By Todd Johnson
There’s always one…always.
Every year at short season ball, there’s always one prospect who catches my eye. There are always several that I like, but just one who I am just fascinated to watch. That prospect might not be fully formed or developed, but for some reason, I cannot take my eyes off of them. In the past, it’s been Trevor Clifton, Zack Short, Eloy, and Jose Albertos.
This year is no different. No, it’s not Nico Hoerner, nor is it Nelson Velazquez, Brailyn Marquez, Fernando Kelli, or Jonathan Sierra, though I like them all very, very much. This year, it is Luis Vazquez.
The first look I got of Vazquez was in his promo video (down below). He was just a scrawny kid who looks very fluid in his movements. You see him running, hitting, fielding, throwing. It looks like most other videos of players from the Caribbean and Latin America. What sets Vazquez apart is the way he moves. It’s not awkward. It’s not mechanical. It’s very fluidic, very natural, almost earthy. It’s not forced at all. And he looks like he could gain a few pounds. And based on how he looks this year, he’s no longer 6’1” and he’s no longer 165 pounds.
The Arizona Rookie League
The first look I got of Vazquez was in a video by Baseball Census of pitcher Mitch Stophel. At 1:32, Vazquez comes out of nowhere to make a couple of nice plays. I was amazed at his range and his quick release. For a 17 year-old in the Arizona Rookie League, Vazquez survived. He started out hot hitting .346 in July before cooling off. In August , he only hit .135. A plus, though, was that his strikeout rate was decent at close to 20%. That’s not too bad for a kid playing against pitchers with much better stuff than he was accustomed to seeing in Puerto Rico. In the playoffs, Vazquez went 4-for-5 in 2 games as the Cubs won the title.
In Spring Training this year, heads turned in Mesa this spring when the young shortstop played in actual game with the big league club. He went 0-for-2 at the plate but looked like he belonged out there at shortstop.
June in Eugene
Things have not gone exactly as planned at short season Eugene. Originally, Luis was going to largely play shortstop and solidify the infield. For the first two weeks, he did just that. He showed great range, a good arm, made good decisions, and was looked to by the rest of the team as the de facto defender. His bat, however, did not do so well. Hitting in the bottom of the order for 13 games, he only hit .154 and struck out 10 times in 39 at-bats.
And then July came…
…And so did shortstop Nico Hoerner, the Cubs’ #1 draft pick this year. Hoerner slid right into the starting shortstop position. But instead of it being the downfall of Vazquez, it was the beginning. Luis began playing second and showed he could play there at an elite level without a hitch. Third base? No problem! I am amazed at how easily he slid into those spots and displayed elite skills on day one. The ability to thrive in that situation really speaks to his makeup and desire.
What has changed the most for Luis, though, is his bat. For July, he’s hitting .364 with 1 HR and 5 in his last 10 games with only 3 Ks in 22 ABs. I am excited to see if he can maintain that high level of production and keep his strikeout rate low. I really like how he handles the bat. Sometimes, he might push an at-bat too hard. He just needs to learn when to be aggressive and when to not be. It is still a work in progress. He will have good games and bad games.
And just as soon as Nico came, Nico left. Luis was penciled right back in at shortstop last night. He went 1-for-4 with a HR and 2 RBI.
Vazquez is going to stay at Eugene all summer. Give him time to finish growing. His physicality should grow with it. He’s still pretty raw at the plate but the more pitches he sees, the better he is going to be. He’s just 18. But it’s an extremely impressive 18.
By Todd Johnson
Back in the spring, I wrote an article for BP Wrigleyville about which affiliate would be the team to watch in the first half. I wound up picking South Bend mainly because of their pitching. And that turned out to be a good pick as they also had exciting players to watch. Now that the second half is here, who is the affiliate to keep an eye on for the next two months.?
