2018 Affiliate Reviews: Tennessee’s Rotation Stole the Show

By Todd Johnson

67-71 Record in 2018

Strengths and Highlights
The strength of this team all year was the starting pitching rotation. Beginning with Trevor Clifton, who quickly went to Iowa, and Duncan Robinson, who went to Iowa later, the Smokies had plenty of depth. So much so, they went to a six man rotation in the second half. Matt Swarmer, Michael Rucker, Thomas Hatch, Keegan Thompson, and Justin Steele all shined on the mound for the Smokies. Rucker, and Hatch will likely join Clifton and Robinson in Iowa in 2019. Thompson, Justin Steele, and Swarmer could begin the year in Tennessee after only pitching at Tennessee for just two months in 2018. Or anything could happen depending on spring training.

What Else Worked Well in 2018?
Short, Rice, and Giambrone

These three hitters displayed a patient approach at the plate which allowed them to get on base at high clips. Short and Giambrone both hit 17 home runs while Rice seemed to have a power outage but was still getting on base at over a .400 pace. Hopefully, Rice will be protected in the upcoming Rule Five Draft. Otherwise, some team is going to snap him up.

Returning for 2019
Aside from the aforementioned pitchers and position players mentioned above, there will be a few players returning to AA. Some players may have played their last days as a Cub and they might even be familiar names. The key for this team next year will be at the plate. They will have plenty of pitching, but it will all come down to the bats.

Expect to see Connor Myers return. The multi-talented defender was up and down at AA at the plate, but he was magnificent in centerfield. Eddy Martinez should be back along with catcher PJ Higgins, who had a short tenure at Tennessee in 2018. Charcer Burks’ assignment might be up in the air depending on his spring as well as he had an up and down year.

What Will Be Left in the Bullpen?
Lefty Jordan Minch will go to Iowa. But who else is going to make up the bullpen next year? Scott Effross should be back along with Wyatt Short to anchor the back end of the pen.

Incoming Position Players
Jared Young, Jhonny Pereda, Roberto Caro
These three guys have earned their promotions and DJ Wilson could be added depending on how he does in Arizona this fall. Then again, having to earn his way to Tennessee might be the best thing for Wilson. I’m excited to see how Young will do along with Pereda and Caro.

Remains to Be Seen – Wladimir Galindo could be a guy who also makes it to AA if he has a good spring training. Based on his 2018 stats, you wouldn’t think so. But then again, he has immense talent and is just waiting for it to click in at any level.

Aramis Ademan is likely to repeat Myrtle Beach. But if Nico Hoerner gets it done in the Arizona Fall League, Hoerner could be the Smokies’ starting shortstop bypassing Myrtle Beach..

Arms Aplenty Coming
Alex Lange, Cory Abbott, Erick Leal, and Tyson Miller should headline a somewhat dominating group of starting pitchers heading to AA. There will not be  much of a drop off between the departing and the returning. Add in relievers Bailey Clark, Tyler Peyton, Manny Rondon, and Garrett Kelly, the Cubs’ AA affiliate should be stacked in the pen.

2019 Sleeper
If 2B Carlos Sepulveda can come back healthy, the young 21-year-old could be pleasant surprise for the Smokies at some point next year. He’s basically missed two full years now but he had elite bat-to-ball skills when healthy at South Bend in 2016.

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The Weekly: Bryce Rumors Begin, AFL Starts This Week, Miguel Amaya News, and a Review Preview

By Todd Johnson

It only took a few hours after the Cubs lost to the Rockies for the Bryce Harper rumors to begin anew. The sports betting company Bovada put the Cubs at even money to sign Harper when free agency begins after the World Series ends. While the Cubs do have a good shot at signing the soon-to-be free agent, it is definitely not a sure thing. Although, I sure do like the Cubs chances. You can figure out who’s going to play where later.

And in other MiLB news, the Cubs will be back at Tennessee in 2019. Considering the PDC is only for two years means that the two sides are going to be working some things out between now and 2020 or the Cubs will have a new AA home in 2021.

