MiLB Starting Rotation Roster Projections Are Just Pure Madness for Now

By Todd Johnson

It’s hard to come up with an analogy or metaphor about what it’s like to try and figure out the starting pitching rotations for the Cubs’ minor-league affiliates in 2019. It is going to be a big challenge and I have given it some thought and eventually gave it up as a futile attempt. I made a spreadsheet to make it easier to sort and move players from one affiliate to another. It did not go well, not at all.

It got to the point where I became extremely flustered and thought, “How is Jaron Madison going to do this come the first week in April? How is he going to sort them during spring training?“

The Great Backup
The reason for the backup is a good one. The Cubs are producing minor league pitching. Their own prospects have filtered up through AA and now into AAA and in short time. They are not going to filter up to the major leagues fully, so that’s creating the log jam that is going to clog up the system for the next couple of years.

There are about 10 guys who could start at AAA Iowa this year. Iowa will, more than likely, go with a five man rotation. The odds of the AAA affiliate going with a six-man rotation just to get guys work are very slim. Adbert Alzolay and Alec Mills are going to be at the top of the list followed by Trevor Clifton and Duncan Robinson. That leaves one spot for a plethora of names that include Keegan Thompson, Thomas Hatch, Michael Rucker, and Matt Swarmer.

As a result, whoever doesn’t make the AAA squad is going to be kept down at AA. And that trickles down and clogs up the system.

The Cubs have to have a pretty good idea of who they want to see at AAA. I doubt if it’s already decided, but it has to come down to just a couple of pitchers and how they perform in spring training. Maybe the pitchers have worked on something in the off-season and that could buy them a one-way ticket to Des Moines.

However, the most interesting staff might be in Myrtle Beach. There, a collection of holdovers from last year’s club and fast risers from the 2018 draft could be on display as a six-man staff. As well, Brailyn Marquez could sneak up and earn a spot in high A as a 20-year-old. I am also interested in seeing if Derek Casey and Paul Richan are good enough to basically skip South Bend.

Down in South Bend, there could be 14 guys competing for six spots. Those that don’t make a squad this spring will either end up in one of two places – extended spring training or the bullpen. It will probably be a mixture of both.

Because of the log jam and competition for spots, fans could see the best collection of pitching in the Cubs’ System in quite a while. This will be one of the main stories in the minor league camp when it begins in a  couple of weeks.

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Jason McLeod Interview – Pitching Thoughts, Theo’s MiLB Involvement, and Drafting Makeup

By Todd Johnson

Today is turning into a juicy day for MiLB news. After reviewing Keith Law’s Top Ten List, I finished off a Peanut Butter sandwich and sat down to catch up on the day’s events by listening to “Inside the Clubhouse” on 670 the Score. Lo and behold, Cubs Director of Scouting Jason McLeod was the guest of honor for the day. I did embed the interview below but McLeod doesn’t begin his portion until 23:26.

Topics included:
Pitching options for the next 12-15 month.
How most playoff rotation acquire pitching
Zack Short and Trent Giambrone
McLeod’s Relationship with Theo and Jed
Trades
Scouting Player Makeup

https://omny.fm/shows/inside-the-clubhouse-on-670-the-score/levine-spiegel-jason-mcleod-interview-hour-1/embed

There’s not a lot of groundbreaking information here, but it is still interesting to hear McLeod talk about how the system is transforming how they do pitching. While McLeod says that changes have been gradual. That may be true for management, but for the prospects, it has to be a shock to have different pitching coordinators each year. Now that Brendan Sagara is in his second year as the MiLB coordinator, fans could see some changes produce this year, especially at the lower levels.

McLeod also talked about starting pitching options and focused on Duncan Robinson and Alec Mills as guys who could help out in the next 12-15 months. I was really happy to hear him name drop Trevor Clifton as a guy. I am never too sure where Trevor stands with the Cubs management. But that was good to hear with him so close to the majors. Still, the thing that sticks with me from this section is how much McLeod seems to love Duncan Robinson and his ability to peruse a scouting report.

An interesting dynamic was revealed by McLeod that Theo, Jed, and McLeod have a text thread where they talk daily about prospects. In addition to phone calls and reading daily game reports, it was interesting to see how involved Theo is on daily basis with the MiLB system.

Overall, it was interesting to hear McLeod talk about some of things in his job description. I would like to have heard more about what kinds of things they are going to be looking for this summer in the draft and international free agency.

Another question that would have been interesting to hear was how will the impending addition of the DH to the National League affect scouting and the type of players the Cubs will be drafting this year and next.

The Podcast: Looking at Pitchers Who Could Be in Chicago in 2-3 Years

By Todd Johnson

It is really going to be a pivotal year for pitching in the system. There’s competition for starting spots at every level.  The Cubs signed 16 additional arms this winter for depth at AAA, although most won’t make the roster but a few will. This is going to result in a lot of arms trying to get to Chicago as starters and relievers.

