By Todd Johnson
The relationship between the Chicago Cubs and the Myrtle Beach Pelicans seems to be working out just fine. In the three years the affiliate has been in the Cubs’ system, the Pelicans won two Mills Cup Championships and made a third playoff appearance. Can the Pelicans make it back to the Mills Cup Championship Series for a fourth straight year? I think the odds are very good, but everything has to come together perfectly.
What Needs to Happen
One Good Half: Two years ago, most of the 2018 Pelicans’ roster was part of a team that dominated the short season Northwest League. Last year, several players from that team moved quickly but some of the pitchers seemed to struggle in full season ball at South Bend. For the Pelicans to make it to the playoffs, they have to win a first half title or a second-half spot. And, in a 10 team league, it seems a little bit easier to make the postseason if you get hot for a little bit. That’s what happened last year in Myrtle Beach as the Pelicans were a destructive force in May and June. This year, there are a few key factors that will determine if the Pelicans can get back to the promised land.
It all starts with pitching. Starting pitching and relieving all have to be good. Considering the current backlog of prospects in the organization, most players are not going to be going promoted to AA Tennessee unless they have a completely dominant first half.
To begin, 2017 draft pick Alex Lange should be a great watch every sixth night for a couple of months. He has a devastating curve and, when his fastball command is on, he’s so hard to hit. The issue is if he can develop a change to go with his other two pitches. If he can, he is gone to Tennessee by mid season. One aspect of Lange’s personality that I love is his competitive fire. He has a burning to desire to win and also to dominate. His only issue this year could be overthrowing.
Jose Paulino is a 22-year-old lefty who struggled in the first half of 2017 at South Bend after dominating the Northwest League in 2016. He rebounded to pitch well in July and August and playing at Myrtle Beach will only help him as long as he stays aggressive in the zone. He put together a great spring and I’m excited to watch him go at it in a pitcher’s park in Myrtle Beach.
Fourth round pick Keegan Thompson will make the rotation and actually pitch opening night. He has great command of all his pitches and works off a 91-93 mph fastball. As for Erling Moreno (who is injured), Tyson Miller, Matt Swarmer, and Bryan Hudson, they need to stay healthy and need to stay consistent from inning to inning.
Catcher PJ Higgins is returning to Myrtle Beach and he should provide excellent leadership for the young pitchers. Jhonny Perada, who has been nailing runners at second like crazy in spring training, could be one of the most improved players this year.
Even though the Pelicans are a level higher than South Bend, they have the youngest average age of any of the affiliates this year. Maturity was a factor last year for some of this team at South Bend at the end of the first half. They made a push in August but fell a little short to get into the Midwest League playoffs. Another year older, they should also be another year wiser.
It looks as though 1B Tyler Alamo, who was very good in the second half last year (.306 with 5 HRs), will return and begin 2018 in Myrtle Beach. His maturity and leadership can only help these young guys.
I often refer to Wladimir Galindo as “my guy.” He is still rather young but this guy can just put the barrel the bat on the ball and drive it places at will. The issue is that he has to stay healthy. He has yet to play a full season without going on the DL. He missed most of last year with a broken foot. As soon as he hit the ground in spring training this year, he started hitting and hitting well.
The Blossoming of Austin Upshaw
Everyone that watches Austin Upshaw plays comes away very impressed. This kid can flat out rake. There is some potential for potential for power there, too, but that will come in due time. I also like that he can play three infield positions (1B, 2B, and 3B) well. If all goes well, he might not be at the Beach very long.
While the Cubs don’t have any top 100 prospects, there are three players who should be at Myrtle Beach this year who could be big talents in the organization fairly quickly with a breakout season.
Shortstop Aramis Ademan is already a top four prospect in the system but still needs to develop his bat some more. Defensively, he’s pretty good with his feet and his arm is very good. While he can turn on a fastball, he struggled a bit at the plate in his short tenure at South Bend. He’s still only 19 and should be a Pelican all year.
Outfielder DJ Wilson is an elite athletic talent who has yet to hit with any consistency. He has elite defensive skills and the potential for power, as he showed last summer when he was the Cubs’ July player of the month.