Considering that Iowa has really produced a lot of help for the big league club the spring with David Bodie, Anthony Bass, Victor Caratini, and other assorted relievers, one could make an argument that Iowa should be the team to watch in case the Cubs need more starting pitching. Casey Coleman, Duane Underwood, and Trevor Clifton are three to watch. Meanwhile, Dakota Mekkes and Kyle Ryan are two relievers to examine. At the plate, Mark Zagunis could fill a hole if needed and Chesney Young appears to fully have his groove back again in July. Finally, Taylor Davis could provide a backup catcher if needed.
Myrtle Beach’s Case
Right now, the Pelicans’ hitting is not doing very well. Outside of Andruw Monasterio, PJ Higgins, and Jhonny Pereda, most of prospects are hitting in the .220s or below. But when it comes to pitching, especially the starting variety, Myrtle Beach has several arms to watch. Erich Uelmen didn’t miss a beat when he was promoted to South Bend to Myrtle Beach. 2017 First Round pick Alex Lange is definitely an arm to watch. His changeup seems to be rounding into form as it fades away from right-handed hitters. If he can maintain the current arm slot as his fastball, he becomes deadly. In addition, pitcher Tyson Miller looks to be strong at this point in the season and is getting better every month as his season ERA continues to drop near 3.00. I also look forward to the return of Bailey Clark who missed most of June. Reliever Jhon Romero might be headed for Tennessee very soon at the rate he is striking out batters.
When I first thought of doing this article 2 months ago, I would’ve said that Eugene would be the team to watch with all the young players. It’s still is, but some of those players are going through a lot of growing pains. Right now, the star attraction is number one draft pick shortstop Nico Hoerner. Then again, he’s missed the last five days after injuring his pinky finger sliding into third base. Hopefully he will return soon, and stay there a while before he gets shipped off to South Bend. Otherwise, Fernando Kelli is never dull on the basepaths as he leads the Northwest League in stolen bases. Fireballin’ Pitcher Brailyn Marquez is must see TV. And in good news, Nelson Velasquez and Luis Vazquez seem to be finding in their strokes after a rough first two weeks. Both are hitting well over .300 this month. Luis Diaz has been a nice surprise. Jonathan Sierra has a great eye at the plate but has yet to get the bat going, although he went 4-for-4 last night . The 2018 draft picks have been a little slow to head to Eugene and they seem to be dispersed throughout the system rather than Eugene.
South Bend’s Case
They could easily make a strong case to be the team to watch this half, too. Pitchers Rollie Lacy, Tyler Thomas, and Jesus Camargo are something else. Every time they go out, they seem to just give up zero or one run in 5 to 7 innings with 8 to 10 Ks. First baseman Jared Young is destroying the ball and was just named the Cubs’ minor league player of the month for June. Miguel Amaya slipped a little bit last month but he is still a very exciting young prospect and was just named to the World roster at the Future’s Game. Brandon Hughes looks to be in a groove since adjusting his stance. Michael Cruz also adjusted his approach and hit over .300 in June. This gives South Bend Cubs, arguably, the top 1-9 batting order in the system.
Over the first two-plus weeks of the second half, the Smokies have been the hottest team in the system. They are currently in first place as their hitters seemed to have woken up from a two month slumber. Leading the charge are shortstop Zack Short, second baseman Trent Giambrone, and outfielder Charcer Burks. As soon as the All-Star break ended, those three begin to take off and haven’t stop hitting for the past two weeks. In addition, new pitchers Matt Swarmer and Keegan Thompson are beginning to adjust to AA as the Smokies have gone to a six-man rotation. Thomas Hatch is always a fun watch. I love to see Duncan Robinson pitch whenever he starts and the same is true of Michael Rucker. The two 2016 draft picks just throw strikes. With Jake Stinnett now entrenched as the closer, this team has a lot going on as they sit firmly in first place.
As for the four rookie league teams, none of them are televised, although the Arizona Rookie League teams do get some press coverage with Arizona Phil. They also have 2/3 of this year’s class spread across the two teams.
Considering all of these things, it’s pretty close between Tennessee and South Bend. The deciding factor for my choice comes down to this: Which prospects are going to be at South Bend or Tennessee the whole two months. I can firmly say that most of Tennessee’s roster is going to stay in Kodak. I can’t say the same for South Bend. I could see Jared Young getting the call today as well as Lacy and Thomas. As a result, the first place Tennessee Smokies are going to get a lot more attention the rest of the way in. It should be fun.
