By Todd Johnson
David Bote’s arrival in Chicago has been a very pleasant surprise this summer. He is flashing his bat, power, approach, glove, arm, and base running skills while endearing himself to millions of Cub fans with his play. But there is something else that is at work. Out of the Cubs everyday players, only Bryant and Russell were given everyday spots from the get go. Javy and Schwarber had to work their way in through the bench. The same was true for Willson Contreras, Albert Almora, and Ian Happ.
As a result, who might be next to get the call to help off the bench? One would think that once Bryant is healthy, that Bote would go back down to Iowa and that Bote will be available to head back to Chicago at a moment’s notice. However, there is another player down in Iowa who might be a name we could hear more of in the coming months. That is Jason Vosler.
Vosler’s biggest asset is his left-handed bat. Armed with a beautiful swing, power, and the ability to play first and third bases, Vosler is having a great two month stretch in 2018 – First at Tennessee and now at Iowa.He’s hitting .290 in July and is currently the Cubs’ MiLB RBI leader.
The Cubs drafted Vosler in the 16th round out of Northeastern in 2014. He played at Boise that first summer. While he only hit .266, his OBP of .361 was quite good. In 2015, he was at South Bend, which is where I got my first look at him. He showed a good approach, had a beautiful swing even back then. I didn’t take him to be an elite prospect at that point. In fact, when he was promoted mid-season to Myrtle Beach, I was taken aback. He had not lit the Midwest League on fire. Sure, he had 6 dingers in 38 games, but nothing earth shattering was going on in the box score. He would hit 4 more homers for the Pelicans the rest of the year. But sometimes, the stat line doesn’t tell the whole story.
In 2016, he played 93 games for Myrtle Beach and hit .250 with a .314 OBP and 2 homers. Still, he found his way to Tennessee for 26 games. At this point in his career, he was not striking out much. For all of 2016, he only whiffed 78 times in almost 120 games. That’s not bad. His swing still looked great. I thought that it was only a matter of time before he began hitting for a higher average.
The next spring, Vosler found his way back to AA Tennessee. The summer of ‘17 saw Vosler’s power numbers explode. He hit 21 HRs and drove in 81 and that earned him a trip to the prestigious Arizona Fall League. Despite those numbers, not everything was on track for a promotion. He struck 120 times in 129 games and only walked 53 all the while hitting only .241. His average was a little misleading. Hit he .270 in the first half and .211 in the second. In addition, his power production dropped precipitously in the second half, going from 13 homers and 49 RBI in the first half down to 8 dingers and 32 driven in for the second half. In the fall league, he hit 2 home runs and drove in 13 in 23 games where he played a mixture of first and third base.
It looked like he would start 2018 back at Tennessee.
However, Jason still had that beautiful swing. The power surge was something most people did not see coming. He had gone from 2 HRs in 2014, to 10 in 2015, 3 in 2016, and 21 in 2017. Could it be sustained in 2018?
Things did not start out so well for Jason this year. In April, he hit .182 but smacked 4 HRs with 15 RBI. May was not very good until something just clicked in the middle of the month. Over the next six weeks, Vosler’s average went up 50 points. By the time June ended, Jason Vosler hit .273 and had a very impressive .371 OBP while hitting 5 HRs with 26 RBI. It is easy to see why he was promoted. That approach I first saw at South Bend along with that same swing was now producing at an elite level.
Vosler has not stopped hitting in July. After 8 days, he’s hitting .290 for the month with 2 HRs and 7 RBIs. He has yet to take a walk at Iowa while he has struck out 21 times in 14 AAA games since he was promoted. That is something he will surely be working on the next two months.
Vosler is close to being the next guy. He has an excellent command of the zone and he already has the ability to hit for the power from the left side, something every franchise needs. It should be exciting to see how his AAA career continues and whether or not he will get a shot to help the big league club this year and next.
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.?
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.
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.
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.
By Todd Johnson
It has to be hard to be a position player in the Cubs’ minor league system. With most of the daily regulars signed through 2021, there’s not a lot of hope to make it onto the 25 man roster. However, things sometimes change. Ian Happ made the Cubs keep him on the roster. David Bote has been up twice this year as a utility player. If you perform, things will take care of themselves. You just have to go about your business and do the best you can while waiting for your shot.
