The Cubs Get Their Man in Yu

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By Todd Johnson

It only took three months, but the Cubs finally get their man in Yu Darvish. The big right-handed ace comes at a steep price and I think Yu now becomes the anchor of the rotation for the next 4-5 years. At 31 years of age, I kind a like where this is going.

Positives to the Signing
+ Darvish has five pitches with you which he can throw for strikes and they all come from the same arm slot. He is a top of the rotation starter and someone you could pencil in for 30+ starts a year for the foreseeable future.

+ While it’s not an exorbitant price, I think the signing does give the Cubs a little relief after 2020. Considering most of their current rotation is signed through that year, Darvish’s contract goes a little bit beyond and provides a little cushion to develop some arms in the minors.

+ I like that he throws near 200 innings a year. He did miss a year and a half but came back fine.

+ With the Astros outing the fact that Yu was tipping his pitches in the World Series, they may have done the Cubs a favor. As a result, future hitters should never know what’s coming.

+ Most pitchers that come over from the American League tend to do well in the National League. There’s a small period of adjustment and Darvish got a head start on that period last summer as a Dodger.

+ With the Cubs defense behind him, his ERA might actually improve.

+ He misses a lot of bats averaging almost 11 every 9 innings as a Dodger last year.

+ I really like his sense of humor as seen on his Twitter account and I think he’s going to fit in just fine in this clubhouse.

– When the contract has one or two years left, you can ask me then. But for the next 3 to 4 years, all systems are go.


Cards of the Offseason – Part 2: Lighting It Up In New Templates

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By Todd Johnson

When it comes to baseball cards, I am weird. When I was a kid, I loved collecting them around 10, 11, and 12-years-old. It consumed every summer. I used to have a card table in my bedroom where I had them all sorted into neat little stacks by team and arranged by division. I was consumed with collecting them and trying to find the money to collect them. But as the 70s turned into the 80s, there were other things that began to take over my time. Part of me still enjoys that euphoria I got from collecting those initial cards of the 1970s.

That was over 40 years ago. This winter, I added some new templates of more recent years and I’m kind of digging that, too, but in a different way. For the month of January and into early February, I found a few more pictures of prospects that are starting to show up in Google and Twitter searches. Some of the cards I made turned into instant classics.

There’s not really a theme that weaves throughout all of the cards in the second “best of” post for this winter. Instead, the 12 cards I’ve selected today I like for variety of reasons. The key to any great card is a great photograph. And each of the photographs of the following cards are special for a different reason.

Honorable Mention
There were only a few pictures of Cory Abbott, the Cubs 2017 2nd round pick, out there on the Internet. This is one of them from the Eugene Emeralds that I really like because of the arm action in the follow through. For the other card, Duncan Robinson is in a Myrtle Beach Merman uniform, a play on the show “Eastbound and Down” that followed the mythical career of one Kenny Powers. I really love that jersey and the picture by Larry Kave!

Coming in at number 10 is a picture by my friend John Conover that captures Aramis Ademan in action against West Michigan. While I do like action, I really like the lines in the background of the dirt and the shaded section of the grass as much as the player. Coming in at number nine is a picture by MiLB of Adbert Alzolay at the high class A All-Star game. It’s it’s a very appealing picture to me because he’s in a different uniform and I like the shade of that blue. Sometimes, the specialty jersey can get played out a little bit, but I love this picture of Brendon Little in a “Pirates of the Caribbean” jersey.

7 to 5
Duncan Robinson returns again in the Mermen jersey at number seven. When I love about this picture is how the rain in the background dances in the light in another capture by Larry Kave. In contrast, Duane Underwood’s number six card has him bathed in the sunlight in an old picture from when he was in the Arizona Fall League from USA Today. Larry Kave’s close up of Zack Short is special because the yellow lettering just pops on the card.

