Cubs 2017 Draft Update: Position Players Proving to Be Very Athletic

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By Todd Johnson

I think it’s tough for draft picks to come in to an organization in the middle of the year and play well. I also think that you really shouldn’t evaluate the draft pick based on two months after they’ve already played a full season. Many of them have basically been playing since January. At some point they have to get tired regardless of how good they are.

In looking at this year’s draft class, I think there a couple key things to take notice of for next year. One, there is some serious athleticism in the group as a whole. Two, there are some guys who I think can really hit and will prove so next year.

Impressive Starts
Several draft picks came out of the gate pretty hot. Some have cooled off while others have been able to maintain some semblance of success.

Austin Upshaw – He came out of the gate very hot and now has cooled. He is still showing a solid approach but his hits have not been at falling in August like they did in July. He will be fine next year. He should begin the year at Myrtle Beach. They are going to love him there.

Luis Vazquez – Heading into Sunday, he was hitting .316. That is very good for a high school product to do that in rookie league just jumping right in. I still remember thinking how athletic he was in his prospect a video back on draft day. I cannot wait to get Arizona Phil’s take during instructs. He should be at Eugene next year as an 18-year-old kid.

Brandon Hughes – Like Upshaw, Hughes came out of the gate hard and has since slowed down. He bats third or fourth for Eugene and he’s been in the lineup most every day. The first thing you notice about him is his advanced athleticism and build. I see him being at South Bend to begin 2018.

Chris Singleton – A later round pick, the athletic outfielder began at Mesa and has been promoted to Eugene where he slid right into the leadoff spot. I really like what I have heard from the Eugene radio broadcasters, but I have not seen him play on TV yet. I am thinking he will be at South Bend to begin 2018.

Cam Balego – The young infielder has been playing all over the diamond for the rookie league Cubs and has hit almost .400 last month. I have not read much about him and I think I might not until fall instructs.

Ramsey Romano – He just got promoted to Eugene where he went two for five in his second game with two RBI. He can play all over the infield and I think this utility player will probably be at South Bend to begin 2018.

Austin Filiere – His average has been up-and-down but he has definitely shown some power in his bat. In the field, he gets by as a third baseman. His arm is average but that can be improved on. He will be at South Bend to start 2018.

Have some work to do…

Nelson Velazquez – He has flashed some serious athleticism and power in Mesa. However, he has not shown the ability to hit for average so far in rookie league and he strikes out a lot. Then again, he is still very young. He is one player who is going to improve dramatically with instruction this fall and in spring training. I think once he gets in the routine of doing things every day, we might see his power be a daily thing.

Chris Carrier – He has not had a good start to his career at both Mesa and Eugene where he is striking out about 75% of the time. More than likely, if he has a good spring training next year, he should be in South Bend.

Jared Young – I really like his approach at the plate and announcer Pat Zajak concurs. In other words, the BABIP Gods have not been kind to him in Eugene. I see him beginning the year in South Bend in 2018. He’s a pretty good sized second baseman.

I don’t know if any of these position players will show up on any prospect list in the next year, but that is not going to stop them from succeeding. I would not be surprised to see Velazquez and Vazquez make a list in 2019. It is rare for the Cubs to select a HS position player in the Theo era. I can only think of a few the Cubs have signed – Kevonte Mitchell and DJ Wilson who are both in low A this year, Tyler Alamo at Myrtle Beach, and Charcer Burks at Tennessee. It takes a few years to get going.

Cubs MiLB Pitcher of the Year Award Is Still a Bit Murky

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By Todd Johnson

On Sunday morning, the Cubs announced that Jen-Ho Tseng and D.J. Wilson were named the Cubs’ MiLB Pitcher and Player of the Month for July. Tseng had a 1.42 ERA at AAA Iowa to go along with 23 Ks in 25.1 IP. Wilson hit .284 with 7 HRs and 21 RBI in between Mesa (rehab stint) and South Bend. With officially four weeks left in the MiLB season, it got me thinking: Who will be the Cubs MiLB Pitcher and Hitter of the Year?

When it comes to hitting, the winner is clear cut – Victor Caratini. No one else is even in the discussion in my mind. He’s batting .350 with a .959 OPS. He’s hit 10 HRs and driven in 58. While his OBP is a bit less than Mark Zagunis’, whose isn’t. I do not see how Caratini could lose this award. Since his return to Iowa from Chicago, he’s hitting .600.

On the other hand, selecting the Pitcher of the Year is going to be a tough choice that will play out over the next month. I currently have six pitchers in the running with five having a pretty good shot of staking a claim to it.

