The Weekly: The Lame Duck Effect, Arizona Fall League Begins, and Awards Come In

By Todd Johnson

Joe Maddon’s Lame Duck Effect
Amidst all the hoopla of Chili Davis being let go as hitting coach, it got me thinking of what effect Joe Maddon’s contract is going to have on the future of the Cubs. Right now, he is only signed through 2019. And with that in mind, it’s gonna be hard to get personnel on the coaching side for just one year.

However, when it comes to free agency, I don’t think Joe’s contract is going to have much impact. Players are going to come here for the money and the culture, but mainly for the money. Their teammates will be a bigger draw than Joe would be.

Arizona Fall League Stats
The Arizona Fall League kicked off this week and several Cub players got in some action. Even though there will be a total of about 36 games, most of the position players the Cubs sent will be lucky if they see action in 20 of them. Trent Giambrone was impressive in his first turn at third base. Former Scout Bernie Pleskoff was impressed by Trent’s short, quick stroke to the ball as Trent wrapped out four singles in his debut.

Shortstop Nico Horner took a few games to shake the rust off before going three for five on Friday. Catcher Johnny Pereda went one for four and PJ Higgins was one for two with two walks. Outfielder DJ Wilson has gotten one hit in three games opening week.

As for pitching, Bailey Clark was scoreless in two innings along with fellow reliever Manny Rondon. Justin Steele got bumped around in his 1.2 innings of work as he gave up four runs. On the other hand, Erick Leal struck out three in 2.1 innings of scoreless work, although he did have to be rescued in the third.

It’s just the first week and I don’t think you want to take too much away from just a couple of games. There is a lot of baseball left to be played against quality competition. It’ll be interesting to see how they do adjust over the next few weeks. Every Sunday I will have an update, but I will be positing highlights Mondays-Saturdays on Twitter. (@CubsCentral08)

Baseball America and Pipeline Awards
Baseball America released its top 20 prospects in the Northwest League and the Cubs placed two in the top 10. Pitcher Brailyn Marquez came in at number three and outfielder Nelson Velasquez came in at number eight. I like seeing that the two 19-year-olds, who were key parts of the team, get some love. I am looking forward to seeing both at South Bend, hopefully, in 2019.

In the Arizona League, OF Cole Roederer came in at #7 while SS Luis Verdugo got a lot of love for his defense at 17 years of age. Verdugo was assigned #17. Pitcher Yovanny Cruz just missed according to BA’s Bill Mitchell.

Over at MiLB Pipeline, They released their Players of the Year for each organization. Here’s what they said about Cubs Jason Vosler and Cory Abbott.

Jason Vosler, 3B: For the second straight season, he set career highs in homers (23), extra-base hits (54) and RBIs (93), pacing the system in all three categories.
Cory Abbott, RHP: Thriving on deception, Abbott led all Cubs farmhands in ERA (2.50), hit rate (7.4 per nine innings) and strikeout rate (10.3 per nine innings).

On the 18th, Pipeline will release their All-Star teams for each system. That should be interesting to see. If I can, I will have a full post on it come Friday morning. I have Parent-Teacher Conferences Thursday night, so those come first…

Coming Up This Week
The 2018 affiliate reviews end as I look at Eugene and Mesa on Monday and Tuesday. On Thursday I’m going to put out the annual baseball cards of the year post with my top 11 cards going all the way back to spring training. It was a lot of fun to put that together!

If some other major news breaks during the day, I will probably have something on it at night. October already seems to be flying by.

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The Weekly: Bryce Rumors Begin, AFL Starts This Week, Miguel Amaya News, and a Review Preview

By Todd Johnson

It only took a few hours after the Cubs lost to the Rockies for the Bryce Harper rumors to begin anew. The sports betting company Bovada put the Cubs at even money to sign Harper when free agency begins after the World Series ends. While the Cubs do have a good shot at signing the soon-to-be free agent, it is definitely not a sure thing. Although, I sure do like the Cubs chances. You can figure out who’s going to play where later.

And in other MiLB news, the Cubs will be back at Tennessee in 2019. Considering the PDC is only for two years means that the two sides are going to be working some things out between now and 2020 or the Cubs will have a new AA home in 2021.

BA League Top 20s
Baseball America continues to release it’s top 20 prospect lists in each of the minor leagues. The Cubs did not have a top 20 prospect  in either the Pacific Coast League, the Southern League, or the Carolina League. This week, the Cubs got off the schneid as catcher Miguel Amaya was named the number 12 Prospect in the Midwest League. BA described his offensive talents well:

“Amaya took a big step forward this year with his power, as he hit nine home runs and slugged .500 in the first half of the season before wearing down in the second half. Amaya does chase out of the strike zone too often and needs to improve his ability to recognize breaking balls, but he has future average or even above-average power.”

