South Bend Cubs

Leveling Up Series – Jose Albertos Should Excel in 2018

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By Todd Johnson

When thinking about 2018 and what could happen in South Bend, I get pretty excited thinking about seeing Jose Albertos pitch. With most of the teams in the Midwest League connected to the MiLB .TV network, I will be able to see most of his starts as long as he is stationed in South Bend.

It is easy to put into words why I am so giddy. Last year, I was extremely excited to see Dylan Cease pitch for South Bend. But this year, I am even more excited to see Albertos. In watching Jose pitch for Eugene last year, it’s quite evident that he does not put forth much effort to throw between 91 and 96. He looks free and easy. His changeup is straight out filthy and is easily the best changeup in the Cubs’ system. His curveball is still a work in progress and will be the focal point of his development in 2018. If he can consistently get his curve over, he will be at Myrtle Beach very, very quickly as that would give him 3 plus pitches that he can command.

Basic Info
Age: 19
Ht: 6’1″
Wt: 185
Reynoso, Mexico

It’s no secret that I think Albertos is the Cubs’ top prospect. His current floor is extremely high and, at just 19-years-old, he is not even close to his ceiling as a top of the rotation starter. In 2017, between extended spring training, Mesa, and Eugene, Albertos threw 60+ innings. For the most part, he stayed healthy. There was one stretch where he did miss two starts after working on his curveball. He came back, he whipped out the changeup on a more regular basis, and just dominated the Northwest League in August (1.96 ERA in 5 starts).

Albertos averaged pretty close to a strikeout per inning in 2017. What was most impressive was that he got better as the year went on.

Heading into 2018
Albertos should have three goals for next season. First, stay healthy. In 2016, he only pitched four innings and, ideally, you would like him to have him right around 100 innings in 2018. That puts him on pace for 130 innings in 2019 and then he could arrive in Chicago the year after. He would only be 21/22 years old at that type of pace.

His second goal should be to work on his curveball. Last year, it could be a 55 footer, it could sail over the catcher’s head, or it could be your classic Uncle Charlie. The more he threw it, the better he got and that is likely what is going to happen in 2018.

The third goal that should take place next year would be for him to move the ball up and down in the zone. He’s able to work the ball in and out with ease. His fastball command is pretty good and he can move the ball in and out of the zone. Now it’s a matter of changing eye levels with command if he doesn’t add a fourth pitch like a four seamer.

South Bend fans should be extremely excited to see what he can do. He is much more polished than any of the pitchers that the Cubs have sent out to the mound at South Bend the last three years, including Dylan Cease. I just hope that when I go down to Peoria for the first weekend in May that he will still be with the team. I’m pretty sure he will. However, all bets are off after Memorial Day.

Out of all the Cub prospects, Albertos is the most likely to MLB.com’s Top 100 Prospect List this summer.

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Episode V of the MiLB Mailbag: Is South Bend’s Pitching Stacked for 2018?

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By Todd Johnson

This week’s mailbag has just one question and it’s a doozy.

Shawn Cline: Is South Bend going to be stacked at pitcher next year?

By the time the 2018 minor league season begins, I could answer this question four or five different ways. There are a myriad of combinations of pitchers who could start at South Bend in 2018. Just off the top of my head, I counted 13 possible arms who could take the bump every sixth day. Not all of the 13 are going to start the year at South Bend. Some could find their way to Myrtle Beach to begin 2018.

So, Shawn, the simple answer to your question is yes.

The complicated answer would be that I have no idea which six will make the opening day roster.

The Cubs have targeted pitching in the last two drafts and the last two international free-agent signing periods, especially in the Mexican market. The dividends of those investments will begin to come to fruition at South Bend. In 2017, Duncan Robinson and Michael Rucker were the first wave of arms to breakout and both will be at AA Tennessee next year along with 2016 third round pick Thomas Hatch.

As for South Bend, here are 13 pitchers who could wind up in the rotation.
Alex Lange, Jose Albertos, Javier Assad, Jesus Camargo, Brendon Little, Cory Abbott, Erich Uelmen, Bailey Clark, Rollie Lacy, Keegan Thompson, Enrique de los Rios, Matt Swarmer, and Carson Sands.

The starting rotation for South Bend will be determined in spring training. Some of the arms could skip South Bend and wind up in Myrtle Beach to begin the year. Alex Lange and Jesus Camargo would be the two most likely selections based on their age and experience.

