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.
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.
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.
Yeah, I’ve noticed the effort issue plus mixed reports on his changeup and FB velocity. But his track record is strong and I think he may thrive in pro environment. https://t.co/TRs3tcoYYN
— johnsickels (@MinorLeagueBall) December 1, 2017
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!
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.