Alex Lange

Episode V of the MiLB Mailbag: Is South Bend’s Pitching Stacked for 2018?

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By Todd Johnson

This week’s mailbag has just one question and it’s a doozy.

Shawn Cline: Is South Bend going to be stacked at pitcher next year?

By the time the 2018 minor league season begins, I could answer this question four or five different ways. There are a myriad of combinations of pitchers who could start at South Bend in 2018. Just off the top of my head, I counted 13 possible arms who could take the bump every sixth day. Not all of the 13 are going to start the year at South Bend. Some could find their way to Myrtle Beach to begin 2018.

So, Shawn, the simple answer to your question is yes.

The complicated answer would be that I have no idea which six will make the opening day roster.

The Cubs have targeted pitching in the last two drafts and the last two international free-agent signing periods, especially in the Mexican market. The dividends of those investments will begin to come to fruition at South Bend. In 2017, Duncan Robinson and Michael Rucker were the first wave of arms to breakout and both will be at AA Tennessee next year along with 2016 third round pick Thomas Hatch.

As for South Bend, here are 13 pitchers who could wind up in the rotation.
Alex Lange, Jose Albertos, Javier Assad, Jesus Camargo, Brendon Little, Cory Abbott, Erich Uelmen, Bailey Clark, Rollie Lacy, Keegan Thompson, Enrique de los Rios, Matt Swarmer, and Carson Sands.

The starting rotation for South Bend will be determined in spring training. Some of the arms could skip South Bend and wind up in Myrtle Beach to begin the year. Alex Lange and Jesus Camargo would be the two most likely selections based on their age and experience.

While having Albertos skip South Bend would be interesting, he is going to be just 19 years old next year and there’s no rush to move him up the system.  He needs to refine his curve and basically get his work in. He needs to throw close to 100 innings after missing most of 2016. Whether he does that at South Bend or Myrtle Beach, I don’t care. But either way, it will be riveting.

The same is true for Javier Assad, who could be one arm at South Bend to really break out. I really like Assad a lot. Out of all the pitchers I watched at Eugene last summer, he improved the most in his arsenal and command. Now 20, he struck out 72 in 66 IP. He has a nice live mid 90s fastball and a good curve. If he commands his fastball down in the zone, he misses a lot of bats. He struck out 9 batters three times in short season ball where pitch limits are just 70-75 pitches. That is extremely impressive.

Top 2017 draft pick Brendon Little should be in South Bend most of the year as he works on his command and control.

While Albertos, Assad, and Camargo pitched well in full extended starts last year at Eugene, the one player who I am going to be fascinated with this year is the Cubs 2017 second round pick Cory Abbott. I was impressed with him last year as it pertained to his physical presence on the mound along with his actual talent and demeanor. He made five starts for Eugene, never throwing more than 3 innings and he exceeded 50 pitches only once.

While Little and Alex Lange got all the headlines from the draft, Abbott is an under the radar type who grew by leaps and bounds the last two years thanks in part to an uptick in his velocity and a slider that he modeled after Noah Syndergaard, his idol.

Fangraphs said the following about Abbott’s potential just last week:

Abbott has terrific glove-side control of his average slider and fastball, and can loop a 12-6 curveball into the zone for strikes. He’s not a great athlete but repeats his delivery well and could have plus command and control at peak. If he does — and he could move quickly — he’ll be a No. 4/5 starter.

Another possible breakout pitcher who did not get much time in Eugene in 2017 is Erich Uelmen. Uelmen was the Cubs fourth round pick out of Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. After his selection, he got in 17.2 innings of work with a 2.04 ERA and 23 Ks. He was just used in relief. Next year, his role could change.

