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
It is not uncommon for a top prospect to have a rough stretch of baseball. At each level in the minors, there’s a new period of adjustment. Current Myrtle Beach Pelican Austin Upshaw put it best last year about the difference at each level: “Everyone’s just a little more polished.”
Some of the Cubs’ most elite prospects are having a rough time to start the year. Part of it could be physical. Part of it could be mental. And part of it might be they just need to be a little more polished themselves.
At AA Tennessee
Zack Short – Currently, he is hitting .155 and .086 in his last ten games. However, he is still walking a lot – close to 25%. The problem is 28 Ks in 16 games. As he adjusts, the K rate should shrink, his power should return, and he will continue to walk. He has never been a big average guy. Even .250 would be fine as much as he walks. He was moved down in the order this week so that should help to take some pressure off of him.
Oscar de la Cruz – He is not fooling anybody this year with a 9.82 ERA. He is leaving the ball up in the zone and has been getting hit hard with batting average against at .339. In 3 starts, he has been rocked. In one start, he was outstanding with 6 Ks and 0 runs in 6 innings. Adjusting to a 5 day routine is big for someone who has never pitched 100 innings in a single season. His May should be worth watching as he continues to adjust.
At Myrtle Beach
Austin Upshaw – It has not been a good start for one of my favorite prospects from last year’s draft. I am actually stunned. The 21-year-old infielder is currently batting .171. Then again, he is starting show some signs of life. In his last two games, he’s 3 for 6 with a HR and 3 RBI. He is back to playing 1B after spending several games at third where he made 3 errors in 6 games. His approach is too good to be down for too long.
At South Bend
Jose Albertos – He looks a little slimmed down from last season. He also doesn’t look like the same pitcher I watched last summer at Eugene. His windup, delivery, and even the ball coming out of his hand all look the same. But the results are not good. Albertos has made 3 starts. He has not been productive in any of them. His first start was a 1 inning affair where he threw 30 pitches in the first inning, with 15 for strikes. He struggled mightily with fastball command.
In his second start, he was looking good for two outs and was one pitch away from getting out of the inning and then the wheels fell off as he gave up 2 runs in 2 innings on 40 pitches, only 21 strikes. His third start was yesterday. His strike rate for the day was just 40% as he gave up 8 runs, 6 of them earned. He was pulled with no outs in the second after 51 pitches. That is just not sustainable.
I would not be surprised to him head back to Mesa and extended spring training to rebuild his release point on his fastball and to get his confidence back. Without his fastball, he has nothing to pitch off of. And right now, he has to get that back. He could stay in South Bend and try and work it out in the Midwest League. However, the bullpen is just getting worn out covering the rest of the games. Luckily, yesterday was a doubleheader that only required five more innings after he left in the top of the second with nobody out.
Brendon Little – Unlike everyone else, I think Little is closet to putting it together. Each outing has been better than the one before. He has a beautiful curve and a developing change. But, like Albertos, without fastball command, he is not going to be very good. Well, he is getting it. On Sunday, I really liked his performance as he went 4.2 innings in the longest outing of his Cubs career. One player ate him alive with 2 dingers. Other than that guy, he only gave up 2 other hits on the day and allowed just 1 other run. He will be fine in time. The more he pitches, the better he will improve. And, he could improve rapidly.
I would not panic about any of these guys.
Sometimes, it just takes time to get a little more polished.
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
When I interviewed Austin Upshaw last summer, he was tearing up the Midwest League. In 24 games in July, the second baseman from Kennesaw State hit .284 with an on-base percentage of .354. He upped both of those in August and over the last 10 games he hit .351 with a .390 on base percentage. It was a pretty solid debut.
Defensively, he played a little first (25 games), a little second (16 games), and even some third (11 games) while showing a decent enough arm to make all the plays. I don’t think he’s going to have wide range but he’s going to be a good defender.
What really sticks out about Upshaw is just his approach to the game. He does everything very well as South Bend Cubs announcer Darin Pritchett commented to me last summer. When I interviewed Upshaw, I was impressed on how he walked me through what he’s trying to do at the plate. Upshaw talked about how every pitch is different and how every situation is different. He just tries to stay relaxed and comfortable at the plate.
