Prospect Update: Nelson Velazquez Getting Back in a Groove

By Todd Johnson

I just fawned over Nelson Velasquez all last winter and spring. I was not the only one, and there was a lot to fawn over. He is quite the physical specimen, who in a short six week span, cranked out 8 home runs and helped lead the Mesa Cubs to the Arizona League championship last September.

Went 2018 came, Velasquez was in spring training and playing with the South Bend squad. In reports by Arizona Phil, Velasquez was looking good and then he was injured. He missed about six weeks. When he was healthy, he was sent to South Bend on May 8th and I could not have been more excited to see him play based on 2017.

Things did not go well in Indiana. Velasquez got off to a poor start and looked over matched against more advanced players. He struggled catching up to fastballs and was dominated by any pitch that began with a C.

When short season ball came in mid-June, I was not surprised to see him reassigned to Eugene.  However, that’s where today’s story begins.

The Cubs have been known to reassign players from time to time. For Jeimer Candelario, it was probably the best thing that happened to him. Jeimer was sent from Daytona back to Kane County where he got back in the swing of things and is now playing for the Tigers.

For Nelson, things are beginning to work out. To his credit, he arrived in Eugene with an intense focus at the plate. If you look at his two months in Eugene, he’s improved every 10 to 15 games. Once he settled into short season ball in July, the the promise started coming back. First came the extra base hits and then came the homers. In June he hit .148 with 1 home run and 1 RBI while striking out 17 times in 31 at-bats. His K rate of 30.1% last year was a concern heading into this season.

In July, the wormed turned and he was second in the Cubs organization in runs batted in for the month with 18. He hit for a decent average at .248 with a .311 OBP and his strikeout rate actually went up in July to 33%. But that’s not the end of the story.

In the first two weeks of August, Velasquez is just terrorizing the Northwest League. A .306/.468/.528/.996 slash line is very impressive. He has 8 BBs and 12 Ks in 11 games. Both are decent rates for him.

Photo by Jared Ravich

Going Forward

He’s still just 19 and maybe too much was expected out of him too soon based on the small data set of Rookie League. However, when you see his tools in action, it’s easy to see his potential.

Hopefully, he can finish strong this month and get off to a good start in 2019. I would be willing to just let things unfold naturally next year as he learns how to a professional hitter. He might have ups and downs for a couple of years. Just be patient as Velazquez develops at his own pace.

Previous Articles on Nelson

Nelson Velazquez Makes His South Bend Debut and Flashes His Five Tools

Leveling Up Series: Nelson Velazquez Is Powering Up for 2018

 

 

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The Weekly – Playoffs Loom Large and Some Interesting Trends

By Todd Johnson

Wow! Three weeks from tomorrow the minor-league baseball season ends. That’s a hard thing to fathom. I am not really sure I am ready for that. When it comes to teaching, I am not sure I am ready for that, either. This past week, I set up my classroom and come Wednesday, I have the first of two institute days. The kids arrive for their first day on Friday the 17th. Then, the month begins to take off.

Then MiLB Playoffs will be kicking off soon. Tennessee is still holding on. Heading into today, the Smokies are 5.5 games back. South Bend is fading very fast. They are seven games back. South Bend is going to need an incredible run and some help to get over five teams. Eugene has an excellent shot of joining Mesa in the postseason. They are just two games behind Salem Kaiser. The Cubs 2 team in Mesa is very quietly moving up the ladder. They now stand 1 games behind first place. However, that division is so jumbled with five teams within 2 games of the lead. Mesa’s season ends a week early on the 27th. 

This past week, Baseball America released their rankings of the top farm systems in the minors. The Cubs came in at #28. Even though Miguel Amaya made two top 100 lists, the system itself still lacks elite talent. BA, however, did mention both Nico Hoerner and Brailyn Marquez as possible players who should be ones to watch next year.

Interesting Trends Happening

Even though there are three weeks still left in the season, Jared Young seems to have sewn up the Cubs’ Minor League Player of the Year Award. He won back-to-back monthly awards in June and July. Aside from hitting .306 with a .368 OBP for the year, Young hit his 15th HR on Friday while also crossing the 70 RBI plateau. Young has completely dominated two levels at South Bend and Myrtle Beach. The only player who is even in the same discussion for the award is Jason Vosler, who leads the Cubs’ system in both HRs and RBI with 18 and 73.

On Friday night, it was strange seeing Trevor Clifton throw a no-hitter for 5.2 IP. He gave up 2 consecutive hits before he was pulled. All the while, I kept thinking, “I only have one more baseball card to make of him and that is from his MLB debut.” Got a little misty thinking about his journey and how close he is to getting the call to Chicago.