Fangraphs’ Eric Longenhagen also liked him. Longenhagen said:

The club’s 2017 fourth-rounder out of Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo, Uelmen’s college stats are remarkable. He allowed just three home runs in 212 career innings at Cal Poly and struck out a batter per inning as a junior there, just as he did the prior summer on Cape Cod. He was up to 95 on the Cape but pitched more in the low 90s as a junior. His delivery is odd but effective. Uelmen is basically a side-armer, but has a shorter, quicker arm stroke than most of his low-slotted peers. It creates deception/extension which, along with his fastball’s significant arm-side movement, makes the fastball effective despite middling velocity. He also has an average slider, which he locates consistently to his glove side, and feel for creating movement on his changeup but not for locating it. There’s a chance Uelmen ends up with a starter’s repertoire and command. Ultimately, the very thing that has many skeptical about his chances of remaining a starter — his delivery — is precisely (because of its deception) what might allow him to be one.

Keegan Thompson out of Auburn is a third pitcher who I think will do extremely well at South Bend. He missed all of 2016 after undergoing Tommy John surgery and came back last year and was the Cubs third round pick. He pitched well in his debut in Eugene (mostly in relief) and he should come back stronger from the surgery than he did in 2017.

One of my own personal favorites from this list is Bailey Clark. Drafted out of Duke in 2016, Clark debuted that summer for Eugene but returned to school to finish his degree that fall. Due to finishing his degree and some nagging injuries and an inability to weight train, Clark came to camp late in the the spring. He pitched well in Eugene, especially in August where he had a 1.69 ERA in 3 starts. This offseason, Clark is injury free, improving his strength and his velocity should be back in the mid 90s when spring training rolls around. As a result, he could be either at South Bend or Myrtle Beach, depending on his camp.

So, here are my six to start the year for South Bend: Albertos, Assad, Little, Abbott, Thompson, and Clark or Uelmen. It’s still extremely hard to call this some 3 1/2 months away. However, I think Lange will go up and start at Myrtle Beach and Camargo and his plus changeup will be there, too.

I didn’t even get to the relievers in this post but here are three names to watch for out of the pen:  Ricky Tyler Thomas, Jake Steffens, and Ben Hecht.

I am pretty geeked to see all of these guys throw next year. It should be very interesting to see who goes to what affiliate to begin the year and what their roles will be.

Next week’s mailbag will be just one question again. I will be comparing and contrasting the system now to 2011, just before Theo took over. That has brought back some ghosts.

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John Sickels’ Top 20 Prospect List Takes Over “The Weekly”

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By Todd Johnson

I was all set to begin uploading “The Weekly” on Saturday night when I thought I would jump onto Twitter to see if there was a trade or signing. I should have known better. 15 minutes later, I finished reading John Sickels’ ranking of Cubs prospects and realized I would have to write a whole new column. Damn you, John Sickels!

To begin, Sickels’ list has a different top prospect than other recent prospect lists and his contains several rankings that are quite different from Fangraphs and Baseball America.

Pitcher Adbert Alzolay is fittingly ranked number one. And not surprisingly, Sickels did not give out one grade of “A” to any of the Cub prospects. In fact, he only handed out just six Bs. That’s quite an indictment of the Cubs’ system. Then again, just three of his top 10 prospects began their season above A+ last year.

Card made from a photo by Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The top prospect for both Baseball America and Fangraphs, shortstop Ademan, came in at number two and 2017 draft pick Alex Lange came in at number three. Lange’s inclusion so high in the list likely has to do more with his ability to move fast through the system based on one single dominant pitch, his curveball. I really like the placement of Lange this high. I love his competitiveness just as much as his curve.

Other players to make the top 10 included Jose Albertos, Victor Caratini, Oscar de la Cruz, Thomas Hatch, Brendon Little, Jen-Ho Tseng, and Mark Zagunis. In Sickels’ second 10, his selections get a little bit more adventurous.

Coming in at number 16 is pitcher Michael Rucker. Rucker started out as a reliever at South Bend in 2017 and wound up going to Myrtle Beach mid-summer and later replaced Oscar de la Cruz in the Pelicans’ starting rotation. Based on his summer split of a 2.51 ERA in 15 starts at Myrtle Beach, Rucker doesn’t seem to be letting go of the rotation at all. It’s a pretty meteoric rise one year after being drafted. He throws a lot strikes, something the Cubs seem to lack.

