By Todd Johnson
I’m not quite sure how to take what is happening this week.
To begin, it started on Monday night when the Cubs signed backup catcher Chris Gimenez to a minor-league deal. Speculation began to run that this could be a “foreplay deal” to the Cubs signing Yu Darvish, a former teammate of Gimenez. Well, it’s been 72 hours and the Cubs are still no closer to signing Darvish, even though the Cubs have been in “active “negotiations with the All-Star pitcher.
I began wondering Tuesday afternoon if at some point the price is going to get too steep for what the Cubs would be willing to pay. If that happens, would the Cubs just sit out the free-agent market and save their money for something else? Could it be too cost prohibitive? I think it definitely could be. That point could be very near. Would Theo then just say, “Screw it!” for now?
The Cubs brass has to have pitching plans within pitching plans. They have had plenty of time to come up with plans B, C, and/or D. That got me thinking what those plans could look like.
Plan B definitely has to be a trade. The only problem with Plan B is that it’s going to take major league talent to get major league talent as I’m pretty sure other teams don’t look too highly at the Cubs’ farm system right now. With just two top 100 prospects (arguably), the Cubs’ system doesn’t have the high-end guys other teams want. On the other hand, the Cubs do have some major league guys another team would be more than happy to take. I don’t see the Cubs trading players they currently control for the next five years for a pitcher they might only have for two years.
And if the Cubs do make a trade, would it be in spring training or would they wait until the summer deadline? Part of me thinks it might be best to wait until the summer as Milwaukee and St. Louis aren’t really lighting up the transaction wire to overtake the Cubs this off-season. Several prospects could also bloom in that span and might be enough to get a rental.
This would be the Mike Montgomery backup decision. I’d be OK with this for a couple of months but then he gets exposed a bit. I just don’t see Montgomery as a long-term fix. They could start the season with him in tow, but not finish with him. Ideally, the Cubs are looking for a top-end starter. They don’t want to add a number five starter and that’s what Montgomery is right now.
There’s a shot that one of several young pitching prospects could work out and be a solution for the short term. In the long run, though, the Cubs would like to develop their own pitching but they don’t really have any top-of-the-rotation type arms ready just yet. The Cubs could see what they have in spring training with Jen-Ho Tseng, Luke Farrell, Duane Underwood, or Adbert Alzolay. I am just not sold on this plan for 2018. Next year could be a different story as a couple of the aforementioned arms could be ready to compete for a spot. In fact, I would not be surprised to see them get an occasional spot start once in a while or a either a double-header start. I just don’t see a need for reliance on an arm the Cubs are not sure about.
In the end, Theo wants a veteran starting arm to help win the World Series, not just the division. The Cubs have what it takes to get the latter done. The former is the ultimate goal. Theo will get an arm he wants. The questions are how and when. Hopefully, Yu will sign by the end of the the week. All things considered, plan A, signing Yu, is the best.
By Todd Johnson
For the past two months, the “Leveling Up” series has taken a look at some prospects who will be advancing one level in the system in 2018. Most of them have been hitters but today’s series starts to shift towards pitching prospects.
Selected in the compensation round of the 2012 draft, Underwood is one of the few prospects left from the first class of the Theo era. 2018 will be his second year on the 40 man roster. I don’t foresee the Cubs giving up on him anytime soon as he is only 23 years old. Sometimes it seems that he is been around forever, but he’s really only completed just 2 complete full seasons baseball. The first was in 2014 at Kane County. The second one was last year at AA Tennessee. That’s it. In 2015 and 2016, Underwood barely pitched 70 innings each year as he struggled to stay healthy. Last year’s 138 innings at Tennessee bode well for 2018.
Aside from saying healthy, what impressed me most about Underwood last year was that he improved his walk rate throughout the course of the year. In fact, he cut it in half from May to August. When he had health issues, he struggled to command the ball despite throwing it in the mid to upper 90s. His talent never changed moving up the system.
Last fall, I published a profile of Underwood’s progress at Tennessee. But when it comes to 2018, there are just a few things to look for him at AAA Iowa.
1. How many innings is he pitching and how many pitches is he pitching?
While Underwood has always had a quality fastball and curve, he’s never been a strikeout pitcher despite his plus arsenal. Instead, he’s known to pitch to contact. In theory, this was supposed to allow him to get deeper in the game and to not throw as many pitches. It didn’t necessarily work that way. If all goes well in Iowa, he should get in 140-150 innings with a pitch count of close to 90+ each night. Strikeouts there are not that important, but getting his arm ready to pitch every five days in the majors is.
