By Todd Johnson
One of the cool things about the Cubs’ system is that you can watch players develop in increments. There’s so much press, coverage, and statistical information, it’s hard for a prospect go unnoticed at any stage. Last year (2016) at Mesa, an 18 and then a 19-year-old Javier Assad sort of became the de facto ace of the young rookie league squad. His fastball, at that time, sat around 88 to 91 according to John Arguello.
In 2017, Assad continued his development at short season Eugene. Now 19/20, his fastball crept up a little bit more as the year wore on. It was not uncommon for him to top out at 94/95 in a game. Still, he sat most of the time in the low 90s often working easily up to 93..
What I took away from watching him in 2017 was that he’s got a little “dog in the fight.” He’s competitive and he attacks the zone. As the year progressed, he tended to quicken his pace, à la Adbert Alzolay, as he didn’t waste a lot of time between pitches. I think in 2018, we are going to start to see a much more fully developed pitcher.
Statistics can sometimes be irrelevant for a lot of minor-league players. There are instances where certain statistics can point out a weakness or a strength. I think a lot of time, people get hung up on just looking at one or two stats for the Cubs’ minor league pitchers, I tend not to get too hung up on either the velocity readings or ERA. Those are nice, but I think other statistics hint to where a prospect is at a certain point in their development. I like to look at statistics and how they compare in smaller splits as adjustments are continually made.
For example, Assad’s monthly ERAs in 2017 went from 2.45 in 3 June starts to 5.00 in 5 July starts and back down to 3.72 in 4 August starts. However, when you start digging deeper, his batting average against went down each month despite a roller coaster ERA. All the while, his K and BB rates remained consistent.
Pitching in Eugene was a bit treacherous this year and even more so when Aramis Ademan left to go to South Bend. It was not the best defensive unit on the face of the Earth. As a result, I don’t think it’s fair to evaluate Assad’s 2017 solely on his ERA or WHIPs which did go down each month. Instead, I think FIP and xFIP are likely more representative of his current development. They stood at 3.03 and 3.27 respectively. Both of those are very respectable.
When I saw Assad pitch several times in August, I was impressed by how much he had changed. Aside from quickening his pace, his curve had taken on a sharper bite. His fastball was not as wild and tailing up and away as it had earlier in the year. Even though he is 6’1” and 200 pounds, he is far from physically sculpted. I think as time goes on, his musculature could tighten up and he could gain a couple more ticks on his fastball.
As I start thinking about his future, I also noticed a set of stats that show some promise for the future. In 2016, 39.3% batted balls were pulled. In 2017, that percentage of balls was close at 39.1%. The biggest change occurred in opposite field hits increased by 5%. That tells me that hitters are not getting around him as much. It’s a stat and trend to watch for 2018 along with his BB rate.
The hardest thing for Assad to do in 2018 will be to earn a starting spot in South Bend. Alex Lange, Brendon Little, and Jose Albertos are most likely to be assigned there along with Bailey Clark and Jesus Camargo. Two 2017 draft picks, Keegan Thompson and Cory Abbott, will also be there to make the competition fierce in spring training. Assad is going to have his work cut out for him.
By Todd Johnson
While the first half breakout list tends to be players from South Bend and Myrtle Beach, the second half list is usually players from Mesa, Eugene, and maybe South Bend or Beach. There were a few prospects who had good seasons that we did see coming like Miguel Amaya, Aramis Ademan, and Jose Albertos. There were several players who put together good stretches together during the second half. Altogether, it was difficult picking out the winners.
Breakout Hitter of the Second Half
This was a tough call. Austin Upshaw was a player that I really liked from South Bend who hit almost .290 each month after being drafted this summer. Austin Filiere of Eugene hit .287 in the fourth spot with over a .400 OBP hitting cleanup along with five home runs. Andruw Monasterio came close to the definition of a breakout hitter along with Luis Ayala of South Bend. Monasterio hit .290+ in August while Ayala got his average up to .366 in July and .293 for the second half.
