steals in 29 attempts. While he didn’t hit well playing for Team USA over the summer, he did find his footing with a solid late stretch in the Cape Cod League. Some scouts aren’t in love with his swing, which features a flat bat path, but others point to a pretty good track record of making consistent hard contact. He hasn’t hit for much power to speak of, but some changes to his mechanics could allow him to tap into his raw pop at the next level. He has a fringy arm, but has the speed and instincts to play center field.
Another rising player who is close to getting out of reach is 6’11” Kentucky right-handed pitcher Sean Hjelle, who has been pitching out of his mind. After Friday night’s start, Hjelle’s ERA stood at 1.35 in 4 starts despite giving up 3 of his 4 earned runs this year in that start. He’s struck out 26 in 24 innings this year while walking only 4.
I’ve also been religiously checking on is former 2015 Cubs draft pick John Cresto. The third baseman spurned the Cubs to go to Santa Clara and he has improved every year. As the 2018 season has gone on, Cresto has been getting better. He is currently hitting .328 with five home runs and 11 RBIs to go with a slugging percentage of .603. I think he could easily be a Day Two target of the Cubs, perhaps somewhere between the third and the fifth round. What I like about Cresto is he does have good size (6’3” and 225 lbs.) and he’s not done filling out.
I still think the Cubs are going to go college bat or high school arm in the first round. With college players already having a month’s head start, the high school season is now just getting underway and many of the northern players will not be getting warmed up until mid April. As a result, they are going to be a lot more fluctuations in the draft.
Now that Jake Arrieta has signed with the Phillies, the Cubs currently have 5 picks in the top 100. That depth could go a long way to revitalizing the system. Next week, I will go through some possibilities for some picks on Day Two of the Draft (Rounds 3-10).
By Todd Johnson
There seems to be a lot of good things happening in spring training. Ian Happ has just been tearing it up and looks to be the leading candidate for CF and the leadoff spot. Meanwhile, Albert Almora had a pretty good week this week after getting off to a rough start. This week also saw most hitters getting three at bats a game and some starting pitchers were stretched out to about 50 pitches. For Jon Lester, that happened to be 5 innings in an excellent start on Friday.
After a rough first inning Tuesday, Yu Darvish settled down in his Cubs debut and was fantastic in the second inning which resulted in a “Wow!” description from Wilson Contreras to manager Joe Maddon. The Cubs also reassigned a few players back to minor league camp with Adbert Alzolay and Thomas Hatch going to Tennessee after neither saw any action in camp (by design).
There are just a little over 2 and 1/2 weeks until the season begins and I am still a little bit unsure about the two roster spots to be determined. Catcher Chris Gimenez got off to a blazing smart but it seems he has come back to Earth a bit. Fellow catcher Victor Caratini now looks to be catching fire after a homer yesterday. Meanwhile, Dillon Maples seemed poised to breakthrough after last year, but appears to need some a lot more seasoning to get to Chicago after giving up 3 runs last night to push his ERA to 12.60.
One of the highlights of spring for me has been the play of three players who could play utility roles in case of injury later this summer. Ryan Court, Mike Freeman, and David Bote have all put together excellent springs. While Court has the highest average, David Bote has shown to have the most power. Bote’s strength is a bit more than I thought he had at Tennessee. He seems to be evolving every year into a better and better hitter. What makes Bote more attractive as a utility player is that he can play three infield spots very well and he got in 13 games in the outfield last summer. That’s a pretty versatile player to plug in and play.
The minor-league camp now seems to be in full swing. A few things have come trickling back in including some positive news about certain pitchers. According to the message boards at The Cub Reporter, Trevor Clifton seems to be throwing, well, like 2016 Trevor Clifton. In addition, Oscar de la Cruz (who was sent down to Tennessee Thursday) was reaching the mid 90s in his last game with the major league club on Friday. It’s encouraging that Oscar was sitting 92 to 93 and touching 95 after being a couple clicks lower earlier this spring.
Some prospects got in an exhibition game against the Chinatrust Brothers (from Taiwan) per Arizona Phil. Duncan Robinson got the start and gave up a run in two innings. Trevor Clifton and Michael Rucker also got in two innings apiece. Clifton whiffed 4 while Rucker allowed a 2 run homer. Austin Upshaw went yard and Chris Pieters drove in three runs while Zack Short went 2 for 3 while playing some 3B.
Also, Gioskar Amaya is back from TJS after missing all of 2017. This year, Amaya is not behind the plate and is back at his original position – second base. He switched to catcher after the 2014 season. Now 25, Amaya should be at AA Tennessee to begin the year.
