The Weekly – Notes on Debuts, Signings, Awards, Nico, Justin Steele, Cards, and Grant Fennell

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By Todd Johnson

*Friday was the final day underclassmen and high school players drafted by the Cubs’ this year could sign a pro contract. The Cubs had around $85,000 in extra bonus pool money and they stunned everyone by getting 35th round pick OF Edmond Americaan from Chipola JC in Florida for just over $200,000. The Cubs also signed 27th round pick Niels Stone from Indian River State College, a junior college. He is right-handed pitcher. Even though the deadline has passed, the Cubs still can sign Catcher Hunter Taylor from South Carolina, who was a senior. They own Taylor’s rights until next June.

So, in total, the Cubs signed 32 drafted players (the most in the Theo era) and 3 non-drafted players. That will be a lot of new Cubs to keep track of the next two months.

*Nico Hoerner, the Cubs’ first round pick last month, just continues to get on base at an unreal clip in Eugene. After missing four games from jamming his pinky finger sliding into third base, Hoerner came back on Friday and did not skip a beat going 2/4 with a BB, a run, and 2 SBs. Then, last night, he cranked his first HR as a Cub.

*In a bit of perplexing and sad/bad news, the oft-injured pitcher Oscar de la Cruz received an 80-game suspension after testing positive for Furosemide, a masking agent. Although he was struggling a bit at AA Tennessee, this was also the first year he had stayed healthy since his breakthrough at Eugene. It will be interesting to see how the Smokies replace Oscar in the rotation and how the Cubs deal with Oscar on a personal level in the future.He will not be eligible to play until mid-May of 2018.

*In good news, South Bend 1B/OF Jared Young (who was promoted to Myrtle Beach yesterday) and Tennessee pitcher Duncan Robinson were named the Cubs’ minor league player and pitcher of the month, respectively. In what is becoming an annoying trend this year, I am picking the hitter correctly in my monthly All-Star teams. My pitchers are not usually close. For June, I had South Bend’s Rollie Lacy while in April I had Javier Assad to the Cubs’ Matt Swarmer. I will get it right someday (as I did in May with Cory Abbott).

*I also went a little bit nuts on making my baseball cards the past two weeks. I finished my June cards of the month post a few days early. As a result, I had a weekend’s worth of cards to add into July’s album. With addition of Eugene now playing along with  3 new photographers contributing pics, I had plenty to do. Right now, I have an amazing 76 cards just one week into the month. Here’s an amazing tidbit to that number…I still have an album of Eugene pics from their last homestand to sort through and turn into cards. You can see all of July’s cards here.

*I am beginning to have some thoughts about who the Cubs might protect on the 40 man roster to avoid losing in the Rule 5 Draft in December. The Cubs have until November to make their declarations. Usually at the end of July/early August, Cub fans get a sneak peak when 7 players are usually selected to participate in the Arizona Fall League. Justin Steele is no-brainer selection for Arizona. The young lefty missed most of this season after TJS last August. He came back this week and pitched three scoreless in Mesa. I am excited for him as he worked hard to get back. As for who else might be on the list, there’s still a lot of baseball to be played before that is figured out.

*Because of Trent Giambrone’s massive 3 HR and 9 RBI outburst, he is going to get the hitter of the week award, and deservedly so. Coming in second was Grant Fennell of Mesa 2. The IF/OF from Nevada was signed as an non-drafted free agent and is doing very well in the AZL. He hit over .500 this week and drove in 5. He’s going to be a bat worth watching the rest of the summer. I am thinking of doing a profile on him later this week. We’ll see.

*In addition, several young Cubs made their debuts this week including Cole Roederer, Zach Mort, Paul Richan, Ethan Roberts, and Jimmy Herron. To see how all the draft picks are doing this year, click here.

Players of the Week

Card of the Week

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Who Is the Affiliate to Watch in the Second Half?

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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.?

Iowa’s Case

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.

Eugene’s Case

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.

Tennessee’s Case

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.

 

2018 Draft Update: As the Signing Deadline Nears, Where Are The Picks?

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By Todd Johnson

A month ago today, the Cubs finished up the 2018 MLB draft by selecting 42 players. Today is the final day for almost all of those players to sign. Currently, The Cubs have signed 30. That’s the largest draft class in the Theo era. But they are not done yet. By the end of today, the Cubs could add more players, and one of them doesn’t have to sign today.

