2nd Half Breakouts: A Few Bullpen Arms Emerge in the Latter Half

By Todd Johnson

Breakout hitters got their due on Monday and yesterday it was breakout starting pitchers. Today, it is all about some surprising relievers.

In the second half, there were not a lot of new relievers bursting on the scene. There were some pitchers who had nice stretches like Jordan Minch and James Norwood, but those two guys have been around awhile. When when it came to new faces in new roles, the list is pretty short.

At Myrtle Beach, Manny Rondon switched into a new role as a Cub. Manny had been a starter for most of his Cub career but moved to the bullpen this year after some arm troubles last year at South Bend. Rondon flourished in the second half making two all-star teams in July and August. He had a 1.95 ERA in 18 games for the Pelicans and looks like he could be a left-handed specialist fairly quickly if he can get through Tennessee.

South Bend seems to be where relievers are born the past few years. This year saw the emergence of three arms in the bullpen. Brian Glowicki had an outstanding year as the closer. He did not allow run in August. Next year should be his test. His greatest strength is his bulldog mentality on the mound and he really seemed to step it up as this year went on.

Brendan King has a curveball that is deadly. For most people, that might be all you need to know about the 24-year-old out of Holy Cross. He didn’t have the most dominant year, but he had the most dominant pitch. If King can get his secondaries to roll out on command, to get his fastball down in the zone, and to maybe develop another breaking ball to go with his curve, he could impress and impact the system over the next year.

Sean Barry of Eugene had a nice summer in the Northwest League striking out 42 in 35.2 innings while being named a Northwest League All-Star. The 23-year-old righty out of San Diego. Barry has good size and good life on his low to mid 90s fastball. However, Barry’s greatest asset is his demeanor. He just attacks the zone.

But the winner this year is someone everyone had no clue was coming.

Garrett Kelly was released by the Twins at the end of rookie ball in the Gulf Coast League in 2016. He spent 2017 hanging around the Frontier League with the Schaumburg Boomers. The Cubs signed Kelly at the end of spring training in 2018 and assigned him to South Bend. Once he debuted, it was quite evident as to why he was signed.

Kelly features a 95 mph fastball and has two developing secondaries including a slider and a change. The most telling aspect of his dominance was that opponents only hit .161 off him across 2 levels. He still has a few command issues, but is working to improve his consistency.

I would not be surprised to see his stuff tick up a little bit with an off-season “Cubs” training regimen this winter. Kelly has only been in the Cubs’ system for five months and is just now beginning to reap the benefits of being a Cub. He was promoted to Myrtle Beach. Here is to hoping he continues to improve greatly through fall instructs and spring training.


2nd Half Breakouts: Cubs Have a Lot of New Arms on the Way Up

By Todd Johnson

Yesterday, breakout hitters of the second half were covered. Today, it is the pitchers.

Usually once a pitcher has a spike in their development, they don’t get to breakout again. By that definition, I had to rethink who the breakout pitcher of the second half was going to be Matt Swarmer easily won the breakout pitcher of the first half. But Keegan Thompson and Cory Abbott also had breakout campaigns at their first full season affiliate. So, by definition, all three could not win the award for the second half, even though they all did have another spike in their development in the second half of the year at a new affiliate.

This is the first year in a long while I can remember so many pitchers in rookie league having a pretty decent season. This year‘s crop includes some junior college players and young international free agents. I’m excited to see if these guys are going to end up next year in Eugene or at South Bend.

To begin, Peyton Remy was somewhat of an ace for Cubs 1. He led the team into the playoffs and was pretty dominant in July and August. For the season, Remy struck out 59 in 52.1 innings with an ERA of 2.58. He even got to roll with Eugene in the playoffs and was brilliant in the Hillsboro series throwing 3 scoreless in relief and 4 more scoreless against Spokane in the clinching game.

Blake Whitney played for Cubs 2 and had a pretty decent season after being drafted from South Carolina – Upstate. His campaign was surprising because most pitchers that were drafted as starting pitchers only go 2 to 3 innings or 50 pitches. He went 5 innings in 3 of his last 4 appearances. Whitney had a 2.30 ERA and struck out 37 in 31.1 innings.

