By Todd Johnson
As spring training got underway, I was getting ready for what I call my busy season, which actually began yesterday with a Scholastic bowl tournament. Throw in a history fair and seven nights of Scholastic bowl meets and you have my life through March 15. I am pretty sure I am going to be dragging but it still allows me plenty of time to recoup before spring break starts and spring training ends.
As a result, anytime I had an idea pop into my head this week, I pondered about whether to write a full-blown post about it, or just a small blurb in this column. So, I just cited to get some ideas down now and maybe I can expand upon them more at a later time.
Darvish Impact on Minors
With an opt out clause after two years, that clause does buy the Cubs a couple more years to develop some arms to take Darvish’s place should he leave via free agency. A lot can happen to a pitching prospect in two years. So, it’s a little hard to justify a full-blown post about the topic right now. While some may think that Adbert Alzolay might be one of those who could start in 2020. Thomas Hatch, Duncan Robinson, Alex Lange, Jose Albertos and few more will have their name in that hat.
3 More Coming to Camp
The Cubs invited three more non-roster players to spring training. They were all catchers and many are very familiar to most of you. Cael Brockmeyer, Erick Castillo, and PJ Higgins all got the call.
2 New International Signees
Per Arizona Phil, the Cubs signed two more Cuban international free agents this week. Kevin Moreno is a 17-year-old third baseman who does not have a lot of experience playing international baseball. Pitcher Raidel Orta played in the Serie Nacional when he was 18 in 2014/15. He missed the last two years after defecting. Now at 22, it should be interesting to see just exactly what he has and how much he can improve over the course of the year playing in the US. I’m very interested to see where the Cubs place both prospects after spring training. I made a spreadsheet that has the Cubs last few international classes. Use the tabs at the bottom to go from year to year.
Keith Law of ESPN released his top 30 draft prospects (subscription required) for 2018. While he did not place players with teams, he did rank them from 1 to 30. While I can’t get into specifics about who was ranked where, it’s quite clear the Cubs are going to get an outstanding player at number 24. Law’s rankings are quite different from MLB Pipeline’s top 50 and the first 30 in Baseball America’s top 200. His list is a perfect example of the rise and fall of many prospects and the differentiation in evaluation. As a result, one name Cubs fans may want to add to the list is Missouri State shortstop Jeremy Eierman.
A Bunch of Arms
Cubs also moved pitcher Drew Smyly to the 60 day DL and signed reliever Shae Simmons to a split major/minor league contract. The Cubs signed several pitchers this off-season including Anthony Bass, Daniel Camarena, Michael Roth, Dario Alvarez, Randy Rosario, Cory Mazzoni, Kyle Ryan, Alberto Baldonado, Luke Farrell, and Simmons. I don’t think many of these guys stand much of a chance of making the major leagues bullpen and only a few will probably break camp in the Cubs’ minor-league system. I can see Camarena getting an opportunity to start in the minors at either Iowa or Tennessee. Rosario and Ryan have an outside shot to make the major leagues roster but will need some help and the same is true of Farrell, who is more of a starting pitcher. I don’t think Alvarez, Bass, and even the new signee Simmons have much of a shot. I think the Cubs are pretty clear on just exactly who is going to be in their bullpen. I’ll probably talk about this more as spring training wears on and players get some work in.
Coming Up this Week
On Wednesday the “Leveling Up” series begins to wind down as I look at outfielder Nelson Velasquez. On Friday, I should have something for you either about the bullpen or about young Latin arms coming into the system in 2018. On Saturday the 24th, I will be with my students participating in the history fair at NIU and then “Spring Training News and Notes” will take over for “The Weekly” on Sundays until the season begins. I am also pondering a draft article that looks at a few players beyond the first round.
By Todd Johnson
I am still so excited! I haven’t been this pumped up since November of 2016!
Cubs fans are now just 4 days away from meeting Yu Darvish and him taking part in his first official practice this Thursday. Now, with Yu in the rotation, Mike Montgomery heads back to the pen. It makes me wonder who Dillon Maples has to get past to earn a spot. It also makes me wonder how much this could affect Justin Grimm, who no longer has a guaranteed contract after losing his arbitration case.
