By Todd Johnson
David Bote’s arrival in Chicago has been a very pleasant surprise this summer. He is flashing his bat, power, approach, glove, arm, and base running skills while endearing himself to millions of Cub fans with his play. But there is something else that is at work. Out of the Cubs everyday players, only Bryant and Russell were given everyday spots from the get go. Javy and Schwarber had to work their way in through the bench. The same was true for Willson Contreras, Albert Almora, and Ian Happ.
As a result, who might be next to get the call to help off the bench? One would think that once Bryant is healthy, that Bote would go back down to Iowa and that Bote will be available to head back to Chicago at a moment’s notice. However, there is another player down in Iowa who might be a name we could hear more of in the coming months. That is Jason Vosler.
Vosler’s biggest asset is his left-handed bat. Armed with a beautiful swing, power, and the ability to play first and third bases, Vosler is having a great two month stretch in 2018 – First at Tennessee and now at Iowa.He’s hitting .290 in July and is currently the Cubs’ MiLB RBI leader.
The Cubs drafted Vosler in the 16th round out of Northeastern in 2014. He played at Boise that first summer. While he only hit .266, his OBP of .361 was quite good. In 2015, he was at South Bend, which is where I got my first look at him. He showed a good approach, had a beautiful swing even back then. I didn’t take him to be an elite prospect at that point. In fact, when he was promoted mid-season to Myrtle Beach, I was taken aback. He had not lit the Midwest League on fire. Sure, he had 6 dingers in 38 games, but nothing earth shattering was going on in the box score. He would hit 4 more homers for the Pelicans the rest of the year. But sometimes, the stat line doesn’t tell the whole story.
In 2016, he played 93 games for Myrtle Beach and hit .250 with a .314 OBP and 2 homers. Still, he found his way to Tennessee for 26 games. At this point in his career, he was not striking out much. For all of 2016, he only whiffed 78 times in almost 120 games. That’s not bad. His swing still looked great. I thought that it was only a matter of time before he began hitting for a higher average.
The next spring, Vosler found his way back to AA Tennessee. The summer of ‘17 saw Vosler’s power numbers explode. He hit 21 HRs and drove in 81 and that earned him a trip to the prestigious Arizona Fall League. Despite those numbers, not everything was on track for a promotion. He struck 120 times in 129 games and only walked 53 all the while hitting only .241. His average was a little misleading. Hit he .270 in the first half and .211 in the second. In addition, his power production dropped precipitously in the second half, going from 13 homers and 49 RBI in the first half down to 8 dingers and 32 driven in for the second half. In the fall league, he hit 2 home runs and drove in 13 in 23 games where he played a mixture of first and third base.
It looked like he would start 2018 back at Tennessee.
However, Jason still had that beautiful swing. The power surge was something most people did not see coming. He had gone from 2 HRs in 2014, to 10 in 2015, 3 in 2016, and 21 in 2017. Could it be sustained in 2018?
Things did not start out so well for Jason this year. In April, he hit .182 but smacked 4 HRs with 15 RBI. May was not very good until something just clicked in the middle of the month. Over the next six weeks, Vosler’s average went up 50 points. By the time June ended, Jason Vosler hit .273 and had a very impressive .371 OBP while hitting 5 HRs with 26 RBI. It is easy to see why he was promoted. That approach I first saw at South Bend along with that same swing was now producing at an elite level.
Vosler has not stopped hitting in July. After 8 days, he’s hitting .290 for the month with 2 HRs and 7 RBIs. He has yet to take a walk at Iowa while he has struck out 21 times in 14 AAA games since he was promoted. That is something he will surely be working on the next two months.
Vosler is close to being the next guy. He has an excellent command of the zone and he already has the ability to hit for the power from the left side, something every franchise needs. It should be exciting to see how his AAA career continues and whether or not he will get a shot to help the big league club this year and next.
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
For three straight summers, Chesney Young could do no wrong in the batter’s box. Beginning at Boise and Kane County in 2014, South Bend and Myrtle Beach in 2015, and Tennessee in 2016, Young appeared to roll out of bed every day and lace singles to all parts of the ballpark. It wasn’t until he hit AAA Iowa in 2017 did he have his first taste of a struggle.
