Austin Upshaw

Cubs’ MiLB 2nd Half All-Star Team Shows the Shift in the System

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By Todd Johnson

Originally, I did not plan on putting together a second half all star team. However, after looking at some of the performances of several prospects over the last 2 and 1/2 months, I thought they deserved to be honored for their performances.

I always like putting together a second-half team because they usually contain a few recent draft picks and some players from the lower parts of the system. Last year, I started including a couple players from the Dominican Summer League. That holds true for this year as well.

What started with the July All-Star team continued with the August All-Star team and this team. That is, in this list, you can definitely see a shift in the system. Younger players are starting to rise to the top and perform at a high-level. This is true of a couple of draft picks in Austin Upshaw and Nelson Velazquez along with several pitchers from the Dominican Summer League..

So, without further adieu, here is the All-Star team for the second half of the 2017 minor league season.

When I sit down to make my preseason All-Star team in 2018, a lot of the players listed in the video above will get a lot of merit for inclusion. One name not included that I am interested in seeing more of next year is Jose Gutierrez. The 18-year-old outfielder from Venezuela hit .354 in August and was a key cog in helping the Mesa Cubs win a title.

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Cubs Breakout Players of the Second Half Get It Done Down the Stretch

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By Todd Johnson

While the first half breakout list tends to be players from South Bend and Myrtle Beach, the second half list is usually players from Mesa, Eugene, and maybe South Bend or Beach. There were a few prospects who had good seasons that we did see coming like Miguel Amaya, Aramis Ademan, and Jose Albertos. There were several players who put together good stretches together during the second half. Altogether, it was difficult picking out the winners.

Breakout Hitter of the Second Half

This was a tough call. Austin Upshaw was a player that I really liked from South Bend who hit almost .290 each month after being drafted this summer. Austin Filiere of Eugene hit .287 in the fourth spot with over a .400 OBP hitting cleanup along with five home runs. Andruw Monasterio came close to the definition of a breakout hitter along with Luis Ayala of South Bend. Monasterio hit .290+ in August while Ayala got his average up to .366 in July and .293 for the second half.

But if I’m gonna pick just one guy, it has to be Nelson Velasquez of Mesa whom the Cubs drafted in the fifth round this year. In August, he hit almost .300 and clubbed 6 home runs for the Mesa Cubs in the Arizona Rookie League leading them to a second half division title. In the playoffs, he hit 2 more homers and drove in 9. The sad thing about Nelson is we don’t have as many eyes on him after the death of John Arguello. Still, Nelson progressed each month since signing his pro contract. He is just 18 years old and I am really looking forward to him playing next year at Eugene and/or South Bend.   

Breakout Starting Pitcher of the Second Half

This one wasn’t really as tough as the hitter category. It basically came down to two players. Runner-up Jesus Tejada had an outstanding August for the Cubs’ Dominican Summer League 1 team. He threw a no-hitter and struck out 19 batters in consecutive games.

But for me, the biggest surprise was the performance of Duncan Robinson at Myrtle Beach. While Michael Rucker stole the show there in June, Robinson got off to a rough start in his July debut and then seemed to improve at every opportunity throughout the summer. I liked the fact that he kept improving by adding a cutter to his repertoire. Another thing I liked was that Robinson did not seem to tire as the season progressed. He had a 2.37 ERA in 10 second half starts while striking out 37 in 49.1 IP. I am really looking forward to him pitching next year at AA Tennessee.

Breakout Reliever of the Second Half

I think Dakota Mekkes stole the show in the first half. The second half winner is not gonna be that much of a surprise. South Bend reliever Jhon Romero is one who I did not see coming. He throws in the mid 90s with a wicked breaking ball.  Another surprise was Tyler Peyton of South Bend who had a 1.29 ERA just in August. One reliever I did see coming was Pedro Araujo for Myrtle Beach. With an ERA under 2, he basically owned the closer role and the Carolina League in the second half.

