By Todd Johnson
It looks like all systems are go for Adbert Alzolay to make his major league debut on Saturday against the Cincinnati Reds. Alzolay will pitch one game of the doubleheader and head right back to AAA Iowa when the weekend is over. The 23-year-old right-handed starting pitcher from Venezuela features a mid to upper 90s fastball that he can maintain through the sixth and seventh innings. He can mix and match it with a developing change up and an average curve which seems to have a harder bite this year.
Is there anything to read into this?
Not really. One of the Cubs’ strengths has been to evaluate their own players. The Cubs know what they have in Alzolay and they’re going to take their time with him, but he is close to being ready for the majors. This Saturday will give the Cubs a look at how he does against major league hitters. No more, no less. At 23 years of age, and already on the 40 man roster, this should just be a preview in case there is an injury to one of the current starting five in the rotation. Then again, it could also be a preview in case he is needed in the bullpen.
Why Adbert Alzolay?
Out of all the arms at AAA, he definitely has the best stuff. However, he’s only had that elite stuff and profile for about a year now. In 2016, Alzolay struggled in South Bend in his first year of full season ball. He tired easily, he struggled with the secondaries, and a 4.34 ERA was not conducive to long-term potential.
Between the 2016 and 2017 season, Adbert worked hard to strengthen his lower half. With the help of Myrtle Beach pitching coach Anderson Tavarez, Adbert also quickened his pace. His strength and conditioning over the winter paid off as he kept going deeper and deeper games and his new timing threw off hitters as he destroyed the Carolina League (2.98 ERA) and then did well at AA Tennessee (3.03 ERA)..
Alzolay also spent some time in the Arizona Fall League in 2017 working on his secondaries in relief and then he was invited to major league camp where he just kind of sucked in the atmosphere of being with the big league roster.
He began 2018 a little late due to a minor injury, and he has shown flashes of brilliance taking no-hitters into the sixth inning twice. He has also struggled when he leaves the ball up as evidenced by the three home runs he gave up on Monday night. In five starts so far at Iowa, he has a 4.10 ERA in with 19 Ks in 26.1 innings.
The key for him has always been fastball command. When you throw 96 miles an hour, if you put the ball where you want it in the strike zone, you will be just fine. And that has to be the plan for Alzolay on Saturday. He can come up, flash his fastball, change speeds, and move the ball up, down, and around, and he should be good to go. And, like any other pitcher, if he’s all over the place, things are not going to go well.
By Todd Johnson
It was a brutal week for the Cubs’ minor-league system. There were two days in which it did not have a starting pitcher do well enough to get a pitcher of the day award. I wound up going with two relievers each day instead. Three of the four affiliates are under .500. Only Tennessee is exactly at .500. Meanwhile, Iowa has only won two games the last two weeks.
In spite of that, there were several positives this week as Myrtle Beach seems to to have awoken from its early-season slump. Tyson Miller had a great start for the Pelicans earlier in the week going 7 innings with 7 Ks. Meanwhile in Iowa, Adbert Alzolay made his third start of the year and it was a dominant one going 7 innings with just 1 hit and 6 Ks. Then, last night, Adbert struggled. He only made it through 4.2 innings and threw 92 pitches in that time giving up 3 runs on 8 hits. And then there was Oscar de la Cruz who struck out ten last night while Matt Swarmer had another masterful performance going 6.2 IP with 7 Ks.
Some hitters seem to be waking up as well. David Bote is hitting close to .500 since his return from Chicago. Wladimir Galindo is finally getting back on track after his post-DL stint slump. Yasiel Balaguert seems to have a had a good week for Tennessee (7 for his last 18) and Connor Myers is hitting the best he’s ever done in his two years as a Cub. He’s at .282 for Myrtle Beach. Andruw Monasterio is also coming back (6 for his last 14) after a little slump in late April. And Zack Short snapped out of his slump a bit with 2 home runs the other night and 2 more RBI last night.
Reliever Bailey Clark was promoted to Myrtle Beach this past week and his debut week was very good going 5.2 innings in 2 appearances this week. He gave up a run but he struck out 9. Dakota Mekkes is just shutting teams down when he pitches. He still has some issues with walks, but Mekkes should be in Iowa soon.
While there is no team with the record above .500 right now, I would not get too hung up on the affiliates’ win/loss record in the minors. It may seem depressing, but the real focus should be on player development. The Cubs have a lot of starting pitchers that are moving their way up through the system, along with some relievers, who could help to big league club in the short term. Their development, to me, is going to be the key storyline for the month of May. Dillon Maples, along with Alzolay, are near ready. Maples was averaging over 20 Ks per nine innings pitched until he threw a scoreless ninth last night without any Ks. That is odd for him.
