South Bend Cubs

Random Notes from Sunday’s Action – Clifton, Hoerner, and King Impress

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By Todd Johnson

Yesterday was an exciting day throughout the Cubs’ system – From the Cubs playing in San Diego all the way down to Arizona. I traveled from my home to Indiana to see South Bend play and to hang out with my friend Rikk and take some pictures. Here are some random thoughts about yesterday’s action across the system.

1. I haven’t done a lot of writing about the major league club this year, I am pretty excited about the record and standings at the All-Star break. While the Cubs are playing decent ball , Milwaukee was not as the Brewers went 2-8 over their last 10. As a result, the Cubs have a 2.5 game lead over the Brew Crew and the best record in the NL heading into the second half. If they get their starting pitching figured out, it could be a magical 10 weeks.

2. Trevor Clifton had his best start of his tenure at AAA Iowa yesterday. He only gave up two hits and walked to, but struck out six and did not allow her run in five innings. His ERA for the month is a clean 2.30. I’m excited to see him do well at this level so quickly! Should be interesting to see what happens in September if he continues this trajectory.

3. This year my wife and I broke down and bought a camera with part of our income tax refund. Yesterday, the camera made its maiden voyage to South Bend to break it in with baseball pictures. I still have a lot to learn about the settings, but I got some cool pictures of the young Cubs in action. Here is a link to the folder of all the decent pictures I took yesterday.

4. In the late morning, I had a great interview with South Bend reliever Garrett Kelly. When I get back home, I’m going to have to transcribe the interview because it was really good about how he went from being non-drafted to the Twins to Independent ball and then back to the minor leagues. That should be out Wednesday or Thursday. It might even be in two parts.

5. I tend to get a better feel for a pitcher when I see them in person. It’s hard to pick up on TV the depth that breaking pitches get and to get the full effect of how batters swing against said pitches. Yesterday, South Bend Cub pitcher Brendan King impressed me with his off speed arsenal. He was getting a lot of ugly swings as his pitches dive bombed out of the zone in the last 10 to 15 feet. Yes, he did give up a run, but those breaking pitches are very promising. I hope to interview him later this week and see what all he is throwing and how he is throwing them.

6. The main object of my attention yesterday was shortstop and first round pick Nico Hoerner. You have to be impressed by his play so far. On Sunday, he hit a home run to left center field as he went 2-for-4 on the day. In using the camera, I began to pick up or some little idiosyncrasies that showed up. One of them is, as he’s getting ready on defense for the pitch, he does this little hop to get himself ready. I also picked up that he does not use his lower half to its fullest effect yet as a hitter. That will come in due time. He is doing very well at South Bend and he should be there for this month.

I was in such a rush to get on the road to head to South Bend yesterday that I forget to post the players of the week in Sunday’s “The Weekly.” So, here they are in all of their glory.

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The Weekly – Nico at South Bend, Debuts and Promotions, and a Busy Week Ahead

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By Todd Johnson

Around the System
Tennessee and Mesa Cubs 1 continue to do well as both were in first place heading into last night’s games. South Bend is still looking to put together a streak or two as they are just three games out of first. If Myrtle Beach can get their bats going, the Pelicans now have enough pitching to get them back in the hunt for a playoff spot for the fourth consecutive year.

But the Big News…
It was all about Nico this week. The Cubs’ #1 draft pick was promoted to South Bend on Wednesday and made his debut on Thursday where he made this spectacular catch. Hoerner went 2-for-4 in his first game for South Bend. On night number two, he went 1-for-3 with a walk. Having watched him now for the better part of two weeks, his athleticism is the attribute that stands out. Yes, he can hit. Yes, he can field, throw, and run. But he is a far, far better athlete than we were initially lead to believe by the Cubs. When I first saw him at Eugene, I remarked about his size and musculature. In fact, with his size and skill sets, he could play almost anywhere you want him. The only question I have about Nico is this: How much power will he have?

With all that being said, don’t get in a rush to get him to Chicago as fast as possible. Yes, he’s advanced as a college hitter. Yes, he should do well at South Bend. Sure, he could end up in Myrtle Beach this August depending on playoff races. He will not be in the Arizona Fall League. He’s going to instructs in Mesa. The Cubs hitting instructors will tinker with his swing mechanics a bit to generate some more power.

Nico’s got a lot to learn, let him learn it first. He should be better next year because of how he goes through this year.

There were a lot of other promotions this week 
James Norwood made his Chicago Cubs debut. Will Remillard was promoted to AAA Iowa. PJ Higgins got a much deserved promotion to AA Tennessee. Rollie Lacy made his way from South Bend to Myrtle Beach and had an outstanding debut. And finally, Clayton Daniel and Derek Casey became the latest draft picks to debut at Eugene while Andy Weber played in his first game down in Mesa.