In 2016, the Cubs selected SS Zack Short in the 17th round out of Sacred Heart. Over the last 2 years, Zack Short has quickly made his way through the Cubs system at the pace of a top prospect. Along the way, he’s shown a penchant for getting on base at a near .400 clip along with showing some power. Short spent 2016 mostly at Eugene. He split 2017 at South Bend in the first half, where he lead the league in walks. In the second half, he continued his fast rise at Myrtle Beach. As a result, he quickly made it to AA to begin this year.
2018 has been a strange year for Short.
For the first time in his pro career, he struggled in getting on base and producing his power game. In April, he hit .187 with a .322 OBP while only hitting .187. May was a little better. He hit .233 with a very good OBP of .365.
When June began, his hitting troubles bottomed out on June 8 when his average bottomed out at .198. The very next night, he went 3-for-4 with 4 RBI and he was off. Over the last three weeks of June and, so far, the first week of July, Short has been the hottest Cub minors hitting .380 with 3 HRs and 18 RBI. In addition, his OBP in that span is an amazing at .470.
In April and May, he was whiffing at almost a 33% rate. Over the last 4 weeks, he’s only striking out at a 22% rate. Take away two nights when he had the triple sombrero, his K rate goes down to 15%, which is very good.
What I like most about Short is that, despite his troubles hitting, his walk rate was consistent. His 14.7% rate is a bit above last year’s 15.4% but not as high as his 18.0% at South Bend. Still no matter his troubles, he still did not change his approach at the plate. His monthly walk counts of 13, 15, and 16 are still impressive and that bodes well for the future anytime he gets in a slump.
In Zack’s career, he has never hit for a high average. He’s always sat .240 to .260 and had OBP splits between .360 to .400. This current four week stretch is the highest stretch of his career, by far. It will be interesting to see how long Zack can keep this going.
Will his average remain high the rest of this month? If he can sustain it, does that earn him a ticket to Iowa one step from Chicago or the bigs? And when he gets there, what position will he be playing? He’s played some third in the minors, some second, too, but mostly short…pun intended.
Short’s performance has been exciting to track and watch this month. It will be equally exciting to see what he can do this month and the year.
By Todd Johnson
Affiliates never know what is going to happen over the course of a minor league season. Prospects will come and go and roles may change. Over the past month, the Tennessee Smokies have had to deal with a lot of change. Starting pitcher Trevor Clifton and relievers Daury Torrez, James Norwood, Craig Brooks, and Dakota Mekkes were all called up to AAA Iowa. When Norwood and Brooks left last week, it opened up a lot of holes and roles to be filled at the back end of the pen. While Wyatt Short was promoted from Myrtle Beach, most of the changes would have to come from within.
For most of his pro career, Jake Stinnett has been a starting pitcher since being drafted out of Maryland in the second round in 2014. Everyone noticed right away that he had a lot of movement on his pitches. The problem Stinnett has struggled controlling that movement. At South Bend, Myrtle Beach, and Tennessee, Stinnett worked to find some consistency with his pitches. Heading into last year, he had a career ERA of 4.39.
However, an injury forced him to miss most of the 2017 season. When he came back in late July 2017, he was relegated to the bullpen. And for the last six weeks of the season, he had the best month and a half of his career. Over 9 appearances, he put up a 0.61 ERA with 14 Ks in 14.1 innings.
Last fall, Jake was assigned to the Mesa Solar Sox in the Arizona Fall League. He drew rave reviews as a reliever and it was thought that he would have some sort of back-end role when the 2018 season began. Sometimes, the best laid plans never get made. And sometimes, things have a funny way of working out.
After Norwood and Brooks were promoted on June 25, Manager Mark Johnson needed to find a new closer. For most of 2018, Stinnett was a set up man and long reliever. He looked good in April with a 2.16 ERA in 8 games. However, in May and June, he struggled more often than not. For the first half, he had a 5.54 ERA in 26 innings with 32 strikeouts. Opponents hit .264 against him, cranked 4 HRs, while Stinnett walked 12. Of the 16 ERs he allowed, 10 of them came in three games in which he gave up a HR. Get rid of the HRs, and his ERA was 2.57 in games where he did not allow a dinger.