Every summer down in the Dominican, one prospect usually garners a lot of inquiry about their stat line. Last year, that prospect was Fernando Kelli who stole 58 bases. This year, pitcher Luis Rodriguez is raising some eyebrows. For the season, he has a 0.70 ERA and 0.70 WHIP in 51.1 innings. He’s struck out 46 and walked only 6 all summer. Even more impressive, as a starter, he has a 0.24 ERA!!!! I was hoping the 18-year-old lefty gets a shot to come north to play in Mesa once his team is eliminated from the DSL playoffs.

Zack Short is killing it AA the past month. The 23-year-old shortstop is doing what he normally does – hitting dingers and taking walks. But this year, he’s had a couple streaks where he’s hit about .300 for long stretches at a time. He’s in one of those runs now (9 for his last 30). His K rate has fluctuated throughout the year. In May it was at 42% but is back down into the low 20s now to go along with his ungodly walk rate, which in August is in the upper 20 percents. He’s going to be in Iowa next year and with his power potential (he has 14 HRs so far in 2018), he could earn his way to Chicago very soon. Check out this cool piece about Short by the greatest self professed scout ever.

It sure seems like South Bend has been playing with 24 guys on the roster most of the year. In addition, for the past month, they have only had 2 catchers suiting up. Miguel Amaya gets the call behind the dish most days and Cam Belago, who is in his first year of receiving behind the plate, spells Miguel once or twice a week. Amaya, even though he’s just 19, has to be feeling the effects of catching 80% of the time. Hopefully, a third catcher will find their way to Indiana. They will need a new bullpen arm as Garrett Kelly is on his way to Myrtle Beach after last night’s game.

The Tennessee starting rotation has been other worldly later. Every night, it seems like the starter goes 6 innings with 1 run allowed and strikes out 5-8 hitters. Keegan Thompson, Matt Swarmer, Michael Rucker, and Duncan Robinson might be the most under-reported story of the past six weeks. If not for one horrible start at the end of July, Rucker would have been pitcher of the month. Thompson was right there with him while Robinson is in his second month with a sub-2.00 ERA. Their success on the mound at AA should make things quite difficult for the powers that be next year as AAA should be swimming in quality starters.

When it comes to the walking wounded, Bailey Clark is back on the bump. He made two one inning starts in Mesa this week. He is slowly building up his arm before he goes back to Myrtle Beach.

Getting Back to the Compass

One thing I really like to write in the second half of the year is a prospect profile. A lot has been happening in the system and I have gotten a few in, but not as many as I want. This week, however, profiles are filling the post docket and most of the them are about players in Eugene. In the past two weeks, I looked at Luke Reynolds and Grant Fennell. This week, Jake Slaughter gets profiled along with Andy Weber (hopefully) while Nelson Velazquez and Jose Albertos get updates.

Player of the Week

Card of the Week

MiLB Free Agency Is on the Horizon: Cubs Will Have Some Tough Choices

By Todd Johnson

When it comes to 6 year minor league free agents, the Cubs have several this year. Most of them are currently at AAA Iowa while several are scattered throughout the system. Some will re-sign with the Cubs while others will go see if they can break through someplace else.

Today, I’m gonna break down a few names who I think the Cubs are going to try and re-sign of their 20+ minor league free agents.

Here is the list for each affiliate.

Iowa – Alberto Baldonado, LHP; Corey Black, RHP; Stephen Bruno, INF; Chris Coghlan, OF-INF; Casey Coleman, RHP; Ryan Court, INF; Taylor Davis, C-1B; Trey Martin, OF; Bijan Rademacher, OF; Jose Rosario, RHP; Kyle Ryan, LHP; Ali Solis, C; Corey Black, RHP;

Tennessee – Gioskar Amaya, INF; Jeffrey Baez, OF; Yasiel Balaguert, 1B-OF; Wynton Bernard, OF; Erick Castillo, C; Daury Torrez, RHP; Ryan Webb, RHP; Allen Webster, RHP.

Myrtle Beach – Roberto Caro, OF; Erick Leal, RHP; Jose Paulino, LHP; Chris Pieters, OF

Most Likely to Return

Some of these players could actually be coming back. They could be taking leadership roles on the team and helping, somewhat, to coach younger prospects. Taylor Davis and Stephen Bruno definitely could fill those roles.