As for the hitters, the Cubs may not have any “elite” hitters, but they do have several who are worth paying attention to and to watch improve. Aramis Ademan and Miguel Amaya are two possible elite prospects and I am beginning to grow on Monasterio, who is only 20, and at high A, and doing well (.319). I really like watching Austin Filiere and Jared Young and their approaches to an at-bat for South Bend. Last night, Young went 3 for 5 with his third home HR in 13 games to go along with 3 RBI on the night. Filiere also cranked out his second of the year.
On Thursday, the Cubs announced their minor league players of the month. Like me, the Cubs selected Jeffrey Baez as the hitter of the month while the Cubs took Matt Swarmer, who I profiled earlier this week, as the pitcher of the month with a ridiculous 26/3 K/BB ratio in April. Last night, Swarmer improved that to 33/3 or 11 to 1. Wow!
Also, reliever Chad Hockin underwent TJS this week and is out for the next year. Best wishes to him. He was one of my favorite kids to talk to last year in South Bend.
This Week’s Records
Iowa (2-5, 6-21)
Tennessee (4-3, 14-14)
Myrtle Beach (4-2, 12-17)
South Bend (1-5, 10-15)
Extended Spring Training
The Cubs keep adding to their international free agent class. While most of the signees will play in the Dominican this summer, there are a few who could debut in Mesa including shortstops Luis Verdugo and Fabian Pertuz along with pitchers Florencio Serrano and Raidel Orta. Nelson Velazquez and Fernando Kelli are hitting well according the box scores from Arizona Phil. They begin regular season play in about 6 weeks in Eugene.
Players of the Week
What’s Ahead on Cubs Central
Tomorrow, I am going to take a look at the Draft that will be held four weeks from Monday. At some point, I will also profile the development of Brendon Little, Tyson Miller, and Andruw Monasterio this week. The Midweek Report returns this week and I am not sure what it will be about.
By Todd Johnson
Congratulations to David Bote who made his MLB debut last night in Colorado. Bote batted eighth and played third base. He went 1 for 3 with a double.
Here he is through the years at every level in the minors.
His story is a story of perseverance. Revisit his Leveling Up post from this winter.
Back to the Minors…
Now that the weather seems to have cleared, there’s a lot more baseball being played especially in the Midwest and the Pacific Coast Leagues. Cub prospects are beginning to get in grooves and improve their stock in the organization. It’s been fun watching most of the teams play and see how they are progressing. It is only April, but there are a few players who are all already worth watching and keeping an eye on.
Who To Watch for at Each Affiliate
Iowa – 2-4 on the week, overall 4-10
Mark Zagunis seems to be the only bat that was hot this week. Bijan Rademacher, who leads Iowa in batting average, missed a few games. As for the pitching, Adbert Alzolay made his first start and dazzled in a two-hitter. Otherwise, Rob Zastryzny, Michael Roth, and Randy Rosario have all been outstanding out of the pen. I’m really happy that Zastryzny seems to have righted the ship and is off to a good beginning – no runs in 8.2 IP with 8 Ks.
Tennessee – 5-1 on the week, overall 8-7
The Smokies are turning into my “go-to” team every day, mainly because every team in the Southern League has MiLB.TV. Still, there’s a lot here to watch. The starting pitching of Trevor Clifton, Michael Rucker, Duncan Robinson, Thomas Hatch, and now Oscar de la Cruz are all pitching well. Both Clifton and de la Cruz did not allow a run in their first starts of the week. Outfielders Trey Martin and Jeffrey Baez lead the team in average. Zack Short is making an impact at the plate despite an average just above .200 because his OBP is almost .400. As for the bullpen, Dakota Mekkes has yet to give up a run, even though he is still walking almost a batter an inning. If he could eliminate his walks, he could be in Iowa before June.
Myrtle Beach– 3-4 on the week, overall 5-12
It has been just a horrible, horrible start for the Pelicans. All three facets of the game have not been working. However, there have been a couple of bright spots. Kevonte Mitchell, who is now injured, had been outstanding at the plate (.306). Andruw Monasterio is having the quietest season of any Cub prospect as he keeps his average over .300. On the mound, Alex Lange was impressive in his first two starts and Keegan Thompson showed signs of massive improvement this week as he went 5 innings with no runs and 4 Ks. Another glimmer of hope took place this week as Bryan Hudson had an excellent start this week going 5 IP with 7 Ks and only allowing 1 run. Jhon Romero and Tyler Peyton are both throwing great out of the pen along with Wyatt Short, who has yet to allow a run in 4 appearances. That effort is reminiscent of when Short did not allow a run the entire season at Eugene in 2016.