AFL Preview
The Arizona Fall League is set to begin on Wednesday Tuesday, October 9. The Cubs have a total of nine players who will be on the roster for the Mesa Solar Sox. Most of the players played their 2018 season at Myrtle Beach.

2018 first round draft pick Nico Hoerner looks to be the prospect to watch every day. It’ll be interesting to see how he does against such advanced competition after only getting in 49 at bats as a pro this summer before an elbow injury forced him to miss the last six weeks of the season at South Bend.

I’m excited to see how well several other prospects do in this advanced setting. Reliever Bailey Clark is going to be one player I will watch with great anticipation. As well, I’m curious as to how outfielder DJ Wilson will do and hopefully he can stay healthy.

According MLB Pipeline, pitcher Justin Steele might be the Cubs’ sleeper prospect. They said, 

“Steele was just starting to come into his own when he blew out his elbow in August 2017, but he returned to the mound earlier than expected (11 months later) after Tommy John surgery. He can run his fastball up to 97 mph, also can dodge bats with his curveball and has made encouraging progress with his control and command.”

Other Cubs prospects playing in the league include pitchers Erick Leal and Manny Rondon, catchers Jhonny Pereda and PJ Higgins, and 2B Trent Giambrone.

Preview of Affiliate Reviews
Starting tomorrow, I’m going to be releasing the 2018 season reviews for each of the Cubs’ stateside affiliates. I’m going to start with AAA Iowa and work my way down to South Bend this week. Next week, I will cover Eugene and the two Mesa clubs.

While the first half of each article is technically a review of the 2018 season, The second half looks at which prospects should be promoted to the next level and which prospects should be arriving from the level below. The hardest part of projecting next season squads came down to who is going to be in the rotation at each affiliate. A lot of that still has to be determined come spring training.

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The Weekly: Tennessee PDC, Copa de la Diversion Expands, AFL, and Card Rabbit Holes

By Todd Johnson

Playoffs
Today is the final day of the regular season. But then again, it feels like the Cubs have been in the playoffs for a couple weeks now. If needed, the Cubs will play the Brewers tomorrow afternoon at Wrigley with Jose Quintana on the mound. He pretty much owns them. If the Cubs get to that point, I feel pretty good about their chances to win the division.

Still Nothing Official
There is still no official news out of Tennessee, but the good news is that the Smokies are still tweeting out stuff related to the Cubs most every day. However, yesterday, Josh Timmers tweeted a link to a Pensacola News Journal report. The article said: “The Chicago Cubs earlier this month re-upped with the Tennessee Smokies, located near Knoxville, although it hasn’t been officially announced.”

So, that’s good to know. It’ll be interesting to see whether the deal is for two years or four or if there are any new stipulations to the PDC, such as improved video feed or high-def cameras. I would enjoy those.

Copa de la Diversion
In other big news, the Iowa Cubs and the Myrtle Beach Pelicans are both going to be part of the “Copa de la Diversion” in 2019. The minor-league program is meant to diversify and expand MILB‘s brand to Hispanics. Last year, it was very successful in Eugene. Every Tuesday, the Emeralds transformed into the Monarcas with cool hats and even cooler uniforms. Another side aspect was the amount of pride that players took in wearing the new brands. It was a lot of fun to watch.

The names and uniforms for Iowa and Myrtle Beach will not be released until March.

No Instructs, Just Rehab
For the second year in a row, the Cubs are not partaking in the Arizona Fall Instructional League. There is action going on in Mesa, but that only pertains to players on rehab assignments and players getting ready for the Arizona Fall League. The Arizona Fall League begins play on October 9 for six weeks. I will have weekly updates on the progress of the 9 Cubs playing for the Mesa Solar Sox.

BA League Top 20s and Chats
Earlier this week, Baseball America began releasing Top 20 Prospect Lists for each league in the minors. So far, the Cubs have been shut out in the Pacific Coast League, the Southern League, and the Carolina League. Hopefully, that prospect drought will end this week with Miguel Amaya, Nico Hoerner, and/or Brailyn Marquez in either the Midwest or Northwest Leagues.

