Prospect Update: Brandon Hughes Is Beginning to Take Off

By Todd Johnson

A 16th round pick in the 2016 MLB Draft, South Bend Cubs outfielder Brandon Hughes’ career resembles a roller coaster. The switch hitting outfielder is riding a high wave, right now. In June, the 22-year-old is hitting .364 with 2 HRs and 7 RBI in 15 games.

Last year at Eugene, Hughes got off to a torrid start to begin his pro career. That July, he hit .299 with 1 HR and 7 RBI. Then he began to cool off in August as only hit .199. His K rate was at 25% and he only walked 7% of the time. He pulled 43% of his batted balls and only 30% went the other way. Against lefties, he only had 27 ABs but hit .296 against them.

Still, I was pretty high on him at the end of the season. I liked his athleticism and thought that it would help propel him in his career. I really liked his hands through the zone and thought that eventually, he was too good of an athlete to fail.

Here is what I said in the Leveling Up Series About Hughes in March.

The Cubs need to figure out what kind of hitter Hughes is going to be. Is he going to be a leadoff-speed kind of guy like he was at Michigan State? Or, Is he going to be a guy they’re going to try and develop into a power hitter? Will he be the hitter we saw in July or the one in August? Or, is he going to be some sort of multi-dimensional player that has both speed and power?

To put it mildly, Hughes did not good off to a good start this year at South Bend.

I still believed though.

In April, he hit .222 and followed that up in May at .198. His K rates and walk rates were very similar to last year. But something was beginning to change. He was beginning to get more lift. In 2017, only 32% of his batted balls were fly balls. This year, it was up to 42.5% and he was able to go the other way as that rate increased to 35%.

But the biggest change was in his stance.

At the beginning of 2018, his hands were extended away from his body shoulder level (see picture below). In May, he pulled his hands in and lowered them to his chest. He seemed to be more upright and he opened up his stance to better see the pitcher and improve his timing.

The Results

In talking with South Bend Cubs broadcaster Brendan King, Brendan commented that Hughes works very hard at repeating that new swing and stance every pre-game. At some point, muscle memory begins to take over and that is what is happening. At 6’2” and 215 lbs., Hughes has good size and his athletic prowess is helping him repeat his performance.

I am looking forward to seeing how he will do the rest of the summer with his new stance now ingrained in his muscles. Right now, Hughes is all systems go and it looks like he’s taking off.

 

 

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Leveling Up Series Finale: Brandon Hughes Should Take It Up a Notch in 2018

By Todd Johnson

Rule number one: Draft all the athletes.

Brandon Hughes is most definitely that. The young 2017 draft pick from Michigan State is arguably the best athlete the Cubs selected in the draft since Jacob Hannemann, way back in 2013. In addition to speed, Hughes has the potential for power. As a lead off hitter at Michigan State, he was never asked to hit that way. That’s something the Cubs might want to change this year.

Upon his arrival at Eugene, Hughes burst onto the scene with a scintillating July before cooling off in August. He hit .299 the first month, and .190 the second. It’s not like he’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, but turning pro can be a tough experience when you’ve already played a full season of baseball; your body is just not used to the grind of playing eight months versus five.

Hughes will have some definite competition for an outfield spot in South Bend but is best suited to right field. His arm is considered above average, but he definitely has the ability to go get the ball.

Basic Info
6’2″ 215 lbs.
Bats: Switch Hitter
Throws: Left
16th Round 2017 from Michigan State
Just turned 22 in December 2017

Leveling Up

It is hard to evaluate someone just on 40 games in short season ball. By the time the middle of June rolls around this year, Hughes should have 60 games in at South Bend. In that span, he needs to improve getting on base. Some of that will come from a solid approach, which he should’ve been working on over the off-season, and some of that will come with a familiarity with the league.

Most importantly, the Cubs need to figure out what kind of hitter Hughes is going to be. Is he going to be a leadoff-speed kind of guy like he was at Michigan State? Or, Is he going to be a guy they’re going to try and develop into a power hitter? Will he be the hitter we saw in July or the one in August? Or, is he going to be some sort of multi-dimensional player that has both speed and power?

