Jason McLeod Interview – Pitching Thoughts, Theo’s MiLB Involvement, and Drafting Makeup

By Todd Johnson

Today is turning into a juicy day for MiLB news. After reviewing Keith Law’s Top Ten List, I finished off a Peanut Butter sandwich and sat down to catch up on the day’s events by listening to “Inside the Clubhouse” on 670 the Score. Lo and behold, Cubs Director of Scouting Jason McLeod was the guest of honor for the day. I did embed the interview below but McLeod doesn’t begin his portion until 23:26.

Topics included:
Pitching options for the next 12-15 month.
How most playoff rotation acquire pitching
Zack Short and Trent Giambrone
McLeod’s Relationship with Theo and Jed
Trades
Scouting Player Makeup

https://omny.fm/shows/inside-the-clubhouse-on-670-the-score/levine-spiegel-jason-mcleod-interview-hour-1/embed

There’s not a lot of groundbreaking information here, but it is still interesting to hear McLeod talk about how the system is transforming how they do pitching. While McLeod says that changes have been gradual. That may be true for management, but for the prospects, it has to be a shock to have different pitching coordinators each year. Now that Brendan Sagara is in his second year as the MiLB coordinator, fans could see some changes produce this year, especially at the lower levels.

McLeod also talked about starting pitching options and focused on Duncan Robinson and Alec Mills as guys who could help out in the next 12-15 months. I was really happy to hear him name drop Trevor Clifton as a guy. I am never too sure where Trevor stands with the Cubs management. But that was good to hear with him so close to the majors. Still, the thing that sticks with me from this section is how much McLeod seems to love Duncan Robinson and his ability to peruse a scouting report.

An interesting dynamic was revealed by McLeod that Theo, Jed, and McLeod have a text thread where they talk daily about prospects. In addition to phone calls and reading daily game reports, it was interesting to see how involved Theo is on daily basis with the MiLB system.

Overall, it was interesting to hear McLeod talk about some of things in his job description. I would like to have heard more about what kinds of things they are going to be looking for this summer in the draft and international free agency.

Another question that would have been interesting to hear was how will the impending addition of the DH to the National League affect scouting and the type of players the Cubs will be drafting this year and next.

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The Podcast: Looking at Pitchers Who Could Be in Chicago in 2-3 Years

By Todd Johnson

It is really going to be a pivotal year for pitching in the system. There’s competition for starting spots at every level.  The Cubs signed 16 additional arms this winter for depth at AAA, although most won’t make the roster but a few will. This is going to result in a lot of arms trying to get to Chicago as starters and relievers.

This week’s podcast looks at which Cub pitching prospects who could be headed to Chicago in 2-3 years (2019-2021). I did end up focusing mostly on AAA arms who are nearly ready now.

I could have talked even more about arms at AA who could be in the mix, too. Names like Bailey Clark and Michael Rucker as bullpen guys. Then there are possible starters like Erick Leal, Alex Lange, Cory Abbott, Keegan Thompson, Erling Moreno, Manny Rondon, Thomas Hatch, and a few more. Maybe I will do part 2 in a couple weeks. Have a listen.

Next week’s topic is the draft…I think. If you have questions about the draft, send them to me via Twitter or leave a comment down below.

I will be back tomorrow with more of the 5 Series.

The 5 Series – Don’t Sleep on Jared Young

By Todd Johnson

About a year ago I expected then second baseman Jared Young to have a breakout season at class A South Bend. What happened next was a year that not many people could have predicted. I thought he would hit well when it came to average and he would walk a lot. I wasn’t expecting more than 8 to 10 home runs, tops. He hit 16 HRs with 76 RBI in 120 games with an OBP of .357. For the year, he had a wRC+ of 150 in South Bend and 118 at Myrtle Beach. Those are pretty dominant numbers. The Cubs named Young their minor league player of the year as he flew through two levels of class A. He should be at AA Tennessee to begin 2019.

When it comes to expectations for Young in 2019, I am a little hesitant to throw down some numbers as I’m not sure how he’s going to respond. He can either be very good, average, or struggle. Based upon his approach and eye at the plate, he might be one of those players that improves at each level because pitchers are more around the plate. Here are some numbers that I expect Jared to put up in 2019.

1. On-base Percentage – From the get go, Young showed an outstanding approach at the plate and showed, even at Eugene, that he had a very good knowledge of the strike zone. That does not go away just because he’s at AA. Anything above .350 is going to be great for him. In fact, I would expect him to improve throughout the course of the year as he gains more and more experience in the Southern League.