But when it comes right down to who was the biggest surprise or break out, it’s Dillon Maples. He progressed through four levels of the system at the age of 25. He has always had wicked stuff from the time he was drafted in 2011 but had injuries and confidence issues along the way. This year, the worm turned for him. With a wicked slider/curve and a fastball that approached 100 miles an hour, he was almost impossible to hit at every level. On September 1, he was called up to Chicago. In his first appearance, he walked one and struck out one.


When it comes to next year, I am not quite sure what to expect when it comes to possible breakout prospects. I am thinking Jonathan Sierra, but he most likely won’t begin play until the second half at Eugene. The same is true for pitcher Jesus Tejada.

More than likely, the first half breakouts for 2018 will come from either South Bend or Myrtle Beach. Hopefully, DJ Wilson, Kevonte Mitchell, or Joe Martarano can put it together for half a season. Or, it could even be one of this year’s draft picks or International players who steal the show – literally – like Fernando Kelli who had 58 SBs in 2017. When it comes to pitching, this year proved that opportunities will present themselves for pitchers to step up and become essential players. You never know who will get the chance.

 

Cubs 2017 Draft Update: Position Players Proving to Be Very Athletic

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By Todd Johnson

I think it’s tough for draft picks to come in to an organization in the middle of the year and play well. I also think that you really shouldn’t evaluate the draft pick based on two months after they’ve already played a full season. Many of them have basically been playing since January. At some point they have to get tired regardless of how good they are.

In looking at this year’s draft class, I think there a couple key things to take notice of for next year. One, there is some serious athleticism in the group as a whole. Two, there are some guys who I think can really hit and will prove so next year.

Impressive Starts
Several draft picks came out of the gate pretty hot. Some have cooled off while others have been able to maintain some semblance of success.

Austin Upshaw – He came out of the gate very hot and now has cooled. He is still showing a solid approach but his hits have not been at falling in August like they did in July. He will be fine next year. He should begin the year at Myrtle Beach. They are going to love him there.

Luis Vazquez – Heading into Sunday, he was hitting .316. That is very good for a high school product to do that in rookie league just jumping right in. I still remember thinking how athletic he was in his prospect a video back on draft day. I cannot wait to get Arizona Phil’s take during instructs. He should be at Eugene next year as an 18-year-old kid.

Brandon Hughes – Like Upshaw, Hughes came out of the gate hard and has since slowed down. He bats third or fourth for Eugene and he’s been in the lineup most every day. The first thing you notice about him is his advanced athleticism and build. I see him being at South Bend to begin 2018.

Chris Singleton – A later round pick, the athletic outfielder began at Mesa and has been promoted to Eugene where he slid right into the leadoff spot. I really like what I have heard from the Eugene radio broadcasters, but I have not seen him play on TV yet. I am thinking he will be at South Bend to begin 2018.

Cam Balego – The young infielder has been playing all over the diamond for the rookie league Cubs and has hit almost .400 last month. I have not read much about him and I think I might not until fall instructs.

Ramsey Romano – He just got promoted to Eugene where he went two for five in his second game with two RBI. He can play all over the infield and I think this utility player will probably be at South Bend to begin 2018.

Austin Filiere – His average has been up-and-down but he has definitely shown some power in his bat. In the field, he gets by as a third baseman. His arm is average but that can be improved on. He will be at South Bend to start 2018.

Have some work to do…

Nelson Velazquez – He has flashed some serious athleticism and power in Mesa. However, he has not shown the ability to hit for average so far in rookie league and he strikes out a lot. Then again, he is still very young. He is one player who is going to improve dramatically with instruction this fall and in spring training. I think once he gets in the routine of doing things every day, we might see his power be a daily thing.

Chris Carrier – He has not had a good start to his career at both Mesa and Eugene where he is striking out about 75% of the time. More than likely, if he has a good spring training next year, he should be in South Bend.