If I had to guess, I would go with the last one. One thing  South Bend manager Jimmy Gonzalez has been able to do the past few summers is to develop hitters with good pitch recognition skills. I don’t know if part of that comes from computer games the players play or just their own natural development. Whatever the case may be, Gonzalez gets results and those hitters go on to do well at Myrtle Beach.

For Hughes, I am looking forward to seeing just who he is as a hitter and how he approaches each plate appearance. I’m interested to see how he handles a Midwest League curveball and changeup.

Out of the almost 30 signees from last year’s draft, I think Hughes is the one who will change the most this year. Last summer, I wrote the following for BP Wrigleyville and I still think it holds true for Hughes’ future:

Hughes’ style of hitting reminds me of a story by Ryne Sandberg. Ryno often talks about his conversations with Jim Frey and how Sandberg used to pound the ball into the Astroturf and dirt to try and use his speed to get on base. One day at the batting cage, Frey suggested Sandberg  should change his swing to create more lift to hit for more power. And that one piece of advice transformed Sandberg’s career.

I am not saying that Brandon Hughes is going to be a Hall of Famer. And I am not comparing him to Ryne Sandberg, but their original hitting styles are similar. Hughes is physically gifted. He has the frame and the musculature to hit home runs. It will be interesting to see what his swing is next year.

His natural physicality will allow him to do a variety of things in the field, on the basepaths, and at the plate. His development is going to be a multi-year process that will hopefully take advantage of his natural athletic talent.

Leveling Up Series – Austin Filiere Already Knows It’s a Game of Less than an Inch

By Todd Johnson

There were fans who snickered and chortled when the Cubs selected Austin Filiere, a third baseman from MIT, in the 2017 draft. After a few at bats, it was pretty clear why the Cubs selected Austin Filiere. In addition to having some power, the young third baseman also showed an adept eye at the plate.  In his short tenure as a Eugene Emerald in 2017, Filiere hit .261 with an outstanding .392 on base percentage. He hit six home runs and drove in 25 in just 49 games. He is going to play three times as many games at South Bend this season. He can improve his defense some for 2018, but for now, he is sufficient.

Maybe the most encouraging sign about Filiere’s development last year was that he seemed to be better every time I saw him. He was one of the best two players on the team the last month of the season. He drove in 14 runs but he also walked 17 times…that month! He also cranked 4 HRs to go with an OBP of .405 for August.

Basic Info
6’1″ 190 lbs.
Bats Right
Throws Right
2018 Affiliate: South Bend
8th Round Pick in 2017 from MIT

Leveling Up
Filiere probably does not have that many people writing about him. With the potential to hit 20 home runs in the Midwest League, Filiere could change some minds in the first half of the year. Not that he’s a breakout prospect, but he is one who could be. His mix of power and plate discipline reminds me of Zack Short and Ian Rice. However, I think Filiere might have more juice than the aforementioned prospects who were at South Bend the previous two years.

With his approach, he comes across as doing everything he should be as an entry-level prospect.

The well-renowned Peter Gammons did a profile on Filiere before the Cubs took him. It is an interesting look at Filiere’s MIT career, his time in the Cape Cod League, and his potential as a pro. What has always stayed with me is this quote from Filiere on the intricacies of plate coverage:

“I know that if it’s 88-90 miles an hour, I can try to handle a ball an inch out of the zone, but I can’t if it’s an inch and a half. Of course, when you’re facing the really good pitchers from the big programs, there’s a major learning curve involved.”

To know that your plate coverage is that minute at such an early age is pretty telling of how well he knows the zone, hitting, and his own strengths and limitations.

Here’s the Catch
What might separate Filiere from other prospects will be a full off-season of immersion in the Cubs way. No offense to MIT coaching, but there’s no comparison as to the things he can learn from his professional coaches as a Cub. Whether that’s nutrition, physical training, or mental training, he is going to be more prepared as a hitter this year than he was last year. I’m very excited to see how much he’s improved since last August.

