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.
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.
By Todd Johnson
Eloy is gone.
Dylan Cease is gone.
Ian Happ is gone.
Albert Almora is 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.
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.
By Todd Johnson
This was the month of the hitters. It was also month that was hard to narrow down to just nine position players. In the past, I have sometimes had extra hitters at a position and that’s what I went to this month.
On the other hand, it was a decent month for starting pitchers in the system. Big innings, slumps, and warmer air made the ball fly a bit more. However, 7 starters found their way onto the team.
As for relievers, there was bonanza of relievers in the middle of July. At least 15 Cubs prospects had ERAs ranging from 0.00 to 1.50. By the end of the month, that was down to 7.
A lot of tough decisions had to be made including whether to add some players from the Arizona Rookie League Mesa Cubs and a couple of hot hitters from the Cubs DSL 1 team. I decided against it this month as there were so many excellent performances at the upper levels.
By Todd Johnson
The Good News
The Cubs are 1.5 games in front of Milwaukee. So, they will be leaving town in first place at the least. They only play 9 games in August against teams with winning records and they all happen in the first ten days.
The Sad News
Cubs Den founder John Arguello passed away yesterday. I send my condolences out to his family, friends, and web site. He was an inspiration in my starting this site and John was always helpful along the way. I wrote about his direct role in my career last night. He is already missed.
While tomorrow is the non-waiver trade deadline, I don’t think I will be surprised on who or what the Cubs acquire. I think a catcher will be acquired, and maybe even a pitcher. What could surprise me is what the Cubs might give up to acquire a catcher, reliever, and/or starter. I will post and update throughout the day on Monday. Despite Jed and Theo saying the Cubs have already made their big trade, the Cubs still have enough assets to get more.
James Norwood was promoted from Myrtle Beach up to Tennessee and Yapson Gomez went from Eugene to South Bend. Also, Jake Stinnett is off the DL and appeared in relief in Myrtle Beach. He will not be starting the rest of this year, which is only five weeks.
MLB Pipeline came out with its latest prospect lists this week. They produced a top 100 for all of MLB and each team got its own top 30 list. The Cubs only placed one player in the top 100. Jeimer Candelario was ranked at #92 and was followed in the Cubs list by Oscar de la Cruz, Jose Albertos, and Adbert Alzolay. The Cubs top 30 is a very pitcher driven list with 8 out of the top 12, and 19 total, being potential arms.
Meanwhile, over at Fangraphs, Chris Mitchell released the latest KATOH rankings. Mitchell uses data from prospect ranking along with MiLB statistics from the past two season to produce a “Wins Above Replacement” forecast up to six years. The Cubs placed three in the top 100. Mark Zagunis (#77), Jeimer Candelario (#83), and Victor Caratini (#91) received the honors. When it comes to just stats only, Ian Rice made that list at #60. In addition, Caratini, Zagunis and Isaac Paredes were found in the 70s on the stats only list.
John Sickels of Minor League Baseball should be coming out with his mid-season Cubs prospect list this week or next.
Also, Chris Kusiolek tweeted a couple of evaluations from Arizona on how a couple young players from the Mesa Cubs are looking early in their career.
Nelson Velasquez explosive hands w/ 6 bat speed; avg build, thick up thru trunk; Rotation; fairly compact path, off top hand. Above avg raw
— Chris Kusiolek (@CaliKusiolek) July 25, 2017
After a rough start, he has popped a couple of dingers and his average is climbing over .200. His fellow countrymen, Luis Vazquez, seems to following the same career trajectory but it closing in on .250. Kusiolek also chimed in on pitcher Brailyn Marquez who had an excellent start this week with 7 Ks in 5.1 IP.
Brailyn Marquez good proj build; physical, high waisted; extremely loose w/ compact arm swing; 92-94 w/ tail & bore. 84-88 CH; 73-79 roller
— Chris Kusiolek (@CaliKusiolek) July 25, 2017
It will be a busy week coming up at Cubs Central.
