Prospect Update – Javier Assad Off to a Great Start in 2019

Pitcher Javier Assad is having himself a month at Myrtle Beach. Dating back to the 27th of April, he’s thrown 21 straight scoreless innings. Included in there are a wave of 20 strikeouts in those 21 frames. WIth a 2.19 ERA and falling, Assad is in the running for the Cubs’ MiLB Pitcher of the Month for May.

Basic Info
Ht: 6’1”
Wt: 200 lbs.
Throws: Right
Signed as an IFA in 2015
From: Tijuana, Mexico
Age 21

When I last wrote about Javier at the end of 2017, he had just finished Eugene and I said he would have his work cut out for him in 2018 at South Bend. And he did.

He came out on fire for South Bend with an 0.95 ERA in 4 starts in April and was decent in May with a 3.91 ERA. He began to labor through things a bit in June with a 5.87 ERA. Then, all of a sudden, he turned it back on in July with a 2.55 ERA In 5 starts. It looked like he figured things out. Then, he bottomed out in August as he was shelled with a 9.00 ERA. It was tough to watch at times.

Heading into this season, Fangraphs said that Assad was “a maxed-out righty with advanced pitchability for his age. His stuff is average.” His stuff doesn’t appear so average at this stage of the season.

Something is clicking for Assad this year. Part of it could be maturity, part of it could be he’s in better shape, and part of it could be his stuff.

Currently, Assad has a 2.19 ERA over 7 starts. Take away his worst start where he gave up 5 runs in 5 innings and his ERA drops to 1.41 over 32 innings. Going back and re-watching him, I noticed some things about Assad that are happening.

1. Conditioning
He just looks more trim than in previous seasons. He used to carry, for lack of a better term, some baby fat. The upper part of his frame looks more athletic. Last fall, the Cubs changed up their offseason program for their prospects. Instructs were no longer in the fall. Instead, conditioning took its place. Assad looks to have benefitted from that change. Now, instructs take place a few weeks before spring training. Any changes he made over the winter and in instructs now carry right into spring training and the season.

2. Spots
He is hitting them with regularity. Rarely will Miguel Amaya or Teddy Payne adjust their glove for his fastball. Having good fastball command is always a key at this level.

3. Walks
He is not giving up many. He’s averaging around 2.5 per nine innings.

4. Efficiency
6, 6, 7. Those are his last three inning totals this season. In April, he made 4 starts with a 4.50 ERA. In 5 starts, he only managed 19 innings. And in those five starts, his innings and pitch totals are quite different when compared to May. For April – 5 innings, 75 pitches; 4 innings, 81 pitches; 4 innings, 86 pitches, and 5 innings, 86 pitches. Contrast that with May – 6 innings, 80 pitches; 6 innings, 85 pitches; and 7 innings, 85 pitches.

What to Watch for in the Future
Considering the streak Assad is currently on, I am not concerned when it will end but more so how it will end. Will it be a big blowout or just a simple run or two in a single game? Finding that consistency is key. Throwing in the low to mid 90s with his fastball, he is going to head to AA at some point in the future. Could it be this summer? With the plethora of pitching the Cubs have, and the fact that Assad is still just 21, he should be at the Beach all year. You never know, though, stranger things have happened in this system.

Overall, I would just like to see him be consistent from month to month and to stay healthy. AA is going to be the big test of how his stuff could play at the MLB level. One area of concern that I have, that in spite of his troubles or successes, he is still throwing about 62-63% if his pitches for strikes. He’s going to need to bump that up to 66-67% to succeed at the higher levels of the minors.


The Friday Six Pack: Who Could Get Promoted Next?

In the next couple of weeks, the Cubs are going to make a small series of roster moves as they will promote just a few players. Usually in the first week in May, which is after a full month of baseball, they tend to promote a few guys up a level. Right now, I don’t for see anyone from Iowa heading to Chicago. As a result, player movement will be limited all the way from extended spring training up to Iowa. Here are six possible promotions we could see in the next couple of weeks.

From Extended Spring Training to South Bend
This could depend on when Fidel Mejia is ready to come back. If his wrist/hand injury has healed by early May he could be the only guy returning to fill a roster spot at that time. If Mejia is not ready, expect to see OF Edmond Americaan, the Cubs’ 35th round pick out of Chipola JC from last year make his single-A debut. 

From South Bend to Myrtle Beach
DJ Artis Exploded onto the scene in South Bend this spring showing maturity far beyond everyone else at South Bend. He could wind up as a Pelican and as a lead off hitter, something they could use.