BA League Top 20s
Baseball America continues to release it’s top 20 prospect lists in each of the minor leagues. The Cubs did not have a top 20 prospect  in either the Pacific Coast League, the Southern League, or the Carolina League. This week, the Cubs got off the schneid as catcher Miguel Amaya was named the number 12 Prospect in the Midwest League. BA described his offensive talents well:

“Amaya took a big step forward this year with his power, as he hit nine home runs and slugged .500 in the first half of the season before wearing down in the second half. Amaya does chase out of the strike zone too often and needs to improve his ability to recognize breaking balls, but he has future average or even above-average power.”

AFL Preview
The Arizona Fall League is set to begin on Wednesday Tuesday, October 9. The Cubs have a total of nine players who will be on the roster for the Mesa Solar Sox. Most of the players played their 2018 season at Myrtle Beach.

2018 first round draft pick Nico Hoerner looks to be the prospect to watch every day. It’ll be interesting to see how he does against such advanced competition after only getting in 49 at bats as a pro this summer before an elbow injury forced him to miss the last six weeks of the season at South Bend.

I’m excited to see how well several other prospects do in this advanced setting. Reliever Bailey Clark is going to be one player I will watch with great anticipation. As well, I’m curious as to how outfielder DJ Wilson will do and hopefully he can stay healthy.

According MLB Pipeline, pitcher Justin Steele might be the Cubs’ sleeper prospect. They said, 

“Steele was just starting to come into his own when he blew out his elbow in August 2017, but he returned to the mound earlier than expected (11 months later) after Tommy John surgery. He can run his fastball up to 97 mph, also can dodge bats with his curveball and has made encouraging progress with his control and command.”

Other Cubs prospects playing in the league include pitchers Erick Leal and Manny Rondon, catchers Jhonny Pereda and PJ Higgins, and 2B Trent Giambrone.

Preview of Affiliate Reviews
Starting tomorrow, I’m going to be releasing the 2018 season reviews for each of the Cubs’ stateside affiliates. I’m going to start with AAA Iowa and work my way down to South Bend this week. Next week, I will cover Eugene and the two Mesa clubs.

While the first half of each article is technically a review of the 2018 season, The second half looks at which prospects should be promoted to the next level and which prospects should be arriving from the level below. The hardest part of projecting next season squads came down to who is going to be in the rotation at each affiliate. A lot of that still has to be determined come spring training.

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The Weekly: Tennessee PDC, Copa de la Diversion Expands, AFL, and Card Rabbit Holes

By Todd Johnson

Playoffs
Today is the final day of the regular season. But then again, it feels like the Cubs have been in the playoffs for a couple weeks now. If needed, the Cubs will play the Brewers tomorrow afternoon at Wrigley with Jose Quintana on the mound. He pretty much owns them. If the Cubs get to that point, I feel pretty good about their chances to win the division.

Still Nothing Official
There is still no official news out of Tennessee, but the good news is that the Smokies are still tweeting out stuff related to the Cubs most every day. However, yesterday, Josh Timmers tweeted a link to a Pensacola News Journal report. The article said: “The Chicago Cubs earlier this month re-upped with the Tennessee Smokies, located near Knoxville, although it hasn’t been officially announced.”

So, that’s good to know. It’ll be interesting to see whether the deal is for two years or four or if there are any new stipulations to the PDC, such as improved video feed or high-def cameras. I would enjoy those.

Copa de la Diversion
In other big news, the Iowa Cubs and the Myrtle Beach Pelicans are both going to be part of the “Copa de la Diversion” in 2019. The minor-league program is meant to diversify and expand MILB‘s brand to Hispanics. Last year, it was very successful in Eugene. Every Tuesday, the Emeralds transformed into the Monarcas with cool hats and even cooler uniforms. Another side aspect was the amount of pride that players took in wearing the new brands. It was a lot of fun to watch.

The names and uniforms for Iowa and Myrtle Beach will not be released until March.

