By Todd Johnson
What a week!
Between the Cubs attempted signing of Shohei Ohtani, the possibility that Giancarlo Stanton briefly wanted to come to the Cubs, and the signing of Tyler Chatwood, I am worn out. It was nice to sleep in on Saturday morning, if only to get some rest. Starting tomorrow, the General Manager meetings will take place in Orlando, Florida. As a result, there will be no respite next week.
From trade rumors to free agents, the internet has been a buzz of activity and speculation now that Ohtani and Stanton have cleared the marketplace.
Later, on Thursday the 14th, the Rule Five Draft will take place. There will be two parts – a minor-league phase and a major-league phase. The Cubs have 48 players eligible to be selected in the major league phase. However, most teams are not gonna want to take a chance on the Cubs’ talent except for maybe a few players like reliever Pedro Araujo and utility man Chesny Young. Then again, Araujo has never pitched above Class A Myrtle Beach while Young had an up and down season at AAA. Jacob Hannemann, who got a cup of coffee last year with Seattle, could be selected as well.
The Cubs could take a chance and select a pitcher like Kohl Stewart from Minnesota who they could put in the bullpen and develop him into a starter. The former 2013 first round pick (#4) of the Twins is someone the Cubs could take a gamble on in hopes of future performance. If it doesn’t work out, the Cubs return him back to Minnesota at the end of spring training. Ideally, the Cubs would hope to find a left-handed strike thrower and hope they get lucky like they did with Hector Rondon in 2012.
When it comes to the minor-league phase of the draft on Thursday, the Cubs only have 24 players eligible to be selected by other minor league systems. Any of the Cubs eligible prospects could be selected. Most likely, other organizations could select one of the Cubs eligible catchers that include Ali Solis, Cael Brockmeyer, Erick Costello, Alberto Mineo, and Will Remillard. The Cubs might try to stockpile some AAA and AA bullpen arms.
On Tuesday this past week, many of the prospects that were released in the Braves international free agent scandal began signing with other teams. Going into the weekend, there were still six players left. The Cubs currently have $930,000 left in their 2017-18 international free agent bonus pool per Arizona Phil. It looks like the bidding has been pretty high as the first six prospects all signed for bonuses over $1 million. The Cubs could be shutout on getting one inked.
In addition to the meetings next week, Baseball Prospectus will be releasing their top 10 Cubs Prospect List at some point. It was originally scheduled for Monday the 11th, but it looks like it’s going to be backed up to later in the week. I will be analyzing that list for this site, Cubs Insider, and BP Wrigleyville.
I last redid the Top 21 Prospect list shortly after the end of the minor league season. While I see no reason to currently change it, events could take place this week that might necessitate said change. I don’t foresee a lot of movement up my list except for Nelson Velazquez and Alex Lange. However, there’s gonna be a lot of movement in the list next summer. I originally planned on redoing the list in late March, just prior to the regular season beginning. Let’s play it by ear this week. The earliest I could redo it would be Saturday.
It’s hard to believe that we are closer to the draft than we are away from it. MLB Pipeline released their top 50 draft prospects last week and it looks like there will be a lot of good bats for the Cubs to pick from at #24. Pipeline has Florida high school pitcher Carter Stewart ranked #24. What I am intrigued by is the plethora of bats coming right after Stewart that include Greyson Jenista and Alec Bohm of Wichita State, thee Seth Beer, Luken Baker, and possible 5 tool sensation Tristan Pompey of Kentucky. A lot can happen between now and June. The player I am intrigued most with right now is Shortstop Xavier Edwards, a high school shortstop from Florida, who is ranked #38 by Pipeline.
Tomorrow, the Mailbag returns as I answer just one question on South Bend’s possible rotation for 2018. On Wednesday, the “Leveling Up” series is back and looks at pitcher Jose Albertos while the shortstops in the system get ranked on Friday in the position breakdown series.
Baseball Card of the Week
By Todd Johnson
I was all set to begin uploading “The Weekly” on Saturday night when I thought I would jump onto Twitter to see if there was a trade or signing. I should have known better. 15 minutes later, I finished reading John Sickels’ ranking of Cubs prospects and realized I would have to write a whole new column. Damn you, John Sickels!
To begin, Sickels’ list has a different top prospect than other recent prospect lists and his contains several rankings that are quite different from Fangraphs and Baseball America.
Pitcher Adbert Alzolay is fittingly ranked number one. And not surprisingly, Sickels did not give out one grade of “A” to any of the Cub prospects. In fact, he only handed out just six Bs. That’s quite an indictment of the Cubs’ system. Then again, just three of his top 10 prospects began their season above A+ last year.