South Bend – 1-4 on the week, overall 7-6
The Cubs have been up-and-down. They got off to a good start at 6-2 and their bats hit a rough patch. At the same time, the young Cubs are struggling to field the ball properly and make plays in the infield. Meanwhile, Jared Young (who just went on the DL), Austin Filiere, and Yeiler Peguero have been impressive at the plate. Javier Assad, Bailey Clark, Rollie Lacy, Tyler Thomas and Cory Abbott are all starting to round in shape. If Jose Albertos can get his fastball command down, this team could really take off. The bullpen has been lights out and rarely surrenders a run.
Players of the Week
There were a lot of performances to pick from this week, especially starting pitching.
Things I Wrote for Other Sites This Week
Latin Infusion Coming North – The Pitchers
Coming Up Next Week
I’m going to start a new feature for Wednesdays called “The Mid Weekly.” It will sum up MiLB action for Sundays, Mondays, and Tuesdays. I am still checking out draft stuff on the side, but I won’t return with a “Draft Prep” post until May 7. Several mock drafts came out in the past two weeks. Players are all over the place – there’s not a lot of consensus.
Baseball Card of the Week
I made a lot of new baseball cards you can see in an album over on the Facebook account. I am closing in on 130 cards made just this April. I have a problem…I think…Yes, I do.
Made from a photo by Dylan Heuer
By Todd Johnson
I had a big ole post written about 10 things that I am thinking about. When I was done editing it, I got so mad at myself because it was pretty close to what I wrote on Sunday for the weekly. So, I decided to scrap it.
I have been suffering through a bit of a case of writer’s block and everything I write feels like I have written it before. Instead, for today, I decided to just do a few random notes about the week so far – almost a mid-week kind of post about a few observations.
1. The defense in the minors has been brutal at all four levels. I know it is early in the season, and it has been very cold and wet, but every ground ball and popup is an adventure. I cannot wait until warms up. The pitchers have to be struggling watching it take place behind them.
2. Mark Zagunis – It took a bit, but he has started to come around. He had a spell where he went 1 for 19 but has rebounded and his average is closing in on .300 and he hit his first home run. By the end of the month, he should be clicking on all cylinders. Too bad there is no place for him in Chicago.
3. The start for Trevor Clifton this year is a mixed bag. He is trending towards the good side. He has 14 innings of work so far where he’s given up one hit and not allowed a run. The other inning, a combined 1/3 and 2/3 of an inning, saw him give up 8 earned. He told MiLB.com he has since worked on strengthening his legs after each outing. What happened was that in his first two starts, he sailed through the first few innings in each start without giving up any hits or runs. Then he got hammered in that 1/3 or 2/3 of an inning. On Monday, in his third start that didn’t happen. Trevor needs to continue to improve each start and to have a short memory about the last outing. That looks to be the case.
4. I love to watch Duncan Robinson pitch all around the zone. He pitches up down, in, and out. Eye levels are always changing. Last night, he threw 6 innings while striking out four. He gave up an earned run, but that was the worst of it. For the year, his ERA is 1.93 over 15 innings at AA Tennessee. He’s had one heck of a quick ride as a starter in the minors.
5. Adbert Alzolay is coming east from Mesa. He was called up after throwing 75 pitches in extended spring training. He will be assigned to AAA Iowa and debut tomorrow in Iowa. That assignment signals some serious confidence in the young pitcher. Part of me wants to see him in the bullpen in Chicago come August. Who knows, he could be starting there, instead.
6. Iowa’s red alternate jerseys take some getting used to. However, I am beginning to like them. Now, if I could just get a clear picture of them.
Iowa Cubs have some new road jerseys. pic.twitter.com/sup9ny2ihr
— Todd ⚾🏂🐾🚴🏻 (@CubsCentral08) April 11, 2018
I will be back on Friday with the return of the “Friday 6 Pack” as I look at six ways the system will change in June and July.
By Todd Johnson
Last year’s Tennessee Smokies looked to be on the verge of a trip to the playoffs in late May before a collapse in early June. This year’s team should be comprised of talented prospects who could help the Smokies return to the playoffs for the first time since 2011. An elite pitching rotation will set the foundation and a couple of possible power bats could put them over the edge.
Here are 10 things I think will help the Smokies get back to the playoffs:
1. Starting Pitching – With Thomas Hatch, Adbert Alzolay, Trevor Clifton, Duncan Robinson, Oscar de la Cruz, and Michael Rucker, the Smokies have some guys who have the potential to get a lot of outs. Five of the six were teammates last year at Myrtle Beach for a short time.