By Todd Johnson
A month ago today, the Cubs finished up the 2018 MLB draft by selecting 42 players. Today is the final day for almost all of those players to sign. Currently, The Cubs have signed 30. That’s the largest draft class in the Theo era. But they are not done yet. By the end of today, the Cubs could add more players, and one of them doesn’t have to sign today.
One player who could sign is pitcher Layne Looney, a reliever from the University of Richmond, is one player who I thought would have signed a long time ago. Drafted in the 19th Round, his signing was a no-brainer, but for some reason it has not happened. Catcher Hunter Taylor had a deep run in the College World Series for South Carolina. A senior in college, Hunter technically does not have to sign today. The Cubs could sign him all the way up until almost next year’s draft because he is a senior.
Another possible sign is pitcher Niels Stone from Indian River Junior College. A lefty, taken in the 27th round, the Cubs could sign him to a deal fairly quickly. The Cubs were thought to be using some of their overage to sign 28th round pick high school pitcher Mitchell Parker from the Albuquerque area to an oversight deal. That deal fell through on July 4th when Parker announced he would be going to college instead.
The players listed above are from rounds 11-40, Those who sign today can sign for bonuses up to $125,00 and not have it count against the Cubs’ bonus pool. However, there is just $83,955 of overage left for the Cubs to help sway someone’s mind.
As for the rest of the draft class, of the 30 that signed, most of them were assigned a club except for a few stragglers who just signed this week. The stragglers, like fifth round pick 2B Andy Weber from Virginia, will have to go through an orientation for about a week before they are assigned an affiliate.
To see how all the draft picks are doing in game action, MLB.com has a site for each team that you can track them all on one page. It’s pretty cool not to have to go from team site to team site to see how they are doing.
Here are the actual assignments so far of who has “officially” been put on a roster. FYI – Most of the pitchers have been given a limit of only 30 innings the next two months before they get shut down after already having pitched this spring.
Nico Hoerner, Riley McCauley, Zach Mort, Paul Richan, Ethan Roberts, Cam Sanders, Carlos Vega, Tyler Durna, and Jake Slaughter.
Clayton Daniel, Jack Patterson, Luke Reynolds, Jamie Galazin, and Dalton Hurd.
Blake Whitney, Levi Jordan, Miguel Pabon, Ezequiel Pagan, Drew Wharton, Brennen Davis, and DJ Artis.
No “Official” Assignments for: Jimmy Herron, Kohl Franklin, Cole Roederer, Derek Casey, Andy Weber, Riley Thompson, Josh Sawyer, Jake Reindl, and Chris Allen.
Non-Drafted Free Agents – Grant Fennel is playing for Mesa 2 and Brennon Kaleiweaha is playing for Eugene. Caleb Knight has not been “officially” assigned an affiliate.
By Todd Johnson
Those are some pretty high fastball speeds for a 19-year-old pitcher who disappears when he turns sideways. Right now, Brailyn Marquez can get his FB up in the mid to upper 90s and sustain it. To go with it, he also throws a curve in the low to mid 80s. That’s impressive for age! He is one of the most magnetic pitchers to watch in the lower part of the Cubs’ system, but Marquez will need a lot more as he matures to get to Chicago.
6’4”, 185 lbs.
Current Affiliate: Eugene Emeralds
Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic
Signed as an IFA in 2015
Marquez began his career in the Dominican Summer League where he made 12 starts. He raised a lot of eyebrows with his performance. He struck out 48 batters in 54.2 IP. His ERA was 1.48 that summer as he began to learn how to pitch. In 2017, Marquez spent the summer in Mesa playing in the Arizona Rookie League. It was quite an adjustment. He threw in 11 games with 9 of them the starting variety. The results were not even close to 2016. At Mesa, his ERA ballooned to 5.52 despite striking out 52 in 44 IP. An increased WHIP of 1.41 was not sustainable. He sat 93-95 most days but struggled keeping the ball down and getting his curve in for strikes.
