The Weekly: 40 Man Spots, Jhonny Pereda, and Upcoming News

By Todd Johnson

Monday is a big day. On the 19th, the Cubs’ 40-man roster could contain  a few new names to protect them from being taken in the Rule V Draft slated for December 13. Expect to see Trevor Clifton, Justin Steele, and Jason Vosler get added. PJ Higgins, Erick Leal, and Jhonny Pereda are longshots to be put on the roster. The Cubs will likely roll the dice by leaving the last three off. A year from now, Pereda probably will get added and the same for Leal, if 2019 goes well.

I am really starting to dig Jhonny Pereda more and more. He had a great first half at Myrtle Beach this year. Like most catchers, he slipped a little in the second half as the grind begans to wear the catcher down. However, Pereda’s season wasn’t done as he was assigned to the Arizona Fall League. Pereda only played in 8 games there but hit a reasonable .278 with a .354 OBP..

While some may be focusing on his bat, Pereda handles a pitching staff fairly well. He caught some of the Cubs’ best prospects in 2018 and managed their games in an excellent fashion. He also caught an outstanding 38% of base runners stealing this year.

Pereda will be at Tennessee in 2019. It should be interesting to see how he does at AA. Considering he held his own in the AFL, the odds are in his favor. Hopefully Pereda can stay strong all year and see some more time at first to keep him a little fresher down the stretch.

Prospects Lists Getting Closer – I saw where Baseball Prospectus will be publishing their top 10 Cubs prospects on December 11, Baseball America started releasing their lists this past week, and Minor League Baseball has 4 done and more to come. I don’t have any idea about Fangraphs while MLB Pipeline is going for January 1 for their top 30, the same date as my new Top 21.

As well, Baseball America released their Draft Grades for the Cubs. I did very well in my predictions. I only whiffed on a couple, but then again, I might be right.

MiLB Transactions – The Cubs did have two transactions this week of the minor league variety. The Cubs re-signed speedy outfielder Wynton Bernard and reliever Jose Rosario, who was injured most of the past two summers.

The Mailbag – Those posts are going well. I have one I am working on about the developmental process in the system based on a question from Rikk Carlson. Then, after that, I have questions about pitching in the last draft and a Zach Hedges query. Still, I could go for more questions to write about and more posts. Those questions help beat the doldrums of winter and writer’s block. They actually make me energized! The next mailbag will be the week of the 26th. It would not bother me in the slightest to answer them all winter long!!!

Position Breakdown Series – This popular yearly series returns with its debut on Friday, the day after Turkey Day. I am read to get the catchers out there first. 

Other Stuff on the Web – I am trying to write more original content for Cubs Insider this winter. This past week, I wrote about Erick Leal and Trent Giambrone. Over at BP Wrigleyville, my last two articles were on the Arizona Fall League and the 2015 International Free Agent Class.

The 5 Series – Originally, Levi Jordan was going to be the first player profiled in this off season series. Instead, I changed my mind and decided to go with Jimmy Herron, whom I have a lot of questions about. I haven’t written one word on Herron. Then again, on Saturday (yesterday), I was watching the snow come down and all I could think of was Jose Albertos. Who knows what I will do? The 5 Series debuts on the 27th. Stay tuned!

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10 Guys You May Not Have Heard of That I Am Excited to See Live in 2019

By Todd Johnson

2019 should be a very exciting year in the lower levels of the Cubs system. There are a lot of young and talented players the Cubs signed through international free agency who are coming of age and there are some recent high school and juco draft picks that are going to be thrilling to watch.  It’s a little early to pick out where everyone is going to play next year. 80% of the players on this list were in the Arizona Rookie League last year. Some should make it to South Bend at some point next year while most others will be in Eugene all year.

Here are just ten guys I am excited to see in person, or on MiLB.TV TV for the first time, suit up for the Emeralds/Monarcas  and hopefully South Bend next year.

