The Weekly: Eugene Wins, Cubs’ MiLB Players of the Year, and Nothing on Tennessee

By Todd Johnson

Reliving Eugene’s Improbable Championship
I am still finding it hard to believe that Eugene won the Northwest League title. I know they did it because I watched them do it. This was a team that had to overcome the roughest of starts to a season I’ve seen in a while. The first three weeks of the season were not good. They were last in the league in hitting. However, they improved greatly in July. This year‘s draft class and two non-drafted free agents solidified the defense in the infield and behind the plate and lengthened the lineup. They also added some depth to the starting pitching from the draft and later the Emeralds got some relief help from Mesa. I will have more on the Ems remarkable season in a couple of weeks when I do the affiliate reviews of the 2018 season. 

This year’s “Cubs Central’s Player of the Year” awards are pretty straightforward.  

Infielder Jared Young won his award for “Hitter of the Year” through a combination of an excellent approach and his bat to ball skills. He did so at South Bend where he dominated with a wRC+ of 150 and again at Myrtle Beach where he secured himself a spot on Tennessee’s roster for next year. For the season he hit .300 with 16 home runs, 76 RBI.

While “Pitcher of the Year” Cory Abbott can get his fastball up into the mid 90s on occasion, he has an excellent slider and he misses a lot of bats. I think what gets under sold on him is his makeup. He is fierce on the mound and he might be the most competitive arm in the system. He had a 2.50 ERA with 131 strikeouts in 115 innings as well only walking 39 on the season between South Bend and Myrtle Beach. He should begin 2019 at Tennessee at the age of 23.

By the beginning of next summer, “Reliever of the Year” Dakota Mekkes should be pitching out of the bullpen in Chicago 3 days a week. The 6‘7“ deceptive right-hander began the year just dominating AA with a 0.81 ERA in 22.1 innings. When he began June at AAA Iowa, he had some adjusting to do, but he started to figure things out in short order. Between the two affiliates, he had a 1.17 ERA and 71 Ks in 53.2 innings. His walk rate improved from 5.24/9 in Tennessee to 4.60/9 in Iowa which is probably the only thing holding him back from getting the September call up. 

Other Post Season Awards
Only 2 Cubs prospects made Baseball America’s post-season all-star teams by levels (not leagues). In the Dominican, Pitcher Luis Rodriguez made it with a 0.73 ERA and South Bend closer Brian Glowicki made it at low A. Congrats!

Crickets from Tennessee
No news is coming out of Tennessee about the Cubs and the Smokies extending their professional development contract beyond this season. It’s starting to get late in terms of announcing a deal. Hopefully one will come this week.

Darvish
Yu Darvish had a procedure called a debridement done in Texas this week. It basically cleaned up his elbow without doing Tommy John Surgery. As a result, Darvish could return in 2019 at the beginning of the season.

This Week on Cubs Central
Starting tomorrow, the off season posts begin with the “Breakouts of the Second Half” series. There will be three articles this week on some guys who stepped up their game in the second half of the minor league season. Hitters kick it off on Monday, followed by starting pitchers and relievers later in the week.

Also, the baseball cards just keep coming this month. I will have more this week of Eugene players from the NWL championship. Here is this month’s album of cards. For the year, since spring training, there are over 800 cards made this year…my most ever! I need to get out some more.

Card of the Week

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The Weekly: Eugene Wins, a Fangraphs List, PDCs, and AFL Roster Set

By Todd Johnson

I swore I was going to slow down once school started, but that’s not been the case. Because of the playoffs the past two weeks, I feel like I have been as busy as ever covering Cubs 1 in Mesa and now Eugene. Eugene starts the Northwest League Championship Series tonight against Spokane, a Rangers affiliate. Even though all five games will take place in Eugene, Spokane will be the home team tonight and tomorrow due to a scheduling conflict in Spokane. It is a best-of-five series and the third year in a row the Ems have punched a ticket there. I will have a preview of the series later this afternoon.

Fangraphs Top 10 List
Most major publications and websites start rolling out their top prospects for the coming year in November. But not Fangraphs. This week, in a major surprise, Fangraphs  released their top 10 Cubs prospects. The list itself had a few interesting wrinkles. It had Miguel Amaya at #1 followed by Adbert Alzolay. Putting Justin Steele at #3 was a head turner as was Brendon Little at #6, ahead of Alex Lange, Erich Uelmen, and Duane Underwood. Nico Hoerner came in at #4 and Brailyn Marquez was right behind him at 5. Aramis Ademan, the former #1 SS, rounded out the top 10.