4 to 2
Even though he didn’t get to see a lot of action after being drafted, Rollie Lacy comes in at number four in a night shot from the Emeralds that blends in perfectly with the staggered background in a 1999 template. I just love the many shades of black in the card. At number three, Alex Lange gets bathed in the trees that really offset the action in the card in this warm up shot from the Emeralds. For number two, I just love this blue sky blending with the stadium lights of Eugene reliever Casey Ryan. It is a classic action shot of him warming up in between innings in. I think the blue sky and the stadium lights reflecting against his hair is magical.

Number 1

2017 draft pick Chris Singleton has been through more in the last three years than anyone can imagine. His mother was killed in a church shooting in South Carolina. It didn’t stop Singleton from chasing his dream. When I look at this picture, I see a determined look in his face and how the world is just melting away behind him.

Starting later next week, spring-training shots should be floating around the Internet. I will take a few of those images and begin to make cards for spring training. It will have its own folder over on the Facebook page and I’ll have a post in early April for those cards. I’m really excited to see how much some of the players have changed over the winter and it’s always exciting to see them in a blue Cubs uniform in the Arizona sunlight.

Several Cubs Prospects Coming Off a Rough 2017: Part 2 – Trying to Bounce Back

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By Todd Johnson

In last Monday’s look at comeback players for 2018, I examined the walking wounded which consisted mostly of players who were injured for most of the year, if not all of it. Today, it’s all about players looking to get back some semblance of consistency in their production. Most of this group will be at either AA Tennessee or AAA Iowa.

When I examine how a prospect is doing, I have several things that run through my head. There is a part of me that wants to be an objective writer, then there’s part of me that’s a fan, and then there’s part of me that is a teacher, and it’s really hard to shake the last one. I always look for the good and then I try to pick out things that need to be worked on. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t. And like teachers, sometimes writers see the promise of a prospect and hopefully they don’t get blinded by it. I know that’s a flaw that I have.

Most of the Cubs’ current prospects have been in the system for several years. To be honest, it’s hard not to get attached when you watch them go from a scrawny 175 pound kid to a 225 pound man. We watch them grow up and we want them to succeed. It’s hard when they don’t.

This week’s comeback list is filled with a lot of prospects who fit the above description.

I really like watching Zach Hedges pitch. He’s got a plus slider, pretty decent fastball command, and he’s a likable kid. He’s done really well the past two summers at AA, but he’s only gotten one chance at AAA and it did not go well at all. I am hoping he begins 2018 at AAA Iowa as there really is not much left for him to prove in Tennessee. For him to succeed in AAA, Hedges is going to have to keep his fastball down and use his slider to set hitters up. He’s never been a big strikeout pitcher, he’s always been a ground ball machine. I hope he can be that in Iowa this year.

I have been a fan of Trevor Clifton ever since Mike Safford used to call his games online when Trevor was with the Boise Hawks. When Trevor came to South Bend, he got off to a rough start. But after he righted the ship in the second half, Clifton didn’t let up for the next two years through the middle of June 2017. Then it was like he had four flat tires at once. He struggled keeping the ball down, he struggled overthrowing, and he struggled to just find the zone. It was as if he was trying fix his release point, landing spot, and self-confidence all at once. I have no doubt Trevor is going to work hard to return to form in 2018. He’s a great young man with a plus curveball and a developing change. Getting back to knowing, and believing, in himself and his pitches will be the key.

A roller coaster season would be the best way to describe what Chesny Young went through in 2017. The 2014 14th round pick out of Mercer always seemed to just fall out of bed and lace a single to right for his Cub career. From his debut in South Bend through Myrtle Beach, Young showed no sign of the type of season he endured in 2017. April, bad. May, good. Rinse and repeat for a season and a .256 average. It was a bit of a shock for a player whose lowest season before was .303. While Young did play 7 different positions in the field last year, at times he looked clueless at the plate, And at other times, he looked…like Chesny Young. He did not walk as much last year when he struggled, and he did walk when he was hitting well in May and July. As a result, a consistent approach for 2018 should be the key to getting off to a good start in the batter’s box and is what could propel him to Chicago in a bench role.