From Myrtle Beach to Tennessee
I was a little perplexed he came back for part of a third year in the Carolina League, but Ryan Kellogg is showed his versatility in April. He’s did a spot start, he’s piggybacked, he’s was a long reliever, and a short one. I don’t think there’s much left for him to do and achieve at Myrtle Beach.

From Tennessee to Iowa
Craig Brooks did not allowed an earned run as he was dominant throughout the entire month of April. The problem with promoting him is that there’s not really a spot for him right now in Iowa. The same is true for the other guy that I would like to see promoted from Tennessee and that’s catcher PJ Higgins. Higgins has arguably been the most valuable prospect in the system for the month with his mix of power and defense as he’s put up a wRC+ of 171 so far. He’s earned a promotion, but when will he get it?

The biggest name out there to get a promotion is Robel Garcia. The 26-year-old is becoming a Friday staple as he is just impressing, impressing, and impressing everyone with his his play. He should be the Cubs hitter of the month as he was Cubs Central. Since last week’s post about his Phoenix-like rise, he has not slowed down. The issue for him is the same one that Brooks and Higgins face. There’s just no where to go.

The Cubs can make room, but who do you release or who do you demote?

Usually, promotion commotions work pitcher for pitcher, position guy for position guy. So if Garcia goes up, does that mean Aramis Ademan is going to be playing 2B alongside Nico at Tennessee? That could happen, too.

The next week should be intriguing to see if any promotions do take place. And if they do, which way the movement of players goes. However, I would not expect too much movement until the end of the first half in June, shortly after the draft. But for now, these prospects have earned a shot at the next level.

Affiliate Update: Pelicans Getting off to a Rough Start

For the first 10 games of the season, you could have called the Myrtle Beach Pelicans a hot mess. At that point they were 2-8. They had pitching woes, hitting troubles, and overall inability to properly field and throw the ball. There was one point in that week where I thought,
“Well, it can only go up from here.”

And it did, thankfully.  

The week of the 14th through the 20th saw them go 4-3 thanks in part to some fresh blood in the starting rotation and three new guys at the plate. Oscar de la Cruz, Zach Davis, and Cam Belago all came aboard. They were Cubs Central’s team of the week on the 21st. It was a refreshing change and quite the turnaround.

The Stalwarts
In spite of the poor start, there were a couple of good performances. 2018 second round pick, starting pitcher Paul Richan. had success over his first three starts. He had a 1.32 ERA with 7 Ks in just 13.2 IP. and he had not giving up a home run either. 

Ryan Kellogg has been outstanding in long relief and whatever role the Pelicans have asked of him. In fact, he should be the first one promoted to Tennessee very shortly.

I also like what I’m seeing from Javier Assad  who got off to a great start last year at South Bend but kind of weathered down the stretch. Hopefully, he’s in much better shape to withstand the rigors of a second 140 game season. He has a 2.77 ERA in 3 starts.

In the bullpen, Ben Hecht has been very good for the Pelicans. In 8 outings, he’s posted a 1.80 ERA with 12 Ks. Jesus Camargo has been very good the last two weeks. His ERA has gone from 6.75 to under 3.00 in just 3 appearances.

As for the hitting, Tyler Payne, a.k.a. Teddy Payne, is a  stabilizing force in the lineup whether he’s catching, playing first base,  or is the designated hitter. Carlos Sepulveda has been up and down usually fluctuating between 250 and 300 in his batting average. As for MIguel Amaya, he got off to a great start, cooled off, and has heated back up again. Amaya has 4 HRs so far. Teammate Aramis Ademan also looks to be much stronger than last year. He’s hitting over .273 with a walk rate of almost 20% and an on-base percentage of 404. That’s a very good sign.

There are three guys who I think are showing an excellent approach, but the balls are just not falling in for them. I love to watch Jimmy Herron hit all day long. DJ Wilson and Luke Reynolds have good days and bad days. Hopefully, the ball will start finding some holes here in the next few weeks as they try to get their averages and on base percentage is up.

Manager Steve Lerud has his hands full this spring and summer. The key for him should be the long view of fully developing these pitchers and hitters over the course of the year, not just today or tomorrow.

Hopefully, the rest of the season is like the last 10 days where the Pelicans have gone 5-5 and have shown glimpses of putting it all together. There are some elite prospects who are at Myrtle Beach and I’m looking forward to seeing how this team bounces back in May.

The Weekly: Injuries Mount, Replacements Shine, and Other Impressions

There was a lot of rain this week in the eastern half of the country and that wiped out several games. On Friday, Iowa was the sole team in the system that got a game in. As a result, there were a lot of baseball games on Saturday for Myrtle Beach, Tennessee, and South Bend. And once again, rain reared its head.