The top prospect for both Baseball America and Fangraphs, shortstop Ademan, came in at number two and 2017 draft pick Alex Lange came in at number three. Lange’s inclusion so high in the list likely has to do more with his ability to move fast through the system based on one single dominant pitch, his curveball. I really like the placement of Lange this high. I love his competitiveness just as much as his curve.
Yeah, I’ve noticed the effort issue plus mixed reports on his changeup and FB velocity. But his track record is strong and I think he may thrive in pro environment. https://t.co/TRs3tcoYYN
— johnsickels (@MinorLeagueBall) December 1, 2017
Other players to make the top 10 included Jose Albertos, Victor Caratini, Oscar de la Cruz, Thomas Hatch, Brendon Little, Jen-Ho Tseng, and Mark Zagunis. In Sickels’ second 10, his selections get a little bit more adventurous.
Coming in at number 16 is pitcher Michael Rucker. Rucker started out as a reliever at South Bend in 2017 and wound up going to Myrtle Beach mid-summer and later replaced Oscar de la Cruz in the Pelicans’ starting rotation. Based on his summer split of a 2.51 ERA in 15 starts at Myrtle Beach, Rucker doesn’t seem to be letting go of the rotation at all. It’s a pretty meteoric rise one year after being drafted. He throws a lot strikes, something the Cubs seem to lack.
Sickels also gives some love to pitcher Keegan Thompson out of Auburn at number 17. Drafted in the 4th round in 2017, Thompson pitched some in relief at Eugene last summer. After missing all of 2016, Thompson came back as a different pitcher as he relied more on experience than a purebred 95 mph fastball. Instead, command and control became his calling card. He only threw 19 innings while striking out 23 in short season ball. He did make one start, a three inning scoreless affair.
I was a little surprised to see Sickels’ list so early this offseason, even more so in the wake of Fangraphs’ list, which just came out on Thursday. Sickels’ list does prove a few things about what I thought would happen this winter. One, not every evaluator is going to agree on who the Cubs’ number one prospect is. In addition, I don’t even think there’s a consensus on who the top Cub prospects are. DJ Wilson, who came in at number nine for Fangraphs, did not even make Sickels’ top 20 and graded out of with a C+.
I’m starting to get a kick out of the differentiation amongst the lists.
Two players who I thought might see a little love just based on their 2017 performances were Ian Rice and Zack Short. Neither has yet to make a list.
Then again, while offseason lists are fun to discuss the value of prospects, I tend to prefer mid-season rankings as you tend to get a better feel for players drafted the year before. This was true last year for Short, Rucker, and pitcher Duncan Robinson. I wonder what will be said about Little, Lange, Cory Abbott, and Keegan Thompson in the middle of next summer?
No word on when MLB Pipeline or Keith Law will publish their new lists. However, Baseball Prospectus is set to drop their top 10 Cubs prospect list on December 11. Hopefully, there will be a new name on the top of that list, like… say, Ohtani. That would be great!
By Todd Johnson
Last year, I quipped that Fangraphs produced the prospect list your mother warned you about. This year, Eric Longenhagen continued the tradition of creating a list different from the mainstream. The list, which came out today, contains analysis of upwards of 50 Cub prospects in detail. Although he only ranks 22, there is still plenty of information to go through and dissect. Overall, the list is a selection of young, athletic, and unproven prospects in the top 10.
Like Baseball America, Fangraphs placed shortstop Aramis Ademan at number one followed by pitchers Adbert Alzolay and Jose Albertos. While I would probably have them in inverse order as a top three, I really can’t quibble with Longenhagen’s reasoning. For the next 18 picks, though, it is all about potential. Longenhagen states:
Trades and graduations have sliced off the head of this system, but I remain fond of its “fruit on the bottom” composition. It features a wide swath of young talent at the lower levels, mostly from Latin America. The Cubs have cast a wide net in Latin America, adding a slew of good-bodied athletes with middling tools and then just kicking back to see what the player-development staff can do with them.
Pitcher Oscar de la Cruz is still held in esteem at number four and is soon followed by Brendon Little and Alex Lange, both of whom seem to have incomplete projections about whether they will be starters or relievers if, and when, they get to Chicago
The biggest shockers in the list came in the middle with the inclusion of several young 18 to 19-year-olds. Catcher Miguel Amaya is a favorite of mine and he is situated at number nine. Pitcher Alec Mills was next at ten, even though he missed most of 2017 with bone spurs. Mills was praised for his baseball command and plus changeup.