While having Albertos skip South Bend would be interesting, he is going to be just 19 years old next year and there’s no rush to move him up the system.  He needs to refine his curve and basically get his work in. He needs to throw close to 100 innings after missing most of 2016. Whether he does that at South Bend or Myrtle Beach, I don’t care. But either way, it will be riveting.

The same is true for Javier Assad, who could be one arm at South Bend to really break out. I really like Assad a lot. Out of all the pitchers I watched at Eugene last summer, he improved the most in his arsenal and command. Now 20, he struck out 72 in 66 IP. He has a nice live mid 90s fastball and a good curve. If he commands his fastball down in the zone, he misses a lot of bats. He struck out 9 batters three times in short season ball where pitch limits are just 70-75 pitches. That is extremely impressive.

Top 2017 draft pick Brendon Little should be in South Bend most of the year as he works on his command and control.

While Albertos, Assad, and Camargo pitched well in full extended starts last year at Eugene, the one player who I am going to be fascinated with this year is the Cubs 2017 second round pick Cory Abbott. I was impressed with him last year as it pertained to his physical presence on the mound along with his actual talent and demeanor. He made five starts for Eugene, never throwing more than 3 innings and he exceeded 50 pitches only once.

While Little and Alex Lange got all the headlines from the draft, Abbott is an under the radar type who grew by leaps and bounds the last two years thanks in part to an uptick in his velocity and a slider that he modeled after Noah Syndergaard, his idol.

Fangraphs said the following about Abbott’s potential just last week:

Abbott has terrific glove-side control of his average slider and fastball, and can loop a 12-6 curveball into the zone for strikes. He’s not a great athlete but repeats his delivery well and could have plus command and control at peak. If he does — and he could move quickly — he’ll be a No. 4/5 starter.

Another possible breakout pitcher who did not get much time in Eugene in 2017 is Erich Uelmen. Uelmen was the Cubs fourth round pick out of Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. After his selection, he got in 17.2 innings of work with a 2.04 ERA and 23 Ks. He was just used in relief. Next year, his role could change.

Fangraphs’ Eric Longenhagen also liked him. Longenhagen said:

The club’s 2017 fourth-rounder out of Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo, Uelmen’s college stats are remarkable. He allowed just three home runs in 212 career innings at Cal Poly and struck out a batter per inning as a junior there, just as he did the prior summer on Cape Cod. He was up to 95 on the Cape but pitched more in the low 90s as a junior. His delivery is odd but effective. Uelmen is basically a side-armer, but has a shorter, quicker arm stroke than most of his low-slotted peers. It creates deception/extension which, along with his fastball’s significant arm-side movement, makes the fastball effective despite middling velocity. He also has an average slider, which he locates consistently to his glove side, and feel for creating movement on his changeup but not for locating it. There’s a chance Uelmen ends up with a starter’s repertoire and command. Ultimately, the very thing that has many skeptical about his chances of remaining a starter — his delivery — is precisely (because of its deception) what might allow him to be one.

Keegan Thompson out of Auburn is a third pitcher who I think will do extremely well at South Bend. He missed all of 2016 after undergoing Tommy John surgery and came back last year and was the Cubs third round pick. He pitched well in his debut in Eugene (mostly in relief) and he should come back stronger from the surgery than he did in 2017.

One of my own personal favorites from this list is Bailey Clark. Drafted out of Duke in 2016, Clark debuted that summer for Eugene but returned to school to finish his degree that fall. Due to finishing his degree and some nagging injuries and an inability to weight train, Clark came to camp late in the the spring. He pitched well in Eugene, especially in August where he had a 1.69 ERA in 3 starts. This offseason, Clark is injury free, improving his strength and his velocity should be back in the mid 90s when spring training rolls around. As a result, he could be either at South Bend or Myrtle Beach, depending on his camp.

So, here are my six to start the year for South Bend: Albertos, Assad, Little, Abbott, Thompson, and Clark or Uelmen. It’s still extremely hard to call this some 3 1/2 months away. However, I think Lange will go up and start at Myrtle Beach and Camargo and his plus changeup will be there, too.

I didn’t even get to the relievers in this post but here are three names to watch for out of the pen:  Ricky Tyler Thomas, Jake Steffens, and Ben Hecht.

I am pretty geeked to see all of these guys throw next year. It should be very interesting to see who goes to what affiliate to begin the year and what their roles will be.