In their “just missed” category, Fangraphs went with Erling Moreno, Keegan Thompson, and Cole Roederer, whom I have not seen play. The omission of Zack Short is a bit of a head scratcher along with Jared Young, Trevor Clifton, and Nelson Velazquez. It’s a pretty fine line between Cubs prospects at #6 through #36 (if Fangraphs went that high). As soon as the MiLB playoffs are over, my new Top 21 will be released.

Tennessee PDC
I am a little surprised that the Smokies and the Cubs have not been re-upped for four more years. Their Professional Development Contract (PDC) expired at the end of the 2018 season. Hopefully, the two sides are just ironing out a few details. All the other Cub affiliates are signed through 2020 except Eugene, whose PDC runs out in 2022. The pickings are slim if the Cubs need to go elsewhere. The Eastern League is all affiliated while the Southern League has just Chattanooga and Pensacola left. In the Texas League, San Antonio and Midland are the only unaffiliated teams for 2019.

AFL Pitching Spots
Now that the minor league season regular season is officially over., the Cubs announced the rest of their Arizona Fall League roster this week.

I am not surprised by any of these. It looks like Steele might be the taxi squad guy who only plays twice a week. Those Cubs join P.J. Higgins, Nico Hoerner, Trent Giambrone, and DJ Wilson. Play begins October 9 and lasts for six weeks.

Coming Up Next Week
Lots of exciting posts are ready, they just keep getting pushed back by the playoffs. A new Top 21 list is ready. Then later, I will have the breakout players of the second half. These include a post on hitters, another on starting pitchers, and a third on relievers. This might be a ways away, but I also have a couple of posts on players making comebacks in 2019 – one is on injured guys and the other is about players who had down years in 2018.

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Under Reported Stories of 2018 Get Some Light

By Todd Johnson

Every year I try to cover the Cubs’ system as best I can. Now with over 300 prospects, it can seem a bit daunting at times to know everything about everyone. It’s pretty much impossible. There are stories that everyone tells and there are other stories that slip through the cracks. Here are a few things I noticed this year but did not devote a full length article to covering.

Duncan Robinson – The 2016 draft pick just flew through the system in two years. Robinson made it all the way to AAA Iowa in part to his excellent command and plus curve. Add in the fact that he’s injury free and a work horse, and there might be something there. I’m excited to see him in spring training as I’m sure he’s going to get a start with the big league club in Mesa.

I know I talked about Michael Rucker this year. They were times where he was utterly brilliant, and then there were times where he was not. Still, he’s very close to making it to Chicago. I called him a guy who could be a guy at one point. He could break in pitching out of the bullpen and then, when given an opportunity, he might be able to start. His stuff plays up pretty good out of the pen. He can throw 96/97 and keep it in the zone which is what Theo likes.

Hitting Collapse – It was pretty clear-cut that from Iowa all the way down to Eugene, Cub prospects did not hit well this year across the board. There might be two or three guys per affiliate each month who could hit between .280 and .300. And some affiliates might have one guy go over .300 in a month. In two straight drafts, the Cubs took 75% pitchers to 25% position players. They are paying the price for that now.

The 2016 and 2017 International Free Agent Classes – The Cubs may have struck it rich in the 2015 international free agent class, but there are some guys that they signed in bulk in 2016 and 2017 who are a little bit surprising. Some of them made it all the way up to South Bend this year like Maikel Aguiar. Most of them are in Mesa and the Dominican where the Cubs had two pretty good teams in DSL 1 and Cubs 1.

The Implosion of Tennessee’s Bullpen – When the Tennessee Smokies lost their three best relievers in the span of about two weeks, it looked like Jake Stinnett was reborn as a closer at the beginning of July. By the middle of the month, things fell apart in the thick of a pennant race. Jordan Minch somewhat recovered in August. He did not allow run the entire month. For the most part, the pen was not good across the board.

Last in Hitting – While Eugene had some individual highlights, as a hitting unit, they were last in the Northwest League. Those first four weeks of 18 to 19-year-old kids in the lineup every day was no match for players with college and junior college experience. It wasn’t until the college draft picks arrived that the Emeralds finally began to get some things going offensively.

Trent Giambrone – I talked about him from time to time, but I don’t really know if I gave him his just due as he is really putting things together at AA. I’m excited to see how he will do next year in AAA with his mixture of power and his newfound walk ability.

