South Bend Cubs

Leveling Up Series Finale: Brandon Hughes Should Take It Up a Notch in 2018

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By Todd Johnson

Rule number one: Draft all the athletes.

Brandon Hughes is most definitely that. The young 2017 draft pick from Michigan State is arguably the best athlete the Cubs selected in the draft since Jacob Hannemann, way back in 2013. In addition to speed, Hughes has the potential for power. As a lead off hitter at Michigan State, he was never asked to hit that way. That’s something the Cubs might want to change this year.

Upon his arrival at Eugene, Hughes burst onto the scene with a scintillating July before cooling off in August. He hit .299 the first month, and .190 the second. It’s not like he’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, but turning pro can be a tough experience when you’ve already played a full season of baseball; your body is just not used to the grind of playing eight months versus five.

Hughes will have some definite competition for an outfield spot in South Bend but is best suited to right field. His arm is considered above average, but he definitely has the ability to go get the ball.

Basic Info
6’2″ 215 lbs.
Bats: Switch Hitter
Throws: Left
16th Round 2017 from Michigan State
Just turned 22 in December 2017

Leveling Up

It is hard to evaluate someone just on 40 games in short season ball. By the time the middle of June rolls around this year, Hughes should have 60 games in at South Bend. In that span, he needs to improve getting on base. Some of that will come from a solid approach, which he should’ve been working on over the off-season, and some of that will come with a familiarity with the league.

Most importantly, the Cubs need to figure out what kind of hitter Hughes is going to be. Is he going to be a leadoff-speed kind of guy like he was at Michigan State? Or, Is he going to be a guy they’re going to try and develop into a power hitter? Will he be the hitter we saw in July or the one in August? Or, is he going to be some sort of multi-dimensional player that has both speed and power?

If I had to guess, I would go with the last one. One thing  South Bend manager Jimmy Gonzalez has been able to do the past few summers is to develop hitters with good pitch recognition skills. I don’t know if part of that comes from computer games the players play or just their own natural development. Whatever the case may be, Gonzalez gets results and those hitters go on to do well at Myrtle Beach.

For Hughes, I am looking forward to seeing just who he is as a hitter and how he approaches each plate appearance. I’m interested to see how he handles a Midwest League curveball and changeup.

Out of the almost 30 signees from last year’s draft, I think Hughes is the one who will change the most this year. Last summer, I wrote the following for BP Wrigleyville and I still think it holds true for Hughes’ future:

Hughes’ style of hitting reminds me of a story by Ryne Sandberg. Ryno often talks about his conversations with Jim Frey and how Sandberg used to pound the ball into the Astroturf and dirt to try and use his speed to get on base. One day at the batting cage, Frey suggested Sandberg  should change his swing to create more lift to hit for more power. And that one piece of advice transformed Sandberg’s career.

I am not saying that Brandon Hughes is going to be a Hall of Famer. And I am not comparing him to Ryne Sandberg, but their original hitting styles are similar. Hughes is physically gifted. He has the frame and the musculature to hit home runs. It will be interesting to see what his swing is next year.

His natural physicality will allow him to do a variety of things in the field, on the basepaths, and at the plate. His development is going to be a multi-year process that will hopefully take advantage of his natural athletic talent.


Leveling Up Series – Austin Filiere Already Knows It’s a Game of Less than an Inch

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By Todd Johnson

There were fans who snickered and chortled when the Cubs selected Austin Filiere, a third baseman from MIT, in the 2017 draft. After a few at bats, it was pretty clear why the Cubs selected Austin Filiere. In addition to having some power, the young third baseman also showed an adept eye at the plate.  In his short tenure as a Eugene Emerald in 2017, Filiere hit .261 with an outstanding .392 on base percentage. He hit six home runs and drove in 25 in just 49 games. He is going to play three times as many games at South Bend this season. He can improve his defense some for 2018, but for now, he is sufficient.

Maybe the most encouraging sign about Filiere’s development last year was that he seemed to be better every time I saw him. He was one of the best two players on the team the last month of the season. He drove in 14 runs but he also walked 17 times…that month! He also cranked 4 HRs to go with an OBP of .405 for August.

Basic Info
6’1″ 190 lbs.
Bats Right
Throws Right
2018 Affiliate: South Bend
8th Round Pick in 2017 from MIT

Leveling Up
Filiere probably does not have that many people writing about him. With the potential to hit 20 home runs in the Midwest League, Filiere could change some minds in the first half of the year. Not that he’s a breakout prospect, but he is one who could be. His mix of power and plate discipline reminds me of Zack Short and Ian Rice. However, I think Filiere might have more juice than the aforementioned prospects who were at South Bend the previous two years.