At number 11, 2017 sixth round pick pitcher Jeremiah Estrada got a lot of love from Longenhagen for his potential despite only pitching six innings of professional ball in 2017. One of my favorite young Cub prospects, outfielder Nelson Velazquez, came in at number 13 while unheralded lefty starter Brailyn Marquez surfaced at number 14 after an up-and-down year in Mesa.
The more I got through the list, the more and more the emphasis is on potential. Former top prospect Mark Zagunis wound up at number 20 while several more established Cub prospects did not make the top 22 cut like Trevor Clifton, Chesny Young, and Duane Underwood. Even the Cubs’ reigning MiLB Pitcher of the Year Jen-Ho Tseng did not make it. It is not as if Fangraphs have tossed the old guard to the side of the road, they made way for more prospects with a higher upside. DJ Wilson, for example, is one young and athletic prospect I profiled just last week who made the top 10.
In the end, this list is just going to be one of many this offseason that could have a totally different view of the Cubs system from every other list. In the next two weeks, Baseball Prospectus is set to release their Top 10 Cubs list either late next week or the week of the 11th.
The more lists that come out, the greater the variance is going to be. It’s pretty evident that the era of consensus on who the Cubs top prospects are is over. Even though Ademan has gotten the top nod in both major lists so far, don’t expect him to get top billing in every one.
By Todd Johnson
The questions keep coming in. As a result, I’m going to keep doing the mailbag. This week, there are three good questions to answer about three minor-league players.
Can Chesny Young contribute at the major league level?
I used to think that was the plan for 2017. Chesny’s first season at AAA contained extreme highs and lows. His monthly splits were a bit mind bending. In April, he hit .224. He rebounded in May to hit .367. At that point, I thought he had found his groove. Then again, June’s average plummeted to .240 only to rise to .300 in July and back down to .188 in August. That, my friends, is one heck of a roller coaster season.
While he played all over the field. I am hoping the season was just an aberration and that he will be back to normal in 2018. One interesting split I saw was that he hit .517 when ahead in the count and .188 when behind.
Iowa was the first level where he did not hit at a consistent high-level year round. Hopefully, he can find that consistency in 2018. If he can, then the answer to your question is a most definite yes.
Jhon Romero’s WHIP and K% have improved at every level. What’s his ceiling? How far does he advance in 2018?
This is an excellent question. I don’t think most Cub fans are aware of Romero as he shot onto the scene in the second half of 2017. He has a nice two pitch mix which I think can get him to Tennessee by the middle of 2018. After that, I don’t know how much further he’s going to go without a third pitch. Hopefully, that is something he is working on this winter. Then again, there have been plenty of pro relievers with a two pitch mix.
In seeing his curveball, I really like the sharpness and the point at which it breaks in its delivery, which is rather late. As a result, I think he might be a guy you just kind a hope will do well and is able to get by with just two pitches in limited relief appearances. I don’t think he’s the kind a guy you are going to trot out every other day, but rather once a series. That way he is able to get by in limited relief appearances.
What will happen with Carson Sands?
Since the beginning of June 2016, his career has been almost a disaster. That summer, his ERA skyrocketed. In the winter, he had elbow splints removed from his pitching arm. And when he came back last July, something just wasn’t quite right. Maybe, he was not fully healed.
When I saw him pitch at Beloit last summer, he struggled just to get the ball over the plate in 2.2 IP. When he pitched from the stretch, it was not pretty. In 3 starts for the South Bend Cubs, he walked 14 guys in 6.1 IP before he went down to Eugene. He only made 1 appearance there in relief and gave up 3 runs in 2 innings.
I am hoping that time off will allow his elbow to heal.
It’s a bit of a head scratcher to see how quickly his career went off the rails. In May 2016, he was one of the best pitchers in the Cubs organization. He had a 1.24 ERA in 5 starts and struck out 18 in 29 IP. He looked to be on the quick path to Myrtle Beach. Then something happened. I don’t know if it was the elbow splints that derailed his season or something else. He only made 6 starts the rest of the season along with 7 appearances out of the pen that resulted in a 9.91 ERA in the second half.
Sometimes, I wonder if more things are going on that we don’t know about. Whether I watched him pitch for South Bend or Eugene last year, as soon as a guy got on base, he really labored to get outs. He’s never been a pitcher that had a real “out “pitch, but he was always able to get guys to get themselves out.