Henderson Perez – Originally signed as a 5′ 9″ and 160 pound catcher, Henderson is a little bit bigger than that now. He was outstanding for Cubs 2 last summer in Arizona and I’m interested to see if he’s developing any power to go with his excellent bat to ball and weight room skills.

Chris Allen and Niels Stone – Both pitchers were drafted out of junior college last summer and got some work in Mesa. But I am interested to take a longer look at them and see just exactly what they’ve got as starters who get to go all out next year. The Cubs have not been big on taking juco guys, so it is interesting they were selected.

Richard Gallardo – He’s going to be getting his own post in the “5 Series” shortly, but he is the Cubs’ top international free agent pitcher. All I know about him is what Ben Badler wrote about him for Baseball America. The thing about a 16-year-old pitcher is that they can grow substantially in terms of the quality of their stuff and also their own physical size. Hopefully, he will be stateside his whole career starting next year.

Jake Reindl was the closer for the University of Arkansas last year. He was shut down after the Cubs drafted and signed him. I am really looking forward to what he can do at the back end of a bullpen. More than likely, he will begin 2018 at South Bend. Then again, with his SEC experience, he could find his way to Myrtle Beach in April.

Danis Correa – The hard throwing right-hander out of Columbia was injured in spring training and never made it to Eugene. He did make two scoreless relief appearances in August in the Arizona Rookie League. So that bodes well for 2019. When you can throw 97 to 99, you’re going to get a lot of people wanting to see that kind of fastball. He will be 19 all of next season.

Didier Vargas – He could skip Eugene as a 20-year-old kid and end up in South Bend next year. He was arguably the ace for the Cubs 1 staff last year and went 7+ innings in the playoffs to put them in the title game. I’m interested to see how he does stretched out over 140 game season and how much there is to his fastball/curve combo.

Fabian Pertuz – The young international free agent shortstop  had a 149 wRC+ last year, the highest of any Cubs prospect. He did it while playing in the Dominican at 17 years old. I wonder where he will be placed to be in 2019 at age 18? It could be Mesa or it could be Eugene?

The hype machine is really beginning to build up for Brennen Davis and Cole Roederer. The Cubs two second round picks are generating excitement for their all around talents. While I would love to see them at South Bend next year, I want to see them when they’re ready to succeed at South Bend. Based upon the recent Baseball America draft grades, both young outfielders looked to be the real deal and the next big things in the Cubs’ system.

Other Names – Reivaj Garcia, Luis Lopez, Luis Verdugo, Kohl Franklin, Jesus Tejada, Alexander Guerra, Edmond Americaan, Yovanny Cruz, Jeremiah Estrada, Carlos Ocampa, Raidel Orta, Luis Rodriguez, and I could keep going and going and going.

And that’s the thing…the Cubs talent level should be very good at Eugene and Mesa in 2019.

With the AFL Season Over, What’s Ahead for Nico?

By Todd Johnson

I must admit I was surprised to see Nico Hoerner get assigned to the Arizona Fall League a few months ago. At the time of the announcement, Hoerner had only gone to the plate 49 times over his one month as a pro between Mesa, Eugene, and South Bend. Going to the AFL would be a huge jump in talent from low A South Bend.

Hoerner told MLB.com’s Jim Callis what his attitude was heading into the AFL: 

“They [the Cubs] knew I’d make the most of it, whether the results were great or not, I’d make the most of it development-wise. That was my goal going into it, and I think I did a good job of that.”

Hoerner showed everyone he could handle that jump just fine. He hit with power all over the field, he showed good base running skills, and he looked solid at the shortstop position with excellent footwork. He also impressed his teammates with his work ethic. For the six week short season, Hoerner hit .337 with a .362 OBP and an OPS of .867. Those stats were totaled over 89 ABs. And now, new and exciting questions are being asked of his future.

Where will he begin 2018? Will he stay at shortstop next year? Could he be in Chicago quickly? Is he the Cubs’ new number one prospect?

While these are interesting questions, they won’t easily be answered quickly. There is a lot of time between now and April 5, MiLB Opening Day. A lot can take place over 4.5 months. There’s off season conditioning, hitting development, weight training, and spring training.