While he has never been one to hit for power, Young has always displayed an adept bat a solid approach at the plate that was beyond his years. Originally a 14th round draft pick out of Mercer in 2014, Young had a career average of .314 after 2016 and he had just missed a batting title in the Southern League on a technicality in 2016 . What happened to him last year caught most minor-league followers by surprise…including myself.
Throughout 2017 Cheney Young was on a roller coaster. He was prime to be a utility player as he be at began to play all over the field in Tennessee. At Iowa and he started playing the outfield more and more but his monthly splits were abhorrent to say the least
Take a look at the 2017 splits for batting average:
April – .224
May – .367
June – .240
July – 300
August – .188
Once you start to dig deeper into the stats you see something very on Chesney like. He was striking out more and walking less than ever before. He whiffed 70 times in 2017 and only walked 33.
He also was pulling the ball more than 40% of the time. His previous high was 39% at Myrtle Beach. Usually Young went to right field more hitting as high as 61% at Boise and 43.5% at Myrtle Beach.
At the time, I found it odd that a guy who almost won the Southern League batting title to struggle so mightily at a level very similar in talent. There had to be something more.
As the 2018 season began, it looked like Chesney picked up where ended 2017 as he struggled only hitting 183. He struck out an unbelievable 23 times in just 60 ABs. However, things began to come around the next month. He’s back hitting baseballs all over right field. In May, he hit .325 with a .361 OBP, which are very much in line with his career averages before 2017. I was a little relieved but I still wanted to see how he did over time. Could he be consistent in June or would he falter?
Bad News and Good News
His first week of June did not start out like gangbusters as he went 3-for-21. He then found his groove, a really good one, that has lasted all month. Heading into the last days of June, He is currently hitting .299 for the month with only 8 Ks in 63 ABs. In his last ten games, he’s hitting .345. He might get his average above .300 for the second month in a row.
Chesny’s future value begins with his bat. If he can keep his bat profile consistent, it opens a lot of doors for him. He’s also been playing mostly 2B and 3B instead of all over the field. In 2017, he did everything but pitch and catch. Mainly playing the same two spots this year has to have helped put him at ease.
Going forward, Chesny needs to continue to be consistent. This year, so far, it looks like Chesny’s got his groove back.
By Todd Johnson
I have been thinking about this a lot. And every time I watch Duane Underwood pitch, that is the question that is on my mind. And there are several other questions to go with it. Like, how close is he to being ready? Will Underwood be successful if he makes it? And to be honest, they are all pretty close to the same question. And the answer is always the same. Almost.
It is pretty nondescript and as vague as one can get while at the same time being somewhat positive, but not too positive.
Drafted in the compensation round in 2012, Underwood has had his moments as a Cub prospect. Some of them, early on, were eye-opening about the condition he needed to keep his body in and the talent that he has when he is healthy.
At Kane County and Myrtle Beach he was throwing an easy 95 and was named the Cubs MiLB pitcher of the Year in 2015 at Myrtle Beach. He had a 2.48 ERA that year in 73.1 innings.
Things started going off the rails for him in 2016 as he battled injuries for the better part of of the season. Nothing required surgery, but it was a little alarming.
It was good to see him pitch 131 innings last year and he has looked much more mature on the mound since about the middle of July 2017.
This year, he looks to be in great shape. His curveball looks great. And, most importantly, he’s throwing pretty much where he wants when he wants. When he occasionally gets the ball up , that’s when he runs into trouble.
He can start a hitter off with a curve ball on strike one or he can finish them off with the change up for strike three. It’s good that he’s pitching in a variety of ways but he’s keeping the ball down. And when he does that, he is almost unhittable. This year, he has a 3.98 ERA in 110 starts with 56 K in 61 innings. He’s only walked 15, which is amazing.
He’s just a phone call away now. Even though it seems like he’s been around forever, it has only been six years. He is still just 23 years old. The only thing he has left work on is to have consistency from start to start to start to start. For awhile this year, he gave up either 4 runs or 0 runs for six straight starts. As a result, his ERA is not a true indication of his season other than his inconsistencies.
Last Friday, for example. He got hit hard in the first inning and gave up four runs. However, over the next four innings, he struck out a total eight guys (10 total) while not allowing anything else. The issue that first inning was he lead off the game with two walks, then he gave up two singles. He wasn’t hit hard, he just couldn’t get the ball where he wanted before striking out the last two batters. The damage, though, was already done.