Next week’s mailbag will be just one question again. I will be comparing and contrasting the system now to 2011, just before Theo took over. That has brought back some ghosts.

Leveling Up – Wladimir Galindo Is on Track to Get Back for 2018

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By Todd Johnson

There have been many times over the past two summers where I have referred to Wladimir Galindo as “my guy.” I still feel that way despite his inability to stay healthy. What Galindo has is a large frame and the potential for power similar to previous prospects like Eloy Jimenez and Ian Happ. It’s a pretty fancy comparison, and I don’t really think it’s hyperbole to put him in with those two names. The only issue is whether he can stay healthy enough to fulfill that potential.

Basic Info
Age: 21
Signed in 2013 – International Free Agent from Venezuela
Bats/Throws: R/R
Ht: 6′ 3″ Wt: 210

2017 Season
After staying healthy for most of 2016 at Eugene, I was really excited to see what Galindo could do in his first year in full season baseball at South Bend. I liked the fact that when he sees the ball, he hits the ball. In just 44 games, he hit .290 with four home runs and 19 RBIs at 20 years of age. There is a natural inclination for him to go up to the plate swinging. Although, in 2017. his K percentage shrunk to an all time low of 20.9%. Considering his injury history, you should not find this approach surprising.

Despite being signed in 2013, he only has 787 at bats for his total career. There’s not very many. In addition, he has not seen that many pitches in his four years of playing baseball in Venezuela, Mesa, Eugene, and South Bend. He has seen just a total of 2106 pitches as a professional. For your average player, that is not very many. Most full season minor leaguers will see between 1600 to 1800 pitches in just one season (120-140 games).

In his brief stint at South Bend, Galindo came across as an experienced hitter despite his lack of game experience. One thing that impressed me was how often and how easily he went to right field. at South Bend. 36.9% of batted ball by Galindo wound up in the opposite field. That is an extremely high rate that reminds me of another Cub who loved to go oppo in his prime in the 1990s.

Fangraphs said this last week,

Reports concerning Galindo’s approach indicate that his bat-to-ball profile is still pretty volatile despite the slight reduction in K% (over just a 44-game sample, mind you). Still, it’s an improvement when compared to Galindo’s previous two seasons. He’s a potential everyday player if he can stay at third and get to most of his power.

What needs to happen in 2018.
Wladimir has been posting updates on Twitter (@galindowladi38) about his rehab since his surgery to repair his broken leg in June. In early November, he began hitting off the tee and I think he’s going to be primed and ready to go when 2018 begins.

A few of you have asked me if I think he will start at South Bend or at Myrtle Beach in 2018. To be honest, he’s hit at every level and, despite a lack of plate appearances and pitches seen at each level, he has done extremely well. If he begins 2018 in the Carolina League, I expect him to do well. For him, it’s not gonna be that big of a jump.

What I would like to see most from him next year is to stay healthy. I’d like to see him get in 120 games at the plate. He could get 400 at-bats and see 1600 to 1700 pitches while hitting 15 to 20 home runs and driving in 70 to 80 runs. He could get in 80 games at third base and 20 at first while being the DH every once in awhile to rest his leg.

But the overriding goal is to stay healthy to do all of these things. I firmly believe that if he stays healthy, he could easily be the top power hitter in the Cubs’ system without much effort.

Cubs Central MiLB Mailbag – Episode IV: What Will Galindo and de la Cruz Be Like in 2018?

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By Todd Johnson

This series is beginning to stretch out longer than I thought it would. Originally, the plan was to do one mailbag, maybe two this offseason. Yet, this is the fourth and I have enough questions for two more after this. Considering there’s no rush to get to spring training, if you’d like to send me a question, go ahead and tweet at me (@CubsCentral08) or you can send me an email to CubsCentral 2016@gmail.com.

Eldrad
Does Wladimir Galindo start 2018 in South Bend?
I sure hope not. On Wednesday, Galindo gets centerstage in the “Leveling Up” series. In that piece, I am going to talk about how despite his injuries, he keeps moving up a level every year. A lot of that attributes to his natural power stroke. But the strange thing for me is that he gets better every year. Last year he hit .290 in just 44 games and had 36.9% of batted balls go to right field – that’s very Sammy-esque. As a result, I feel pretty confident in saying that he’s going to begin 2018 in Myrtle Beach.  

