By Todd Johnson
I think every year is a series of continual adjustments in the game of baseball. The first full season as a professional for Myrtle Beach pitcher Duncan Robinson echoes the sentiment. He began the year as a reliever at South Bend, then he transitioned to a starter. He made the Midwest League All-Star team and shortly thereafter was promoted to Myrtle Beach. His first two starts as a Pelican did not go as planned, but since the middle of July he has been one of the best pitchers in the Carolina League. His ability to adapt to new situations and maintaining his daily routines are the keys to his success.
I had the opportunity to talk to Duncan about all the adjustments he has made this year and how they have affected his routine and what he throws in games.
TJ: How much has your daily routine been apart of your success?
DR: Being able to go into the start of this season with a routine that I can do with my eyes closed, it makes every start seem like it’s just another start. Your body is able to recognize where you are in the week and it allows you to prepare for each start.
DR: It changed. I started a few games in spring training. I had a similar routine as a reliever, a piggyback back starter, where I had the five day rotation of coming in early to a game. But once I moved to a starting role, I did feel a little more comfortable. Once I finished my start, I could lay out my plan for the next five days and the goals I wanted to achieve. I definitely felt more comfortable. But at the end of the day, you just have to execute no matter what my pitching role is.
TJ: What was the biggest change from South Bend to Myrtle Beach?
DR: Probably the weather….When you go up a level, you have a heightened sense of competition where everyone is better, and they are better. In the grand scheme of things, probably the hardest thing is getting back into the routine of when you get to the field of where you are living and trying to get settled in as quickly as possible. The Pelicans have helped me do that. The staff has been great and so have the guys on the team.
Coming into the season, Robinson mainly threw his fastball, sinker, and what I think is a beautiful curve. This year, he has added a cutter thanks to South Bend pitching coach Brian Lawrence. And, he is also working on a changeup in his side sessions.
TJ: How much are you throwing the cutter? Just here or there or in side sessions?
DR: When I first started throwing it, I didn’t expect to throw it too much this season. I threw it in a game against Fort Wayne. I had a lot of success with it. So, I figured the best way to develop a pitch is to try it in a game. It’s become a quality pitch for me at this level to both lefties and righties. I’m trying to make it a pitch in my repertoire as much as anything else.
I just need to execute like I have been doing.
DR: I think just being able to feel more comfortable being at a higher level…Once I got those first two starts out of the way, I felt like I had been here since the beginning of the year. It’s not one of those things where you feel like the new guy all the time. Guys on the team are very accepting to guys moving up, like guys like me. Once you get on the same page with the catcher, and my defense has been spectacular – They’ve turned some key double plays and they’ve been consistent throughout for me and that’s been a huge part of my success.
What I like most about Robinson’s season has been his ability to adjust. I also like that he throws inside a lot and can do so with any pitch. I think his ability to adjust is only going to help him next year at AA Tennessee. Even though he will only have half a season at South Bend and a half season at Myrtle Beach, his track record suggests he has the wherewithal to adapt to any situation. In the Darwinian sense, it is not those who are most likely to adapt that survive, but those who are most responsive to change.
*Cards made from pics by Rikk Carlson in South Bend and Larry Kave/Myrtle Beach Pelicans.
By Todd Johnson
Last week, Baseball America released its new top 100 prospect list that included draft picks from the 2017 MLB Draft. There was not a Cub to be seen. There were three former Cubs, but no one who is currently in the system. Over the next year, I tend to believe that one or two Cubs prospects might make it onto either MLB.com’s Top 100 list or Baseball America’s Top 100. If I was to invest money into who those prospects might be, I would have a wide array of choices in which to invest.
The Cubs have a lot of prospects who are on their way up. By that I mean, they are ascending players as their skills and tools begin to improve. There are other prospects who have shown glimpses of immense talent but have not put it all together yet. They are still developing.
At first I tried to organize my investment choices into categories based on risk and reward. There were players who I thought were a high-risk vs. investing in others who were a low risk. I scrapped that idea pretty quickly.