The promotion craze is definitely not over. Usually, there’s a lot of player movement in July. Come August, the promotions settle down as the affiliates will play out the last month of the season. There might be a few changes to get Tennessee some extra help if it continues its winning ways in search of a Southern League championship.

More International Free Agents
The Cubs also signed a couple more international free agents. Not much is known about them other than their agent position. The two signees are 19-year-old pitcher Gabriel Jaramillo and 18-year-old switch-hitting infielder Ronny Simon. That brings the Cubs’ total to seven this year.

Coming Up
It is going to be an exciting week. As you’re probably reading this, I am in my car on my way over to South Bend for a couple of days. On Wednesday, I’ll also be traveling to the Quad Cities to see South Bend play a couple more times. Then next Sunday, I’ll be in Geneva to see the Cubs play the Kane County Cougars. So it’s gonna be a lot of baseball and a lot of driving.

When I’m done, I hope to have some interviews to transcribe. There will definitely be a whole lot of photographs which will be in an album over on the Facebook page. And I might make some cards from said photographs. All in all, it’s going to be a busy week.

Card of the Week

Who Is the Affiliate to Watch in the Second Half?

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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.?

Iowa’s Case

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.

Eugene’s Case

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.

Tennessee’s Case

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.

 

Prospect Update: Brandon Hughes Is Beginning to Take Off

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By Todd Johnson

A 16th round pick in the 2016 MLB Draft, South Bend Cubs outfielder Brandon Hughes’ career resembles a roller coaster. The switch hitting outfielder is riding a high wave, right now. In June, the 22-year-old is hitting .364 with 2 HRs and 7 RBI in 15 games.

Last year at Eugene, Hughes got off to a torrid start to begin his pro career. That July, he hit .299 with 1 HR and 7 RBI. Then he began to cool off in August as only hit .199. His K rate was at 25% and he only walked 7% of the time. He pulled 43% of his batted balls and only 30% went the other way. Against lefties, he only had 27 ABs but hit .296 against them.

Still, I was pretty high on him at the end of the season. I liked his athleticism and thought that it would help propel him in his career. I really liked his hands through the zone and thought that eventually, he was too good of an athlete to fail.

Here is what I said in the Leveling Up Series About Hughes in March.

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?

To put it mildly, Hughes did not good off to a good start this year at South Bend.

I still believed though.

In April, he hit .222 and followed that up in May at .198. His K rates and walk rates were very similar to last year. But something was beginning to change. He was beginning to get more lift. In 2017, only 32% of his batted balls were fly balls. This year, it was up to 42.5% and he was able to go the other way as that rate increased to 35%.

But the biggest change was in his stance.

At the beginning of 2018, his hands were extended away from his body shoulder level (see picture below). In May, he pulled his hands in and lowered them to his chest. He seemed to be more upright and he opened up his stance to better see the pitcher and improve his timing.

The Results

In talking with South Bend Cubs broadcaster Brendan King, Brendan commented that Hughes works very hard at repeating that new swing and stance every pre-game. At some point, muscle memory begins to take over and that is what is happening. At 6’2” and 215 lbs., Hughes has good size and his athletic prowess is helping him repeat his performance.

I am looking forward to seeing how he will do the rest of the summer with his new stance now ingrained in his muscles. Right now, Hughes is all systems go and it looks like he’s taking off.

 

 

Prospect Profile: Christian Donahue Respecting 90 to the Max

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By Todd Johnson

Last year at this time, South Bend Cubs’ infielder Christian Donahue had just been suspended for the College World Series. Donahue had been an integral part of the team for three years playing a mixture of left field and second base. The University and head coach Pat Casey only stated the Donahue had violated team rules. No specific cause was listed for his suspension.

Donahue originally matriculated to Oregon State from his native Hawaii where he was a four your letter winner in baseball during high school. His father, Tim, actually played three years in the Indians minor-league system.

As a freshman in 2015, Donahue made 47 starts and appeared in 51 games hitting .287 with a 323 on base percentage. He spent most of his time playing at second base. It’s rare for a freshman to get that much experience at a D1 school, especially one as good as Oregon State.

In his sophomore season in 2016, he made his way to the outfield and hit .339 with a .393 on base percentage. Donahue was named a first team All Pac-12 honoree. He was a spark plug for the offense despite his 5’7″ and 165 pound frame. In 2017, Donahue earned all academic honors during his junior year but struggled on the field. His batting average sank 82 points to .257 but his on-base percentage was still decent at .339.

The timing of his suspension was quite hard as it coincided with the draft and was just before the College World Series. After the suspension, Donahue had a couple of choices. He still had one year of eligibility remaining. He could’ve bet on himself to go back to Oregon State or another school, or he could try to sign on with a major league club.