Coming off a broken leg cannot be easy, but Galindo is already soft hitting off a tee and looks to be on track to be ready. 

Should the Cubs promote Buddy Bailey to bench coach in the next couple of years?

While Buddy does have a wealth of experience and a great mind, it’s obvious that he is best suited to teaching prospects. He has done a much better job of getting AA prospects ready to play for AA while he has been in Class A Myrtle Beach the past two seasons. I am excited to see how his work this year with Eddy Martinez, Jesse Hodges, Zack Short, and Tyler Alamo pays off next year in Tennessee. Even though he won’t be there, you can see his fingerprints all over David Bote and Charcer Burks from this past year. I think Buddy is right where he needs to be to help the Cubs organization the most.

Shawn Cline
Is De La Cruz’s future/projection as a starter or a closer?
This is a great question, Shawn. I have been thinking about this a lot over the past two summers. In that timeframe, Oscar has only pitched 95 innings. He’s look good in doing so, but if he’s going to need a lot of work to be a MLB starter. Consider this – the highest amount of innings he’s pitched in one season is 73. That’s not very many. Ideally, when starters get to the MLB level, they should have pitched between 130-140 innings the previous year at AA/AAA. With Oscar, I am really struggling to keep him a starter if beyond this year if he cannot stay healthy because of his lack of innings.

If you watch Oscar throw, it doesn’t look like there’s any kind of over-exertion. He comes across as throwing free and easy in the low to mid 90s. It doesn’t look like he puts much effort into throwing a curve or change. It is easy to see why so many people are so high on him. But if you can’t stay healthy, you can’t stay healthy.

The best thing about Oscar is that he still 23. The Cubs still have about three more years to work with him if they envision him as a starter. I would wager that he gets a crack at starting again this year and next.

As for his assignment in 2018, I don’t know if that’s going to be at Myrtle Beach or Tennessee. I’d like to think it would be Tennessee, but I think how he looks in spring training will determine everything.

Next Week’s mailbag will be devoted to just one question – How does the system now compare to when Theo took over in 2011?

Leveling Up – Kevonte Mitchell Is Coming Right Along

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By Todd Johnson

2017 was a mixed bag for Kevonte Mitchell. He had moments when he looked like a monster at the plate and times when he did not. And if I had to come up with one phrase to describe his season, it would be “confidence building.” For the season, he hit 11 home runs and drove in 59 in 115 games. However, what I was most impressed with was not the work he did on the field, but his work ethic off the field.

Many times writers forget that the minor leagues is about development. It’s often about taking a hitter with raw skills and athletic tools and polishing them up. When I watch all the work Kevonte Mitchell puts in to get ready for a game, I come away extremely impressed at the effort he puts into everything. As a result, 2017 saw improvement in his approach at the plate and his performance on the field. He still has some work to do, but when he goes up a level in 2018, he could really break out as a hitter in Myrtle Beach.

Basic Info
6’5”, 235 lbs.
Bats – Right
Throws – Right
2014 13th round pick
Just turned 22-years-old

For Mitchell, 2017 was a series of adjustments. His monthly splits were very inconsistent but there were glimpses that he is starting to put things together. July saw him hit .295 with two home runs and 16 RBIs. April wasn’t bad either with three dingers and 11 driven in. But August and May were not good at all (.229 and .193 respectively).

When I watch Kevonte, anything can happen. It could be a 500 foot home run, a mile high pop up, a screamer, a weak grounder to first, or a strikeout. But I also see his ability to track the ball better over the course of the season. He is able to identify a curveball and lay off one out of the zone now, but he also struggles with that same pitch and putting it in play if it is in the zone. If he can make that small adjustment in 2018, everything for him is going to change.

One stat that impressed me most about 2017 was the percentage of balls he hit to right field increased to over 30%. Rather than trying to pull everything, as he he has done in the past, he is taking what he is given. In addition, that type of approach fits well with his batting practice approach and routines to drive the ball up the middle.

What needs to happen in 2018?

Playing full season ball in Carolina is a lot different than the Great Lakes region. It’s a lot more humid and it’s a lot warmer at the beginning of the year. For Kevonte, he is going to be playing half his games in a stadium that is known for the wind coming in off the ocean. However, some Cubs’ hitters have been able to hit well at Myrtle Beach. They don’t put up ridiculous power numbers, but they have been able to put up 15 to 20 home runs.