2. Staying Healthy
One thing that Underwood has been blessed with is that he missed going under the knife. The arm the Cubs drafted is still the arm that he has. And at 23 years of age, he’s still got a lot of life left in it. He is going to have his work and command cut out for him in some of the parks in the Pacific Coast league as they have been known to be places where the ball just flies out.
Aside from injuries that have shoved him for short periods of time, the only struggle he’s had in the past five summers has been his command. As Jen-Ho Tseng showed last year, one can be a successful pitcher in the PCL with a low ERA. It’ll be interesting to see what kind of pitcher Underwood is going to be and how much confidence he got from putting up 138 innings at AA and his impressive July to August stretch.
4. Spring Training
I expect to see Duane make a few starts with the big league club, especially early in camp. If all goes well, Underwood could hang around for most of the spring. Now that he is just one level away, I am pretty excited for him and Cubs fans as Underwood really does have some special pitches. It is just a matter of command.
By Todd Johnson
There was a lot of news about the minor-league system this week. The Cubs signed outfielder Wynton Bernard to a minor league contract and assigned him to AAA Iowa. He previously played in the Yankee system and is only 25 years old.
I also appeared on a podcast yesterday with my fellow Cubs Insider colleague, Sean Holland. It was a lot of fun as we talked Cubs, prospects, and history. That link should be out on Monday or Tuesday. Look for the link on Twitter and give Sean a follow on Twitter (@sth85) if you haven’t already.
The Cubs also announced their minor-league coaching and training staff for the upcoming 2018 season. Embedded in the article was an offhand comment that the Cubs will be having a second team in the Arizona rookie league. Yesterday, I wrote an article about how that will impact the Cubs system this summer. And to be honest, I don’t think we’re gonna see the impact at the major-league level for 3 to 4 more years.
Getting back to the coaches list, there were three other things I noticed besides adding an extra affiliate.
1. The Cubs broke up the coaching staff at Eugene after back-to-back playoff appearances. Former manager Jesus Feliciano is now the AA hitting coach and Brian Lawrence will return to South Bend as the pitching coach.
2. The Cubs also put three more players former players back into the system as coaches. Former shortstop Jonathan Mota will be a manager in the Arizona Rookie League. Former catcher and infielder Ben Carhart will be an assistant coach in Tennessee. And, former first baseman Jacob Rogers will be at Eugene as an assistant.
3. Long time pitching coach David Rosario did not appear anywhere on the list. There are two pitching coach spots that have yet to be filled for the Mesa teams. I would think he should be somewhere as he still has a lot to offer. Last year, he was in Eugene.
Order of listing – Manager, Pitching Coach, Hitting Coach, Assistant
IOWA: Marty Pevey, Rod Nichols, Desi Wilson, and Chris Valaika
TENNESSEE: Mark Johnson, Terry Clark, Jesus Feliciano, and Ben Carhart
MYRTLE BEACH: Buddy Bailey, Anderson Tavarez, Ty Wright, and Carlos Rojas
SOUTH BEND: Jimmy Gonzalez, Brian Lawrence, Ricardo Medina, and Paul McAnulty
EUGENE: Steve Lerud , Armando Gabino, Osmin Melendez, and Jacob Rogers
MESA #1: Carmelo Martinez, TBA, TBA, and Leo Perez
MESA #2: Jonathan Mota, TBA, Claudio Almonte, and TBA
In less than five months, Major League Baseball will hold its annual Rule 4 draft. For the Cubs, their system could use a nice infusion of new high-end talent. The Cubs should have up to four picks in the top 75, which could re-energize the system.
Late last week, Baseball America merged their top 100 college player list with their top 100 high school player list to create a Top 200 list. The result is one of the deepest drafts in years. To see beyond the top 30 in their 200 list, you need a subscription.
I have discussed a few bats from the draft earlier in the winter but I keep coming back to Alec Brohm of Wichita State. Baseball America put up some BP work of him in last year’s Cape Cod League. There’s a whole lot for me to love in the video. He has a nice smooth swing that just reeks of power and precision. The issue is Brohm’s lack of athleticism in the field. BA figures he would move to 1B or DH, maybe even LF.
However, when I sat and listened last week to Jaron Madison talk about how the Cubs targeted pitching in the past two drafts, I wondered if the Cubs would take a stab at a pitcher that high in 2018. The risk, especially if it is a high school arm, would be astronomical.