Ryan Kellogg was near brilliant in the second half of 2016 (1.99 ERA in 11 starts) but he could not put it together except for August (his only monthly with a sub 4 ERA) at Myrtle Beach in 2017. I am not sure of what his role will be and where it will be in 2018. He could start, he could relieve. It probably all depends on how he looks this spring.

OF Jeffrey Baez had a horrible season at Tennessee last year as he fought off minor injuries and failed to adjust after a scintillating second half at Myrtle Beach in 2016. Hitting below the Mendoza line for a whole season is not a good way to get to Chicago. Still, Baez just turned 24 (I find that to be amazing) and can rebound if he can stay healthy to use his mix of power and speed.

PJ Higgins is currently the finest overall defensive catcher in the system. In 2016 at South Bend, he also showed a deft eye at the plate. In 2017, he threw out 33 runners for Myrtle Beach. However, his bat seemed to go missing as his walk rate plummeted along with his batting average (.237). To be quite frank, Higgins’ strength has always been his defense. The converted infielder is a natural behind the plate. I am sure the Cubs would like some improvement on offense. Prior to last season, he hit between .280-.300 at every stop. Hopefully, last year was an aberration.

156 official at-bats is a very small sample size. That’s what Joe Martarano got in last year. Before last year, he only had 69 trips to the plate in 2015. To go two full years without seeing live hitting, let alone moving up to class A from rookie league, is a bit of a culture shock.

In 2018, I expect Martarano to do much better. For one, he cut out a high leg kick and turned that into a toe tap for a better timing mechanism. The result was an August where he hit .273 with 1 HR in 13 games. His K rate needs to come down. Except for July at South Bend, where he hit only .161 for the month, he crushed the rest of the year at EXST (.324) and Eugene (.385). I was impressed watching him work hard in batting practice to drive the ball up the middle. The ball just jumps off his bat with “that sound.” There’s not many Cub prospects who have “that sound” now, but Martarano does.

Leveling Up Series: Miguel Amaya – It’s All About the Arm

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By Todd Johnson

There are certain prospects that make my eyes light up when I start talking about them and I get really animated. Eloy used to be one, Jose Albertos is one, and Miguel Amaya is another one. The 18-year-old catcher was blessed with a golden right arm. The very first time I saw him throw down to second while catching for Eugene last year, I feel immediately in love with that arm.

Basic Info
6’1” 185 lbs. (Still growing)
Age 18
Bats/Throws Right
International free agent from Panama
2018 Affiliate – South Bend

Leveling Up
Amaya is far from perfect, but his ceiling is pretty high. The issue right now, is that his floor has some work to be done.

At Eugene in 2017, Amaya struggled the first half the year at the plate until he moved down in the lineup where he hit almost .300 in the month of August. He’s still got a little ways to fill out but he has shown the ability to pull the ball and to pull it for power.

Fangraphs said this of Amaya’s bat:

Offensively, Amaya’s approach to hitting is geared for contact. He expands the zone too often right now but has promising hand-eye coordination and bat control. He often finds a way to get the bat on the ball, making sub-optimal contact rather than no contact at all. He has the physical tools to hit but needs a refined approach, and his frame suggests there might eventually be some power here, too.

That’s promising. But to be really honest, I don’t care about the bat. It’s all about the arm.

At one point last year, he was throwing out over 50% of base runners. At the same time, Amaya struggled to catch a ball in the dirt. He then showed a lackadaisical approach in jogging back to the backstop to go get the ball that just went between his legs. As the year went on, that effort dramatically improved. He hustled after everything in August. However, he still has some work to do on blocking.

Amaya also needs to work on going out and calming his pitchers down when they are struggling. In June, he rarely went out to talk to anybody, but as the year went by, he got much better and there were certain pitchers he seemed to be more comfortable with like Jose Albertos and Jesus Camargo.