The Cubs are only going to put him in Chicago if they feel that he can succeed. I don’t know when that will be, but I do know that he is almost there. It’s all about consistency now.
By Todd Johnson
Tonight in Iowa, pitcher Trevor Clifton will make his AAA pitching debut. I am very excited to watch him pitch. Now that he’s just one step away from Chicago, it’s a bittersweet night. His journey to AAA has been thrilling and frustrating as he’s learned to adapt at every level, something he will need to do in Chicago. Wow! He’s that close. Sorry, I got a bit distracted by how far the 23-year-old has come since he was a 12th round pick back in 2013.
It’s easy to remember when you see a prospect for the very first time, especially when you are excited about their talent. When Trevor Clifton debuted for the Boise Hawks in 2014, the excitement of broadcaster Mike Safford came through over the Internet. It wasn’t until Clifton pitched at Hillsboro that July did I get to see him for the very first time. Once I got past those uniforms, there was a lot to like.
What was evident early what was the potential. He had a mid 90s fastball, a looping curve back then, and a lot of room to fill out. He was a pretty skinny 19-year-old. When he got to South Bend the next year, Clifton put on some weight but began to struggle a bit in June of 2015. After a suspension in a bench-clearing brawl, Clifton came back and began a stretch of great pitching that summer that lasted for two years where he ascended to the top 10 on most Cub prospect lists. He was even named the Cubs Pitcher of the Year in 2016 while at Myrtle Beach after a season in which he put up a 2.72 ERA and struck out 129 in 109 innings.
Last year at Tennessee, he had a great first half with a 2.84 ERA in 12 starts and was named a Southern League All-Star. It looked as though he was about a month away from heading to Iowa. Then all the wheels fell off. He struggled most of July and into August before he was shut down for the season after his August 21st start..
It’s a bit of a change to go from a six man rotation down to five. But for Clifton that wasn’t the issue. Part of me thought it might be something mechanical was going on or maybe something just got in his head. Whatever the reason, It doesn’t matter now. He’s bounced back.
Clifton started 2018 with a decent April in which he had a 3.96 ERA. Outside of one inning, he gave up just 3 runs in the other 24 frames (1.13 ERA). For May, he put up a 2.36 ERA in 26.2 IP with 25 Ks.
To be frank, 2018 Trevor Clifton looks like Trevor Clifton of old. The guy that really took off in July 2015 looks to be like the same guy pitching for Tennessee in 2018. The curve ball is a little tighter, his change has a little more fade, and his fastball still explodes about 10 feet from the plate.
Not every prospect’s journey to the big leagues is a straight shot. What I like this year is there seems to be some sort of maturity going on. He’s able to get past mental hurdles when he gives up one or two runs to start the game and then he just settles down and can go for five more innings of shutout baseball. He’s not been an arm that will give up a run here or there. Teams either hit him or they don’t. They either get to him early or they get to him late or they don’t get to him at all.
I loved how hard he has worked this off-season to get back to where he needs to be to pitch good baseball. I’ve always enjoyed the swings against him. Seeing him live, he’s at his best when he’s loose, fluid, and not really thinking about what he’s doing. He’s just getting the signal and throwing it to the catcher and letting his natural abilities do what they do. The biggest thing that he has going for him is that he can be a dominant pitcher because of the late movement on all his pitches. He can throw 93 or 95, but those numbers don’t matter.
When he takes the mound tonight, I will be excited to see how he does. I might be a bit misty.
By Todd Johnson
It looks like all systems are go for Adbert Alzolay to make his major league debut on Saturday against the Cincinnati Reds. Alzolay will pitch one game of the doubleheader and head right back to AAA Iowa when the weekend is over. The 23-year-old right-handed starting pitcher from Venezuela features a mid to upper 90s fastball that he can maintain through the sixth and seventh innings. He can mix and match it with a developing change up and an average curve which seems to have a harder bite this year.
Is there anything to read into this?
Not really. One of the Cubs’ strengths has been to evaluate their own players. The Cubs know what they have in Alzolay and they’re going to take their time with him, but he is close to being ready for the majors. This Saturday will give the Cubs a look at how he does against major league hitters. No more, no less. At 23 years of age, and already on the 40 man roster, this should just be a preview in case there is an injury to one of the current starting five in the rotation. Then again, it could also be a preview in case he is needed in the bullpen.