In one of the chats about the Carolina League, Baseball America’s JJ Cooper was high on Cory Abbott but not so much on Aramis Ademan and Alex Lange. In the AA chat, Matt Eddy said the following about Zack Short at Tennessee:

Tennessee SS Zack Short ranks as the best defensive SS in the SL and had one of the strongest infield arms. He also clubbed 17 HR and drew 82 walks. I expected those attributes to play better with managers and scouts, but they uniformly expressed skepticism that Short’s straight uphill swing plane would play against better pitchers. Still, he has attributes that could make him a utility type of infielder.

We shall see how Zack does in AAA against better pitchers very soon.

Card Digging
I can go down an Internet rabbit hole with the best of them. This week, it was looking for pictures of Tennessee Smokies . I got a few good ones, especially of Thomas Hatch and Michael Rucker. Those cards should be out later in the week on the Facebook page. If you know of any unseen pics of prospects from local papers or other photographers, send me the link over on Twitter or on Facebook.

Tomorrow, I will be releasing my cards of September post which is very Eugene heavy. Still, there are a lot a great cards/pictures.

Also Coming Up
Last week, I wrote about some players coming back from injuries and poor performances. This week, I am going to remain flexible. I originally wanted to do affiliate recaps this week, but I will wait until the playoffs are over to release those. I am just going to play it by ear for a while.

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2019 Comebacks – Can Some Top Prospects Rebound from a Poor 2018?

By Todd Johnson

Prospect comebacks are common in minor league baseball. They happen all the time, but not for everyone. Success at one level does not guarantee a prospect’s success at the next. In some cases, injuries can derail a career and sometimes poor performance will do the trick more often than not. In 2018, several prospects at Myrtle Beach and Tennessee struggled mightily. For some of them, this was their first difficulty in pro ball. For others, it was their second year at the level. That can come across as very disconcerting.

Scott Kornberg, the Myrtle Beach announcer, and I have discussed several times which level is the hardest test for a prospect. Scott went with high A and I went with AA. For the prospects in this post, Scott and I are both correct.

Myrtle Beach
The Carolina League has always been known as a pitcher’s league. The wind tends  to blow in from left most days in Myrtle Beach. It’s no wonder that many hitters struggled this year as Pelicans.

The Troubled: Aramis Ademan, Wladimir Galindo, Kevonte MItchell, DJ Wilson, and many more.

Most of these prospects should repeat Myrtle Beach. Wilson might be the only exception as he is seeing extra time in the Arizona Fall League. His performance in October and November might decide his 2019 fate more than his 2018 season in which he missed almost two months.

Ademan, who is 19, should repeat this level, too. While his defense is quite good and getting better, his bat lacks the ability to spray the ball and control the strike zone. The former #1 prospect in the post-Eloy era only hit .209 on the year. His walk rate of 8.4% is very low and his K rate of 21.2% are not balanced enough. No wonder his OBP was only .294 and his wRC+ was a low 66.

The one player whose performance surprised me most was Wladimir Galindo’s. In the past, I often referred to Wladimir as “my guy.” He began 2018 in style and was just getting going when the injury bug struck again after missing 2/3 of 2017 with a broken ankle. He did return this year after a month and struggled to get it going. Wladimir struck out an inconceivable 28.3% while only walking 7%. Add in 29 errors on defense and you have a year he’d like to forget.

Repeating would not be the worst thing for either prospect. Adjustments have to made, but both players are relatively young (19 and 21) and are still considered valuable prospects within the organization. If both can learn to control the strike zone and layoff some pitches out of the zone, their comeback chances would be greatly improved.

Tennessee
Trevor Clifton and Jason Vosler are two prospects who had poor 2017 seasons at Tennessee. Both took the offseason to got their heads right, worked on their craft, and then they earned promotions to AAA by July 1. It can be done.

The Troubled: Eddy Martinez, Charcer Burks

If Charcer Burks returns to Tennessee in 2019, it will be his third straight season in AA. He had a roller coaster of a 2018 season. Check out his BA/OBP splits
April – .169/.286
May – .296/.395
June – .200/.319
July – .283/.381
August – .173/.232

He was the very model of inconsistency. The thing is, that statline is not too far off of 2017, either. I like to watch Charcer play as he has a mixture of power and speed. However, he needs to be a stable hitter rather than a streaky one.

When it comes to Eddy Martinez, now 23, it is hard to know what is going on inside his head. I thought his decent second half in 2017 would bleed over to success in 2018. It just didn’t happen. Eddy just barely scratched a .300+ OBP  once and that was in July. For the year, he hit .221 with a .276 OBP, easily underwhelming numbers. Martinez has all the physical tools to be a star but somehow cannot transfer his skill set into the game.