And for Mitchell, I think that is a good range for us to expect in 2018. For me, what I am going to be looking for is for him to put up consistent averages at the plate. I do not expect him to break out and hit .300 for the season. Instead, if he has a good year, he should have consistent splits between .265 to .280. If he can hit 20 home runs, that would be an outstanding season.

It seems as though Kevonte has been around for quite a while. However, he still is only 22 years old. And he’ll be 22 most of 2018 until late August. He’s still very young, developmentally speaking. Before last year, he had not seen 1500 pitches total in his career. He saw 1700+ pitches in 2017.  So, in one season, his eyes saw more pitches than he had seen in his previous three combined.

This will be his fifth season as a Cub and I think the fact that he can see somewhere close to 1800 pitches in 2018 is only going to benefit his long range development. He should be one of the most exciting bats to watch all season.

If all goes well in 2018, the Cubs might take an extended look at him in the Arizona Fall League as he will be eligible for the Rule 5 Draft next December.

The Mailbag – Episode III: Chesny Young, Carson Sands, and the Rise of Jhon Romero

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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.

Shawn Cline
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.

Eldrad
Jhon Romero’s WHIP and K% have improved at every level.  What’s his ceiling?  How far does he advance in 2018?

Card made from a photo by John Conover

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. 

Cory Alan
What will happen with Carson Sands?

If I knew the answer to this question, I am pretty sure I’d be working somewhere for major league team.

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 2016@gmail.com.

 

Leveling Up: DJ Wilson Could Make a Big Jump in 2018

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By Todd Johnson

It is always hard to do the first post in the series. However, Cubs outfielder DJ Wilson makes things a little easier. The young, toolsy outfielder should be headed up a level to high class A Myrtle Beach for 2018. Now at 21 years old, he will begin his fourth professional season as a Cub prospect. I expect to see him make a jump in his development next year.

Basic info

Bats/Throws: L/L Ht: 5′ 8″ Wt: 177

Draft: Round 4 (2015, CHC)

Canton South, Canton, OH

Originally Committed to Vanderbilt

Here is what MLB.com said of Wilson’s talents

While Wilson will need time to develop at the plate, he could become a .275 hitter with 15 homers and 30 steals on an annual basis. He has a compact left-handed swing and generates sneaky power with his ability to backspin the ball from center to right field. He makes a lot of hard contact but is still in the process of solving left-handed pitching.

2017

After struggling with injuries the first half of the year, Wilson came into his own in the second half when he was named the Cubs’ July player of the month. For the month, he hit .284 with 7 HRs and 21 RBI. On the surface, his season stats are not that impressive. For April, he hit .159. He was doing better in May hitting .263 when he went on the DL after 16 games. After returning in the second half, he hit .245 with a .333 on base percentage with six home runs.

The key to understanding why Wilson should break out in 2018 is to have seen him in person. One of the things that I like to watch for in a player is their ability to track the ball into the catcher’s mitt. On the surface, that may not seem like a big deal, but that tells me how well he is seeing the ball. It also details the batter’s knowledge of the strike zone. 

For Wilson, he did both very well every time I saw him in 2017. Sometimes, he hits the ball right at someone. At other times, he got on top of or underneath the ball. If he can consistently square up the ball, his career path will be taking off. In 2017, he did not use the whole diamond efficiently as he pulled 47% of batted balls. When he made contact, he tended to get the ball up in the air hitting 46.7% fly balls to 37.4% ground balls to 15% line drives. Those stats need to even out more in 2018.

While he did have a big leg kick early in the year, he toned that down as the season went on. All signs are pointing in the right direction for him to turn it up a level.

Leveling Up for 2018

I would like to see more than just glimpses of his ability to hit. I know he can play defense and he has the potential for power, but he has yet to hit for average at any point in his career. A consistent monthly split between .260 to .280 with 2-3 HRs would be great. It is strange it could happen in what is notoriously a pitcher’s league. What I have seen is a player who is maturing physically and mentally. Next year, that maturity should lead to a breakthrough year. If he can stay healthy, it could be a great season.

He should have at least 15 home runs next year with most of them likely to occur on the road. It’ll be interesting to see where manager Buddy Bailey puts him in the lineup. He hit all over the place in 2017, but he fits best down in the six or seven spot considering some of the thumpers that will be in front of him.

At 21 years of age, Wilson now has a two-to-three year window in which to begin to fulfill his potential. 2018 is year one in that time frame.