The Front Runners

Michael Rucker has done it all this year in 84 innings. He’s been a reliever and a starter. He’s been a closer, a setup man, and an ace. His 1.93 ERA is the lowest of the starters up for the award. His 95 Ks gives him a 9.21 K/9 rate. I love to watch him pitch as he just throws strikes. He’s only walked 16 all year.

Jen-Ho Tseng has had a resurgent year relying on good command of his pitches which includes a low 90s fastball and a plus curve and change. His 2.77 combined ERA between Iowa and Tennessee is impressive and he has 110 Ks in 120 IP.

Adbert Alzolay was my breakout player of the first half. Now at AA Tennessee, he has a combined 2.84 ERA between Myrtle Beach and Tennessee with 101 Ks in 107 IP. I like his energy, his pacing, and his 96-97 mph heater. He still needs to refine his secondaries going forward.

The Long Shots

Duncan Robinson is a bit like Rucker in that he began the year as a reliever and morphed into a starter. He was a Midwest League All-Star and was promoted in July to Myrtle Beach from South Bend. On the year, he has a 2.13 ERA over 91 innings. His 77 Ks take him out the discussion a bit when compared with other front runners.

It has been a most impressive season for Justin Steele. He’s been very steady all year. His 2.92 ERA is a testament to his approach and hard work after a rough season at South Bend in 2016. He has 82 Ks in 98.2 IP.

If you were to pick this award on sheer domination, reliever Dakota Mekkes would win hands down. He dominated at South Bend and then again at Myrtle Beach. He did allow an earned run for almost three months. Heading into today, his ERA is a miniscule 0.76 ERA to go along with 79 Ks in 59 IP. Opponents are only hitting .152 against him. If not for 27 walks, I think he would be in Tennessee.

I think Michael Rucker is currently in the lead. However, I truly think the award should go to Mekkes. For the past few years, the Cubs have rewarded starters including Tseng, Trevor Clifton and Duane Underwood. But Mekkes’ season has been one of pure domination across the board and two levels. However, I don’t think the Cubs will give that award to a reliever. I wish they would, though. I really wish they would.

The Weekly: Lots of Debuts, Rankings, and a Trio of High End Arms

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By Todd Johnson

The Cubs got a big win yesterday to stop a three game skid. There are still 53 games left to play and most of them are against teams with losing records. After next Sunday, the Cubs do not play a team with a winning record for the rest of the month. I feel pretty good about that.

The Eugene Trio: It’s been a beautiful week for the starting pitching of Eugene. When their All-Star break ended and play resumed on Thursday night, Jose Albertos pitched five innings of one hit ball. On Friday night, first-round draft pick Alex Lange made his professional debut with two innings of hitless ball. And on Saturday night, the Cubs other first round pick, Brendon Little, made his second start (but not a good one) as a Cubs prospect. That’s a promising peak into the future, provided they all stay healthy.

Cubs MiLB Awards: I expected that the Cubs would announce their awards on Saturday for minor league hitter and pitcher of the month for July but not a peep.

MiLB Farm System Rankings: Both Baseball America and MLB.com released their midseason farm system rankings this week. Not surprisingly, Baseball America ranked the Cubs 28th out of 30 teams. Considering who they traded this summer, no big news there. MLB.com only ranked the top 10, but they put the White Sox as number one.

John Sickels : He takes a while to release his midseason rankings. By the time he’s done, the season is usually over. After seeing MLB.com’s rankings last week , I was interested to see John’s take on the Cubs’ system and just who he thinks the top Cubs prospects are. It should be out today or tomorrow. I might even do a post about it, depending on how he ranks them.

Around the Minors: September 4 is coming quick. That is when the MILB season ends. Right now, only Myrtle Beach has punched a ticket to the postseason. Iowa and South Bend are pretty much out of the running along with the two Dominican summer league teams.Tennessee, on the other hand, is only three games back of Montgomery for a wildcard berth. Eugene has a slim one game lead as the second half division leader. In Mesa, despite being with the second worst team in the league the first half, is only one game back in the second.

Iowa – 4-2: Rob Zastryzny made it back from rehab and made it back from rehab and made his way to Chicago very quickly. Victor Caratini returned and promptly hit home runs both Friday and Saturday nights.

Tennessee – 5-2: Craig Brooks was named the Southern League’s Reliever of the Month after not giving up an earned run throughout July. Trevor Clifton missed a start this week but will be ready to go today. Hopefully, he can just relax and let his pitches do the work. Duane Underwood has now made two excellent starts in a row including a seven inning affair on Friday night where he struck out seven.

