The Weekly: Playoff Hunt Winding Down, DSL Ends, and Promotion Commotion.

By Todd Johnson

The Playoffs
It has come down to the last week. Eight days from now the minor league season will be over and only Cubs 1 in Mesa has secured a spot. Iowa and Myrtle Beach are eliminated while South Bend and Tennessee should be any day now.

The only other team with a chance to get into the postseason is Eugene. They are currently neck and neck with the Salem-Keiser and it’s going to come right down to the last week. They actually play each other in a three-game set at Salem-Keizer this week.

Cubs 1 will defend their Arizona League championship starting this week on Wednesday in a single elimination semi-final match. If they win, then they play a best of three series for the title.

DSL Season Ended Yesterday

It turned out to be a very hopeful season for the Cubs’ two Dominican Summer League teams. The 2 team wound up with a 27-45 record while the 1 team went 41-31. That’s pretty good considering the Cubs had no “big-name” international free agents on either roster as the Cubs were restricted in their international spending the past two years.

There are a few prospects I have mentioned throughout the course of the season who have either put up good numbers or flashed some potential. Shortstop Fabian Pertuz has hit at, or near, .300 for most of the season. Pitcher Misael Garcia has had an outstanding second half of the year. Top starter Luis Rodriguez has an ERA of 0.73. Hitters Pedro Martinez, Rochest Cruz, Ervis Marchan, and Widimer Joaquin showed the ability to put the ball in play. I thought that maybe some of them would make their way to Mesa for the playoffs, but so far, none have.

Promotions
After the Daniel Murphy trade for Andruw Monasterio, there were a parade of promotions this week. Duncan Robinson moved to Iowa where he proceeded to go six scoreless in his first AAA start. 1B Tyler Alamo advanced to Tennessee along with Justin Steele, who is just 1 year removed from Tommy John surgery. Utility player Christian Donahue of South Bend continues to rake this month and hit his way to Myrtle Beach where he quickly endeared himself to the Pelican faithful with a home run in his first game.

While all promotions are big, the biggest surprise of the week was pitcher Brailyn Marquez getting promoted to South Bend. I found it odd because Eugene is right in the middle of the playoff hunt and Marquez has arguably been their best arm the whole year. Still, his appearance at South Bend, as a 19-year-old starting pitcher, will be very exciting.

After missing two months, Bailey Clark made a few appearances in Mesa and returned to Myrtle Beach this week where he threw two scoreless innings. Hopefully, Bailey can make up that lost time in the Arizona Fall League.

South Bend 2019 Schedule
South Bend released their 2019 season schedule this week. I was pretty excited to see it just to find out when they play Burlington, Clinton, Wisconsin, and Beloit. I am not going to be able to make it down to Burlington this year because it takes place during school time, but I will be able to make it over to Clinton for three games as they play over the first weekend in May. I’ll also be traveling up to Appleton, Wisconsin in July for a couple days to see South Bend play the Timber Rattlers. That’s going have to be an overnight stay while Beloit is just 35 minutes from my house.

In addition, I keep hearing people raving about Fort Wayne’s ball park. I’m going to try to get over there for a couple of games and then swing back through South Bend at some point next summer

Busy Week Ahead
Matt Swarmer gets updated Tuesday and then on Thursday I look at who should/could be on the Cubs’s playoff roster. The deadline to be on the Cubs’ to eligible is this Friday.

I also started assembling two all-star teams this week – one for the month of August and one for the second half. The August all-star squad will be rolled out on Saturday and the second half group will come out on Tuesday the 4th, the day after the regular MiLB season end. I will also have a new Top 21 list sometime the week after Labor Day.

Players of the Week

Card of the Week

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Some DSL Prospects Could Be Heading North Very Soon

By Todd Johnson

On August 25, the Dominican Summer League will end its regular season. Neither Cubs team is in playoff contention. As a result, a few players could filter north in August to help either of the Cubs two teams in the Arizona Rookie League. Last year, Danis Correa (who has been injured all of 2018), Luis Hidalgo, and Emilio Ferrebus all came north in August and were part of the championship team that stormed through the Arizona League playoffs. Who could be heading north to Arizona soon?