He seems like a good kid who I think really knew how to pitch before he hit a rough patch that turned into a year and a half one.
As a result, I think the Cubs will wait and see how he looks in Spring Training and go from there. Ideally, Myrtle Beach might be the best spot for him if he is healthy and can get the ball over the plate. Then again, the Cubs may hold him back in extended spring training to get him right before assigning him.
I will be back next week with Episode IV as I answer questions on Wladimir Galindo, Buddy Bailey, and Oscar de la Cruz. If you have a question for me, you can tweet at me (CubsCentral08) or you can send me an email at CubsCentral email@example.com.
By Todd Johnson
Welcome to episode two of the offseason minor league mailbag. Last week, I answered questions about Ian Rice, Bryan Hudson, and the 40 man roster. This week gets a little bit more specific with questions about players that I have not seen play yet.
How many prospects in the system are worth trading for top pitching? Or is it going to be flat out cash deals?
It is not going to be cash deals,. If the Cubs are going to acquire some starting pitching and reliever help, they can get by with prospects in exchange for a reliever. If the Cubs try to get a starter in a trade, they are going to have to throw in major league talent to get major league talent.
If I was a GM for another team, there is no sure thing in the Cubs minor-league system right now. There are some prospects that could turn into something, but the Cubs don’t have a top 100 prospect right now to bring in a top flight starter on their own. On the other hand, while the Cubs may have a bottom five ranked system, they also have a lot of depth and redundancy in order to make a trade or two. Their issue is the lack of current elite talent.
Early expectations for Estrada?
He did pitch some in the Arizona Rookie League last August. However, he had two wacky stats. While his ERA was good at 1.42 in 6.1 IP, his WHIP was all over the place at 1.74 as he walked 6 and gave up 5 hits in a small sample size. In 2016, he was one of the top young prep arms on the summer circuit. He did not have a good senior season in 2017.
Still, the Cubs talked him out of his commitment to UCLA. I would bet the Cubs saw something that they could fix or tweak to get him back on track. Honestly, I did not expect to see him pitch last year. With just one month of pro experience, he should be at Eugene to begin 2018. He needs to build up arm strength this year up to about 75 innings. It would not surprise me to see him take the ball every sixth day at Eugene.
It would be safe to say that he might be a little inconsistent this year as he begins to develop and adjust to pitching professionally. My advice would be to not get too high as a fan and not get too low. He is going to have to work through some things.
Will Velaquez fill our Eloy-sized hole in our hearts?
I sure hope so. Part of me is hoping that he has a monster spring and starts in South Bend rather than extended spring training followed by Eugene. I’d be ecstatic if he actually did extended spring training and then filled in in South Bend in late May/early June. However, that is not realistic and might not be good for his development in the long run. The Cubs, more than likely, are going to take their time with him as he does have a few holes in his swing. However, 11 home runs in six weeks shows that there’s a lot right about his swing, too. By the middle of July, we should know if he is going to be the new Cubs phenom in place of Eloy. Currently, that is the direction I am also leaning along with Albertos.
Can Stinnett & Maples be an answer for CHC bullpen?
They can be part of the answer, but the Cubs are probably looking for an additional left-hander. Maples should have a legit shot at making the team in the spring. Considering that Stinnett has only thrown one month as a reliever, plus his time in the Arizona fall league, he should be at AAA Iowa to gain a little more seasoning before he is called upon in that role. Spring training should tell a lot for both pitchers: for Maples, it is about whether he makes the team. For Stinnett, it’s about whether they see him as part of the team in the future, a.k.a., later this summer.
I have enough questions for another post next week. You can send your questions to me on Twitter @cubscentral08, or you can just email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Todd Johnson
Rapid ascents for prospect lists are usually rare. There is little variation from one list to the next. That is how things used to be.
With Eloy Jimenez gone, everything changes when it comes to Cubs lists and every list changes greatly. Outside of Keith Law’s, rarely does a prospect list have any surprise value to it. Today, Baseball America did not shock me with their top 10 Cubs Prospect List, but it most certainly was a major surprise.
While a subscription is required to read the breakdown of each prospect, I can tell you that Ademan was praised for his current talent and the Cubs rapid advancement of him. In fact, any prospect list should be about future performance. While current potential and current performance should be part of the evaluation process, any prospect list should be looking two to four years down the road.