Myrtle Beach – 3-5: This team is having some issues as they have the worst record in the Carolina League in the second half after having the best the first. It is not the fault of Zack Short who seems to be making an excellent adjustment to high A ball. Over his last 10 games, the young shortstop is hitting .351 with a .405 OBP from the leadoff spot. In addition, pitcher Michael Rucker continues to do well. This week, he scattered 11 hits but only allowed one run in his start.

South Bend – 3-4: Erling Moreno returned to action on Friday night and pitched three innings while giving up just a run. Bryan Hudson also had an excellent start this week where he did not allow run in five innings. As well, Tyler Peyton had his best start as he gave up just one run in five innings. At the plate, Andruw Monasterio and Aramis Ademan make a formidable duo at the top of the lineup. I see this team maturing in small bits the past month. That bodes well for next year.

Eugene – 3-1: Several new players arrived this week including outfielder Chris Singleton and infielder Ramsey Romano. Singleton is off to a pretty good start and Romano struggled in his first two games after hitting almost 400 at Mesa. Pitcher Cory Abbott was also added to the team but has not thrown yet. Every time Ricky Tyler Thomas pitches, I come away extremely impressed with his performance, even if it is as a reliever.

Mesa – 2-4: It looks like their starting pitching might be starting to stabilize. Faustino Carrera had his best start of the year this week and Brailyn Marquez has looked amazing at times and terrible at others. Either way, he is striking out a lot of hitters (32 in 25.1 IP). Stephen Ridings had his best outing of year on Friday night and it looks like Brendan King might be a sleeper based on his short outings (1.59 ERA).

DSL 1 – 2-3: After a good week last week, the pitching hit the skids this week. Fernando Kelli has stolen almost 50 SBs. I am starting to get questions about the young switch hitting 18-year-old outfielder.

DSL 2 – 3-3: I still like some of the pitchers they have left. Danis Correa was promoted to Mesa and he might be followed by Emilio Ferrebus and Jesus Tejada. At the very least, expect Ferrebus and Tejada to be at instructs.

Coming up at Cubs Central.
1. Draft Player Update – In two separate posts, I will be giving an update on how this year’s draft class is performing as Cubs.
2. The other post I might write this week could be on some players I think who are ascending the past two months and might break out at the beginning of next year, if they have not already this year. Then again, I may wait until September to do this post.

3. I will continue to do updates on several of the Cubs top pitching prospects. That seems to be my focus of late.

4. I will also be interviewing pitcher Duncan Robinson in the early part of this week. Look for information from that discussion to be on all three platforms.

Card of the Week
Don’t ask me how, but I made 150 last month. This week, I already made over 30. Good thing school starts in a week: 2017 Cards: August .

Players of the Week

My Other Stuff on the Web From This Week
BP Wrigleyville
Michael Rucker
Alex Lange Debut

Cubs Insider:
Kevonte Mitchell: New Breed of Cubs Prospect
Which Cubs Prospects Have Next?
Alex Lange Debut

Prospect Profile: Jhonny Bethencourt Draws Some Attention for His Skills

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By Todd Johnson

With the promotion of Aramis Ademan to South Bend, the Eugene Emeralds’ lineup takes on a whole different mix now. Ademan was one of the hottest hitters in the Cubs organization in July. Then again, his first two weeks at Eugene were a disaster when he hit leadoff. Ademan did not start hitting until he went into the number two spot thanks in part to the guy who took over the leadoff spot and that is Jhonny Bethencourt.

 

Bethencourt had been hitting .400 down in the six spot behind Joe Martarano and Gustavo Polanco. Once Bethencourt moved into the leadoff spot, the Eugene offense started to coalesce. They missed the first half division title by just one game. With a .375 on base percentage, Bethancourt has shown a sharp eye at the plate and is a hitter to keep an eye on despite a mini slump in July that saw his average drop from .317.

Basic Info
Birthplace: Pampatar, Venezuela
Bats/Throws: R/R
Ht: 5′ 11″ Wt: 160
Age: 20.

Strengths
Hands, walks consistently, ability to hit to all fields, defense at 2B

Areas of Concern
Defense at 3B, lack of power, physical projection, consistency hitting

Signed by the Cubs as an international free agent in 2014, he’s had a somewhat steady rise through the system. It hasn’t been meteoric nor has he knocked anybody socks off, but he has put together a couple good seasons, including this year.

Bethencourt’s Cubs career began in Venezuela in 2015. In 61 games, he had .319 with a .410 on base percentage. He played second base and outfield but did not display any power. In 2016, he came stateside and played 38 games in the Arizona Rookie League. Even though he hit only .235, his approach at the plate stayed the same as he put up on base percentage of .353. He played second and third and spent a little bit of time in the outfield.