Leveling up for 2018
There’s no question that Upshaw is going to be at Myrtle Beach to begin 2018. His performance after signing was one of the highlights of the second half in 2017. I don’t really think he’s much of a power hitter but when it does come, his power comes from making good contact. He hit four home runs between Mesa and South Bend last year. And in 56 games, he struck out only 31 times. Then again, he only walked 14.
I do wonder what position he is going to play for the Pelicans. Showing versatility works for now, but second might be where his bat plays best.
The thing about Upshaw is that he does have some room to add some muscle. It’s not that he was gaunt, but he’s not going to be in any bodybuilding competition soon either. If he could put on 10-15 pounds and not affect his swing whatsoever, that would be great.
The big thing I like the most about Upshaw is he has the ability to focus in the moment. Some might refer to him as a baseball rat, but I think he’s just a darn good baseball player. He can identify a pitch and, if it’s the right pitch, he can do something with it. IF not, he’s going to let it go by. Upshaw is very patient and, like Ian Happ, Upshaw hits strikes. Upshaw could be one of those players who hits better at the higher levels because the quality of pitching is better.
The fans at Myrtle Beach are going to love watching him work a count. That may not sound that sexy, but it’s pretty fun to watch him hit. If he can walk a bit more, and hit a few more home runs this year, that would be great. Above all else, he just needs to continue to hit.
By Todd Johnson
This has been the slowest off-season I can remember. Not that the Tyler Chatwood is a major signing, but at three years and $38 million, that is not what Cub fans expect to see added to rotation. This week, left-handed pitcher Kyle Ryan announced on his Twitter that he had signed with the Cubs. Ryan was excellent in 2016 but not so much in 2017. What the Cubs seem to be doing most this offseason is building bullpen depth at AAA Iowa. And to be honest, that has been standard operating procedure the last five years.
Jim Callis of MLB Pipeline was on 670 The Score’s “Inside the Clubhouse” yesterday morning. He talked about Cubs and White Sox prospects. Callis called shortstop Aramis Ademan the Cubs best prospect. He called him “more of a solid player than a potential star.” He also talked about the Cubs pitching and that he did not see any immediate help for pitching other than Maples. While Callis did talk about Zastryzny and Tseng, he thought of those two more as pitching depth than someone they can count on to stay in the rotation. He added he liked Albertos and Lange but intimated that those two have more questions than answers at this point in their careers.
Top Posts of the Year
As the holiday season comes to a close on Monday, I always like to look back at what posts were the most popular for the year. I am always surprised at the articles that get the most traffic. Just when I think I know what type of post gets the most attention, I get proven wrong every time.
2017 was no exception as the most popular post in the history of Cubs Central was published. A draft profile of high school picture Alex Scherff destroyed all previous records. I just find it odd because the Cubs did not select him. Most of the traffic came after he was selected in the draft. Considering Boston took him, I am going to assume that much of the interest came from the Red Sox fans.
Watching a player break out is always exciting as a fan and a writer. This year, three Cubs pitchers had profiles that put them in second, third and fourth place. Pitcher Michael Rucker came in second place with a profile on his breakthrough performance at South Bend. Ironically, he continued breaking out at Myrtle Beach after moving into the rotation. Eugene’s Bailey Clark had a magically frustrating start that put him in third and a Zach Hedges update from early in the year garnered a lot of traffic.
Another top post was actually my favorite interview of the year with Austin Upshaw. The young infielder from Kennesaw State has a beautiful swing and a great head on his shoulders. The return of catcher Will Remillard was one of my favorite posts of the year as I have always been a big fan of his going back to Kane County in 2014. After missing 2.5 years, his bat came back with a vengeance.
Two posts about breakouts made the top ten – one was on possible second half breakouts and the other was on why breakout pitching prospects were getting hard to find. Coming in at number 9 was a post from just two weeks ago on the top shortstops in the system. Also a prospect profile of outfielder Eddy Martinez prior to the 2017 season came in at number ten. Given a few more days, Zack Short’s Leveling Up Series post would get in.