No Instructs, Just Rehab
For the second year in a row, the Cubs are not partaking in the Arizona Fall Instructional League. There is action going on in Mesa, but that only pertains to players on rehab assignments and players getting ready for the Arizona Fall League. The Arizona Fall League begins play on October 9 for six weeks. I will have weekly updates on the progress of the 9 Cubs playing for the Mesa Solar Sox.

BA League Top 20s and Chats
Earlier this week, Baseball America began releasing Top 20 Prospect Lists for each league in the minors. So far, the Cubs have been shut out in the Pacific Coast League, the Southern League, and the Carolina League. Hopefully, that prospect drought will end this week with Miguel Amaya, Nico Hoerner, and/or Brailyn Marquez in either the Midwest or Northwest Leagues.

In one of the chats about the Carolina League, Baseball America’s JJ Cooper was high on Cory Abbott but not so much on Aramis Ademan and Alex Lange. In the AA chat, Matt Eddy said the following about Zack Short at Tennessee:

Tennessee SS Zack Short ranks as the best defensive SS in the SL and had one of the strongest infield arms. He also clubbed 17 HR and drew 82 walks. I expected those attributes to play better with managers and scouts, but they uniformly expressed skepticism that Short’s straight uphill swing plane would play against better pitchers. Still, he has attributes that could make him a utility type of infielder.

We shall see how Zack does in AAA against better pitchers very soon.

Card Digging
I can go down an Internet rabbit hole with the best of them. This week, it was looking for pictures of Tennessee Smokies . I got a few good ones, especially of Thomas Hatch and Michael Rucker. Those cards should be out later in the week on the Facebook page. If you know of any unseen pics of prospects from local papers or other photographers, send me the link over on Twitter or on Facebook.

Tomorrow, I will be releasing my cards of September post which is very Eugene heavy. Still, there are a lot a great cards/pictures.

Also Coming Up
Last week, I wrote about some players coming back from injuries and poor performances. This week, I am going to remain flexible. I originally wanted to do affiliate recaps this week, but I will wait until the playoffs are over to release those. I am just going to play it by ear for a while.

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2019 Comebacks – Can Some Top Prospects Rebound from a Poor 2018?

By Todd Johnson

Prospect comebacks are common in minor league baseball. They happen all the time, but not for everyone. Success at one level does not guarantee a prospect’s success at the next. In some cases, injuries can derail a career and sometimes poor performance will do the trick more often than not. In 2018, several prospects at Myrtle Beach and Tennessee struggled mightily. For some of them, this was their first difficulty in pro ball. For others, it was their second year at the level. That can come across as very disconcerting.

Scott Kornberg, the Myrtle Beach announcer, and I have discussed several times which level is the hardest test for a prospect. Scott went with high A and I went with AA. For the prospects in this post, Scott and I are both correct.

Myrtle Beach
The Carolina League has always been known as a pitcher’s league. The wind tends  to blow in from left most days in Myrtle Beach. It’s no wonder that many hitters struggled this year as Pelicans.

The Troubled: Aramis Ademan, Wladimir Galindo, Kevonte MItchell, DJ Wilson, and many more.

Most of these prospects should repeat Myrtle Beach. Wilson might be the only exception as he is seeing extra time in the Arizona Fall League. His performance in October and November might decide his 2019 fate more than his 2018 season in which he missed almost two months.

Ademan, who is 19, should repeat this level, too. While his defense is quite good and getting better, his bat lacks the ability to spray the ball and control the strike zone. The former #1 prospect in the post-Eloy era only hit .209 on the year. His walk rate of 8.4% is very low and his K rate of 21.2% are not balanced enough. No wonder his OBP was only .294 and his wRC+ was a low 66.

The one player whose performance surprised me most was Wladimir Galindo’s. In the past, I often referred to Wladimir as “my guy.” He began 2018 in style and was just getting going when the injury bug struck again after missing 2/3 of 2017 with a broken ankle. He did return this year after a month and struggled to get it going. Wladimir struck out an inconceivable 28.3% while only walking 7%. Add in 29 errors on defense and you have a year he’d like to forget.