For Stinnett to pitch in such a high leverage situation as a closer, he was going to have to make some changes. You often hear about hitters developing an approach at the plate. The same is true of pitchers. As for Jake, his pitches still look the same, but his demeanor does not. Broadcaster Mick Gillispie often comments now how quickly Stinnett works as a closer. In the old neighborhood, we used to just call it “rock and fire.” You just get the baseball, get your sign, and you let it rip. Hitters do not have a lot of time to think about what pitch is coming. So far, so great for Stinnett!
Heading into tonight’s game, Stinnett’s had 4 save opportunities since moving into the closer spot. He has yet to allow a run in four innings. He only has four strikeouts, but he has not walked a batter nor allowed a hit. His season ERA went from 5.46 down to 4.78 in less than two weeks. For the second half, his ERA is a sparkling 1.50 in 5 games.
Manager Mark Johnson has to feel good about moving Jake into the closer role. Stinnett is simply attacking the hitter. He needs to maintain that approach if he is going to succeed as the Smokies’ closer long-term. If he can continue to do what he’s done over the last 10 days, he becomes quite the interesting prospect heading into 2019.
The Weekly: Two Affiliates in the Playoff Hunt, Promotion Debuts, Theo and I Speak on the Radio…Separately
By Todd Johnson
Around the System This Week
Iowa – 2-4 (23-37)
Tennessee – 3-5 (31-31)
Myrtle Beach – 6-0 (32-29)
South Bend – 6-1 (31-30)
DSL 1 – 3-3 (4-3)
DSL 2 – 0-6 (1-6)
For the better part of the first half, only Tennessee had a winning record among the Cubs affiliates. Both Myrtle Beach and Iowa got off to horrible starts while South Bend was extremely inconsistent from series to series. Now that things have warmed up quite a bit, the system is seeing some outstanding pitching on a nightly basis. There are a few hitters who are starting to heat up, but it’s been impressive to watch the starting rotations go out at night after night across the system. At the end of this week, two out of the four major affiliates were above .500.
There is just one week left to the first half of the 2018 The fact that the Pelicans are in contention is a testament to manager Buddy Bailey and to the hard work of the team. They sit just 2.5 games back with 8 to go including 3 against first place Winston-Salem.
The Smokies sit just three behind Chattanooga.
Outside of the Draft, the big story of the week was the combined no-hitter for Rollie Lacy and Ben Hecht of South Bend. Lacy went 7 IP on Wednesday with 6 Ks against Lake County and Hecht finished them in 2 innings with 2 strike outs. What I loved most about the night was that Lacy’s curve was just so dominating and the defense made a couple nice plays behind him.
This week also saw the pitching debuts of several prospects at their new affiliates. Cory Abbott went six innings at Myrtle Beach and gave up two runs while striking out 8. Matt Swarmer had a tougher time at Tennessee. He only managed four innings while giving up three earned runs and striking out three.
At AAA Iowa, Dakota Mekkes threw a scoreless inning hitting 95 on the gun in his debut earlier in the week. Last night, he got in some more work. He went 1.2 IP with 4 Ks, but was removed with the bases loaded and two innings. He was not charged with a run. Trevor Clinton made his AAA debut. He got through it. He went just 4 and allowed 2 runs with 3 Ks, but used 85 pitches to get it done. Now that the butterflies are out of the way, his next start should be better.
Short Season Leagues to Begin Friday
On Friday night the 15th, three more Cub affiliates join the fray when Eugene and the two Mesa teams begin play. Hopefully, they’ll be a lot of draft picks in tow. At some point during the week, Eugene will release its roster and I will do an official preview of the team.
Me and Theo On the Air
In other news, Theo Epstein and I spoke on the radio this week, although not to each other. He spoke to 670 the Score about current state of the Cubs, Jason Heyward, Yu Darvish, and other assorted sundries.
