By Todd Johnson
One good month does not a promotion make. Two months, … maybe.
So far, there has not been a lot of movement up and down in the Cubs’ system this year. However, Bailey Clark moving from South Bend to Myrtle Beach was one of domination at South Bend. But most other promotions that took place were related to injury.
In the next few weeks, there will be a lot of movement as the MLB Draft takes place and 20+ new Cubs begin their careers. In addition, the first half will come to a close. I don’t expect a lot of movement when it comes to hitters, but there should be plenty of pitching movement – especially when it comes to relievers. In addition, there could even be a few players released at the higher levels.
Look for the following players to get bumped up a level fairly soon.
Tennessee to Iowa
Dakota Mekkes has been impressive since the beginning of the 2017 season. He has dominated three levels in the last 14 months. And the only reason to keep him in Tennessee would be to work on his walks. In 17.1 innings, he has walked 12. However, in the past, that hasn’t stopped the Cubs from promoting Carl Edwards, Pierce Johnson, and Dillon Maples. Mekkes is ready for the next level and could be in Chicago fairly quickly this summer if needed.
Thomas Hatch has looked much better this year. He looks pretty comfortable on the mound and with what he’s throwing. What I like most is that he is gone deep in the games this year And with solid results as he’s posted a 3.06 ERA in 9 starts. His WHIP might be a little high, but I like his ability to get out of jams. He’s also pitched 89 pitches or more in 5 of his last 6 starts. That’s big fo him as the Cubs kept him on a short leash and a 5 inning limit in 2017. He gets bumped around every once in a while, but when you start breaking down his starts, he looks to be fairly consistent. He’s more of a candidate to go at the All-Star break then he is in the first week in June.
Myrtle Beach to Tennessee
Tyler Peyton has been an eye-opener for some at Myrtle Beach. I saw this coming last summer at South Bend as he was pretty dominant the last six weeks of the season. Part of me hopes he would get a chance to start, but as a reliever he is throwing 96 mph consistently out of the pen. Add in a killer ERA of 1.29, and he should find his way to Tennessee shortly after Dakota Mekkes heads to Iowa.
South Bend to Myrtle Beach
2017 second round pick Cory Abbott is missing a lot of bats in the Midwest league, 44 Ks in 36.1 IP. He should be on the first plane to South Carolina fairly quickly at the rate he is going. His slider and fastball command are just wiping out hitters as he has posted a 2.72 ERA in 7 starts. His WHIP is 1.06 and opponents are hitting only .206 against him.
On the Edge
The main problem in promoting prospects is that there is nowhere to go for many of them. For the following list of prospects, they still need some more time to simmer in their respective affiliates before being promoted. While they may not be promoted in the next two weeks, look for their names to be bumped up in late June at the end of the first half.
Tennessee: Zack Short, Charcer Burks, and Jeffrey Baez – All three would need a place to play. Right now, there are no spots in Iowa.
Myrtle Beach: Jhonny Pereda, Wyatt Short, Casey Bloomquist, Bailey Clark, Connor Myers, and Tyler Alamo – Bloomquist has been a nice surprise out of the pen this year, along with Short, while Alamo and Pereda are part of the logjam at first and catcher in the system. Bailey Clark has been a stud throwing between 95-97. He had a couple of adjustments to make at high A but looks to have righted the ship. If Baez and Burks go to Iowa, look for Connor Myers to head west to Tennessee.
South Bend: Tyler Thomas, Javier Assad, Rollie Lacy, and Austin Filiere – All four have shown flashes of potential and have put together some impressive performances along with some befuddling ones. The pitchers probably move before Filiere does.
It will be interesting to see how this shakes down in a couple of weeks both before and after the draft.
By Todd Johnson
Even after just one year, it’s sometimes hard to get a good feel for a draft class until you’ve seen them play for at least a couple of years. Last year, the Cubs selected 41 players and signed 29 of them. A couple of young pitchers have yet to debut this year while 3 prospects are all the way up to high A Myrtle Beach. A large portion of the draftees are at South Bend (13) and the rest will likely play for Eugene this summer or fill in at South Bend within the next month.