The first part of the week saw a lot of player movement throughout the system. Injuries and paternity leave resulted in several players making their season debut. At Iowa, Carl Edwards hit the IL for seven days and hopefully he’ll be back sometime this week. For Tennessee, Keegan Thompson is on the IL along with Justin Steele. As a result, Zach Hedges and Brad Markey were pushed into starting roles for the Smokies.

At Myrtle Beach, new faces seemed to have invigorated the offense. The Pelicans actually won a few games this week. Zach Davis made his season debut last weekend and Cam Belago came in and put up numbers all across his box scores this week including 7 RBI.. At South Bend, Christopher (now being called Chris) Morel replaced Fidel Mejia in the lineup and Morel has been impressive in just eight games.

Speaking of Impressions
Here are a few things about some performances so far this year.
Iowa – (10-6; 4-3 this week) Without looking, I can’t remember the last time Iowa had a winning record for any substantial amount of time. A lot of the minor league free agents the Cubs signed last winter have been impressive at the plate. Johnny Field drove in 4 runs the other night and Zach Borenstein seems to have found his stroke after a couple of weeks. Add Dixon Machado tearing it up and Iowa’s got a nice little trifecta to go along with Trent Giambrone who now has 5 dingers on the year.
Tennessee (8-6;  3-3 this week) The Smokies have been impressive with their starting rotation doing well. Their issue right now is the middle relief corps is really struggling to hold leads. That’s going to need to get that shored up quick.
Myrtle Beach (6-11; 4-3 this week) To be quite honest I really like what I’ve seen from Bryan Hudson. He’s not quite dominant yet but he’s pretty sturdy for the Pelicans. I still can’t fathom that he’s just 21 years old but he is starting to pitch like he’s not. He starting to pitch like this is going to be his career. As for their recent surge of wins, I attribute some of that to the solid starting pitching of Paul Richan, Hudson, Javier Assad, and the rehabbing Oscar de la Cruz.
South Bend. (8-8; 3-3 this week) The only thing they really need to do is to shore up the back end of the rotation. Like other Midwest League teams, pitching in 30° to 40° weather is not ideal. Sanders, Thompson, and Marquez all have been outstanding in the first month in the front half of the rotation. If Derek Casey and Eury Ramos can get it going, South Bend might have something there to push for a playoff spot.

In the News
Riley Thompson got some free pub this week as MLB Pipeline called him the Cubs’ closer of the future. They said, 

“Thompson is a starter for now but had trouble staying healthy and throwing strikes in college. He can reach triple digits with his fastball and spin some well above-average curveballs when he’s at his best.”

Fabian Pertuz also got some love from Baseball America who called him one of the top 20 prospects coming out of the Dominican Summer League. Pertuz is a SS who should be at Mesa to begin 2019. He’s all of 18. Here is the link to the subscription article by Ben Badler.

Coming Up This Week on Cubs Central
I only have a couple of things planned for right now. Tuesday’s draft prep examines some high school bats who could be available at number 27. I’m not sure what the Midweek Report holds on Wednesday, I might talk about Nico for a bit. The Friday 6 Pack will be all about possible promotions at the end of April. Next Saturday’s affiliate update will look at what is happening with the Pelicans in Myrtle Beach.

Players of the Week

Card of the Week
Made from a picture by Rikk Carlson

The Midweek Report – The Cubs MiLB “Hot Start Team”

Today, I’m writing something different. While it’s technically not an all-star team, “The Hot Start Team” sounds more like a collection. It’ll be interesting to compare this team to the actual April All-Star team on May 1 and there could be several differences as other players will heat up and some of the players listed below will cool off.

For the past 13 days, the players listed below are off to good starts for 2019. Some of the prospects are even dominating and could level up in May at some point.

The Hot Start All-Star Team…
C – Ian Rice – He looked ready for AAA last year and he’s come out of the gate strong to begin 2019. He’s hitting .304 with a .346 OBP.

Made from a pic by Rebecca Snyder

1B – PJ Higgins, Tyler Durna – Higgins also looks ready to start the year and he’s showing some pop along the way. As for Durna, I don’t see him playing for South Bend much longer. The bat is good, but the approach is even better.

2B – Levi Jordan, Carlos Sepulveda – Both of these guys are up there grinding out ABs and doing anything they can to help their team win. It could be a single, going the other way, or laying down a bunt or making a productive out.

SS – Dixon Machado, Zack Short – Short’s misfortune of breaking a finger saddens me as he was hitting almost .400. As for Machado, he’s taken advantage of the situation and is pummeling the ball all over the field. I don’t have any word on when Short will return.