Monday – I will be reporting on any trades the Cubs make and the impact that could have on the MLB club and the MiLB system.
Tuesday – The Monthly All-Star Team will be published. There are a lot of new names this month. You might want to get used to that.
Wednesday – My monthly Baseball Cards of the Month post comes out. Action is this month’s theme.
Thursday – I will be rounding up the month of July on each affiliate. It hasn’t been the best of months for this farm system when it comes to winning.
Around the Minors This Week
It was a brutal week for most teams across the system. I will spare you the details but know that the DSL 1 team is playing well. Also, Brendon Little made his first start and now has to wait until next weekend after the Northwest League All-Star Break to make his second.
Players of the Week
My Other Stuff on the Web From This Week
By Todd Johnson
It was a bit stunning to look at how John Manuel and Baseball America (BA) viewed a reorganized collection of talent in the Cubs system. With Eloy Jimenez, Dylan Cease, Albert Almora, and Ian Happ no longer prospects, the BA staff went to town reshuffling their midseason prospect list (subscription required to read the profiles). In are a few young prospects in Jose Albertos, Isaac Paredes and Aramis Ademan. Also falling out of the top 10 from the January list are Trevor Clifton, Mark Zagunis, and DJ Wilson.
Here is their list (Links are to Cubs Central Profiles).
- Victor Caratini, C
- Thomas Hatch, RHP
- Jose Albertos, RHP
- Adbert Alzolay, RHP
- Isaac Paredes, SS
- Brendon Little, LHP
- Alex Lange, RHP
- Aramis Ademan, SS
- Jeimer Candelario, 3B
- Oscar de la Cruz, RHP
I guess it shouldn’t be all that surprising. Last week, I talked about the shift in the organization from hitting to pitching. However, I didn’t think that Lange and Little would be top 10 considerations without having thrown a pitch. There’s a lot to like about each of them, but pitching in the minors will take some adjusting for both of them.
While I agree with the overall restructuring of this list, I am not sure I would have put Caratini at #1 or Hatch at #2. While all lists are subjective in nature, there are data and reports which sway decisions and evaluations. I, for one, think Albertos should be number one based on his fastball command and poise at just 18. Others, like MLB.com, went with the old tried and true Jeimer Candelario.
I think that Caratini was selected by default based on his hitting performance this year, which has been spectacular (.342 avg, .919 OPS). On the other hand, everyone knows Caratini’s defense is his weakness and that there are other prospects in the Cubs’ system with far superior arms and defensive skills (Miguel Amaya and P.J. Higgins).
I was surprised to see Trevor Clifton drop all the way off the list. Clifton was outstanding in the early part of the year (1.84 ERA in May) at Tennessee but has struggled in June and July. As for Wilson, he missed most of the first half with a lower body injury after getting off to a poor start. As for Zagunis, he got a sneak peak in Chicago, but I don’t know how valued he is. He hasn’t hit for average as he has in the past, but he still gets his walks and has hit 11 HRs in 74 games, which is pretty decent.
Come the offseason, there will be new lists and a new number one as Caratini does not look to be leaving the Cubs 25 man roster anytime soon. So, we will get to debate again. And it will be fun as that is what a prospect list is supposed to do.
By Todd Johnson
It has been a busy few days for me. I started getting ready for my real job as a history teacher by doing some long range-planning this week. But I am ready to get back to baseball writing.
I was able to take a few breaks and watch some outstanding pitching performances from Cubs prospects this week. As I mentioned last week, the Cubs farm system has shifted towards being pitching heavy. The past few days have proven that with some serious games thrown across all levels. When I go to pick the monthly prospect All-Star team in less two weeks, these guys will make my job very hard.
Duncan Robinson – In his third start at high A Myrtle Beach, Robinson put his excellent command to good use going 5 IP with 5 Ks while only allowing 1 hit. This was clearly his best start since being promoted. It lowered his ERA for the month to 3.27 and for the year to 2.28.
