By Todd Johnson
As the first half of the year comes to a close today, the future is hopeful. At the end of April, times were rough in the system. Only one team had a record over .500. But over the course of the last six weeks, some hitters broke out, several pitchers excelled, and where there was once darkness, there is now some light. After today, 3 of the 4 full season teams could have a .500 record or better for the first half. That did not look possible on May 1.
Although no team made the playoffs, a few should make a run for it in the second half. The draft picks could add a little boost to the system once they sign and go through their camp.
Iowa – 2-4 (25-41)
Tennessee – 4-3 (35-34)
Myrtle Beach – 2-6 (34-35)
South Bend – 3-4 (34-34)
Eugene – 2-0 (2-0)
DSL 1 – 3-3 (7-6)
DSL 2 – 4-2 (5-8)
Eugene began their season on Friday night and it is an extremely young team. That should change once the draft picks go through an orientation camp for one week. For now, though, there is some promise. Fernando Kelli is an extremely exciting player and Nelson Velazquez looks more at ease. I can’t wait to watch them develop. Kelli is already causing havoc on the basepaths everytime he gets on base. Whether it is good baserunning, stolen bases, or his presence, he is just plain exciting.
Meanwhile, out in Arizona, the two rookie league teams in Mesa begin play tomorrow. It will be interesting to see the rosters tomorrow. One could assume one team might be a normal team while the other could have the rehabbing players and the draft picks coming in and out. We will find out more tomorrow.
Brandon Hughes hit .222 in April and slumped to .188 in May. The 2017 16th round pick from Michigan was highly thought of because of his athletic prowess. The poor start did not dampen his development. A switch hitter can sometimes be hard to fix. For Hughes, though, he seems to be on the right track in June. He’s hitting .389 with 1 HR for the month. His average was at .199 on June 2. Two weeks later, he’s brought it up to .241.
I asked South Bend Cubs broadcaster Brendan King what about Brandon changed? He said, “They’ve changed the batting stance a bit, he’s standing more straight up in the box but other than that, just constant repetition.” Like many Cubs prospects, one reason Hughes was selected was his athleticism, another was his makeup. King would also add that Hughes is an extremely hard worker. I look forward to seeing if he can maintain this level of performance as I think there could be something with his size and his speed. The coaches are going to have to bring it out and it sounds like things are improving. Good for him.
Down in the Dominican
I am never quite sure what to make of some stats in the Dominican. The league is made up of a mixture of 16-21 year old kids who are need of game experience. Development can occur rapidly and the play is not always the best. There are lots of errors, wild pitches, and TOOTBLANs. As a result, I always take the stats with a grain of salt. Still, there are some eye-popping numbers coming out of there by several prospects. I will go over some of those in more detail, hopefully next Saturday, as more data comes in.
The Podcast Is Up
The Podcast I did with Cubs Insider and Cubs Den writer Sean Holland is up. There are some technical difficulties but it is still decent. I never can stand the sound of my own voice; I always find it weird. Give it a listen.
Busy Week Ahead
Tomorrow, I will publish the First Half All-Star team followed by the Baseball Cards of the First Half on Tuesday. Wednesday will see the Breakouts of the first half and Thursday will see some second half breakout predictions.
Players of the Week
Card of the Week
By Todd Johnson
Redoing my Top 21 list over the past week might have been thee hardest list to evaluate. You would think that the list would not change much in just a two month span.
Well, a lot of things happened since the end of March.
1. Jose Albertos’ release point deteriorated. Once he gets things figured out, he will be back quickly and impressively. It’s just a matter of time.
2. Duane Underwood looked studly at times and not so much at other times. He needs to find some sense of consistency from start to start.
3. Thomas Hatch has been very consistent every outing. It should not be long before he finds his way to Iowa. Problem is, there is no real spot yet.
4. Nelson Velazquez debuted at South Bend this year and struggled. He is striking out at a high rate and has yet to show much power beyond BP.
5. Dillon Maples struggled at Iowa in April and early May after not making the big league club. He now seems to be much better the past three weeks. He’s allowed just 1 ER since the middle of May and only 3 BBs in his last 7 innings. He’s close.