Based on his fall, Nico should be slated to see plenty of time in Mesa in Spring Training with the big league club. It will be interesting to see just what position he plays. It could be beside Javy at second or it could be in place of Javy at shortstop. That is the most interesting question to me. Then again, it could be both and I am conditioned enough to accept that outcome, too.

Spring Training should also give a hint where Nico is going to play. However, that assignment probably is not going to come until late in camp as Nico should get plenty of time and exposure with the MLB squad. 

Before the AFL took place, I thought Nico should head to Myrtle Beach to begin 2019. Now, Tennessee seems to the most likely choice based on his success this fall. When the Cubs Convention comes in January, that is the question I want to hear answered the most.

As we have seen in the past, the Cubs tend to bring up their prospects when they think the prospect cannot develop any more in the minors; that the only place for the player to continue to grow is in the majors.

Right now, Nico’s development is moving along at the speed of light. Things will slow down the next three months. When it comes time to play baseball again in Mesa, Nico’s performance in Spring Training will answer all but one of the questions fully. We are going to have to wait until the MiLB season begins to see how quickly he can keep moving on up.

As for prospect lists, they should be arriving shortly. Expect to see Nico on top of every single one and on many top 100 lists that will soon follow.

MiLB Mailbag – Episode II: All About Pitching Coming Soon

By Todd Johnson

In today’s mailbag post, I am going to kill two birds with one stone thanks in part to two queries about pitching. David Spellman asked, “Any pitching help for the major league level on the horizon?” In the same post, Jason Anderson wondered, “How is @adbert29 rehab coming?  When will he be back? Where do you think he starts his season?  Could he see time with the big league club next year? Possibly in bullpen?” Luckily for me, the two questions kind of share a common component. So, I will answer them at the same time.

I remember in 2012 when Jed Hoyer and Jason McLeod would talk about one of the goals of the farm system was to produce waves of pitching for the major leagues. Well, that time is finally here. It’s a few years later than expected but in 2019, there will be plenty of arms in contention to make it to Chicago next spring and summer. The main arm I see on the horizon is Adbert Alzolay.

Alzolay missed most of the 2018 season just as it looked like he was figuring things out at AAA Iowa. In his last start in May, he took a no hitter into the fifth. It was his fourth such outing last spring. The Cubs shut him down in mid-June when his lat strain was not recovering. Alzolay continued to work hard and shared rehab stories and videos on his own Instagram and Twitter accounts. The Cubs would love it if Alzolay could make it to Chicago as a starter since he sits 95-96 deep into games. That sustainability is a key part of his likability but so are an improving curve and changeup.

However, there is no spot for him in the rotation right now. Alzolay would be awesome coming out of the pen. When I first saw Alzolay pitch in 2015, it was a long reliever for Eugene. He was brilliant most every night for the Ems. Alzolay has improved since then. He would not have any issues transitioning to such a role.

Alzolay is one arm I can see pitching in Chicago regularly in 2019. The other is Dakota Mekkes. The 6’7” behemoth is pretty close to ready. He’s dominated four levels the pasts two years as a pro with a 1.16 career ERA and 190 Ks in 147 IP. The former Michigan State reliever only needs to cut down on his walks and he could be a 6th-7th inning kind of guy to begin and he could also easily go 2 innings if needed.

Alec Mills and James Norwood look to be names to know after getting a sneak peak in the pen last summer. Duane Underwood worked out of the pen some in Iowa after getting a spot start for the Cubs. And, as usual the past two years, Dillon Maples is still lurking.

However, there is a new wave of arms who could be ready at some point in 2019.

Trevor Clifton seems to be getting closer and closer as a starting pitching. Efficiency will be a key for him to get to the 6th and 7th innings on a regular basis. Duncan Robinson is not far behind Trevor in terms of experience, but his control and versatility could be a key to his arrival. I really like Michael Rucker as a swing guy who can start and relieve with his ability to throw strikes at almost a 70% rate and be in the mid 90s while doing so.

