MiLB Mailbag – Episode II: All About Pitching Coming Soon

By Todd Johnson

In today’s mailbag post, I am going to kill two birds with one stone thanks in part to two queries about pitching. David Spellman asked, “Any pitching help for the major league level on the horizon?” In the same post, Jason Anderson wondered, “How is @adbert29 rehab coming?  When will he be back? Where do you think he starts his season?  Could he see time with the big league club next year? Possibly in bullpen?” Luckily for me, the two questions kind of share a common component. So, I will answer them at the same time.

I remember in 2012 when Jed Hoyer and Jason McLeod would talk about one of the goals of the farm system was to produce waves of pitching for the major leagues. Well, that time is finally here. It’s a few years later than expected but in 2019, there will be plenty of arms in contention to make it to Chicago next spring and summer. The main arm I see on the horizon is Adbert Alzolay.

Alzolay missed most of the 2018 season just as it looked like he was figuring things out at AAA Iowa. In his last start in May, he took a no hitter into the fifth. It was his fourth such outing last spring. The Cubs shut him down in mid-June when his lat strain was not recovering. Alzolay continued to work hard and shared rehab stories and videos on his own Instagram and Twitter accounts. The Cubs would love it if Alzolay could make it to Chicago as a starter since he sits 95-96 deep into games. That sustainability is a key part of his likability but so are an improving curve and changeup.

However, there is no spot for him in the rotation right now. Alzolay would be awesome coming out of the pen. When I first saw Alzolay pitch in 2015, it was a long reliever for Eugene. He was brilliant most every night for the Ems. Alzolay has improved since then. He would not have any issues transitioning to such a role.

Alzolay is one arm I can see pitching in Chicago regularly in 2019. The other is Dakota Mekkes. The 6’7” behemoth is pretty close to ready. He’s dominated four levels the pasts two years as a pro with a 1.16 career ERA and 190 Ks in 147 IP. The former Michigan State reliever only needs to cut down on his walks and he could be a 6th-7th inning kind of guy to begin and he could also easily go 2 innings if needed.

Alec Mills and James Norwood look to be names to know after getting a sneak peak in the pen last summer. Duane Underwood worked out of the pen some in Iowa after getting a spot start for the Cubs. And, as usual the past two years, Dillon Maples is still lurking.

However, there is a new wave of arms who could be ready at some point in 2019.

Trevor Clifton seems to be getting closer and closer as a starting pitching. Efficiency will be a key for him to get to the 6th and 7th innings on a regular basis. Duncan Robinson is not far behind Trevor in terms of experience, but his control and versatility could be a key to his arrival. I really like Michael Rucker as a swing guy who can start and relieve with his ability to throw strikes at almost a 70% rate and be in the mid 90s while doing so.

 

Three guys could be longshots to make it this year. Matt Swarmer and Keegan Thompson both went through 2 levels last year at Myrtle Beach and Tennessee with great success. Thomas Hatch, the third, pitched like a man possessed in August with an ERA of 2.51 in 5 starts.

Relievers Bailey Clark and Manny Rondon are still about a year or so away and Justin Steele is going to be the one I am going to keep an eye on the most at Tennessee to begin 2019. The lefty starter came back quickly from TJS and was dominant in the second half while hitting 95 most days to go along with his plus curve.

The pitchers are coming. What I like most is that they are all so different. There is no cookie cutter approach. It should be fun to watch them get their shots in 2019.

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2018 Affiliate Reviews: Iowa Cubs Get It Done in the Bullpen

By Todd Johnson

It probably doesn’t seem like there would be much to say about a 50-88 team, but this year’s Iowa Cubs had a few things to write home about. AAA is always a level whose main job is to get players ready for the big leagues. In the Theo era, Iowa has become a place where bench players are stashed, elite prospects get a tune up, and where long-term MiLB players hope to get a chance. Sometimes that affiliate model works and sometimes it does not.

What Worked in 2018
Relief Pitchers
– From Randy Rosario to Anthony Bass to Cory Mazzoni to James Norwood, the bullpen was the key to keeping the big league Cubs afloat all summer long in Chicago. Then again, that is really Iowa’s job.

Victor Caratini – I was surprised he made the club out of spring training but not surprised when he was sent down to Iowa. He just needed to get some more at bats in. When he was ready he came up to Chicago and was a key cog in the stretch run in September.

David Bote – Bote came up and made himself into a household name this summer with some dramatic at-bats before fading a bit in September. However, his defense and ability to play multiple positions increased his value. Bote’s ability to play multiple positions is the key to his future in 2019.

Dakota Mekkes – He’s my guy and likely to be called up sometime next spring. The only issue for him right now is that he is not on the 40 man roster to get the call up. When he’s ready next spring, he will be up. He had 41 Ks in 31.1 IP at AAA to go along with his 30 in 22.1 at AA earlier in the year. For the season, his ERA was a spectacular 1.17 with hitters only managing to hit .188 against him.