The guy I am looking most forward to seeing this year is Kevonte Mitchell. He is turning into a physical beast. Last time I saw him in person in was at Beloit, he looked Hulk-like and was tracking the ball well. Hopefully this year that pays off with a 20 home run season.
It’ll be interesting to see how this team looks at the end of the first half. If they can get it going on the mound, these young position players can score runs in bunches. They just need to be more consistent on a daily basis.
Other Affiliate Previews
By Todd Johnson
While Alzolay was ranked number one, he’s only got a couple of months in at AA and he still needs to work on his changeup quite a bit. I see his potential more as a reliever long-term. Although, he was able to stay in the mid-90s in the 6th and 7th inning last year. He just needs to continue to build up more innings to maintain his viability as a middle of the rotation starter.
As for Ademan, while he did well at Eugene on both sides of the plate, he struggled offensively at South Bend in his short time there. The Cubs will more than likely be aggressive with him this year and he will be assigned to Myrtle Beach. Oscar de la Cruz missed most of 2017 but still has a powerful potential in spite of his being oft-injured past two years.
When it comes to Jose Albertos, I just love him. By the end of the year he could take over the number one spot and I am looking forward to watching him do it at South Bend in the first half of the year. If all goes well, the young 19-year-old pitcher could end up in the pitcher friendly Carolina League for the second half of the year.
Catcher Miguel Amaya shot up to number 11. If his bat comes along at South Bend in 2018, he could rise even more. David Bote, at #15 went from utility organizational guy to a player with bat to make it as a utility infielder in Chicago. Recent draft picks from the past two years dot the list with Alex Lange at 5, Brendon Little at 6, and Thomas Hatch at 7. Three 2017 draft picks also got some praise. At 17, Jeremiah Estrada is well liked along with Erich Uelman at 19 and Keegan Thompson at 19, two college starters who only saw brief action in relief last year at Eugene. Pitcher Michael Rucker moved all the way up to 21 and Zack Short made his first appearance on the list at 23. Pitcher Javier Assad, who I am looking forward to watching throw at South Bend, is at #24. That’s a very good sign as he is only 19. Meanwhile, lefty starter Brailyn Marquez debuted at #27 at the age of 19. He is still very raw but he does miss a lot of bats.
Who is still in?
Most of the usual suspects in the Cubs system still made the list. Although, it is quite clear that they have lost some of the former status. Usually, MLB.com’s Pipeline is slow to change. One bad season doesn’t befall most prospects. There was some slippage this year. Trevor Clifton still made the list at #28 as did Duane Underwood at #30. Both have their work cut out in front of them.
Names to Know for Later Lists
Danis Correa is one of several young Latin pitching prospects who could breakout in 2018. He throws in the mid to upper 90s but needs some work on his command. I think Bailey Clark will turn some heads this year as he is now done with his degree at Duke and minor injuries. 2B Carlos Sepulveda was not on the list this year after missing almost of 2017. He could return later. The big breakout could be OF Fernando Kelli who will arrive from the Dominican Summer League where he stole 58 bases last year. Personally, I like the potential bats of infielders Austin Upshaw and Jered Young along with pitcher Jesus Tejada, who threw a no-hitter in the Dominican last summer.
It should be exciting as the Cubs system gets remade. It looks to be getting much younger since last year’s trades.
The Final Rankings List
I assigned point value to seven prospect lists this winter. A player received 10 for being named #1, 9 for #2, etc. I used Fangraphs, John Sickels, Baseball Prospectus, Baseball America, Keith Law. MLB.com, and my own Top 21.
Here are the final totals.
Adbert Alzolay -66
Aramis Ademan – 64
Jose Albertos -57
Alex Lange – 42
Oscar de la Cruz – 38
Brendon Little – 33
Victor Caratini – 28
Thomas Hatch – 23
Jen-Ho Tseng – 12
Dillon Maples – 7
Nelson Velazquez – 5
By Todd Johnson
I am still so excited! I haven’t been this pumped up since November of 2016!