As for guys who will actually suit up to play, pitcher Kyle Ryan might be worth another look. He has been up-and-down this year, but I still think there is something there and he is still only 26.

Depending upon how he does the next month in Mesa, Corey Black should continue his rehab from Tommy John surgery with the Cubs. Hopefully, Black still wants to give it a go and there’s something left in his arm.

Erick Leal has had a great year at Myrtle Beach coming off Tommy John surgery. I would love to see how he does at AA Tennessee next year. 

Roberto Caro has had a bit of a breakout year and could find his way back to the Cubs’ system to see if he can get it done at Tennessee. If you can hit .350 at two levels, the odds are pretty good.

Several other familiar names have just been sitting and spinning at AAA and AA for a few years now. Daury Torrez and Bijan Rademacher deserve a shot at the majors in some capacity. Unfortunately, it is likely to come with someone else. Along with Trey Martin, they could stick around for one more year, but the odds are slim they could break through with the Cubs.

There’s always two things to keep in mind. One, what is in the best interest of the player? And two, what is in the best interest of the organization?

When Jaron Madison and the rest of the crew sit down to make those determinations, they will have to keep those two questions in mind. While many of these players might not have a chance at the big league level, they can help fill out a roster. Considering that the Cubs’ system does not have a lot of elite talent, some of the other players are just not ready to go to AA or higher yet. As an organization, you want to put players in positions at which they can succeed. These free agents could be seen as place holders until the younger prospects are ready.

 It’ll be interesting to see what happens as to the direction(s) the Cubs take this winter when all these players listed above become free agents.

Are There Any Cub Prospects Breaking Out in the Second Half?

By Todd Johnson

Usually, the first half is pretty clear-cut when it comes to prospects breaking out. The second half is not. Playing well in Mesa and Eugene is not a precursor for future success in the upper minors or the majors. With one short season team, four rookie league teams, an influx of draft picks, and a whole lot of player movement, there are a dozens of prospects to monitor. Right now, there are exactly three plus weeks left in the minor league season.

When I started to think about which prospects are breaking out in the second half, no one really popped out with that blinking neon sign that said “BREAKOUT!” In the first half, it was quite evident that Jared Young, Matt Swarmer, and Tyler Peyton were heads and shoulders above everyone. This half, not so much.

Here are some thoughts about prospects that are in the running for being a breakout prospect of the second half.

Tennessee: Keegan Thompson got destroyed in his first two weeks in Tennessee and since then, he might be the closest thing to a possible breakout starter. With a 1.46 ERA in July at AA, Chicago does not look that far away for him.

Myrtle Beach: Tyson Miller has flashed his potential at times and he’s been rocked hard at others. In July, he was outstanding with an ERA of 2.49 , but his first start in August was not something to write home about. There’s still time for him. Jared Young continues to just get better and better at high A. I doubt if you can technically be the breakout hitter of the second half if you already broke out in the first half? As for relievers, Manny Rondon has really taken off and might be close for breakout reliever of the second half with a 1.42 ERA in 19 innings of relief.

South Bend: This is a difficult place to pick a breakout player. They’ve had a few guys go on streaks like Delvin Zinn and Christian Donahue, but nobody that’s really put it together for a long stretch of time. On the mound, they have lost 2/3 of their starting rotation from the beginning of the year The bullpen is decent. They do a good job night after night. But no one is really dominating the opposition. Reliever Garrett Kelly is close as he’s only allowed one run since the beginning of July. Right now, he might have a short lead over Rondon. This half, Kelly’s stats are eye-popping with a 0.44 ERA and 22 Ks in 22 innings with a batting average against of .105. Those are stunning!

Eugene: This is a topsy-turvy team. Half the roster turned over after the first half (38 Games). The team is now loaded with college players from the draft who are sort of/kinda/maybe on the verge of being the breakout hitters of the second half. Luke Reynolds and Grant Fennel seem to be taking the lead in the hitter category. In their last three weeks, they look to be running number one and two in that category. The question I have is: How much they are going to hit for power? Eugene has two starting pitching candidates. I really like Derek Casey, the recent draft pick out a Virginia. He has been outstanding for the Emeralds, but he only pitches 2 to 3 innings a night. That kind a hampers him for being a breakout. It does set him up for next year though. The closest thing to a breakout starting pitcher might be Brailyn Marquez. The tall 19-year-old lefty throws between 95 and 97 this year but he also has his struggles. He’s not efficient as he works a lot of deep counts. He rarely gets out of the fourth inning. Once he makes that adjustment, he could really take off.