This week’s podcast looks at which Cub pitching prospects who could be headed to Chicago in 2-3 years (2019-2021). I did end up focusing mostly on AAA arms who are nearly ready now.

I could have talked even more about arms at AA who could be in the mix, too. Names like Bailey Clark and Michael Rucker as bullpen guys. Then there are possible starters like Erick Leal, Alex Lange, Cory Abbott, Keegan Thompson, Erling Moreno, Manny Rondon, Thomas Hatch, and a few more. Maybe I will do part 2 in a couple weeks. Have a listen.

Next week’s topic is the draft…I think. If you have questions about the draft, send them to me via Twitter or leave a comment down below.

I will be back tomorrow with more of the 5 Series.

MiLB News: Manager and Coaching Changes Along with Other Tidbits

By Todd Johnson


The Chicago Cubs announced their 2019 minor league managers, coaches, and coordinators yesterday. The biggest surprise was the switching of manager Buddy Bailey to South Bend and Jimmy Gonzalez moving up to be the skipper at Myrtle Beach. As far as individual coaching assignments, Anderson Tavarez, who did wonders the past two seasons as the pitching coach in Myrtle Beach, will be in Mesa and possibly overseeing prodigy Richard Gallardo. 

As someone who follows South Bend on a regular basis, I am pretty excited to see Buddy Bailey up close. He has done some great work with several current Cubs including David Bote. For the past few summers, some of the best part of the Pelicans’ MiLB.TV broadcasts were of announcer Scott Kornberg spinning yarns about, and praising the talents of, Buddy.

I also think this change in managers at South Bend might foreshadow just who might be at South Bend next summer. I would love to see what Buddy can do with Nelson Velazquez, Cole Roederer, Fernando Kelli, Luis Vazquez, and other young guys. The knowledge he could pass on this early in a prospect’s career could be tremendous.

As for Iowa, Tennessee, and Eugene, Managers Marty Pevey, Mark Johnson, and Steve Lerud all return to their previous posts. In addition, former Cub Chris Valaika was promoted to Minor League Hitting Coordinator replacing Jaccob Cruz who joined the Pirates’ MLB staff.

Here is the staff for each affiliate:
Iowa
Tennessee
Myrtle Beach
South Bend
Eugene

January Instructs???
This week also saw the Cubs’s  new January Instructs begin. Rather than take place in October, the Cubs gave the prospects some time off after the season and hope that January instruction will carry over into the season better. Baseball America had a nice article on it yesterday.

IFA Signings continue…
Despite a limited budget and a hard cap, the Cubs continue adding talent through international free agency. Since July 2, the Cubs have signed 15 players according to Arizona Phil of the Cub Reporter. Here is the list so far.

Pitchers: Richard Gallardo, Darling Grullon, Manuel Heredia, Gabriel Jaramillo, Joel Machado, and Yander Montero.
Infield:Edwin Castillo, Rafael Morel, Lizardo Ruiz, and Ronny Simon
Outfield: Ezequiel Alvarez, Samuel Duarte, Orlando Guzman, Jose Lopez, and Yohendrick Pinango

I will be back tomorrow with the organization breakdown. I will be examining right-handed starting pitching from Myrtle Beach on down.

Position Breakdown Series – RHSP Part 1: Upper Part of the System is Stacked

By Todd Johnson

As usual, I’m going to split the right-handed starting pitcher system evaluation into two posts. Last year, it was a number ranking thing where I had 12 to 7 in one post and then 6 to 1 in the other. This year, not so much. I decided to split them up into the top two levels of the minor league system and then Myrtle Beach on down. Rankings be damned! This post will look at exactly who the top arms are and who should be throwing at Iowa, Tennessee, and hopefully Chicago in 2019.  

1. It all starts with Adbert Alzolay this year. Even though he missed three months in 2018, he still had a lot of impressive moments at AAA. While technically still a starter, I would not be surprised to see him in Chicago as a reliever at some point this summer.

2. Trevor Clifton looks to be close to being ready for Chicago. His efficiency to get deep into a game is what’s going to keep him a starter in the majors. The same movement that he got on his curveball has now been added to his changeup, and his fastball continues to have good armside run in on a right-handed hitter.

3. Cory Abbott is the best pitcher the Cubs took in the 2017 Draft. He dominated two levels in 2018 at South Bend and Myrtle Beach. It took about 2-3 weeks for him to make adjustments and then it was on. It is not unreasonable to think he could he do the same in 2019.

4. For Duncan Robinson, he has the efficiency that Clifton is looking for. His second half was amazing at Tennessee and that earned him 2 starts for Iowa at the end of the year. The 6‘6“ righty out of Dartmouth has pushed himself to to being a guy the Cubs might consider for a spot start this summer. He did it all in a little over two years. Look for him to take the bump a time or two in Mesa with the big league club this spring.