With his approach, he comes across as doing everything he should be as an entry-level prospect.

The well-renowned Peter Gammons did a profile on Filiere before the Cubs took him. It is an interesting look at Filiere’s MIT career, his time in the Cape Cod League, and his potential as a pro. What has always stayed with me is this quote from Filiere on the intricacies of plate coverage:

“I know that if it’s 88-90 miles an hour, I can try to handle a ball an inch out of the zone, but I can’t if it’s an inch and a half. Of course, when you’re facing the really good pitchers from the big programs, there’s a major learning curve involved.”

To know that your plate coverage is that minute at such an early age is pretty telling of how well he knows the zone, hitting, and his own strengths and limitations.

Here’s the Catch
What might separate Filiere from other prospects will be a full off-season of immersion in the Cubs way. No offense to MIT coaching, but there’s no comparison as to the things he can learn from his professional coaches as a Cub. Whether that’s nutrition, physical training, or mental training, he is going to be more prepared as a hitter this year than he was last year. I’m very excited to see how much he’s improved since last August.

A Preview of the Upcoming Affiliate Previews

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By Todd Johnson

Last night, my busy season at school officially came to an end. While I do have the conference tournament for Scholastic Bowl next Thursday night, I finally have some time to write more during the school week. The main objective I have now is to begin writing the affiliate previews for Iowa, Tennessee, Myrtle Beach, and South Bend.  This will take place over the next three weeks.

Starting on Monday, April 1, I will begin posting a preview a day for each of the Cubs affiliates. This year, I decided to wait to put together the previews because I was really unsure of who is going to pitch at which affiliate and who is going to pitch in what role. Once the major-league roster is set on Thursday morning of the 29th, writing the affiliate previews will get much easier.

When it came down to begin prewriting the previews, I decided that I wanted to do them differently for 2018. I knew I wanted the previews to be something that was enjoyable, informative, surprising, and quick to read, and to write. Those are not easy objectives to meet in one single post.

So, to that end, I decided to come up with some possible headings. I also wanted to make each preview a bit different rather than a rote exercise of fill in the blank writing. As a result, I have some different section headers I have been kicking around. I will not use every section header in every post. Instead, I will try to make each preview unique. Here are a few possible section titles.

Big Names – This section will be about from the highest ranked and well known prospects who should be on that affiliate. It’s not going to be a full-blown scouting report on them. Instead, it’s just going to be some blurbs about this length.

Possible Sleepers – It is rare for a player to break out at the higher levels, but it does happen. Most recently, Willson Contreras tore up AA in 2015 to breakout. Usually, the sleeper section will be the hardest part to complete. At the lower levels, there could be plenty of guys who could bust a move in 2018.

First to be Promoted – It seems strange, but sometimes prospects don’t stay very long at an affiliate. This has been known to happen quite a bit at South Bend and Myrtle Beach early in the year. Some are gone by mid-May.

The New Guy – This will be the first prospect who gets promoted to that affiliate from a lower level.

My Guy – I admit that I have favorite players that I like to watch. They are not always a top prospect, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be good baseball players or exciting.

Best of – If included, it could include some “best of” like best curve, best strike zone discipline, best fastball, best power, best speed, and many more. Part of me wants to do a whole team preview like this.

Numbers – For the South Bend Preview in 2017, I did a “10 Things I Think” post and I liked doing that kind of preview post. I expect only one preview will be like that again this year.

Lineup Card – It is what it sounds like and probably will not contain a whole lot of content. Rather, it’s just gonna be a list of the possible starters at every position.

Most Likely – I thought of this one in the tub (I do a lot of my best thinking there). This could just a small section where I analyze a prospect by attaching the phrase “Most Likely” to predict a certain kind of performance or arc in in a player’s development.

Themes – I haven’t decided on any type of a theme. Rather, I began thinking about common threads that connect the prospects together; something that connects their personalities together.  I have a couple of ideas but no fully fleshed-out ideas.

My hope is that each preview will be distinctly different from the one before and the one after.

I will start with Iowa on Monday, April 2nd, Tennessee will be on Tuesday while Myrtle Beach is scheduled for Wednesday. South Bend will be profiled just in time for their debut on Thursday. And as usual, I will have my annual preview of a preview for Eugene on Friday that week (That usually ends up on their website as well). On Saturday of that week, I will conclude opening week with my Pre-Season First Half All-Star Team.  It should be a fun week to post some writing. I will give a glimpse of the two Mesa teams when they begin play in the middle of June. As for the two Dominican teams, I will, more than likely, just list their rosters in “The Weekly” some sunny Sunday.