The Hitters
Even though there are six hitting prospects listed, three of them, at most, could end up on a roster in Mesa.

Rochest Cruz – The 5’11” 150 lb. 2B/3B could bring an improving left-handed bat as his splits have improved each month. He just turned 19 and hit .349 in July.
Fabian Pertuz – He might be the most likely hitter to come north. He signed with the Cubs in the summer of 2017. The 17-year-old SS looks born to hit. When he missed a few weeks with an undisclosed injury, he came back and picked up where he left off. In addition to be hit the ball for a high average, he has 3-to-2 BB to K ratio.
Ervis Marchan – After hitting 190 last year, Marchan is one of the most improved bats in the DSL. The soon to be 19-year-old lefty is hitting .291 and leads the team in RBI
Pedro Martinez – Well, he has a great name going for him. In addition, the 17 year old middle infielder is hitting .355 with a .418 OBP. Add in the fact that he has more walks than Ks, he’s an attractive candidate to head north.
Widimer Joaquin – At 6’2” and 180 lbs., he is still growing while playing a premier power position. He is still learning to hit with that frame as he has yet to hit a HR. Still, he is going along at a .299 click.
Miguel Fabrizio – A catcher who is just 17, improved his average 60 points this year and is currently hitting .299.

The Pitchers
Luis Rodriguez – Does a 0.78 ERA catch your eye? How about 45 Ks and a 0.73 WHIP? How about just 5 BBs in 46.1 IP? You get the drift for this 6’1” and 180 lb. lefty. Pitching is a key part of any championship run. He could be a key cog to that effect.
Misael Garcia – At 6’2” and 190, he’s still growing and still improving as a power arm. Ben Badler of Baseball America was highly impressed by Garcia’s new size in June and improving arsenal as Garcia continues to get bigger. More than likely, Garcia will be in Mesa next spring. He’d be a longshot for this August at just 17-years-old. However, Garcia has 35 Ks in a tad over 31 innings.

A benefit of these prospects heading north is they end up staying for Fall Instructs. In addition, the players usually end up in MiLB Spring Training the next year. The prospects get more of a bump in their development in Mesa the next half a year.

Too Early to Breakout, but Not to Be a Surprise in the 2nd Half – Part 1

By Todd Johnson

The second half of the minor league season has been going for a month now. Players in Mesa, Eugene, and the Dominican have been grinding away and developing their craft at the plate, in the field, and on the mound. It is usually in the second half that some players break out and surprise us with their performance and development. Still it’s still a little early to declare a break out prospect after just one month, but there are a few players who are off to good starts here in the second half. Today’s post looks at players from Eugene on down while tomorrow’s looks at prospects from South Bend on up.

DSL 1

Fabian Pertuz was signed last summer as an International Free Agent is doing very well in the DSL. At 17, he’s hitting .323 with an amazing .463 OBP and he’s stolen 18 bags while missing two weeks. He should be in Arizona at some point for instructs this fall.

DSL 2

17-year-old SS Pedro Martinez (Yes, that is his name) is leading the squad in hitting at .336 with a .424 OBP. He’s also swiped 22 bags and seems to be a pretty consistent player the last six weeks.

At 6’6”, 19-year-old Pitcher Johan Lopez is an intriguing prospect. He’s struck out 32 in 31 innings while posting a 2.87 ERA. His WHIP of 1.20 is a bit of a head scratcher, but at this level, it’s OK. This is his first year as a pro and, as such, is a late bloomer.

Mesa 1

Two hitters caught my eye in Arizona. 2B Clayton Daniel, a 31st round pick this year, can get on base with his bat or by walking. When I started writing this article on Saturday, he was in Mesa. He moved up to Eugene for a couple of days and I saw him arrive last night in Davenport about an hour before game time as he was promoted to South Bend. Not too shabby for a 31st round pick. Daniel is hitting .344 with a .408 OBP. 3B Yonathan Perlaza is part of that vaunted 2015 international free agent class. It looks like things are starting to click for him this year as he nears .300 after a rough start.