Jared Young – I really like his approach at the plate and announcer Pat Zajak concurs. In other words, the BABIP Gods have not been kind to him in Eugene. I see him beginning the year in South Bend in 2018. He’s a pretty good sized second baseman.

I don’t know if any of these position players will show up on any prospect list in the next year, but that is not going to stop them from succeeding. I would not be surprised to see Velazquez and Vazquez make a list in 2019. It is rare for the Cubs to select a HS position player in the Theo era. I can only think of a few the Cubs have signed – Kevonte Mitchell and DJ Wilson who are both in low A this year, Tyler Alamo at Myrtle Beach, and Charcer Burks at Tennessee. It takes a few years to get going.

July All-Star Team Filled with New Faces Including 4 Draft Picks

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By Todd Johnson

This was the month of the hitters. It was also month that was hard to narrow down to just nine position players. In the past, I have sometimes had extra hitters at a position and that’s what I went to this month.

On the other hand, it was a decent month for starting pitchers in the system. Big innings, slumps, and warmer air made the ball fly a bit more. However, 7 starters found their way onto the team.

As for relievers, there was bonanza of relievers in the middle of July. At least 15 Cubs prospects had ERAs ranging from 0.00 to 1.50. By the end of the month, that was down to 7.

A lot of tough decisions had to be made including whether to add some players from the Arizona Rookie League Mesa Cubs and a couple of hot hitters from the Cubs DSL 1 team. I decided against it this month as there were so many excellent performances at the upper levels.

Prospect Profile: Austin Upshaw Is Impressive in His Brief Cub Tenure

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By Todd Johnson

On Saturday the 21st, I arrived in Wisconsin to watch the South Bend Cubs take on the Beloit Snappers. I got there early enough to watch batting practice and drills. One of the players I was most interested in learning more about was 2017 draft pick infielder Austin Upshaw. In talking with South Bend broadcaster Darin Pritchett, two words kept repeating about Upshaw’s skills – very good.

Hitting– very good. Fielding – very good. Throwing – very good. Make up – very good. Work ethic– very good. You get the idea.

The effusion Pritchett had for Upshaw was easily seen as Darin lit up talking about young infielder the Cubs drafted this summer from Kennesaw State.

Basic Info
6’ 175 lbs
Bats – Left
Throws – Right
Age – 20
Position – 1st Base, Second Base/
Currently hitting .329 with a .391 OBP in 19 games.

Strengths – smooth left handed hitting stroke, can play multiple positions in the infield, makeup, hits to all fields

Tomorrow, Upshaw will turn 21 years old. He’s pretty young for a recent draft pick but I think that bodes well for his future. Originally from Georgia, the young infielder first attended Georgia Perimeter College before transferring to Kennesaw State as a sophomore. His first season at Kennesaw State saw him hit .344 with 7 HRs and 39 RBIs. As a junior, he hit .333 with 8 HRs and 41 RBI. Along the way he earned several accolades including First Team Atlantic Sun All-Conference his junior year.

The Cubs drafted Upshaw in the 13th round of this year’s draft. He went to Mesa for a few games (where he hit 2 HRs in one game) before skipping short season Eugene. He was assigned to South Bend in early July. In the first few games that I saw him play, I came away impressed with the effortlessness of his swing. It’s not Mark Grace-like, but it’s still something pretty to watch. He sprays the ball all over the field. So far, he has pulled 38.2% of batted balls, 26.5% have gone to center, and 35.3% have gone to left. That’s a pretty good spread.

Here is a video I took of him batting in the game. You can see the effortlessness and how his bat glides through the hitting zone even in a strikeout.

I had a brief chance to talk with Upshaw about his routine and how it differed from what he did in college. Here is what he had to say

“There’s a big difference considering school. Sometimes you had to wake up at 7:20 for weights in the morning. Then you had to go to school to practice. But pro ball I can sleep until 11 and still be OK. I kinda had a routine in college, eating wise, getting ready for the game. Things change over time, but I kept the core routine and I am continuing the same thing that I did in college.”

