Iowa Cubs

The Cubs’ Bullpen Looks to Be Gutted

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By Todd Johnson

Pedro Strop.
Carl Edwards, Jr.
Mike Montgomery.
Justin Grimm.
Justin Wilson.

Those names don’t exactly exude confidence to get the final three to nine outs of a game. After yesterday’s announcement that the Cubs did not tender a contract to reliever Hector Rondon, new pitching coach Jim Hickey’s job just tougher, a lot tougher. At over $6 million, Rondon’s contract was getting too pricey to just be a setup man. The Cubs essentially said, “Thank you for service, but no thanks for 2018.” As a result, Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer now have their work cut out for themselves this offseason.

Originally, just Wade Davis and Brian Duensing had left via free agency. The Cubs now have to replace half their pen and add depth to stash at AAA Iowa, which appears to be well underway.

Since the end of last season, the Cubs have taken some flyers on some arms with minimal MLB experience. Righty Luke Farrell could relieve, he could start. He has 13 career MLB innings. Righty Cory Mazzoni has 16 career innings to go with his shiny 17.28 career ERA. Lefty Randy Rosario’s career ERA is a whopping 30.86 in just  2.1 innings. And this week, the Cubs signed 29-year-old lefty Dario Alvarez. He might be alright. He threw 16 IP in 2017 with a 2.67 ERA but also put up an unsustainable whip of 2.02. He walked 14 batters. I thought his signing was a little odd as Theo talked about adding strike throwers in his offseason press sessions. I don’t think that is what he had in mind.

After seeing those stats, I am not brimming with confidence. I am not in sheer terror either, but I am concerned. The Cubs will need to find a closer and a couple of setup men while adding depth at AAA.

Theo is going to have hit the free agent market and maybe use the Rule 5 Draft (Kohl Stewart of Minnesota is one name I like) as a cheaper option. Theo has been able to find arms in the past rather cheaply and I am sure he will again. In addition, I would not be surprised to see Theo make a trade for an arm or two rather than overpay in the free agent market or in an international free agent.

Here are some free agent names to look for to see if the Cubs are associated with or show interest in over the next month:
Brian Shaw, Brandon Morrow, Pat Neshek, Brandon Kintzler, Addison Reed, Juan Nicasio, Luke Gregerson, Fernando Rodney, Matt Albers, Tony Watson, and Jake McGee.

As for internal options…
Dillon Maples is close to being ready. While he has top flight MLB pitches, it is just a matter of controlling them. At 25, he now stands a better chance of making the 25 man roster. I always thought that Jen-Ho Tseng’s change-curve combo would play better out of the pen than as a starter. He could get that chance in 2018. While Rob Zastryzny is an option, but I don’t know if I see him as a long term option. Justin Hancock is another strong arm. He had an up and down year year for three MiLB teams in 2017, but he does throw in the upper 90s. David Garner finally made it to AAA in August but struggled in his one month there. He is going to need some seasoning at that level. One name I like is Tommy Nance. He spent all of 2017 injured. He reminds me of Brandon Webb in that he throws a “hard” ball that breaks a lot of bats. Nance would be a very longshot to make the team, but I could see him getting a shot later in the summer if all goes well with his health.

In the end, adding three to four more arms to a corps that struggled to find the plate in 2018 is a bit concerning. All last night I kept wondering if Theo would overpay for pen security or would he try to find undervalued arms somewhere. However, heading into day 2 of the Shohei Otani watch, rebuilding the pen could take a while as the Cubs do have more pressing needs at starting pitching. Once the Otani dust settles, it should be interesting to see how the bullpen shakes down.

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Cubs Adding Adbert and 2 More to the 40 Man – Clifton Left Off

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By Todd Johnson

Heading into today, the Cubs had six spots open on their 40 man roster. They could have used all six spots to protect six prospects from the Rule 5 Draft or they could have used less if they wanted. They could also release a couple guys and protect more than six.. But whatever they did, I was pretty sure the Cubs would protect their pitching assets. Namely, Adbert Alzolay and Oscar de la Cruz would be added so as not to fall into the enemy’s hands. In the end, the Cubs picked players they currently value who they think could help the team in the very near future. 

The Protected

Adbert Alzolay – He’s been pretty much a given since the end of the season and his standing in the organization has reached a level not seen for a Cub starting pitcher in a long time. He is far from a finished product as he still has work to do on his curve and changeup. He could make an appearance at some point this summer. Although, he hasn’t pitched over 120 innings in one season yet.