2. Home Runs – If he added some muscle over the winter, 20 dingers would not be out of the realm of possibility. More than likely, 15 would be a good number for him to sit at when it’s all said and done. Take a look at this video to see how the ball just jumps off his bat. I also love how measured his swing is and the quickness with which he gets the barrel through the zone.

3. wRC+ – His splits for 2018 at each level of class A are a bit stunning. In the first half of the South Bend he put up an amazing 150. When he was at Myrtle Beach, it was still very good at 118. For him to put up a wRC+ between 110 and 120 next season would be very acceptable. If he’s over at 120, he might not be in Tennessee very long. Considering there’s really no left handed bat in front of him, he stands a good shot of moving if he performs at a high level.

4. Position – Drafted as a second baseman, Young began playing first base at South Bend and did so almost exclusively in April and May. Once June got here, Young could be seen occasionally playing left field. In total, he got in 21 games in the outfield last year between Myrtle Beach and South Bend. I’d like to see him get about 33% of his games out in left field. That should make him a little bit more versatile if he makes it to Chicago. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him at third or back at second from time to time.

5. Timetable Year – He is still fairly young at 23. The Cubs are likely to see what he can do at Tennessee and if he dominates he’s going to find a way to Iowa very quickly. The more versatile he can make himself in the field, the more that bat will play. In the end, though, his ability to swing from the left side trumps almost everything else about him. Sure, he’s likely to be a bench guy at the MLB level, but he’s not playing like one right now. He could see Chicago as early at late this summer or early next year.

2019 could be a huge transition year for Jared Young. Everything begins with his bat and that will determine just exactly how much he plays in the outfield and how much he has a chance at moving forward. At 23, that’s about a year below the AA average.

The 5 Series: Matt Swarmer Questions Will Get Answered Quickly in 2019

By Todd Johnson

It is been a while since I’ve seen a pitcher transform himself both physically and in his performance quite like Matt Swarmer did in 2018. The Cubs minor-league pitcher of the year took off, first at Myrtle Beach in the spring, and then he did very well at AA Tennessee in July and August.

Swarmer gained 10 to 15 pounds last winter and added about 3 to 4 miles an hour on his fastball. Already armed with a plus curve and a potentially plus change that wowed the Cubs’ own scouts, Swarmer took off as one of the most dominant arms in the system. The new variation of speed was now too much for most hitters.

Heading into 2019, I have several questions about Swarmer that should be answered quickly.

1. The Fluke Factor – Considering the dominance with which he threw, Swarmer’s 2018 was not by chance. He wasn’t just getting guys out, his pitches had some “Wow!” factor to them. The only question I have to that issue is can he maintain that kind of dominance as he goes throughout this next season?

2. Based on the fact that his improvement came as a result of changes he made in the off-season, I wonder what changes Swarmer could possibly make this off-season? Will it be to continue to maintain his current physical size or will he add a few more pounds as he has plenty of room to add it?

3. Ever since the Cubs drafted him, Swarmer has stuck with the fastball/curve/changeup trio. What would he add if he were to add a fourth pitch? Would it be a cutter, a slider, or a second kind of changeup that has different action from the first? That could just be nasty.

4. Placement – I’ve spent most of this off-season thinking that Swarmer should begin 2019 back in AA for a little while. He did have 77 innings at AA Tennessee last year, but is that enough to get him to Iowa? I would not be surprised if he wound up competing for a spot at AAA Iowa just based on the quality of his stuff.

5. – The Future – Swarmer is armed with 2+ pitches and one of them, the change up, is very close to being a plus-plus pitch. Do the Cubs value him more as a starter because of those pitches? Or do they want to try him out in the bullpen at some point because of those same pitches? These are interesting questions. It definitely does not have to be answered this year. Then again, Swarmer has shown the ability to adapt to improve his future.

Swarmer was such a surprise prospect last year to those outside of the organization. To his teammates, they’ve just been waiting for him to put it together as they are the ones who have had to face that changeup and curve in spring training the past two years. When he makes his first start in 2019, it will be interesting to see what changes he made this winter.

To be quite honest. I would not be surprised to see the 2016 19th round pick out of Kutztown get some innings in with the big league club this spring in Mesa just so the Cubs can see how he stacks up.