5. Matt Swarmer’s 2018 is a kind of Hollywood type story. The big gangly kid added some muscle and some miles per hour to his fastball and everything just clicked. Now he’s able to throw 92 to 94 with a vicious curve and a wicked change. I don’t know if he starts in Iowa to begin the year or in Tennessee. Either way, he is not that far away.

6.  Michael Rucker is my guy. I think in the long term he might be a reliever because his stuff plays up a bit out of the pen, but when you throw 70% strikes, that turns a lot of heads.

7. Tyson Miller took off last year at Myrtle Beach and should be at AA to start 2019. If he continues adding onto his rather large 6‘3“ frame like he did last year, his stuff could tick up even more. It was fun to watch an arm who had gotten through the lower part of the system by using his command and control to have some added fire power with the same command and control. I’m excited to see what happens with him in 2019.

Still watching – Keegan Thompson looks like he could be a guy as he dominated high A Myrtle Beach. He was somewhat inconsistent at Tennessee but at times he was good. As well, I hope the Cubs can get Alex Lange on track. He has 2 plus pitches and a pedestrian fastball. If he could get his fastball to have some movement, he could get going upward. Lange can get teed up or he could strike out 10. You never know. Then again, Lange finished very strong in August with a 2.74 ERA for the month with opponents only hitting .160 off him. I’d like some more of that Alex Lange, please.

Sleeper – Thomas Hatch – Whatever happened to him in August, whether it was something he ate or drank or changed, needs to continue next year. He was a freaking beast on the mound with a 2.51 ERA in 5 starts, his best month at AA. I hope he can begin 2019 like he ended 2018.

The de la Cruz Factor 
When Oscar de la Cruz’s suspension ends, it will be intriguing to see if the Cubs stretch him or put him in the pen. His injurious past affected the suspension and putting him in the pen might kill two birds with one stone.

It is going to be a fun year for watching pitching at Iowa and Tennessee.

 

Cubs Central MiLB Mailbag – Episode V: Adbert Is Close and Zach Hedges Is Dealing This Winter

By Todd Johnson


It’s been a couple of weeks since the last mailbag, but things have been pretty busy this offseason. Today, there are two specific questions about two specific prospects.

Question #1 – 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?
https://twitter.com/Daramfan/status/1061267271472033793

More than likely, Alzolay should be at AAA Iowa to begin the year but I would not be surprised to see him get a shot of Chicago early in the year, if needed. The Cubs probably would like to use him as a starter considering he can throw in the mid to upper 90s. But if the Cubs need him for the bullpen, he’s more than able to take on that role.

In the long run, it might be better for Alzolay, who will be 24, to break in as a bullpen arm and work his way up to starter by 2020. Considering that the Cubs are going want him for September and October, his arm is going to need to adjust to that long of a season. Most minor league guys are done on Labor Day unless they make the playoffs.

Whatever his role is, Alzolay is going to have adjust to the MLB life and a bullpen role would be best to break him slowly. As the highest ranked pitching prospect in the system at AAA, his time in the minors is surely limited starting in April.

Come tomorrow, I will have a full fledged profile of Adbert over at BP Wrigleyville, my final post for them.

Question #2 from the comment section – “What happened to Zach Hedges –middle reliever?” 

I really like Zach. He’s a nice kid with a good head on his shoulders and a great work ethic. As for his future, he simply just needs to succeed at AAA. He can’t seem to get over that hump the past two seasons. Whether he was a starter, or a reliever, Hedges dominated at AA and struggled mightily in AAA. It’s been frustrating to watch him hit that literal wall.

Zach’s best pitch has always been his slider. I’ve often thought that if he added a cutter he might have a better shot of getting over that AAA hump. Coming out of the bullpen might require Hedges to adjust his arsenal a bit. Some pitchers sometimes go to two pitches. Hedges might require some trial and error before he gets it right.

Then again, Mr. Hedges is down in Puerto Rico this winter getting some work in. Heading into last night, he’s started five of his six appearances. In 24.2 IP, he had a 1.59 ERA with 20 Ks and just 8 BBs.

It should be interesting to see what role he has as a Cub next spring.

Here are some other things coming up on Cubs Central over the next couple of weeks.
The 5 Series and Position Breakdown Series will continue with articles coming out on Jimmy Herron and Brailyn Marquez, and SS and OF. The 5 Series will be out on Mondays for the next two weeks because of the holidays. The Position Series continues on its normal Friday run. This Sunday, I come back with a Christmas Wish List. At some point, I will publish the “Cards of the Off-Season” and the Convention is just a month away! I don’t know what my attendance status for the convention will be for another week.

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.