If Oscar de la Cruz ever gets healthy, he can move quickly. Then again, I have been saying that for two years. And in that timeframe, he’s barely pitched 95 innings. Still, his protection shows value. I wonder how long the Cubs are going to try to keep him as a starter if he continues to miss time.

David Bote –  He tore the cover off the ball from July of 2016 to June 2017 before a minor slump in July. Still, he rebounded to do well in the Arizona Fall League to hit .333 with a .395 OBP and 4 HRs in 19 games. It helps that he played all over the field in 2017 including 12 games in the outfield. When I first saw him play in 2014, he was playing SS. His versatility is a key.

The Unprotected

With only six spots, and some 50+ players eligible for Rule 5 selection, the Cubs cannot protect everyone. Then again if selected, the team making the choice has to keep the player on the 25 man roster or return them to the original team. The Cubs only have a few players eligible for rule five selection who could be at best bench players in the majors. To be honest, I did not see much of a gamble in whom the Cubs left off. The gamble will come by another team if they select a Cub.

Outfielder Bijan Rademacher, Charcer Burks, Chesny Young, and 3B Jason Vosler were the most notable position players left off. Trevor Clifton, Pedro Araujo, Jose Paulino, Erling Moreno, and Jake Stinnett are some of the better known pitchers.

A year ago, I said that Clifton and Young should be locks for the 40 man. In 2018, things still can change for both of them as they will make some adjustments for the upcoming season. Just because a player was not selected does not mean the Cubs are down on that prospect. Instead, it is more about 2018 than anything else. In a year from now, the Cubs will do this all over again. 

In addition, the Cubs also sent Jacob Hannemann down to AAA Iowa. The roster now stands at 36.

Cubs Central Mailbag- Episode I: MiLB Offseason Questions

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By Todd Johnson

Some weeks in the off-season, I struggle with things to write about. This week, I had a little epiphany after reading Baseball America’s top 10 chat post. I decided, after several years, to finally do a Mailbag about questions people have about the Cubs minor league system. However, I cannot answer all the questions in one post. There will be a second set of questions to answer next week. Who knows, I might just make this a weekly thing in the off-season or, at the very least, a monthly thing overall. I will see what the response is.

Here we go…

Teddy Eley
What are your thoughts on Ian Rice? How has he developed defensively and does he have any chance at an MLB role?

I really like Ian Rice. Right now, there’s not really a place for him in Chicago and he’s getting pretty close. While his natural swing creates a lot of lift for the baseball, I am even more impressed with his plate discipline. He is not Mark Zagunis good, but he is close when it comes to getting on base. I don’t think he’s quite there defensively but he is not a detriment behind the plate anymore. Working with Mark Johnson at Tennessee improved his all-around defensive skills as he threw out 9 of 35 base stealers to go with just 8 passed balls this season. With Caratini ahead of him, and Willson at the major-league level, Rice’s power is what is going to get him to the majors. Some team is going to want to take that skill in a trade.

Eldrad
Ademan #1 prospect, BA? Really?

Yes, really. Then again, I don’t agree with it. While I do think he is one of the top five position player prospects in the system, I am leaning towards moving Nelson Velasquez above him on my prospect list within the next year. If Nelson had played fall season baseball last year, I might have him ahead of Ademan already. Still, Ademan does have a lot of potential as a middle of the diamond player with a bat that is still emerging.

Archie Tex
Who are the guys that most likely will be the 40-man roster spots 26-35?
This is a great question. It has been Theo and Jed’s Modus Operandi in the past in stocking that part of the roster with AAAA players. Most of them once had a crack at the majors but just could not get over the hump. I think the Cubs’ system is now deep enough that their own prospects will make up the majority of this range. There might be 2 to 3 AAAA relievers along with Eddy Butler, Alec Mills, Jene-Ho Tseng, Rob Zastryzny, and Duane Underwood along with some bench depth. But the position player depth will mainly be staffed by outfielders Mark Zagunis and Charcer Burks and catcher Victor Caratini (if he doesn’t make the 25 man roster). Somehow the Cubs need another shortstop as they might not want to rely on Carlos Penalver in case of injury to either Addison or Javy.

Eldrad
Bryan Hudson had a 3.6:1 GB:FB ratio last year, the best in the organization. Can a +3 ratio be sustained at higher levels?

I am really excited about watching Hudson pitch at Myrtle Beach in 2018! I think he’s going to break out a little bit; in fact, a lot. As for the ground ball rate, I think he’ll be able to maintain that this year and will probably slip a little bit once he gets to AA Tennessee. Hudson is starting to realize he can get the ground balls with a well placed fastball along with his plus curve.