Jesus Tejada and Didier Vargas were both excellent starters for Cubs 1. I still think they’re both busting out next year. Vargas puts himself in to contention because he just misses him a lot of bats at 19 years old. Both will be pushing for a spot in South Bend next spring.

Yovanny Cruz only made one start for Eugene, but he flashed an amazing curveball for a 20-year-old kid. I came away extremely impressed with his command and ability to keep hitters off balance. 2018 draft picks Paul Richan and Riley Thompson each had their moments of dominance this summer. I came away especially impressed with Thompson who is being converted from a reliever to a starter. Right now Thompson is a little bit on the effectively wild side with his secondaries, but he has pretty good command of a 95 mile an hour fastball. It’s pretty dangerous and pretty cool at the same time.

And the winner is…from South Bend…sort of.
A lot of people were aware that Brailyn Marquez had some talent. He could throw in the low to mid 90s but had huge command issues in the Dominican and at Mesa last year. When he arrived at Eugene in June, I was excited to see the 19-year-old lefty have a go at it.

Marquez had a nice jump in velocity this year as he sat 94 to 97 most games and he did so with decent command. He used a slider with a nice 10 to 4 break, sometimes 10 to 5. Against a right-handed hitter, it was just devastating at times. He didn’t throw his changeup a lot, but when he did he seem to have better consistency with it as the year wore on. With just a couple weeks to go in the season, Marquez was promoted to South Bend and he did OK in 2 brief starts. I’m pretty pumped to see him go at it for about 120 innings next year. If he can control and flash 3+ pitches, which is what Marquez has, he might be flying through the system as a 20-year-old. The keys are just command and efficiency for him.

2nd Half Breakouts: Tough Choices for a Breakout Hitter

By Todd Johnson

Jared Young easily won the breakout hitter of the first half with a mix of average, power, and a god like 150 wRC+. Picking a winner for the second half was not so clear cut. Usually, most hitters tend to break out at class A ball. This year, though, I actually considered a couple of players as low as rookie ball. It took a lot of debate and thought over about a two week period at the end of the season to come up with this year’s second half break out hitter.

The Contenders
Mesa –
The reason why most rookie ball hitters don’t get chosen for being a breakout hitter is that success there does not necessarily translate to the upper levels. Still, there were a few players worth mentioning.

One is Rafael Mejia. The first baseman, began the year at Eugene until the college players came. Then he went down to Mesa and just destroyed the baseball including a .355 clip in August. He wound up with eight home runs and 31 RBI in just 48 games.

Yonathan Perlaza put together a pretty solid year. After being injured in the first part of the year, he was actually assigned to South Bend’s roster. He never made it there. Instead, the 19-year-old did very well in Mesa hitting .317 with 1 home runs and 26 RBI. He is going to be part of a log jam next year in the lower part of the system thanks in part to there being two rookie league teams.

Cole Roederer – There is a lot to be excited about so far. A 129 wRC+ is a great place to start. Add in 5 dingers, 24 RBI, 13 SBs, and a .354 OBP. This was all in just 36 games. That is impressive, even in that small sample size. For 2019, the next logical step is Eugene. The Ems don’t begin until June 15ish. Roederer could be busting out of his skin by then..

Eugene – While this team struggled to hit for the first few weeks of the season, three guys came aboard in July that revitalized the offense. Andy Weber, the Cubs fifth round draft pick out of Virginia, showed a nice left-handed stroke while he played a variety of positions in the infield. Luke Reynolds also showed the ability to to hit and to hit for power as he turned into a doubles machine. Non-drafted free agent Grant Fennell hit with patience and with power in the top part of the Emeralds’ lineup.

South Bend – Delvin Zinn really turned it on in the second half of the year. After arriving in June, Zinn played a variety of positions in the infield before getting a full-time gig in July after  overcoming a series of nagging injuries, including a finger. Zinn showed the ability to put the bat on the ball hitting .286 for the half and made things happen in August hitting .322 with a .406 OBP. In addition to his natural athletic abilities, I am excited to see what he can do in Myrtle Beach next year. It took him a couple of years to get going. Now that he has, I am hoping that he can’t be stopped.

Myrtle Beach – Christian Donahue is a non-drafted free agent out of Oregon State. Signed last fall, Donahue arrived to South Bend in May and flourished in the utility bench role before solidifying a utility starting role because of his bat. Donahue plays with a high motor that is exciting to watch. His greatest asset is his ability to use all fields when hitting. As a result is hard to pitch him any place in the zone. In August, Donahue was promoted to Myrtle Beach and he kept right on hitting there as well.