I’m looking forward to see how well Trevor Clifton begins the year along with Thomas Hatch. I still think that Robinson is going to surprise even more people along with Rucker this year – They can really put the ball where they want in the zone.
As for Oscar de la Cruz, he just needs to stay healthy.
2. Time – This is going to be a team that’s going to have to have plenty of time to play at this level. The fact that there are very few prospects at Iowa who could make their way to Chicago this year, there’s really no place for the Smokies to go, at least in the first half.
3. Staying Healthy – It is said all the time, but it’s really an understatement of how much health plays a factor in a prospect’s career. For Oscar, he has not topped 73 IP in a season the past three summers.
4. Bouncing Back – For some of these players, a poor second half in 2017 was hopefully just an aberration on their road to the majors. While Trevor Clifton stands out as a prospect who needs to bounce back, Jake Stinnett is another arm whose career might take off in the bullpen. Zach Hedges even looks like he will be in Kodak again. Hedges just needs to get over the AAA hump as he does do well in AA (2.47 ERA in 2016, 3.49 in 2017) in a starting role. He pitched in relief in big league games this spring.
5. Who Comes Up – Alex Lange is going to be knocking on the door fairly quickly to come to Tennessee. The right hander’s curve might be a little overpowering for the class A Carolina League. The only issue is whether he can develop a third pitch. If he can, he could be in Kodak by the end of May.
6. Impact Bats – It looks like Ian Rice is going to begin the year Tennessee. If he does, I feel sorry for Southern League pitchers. Shortstop Zack Short is another bat who has power and plate discipline. I think this is the year that Eddy Martinez really takes off. Eddy had a great second half at Myrtle Beach hitting over .270 with 6 home runs. The Southern League is a bit more hitter friendly and should be for Martinez. Jason Vosler, Charcer Burks, and Yasiel Balaguert return as a result of a roster pinch at Iowa and they could all provide a lot of power.
7. Defense – The players that were Pelicans last year had some defensive issues down the stretch. Those need to be improved if some of the players plan on moving on to Iowa. Then again, Trey Martin is back and, when he plays, he can get most everything hit his way in the outfield.
8. Bullpen – This is really the strength of the team. There are a lot of power arms and a lot of guys who have wiffleball repertoires. They could turn every Southern League game into a five or six inning affair. With Jake Stinnett, Scott Effross, Preston Morrison, James Norwood, Dakota Mekkes, and Tommy Nance, they’re going to be a lot of disappointed bats at the end of games.
9. Beat Chattanooga – The Twins AA affiliate will be the team to beat. For the Smokies to make it to the postseason, they have to get past Chattanooga.
10. Attrition – Last year, manager Mark Johnson had to deal with a lot of attrition from players moving up, players getting injured, and players who were burnt out. This year, there’s a little bit more depth in the bullpen and position players in the system that should stave that off. WIth 7 or 8 guys who can start on the mound, the Smokies should be good to go.
Bonus: First Prospect to Iowa
It has to be Mekkes. He’s just a stud and so hard to hit. If he can keep his walks down, he’s not going to be around the minors very long. Considering the strength of the bullpen at Tennessee, they will be just fine.
It should be an exciting year to watch these Smokies develop.
By Todd Johnson
There are now exactly two weeks to go in Spring Training. Basically two roster spots remain open. The backup catcher spot is a competition between Chris Gimenez, who looks to have the advantage of having been a backup before, and Victor Caratini, whose bat and experience in the organization will make it tough to pick just one. But when it comes to the final reliever spot, all bets are still off.
In the big scheme of things, the bullpen on March 29th is not going to be as important as the bullpen six months later on October 1. Between injuries, performance, promotions, and trades, a lot can go down (or up) underneath the bleachers and on the mound.
Over the past week, the Cubs whittled down their roster some. Several non-roster invitees were sent back to Iowa and Tennessee and others, like Rob Zastryzny, were optioned to Iowa.
Who Is Definitely In?
Brandon Morrow, Steve Cishek, Carl Edwards, Brian Duensing, Pedro Strop, Mike Montgomery, and Justin Wilson.
Who Is Still Left?
Out of those six names, one will break camp and head to Miami. It is not going to be Dillon Maples no matter how badly I want him to make the club. He still has some work to do. Justin Grimm, meanwhile, is not looking too promising either. His contract is not guaranteed this year after losing his arbitration case. Hancock is throwing very well but a 40 man roster spot would have to made for him and the same would be true if Bass or Ryan made the club.