But if I’m gonna pick just one guy, it has to be Nelson Velasquez of Mesa whom the Cubs drafted in the fifth round this year. In August, he hit almost .300 and clubbed 6 home runs for the Mesa Cubs in the Arizona Rookie League leading them to a second half division title. In the playoffs, he hit 2 more homers and drove in 9. The sad thing about Nelson is we don’t have as many eyes on him after the death of John Arguello. Still, Nelson progressed each month since signing his pro contract. He is just 18 years old and I am really looking forward to him playing next year at Eugene and/or South Bend.
Breakout Starting Pitcher of the Second Half
This one wasn’t really as tough as the hitter category. It basically came down to two players. Runner-up Jesus Tejada had an outstanding August for the Cubs’ Dominican Summer League 1 team. He threw a no-hitter and struck out 19 batters in consecutive games.
But for me, the biggest surprise was the performance of Duncan Robinson at Myrtle Beach. While Michael Rucker stole the show there in June, Robinson got off to a rough start in his July debut and then seemed to improve at every opportunity throughout the summer. I liked the fact that he kept improving by adding a cutter to his repertoire. Another thing I liked was that Robinson did not seem to tire as the season progressed. He had a 2.37 ERA in 10 second half starts while striking out 37 in 49.1 IP. I am really looking forward to him pitching next year at AA Tennessee.
Breakout Reliever of the Second Half
I think Dakota Mekkes stole the show in the first half. The second half winner is not gonna be that much of a surprise. South Bend reliever Jhon Romero is one who I did not see coming. He throws in the mid 90s with a wicked breaking ball. Another surprise was Tyler Peyton of South Bend who had a 1.29 ERA just in August. One reliever I did see coming was Pedro Araujo for Myrtle Beach. With an ERA under 2, he basically owned the closer role and the Carolina League in the second half.
But when it comes right down to who was the biggest surprise or break out, it’s Dillon Maples. He progressed through four levels of the system at the age of 25. He has always had wicked stuff from the time he was drafted in 2011 but had injuries and confidence issues along the way. This year, the worm turned for him. With a wicked slider/curve and a fastball that approached 100 miles an hour, he was almost impossible to hit at every level. On September 1, he was called up to Chicago. In his first appearance, he walked one and struck out one.
When it comes to next year, I am not quite sure what to expect when it comes to possible breakout prospects. I am thinking Jonathan Sierra, but he most likely won’t begin play until the second half at Eugene. The same is true for pitcher Jesus Tejada.
More than likely, the first half breakouts for 2018 will come from either South Bend or Myrtle Beach. Hopefully, DJ Wilson, Kevonte Mitchell, or Joe Martarano can put it together for half a season. Or, it could even be one of this year’s draft picks or International players who steal the show – literally – like Fernando Kelli who had 58 SBs in 2017. When it comes to pitching, this year proved that opportunities will present themselves for pitchers to step up and become essential players. You never know who will get the chance.
By Todd Johnson
It has been a “heckuva” ride this week as Mesa won four out of five games including the best-of-three championship series against the Giants. I was quite surprised to see Mesa go on the run winning 13 out of 15 games. In the first half, it was brutal to check their daily box score. They were 9-19 in the first half. There was no indication that this team could go on such a run. There were some roster moves made in early August that I thought could stabilize the team as a couple of pitchers came up from the DSL along with hitter Luis Hidalgo. I didn’t think they would be that stabilizing.
Needless to say, covering the lower minors next year is going to be very exciting. Nelson Velazquez pounded the ball in the playoffs with 2 HRs along with fellow 18-year-olds Jonathan Sierra and Luis Vazquez. 2B Delvin Zinn hit .500 for the playoffs with a .632 OBP. Most of the players on the Mesa team will be at Eugene next summer with a few at South Bend. I’m excited to watch them every day next year on MiLB.TV.