Sickels also gives some love to pitcher Keegan Thompson out of Auburn at number 17. Drafted in the 4th round in 2017, Thompson pitched some in relief at Eugene last summer. After missing all of 2016, Thompson came back as a different pitcher as he relied more on experience than a purebred 95 mph fastball. Instead, command and control became his calling card. He only threw 19 innings while striking out 23 in short season ball. He did make one start, a three inning scoreless affair.

I was a little surprised to see Sickels’ list so early this offseason, even more so in the wake of Fangraphs’ list, which just came out on Thursday. Sickels’ list does prove a few things about what I thought would happen this winter. One, not every evaluator is going to agree on who the Cubs’ number one prospect is. In addition, I don’t even think there’s a consensus on who the top Cub  prospects are. DJ Wilson, who came in at number nine for Fangraphs, did not even make Sickels’ top 20 and graded out of with a C+.

I’m starting to get a kick out of the differentiation amongst the lists.

Two players who I thought might see a little love just based on their 2017 performances were Ian Rice and Zack Short. Neither has yet to make a list.

Then again, while offseason lists are fun to discuss the value of prospects, I tend to prefer mid-season rankings as you tend to get a better feel for players drafted the year before. This was true last year for Short, Rucker, and pitcher Duncan Robinson. I wonder what will be said about Little, Lange, Cory Abbott, and Keegan Thompson in the middle of next summer?

No word on when MLB Pipeline or Keith Law will publish their new lists. However, Baseball Prospectus is set to drop their top 10 Cubs prospect list on December 11. Hopefully, there will be a new name on the top of that list, like… say, Ohtani. That would be great!

Fangraphs’ Top Prospect List Goes All-In on Potential

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By Todd Johnson

Last year, I quipped that Fangraphs produced the prospect list your mother warned you about. This year, Eric Longenhagen continued the tradition of creating a list different from the mainstream. The list, which came out today, contains analysis of upwards of 50 Cub prospects in detail. Although he only ranks 22, there is still plenty of information to go through and dissect. Overall, the list is a selection of young, athletic, and unproven prospects in the top 10.

Like Baseball America, Fangraphs placed shortstop Aramis Ademan at number one followed by pitchers Adbert Alzolay and Jose Albertos. While I would probably have them in inverse order as a top three, I really can’t quibble with Longenhagen’s reasoning. For the next 18 picks, though, it is all about potential. Longenhagen states:

Trades and graduations have sliced off the head of this system, but I remain fond of its “fruit on the bottom” composition. It features a wide swath of young talent at the lower levels, mostly from Latin America. The Cubs have cast a wide net in Latin America, adding a slew of good-bodied athletes with middling tools and then just kicking back to see what the player-development staff can do with them.

Pitcher Oscar de la Cruz is still held in esteem at number four and is soon followed by Brendon Little and Alex Lange, both of whom seem to have incomplete projections about whether they will be starters or relievers if, and when, they get to Chicago

The biggest shockers in the list came in the middle with the inclusion of several young 18 to 19-year-olds. Catcher Miguel Amaya is a favorite of mine and he is situated at number nine. Pitcher Alec Mills was next at ten, even though he missed most of 2017 with bone spurs. Mills was praised for his baseball command and plus changeup.

At number 11, 2017 sixth round pick pitcher Jeremiah Estrada got a lot of love from Longenhagen for his potential despite only pitching six innings of professional ball in 2017. One of my favorite young Cub prospects, outfielder Nelson Velazquez, came in at number 13 while unheralded lefty starter Brailyn Marquez surfaced at number 14 after an up-and-down year in Mesa.

The more I got through the list, the more and more the emphasis is on potential. Former top prospect Mark Zagunis wound up at number 20 while several more established Cub prospects did not make the top 22 cut like Trevor Clifton, Chesny Young, and Duane Underwood. Even the Cubs’ reigning MiLB Pitcher of the Year Jen-Ho Tseng did not make it. It is not as if Fangraphs have tossed the old guard to the side of the road, they made way for more prospects with a higher upside. DJ Wilson, for example, is one young and athletic prospect I profiled just last week who made the top 10.