While the Cubs did take a majority of pitchers last year in the draft (including two in the first round), it has been the hitters who are currently my focus on a daily basis this spring in Austin Filiere, Jared Young, and Nelson Velazquez. In addition, there are some pitchers trying to figure out whether they are going to start or relieve. Those decisions might be ongoing for a couple of years.
Next year’s grade will be more interesting and indicative of this class’ potential.
The Big Pitching Guns
It’s a bit hit and miss so far.
Alex Lange, Keegan Thompson, and Cory Abbott have been up and down. Brendon Little is improving every start. Tyler Thomas was very good in April but seems to be inconsistent to begin May. And Brendan King is just getting to South Bend in a relief role and doing well. Rollie Lacy just made his first starts of the year for South Bend. It’ll be much easier to evaluate a year from now when these arms have 25 to 30 starts under their belt rather than five or six.
If the last few days are any indication, there’s a lot of promise. 2nd round selection Cory Abbott struck out 11 on Saturday night and 18 for the week while 3rd round pick Erich Uelmen went 12 scoreless on the week with 9 Ks.
The Cubs did pick a few hitters who I really liked last year. Austin Filiere seems to have improved the most as he is hitting for average as well as drawing walks. I thought he would hit a lot more home runs but it hasn’t really heated up yet in the Midwest League. Jared Young is another impressive bat who really came on strong in August. He is one of my favorite hitters to watch in the organization because his approach is so good. The same is true of Austin Upshaw who did well at South Bend last summer. However, Upshaw is struggling in 2018 at Myrtle Beach. The approach is still there, but the results are not.
The Young Guns
Outfielder Nelson Velazquez tore it up last summer in Mesa. I thought he would begin 2018 in Eugene and I was really surprised to see him debut at South Bend the week of May 7. You can definitely see the tools and the skill set on display, but he seems to be struggling at the plate as I don’t think he has seen those types of curves or changeups before. Shortstop Luis Vazquez should also be a sight to see this summer in Eugene. He might be the best defensive shortstop in the system. If he can do anything with his bat, he should move pretty quickly with his skill set on defense. I’m looking forward to seeing Jeremiah Estrada pitch for Eugene this summer. He pitched a little bit last year in Mesa but not enough to get a good look at. This summer, seeing him on TV should be an eye-opener to see if the Cubs got a steal in the sixth round.
There are more than 10 other draft picks who make their 2018 debut later this year. That’s 1/3 of the draft class. Part of me says to give them a B and move on, but that is a lot of players who are still getting in the swing of things.
In trying to decide the grade, the one I really wanted to give was an incomplete. And that might be true for most drafts after their first year, honestly. There are many good things happening with this class and there are other picks who really haven’t even gotten going. I thought it would be unfair to the reader to get through this whole article and not even give a grade.
With that in mind, I’m going to throw out a B-. There’s no one who has gone out and consistently dominated. However, depending on how things go this year, the 2017 class could easily be an A at draft time a year from now if Little continues to improve, Lange and Thompson find some consistency, and Estrada flashes at Eugene to go along with the excellent hitting of Young, Filiere, Upshaw, and Velazquez, and the defense of Vazquez.
The Cubs took some chances in the 2017 draft and may hit on a few of them in due time. Just a year from now we’ll know a lot more. For right now, it’s a pretty promising class.
By Todd Johnson
The lack of hitting in the Cubs’ system in 2018 is a little disconcerting. Then again, that’s not a big surprise. Over the past two summers, the Cubs have drafted mostly pitchers. Position players, and, more specifically, college position players, have been few and far between in the draft in the top rounds. As a result, the Cubs do not have that elite type of hitting prospect dominating the system. The Cubs just don’t have the big bats they used to.
Some of the major prospects are struggling. Aramis Ademan is below .230 at Myrtle Beach. Nelson Velazquez is hovering around .200 while Mark Zagunis and David Bote were shuttling back and forth between Iowa and Chicago. As well, DJ Wilson has been injured most of the spring.