Leveling Up Series: Jared Young Is Mentally Strong and Getting Stronger

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By Todd Johnson

Seems like I just wrote about Jared Young last month. When I look back to see the actual article, it was over six months ago.

In 2017, Young had an up and down first season at Eugene. What I really liked about him was how he approached every at bat. Even when he got off to such a poor start after signing, he worked every count that he possibly could and in August it paid off.

Young’s future has a Cub could go several different ways. He is a second baseman with pretty good size. At 6’2” and 185 pounds, he has the ability to put on more weight and to produce more power. Whether he stays at second base or not, is a discussion for a later day.

I think it would be easy to forget his first six weeks as a pro. It’s a lot easier to remember his August where he hit .323 with a .357 on base percentage. He only hit one home run for the year, but he drove in 11 in his last 23 games. That’s a pretty good pace that would be close to 80 runs driven in at full class A.

Basic Info
Bats Left
Throws Right
6’2” 185 lbs
Old Dominion
15th Round Pick 2017

Leveling Up for 2018

One other thing I like about Young and his fellow position player draft picks is that they seem to be a bit more mature than your average prospect. Last year, the Cubs drafted several college position players that included Young and most of them played at Eugene last summer.

While I don’t think Young is going to get through the system fairly quickly, I do think he’s going to learn fairly fast. As a result, his ability to pick up things quickly will only enhance his profile throughout the course of the year. The player we saw last summer is going to be different from the player we see this spring and the player we will see in June will also be different.

Another advantage is Young’s favor is the path he’s taken to get this point. He is used to being a new guy in a new place every year. Originally from Prince George in British Columbia, Young attended three colleges before he was taken by the Cubs last summer. He first played at Minot State in North Dakota where he hit .398 with 5 dingers. He then transferred to Connors State College. He put together an amazing 2016 with a .480 average and 11 homers. In 2017 at Old Dominion, he cranked 7 home runs while hitting .384. He’s got this moving thing down.

As for the batter’s box, Young told the Prince George Citizen how he is trying to master the mental aspects of the game.:

I’ve been working with (hitting coach) Chris Valaika and (manager) Jesus (Feliciano) on just the mental aspect of the game. And it’s just taking that to the plate and seeing a fastball and making sure you don’t miss them. I didn’t have the greatest of starts, and I’ll admit that. It was definitely mental, too. It’s been a couple of mechanical things that I’ve been working on, but to go on a streak like this, I think it’s more mental, staying the course and not staying too high or too low.

I’d like to see him play some first base this summer just to enhance his profile as a possible utility guy. What I want to see most is for him to continue his excellent approach at the plate and to develop more power as the year goes on. I’m not asking for 20 home runs every year from him. But I would like to see is a gradual increase from year-to-year.

He really seems to have the right mental makeup to do well. I cannot wait to pick his brain about hitting later this summer when he is at South Bend.

Leveling Up Series: Miguel Amaya – It’s All About the Arm

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By Todd Johnson

There are certain prospects that make my eyes light up when I start talking about them and I get really animated. Eloy used to be one, Jose Albertos is one, and Miguel Amaya is another one. The 18-year-old catcher was blessed with a golden right arm. The very first time I saw him throw down to second while catching for Eugene last year, I feel immediately in love with that arm.

Basic Info
6’1” 185 lbs. (Still growing)
Age 18
Bats/Throws Right
International free agent from Panama
2018 Affiliate – South Bend

Leveling Up
Amaya is far from perfect, but his ceiling is pretty high. The issue right now, is that his floor has some work to be done.

At Eugene in 2017, Amaya struggled the first half the year at the plate until he moved down in the lineup where he hit almost .300 in the month of August. He’s still got a little ways to fill out but he has shown the ability to pull the ball and to pull it for power.

Fangraphs said this of Amaya’s bat:

Offensively, Amaya’s approach to hitting is geared for contact. He expands the zone too often right now but has promising hand-eye coordination and bat control. He often finds a way to get the bat on the ball, making sub-optimal contact rather than no contact at all. He has the physical tools to hit but needs a refined approach, and his frame suggests there might eventually be some power here, too.

That’s promising. But to be really honest, I don’t care about the bat. It’s all about the arm.

At one point last year, he was throwing out over 50% of base runners. At the same time, Amaya struggled to catch a ball in the dirt. He then showed a lackadaisical approach in jogging back to the backstop to go get the ball that just went between his legs. As the year went on, that effort dramatically improved. He hustled after everything in August. However, he still has some work to do on blocking.

Amaya also needs to work on going out and calming his pitchers down when they are struggling. In June, he rarely went out to talk to anybody, but as the year went by, he got much better and there were certain pitchers he seemed to be more comfortable with like Jose Albertos and Jesus Camargo.