One player who could sign is pitcher Layne Looney, a reliever from the University of Richmond, is one player who I thought would have signed a long time ago. Drafted in the 19th Round, his signing was a no-brainer, but for some reason it has not happened. Catcher Hunter Taylor had a deep run in the College World Series for South Carolina. A senior in college, Hunter technically does not have to sign today. The Cubs could sign him all the way up until almost next year’s draft because he is a senior.

Another possible sign is pitcher Niels Stone from Indian River Junior College. A lefty, taken in the 27th round, the Cubs could sign him to a deal fairly quickly. The Cubs were thought to be using some of their overage to sign 28th round pick high school pitcher Mitchell Parker from the Albuquerque area to an oversight deal. That deal fell through on July 4th when Parker announced he would be going to college instead.

The players listed above are from rounds 11-40, Those who sign today can sign for bonuses up to $125,00 and not have it count against the Cubs’ bonus pool. However, there is just $83,955 of overage left for the Cubs to help sway someone’s mind.

As for the rest of the draft class, of the 30 that signed, most of them were assigned a club except for a few stragglers who just signed this week. The stragglers, like fifth round pick 2B Andy Weber from Virginia, will have to go through an orientation for about a week before they are assigned an affiliate.

To see how all the draft picks are doing in game action, MLB.com has a site for each team that you can track them all on one page. It’s pretty cool not to have to go from team site to team site to see how they are doing.

Here are the actual assignments so far of who has “officially” been put on a roster. FYI – Most of the pitchers have been given a limit of only 30 innings the next two months before they get shut down after already having pitched this spring.

Made from a photo by Jared Ravich

Eugene
Nico Hoerner, Riley McCauley, Zach Mort, Paul Richan, Ethan Roberts, Cam Sanders, Carlos Vega, Tyler Durna, and Jake Slaughter.

Mesa 1
Clayton Daniel, Jack Patterson, Luke Reynolds, Jamie Galazin, and Dalton Hurd.

Mesa 2
Blake Whitney, Levi Jordan, Miguel Pabon, Ezequiel Pagan, Drew Wharton, Brennen Davis, and DJ Artis.

No “Official” Assignments for: Jimmy Herron, Kohl Franklin, Cole Roederer, Derek Casey, Andy Weber, Riley Thompson, Josh Sawyer, Jake Reindl, and Chris Allen.

Non-Drafted Free Agents – Grant Fennel is playing for Mesa 2 and Brennon Kaleiweaha is playing for Eugene. Caleb Knight has not been “officially” assigned an affiliate.

Prospect Update: Zack Short and His Hot Streak Opens Up Some Cool Questions

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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.

What Happened?
Simply put, Zack Short was striking out instead of hitting the baseball.

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.

Prospect Profile: Brailyn Marquez Creating Optimism But Still Needs Some Work

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By Todd Johnson

95…96…97…

Those are some pretty high fastball speeds for a 19-year-old pitcher who disappears when he turns sideways. Right now, Brailyn Marquez can get his FB up in the mid to upper 90s and sustain it. To go with it, he also throws a curve in the low to mid 80s. That’s impressive for age! He is one of the most magnetic pitchers to watch in the lower part of the Cubs’ system, but Marquez will need a lot more as he matures to get to Chicago.

Card made from a photo by John Arguello

Basic Information
6’4”, 185 lbs.
Throws Left
Bats Left
Current Affiliate: Eugene Emeralds
Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic
Signed as an IFA in 2015
ETA: 2022

The Past
Marquez began his career in the Dominican Summer League where he made 12 starts. He raised a lot of eyebrows with his performance. He struck out 48 batters in 54.2 IP. His ERA was 1.48 that summer as he began to learn how to pitch. In 2017, Marquez spent the summer in Mesa playing in the Arizona Rookie League. It was quite an adjustment. He threw in 11 games with 9 of them the starting variety. The results were not even close to 2016. At Mesa, his ERA ballooned to 5.52 despite striking out 52 in 44 IP. An increased WHIP of 1.41 was not sustainable. He sat 93-95 most days but struggled keeping the ball down and getting his curve in for strikes.

2018
The first thing you notice different about Marquez this year is the bump in velocity and increased control. While the FB speeds are eye-catching, they are not the end all of pitching. Then again, they do give Marquez a very nice foundation to build on. So far he’s made three starts this season. Embedded in his stats are some eye-popping numbers.