I narrowed the categories down to three. The first one would be long-term investments. These could be recent high school pics like Luis Vazquez and Nelson Velasquez to go along with several young international free agents who are currently in the Dominican Summer League or in Mesa. It’s going to take awhile for them to approach Top 100 status.
The second category is players who could take a couple years to develop before they hit the top 100. Miguel Amaya is one player whose defensive attributes garner attention but the bat still lags behind a little bit. First-round pick Brendon Little is a perfect example of someone who is going to take a couple years to develop and a lot of that is because of his age and lack of experience. Then again, his curveball could accelerate his development.
The final category is players who I think have a decent shot at being included on a top 100 list by the middle of next summer. I call these these One Year Bets.
Jose Albertos – Currently at short season Eugene, I think the 18-year-old pitcher is the top prospect in the Cubs’ system. He should be a top 100 prospect by the middle of next year if he continues to pile up innings and gain experience. I think he’s getting that experience this year, but next year will really propel him up a list. If things go well the last month, he could make a list this winter.
Adbert Alzolay – I am extremely impressed that he has been able to maintain his velocity and health over the course of this year as a starter. He doesn’t have the biggest frame which makes his ability to sustain a 96/97 mile an hour fastball into the sixth and seventh innings that much more impressive.
Duane Underwood – Over the past month, something is happening for the 23-year-old right-hander. I don’t know what it is specifically. But I do know that he is able to command his pitches better, get more strikeouts, and work deep into games. Over the past month he has a 1.33 ERA in five starts. If he can do that at the beginning of next year for AAA Iowa, he may find himself in Chicago by the middle of the summer. He just turned 23.
Aramis Ademan – I think he has the most tools of any position player currently in the system. He’s yet to put everything together. We see have seen brief glimpses and runs of greatness as well as stretches of inconsistency. I think his bat is further along at this point then many people thought it would be and his defense has not peaked where others may have thought it should be.
Alex Lange – I really like what he brings to the table and I think once he gets going as a full-time pitcher next year, he is going to shoot up the rankings. Even though he was drafted behind Little, Lange’s experience in the SEC will move him along at a much faster rate. I would not be surprised to see him be on the list before anybody else.
Mark Zagunis – Right now, I don’t think there’s a better pure hitter and a better eye at the plate in the organization than Zagunis. He’s going to be close to a 20 home run pace this year in spite of starting the year somewhat injured. I don’t really know if he fits the mold is a top prospect, but his performance and his exceptional approach at the plate raise him high above any other prospects. The problem is not his floor, it’s his ceiling.
Kevonte Mitchell – We have seen glimpses of Kevonte busting out this season. Of the five months that make up the 2017 season, he’s had one good one, two mediocre ones, and two excellent ones. He’s been very impressive in the second half especially in August. I think if he comes into camp ready to go, he could take the Carolina League by storm next year. Physically gifted, he is an imposing figure as anyone in the Cubs system. It’s just a matter of him putting it together which he has started to do this year with better pitch recognition and approach.
Oscar de la Cruz – Injuries look they put his career in slow motion. It was a shoulder strain this season, forearm tightness last year. But when healthy, he throws 93-95 with ease. He can command a curve and a change along with his fastball. For him to make any list, he has to get healthy and put in some innings.
By Todd Johnson
One of the things the Cubs management has shown a proclivity to do is to promote their top prospects in the waning weeks of the season to participate in the MiLB playoffs. This year, Myrtle Beach clinched a spot back in June by winning the first half. Eugene is just one game behind Boise for another spot while Tennessee is 3 1/2 back. Iowa is nowhere near a spot and South Bend is 10 games back despite having the best record of any Cubs affiliate this year.
No one is going to move up from Myrtle Beach to help Tennessee win. There are few players in the Arizona Rookie League who could wind up in Eugene to give the Emeralds a little push. But the biggest transition of talent is likely to come from South Bend to Myrtle Beach. The Pelicans were brilliant in the first half. Promotions, trades, and injuries remade the roster as they have limped to the worst record in the Carolina League in the second half.
