Happ Send Down Sends Out Some Serious Shock Waves

By Todd Johnson


Some years, you just never know about anything. 2019 could be one of those years for the Cubs’ system, especially when it comes to roster construction..

I sat down about 6 p.m. tonight to eat my fish sticks and tots. I about spit one of each out when I saw Sahadev Sharma’s simple tweet that Ian Happ will begin the year at Iowa instead of with the big league club. Before tonight’s game, Happ was hitting .135.

I understand he’s having a bad spring, but sometimes that happens. When the season begins, professionals have been known to turn it on. I thought he would make the roster and be given a chance to figure things out at the MLB level.

Well apparently not.

Joe Maddon said that Happ did not take it well. I don’t blame him.

At the end of last year, Theo said 2019 would be all about performance. I did not think he meant in spring training. Happ’s send down looks to be the first shot across the bow by management. 2 summers ago, Kyle Schwarber revisited Iowa after a horrible start.

Happ will be playing mostly in the outfield in Iowa and that demotion looks to open a door for Mark Zagunis to earn a job as the 4th outfielder and also allow Albert Almore more of an everyday role in CF along with Kyle Schwarber in left.

Some other moves were alluded to be happening. Reliever Junichi Tazawa was rumored to be released but no official word was announced until I posted this. Yesterday, pitcher Alec Mills was sent down to AAA Iowa. I expect some more announcements later tonight or on Sunday as the Cubs need to get down to their 25 man roster. Of most interest will be whether David Bote or Cristhian Adames (or both) make the squad as bench guys with Zagunis and Caratini.

The bullpen should be the last decisions made as the Cubs are likely waiting to see who is going to actually be healthy come opening day in 5 days. Right now, Dillon Maples, Allen Webster, Kyle Ryan, and Jordan Minch are still on the roster. Webster looks to be as close to a spot as anyone.

There are approximately 12 more days until the MiLB season begins on April 4. And yet, here I am, with a somewhat cursory look at the possible rosters. All winter I have said that trying to figure out the rosters for this year would be a hot mess. Even with less than two weeks, that sentiment still holds true.

When it comes to MiLB Rosters, three things are making the rosters a mess right now:
1. Injuries, and the prevention thereof, in the pitching department are turning things on their heads a bit. The following arms have either been shut down or are seeing limited action: Adbert Alzolay, Alec Mills, Erich Uelmen, Brendon Little, Erling Moreno, Paul Richan, and Brailyn Marquez. They have been pulled from the mound because of concerns/injuries.
2. Outfield Spots – While the infield and catcher spots look to be pretty much sewn up, who is going to be playing in the grass is a giant question mark. From Iowa to South Bend, there’s a lot of uncertainty and it begins in Iowa and flows downhill.
3. Relievers – On overage, most affiliates carry 12-13 pitchers. Of those 7 or 8 are relievers. In their current construct, there about 10-12 relievers on each roster. That means 4-5 guys are not going to be playing comes that matter in April. That’s a lot. And like the outfielders, Iowa will set the trend and it goes from there.

Here are the current roster totals and predictions to be on the roster (so far) for each affiliate per Arizona Phil. A lot can still change between now and the start of the MiLB season on April 4..

By next weekend, hopefully the rosters will be more fully formed.

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Spring Training News and Notes #3: Getting to Be All About the Players Now

By Todd Johnson

When pitchers and catchers reported on Monday, it looked like the negativity of the week before would subside. At times it did. There were moments of excitement as position players began their workouts. And then there the facepalm moments where Tom Ricketts had a press conference and this announcement showed up later in the week. Regardless, I am going to focus on things that went on with the players.

Kris Bryant has returned to his old swing of 2015-2016 and began hitting dingers all over Mesa. This is a welcome sight. Cubs’ GM Jed Hoyer commented that he thinks that Bryant could have another MVP type season. That would be nice, really nice. In the first game of spring training, Bryant went 2-for-2 with a nou doubter. That’s a very good way to start the year.

Yu Darvish is throwing 93-94 right now with minimal effort. He’s commented that he is throwing free and easy. A healthy Darvish would give the Cubs the best starting rotation in the NL.

David Bote is more upright. His back was straightened out a bit and as a result he looks like he’s bulked up and out instead of slouching a bit. He said that he’s only gained 2-3 pounds.

Albert Almora looks to have shed some weight and has retooled his swing a bit. That explains why the young outfielder has been cranking out more homers in BP than usual. Hopefully, he can transfer that swing to game action.

Zack Short saw some action yesterday getting in the game at SS. He was o-1 but he walked and eventually came around to score. That is what he does.