Reliever Maikel Aguiar is a strikeout machine whiffing 23 in 18 innings to go with a 0.48 ERA. Starters Didier Vargas and Jesus Tejada both had rough starts their first times out. Since, they have been turning it around. Tejada looks to be the more stable arm right now with his WHIP of just over 1.

Mesa 2

3B Fidel Mejia is closing in on .400 for the season. Over his last ten games, he’s hitting on all cylinders at a .500 pace. In addition, 2nd round compensation pick Cole Roederer is showing a propensity to get on base at a steady clip as a top of the order bat. He’s batted first and third for the rookie league team. He’s hitting .371 with a .488 OBP in just nine games. I’m a little excited about that pick. After yesterday’s 3/5 performance, I am beginning to wonder if he belongs in Rookie League.

The player no one saw coming is non-drafted free agent Grant Fennell. The utility player was the Mountain West Player of the Year as a senior at the University of Nevada. Every time I check the box score he’s going 2-for-5 with an RBI. He’s hitting .355 with a team leading 20 RBI.  In addition, that RBI total leads the Arizona League. He made his Eugene debut on Tuesday this week.

Eugene

Over the past month, Cubs Central already profiled two top young prospects in Brailyn Marquez and Luis Vazquez. But in the bullpen, reliever Dalton Geekie has thrown 11.2 innings without allowing a run and struck out 16 while only walking 4. His WHIP is fantastic at 0.86. At 23, he’s a reclamation project who should be at South Bend very, very soon.

South of the Border: Some Names to Track in the DSL

By Todd Johnson

The hardest thing about covering the minor leagues is reporting on what’s going on in the Dominican Summer Leagues. Currently the Cubs have an academy with two teams in a league where players learn the fundamentals of the game as well as finishing their education. But when it comes to the play on the field, there is no blog reporter there to dish on the happenings. There’s no photographs or videos coming out, and everything takes place early in the morning. If one is to report on the Dominican Summer League, you’re basically left to scout the stat line. And that is not always a good thing.

Stats in the DSL don’t always hold up. The majority of the league is made up of 17 to 19-year-old kids trying to get a crack to come to the states. The pitching can be wild, the fielding dicey, and the bats aren’t always patient. Some stats can be quite deceptive.

Usually, the first time we usually get a really good look at anybody is in fall instructs for players lucky enough to get to the states. Other times, either spring training or extended spring training will see a group of advanced players get a crack to stay in Mesa for the summer.

The DSL season starts in early June. Most of the rosters are filled with international players that were signed the last two summers as international free agents. Now, with three weeks of box scores this month, here are a few things we do know about this year’s crop of players in the DSL.

Hitting
While some may focus on batting average in the DSL, I like to look at a combination of stats. And still, that may not give a whole picture of the player. The two stats I like are on-base percentage and their strikeout to walk ratio. Combined the two stats give me a partial understanding of their approach at the plate.

On DSL 1, SS Fabian Pertuz leads the team in OBP at .509 despite missing almost two weeks. His teammate, 1B Ervis Marchan has only struck out 4 times in 79 at-bats (5%). For DSL 2, OF Alexander Ovalles leads DSL Cubs 2 with a .433 OBP while SS Pedro Martinez (Yes, that’s his real name) has only whiffed 9 times in 71 at-bats (12.76%).

Three weeks is a decent amount of times to gather some data, but it is not a lot.

Pitching
ERA might be the most common stat to look at for pitchers for effectiveness. However, when it comes to the DSL I like to look at how many they walk per nine innings, how many they strikeout per nine innings, their WHIP, and their ERA.

For DSL 2, 19-year-old lefty Johan Lopez looks to be dazzling in his four starts. Not only does he have a 2.03 ERA, he has a 2.23 K/BB ratio. At 6’6”, Lopez is one to keep an eye on as it is his first year of professional baseball. For DSL 1, right Jorge Remon, Saul Vazquez, and Luis Ramos are three young starters who are doing well when it comes to ERA. Ramos, though has walked 14 and K’d 14, but his ERA is 1.15. Vazquez has 3-1 K/BB ratio also has a 1.30 WHIP. Meanwhile, Remon has 2-1 K/BB ratio also has a WHIP of 0.97 and opponents are only hitting .163 against him.