So far in 18 games, Upshaw is hitting .321 with one home run in 13 RBI. I think he’s one of the better young hitters the Cubs have drafted in the past couple  of years.

When it came to hitting, Upshaw willingly described what he tries to do up at the plate.

“Sometimes you’re looking for something you can drive early in the count – maybe a fastball in the middle of the plate,but it just depends on what the pitcher has been doing to other batters or just what you’ve seen throughout the game like his tendencies. The coaches do a good job of giving us scouting reports. We usually try to stick to that and use that to have a better plan at the plate.”

I really think that he is going to be someone to watch over the next year. There are only just a few weeks left of this season, along with fall instructs, and it is clear in watching him play that he comes across as a baseball rat. He looks like a kid who just eats, lives, and breathes baseball. Those are good kinds of players to have.

Second Half Breakout Prospects …… So Far

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By Todd Johnson

At the beginning of the second half of the minor league season, I picked 10 players I thought would break out and become better known prospects through their performance. Out of those 10, I’ve only got one right…so far. The key phrase there is so far. There are still six weeks left to go in the minor-league season.

But like usual, every year there are prospects who outperform expectations that we didn’t see coming. In the past month, several young players have stepped up their game and improved their stock in the system. .

Jesus Camargo – He missed all of 2016 but has come back with a vengeance in 2017. He has a beautiful changeup and a nice 1.69 ERA with 38 Ks in 32 IP for Eugene.

Austin Upshaw – I interviewed him Saturday afternoon, and he will get his own article later in the week. Upshaw has a smooth stroke from the left and he plays first and second for South Bend. He is the draft pick who has reached the highest level so far. Upshaw is hitting a tad north of .300 for the Cubs.

Brandon Hughes – He is very athletic and has some ultra quick hands through the zone. He is hitting almost .400 at Eugene. It will be interesting to see how he develops over the next year. 

Jhonny Bethencourt – I really enjoy watching him hit for Eugene. He has now moved into the leadoff spot for the Emeralds and is hitting .315 this summer.

Manuel Rodriguez – Last year’s top International Free Agent attacks the zone as a reliever for Eugene. He gets it up to 93/94. He has a 1.65 ERA in 16.1 IP to go along with an amazing 25 Ks.

Ricky Tyler Thomas – He’s been pretty impressive in his brief relief appearances. I love his changeup. He’s only made three appearances since signing but the 7th round pick has struck out 8 in 6 innings without allowing a run.

Matt Swarmer – He began the year as a reliever at South Bend and has been starting at Eugene. His slider has been improving along with his fastball command. He has a pretty good data set for 6 starts with a 2.37 ERA and 31 Ks in 30.1 IP.

Close but No Cigar

There are still several players who I think are on the verge of busting out. They just lack the consistency in their performance. Most notable of these is Bailey Clark. When he is on, he is a joy to watch pitch. When he is not… Joe Martarano hit .385 at Eugene and has struggled at South Bend. It will take time for him after missing the better part of two years.

I have been surprised by the bat of Aramis Ademan which is a much more advanced bat than I first thought. As well, Miguel Amaya’s arm is something out of the Wild West. Then again, everyone knew those two 18-year old prospects would be coming.

Still Question Marks

I still need to see a bigger sample size from draft picks Ramsey Romano, Cam Balego, and Chris Singleton, as well as catcher Marcus Mastrobuoni, who are all doing well in the Arizona Rookie League.

In the Dominican Summer League…

Even though they have been playing for two months, it will be interesting to see how they finish the last month and then who gets to come north for instructs will give us a better idea on their development. Here are some players having excellent seasons and it could be a precursor to them doing well stateside next year.

OF Alonso Gaitan, SP Didier Vargas, OF Alberto Hinirio, SS Orian Nunez, SP Jesus Tejada, SP Emilio Ferribus, OF Fernando Kelli, C Daniel Diaz, and P Yovanny Cruz.