As for pitchers, former AAA All-Star Matt Carasiti struck out 3 in his inning of relief.

Ben Zobrist also arrived late in the week and should be up to par very soon.

Cole Hamels and Jon Lester look to be the new bromance in camp. They have been spotted golfing and even went to an Arizona COyotes hockey game. This will be something to watch.

FYI – I just love Cole Hamels! I think he is one of the best pitchers of this generation and I am ecstatic to watch him pitch for the Cubs this year. He might not have a 2015 Jake Arrieta type of season, but I still think Hamels looks reborn as a Cub.

It also looks like Brandon Morrow’s rehab is almost complete. He was given permission to start throwing off a mound. If he can get healthy, he really changes the dynamics of the back end of the bullpen. And, as a result, that changes the roles of many guys. The key, though, will be for Morrow to stay healthy all year long and for Joe to not use him for extended lengths and extended days.

A key person to follow on Twitter this spring is the Cubs’ new MLB.com beat writer, Jordan Bastain. Not only is he getting information out on Twitter, he also has a great Instagram page with lots and lots of pictures of Cub players.

There were a few things that were not happening that still are a cause for concern.

Adbert Alzolay has yet to get on the mound. Adbert was not going to break camp with Chicago but he most definitely could be a viable arm in some capacity this summer.

Here is an interesting factoid regarding the differences between a major league ball and a minor league ball. This is from Braves’ pitcher Mike Soroka.

Minor League camp “officially” opens up next Monday.

On a personal note…My busy season at school began. The History Fair was yesterday and my Academic Team begins conference play on Tuesdays and Thursdays for the next three weeks. So, I may not be as accessible as usual on those days.

Card of the Week

Here is the link to the album for the current set of cards.

Coming up Next Week…I have some articles done on Thomas Hatch, Jhonny Pereda, and James Norwood along with a videochat, which I thought turned out OK. I am also going to be working on a Glenallen HIll, Jr. post at some time the next few weeks when I can find the time.

You may have missed these articles earlier this week.
MLB Pipeline Top 30 Goes Young
The Mesa Effect on the Draft
Ricketts Presser

Over at Cubs Insider
Could the DH Impact How Cubs Draft?
MLB Pipeline’s Top 30 with an Eye on 2021

2022 Not That Far Away…

By Todd Johnson

2022. It doesn’t seem like a big year. However, it is. Yesterday, Baseball America released a projection (Subscription Required) of what they think the Cubs lineup is going to look like in 2022. My friend Cory suggested that I do my own projection on what I think the Cubs could look like in just three years. In reality, that scenario is not that far away.

Catcher – Willson Contreras is still signed through the 2022 season. He should still be with the Cubs unless there’s some dramatic drop off between now and then. However, if Miguel Amaya puts it all together in the next couple years, he could be there before and Willson could end up at another position which might improve Mr. Contreras’ bat and sustainability.

First Base– I can’t see anyone in this position other than Anthony Rizzo. He will be a free agent after 2021, but I do see the Cubs re-signing him to a short-term deal.

Second Base – I only see one person playing this position and that is 2018 first round pick Nico Hoerner. Currently, he is moving quickly through the system and could be as ready as early as late this summer or early spring 2020.

Shortstop – I think the Cubs can re-sign Javy Baez so that he can continue his career in Chicago. The hope is that the player we saw in 2018 is going to be the same player in 2022 at the age of 29.

Third Base – Kris Bryant is going to test the free-agent market at the end of the 2021 season. Even if the Cubs do sign Bryce Harper, I just don’t see Bryant sticking with the club if he gets something that’s going to better his life and his family for generations. If the Cubs do not sign Bryce Harper this off-season, maybe the team will sign Nolan Arenado next winter and Kris would move to the outfield.

Outfield – This is the most unpredictable of the everyday positions three years out. Right now, the Cubs have Jason Heyward, Ian Happ, and Albert Almora signed through 2022 and 2023. I don’t know if two or three of them are even going to be on the team when Spring Training starts this year. I can see 2018 draft picks Cole Roederer and Brennen Davis pushing for two of the spots by then. Hopefully, Harper will be in the other spot. Kyle Schwarber could be around as well. My crystal ball is little foggy here.

Starting Pitching – Yu Darvish is the only Cubs starting pitcher signed through 2022, although he can opt out after 2019. Considering the depth of starting pitching they now have in the majors and minors, the Cubs are going to try and draw from that as much as possible. I would love to see Kyle Hendricks re-signed but even that will be somewhat costly. Then again, Adbert Alzolay could be penciled in as soon as 2020 and lefty Brailyn Marquez could arrive in a couple more years. Mike Montgomery could be an arm as could the Cubs number one international free-agent signing last year, Richard Gallardo, who is polished beyond his years. Justin Steele is a thought along with Trevor Clifton, Alec Mills, Duncan Robinson, Matt Swarmer, Cory Abbott,….OK I need to stop as I could list ten more possibilities.