 

Three guys could be longshots to make it this year. Matt Swarmer and Keegan Thompson both went through 2 levels last year at Myrtle Beach and Tennessee with great success. Thomas Hatch, the third, pitched like a man possessed in August with an ERA of 2.51 in 5 starts.

Relievers Bailey Clark and Manny Rondon are still about a year or so away and Justin Steele is going to be the one I am going to keep an eye on the most at Tennessee to begin 2019. The lefty starter came back quickly from TJS and was dominant in the second half while hitting 95 most days to go along with his plus curve.

The pitchers are coming. What I like most is that they are all so different. There is no cookie cutter approach. It should be fun to watch them get their shots in 2019.

MiLB Mailbag – Episode I: South Bend’s Outfield in 2019 Could Be Special

By Todd Johnson
Question by Bruce Gann
What’s the outlook in South Bend it looks like the OF might be prospect laden and who might surprise in SB

About a year ago, I was all amped up about the possible pitching staff at South Bend to begin 2018. The thought of Cory Abbott, Erich Uelmen, Jose Albertos, and Javier Assad towing the rubber everyday was very exciting. Heading towards 2019, I’m getting the same feeling about South Bend. However in 2019, my heart is looking at the outfield and the possibility of elite talent roaming around out there.

There are five names who pop out as possible players in the outfield at South Bend. Three of them played at Eugene last year and the other two were second round picks in the 2018 MLB Draft. They are not going to all be there at once because they all need to play every day, but they should all be there at some point in 2019.

I was a little surprised to see Nelson Velazquez play so early in South Bend last year. He played with the squad all through spring training before some minor injuries sidelined him for about six weeks. That lay off set him back and he never seemed to get going at South Bend. However, he did get his game going in Eugene and was the Cubs’ August player of the month. Velazquez looked like a different hitter in August than in May. At South Bend, he was flailing away at almost anything. In August, he came across as a patient hitter who laid off pitch after pitch on the outside part of the plate, down and away, and up in the zone. He looked to be concentrating on a certain zone. I’m excited to see what he can do as a 20-year-old next year.

If you’re not excited to see Fernando Kelli next year, you might want to check your pulse. Kelli does have a lot of work to do as a hitter, but that’s not going to stop him from getting on base. I don’t think I’ve seen a runner with his ability to disrupt the flow of the game and rattle pitchers, catchers and fielders like Kelli did in quite a while. There were certain series last year where Kelli just befuddled the opponent into making mistake after mistake. It’ll be interesting to see what he can get away with this year in the more advanced Midwest League.

Jonathan Sierra is a majestic, physical beast. He is no longer the physical Darryl Strawberry clone, but he is now an Adonis with massive power potential. The issue is he has yet to tap into that power on a consistent basis. He also has a hole on a swing on the inside part of the plate. He does have an excellent approach at the plate and great pitch recognition skills, he’s just not able to turn on a ball down and in. He usually is over the top. He just hasn’t figured out to drop his hands. Once he can, look out! If there’s one thing that manager Jimmy Gonzalez has been able to do the past three years, it has been get hitters to improve by making minor adjustments. If he can get Sierra to turn on pitches down and in, Sierra may not be at South Bend very long.

Brennen Davis had a wRC+ of 138 in 18 games for Cubs 2 in Mesa last summer. The second round pick out of high school is tall, pretty athletic, a kid who already knows his way around the strike zone, and can recognize pitches well above his age. He is more than likely to start 2019 in extended spring training but could make it to South Bend as early as May. Ideally, I’d like to see him in Eugene at least for a month before he makes it to South Bend. There is no need to rush him. Then again, anyone who puts up a .431 OBP in Arizona might be worth a second look at South Bend. If he stays healthy, he is my surprise pick. That approach could be special.