Coming Up Next Week
Tomorrow’s article looks at some guys that are starting to pull away from the Cubs and head towards the top of the draft, some names moving up in range of the Cubs, and some names that are falling down. In addition, I have some info on 2015 draft pick John Cresto from Santa Clara.
Austin Filiere is the next to the last player to be profiled in the “Leveling Up” series this Wednesday. And on Thursday, I have an interesting article coming out on BP Wrigleyville about which affiliate might be the team to watch this summer.
On a Personal Note…
My Scholastic Bowl team went 12-6 this year and got the #2 seed for the Conference Tournament to be held Thursday. I will let you know how that goes.
Baseball Card of the Week
By Todd Johnson
Last night, my busy season at school officially came to an end. While I do have the conference tournament for Scholastic Bowl next Thursday night, I finally have some time to write more during the school week. The main objective I have now is to begin writing the affiliate previews for Iowa, Tennessee, Myrtle Beach, and South Bend. This will take place over the next three weeks.
Starting on Monday, April 1, I will begin posting a preview a day for each of the Cubs affiliates. This year, I decided to wait to put together the previews because I was really unsure of who is going to pitch at which affiliate and who is going to pitch in what role. Once the major-league roster is set on Thursday morning of the 29th, writing the affiliate previews will get much easier.
When it came down to begin prewriting the previews, I decided that I wanted to do them differently for 2018. I knew I wanted the previews to be something that was enjoyable, informative, surprising, and quick to read, and to write. Those are not easy objectives to meet in one single post.
So, to that end, I decided to come up with some possible headings. I also wanted to make each preview a bit different rather than a rote exercise of fill in the blank writing. As a result, I have some different section headers I have been kicking around. I will not use every section header in every post. Instead, I will try to make each preview unique. Here are a few possible section titles.
Big Names – This section will be about from the highest ranked and well known prospects who should be on that affiliate. It’s not going to be a full-blown scouting report on them. Instead, it’s just going to be some blurbs about this length.
Possible Sleepers – It is rare for a player to break out at the higher levels, but it does happen. Most recently, Willson Contreras tore up AA in 2015 to breakout. Usually, the sleeper section will be the hardest part to complete. At the lower levels, there could be plenty of guys who could bust a move in 2018.
First to be Promoted – It seems strange, but sometimes prospects don’t stay very long at an affiliate. This has been known to happen quite a bit at South Bend and Myrtle Beach early in the year. Some are gone by mid-May.
The New Guy – This will be the first prospect who gets promoted to that affiliate from a lower level.
My Guy – I admit that I have favorite players that I like to watch. They are not always a top prospect, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be good baseball players or exciting.
Best of – If included, it could include some “best of” like best curve, best strike zone discipline, best fastball, best power, best speed, and many more. Part of me wants to do a whole team preview like this.
Numbers – For the South Bend Preview in 2017, I did a “10 Things I Think” post and I liked doing that kind of preview post. I expect only one preview will be like that again this year.
Lineup Card – It is what it sounds like and probably will not contain a whole lot of content. Rather, it’s just gonna be a list of the possible starters at every position.
Most Likely – I thought of this one in the tub (I do a lot of my best thinking there). This could just a small section where I analyze a prospect by attaching the phrase “Most Likely” to predict a certain kind of performance or arc in in a player’s development.
Themes – I haven’t decided on any type of a theme. Rather, I began thinking about common threads that connect the prospects together; something that connects their personalities together. I have a couple of ideas but no fully fleshed-out ideas.
I will start with Iowa on Monday, April 2nd, Tennessee will be on Tuesday while Myrtle Beach is scheduled for Wednesday. South Bend will be profiled just in time for their debut on Thursday. And as usual, I will have my annual preview of a preview for Eugene on Friday that week (That usually ends up on their website as well). On Saturday of that week, I will conclude opening week with my Pre-Season First Half All-Star Team. It should be a fun week to post some writing. I will give a glimpse of the two Mesa teams when they begin play in the middle of June. As for the two Dominican teams, I will, more than likely, just list their rosters in “The Weekly” some sunny Sunday.
By Todd Johnson
When I interviewed Austin Upshaw last summer, he was tearing up the Midwest League. In 24 games in July, the second baseman from Kennesaw State hit .284 with an on-base percentage of .354. He upped both of those in August and over the last 10 games he hit .351 with a .390 on base percentage. It was a pretty solid debut.