The Cubs starting rotation is now very deep at the major league level. A staff of Hendricks, Quintana, Darvish, Lester, and Chatwood puts the team on par with any staff in the majors. They aren’t going to go 162-0, but I could see the Cubs winning 95+ games in 2018. A week ago, without Darvish, the Cubs were predicted to win 89 games by Pecota. Darvish has to increase that win total at least 5 or 6 games.
About an hour after the signing, I began shifting my thoughts on the organizational impact this signing has. It puts in place a staff for at least the next two years, depending on when Darvish could opt out of his deal. It buys the Cubs time to develop several young arms. After the 2020 season, Darvish is the only current Cub in the rotation signed to a contract. Lester, Hendricks, Quintana, and Chatwood’s contracts all expire at the end of the 2020 season.
As a result, the Cubs’ young arms can be brought along and developed as assets, as Theo always intends. With so many young arms, the Cubs could have a large stockpile they could use in a deal later down the road while still being able to cherry pick the best of their own to keep. It’s a win-win scenario.
And finally, there is no compensation pick attached to Darvish. Because he was traded mid-season, the Cubs do not lose their second round pick. So, it looks like the Cubs will be picking up a pick should Arrieta sign soon. That would give them 4 picks in the top 75-80 selections.
In Prospect News…
Baseball Prospectus released their Top 101 prospects for 2018 and one Cub made the list. Adbert Alzolay came in at #95. Here is what John Eshleman of BP had to say about Adbert:
Alzolay has a starter’s delivery in a reliever’s body with a change-up that could push him to either role. Currently, the pitch is not playable to turn over MLB rotations, but he could right now get outs from a bullpen with his FB/SL combination, playing to higher end of velo band in short stints. The relative quietness of his delivery given his size, a result of plus athleticism and a strong lower half that stabilizes his delivery. I project change up and command improvement enough to keep Alzolay in an MLB rotation.
While Theo Epstein and the Cubs see Alzolay as a starter for now, Adbert still has some work to do to get there.
MLB Pipeline announced they will release their latest Cubs’ Top 30 Prospect list on Thursday February 22. Over the offseason, I have been keeping track of the prospect rankings and assigning points to where each player has been ranked. Using Baseball America, Fangraphs, John Sickels, Keith Law, Pipeline, and Baseball Prospectus, the leader in points right now is Adbert Alzolay followed by Aramis Ademan. Only one point separates the two. Pitcher Jose Albertos rounds out the top three. Then it is a while until fourth place. Here are the top nine point values so far.
Ademan – 55
Lange – 36
de la Cruz – 30
Little – 27
Caratini – 25
Hatch – 19
Tseng – 12
I did include my Top 21’s top 10 in these results. However, I did not include Caratini as I don’t consider him a prospect. Normally, I usually include Cubs Den’s rankings, but this year Michael Ernst’s did not rank them. Rather he placed them in tiers. Although, Michael did have Jose Albertos as the lone Tier 1 prospect. I don’t think that his ranking them would have changed the list and its point totals and rankings much.
I don’t really think MLB Pipeline’s list will change many people’s perceptions of either prospect or the Cubs as a whole. It has been a while since the Cubs did not had a clearly defined top prospect, let alone a top 100.
I hope that this summer sees some prospects like Albertos, Ademan, and Lange matriculate up to full season ball and onto prospect lists. Maybe next winter the Cubs could get 3-4 names on a list.
Also in prospect news, Fangraphs released their KOTAH projections. The list is a projection of WAR for the next five years at the MLB level. Two Cubs made the list. Charcer Burks came in at #61 with a projected WAR of 5 and Victor Caratini came in at #35 with a 6.7 WAR projection. I did not see Burks like that, but I like that he is highly thought of after a brilliant first half in 2017.
Just throwing this out there…
I am wanting to do profiles of two prospects but I don’t have pictures of them, yet. One is of Danis Correa, a pitcher who threw in just two games for Mesa after coming over from the DSL. The other is Jesus Tejada, who threw in the DSL the past two summers.
This week, come Wednesday, Fernando Kelli gets profiled in the “Leveling Up” series. I really enjoyed profiling the excitement for the young outfielder. I also have two spring training previews for the major league camp and the minor league camp in the works for this week. The major league post hits Monday, the minors on Friday.
