By Todd Johnson
2017 was a topsy-turvy year for some of the Cubs more established prospects. Injuries took their toll on some and several former top prospects struggled to produce consistently. 2018 could be a big year for a lot of these somewhat established players, many of them will be in the upper echelon of the system.
Part 1: The Walking Wounded
Corey Black recently started throwing on flat ground after missing all of 2017. He received high praise from farm director Jaron Madison at the Cubs Convention for his maturity and 4 pitch arsenal. Black said on Twitter that he feels more comfortable heading into this year than he has in recent memory. It should be exciting to see what he can do when he is ready.
Ryan Williams missed two straight years with shoulder issues. I really liked his tenacity as a starter and his ability to control the zone. After flying through South Bend and Tennessee in 2015, he’s never really had a chance to get it going at Iowa. As a result of the injuries, I don’t know whether he’s gonna be down in the bullpen or if the Cubs will let him be a starter again.
I remember seeing reliever Tommy Nance for the very first time in Clinton, Iowa when he pitched for South Bend. You could just hear the opponent’s bats crack or splinter consistently. He can throw in the mid to upper 90s, but he sits comfortably at 93 with a hard sinking fastball and reminds me of former Diamondback Brandon Webb. I bet if I could actually hit his pitches, my hands would be numb for a week after making contact. Hopefully, he can return to normalcy this season.
Jake Stinnett missed four out of five months last year and, when he did return, he was relegated to working out of the bullpen. He had more success as a reliever than as a starter. In the Arizona Fall League, Stinnett continued his rebirth and could be a possible piece this summer as a reliever.
When I watched Carson Sands struggle last year up in Beloit Wisconsin, I felt really bad for the kid. He missed most of 2017 after having elbow splints removed and he just did not look right nor did he look comfortable on the mound, especially when a man got on base. He was shut down after a just a few weeks at South Bend and Eugene. Hopefully, he can get back to the pitcher he was in April and May of 2016 before the elbow splints begin to affect his performance.
For catcher Gioskar Amaya, his TJ S could not have come at a worse time. He was getting ready to play AA baseball and he now could be heading back to the infield after spending three summers catching. It will be interesting to see what position he will play this summer and at what level. He should be slated in at AA Tennessee.
The 6’3″ right handed starter Erick Leal missed all of 2017. I’m unsure of what role he’s going to have this year at AA. He could start, piggyback, or relieve, it just depends on his arm and recuperation rates. I really enjoyed his 2016 season at Myrtle Beach (3.23 ERA in 92 IP) as he used solid command of a low 90s fastball. Currently, he is rostered with Tennessee and should be competing for one of five spots in the rotation.
At one point, Keith Law ranked Carlos Sepulveda as one of the top 10 second baseman in minor league baseball. After fighting through an injury for most of April last year, Sepulveda was shut down for three months before returning to rehab in the Arizona Rookie League. I am hopeful that Gioskar will be at Tennessee, but I wouldn’t put any money on it. Because he didn’t really do very well at Myrtle Beach when he was there, I wouldn’t be surprised if he begins the year back in South Carolina for at least a month, at the minimum.
Will Remillard came back last August and just destroyed the baseball for a month and showed no ill effects of missing two and a half seasons because of two Tommy John surgeries. Remillard could end up anywhere in the system. I love his leadership behind the plate and his ability to manage a pitcher on the mound. His arm looked great and I think he is ready to go.
It was a strange year as many of these prospects were at one point all Top 30 prospects, most top 10, at one point in their minor league career. Their resurgence should be a boost to the system.
I will have part two of this series next week as I look at seven players who will try to overcome a poor or uneven 2017 in 2018 at Tennessee and Iowa.
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.
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
By Todd Johnson
One of the feel-good stories from 2017 was the continued excellence of David Bote. His ascension to possible utilityman of the future actually began in 2016. He started that year as an organizational player and bounced around the system for a couple of months before settling in Myrtle Beach. When Ian Happ was promoted to Tennessee, it opened up a spot for Bote who has never looked back.