Myrtle Beach is in need of some offense from the outfield, a starting pitcher, and some bullpen help. Here are a few players who could matriculate their way to Myrtle Beach to help the Pelicans win their third straight Mills Cup Championship.
DJ Wilson – The Cubs’ Minor League Player of the Month for July is the most likely prospect to head east. A natural center fielder, Wilson could slide right into the Pelicans’ lineup and provide some much needed punch from the left side. After spending the better part of June on the DL, Wilson returned and has been drawing more walks than before. He would fit right in as a Pelican.
Kevonte Mitchell – Another outfielder, Mitchell would provide some serious right handed power. In the second half, Mitchell is putting together a nice stretch of baseball showing patience and power at the same time. Just this month, he’s hitting .303 with a .425 OBP.
Bryan Hudson – The tall lefty starting pitcher has put together a good second half. In August, he has made two starts with a 0.90 ERA and has allowed only 2 ERs in his last 4 starts. For the year, he has a 3.00 ground ball to air out rate.
Jose Paulino – While he currently is a starter, Myrtle Beach needs bullpen help and that is what Paulino could provide. After struggling as a starter in April, Paulino worked his way back to the rotation over the course of May and June. In July, he had 2.20 ERA in 4 starts.
Wyatt Short – As the lefty closer at Eugene in 2016, he did not allow a run all season. This year has been a bit of a struggle at times. He has looked much better as of late with a 3.48 ERA in the second half of the year.
Mark Malave – The former catcher looks to be adjusting fine in his third year since switching to pitching. He’s struck out 20 in 20 IP since being promoted to South Bend to go along with a 2.70 ERA.
While it might be nice for the Pelicans to get all six players, odds are it will only be a couple of players arriving. I think Wilson will be get the call for sure. As for who the pitcher could be, I will be just as surprised as you.
By Todd Johnson
One of the most underreported stories of the summer has been the somewhat resurgence of Duane Underwood. The 2012 draft pick has been healthy all season. And over his last 10 starts, he has compiled a 3.45 ERA. His last start saw him go 7 IP with 7 Ks and no BBs, a rarity for him. What I find most encouraging about the rebirth of Underwood is that he has done it pretty much unnoticed.
Here are six reasons why you could jump back on the “Duane Underwood Top Prospect” train.
1. He just turned 23. It seems like he’s been around forever. Nevertheless, when you are drafted into an organization devoid of pitching, as the Cubs were in 2012, your name moves to the top of the list. Add in his performances at Kane County and Myrtle Beach in 2014 and 2015 and bloggers, writers, and other evaluators were drooling over his potential. As a result, in a system bereft of pitching, writers drifted towards the blinking radar gun in 2014 that said, “Easy 95.”
2. His ability to throw hard has never gone away. In fact, I think the velocity has improved since he was in class A. I think he now throws 95 to 97 regularly and, on an odd occasion, he touches 98-100.
3. Injury Free – He hasn’t missed a start all year. He’s taken the ball every fifth day and pitches between 90 and 100 pitches most of the time. For the year, he has thrown 108 innings and 1776 pitches, 1088 of them for strikes.
4. Pure Stuff – I don’t think there’s anybody in the system that throws three better pitches than Duane Underwood. There are pitchers who have better command, which has been the issue the past two seasons. What I find odd is that he’s never really been a strikeout pitcher with the kind of pitches that he has. One would think that he could just wipe guys out left and right. I don’t know why that is not happening. In 2015 at Myrtle Beach, his last full year, he averaged 5.69 K/9. This year, he is up to 6.79.
5. Command – This has always been his kryptonite or Achilles heel. In 58.2 IP at AA in 2016, his BB/9 rate was 4.76. This year it is 3.42 which is almost respectable. He needs to get that in the 2s if he is going to go beyond Iowa. In spite of his command, I feel pretty good about his chances to make it to Iowa in 2018. And I feel pretty good about his chances at being a starter at AAA next year.