South Bend will be a different animal for him. The weather will be much different as will the size of the stadiums. A lot of the issues Amaya currently has should fade away quickly with game experience. He is, after all, just 18 for one more month.

Amaya’s also going to have to continue to be patient at the plate like he was in August last year. And, as a 19-year-old, he’s really going to be behind the eight ball in helping to manage a pitching staff with a lot of talent. He is going to be catching three of the Cubs top six prospects in Albertos, Lange, and Little. That’s a huge responsibility.

I think the effort really has to be there on every pitch. There needs to be an emphasis on blocking balls in the dirt and keeping his pitchers calm. Everything else is a cherry on top of that arm.

Several Cubs Prospects Coming Off a Rough 2017: Part 1 – The Walking Wounded

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By Todd Johnson

2017 was a topsy-turvy year for some of the Cubs more established prospects. Injuries took their toll on some and several former top prospects struggled to produce consistently. 2018 could be a big year for a lot of these somewhat established players, many of them will be in the upper echelon of the system.

Part 1: The Walking Wounded
Corey Black recently started throwing on flat ground after missing all of 2017. He received high praise from farm director Jaron Madison at the Cubs Convention for his maturity and 4 pitch arsenal. Black said on Twitter that he feels more comfortable heading into this year than he has in recent memory. It should be exciting to see what he can do when he is ready.

Ryan Williams missed two straight years with shoulder issues. I really liked his tenacity as a starter and his ability to control the zone. After flying through South Bend and Tennessee in 2015, he’s never really had a chance to get it going at Iowa. As a result of the injuries, I don’t know whether he’s gonna be down in the bullpen or if the Cubs will let him be a starter again.

I remember seeing reliever Tommy Nance for the very first time  in Clinton, Iowa when he pitched for South Bend. You could just hear the opponent’s bats crack or splinter consistently. He can throw in the mid to upper 90s, but he sits comfortably at 93 with a hard sinking fastball and reminds me of former Diamondback Brandon Webb. I bet if I could actually hit his pitches, my hands would be numb for a week after making contact. Hopefully, he can return to normalcy this season.

Jake Stinnett missed four out of five months last year and, when he did return, he was relegated to working out of the bullpen. He had more success as a reliever than as a starter. In the Arizona Fall League, Stinnett continued his rebirth and could be a possible piece this summer as a reliever.

When I watched Carson Sands struggle last year up in Beloit Wisconsin, I felt really bad for the kid. He missed most of 2017 after having elbow splints removed and he just did not look right nor did he look comfortable on the mound, especially when a man got on base. He was shut down after a just a few weeks at South Bend and Eugene. Hopefully, he can get back to the pitcher he was in April and May of 2016 before the elbow splints begin to affect his performance.

For catcher Gioskar Amaya, his TJ S could not have come at a worse time. He was getting ready to play AA baseball and he now could be heading back to the infield after spending three summers catching. It will be interesting to see what position he will play this summer and at what level. He should be slated in at AA Tennessee.

The 6’3″ right handed starter Erick Leal missed all of 2017. I’m unsure of what role he’s going to have this year at AA. He could start, piggyback, or relieve, it just depends on his arm and recuperation rates. I really enjoyed his 2016 season at Myrtle Beach (3.23 ERA in 92 IP) as he used solid command of a low 90s fastball. Currently, he is rostered with Tennessee and should be competing for one of five spots in the rotation.

At one point, Keith Law ranked Carlos Sepulveda as one of the top 10 second baseman in minor league baseball. After fighting through an injury for most of April last year, Sepulveda was shut down for three months before returning to rehab in the Arizona Rookie League. I am hopeful that Gioskar will be at Tennessee, but I wouldn’t put any money on it. Because he didn’t really do very well at Myrtle Beach when he was there, I wouldn’t be surprised if he begins the year back in South Carolina for at least a month, at the minimum. 