Then again, Jhonny Pereda and Jeffrey Baez haven’t stopped hitting all season. There are some other bats worth watching right now who are putting together a serious May at the plate.
1. Chesny Young seems to have found his stroke again. After hitting only .183 in April, Chesny looks like 2015 and 2016 Chesny that came to close to leading three leagues in hitting. In May so far, Young is hitting .333 with a .400 OBP. Last year, his average was up and down every month, Hopefully, he can maintain some consistency at AAA Iowa over the course of this summer. Right now, Chesny looks to be back to who he is and Manager Marty Pevey has moved Chesny into the 2 hole in Iowa’s lineup.
2. Charcer Burks, like Young, had a horrible April. Now that May is here, Burks, too, has been destroying the baseball to the tune of .344 with a .429 OBP and an OPS of .953. He has also been spotted playing more center than usual, too! Last year, he got off to a great start and sputtered in the second half. Hopefully, consistency every month is something he can sustain in 2018.
3. Yasiel Balaguert is a notoriously slow starter. He tends to turn it on in the second half. This year, Yasiel is not waiting until it warms up to get hot himself. He’s hitting .340 this month with 2 HRs and 9 RBI. In addition, he was named the player of the day twice just this week. he still needs to walk more as he’s only walked twice this month. Still, the burly 1B/OF can get hot for months at a time. It is good to see him go off so early.
4. Zack Short – This dude is just ripping it this month. In 15 games, he’s hit 4 homers and driven in 12 runs while hitting .286 with an OBP of .420 and an OPS of 1.027. He’s never been one to hit for that high of an average in his pro career, but the homers and OBP have always been outstanding and are consistent with past numbers. After an April where he hit just .183, he looks to be back on track. And, he should be moving up several prospect lists if he continues to maintain his performance.
5. Tyler Alamo – He is just killing it at 1B for Myrtle Beach. He seems like he has been around forever, but he is only 23 (deja vu line of 2018). In May, he’s raking it to the tune of a .378 average with 3 HRs. He has an amazing OPS of 1.142 that shows how hard he is hitting and driving the ball. I don’t know how much longer he will remain a Pelican. There’s not a lot left for him to prove in the Carolina League.
6. Austin Filiere – The 2017 draft pick out of MIT was excellent in April hitting .310 with a .403 OBP. In May, he’s been pretty good, too. For the month, he’s hitting .288 with a .408 OBP. He’s only put 3 HRs in the seats so far, but the weather will be heating up soon. Filiere is a little ahead of summer.
When the second half arrives, look for Fernando Kelli, Luis Hidalgo, Luis Vazquez, Luis Diaz, Alexander Guerra, and Jonathan Sierra to heat up for Eugene starting on June 15, now less than a month away. It should be an ongoing story of who can get it done at the plate this summer as well what hitters the Cubs take in the first few rounds of next month’s draft.
By Todd Johnson
It is good to see catcher Will Remillard back in action and playing all the way up at AA Tennessee. The former Midwest League All-Star missed 2.5 years due to two Tommy John surgeries. He saw his first action since 2014 last August doing some catching for the Eugene Emeralds. He spent most of this spring in extended spring training and he began playing last week in Tennessee.
His bat has acted like he never left and skipped high A baseball. Heading into Wednesday’s game, he was 5 for 11 (.455) in 3 games at AA and I am extremely happy to see him play. I love his catching skills and his leadership skills. He brings a lot of intensity to any team he is on.
In Other Injury News…
Manny Rondon made his debut last night in South Bend. He did so in relief giving up 1 unearned run and striking out 1 in 1.2 innings.
Meanwhile, Justin Steele, who was outstanding at Myrtle Beach last year before TJS in August, is back throwing after surgery.
Also, reliever Chad Hockin showed off his scar work from his Tommy John Surgery last month.
For some weird reason, I am also thinking about June when I plan on redoing my Top 21 prospect list. At the beginning of the year, I knew that players would move up and down the list this year depending on performance. The lack of elite talent and separation between the talent in the system would cause that movement as players heated up or cooled off.
