By Todd Johnson
When Eloy Jimenez was traded in the middle of last summer, my heart was somewhat broken as I became quite attached to watching him play and was hopeful that he would be ready for the 2018 season. I didn’t think the Cubs had anybody with that type of power potential in the system. Little did I know, at that time, the Cubs drafted a power monster a month earlier in the fifth round.
As spring training looms on the horizon for the minor-league camp, I am looking forward to seeing what Nelson Velasquez can do. In just six weeks at Mesa in 2017, he hit 10 home runs between the regular season and the playoffs. He hit almost .300 for the month of August and drove in 14 runs that month. He drew rave reviews for his hit tool and his athleticism in the field, some suggesting he could stick in centerfield. Jason McLeod even added that Velazquez, while a physical specimen at 6’0” 190 lbs., could add a couple more inches and 15-20 pounds.
Here’s what Fangraphs had to say about Velasquez back in November:
Velazquez is raw but has louder tools than are typically found for $400,000. He projects for plus raw power, and amateur scouts had a 55 on his speed. We saw fringe speed in the AZL but knew there was a hamstring issue present. He projects to an outfield corner. Velazquez is thick through the thighs and butt, and scouts have his frame comp’d to corner outfielders (Jorge Bonifacio, Yoenis Cespedes, and Scott Schebler), so most have him projected there despite the present 55 wheels.
Turned 19 in December
5th Round Pick 2017
PJ Education HS, Puerto Rico
Leveling Up in 2018
For the 2018 season, Velasquez has only one thing to do and that is to reduce his 30% strikeout rate. That’s an astronomical figure for such a young player.
One thing I like to do with a prospect is to breakdown their season into smaller sections of performance. In July, Velasquez struck out 11 times in 31 at bats (35%) and did not get a walk once. In August, things improved slightly as he whiffed 25 times in 75 at-bats (33%) but drew 14 walks for a .408 OBP. However, in the playoffs, he struck out 6 times in 14 at-bats (43%) with 2 walks (.385 OBP) but cranked out 2 HRs and drove in 9 over 5 games. Wow!
And that’s the thing, he may strike out, but he also hits a lot of balls very, very hard including over the fence.
Currently there is no one like him with his potential for power in the system. He’s gonna be one of the more interesting watches this spring in camp. His career could go several different ways in 2018.
1. The Cubs could take the conservative route with him and just let him do extended spring training and then ship them off to Eugene for the summer and keep him there.
2. Depending on how he does in spring training, he could begin the year in extended spring training and move to South Bend for the second half. That would be a bit advanced and an aggressive move to speed up his development.
3. The most likely career route for Velazquez in 2018 would be for him to do extended spring training, get shipped up to Eugene, and then have his career reevaluated in early August. If he still is striking out at a high rate, then keep them in Eugene. Playoff races in Eugene and South Bend could also affect his placement in late August. If Eugene is in and South Bend is out, keep him in Eugene. If South Bend is in and Eugene is out, ship him to South Bend.
The third scenario is the most likely and probably the one that could achieve what the Cubs think Velasquez needs to work on. Ideally, you want him to get as much game experience as you can. Then again, he’s only 19 and he’s not going to Chicago this year. The Cubs can let him get 300 at-bats in this year to improve that plate discipline and develop it as they see fit.
What could spoil all this is if Velasquez just comes out and start ripping the cover off the ball at every stop. PK Park in Eugene is not known as a home run haven, but Velasquez could turn it into one…quickly.
By Todd Johnson
There was a lot of news about the minor-league system this week. The Cubs signed outfielder Wynton Bernard to a minor league contract and assigned him to AAA Iowa. He previously played in the Yankee system and is only 25 years old.
I also appeared on a podcast yesterday with my fellow Cubs Insider colleague, Sean Holland. It was a lot of fun as we talked Cubs, prospects, and history. That link should be out on Monday or Tuesday. Look for the link on Twitter and give Sean a follow on Twitter (@sth85) if you haven’t already.
The Cubs also announced their minor-league coaching and training staff for the upcoming 2018 season. Embedded in the article was an offhand comment that the Cubs will be having a second team in the Arizona rookie league. Yesterday, I wrote an article about how that will impact the Cubs system this summer. And to be honest, I don’t think we’re gonna see the impact at the major-league level for 3 to 4 more years.