Why Adbert Alzolay?
Out of all the arms at AAA, he definitely has the best stuff. However, he’s only had that elite stuff and profile for about a year now. In 2016, Alzolay struggled in South Bend in his first year of full season ball. He tired easily, he struggled with the secondaries, and a 4.34 ERA was not conducive to long-term potential.
Between the 2016 and 2017 season, Adbert worked hard to strengthen his lower half. With the help of Myrtle Beach pitching coach Anderson Tavarez, Adbert also quickened his pace. His strength and conditioning over the winter paid off as he kept going deeper and deeper games and his new timing threw off hitters as he destroyed the Carolina League (2.98 ERA) and then did well at AA Tennessee (3.03 ERA)..
Alzolay also spent some time in the Arizona Fall League in 2017 working on his secondaries in relief and then he was invited to major league camp where he just kind of sucked in the atmosphere of being with the big league roster.
He began 2018 a little late due to a minor injury, and he has shown flashes of brilliance taking no-hitters into the sixth inning twice. He has also struggled when he leaves the ball up as evidenced by the three home runs he gave up on Monday night. In five starts so far at Iowa, he has a 4.10 ERA in with 19 Ks in 26.1 innings.
The key for him has always been fastball command. When you throw 96 miles an hour, if you put the ball where you want it in the strike zone, you will be just fine. And that has to be the plan for Alzolay on Saturday. He can come up, flash his fastball, change speeds, and move the ball up, down, and around, and he should be good to go. And, like any other pitcher, if he’s all over the place, things are not going to go well.
By Todd Johnson
How quickly things can change. What happens in April doesn’t always happen in May and some players who got off to slow starts are now starting to turn it on. That includes hitters, starters, and relievers. Here are a few players who are off to sizzling starts in May.
Iowa – David Bote returned from Chicago and just killed it going 17 for 34 with a couple of home runs and 8 RBI. He was in Chicago yesterday and ripped a 2-run pinch hit double in the third for the Cubs. In addition, Randy Rosario still has not given up a run this year. And Duane Underwood again flashed his promise by going 7 innings with 7 Ks and not allowing a run. Underwood seems to have some sort of Jekyll and Hyde thing going on this year. Hopefully, his next start will be reminiscent of his last.
Tennessee – Charcer Burks did not have a good April hitting .151. However, his May has been scintillating. He’s gone 10 for 27 (.370) with one home run. His teammate, shortstop Zack Short, has displayed a bit more power. In 8 days, Short has posted an OPS of 1.386 and he has seen his batting average rise 34 points in 6 games. He’s hitting .333 this month, mostly in the second spot in the batting order.
Oscar de la Cruz also had a dominating first start in striking out 10 in 5.2 IP while Trevor Clifton rebounded from a poor start on the 2nd (2 ER in 0.2 IP on 40 pitches) to to strike out 9 in 6 IP on the 7th in 6 innings of 1 hit ball.
Myrtle Beach – Connor Myers has never really hit for average. What has allowed him to stay in the system has been an outstanding defensive and baserunning skill set. But to begin May, Myers has been fantastic and looks to be a different hitter as he is at .296 for the month. I asked Pelicans announcers Scott Kornberg what’s been the key to Myers ascension this month. Scott quipped:
It’s really amazing! He has talked a lot about more bat control and having a better plan at the plate. And his walk rate is double what it was last year, and also he’s swinging and missing about five percent less. And on that note about bat control, his line drive rate is actually the second-best mark in the league
On the mound, Matt Swarmer has been enlightening. After winning pitcher of the month for April, he began May in the same fashion going 6.2 innings with 7 Ks and no runs.
South Bend – It took Jared Young a couple of games to heat up once he returned from the DL. But once he started hitting, the South Bend Cubs started winning again. Add in the fact that leadoff man, Roberto Caro, seems to be playing with his hair on fire this month. The 24-year-old outfielder from the Dominican has bounced around the system the past three seasons between Myrtle Beach and South Bend. Caro could be putting a statement on this year as he is currently hitting over .400 from the leadoff spot in 16 games.
Tomorrow, I will be discussing the maturation of Brendon Little during his first month for South Bend. And, on Friday, the six pack looks at relievers around the minors who might get promoted in the next few weeks.
Days left to teach for me…now down to 11.