Last summer, everyone was abuzz about Fernando Kelli, his average, his on base percentage, and his steals in the DSL. This year, he skipped rookie ball in Mesa and is now at Eugene at 19. Some of those stats have translated to equal performance here in the states and some have not. It will be interesting to track the players listed above. Some of them might even make it to Mesa this season.

There’s a totality to combining the stats. However, don’t judge the players based just on these stats. A lot of their game can change over the next few months with instruction and development. In addition, several of these players with change physically as many are not done growing.

Prospect Profile: Fernando Kelli Excitement Is for Real

By Todd Johnson

One thing that the Cubs have lacked in recent years in the system has been speed. Last summer, a then 18-year-old Fernando Kelli stole 58 bases in the Dominican Summer League. In addition, he hit .320 with an on-base percentage of .437. He’s not big by any means at 6’ and 180 pounds, but prior to his breakout, he’d only been seen a little bit in spring training of 2017. No one knew that much about him before. That has all changed.

I had a lot of questions about him and was extremely interested to get a good look at him. During spring training, he actually got into a couple of games with the big league club and held his own. Being that he now plays late at night for Eugene, I am getting a pretty good look at what he can and cannot do. There are a lot of things to like and there are a lot of things that he needs to improve on. Then again, he’s just 19 playing one level above most of his peers.

Things He’s Doing Well

The first thing you notice about Kelli is his speed. In his first ten games, he had the opponent’s attention within seconds. It affected how fielders fielded and threw. It affected a pitcher’s attention span. Kelli’s speed totally disrupts the flow of the defense. So far, in just 11 games, he has 8 SBs which puts him on pace to steal 50. He has been caught stealing twice and picked off once as he continues to adjust.

He’s a pretty decent defender. He also uses his speed in the field to go get some balls. He already has one outfield assist as he gunned down a runner heading back to first. Kelli is not just a one-trick pony. He’s an all-around baseball player.

I like his hitting profile, too. He can hit the ball with authority to right field and has 1 HR to date. He doesn’t necessarily spray the ball as only 12% of his batted balls go to center. Most of his contact goes to left (41%) and right (45%). He also gets the ball in the air as a hitter. He barrels up the ball regularly with 50% of his contact being line drives and fly balls. After last night’s game, he’s hitting  on the young season with an OBP of .348.

Surprisingly, Kelli is not a big bunter. The defense comes in on him at the corners to guard against him bunting and he takes advantage of that by lining balls in those gaps in the infield.

I really like watching him play. There is no one quite like him in the Cubs’ minor league system and you never know what will happen on each play.

Things to Work On

It didn’t take teams long to catch on that Kelli has some major league wheels. He got thrown out at second twice in one game and is now learning how far he can lead off and how to pick his spots to steal a base.

In his first eight at bats, he struck out four times. Now that he’s got an a little bit more larger data set, his K rate is still high at 38% while his walk rate is at 7.7%. Those numbers are going to have to change. As a leadoff hitter, 38% is not sustainable, but it is getting lower.

Game experience – He can make a really good play in the outfield tracking down a fly ball and then there have been a couple of moments where he completely loses the ball or takes a poor route to get to a ball. The Eugene outfield is not the easiest place to play because the outfielders are staring directly into a setting sun. Still, he is going to have to improve.

Approach – Right now, he’s struggling with a breaking ball or offspeed pitch down and away. It’s also odd because he takes a fastball to right field with ease. He needs to learn to do the same with pitches that don’t start with a F.

Seeing a curve In the US is a lot different than say the DSL. In the DSL, most of the pitchers are 17 to 19-year old kids while in the Northwest League, a lot of the arms have some level of college experience. And the pitchers that came out of high school have much more game experience versus kids from the DSL.