It was hard to project what the Cubs will look like in three years, but they will look a lot different, especially when it comes to pitching. The Cubs have shown a propensity to go out and purchase arms rather than wait for them to be developed. It’s a proven strategy considering you’re buying known quantities. But it’s also an expensive one that is curtailing their offseason efforts this year.

The Cubs still have three more drafts in which to  sign more young talent, hopefully position players who could have an impact at the major league level. Considering the Cubs don’t have much money budgeted for the roster in 2022, they can spend as much or as as little as they want to build up that roster. Right now, they have $62 million allocated for that season and 2/3 of that is Heyward and Darvish. They have a lot of money and time to budget that out.

Spring Training News and Notes: Baseball Is Back and Glorious!

By Todd Johnson

Big things are happening…sort of. Games are now being played. College baseball is in full swing and international players are doing showcases. The sights and sounds of spring are everywhere. With that, I enter into my so-called busy season at school. Yesterday, I had 62 students participate in the regional history fair at NIU in DeKalb. 28 of them received a superior rating and now advance to Illinois History Day in Springfield in early May. It was a good day! 

Yesterday, the Cubs announced that they signed pitcher Danny Hultzen. The former first round of Seattle is now 28 but has not pitched since a second arm surgery in 2016. In fact, the left-handed Hultzen has only pitched 10 innings since his first surgery in 2013. The deal is for a minor league contract only.

Back to spring training…

On Friday, the Cubs began playing games. Most of the players came from Iowa’s roster except for Ian Happ and Kyle Schwarber. On Saturday, most of the everyday position players got some work in with Anthony Rizzo and Willson Contreras hitting home runs. Luke Farrell was most impressive with 2 scoreless innings and 3 strikeouts in relief. It was also good to see Duane Underwood and Oscar de la Cruz each work a scoreless inning.

They’re only three things that need to be decided in Mesa. The first one is whether the Cubs are going to go with Chris Gimenez or Victor Caratini as the backup catcher. If it’s Gimenez, I am not so sure I like that decision. I know what Victor can do and I know that Victor is improving on the defensive side of the ball.

The second decision will be about whether Justin Grimm makes the roster or Dillon Maples. Farrell could even work his way into the conversation. Part of me wants to see Maples make it just because he has incredible nasty stuff. Even though Grimm makes $2.5 million a year, his contract is no longer guaranteed after losing his arbitration case a couple of weeks ago.

As for the “Leadoff Question,” that is not going to be solved for a while. And in all reality, it might be a yearlong thing with a variety of leadoff hitters. Ian Happ got the nod on Friday and Albert Almora stepped up first on Saturday.

International free agency

While the July 2 signing date is still three months away, there was an international showcase held in the Dominican Republic earlier in the week. With new rules in place beginning this year, every team is pretty much on a level playing field as a team cannot go over their bonus pool at all. The Cubs have been linked to a couple of high profile prospects so far.

One is a pitcher and the other is a shortstop and both have been profiled by Ben Badler of Baseball America. Due to proprietary restrictions, I can’t really go into a lot of detail because they are both subscription articles. Still, the Cubs have never really been linked to a high profile pitcher since Jen-Ho Tseng back in 2013. This might be an interesting IFA season, even if the kids are 16.

Earlier this week…

Sometimes I am perplexed by certain prospects rankings and sometimes I am pleasantly surprised. That held true this week when MLB.com’s Pipeline released their top 30 Cubs prospect listI was pleased to see Michael Rucker move all the way up to number 21. He made the backend of the top 30 list near the end of the season in 2017. What I like most about Michael is that he throws strikes. The former BYU standout started out 2017 as a reliever at South Bend and morphed into a starter at Myrtle Beach when Oscar de la Cruz went on the DL. He should be at Tennessee in 2018.

At some point in the next week, John Sickles of Minor League Ball will release his top 175 MiLB prospects. I feel pretty comfortable in saying there will be at least two Cubs on that list. If there’s more, that would be great. However, I just don’t see it happening this spring. Next year that’ll be a different story.

Coming Up on Cubs Central

With History Fair over for a while, I now have 5 Scholastic Bowl meets over the next ten days. So, I have pre written a few profiles and draft pieces. All I have to do is hit the “publish” button. Once the 8th of March gets here, my schedule becomes free and clear to keep up with the everyday happenings in the system.  Tomorrow, I have a draft piece about possible high school pitching prospects. The “Leveling Up” series continues with a look at Jonathan Sierra on Wednesday and Jared Young on Friday. And as usual, “Spring Training News and Notes” will be back next Sunday.