Getting back to the coaches list, there were three other things I noticed besides adding an extra affiliate.
1. The Cubs broke up the coaching staff at Eugene after back-to-back playoff appearances. Former manager Jesus Feliciano is now the AA hitting coach and Brian Lawrence will return to South Bend as the pitching coach.
2. The Cubs also put three more players former players back into the system as coaches. Former shortstop Jonathan Mota will be a manager in the Arizona Rookie League. Former catcher and infielder Ben Carhart will be an assistant coach in Tennessee. And, former first baseman Jacob Rogers will be at Eugene as an assistant.
3. Long time pitching coach David Rosario did not appear anywhere on the list. There are two pitching coach spots that have yet to be filled for the Mesa teams. I would think he should be somewhere as he still has a lot to offer. Last year, he was in Eugene.
Order of listing – Manager, Pitching Coach, Hitting Coach, Assistant
IOWA: Marty Pevey, Rod Nichols, Desi Wilson, and Chris Valaika
TENNESSEE: Mark Johnson, Terry Clark, Jesus Feliciano, and Ben Carhart
MYRTLE BEACH: Buddy Bailey, Anderson Tavarez, Ty Wright, and Carlos Rojas
SOUTH BEND: Jimmy Gonzalez, Brian Lawrence, Ricardo Medina, and Paul McAnulty
EUGENE: Steve Lerud , Armando Gabino, Osmin Melendez, and Jacob Rogers
MESA #1: Carmelo Martinez, TBA, TBA, and Leo Perez
MESA #2: Jonathan Mota, TBA, Claudio Almonte, and TBA
In less than five months, Major League Baseball will hold its annual Rule 4 draft. For the Cubs, their system could use a nice infusion of new high-end talent. The Cubs should have up to four picks in the top 75, which could re-energize the system.
Late last week, Baseball America merged their top 100 college player list with their top 100 high school player list to create a Top 200 list. The result is one of the deepest drafts in years. To see beyond the top 30 in their 200 list, you need a subscription.
I have discussed a few bats from the draft earlier in the winter but I keep coming back to Alec Brohm of Wichita State. Baseball America put up some BP work of him in last year’s Cape Cod League. There’s a whole lot for me to love in the video. He has a nice smooth swing that just reeks of power and precision. The issue is Brohm’s lack of athleticism in the field. BA figures he would move to 1B or DH, maybe even LF.
However, when I sat and listened last week to Jaron Madison talk about how the Cubs targeted pitching in the past two drafts, I wondered if the Cubs would take a stab at a pitcher that high in 2018. The risk, especially if it is a high school arm, would be astronomical.
I spent part of Friday night looking at some arms who could be available at #24. I looked at three high school arms and three college pitchers. The three that caught my eye were high school pitcher Cole Wilcox, lefty Tim Cate from Connecticut, and 6’11” Sean Hjele (pronounced Jelly) from the University of Kentucky (Click on their names for video profiles from MLB Pipeline).
They are three very different pitchers except for one thing – the ball comes out of their hands very easy. I like the fact that all three can throw in the low to mid to upper 90s with little effort. What I liked most about Wilcox was he’s just a teenager and he looks pretty polished already. Once he transitions to pitching full-time, the sky could be the limit for him. The only issue is he really doesn’t have one over powering pitch, but he does do everything well. He was on USA Baseball’s 18 U team and did really well. There’s a whole lot to like with this young man.
As for Cate, I looked at four videos of him pitching. He hides the ball extremely well and it’s hard for the hitter to pick up the ball coming out of the hand. As a result, he gets some of the ugliest swings I have seen this off-season. His curve destroys lefties with a nice 1 to 6 break in. I don’t know if he’s going to be a full-time starter, but he could move pretty quickly as a reliever. He would be a late first round pick, but he’s not gonna make it back through the second round. And like many players that Jason McLeod selects, Cate does have USA Baseball experience.