Will Remillard came back last August and just destroyed the baseball for a month and showed no ill effects of missing two and a half seasons because of two Tommy John surgeries. Remillard could end up anywhere in the system. I love his leadership behind the plate and his ability to manage a pitcher on the mound. His arm looked great and I think he is ready to go.

It was a strange year as many of these prospects were at one point all Top 30 prospects, most top 10, at one point in their minor league career. Their resurgence should be a boost to the system.

I will have part two of this series next week as I look at seven players who will try to overcome a poor or uneven 2017 in 2018 at Tennessee and Iowa.

The Weekly: MiLB Free Agent Chances, Mesa, New Cards, and an Invasion Is Coming

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By Todd Johnson

The off-season continues to move at a snail’s pace. Nothing much happened at the major-league level again this week, but the Cubs did add some more depth by signing two players to minor league contracts. Outfielder Peter Bourjos is a veteran who has played with Tampa, St. Louis, and Anaheim. First baseman Efren Navarro last played with the Tigers. Both will be non roster invitees to spring training. I don’t look for either to make the club. And if they don’t, I’d expect them to choose free agency rather than go to AAA Iowa.

Right now, I just don’t have a good feel for who is going to be where. A lot of that stems from who will be at Iowa and Tennessee. The Cubs have signed several starting and bullpen arms this offseason to minor league contracts. As a result, I am holding off on doing any affiliate previews until either the last week of March or the first week in April. It is going to kill me to not write about South Bend’s starting rotation until then.

As for some some of the minor league free agents the Cubs signed this winter, Daniel Camarena is extremely intriguing to me. The young lefty comes from a stacked Yankees system that saw him make 7 decent starts at AAA with a 3.28 ERA last year. He is only 25. Like the Cubs, the Yankees cannot hang onto every prospect in perpetuity. After 5 years in the minors, the prospects can elect free agency and that is what Camarena did. The Cubs will hopefully benefit from that.

Sometimes, I can be quite blunt. Right now is one of those instances. A lot of the pitchers the Cubs signed this winter don’t have much of a chance to make the 25 man roster in Chicago or even be stashed at AAA Iowa. The Cubs are taking a gamble that some magic can happen with either Jim Hickey or Jim Benedict (the pitching whisperer) during spring training. Don’t be counting on Dario Alvarez or Alberto Baldonado to be trotting out of the bullpen this summer, let alone dancing on camera. The odds are just not in their favor. 

However, I could see lefty Randy Rosario ending up in Iowa for some bullpen depth. And Kyle Ryan, who was decent for Detroit out of the bullpen in 2015 and 2016, could also work out his issues in Des Moines and return to the show. Both are nice lefty bullpen options that could be worth keeping.

Baseball Cards

It was a banner week for making baseball cards as I had time to scour the Internet for more pictures. It turned out to be a bonanza of new pics and a nice crop of new cards. Before spring training begins, I will do a best of list for the second half of the offseason. There are a few cards I think that turned out to be classics. Go to the Facebook account to check out the album.

Card made from a photo by John Arguello

More Thoughts on Mesa

This week, I kept thinking about how the second Mesa team in the Arizona Rookie League could create a whole juggernaut of players coming stateside that I did not foresee. I started to make a post about possible players who could be heading north. I had to stop myself when I got to two pages and still had 5 or 6 guys to go. I may turn that into 2 posts (hitters and pitchers) later this spring.

Before MiLB Spring Training Begins…

You might want to revisit two posts I did last fall. One is about who I see as possible breakout hitters in the Cubs system for 2018. The second examines some possible breakout pitchers for 2018.

Upcoming Posts

This week, come Wednesday, catcher Miguel Amaya gets profiled in the “Leveling Up” series. I am really enjoyed writing about the young backstop prospect. I also have two spring training previews for the major league camp and the minor league camp in the works. I am not sure when those will be published but I am leaning towards the 9th and the 16th, respectively.