I have several more questions in the queue already for next week from Cory Alan, Eldrad, and Rikk Carlson about Jeremiah Estrada, Wladimir Galindo, Jhon Romero, Buddy Bailey, and trading MLB talent for MLB talent. If you have a question, you can send it to me on Twitter @CubsCentral08 or you can email me at: CubsCentral2016@gmail.com.

Trying to Predict Baseball America’s Upcoming Lists

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By Todd Johnson

When it comes to prospect lists this winter, beauty is definitely going to be in the eye of the beholder. As prospect lists begin to come out over the course of the next three months, you could see 20 different Cubs make a top 10 list. And you could see four or five different Cubs atop each of those lists. In a post-Eloy world, it’s going to take a long time for those lists to settle down. With the possibility that the Cubs might make another trade this offseason, more chaos could soon enter those lists.

Baseball America is getting ready to drop their latest Top 10 Cubs Prospects List on Monday or Tuesday, in addition to their top tools in the system. I thought I might beat them to the punch at their own game and come out with my prediction of their list of top MiLB tools and try to guess who they will select as their top 10 Cubs prospects.

🔸Best Hitter for Average: Victor Caratini – No one else is even close.

🔸Best Power Hitter:  Nelson Velazquez – 10 HRs in 6 weeks ought to get him the title.

🔸Best Strike-Zone Discipline: Mark Zagunis. Easy choice but there are several who could gain on him in the next year including Austin Filiere, Jared Young, and Austin Upshaw.

🔸Fastest Baserunner:  DJ Wilson – Watch him hit a triple and you will see how fast he flies.

🔸Best Athlete: Jacob Hannemann is now but might not be for long. Nelson Velazquez could overtake him in a year.

🔸Best Fastball: Adbert Alzolay – Sitting at 96 in the sixth and seventh innings is pretty impressive.

🔸Best Curveball: Dillon Maples – To him, this is his fastball as he commands it and throws it in fastball counts. 

🔸Best Slider: Dillon Maples – This will be the pitch that makes him a killer pro.

🔸Best Changeup: Jose Albertos barely gets the nod over Eugene teammate Jesus Camargo. Both are excellent and get some ugly, ugly swings.

🔸Best Control: Adbert Alzolay – It begins and ends with the ability to put his fastball where and when he wants. Jen-Ho Tseng comes in a close second.

🔸Best Defensive Catcher: Miguel Amaya – While blocking might be a small issue, his arm is clearly not. PJ Higgins is next. It will be interesting to watch Will Remillard come back and to see what recent international signee Alexander Guerra can do

🔸Best Defensive INF and Best INF Arm:  You might think that Aramis Ademan would get the nod. However, Luis Vazquez is better and more consistent. I’ve only seen him make a few plays, but he shows much more range, fluidity, and athleticism than Ademan.

🔸Best Defensive OF: Now that Trey Martin is gone and Jake Hannemann is back,  Hannemann barely gets the nod over Charcer Burks, DJ Wilson, and Nelson Velazquez. In a year, Velazquez could win almost every hitting and outfield award.

🔸Best OF Arm: Eddy Martinez – 2018 is going to be his year. Don’t be shocked to see him get a chance in Chicago later this summer.

Baseball America’s top 10 list is going to be a little bit different than mine as I do not consider Victor Caratini to still be a prospect. While he technically is, he has spent enough time in the majors to not be, just not the prerequisite 130 at-bats. After Caratini, it could be a free-for-all. It just depends on what value one sees in a prospect.

Where all these prospects are going to be ranked is a complete mystery to me. I’m having trouble reconciling whether to put Ademan in the top five and whether to include Dillon Maples in the top 10. I know other people like pitcher Adbert Alzolay a lot (as do I), but I think that Jose Albertos is a better high-end and prospect and would be my top prospect overall. I would expect the two young pitchers to be 2A and 2B.

Then, all bets are off.

In thinking of how I would do my own list, I’m half tempted to put Nelson Velasquez at number four. Just based on his little six week stint of 10 home runs in Mesa, you have to love the praise he garnered from evaluators and Jason McLeod in the Mark Gonzalez article.

There at least a dozen players who could make their way into Baseball America’s top 10. Mark Zagunis might be the most ready for the majors after Caratini. Thomas Hatch could more than likely be in the top 10 along with the Cubs two first round picks from 2017, Brendon Little and Alex Lange. MLB.com’s number one prospect, the oft-injured Oscar de la Cruz, should be in the top 10 as well as shortstop Aramis Ademan. Cases could also be made for Dillon Maples, Jen-Ho Tseng, Trevor Clifton, Duane Underwood, Jr., D.J. Wilson, and Justin Steele as top 10 prospects this winter.