Tennessee – While it’s rare for a player break out at AA, it does happen as it did with Willson Contreras in 2015. This year, Trent Giambrone looks to have found some more power (17 HRs) and a high walk rate over 13% in the second half. I’m excited to see what Giambrone can do in the more hitter friendly Pacific Coast League in 2019.

And the winner is…
For a few days this past week, I actually thought of not naming a prospect as nobody went out scorched the Earth with their play over 70 games. At another point, I was going to go with Zinn, then Giambrone. In the end, I decided to go with the kid, Cole Roederer.

I wouldn’t necessarily call it a breakout. That will happen when he plays a larger set of games. However, it is definitely a very, very impressive debut. I am hoping that he sees South Bend as his home for most of 2019. I am excited to see what he can do in an entire season. It is going to be a challenge for him and a grind. If I make it to the convention in January, my question for the “Down on the Farm” panel is where they envision him playing in 2019.


A New Top 21 List Drops Today With a New #1

By Todd Johnson

The last time I redid the top 21 list was back in June, shortly after the draft. I waited to do the list again because I want to see how the regular season played out. I wanted to see the newest draft picks play over longer periods of time and I wanted to see some of the Cubs’ younger players in the lower minors get longer looks. I got everything I wanted, so there are no more excuses.

At one point in the last month, I thought about having a tie atop the list at number one. While I really like Miguel Amaya, he wound up catching about 80% of South Bend’s games and was just completely worn out in August and some warts in his game began to show.

I really like SS Nico Hoerner a lot, too. Watching him play at Eugene and seeing him play in person for South Bend, and on TV, I came away extremely impressed with his size, his physicality, his athleticism, and most importantly, his potential.

The differences between Amaya and Hoerner are not big. For a while, it was going to be a straight up tie.

And then all that changed.

When the Cubs announced that Nico was going to the Arizona Fall League, I perked up quite a bit. He originally could have be ready to play somewhere at the end of August/early September. I didn’t think there was a rush to send him to play in even more games in October and November. His assignment is a clear indication of the amount of faith and trust the Cubs have in this young guy. 

Miguel Amaya will slide into number two while Adbert Alzolay drops down to number three after missing most of the 2018 season.

I thought that there would be a lot of moving and shaking this year on the list and there was. Today’s list will be completely different a year from now. This past summer’s international class will get some action. Many of this year’s draft class will get to full season ball, and a lot more action will take place.

Here is the latest incarnation of the Top 21 List.

MiLB Playoff Action: Eugene Wins Their Second Championship as a Cubs’ Affiliate!!!

By Todd Johnson

Photo by Jared Ravich

Tuesdays in Eugene can only mean one thing…It was time to break out the Monarcas de Eugene jerseys one more time! That was about the only sure thing I was expecting heading into game 3 of the Northwest League Championship series.

Eugene did not name their starter until late in the morning. 20-year-old right hander Eury Ramos would take the mound to try and get Eugene its second title in three years.

Ramos was staked to early lead as Nelson Velasquez doubled and came home on a fielding error by the Spokane shortstop. Velasquez showed his speed scoring all the way from second.

Ramos shows a lot of promise as a young pitcher as he has a decent fastball and a nice tight breaking ball that can miss a lot of bats. The issue is his command of those pitches. At some point during the year, he pitched brilliantly and, at other times, he got lit up like a Christmas tree. It is hard to know which Ramos was going to show up.

Last night, we saw a little of both as he gave up two runs in the first four innings, one of them on a solo home run. The other was what should’ve been an unearned run when Caleb Knight, the catcher, threw a passed ball into right field trying to get the batter. Like many young pitchers, Ramos worked a lot of deep counts but he did flash his curve quite a bit striking out four batters while allowing four hits over four innings.

In the fifth, Peyton Remy came out to pitch for Eugene. It was Remy’s job to keep the score close for Eugene until they could mount a comeback. Remy allowed a single that inning and then hit a batter but was able to strike out the final batter of the inning to keep the score at 2-1.