Cubs fans are now just 4 days away from meeting Yu Darvish and him taking part in his first official practice this Thursday. Now, with Yu in the rotation, Mike Montgomery heads back to the pen. It makes me wonder who Dillon Maples has to get past to earn a spot. It also makes me wonder how much this could affect Justin Grimm, who no longer has a guaranteed contract after losing his arbitration case.
The Cubs starting rotation is now very deep at the major league level. A staff of Hendricks, Quintana, Darvish, Lester, and Chatwood puts the team on par with any staff in the majors. They aren’t going to go 162-0, but I could see the Cubs winning 95+ games in 2018. A week ago, without Darvish, the Cubs were predicted to win 89 games by Pecota. Darvish has to increase that win total at least 5 or 6 games.
About an hour after the signing, I began shifting my thoughts on the organizational impact this signing has. It puts in place a staff for at least the next two years, depending on when Darvish could opt out of his deal. It buys the Cubs time to develop several young arms. After the 2020 season, Darvish is the only current Cub in the rotation signed to a contract. Lester, Hendricks, Quintana, and Chatwood’s contracts all expire at the end of the 2020 season.
As a result, the Cubs’ young arms can be brought along and developed as assets, as Theo always intends. With so many young arms, the Cubs could have a large stockpile they could use in a deal later down the road while still being able to cherry pick the best of their own to keep. It’s a win-win scenario.
And finally, there is no compensation pick attached to Darvish. Because he was traded mid-season, the Cubs do not lose their second round pick. So, it looks like the Cubs will be picking up a pick should Arrieta sign soon. That would give them 4 picks in the top 75-80 selections.
In Prospect News…
Baseball Prospectus released their Top 101 prospects for 2018 and one Cub made the list. Adbert Alzolay came in at #95. Here is what John Eshleman of BP had to say about Adbert:
Alzolay has a starter’s delivery in a reliever’s body with a change-up that could push him to either role. Currently, the pitch is not playable to turn over MLB rotations, but he could right now get outs from a bullpen with his FB/SL combination, playing to higher end of velo band in short stints. The relative quietness of his delivery given his size, a result of plus athleticism and a strong lower half that stabilizes his delivery. I project change up and command improvement enough to keep Alzolay in an MLB rotation.
While Theo Epstein and the Cubs see Alzolay as a starter for now, Adbert still has some work to do to get there.
MLB Pipeline announced they will release their latest Cubs’ Top 30 Prospect list on Thursday February 22. Over the offseason, I have been keeping track of the prospect rankings and assigning points to where each player has been ranked. Using Baseball America, Fangraphs, John Sickels, Keith Law, Pipeline, and Baseball Prospectus, the leader in points right now is Adbert Alzolay followed by Aramis Ademan. Only one point separates the two. Pitcher Jose Albertos rounds out the top three. Then it is a while until fourth place. Here are the top nine point values so far.
Ademan – 55
Lange – 36
de la Cruz – 30
Little – 27
Caratini – 25
Hatch – 19
Tseng – 12
I did include my Top 21’s top 10 in these results. However, I did not include Caratini as I don’t consider him a prospect. Normally, I usually include Cubs Den’s rankings, but this year Michael Ernst’s did not rank them. Rather he placed them in tiers. Although, Michael did have Jose Albertos as the lone Tier 1 prospect. I don’t think that his ranking them would have changed the list and its point totals and rankings much.
I don’t really think MLB Pipeline’s list will change many people’s perceptions of either prospect or the Cubs as a whole. It has been a while since the Cubs did not had a clearly defined top prospect, let alone a top 100.
I hope that this summer sees some prospects like Albertos, Ademan, and Lange matriculate up to full season ball and onto prospect lists. Maybe next winter the Cubs could get 3-4 names on a list.
Also in prospect news, Fangraphs released their KOTAH projections. The list is a projection of WAR for the next five years at the MLB level. Two Cubs made the list. Charcer Burks came in at #61 with a projected WAR of 5 and Victor Caratini came in at #35 with a 6.7 WAR projection. I did not see Burks like that, but I like that he is highly thought of after a brilliant first half in 2017.