The first thing that gets your attention is the ERA at 2.08. Then there are the 20 Ks and a WHIP of 1. All of those are very good signs. Then you look at the number of pitches per start of 65, 72, and 77. Then again, in his first start, Marquez only lasted 3.2 innings and 3.1 in his second. His third start was very impressive as he lasted 6 innings and whiffed 8 that game. He looked pretty gassed at the longest game of his career.

Going Forward
There are 3 things Marquez needs to work on in the near future.
1. Efficiency – He has to work shorter counts. He’s only pitched in the sixth inning three times in his three year career and that includes his last start. It’s not that he’s getting beat up, he’s just working deep counts. Some might call it nibbling, but it’s not. He just needs to command his arsenal better for strikes instead of balls. He might be what is called “effectively wild” at 95 mph.
2. A Third Pitch – He should be just fine this year with his fastball-curve combo. When he starts to have the control and command of those two, he should begin developing a third one because Midwest Leaguers will just sit on one of them and he will get eaten alive as a two-pitch starter in the Carolina League.
3. Aggressiveness – In watching him pitch three times, there is no doubt Marquez is a head-turning pitcher. However, when he is not commanding his FB/Curve combo, he’s tough to watch as he struggles to find the zone. When he gets the ball and goes right after hitters, like he did in his last start, he becomes a very promising young pitcher, very promising indeed.

For Now Though…
He should be very exciting to follow this summer when the Emeralds are at home, as only one other team has TV in the league. He is going to fill out eventually and gain some weight and his FB could tick up even more. That might be hard to imagine. But he’s going to need more than just that. For now, though, let’s just take it one start at a time and try not to get dazzled by the radar gun and see how he does in the three aforementioned areas.

Prospect Update: Jake Stinnett Has a New Role and So Far, So Great!

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By Todd Johnson

Photo courtesy of the Tennessee Smokies

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.

Cubs Go Big with 5 International Free Agents Today

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By Todd Johnson

Armed with a bonus pool of almost $5 million, the Cubs attacked on the first day of International buy using $4.6 million of their pool on just 5 prospects.

As a result of penalties from their 2015 spending spree, the Cubs were limited the past two summers in how much they could spend altogether and on one prospect ($300,000). As a result, the Cubs went all in today to get the biggest bang for their bucks.

At the top of their list is pitcher Richard Gallardo from Venezuela. The 6’1″ 187 lb. righty was ranked #5 by MLB Pipeline and #6 by Baseball America.  MLB Pipeline’s Jesse Sanchez said the following of Gallardo.

“The teenager’s best pitch is his fastball, but he also projects to feature a good curveball and an above-average changeup. He already shows good command and feel for his pitches and the mix results in a lot of swing-and-misses. Gallardo is still growing, and the hope is that he will increase the velocity and overall command of his fastball with age.”

Gallardo dazzled most scouts this spring in a showcase with amazing command for a 16 year-old. Here is some video of that showcase.

If you speak Spanish, you can learn more about Gallardo in his own words here.

The Cubs also spent $1.5 M on OF Luis Lopez from the Dominican. A toosly kid, Lopez is known for his high quality of play and that he is not done filling out at just 5’10” and 167 lbs. He already is showing gap to gap power and good defense at a premium position in center field. MLB Pipeline had him as the 17th best prospect in this year’s class.

Joel Machado, from Venezuela, is also 16 and a left handed pitcher. Signed for $850,000, Machado was ranked at 28 by MLB Pipeline. Here is some video from Baseball America. In it you can see his upper 80s/low 90s FB and a developing curve.

In addition, the Cubs signed SS Rafael Morel for $850,000. His brother Christopher plays for the Cubs’ short season affiliate in Eugene. While Christopher is a 6’0″ and plays 3B, Rafael comes in around 5’9″ and is said to have the skills to stick at short.

Finally, the Cubs inked OF Yohendrick Pinango for $400,000. He bats left and throws left and comes out of the FBS Academy in Venezuela.

The first chance most of us will get to see of these players will be in fall instructs this October and then again in Spring Training in 2019. All five, because of their signing stature, should begin their careers next June in Mesa.

With $4.6 million earmarked for these five prospects, that leaves just under $400,000 for the Cubs to use through the middle of June 2019 to sign any more international players. Based on how the Cubs signed almost 80 players the past two years with limited finances, I think they will be fine. If needed, the Cubs can also trade for more IFA money with other clubs.