It’s an interesting adjustment that sometimes takes 2 to 3 years to catch up. Kelli will play at Eugene this year, go to fall instructs, and then play winter ball where he will continue to improve over time as he gains experience. Who knows, he might catch on this season.

He could be a different hitter next spring in South Bend or even as early as mid-July as he improves his pitch recognition skills. It just depends on how fast he can adjust. For now, though, he’s very exciting. It is hard to imagine that he could be more exciting, but he most certainly can.

Which Prospects Could Breakout for the Cubs in the 2nd Half?

By Todd Johnson

Yesterday, I wrote about who  broke out in the first half for Cubs Insider. But trying to predict breakouts prospects for the second half of the minor league season is a bit tougher. Most of the players one would expect to breakout will be playing for Mesa, Eugene, or South Bend. Some of them are 18 to 20-year-old kids while others are recent draft picks.

If I was to pick one hitter, one pitcher, and one reliever to break out in the second half, I would more than likely be wrong come the end of August. So, to hedge my bets, what I’m going to do is to pick three hitters, four starting pitchers, and three relievers who might make some waves in the Cubs’ system the next two months. Hopefully, one or more in each category will make it.  

On with the prospects.

Hitters

Everyone is going to be watching Nico Hoerner once he signs. The fans will watch his bat, his glove, his arm, and his speed, grit, and hustle. That kind of takes the pressure off of everyone else.

The batter that will impress everyone is Luke Reynolds, the Cubs tenth round pick out of Southern Mississippi. I would expect him to be a fast mover. He, like Hoerner, will probably start at Eugene, but neither will be there long as their approaches and skills will be too dominant.

Another hitter that could break out this summer is Fernando Kelli. While we know some about Kelli after his 58 stolen bases last season in the DSL, it is different playing in the US, especially skipping Mesa. The hardest adjustments for an 18-19 year old prospect from the DSL to make are just playing against quality competition. Kelli will need to adapt to quality changeups and curves; and guys trying to get him out in the batter’s box and also on the basepaths. In just 5 games, he has caused some havoc between the bases. His defense, on the other hand, might be better than we thought.

My third selection is Jonathan Sierra. Originally, he looked like Daryl Strawberry clone when the Cubs signed him in 2015 at 16 years-old. Now, he is getting his physique into something resembling Jorge Soler. What I really like about him so far is his approach. He shows to have a pretty good knowledge of the zone at 19 and he is not afraid to walk to this early in his career. The issue he has now is that his swing is a bit long. He needs to shorten that up or he will be eaten alive as he moves up the ladder. For now, though, game experience and seeing as many pitches as possible will be the goals for 2018.

Bonus Hitters – Kevin Moreno from Cuba (who is only 17) and Reivaj Garcia are two young hitters who have been tearing up EXST. They will both be in Mesa to begin the year. I love Luis Vazquez’s defense already. The fact that he got experience at SS in a major league spring training game says how highly the Cubs already think of him. He is in Eugene to start 2018. Focus on his defense, not the bat.

Starting Pitchers

One of the more interesting stories in August last year was the maturation of Jesus Tejada in the DSL. He was a stud with an ERA just under 2 for that month and he also threw a no-hitter. Now, the 19 year old will be stateside. This spring, one of the more interesting reports over time from Arizona Phil has been the growth in each performance of lefty Brailyn Marquez, who is really dialing it up as the spring goes along. Now that summer is here, the young 19-year-old pitcher is in Eugene as the ace of the staff. He can dial it up in the mid-90s. The issue has always been his command.

I liked the Cubs taking Derek Casey of Virginia in the ninth round of the 2018 draft a lot. He’s experienced, a senior, and he should be a valuable arm next year. This year, he will more than likely just pitch 2 or 3 innings a game in Eugene or South Bend. He should do well in those spots.

Faustino Carrera is not going to blow you away with his fastball, but he can make you swing wildly at his changeup. The 19-year-old lefty (I am noticing a theme here) has good command and can get hitters to do what he wants when he can control his upper 80s to low 90s heater. He also has a curve that comes in around 82 and he seems to hide the ball well to make it appear to have more zip than it does.