Mesa: It’s very hard to break out in rookie league. You’re not exactly facing the best competition on the planet. Then again you still have guys that throw in in the upper 90s and guys hitting 400 foot home runs. Four players come to mind so far based on their performance. Pictchers Didier Vargas and Jesus Tejada both had outstanding Julys on the bump. Vargas was outstanding last year with a 0.99 last year in the DSL and Tejada was the best pitcher in August in the entire system last year, also in the DSL. In addition, second round pick Cole Roederer has been very impressive. He’s shown the ability to hit for average, power, get on base, and steal bases. He looks to be a dream pick! I can’t wait to see him play on actual TV.

You wouldn’t think that 20 games would make a whole lot of difference to picking breakouts, but it does. When the second half of the minor league season is only 70 games, that’s almost a third of the season. In the real world, that’s not much time, but in the minor leagues that’s a good bit of time to show what you can do.

The Weekly – PDCs and Playoff Chases Start Off August

By Todd Johnson

Between the trading deadline, all-star teams, baseball cards, and watching the big league club everyday, it was a very busy week. Add in the fact that I begin teaching next week finally hit home, I have a lot going on inside my head.

The MiLB season ends exactly four weeks from tomorrow on Labor Day. It will be here quick. WIth that in my mind, I also began to overthink what I need to do to get ready when that happens. There are usually posts on breakouts, all-star teams, a new Top 21 List, Baseball Cards of the Year, affiliate reviews, and other odds and sods. It can be a busy month. But it can wait. Be mindful of the future, but not at the expense of the moment.

The Playoff Chase
As the big league club continues to lead the NL Central, the MiLB system is having a bit of a rough time. Cubs 1 in Mesa already has a spot reserved in the postseason. It is not looking good for a few affiliates. Iowa is 20 games back. Myrtle Beach is 9. Neither of the DSL teams is even close. However, four affiliates still have some hope.

The Smokies are just three games back. They were on fire to start the second half. Then the bullpen imploded in July. They have the starting pitching to get it done. Will the pen straighten itself out long enough?

South Bend just ended a seven game losing streak. One would think there is no way they could get back in it. Lo and behold, they are just four games back from tying for the final playoff spot and five from taking the lead. I think they have a pretty good chance. They just need to get the hitting going to help their pitching staff and excellent bullpen.

In the great Northwest League, college hitters from this year’s draft have rejuvenated the Emeralds’ lowly offense. They are just two games back from tying Salem-Keizer for the wild card and three from the division lead. It is going to be a most exciting race.

Out in the Arizona League, Cubs 1 leads their division again.  Cubs 2 is currently at 4-5 but they need to make up 3 games in just 17 games while leapfrogging 4 teams. It can be done as last year’s Cubs’ team won 9 in a row to make it to the postseason. The Arizona League will end their season August 27th.

Is Affiliate Roulette is Coming?

Every even year, many MLB organization often switch affiliates. The Cubs are no different. The last big change the Cubs had came at the end of 2014 when the organization went from Kane County to South Bend, Daytona to Myrtle Beach, and Boise to Eugene. This year, that is not happening. In fact, it ought to be very boring. Iowa, Myrtle Beach, and South Bend are all signed up through 2020. Yesterday, Eugene announced they have re-upped with the Cubs through 2022.

Tennessee is next. It should be just a matter of time before both parties announce another four-year extensions.

Looking Ahead
A couple weeks ago, I wrote about who the Cubs might send to the Arizona Fall League. This week, I will explore more postseason happenings as I discuss who the possible prospects are that might get added to the 40 man roster. A Luke Reynolds profile should be coming this week and I also examine which prospects are in the lead for breakout prospects of the second half.

Players of the Week

Card of the Week

July All-Star Team Has a Heavy Dose of Pelican Pitching

By Todd Johnson

This was a bit of a crazy month in the minors.

There was a lot of movement as the draft picks began play. Tennessee got off to a great start in the second half and had a 2 game lead before bullpen problems began to plague them. South Bend currently was in the lead for a playoff spot for a bit while Myrtle Beach tried to find some hitting and some consistency to go along with their outstanding pitching.

But the big news, aside from Nico Hoerner’s debut and subsequent injury, was the play out in Mesa. The 1 team finished the first half with a division title while the 2 team got back to .500 and started the second half in style.