The first thing you notice different about Marquez this year is the bump in velocity and increased control. While the FB speeds are eye-catching, they are not the end all of pitching. Then again, they do give Marquez a very nice foundation to build on. So far he’s made three starts this season. Embedded in his stats are some eye-popping numbers.
The first thing that gets your attention is the ERA at 2.08. Then there are the 20 Ks and a WHIP of 1. All of those are very good signs. Then you look at the number of pitches per start of 65, 72, and 77. Then again, in his first start, Marquez only lasted 3.2 innings and 3.1 in his second. His third start was very impressive as he lasted 6 innings and whiffed 8 that game. He looked pretty gassed at the longest game of his career.
There are 3 things Marquez needs to work on in the near future.
1. Efficiency – He has to work shorter counts. He’s only pitched in the sixth inning three times in his three year career and that includes his last start. It’s not that he’s getting beat up, he’s just working deep counts. Some might call it nibbling, but it’s not. He just needs to command his arsenal better for strikes instead of balls. He might be what is called “effectively wild” at 95 mph.
2. A Third Pitch – He should be just fine this year with his fastball-curve combo. When he starts to have the control and command of those two, he should begin developing a third one because Midwest Leaguers will just sit on one of them and he will get eaten alive as a two-pitch starter in the Carolina League.
3. Aggressiveness – In watching him pitch three times, there is no doubt Marquez is a head-turning pitcher. However, when he is not commanding his FB/Curve combo, he’s tough to watch as he struggles to find the zone. When he gets the ball and goes right after hitters, like he did in his last start, he becomes a very promising young pitcher, very promising indeed.
For Now Though…
He should be very exciting to follow this summer when the Emeralds are at home, as only one other team has TV in the league. He is going to fill out eventually and gain some weight and his FB could tick up even more. That might be hard to imagine. But he’s going to need more than just that. For now, though, let’s just take it one start at a time and try not to get dazzled by the radar gun and see how he does in the three aforementioned areas.
By Todd Johnson
It has been an exciting week in the minors. There were several promotions, some draft signings, and lots of debuts of players in new uniforms. From Chicago to Mesa, new was the word. Then again, there will be several more in the weeks ahead as only 13 of the players the Cubs signed from this year’s draft debuted. More are coming.
Tomorrow, the 2018-2019 International Free Agency signing period begins. The Cubs are expected to sign a few top prospects in pitchers Richard Gallardo and Joel Machado along with outfielder Jose Lopez. The Cubs have almost $5 million to spend. It is also the first time since 2015 that they can sign a player for more than $300,000. They will not blow through all of their pool tomorrow. Only a few big names will be released tomorrow, most of the list will be released in October.
No New Top 21
Normally, I would do a new Top 21 list after International Free Agency begins, but not this year. All of the players the Cubs will sign will not play until 2019. So, I decided to wait to think about adding them to the list unless their name is Victor Mesa…and it’s not.
But if I did, there would be a few additions and a few subtractions. Jared Young has played himself into consideration for a spot while Eugene OF Fernando Kelli bears watching along with fellow teammate Jonathan Sierra. In addition, Chesny Young looks to be playing himself back into contention and Duncan Robinson is definitely an arm to watch as he is having big success at AA this year. Pitchers Rollie Lacy, Erich Uelmen, and Tyler Thomas are also worthy of consideration as well.
Who’s Hot at the Plate Right Now?
The second half just started ten days ago. Several players are busting it out of the gate. Zack Short of Tennessee is ripping the cover off the ball (.360+ with 3 HRs and 12 RBI) along with teammate Eddy Martinez (.333 with 2 HRs and 9 RBI). In Myrtle Beach, Andruw Monasterio over his last ten is lighting up a box score at close to .400. Roberto Caro (.400) of South Bend leads a parade of hitters in northern Indiana who are putting balls in play over their last ten games including Brandon Hughes (.289), Austin Filiere (.314), and Michael Cruz (.308). At AAA Iowa, Mark Zagunis is currently in the midst of one of his nicest streaks of the year after a rough May. Chesny Young also looks to have regained his stroke hitting .289 for the month (heading into last night’s game).