That leaves Eddie Butler. Currently, the righthander is out of options. He either makes the club or the Cubs risk losing him on a waiver claim. He’s had a good spring and the benefit of having him in the pen for the spring months is that he, along with Montgomery, could eat up some innings as long men.
Today, Butler would be my pick to make it. That could all change in a week.
However, the tenor of spring training games changes greatly in the next week as the starting pitcher go deeper into games and the hitters get 4-5 at-bats. Whoever comes in to relieve will be facing mostly major league hitters rather than a mish-mash of talent. The Cubs will get a better look at the bullpen and what these arms can do in that time frame.
Later in the Year
The Cubs have two arms in the minors who could remake the pen. One is Adbert Alzolay, who already has a wicked fastball in the mid 90s that could bump up some more in short stints. He should start the year at Tennessee.
Another arm who could be available later this year is Dakota Mekkes. The 6’7” righty has a deceptive delivery that turns a 93 mph into a 97 mph one with his long stride. He dominated at both South Bend and Myrtle Beach. He could do that as well again in 2018.
Regardless of the opening day bullpen, Theo and Jed are going to put together the best pen they can come the end of August. More than likely, that last spot will be fluid and malleable throughout this spring and even more so this summer.
By Todd Johnson
While Alzolay was ranked number one, he’s only got a couple of months in at AA and he still needs to work on his changeup quite a bit. I see his potential more as a reliever long-term. Although, he was able to stay in the mid-90s in the 6th and 7th inning last year. He just needs to continue to build up more innings to maintain his viability as a middle of the rotation starter.
As for Ademan, while he did well at Eugene on both sides of the plate, he struggled offensively at South Bend in his short time there. The Cubs will more than likely be aggressive with him this year and he will be assigned to Myrtle Beach. Oscar de la Cruz missed most of 2017 but still has a powerful potential in spite of his being oft-injured past two years.
When it comes to Jose Albertos, I just love him. By the end of the year he could take over the number one spot and I am looking forward to watching him do it at South Bend in the first half of the year. If all goes well, the young 19-year-old pitcher could end up in the pitcher friendly Carolina League for the second half of the year.
Catcher Miguel Amaya shot up to number 11. If his bat comes along at South Bend in 2018, he could rise even more. David Bote, at #15 went from utility organizational guy to a player with bat to make it as a utility infielder in Chicago. Recent draft picks from the past two years dot the list with Alex Lange at 5, Brendon Little at 6, and Thomas Hatch at 7. Three 2017 draft picks also got some praise. At 17, Jeremiah Estrada is well liked along with Erich Uelman at 19 and Keegan Thompson at 19, two college starters who only saw brief action in relief last year at Eugene. Pitcher Michael Rucker moved all the way up to 21 and Zack Short made his first appearance on the list at 23. Pitcher Javier Assad, who I am looking forward to watching throw at South Bend, is at #24. That’s a very good sign as he is only 19. Meanwhile, lefty starter Brailyn Marquez debuted at #27 at the age of 19. He is still very raw but he does miss a lot of bats.
Who is still in?
Most of the usual suspects in the Cubs system still made the list. Although, it is quite clear that they have lost some of the former status. Usually, MLB.com’s Pipeline is slow to change. One bad season doesn’t befall most prospects. There was some slippage this year. Trevor Clifton still made the list at #28 as did Duane Underwood at #30. Both have their work cut out in front of them.
Names to Know for Later Lists
Danis Correa is one of several young Latin pitching prospects who could breakout in 2018. He throws in the mid to upper 90s but needs some work on his command. I think Bailey Clark will turn some heads this year as he is now done with his degree at Duke and minor injuries. 2B Carlos Sepulveda was not on the list this year after missing almost of 2017. He could return later. The big breakout could be OF Fernando Kelli who will arrive from the Dominican Summer League where he stole 58 bases last year. Personally, I like the potential bats of infielders Austin Upshaw and Jered Young along with pitcher Jesus Tejada, who threw a no-hitter in the Dominican last summer.
It should be exciting as the Cubs system gets remade. It looks to be getting much younger since last year’s trades.
The Final Rankings List
I assigned point value to seven prospect lists this winter. A player received 10 for being named #1, 9 for #2, etc. I used Fangraphs, John Sickels, Baseball Prospectus, Baseball America, Keith Law. MLB.com, and my own Top 21.
Here are the final totals.
Adbert Alzolay -66
Aramis Ademan – 64
Jose Albertos -57
Alex Lange – 42
Oscar de la Cruz – 38
Brendon Little – 33
Victor Caratini – 28
Thomas Hatch – 23
Jen-Ho Tseng – 12
Dillon Maples – 7
Nelson Velazquez – 5