Baseball Cards of the Week
By Todd Johnson
Lists, Lists, and More Lists
It was a pretty exciting week as far as lists go. On Monday, Keith Law released his top 100 prospect list. Two Cub prospects, Aramis Ademan and Adbert Alzolay, found their names in the second half of the list. In addition, Jose Albertos later made Law’s “Just Missed List” of 10 prospects outside the top 100. That is a great sign heading into the season for Jose and the Cubs. On Friday, Law ranked the Cubs very low in his annual farm system rankings (subscription required). No shocker there.
Over the past two weeks, MLB Pipeline listed their top 10 prospects at each position in the minors. Catcher Victor Caratini was the only Cub prospect to make any position list and he came in at number 10.
And then last night, MLB Pipeline released their top 100 prospects. I did not expect to see any Cubs make the list as Jim Callis spoke previously that it would be very hard to get a Cub on there. And no Cub made it.
Starting in about a week, MLB Pipeline will be putting out their top 30 prospects for each MLB team. Alzolay looks to be their number one prospect on that list for the Cubs.
— Jonathan Mayo (@JonathanMayo) January 28, 2018
Spring Training Invitees
With just two weeks until the beginning of Spring Training, the Cubs began assembling the camp roster this week. In addition to minor league players on the 40 man like Mark Zagunis, Adbert Alzolay, and Duane Underwood, the Cubs invited 19 other non-rostered players to come to camp. They include:
Pitchers: Anthony Bass, Craig Brooks, David Garner, Justin Hancock, Thomas Hatch, Williams Perez, Alberto Baldonado, Daniel Camarena, and Kyle Ryan.
Infielders: Ryan Court, Mike Freeman, Jason Vosler, and Chesny Young.
Outfielders: Jacob Hannemann and Bijan Rademacher.
Catchers: Taylor Davis, Chris Gimenez, Ian Rice, and Ali Solis.
A few names stick out to me in Hatch, Rice, Garner, and Brooks. I am not surprised to see Rice, Garner, and Brooks get invites because they have already played at AA. As for Hatch, I’m gonna look forward to seeing what he can do as he has yet to play at Tennessee. This might be a little crumb for him. I can’t wait to see how Rice does in that setting along with Garner and Brooks, both who throw in the mid to upper 90s.
Additionally, a few names that were omitted also stand out to me. Jake Stinnett, Yasiel Balaguert, Charcer Burks, and the newly signed Wynton Bernard did not receive the special invitation. In most years, the NRI is usually just a formality as the Cubs tend to use players from across the system in games. It’s going to be true again this year. Burks should get some playing time and Stinnett will likely pitch for an inning or two just to see how they match up against MLB talent. That might be good for both of their confidence levels.
Coming Up Next Week
On Tuesday, I have an article coming out for BP Wrigleyville where I talk about 10 things to think about regarding the 2018 draft. On Wednesday, 2017 first-round draft pick Alex Lange gets the “Leveling Up” treatment. The “Position Break Down” series ended last Friday with relievers. So, now I have to come up with some new things to do until Spring Training. One of them involves the year 2021. I may just come right out with one post about that year and what the end of that season means.
Baseball Card of the Week
By Todd Johnson
Not much is happening at the Sheraton Hotel today. I am going to one session, and one session only, this morning at 10:30 called “Down on the Farm.” It is about the Cubs MiLB system and the main speaker is Jaron Madison, the Director of the Cubs’ Farm System. Jason McLeod is usually the main attraction, but not this year. I hope to ask a question about where Alex Lange is likely headed. If someone beats me to that, I have backup questions about Trevor Clifton, Duane Underwood, Jeremiah Estrada, and/or Ricky Tyler Thomas. I might even have one about Nelson Velazquez.
The Pirates trade of Gerrit Cole to Astros last night is a double edged sword. For one, it takes a pitcher off the market. Two, it decimates the strength of the Pirates’ rotation which might give the Cubs a couple more wins and maybe more if the Pirates sell off more players. I don’t think it puts any undue pressure on the Cubs to make a deal, but it doesn’t make it any easier to sign Darvish or Arrieta.
Until then…MiLB News This Week
The Cubs did re-sign outfielder Trey Martin as a minor league free agent. He will be assigned to AAA Iowa. The Cubs also signed lefty Daniel Camarena to a MiLB. He’s a starter who pitched last year in AA in the Yankee’s system.