His first official action came for South Bend in April this year. It was not a good month for him. He only saw action in six games before minor injuries put him on the seven-day DL. However, he has been on a tear since he came off the DL in the middle of May.

Just last week he went 14 for 27 and earned Cubs Central’s Hitter of the Week. Heading into today’s game he’s hitting .467 for the month with an ungodly OPS of .867 and not a single homerun to his credit.

What I really like about Donahue, aside from his hitting, is he’s solidified the right side of an error-prone defense and how hard he plays. He is all action, all the time.

Whoever that guy was that played in April and hit only .118 does not resemble the Christian Donahue of May in any form or fashion. This guy plays hard. There is definite talent there and I like the fact that he is only hitting left-handed after being a switch hitter in college. The only other transition he seems to have made from college is he is playing just second base only.

In looking at a few of his peripheral stats, he has a K rate of just 17% but his walk rate is low at just 5%. I like that he doesn’t strike out a lot, but he doesn’t walk much either. He is killing right-handed pitching at a .356 clip. Against lefties, he’s doing fine there too with a .286 average.

I’m excited to see where this goes this summer.

If Donahue can maintain the enthusiasm with which he plays, good things could happen for him this summer. He is locked in at second base for the Cubs for a while. I’m excited to see how he he improves both as a defender and a hitter.

Cards of Donahue at South Bend made from pics by Rebecca Snyder

 

Prospect Profile: Erich Uelmen Is on the Rise with His Sinker

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By Todd Johnson

Pitching in the minors this spring has been stupendous at times. From AAA Iowa on down to class A South Bend. Depending on the day, you could see almost any pitcher throw a one or two-hitter with 8 to 10 Ks. You never know. However, stringing together a series of consistent starts has been hard to find. Last month, Matt Swarmer did it for Myrtle Beach. This month, that distinction falls to Erich Uelmen of South Bend.

When the Cubs announce their Pitcher of the Month for May next week, Uelmen should be at or near the top of the list for consideration  In fact, unless a miracle happens, Uelmen is going to be named to Cubs Central’s All-Star Team for May on Friday.

For the month, Uelmen made five starts going 25 innings. He struck out 25 while holding opponents to a .232 average and only walking six. In April, you would not have recognized Uelmen. His ERA of 9.75 was marked by a .320 batting average against and a WHIP of 1.92. In May, his WHIP was 1.12 and Uelmen has not allowed an earned run since May 11. That’s a pretty impressive stretch. Add in a 3-to-1 ground ball to flyout ratio and Uelmen begins to look very promising.

Basic Information
Third Round Pick 2017 Draft
Cal Poly San Luis Obispo
Age 22
6’3” 185 Pounds
Throws Right

After Uelmen was drafted and signed in 2017, he spent the rest of the summer at Eugene in short season ball. I only remember seeing him pitch a couple of times. I try not to put too much stock into a signed starter’s first go around. But Uelmen threw 17.2 total innings, all in relief, and gave up only 4 earned runs (2.04 ERA) while striking out an outstanding 23 batters.

Over the winter, MLB Pipeline ranked Uelmen at #17 on the Cubs’ Top 30 Prospect List. Here is what they thought of Uelmen.

Uelmen pounds the bottom of the strike zone with a heavy 90-94 mph sinker that has the Cubs wondering if he might be the second coming of Derek Lowe. They’re going to have him add a four-seamer he can elevate to change batters’ eye level. He can get some swings and misses with his average slider but he needs more work on his changeup.

Uelmen operates from a low three-quarters arm slot and has effort in his delivery, so some scouts project him as a reliever. Chicago will develop him as a starter, believing that his athleticism and strike-throwing ability can keep him in the rotation. He could succeed as at least a middle reliever with his sinker, giving him a nice fallback and one of the higher floors among its recent college pitching selections.

Pipeline’s Jim Callis and Jonathan Mayo make an excellent point that Uelmen needs to add a 4 seamer to offset his plus sinker.

What I have seen this month from Uelmen is that he is pitching off that sinker more and more. I am not a big radar gun guy. Yes, sometimes it is flashy to see a guy throw  95-97, but I like to watch the type of swings a pitcher gets. For Uelmen, he gets some of the ugliest swings off the sinker. Most hitters will flail over the top or make weak contact.

However, Uelmen still needs to work on his other pitches. He has a changeup and a slider to go along with his sinker. While Uelmen has put up an excellent month, it is just the beginning of his Cub career. He’s not going to be fast tracked to the majors anytime soon. But another month like May and you have to begin to wonder if he will see Myrtle Beach this year. It’s a possibility. After all, his FIP is 2.87 on the year. In the end, though, for Uelmen it has to be about developing that consistency from start to start and month to month. He’s had a nice three week run in May. He just needs to keep it going.

Promotion Commotion Is on the Horizon – Who’s Up First?

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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.