I am not quite sure what went down in Kodak, Tennessee this summer. In April and May, they were close to being the best team in the system and were competing for a playoff spot against Chattanooga. Then, in one series, they were swept by Chattanooga and that doused any first half playoff hopes. Several prospects struggled in June and July and yet the Smokies were still in the thick of the playoff hunt again until mid August when the Montgomery Biscuits put some distance between themselves and the Smokies. Pitcher Jake Stinnett, who missed most of the year, returned in late July as a reliever and shined in his new role (0.61 ERA in 9 games). There could be something there.
Still, there was a lot of development that took place in 2017 for a team that was not considered to have a lot of elite prospects. Here are seven things about the Smokies talented roster.
1. Outfielder Charcer Burks was one of the prospects who came out of the gate extremely well in spring training playing with the big league club. That carried over into April and May as Burks made his way onto MLB Pipeline’s top 30 cubs prospect list after hitting .293 and .286 and then .333 in June. Then July happened. He hit .135 for the month but he did rebound some in August. For the year, he hit .270 with a .370 OBP.
2. Trey Martin – He has been around for a while and he has improved at every level. It is not been a rapid ascent, though, but a slow steady climb. Along the way, he’s won two gold gloves and struggled with minor issues like this year’s hamstring strain that caused him to miss two months. Upon his return, his bat showed a marked improvement and I am really excited about what he might be doing at Iowa next year.
3. David Bote exploded in the second half of 2016 and that carried over into April and May 2017. Like Burks, he went down a little bit in the summer but rebounded well in August hitting over .280. I like the fact that he can play multiple positions in the infield. He has shown some power, but I prefer the fact that he is hitting the ball up the middle on a consistent basis.
4. Jason Vosler – He led the Cubs’ system in home runs this year with 21 but he also hit less than .200 in August. He came on like gangbusters this spring and then faded over the course of the rest of the summer. I am looking forward to seeing his batting average/OBP bounce back in 2018. It seems the more home runs he hit in July and August the lower his batting average got. Considering the fact that he never had more than 10 home runs in a season before 2017, it was interesting to see him produce at such a prodigious rate.
5. Yasiel Balaguert – We should just rename him Mr. Second Half. If he ever had a good first half, he would hit over 25 homers and drive in100 every year. That’s basically his second half pace when prorated out to a 162 game schedule. Maybe he’s just one of those guys it does better when it’s warmer. I look forward to him playing first base and the outfield next year for Iowa in a hitter’s league.
6. Ian Rice – You have to be picky when looking at his stats. You can hone in on the on-base percentage, the power numbers, and games played behind the plate that all point to him being one of the most improved prospects the past year. He played in 114 games this year with a .353 OBP and hit 17 homeruns. Considering that he was a last-minute addition to the Tennessee roster, he did an outstanding job transitioning over to catching almost full-time. I am really looking forward to seeing what he can do in Arizona Fall League this October and November.
7 – Which starting pitchers will get promoted to Iowa with Duane Underwood? I don’t know who that’s going to be. I honestly don’t. It should be determined in spring training. I think Zach Hedges will get a crack at Iowa again if I was to make a bet. If Adbert Alzolay and Trevor Clifton shine in spring training, they could also find their way there. I think a lot of it depends on who the Cubs sign, or trade for, in the offseason to replace Arrieta and Lackey. Right now, Alzolay, who is pitching well in relief in Arizona, might have the inside shot. Clifton, who was brilliant in the first half of the year and struggled in the second, could turn his career around quickly with a good spring. I would not be surprised to see all four get a shot in spring training to make a start with the big league club.
Smokies to Watch in 2018
Now 22, Eddy Martinez will be the player to watch in 2018. He’s finally acclimated to playing baseball again and playing baseball in the United States. It’s been a huge cultural shift for him and he is now able to relax and just play. In the second half of 2017, he hit .276 with 7 HRs and an OBP of .333. I imagine that the Eloy trade was tough for him as they were inseparable as teammates. The trade also may have helped him realize he is on his own now. I am looking forward to seeing him do his own thing in AA in 2018.