I first remember seeing Bote with the Kane County Cougars back in 2014 in Clinton, Iowa. At the time, I thought he was a good glove man and utility middle infielder but the bat was going to need some work. In 2016, Bote began adjusting his swing to create more lift on the ball. He wasn’t trying to hit home runs, he was just trying to hit more line drives. The result looks like it could be a major league career as he has been one of the Cubs hottest hitting prospects the past year and a half.
After destroying the Carolina League in the second half of 2016 (.351/.425/5 HRs, 38 RBI), Bote moved up to Tennessee in 2017 and had some interesting splits hitting between the .250s and .290s every month. For the year, it came out to a .272 average with an excellent .353 OBP to go along with 14 home runs and an .892 slugging percentage. Bote was then assigned to the Arizona Fall League where he hit three home runs in the first week of action. He would go on to hit .333 for the six weeks season and, as a result, earned a spot on the Cubs’ 40 man roster.
Heading up to AAA Iowa, Bote’s future looks to be that of a utility player. He can play any position in the infield and he also began to play the outfield a little bit (25 games in Tennessee, once in Arizona). While he is a good defender, he is only going to go as far as his bat will take him.
The Pacific Coast League is known as a hitters’ league. I’m not expecting David to go out and crank 25 home runs this year. Instead, I do expect him to hit for average, use the whole field, and be a selective hitter. In other words, hit the Cubs way.
While his ability to hit for average the past two summers is significant, his hitting profile would be even more glorious if his power profile produces even more in 2018. I’m not saying he should go up to the plate and try and crank a home run every at bat, but he should be able to square up the ball and drive the ball into the gaps in AAA, something he did quite often in Tennessee. Bote’s bat and power could be the difference to put him over the top. With a total of 18 HRs for the 2017 season between two teams, Bote might have the inside track to Chicago right now as a utility man.
Power seems to be the most potent piece of his profile to put in his minor league synopsis as he gets closer and closer to Chicago. It is what will set him apart.
Here are some other posts from this series:
By Todd Johnson
For three young pitchers in the Cubs system, AA will be the ultimate test of their skills in 2018. All three were taken in the 2016 MLB Draft and all three will arrive in Tennessee after taking strange paths to get there. The Cubs system has not produced any sustained starting pitching they signed as prospects. To date, only Pierce Johnson, Adbert Alzolay, and Paul Blackburn pitched what I would call dominant seasons at AA. Zach Hedges and Trevor Clifton each threw a ½ dominant season in 2016 and 2017. It is not easy.
For Duncan Robinson and Michael Rucker, both began 2017 as relievers in South Bend. Robinson would up in the rotation in May while Rucker was lights out in the bullpen. When both went Myrtle Beach in the middle of the summer, Rucker got the chance to start in place of Oscar de la Cruz and never relinquished the role. Robinson, meanwhile, adjusted well to the change in play after a couple of rough starts and turned in an outstanding second half with a 2.37 ERA in 8 starts. Rucker’s second half ERA was 2.81.
For Hatch, the pseudo-first pick of the Cubs in the 2016 draft, he did not pitch that first season and began his pro career in 2017 at Myrtle Beach. It was as inconsistent a season as one could expect. Hatch did add a 4-seamer to his repertoire but Hatch struggled to get past five innings. Only three times did he make it into the sixth inning, usually throwing 80+ pitches every night. He did pitch seven innings once and eight another time. Once, he struck out 13 in 5.1 innings. His K rate for the season was a very good as he struck out 128 in 124 innings.
6’1” 185 Pounds
23 Years Old
11th Round pick out of BYU
6’6” 220 Pounds
24 years old
9th Round Pick out of Dartmouth
6’1” 190 Pounds
23 Years Old
3rd Round Pick out of Oklahoma State
What to Expect for All Three
The key for both Rucker and Robinson is strikes. Rucker’s strike percentage is 67%. That’s outstanding! Robinson is not far behind at 65% while Hatch is at 63%. Looking at their walk rates, Hatch walks 3.61/9 while Robinson is at 2.74 and Rucker at 2.03. At AA, it is going to be crucial for all three to pound the zone. AA hitters won’t chase as much high A and they are patient enough to wait for a pitch they can do something with.