If you have some free time this week you may want to go back and revisit some of these articles. Thanks again for reading.
Coming Up Next Week
On Wednesday, Duncan Robinson, Michael Rucker, and Thomas Hatch get profiled in the “Leveling Up” series. On Friday, relievers get broken down in the position breakdown series. Hopefully, there will be a transaction of some sort this week and it will be a starting pitcher. Maybe it will be Darvish or it could even be a trade.
As for January, The leveling up series will continue on Wednesdays with the position breakdown series on Fridays except during Convention week, when they both get moved up a day.
Also, you can check out the cards I made with new templates this offseason over on Cubs Central’s Facebook account.
Have a happy New Year!
Baseball Card of the Week
By Todd Johnson
A year ago, I thought second base might have been the deepest position in the system. The rankings had Ian Happ followed by Chesny Young, Carlos Sepulveda, Trent Giambrone, Yeiler Peguero, and Jonathan Perlaza. Things did not work out well for anybody on that list except for Happ. Part of that disappointment was based on performance and part of that was because of Injury.
Sepulveda was injured early but did finish the year in the Arizona Rookie League. Chesny Young was up and down all year (more down than up). It took Trent Giambrone some time to adjust to high A after skipping South Bend and he took off in June and July before settling back to Earth in August.
Here are this year’s compilation of second baseman.
1. Carlos Sepulveda – He played in 28 games for Myrtle Beach at the beginning of the year before an injury robbed him of most of his season. He came back at the end of August and played nine games, plus the playoffs, for Mesa. After watching him hit .310 at South Bend in 2016, I was really looking forward to seeing what he could do and how much he could improve at Myrtle Beach. That didn’t happen, but he is still ahead of everybody else at the position when it comes to a hit tool. For 2018, I am not sure where he will begin the year but he should end it AA Tennessee.
2. David Bote – He begin to turn his career around in the middle of 2016 when Ian Happ left Myrtle Beach for Tennessee. Since then he has been a holy terror at the plate showing a mixture of power and the ability to hit for average. He can also play almost every position in the field, but most likely he will play second or third and some outfield in the future.
3 (tie). Jared Young – The 2017 draft pick got off to a rough start in Eugene. He hit .131 in 16 games in July. In spite of that average, I really liked his approach at the plate. It did not pay off that month. In August, it did. He hit .323 for the month and helped lead Eugene into the playoffs. I really like his size at 6’2″ and his smooth left-handed stroke. He will be at South Bend to begin 2018.
3 (tie). Austin Upshaw – Another 2017 draft pick, Upshaw hit from the get-go in Arizona, he skipped Eugene, and then he landed in South Bend where he hit almost .300 for a two month span. He was also one of my favorite interviews of the year and I wonder what position he will have going forward – first or second base. What I really like most about him is that he seems cool under pressure as he hit .293 with runners in scoring position. In just 52 games, he drove in 29. He also bats left-handed and showed a solid approach with a .339 on base percentage. That should improve more in 2018.
5. Chesny Young – 2017 was a series of adjustments for the young utility player. He played all over the field for Iowa and had a roller coaster season. That may be a cause of concern for some, but when you start to dig deeper you see that the approach is there, just not the results. His monthly batting average splits went .224/.357/.220/.300/.188. When he was ahead in the count in 2017, he hit over .500. When he was behind, he hit under .200. Those are some alarming differences that he is going to have to correct next season.
6. The fact that I did not include Trent Giambrone near the top of the list is not a knock against him as I love to watch him play and hit. I think he could have a great year at AA. To do so, he needs to be more consistent at the plate. He had an up and down year at Myrtle Beach after skipping South Bend. I think he will adjust back in 2018. There’s a lot to like about his game, his leadership, his intensity, and his potential for power.
Ones to Watch – Delvin Zinn, Jhonny Bethencourt, and Christian Donahue
Zinn played a mixture of shortstop and second base last year for Mesa while Bethencourt played all over the infield for Eugene. Both have the potential for outstanding bats. However, I think their positions need to be a little bit more settled. Zinn should be at Eugene playing a mixture of second and shortstop while Bethencourt should be at South Bend. The problem is where Bethencourt is going to play as he is not very solid defensively. I think he fits best at second base versus third base and especially over short.