I spent part of Friday night looking at some arms who could be available at #24. I looked at three high school arms and three college pitchers. The three that caught my eye were high school pitcher Cole Wilcox, lefty Tim Cate from Connecticut, and 6’11” Sean Hjele (pronounced Jelly) from the University of Kentucky (Click on their names for video profiles from MLB Pipeline).
They are three very different pitchers except for one thing – the ball comes out of their hands very easy. I like the fact that all three can throw in the low to mid to upper 90s with little effort. What I liked most about Wilcox was he’s just a teenager and he looks pretty polished already. Once he transitions to pitching full-time, the sky could be the limit for him. The only issue is he really doesn’t have one over powering pitch, but he does do everything well. He was on USA Baseball’s 18 U team and did really well. There’s a whole lot to like with this young man.
As for Cate, I looked at four videos of him pitching. He hides the ball extremely well and it’s hard for the hitter to pick up the ball coming out of the hand. As a result, he gets some of the ugliest swings I have seen this off-season. His curve destroys lefties with a nice 1 to 6 break in. I don’t know if he’s going to be a full-time starter, but he could move pretty quickly as a reliever. He would be a late first round pick, but he’s not gonna make it back through the second round. And like many players that Jason McLeod selects, Cate does have USA Baseball experience.
For Hjele, the guy is just huge. He was the SEC Pitcher of the Year last year as a sophomore and I think he has someone to keep an eye on this spring. He is very good now, but I can’t figure just what his ceiling would be. MLB Pipeline said of Hjele:
Hjelle’s best pitch is his low-80s knuckle-curve, which has impressive depth. His fastball velocity has improved from the upper 80s as a high school senior to the low 90s at Kentucky, and he intrigued scouts by hitting 96 mph during fall practice heading into 2018. He has good feel for a changeup and throws all three of his pitches for strikes.
Duane Underwood will be the subject of this week’s “Leveling Up” series and on Friday, the Position Breakdown List concludes for the winter with a look at relievers. Starting in February, I’ll begin to take a look at the big league club and some questions about the bullpen and the starting pitching heading into spring training, which is less than a month away.
Baseball Card of the Week
By Todd Johnson
One of the feel-good stories from 2017 was the continued excellence of David Bote. His ascension to possible utilityman of the future actually began in 2016. He started that year as an organizational player and bounced around the system for a couple of months before settling in Myrtle Beach. When Ian Happ was promoted to Tennessee, it opened up a spot for Bote who has never looked back.
I first remember seeing Bote with the Kane County Cougars back in 2014 in Clinton, Iowa. At the time, I thought he was a good glove man and utility middle infielder but the bat was going to need some work. In 2016, Bote began adjusting his swing to create more lift on the ball. He wasn’t trying to hit home runs, he was just trying to hit more line drives. The result looks like it could be a major league career as he has been one of the Cubs hottest hitting prospects the past year and a half.
After destroying the Carolina League in the second half of 2016 (.351/.425/5 HRs, 38 RBI), Bote moved up to Tennessee in 2017 and had some interesting splits hitting between the .250s and .290s every month. For the year, it came out to a .272 average with an excellent .353 OBP to go along with 14 home runs and an .892 slugging percentage. Bote was then assigned to the Arizona Fall League where he hit three home runs in the first week of action. He would go on to hit .333 for the six weeks season and, as a result, earned a spot on the Cubs’ 40 man roster.
Heading up to AAA Iowa, Bote’s future looks to be that of a utility player. He can play any position in the infield and he also began to play the outfield a little bit (25 games in Tennessee, once in Arizona). While he is a good defender, he is only going to go as far as his bat will take him.
The Pacific Coast League is known as a hitters’ league. I’m not expecting David to go out and crank 25 home runs this year. Instead, I do expect him to hit for average, use the whole field, and be a selective hitter. In other words, hit the Cubs way.
While his ability to hit for average the past two summers is significant, his hitting profile would be even more glorious if his power profile produces even more in 2018. I’m not saying he should go up to the plate and try and crank a home run every at bat, but he should be able to square up the ball and drive the ball into the gaps in AAA, something he did quite often in Tennessee. Bote’s bat and power could be the difference to put him over the top. With a total of 18 HRs for the 2017 season between two teams, Bote might have the inside track to Chicago right now as a utility man.
Power seems to be the most potent piece of his profile to put in his minor league synopsis as he gets closer and closer to Chicago. It is what will set him apart.
Here are some other posts from this series:
By Todd Johnson
Carl Edwards, Jr.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.