There are a few prospects who are putting together nice seasons and could be promoted at the All-Star break in mid June.
Zack Short – After a poor July, he’s pounding the ball in May with a .698 slugging percentage and hitting above .300 this month with an OBP well over .500.
Jared Young – He did have a brief injury after hitting .400+ the first two weeks of the season. He struggled a bit after coming off the DL, but seems to have found his stroke the past four or five games.
Austin Filiere – The 2016 draft pick out of MIT hit for more power last year, but this year finds him hitting for a high average (.313)) and his usual .400+ OBP.
Duane Underwood was doing this best Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde impersonation for a few starts and now looks to be using all his pitches in a variety of counts to keep a batter guessing. When he’s been on, he is is amazing. When he’s off, yeesh!
I really enjoy watching Keegan Thompson pitch. I like how he works hitters and uses all of the zone and throws a variety of pitches. He’s really been impressive in May with a 2.65 in 3 starts.
Matt Swarmer, Cory Abbott, Tyler Thomas, and Javier Assad have all been impressive in spurts, but I need more data on them. Of the four, Abbott could be the most consistent and he could sneak into the back end of the list. Although, Matt Swarmer’s K totals are amazing (42 in 32.1 IP).
I don’t know how it will all shake down, but there will be an even greater number of prospects this June to add into the Top 21 mix when Eugene, Mesa, and the Dominican begin play. Jeremiah Estrada is one player pitching I am looking forward to seeing along with Outfielder Fernando Kelli and Shortstop Luis Vazquez as well as the new draft picks.
I will be writing about Adbert Alzolay in anticipation of his supposed start on Saturday. The issue is whether I will be posting it in the Six Pack on Friday or its own post on Saturday.
By Todd Johnson
This month’s All-Star team was pretty fluid right up through yesterday’s games. There were prospects who stayed consistent all month. There were those who got hot early and faded late. And then there are those who got off to a rough start but turned it on later in the month. At one point, before last Thursday, they were only five pitchers who met the usual pre-requisite 3.00 ERA. Somehow, two more pulled through
As for position players, no one but Jeffrey Baez really set the system on fire. Baez, who, in the past, has dominated levels in spurts. In April, Baez hit .411 with 3 HR and 15 RBI to earn Hitter of the Month honor. They were not that many players who hit above or near .300. While that is not required to get on the team, there were clear demarcations in the levels of production across the system about who should be on the team. I did not have to leave anyone off who was on a par with current crop of all-stars.
It will be interesting to see which players get promoted here in the coming weeks. I expect some of the players in the video below to move up a level. Most of the promoted prospects will probably be relievers and maybe one of the starting pitchers.
So, without further adieu, here is this month’s minor league All-Star team.
By Todd Johnson
Heading into Tuesday night’s debut, Brendon Little’s pro career had not been very stellar. The 21-year-old left-handed starter only pitched in 16 innings in 2017 for short season Eugene after being taken by the Cubs in the first round of the 2017 MLB Draft. Those 16 innings were not kind. He struggled with his fastball. His velocity was down. His ERA was over 9 and he only struck 12 as opponents hit .300 against him. It was, as I say to my students, “73 kinds of bad.”
That was last year.
By all accounts (Arizona Phil), Little had a good spring in Mesa. Just a week ago, Little pitched five innings and did well. He allowed 1 run but had 6 Ks in the outing.
I was was not expecting to see anything from Little in his South Bend debut except his curve. Considering he did not pitch D1 baseball, but rather at a junior college, the Midwest League is a pretty big jump in talent. I was trying to temper my expectations and think long term with his development rather than get immediate results. I did not want to place unreasonable expectations on a first round pick.
Then again, I hoped to see his fastball in the low to mid-low 90s (91-93) and that he could command it often. If he could get through the fifth with just giving up 2 or 3 runs, I could have lived with that. Maybe he could get in 60-80 pitches for the night and strike out four or five. But those are just wishes and maybe unreasonable ones at that.
My wishes are where I want him to be by the end of the year. Tuesday was the first step to get there – or that’s what I told myself yesterday afternoon.