When it comes to fielding third base, ground balls sometimes eat him up. He has 7 errors in 14 games there. He seems a little more sure handed at second base with only 3 miscues in 17 games..   

Even though he is just 20 years old, there’s just something I like about him. He’s not going to be a world beater as he’s not that big of a kid. But he’s going to be able to hit and he’s shown the proclivity to do so in two of his three seasons in addition to showing the ability to get on base every year.

In 2015, he struck out 11.2% of the time, in Mesa, 14.4% – both decent numbers. This year, his K rate is 23% which is a little alarming and bears watching.

Two stats that I like to keep an eye on at the lower levels are how a player sprays the ball around the field and the percentage of types of balls he hits. Combined, they give you an idea of how he is hitting the ball. Sometimes players can get a little too pull happy and sometimes ground balls overwhelm the types of batted balls. This year, Bethencourt is pulling 43% of his batted balls while his ground ball rate is up to 50%. He needs to hit more liners and use the whole field. Still, they are just a partial picture of him as a hitter. Here is a nice hit of his going to right field. Notice the smooth stroke he has.

That’s about as well as he is going to hit the ball.

Aaron Alter of the Daily Emerald wrote a wonderful article about how bethencourt is dealing with the turmoil back home in Venezuela. Also, in that same article, Bethencourt describes his daily approach.

“The preparation for the game, it’s the most important thing. My routine in the cages, the BP, I try to put my best there. If I can’t do that, then I can’t just go in the game and hit.” […] The routine itself starts out with a one-handed-swings with a short training bat, a tried and true way to improve control at the plate. He follows that with full bat swings, mainly focusing on hitting the ball down the middle, and then the routine is finished. “It’s more psychological,” he said. “It gets me in the zone.”

With just four weeks left in the season, Bethencourt should stay at Eugene as the Emeralds try to make a run for a playoff spot to defend their Northwest League Championship.

I will be interested to see how does in South Bend next year against more advanced pitching. With a 140 game season at that level, it is always more telling of a prospect’s skills and tools. I think Bethencourt should be someone to watch with intent in 2018.

Alex Lange Makes His Debut and Makes Quick Work of Spokane

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By Todd Johnson

When the Cubs drafted Alex Lange, I thought the pick was an outstanding one. At the time, I thought it was a steal and I still do. Lange is 21-years-old and he has a lot of experience pitching on a big stage. Whether he starts or relieves when he gets to Chicago does not matter to me. To go along with his uber-competitive nature, he has a major league curveball already.

When I watched him pitch in the College World Series, I came away very impressed with his ability to locate his fastball and pitch is way out of trouble. I did not expect the Cubs to let him pitch this year. For LSU, he threw 120+ innings. I thought he would just hang out and get acclimated to the pro lifestyle and show up at fall instructs and throw some BP there – sort of like Thomas Hatch did in 2016. That didn’t happen.

Strikeout #1 Pattern – MiLB Gameday

Last night in Spokane, Lange made his professional debut with Eugene Emeralds. The Cubs predetermined that Lange will only pitch 10 innings the rest of this year. I thought that Lange might go 2 innings, tops, to stay within that mandate. But what a two innings!

Lange faced six batters. He struck out three, got two grounders, and forced a popup. He only used 22 pitches in his two inning outing. Clearly, Lange was the dominant primordial beast on the mound. You can see from the pitch chart, he moved the ball around both up and down and inside and out.

His fastball came in between 89 and 93. His curve, according to Eugene radio announcer Pat Zajak, was “as good as advertized” in getting two of his strikeouts.

In the first, Lange was a bit wild but calmed down in the second. He was efficient as 15 of 22 pitches were for strikes and he did not walk a batter.

I got the sense that Lange is beyond short season ball. With his background and big game experience, Eugene might just be a safe place for him to get his 10 innings in. I, for one, would like to see how he does against more advanced hitters. The average age of the six batters he faced last night was 19.67. That is not really going to challenge someone who has pitched 3 years of SEC baseball.

Who knows, maybe Lange’s next start will be in South Bend. Something tells me, he likely would not be long there either.

The Friday Six Pack – Jose Albertos Twirls a One-Hitter

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By Todd Johnson

Jose Albertos made his fourth start for Eugene last night. He allowed one hit in five innings and threw just 63 pitches. He struck out five, walked one, and did not allow a run. Only one ball was hit hard and that was a line drive to center field.

Here are six things you need to know about the latest start from the Cubs top pitching prospect.