Around the System
While Tennessee and South Bend got off to decent starts in the second half, Myrtle Beach has not at 2-8. Their bats have pretty much gone silent except for Monasterio. Iowa is still finding who will be on the roster from day-to-day with the Cubs’ injury issues in Chicago. Eugene started out hot and then cooled off as the bats and pitching are struggling. The Ems have lost 7 in a row and are now at 5-10.
Meanwhile, down in Mesa, the Cubs Mesa 1 team looks to be doing well at 6-4 while the 2 team has some pitching issues at 4-6. Both teams in the DSL are at 9-15 and 10-15 respectively as they struggle at the plate and in the field. SS Fabian Pertuz is back after missing almost two weeks. He immediately hit when he got back on the lineup. He will be one to watch the next two months.
The June All-Star Team
I will put it out later today. Check back around 4:30-5 Central time.
Players of the Week
Card of the Week
By Todd Johnson
When a prospect debuts in Mesa in the Arizona Rookie League, there is not a lot of press there to cover it. Usually, there are not even 10 people in attendance. For three games in anonymity, Cubs first round pick Nico Hoerner hit .250 with a .400 on base percentage with two stolen bases. It was a pretty unassuming start to his pro career.
Yesterday afternoon, I broke the word that Hoerner had been placed on Eugene’s roster. And lo and behold, there he was in all his tie-dye glory at 9 PM central playing shortstop for the Cubs’ short season Class A affiliate. In addition, Nico was joined by fellow 2018 draft picks Tyler Durna and Jake Slaughter.
As for Nico…
Hoerner went one-for-four on the night. His lone hit was a single to right. He was also hit by a pitch. One would think that playing shortstop that Hoerner would have more than two chances in the field, but that’s all he got. Showing good range, he made a nice play going to his left and the other assist was on a routine grounder.
What surprised me most about Hoerner was that he is a little bit bigger than I first thought. He’s not some Dustin Pedroia or Ryan Theriot clone. He’s much bigger than them.
At 6’1″, he stands pretty straight up in the batter’s box. He’s pretty trim and muscular and carries his weight well. He has a nice smooth stroke to the ball. Although, in his Eugene debut, he didn’t really square one up. He struck out twice and grounded out to third.
Mstt Dompe, the Emeralds TV/radio announcer, explained that Hoerner, Durna, and Slaughter all got off a plane just a couple hours before gametime. There is no game for Eugene tonight due to a Grateful Dead concert, hence the jerseys. Hoerner and the Ems will play two on Sunday against the Everett Aqua Sox. That will give us an extended, and probably better, look at the Cubs’ first pick.
I wouldn’t put too much stock in one game, but it was fun to watch him and to get some first looks at how he swings, plays D, and his overall demeanor.
As for Durna and Slaughter…
I came away impressed with Durna, a 15th round pick, as he has a nice short stroke to the ball. He went two-for-four with a triple. The night before he drove in six runs for Mesa. For a 1B, he’s only 6′ tall, but he made every play at first just fine. However, like most 1B, his bat will need to be his calling card.
3B Jake Slaughter was originally drafted by the Cubs in 2016 but instead he chose to go to LSU. The Cubs redrafted him this year after his sophomore year. He is a lot bigger than I thought. At 6’3” and only 200 pounds, the 21-year-old third baseman has some room to add on to his big frame. He had a decent night going one-for-three with a walk and a strikeout.
In the future, I am excited to see more of what Hoerner can do. I’m excited to see him square one up, sprint to second, make more plays to his right. I’m excited to see Nico sprint down the line after a pop up, come in on a slow roller, fire a laser to first, and to see him take charge in crucial situations. It’s hard to get all that in just one game. Last night was just his debut. He got his feet wet. It’s just gonna take time to see what all he can do, along with his teammates.
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.