I was on the Kent Sterling Radio Show in Indianapolis (1430 AM) subbing for Evan Altman in his weekly radio spot. I talked with Kent about my love for baseball cards, the draft, and Tyler Chatwood.
I also appeared on fellow Cubs Insider Sean Holland’s Holy Cow podcast this week to talk about the draft at length. We also touched on the current state of the minors, the draft, and presidential scandals. Hopefully, that link will be released shortly. I will send it out on Twitter when Sean releases it.
Draft Signings Update
It’s only been a few days since the draft ended, but it looks like the Cubs are going to get a pretty good haul this year. When Theo first took the over, they signed a little over 20 that first year and that has been creeping up the twenties ever since. In 2016, they signed 25 and last year they signed 29. This year, it’s looking like they’re going to sign between 30 and 33 players. Most of the high school kids in the 30s are not gonna sign but it looks like almost everyone else will.
And some of the draft picks are playing in the College World Series this weekend. Here’s how they did yesterday.
Pitcher Ethan Roberts from Tennessee Tech – 4 IP, 1 runs, 4 Ks
SS Levi Jordan from Washington – 0-4
C Hunter Taylor out of South Carolina – 1-4, 1 RBI
CF Jimmy Herron who plays for Duke – 1-3, BB, 2 runs
Coming Up Next Week
Both Myrtle Beach and Tennessee will be the majority of this week’s coverage as they chase down a playoff spot. I do have a Duane Underwood update ready to go. That should be out on Monday. Later this week I will take a look at the Mesa and Eugene rosters before they begin their season on Friday. They should be very interesting to see which of the young international kids make which team.
Other Stuff I Wrote This Week
Players of the Week
Card of the Week
By Todd Johnson
Tonight in Iowa, pitcher Trevor Clifton will make his AAA pitching debut. I am very excited to watch him pitch. Now that he’s just one step away from Chicago, it’s a bittersweet night. His journey to AAA has been thrilling and frustrating as he’s learned to adapt at every level, something he will need to do in Chicago. Wow! He’s that close. Sorry, I got a bit distracted by how far the 23-year-old has come since he was a 12th round pick back in 2013.
It’s easy to remember when you see a prospect for the very first time, especially when you are excited about their talent. When Trevor Clifton debuted for the Boise Hawks in 2014, the excitement of broadcaster Mike Safford came through over the Internet. It wasn’t until Clifton pitched at Hillsboro that July did I get to see him for the very first time. Once I got past those uniforms, there was a lot to like.
What was evident early what was the potential. He had a mid 90s fastball, a looping curve back then, and a lot of room to fill out. He was a pretty skinny 19-year-old. When he got to South Bend the next year, Clifton put on some weight but began to struggle a bit in June of 2015. After a suspension in a bench-clearing brawl, Clifton came back and began a stretch of great pitching that summer that lasted for two years where he ascended to the top 10 on most Cub prospect lists. He was even named the Cubs Pitcher of the Year in 2016 while at Myrtle Beach after a season in which he put up a 2.72 ERA and struck out 129 in 109 innings.
Last year at Tennessee, he had a great first half with a 2.84 ERA in 12 starts and was named a Southern League All-Star. It looked as though he was about a month away from heading to Iowa. Then all the wheels fell off. He struggled most of July and into August before he was shut down for the season after his August 21st start..
It’s a bit of a change to go from a six man rotation down to five. But for Clifton that wasn’t the issue. Part of me thought it might be something mechanical was going on or maybe something just got in his head. Whatever the reason, It doesn’t matter now. He’s bounced back.
Clifton started 2018 with a decent April in which he had a 3.96 ERA. Outside of one inning, he gave up just 3 runs in the other 24 frames (1.13 ERA). For May, he put up a 2.36 ERA in 26.2 IP with 25 Ks.
To be frank, 2018 Trevor Clifton looks like Trevor Clifton of old. The guy that really took off in July 2015 looks to be like the same guy pitching for Tennessee in 2018. The curve ball is a little tighter, his change has a little more fade, and his fastball still explodes about 10 feet from the plate.