As for the Eugene Emeralds, they played the Vancouver Canadians in game one of a best-of-five series last night. Keegan Thompson got the start for the Ems and he gave up two runs in three innings. In the bottom of the third, the Ems took a 4-2 lead thanks in part to two walks and a HBP. After that, the Ems had 3 errors and a wild pitch just in the fifth inning that they could not overcome. Vancouver scored four to take a 6-4 lead. Each team would tack on one more run as the Canadians won 7-5. Brendon Little pitches tonight for Eugene at 7 Central.
I’m pretty hopeful that Eugene can get their back-to-back championship trophies. They now have their work cut out for them. They have the pitching, hitting, and the speed to do it. The questions this year have been their defense, especially up the middle, and their lack of consistency both on the mound and at the plate. I have no doubts about their talent, whatsoever. Some nights, they just struggle because that’s baseball and they are very young.
And finally, the Myrtle Beach Pelicans’ season ended in a strange set of circumstances. Hurricane Irma forced the cancellation of the Mills Cup championship. Two teams would be declared co-champions based on the division series. The Pelicans were supposed to play a best of five series against Down East, the Rangers affiliate in the Carolina League. That was shortened to a best of three series. Myrtle Beach only pushed two runs across the plate, and, as a result, they lost two games to none.
When it comes to Cubs Central…
I began to plan out what the off-season is going to involve on this site. Over the winter, I’m going to have a weekly series beginning after Thanksgiving. It is going to be called “Leveling Up.” It is going to look at several high-profile prospects moving up the system and what they need to do at the next level. DJ Wilson is going to be the first prospect profiled and will be followed by Zack Short and Eddy Martinez.
My Other Writing This Week on the Web
I did some year-end affiliate reviews this week and they are up and posted at Cubs Insider. Click on the links below.
South Bend Review
Jared Young Profile
by Todd Johnson
The Mesa Cubs won the Arizona Rookie League Championship last night with an awesome display of hitting! The first four hitters (Jose Gutierrez, Carlos Sepulveda, Jonathan Sierra, and Nelson Velazquez) in the lineup each drove in two runs as the Cubs scored runs in bunches to defeat the Giants 13-3 and win the series two games to one. Delvin Zinn scored three times and Luis Vazquez scored twice while going 4 for 5. Jeffrey Passantino, Eugenio Palma, and Ivan Medina held the Giants scoreless over the last five innings to secure the win! This is the Cubs’ first rookie league title since 2002.
Cubs win first AZL title since 2002. Final 13-3 pic.twitter.com/6pYkQhsE5W
— Eric Longenhagen (@longenhagen) September 8, 2017
Meanwhile in Hillsboro…
The Emeralds got on the board early against the Hops in game two of their series thanks in part to a Brandon Hughes home run to take a 3-0 lead. The Hops came right back to tie at three apiece. Each team would tack on another run with the Hops tying it in the bottom of the eighth. In the top of the ninth, the Ems blew it open by scoring six runs to win 10-4. Chris Singleton had a bases clearing double that put the game out of reach. The Emeralds will now face Vancouver in the championship. No dates have been announced as of yet.
In the Carolina League
Things did not go well for Myrtle Beach in their quest to go back-to-back-to-back. The Wood Ducks scored three runs on 5 hits in the fourth to take a 4-0 lead and held on to defeat the Pelicans 4-1. The Pelicans only managed four hits. The Pelicans and Wood Ducks will play two tonight in order to avoid Hurricane Irma in the best of five series.
By Todd Johnson
Nelson Velazquez is turning into a world beater, however it wasn’t enough last night. Velazquez had a triple and drove in three runs to give the Mesa Cubs a brief lead in Game 2 of the best of three AZL Championship Series. However, the Cubs lost in Game 2 to the Giants 6-5. It was a seesaw game with the Cubs scoring two in the first, thanks in part to a Jose Gutierrez home run. The Giants came back and scored four in the fourth before Nelson’s fifth inning triple gave the Cubs the lead 5-4. The Giants came back and tied it and then went on to win it in the ninth on an error. Tonight is the final game as it looks like Emilio Ferrebus should take the mound for the Cubs.
