Myrtle Beach Pelicans
By Todd Johnson
Back in the spring, I wrote an article for BP Wrigleyville about which affiliate would be the team to watch in the first half. I wound up picking South Bend mainly because of their pitching. And that turned out to be a good pick as they also had exciting players to watch. Now that the second half is here, who is the affiliate to keep an eye on for the next two months.?
Considering that Iowa has really produced a lot of help for the big league club the spring with David Bodie, Anthony Bass, Victor Caratini, and other assorted relievers, one could make an argument that Iowa should be the team to watch in case the Cubs need more starting pitching. Casey Coleman, Duane Underwood, and Trevor Clifton are three to watch. Meanwhile, Dakota Mekkes and Kyle Ryan are two relievers to examine. At the plate, Mark Zagunis could fill a hole if needed and Chesney Young appears to fully have his groove back again in July. Finally, Taylor Davis could provide a backup catcher if needed.
Myrtle Beach’s Case
Right now, the Pelicans’ hitting is not doing very well. Outside of Andruw Monasterio, PJ Higgins, and Jhonny Pereda, most of prospects are hitting in the .220s or below. But when it comes to pitching, especially the starting variety, Myrtle Beach has several arms to watch. Erich Uelmen didn’t miss a beat when he was promoted to South Bend to Myrtle Beach. 2017 First Round pick Alex Lange is definitely an arm to watch. His changeup seems to be rounding into form as it fades away from right-handed hitters. If he can maintain the current arm slot as his fastball, he becomes deadly. In addition, pitcher Tyson Miller looks to be strong at this point in the season and is getting better every month as his season ERA continues to drop near 3.00. I also look forward to the return of Bailey Clark who missed most of June. Reliever Jhon Romero might be headed for Tennessee very soon at the rate he is striking out batters.
When I first thought of doing this article 2 months ago, I would’ve said that Eugene would be the team to watch with all the young players. It’s still is, but some of those players are going through a lot of growing pains. Right now, the star attraction is number one draft pick shortstop Nico Hoerner. Then again, he’s missed the last five days after injuring his pinky finger sliding into third base. Hopefully he will return soon, and stay there a while before he gets shipped off to South Bend. Otherwise, Fernando Kelli is never dull on the basepaths as he leads the Northwest League in stolen bases. Fireballin’ Pitcher Brailyn Marquez is must see TV. And in good news, Nelson Velasquez and Luis Vazquez seem to be finding in their strokes after a rough first two weeks. Both are hitting well over .300 this month. Luis Diaz has been a nice surprise. Jonathan Sierra has a great eye at the plate but has yet to get the bat going, although he went 4-for-4 last night . The 2018 draft picks have been a little slow to head to Eugene and they seem to be dispersed throughout the system rather than Eugene.
South Bend’s Case
They could easily make a strong case to be the team to watch this half, too. Pitchers Rollie Lacy, Tyler Thomas, and Jesus Camargo are something else. Every time they go out, they seem to just give up zero or one run in 5 to 7 innings with 8 to 10 Ks. First baseman Jared Young is destroying the ball and was just named the Cubs’ minor league player of the month for June. Miguel Amaya slipped a little bit last month but he is still a very exciting young prospect and was just named to the World roster at the Future’s Game. Brandon Hughes looks to be in a groove since adjusting his stance. Michael Cruz also adjusted his approach and hit over .300 in June. This gives South Bend Cubs, arguably, the top 1-9 batting order in the system.
Over the first two-plus weeks of the second half, the Smokies have been the hottest team in the system. They are currently in first place as their hitters seemed to have woken up from a two month slumber. Leading the charge are shortstop Zack Short, second baseman Trent Giambrone, and outfielder Charcer Burks. As soon as the All-Star break ended, those three begin to take off and haven’t stop hitting for the past two weeks. In addition, new pitchers Matt Swarmer and Keegan Thompson are beginning to adjust to AA as the Smokies have gone to a six-man rotation. Thomas Hatch is always a fun watch. I love to see Duncan Robinson pitch whenever he starts and the same is true of Michael Rucker. The two 2016 draft picks just throw strikes. With Jake Stinnett now entrenched as the closer, this team has a lot going on as they sit firmly in first place.