Baseball Card of the Week

NLCS Game One – A Strange, Strange Game Ends in a Cub Loss

By Todd Johnson

Usually, players make the difference and are the centers of attention, especially in the playoffs. In game one of the NLCS, the managers took center stage with a series of puzzling substitutions that made for one of the strangest games I have seen in awhile.

It started well for the Cubs. Jose Quintana was cruising along scoreless through 4 innings. A 2-run HR by Albert Almora gave the Cubs an early 2-0 lead.

Things changed much later. In the 5th, a big double by Yasiel Puig brought the Dodgers within 1 run and a SF by Charlie Culberson tied it up. Surprisingly, Clayton Kershaw was lifted for a pinch hitter after 5 innings in a 2-2 game.

I was actually surprised to see Hector Rondon enter during a tight game since he did not pitch in the NLCS. As a result, I was not surprised when Rondon gave up a leadoff HR in the 6th to Chris Taylor. After getting Justin Turner out, Rondon was lifted in a double switch. Montgomery came in and pitched while Ben Zobrist replaced Albert Almora in the lineup. I told my wife that Schwarber would get that run back in the 7th. I didn’t get that idea quite right.

At this point, I kept thinking the Cubs had 6 outs to get the lead back before Kenley Jansen entered. Jansen has been “Wade Davis-like” in relief this year getting 41 out of 42 save opportunities with a 1.32 ERA. When Schwarber made the second out in the seventh, I thought we had the heart of the order coming up one last time in the eighth.

I was still hopeful.

Then Yasiel Puig hit a dinger to make it 4-2. Then another run scored by a player who never touched home plate. Maddon got kicked out and things were way past strange heading to the eighth with the Cubs down 5-2.

After two quick outs in the eighth, Jansen entered to face Kris Bryant and the heart of the Cubs’ order. It wasn’t much of a test for him as he set all four batters up and then he set them back down for a 5-2 Dodgers’ victory.

There is the old adage by Pat Riley that states: “A series doesn’t start until someone loses at home.” Last year, the Cubs were down 2 games to 1 against the Dodgers and won it in 6. I am going to sleep well knowing those two things.

The Cubs will get back at it on Sunday with Jon Lester on the mound.

Ian Happ’s Emergence Has Changed a Few Things

By Todd Johnson

The biggest surprise to happen in Chicago this year was not an injury. Rather, it has been the play of Ian Happ and the reliance of the Cubs to depend on him for 105 games so far.

After the 2016 minor league season, I did not think that Happ was ready for the majors let alone AAA. In 2016 in his first full season as a pro, he was devastating at high A Myrtle Beach and was inconsistent at AA Tennessee with a horrid August as he was physically and mentally worn down. When spring training began in 2017, Ian showed renewed vigor and looked like he belonged with the major league club on a daily basis. Had it been a different era, he probably would’ve broke camp with Chicago. Instead, he was sent back to Iowa.

Happ’s situation was far different than Kris Bryant’s from a couple years ago. During Happ’s brief 1.5 year minor league career, he definitely showed that he could hit for power. I first saw him live in Beloit, Wisconsin two months after he was drafted. I came away a bit mystified at how good of an athlete he was and how beautifully his hands went through the hitting zone.

Now that he has a good body of work in the majors, I still am perplexed by how much he has changed things in Chicago. I think his ascension has been a transformational moment for him and for a few other players. I think it’s clear the Cubs love his ability to hit from both sides of the plate and to do so with power. I think the Cubs also love the fact that he he can play all three outfield positions and second base. He was even willing to take a few grounders at third a month ago just in case Bryant’s pinky was not going to heal quickly.

It’s not as if Happ has destroyed the careers of other players on the team but he has clearly jumped ahead of them on the depth chart and on the lineup card. I just didn’t see that coming this year. At the end of last year, I thought he might be ready (keyword there is might) in the middle of 2018 if all went right.

Here is who Happ’s ascension has had a direct impact on:

1. Albert Almora – After the postseason last year, the Cubs let Dexter Fowler go I thought in part to the fact that Almora was more than likely MLB ready. In the last month, Almora has tore it up against right handed pitching. Still, Happ has been the starter in most games in center. Happ has a lot to learn defensively compared to Almora’s capabilities. I don’t think the Cubs have given up on Albert. Rather, I just don’t know if they’re ready to rely on him full-time or as much as they have relied on Happ in a variety of situations. Happ’s ability to switch hit has to be a factor in Almora’s lack of playing time. 22 HRs don’t hurt either.