Just throwing this out there…
I am wanting to do profiles of two prospects but I don’t have pictures of them, yet. One is of Danis Correa, a pitcher who threw in just two games for Mesa after coming over from the DSL. The other is Jesus Tejada, who threw in the DSL the past two summers.
This week, come Wednesday, Fernando Kelli gets profiled in the “Leveling Up” series. I really enjoyed profiling the excitement for the young outfielder. I also have two spring training previews for the major league camp and the minor league camp in the works for this week. The major league post hits Monday, the minors on Friday.
Baseball Cards of the Week
By Todd Johnson
When it comes to baseball cards, I am weird. When I was a kid, I loved collecting them around 10, 11, and 12-years-old. It consumed every summer. I used to have a card table in my bedroom where I had them all sorted into neat little stacks by team and arranged by division. I was consumed with collecting them and trying to find the money to collect them. But as the 70s turned into the 80s, there were other things that began to take over my time. Part of me still enjoys that euphoria I got from collecting those initial cards of the 1970s.
That was over 40 years ago. This winter, I added some new templates of more recent years and I’m kind of digging that, too, but in a different way. For the month of January and into early February, I found a few more pictures of prospects that are starting to show up in Google and Twitter searches. Some of the cards I made turned into instant classics.
There’s not really a theme that weaves throughout all of the cards in the second “best of” post for this winter. Instead, the 12 cards I’ve selected today I like for variety of reasons. The key to any great card is a great photograph. And each of the photographs of the following cards are special for a different reason.
There were only a few pictures of Cory Abbott, the Cubs 2017 2nd round pick, out there on the Internet. This is one of them from the Eugene Emeralds that I really like because of the arm action in the follow through. For the other card, Duncan Robinson is in a Myrtle Beach Merman uniform, a play on the show “Eastbound and Down” that followed the mythical career of one Kenny Powers. I really love that jersey and the picture by Larry Kave!
Coming in at number 10 is a picture by my friend John Conover that captures Aramis Ademan in action against West Michigan. While I do like action, I really like the lines in the background of the dirt and the shaded section of the grass as much as the player. Coming in at number nine is a picture by MiLB of Adbert Alzolay at the high class A All-Star game. It’s it’s a very appealing picture to me because he’s in a different uniform and I like the shade of that blue. Sometimes, the specialty jersey can get played out a little bit, but I love this picture of Brendon Little in a “Pirates of the Caribbean” jersey.
7 to 5
Duncan Robinson returns again in the Mermen jersey at number seven. When I love about this picture is how the rain in the background dances in the light in another capture by Larry Kave. In contrast, Duane Underwood’s number six card has him bathed in the sunlight in an old picture from when he was in the Arizona Fall League from USA Today. Larry Kave’s close up of Zack Short is special because the yellow lettering just pops on the card.
4 to 2
Even though he didn’t get to see a lot of action after being drafted, Rollie Lacy comes in at number four in a night shot from the Emeralds that blends in perfectly with the staggered background in a 1999 template. I just love the many shades of black in the card. At number three, Alex Lange gets bathed in the trees that really offset the action in the card in this warm up shot from the Emeralds. For number two, I just love this blue sky blending with the stadium lights of Eugene reliever Casey Ryan. It is a classic action shot of him warming up in between innings in. I think the blue sky and the stadium lights reflecting against his hair is magical.
2017 draft pick Chris Singleton has been through more in the last three years than anyone can imagine. His mother was killed in a church shooting in South Carolina. It didn’t stop Singleton from chasing his dream. When I look at this picture, I see a determined look in his face and how the world is just melting away behind him.
Starting later next week, spring-training shots should be floating around the Internet. I will take a few of those images and begin to make cards for spring training. It will have its own folder over on the Facebook page and I’ll have a post in early April for those cards. I’m really excited to see how much some of the players have changed over the winter and it’s always exciting to see them in a blue Cubs uniform in the Arizona sunlight.