Defensively, he played a little first (25 games), a little second (16 games), and even some third (11 games) while showing a decent enough arm to make all the plays. I don’t think he’s going to have wide range but he’s going to be a good defender.
What really sticks out about Upshaw is just his approach to the game. He does everything very well as South Bend Cubs announcer Darin Pritchett commented to me last summer. When I interviewed Upshaw, I was impressed on how he walked me through what he’s trying to do at the plate. Upshaw talked about how every pitch is different and how every situation is different. He just tries to stay relaxed and comfortable at the plate.
Leveling up for 2018
There’s no question that Upshaw is going to be at Myrtle Beach to begin 2018. His performance after signing was one of the highlights of the second half in 2017. I don’t really think he’s much of a power hitter but when it does come, his power comes from making good contact. He hit four home runs between Mesa and South Bend last year. And in 56 games, he struck out only 31 times. Then again, he only walked 14.
I do wonder what position he is going to play for the Pelicans. Showing versatility works for now, but second might be where his bat plays best.
The thing about Upshaw is that he does have some room to add some muscle. It’s not that he was gaunt, but he’s not going to be in any bodybuilding competition soon either. If he could put on 10-15 pounds and not affect his swing whatsoever, that would be great.
The big thing I like the most about Upshaw is he has the ability to focus in the moment. Some might refer to him as a baseball rat, but I think he’s just a darn good baseball player. He can identify a pitch and, if it’s the right pitch, he can do something with it. IF not, he’s going to let it go by. Upshaw is very patient and, like Ian Happ, Upshaw hits strikes. Upshaw could be one of those players who hits better at the higher levels because the quality of pitching is better.
The fans at Myrtle Beach are going to love watching him work a count. That may not sound that sexy, but it’s pretty fun to watch him hit. If he can walk a bit more, and hit a few more home runs this year, that would be great. Above all else, he just needs to continue to hit.
By Todd Johnson
Seems like I just wrote about Jared Young last month. When I look back to see the actual article, it was over six months ago.
In 2017, Young had an up and down first season at Eugene. What I really liked about him was how he approached every at bat. Even when he got off to such a poor start after signing, he worked every count that he possibly could and in August it paid off.
Young’s future has a Cub could go several different ways. He is a second baseman with pretty good size. At 6’2” and 185 pounds, he has the ability to put on more weight and to produce more power. Whether he stays at second base or not, is a discussion for a later day.
I think it would be easy to forget his first six weeks as a pro. It’s a lot easier to remember his August where he hit .323 with a .357 on base percentage. He only hit one home run for the year, but he drove in 11 in his last 23 games. That’s a pretty good pace that would be close to 80 runs driven in at full class A.
Leveling Up for 2018
One other thing I like about Young and his fellow position player draft picks is that they seem to be a bit more mature than your average prospect. Last year, the Cubs drafted several college position players that included Young and most of them played at Eugene last summer.
While I don’t think Young is going to get through the system fairly quickly, I do think he’s going to learn fairly fast. As a result, his ability to pick up things quickly will only enhance his profile throughout the course of the year. The player we saw last summer is going to be different from the player we see this spring and the player we will see in June will also be different.
Another advantage is Young’s favor is the path he’s taken to get this point. He is used to being a new guy in a new place every year. Originally from Prince George in British Columbia, Young attended three colleges before he was taken by the Cubs last summer. He first played at Minot State in North Dakota where he hit .398 with 5 dingers. He then transferred to Connors State College. He put together an amazing 2016 with a .480 average and 11 homers. In 2017 at Old Dominion, he cranked 7 home runs while hitting .384. He’s got this moving thing down.
As for the batter’s box, Young told the Prince George Citizen how he is trying to master the mental aspects of the game.:
I’ve been working with (hitting coach) Chris Valaika and (manager) Jesus (Feliciano) on just the mental aspect of the game. And it’s just taking that to the plate and seeing a fastball and making sure you don’t miss them. I didn’t have the greatest of starts, and I’ll admit that. It was definitely mental, too. It’s been a couple of mechanical things that I’ve been working on, but to go on a streak like this, I think it’s more mental, staying the course and not staying too high or too low.
I’d like to see him play some first base this summer just to enhance his profile as a possible utility guy. What I want to see most is for him to continue his excellent approach at the plate and to develop more power as the year goes on. I’m not asking for 20 home runs every year from him. But I would like to see is a gradual increase from year-to-year.
He really seems to have the right mental makeup to do well. I cannot wait to pick his brain about hitting later this summer when he is at South Bend.