Bouncing back from a poor season is easier said than done. If everybody could do it, the majors would have a lot more players knocking on the door. With that in mind, adjustments will have to made and the players will have to buy into changes. The younger the prospect, the better chance those adjustments will stick.

2019 Comebacks – Alzolay and Others Will Try to Overcome 2018 Injuries

By Todd Johnson

An injury is never an easy thing to deal with. For some players, they deal with little nagging injuries all year long and others have their seasons ended. There’s no easy fix and you never know how a prospect is going to respond as every case is different.

This year, Justin Steele pitched in a game 11 months after having Tommy John surgery. 2018 also saw Ryan Williams come back and begin to strengthen his shoulder for a return trip to Iowa in 2019. In addition, Will Remillard made it all the way to AAA after missing the better part of 2.5 years. You just never know.

In 2019, there will be several Cub prospects who will be attempting to come back from injury. Some are more severe than others and some injuries are going to either make or break that prospect’s career.

Adbert Alzolay tweeted out some pictures of himself putting on cleats as if he was ready to pitch again. He should be just fine and, if he remains healthy, he can compete for a spot on the 25 man roster in the spring. The Cubs will probably give him a long look as a fifth starter.

Gioskar Amaya has now missed two full seasons after suffering a shoulder injury. The former second baseman turned catcher now likely turned second baseman can only hope that his shoulder is strong enough for him to be able to participate and throw at a high-level in 2019. I’m still pulling for him to make it as I liked his bat when he was last an infielder  at Daytona before he moved to catching.

Carlos Sepulveda has also missed almost two straight years, although he did have a short rehab stint in Mesa during August of 2017. The former top 10 prospect with elite bat to ball skills quickly faded from consciousness the moment he was injured in the spring of 2017. If he can get it back together, it’s an elite bat the Cubs could probably start out at Myrtle Beach next year. He still fairly young at 21 considering that he’s missed two full seasons.

Made from a photo by Rebecca Snyder

Jhonny Bethencourt’s season ended due to a hand injury at South Bend in early June. While Bethencourt does have some defensive issues, his offense does not. The ball just seems to hop off his bat and I look forward to seeing if there’s any residual effects next year when he begins play. Along with Adbert, Bethencourt is the most likely to return to normal action.

I briefly messaged Chad Hockin about a month ago to see how his rehab from Tommy John Surgery was going. He said that he is slated to start throwing in October and that he should be more than ready to go when the season begins. He had his surgery done in LA and was extremely excited with the results. I really like Chad. He’s one of the great talkers in the Cub system. He should be able to recoup some of his velocity (mid 90s) that seemed to be missing his first couple years as a Cub. I thought he was making some steps towards improvement last August in South Bend (2017) and was throwing in the low to mid 90s at Myrtle Beach before the blow up in just his third game. I’m really pulling for this guy to come out the other side and be a quality bullpen piece next year at Myrtle Beach and Tennessee.

Two other recovering arms from lower in the system should be exciting to watch next year. Danis Correa was set to debut in short season ball after touching the upper 90s in 2017 but did not make it out of spring training before TJS. The same is true of 2017 draft pick Jeremiah Estrada who was scheduled to end up in Eugene. I hope both of the young 19-year-olds make it back in 2019.

While there are no sure things from coming back from an injury, the technology and techniques used today far outpace those from just 20 years ago. At times, it’s inconceivable, but some of these prospects will look back, hopefully, at their injury as just a blip in the road and something that made them stronger.

The Weekly: No Tennessee PDC Yet, Baseball Cards, and Cubs Announce Awards

By Todd Johnson

Is No News Good News?
I have not heard anything yet about the Cubs and the Smokies renewing their player development contract. It’s not like the Cubs in the Theo era to wait this long to renew a player development contract. The Cubs tend to do it in season as they did with Eugene earlier in the summer.

There have been rumors of the Smokies ownership buying land in downtown  Knoxville. I wonder if that could have anything to do with the delay? I really like the Smokies, their apparel, and Broadcaster Mick. It would be strange not to have those elements as part of the Cubs minor-league brand.

It would take a lot of getting used to if they did not renew. There are currently four other cities who have not signed with a major league club for 2019 either. They are Midland and Amarillo, both in the Texas League, and Chattanooga and Pensacola are without affiliates in the Southern League.