6. David Bote went to Chicago and did very well in a utility role. He has supplanted himself as the go-to-guy position player now.
7. Wladimir Galindo struggled, was injured, struggled some more, and then caught fire.
8. Aramis Ademan looks overmatched most nights at Myrtle Beach. The Pelicans have started moving him up and down the batting order to try something different. Then again, he’s just 19 and at high A.
9. Last year’s pitching class is killing it. From Lange to Thompson to Lacy to Uelmen to Abbott, the Cubs caught a deep class.
10. No hitter was really dominant in the first two months of 2018.
11. Two months of unexpected performances from Matt Swarmer and Jhonny Pereda might constitute breakout seasons, but does not mean they should be on a prospect list? They are very close, however.
12. Brady Clark is living up to my hype of him from the past two seasons.
13. Chesny Young looks like Chesny Young of 2016. You know, the guy who falls out of bed and laces a single right Chesny Young. I like 2016 Chesny a lot.
14. If Connor Myers can hit a little, his profile totally changes as he is a plus-plus defender and defender. Being able to hit 260-270 could carry him to the majors with his other skills being so predominant.
15. Miguel Amaya is developing into a power hitter quickly. Every at bat is becoming must see MiLB.TV.
16. Top five international pick pitcher Richard Gallardo should slide into the list once he officially signs on July 2. The question is for me, “Where do you put a 16-year-old kid that never has never thrown a pitch in professional baseball and won’t until next June?”
17. The Cubs just selected five guys in the top 100 picks of the draft. However, it is a tenth round pick I look forward to in the batter’s box the most in Luke Reynolds.
18. Jared Young has been blistering the ball lately. He started off strong, got hurt, and it took a couple weeks for him to heat back up?
19. Jason Vosler was not good for six weeks and now looks to be ready to move on actaually on pace to hit 25+ HRs this year.
20. DJ Wilson has vanished on the DL.
21. And Eugene and Mesa begin in a week. There we will get a better look at some former DSL guys, Jeremiah Estrada, and s=most of this year’s draft class.
After some discussion with some of my friends on these 21 topics and more, online and in the real world, I decided just a few changes would be in order. However, some of those changes are pretty powerful..
By Todd Johnson
I about had a heart attack when I saw this tweet about 5:30 on Tuesday.
— Northsiders Report (@NSidersReport) May 8, 2018
Needless to say, I ate my gyro and salad in a hurry so that I could sit and watch his debut. This would be my first time seeing Velazquez play live. I was expecting him to debut in Eugene next month after suffering an injury at the end of spring training. The 19-year-old came across with some impressive skills in the field, at the plate, and on the basepaths, all in one night.
In his first at-bat, he looked good laying off some pitches before he doubled on a curve down and in. He seemed to just flick his wrists as he sped down the line and on to second as the ball took a funny hop off the side wall. He wound up stranded at third despite leading off.
In the top of the third, he caught a fly to right and showed off a canon for an arm on a throw to third. He didn’t get the runner as it was off a bit, but impressive nonetheless.
The knock on Velazquez heading into this year was he struck out a lot. In the regular season, his K% while in Mesa was at 30%. In the playoffs, it was almost at 50% even though he hit 2 HRs, drove in 9, while hitting .304 with a .385 OBP in 5 games leading the Cubs to a championship.
Last night, he looked very much in charge of his own swing.
In his second at-bat, he worked the count after being down 0-2. He laid off a couple of curves and recognized the ball spin quickly and tracked the ball on its path to a conclusion. He ultimately hit a high popup deep into right center, but the approach was excellent. That’s a good sign!
In the bottom of the sixth, Velazquez came up for the third time. The 6’2″ 200 lb. right-handed hitting outfielder quickly fell behind 0-2 swinging at two fastballs in the zone. He laid off the curve for ball one. Then he got called out on strikes as the pitcher painted the outside corner with a fastball.
While he did not get a hit, his approach was good.