Being that all three arms are just two levels from Chicago, it is also important to work in some serious innings. Hatch threw in 124 last year while Rucker only got in 96 after relieving the first two months of the year. Robinson got in 126 after relieving in April. Getting innings in the MiLB is essential to building arm strength for the MLB level. They hopefully can build to 140 IP in 2018 and 160 in 2019.
What doesn’t get talked about enough at AA is the adjustment that starting pitchers have to make. The Tennessee Smokies are the first stage where starters are on a 5 man rotation. That’s a huge shift from the 6 man staff in A ball and even more so from college where starters get the ball once a week. For some, “dead arm,” or arm fatigue, becomes a daily struggle to overcome in the second half.
As for future success at AA, Robinson has two things going for him that would enable him to have success at Tennessee. First, he’s a pretty smart cookie. Second, he can adapt easily. He knows who he is as a pitcher and he’s not afraid to change something to improve his lot in the organization. Last year, he added a cutter. I would not be surprised to see him add something else this year.
For Rucker, I like that he throws strikes and throws a lot of them. Whether he stays in the rotation or heads back to the bullpen, the skill to put the ball in the zone will get him to Chicago sooner or later.
Out of the three, Hatch easily has the best movement on his pitches. Despite being drafted the same time as Rucker and Robinson, he’s sort of a year behind in the learning curve department. He did throw over 130+ innings his junior year at Oklahoma State in 2016. As a result, the Cubs kept him on the sidelines after signing him due to the fact he missed all of 2015. While the Cubs were being cautious, Rucker and Robinson’s experiences at Eugene allowed them to produce for the summer as potential arms for the future.
Hatch’s numbers last year look better once I start rooting around deeper. While he had an ERA of 4.04, his FIP was an outstanding at 2.95. That’s a huge difference. His groundball rate was very good at 45.7% and he allowed just 2 HRs all year long. his walks per nine inning stat was a bit high at 3.47 and hitters averaged .347 on balls in play. That’s extremely high. And when hitters made contact, almost 50% of balls were pulled. Hatch’s pitches are good enough that he should be able to make adjustments this year. Just how good he can be is the bigger issue.
2018 could be the summer of the starting pitcher in Tennessee. These three arms will go along with a rebuilt Erick Leal to be the foundation of a nice rotation. Trevor Clifton or Oscar de la Cruz could be joining them. That will all be sorted out in spring training. For now, these three arms will be tested at AA beginning in early April.
By Todd Johnson
When I first saw Zack Short play in 2016 for the Eugene Emeralds, I came away impressed with his overall game. He could hit for power, he could make all the throws at shortstop, and he had a somewhat decent approach at the plate. In 2017, things changed a bit for the better.
At class A South Bend, Short’s approach improved as he led the Midwest League in walks in the first half. He also continued his power stroke as he clubbed six home runs for the Cubs in the first half. He was named a Midwest League All-Star while playing a mixture of second (12 games), third (23 games), and shortstop (61 games). and was promoted to high class A Myrtle Beach in late June.
In the second half, Short continued his impressive season as he hit for a better average for the Pelicans and continued to display power. When looking back at the 2017 season, the most impressive thing about Short was that he continued to hit well at Myrtle Beach, a noted pitcher’s league. His on base percentage was .372 and in the second half he hit an additional six home runs in a ballpark where home runs go to die. Whether he can build upon those two skills remains to be seen.
When Zack Short was drafted in 2017, his blurb that day was to the point. I wrote, “A bit undersized at 5’11 and 175, he only hit .241 as a senior. There is some developing power. When he was a freshman, he was 5’9″ and 155 pounds. So, there’s some projection left. Well thought of in scouting circles.” Even then, that burgeoning power was evident. It appeared, on the surface, that the Cubs were going to get an ascending player who still had some growing into his body to do.
And that is exactly what the Cubs got.
Short is one of many prospects who will be moving up a level in 2018 from Myrtle Beach to AA Tennessee.
What I would like to see from him at Tennessee is for him to continue to get on base at a high rate as well as show power. He doesn’t necessarily have to hit 20 HRs, but he does have to show the ability to drive the ball into the gaps. His defense does need some work as he was somewhat error-prone in stretches last year.