In the end, this list is just going to be one of many this offseason that could have a totally different view of the Cubs system from every other list. In the next two weeks, Baseball Prospectus is set to release their Top 10 Cubs list either late next week or the week of the 11th.

The more lists that come out, the greater the variance is going to be. It’s pretty evident that the era of consensus on who the Cubs top prospects are is over. Even though Ademan has gotten the top nod in both major lists so far, don’t expect him to get top billing in every one.

Baseball America Has a Stunner at the Top of the Cubs Prospect List

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By Todd Johnson

Rapid ascents for prospect lists are usually rare. There is little variation from one list to the next. That is how things used to be.

With Eloy Jimenez gone, everything changes when it comes to Cubs lists and every list changes greatly. Outside of Keith Law’s, rarely does a prospect list have any surprise value to it. Today, Baseball America did not shock me with their top 10 Cubs Prospect List, but it most certainly was a major surprise.

10. Nelson Velazquez
9. Jen-Ho Tseng
8. Thomas Hatch
7. Brendon Little
6. Oscar de la Cruz
5. Alex Lange
4. Victor Caratini
3. Jose Albertos
2. Adbert Alozolay
1. Aramis Ademan

While a subscription is required to read the breakdown of each prospect, I can tell you that Ademan was praised for his current talent and the Cubs rapid advancement of him. In fact, any prospect list should be about future performance. While current potential and current performance should be part of the evaluation process, any prospect list should be looking two to four years down the road.

As for Ademan, I like him and I understand that he is more projectable as a hitter in an organization that graduated or traded most of their elite hitters. However, Ademan’s ability to hit consistently is still in question. He did flash moments in 2017 and showed more power than anyone thought he could have, but he also had long stretches of nothingness where he was baffled by a well placed curve or change. He can turn on anything on the inner half. He is far from a finished product in the field as well. Then again, he does flash the spectacular as often as often as he bobbles the routine grounder. He is one of the top three prospects in the system and the position he plays might be in part why he got the #1 nod.

Yes, the list is predictive. Yes, the list is subjective. I would argue that Albertos has more value to the organization as a top of the rotation starting pitcher. The same could also hold true for Alzolay, especially by the middle of next year. Alex Lange is another arm who should move pretty quickly next year. I really like his value as a starter as he has a nasty competitive streak. His delivery is maximum effort and needs some smoothing out, but his curve is amazing.

I really like the aggressive ranking of the top 5 prospects. While bold, it also shows value. Hopefully, other lists will be equally surprising and equally argumentative.

In comparing the 2017 list to this year’s, only two names remain – Oscar de la Cruz and Jose Albertos. Mark Zagunis, Trevor Clifton, and DJ Wilson are still with the organization, just not “Top 10” prospects.

The move to a pitching dominated list is complete with 8 of the Cubs top 10 slated for the mound. It should be very interesting to watch them develop in 2018 and how quickly they do so.

Trying to Predict Baseball America’s Upcoming Lists

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By Todd Johnson

When it comes to prospect lists this winter, beauty is definitely going to be in the eye of the beholder. As prospect lists begin to come out over the course of the next three months, you could see 20 different Cubs make a top 10 list. And you could see four or five different Cubs atop each of those lists. In a post-Eloy world, it’s going to take a long time for those lists to settle down. With the possibility that the Cubs might make another trade this offseason, more chaos could soon enter those lists.

Baseball America is getting ready to drop their latest Top 10 Cubs Prospects List on Monday or Tuesday, in addition to their top tools in the system. I thought I might beat them to the punch at their own game and come out with my prediction of their list of top MiLB tools and try to guess who they will select as their top 10 Cubs prospects.

🔸Best Hitter for Average: Victor Caratini – No one else is even close.

🔸Best Power Hitter:  Nelson Velazquez – 10 HRs in 6 weeks ought to get him the title.