As for hitting, Ryan Court just tore the cover off the ball hitting almost .600 during one ten game stretch. Keegan Thompson of Tennessee is showing he might be the most consistent pitcher currently going for the Cubs as he showed no dip in performance at AA. But it was Bryan Hudson who stole the show for the starting pitcher of the month award. A 1.27 ERA over 27+ innings was impressive for the 21 year-old lefty. Several relievers did not allow a run all month, but it was an unknown arm in Mesa who struck out almost 2 batters an inning in relief that captured my attention. His name is Maikel Aguiar.

Jared Young took a few games to adjust to Myrtle Beach and then he started hitting again. He has to be in the lead right now for the Cubs’ Player of the Year Award. He’s the only Cub prospect who is consistently hitting for power, average, and drive in runs.

Here is the breakdown of the All-Star team by affiliate:
Iowa – 5
Tennessee – 3
Myrtle Beach – 9 (lots of pitchers)
South Bend – 5
Eugene – 1
Mesa 1 and 2 – 6

Enjoy another Cubs Central Films Production.

There were a lot of good performances this month, but not everyone made the team. The following players received honorable mentions:
Iowa – Taylor Davis, Jake Hannemann, Chesny Young
Tennessee – Matt Swarmer, Michael Rucker
Myrtle Beach – Michael Cruz
South Bend – Rafael Narrea, Delvin Zinn (missed half the month but hit almost .300), Clayton Daniel, and Zach Davis
Eugene – Jeff Passantino, Paul Richan, Zach Mort, Sean Barry, Riley McCauley, Derek Casey, and Nelson Velazquez
Mesa – Edmond Americaan, Yonathan Perlaza, FIdel Mejia, Reivaj Garcia,

Prospect Interview: Clayton Daniel Is Putting the Bat to the Ball

By Todd Johnson

B

Cubs fans have always had a weird fascination and love affair with second baseman In my lifetime there were Glenn Beckert, Ryne Sandberg, Mark Bellhorn, Mark DeRosa, Mike Fontenot, and Javy Baez. This year, the Cubs selected two second basemen in the draft. In the 31st round, they selected and signed Clayton Daniel. Every time I see Daniel play, I think: Cub fans are going to love this kid.

Daniel is just 5’7” and 170 lbs who lives the motto “Respect 90.” Whether it is in practice or in games, he is giving it his all. Daniel went to college at Jacksonville State and was an All-Ohio Valley Conference three times. He mostly played at second base, but he did see some time at shortstop. He just drips grit.

Last summer, Daniel’s played on the Cape Cod League and began drawing attention to himself. Daniel hit .316. But what was most impressive was his extremely low strikeout percentage of 6%.

I first saw Daniel play in person a couple of weeks ago in the Quad Cities. I came away impressed with his hustle, his ability to put the bat on the ball, his knowledge of the strike zone, and the ability to play shortstop and second. I also love that can go the other way with authority. He has risen quickly through the system. Already, Daniel has over 100 at bats, is hitting .310 with a .375 OBP while playing at Mesa first, then Eugene, and now South Bend.

I was able to sit down with Clayton in Geneva before last Monday’s game against Kane County and talk about his first month as a Cub prospect.

How did the Cubs first contact you or were aware that they were scouting you?

The Cubs area scout Alex McClure, he contacted me about a month before the draft. He told me he was going to turn my name into the board. From there on out, I played really well and good things happened.

Your career began at Mesa. How was that experience of going through orientation?

It was really slow at first because they just wanted to get to know us and get to know that we were healthy and find out if we were ready to play in games. So that was a little process. It took around two weeks. We went through physicals and body exams just to make sure we were healthy enough. From there, we started playing. Once that happened, it has been pretty quick moving.

What do you see as the difference between the levels?

Pitching wise, it’s a little bit more challenging. They have a little bit more zip on their fastballs, a little more break on their breaking balls, and more sink on their changeups. But, all in all, it’s professional baseball, everyone’s good. Going from Mesa, Arizona to here, it’s gonna be good competition all the way up. As I’ve gone up already, I can a see a little bit of a change at each level.

As far your hitting skills, how did they develop over time?

I went into college, I set goals for myself and they were just small goals. My first goal was just to be a starter. And then I started my freshman year. I am not 6’2” 205 lbs. I am not gonna hit the ball out of the ballpark. If I wanted to play, I had to put the ball in play. 

Daniel would start all four years at Jacksonville State.

It will be interesting to watch him develop at each level. He comes across as a very thoughtful player, but he is all about baseball.

He should play out the rest of the season for South Bend. His versatility and ability to put the ball in play is a skill that is getting more rare. At 5’7″, he has some surprising pop to the gaps. I am looking forward to seeing him hit a lot more.

Here is an old interview from when he was with Falmouth last summer on the Cape.