Down on the Farm Session
It is hard to know where to begin summarizing the session. There was a lot of great information from Jaron Madison and Alex Suarez, the Cubs’ director of international scouting and player development. They were later joined by Dillon Maples and Victor Caratini. All four gave great insights into the development process.
The topics were all over the place so I’m just going to kind of list them randomly as best I can.
- Cubs have 80 to 90 regular scouts in the US and about 30 international scouts scouring the globe including the Pacific Rim.
- Victor Caratini explained how spending spring training with the big league team helped prepare him to get to the majors and to do well once he got there.
- I somehow was able to ask the first question of the session. My query was where would Albertos and Alex Lange start the season? Jaron Madison said that he expected both would start the year at South Bend.
- Dillon Maples said two keys to his success were proper nutrition and his pitching coaches. Maples explained how the Cubs have a nutritionist at every level to help the players maintain their strength throughout the year.
- One of the highlights of the day for me was when Jaron Madison talked about Corey Black. He said that expectations for Corey Black were still very high. “Maturity has taken a step forward” and he has “2 plus secondaries, sometimes 3.” I really liked that they have not lost faith in his talent.
- Jose Albertos – mlb caliber pitches, tough kid on the mound . “The injuries that he had we don’t see hurting his development. He has the tools to succeed, just needs to continue to develop.”
- The Mexican market is producing great for the Cubs. They are the major leagues leader in signing kids from there the past three years.
- As for Adbert Alzolay – love his athleticism and arm speed – great mental make-up, not afraid to try anything, fearless.
- One last interesting tidbit was that they are over 100 Cubans who have been declared international free agents that have yet to sign with a major league club. The problem for the Cubs date they don’t get to see them play in Cuba because of the embargo, so the only place they can see him is initialed case outside of the island.
Overall the session was my favorite of the convention. It usually is. I’ll be back on Wednesday with a look at David Bote in the “Up Next” series and on Friday I will take a look at the Cubs left-handed starters in the minors. On Tuesday, I’ll have a recap on BP Wrigleyville about the convention in the minor leagues.
By Todd Johnson
Another week in the off-season came and went. No major trade nor did a major free-agent signing take place as Cub fans just sat and wondered whether Yu Darvish would be a Cub and if the Cubs would sign another relief pitcher to be the closer. Hopefully, something shakes down today, but I doubt it.
In the meantime…
New Cubs pitching coach Jim Hickey was interviewed on Inside the Clubhouse on 670 the Score yesterday. Bruce Levine and David Schuster discussed several topics with the experienced pitching coach who spent time in Houston and Tampa before signing with the Cubs this offseason. In the interview, he came across as an old-school pitching coach as he talked about his role with the team and what he’s been doing since he’s been hired.
One thing that struck me early in the interview was that Hickey said he had talked to over 30 pitchers who were going to be in spring training. I found that interesting because the Cubs will only have 12-13 roster spots for pitching. Anyway, I like the fact that he reached out to them in the off-season shortly after being hired.
Later on in the interview, Hickey explained his philosophy about managing a pitching staff for an entire season. He said that he hopes his starters can go 160 to 200 innings and that he can depend on four guys at the back of the pen to go along with “two guys that can give you some length.” I found that statement interesting because he didn’t necessarily say that there had to be closer, just four guys that he could depend on at the end of the game. For the most part, Hickey stayed away from stating any kind of defined roles. However, he did mention Mike Montgomery as one guy who could be a length pitcher.
The Cubs have gone out and signed a variety of arms this off-season – a lot of the pitchers are just depth in case of injuries. If the Cubs have to depend upon Dario Alvarez, he either was lights out at AAA or someone got hurt. I hope most Cubs fans don’t expect anything out of a lot of these signees except for Cishek and Morrow.
In other news…
The Cubs signed a few minor league free agents this week in Ryan Court, Anthony Bass, Taylor Davis, and Mike Freeman. They should all begin the year at AAA Iowa.
I started trying to assemble minor league rosters for who is going to be where in 2018. The position players did not seem to be too much of an issue. But when it comes to pitching, I might be out of my league right now. There’s going to be a lot of assessment and development take place in spring training.