6. Time to Develop – Sometimes it takes five to seven years to develop a high school pitcher, which was where Underwood was when the Cubs drafted him. Because of his young age, I’m not ready for him to be a reliever, and I’m not ready for the Cubs to give up on him as a starter when he’s only 23. If he was 25, I could see him transition to being a reliever. But here’s the thing: He’s still a young kid and there’s plenty of time to be a reliever later. I still think he’s got a couple years of starter development still in him and that’s fine. If he makes to it Chicago in two years with a 95-97 mph FB that he can command to go along with a plus curve and a change, that’s more than you could ask for in a starter.
Right now, he is improving every month and he’s healthy. That’s a huge improvement from the past two seasons. With just a little over three weeks left in the minor-league season, Underwood will probably make about five more starts. I don’t think there’s anything to look for or expect out of him in those starts other than to just stay healthy.
I think, as a whole, a lot of people of been impatient with him, including myself. But I also recognize that he is an extremely talented and athletic pitcher. The expectation to rush him to the majors has been there for three years. And that expectation hasn’t worked out too well. Maybe it’s time for different expectations. I think those early expectations placed on Underwood were more projections of people wanting him to be something much sooner than later.
I think if he can finish the season healthy, that will go along way towards his own confidence, and, maybe more importantly, the confidence of the Cubs in him.
By Todd Johnson
It is easy to get a sneak peek at pitchers that have recently been drafted. However, their roles are not really going to be laid out for another year or two. Adjustments will be made at instructs this fall and again in spring training. The pitchers they are now will not resemble the pitchers they are next year or the year after
The thing I like to remember is that they have already pitched a full season of baseball. Some, like Alex Lange, have already thrown over 120 innings. Then again, there are relievers who fit right in when it comes to workloads this season. Of the 19 pitchers signed via the 2017 draft, only four have been given an opportunity to start in some capacity. In addition, two of the arms selected and signed have not thrown a pitch in game action.
Here is an update on how the young pitchers are doing.
Alex Lange – The first round pick dominated in his two inning debut. While it was at Eugene, I felt that he should not be there much longer in that it really wasn’t a challenge for him. Hopefully, he can go up to South Bend and make it a start of two innings and the Cubs can reevaluate from there. I tend to think he’ll begin next year at Myrtle Beach with an outside shot of Tennessee. However, Tennessee might be too aggressive.
Rollie Lacy – He is pitching only in relief in Mesa and he hasn’t allowed a lot of baserunners with a WHIP of 0.66. As a 22-year-old, he should dominate rookie ball and he is. I think there is a pretty good chance he’s in northern Indiana to begin the year.
Ben Hecht – He has been a most impressive reliever as he has swing and miss stuff. At Eugene, he has pitched 6.1 innings and struck out an amazing 15 batters. With that kind of firepower, I think long term that he is a reliever with closer or setup potential.
Jake Steffens – To date he’s pitched up 10.2 innings and is look good doing so. He had one bad outing in his eight appearances and opponents are only hitting .108 against him. It’s pretty good for a 29th round pick.
Brendan King – He is just getting going and he is making short starts. Right now, his ERA is 1.59 and he’s struck out 13 and 11.1 innings while only giving up two earned runs. Depending on how he does this fall and next spring, I think he has an outside shot at making it to Indiana for the summer.
Erich Uelmen – He has only made three appearances. His first outing was a bit rough, but his second saw him strikeout five in two innings. He is currently at Eugene and I expect him to be in South Bend starting in 2018.
Mitch Stophel – Currently, he is in rookie ball in Mesa. He has pitched nine innings in a relief it is struck out 13. He walked five, but for a 25 round pick, I’m not gonna complain. He could be in South Bend next year.
Cory Abbott – He debuted Monday night. He flashed a four pitch mix and struck out three in two innings but did give up a homer, his only hit. His fastball sat in the low 90s topping out at 93.
Depends on the Day
Kegan Thompson – After missing all of 2016, I was surprised the Cubs let him pitch after he threw 98 innings for Auburn this spring. He’s being used in relief and he has only made two appearances so far. I see him starting next summer in the rotation for South Bend.
Brian Glowicki – The closer from the University of Minnesota has had some ups and downs in that role for the Emeralds. He has shown the ability to miss bats and I think he will get better as the season goes on.