3B – Fidel Mejia – The 20-year-old switch hitter was rolling along before sliding into second base awkwardly and injuring his hand/wrist.

OF – Nelson Velazquez, Jonathan Sierra, Trent Giambrone – The fact that two of these guys play for South Bend should get your juices going as both are showing great plate discipline and approaches at a key point in their development. The power will come, but maybe not until June when it gets a little warmer. Trent Giambrone is hitting above his normal mid 260-270s average at .300 with five dingers. His wRC+ is looking good at 152.

Made from a pic by Rikk Carlson

SP – Trevor Clifton, Keegan Thompson, Tyson Miller, Cory Abbott, Justin Steele, Cam Sanders, Brailyn Marquez, Riley Thompson, Paul Richan – Starting pitching is the strength of the system and for these arms, they’ve all dominated their so far in April. I really like what all the AA guys are doing night in and night out. Riley Thompson and Cam Sanders hold promise but there are still warts they have to smooth out. As for Marquez, his fastball looks electric every outing. As for Keegan Thompson, he made one 5 inning no hit start and went on the 7 day IL. He’s scheduled to come off that tomorrow.

RP – Carl Edwards, Dakota Mekkes, Ben Hecht, Ian Clarkin, Craig Brooks, Manny Rondon, Bailey Clark, Ethan Roberts, Riley McCauley, Zach Mort, Jeff Passantino
The big surprise for me here is Hecht. I didn’t see him as a back end guy just yet. He’s doing great for Myrtle Beach in that role as he has really stepped up his command. Good for him! As for Mort and Passantino, they have been lights out and shut down arms as piggyback starters at South Bend.

Who Is Missing from the List That Could Be on the Monthly All-Star Team in 2 Weeks?
Jared Young is hitting dingers at a decent clip, the rest of his hitting game is coming along slowly. His average (.256) and OBP (.289) are slowly climbing. He also has 2 outfield assists!
Nico is not hitting as well as we thought he would. He’s having good ABs, the balls were not finding holes. But he is walking at a higher clip than last year and that bodes well for his approach. On Monday night, he went 3/4 to push his average over .300.

With half a month to go, that’s a lot of baseball left to play and a lot of stats to accumulate.

Prospect Update: Carlos Sepulveda Is Back at the Table

It’s only been 11 days, but one of the best stories percolating about a Cubs prospect this year is the return of Carlos Sepulveda after missing most of the past two years with a shoulder issue. Now at 22, the young second baseman took a few games this year to find his feet before he began to take off for Myrtle Beach.

Sepulveda was one of the first wave of players the Cubs signed from Mexico in 2014. He broke out on the scene in 2015 in Mesa and his name begin to grow a bit before the 2016 season when Keith Law put him on his Cubs top prospect list.

After skipping Eugene, Sepulveda showed a great eye at the plate and the ability to hit the ball on a consistent basis for South Bend. At just 19 years old, the young lefty squared the ball up constantly for the young Cubs team. For the season, he hit .310 with a .366 OBP and a wRC+ of 122. 

I like his quick bat and his ability to hit lefties and righties equally. His stance is a little open which one would think that would make him somewhat pull happy, but he used the opposite field 37.6% of the time in 2016 and is at 52% for this season. Here’s some video of him in action via 2080 Baseball.

MLB Pipeline said the following about his future heading into 2017.

Sepulveda’s hands work at the plate and in the field as well as those of any Cubs prospect. With his hand-eye coordination and easy left-handed swing, he repeatedly strokes line drives from gap to gap. He’s not physical and won’t hit for a lot of power, though he does have some sneaky pop to his pull side. Sepulveda profiles best at second base, where he has exceptional polish for a teenager.

For 2017, he was promoted to Myrtle Beach. He began the season and you could tell right away that something wasn’t right. After about a month, Sepulveda was put on the disabled list and spent May through July trying to get his shoulder fixed. He showed back up in Mesa in August and was part of the 2017 Arizona Rookie League championship team.

At that time, the thought was he would be back to redo Myrtle Beach in 2018. That didn’t happen as he missed all of 2018, too.

It would not have surprised me to see Sepulveda come out a little bit rusty to begin this year. And he did for just a few games (1/7). Even though the hits were not falling the first weekend, I noticed that he was hitting the ball with authority. It just happened to be right at somebody. This last week the hits began falling for him. For the week, he went 6/21 or .285.

I really like what he can do to a baseball. He’s not going to hit for a lot of power but he can drive the ball either in the gap or down the line. He is going to put the ball in play consistently.