As for the four rookie league teams, none of them are televised, although the Arizona Rookie League teams do get some press coverage with Arizona Phil. They also have 2/3 of this year’s class spread across the two teams.
Considering all of these things, it’s pretty close between Tennessee and South Bend. The deciding factor for my choice comes down to this: Which prospects are going to be at South Bend or Tennessee the whole two months. I can firmly say that most of Tennessee’s roster is going to stay in Kodak. I can’t say the same for South Bend. I could see Jared Young getting the call today as well as Lacy and Thomas. As a result, the first place Tennessee Smokies are going to get a lot more attention the rest of the way in. It should be fun.
By Todd Johnson
Today’s going to be a hectic day. Starting around 11 Central, Day 3 of the MLB draft begins. If you go online to MLB.com, it’s like listening to a giant conference call because that’s exactly what it is. There is no time between picks and it is sometimes hard to keep up. I will be live blogging starting around 11 and, at some point, I will need to take a break as the day wears on. I hope to see a surprise or two today in the draft.
Around the System
Unfortunately, the minor league system does not shut down while the draft takes place. Tennessee and Myrtle Beach are playing well right now and both are closing in on playoff spots with 12 games to go. Tennessee is three games back of arch-rival Chattanooga while Myrtle Beach is 4.5 games back of Winston-Salem. South Bend has won three in a row and it’s two games below .500, also with 12 games left. But they are 9 games back.
The big story this week has been the parade of pitching prospects moving up and down the system. Southern League All-Stars Trevor Clifton and Dakota Mekkes are now at AAA Iowa. That is pretty exciting. It is pretty cool that both of them are one step away from realizing their dreams. I will hopefully be traveling out to Iowa some point in the next two weeks. Most likely, Monday or Tuesday next week.
In addition, Matt Swarmer heads from Myrtle Beach to Tennessee along with reliever Jordan Minch who now gives Tennessee their first left-handed on the roster this season. Pitcher Cory Abbott takes off his South Bend uniform and will put on Myrtle Beach Pelicans jersey for a while. I cannot wait to see how he does in a pitcher’s park.
Even though he was promoted a few weeks ago to AA Tennessee, infielder Vimael Machin has been on fire since arriving in Kodak. In 16 games as a Smokie, he’s hitting at .432 clip. I will have a profile of him in the next few days. I also have one ready to go on Trevor Clifton.
Down in the Dominican, the two teams have played 3 games. Outfielder Carlos Morfa is stealing all the thunder hitting 3 HRs, 2 of them yesterday, while hitting close to .600. His OPS is 2.199!!! Be wary of DSL stats, but this is an interesting story to follow as Morfa needs to builds up a larger sample size of data. This is about the only thing I can find about Morfa and it is his prospect video from the DPL. First thing you notice in the video. He’s just 17.
Meanwhile, on Cubs Central, the draft is hogging the website for just one more day. After today, I will have a new top 21 list tomorrow and then I think I might take a day off from writing as it feels like it’s becoming a full-time job the past three days.
Right now, I’m going to go for a walk. It’s a little brisk here in northern Illinois as it got down into the 40s last night. The cool air ought to wake me up and get me ready for 30 new Cubs to be selected starting in less than 3 hours.
By Todd Johnson
It’s not a secret that I have prospects I write more than others. Trevor Clifton is one, as was Eloy. I really enjoy writing about Jose Albertos and today’s prospect update subject, Bailey Clark. When he debuted for Eugene, I really liked what I saw that August in 2016. However, nagging injuries that offseason kept him getting his strength training in to get ready for 2017.
I thought for sure he would begin 2017 at South Bend. Instead he was in Eugene until the last week of the season. For most of last year, he was magically frustrating. But in the middle of July last year, he began to get healthy and turn it on.