1. Of his 63 pitches, 46 were for strikes. That’s an amazing percentage! This is the type of command that has been hinted at the past year and a half.

2. He is not going to strike out everybody, but he does work efficiently, which might be better in the long run. He was looking good in his last turn before a series of errors evolved into three runs. On Thursday night, most at-bats were only three or four pitches and the defense was outstanding behind him.

3. He is able to pitch in on the hands and get a lot of ground ball outs. In total, he had six ground ball outs.

4. He was able to maintain his velocity through the fifth inning. In the past, he tends to start off in the low 90s and velocity increases along with the innings. Last night was no exception. By the second inning he was sitting 95, 96, and he even touched 97.

5. The fact that he threw 63 pitches should not be alarming. The Cubs are still handling him with kid gloves after he missed two starts over two weeks in July. He did throw 80 pitches earlier in the year and is working his way back to that number.

6. He threw all three of his pitches for strikes. He has been throwing his changeup more the last two starts than he did in the first two. Eugene broadcaster Pat Zajac commented often about the poor swings the pitch kept getting all night.

As a result of his excellent outing, his ERA dropped from 4.63 to 3.24. This was his first start on the road and that is a very encouraging to see him do so well in different environs. His next start should be on the 9th in Boise.

 

Now That Jeimer Is Gone, Which Cubs Prospects Have “Next” in Chicago?

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By Todd Johnson

Eloy is gone.

Dylan Cease is gone.

Ian Happ is gone.

Albert Almora is gone.

Jeimer Candelario…gone.

Four months ago, they were the top five guys in the Cubs’ system. Two made it to Chicago while the other three were used in trades to obtain players that will hopefully bring another World Series trophy this year and/or next.

In looking at who might be the next group of players to make it to Chicago, one only need to look at AAA Iowa and AA Tennessee to see the next possible candidates who could arrive over the next year to help out.

I feel confident in saying that we can rule out any position players. No one in Chicago is going anywhere until at least after 2018. And that is not a even certainty.

So that leaves pitching.

The Cubs will have several openings in the bullpen and starting staff next year. I think the Cubs will use all avenues of talent acquisition to fill those spots. Still, here are five to seven prospects to watch the rest of August, fall instructs, and spring training as they could be in the discussion for a roster spot in 2018, or maybe even a bullpen spot this year.

Dillon Maples – It took a while, but he’s got it. In fact, he has always had “it.” Now he has confidence and a cutter to go with his upper 90s fastball and slider/curve “thingy” (That’s what Maples calls it). He has dominated two levels this year and is now working on a third. Based on his talent and ascension, he will get a precious 40 man spot this winter to escape being selected in the Rule V draft.

Jen-Ho Tseng – I loved him in 2014 as an 18-year-old at Kane County. The changeup fell off the table then. He will turn 23 this fall and should have a shot to compete for a starting spot at the back of the rotation in 2018. More than likely, he will probably be used as starting pitching depth for next season and be stored at Iowa. Still, I cannot wait to see him in camp next spring.

Craig Brooks – He is in Tennessee right now. In July, the right handed reliever did not allow a run and struck out 25 in 13.1 IP. It took him several months to figure it out at Myrtle Beach. It took him just 4 weeks at AA. I cannot wait to see what his mid to upper 90s heat will do at Iowa and in spring training.

Adbert Alzolay – Long term, I like his stuff better out of the pen. But for now, he’s starting and doing it very well throwing at 96 in the 6th and 7th innings. The secondaries still need some work. Hopefully, he can get those improved at AA before the spring. He is stretched out now in his second year of starting after being a reliever/piggyback starter in Eugene in 2015. He’s pretty healthy despite his small frame.

Matt Carasiti – He came over this summer in the Zac Rosscup trade from the Rockies. I have watched him pitched a couple of times. He throws in the middle 90s but doesn’t have that “out” pitch, but he does know how to pitch. You don’t get to be the closer in the All-Star game in a hitter’s league for nothing.

Long Shots – Duane Underwood and Trevor Clifton

They have both been around for a while. Underwood in his second season at AA and Clifton, his first. For Underwood, he still throws in the upper 90s that either he commands or he doesn’t command and that can change from inning to inning. He just turned 23 so don’t expect the Cubs to give up on him anytime soon.

As for Trevor, he was outstanding through the All-Star Break at AA. Since, he’s struggled in his six second half starts. I still believe in his talents. At times, he is humming right along and runs into the big inning or a big fly. His walk rate is up a bit after being way down last year. He’s a mentally tough kid. At just 22, he’s worked hard to get here. He will continue to do so. This might be just a bump in the road for him to go around.