When Velazquez came up in the bottom of the 8th, men were on first and second with one out. He swung mightily at the first pitch and shattered his bat on the second. He watched a slider go by and then he got caught looking at a fastball low and away again. South Bend announcer Darin Pritchet quipped that Velazquez might have been looking for a breaking ball. Regardless, Velazquez needs to either go the other way with that type of pitch or learn to foul it off.
Overall, Velazquez is very raw. It is evident that he has a lot of tools – arm, glove, speed, bat, and power. Although he did not go yard, going 1-for-4 with a 2B and 2 Ks is alright for a debut at low class A at the age of 19. It is going to be up to Manager Jimmy Gonzalez and his staff to help polish those skills over the course of this summer. Gonzalez has excelled in improving pitch recognition and game decisions with many young Cub prospects the past couple of years.
At the plate, Velazquez is going to face pitchers and pitches he is not accustomed to seeing. He should be one of the most interesting follows as he uses his talented set of tools to learn to adjust and adjust again and again. I already can’t wait for tomorrow’s game!
By Todd Johnson
Come next Tuesday, I will release my first monthly MiLB All-Star Team. This April was a little hard to judge due to the many rainouts (which are still happening), the cold (which is hopefully gone for good), and the snow (see the cold). It looks like most Cub affiliates will get in between 20 and 22 games for the month. That does not seem like a lot. Well, it is not.
There are some interesting trends taking place at the plate and the mound. Some players are off to great starts while some other well-known names are struggling, some mightily. Here is this month’s monthly stock watch.
I don’t think any these guys are going to break into a prospect list right now. Zagunis is the only one listed on mine, but I think Jared Young might make the Top 21 List by the end of the summer. The problem for Young, though, is that he is currently on the DL after a good start hitting .406 in South Bend. Jeffrey Baez and Trey Martin are repeating AA but they are currently dominating in all facets of the game. Baez, who has always been a streaky hitter with 5 tool potential, has 3 HRs and is closing in on .400. Martin, meanwhile, looks like a veteran bat who is improving his lot in the system. He has 2 gold gloves to his credit, but this year is all about his bat which is currently in the mid .300s.
That fact that there are so few hitters gives you a clear indication of the lack of elite hitting in the system. However, come June, that will all change via the draft and 5 short-season rookie league and class A teams begin play.
Stock Going Up: Pitchers
Rob Zastryzny, Randy Rosario, Thomas Hatch, Dakota Mekkes, Matt Swarmer, Tyler Peyton, Wyatt Short, Jhon Romero, Brian Glowicki, Ben Hecht, Cory Abbott, Rollie Lacy, Bailey Clark, Javier Assad, and Tyler Thomas
To be honest, I have never been very high on Rob Zastryzny until he started using a cutter and his career took off in 2016. Last year, he had a bunch of nagging little injuries. Now healthy, he’s been pretty dominant out of the bullpen this spring in Iowa. 8.2 IP, 0 runs allowed. If Dakota Mekkes of Tennessee cuts his walk rate in half, he is likely the first guy to be promoted because he’s not giving up hits or runs. Swarmer has been the most surprising prospect. In three starts, he has a 1.72 ERA. He can locate his fastball and his curve is a little tighter this year and has that classic 12-6 break. Hitters have trouble timing him up. With an over the top delivery and a freakishly high leg kick, there’s a lot going on in his delivery to distract even the best hitters.
The South Bend pitchers have been pretty impressive – Javier Assad especially. He did not have good stuff to start the day last Saturday. He made what he had work for a couple of innings and until got into a groove. He stranded seven in the first three innings. It was a master class in getting out of a jam you put yourself into.
In addition, Tyler Thomas will be one to watch in May. His 0.60 ERA over 3 starts leads all Cubs’ starters. Piggyback starters Bailey Clark and Rollie Lacy have been near dominant in their 7 opportunities.
Hatch and Mekkes are the only pitchers listed from above that are on my Top 21 List. Assad could easily break on to a list this summer. I really like his FB and curve combo.