As for Ademan, I like him and I understand that he is more projectable as a hitter in an organization that graduated or traded most of their elite hitters. However, Ademan’s ability to hit consistently is still in question. He did flash moments in 2017 and showed more power than anyone thought he could have, but he also had long stretches of nothingness where he was baffled by a well placed curve or change. He can turn on anything on the inner half. He is far from a finished product in the field as well. Then again, he does flash the spectacular as often as often as he bobbles the routine grounder. He is one of the top three prospects in the system and the position he plays might be in part why he got the #1 nod.
Yes, the list is predictive. Yes, the list is subjective. I would argue that Albertos has more value to the organization as a top of the rotation starting pitcher. The same could also hold true for Alzolay, especially by the middle of next year. Alex Lange is another arm who should move pretty quickly next year. I really like his value as a starter as he has a nasty competitive streak. His delivery is maximum effort and needs some smoothing out, but his curve is amazing.
I really like the aggressive ranking of the top 5 prospects. While bold, it also shows value. Hopefully, other lists will be equally surprising and equally argumentative.
In comparing the 2017 list to this year’s, only two names remain – Oscar de la Cruz and Jose Albertos. Mark Zagunis, Trevor Clifton, and DJ Wilson are still with the organization, just not “Top 10” prospects.
The move to a pitching dominated list is complete with 8 of the Cubs top 10 slated for the mound. It should be very interesting to watch them develop in 2018 and how quickly they do so.
At some point, shortly after the season ends, Theo Epstein will address the media to talk about the state of the Cubs system, both the major and minor league systems. He’ll mention a few prospects he likes and he’ll talk about how excited or disappointed he was. For the most part, it will be a mostly transparent procedure. It will be an insider’s’ analysis of a system with which he is very familiar.
If I was to do said analysis about the MiLB system, I would not be privy to a lot of information that Theo gets from Jason McLeod and Jaron Madison. Still, there are obvious things that you can see taking place throughout the system. I think the analysis begins with more big picture themes…like these:
Big Picture Themes
1. Ability to Develop Talent
I think the Cubs do well at this. I think they can take a player and suddenly make them all seem worthwhile. They have shown the ability to take talent in the draft, international free agency, or in a trade, and polish them up to get them ready for the majors. On some days, you can find six position players the Cubs drafted in the lineup. In 2012, catching was a definite weakness of the system and now the Cubs have developed that weakness into a strength.
2. Elite Talent
With the trades of this past summer, the Cubs really are devoid of elite talent right now. There is only one player that I can foresee making a top 100 list this winter and that is Jose Albertos. I think what the past five years showed us is that the Cubs can find and sign some of the top players in the game. I just don’t see anybody that is currently at AA or AAA that fits that bill. Sure, there are a lot of nice players who could be bench players or bullpen pieces at the major-league level, but there’s not a top of the rotation starter or anyone who could become an everyday position player over the next year. There may be a backup catcher and several fifth outfielders, but that’s it. However, at the lower levels, there are several prospects, both pitching and hitting, who could fill some roles in 2-3 years.
3. Risk and Reward
This is the biggest theme in the system and trend of the past two years. Since the Cubs are not going to be drafting near the top of the first round, they have to be a little bit riskier and select players who they think have high ceilings but are not safe bets. For most of the past five years, the Cubs have signed mainly college players from the draft. A few times, they selected and signed high school players, most notably the collection of Carson Sands, Justin Steele, Dylan Cease, and Austyn Willis. Only two of them are still Cubs. Sands did not have a good 2017 season coming off bone spur removal and Steele had Tommy John surgery in late August. Selecting four pitchers in one draft from high school carried with it a lot of risk and explains why the Cubs tend to focus on college arms.
However this past year, the Cubs selected several high school picks and signed them. Nelson Velasquez is a physically maxed out outfielder with immense power. He was named the August Minor League Player of the Month after cranking out six home runs for Mesa that month. Shortstop Luis Vasquez had an up and down season for Mesa but he’s physically gifted and went five for seven in two playoff games. Pitcher Jeremiah Estrada (6th round 2017) was the highest ranked high school pitcher the Cubs selected since Bryan Hudson in 2015 in the third round.
4. International Free Agent Strategies
The Cubs invested heavily in the Mexican market the past three summers I don’t know how much that will change next summer under new CBA rules where there is a strict cap. In 2013 and 2015, the Cubs went over their spending limit but also acquired a lot of talent in doing so. Most of them are just now reaching stateside, some all the way up at Myrtle Beach. That type of binging cannot be done anymore.
I will be back next week with part 2 as I look at the strengths and weaknesses of the Cubs MiLB system.