Casey Ryan – Take away one outing where he gave up four runs in 1/3 of an inning, and he’s been really good. He is a reliever in a starter’s body.
Jeffrey Passantino – I am not sure what his role is going to be. In Mesa, he hass been relieving. I don’t know if they’re going to try and turn him into a starter as a pro or leave him in the bullpen with his bulldog mentality. I guess we’ll find out next year.
Brendon Little – He has been lit up in his two outings. After only pitching four innings in college plus the cape cod league in 2016, he threw 80+ innings this year. I thought we might see him out of the pen to begin with, but he is taking the bump to begin the game twice. I would not be too alarmed that his performance so far. You still have to remember he’s only 20 years old and has been basically shut down for two months.
Sean Barry – He’s only made three appearances so far in Mesa. All were in relief. I don’t have a good read on him yet.
Peyton Remy – He made his first appearance on Sunday night when he threw a scoreless one third of an inning.
Crickets…They have not pitched yet and might not.
Jeremy Estrada – He has not been rostered yet. I think Estrada will more than likely be in Mesa at worst and Eugene at best.
Brady Miller – No roster has been assigned for Miller yet, either.
Braxton Light – He has been assigned to Arizona but has yet to see any action.
19 arms is a lot about pitching to accommodate in an organization at one time. We will know more next year at this time than we do now about these arms. I think this summer’s performances have kind of given us a sneak peek and there’s a lot to be encouraged by past month, and even the last week. And I think once the starters are stretched out next year, it will be even more impressive. With a lot of the young arms at Eugene and South Bend, this collection of arms will create quite the competition for spots next spring. So far, I find their performances encouraging for the organization.
By Todd Johnson
I think it’s tough for draft picks to come in to an organization in the middle of the year and play well. I also think that you really shouldn’t evaluate the draft pick based on two months after they’ve already played a full season. Many of them have basically been playing since January. At some point they have to get tired regardless of how good they are.
In looking at this year’s draft class, I think there a couple key things to take notice of for next year. One, there is some serious athleticism in the group as a whole. Two, there are some guys who I think can really hit and will prove so next year.
Several draft picks came out of the gate pretty hot. Some have cooled off while others have been able to maintain some semblance of success.
Austin Upshaw – He came out of the gate very hot and now has cooled. He is still showing a solid approach but his hits have not been at falling in August like they did in July. He will be fine next year. He should begin the year at Myrtle Beach. They are going to love him there.
Luis Vazquez – Heading into Sunday, he was hitting .316. That is very good for a high school product to do that in rookie league just jumping right in. I still remember thinking how athletic he was in his prospect a video back on draft day. I cannot wait to get Arizona Phil’s take during instructs. He should be at Eugene next year as an 18-year-old kid.
Brandon Hughes – Like Upshaw, Hughes came out of the gate hard and has since slowed down. He bats third or fourth for Eugene and he’s been in the lineup most every day. The first thing you notice about him is his advanced athleticism and build. I see him being at South Bend to begin 2018.
Chris Singleton – A later round pick, the athletic outfielder began at Mesa and has been promoted to Eugene where he slid right into the leadoff spot. I really like what I have heard from the Eugene radio broadcasters, but I have not seen him play on TV yet. I am thinking he will be at South Bend to begin 2018.
Cam Balego – The young infielder has been playing all over the diamond for the rookie league Cubs and has hit almost .400 last month. I have not read much about him and I think I might not until fall instructs.
Ramsey Romano – He just got promoted to Eugene where he went two for five in his second game with two RBI. He can play all over the infield and I think this utility player will probably be at South Bend to begin 2018.
Austin Filiere – His average has been up-and-down but he has definitely shown some power in his bat. In the field, he gets by as a third baseman. His arm is average but that can be improved on. He will be at South Bend to start 2018.
Have some work to do…
Nelson Velazquez – He has flashed some serious athleticism and power in Mesa. However, he has not shown the ability to hit for average so far in rookie league and he strikes out a lot. Then again, he is still very young. He is one player who is going to improve dramatically with instruction this fall and in spring training. I think once he gets in the routine of doing things every day, we might see his power be a daily thing.