Ian Rice – His power and run driven in totals were not impressive this year. However, his ability to hit, take a walk, and catch most every night for the Smokies was quite evident. If the Cubs do not protect him in the Rule 5 draft, you can consider him gone. Someone is going to snap that bat up.

There’s always going to be a player I could’ve written more about or a trend in the system I could’ve identified. Still, I’m excited to see what happens this off-season with the Arizona Fall League, some prospect lists, the rule five draft, and things I can learn at the convention. I am excited to see what stories get the attention.

Prospect Update: Matt Swarmer Finishing 2018 Strong

By Todd Johnson

Three months doesn’t seem that long of a time. But in a minor-league baseball player’s career, that’s half a season. That’s a lot games to play, and for Matt Swarmer, 2018 has been an eye-opening experience. He arrived at AA in late May after a dominating two months at Myrtle Beach. And as reported earlier, Swarmer added some weight last winter and that strength ticked his fastball up to 94 miles an hour. With his improved heater, a tightened up curve, an already plus changeup, and his funky delivery, Swarmer’s been the biggest surprise this spring and summer.

However, when he arrived in AA Tennessee Tennessee, his outstanding 2018 season needed some adaptations. AA is such a huge step in development for a minor league player. It’s a big leap in talent, and for Matt Swarmer, he needed to make some adjustments and quick.

His first month was not even close to the success story of the spring. In his four AA starts, he had a 5.63 ERA and his secondary stats were ironically were mostly similar to his first two months. He struck out 16 in 16 innings and walked only four. But the innings per appearance average of four was a bit disconcerting along with a WHIP of 1.50.

Swarmer’s 2018 season got back on track in July. Swarmer began to locate and keep hitters off balance again. In his second month at Tennessee, Swarmer put up an ERA of 3.16 with 25 strikeouts in 25.2 innings over 5 starts. . It was an impressive turnaround from June and made many begin to take notice that Swarmer could just be for real. It was not all smoke and mirrors.

In August, he continued what he started in July. In fact, he’s been even better. He is currently at five starts and is averaging about six innings per appearance this month with a 2.73 ERA and 30 Ks in 29.2 IP. He will likely have one more start before the season ends Monday. For the year, he is neck and neck with Myrtle Beach’s Cory Abbott for the minor-league pitcher of the year. It’s coming down to the final start.

The most impressive thing for me about Swarmer is the number of guys that he has made miss versus walked. In 122.2 innings, between Myrtle Beach and Tennessee, Swarmer has struck out 130 batters and only walked 20. That’s basically just over a 6 to 1 ratio; that is just astounding.

Considering his advanced development this year at such a quick pace, sometimes I wonder if he could be a candidate (as a reliever) to go to the Arizona Fall League. Then again, he’s thrown a career high number of innings and will wind up with almost 130. I wonder how his stuff reacts coming out of the pen. However, based on what he’s been able to do at AA, a relief role might not be in his future.

Come 2019, it should be fun to see how he shows up next spring and if he’s continues to add weight and clicks to his fastball, or if he stays the same size and maintains his current flexibility and pitches. He is one of the great stories of the year.

News, News, News: Cubs Acquire Murphy and Other Tidbits

By Todd Johnson

It’s been a busy day. Once school starts, it is very hard for me to be tapped into what’s going on in baseball during the day. However, all throughout this afternoon, Several bits of information kept coming down about a trade, an injury, and a promotion.

I had to take my wife to a couple of doctor appointments after school. As a result, I have not made it home yet.

Here is the latest on what is happening…

The Cubs acquired second baseman Daniel Murphy from the Washington Nationals in exchange for infielder Andruw Monasterio. Murphy gives the Cubs a left-handed bat that will make them extremely tough against right-handed pitchers down the stretch. Murphy is not in action tonight but will be ready to go for Wednesday’s game in Detroit.

I like the deal and it gives the Cubs a little more oomph, most likely at the top of the order and he could be a table setter for Anthony Rizzo.

 

As for Monasterio, He will just switch teams in the Carolina League and now play for Potomac. He just turned 21 in a league where the average player is 23 or 24 years old. His bat is still developing and he can be streaky at times.

The Cubs also announced that Yu Darvish is most likely out for the season. He has been diagnosed with two things regarding his elbow and triceps. Neither of which will require surgery, but rather rest. I doubt he can make it back in time for the playoffs at all.

Maybe the best thing for him to do is to miss the rest of the year, get his head straight, and come back healthy and re-charged for next year.