For Hjele, the guy is just huge. He was the SEC Pitcher of the Year last year as a sophomore and I think he has someone to keep an eye on this spring. He is very good now, but I can’t figure just what his ceiling would be. MLB Pipeline said of Hjele:
Hjelle’s best pitch is his low-80s knuckle-curve, which has impressive depth. His fastball velocity has improved from the upper 80s as a high school senior to the low 90s at Kentucky, and he intrigued scouts by hitting 96 mph during fall practice heading into 2018. He has good feel for a changeup and throws all three of his pitches for strikes.
Duane Underwood will be the subject of this week’s “Leveling Up” series and on Friday, the Position Breakdown List concludes for the winter with a look at relievers. Starting in February, I’ll begin to take a look at the big league club and some questions about the bullpen and the starting pitching heading into spring training, which is less than a month away.
Baseball Card of the Week
By Todd Johnson
When I first saw Zack Short play in 2016 for the Eugene Emeralds, I came away impressed with his overall game. He could hit for power, he could make all the throws at shortstop, and he had a somewhat decent approach at the plate. In 2017, things changed a bit for the better.
At class A South Bend, Short’s approach improved as he led the Midwest League in walks in the first half. He also continued his power stroke as he clubbed six home runs for the Cubs in the first half. He was named a Midwest League All-Star while playing a mixture of second (12 games), third (23 games), and shortstop (61 games). and was promoted to high class A Myrtle Beach in late June.
In the second half, Short continued his impressive season as he hit for a better average for the Pelicans and continued to display power. When looking back at the 2017 season, the most impressive thing about Short was that he continued to hit well at Myrtle Beach, a noted pitcher’s league. His on base percentage was .372 and in the second half he hit an additional six home runs in a ballpark where home runs go to die. Whether he can build upon those two skills remains to be seen.
When Zack Short was drafted in 2017, his blurb that day was to the point. I wrote, “A bit undersized at 5’11 and 175, he only hit .241 as a senior. There is some developing power. When he was a freshman, he was 5’9″ and 155 pounds. So, there’s some projection left. Well thought of in scouting circles.” Even then, that burgeoning power was evident. It appeared, on the surface, that the Cubs were going to get an ascending player who still had some growing into his body to do.
And that is exactly what the Cubs got.
Short is one of many prospects who will be moving up a level in 2018 from Myrtle Beach to AA Tennessee.
What I would like to see from him at Tennessee is for him to continue to get on base at a high rate as well as show power. He doesn’t necessarily have to hit 20 HRs, but he does have to show the ability to drive the ball into the gaps. His defense does need some work as he was somewhat error-prone in stretches last year.
When digging deeper into his statistics, Short has some interesting splits. His line drive rate increased 10 percent at Myrtle Beach as did his batting average of balls in play (BABIP). His BABIP went from .273 in South Bend to .307 at Myrtle Beach. I think there’s a direct correlation between the increased percentage of line drives to the batting average as his flyball rate fell from 57 to 43 percent and his ground ball rate stayed the same at 30 percent
If he can put together a pretty good season of getting on base and being in power mode, his value skyrockets. He might not be the most physically gifted athlete on the field but he does execute. He always has came across to me as a baseball rat. He lives, breathes, and eats baseball.
Short told his local paper about his daily grind:
“You work on everything every day. You are here doing early work every day. You have to stay with your routine every day and get better in all aspects of the game because somebody else is at your back chomping behind you to take your position.”
He comes across a guy who just knows how to play the game and I think that is the highest compliment I pay a prospect.
If there’s one thing the Cubs have shown that they covet in a prospect it’s the ability to control the strike zone. Zack Short has done that at four levels in just 639 at bats. That’s it. His career as a Cub has only been 6 1/2 months. If he does what he should and keeps grinding and getting on base, it’s going to last a lot longer.
Next week, the “Leveling Up” series looks at some starting pitchers who will advance to AA Tennessee in 2018 by the names of Rucker, Robinson, and Hatch.
By Todd Johnson
When thinking about 2018 and what could happen in South Bend, I get pretty excited thinking about seeing Jose Albertos pitch. With most of the teams in the Midwest League connected to the MiLB .TV network, I will be able to see most of his starts as long as he is stationed in South Bend.