Repeating would not be the worst thing for either prospect. Adjustments have to made, but both players are relatively young (19 and 21) and are still considered valuable prospects within the organization. If both can learn to control the strike zone and layoff some pitches out of the zone, their comeback chances would be greatly improved.

Tennessee
Trevor Clifton and Jason Vosler are two prospects who had poor 2017 seasons at Tennessee. Both took the offseason to got their heads right, worked on their craft, and then they earned promotions to AAA by July 1. It can be done.

The Troubled: Eddy Martinez, Charcer Burks

If Charcer Burks returns to Tennessee in 2019, it will be his third straight season in AA. He had a roller coaster of a 2018 season. Check out his BA/OBP splits
April – .169/.286
May – .296/.395
June – .200/.319
July – .283/.381
August – .173/.232

He was the very model of inconsistency. The thing is, that statline is not too far off of 2017, either. I like to watch Charcer play as he has a mixture of power and speed. However, he needs to be a stable hitter rather than a streaky one.

When it comes to Eddy Martinez, now 23, it is hard to know what is going on inside his head. I thought his decent second half in 2017 would bleed over to success in 2018. It just didn’t happen. Eddy just barely scratched a .300+ OBP  once and that was in July. For the year, he hit .221 with a .276 OBP, easily underwhelming numbers. Martinez has all the physical tools to be a star but somehow cannot transfer his skill set into the game.

Bouncing back from a poor season is easier said than done. If everybody could do it, the majors would have a lot more players knocking on the door. With that in mind, adjustments will have to made and the players will have to buy into changes. The younger the prospect, the better chance those adjustments will stick.

The Weekly: No Tennessee PDC Yet, Baseball Cards, and Cubs Announce Awards

By Todd Johnson

Is No News Good News?
I have not heard anything yet about the Cubs and the Smokies renewing their player development contract. It’s not like the Cubs in the Theo era to wait this long to renew a player development contract. The Cubs tend to do it in season as they did with Eugene earlier in the summer.

There have been rumors of the Smokies ownership buying land in downtown  Knoxville. I wonder if that could have anything to do with the delay? I really like the Smokies, their apparel, and Broadcaster Mick. It would be strange not to have those elements as part of the Cubs minor-league brand.

It would take a lot of getting used to if they did not renew. There are currently four other cities who have not signed with a major league club for 2019 either. They are Midland and Amarillo, both in the Texas League, and Chattanooga and Pensacola are without affiliates in the Southern League.

Baseball Cards Grind to a Halt
It’s been over a week since the Eugene Emeralds won the Northwest League championship. As the last team to finish playing, they were also the last affiliate to get some press. As a result, it looks as if the pictures for the baseball cards dried up about in the middle of this week. I still wound up with over 100 cards for the month with a lot of cards being Eugene players. A few more pics will trickle through before the end of this week.

Photo by John Conover

Cubs Announce Two Awards
Last week, I announced my hitter, starting pitcher, and reliever of the year awards. This week, the Cubs announced their player and pitcher of the year awards. Jared Young was given the player of the year while Matt Swarmer won the pitcher of the year award.

Cubs Insider and BP Wrigleyville
Over at CI, my goal for the off season is to write more original content for that site. This week, I published a review of the 2018 draft class’ first season. Check it out!. At Baseball Prospectus Wrigleyville, I also put up a recent post about the comeback of Justin Steele.

Coming Up This Week
Last week, I released my second half break out awards for hitter, pitcher, and reliever. Tomorrow, I’ll be taking a look at some guys who were injured this year and the hopes for their comebacks in 2019. On Wednesday, I’ll check out some guys who had some poor years in 2018 and their chances for a comeback in 2019. On Friday, 19-year-old infielder Yonathan Perlaza gets the prospect profile treatment.

In addition, the affiliate season reviews are all written, they just need edited. I’ll do the full season affiliates the first week of October and the short season clubs get examined the second week.

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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.

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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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