Albert Almora

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

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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

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

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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

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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

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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.

 

Defense Turns in a Magical Performance in 2-1 Victory

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Doing game recaps has never been our big thing here at Cubs Central. However, last night’s 2 to 1 win over the Cardinals begs to have at least a small summation. Outside of the bats of Contreras and Schwarber, the Cubs offense really has not opened up yet. On the other hand, the defense is already midseason form.

*Kris Bryant looked as good as I have seen him at third base. He may not be Brooks Robinson but he did a great job of getting to everything that came his way last night.

*Jason Heyward made a great running catch on a Matt Carpenter flyball that was sure to be a double.

*Albert Almora stole the show with his takeaway of a home run from Matt Adams.

*Javy Baez’s pick and throw in the ninth inning ended the game and what easily could have been a single to extend the inning.

While the game was a pitcher’s duel, the defense easily stole the show. So, without further adieu, here is our first card of the year from the pivotal play last night.

The Cubs will be back in action with a three-game set in Milwaukee this weekend.

Cubs Central will be back tomorrow with our minor-league preseason  All-Star team for the first half.

Spring Training Preview – The Honeymoon Is Just About Over

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By Todd Johnson

Image may contain: one or more people, people standing, cloud, sky, outdoor and text

Spring Training begins today for the defending World Series Champion Chicago Cubs. Over the next 6 weeks, the Cubs will be assembling a 25 man roster and getting peeks at players and prospects who could help them throughout the 2017 season and beyond. For the first few hours, there will be lots of smiling and laughing, but sooner than later, the Cubs will get down to work.

There will be competition for starting spots in the rotation. The bullpen arms will be assessed as well as the bench players. Jason Heyward will get to hit against live pitching with his new swing. Things will even get down to a microscopic look at Kyle Schwarber’s knee. These should be the key stories of Spring Training 2017.

butler-trade-17Starting Pitching – This could be a very interesting spring training when it comes to starting pitching. On the surface, it would appear that the Cubs are looking for third through six starters for this and next year. With Arrieta and Lackey set to leave after this season, the Cubs get a sneak peek at arms like Eddie Butler and Alec Mills. Then again, this year takes precedence. While Mike Montgomery could be slated for the fifth spot, he is going to have a lot of competition including Brett Anderson. Throw in a possible sixth starter for later in the summer and you have a lot of arms doing a lot of things for the next six weeks.

Last night I saw this “gem of a tweet.”

I am so glad Chris Bosio is the pitching coach of the Cubs. Now, I cannot wait to see Eddie pitch. If he gets back to his 2014 repertoire, look out!

Bullpen – With the way the bullpen unraveled in the playoffs due to injuries, Theo went out and got several arms this winter. Not all will make the 25 man roster, but like the starting pitching spot, there will be lots of competition and depth. I think Davis, Edwards, Grimm, Strop, and Rondon are locks, that still leaves 2-3 arms depending on how many starters you keep. With Travis Wood now in Kansas City, that opens the door for Rob Zastryzny to make the club out of spring training.

Bench spots – I think this storyline will involve Tommy LaStella and Matt Szczur as the key players to watch this spring. I think John Jay is definitely in, but I am interested to see how Chesny Young does as his bat is close to ready. However, Chesny doesn’t hit left-handed, LaStella’s saving grace. The Cubs could also add a third catcher based on the next paragraph.

schwarber-2016-wsSchwarber’s knee – Cubs Insider had some nice video and pictures of Schwarber getting a head start over the past week. We also discussed how his knee might not be ready to catch yet. As a result, This could necessitate a need for a third catcher. The Cubs could go out and get one or they could use Cael Brockmeyer, Victor Caratini, or Taylor Davis to fill in for a while.

Jason Heyward – It will be all about his rebuilt swing does in games. If it works, he could really lengthen the lineup.

Albert Almora/John Jay – I am not quite sure how this is going to work and if there’s gonna be some set rotation. What I do like is that both can play all three outfield spots on defense. I think the biggest effect will be how it affects Matt Szczur.

Other Unknowns: Injuries, Trades, Iowa

Outside of Schwarber’s knee last year, the Cubs were very lucky when it came to injuries. The Cubs have built up a lot of pitching depth and they already have plenty of position player depth built in through versatility and the minor league prospects.