The two biggest unknowns for roster assignments I foresee are who the starting pitchers are going to be in South Bend and Myrtle Beach. There are about 20 arms who could be starters in those two levels. When it comes to relief pitching, there are going to be a lot arms competing for coveted spots from Iowa on down. Depending on who the Cubs sign for depth at Iowa, those decisions could ripple throughout the system.
For those of you into podcasts, check out Baseball America’s podcast about the Cubs system. It not as bad as the first three minutes make it out to be. The conversation really takes off at the 3 minute mark when the Cubs pitching prospects get analyzed. Names discussed in detail include Thomas Hatch, Brendon Little, and Alex Lange.
Coming Up Next Week
On Wednesday, Zack Short gets profiled in the “Leveling Up” series. On Friday, outfielders get broken down in the position breakdown series. Hopefully, there will be a transaction of some sort this week and it is a starting pitcher. Maybe it will be Darvish or it could even be a trade.
I’m taking the next couple of days off. I hope you are spending the holidays with your loved ones.
Baseball Card of the Week
By Todd Johnson
What a week!
Between the Cubs attempted signing of Shohei Ohtani, the possibility that Giancarlo Stanton briefly wanted to come to the Cubs, and the signing of Tyler Chatwood, I am worn out. It was nice to sleep in on Saturday morning, if only to get some rest. Starting tomorrow, the General Manager meetings will take place in Orlando, Florida. As a result, there will be no respite next week.
From trade rumors to free agents, the internet has been a buzz of activity and speculation now that Ohtani and Stanton have cleared the marketplace.
Later, on Thursday the 14th, the Rule Five Draft will take place. There will be two parts – a minor-league phase and a major-league phase. The Cubs have 48 players eligible to be selected in the major league phase. However, most teams are not gonna want to take a chance on the Cubs’ talent except for maybe a few players like reliever Pedro Araujo and utility man Chesny Young. Then again, Araujo has never pitched above Class A Myrtle Beach while Young had an up and down season at AAA. Jacob Hannemann, who got a cup of coffee last year with Seattle, could be selected as well.
The Cubs could take a chance and select a pitcher like Kohl Stewart from Minnesota who they could put in the bullpen and develop him into a starter. The former 2013 first round pick (#4) of the Twins is someone the Cubs could take a gamble on in hopes of future performance. If it doesn’t work out, the Cubs return him back to Minnesota at the end of spring training. Ideally, the Cubs would hope to find a left-handed strike thrower and hope they get lucky like they did with Hector Rondon in 2012.
When it comes to the minor-league phase of the draft on Thursday, the Cubs only have 24 players eligible to be selected by other minor league systems. Any of the Cubs eligible prospects could be selected. Most likely, other organizations could select one of the Cubs eligible catchers that include Ali Solis, Cael Brockmeyer, Erick Costello, Alberto Mineo, and Will Remillard. The Cubs might try to stockpile some AAA and AA bullpen arms.
On Tuesday this past week, many of the prospects that were released in the Braves international free agent scandal began signing with other teams. Going into the weekend, there were still six players left. The Cubs currently have $930,000 left in their 2017-18 international free agent bonus pool per Arizona Phil. It looks like the bidding has been pretty high as the first six prospects all signed for bonuses over $1 million. The Cubs could be shutout on getting one inked.
In addition to the meetings next week, Baseball Prospectus will be releasing their top 10 Cubs Prospect List at some point. It was originally scheduled for Monday the 11th, but it looks like it’s going to be backed up to later in the week. I will be analyzing that list for this site, Cubs Insider, and BP Wrigleyville.
I last redid the Top 21 Prospect list shortly after the end of the minor league season. While I see no reason to currently change it, events could take place this week that might necessitate said change. I don’t foresee a lot of movement up my list except for Nelson Velazquez and Alex Lange. However, there’s gonna be a lot of movement in the list next summer. I originally planned on redoing the list in late March, just prior to the regular season beginning. Let’s play it by ear this week. The earliest I could redo it would be Saturday.
It’s hard to believe that we are closer to the draft than we are away from it. MLB Pipeline released their top 50 draft prospects last week and it looks like there will be a lot of good bats for the Cubs to pick from at #24. Pipeline has Florida high school pitcher Carter Stewart ranked #24. What I am intrigued by is the plethora of bats coming right after Stewart that include Greyson Jenista and Alec Bohm of Wichita State, thee Seth Beer, Luken Baker, and possible 5 tool sensation Tristan Pompey of Kentucky. A lot can happen between now and June. The player I am intrigued most with right now is Shortstop Xavier Edwards, a high school shortstop from Florida, who is ranked #38 by Pipeline.