2. Tommy La Stella – The fact La Stella found his way to Iowa this year says more about Happ than it does about La Stella. I have always liked Tommy’s bat, but he’s not the most athletic player and Happ’s athletic ability to switch hit with power has pushed La Stella further down the Cubs bench. As a back up, La Stella has hardly gotten much playing time this year and the future doesn’t look much brighter.

3. Kyle Schwarber – I think Happ’s rise to prominence in May made it easier to send Schwarber down to Iowa a little over a month later. Had the Cubs not gotten that kind of power and production from Happ, I don’t know if they might have let Kyle work it out in the majors. Manager Joe Maddon seems to have relied more and more on Happ the past two months than he has on Schwarber. From pinch hitting to playing late in games, Happ gets the first call.

4. Mark Zagunis and Bijan Rademacher both put up outstanding years at AAA Iowa. In the second half of the year, neither got a sniff of the majors (even in September) due in large part to Happ’s performance. Going forward, I don’t even think there’s a fifth spot for a couple of years now for them or fellow outfield prospect Charcer Burks, who should be at Iowa in 2018.

5. Ben Zobrist – I don’t know how long the Cubs are going to hang onto Zobrist now. After this season, he has two years left on his deal. I can see him hanging around now more in a bench capacity as a result of Happ’s breakout season.

I think Happ’s emergence and it’s impact will be felt even more this off-season. If the Cubs make a deal to acquire more starting pitching, the Cubs will be doing so with players that I think are not seen as valuable or as essential because of Happ. Now, I’m not saying that Almora or Schwarber will be traded this offseason. I’m saying that Happ’s rise as a Cub has made the trading of other players more probable and easier to swallow.

I am looking forward to seeing Ian in the playoffs. I hope that he can respond as well as the other players listed above him did in 2015 and 2016. I think that’s going to be the ultimate test for Cub fans. For now, though, it has been a pretty impressive rookie season.

The Friday Six Pack: Early Surprises All Around the System

By Todd Johnson

It is hard to believe, but April is over in less than ten days! Minor league clubs have two full weeks in and the big league club is finishing its third full week on Sunday. However, this April has not been without some surprises.

Chicago: I am bit surprised to see Kyle Hendricks struggle AND give up dingers. His 6.19 ERA is a bit puzzling. However, I am not surprised to see Albert Almora do so well in the field. It is all he has ever done.

Iowa: I am not surprised to see Jeimer Candelario and Victor Caratini do so well in hitting in AAA. Caratini is having his best year ever as a Cubs prospect while Candelario already has driven in 18 in just 14 games.

Tennessee: I am surprised to see Yasiel Balaguert struggle to start this year. He is starting to come around. Last year, he drove in 95 runs. Last night, a seeing eye-single brought in two. I am not surprised to see Trevor Clifton come out and out work the other team. It’s early in his AA career, but he is off to his best start as a prospect.

Myrtle Beach: I am surprised by the sluggish start of Carlos Sepulveda. I thought he would hit every where he went. Two weeks in and he is just not getting close to .200. I am not surprised the bat of Tyler Alamo. He just works hard wherever he lands. I am very happy to see him get off to a good start as he is one of the nicest kids in the system.

South Bend: No surprise on Dylan Cease and the bullpen – they are both outstanding. I am surprised by the great start of Yeiler Peguero, I knew he would be at least decent this year. I did not see him dominating at-bats and hitting a home run (almost two in one game) this early in the year.

 Extended Spring Training: I was not surprised to see the 2015 IFA class playing with the Eugene team and thriving. I figured Ademan, Sierra, and Perez would hold their own. However, it is catcher Miguel Amaya who is dominating on both sides of the diamond. I am surprised how well Bryan Hudson is doing. He’s thrown 11 innings with 12 Ks and 15 GB outs.

The most surprising pitchers of the first two weeks are Justin Steele of Myrtle Beach and Eddie Butler of Iowa. I really like how Justin Steele is attacking the zone and hitters this year. There’s no more nibbling around the edge of the zone. With Butler, he just pitches well. He has quality stuff and gets people out. It seems as if he finally figured some things out.

When it comes to hitting, I am surprised to see Wladimir Galindo be a well rounded hitter. He goes the other way, often with two strikes and is hitting .327. Although he has one homer, we will see more as it warms up. Before a hamstring injury sidelined, Trey Martin was putting up some good numbers in Tennessee. Always a great fielder, Martin showed an offensive burst last summer for a bit. He was hitting .320 with 2 HRs and 6 RBIs in 8 games.