Meanwhile in Eugene…
Smoke from the wildfires finally lifted enough for the Ems and the Hillsboro Hops to get game 1 in. Jose Albertos started for Eugene and went 5.2 innings. He gave up two runs, one on a homer, but looked sharp after the first inning. He didn’t throw his curve much, but his change was a thing of beauty.
Relievers Elvis Diaz and Jake Steffens shut down the Hops after Albertos left the game. Jhonny Bethencourt scored scored two runs and Gustavo Polanco drove in Michael Cruz with the winning run in the eighth inning for a 3-2 victory.
The Ems travel To Hillsboro to finish out the best-of-three series. Jesus Camargo is slated to start game 2.
Pelicans Rained Out
Myrtle Beach was rained out and they will resume their semi-final Mills Cup series tonight, weather permitting. Michael Rucker is still slated to pitch for the Pelicans against Down East, a Rangers’ affiliate.
By Todd Johnson
Falling behind 5-0 would be the death knell for most teams. However, when you have a potent offense, no lead is insurmountable. Such was the case last night as the Mesa Cubs rallied to win 7-6 over the Dodgers in the Arizona Rookie League semi-finals.
The Cubs used home runs by Jonathan Sierra, 2017 draft pick Cam Balego (his second in the playoffs), and 2016 draftee Delvin Zinn to tie it up. Carlos Sepulveda, on a rehab assignment, drove in Kwang-Min Kwon as the winning run in the eighth.
Another key to victory was that the bullpen pitched great in relief. Eugenio Palma, Jeffrey Passantino, and Ivan Medina scattered 8 hits and allowed 2 runs in 9 innings after Stephen Ridings was chased in the first after giving up four runs without getting an out.
The Cubs now move to the finals where they will face the Giants in a best of three series. 2017 Draft Pick, Brendan King from Holy Cross, probably gets the ball tonight and Brailyn Marquez could take the bump tomorrow.
The series starts tonight and runs through Thursday, if necessary. The Cubs went 5-3 against the Giants this year. I like the Cubs’ chances.
By Todd Johnson
With the minor league regular season ending tomorrow, that was the quickest five months I can ever remember. But the postseason begins Tuesday and the Cubs have three teams in the playoffs. Myrtle Beach clinched in June, Eugene clinched last night, and Mesa finalized their spot yesterday afternoon. South Bend, sadly, ended its run last night with a loss at Bowling Green. The playoffs begin Thursday for Myrtle Beach, Tuesday for Eugene, and Mesa laces them up at a time to be determined.
Dillon Maples, Mike Freeman, and Victor Caratini were all promoted from Iowa to Chicago on Friday. In addition, Justin Grimm was activated from the DL and more promotions will probably come on Tuesday when Iowa is completely done with their season. I am expecting Taylor Davis, Mark Zagunis, Matt Carasiti, and Bijan Rademacher to get looks this September.
Four Cubs prospects were named All-Stars for their season by their respective leagues. Victor Caratini and Matt Carasiti are Pacific Coast League All-Stars while David Bote and Jason Vosler earned similar honors in the Southern League.
In Sad News…
Justin Steele had Tommy John surgery supposedly on August 22 according to a tweet by Jon Roegele. Hopefully he can come back by the end of next season to get some pitches in. For the year, he made 20 starts with a 2.92 ERA and made the Carolina League All-Star Game as well as two monthly ones here at Cubs Central.
On Friday, the Cubs released 27-year-old reliever José Rosario. Hopefully he can latch on with another team to fulfill his dream.
With the season ending tomorrow, I have several posts already in the can just waiting to be published. On Tuesday, I will post the year end report for the Iowa Cubs. The Tennessee Smokies will get their year end review next and I will work South Bend’s recapitulation in after that. However, when Wednesday gets here, I will have short posts about the playoff action for Myrtle Beach, Eugene, and Mesa.
Players of the Week
Baseball Card of the Week
My Other Stuff on the Web From This Week