It is easy to put into words why I am so giddy. Last year, I was extremely excited to see Dylan Cease pitch for South Bend. But this year, I am even more excited to see Albertos. In watching Jose pitch for Eugene last year, it’s quite evident that he does not put forth much effort to throw between 91 and 96. He looks free and easy. His changeup is straight out filthy and is easily the best changeup in the Cubs’ system. His curveball is still a work in progress and will be the focal point of his development in 2018. If he can consistently get his curve over, he will be at Myrtle Beach very, very quickly as that would give him 3 plus pitches that he can command.
It’s no secret that I think Albertos is the Cubs’ top prospect. His current floor is extremely high and, at just 19-years-old, he is not even close to his ceiling as a top of the rotation starter. In 2017, between extended spring training, Mesa, and Eugene, Albertos threw 60+ innings. For the most part, he stayed healthy. There was one stretch where he did miss two starts after working on his curveball. He came back, he whipped out the changeup on a more regular basis, and just dominated the Northwest League in August (1.96 ERA in 5 starts).
Albertos averaged pretty close to a strikeout per inning in 2017. What was most impressive was that he got better as the year went on.
Heading into 2018
Albertos should have three goals for next season. First, stay healthy. In 2016, he only pitched four innings and, ideally, you would like him to have him right around 100 innings in 2018. That puts him on pace for 130 innings in 2019 and then he could arrive in Chicago the year after. He would only be 21/22 years old at that type of pace.
His second goal should be to work on his curveball. Last year, it could be a 55 footer, it could sail over the catcher’s head, or it could be your classic Uncle Charlie. The more he threw it, the better he got and that is likely what is going to happen in 2018.
The third goal that should take place next year would be for him to move the ball up and down in the zone. He’s able to work the ball in and out with ease. His fastball command is pretty good and he can move the ball in and out of the zone. Now it’s a matter of changing eye levels with command if he doesn’t add a fourth pitch like a four seamer.
South Bend fans should be extremely excited to see what he can do. He is much more polished than any of the pitchers that the Cubs have sent out to the mound at South Bend the last three years, including Dylan Cease. I just hope that when I go down to Peoria for the first weekend in May that he will still be with the team. I’m pretty sure he will. However, all bets are off after Memorial Day.
Out of all the Cub prospects, Albertos is the most likely to MLB.com’s Top 100 Prospect List this summer.
By Todd Johnson
There have been many times over the past two summers where I have referred to Wladimir Galindo as “my guy.” I still feel that way despite his inability to stay healthy. What Galindo has is a large frame and the potential for power similar to previous prospects like Eloy Jimenez and Ian Happ. It’s a pretty fancy comparison, and I don’t really think it’s hyperbole to put him in with those two names. The only issue is whether he can stay healthy enough to fulfill that potential.
After staying healthy for most of 2016 at Eugene, I was really excited to see what Galindo could do in his first year in full season baseball at South Bend. I liked the fact that when he sees the ball, he hits the ball. In just 44 games, he hit .290 with four home runs and 19 RBIs at 20 years of age. There is a natural inclination for him to go up to the plate swinging. Although, in 2017. his K percentage shrunk to an all time low of 20.9%. Considering his injury history, you should not find this approach surprising.
Despite being signed in 2013, he only has 787 at bats for his total career. There’s not very many. In addition, he has not seen that many pitches in his four years of playing baseball in Venezuela, Mesa, Eugene, and South Bend. He has seen just a total of 2106 pitches as a professional. For your average player, that is not very many. Most full season minor leaguers will see between 1600 to 1800 pitches in just one season (120-140 games).
In his brief stint at South Bend, Galindo came across as an experienced hitter despite his lack of game experience. One thing that impressed me was how often and how easily he went to right field. at South Bend. 36.9% of batted ball by Galindo wound up in the opposite field. That is an extremely high rate that reminds me of another Cub who loved to go oppo in his prime in the 1990s.
Fangraphs said this last week,
Reports concerning Galindo’s approach indicate that his bat-to-ball profile is still pretty volatile despite the slight reduction in K% (over just a 44-game sample, mind you). Still, it’s an improvement when compared to Galindo’s previous two seasons. He’s a potential everyday player if he can stay at third and get to most of his power.
What needs to happen in 2018.
Wladimir has been posting updates on Twitter (@galindowladi38) about his rehab since his surgery to repair his broken leg in June. In early November, he began hitting off the tee and I think he’s going to be primed and ready to go when 2018 begins.