SS Zack Short, Pitchers Dakota Mekkes, Michael Rucker, Duncan Robinson, Thomas Hatch, Pedro Araujo, C Tyler Alamo, and 3B Jesse Hodges also bear watching in Tennessee. All will be at critical junctures in their development.
For the second straight year, manager Marty Pevey had to assemble a starting rotation made out of spare parts until August. Injuries and promotions at both the major and minor league levels cut his starting rotation short. The I-Cubs did have a potent offense led by the Cubs minor league player of the year, Victor Caratini. Starting pitcher Jen-Ho Tseng put together the best half by a pitcher in AAA since Kyle Hendricks was there.
The Iowa Cubs are still producing prospects to help Chicago every year. This year we saw, in addition to Caratini and Jen-Ho, Ian Happ, Eddie Butler, Jeimer Candelario, Mark Zagunis, Dillon Maples, and several relief pitchers help out the big club in some capacity. I expect more prospects will help out again in 2018, likely they will be just in bench roles. I don’t see anyone with the everyday playing career path of Ian Happ in the upper parts of the pipeline. Caratini looks to make the 25 man roster in Chicago next spring but just as the backup catcher. I am curious as to what the plans for Mark Zagunis are as he doesn’t have much left to prove in AAA.
Here are seven things to know about the 2017 Iowa Cubs.
1. Bijan Rademacher had the quietest best second half of any prospect in the system. I was a little surprised he wasn’t named the July player of the month as he hit almost .400. He can play all three outfield positions and I think he has one of the best outfield arms after Eddy Martinez. The issue is that he doesn’t project to be anything other than a fourth outfielder. Then again, he hasn’t really been given the chance to show that he can be something else. He has begun to hit for more power and I like what he can do at the plate. He can hit for average and he knows how to work an at bat.
2. I would not be surprised to see the big league club continue to clean house again at Iowa. The 2017 roster at Iowa only had a few position players that might project to make it to Chicago. Most of the roster were journeyman players looking for one more opportunity to get back to the big leagues. With Tennessee sending anywhere between 6 and 9 position players to Iowa next year, I don’t think there are going to be too many roster spots available for any player or prospect nearing 27 years of age. Already, Jake Hannemann, Pierce Johnson, and Felix Pena have new homes for 2018. I don’t know if John Andreoli will be back again either.
3. I still believe in Chesny Young despite his up-and-down year. I think that he has some adjusting to do at this level and I’m confident that he will do well in his second go around at AAA in 2018.
4. Unless Eddie Butler can add some sort of out pitch, I don’t know if he’s going to be anything more than a fill-in at the major-league level. He had his moments this year in Chicago, but he never went much beyond five innings. He needs to be more efficient to get outs quickly and go deeper into games.
5. I am still pulling for Ryan Williams to make it. I just like the kid. He has a bulldog mentality that I love. However, after basically missing two full seasons, I wonder if returning to the bullpen might be best for his long term health. In 2018, we will see.
6. Dillon Maples is going to be close to making the Chicago Cubs 25 man roster next spring. I like the fact that he’s going to get more instruction from big league coaches that will only enhance his chances.
7. For me, the highlights of the year were the second halves of Jen-Ho Tseng (1.80 ERA) and Taylor Davis (.297 avg with 62 RBI). I am glad Davis got the call to make it to Chicago. His story is a tale of perseverance and he is an outstanding teammate and hitter that I think can play somewhere in the majors. I don’t know if Tseng will be given a true opportunity to pitch in the big leagues next year but he should get a few starts with the club in spring training. A lot of his future is tied to what the Cubs do to add starting pitching this offseason.
What to Watch for in 2018
There are going to be at least six position players from Tennessee who should start in Iowa next year. I think many will benefit from playing in the Pacific Coast League but none more than catcher Ian Rice. If you dismiss his batting average and just look at his power numbers and on base percentage, you begin to see his value and how much greater he is than his fellow prospects (17 HRs, .353 OBP). I think he is really going to benefit from playing in the hitter friendly Pacific Coast League more than any other prospect in 2018.
Jason Vosler will also benefit from playing in such environs. After a poor second half, Vosler should look to recapture what made his first half so fantastic in 2017. In the first half, he hit at a .274/.375/.521 clip with 13 HRs and 49 RBI. In addition, Yasiel Balaguert, David Bote, Trey Martin, and Charcer Burks should be starting everyday in Des Moines next summer.