MiLB News: Manager and Coaching Changes Along with Other Tidbits

By Todd Johnson


The Chicago Cubs announced their 2019 minor league managers, coaches, and coordinators yesterday. The biggest surprise was the switching of manager Buddy Bailey to South Bend and Jimmy Gonzalez moving up to be the skipper at Myrtle Beach. As far as individual coaching assignments, Anderson Tavarez, who did wonders the past two seasons as the pitching coach in Myrtle Beach, will be in Mesa and possibly overseeing prodigy Richard Gallardo. 

As someone who follows South Bend on a regular basis, I am pretty excited to see Buddy Bailey up close. He has done some great work with several current Cubs including David Bote. For the past few summers, some of the best part of the Pelicans’ MiLB.TV broadcasts were of announcer Scott Kornberg spinning yarns about, and praising the talents of, Buddy.

I also think this change in managers at South Bend might foreshadow just who might be at South Bend next summer. I would love to see what Buddy can do with Nelson Velazquez, Cole Roederer, Fernando Kelli, Luis Vazquez, and other young guys. The knowledge he could pass on this early in a prospect’s career could be tremendous.

As for Iowa, Tennessee, and Eugene, Managers Marty Pevey, Mark Johnson, and Steve Lerud all return to their previous posts. In addition, former Cub Chris Valaika was promoted to Minor League Hitting Coordinator replacing Jaccob Cruz who joined the Pirates’ MLB staff.

Here is the staff for each affiliate:
Iowa
Tennessee
Myrtle Beach
South Bend
Eugene

January Instructs???
This week also saw the Cubs’s  new January Instructs begin. Rather than take place in October, the Cubs gave the prospects some time off after the season and hope that January instruction will carry over into the season better. Baseball America had a nice article on it yesterday.

IFA Signings continue…
Despite a limited budget and a hard cap, the Cubs continue adding talent through international free agency. Since July 2, the Cubs have signed 15 players according to Arizona Phil of the Cub Reporter. Here is the list so far.

Pitchers: Richard Gallardo, Darling Grullon, Manuel Heredia, Gabriel Jaramillo, Joel Machado, and Yander Montero.
Infield:Edwin Castillo, Rafael Morel, Lizardo Ruiz, and Ronny Simon
Outfield: Ezequiel Alvarez, Samuel Duarte, Orlando Guzman, Jose Lopez, and Yohendrick Pinango

I will be back tomorrow with the organization breakdown. I will be examining right-handed starting pitching from Myrtle Beach on down.

The 5 Series: Questions Abound About Oscar de la Cruz

By Todd Johnson

I first became fully aware of the potential of Cubs’ pitcher Oscar de la Cruz in 2015 when he was at Eugene. He was 20 years old at the time as he put up a breakout season striking out 73 batters in 73 innings. For the better part of the last three seasons, though, he’s been fighting off minor injuries that have derailed his career.

Last July, de la Cruz was suspended 80 games play major-league baseball for violating baseball’s drug policy. He was suspended 80 games after testing positive for Furosemide, a diuretic and masking agent. The Cubs issued a statement which ended with this: “We also expect Oscar to learn from this experience and will support him on his journey back. Per Program protocol, the Cubs will not comment further on this matter.” At the time, de la Cruz was on the Cubs’ 40 man roster.

Oscar de la Cruz is set to come off his suspension sometime in May. A lot of things can happen between now and then, but I do have a few questions about his future.

1. He has a history of elbow tenderness. I doubt if the Cubs would ever reveal the specifics of why de la Cruz was taking a steroid and tried to mask it. I’m just curious as to what injury he was trying to heal.

2. What role is Oscar going to play this year? Will he be a starter or will he start out as a reliever and work his way back to starter? Will he be a piggyback reliever or will he be a setup man with the possibility of turning into a closer? Considering how much he has been injured the past three summers, a role in the bullpen is not out of question.

3. Just how many innings is he going to get in this year to get ready for the majors? His career high was last year at 77.1 innings. That’s not going to get it done to build up arm strength for the majors. He will be 24 in the spring and if he’s going to be a starter anytime soon, he’s going to have to get 130-140 innings at the MiLB level. And if he does attain that workload, will his arm hold out?

4. At which affiliate is Oscar going to begin the season? There are much more spots available for him in Tennessee. AAA Iowa’s rotation is overflowing but there might be a spot in the bullpen for him there. As for AA Tennessee, if the Cubs want him to be a starter this year, that might be the best place.

5. How much can Cub fans trust him? That’s a good question that works on many levels. Trusting his ability to stay healthy is one way of looking at this question, while trusting him to stay off of steroids is another.