2019 Returning Guys
Mark Zagunis should return in 2019 if he does not get traded this winter. I really feel for him because I think he’s ready for a major league role. More than likely, it’s not going be with the Cubs.

I’d like to think that Bijan Rademacher will be coming back in 2019, but the odds are against it. At 27, the veteran minor-league outfielder might’ve played his last game as a Cub. Like Zagunis, there is just not a spot for him in Chicago.

A lot of the pitchers at Iowa should be returning. Along with some starting guys from Tennessee, it’s gonna be a pretty competitive spring to see who will be in the starting rotation in 2019 for Iowa. Outside of Alzolay, Mills, and Clifton, I think it’s pretty wide open for anyone to come in and get a spot. For now, it looks like Duane Underwood might be a bullpen piece.

Incoming Position Players
Ian Rice, Zack Short, and Trent Giambrone

I wish there were more. It was a disappointing year for most of the Smokies at the plate. However, these three seemed to transcend their teammates. All three showed a penchant for two things: getting on base and power.

Keep an Eye on for 2019
The Starting Rotation Conundrum

There will be 5 spots and about 10 arms who will be competing for said spots. However, either Alec Mills or Adbert Alzolay could be in Chicago to start the year. One of those two will be in the rotation along with Trevor Clifton. After that, that leaves spots for Michael Rucker, Duncan Robinson, Thomas Hatch, Matt Swarmer, or Keegan Thompson.

There are not going be too many guys coming up from Tennessee to pitch in the bullpen to begin the year. I expect Theo will go out and get a lot of arms just like he did in 2018….and 2017…and 2016…

The Weekly – PDCs and Playoff Chases Start Off August

By Todd Johnson

Between the trading deadline, all-star teams, baseball cards, and watching the big league club everyday, it was a very busy week. Add in the fact that I begin teaching next week finally hit home, I have a lot going on inside my head.

The MiLB season ends exactly four weeks from tomorrow on Labor Day. It will be here quick. WIth that in my mind, I also began to overthink what I need to do to get ready when that happens. There are usually posts on breakouts, all-star teams, a new Top 21 List, Baseball Cards of the Year, affiliate reviews, and other odds and sods. It can be a busy month. But it can wait. Be mindful of the future, but not at the expense of the moment.

The Playoff Chase
As the big league club continues to lead the NL Central, the MiLB system is having a bit of a rough time. Cubs 1 in Mesa already has a spot reserved in the postseason. It is not looking good for a few affiliates. Iowa is 20 games back. Myrtle Beach is 9. Neither of the DSL teams is even close. However, four affiliates still have some hope.

The Smokies are just three games back. They were on fire to start the second half. Then the bullpen imploded in July. They have the starting pitching to get it done. Will the pen straighten itself out long enough?

South Bend just ended a seven game losing streak. One would think there is no way they could get back in it. Lo and behold, they are just four games back from tying for the final playoff spot and five from taking the lead. I think they have a pretty good chance. They just need to get the hitting going to help their pitching staff and excellent bullpen.

In the great Northwest League, college hitters from this year’s draft have rejuvenated the Emeralds’ lowly offense. They are just two games back from tying Salem-Keizer for the wild card and three from the division lead. It is going to be a most exciting race.

Out in the Arizona League, Cubs 1 leads their division again.  Cubs 2 is currently at 4-5 but they need to make up 3 games in just 17 games while leapfrogging 4 teams. It can be done as last year’s Cubs’ team won 9 in a row to make it to the postseason. The Arizona League will end their season August 27th.

Is Affiliate Roulette is Coming?

Every even year, many MLB organization often switch affiliates. The Cubs are no different. The last big change the Cubs had came at the end of 2014 when the organization went from Kane County to South Bend, Daytona to Myrtle Beach, and Boise to Eugene. This year, that is not happening. In fact, it ought to be very boring. Iowa, Myrtle Beach, and South Bend are all signed up through 2020. Yesterday, Eugene announced they have re-upped with the Cubs through 2022.

Tennessee is next. It should be just a matter of time before both parties announce another four-year extensions.

Looking Ahead
A couple weeks ago, I wrote about who the Cubs might send to the Arizona Fall League. This week, I will explore more postseason happenings as I discuss who the possible prospects are that might get added to the 40 man roster. A Luke Reynolds profile should be coming this week and I also examine which prospects are in the lead for breakout prospects of the second half.

Players of the Week

Card of the Week

Prospect Update: Could Jason Vosler Have “Next?”

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?

Card made from a photo by Tiffany W. (@TiffW96)

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.

Going Forward

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.

Who Is the Affiliate to Watch in the Second Half?

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.?

Iowa’s Case

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.

Eugene’s Case

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.

Tennessee’s Case

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.

 

Prospect Update: Did Chesny Young Get His Groove Back?

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.

Prospect Update – Is Duane Underwood Close?

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.