Here is how his 2018 debut went:
Little got the first two guys out on 5 pitches. He looked good at that point. He was throwing nothing but fastballs around 92, which was 3-4 mph better than at Eugene last year.
Then Little fell behind the third batter. It went to a full count when the batter laced a double down the left field line. After a passed ball, he walked Bowling Green’s cleanup hitter Brendan McKay.
At this point, I began to wonder why Little was nibbling on every pitch instead of attacking the zone. He looked to be in command with batter #5 when strike three was not caught by catcher Miguel Amaya, who then was unable to make a throw to first for the third out.
It looked like Little was going to get out of the inning on a liner to center but the ball kept sailing resulting in a 2 run double. Little faced one more batter who promptly walked.
After 35 pitches and 0.2 IP, Little was done – 1 K, 2 BBs, 2 hits, and 4 ERs.
A line I have been saying a lot lately is “I have seen this movie before.” After watching Little go at it last night, I said it again. This looked somewhat similar to how he pitched at Eugene last year. But then again it wasn’t. The velocity was up this year, he threw a couple of changeups that looked good, the curve looked nice, but his fastball was all over the place. He has to attack the zone rather than pitch on the edges. He has to get that straightened out.
At 21-years-old, he’s got time. If he figures it out, he could be special. But for now, it is hard to see that. Still, I look forward to his second start and see how he does then. It’s a process, but no one said it would be easy, even for a first round pick.
The rest of the game was a doozy! Bowling Green took an 8-0 lead after an inning and a half. Then, South Bend began to chip away at the Hot Rods’ lead. Home runs by Michael Cruz, Austin Filiere, and Jared Young pulled the young Cubs close to 11-9. Chris Carrier, an outfielder from Memphis, stepped up to the plate in the seventh and proceeded to hit a grand slam to give South Bend a 13-11 lead! Brian Glowicki held the Hot Rods scoreless to preserve the win.
By Todd Johnson
The first half of the minor-league baseball season in 2018 should be very interesting. There are a lot of great storylines to follow. There should be prospects making comebacks, prospects breaking out, and prospects solidifying their place and value in the organization. Then again, who knows what could happen. That’s really the case every year. There are always surprises and that’s one reason why I like covering the minor leagues.
For this year’s Preseason First Half All-Star Team, it is a mixture of prospects up and down the system. With only four affiliates playing until the middle of June, it limits who can be on it. So, there will be no Nelson Velasquez, Luis Vazquez, Fernando Kelli, or Jeremiah Estrada.
Myrtle Beach (10) and Tennessee (7) have the most prospects on the team, Iowa (5) and South Bend (5) have the fewest all stars on this year’s team.
This year, my breakout prospects of the first half will be at South Bend. I really like Austin Filiere. He has a great eye at the plate and can hit some dingers. He did spend most of the spring playing first base after playing third-base most of his college career and at Eugene.
I think this is the year that reliever Tyler Peyton turns it on. The former Iowa starter improved every month last year at South Bend. By the end of the season, he was throwing darts all August (1.29 ERA). My runner-up was one of my favorite players to talk to last year in Chad Hockin, who should be at Myrtle Beach.
My break out starting pitcher is going to be Erich Uelmen. He didn’t see a lot of time last year at Eugene after being drafted. In fact he didn’t make one start, he only pitched 17.2 IP in relief. This year, he will be given the opportunity to start and I think we are going to like what we see as he has pretty good control and command and somewhat sidearm slot.
In addition, I have three guys I am picking to be come back players of the year. One of my all-time favorite Cubs prospects is catcher Will Remillard. He returned late last summer from two Tommy John surgeries and was outstanding at Eugene. Reliever Jake Stinnett will be back this year to try his hand at the bullpen full-time. I think this is where his calling is going to be.
As for a starting pitching coming back, Oscar de la Cruz looked great in spring training. Hopefully he can get back and get over 100 innings in this year to strengthen up his arm. It was a close contest between de la Cruz and Trevor Clifton, who I think is going to return to form this year as well.
So without further adieu, roll film.