It is still a little early to start moving prospects around lists just based on a 20+ game set. However, that set gives a good indication of who is playing well to start the year and who is carrying over from the end of last year – a more interesting trend to me. The May Watch List might be more interesting because that will list will have a 40 game set of qualitative and quantitative data to evaluate.
Still, this list is a start to check out the talent in the system for 2018.
By Todd Johnson
While Alzolay was ranked number one, he’s only got a couple of months in at AA and he still needs to work on his changeup quite a bit. I see his potential more as a reliever long-term. Although, he was able to stay in the mid-90s in the 6th and 7th inning last year. He just needs to continue to build up more innings to maintain his viability as a middle of the rotation starter.
As for Ademan, while he did well at Eugene on both sides of the plate, he struggled offensively at South Bend in his short time there. The Cubs will more than likely be aggressive with him this year and he will be assigned to Myrtle Beach. Oscar de la Cruz missed most of 2017 but still has a powerful potential in spite of his being oft-injured past two years.
When it comes to Jose Albertos, I just love him. By the end of the year he could take over the number one spot and I am looking forward to watching him do it at South Bend in the first half of the year. If all goes well, the young 19-year-old pitcher could end up in the pitcher friendly Carolina League for the second half of the year.
Catcher Miguel Amaya shot up to number 11. If his bat comes along at South Bend in 2018, he could rise even more. David Bote, at #15 went from utility organizational guy to a player with bat to make it as a utility infielder in Chicago. Recent draft picks from the past two years dot the list with Alex Lange at 5, Brendon Little at 6, and Thomas Hatch at 7. Three 2017 draft picks also got some praise. At 17, Jeremiah Estrada is well liked along with Erich Uelman at 19 and Keegan Thompson at 19, two college starters who only saw brief action in relief last year at Eugene. Pitcher Michael Rucker moved all the way up to 21 and Zack Short made his first appearance on the list at 23. Pitcher Javier Assad, who I am looking forward to watching throw at South Bend, is at #24. That’s a very good sign as he is only 19. Meanwhile, lefty starter Brailyn Marquez debuted at #27 at the age of 19. He is still very raw but he does miss a lot of bats.
Who is still in?
Most of the usual suspects in the Cubs system still made the list. Although, it is quite clear that they have lost some of the former status. Usually, MLB.com’s Pipeline is slow to change. One bad season doesn’t befall most prospects. There was some slippage this year. Trevor Clifton still made the list at #28 as did Duane Underwood at #30. Both have their work cut out in front of them.
Names to Know for Later Lists
Danis Correa is one of several young Latin pitching prospects who could breakout in 2018. He throws in the mid to upper 90s but needs some work on his command. I think Bailey Clark will turn some heads this year as he is now done with his degree at Duke and minor injuries. 2B Carlos Sepulveda was not on the list this year after missing almost of 2017. He could return later. The big breakout could be OF Fernando Kelli who will arrive from the Dominican Summer League where he stole 58 bases last year. Personally, I like the potential bats of infielders Austin Upshaw and Jered Young along with pitcher Jesus Tejada, who threw a no-hitter in the Dominican last summer.
It should be exciting as the Cubs system gets remade. It looks to be getting much younger since last year’s trades.
The Final Rankings List
I assigned point value to seven prospect lists this winter. A player received 10 for being named #1, 9 for #2, etc. I used Fangraphs, John Sickels, Baseball Prospectus, Baseball America, Keith Law. MLB.com, and my own Top 21.
Here are the final totals.
Adbert Alzolay -66
Aramis Ademan – 64
Jose Albertos -57
Alex Lange – 42
Oscar de la Cruz – 38
Brendon Little – 33
Victor Caratini – 28
Thomas Hatch – 23
Jen-Ho Tseng – 12
Dillon Maples – 7
Nelson Velazquez – 5
By Todd Johnson
As spring training got underway, I was getting ready for what I call my busy season, which actually began yesterday with a Scholastic bowl tournament. Throw in a history fair and seven nights of Scholastic bowl meets and you have my life through March 15. I am pretty sure I am going to be dragging but it still allows me plenty of time to recoup before spring break starts and spring training ends.