Manny Rondon – He got off to a rough start to begin 2017. I found it surprising as he was the Northwest League pitcher of the year in 2016. On Monday afternoon, the lefty went 6.2 IP and gave up only a run while striking out three. It was one of his best starts of the year. After a 3.60 ERA in June, things are beginning to look up.
Jose Albertos – At short season Eugene, the young 18-year-old top prospect has put up a 2.70 ERA so far. He has a really good fastball in the mid 90s that he can command most days. His curve is a work in progress. I wish he would use his change more as that could be his most devastating pitch.
Justin Steele – He has quietly put up one of the best seasons of any pitcher in the Cubs’ system in 2017. He credits a new mental focus that includes stir-fry and meditation before every game. His major league type arsenal is looking very good. On Sunday, in a rain shortened game, he only gave up 1 run in 4 innings, which is about the norm for him this year.
Thomas Hatch – In June, the Cubs 2016 third round pick put up a 0.98 ERA. He got roughed up in one start this month but still sports a 3.21 ERA in just July. With improved command of a “new” four seam fastball in his pocket, he has been changing eye levels all summer.
Jen-Ho Tseng – He might have the most underrated story in the Cubs’ system this summer. After a rebirth that made one think of his 2014 summer at Kane County, Tseng hung up a 2.99 ERA at AA Tennessee. Most impressive in his statistics arsenal were his 83 Ks in 90.1 IP. In his second start at AAA Iowa, Tseng went 7 IP with 8 Ks and did not allow a run on Monday night.
Michael Rucker – His transformation has been stunning this year. As a reliever, he was a strikeout machine at South Bend. He was promoted in early June and was doing the same. All he does is attack the zone. It’s a simple plan that he can execute. The 2016 11th round pick out of BYU took over the injured Oscar de la Cruz’s spot in Myrtle Beach’s starting rotation and has never looked back. Check out this line from Monday night – 8 IP, 10 Ks, 2 hits, and 0 runs.
Preston Morrison – He’s had an up and down year. After a 1.88 ERA in May, it ballooned to 6 in June, and he is killing it in July with a 1.50 ERA. I enjoyed watching him last year at South Bend where he used what I call a “whiffle ball repertoire” to confound hitters. His last two starts saw him go 6 IP apiece and only give up 1 run in each.
Adbert Alzolay – He was promoted from Myrtle Beach to Tennessee two weeks ago. He proceeded to strike out ten in his five inning AA debut. So far, he has a 2.70 ERA in two AA starts. With a fastball that he can maintain deep into games, he bears a lot of watching.
Jesus Camargo – He comes across as a sneaky pitcher who I love to watch pitch. Currently at short season Eugene, he is having a good season after missing all of 2016. He has upper 80s/low 90s heat with a mid 70s curve and a changeup that is just plain filthy and that he can add and subtract mph. It is really a devastating pitch. The 21-year-old righty has a 1.73 ERA in six appearances and has struck out 31 in 26 IP. I really enjoy watching him work.
Jose Paulino – His last two starts saw him throw 12 scoreless innings with 12 Ks. His ERA for July is 0.55. Just six weeks ago, he was taken out of the rotation and placed in the bullpen. The young lefty has returned with a vengeance.
There should be even more great performances coming on a nightly basis. Hopefully Oscar de la Cruz will return to action along with Jake Stinnett. Stinnett made a rehab appearance this week down in Mesa. Trevor Clifton will look to bounce back in his next start and Bryan Hudson looks to recapture his ground ball magic. Even Bailey Clark has shown signs that he was a good gamble. Last night, he struck out 8 in 5 IP. He struck out 9 a couple of weeks ago. It’s getting deep when it comes to Cubs’ starting pitching.
Mind you, these 11 are just the starters. I did not talk about the relievers. I will be covering some of them the next few days.