Leveling Up Series: Austin Upshaw Just Hits

By Todd Johnson

When I interviewed Austin Upshaw last summer, he was tearing up the Midwest League. In 24 games in July, the second baseman from Kennesaw State hit .284 with an on-base percentage of .354. He upped both of those in August and over the last 10 games he hit .351 with a .390 on base percentage. It was a pretty solid debut.

Defensively, he played a little first (25 games), a little second (16 games), and even some third (11 games) while  showing a decent enough arm to make all the plays. I don’t think he’s going to have wide range but he’s going to be a good defender.

What really sticks out about Upshaw is just his approach to the game. He does everything very well as South Bend Cubs announcer Darin Pritchett commented to me last summer. When I interviewed Upshaw, I was impressed on how he walked me through what he’s trying to do at the plate. Upshaw talked about how every pitch is different and how every situation is different. He just tries to stay relaxed and comfortable at the plate.

Basic Info
6’0″ 175 pounds
Bats Left
Throws Right
Kennesaw State
13th round pick 2017

Leveling up for 2018
There’s no question that Upshaw is going to be at Myrtle Beach to begin 2018. His performance after signing was one of the highlights of the second half in 2017. I don’t really think he’s much of a power hitter but when it does come, his power comes from making good contact. He hit four home runs between Mesa and South Bend last year. And in 56 games, he struck out only 31 times. Then again, he only walked 14.

I do wonder what position he is going to play for the Pelicans. Showing versatility works for now, but second might be where his bat plays best.

The thing about Upshaw is that he does have some room to add some muscle. It’s not that he was gaunt, but he’s not going to be in any bodybuilding competition soon either. If he could put on 10-15 pounds and not affect his swing whatsoever, that would be great.

The big thing I like the most about Upshaw is he has the ability to focus in the moment. Some might refer to him as a baseball rat, but I think he’s just a darn good baseball player. He can identify a pitch and, if it’s the right pitch, he can do something with it. IF not, he’s going to let it go by. Upshaw is very patient and, like Ian Happ, Upshaw hits strikes. Upshaw could be one of those players who hits better at the higher levels because the quality of pitching is better.

The fans at Myrtle Beach are going to love watching him work a count. That may not sound that sexy, but it’s pretty fun to watch him hit. If he can walk a bit more, and hit a few more home runs this year, that would be great. Above all else, he just needs to continue to hit.

Leveling Up Series: Jared Young Is Mentally Strong and Getting Stronger

By Todd Johnson

Seems like I just wrote about Jared Young last month. When I look back to see the actual article, it was over six months ago.

In 2017, Young had an up and down first season at Eugene. What I really liked about him was how he approached every at bat. Even when he got off to such a poor start after signing, he worked every count that he possibly could and in August it paid off.

Young’s future has a Cub could go several different ways. He is a second baseman with pretty good size. At 6’2” and 185 pounds, he has the ability to put on more weight and to produce more power. Whether he stays at second base or not, is a discussion for a later day.

I think it would be easy to forget his first six weeks as a pro. It’s a lot easier to remember his August where he hit .323 with a .357 on base percentage. He only hit one home run for the year, but he drove in 11 in his last 23 games. That’s a pretty good pace that would be close to 80 runs driven in at full class A.

Basic Info
22-years-old
Bats Left
Throws Right
6’2” 185 lbs
Old Dominion
15th Round Pick 2017

Leveling Up for 2018

One other thing I like about Young and his fellow position player draft picks is that they seem to be a bit more mature than your average prospect. Last year, the Cubs drafted several college position players that included Young and most of them played at Eugene last summer.

While I don’t think Young is going to get through the system fairly quickly, I do think he’s going to learn fairly fast. As a result, his ability to pick up things quickly will only enhance his profile throughout the course of the year. The player we saw last summer is going to be different from the player we see this spring and the player we will see in June will also be different.