🔸Best Strike-Zone Discipline: Mark Zagunis. Easy choice but there are several who could gain on him in the next year including Austin Filiere, Jared Young, and Austin Upshaw.

🔸Fastest Baserunner:  DJ Wilson – Watch him hit a triple and you will see how fast he flies.

🔸Best Athlete: Jacob Hannemann is now but might not be for long. Nelson Velazquez could overtake him in a year.

🔸Best Fastball: Adbert Alzolay – Sitting at 96 in the sixth and seventh innings is pretty impressive.

🔸Best Curveball: Dillon Maples – To him, this is his fastball as he commands it and throws it in fastball counts. 

🔸Best Slider: Dillon Maples – This will be the pitch that makes him a killer pro.

🔸Best Changeup: Jose Albertos barely gets the nod over Eugene teammate Jesus Camargo. Both are excellent and get some ugly, ugly swings.

🔸Best Control: Adbert Alzolay – It begins and ends with the ability to put his fastball where and when he wants. Jen-Ho Tseng comes in a close second.

🔸Best Defensive Catcher: Miguel Amaya – While blocking might be a small issue, his arm is clearly not. PJ Higgins is next. It will be interesting to watch Will Remillard come back and to see what recent international signee Alexander Guerra can do

🔸Best Defensive INF and Best INF Arm:  You might think that Aramis Ademan would get the nod. However, Luis Vazquez is better and more consistent. I’ve only seen him make a few plays, but he shows much more range, fluidity, and athleticism than Ademan.

🔸Best Defensive OF: Now that Trey Martin is gone and Jake Hannemann is back,  Hannemann barely gets the nod over Charcer Burks, DJ Wilson, and Nelson Velazquez. In a year, Velazquez could win almost every hitting and outfield award.

🔸Best OF Arm: Eddy Martinez – 2018 is going to be his year. Don’t be shocked to see him get a chance in Chicago later this summer.

Baseball America’s top 10 list is going to be a little bit different than mine as I do not consider Victor Caratini to still be a prospect. While he technically is, he has spent enough time in the majors to not be, just not the prerequisite 130 at-bats. After Caratini, it could be a free-for-all. It just depends on what value one sees in a prospect.

Where all these prospects are going to be ranked is a complete mystery to me. I’m having trouble reconciling whether to put Ademan in the top five and whether to include Dillon Maples in the top 10. I know other people like pitcher Adbert Alzolay a lot (as do I), but I think that Jose Albertos is a better high-end and prospect and would be my top prospect overall. I would expect the two young pitchers to be 2A and 2B.

Then, all bets are off.

In thinking of how I would do my own list, I’m half tempted to put Nelson Velasquez at number four. Just based on his little six week stint of 10 home runs in Mesa, you have to love the praise he garnered from evaluators and Jason McLeod in the Mark Gonzalez article.

There at least a dozen players who could make their way into Baseball America’s top 10. Mark Zagunis might be the most ready for the majors after Caratini. Thomas Hatch could more than likely be in the top 10 along with the Cubs two first round picks from 2017, Brendon Little and Alex Lange. MLB.com’s number one prospect, the oft-injured Oscar de la Cruz, should be in the top 10 as well as shortstop Aramis Ademan. Cases could also be made for Dillon Maples, Jen-Ho Tseng, Trevor Clifton, Duane Underwood, Jr., D.J. Wilson, and Justin Steele as top 10 prospects this winter.

Their analysis should make for some very interesting discussions in the coming week.

The 7 Series: Eugene’s Roster Dominated By Young Pitchers and Solid Draft Picks

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By Todd Johnson

Overall Record: 39-37

This team was just loaded with pitching talent. It’s easy to see why they did so well in the playoffs. With a mixture of young international free agents and some seasoned college players, they started peaking at the right time. As a result, the Ems went deep into the playoffs but lost in the finals of the Northwest League Championship Series.