My favorite news of the day came from Justin Steele who announced that he had been promoted to AA Tennessee one year after undergoing Tommy John surgery. It has been an impressive year as he was pitching in games 10 months after surgery.

He’s appeared in nine games so far and has thrown 38.2 innings with a 1.98 ERA and 46 Ks. I expect him to keep going when the season ends as he should be assigned to the Arizona Fall League to get six more weeks of action in. More than likely, he will begin 2019 at AA Tennessee.

The Weekly: Cory Abbott Is On Fire, Playoff Hunts, and Some Guys Who Could Be Guys


By Todd Johnson

Playoff Hunt
It is not looking good for the four major affiliates. Iowa has been eliminated while Myrtle Beach is almost kaput at well. Tennessee and South Bend are technically still in the hunt, but they both have 6+ games to make up. There is much hope in Eugene. Despite a slightly sub-500 record at 11-12 in the second half, the Ems are tied with Salem-Keizer but own the tie-breaker for a post-season appearance (it would be their third straight). Cubs 1 in Mesa was a first half champ and has the best overall record in the league at 32-16. For Cubs 2, they have just a week left to make up three games against the hottest team in the league, the White Sox.

Cory Abbott’s Surging…
On Friday, I wrote for BP Wrigleyville about who could the pitcher of the year in the Cubs’ system. When I wrote the article earlier in the week, it looked like there could be four names in the running. In the course of the week, one pitcher looks like he is beginning to separate himself from the pack a bit. Cory Abbott from Myrtle Beach threw six scoreless innings with 9 Ks on Friday night. The 22-year-old right-hander has been improving month-by-month since he was promoted to Myrtle Beach. After a rough June with a 4.74 ERA, Abbott responded with a much better July at 2.91. Now, in August, he’s made just three starts with possible 2-3 more starts left. He has 1.06 ERA in his three August starts with a 0.82 WHIP. For the year, Abbot has 105 innings completed with a 2.74 ERA, a 3.00 FIP, and 120 Ks to only 33 walks. That’s an impressive first full year as a pro.

Guys Who Could Guys in the Next Year…
I have been thinking a lot about several of the prospects at Tennessee lately. In the next year, a few them could help out the big league club if necessary. AA success is a pretty good barometer of AAA success and advancement to the MLB level. In fact, many of the current MLB Cubs had dominant seasons at AA and spent little time at AAA Iowa. There are exceptions like Albert Almora and Javy Baez, but the rest of the position player corps were in and out of Iowa in a hurry.

This year, Zack Short and Michael Rucker are two flashing neon prospects who might be seen playing in the friendly confines very soon. I can see Zack plying his hitting skills next summer. His ability to hit for power, get on base at a high clip, and play good defense endears him to many in the Cubs’ system.

The great thing about Michael Rucker is that he has had success as a reliever and a starter. His stuff ticks up a bit out of the bullpen to 95/96. Rucker’s greatest asset, though, is that he is a strike throwing machine at almost 70%.

In addition, I am looking forward to seeing which players on the Smokies’ roster get a call to participate in the Arizona Fall League. PJ Higgins is one player I have already mentioned, along with Zack Short and Trent Giambrone. Matt Swarmer might be worth getting more looks against the elite competition of the league. Swarmer has had a very good year at two levels and he could get a head start on 2019 with the Mesa Solar Sox.

A New Look
As you can see, Cubs Central has a little bit cleaner look as I went with a new theme. While it looks good on a computer, I think it looks even better on a phone. I hope you like it, too.

Coming Up
The kids showed up to school last week and instruction in Ancient Civilizations and US History began. As a result, I am beginning to slow down a little bit when it comes to writing. I do have two articles planned for the next week. I will hopefully be publishing profiles about Delvin Zinn from South Bend and Paul Richan from Eugene. They might be shorter than your average prospect profiles. We will see.

However, my production of baseball cards seems to be at peak levels. With close to 120 cards in August, the flow of cards will soon start to slow down as the season ends the 3rd of September.

Players of the Week

Card of the Week

The Weekly – Playoffs Loom Large and Some Interesting Trends

By Todd Johnson

Wow! Three weeks from tomorrow the minor-league baseball season ends. That’s a hard thing to fathom. I am not really sure I am ready for that. When it comes to teaching, I am not sure I am ready for that, either. This past week, I set up my classroom and come Wednesday, I have the first of two institute days. The kids arrive for their first day on Friday the 17th. Then, the month begins to take off.