Cole Roederer is “THEE” guy I look forward to seeing most in 2019. He has the ability to hit for power, average, steal bases, field, and throw – your basic five-tool wonder kid. In 36 games last year in Arizona, he put up a WRC+ of 129 that saw him hit 5 HRs, steal 13 bases, and driving in 24…That’s right 24 RBI in 36 games. Let’s do the projection for a 140 game MiLB season for him…let’s see, carry the one armed man…that’s a 19 HR pace with 93 RBI and 50 SBs…in 140 games. Oh my goodness!!!!!!! I am going to have to remind myself to patient with his progress. He’s still just a kid who only turned 19 this fall.

I am pretty sure I felt the same way last year about the outfield in Eugene. It was also a sneak peek into the potential of what those players could be. Throughout the year I saw snippets and flashes of their power, speed, and fear they could cause for the opposition. It’s going to be an exciting year in South Bend. If Roederer and Davis make it there, it is going to be a very special year in the outfield.

If you have a question about the Cubs’ MiLB system, the draft, or an affiliate for 2019 you would like answered, send me the question on Twitter: CubsCentral08 or you can email me at CubsCentral2016@gmail.com

The Weekly: Hot and Cold Stove, Fall Awards, AFL News, Lists, and Things to Come

By Todd Johnson

The “MLB Hot Stove” is just not very hot this week during the GM Meetings. The Cubs have not signed any free agents nor have they have made any trades. The only thing coming out of the meeting is that it appears pitching coach Jim Hickey will also not be returning in 2019. I thought he was outstanding in keeping the rotation afloat and the young bullpen arms productive last summer. Theo also said that he was not going to comment at this time as it was not appropriate. So, it looks like more information will be coming down the pike later.

On Friday, Buster Olney of ESPN floated that the Cubs were open to trading Kris Bryant based on comments Theo made that there were no untouchables. Buster made a bit of a stretch putting Kris Bryant on the block. Kris is going to be a Cubs through 2020 and into 2021 and hopefully beyond.

In the awards section, Anthony Rizzo won his second Gold Glove and Mr. Javier Baez won his first Silver Slugger award. I doubt if Javy wins MVP, but it was such a thrilling season to watch him day in and day out.

AFL Action
While Nico continues to hit well along with Trent Giambrone, pitcher Erick Leal is beginning to draw praise as he is the only starting pitcher in the Arizona Fall League who has yet to allow an earned run. Leal’s streak reached 17 innings this week and his curveball has been getting rave reviews for its ability to miss baseball bats. Erick should be at AA Tennessee to begin 2019. Unless the Cubs put them on the 40 man roster by November 20, he is eligible to be selected in the next month’s Rule V Draft. I will have a full fledged post on him for Tuesday.

In addition, catcher Johnny Pereda is trending upwards as this AFL season comes to a close. It’s hard to believe that next week is the sixth week and final week of the season. Pereda’s average at one point hit .273 this week. On the other hand, pitcher Bailey Clark has struggled a little bit in the second half. He gave up a monster home run to White Sox product Louis Robert the other day. However, he is still looking good sitting around 95 most days. Last night, he was in trouble as he gave up 4 hits in 2 innings but did not allow a run. This has been a great experience for him going up against some of the top talent in MILB. Bailey’s ERA is at 2.45 in 11 innings.

Then there’s this guy…

Lists Are Coming
Baseball America it’s getting closer to putting out their draft grade on the Cubs and their latest top 10 prospect list. I will analyze that list as soon as it arrives sometime in the next two weeks. As well, John Sickel’s Minor League Ball began releasing their prospect lists this week but have yet to get to the Cubs.

The 5 Series
Starting the day after Turkey Day, my two offseason series will officially begin. As per usual, the position breakdown series will begin with catchers that day. And then I’m going to do something a little bit different this year in my offseason look at prospects. Rather than do a whole historical write up and talent evaluation of prospects, this year’s series is going to be brief and to the point. It is called the “Five Series” and each profile contains five things and the theme will change for each prospect.