Remember the name Adbert Alzolay. Out of all the prospects at Tennessee, I think he might be the most ready for Chicago. Even though he is currently a starting pitcher, I can see him coming out of the bullpen in Chicago as early as the middle of next summer. With a fastball that sits 95-97, there’s a lot to like.
By Todd Johnson
Nelson Velazquez Gets Some McLeod Love
Over the past few weeks, I’ve written several posts and have them ready to go. As I begin to publish them, I am starting to notice a few trends. One is that I am writing a lot about Nelson Velasquez. And the second trend is that I am also focusing more on Jose Albertos. I think when I redo the top 21 list in a few months, Nelson could fly up a few more spots.
Mark Gonzalez of the Tribune talked with Cubs director of Scouting Jason McLeod about Nelson’s potential. Here is what McLeod said:
“He’s got power, speed and physical tools, and we can’t be more excited about how the rest of summer went. It’s inherent upon us and him to develop those skills. He’s going to end up being 6-2, 215 (pounds) and really strong and physical.”
I didn’t expect that last sentence as I thought he was already physically maxed out.
Arizona Fall League
Play began on Tuesday with Alec Mills getting the start for the Mesa Solar Sox. He got beat around pretty good in a little over two innings of work. He gave up four runs in his short stint. However, there was good news that night. Adbert Alzolay was phenomenal in relief. He pitched two innings and struck out four batters. On Saturday, he went two more innings and whiffed three more. I hope he continues to do well as 60% of the players in the league in the past have gone on to play professional baseball. I know if Adbert is going to start next year at AAA Iowa. Adbert has taken a huge step in his development this year and I could see him pitching in Wrigley at some point next summer. He could start or he could relieve, but I think he might be best suited to relief role.
On Wednesday, David Bote went 3/4 with a HR and 3 RBI in his debut. He played 2B. Things are really looking up for him. Bote also had a good day Thursday, this time at third base. He went 2/4 with and 1 RBI. he continued doing well on Friday and Saturday he hit another HR, his third in 5 days. For the week, he hit .500 with 6 RBI. It is a very impressive showing for the 24-year-old.
Ian Rice went 1/3 with a double and a walk on Wednesday. He also drove in one run. Jason Vosler has struggled band has been playing mostly at 1B. He has yet to get a hit in 4 games while Charcer Burks has yet to play. Jake Stinnett struggled in his lone appearance (2 IP, 4 H, 2Ks) while Pedro Araújo picked up a save on Friday in one of his two games (2 IP, 3 Ks).
The Seven Series
Starting on Monday, there will be three posts this week that look back at each affiliate’s 2017 season. Each posts examines seven issues about the affiliate and/or the prospects and the year they had. Monday, Iowa gets their due followed by Tennessee on Wednesday, and then Myrtle Beach’s season is relived on Thursday or Friday.
Baseball Card of the Week
I began my off-season card work this week. I have about 15 new cards uploaded to the Facebook page. You can see them right here. This one is my favorite…so far.
By Todd Johnson
Somehow, the Cubs did it! You can insert any cliché you want but when the season was on the line, they came through winning 15 of their last 18 games. Every year is going to be difficult and the pressure the Cubs have been under might lessen in the playoffs as the Cubs have basically been in playoff mode most of the past two months.
One key to winning the division this year was the Cubs went 14-5 against the Cardinals in 2017. The Cubs literally knocked the Cardinals out of the division race, and then, for good measure, out of the wild-card race…in St. Louis.
Don’t think for a minute that either the Brewers or the Cardinals are going to be easy pickings next year. The Brewers have more high-end talent coming from the minors while the Cardinals have more MLB ready talent at AAA Memphis. It will make for an exciting few years as Pittsburgh is also close to developing some top of the rotation pitching talent. Add in the fact that Cincinnati has some quality hitters like Nick Senzel coming and you have a very competitive division. For the next four years, the Cubs will have their for hitting core together and will just need to find quality pitching before most of their young high profile arms are ready in 2019/20.