This year, Clark made quick work of South Bend and is now at Myrtle Beach.
Having been a starter for most of his Cubs’ career, the 2016 5th round pick out of Duke switched to the bullpen to begin the year. After spending the offseason weight training and settling into married life, Clark came out guns-a-blazing to begin 2018. He hit 95-96 on the gun with regularity and his 1-to-7 slider devastated both righties and lefties.
For South Bend, he threw 14 innings over 5 games striking out 19 hitters. His 1.26 ERA earned him an All-Star nod for April on Cubs Central’s All-Star team. Bailey made a quick exit to Myrtle Beach near the end of April and assumed a piggyback-starter role for the Pelicans.
Adjustments were to be made, as hitters are little more polished in the Carolina League. Somewhere in the third game, he kicked it into another gear. He looked vicious going after hitters while hitting 97-98 on the radar. He pitched backwards, in and out, up and down. Every batter he began to face looked very uncomfortable in the box. That night, on May 21, against Lynchburg, Bailey whiffed 6 batters in 3.1 innings.
Bailey’s next appearance would be as a starter, replacing Jose Paulino in the rotation. He did fine. He went 4 strong, gave up 1 run and struck out three. He only threw 58 pitches. It is going to take some time to get his arm built back up to 80-90 pitches.
For now, Bailey looks to be a starting pitcher for the near future.
Then again, he looked comfortable as a reliever, too.
What I Like About Bailey Clark This Year
1. Confidence – He’s throwing any pitch in any count this year. That tells me he has faith to get a hitter out in a variety of ways. He’s throwing over 60% of his pitches for strikes this year. I’d like to see that higher, but where he is at is fine.
2. Ground Ball Rate – At South Bend, he averaged over 4 ground balls to 1 fly ball. At Myrtle Beach, his ratio is decent at 1.67. While he is getting a lot of Ks, he’s also getting a lot of worm burners as no one is really squaring him up. Over 50% of batters ground out against him.
3. Attack, Attack, Attack – He looks to be going right after guys this year. He’s not nibbling but is attacking the zone. He still walks a few, but he’s getting outs and stranding 72% of runners.
He does need to lower his walk percentage, which is a touch over 5 at Myrtle Beach. However, taking what he is doing right now is fine.
I am really looking forward to Bailey’s start tonight to see him get a lot of outs and to watch some more ugly swings against the slider.
By Todd Johnson
One good month does not a promotion make. Two months, … maybe.
So far, there has not been a lot of movement up and down in the Cubs’ system this year. However, Bailey Clark moving from South Bend to Myrtle Beach was one of domination at South Bend. But most other promotions that took place were related to injury.
In the next few weeks, there will be a lot of movement as the MLB Draft takes place and 20+ new Cubs begin their careers. In addition, the first half will come to a close. I don’t expect a lot of movement when it comes to hitters, but there should be plenty of pitching movement – especially when it comes to relievers. In addition, there could even be a few players released at the higher levels.
Look for the following players to get bumped up a level fairly soon.
Tennessee to Iowa
Dakota Mekkes has been impressive since the beginning of the 2017 season. He has dominated three levels in the last 14 months. And the only reason to keep him in Tennessee would be to work on his walks. In 17.1 innings, he has walked 12. However, in the past, that hasn’t stopped the Cubs from promoting Carl Edwards, Pierce Johnson, and Dillon Maples. Mekkes is ready for the next level and could be in Chicago fairly quickly this summer if needed.
Thomas Hatch has looked much better this year. He looks pretty comfortable on the mound and with what he’s throwing. What I like most is that he is gone deep in the games this year And with solid results as he’s posted a 3.06 ERA in 9 starts. His WHIP might be a little high, but I like his ability to get out of jams. He’s also pitched 89 pitches or more in 5 of his last 6 starts. That’s big fo him as the Cubs kept him on a short leash and a 5 inning limit in 2017. He gets bumped around every once in a while, but when you start breaking down his starts, he looks to be fairly consistent. He’s more of a candidate to go at the All-Star break then he is in the first week in June.