Another advantage is Young’s favor is the path he’s taken to get this point. He is used to being a new guy in a new place every year. Originally from Prince George in British Columbia, Young attended three colleges before he was taken by the Cubs last summer. He first played at Minot State in North Dakota where he hit .398 with 5 dingers. He then transferred to Connors State College. He put together an amazing 2016 with a .480 average and 11 homers. In 2017 at Old Dominion, he cranked 7 home runs while hitting .384. He’s got this moving thing down.

As for the batter’s box, Young told the Prince George Citizen how he is trying to master the mental aspects of the game.:

I’ve been working with (hitting coach) Chris Valaika and (manager) Jesus (Feliciano) on just the mental aspect of the game. And it’s just taking that to the plate and seeing a fastball and making sure you don’t miss them. I didn’t have the greatest of starts, and I’ll admit that. It was definitely mental, too. It’s been a couple of mechanical things that I’ve been working on, but to go on a streak like this, I think it’s more mental, staying the course and not staying too high or too low.

I’d like to see him play some first base this summer just to enhance his profile as a possible utility guy. What I want to see most is for him to continue his excellent approach at the plate and to develop more power as the year goes on. I’m not asking for 20 home runs every year from him. But I would like to see is a gradual increase from year-to-year.

He really seems to have the right mental makeup to do well. I cannot wait to pick his brain about hitting later this summer when he is at South Bend.

Leveling Up Series: Is It Time for the Jonathan Sierra Era to Begin?

By Todd Johnson

Card made from a Photo by John Arguello

When 16-year-old Jonathan Sierra was signed as an international free agent in 2015, every physical comp compared him to a young Darryl Strawberry. Now 19 years old, Sierra is no longer a long and lean lefty. Rather, he is a big strong lefty at 6’3″, maybe closer to 6’4″, and somewhere between 240 to 250 pounds. In addition to that size and the potential for power, Sierra is also known as a gifted fielder with a strong left arm. 2018 will be his third season as a professional.

When the Cubs first signed Sierra, he was known as Yonathan Sierra Estiwal. Here is MLB.com’s  profile of him from 2015

Overall, Estiwal has been praised for his ability to hit in games and hit the ball to all fields. He has also shown some power in games and the ability to drive the ball to the opposite field. Scouts describe Estiwal as an average runner and say his arm might be a tick above average.

Estiwal does well in games, and scouts like his makeup. He’s been simply described as “a good baseball player who knows the game,” on numerous occasions.

To date, he’s gotten 405 at bat in his two seasons. After a stellar .384 on base percentage in the DSL in 2016, Sierra struggled a bit playing in Mesa as his batting average shrank from .264 to .259 and his on-base percentage went from .384 to .332.

In watching a video of Sierra, it’s quite clear he is susceptible to breaking stuff and there’s a hole in his swing that he needs to learn to cover up.

These things can be fixed and they can be fixed quickly. The question is, will it happen this year.?

Basic Info
6’4″ 230 lbs.
Bats Left
Throws Left
Signed as an International Free Agent in 2015
Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic

Leveling Up
I’m not sure of what to expect just yet for 2018. I’d like to see him strike out less and see him hit more home runs. He’s got all the potential in the world but he just turned 19. Comparatively, a former top prospect who also had massive home run power hit just three dingers at the same age in Eugene.

Card made from a photo by John Arguello

One of the great things that I’ve seen the Cubs do in recent years is to train their young hitters to be more selective. That’s what needs to happen with Sierra. Once that happens, then the HRs will come.

In 2016 in the Dominican, he struck out about 25% of the time. In Mesa, he struck out about 33% of the time. It’s not ideal, but it’s not uncommon. He was only 18.

Out of all the places he could play in the system in 2018, Eugene is the place as it is kind of built for him. It’s hard to get a ball out to left and left center, almost impossible to dead center, but he could pull one down the right field line over a short fence.

It would be unreasonable to expect drastic improvement and huge power numbers this year in Eugene. However, improvement and development are going to be essential. His walk rate needs to go up and the strikeout rate needs to come down. If those things happen, everything else should fall in the place.