Eugene’s offense just looked to be struggling against Spokane starter Jack King, who was only making his third start of the year. After the fifth, King was just sitting at 54 pitches. Surprisingly, Cole Uvila came on to take over for King in the sixth. After getting Andy Weber to whiff and Velazquez to ground out, Luke Reynolds was able to coax a walk on 4 pitches. The short-lived rally ended with a Levi Jordan grounder to short where Luke Reynolds was then forced out at second.

Not much happened in the 7th and as Remy and Uvila held serve. Remy looked good again in the 8th. In the bottom of the 8th, Spokane brought in their all-star closer Emmanuel Clase after a walk to Velazquez with one out. Clase came in throwing upper 90s heat. Things did not look so good.

In the 9th, Eugene went to Fauris Guerrero to keep the game close. After getting two outs and putting two men aboard, Guerrero was replaced by Ethan Roberts. After a wild pitch moved the men to second and third, Roberts got the batter to fly to right to end the rally.

The bottom of the ninth was it. The last chance. Throw in any cliche you want, but if Eugene lost, there were still two more games in the series.

But this would be a wild inning. Jonathan Sierra lead off with a walk and then Grant Fennell flew out. Fernando Kelli singled to move Sierra to second. Pinch hitter Yonathan Perlaza grounded into a force out. However, Spokane didn’t see Perlaza stumble or there could have been a double play to end the game. Jake Slaughter was then hit by a pitch to load the bases. Wow!

Andy Weber then came up to the plate. He had been swinging early in the count a lot since his return from the DL. However, Weber showed excellent poise and patience. I don’t know how he did it, but Weber just didn’t panic and didn’t swing at a bad pitch that at-bat. He drew a walk on a 3-2 count to tie the game at two!

Fittingly, this came down to Nelson Velazquez, Eugene’s HR and RBI leader. I will let the video tell the story.

What an incredible ending!

My congratulations go out to the Ems, the players, coaches, and organization on a miracle ending to the 2018 season. Amazing!!!

MiLB Playoff Action: Game 2 Shutout Puts Ems on the Brink of a Title!

By Todd Johnson

To teach and then report on the happenings of the minor leagues is a bit of a head scratcher at times, especially when the game is at Eugene. The time zones don’t quite mesh as I am two hours behind. I don’t think I am going to get a lot of sleep the next few days. Hopefully, it will all be worth it.

When Eugene announced that Jack Patterson was in line to be the starter, it was a small surprise and it was not. Patterson made only 1 appearance for Eugene and it was over Labor Day weekend against Boise. He went five innings, allowed 6 hits, 2 runs, and struck out 6 while walking 2. In fact, that was the game where the Ems clinched a playoff berth. Because it was at Boise, I had yet to see Patterson pitch before game 2.

Game 2 began with the same weirdness of game 1 as the Ems were visitors in their own ballpark. It didn’t last long.

The Ems struck quickly in the top of the first. After Andy Weber grounded out, Nelson Velazquez singled, then stole second. After a Luke Reynolds walk, Game 1 hero Levi Jordan ripped a double down the left field line to score 2 runs. Jordan later came home on a Grant Fennell single up the middle and the Ems went up 3.

Jack Patterson looked to have some decent action on his off speed stuff but he had trouble getting through the first unscathed. He did, but it took 22 pitches to do it. He struggled with his fastball command but he was able to get two fly outs with men on first and second before securing a third out that he fielded and gunned down at first.

In the second, Andy Weber managed a single but that was it. Patterson got through the second without a run, but not before a walk and some deep counts to end up at 38 pitches after two. I thought to myself, “If Patterson doesn’t get more efficient, it is going to be a long night for the pen.”

In the top of the third, Jonathan Sierra managed a two out single and stole second but was stranded there. When Patterson started pitching in the bottom of the inning, he looked very relaxed as he went 1-2-3 on just 9 pitches. His curve bit hard and down, his fastball looked smooth, but overall, Patterson looked in control of his pitches. That was good to see.

Fernando Kelli looked to be having a rough night at the plate as he struck out to start the fourth. Caleb Knight then tore one down the left field line for a double. However, Knight got no assistance in getting home. Patterson came out and began the inning getting his sixth and seventh straight batters before giving up a pair of singles putting him at 65 pitches. A walk loaded the bases. Patterson went after the #9 hitter and got him on four pitches. That was a bit too close for comfort but Patterson looked to be done for the night despite not allowing a run in 4 innings as he sat at 73 pitches.