Mike Montgomery will start today giving Jake Arrieta more time off to get ready for the postseason. Arrieta is scheduled to pitch a sim game on Wednesday against Jose Quintana. No sooner than I posted my thoughts about the possible rotation on Friday did things change as Quintana gave up 4 runs and the news about Arrieta broke. Then, yesterday, Jon Lester looked “smoove” going 5 IP and striking out 7. So, now it is down to Hendricks and Lester in games 1 and 2.
Baseball America began releasing their top 20 prospects in each of the minor leagues over a week ago. This week, Adbert Alzolay made the Carolina League’s Top 20 prospects at #17. In the AA Southern League, the Cubs did not have a prospect make the top 20 list from the Tennessee Smokies. Hopefully, the Midwest League, Northwest League, and the Arizona Rookie League lists will be out next week and will contain some Cubs.
When it comes to fall instructs, I’m not getting a lot of information this year. Even the scouts and talent evaluator’s that I follow are pretty quiet on Twitter as the Cubs are not playing games against other teams. Yesterday, on The Cub Reporter, I did read that outfielder Luis Ayala is now switch hitting.
As I planned on what to do this off-season for the website, I didn’t really have a lot of ideas about content concerning the draft. Most of my ideas were about prospects moving up a level and ranking the position players. However, I began to think about the draft this week when Baseball America published two articles about the 2018 draft.
BA Top 50 for High School
BA Top 50 for College
Even after reading those two articles and clicking on a few names, I still don’t have a lot of plans. When January gets closer and baseball season gets geared up, I might do some digging on some names.
Meanwhile…. at Cubs Central
On Tuesday, I will publish my September Cards of the Month post. This will be the first time that I’ve done a post for that month. There are a lot of very good cards coming. On Thursday, I will have part one of my Top MiLB Storylines of 2018” coming out.
My Other Writing on the Web
Fall Instructs Prospects to Watch
Card of the Week
By Todd Johnson
I am thinking I had this list done about three weeks ago. I wanted to put it out almost immediately after the minor league season ended. After thinking about it, I thought I would just let it settle and edit it before I put it out. To be honest, it has changed much from when I wrote it to today. In fact, I was reconsidering re-ordering 5-9 all night.
There are really only two major changes in this list from the summer. They are the inclusion of outfielders Jonathan Sierra and Nelson Velazquez. In fact, I had Velasquez shoot all the way into the top 10. The Cubs don’t have anybody like him in the system with his home run power and production.
I still think this list is pretty volatile. After the Arizona Fall League, I will think about mixing it up a bit. But with who is going to Arizona, I think only one prospect might improve their lot on the list.
The list could change quite a bit later this off-season as trades are made and injuries are revealed. I think the biggest risers and fallers next year will be at AA Tennessee. The Smokies will have pitchers Thomas Hatch, Trevor Clifton, Oscar de la Cruz, Duncan Robinson, Michael Rucker and position players Zack Short and Eddy Martinez. Those seven will determine how the rest of the list looks because production at AA signals that the product could be productive in Chicago.
South Bend’s rotation next year will also have a huge impact on the list as recent draft picks will be unleashed without any restrictions. Cory Abbott and Keegan Thompson are two pitchers who could make some waves in 2018 with some excellent performances next summer.
So, without further adieu, here is the current Top 21 list in video form.
By Todd Johnson
Originally, I did not plan on putting together a second half all star team. However, after looking at some of the performances of several prospects over the last 2 and 1/2 months, I thought they deserved to be honored for their performances.
I always like putting together a second-half team because they usually contain a few recent draft picks and some players from the lower parts of the system. Last year, I started including a couple players from the Dominican Summer League. That holds true for this year as well.
What started with the July All-Star team continued with the August All-Star team and this team. That is, in this list, you can definitely see a shift in the system. Younger players are starting to rise to the top and perform at a high-level. This is true of a couple of draft picks in Austin Upshaw and Nelson Velazquez along with several pitchers from the Dominican Summer League..
So, without further adieu, here is the All-Star team for the second half of the 2017 minor league season.
When I sit down to make my preseason All-Star team in 2018, a lot of the players listed in the video above will get a lot of merit for inclusion. One name not included that I am interested in seeing more of next year is Jose Gutierrez. The 18-year-old outfielder from Venezuela hit .354 in August and was a key cog in helping the Mesa Cubs win a title.