400 at-bats not a lot for a professional baseball player. Sierra should get an additional 230 to 250 this year Eugene. Next year at South Bend should be the big year as he will see over 400 at bats in close to 140 games.

It’s not hard to see Sierra coming, however for him to blossom, that still might be a year away. But when he does, it could be special.

 

Leveling Up Series: Nelson Velazquez Is Powering Up for 2018

By Todd Johnson

When Eloy Jimenez was traded in the middle of last summer, my heart was somewhat broken as I became quite attached to watching him play and was hopeful that he would be ready for the 2018 season. I didn’t think the Cubs had anybody with that type of power potential in the system. Little did I know, at that time, the Cubs drafted a power monster a month earlier in the fifth round.

As spring training looms on the horizon for the minor-league camp, I am looking forward to seeing what Nelson Velasquez can do. In just six weeks at Mesa in 2017, he hit 10 home runs between the regular season and the playoffs. He hit almost .300 for the month of August and drove in 14 runs that month. He drew rave reviews for his hit tool and his athleticism in the field, some suggesting he could stick in centerfield. Jason McLeod even added that Velazquez, while a physical specimen at 6’0” 190 lbs., could add a couple more inches and 15-20 pounds.

Here’s what Fangraphs had to say about Velasquez back in November:

Velazquez is raw but has louder tools than are typically found for $400,000. He projects for plus raw power, and amateur scouts had a 55 on his speed. We saw fringe speed in the AZL but knew there was a hamstring issue present. He projects to an outfield corner. Velazquez is thick through the thighs and butt, and scouts have his frame comp’d to corner outfielders (Jorge Bonifacio, Yoenis Cespedes, and Scott Schebler), so most have him projected there despite the present 55 wheels.

Basic info…
6’0” 190
Turned 19 in December
Bats Right
Throws Right
5th Round Pick 2017
PJ Education HS, Puerto Rico

Leveling Up in 2018
For the 2018 season, Velasquez has only one thing to do and that is to reduce his 30% strikeout rate. That’s an astronomical figure for such a young player.

One thing I like to do with a prospect is to breakdown their season into smaller sections of performance. In July, Velasquez struck out 11 times in 31 at bats (35%) and did not get a walk once. In August, things improved slightly as he whiffed 25 times in 75 at-bats (33%) but drew 14 walks for a .408 OBP. However, in the playoffs, he struck out 6 times in 14 at-bats (43%) with 2 walks (.385 OBP) but cranked out 2 HRs and drove in 9 over 5 games. Wow!

And that’s the thing, he may strike out, but he also hits a lot of balls very, very hard including over the fence.

Currently there is no one like him with his potential for power in the system. He’s gonna be one of the more interesting watches this spring in camp. His career could go several different ways in 2018.

1. The Cubs could take the conservative route with him and just let him do extended spring training and then ship them off to Eugene for the summer and keep him there.

2. Depending on how he does in spring training, he could begin the year in extended spring training and move to South Bend for the second half. That would be a bit advanced and an aggressive move to speed up his development.

3. The most likely career route for Velazquez in 2018 would be for him to do extended spring training, get shipped up to Eugene, and then have his career reevaluated in early August. If he still is striking out at a high rate, then keep them in Eugene. Playoff races in Eugene and South Bend could also affect his placement in late August. If Eugene is in and South Bend is out, keep him in Eugene. If South Bend is in and Eugene is out, ship him to South Bend.

The third scenario is the most likely and probably the one that could achieve what the Cubs think Velasquez needs to work on. Ideally, you want him to get as much game experience as you can. Then again, he’s only 19 and he’s not going to Chicago this year. The Cubs can let him get 300 at-bats in this year to improve that plate discipline and develop it as they see fit.

What could spoil all this is if Velasquez just comes out and start ripping the cover off the ball at every stop. PK Park in Eugene is not known as a home run haven, but Velasquez could turn it into one…quickly.