At the end of the season, the Cubs signed undrafted free agent second baseman Christian Donahue from Oregon State. He was dismissed from the team right before the College World Series. It should be interesting to see how he does and where he does it at. In addition to playing second base for the Beavers, he played some outfield. He is known for having a high motor and being an excellent base runner.
By Todd Johnson
Today’s post concludes the 7 Series. While I cannot include every prospect in every affiliate review, I can add an extra post that discusses 7 players I think will take off in 2018. Some names will be very familiar. Others may not be household names as Cubs prospects. Many of their seasons were truncated because of either injury or just being drafted.
Austin Upshaw – His time at South Bend was brief but impactful. He ended the season in a hail of batted balls as he hit .290 in 52 games at South Bend. The 13th round pick out of Kennesaw State was my favorite in-person interview of the year and I really like what he can do at the plate. He shows a solid knowledge of the strike zone. While he only hit 2 HRs for South Bend, I would not be surprised to see those numbers increase as he moves up the system. He played 1B, 2B, and 3B, but his bat is best suited to 2B. He should be at Myrtle Beach to begin next year.
Scott Effross – Since being drafted out of Indiana in 2015, his career has been steady but slow going. This year, however, Effross displayed some potential in spurts. In both relief and starting roles, he grew into something of a possible piece for the future. His ERA dropped every month as his control increased. In the second half, he had 44 Ks in 20.1 IP with a 2.03 ERA. He will begin 2018 at AA Tennessee
Vimael Machin – Now 24, Machin went from what appeared to be an organizational guy into a legitimate prospect. He can play all 4 infield positions and he can definitely handle a stick. He did it at both South Bend and Myrtle Beach this season. For the season, he hit .303 with 11 HRs and an OBP of .360 while displaying a knack for key hits. He should begin 2018 at Tennessee.
Bailey Clark – At times in 2017, he was magical. And at other times, he was frustrating to watch. The 2016 draft pick finished up his degree at Duke in the offseason and arrived late in spring training. As a result, he was playing catch up, especially when it came to conditioning. I expect that he will be much better in 2018, especially if he comes to camp in great shape. He did strike out 44 in 44.2 IP at Eugene in 2017 but he also walked 28 leading to an unsustainable 1.63 WHIP. As the season went on, he got better. In 3 August starts at Eugene, he had a 1.69 ERA before he was promoted and thrown into a pennant race at South Bend. If all goes well this offseason, you should see him throwing 95-ish from the get go in the spring.
Erick Leal – In 2016, the 6’3 righty had an outstanding season at Myrtle Beach. He had a 3.23 ERA in 19 games for the Pelicans. His fastball was sitting 91-93 most nights and he threw strikes. I was saddened to hear last spring that he would miss all of 2017 due to injury. I don’t know if he will be limited in 2018, but he is still only 22 despite being around for what seems like forever. I like forward to seeing what his role will be in 2018 coming off a missing year.
Jared Young – I really like his approach at the plate. At 6’2”, he’s a bit huge for a second baseman, but that’s OK. Even we hit .131 in July, his approach was excellent, balls were just not dropping. In August, he hit .323 with a .371 OBP that is more indicative of his eye at the plate. He should start at South Bend to begin the year. I would like to see him get some work in at 1B in addition to his normal second.
Wladimir Galindo – He’s just 20. And at that age, he is one of the top 3 power hitters in the Cubs MiLB system and maybe my favorite hitter. This past year, he played at South Bend and displayed an ability to hit for average that he had not shown before. A broken ankle/leg ended his season early. Before it ended after 44 games, he was hitting .290 with 4 HRs and a .350 OBP. He will be 21 when 2018 begins and he should be at Myrtle Beach. What I look forward to most is seeing if he stays healthy what kind of numbers he can put up in a full season.
Bonus – Erling Moreno – For the first time in his short Cubs career, he was relatively healthy and finished a season on an active roster. I am not worried about his stats right now just his ability to get in innings and throw his plus curve for strikes.