Baseball Cards Grind to a Halt
It’s been over a week since the Eugene Emeralds won the Northwest League championship. As the last team to finish playing, they were also the last affiliate to get some press. As a result, it looks as if the pictures for the baseball cards dried up about in the middle of this week. I still wound up with over 100 cards for the month with a lot of cards being Eugene players. A few more pics will trickle through before the end of this week.

Photo by John Conover

Cubs Announce Two Awards
Last week, I announced my hitter, starting pitcher, and reliever of the year awards. This week, the Cubs announced their player and pitcher of the year awards. Jared Young was given the player of the year while Matt Swarmer won the pitcher of the year award.

Cubs Insider and BP Wrigleyville
Over at CI, my goal for the off season is to write more original content for that site. This week, I published a review of the 2018 draft class’ first season. Check it out!. At Baseball Prospectus Wrigleyville, I also put up a recent post about the comeback of Justin Steele.

Coming Up This Week
Last week, I released my second half break out awards for hitter, pitcher, and reliever. Tomorrow, I’ll be taking a look at some guys who were injured this year and the hopes for their comebacks in 2019. On Wednesday, I’ll check out some guys who had some poor years in 2018 and their chances for a comeback in 2019. On Friday, 19-year-old infielder Yonathan Perlaza gets the prospect profile treatment.

In addition, the affiliate season reviews are all written, they just need edited. I’ll do the full season affiliates the first week of October and the short season clubs get examined the second week.

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Prospect Profile: Riley Thompson Is One to Watch in 2019

By Todd Johnson

Certain players are drafted into the organization with one specific set of skills. The Cubs are hoping to take that talent and develop it and improve upon it. Whether it be through nurturing, direct instruction, or just game experience, a player can develop in any number of ways.

For pitcher Riley Thompson, the Cubs selected him in the 11th round of the 2018 MLB draft. What is evident is that Thompson has a pretty fresh arm. Even though he played three years of college ball, his arm doesn’t have the workload of someone who started over three years. Thompson only accumulated 48.2 innings in his college workload. That’s not a lot.

Basic Info
6’3”, 205 lbs.
Throws Right
University of Louisville
22-years-old
2018 Affiliate – Eugene
ETA – 2021-22

Thompson actually grew up a Cubs fan in Louisville, Kentucky. He went to a private school and was highly sought after coming out of high school. He was drafted in the 37th round by the Reds but chose to go to college at Louisville over the University of Kentucky. He red-shirted his freshman year and began seeing action in the bullpen his sophomore year.

What Thompson does have is a fastball that sits in the mid 90s and it’s pretty exciting to watch. He is still developing his secondaries. Usually, you don’t really get a good look at pitchers the year that you draft them. That’s not the case with Thompson this year.

In the regular season, he made 9 appearances, 8 of them being starts, totaling 25.2 IP. His last two starts really stretched him out at 4.2 and 5 innings. For the year, Thompson excelled with his over the top delivery and good command on his fastball. He had an ERA of 2.84 and in August he did not allow an earned run in any of his final 4 starts.

Thompson struck about 9 batters every 9 innings while walking about 3.20 every 9. His ability to throw strikes could improve. For Eugene, he hummed along with a 61.4% strike rate. He needs to get that bumped up into the high 60s. 48.6% of balls hit against him were ground balls and opponents hit .240 against him, but he stranded 75% of runners.

For what looks to be a fresh arm, there is a lot to build on. I like what I see so far. Thompson might be a guy who the Cubs try to build around that one skill. Thompson’s 95 mph heater with command down in the zone is an excellent place to start. That over the top angle is his best friend.

I did a film study of the breakdown of pitches he threw in one of his starts. In the first inning against Tri-City, he threw 22 pitches and only 3 were off speed, all breaking balls (not much command of them at that point). That is what minor league pitchers should be doing the first time through the order  is  to be working on fastball command. The second time around, he should be working in his off speed stuff.

Back to the game…

Another aspect of Thompson’s profile I liked was that he got stronger the longer he worked. In the first inning, he started out at 90-91 and by the second, his fastball was regularly 94-95. At times, his curve showed some good shape, but he was what I like to call effectively wild. Down in the zone, he was pretty consistent; up in the zone, not so much. As a result, he worked a lot of deep counts and was over 40 pitches in just two innings.

Some of these things can be fixed easily with development and experience. He’s got a pretty fresh arm and that is what is going to propel him through the system. Once he starts getting his secondaries over, he will take off.

Next spring should be exciting to see what kind of work he puts in over the winter to improve his secondaries and maybe even develop a new pitch to go with his fastball and developing curve.