Chris Carrier – He has not had a good start to his career at both Mesa and Eugene where he is striking out about 75% of the time. More than likely, if he has a good spring training next year, he should be in South Bend.
Jared Young – I really like his approach at the plate and announcer Pat Zajak concurs. In other words, the BABIP Gods have not been kind to him in Eugene. I see him beginning the year in South Bend in 2018. He’s a pretty good sized second baseman.
I don’t know if any of these position players will show up on any prospect list in the next year, but that is not going to stop them from succeeding. I would not be surprised to see Velazquez and Vazquez make a list in 2019. It is rare for the Cubs to select a HS position player in the Theo era. I can only think of a few the Cubs have signed – Kevonte Mitchell and DJ Wilson who are both in low A this year, Tyler Alamo at Myrtle Beach, and Charcer Burks at Tennessee. It takes a few years to get going.
By Todd Johnson
On Sunday morning, the Cubs announced that Jen-Ho Tseng and D.J. Wilson were named the Cubs’ MiLB Pitcher and Player of the Month for July. Tseng had a 1.42 ERA at AAA Iowa to go along with 23 Ks in 25.1 IP. Wilson hit .284 with 7 HRs and 21 RBI in between Mesa (rehab stint) and South Bend. With officially four weeks left in the MiLB season, it got me thinking: Who will be the Cubs MiLB Pitcher and Hitter of the Year?
When it comes to hitting, the winner is clear cut – Victor Caratini. No one else is even in the discussion in my mind. He’s batting .350 with a .959 OPS. He’s hit 10 HRs and driven in 58. While his OBP is a bit less than Mark Zagunis’, whose isn’t. I do not see how Caratini could lose this award. Since his return to Iowa from Chicago, he’s hitting .600.
On the other hand, selecting the Pitcher of the Year is going to be a tough choice that will play out over the next month. I currently have six pitchers in the running with five having a pretty good shot of staking a claim to it.
The Front Runners
Michael Rucker has done it all this year in 84 innings. He’s been a reliever and a starter. He’s been a closer, a setup man, and an ace. His 1.93 ERA is the lowest of the starters up for the award. His 95 Ks gives him a 9.21 K/9 rate. I love to watch him pitch as he just throws strikes. He’s only walked 16 all year.
Jen-Ho Tseng has had a resurgent year relying on good command of his pitches which includes a low 90s fastball and a plus curve and change. His 2.77 combined ERA between Iowa and Tennessee is impressive and he has 110 Ks in 120 IP.
Adbert Alzolay was my breakout player of the first half. Now at AA Tennessee, he has a combined 2.84 ERA between Myrtle Beach and Tennessee with 101 Ks in 107 IP. I like his energy, his pacing, and his 96-97 mph heater. He still needs to refine his secondaries going forward.
The Long Shots
Duncan Robinson is a bit like Rucker in that he began the year as a reliever and morphed into a starter. He was a Midwest League All-Star and was promoted in July to Myrtle Beach from South Bend. On the year, he has a 2.13 ERA over 91 innings. His 77 Ks take him out the discussion a bit when compared with other front runners.
It has been a most impressive season for Justin Steele. He’s been very steady all year. His 2.92 ERA is a testament to his approach and hard work after a rough season at South Bend in 2016. He has 82 Ks in 98.2 IP.
If you were to pick this award on sheer domination, reliever Dakota Mekkes would win hands down. He dominated at South Bend and then again at Myrtle Beach. He did allow an earned run for almost three months. Heading into today, his ERA is a miniscule 0.76 ERA to go along with 79 Ks in 59 IP. Opponents are only hitting .152 against him. If not for 27 walks, I think he would be in Tennessee.
I think Michael Rucker is currently in the lead. However, I truly think the award should go to Mekkes. For the past few years, the Cubs have rewarded starters including Tseng, Trevor Clifton and Duane Underwood. But Mekkes’ season has been one of pure domination across the board and two levels. However, I don’t think the Cubs will give that award to a reliever. I wish they would, though. I really wish they would.