As a result, anytime I had an idea pop into my head this week, I pondered about whether to write a full-blown post about it, or just a small blurb in this column. So, I just cited to get some ideas down now and maybe I can expand upon them more at a later time.
Darvish Impact on Minors
With an opt out clause after two years, that clause does buy the Cubs a couple more years to develop some arms to take Darvish’s place should he leave via free agency. A lot can happen to a pitching prospect in two years. So, it’s a little hard to justify a full-blown post about the topic right now. While some may think that Adbert Alzolay might be one of those who could start in 2020. Thomas Hatch, Duncan Robinson, Alex Lange, Jose Albertos and few more will have their name in that hat.
3 More Coming to Camp
The Cubs invited three more non-roster players to spring training. They were all catchers and many are very familiar to most of you. Cael Brockmeyer, Erick Castillo, and PJ Higgins all got the call.
2 New International Signees
Per Arizona Phil, the Cubs signed two more Cuban international free agents this week. Kevin Moreno is a 17-year-old third baseman who does not have a lot of experience playing international baseball. Pitcher Raidel Orta played in the Serie Nacional when he was 18 in 2014/15. He missed the last two years after defecting. Now at 22, it should be interesting to see just exactly what he has and how much he can improve over the course of the year playing in the US. I’m very interested to see where the Cubs place both prospects after spring training. I made a spreadsheet that has the Cubs last few international classes. Use the tabs at the bottom to go from year to year.
Keith Law of ESPN released his top 30 draft prospects (subscription required) for 2018. While he did not place players with teams, he did rank them from 1 to 30. While I can’t get into specifics about who was ranked where, it’s quite clear the Cubs are going to get an outstanding player at number 24. Law’s rankings are quite different from MLB Pipeline’s top 50 and the first 30 in Baseball America’s top 200. His list is a perfect example of the rise and fall of many prospects and the differentiation in evaluation. As a result, one name Cubs fans may want to add to the list is Missouri State shortstop Jeremy Eierman.
A Bunch of Arms
Cubs also moved pitcher Drew Smyly to the 60 day DL and signed reliever Shae Simmons to a split major/minor league contract. The Cubs signed several pitchers this off-season including Anthony Bass, Daniel Camarena, Michael Roth, Dario Alvarez, Randy Rosario, Cory Mazzoni, Kyle Ryan, Alberto Baldonado, Luke Farrell, and Simmons. I don’t think many of these guys stand much of a chance of making the major leagues bullpen and only a few will probably break camp in the Cubs’ minor-league system. I can see Camarena getting an opportunity to start in the minors at either Iowa or Tennessee. Rosario and Ryan have an outside shot to make the major leagues roster but will need some help and the same is true of Farrell, who is more of a starting pitcher. I don’t think Alvarez, Bass, and even the new signee Simmons have much of a shot. I think the Cubs are pretty clear on just exactly who is going to be in their bullpen. I’ll probably talk about this more as spring training wears on and players get some work in.
Coming Up this Week
On Wednesday the “Leveling Up” series begins to wind down as I look at outfielder Nelson Velasquez. On Friday, I should have something for you either about the bullpen or about young Latin arms coming into the system in 2018. On Saturday the 24th, I will be with my students participating in the history fair at NIU and then “Spring Training News and Notes” will take over for “The Weekly” on Sundays until the season begins. I am also pondering a draft article that looks at a few players beyond the first round.
By Todd Johnson
I am still so excited! I haven’t been this pumped up since November of 2016!
Cubs fans are now just 4 days away from meeting Yu Darvish and him taking part in his first official practice this Thursday. Now, with Yu in the rotation, Mike Montgomery heads back to the pen. It makes me wonder who Dillon Maples has to get past to earn a spot. It also makes me wonder how much this could affect Justin Grimm, who no longer has a guaranteed contract after losing his arbitration case.
The Cubs starting rotation is now very deep at the major league level. A staff of Hendricks, Quintana, Darvish, Lester, and Chatwood puts the team on par with any staff in the majors. They aren’t going to go 162-0, but I could see the Cubs winning 95+ games in 2018. A week ago, without Darvish, the Cubs were predicted to win 89 games by Pecota. Darvish has to increase that win total at least 5 or 6 games.