Myrtle Beach to Tennessee
Tyler Peyton has been an eye-opener for some at Myrtle Beach. I saw this coming last summer at South Bend as he was pretty dominant the last six weeks of the season. Part of me hopes he would get a chance to start, but as a reliever he is throwing 96 mph consistently out of the pen. Add in a killer ERA of 1.29, and he should find his way to Tennessee shortly after Dakota Mekkes heads to Iowa.
South Bend to Myrtle Beach
2017 second round pick Cory Abbott is missing a lot of bats in the Midwest league, 44 Ks in 36.1 IP. He should be on the first plane to South Carolina fairly quickly at the rate he is going. His slider and fastball command are just wiping out hitters as he has posted a 2.72 ERA in 7 starts. His WHIP is 1.06 and opponents are hitting only .206 against him.
On the Edge
The main problem in promoting prospects is that there is nowhere to go for many of them. For the following list of prospects, they still need some more time to simmer in their respective affiliates before being promoted. While they may not be promoted in the next two weeks, look for their names to be bumped up in late June at the end of the first half.
Tennessee: Zack Short, Charcer Burks, and Jeffrey Baez – All three would need a place to play. Right now, there are no spots in Iowa.
Myrtle Beach: Jhonny Pereda, Wyatt Short, Casey Bloomquist, Bailey Clark, Connor Myers, and Tyler Alamo – Bloomquist has been a nice surprise out of the pen this year, along with Short, while Alamo and Pereda are part of the logjam at first and catcher in the system. Bailey Clark has been a stud throwing between 95-97. He had a couple of adjustments to make at high A but looks to have righted the ship. If Baez and Burks go to Iowa, look for Connor Myers to head west to Tennessee.
South Bend: Tyler Thomas, Javier Assad, Rollie Lacy, and Austin Filiere – All four have shown flashes of potential and have put together some impressive performances along with some befuddling ones. The pitchers probably move before Filiere does.
It will be interesting to see how this shakes down in a couple of weeks both before and after the draft.
By Todd Johnson
It is getting harder and harder to be a breakout prospect with the myriad number of blogs, websites, and other assorted media out there to capture Cub prospects in action. Last year, Adbert Alzolay was the Cubs’ breakout pitching star going through two levels like a hot knife through butter. Meanwhile, 2017 5th round pick Nelson Velazquez clubbed 8 HRs in about 6 weeks of ball in August and early September to take the breakout hitting award. This year, things are a little different when identifying the breakout performances of the first half.
When it comes to pitching, Myrtle Beach starter Matt Swarmer currently leads the pack. He was the Cubs’ April Pitcher of the Month going 20.2 IP with 27 Ks. This month, Swarmer is making his second trip around the 10-team Carolina League and things are a bit tougher. He has a 3.82 ERA in May over 11.2 innings but he’s struck out 16 and walked just 1. I think you can chalk that up to one bad inning. Still, more data is needed before we declare Swarmer the breakout pitcher of the first half.
Another pitcher who seems to breaking out is Rollie Lacy of South Bend. Like Duncan Robinson and Michael Rucker did last year, Lacy began the year in the bullpen. He was dominant in 5 of his 6 relief outings striking out 25 in 18.2 innings. As a starter, he’s made two starts and is still stretching his arm out. I like what I see as he does fool a lot of hitters by changing speeds and keeping the ball down in the zone. While he did not strike out any in his first start, he whiffed six in his second. While I doubt if he could overtake Swarmer for the Award for the first half, he is definitely one to watch in the second half as he acclimates to starting at this level.
I love to watch Keegan Thompson pitch. The young man knows how to work a hitter and a strike zone. Every time he pitches, he improves over the last outing. He put up a 4.19 ERA in April after skipping South Bend to begin his first year in full season ball. That, in and of itself, is an adjustment. Now that May is here, Thompson is delivering with a 2.65 ERA for the month in three starts. He has 18 Ks already for the month surpassing his total for all of April in half the time. Thompson just looks like he knows what he wants to do on the mound. He should be a fun watch.