In spite of missing the better part of two years, Sepulveda is still only 22 years old. It would not surprise me in the slightest to see him get a call to Tennessee at some point in the summer. In order for that to happen, though, he is going to need to continue to hit the ball with authority, spread it all over the field, and, most importantly, stay healthy.

The Weekly: Weather, Pitching, and Injuries Dominate MiLB News

A Brief Big League Club Update
The pitching woes of the first week looked to have disappeared as the Cubs won three out of four this week before yesterday. The winning coincided with the return to Wrigley after a 2-7 road trip to begin the year. My guy, Cole Hamels, was magnificent this week and the bullpen did not give up a run until the pitching struggles of Saturday. I’ve heard it a million times…”a walk is a run.”

Down in the Minors
Jen-Ho Tseng was released from the 40 man roster to make room for Alan Webster on the 25 man roster. The Cubs could technically re-sign Tseng as of yesterday. He could not be on the 40 man roster for 30 days if he does re-sign  according to Arizona Phil.

The Cubs’ system also saw a plethora of injuries that required a little roster tweaking throughout the week. Zack Short looks to have a broken finger but we haven’t heard how severe it is or how much time he will miss. As a result, Vimael Machin moved from Tennessee to Iowa and Clayton Daniel took his spot for the Smokies and went three for four in his AA debut. Alberto Baldonado also debuted this week for Iowa and Zach Hedges is back on the Smokies roster replacing Keegan Thompson who went on the IL on Thursday. Both Brad Markey and Ryan Williams came up and pitched for Iowa. Markey was then shipped to Tennessee and Williams was put back on the 7 day IL for Iowa. At South Bend, third baseman Fidel Mejia injured his wrist/hand sliding into second base. SS/3B Christopher Morel came up from extended spring training on Friday and tripled in his debut game.

Usually, I get emails alerts from the team when roster changes happen, but I am still in “school mode” for 6 more weeks. I just need to check my email more often throughout the day. I am very much looking forward to being in “summer mode” to keep on top of the daily minutiae as they transpire.

Team News
Iowa (6-3) Weather hampered the Cubs from playing much this week. Cold and rain shut them down for two days at home. Carl Edwards has been lights out in his return. I don’t expect him to be down much longer. Ian Happ could take a while to get straightened out. Happ’s OBP heading into Saturday night was just .273.
Tennessee (5-3) After a scheduled day off and a rainout the Smokies got back at it this week. Yesterday, I wrote about how the Smokies look to be the team to watch this year.
Myrtle Beach (2-8) The Birds won their second game of the year on Friday as they were able to coax 11 walks. Paul Richan also continues to do well on the mound. He’s given up 1 run in 2 starts. Hopefully, he can improve on his efficiency and get to the sixth inning soon.
South Bend (5-5) The bats look like they might be starting to warm up after a frigid first few games in South Bend and Grand Rapids. The bullpen has blown a couple leads this year, but it is early. Part of the issue is that not everybody is fully stretched out and the piggyback starters are having to go a little longer than usual. It will work itself out here soon.

Leaders in wRC+  for each team – I love this stat as it measures offensive production against the norm. An average player would be given a score of 100 and 115 would be above average Above 140 is labeled great while 160 is considered excellent. Heading into Saturday, utility infielder Levi Jordan had a 180 for South Bend while 2B Carlos Sepulveda lead Myrtle Beach with a 90. PJ Higgins lead all active Smokies position players with a 210 and SS Dixon Machado of Iowa lead the whole system at 275. Most of those numbers are not sustainable except for Sepulveda’s, which is on the rise as he warms up.

International Free Agency
This week, major-league baseball announced the international free agent bonus pools for each team. The Cubs came in with $5,398,300 which is close to their draft pool of $5.8 million. In addition, Baseball America wrote a nice article on some sleeper prospects from last year‘s international draft class. Cubs’ prospect outfielder Yohendrick Pinango was given a nice write up. More than likely, he’ll be in the Dominican this summer. Don’t forget the Cubs still have some international bonus pool money left over that they got in the Pedro Araujo deal that they have to spend by mid June.

Coming Up This Week
Tomorrow, Myrtle Beach’s Carlos Sepulveda gets an update. On Tuesday, I will take a look at high school pitchers in anticipation of this year’s draft, which is seven weeks from tomorrow. The Midweek Report on Wednesday will produce the “Hot Start Team” while later in the week I will have a draft profile on either Parker Mitchell or Dante Biasi. I am also thinking of doing a weekly Saturday post that looks at just one affiliate.

Players of the Week

Card of the Week
Made from a pic by Rikk Carlson
I love the light and shadows set against the outfield wall in the background in this 1971 frame.