Austin Upshaw

The Weekly – Wrapping Up 2017

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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

Card made from a picture by Stephanie Lynn

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

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Position Breakdown Series: Second Base Is Loaded Again

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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.

The 7 Series Finale: Odds and Ends from the System

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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.

BonusErling 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.

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.

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.