Thank you God I’m here again 🙏🏽🙏🏽🙏🏽🙌🏽🙌🏽🙌🏽 pic.twitter.com/dZ6VduERiq
— Wladimir Galindo (@galindowladi38) November 11, 2017
A few of you have asked me if I think he will start at South Bend or at Myrtle Beach in 2018. To be honest, he’s hit at every level and, despite a lack of plate appearances and pitches seen at each level, he has done extremely well. If he begins 2018 in the Carolina League, I expect him to do well. For him, it’s not gonna be that big of a jump.
What I would like to see most from him next year is to stay healthy. I’d like to see him get in 120 games at the plate. He could get 400 at-bats and see 1600 to 1700 pitches while hitting 15 to 20 home runs and driving in 70 to 80 runs. He could get in 80 games at third base and 20 at first while being the DH every once in awhile to rest his leg.
But the overriding goal is to stay healthy to do all of these things. I firmly believe that if he stays healthy, he could easily be the top power hitter in the Cubs’ system without much effort.
By Todd Johnson
I was all set to begin uploading “The Weekly” on Saturday night when I thought I would jump onto Twitter to see if there was a trade or signing. I should have known better. 15 minutes later, I finished reading John Sickels’ ranking of Cubs prospects and realized I would have to write a whole new column. Damn you, John Sickels!
To begin, Sickels’ list has a different top prospect than other recent prospect lists and his contains several rankings that are quite different from Fangraphs and Baseball America.
Pitcher Adbert Alzolay is fittingly ranked number one. And not surprisingly, Sickels did not give out one grade of “A” to any of the Cub prospects. In fact, he only handed out just six Bs. That’s quite an indictment of the Cubs’ system. Then again, just three of his top 10 prospects began their season above A+ last year.
The top prospect for both Baseball America and Fangraphs, shortstop Ademan, came in at number two and 2017 draft pick Alex Lange came in at number three. Lange’s inclusion so high in the list likely has to do more with his ability to move fast through the system based on one single dominant pitch, his curveball. I really like the placement of Lange this high. I love his competitiveness just as much as his curve.
Yeah, I’ve noticed the effort issue plus mixed reports on his changeup and FB velocity. But his track record is strong and I think he may thrive in pro environment. https://t.co/TRs3tcoYYN
— johnsickels (@MinorLeagueBall) December 1, 2017
Other players to make the top 10 included Jose Albertos, Victor Caratini, Oscar de la Cruz, Thomas Hatch, Brendon Little, Jen-Ho Tseng, and Mark Zagunis. In Sickels’ second 10, his selections get a little bit more adventurous.
Coming in at number 16 is pitcher Michael Rucker. Rucker started out as a reliever at South Bend in 2017 and wound up going to Myrtle Beach mid-summer and later replaced Oscar de la Cruz in the Pelicans’ starting rotation. Based on his summer split of a 2.51 ERA in 15 starts at Myrtle Beach, Rucker doesn’t seem to be letting go of the rotation at all. It’s a pretty meteoric rise one year after being drafted. He throws a lot strikes, something the Cubs seem to lack.
Sickels also gives some love to pitcher Keegan Thompson out of Auburn at number 17. Drafted in the 4th round in 2017, Thompson pitched some in relief at Eugene last summer. After missing all of 2016, Thompson came back as a different pitcher as he relied more on experience than a purebred 95 mph fastball. Instead, command and control became his calling card. He only threw 19 innings while striking out 23 in short season ball. He did make one start, a three inning scoreless affair.
I was a little surprised to see Sickels’ list so early this offseason, even more so in the wake of Fangraphs’ list, which just came out on Thursday. Sickels’ list does prove a few things about what I thought would happen this winter. One, not every evaluator is going to agree on who the Cubs’ number one prospect is. In addition, I don’t even think there’s a consensus on who the top Cub prospects are. DJ Wilson, who came in at number nine for Fangraphs, did not even make Sickels’ top 20 and graded out of with a C+.
I’m starting to get a kick out of the differentiation amongst the lists.
Two players who I thought might see a little love just based on their 2017 performances were Ian Rice and Zack Short. Neither has yet to make a list.