By Todd Johnson
Lists, Lists, and More Lists
It was a pretty exciting week as far as lists go. On Monday, Keith Law released his top 100 prospect list. Two Cub prospects, Aramis Ademan and Adbert Alzolay, found their names in the second half of the list. In addition, Jose Albertos later made Law’s “Just Missed List” of 10 prospects outside the top 100. That is a great sign heading into the season for Jose and the Cubs. On Friday, Law ranked the Cubs very low in his annual farm system rankings (subscription required). No shocker there.
Over the past two weeks, MLB Pipeline listed their top 10 prospects at each position in the minors. Catcher Victor Caratini was the only Cub prospect to make any position list and he came in at number 10.
And then last night, MLB Pipeline released their top 100 prospects. I did not expect to see any Cubs make the list as Jim Callis spoke previously that it would be very hard to get a Cub on there. And no Cub made it.
Starting in about a week, MLB Pipeline will be putting out their top 30 prospects for each MLB team. Alzolay looks to be their number one prospect on that list for the Cubs.
— Jonathan Mayo (@JonathanMayo) January 28, 2018
Spring Training Invitees
With just two weeks until the beginning of Spring Training, the Cubs began assembling the camp roster this week. In addition to minor league players on the 40 man like Mark Zagunis, Adbert Alzolay, and Duane Underwood, the Cubs invited 19 other non-rostered players to come to camp. They include:
Pitchers: Anthony Bass, Craig Brooks, David Garner, Justin Hancock, Thomas Hatch, Williams Perez, Alberto Baldonado, Daniel Camarena, and Kyle Ryan.
Infielders: Ryan Court, Mike Freeman, Jason Vosler, and Chesny Young.
Outfielders: Jacob Hannemann and Bijan Rademacher.
Catchers: Taylor Davis, Chris Gimenez, Ian Rice, and Ali Solis.
A few names stick out to me in Hatch, Rice, Garner, and Brooks. I am not surprised to see Rice, Garner, and Brooks get invites because they have already played at AA. As for Hatch, I’m gonna look forward to seeing what he can do as he has yet to play at Tennessee. This might be a little crumb for him. I can’t wait to see how Rice does in that setting along with Garner and Brooks, both who throw in the mid to upper 90s.
Additionally, a few names that were omitted also stand out to me. Jake Stinnett, Yasiel Balaguert, Charcer Burks, and the newly signed Wynton Bernard did not receive the special invitation. In most years, the NRI is usually just a formality as the Cubs tend to use players from across the system in games. It’s going to be true again this year. Burks should get some playing time and Stinnett will likely pitch for an inning or two just to see how they match up against MLB talent. That might be good for both of their confidence levels.
Coming Up Next Week
On Tuesday, I have an article coming out for BP Wrigleyville where I talk about 10 things to think about regarding the 2018 draft. On Wednesday, 2017 first-round draft pick Alex Lange gets the “Leveling Up” treatment. The “Position Break Down” series ended last Friday with relievers. So, now I have to come up with some new things to do until Spring Training. One of them involves the year 2021. I may just come right out with one post about that year and what the end of that season means.
Baseball Card of the Week
By Todd Johnson
Yesterday, Keith Law released the first part of his Top 100 Prospect List, numbers 51-100. Lo and behold, I was surprised to find two Cubs in it. Because it is a subscription article, I cannot divulge much more than Aramis Ademan and Adbert Alzolay made it and that is good news for Cub fans.
Honestly, I did not expect to see a Cub make any prospect list until this summer. Within the next year and a half, there could be several more prospects make a list by either Keith Law, Baseball America, MLB.com, Fangraphs, or Baseball Prospectus.
I like covering prospect lists just to see how others evaluate the Cubs system and then compare those views with what I see and read. When the Cubs were struggling, the minor league system was something to hang your hat on. It gave one hope that help was on the way. Now, not so much.
When Baseball America released their Top 100 prospect list the other day, there was not a Cub on it. I pretty much expected that. When MLB.com rolls out their top 100 list this weekend, I do not expect to see a Cub there, either. If there is, it will be a bonus.