Heading into the season, I was a little unsure of what was gonna happen. None of the players drafted had been signed yet. Although the Emeralds did not win the division title, they had the second best overall record in their division which earned them a playoff spot. As a team, they were a bit inconsistent at the plate, but they did flash glimpses of their immense talent from time to time. They just didn’t do it on a day-to-day basis. The strength of the team was starting pitching and a deadly bullpen.

Here are seven takes you need to know about this year’s team.

1. Jose Albertos – I think it’s safe to say he was my favorite player in the organization the second half of the year. He is still developing his curveball but he did begin to throw his changeup up more often in the second half of the year then he threw it in the first. I am extremely excited to watch him pitch next year at South Bend. His fastball did sit in the low to mid 90s and it varied from night to night but was usually anywhere between 91 and 96. His changeup comes in around 79 – 82, which is pretty unfair to most hitters.

2. Miguel Amaya – He’s only 18 and I don’t think he’s done growing yet. The catcher displayed a power arm behind the plate and threw out around 50% of base runners this year. He’s still a work in progress but once he moved down to the seven spot in the lineup, he hit over .300 in the month of August. I am really looking forward to seeing him for 140 games in 2018.

3. Javier Assad – Like Albertos, he is a young pitcher who is still developing. Several times this summer, he did throw close to double digit strikeouts. He does throw a fastball in the low to mid 90s and depending upon how his curveball did, that dictated how he would do want on a particular evening. His arm is pretty live and loose. He has to still work on keeping the ball down and moving the ball around the zone rather than focus on pounding one particular area.

4. Brendon Little – I think it would be a bit unfair to judge him based on his short starts where he would only pitch two-three innings. To go from throwing four innings in 2016 to 80+ innings in 2017 makes a big difference on the arm along with the fact that he was basically shut down from pitching and games for almost 2 months. He did flash an amazing curveball that will weaken the knees of several hitters in the Midwest League next year. However the velocity that we read about in scouting reports of a fastball in the mid to upper 90s was not there. Instead it was around 89 to 92.

5. Alex Lange – Although he wasn’t around at the end of the season, I am pretty excited to see what he will do in 2018 after pitching around 130 innings at LSU. The Cubs only had him originally scheduled to pitch 10 innings at Eugene. He pitched nine. I came away impressed by his curve and his tenacity.Hopefully, the Cubs can smooth out his delivery little bit as it looks like there is some effort to delivery.

6. Gustavo Polanco – It was pretty clear from the get-go that this kid could hit. The issues are that he is maxed out physically and that he doesn’t take a lot of walks. I think that is something that South Bend manager Jimmy Gonzalez can work on next year. Polanco needs to improve his approach to begin to tap into his power, which he did flash a couple of times this year. He does have good bat to ball skills and his natural swing takes the ball to right field, which is impressive.

7. The College Kids – Overall, I liked the new Cubs from the 2017 MLB Draft. Most of those players were at Eugene and we got some looks at their athletic talent and ability. There were several pitchers I came away impressed with including Jake Steffens and Cory Abbott along with Ricky Tyler Thomas. The position players were plentiful this year and that bodes well for South Bend next year. I was in particularly impressed with the plate approaches of Jared Young and Austin Filiere along with the natural physical talents of Brandon Hughes.

Emeralds to Watch in 2018

Card made from a Photo by John Arguello

It’s hard to predict who’s going to be on a short season roster. There’s a lot of development time that takes place between now and the middle of next June. I’d like to think that Nelson Velasquez or Jonathan Sierra will be hitting balls deep into the night at PK park next summer. But you never know what’s gonna happen over the next nine months. Both could wind up in South Bend at some point next May at the end of extended spring training. Regardless, there will be several players from the Dominican, like Fernando Kelli, who could show up in Eugene. However, I think it’s going to be several Dominican pitchers like Jesus Tejada and Emilio Ferrebus who could get all the acclaim before the drafted players sign.

A New Top 21 List – A Few Movers and Shakers

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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.

Card made from a photo by Freek Bouw/27 Outs Baseball.com

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.