Their analysis should make for some very interesting discussions in the coming week.

Breakout Relievers for 2018 – Eight Arms Ready to Burst

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By Todd Johnson

David Garner – Photo by Drew Gibby/Tennessee Smokies

Let’s cut right to the chase – the Cubs are not known for developing relief pitchers. They’ve only developed a few arms that have stuck with the team for any amount of time in the last five years and most of those came via the Matt Garza and Ryan Dempster trades. Kyle Hendricks, CJ Edwards, Justin Grimm, and Neil Ramirez all came over from Texas. Things are about to change.

In 2017 Dillon Maples broke out and went from class A to the majors in one season. He is set to compete for a spot in the Cubs’ bullpen in spring training. Pedro Araujo is another reliever who broke out last year while at Myrtle Beach. Pedro has been doing excellent in the Arizona Fall league and should be at AA Tennessee to begin 2018. After missing most of 2017, Jake Stinnett was reborn as a reliever and is also turning heads from the bullpen in the Arizona Fall League.

At AAA Iowa
David Garner – He has had one of the quietest rides up through the system. Last year, he advanced to AAA without much fanfare. As a setup man, he throws in the mid 90s and 2018 should be the year he gets a crack at Wrigley. Although, he only got in nine games at AAA in August, his chance at the big-time is going to come later in the year.

Corey Black – No, I haven’t forgot about him and I look forward to seeing how Tommy John surgery has impacted his career and what type of pitcher he will be. As a reliever, he’s only had 1 full season but only 30.1 IP at AAA. His recovery bears watching.

At Tennessee
Scott Effross – Part of me wants to see him start as he does have four pitches he can throw for strikes. Then again, with the second half he had last year at Myrtle Beach, he really put himself on the map with a 2.03 ERA in 44.1 IP. AA Tennessee is going to love him.

At Myrtle Beach
Jhon Romero – He basically got by on two pitches last summer but they were both excellent. Armed with a mid 90s fastball and a hard, biting curve, Romero could move quickly in 2018. He began last season at Eugene in July and was just dominant at two levels. I’m extremely excited to watch him pitch in his first full season.

At South Bend
Jake Steffens – It is hard to breakout in a half a season, but Steffens came close to it. His ascension to closer was definitely one of the surprises of the second half . He saw his stuff tick up a little bit from college. Now in full season South Bend, the Cubs should get a better picture of whether he can stick in the bullpen.

Ben Hecht – At times, this kid has a golden arm and you wonder why he is a relief pitcher to start his career. From southern Illinois, and at 6’5”, he was a strikeout machine at Eugene after struggling in his last season at Wichita State. He struck out 25 in 17.2 IP in his professional debut at Eugene.

Ricky Tyler Thomas – He started every year in college and he did it well until last spring. As a reliever, he was outstanding at Eugene last summer. He has a nice change up and when he can locate his fastball, he becomes even more deadly. Hopefully, his fastball will creep up a click or two this season.

Others to Watch at Eugene
It’s a little hard to project who will be at short season Eugene as there’s a lot of spring training and extended spring training for the young kids to develop and a draft to take place. One who might get some pub is Ivan Medina, the 21 year old closer for the Arizona Rookie League champion Mesa Cubs.

Ten MiLB Cubs Become Free Agents

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By Todd Johnson

On Monday, 10 minor league Cubs became free agents. Some names were surprising. Others, not so much. Many of the players were signed last year to provide depth and insurance for the MLB club and then stored in Iowa.

No Surprises
Some of them will latch on with someone next year just as they did in 2017. Some of them could even re-sign with the Cubs come Spring Training. However, I do think most of Iowa’s roster in 2018 will be promoted from AA Tennessee.
Scott Carroll – RHSP – He only made 4 starts, but did OK with a 3.68 ERA.
Chris Dominguez – 1B-3B – He actually had a good year hitting .284 with 11 HRs and 45 RBI. However, at 31, he will have a hard time doing anything but filling in a spot.
Mike Freeman – INF – He did make it to Chicago in September, but he was only in Iowa for 23 games.
Ryan Kalish – OF – An injury took his season and he did not play in 2017.
Ozzie Martinez – INF – Hitting .222 is not going to endear him to anyone.
Williams Perez – RHSP – He started 23 games with an ERA over 5. The Cubs took a flyer on him, but it did not take off.
Elliot Soto – SS – I would not be surprised to see him stay with organization in some coaching capacity.
Jemile Weeks – IF-OF – He hit .235 for the year. Some team might like his versatility.