To be honest, getting prospects on those lists is nice, but getting players, developing them, and having them produce at the MLB level is most important.
With several young players getting their first crack at full season ball this season, things should change greatly over the next few years. Jose Albertos could make a list at some point this summer. And depending on how his bat goes, Nelson Velasquez is the player who could rise the fastest in the next year. Miguel Amaya is another option as would be Hatch, de la Cruz, and maybe even Bryan Hudson. Who knows who could breakout? And that might be a lot of the fun when it does happen.
Ultimately, I will be paying attention to the lists the next three years as more and more Cubs prospects should be moving up through the system. As players from the 2015 international free agent class arrive stateside, they should be the elite part of the system the next three to five years.
If 2021 comes and there are no Cubs on Top 100 prospect lists, then there is a major problem. After the 2021 season, contracts will expire for most of the Cubs top players that year. As a result, the Cubs are going to need to reload the major league club in 2022. The fastest, best, and cheapest way to do that is by developing their own players.
So, enjoy having a couple of guys on a list today and hope the Cubs have a boatload of them in 2-3 years.
By Todd Johnson
The final question of this off-season’s minor-league mailbag comes to us from little Cory Alan from South Bend, Indiana. Cory asks: How does this year’s prospect list compare to when Theo took over?
To answer Cory’s question thoroughly, I had to do some digging. First, I went back to the archives at MLB Pipeline to look at their Cubs prospect list from 2011. They had Anthony Rizzo at number one. That list came out after Theo took over. I was able to find BP’s list from 2011 and I think it’s much more indicative of the Cubs system heading into 2011 before the season rather than after.
Here is their top 10 in all its glory, pre-Theo:
1. Brett Jackson, OF
2. Trey McNutt, RHP
3. Chris Archer, RHP
4. Josh Vitters, 3B
5. Hak-Ju Lee, SS
6. Chris Carpenter, RHP
7. Hayden Simpson, RHP
8. Reggie Golden, OF
9. Jay Jackson, RHP
10. Robinson Lopez, RHP
I also found Baseball America’s list. They had Archer at number one, Jackson at two, and McNutt at 3.
Now, it would be easy to sit back and say that today’s system is much better than 2011. But, at the time, I can’t believe I’m going to say this, the 2011 Cubs actually had two top 100 prospects in Brett Jackson and Trey McNutt. The Cubs don’t have a single top 100 prospect today. However, today’s Cubs could have three or more within the next two years, depending on draft picks and development. But beyond the top 10 in 2011, there was not much hope in the system. Only Darwin Barney is a recognizable name for most Cubs fans from that list.
In all sincerity, there were people who actually believed that Brett Jackson and Josh Vitters were going to be pros in Chicago. People thought Trey McNutt was going to be an arm and that Chris Carpenter was going to make it. In addition, I remember seeing Reggie Golden play for Kane County in 2013 and struggling to hit any pitch that started with a C, but he was one sculpted physical specimen.
It’s obvious, now, that the system in 2011 was not deep at all. It’s not like Brett Jackson was fooling anyone. Lots of top 100 prospects don’t make it in the major leagues – injuries happen, players peak. When Josh Vitters hit .283 with 14 home runs and 80+ RBIs at AA Tennessee, I think most Cubs fans and evaluators thought he was going to be an “it” guy.
By the time the 2011 season began, Archer was gone and General Manager Jim Hendry would be by mid-year. In Hendry’s final act, he drafted Javier Baez, Dan Vogelbach, and Dillon Maples. Soon after, thus began what we think of as the rebuild, but it would be Theo who did almost all the heavy lifting.
Sure, today’s Cubs system does not have one Top 100 prospect…for now. Still, the system is deep, redundant, but just lacks elite talent. However, within two years, several of the prospects led by Jose Albertos, Aramis Ademan, Miguel Amaya, Alex Lange, Jeremiah Estrada, and Nelson Velazquez (who will be at Eugene and South Bend in 2018) could matriculate up prospect lists . It could take a while, but Cubs system could be making a vaunted comeback without having to lose 100 games.