Bonus – In what is his third season as a Cub, Nathan Sweeney is back in the Arizona Rookie League. But here’s the thing, he’s still just 20 and, if he had gone to college, he would just be finishing his sophomore year. After two years of instruction from the college of pitching coaches in Mesa, he should start to put it together this year. His fastball has been clocked in the low 90s consistently.

Relievers

All three of my breakout reliever choices were taken in the draft this year. Ethan Roberts, Riley Thompson, and Layne Looney all had excellent careers in college in the bullpen. I would not be surprised to see any or all 3 get a chance at starting next year. But this year, they are just going to relieve. Thompson, who can bring it at 95, will need the most time to develop. Roberts might need to rest a bit after Tennessee Tech almost made it to Omaha for the College World Series. And Looney should be good to go as he was already playing summer ball. Expect to see Thompson to get in a game first and it should be at Mesa.

Here are a few other names who could break out as legitimate prospects this summer.

DSL
Alexander Ovalles – OF; Carlos Morfa – OF; Fabian Pertuz – SS; Carlos Paula – SP

Mesa
Luis Verdugo – SS; Carlos Pacheco – OF (who is injured to start the year); Raidel Orta – SP; Eduarniel Nunez – SP; and Luis Hidalgo 1B/OF

Eugene
Luis Diaz – 2B and Jonathan Soto – C

The Midweek: Day 3 of the Draft Coming Up, Promotions, Machin is Cranking, and Morfa Emerging

By Todd Johnson

Today’s going to be a hectic day. Starting around 11 Central, Day 3 of the MLB draft begins. If you go online to MLB.com, it’s like listening to a giant conference call because that’s exactly what it is. There is no time between picks and it is sometimes hard to keep up. I will be live blogging starting around 11 and, at some point, I will need to take a break as the day wears on. I hope to see a surprise or two today in the draft.

Around the System
Unfortunately, the minor league system does not shut down while the draft takes place. Tennessee and Myrtle Beach are playing well right now and both are closing in on playoff spots with 12 games to go. Tennessee is three games back of arch-rival Chattanooga while Myrtle Beach is 4.5 games back of Winston-Salem. South Bend has won three in a row and it’s two games below .500, also with 12 games left. But they are 9 games back.

The big story this week has been the parade of pitching prospects moving up and down the system. Southern League All-Stars Trevor Clifton and Dakota Mekkes are now at AAA Iowa. That is pretty exciting. It is pretty cool that both of them are one step away from realizing their dreams. I will hopefully be traveling out to Iowa some point in the next two weeks. Most likely, Monday or Tuesday next week.

In addition, Matt Swarmer heads from Myrtle Beach to Tennessee along with reliever Jordan Minch who now gives Tennessee their first left-handed on the roster this season. Pitcher Cory Abbott takes off his South Bend uniform and will put on Myrtle Beach Pelicans jersey for a while. I cannot wait to see how he does in a pitcher’s park.

Even though he was promoted a few weeks ago to AA Tennessee, infielder Vimael Machin has been on fire since arriving in Kodak. In 16 games as a Smokie, he’s hitting at .432 clip. I will have a profile of him in the next few days. I also have one ready to go on Trevor Clifton.

Down in the Dominican, the two teams have played 3 games. Outfielder Carlos Morfa is stealing all the thunder hitting 3 HRs, 2 of them yesterday, while hitting close to .600. His OPS is 2.199!!! Be wary of DSL stats, but this is an interesting story to follow as Morfa needs to builds up a larger sample size of data. This is about the only thing I can find about Morfa and it is his prospect video from the DPL. First thing you notice in the video. He’s just 17.

Meanwhile, on Cubs Central, the draft is hogging the website for just one more day. After today, I will have a new top 21 list tomorrow and then I think I might take a day off from writing as it feels like it’s becoming a full-time job the past three days.

Right now, I’m going to go for a walk. It’s a little brisk here in northern Illinois as it got down into the 40s last night. The cool air ought to wake me up and get me ready for 30 new Cubs to be selected starting in less than 3 hours.