Not every prospect’s journey to the big leagues is a straight shot. What I like this year is there seems to be some sort of maturity going on. He’s able to get past mental hurdles when he gives up one or two runs to start the game and then he just settles down and can go for five more innings of shutout baseball. He’s not been an arm that will give up a run here or there. Teams either hit him or they don’t. They either get to him early or they get to him late or they don’t get to him at all.
I loved how hard he has worked this off-season to get back to where he needs to be to pitch good baseball. I’ve always enjoyed the swings against him. Seeing him live, he’s at his best when he’s loose, fluid, and not really thinking about what he’s doing. He’s just getting the signal and throwing it to the catcher and letting his natural abilities do what they do. The biggest thing that he has going for him is that he can be a dominant pitcher because of the late movement on all his pitches. He can throw 93 or 95, but those numbers don’t matter.
When he takes the mound tonight, I will be excited to see how he does. I might be a bit misty.
By Todd Johnson
A year ago, I wrote a profile of Michael Rucker shortly after his first full month as a starter in the Carolina League for Myrtle Beach. Previously, Rucker was a shutdown reliever for South Bend before getting promoted to the Pelicans. Rucker went on to make 15 starts in Myrtle Beach and put up 82 innings in that role for Myrtle Beach with a 2.52 ERA to become the breakout pitcher in the second half of the year in the Cub system.
Here is what Fangraphs said of Rucker heading into 2018:
Rucker has terrific command — especially to his glove side — of a deceptively hard fastball that will creep into the mid-90s, and he mixes in two slurvy breaking balls and a moving changeup, all of which are fringe to average. He largely lives off of his fastball and his deceptive, slingy delivery, but he pitched well in long relief and got a look as a starter mid-year.
Now at AA Tennessee for 2018, the 11th round pick in 2016 out of BYU is having a very good season starting for the Smokies. His stats are a little misleading. Once you start digging into them, you can see how good Rucker has been on the mound. And, you can also see that he’s just beginning. Yes, he has some things to work on, but he has built himself a nice AA foundation to add more to his pitching resume.
Rucker has been pretty consistent this year when it comes to how much action he gets in every start. He averages 84.63 pitches per start while getting in 5.21 innings per start. His shortest start of the year was 4.2 innings while his longest was only 6.
2. Strike Percentage of Pitches Thrown
Michael averages over 1 K per inning with 43 Ks in 41.1 innings. Of his 667 pitches thrown this year, he has 438 strikes or 65.7%. For South Bend, he was 66% in 2017. At Myrtle Beach last year, he came in at 67.3%. Those are all good numbers, but his walks this year have increased to just over 3 BBs per nine innings.
3. Batting Average Against
In April, hitters barely hit him with a .216 average. In May, that dropped down to .193. That 23 point difference explains the varying levels of success he’s had this year.
4. Earned Run Average
For the year, he’s posted a 4.16 ERA. However a 2.86 ERA in May is more indicative of his work across 41.2 innings this year. On April 20 in Montgomery, Rucker was charged with 6 earned runs in the fifth inning where he only got 2 outs before being lifted. Take away that 2/3 of an inning outing and his ERA drops from 4.10 on the season down to 2.85.
For the future, the Cubs are developing a new breed of pitchers that I like to call “utility pitchers.” That type of arm can throw in a variety of roles from starter to long reliever, short inning, and setup. Mike Montgomery fits that bill at the major league level while Rucker does in the minors along with Duncan Robinson, Bailey Clark, and Rollie Lacy. For now, though, Rucker should be starting and throwing as many pitches as he can to strengthen his arm and work on his pitches.
In the short term, I’d like to see him continue in June on the same consistent path he has set forth in May. He could be promoted to Iowa in late June or early July, depending on his performance. The only things he should be working on are these items:
1. Increase strike percentage closer to 70%.
2. Decrease walk and home run rates. As of today, his walk rate is 3 per 9 innings. He can get that a lot lower and it will only benefit him. His HR rate needs to be below 1 per game.
3. Increase his workload to over 90 pitches per start and to get into the 7th inning on a regular basis.
I don’t know what his role is for the future, but for now, he should be starting at AA and getting closer and closer to Iowa.