Surprised and Sad to See Go
John Andreoli – OF – A classy guy, he was a player whose grit and hustle pleased many prospect lovers. He just could not hit enough at Iowa to make it to Chicago. At 27, he should be able to latch on somewhere soon.
Trey Martin – CF – A gold glove outfielder who is extremely athletic, he just could not stay healthy. Still, at 24, he will not be a free agent very long. I, actually, am sad to see him go. He can go get a ball like no other.

The big thing to take away from the Cubs not re-signing many of these prospects is that the Cubs’ system is deep enough to not keep a plethora of “AAAA” type players at Iowa. Now, with as many 7 new position players coming from AA to begin 2018, the depth is finally pushing prospects en masse to Iowa.

However, I think if Trey Martin could have stayed healthy, he could have done well at AAA. Now, with Martin moving on, Charcer Burks’ ascendancy could have a greater effect in a shorter time frame. The way has now been paved for David Bote, Ian Rice, Jason Vosler, and Yasiel Balaguert to get plenty of playing time in Des Moines next summer.

The Friday Six-Pack: Six Things on My Mind as the Season Ends

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By Todd Johnson

Now that the World Series is complete, Cub Central’s Friday 6-Pack returns in a rare off-season appearance. A lot of random baseball things have been going through my mind. From free agency to the draft to things I just can’t stop thinking about, it doesn’t seem like the baseball season ended and for me that might be a good thing.

Here are six things I can’t seem to shake from my brain.

1. Starting Pitching Replacement – The Cubs should be able to replace John Lackey fairly easily this off-season. While free agent Alex Cobb comes to mind to take Lackey’s rotation spot, I am having a hard time figuring out who the Cubs might get as a number one or two starter. I think that is the biggest challenge of this off-season. The more I think about it, the more I lean towards the Cubs making a trade to acquire someone like a Chris Archer who is still young and signed for a while.

Card made from a photo by John Conover

2. I don’t think I talked about Jhon Romero this summer as much as I should. Part of that might be hesitation as he has only pitched one year in the states. Then again, he was pretty filthy in doing so. I know that the Cubs have a lot of bullpen arms who could be ready very soon. I wonder how well Romero can do in 2018. Armed with a mid 90s fastball and a tight breaking ball, he should do well at Myrtle Beach in April and May. After that, it should be interesting to see if he can get to Tennessee next year.

3. I think I may have ranked Nelson Velasquez too low. Sometime during the next week, Baseball America should be publishing their top 10 Cubs prospect list. I currently have Nelson at number 10 on my Top 21 List. Part of me wants to take him and move him all the way up to number five, maybe even four. That might be a little presumptuous but after reading some reports about his athletic ability in centerfield, I think the Cubs may have hit the jackpot. Add in the fact that, according to Jason McLeod, Nelson is apparently not done growing. He could be a monster in 2 to 3 years at 6’2 and around 215 pounds.

4. The Draft – I’m not sure what I’m going to do about this topic the next seven and a half months. Part of me doesn’t want to cover it at all. A lot of that has to do with the amount of time spent watching games, online videos, and reading what other people write. There’s another part of me that thinks I should cover it, but only in small bits. I still haven’t decided. On the other hand, my coverage of the draft over its three days in June will not change.

5. Trouble with Starters – I have been wracking my brain as to why the Cubs have not been able to produce some starting pitchers after six full minor-league seasons in the Theo era. I began to ask questions like: Is this a systemic issue? Is there something they’re doing developmentally? Is this a scouting issue? Or, are the Cubs not willing to spend money on pitching? I think this needs to be flushed out in a bigger post. Maybe I’ll do it over at BP Wrigleyville.

6. Summer Itinerary – I started to put together some plans to go watch some baseball next summer. Once school gets out in May, I plan on going over to South Bend for a few days as well as seeing the Cubs’ low Class A affiliate play at Kane County and in the Quad Cities next summer. I also plan on going to see the big league club when they travel to Kansas City as there’s a lot of good barbecue, the Negro League museum, the National Jazz museum, along with the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum. Being a history teacher, the museum trips might be more fun… along with the food… and the baseball – all of my favorite things in one trip (yes, I am a huge nerd!). I also hope to make it out to Des Moines, Iowa next summer when Trevor Clifton or Dakota Mekkes get promoted.

I will be back on Sunday with “The Weekly.” I’ll be talking about Shohei Otani and some breakouts besides John Romero to watch for in 2018.