I still think we will see another prospect for prospect trade this spring as the Cubs will use their position depth, especially in the outfield, to acquire another SP who likely could be in AA or AAA.

Iowa should be well stocked with arms as a result of this offseason. In acquiring all these arms, it will be interesting to see how prospects Ryan Williams, Trevor Clifton, Duane Underwood, and Zach Hedges navigate through the depth this spring.

So, without further adieu….

Play ball!

The Weekly – Two Top 100 Prospects Lists, the NRI List, and $$$$$

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By Todd Johnson

mission-2017

It has been a busy week of little things happening. First, the Cubs signed pitcher Brett Anderson. The lefty will compete for the fifth or sixth spot in the rotation. When healthy, Anderson can have an ERA of under 3. But when not healthy, he misses three-quarters of the season. Luckily, the club signed him up for a $3.5 million deal with incentives up to $10 million.

Another possible arm became available this week when Hector Mendoza was declared a free agent by MLB. The Cuban right-handed pitcher will turn 23 on March 5. He will be able to sign with anyone as a free agent because of his experience in the Series Nacional and time spent in Japan. He likely could be a bullpen arm this year and then stretch out to a starter next year.


The Cubs also released a list of non-roster invitees to Spring Training who are not on the 40 man roster.

Right Handed Pitchers: Andury Acevedo, Maikel Cleto, Daniel Corcino, James Farris, Seth Frankoff, Jim Henderson, Casey Kelly, Jhondaniel Medina, Conor Mullee, Fernando Rodriguez and Ryan Williams

Left Handed Pitchers: Gerardo Concepcion, Manny Parra, and Zac Rosscup

Infielders: Chris Dominguez, Ian Happ, Munenori Kawasaki, Jemile Weeks and Chesny Young

Catchers: Carlos Corporan and Taylor Davis

Outfielders: John Andreoli, Eloy Jimenez, and Mark Zagunis.


Major League Baseball also released their bonus pools for the 2017 MLB draft. The Cubs’ bonus pool is set at $7,099,300. $4.5 million of that is earmarked for the 27th and 30th draft picks.


KEITH LAW WEEK: Farm System Rankings

eloy-65-2016-fgESPN’s Keith Law ranked the Cubs farm system 18th out of 30. Considering the loss of Gleyber Torres and Dan Vogelbach last year, along with no #1 draft pick, the system was somewhat depleted of high-end talent. This year’s draft should help build the system back up with two top draft picks.

Top 100

Over the course of the week, Keith Law released his top 100 prospects in baseball. The Cubs put three on that list with Dylan Cease at 86, Ian Happ at 63, and Eloy Jimenez cracked the top 20 at number 12. Considering the number of prospects above him who are already rostered at the MLB level, Eloy is more like number eight or number seven. As a result, he could be top 5 by the middle of summer.

On Tuesday, Law will release his top 10 prospects in the Cubs system. I will have a full article on that list for Wednesday’s post.


MLB Pipeline position rankings came out and the Cubs put three prospects in the lists at three positions. Ian Happ was ranked at number 3 for second baseman. Jeimer Candelario came in at number 5 for third baseman. And finally, Eloy was at number 4 in the outfield.

MLB Pipeline also released their top 100 prospects list on Saturday night. There were no big surprises for Cubs prospects. The same five who were on the list at the end of the year returned this year.

  1. Jeimer Candelario – He might be around a little longer than you think. The switch-hitter provides some depth at two premium positions now.
  2. Dylan Cease – I think this is the year he shoots up the list with a breakout at full season South Bend.
  3. Albert Almora – He will be off the list two weeks into the season and playing every day in center.
  4. Ian Happ – He slipped a little from 23 in 2016. I think he will be improved from 2016 in his second full season.
  5. Eloy Jimenez – He will be very good again at Myrtle Beach. However, when he gets to Tennessee is when his power should blossom.

By the middle of summer, don’t be surprised to see Oscar de la Cruz, Jose Albertos, Trevor Clifton, or Mark Zagunis in the top 100. DJ Wilson, Wladimir Galindo, and Erling Moreno could sneak onto there, too.

MLB.com’s top 30 prospects for each organization will be released later in February.


Upcoming Posts

Keith Law’s top 10 Cubs’ Prospect List

Next Up Series: Mark Zagunis

Draft profile: The University of South Carolina starting rotation