The Ems all struck out in the fifth and Eugenio Palma came in to pitch for Eugene. He did give up a walk and a single that inning but he stranded them when he struck out the last batter. The sixth inning didn’t offer much excitement either as both teams struggled to hit the ball.

In the 7th, catcher Caleb Knight of Eugene doubled again, went to third on a passed ball and scored on an Andy Weber sac fly to make it 4-0. In the bottom of the inning, Palma concluded his night by getting the Indians in order.

The rest of the game belonged to Ems’ All-Star reliever Sean Barry.who got to 2 pop ups, 2 ground outs, and 2 strikeouts to seal the game 2 victory and put the Ems on the brink of a Northwest League title with a 2 games to 0 lead!

Overall, it was a great shutout win giving the Ems their longest winning streak of the year. Patterson was able to work out of every jam tonight. That was impressive! I really liked his curve a lot and hopefully that can be an out pitch for him. The key for tonight, though, was giving Patterson a 3-run cushion in the first inning as he showed poise by not allowing a run.

Game three starts Tuesday night at 9 central. No starter has been announced for the Emeralds yet. It could be Eury Ramos, Peyton Remy, or Faustino Carrera. We shall see later.


The Weekly: Eugene Wins, a Fangraphs List, PDCs, and AFL Roster Set

By Todd Johnson

I swore I was going to slow down once school started, but that’s not been the case. Because of the playoffs the past two weeks, I feel like I have been as busy as ever covering Cubs 1 in Mesa and now Eugene. Eugene starts the Northwest League Championship Series tonight against Spokane, a Rangers affiliate. Even though all five games will take place in Eugene, Spokane will be the home team tonight and tomorrow due to a scheduling conflict in Spokane. It is a best-of-five series and the third year in a row the Ems have punched a ticket there. I will have a preview of the series later this afternoon.

Fangraphs Top 10 List
Most major publications and websites start rolling out their top prospects for the coming year in November. But not Fangraphs. This week, in a major surprise, Fangraphs  released their top 10 Cubs prospects. The list itself had a few interesting wrinkles. It had Miguel Amaya at #1 followed by Adbert Alzolay. Putting Justin Steele at #3 was a head turner as was Brendon Little at #6, ahead of Alex Lange, Erich Uelmen, and Duane Underwood. Nico Hoerner came in at #4 and Brailyn Marquez was right behind him at 5. Aramis Ademan, the former #1 SS, rounded out the top 10.

In their “just missed” category, Fangraphs went with Erling Moreno, Keegan Thompson, and Cole Roederer, whom I have not seen play. The omission of Zack Short is a bit of a head scratcher along with Jared Young, Trevor Clifton, and Nelson Velazquez. It’s a pretty fine line between Cubs prospects at #6 through #36 (if Fangraphs went that high). As soon as the MiLB playoffs are over, my new Top 21 will be released.

Tennessee PDC
I am a little surprised that the Smokies and the Cubs have not been re-upped for four more years. Their Professional Development Contract (PDC) expired at the end of the 2018 season. Hopefully, the two sides are just ironing out a few details. All the other Cub affiliates are signed through 2020 except Eugene, whose PDC runs out in 2022. The pickings are slim if the Cubs need to go elsewhere. The Eastern League is all affiliated while the Southern League has just Chattanooga and Pensacola left. In the Texas League, San Antonio and Midland are the only unaffiliated teams for 2019.

AFL Pitching Spots
Now that the minor league season regular season is officially over., the Cubs announced the rest of their Arizona Fall League roster this week.

I am not surprised by any of these. It looks like Steele might be the taxi squad guy who only plays twice a week. Those Cubs join P.J. Higgins, Nico Hoerner, Trent Giambrone, and DJ Wilson. Play begins October 9 and lasts for six weeks.

Coming Up Next Week
Lots of exciting posts are ready, they just keep getting pushed back by the playoffs. A new Top 21 list is ready. Then later, I will have the breakout players of the second half. These include a post on hitters, another on starting pitchers, and a third on relievers. This might be a ways away, but I also have a couple of posts on players making comebacks in 2019 – one is on injured guys and the other is about players who had down years in 2018.

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