In addition, it’s going to be class A centric. Not too many players above either Eugene, South Bend or Myrtle Beach are going to get examined. The first prospect on the clock is shortstop Levi Jordan, the Cubs 29th round pick out of the University of Washington in 2018 who played at Eugene after signing with the Cubs. After that, third round pick OF Jimmy Herron out of Duke has been piquing my interest.

Mailbag
I want to do a few mailbag posts like I did last year. So, send me your Cub MiLB questions you have this offseason about next year. It can be about any level, the draft, international free agency, the AFL, or trades. You can do it on Twitter or you can email me at CubsCentral2016@gmail.com. I advertised for some on Twitter yesterday and a few of the Qs I am thinking about actually turning into full fledged posts about Erick Leal, South Bend’s OF in 2019, Adbert Alzolay’s future (Probably at BPW), and Trent Giambrone’s amazing AFL experience (at Cubs Insider).

Acquisitions This Week
MiLB Free Agents – Corey Black
IFA – Edwin Castillo, INF , Darling Grullon, P,  Orlando Guzman, OF – That brings their 2018/19 total to 11.
MiLB Re-signed to 6th year/Successor contract (per Arizona Phil)– Erick Leal, Roberto Caro, Gioskar Amaya, Anderson Acevedo, James Buckelew, Yan de la Cruz, Dalton Geekie, Danny Hultzen, Ryan Lawlor, Yasiel Balaguert, Erick Castillo, and Chris Pieters

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Trying to Predict Baseball America’s Upcoming Draft Grades

By Todd Johnson

In the next week, Baseball America will be releasing the Cubs 2018 draft grades. In addition, they will also be releasing the Cubs new top 10 prospects for 2019. To get a jump start on the action, here are some predictions of what some of draft grades might be. I will recap their top 10 prospects at a later date.

BEST PURE HITTER: . Most people would think I would go with Nico here. Nico may be the most advanced hitter, but that is not quite the same as a pure natural hitter. That “pure hitter” distinction belongs to Cole Roederer, one of the Cubs two second round compensation pics. What I like most about Cole is that he’s only 18 and he has pretty good power to all fields. If you were to ask scouts in the Southwest, they might put Brennen Davis at the top of their list as he tested off the charts on pitch recognition software.

BEST POWER: Right now, this award would have to go to Luke Reynolds. In a couple years though, Roederer could take it all.

FASTEST RUNNER: Brennen Davis wins this running away with honorable mentions going to Edmond American and Roederer.

BEST DEFENSIVE PLAYER: Cole Roederer drew a lot of raves and plaudits for his ability to go get the ball this summer in the AZL from Baseball America’s Bill Mitchell.

BEST ATHLETE: Brennen Davis might be that special athlete the Cubs have been trying to draft for the past six summers.  In addition to speed, he has pretty good height which allows him to cover a lot of ground in the outfield. Now, if he could just stay healthy.

BEST FASTBALL: Riley Thompson is a favorite of mine in large part to his 95 mile an hour fastball that devastated the Northwest League in 2018. 

BEST SECONDARY PITCH: To be determined but it has to Paul Richan’s breaking ball for now. In a year, it could be anything by Riley Thompson

BEST PRO DEBUT: Nico Hoerner. is doing well in the Arizona Fall  League which pretty much wraps this award right up. If you were to ask me about pitching, I’d have to go with Thompson who looked more and more impressive with each start.

MOST INTRIGUING BACKGROUND: Being  the nephew of a former MLB pitcher and the son of a current agent, Kohl Franklin should have some unique experiences to share in interviews the next few years.

CLOSEST TO THE MAJORS: Nico Hoerner. I don’t think I need to say anything more.

BEST LATE-ROUND PICK: Edmond Americaan was an over slot sign in the 35th round out of Chipola in Florida. I was a little surprised that the Cubs were able to get him and then he helped lead Mesa 1 to the best record in the Arizona Rookie League.

The One Who Got Away: Mitchell Parker – The 6’3” lefty starting pitcher toyed with the idea of signing with the Cubs for a while but the Cubs just could not match what he was asking. Instead, he decided to attend Tennessee.