When digging deeper into his statistics, Short has some interesting splits. His line drive rate increased 10 percent at Myrtle Beach as did his batting average of balls in play (BABIP). His BABIP went from .273 in South Bend to .307 at Myrtle Beach. I think there’s a direct correlation between the increased percentage of line drives to the batting average as his flyball rate fell from 57 to 43 percent and his ground ball rate stayed the same at 30 percent
If he can put together a pretty good season of getting on base and being in power mode, his value skyrockets. He might not be the most physically gifted athlete on the field but he does execute. He always has came across to me as a baseball rat. He lives, breathes, and eats baseball.
Short told his local paper about his daily grind:
“You work on everything every day. You are here doing early work every day. You have to stay with your routine every day and get better in all aspects of the game because somebody else is at your back chomping behind you to take your position.”
He comes across a guy who just knows how to play the game and I think that is the highest compliment I pay a prospect.
If there’s one thing the Cubs have shown that they covet in a prospect it’s the ability to control the strike zone. Zack Short has done that at four levels in just 639 at bats. That’s it. His career as a Cub has only been 6 1/2 months. If he does what he should and keeps grinding and getting on base, it’s going to last a lot longer.
Next week, the “Leveling Up” series looks at some starting pitchers who will advance to AA Tennessee in 2018 by the names of Rucker, Robinson, and Hatch.
By Todd Johnson
Over the next month in the “Leveling Up” series, I’m going to be examining several players who will be at AA Tennessee in 2018. For most Cubs prospects, AA is the most challenging level. It is where the men get separated from the boys and where prospects are truly born. If a prospect succeeds at AA, they make it to the major leagues, whether it’s with Chicago or, in the case of Paul Blackburn, somewhere else.
Eddy Martinez’s life is quite the story just to make it this far. He’s had high expectations placed upon him just because of his $3 million signing bonus. Then again, he has had a lot to deal with and adjust to in playing baseball in the United States while leaving his family behind in Cuba.
In 2017, he started to have a little bit of a break out. In the second half, Eddy hit for a higher sustained average than at any point in his career. He hit .276 with seven HRs (which equaled his first half home run mark) including six dingers in July. He seemed to wake up after the trade of his buddy Eloy Jimenez. That surge in batting average should carry over to AA. In fact, he could thrive at AA. But, a couple of changes have to take place first.
Defensively, there’s not much more for Martinez to master at the minor-league level. He can get to the balls, and then what he does with the ball is his greatest asset. Even when he was in the Midwest League, very few runners tried to go from first and third on him. The same was true in the Carolina League. Eddy’s issues are whether he could hit for a high enough average and get on base at a decent clip.
His ability to work a walk is still in question. Even with an average of .276, his on base percentage was only at .314. He only walked 3 more times in the second half than the first. Another stat that was a little disconcerting was that he pulled 52% of balls and his flyball rate dropped into the 30s while his ground ball rate increased to 47.5%. His BABIP in 2017 plummeted to .247. It seems weird for him to break out a little bit with such weird statistics.
MLB Pipeline said
Though Martinez has a quick right-handed stroke and feel for the barrel, there are mixed reports on his hitting ability. He got too pull-happy at times last season and while he doesn’t swing and miss excessively, his consistency of hard contact needs to improve. Chicago believes he’ll make adjustments and start to tap into his loft power to his pull side.
While he hasn’t had a so-called “breakout” season yet, 2018 could be that season. For that to happen, he only has to do a few things in 2018.
1. Control the Strike Zone
If he is going to make it to Chicago, even as a fifth outfielder, he’s got to be able to take pitches. He has to lay off pitches out of the zone. His K rate has improved dramatically in his two years. In his debut 2016, he struck out 21.9% of the time. Last year at Myrtle Beach it dropped to 15.5. However, his walk rate also decreased from 2016 to 2017 from 9.7% to 6.2. That walk rate needs to go up rather than down. He is probably better off trying to walk his way to the Windy City rather than slug his way there. Being able to control the strike zone will also allow him to be selective in
2. 1 +1 = 2
If he can control the zone, everything else will fall into place. He appears to be trending up – lower K rate, increased average and OBP. Some other peripheries need to catch up.
When it comes to power, that is going to come naturally. Yes, I’d like to see him use all fields, but it is not necessary at this point. Everything will work better off an improved walk rate.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.
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?