Then MiLB Playoffs will be kicking off soon. Tennessee is still holding on. Heading into today, the Smokies are 5.5 games back. South Bend is fading very fast. They are seven games back. South Bend is going to need an incredible run and some help to get over five teams. Eugene has an excellent shot of joining Mesa in the postseason. They are just two games behind Salem Kaiser. The Cubs 2 team in Mesa is very quietly moving up the ladder. They now stand 1 games behind first place. However, that division is so jumbled with five teams within 2 games of the lead. Mesa’s season ends a week early on the 27th. 

This past week, Baseball America released their rankings of the top farm systems in the minors. The Cubs came in at #28. Even though Miguel Amaya made two top 100 lists, the system itself still lacks elite talent. BA, however, did mention both Nico Hoerner and Brailyn Marquez as possible players who should be ones to watch next year.

Interesting Trends Happening

Even though there are three weeks still left in the season, Jared Young seems to have sewn up the Cubs’ Minor League Player of the Year Award. He won back-to-back monthly awards in June and July. Aside from hitting .306 with a .368 OBP for the year, Young hit his 15th HR on Friday while also crossing the 70 RBI plateau. Young has completely dominated two levels at South Bend and Myrtle Beach. The only player who is even in the same discussion for the award is Jason Vosler, who leads the Cubs’ system in both HRs and RBI with 18 and 73.

On Friday night, it was strange seeing Trevor Clifton throw a no-hitter for 5.2 IP. He gave up 2 consecutive hits before he was pulled. All the while, I kept thinking, “I only have one more baseball card to make of him and that is from his MLB debut.” Got a little misty thinking about his journey and how close he is to getting the call to Chicago.

Every summer down in the Dominican, one prospect usually garners a lot of inquiry about their stat line. Last year, that prospect was Fernando Kelli who stole 58 bases. This year, pitcher Luis Rodriguez is raising some eyebrows. For the season, he has a 0.70 ERA and 0.70 WHIP in 51.1 innings. He’s struck out 46 and walked only 6 all summer. Even more impressive, as a starter, he has a 0.24 ERA!!!! I was hoping the 18-year-old lefty gets a shot to come north to play in Mesa once his team is eliminated from the DSL playoffs.

Zack Short is killing it AA the past month. The 23-year-old shortstop is doing what he normally does – hitting dingers and taking walks. But this year, he’s had a couple streaks where he’s hit about .300 for long stretches at a time. He’s in one of those runs now (9 for his last 30). His K rate has fluctuated throughout the year. In May it was at 42% but is back down into the low 20s now to go along with his ungodly walk rate, which in August is in the upper 20 percents. He’s going to be in Iowa next year and with his power potential (he has 14 HRs so far in 2018), he could earn his way to Chicago very soon. Check out this cool piece about Short by the greatest self professed scout ever.

It sure seems like South Bend has been playing with 24 guys on the roster most of the year. In addition, for the past month, they have only had 2 catchers suiting up. Miguel Amaya gets the call behind the dish most days and Cam Belago, who is in his first year of receiving behind the plate, spells Miguel once or twice a week. Amaya, even though he’s just 19, has to be feeling the effects of catching 80% of the time. Hopefully, a third catcher will find their way to Indiana. They will need a new bullpen arm as Garrett Kelly is on his way to Myrtle Beach after last night’s game.

The Tennessee starting rotation has been other worldly later. Every night, it seems like the starter goes 6 innings with 1 run allowed and strikes out 5-8 hitters. Keegan Thompson, Matt Swarmer, Michael Rucker, and Duncan Robinson might be the most under-reported story of the past six weeks. If not for one horrible start at the end of July, Rucker would have been pitcher of the month. Thompson was right there with him while Robinson is in his second month with a sub-2.00 ERA. Their success on the mound at AA should make things quite difficult for the powers that be next year as AAA should be swimming in quality starters.

When it comes to the walking wounded, Bailey Clark is back on the bump. He made two one inning starts in Mesa this week. He is slowly building up his arm before he goes back to Myrtle Beach.

Getting Back to the Compass

One thing I really like to write in the second half of the year is a prospect profile. A lot has been happening in the system and I have gotten a few in, but not as many as I want. This week, however, profiles are filling the post docket and most of the them are about players in Eugene. In the past two weeks, I looked at Luke Reynolds and Grant Fennell. This week, Jake Slaughter gets profiled along with Andy Weber (hopefully) while Nelson Velazquez and Jose Albertos get updates.

Player of the Week

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