Tomorrow, the Mailbag returns as I answer just one question on South Bend’s possible rotation for 2018. On Wednesday, the “Leveling Up” series is back and looks at pitcher Jose Albertos while the shortstops in the system get ranked on Friday in the position breakdown series.
Baseball Card of the Week
By Todd Johnson
I was all set to begin uploading “The Weekly” on Saturday night when I thought I would jump onto Twitter to see if there was a trade or signing. I should have known better. 15 minutes later, I finished reading John Sickels’ ranking of Cubs prospects and realized I would have to write a whole new column. Damn you, John Sickels!
To begin, Sickels’ list has a different top prospect than other recent prospect lists and his contains several rankings that are quite different from Fangraphs and Baseball America.
Pitcher Adbert Alzolay is fittingly ranked number one. And not surprisingly, Sickels did not give out one grade of “A” to any of the Cub prospects. In fact, he only handed out just six Bs. That’s quite an indictment of the Cubs’ system. Then again, just three of his top 10 prospects began their season above A+ last year.
The top prospect for both Baseball America and Fangraphs, shortstop Ademan, came in at number two and 2017 draft pick Alex Lange came in at number three. Lange’s inclusion so high in the list likely has to do more with his ability to move fast through the system based on one single dominant pitch, his curveball. I really like the placement of Lange this high. I love his competitiveness just as much as his curve.
Yeah, I’ve noticed the effort issue plus mixed reports on his changeup and FB velocity. But his track record is strong and I think he may thrive in pro environment. https://t.co/TRs3tcoYYN
— johnsickels (@MinorLeagueBall) December 1, 2017
Other players to make the top 10 included Jose Albertos, Victor Caratini, Oscar de la Cruz, Thomas Hatch, Brendon Little, Jen-Ho Tseng, and Mark Zagunis. In Sickels’ second 10, his selections get a little bit more adventurous.
Coming in at number 16 is pitcher Michael Rucker. Rucker started out as a reliever at South Bend in 2017 and wound up going to Myrtle Beach mid-summer and later replaced Oscar de la Cruz in the Pelicans’ starting rotation. Based on his summer split of a 2.51 ERA in 15 starts at Myrtle Beach, Rucker doesn’t seem to be letting go of the rotation at all. It’s a pretty meteoric rise one year after being drafted. He throws a lot strikes, something the Cubs seem to lack.
Sickels also gives some love to pitcher Keegan Thompson out of Auburn at number 17. Drafted in the 4th round in 2017, Thompson pitched some in relief at Eugene last summer. After missing all of 2016, Thompson came back as a different pitcher as he relied more on experience than a purebred 95 mph fastball. Instead, command and control became his calling card. He only threw 19 innings while striking out 23 in short season ball. He did make one start, a three inning scoreless affair.
I was a little surprised to see Sickels’ list so early this offseason, even more so in the wake of Fangraphs’ list, which just came out on Thursday. Sickels’ list does prove a few things about what I thought would happen this winter. One, not every evaluator is going to agree on who the Cubs’ number one prospect is. In addition, I don’t even think there’s a consensus on who the top Cub prospects are. DJ Wilson, who came in at number nine for Fangraphs, did not even make Sickels’ top 20 and graded out of with a C+.
I’m starting to get a kick out of the differentiation amongst the lists.
Two players who I thought might see a little love just based on their 2017 performances were Ian Rice and Zack Short. Neither has yet to make a list.
Then again, while offseason lists are fun to discuss the value of prospects, I tend to prefer mid-season rankings as you tend to get a better feel for players drafted the year before. This was true last year for Short, Rucker, and pitcher Duncan Robinson. I wonder what will be said about Little, Lange, Cory Abbott, and Keegan Thompson in the middle of next summer?
No word on when MLB Pipeline or Keith Law will publish their new lists. However, Baseball Prospectus is set to drop their top 10 Cubs prospect list on December 11. Hopefully, there will be a new name on the top of that list, like… say, Ohtani. That would be great!