In the bullpen, Tyler Peyton was my pick to breakout in relief and he has done everything to make me look good. The 2016 draft pick out of Iowa has really taken to the bullpen. He did well at times last year in South Bend, especially in August when he had a 1.29 ERA for the month. So far, Peyton has a 1.35 ERA in 20 innings with 20 Ks and he has begun to close for the Pelicans, opposite fellow closer Jhon Romero.
On the other hand, hitting in the Cubs’ system is down quite a bit in 2018.
As a result, it is pretty easy to pick out prospects who have a spike in their performance at the plate. While Austin Filiere is having an outstanding year for South Bend, he pretty much broke out last summer at Eugene but was overshadowed by Nelson Velazquez down in Mesa. The same is true for Zack Short and Jared Young. Meanwhile, Connor Myers, who hit just .191 last year, seems to have added “singles hitter” to his repertoire with an average just above .280 this year. Myers has always been an elite defender, but his adding the ability to hit for average really transforms his worth to the organization.
Still, Myers is not the breakout hitter of the first half.
That distinction belongs to Myer’s teammate, catcher Jhonny Pereda.
Pereda is hitting a smooth .311 with 2 HRs and a team leading 23 RBI. He doesn’t strike out much and his monthly splits are ascending – hitting .304 with a .360 OBP in April and .324 with a .405 OBP in May. Arizona Phil of The Cub Reporter raved about Pereda this spring for his defense behind the plate. I was glad to read that. His offense, on the other hand, has been a complete surprise.
Last year, at South Bend, I got my first good look at Pereda. He got off to a great start in April hitting .344. Then he met a lot of pitches that began with the letter “C.” He struggled to hit in May (.219) and June (.153) before rebounding somewhat in July (.275) and August (.263). In the second half, he cut his K rate by a third and that has been the springboard for him this year.
His consistency and approach at the plate leads me to believe he will be the breakout hitter of the first half in about a month. Pelicans announcer Scott Kornberg added the following about Pereda’s success this year:
He rarely strikes out or even swings and misses, and tries to use the middle and opposite fields. In fact, about two-thirds of his batted balls have been hit to those directions, and he has one of the highest opposite-field percentages in the league. In addition, he’s been hitting consistent line drives. His line drive rate has been in the top 10 of the league all year long, so when you’re making that much contact and it’s almost always quality contact, good things are going to happen.
It will be interesting to watch the aforementioned players try to maintain and sustain their development this spring. Ultimately, I think the Cubs are looking for a few breakthroughs, too.
By Todd Johnson
How quickly things can change. What happens in April doesn’t always happen in May and some players who got off to slow starts are now starting to turn it on. That includes hitters, starters, and relievers. Here are a few players who are off to sizzling starts in May.
Iowa – David Bote returned from Chicago and just killed it going 17 for 34 with a couple of home runs and 8 RBI. He was in Chicago yesterday and ripped a 2-run pinch hit double in the third for the Cubs. In addition, Randy Rosario still has not given up a run this year. And Duane Underwood again flashed his promise by going 7 innings with 7 Ks and not allowing a run. Underwood seems to have some sort of Jekyll and Hyde thing going on this year. Hopefully, his next start will be reminiscent of his last.
Tennessee – Charcer Burks did not have a good April hitting .151. However, his May has been scintillating. He’s gone 10 for 27 (.370) with one home run. His teammate, shortstop Zack Short, has displayed a bit more power. In 8 days, Short has posted an OPS of 1.386 and he has seen his batting average rise 34 points in 6 games. He’s hitting .333 this month, mostly in the second spot in the batting order.
Oscar de la Cruz also had a dominating first start in striking out 10 in 5.2 IP while Trevor Clifton rebounded from a poor start on the 2nd (2 ER in 0.2 IP on 40 pitches) to to strike out 9 in 6 IP on the 7th in 6 innings of 1 hit ball.