The Weekly – Closing In On Playoff Spots, Baseball Cards, and Traveling to Beloit

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By Todd Johnson

The big league club went 4-1 at home this week and has won 7 out of 8 since the break. They now sit one game behind Milwaukee and are 5.5 games behind both Arizona and Colorado for a wild card spot. There are 66 games to go.That’s a lot of baseball left to be played. Jose Quintana goes tonight against the Cardinals on ESPN at 7.

That late start time for the Sunday game works great for me as I will be back in Beloit at 2 p.m. today watching South Bend play the Snappers, the A’s class A affiliate in the Midwest League. Yesterday, I got to interview reliever Wyatt Short and recent draft pick Austin Upshaw. I hope to talk to hitting coach Jeremy Farrell today about Kevonte Mitchell and Isaac Paredes. I will be going back to Beloit Monday night, but probably just as a normal fan.

I posted several pics I took last night on the Pics/Video page. You can see close up at-bats on video of Kevonte Mitchell, Isaac Paredes, Austin Upshaw, and Luis Ayala. I will add some more pics/video from today when I got home and there could be a few more on Monday.

For the month of July, I have made almost 150 baseball cards. The pictures have just been so good that I cannot stop. They are all stored on our Facebook account. It will be hard to pick just ten for the Cards of the Month.

Around the Minors This Week
Iowa: 3-5; 45-53 – Pitching still seems to be a big issue except for Jen-Ho Tseng. He went 7 IP last night and now has a 1.40 ERA in 3 starts at AAA. In a weird set of circumstances on Friday, John Andreoli was injured on one play, replaced by Bijan Radmacher, who was then injured on the very next play.

Tennessee: 2-3; 16-12 – Between the raindrops along the Gulf, the Smokies have run into some starting pitching issues. Hopefully, those can be resolved quickly as they are now tied with Montgomery for a playoff spot.

Myrtle Beach: 4-4; 12-16 – The bats have not woken up since the Eloy trade. Pitcher Michael Rucker has been amazing and Duncan Robinson had his best start since being promoted. Vimael Machin continues to hit since moving to high A.

South Bend: 3-3; 15-14 – It looks like they have their bullpen issues resolved, now they need to solidify the starting pitching. Carson Sands had 2 rough starts on his way back from having bone spurs removed this past winter. On the other hand, I have been impressed with Tyson Miller the last few starts. I will get to see his slider Monday.

Eugene: 4-3; 21-16 – Their first half ends today. If they win and Hillsboro loses, they make the playoffs. Hopefully the Emeralds can get it done. Miguel Amaya seems to have broken out of his slump the last four games and his average is up over .200 to .220. #1 draft pick Brendon Little debuts on Tuesday against Salem-Keiser. Also, Jesus Camargo looks a little too advanced for short season ball. His changeup is other wordly at this level.

Mesa: 2-4, 7-16 – It is becoming all about the draft picks. Chris Singleton seems to fit in the leadoff spot and Ramsey Romano and Cam Balego continue to rake at .400 clips. Pitcher Brendan King from Holy Cross made a start on Saturday and went 3 IP while allowing a run.

DSL 1: 2-3; 21-20  
DSL 2: 2-4; 21-21 –

Draft Pick News
Alex Lange is the only draft pick that is left to be assigned to a team.

Coming Up This Week on Cubs Central
Another Jose Albertos Start
Dakota Mekkes Interview Part 2
South Bend Turning It Around
Second Half Surprises
Brendon Little’s First Start
Austin Upshaw Profile

Players of the Week

Card of the Week

My Other Stuff on the Web
BP Wrigleyville:
Why Jose Albertos Should Take Over the Top Spot
Brandon Hughes Profile

Cubs Insider:
11 Cubs Pitching Prospects Taking Off in July
Baseball America’s Midseason List Spurs Debate
Trent Giambrone Interview