Then again, while offseason lists are fun to discuss the value of prospects, I tend to prefer mid-season rankings as you tend to get a better feel for players drafted the year before. This was true last year for Short, Rucker, and pitcher Duncan Robinson. I wonder what will be said about Little, Lange, Cory Abbott, and Keegan Thompson in the middle of next summer?
No word on when MLB Pipeline or Keith Law will publish their new lists. However, Baseball Prospectus is set to drop their top 10 Cubs prospect list on December 11. Hopefully, there will be a new name on the top of that list, like… say, Ohtani. That would be great!
By Todd Johnson
The questions keep coming in. As a result, I’m going to keep doing the mailbag. This week, there are three good questions to answer about three minor-league players.
Can Chesny Young contribute at the major league level?
I used to think that was the plan for 2017. Chesny’s first season at AAA contained extreme highs and lows. His monthly splits were a bit mind bending. In April, he hit .224. He rebounded in May to hit .367. At that point, I thought he had found his groove. Then again, June’s average plummeted to .240 only to rise to .300 in July and back down to .188 in August. That, my friends, is one heck of a roller coaster season.
While he played all over the field. I am hoping the season was just an aberration and that he will be back to normal in 2018. One interesting split I saw was that he hit .517 when ahead in the count and .188 when behind.
Iowa was the first level where he did not hit at a consistent high-level year round. Hopefully, he can find that consistency in 2018. If he can, then the answer to your question is a most definite yes.
Jhon Romero’s WHIP and K% have improved at every level. What’s his ceiling? How far does he advance in 2018?
This is an excellent question. I don’t think most Cub fans are aware of Romero as he shot onto the scene in the second half of 2017. He has a nice two pitch mix which I think can get him to Tennessee by the middle of 2018. After that, I don’t know how much further he’s going to go without a third pitch. Hopefully, that is something he is working on this winter. Then again, there have been plenty of pro relievers with a two pitch mix.
In seeing his curveball, I really like the sharpness and the point at which it breaks in its delivery, which is rather late. As a result, I think he might be a guy you just kind a hope will do well and is able to get by with just two pitches in limited relief appearances. I don’t think he’s the kind a guy you are going to trot out every other day, but rather once a series. That way he is able to get by in limited relief appearances.
What will happen with Carson Sands?
Since the beginning of June 2016, his career has been almost a disaster. That summer, his ERA skyrocketed. In the winter, he had elbow splints removed from his pitching arm. And when he came back last July, something just wasn’t quite right. Maybe, he was not fully healed.
When I saw him pitch at Beloit last summer, he struggled just to get the ball over the plate in 2.2 IP. When he pitched from the stretch, it was not pretty. In 3 starts for the South Bend Cubs, he walked 14 guys in 6.1 IP before he went down to Eugene. He only made 1 appearance there in relief and gave up 3 runs in 2 innings.
I am hoping that time off will allow his elbow to heal.
It’s a bit of a head scratcher to see how quickly his career went off the rails. In May 2016, he was one of the best pitchers in the Cubs organization. He had a 1.24 ERA in 5 starts and struck out 18 in 29 IP. He looked to be on the quick path to Myrtle Beach. Then something happened. I don’t know if it was the elbow splints that derailed his season or something else. He only made 6 starts the rest of the season along with 7 appearances out of the pen that resulted in a 9.91 ERA in the second half.
Sometimes, I wonder if more things are going on that we don’t know about. Whether I watched him pitch for South Bend or Eugene last year, as soon as a guy got on base, he really labored to get outs. He’s never been a pitcher that had a real “out “pitch, but he was always able to get guys to get themselves out.
He seems like a good kid who I think really knew how to pitch before he hit a rough patch that turned into a year and a half one.
As a result, I think the Cubs will wait and see how he looks in Spring Training and go from there. Ideally, Myrtle Beach might be the best spot for him if he is healthy and can get the ball over the plate. Then again, the Cubs may hold him back in extended spring training to get him right before assigning him.
I will be back next week with Episode IV as I answer questions on Wladimir Galindo, Buddy Bailey, and Oscar de la Cruz. If you have a question for me, you can tweet at me (CubsCentral08) or you can send me an email at CubsCentral firstname.lastname@example.org.