Myrtle Beach – Connor Myers has never really hit for average. What has allowed him to stay in the system has been an outstanding defensive and baserunning skill set. But to begin May, Myers has been fantastic and looks to be a different hitter as he is at .296 for the month. I asked Pelicans announcers Scott Kornberg what’s been the key to Myers ascension this month. Scott quipped:
It’s really amazing! He has talked a lot about more bat control and having a better plan at the plate. And his walk rate is double what it was last year, and also he’s swinging and missing about five percent less. And on that note about bat control, his line drive rate is actually the second-best mark in the league
On the mound, Matt Swarmer has been enlightening. After winning pitcher of the month for April, he began May in the same fashion going 6.2 innings with 7 Ks and no runs.
South Bend – It took Jared Young a couple of games to heat up once he returned from the DL. But once he started hitting, the South Bend Cubs started winning again. Add in the fact that leadoff man, Roberto Caro, seems to be playing with his hair on fire this month. The 24-year-old outfielder from the Dominican has bounced around the system the past three seasons between Myrtle Beach and South Bend. Caro could be putting a statement on this year as he is currently hitting over .400 from the leadoff spot in 16 games.
Tomorrow, I will be discussing the maturation of Brendon Little during his first month for South Bend. And, on Friday, the six pack looks at relievers around the minors who might get promoted in the next few weeks.
Days left to teach for me…now down to 11.
By Todd Johnson
Tyson Miller is really beginning to impress me. The 2016 draft pick from California Baptist is one of the most improved arms in the system this year. His fastball is sitting around 91-93 and topping out at 95. In April, he put up a 3.15 ERA in 20 innings while striking out 22. Miller began May by going 7 innings with 7 Ks on just 3 hits. What I really like about Tyson this year is that his newfound velocity comes from added muscle.
Transitioning from college to pro baseball can sometimes be quick and can sometimes take a couple of years. To go from pitching once every seven days to every six takes some time to adjust. The pitcher also goes from a four month season to what basically amounts to a seven month season. For Miller, he went from Division II to the pros, which carries its own set of differences.
Taken in the fourth round of the 2016 draft, Miller began his career as a limited starter in Eugene. He didn’t impress a whole lot other than his large 6’5” and 200 lb. frame and his athleticism. And that’s probably what the Cubs were banking on. His first year as a pro saw him make 2 scoreless starts at Mesa before he went to Eugene where he got in 22.2 innings and struck out 14 but struggled with a .289 batting average against.
At South Bend in 2017, Miller was a workhorse for the Cubs who took the ball every six days and worked very hard at his craft. When I stood close to him in Beloit, I was impressed with the actual physicality of him. He’s a big dude and there is a lot of room to add some weight and muscle, which he has done the past year. On the mound, though, his performance in 2017 varied from month to month. His best month was in June where he made 5 relief appearances and got in 16.1 innings with a 3.31 ERA and he whiffed 13 batters.
For Miller, though, he has been able as a starter to miss bats at each level. This year, his Ks are coming at a much higher rate. He is striking out over a man an inning. Last year at South Bend, he struck out 99 in 120 innings.
I really like the fact that his innings per appearance this year are also increasing. At South Bend, he averaged four innings per appearance. This year, he is at almost 6. That’s a dramatic shift and one that I like.
All his other stats in 2018 are trending in the right directions as well. K rate up to 9.67 from 7.38. BB rate down to 2.67 from 2.83. K to BB ratio up to 3.63 from 2.61 and HR rate down to 0.67/9 from an already low 0.75. His K% is up to 25% from 19% and the trends continue for walk percentage, BABIP, batting average against, left-on base percentage, and FIP.
At 22-years-old, Miller has all the right attributes for the type of starter the Cubs want. Questions still remain about whether he can fulfill his potential. One month does not a MLB starter make, but Miller needs to continue ascending start-by-start and month-by-month. This year’s improvement is an important step in Miller’s development.
And the key thing I like is that Miller is just beginning to develop.
I look forward to see how he continues tonight, this month, and beyond.