Baseball Card of the Week

Could the Cubs Redraft a Couple of Players Again in 2018?

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By Todd Johnson

I was originally going to post this in The Weekly tomorrow, but it got a little bit bigger than I originally intended, and in spite of my interest to not write about the draft as much this year, I did. Go figure! Anyways…

One thing that I’m gonna find interesting come early June is if the Cubs go back and redraft a couple of players that they drafted out of high school in 2015 or took in other drafts but the player returned to college.

The 2015 draft, the Cubs selected Ian Happ in the first round. But dispersed throughout that draft were three high school players that wound up choosing to go to college. Earlier this week, I looked up their college careers and development over the last two springs and summers. It was not always an easy road. Right now, I think it’s important to keep a close watch over how they continue to develop this spring.

2015 Draft Picks
The Cubs picked 3B John Cresto was selected in the 18th around and I thought the Cubs had a pretty decent chance to sign him that summer. It didn’t work out and Cresto went to Santa Clara. He hit .257 his freshman year in a little over .300 his sophomore year. In the Cape Cod League, he hit .267 with 3 dingers last summer. At 6’3″ and 210 lbs., the young hitter improves every summer.

The young third baseman should be primed and poised for a break out his junior year. The Cubs recently selected pitcher Jake Steffens in 2017 from Santa Clara, so you can rest assured that they’ve been doing their due diligence on the young third baseman.

Two pitchers the Cubs took that summer have struggled. Unless they have magical junior years, I don’t see either arm signing this summer. Instead, they might be better off going back for another year.

Jared Padget, formerly of Mississippi State, was drafted by the Cubs in the 16th round. He did not play in 2017 after going under the knife. He only made just 4 SEC appearances and 5 games in the Cape Cod League in 2016. He transferred to Chipola last fall, a junior college in Florida. To date, the red-shirt sophomore has made two appearances. In his first game, he threw a scoreless two innings. His next time out was a bit rough as he only lasted 2/3 of an inning and gave up 2 earned runs. The 6’4″ lefty still bears watching here.

For Fitz Stadler of Arizona State, the Cubs took him in the 32nd round. His freshman year was a mess as he had an earned run average of over nine. He cut his ERA in half his sophomore year but missed most of the college season after a great start. He did return to pitch well in the Cape Cod League for Wareham. There, he threw 19.1 IP with a 3.72 ERA. He should be good to go for his junior year with the Sun Devils. Their season begins the 11th of February. At 6’9″, the right-hander still might be a bit of a project with more long-term potential. However, I like where his career is trending.

2016 Possible Redraft
As for Austin Jones of Wisconsin-Whitewater, the former two-way star stuck to pitching last year and dazzled with a 1.91 ERA in 85 innings. He struck out 83 and walked only 20. He also did well in the Northwood League as got an additional 40 innings under his belt with a 2.92 ERA, all in 7 starts. He struck out 31 and walked just ten.

Out of all the pitchers in this post, Jones might be the most likely to be redrafted. One thing in Jones’ favor is that he is finally a pitcher only. He only has one year of starting pitching on the arm after being a reliever his freshman year. When the draft gets closer, you should see Jones’ name move up the list later as he does attend a northern school and those players tend to rise later in the draft process.

2017 Possible Redrafts
Darius Vines

As a freshman at Oxnard, Vines was it two-way player and a two sport superstar. He returned to college and I am extremely interested to see how he does this spring and whether he continues to play both shortstop and pitcher for the community college. He is easily the best athlete on this list. That is something the Cubs tend to cover it.

Andrew Karp – Florida State
The Cubs drafted Karp in 2017 as a draft eligible sophomore. Karp chose to return to school and should be part of an outstanding rotation for the Seminoles that includes Carson Sands brother, big right-hander Cole Sands. That should save some money on scouting this spring.

The Cubs have redrafted a few players like Daniel Spignola and Delvin Zinn the past few summers and it will something to be aware of heading into June in 4 months. This is happening quick.