For many, the steroid issue is never going to go away. It’s always going to be in the back of their mind. Why he took the steroid is understandable, actually taking it is inexcusable. How the Cubs handle him is not going to be some precedent setting event. However, the actions of the organization in May will reveal just exactly how much faith they still have in him. The Cubs don’t give out 40-man spots willy nilly.

Oscar de la Cruz’s talent didn’t go away just because he was suspended for steroids. The ball comes out of his hand so loose it looks like he’s hardly throwing. That perception conflicts with the stress put on his elbow because it doesn’t even seem like he is putting forth much effort to throw 93 to 95 miles an hour.

What has been interesting this winter is that the many prospect lists still have him listed. He’s at 15 on Fangraphs while MLB Pipeline placed him at #3. The talent is still there, the questions now will be about his ability to stay healthy and clean .

Position Breakdown Series – RHSP Part 1: Upper Part of the System is Stacked

By Todd Johnson

As usual, I’m going to split the right-handed starting pitcher system evaluation into two posts. Last year, it was a number ranking thing where I had 12 to 7 in one post and then 6 to 1 in the other. This year, not so much. I decided to split them up into the top two levels of the minor league system and then Myrtle Beach on down. Rankings be damned! This post will look at exactly who the top arms are and who should be throwing at Iowa, Tennessee, and hopefully Chicago in 2019.  

1. It all starts with Adbert Alzolay this year. Even though he missed three months in 2018, he still had a lot of impressive moments at AAA. While technically still a starter, I would not be surprised to see him in Chicago as a reliever at some point this summer.

2. Trevor Clifton looks to be close to being ready for Chicago. His efficiency to get deep into a game is what’s going to keep him a starter in the majors. The same movement that he got on his curveball has now been added to his changeup, and his fastball continues to have good armside run in on a right-handed hitter.

3. Cory Abbott is the best pitcher the Cubs took in the 2017 Draft. He dominated two levels in 2018 at South Bend and Myrtle Beach. It took about 2-3 weeks for him to make adjustments and then it was on. It is not unreasonable to think he could he do the same in 2019.

4. For Duncan Robinson, he has the efficiency that Clifton is looking for. His second half was amazing at Tennessee and that earned him 2 starts for Iowa at the end of the year. The 6‘6“ righty out of Dartmouth has pushed himself to to being a guy the Cubs might consider for a spot start this summer. He did it all in a little over two years. Look for him to take the bump a time or two in Mesa with the big league club this spring.

5. Matt Swarmer’s 2018 is a kind of Hollywood type story. The big gangly kid added some muscle and some miles per hour to his fastball and everything just clicked. Now he’s able to throw 92 to 94 with a vicious curve and a wicked change. I don’t know if he starts in Iowa to begin the year or in Tennessee. Either way, he is not that far away.

6.  Michael Rucker is my guy. I think in the long term he might be a reliever because his stuff plays up a bit out of the pen, but when you throw 70% strikes, that turns a lot of heads.

7. Tyson Miller took off last year at Myrtle Beach and should be at AA to start 2019. If he continues adding onto his rather large 6‘3“ frame like he did last year, his stuff could tick up even more. It was fun to watch an arm who had gotten through the lower part of the system by using his command and control to have some added fire power with the same command and control. I’m excited to see what happens with him in 2019.

Still watching – Keegan Thompson looks like he could be a guy as he dominated high A Myrtle Beach. He was somewhat inconsistent at Tennessee but at times he was good. As well, I hope the Cubs can get Alex Lange on track. He has 2 plus pitches and a pedestrian fastball. If he could get his fastball to have some movement, he could get going upward. Lange can get teed up or he could strike out 10. You never know. Then again, Lange finished very strong in August with a 2.74 ERA for the month with opponents only hitting .160 off him. I’d like some more of that Alex Lange, please.

Sleeper – Thomas Hatch – Whatever happened to him in August, whether it was something he ate or drank or changed, needs to continue next year. He was a freaking beast on the mound with a 2.51 ERA in 5 starts, his best month at AA. I hope he can begin 2019 like he ended 2018.

The de la Cruz Factor 
When Oscar de la Cruz’s suspension ends, it will be intriguing to see if the Cubs stretch him or put him in the pen. His injurious past affected the suspension and putting him in the pen might kill two birds with one stone.

It is going to be a fun year for watching pitching at Iowa and Tennessee.