By Todd Johnson
Last week, Baseball America released its new top 100 prospect list that included draft picks from the 2017 MLB Draft. There was not a Cub to be seen. There were three former Cubs, but no one who is currently in the system. Over the next year, I tend to believe that one or two Cubs prospects might make it onto either MLB.com’s Top 100 list or Baseball America’s Top 100. If I was to invest money into who those prospects might be, I would have a wide array of choices in which to invest.
The Cubs have a lot of prospects who are on their way up. By that I mean, they are ascending players as their skills and tools begin to improve. There are other prospects who have shown glimpses of immense talent but have not put it all together yet. They are still developing.
At first I tried to organize my investment choices into categories based on risk and reward. There were players who I thought were a high-risk vs. investing in others who were a low risk. I scrapped that idea pretty quickly.
I narrowed the categories down to three. The first one would be long-term investments. These could be recent high school pics like Luis Vazquez and Nelson Velasquez to go along with several young international free agents who are currently in the Dominican Summer League or in Mesa. It’s going to take awhile for them to approach Top 100 status.
The second category is players who could take a couple years to develop before they hit the top 100. Miguel Amaya is one player whose defensive attributes garner attention but the bat still lags behind a little bit. First-round pick Brendon Little is a perfect example of someone who is going to take a couple years to develop and a lot of that is because of his age and lack of experience. Then again, his curveball could accelerate his development.
The final category is players who I think have a decent shot at being included on a top 100 list by the middle of next summer. I call these these One Year Bets.
Jose Albertos – Currently at short season Eugene, I think the 18-year-old pitcher is the top prospect in the Cubs’ system. He should be a top 100 prospect by the middle of next year if he continues to pile up innings and gain experience. I think he’s getting that experience this year, but next year will really propel him up a list. If things go well the last month, he could make a list this winter.
Adbert Alzolay – I am extremely impressed that he has been able to maintain his velocity and health over the course of this year as a starter. He doesn’t have the biggest frame which makes his ability to sustain a 96/97 mile an hour fastball into the sixth and seventh innings that much more impressive.
Duane Underwood – Over the past month, something is happening for the 23-year-old right-hander. I don’t know what it is specifically. But I do know that he is able to command his pitches better, get more strikeouts, and work deep into games. Over the past month he has a 1.33 ERA in five starts. If he can do that at the beginning of next year for AAA Iowa, he may find himself in Chicago by the middle of the summer. He just turned 23.
Aramis Ademan – I think he has the most tools of any position player currently in the system. He’s yet to put everything together. We see have seen brief glimpses and runs of greatness as well as stretches of inconsistency. I think his bat is further along at this point then many people thought it would be and his defense has not peaked where others may have thought it should be.
Alex Lange – I really like what he brings to the table and I think once he gets going as a full-time pitcher next year, he is going to shoot up the rankings. Even though he was drafted behind Little, Lange’s experience in the SEC will move him along at a much faster rate. I would not be surprised to see him be on the list before anybody else.
Mark Zagunis – Right now, I don’t think there’s a better pure hitter and a better eye at the plate in the organization than Zagunis. He’s going to be close to a 20 home run pace this year in spite of starting the year somewhat injured. I don’t really know if he fits the mold is a top prospect, but his performance and his exceptional approach at the plate raise him high above any other prospects. The problem is not his floor, it’s his ceiling.
Kevonte Mitchell – We have seen glimpses of Kevonte busting out this season. Of the five months that make up the 2017 season, he’s had one good one, two mediocre ones, and two excellent ones. He’s been very impressive in the second half especially in August. I think if he comes into camp ready to go, he could take the Carolina League by storm next year. Physically gifted, he is an imposing figure as anyone in the Cubs system. It’s just a matter of him putting it together which he has started to do this year with better pitch recognition and approach.
Oscar de la Cruz – Injuries look they put his career in slow motion. It was a shoulder strain this season, forearm tightness last year. But when healthy, he throws 93-95 with ease. He can command a curve and a change along with his fastball. For him to make any list, he has to get healthy and put in some innings.