South Bend will be a different animal for him. The weather will be much different as will the size of the stadiums. A lot of the issues Amaya currently has should fade away quickly with game experience. He is, after all, just 18 for one more month.

Amaya’s also going to have to continue to be patient at the plate like he was in August last year. And, as a 19-year-old, he’s really going to be behind the eight ball in helping to manage a pitching staff with a lot of talent. He is going to be catching three of the Cubs top six prospects in Albertos, Lange, and Little. That’s a huge responsibility.

I think the effort really has to be there on every pitch. There needs to be an emphasis on blocking balls in the dirt and keeping his pitchers calm. Everything else is a cherry on top of that arm.

Leveling Up Series: Alex Lange Has a Killer Curve and a Lot of Questions to Answer

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By Todd Johnson

With the 30th pick in the 2017 MLB draft, the Cubs selected pitcher Alex Lange from Louisiana State University. The number one starter for the Tigers, Lange came to the Cubs with what was considered to be the best curveball in the draft. He only got nine innings of work in last summer after pitching 130 innings for LSU. As a result, the Cubs just gave him a small taste of the minor-league life.

Heading into 2018, there are a lot of questions about Lange and just exactly who he is, what he will be doing, where he will be doing it, and how fast he can get to the next level?

After watching him pitch last year at LSU, and once on MiLB TV, I fell in love with his curve. That being said, Lange is not a fully formed prospect. He still needs to work on developing a third pitch that he can throw consistently for strikes. And, he has to put to rest any health issues as the Cubs discovered something wrong in his physical that resulted in a lower signing bonus. Still, it’s hard to deny the potential that he has.

Basic Info
6’3” 197 lbs.
Throws Right
1st Round 2017 Draft

Leveling Up
At the convention, I asked Jaron Madison, the Cubs farm system director, just exactly where the Cubs were planning on putting Lange to start the 2018 season. Madison did not hesitate in answering that question as he quickly quipped South Bend. I wonder if the experience and struggles of Thomas Hatch had at Myrtle Beach last year had anything to do with Madison’s quick response. Part of me thinks it did, while another part of me thinks that Lange has some things he needs to work on before he goes up to high class A Myrtle Beach.

Fangraphs speaks to Lange’s future here:

[…] evaluators had some concerns about Lange’s ability to pitch in a big-league rotation, requiring better fastball command and a yet-to-develop third pitch to project him as a starter. Lange used his curveball as a crutch at LSU and never developed feel for his changeup, though a source who saw him in the Northwest League, where Lange used his change more often, thought it had promising movement.

Aside from his curve, I really love Lange’s competitive nature on the mound. He is literally intensely into the game on every pitch. However, that intensity carries over into a violent delivery the Cubs could try and smooth out a bit. He is going to be very exciting to watch this year.

Another question that I have about Lange going forward is just exactly what his role is going to be. I’m pretty sure the Cubs are going to have him start on the mound at South Bend. That is the best way for him to work on developing a third pitch and for improving his fastball command. On the other hand, Lange could easily be a power reliever and his stuff that might tick up a bit coming out of the pen 2 to 3 times a week. I shudder to think of a minor-league hitter trying to get any solid contact against his curve. It could get ugly.

As a result, Lange’s future role is not written in stone. I  tend to think of his duality as a win-win for the Cubs. Right now, though, there’s no rush to get him to the majors as a fast track. It would be nice if he could advance through two levels a year, but I think expectations might need to be dampened until his changeup gets to where it needs to be first.

The Weekly – MiLB News and 3 Draftable Arms at #24

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By Todd Johnson

There was a lot of news about the minor-league system this week. The Cubs signed outfielder Wynton Bernard to a minor league contract and assigned him to AAA Iowa. He previously played in the Yankee system and is only 25 years old.

I also appeared on a podcast yesterday with my fellow Cubs Insider colleague, Sean Holland. It was a lot of fun as we talked Cubs, prospects, and history. That link should be out on Monday or Tuesday. Look for the link on Twitter and give Sean a follow on Twitter (@sth85) if you haven’t already. 

The Cubs also announced their minor-league coaching and training staff for the upcoming 2018 season. Embedded in the article was an offhand comment that the Cubs will be having a second team in the Arizona rookie league. Yesterday, I wrote an article about how that will impact the Cubs system this summer. And to be honest, I don’t think we’re gonna see the impact at the major-league level for 3 to 4 more years.

Getting back to the coaches list, there were three other things I noticed besides adding an extra affiliate.