About an hour after the signing, I began shifting my thoughts on the organizational impact this signing has. It puts in place a staff for at least the next two years, depending on when Darvish could opt out of his deal. It buys the Cubs time to develop several young arms. After the 2020 season, Darvish is the only current Cub in the rotation signed to a contract. Lester, Hendricks, Quintana, and Chatwood’s contracts all expire at the end of the 2020 season.
As a result, the Cubs’ young arms can be brought along and developed as assets, as Theo always intends. With so many young arms, the Cubs could have a large stockpile they could use in a deal later down the road while still being able to cherry pick the best of their own to keep. It’s a win-win scenario.
And finally, there is no compensation pick attached to Darvish. Because he was traded mid-season, the Cubs do not lose their second round pick. So, it looks like the Cubs will be picking up a pick should Arrieta sign soon. That would give them 4 picks in the top 75-80 selections.
In Prospect News…
Baseball Prospectus released their Top 101 prospects for 2018 and one Cub made the list. Adbert Alzolay came in at #95. Here is what John Eshleman of BP had to say about Adbert:
Alzolay has a starter’s delivery in a reliever’s body with a change-up that could push him to either role. Currently, the pitch is not playable to turn over MLB rotations, but he could right now get outs from a bullpen with his FB/SL combination, playing to higher end of velo band in short stints. The relative quietness of his delivery given his size, a result of plus athleticism and a strong lower half that stabilizes his delivery. I project change up and command improvement enough to keep Alzolay in an MLB rotation.
While Theo Epstein and the Cubs see Alzolay as a starter for now, Adbert still has some work to do to get there.
MLB Pipeline announced they will release their latest Cubs’ Top 30 Prospect list on Thursday February 22. Over the offseason, I have been keeping track of the prospect rankings and assigning points to where each player has been ranked. Using Baseball America, Fangraphs, John Sickels, Keith Law, Pipeline, and Baseball Prospectus, the leader in points right now is Adbert Alzolay followed by Aramis Ademan. Only one point separates the two. Pitcher Jose Albertos rounds out the top three. Then it is a while until fourth place. Here are the top nine point values so far.
Ademan – 55
Lange – 36
de la Cruz – 30
Little – 27
Caratini – 25
Hatch – 19
Tseng – 12
I did include my Top 21’s top 10 in these results. However, I did not include Caratini as I don’t consider him a prospect. Normally, I usually include Cubs Den’s rankings, but this year Michael Ernst’s did not rank them. Rather he placed them in tiers. Although, Michael did have Jose Albertos as the lone Tier 1 prospect. I don’t think that his ranking them would have changed the list and its point totals and rankings much.
I don’t really think MLB Pipeline’s list will change many people’s perceptions of either prospect or the Cubs as a whole. It has been a while since the Cubs did not had a clearly defined top prospect, let alone a top 100.
I hope that this summer sees some prospects like Albertos, Ademan, and Lange matriculate up to full season ball and onto prospect lists. Maybe next winter the Cubs could get 3-4 names on a list.
Also in prospect news, Fangraphs released their KOTAH projections. The list is a projection of WAR for the next five years at the MLB level. Two Cubs made the list. Charcer Burks came in at #61 with a projected WAR of 5 and Victor Caratini came in at #35 with a 6.7 WAR projection. I did not see Burks like that, but I like that he is highly thought of after a brilliant first half in 2017.
Just throwing this out there…
I am wanting to do profiles of two prospects but I don’t have pictures of them, yet. One is of Danis Correa, a pitcher who threw in just two games for Mesa after coming over from the DSL. The other is Jesus Tejada, who threw in the DSL the past two summers.
This week, come Wednesday, Fernando Kelli gets profiled in the “Leveling Up” series. I really enjoyed profiling the excitement for the young outfielder. I also have two spring training previews for the major league camp and the minor league camp in the works for this week. The major league post hits Monday, the minors on Friday.
Baseball Cards of the Week