1. The Cubs broke up the coaching staff at Eugene after back-to-back playoff appearances. Former manager Jesus Feliciano is now the AA hitting coach and Brian Lawrence will return to South Bend as the pitching coach.

2. The Cubs also put three more players former players back into the system as coaches. Former shortstop Jonathan Mota will be a manager in the Arizona Rookie League. Former catcher and infielder Ben Carhart will be an assistant coach in Tennessee. And, former first baseman Jacob Rogers will be at Eugene as an assistant.

3. Long time pitching coach David Rosario did not appear anywhere on the list. There are two pitching coach spots that have yet to be filled for the Mesa teams. I would think he should be somewhere as he still has a lot to offer. Last year, he was in Eugene.

Order of listing – Manager, Pitching Coach, Hitting Coach, Assistant
IOWA: Marty Pevey, Rod Nichols, Desi Wilson, and Chris Valaika
TENNESSEE: Mark Johnson, Terry Clark, Jesus Feliciano, and Ben Carhart
MYRTLE BEACH: Buddy Bailey, Anderson Tavarez, Ty Wright, and Carlos Rojas
SOUTH BEND: Jimmy Gonzalez, Brian Lawrence, Ricardo Medina, and Paul McAnulty
EUGENE: Steve Lerud , Armando Gabino, Osmin Melendez, and Jacob Rogers
MESA #1: Carmelo Martinez, TBA, TBA, and Leo Perez
MESA #2: Jonathan Mota, TBA, Claudio Almonte, and TBA

In less than five months, Major League Baseball will hold its annual Rule 4 draft. For the Cubs, their system could use a nice infusion of new high-end talent. The Cubs should have up to four picks in the top 75, which could re-energize the system.

Late last week, Baseball America merged their top 100 college player list with their top 100 high school player list to create a Top 200 list. The result is one of the deepest drafts in years. To see beyond the top 30 in their 200 list, you need a subscription.

I have discussed a few bats from the draft earlier in the winter but I keep coming back to Alec Brohm of Wichita State. Baseball America put up some BP work of him in last year’s Cape Cod League. There’s a whole lot for me to love in the video. He has a nice smooth swing that just reeks of power and precision. The issue is Brohm’s lack of athleticism in the field. BA figures he would move to 1B or DH, maybe even LF.

However, when I sat and listened last week to Jaron Madison talk about how the Cubs targeted pitching in the past two drafts, I wondered if the Cubs would take a stab at a pitcher that high in 2018. The risk, especially if it is a high school arm, would be astronomical.

I spent part of Friday night looking at some arms who could be available at #24. I looked at three high school arms and three college pitchers. The three that caught my eye were high school pitcher Cole Wilcox, lefty Tim Cate from Connecticut, and 6’11” Sean Hjele (pronounced Jelly) from the University of Kentucky (Click on their names for video profiles from MLB Pipeline).

They are three very different pitchers except for one thing – the ball comes out of their hands very easy. I like the fact that all three can throw in the low to mid to upper 90s with little effort. What I liked most about Wilcox was he’s just a teenager and he looks pretty polished already. Once he transitions to pitching full-time, the sky could be the limit for him. The only issue is he really doesn’t have one over powering pitch, but he does do everything well. He was on USA Baseball’s 18 U team and did really well. There’s a whole lot to like with this young man.

As for Cate, I looked at four videos of him pitching. He hides the ball extremely well and it’s hard for the hitter to pick up the ball coming out of the hand. As a result, he gets some of the ugliest swings I have seen this off-season. His curve destroys lefties with a nice 1 to 6 break in. I don’t know if he’s going to be a full-time starter, but he could move pretty quickly as a reliever. He would be a late first round pick, but he’s not gonna make it back through the second round. And like many players that Jason McLeod selects, Cate does have USA Baseball experience.

For Hjele, the guy is just huge. He was the SEC Pitcher of the Year last year as a sophomore and I think he has someone to keep an eye on this spring. He is very good now, but I can’t figure just what his ceiling would be. MLB Pipeline said of Hjele:

Hjelle’s best pitch is his low-80s knuckle-curve, which has impressive depth. His fastball velocity has improved from the upper 80s as a high school senior to the low 90s at Kentucky, and he intrigued scouts by hitting 96 mph during fall practice heading into 2018. He has good feel for a changeup and throws all three of his pitches for strikes.

Upcoming Posts

Duane Underwood will be the subject of this week’s “Leveling Up” series and on Friday, the Position Breakdown List concludes for the winter with a look at relievers. Starting in February, I’ll begin to take a look at the big league club and some questions about the bullpen and the starting pitching heading into spring training, which is less than a month away.

Baseball Card of the Week