MiLB Starting Rotation Roster Projections Are Just Pure Madness for Now

By Todd Johnson

It’s hard to come up with an analogy or metaphor about what it’s like to try and figure out the starting pitching rotations for the Cubs’ minor-league affiliates in 2019. It is going to be a big challenge and I have given it some thought and eventually gave it up as a futile attempt. I made a spreadsheet to make it easier to sort and move players from one affiliate to another. It did not go well, not at all.

It got to the point where I became extremely flustered and thought, “How is Jaron Madison going to do this come the first week in April? How is he going to sort them during spring training?“

The Great Backup
The reason for the backup is a good one. The Cubs are producing minor league pitching. Their own prospects have filtered up through AA and now into AAA and in short time. They are not going to filter up to the major leagues fully, so that’s creating the log jam that is going to clog up the system for the next couple of years.

There are about 10 guys who could start at AAA Iowa this year. Iowa will, more than likely, go with a five man rotation. The odds of the AAA affiliate going with a six-man rotation just to get guys work are very slim. Adbert Alzolay and Alec Mills are going to be at the top of the list followed by Trevor Clifton and Duncan Robinson. That leaves one spot for a plethora of names that include Keegan Thompson, Thomas Hatch, Michael Rucker, and Matt Swarmer.

As a result, whoever doesn’t make the AAA squad is going to be kept down at AA. And that trickles down and clogs up the system.

The Cubs have to have a pretty good idea of who they want to see at AAA. I doubt if it’s already decided, but it has to come down to just a couple of pitchers and how they perform in spring training. Maybe the pitchers have worked on something in the off-season and that could buy them a one-way ticket to Des Moines.

However, the most interesting staff might be in Myrtle Beach. There, a collection of holdovers from last year’s club and fast risers from the 2018 draft could be on display as a six-man staff. As well, Brailyn Marquez could sneak up and earn a spot in high A as a 20-year-old. I am also interested in seeing if Derek Casey and Paul Richan are good enough to basically skip South Bend.

Down in South Bend, there could be 14 guys competing for six spots. Those that don’t make a squad this spring will either end up in one of two places – extended spring training or the bullpen. It will probably be a mixture of both.

Because of the log jam and competition for spots, fans could see the best collection of pitching in the Cubs’ System in quite a while. This will be one of the main stories in the minor league camp when it begins in a  couple of weeks.

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A Saturday Surprise – Keith Law Drops His Top Cubs List

By Todd Johnson

I got up today just like any other Saturday enjoying the fact that I got to sleep in and that my dogs let me. I booted around for a little bit, fed the dogs, and decided I would head to DeKalb get my medicine. When I stopped to eat breakfast on the way home, I took my phone out and I got a nice little Saturday surprise when I saw that Keith Law published his top Cubs prospect listUsually, these kinds of things don’t happen on the weekend. So, let’s take a look. The link does require a subscription. 

About a week ago, Law ranked the Cubs as having the number 29 farm system in the minors. It’s not that he doesn’t have a high regard for the Cubs, rather it’s that he doesn’t see a lot of high-end prospects right now. The Cubs currently don’t have a lot of prospects who contain that star quality that Law wants to see in a system. That could change over the next two summers. Still, I was looking forward to seeing just exactly who he put in his list.

It’s not a surprise who was at number one as Miguel Amaya made Law’s top 100 at 91 a couple weeks ago. And it’s no surprise that Nico Hoerner was at number two as he was included in Law‘s next 10 prospects.

A lot of the usual suspects filled up positions three through ten. The list included Brailyn Marquez, Adbert, Brennen Davis, Cole Roederer, and Aramis Ademan. I was mildly surprised to see Oscar de la Cruz still in the top 10 along with Erich Uelmen, who had a rough second half at Myrtle Beach.

The two biggest surprises were the inclusion of Matt Swarmer on the list and the fact that Law ranked Brennen Davis ahead of Cole Roederer. I can easily see why Law did that. Roederer does have a much higher floor while Davis’ talents are just being tapped into now that he plays baseball full time. Scouts do rave about Davis’ athleticism.

Law did go on to discuss a myriad number of pitchers in the system including Alex Lange, Tyson Miller, Yovanny Cruz, Justin Steele, Keegan Thompson, Brendon Little, Duncan Robinson, and Michael Rucker. He also professed to the talents of outfielder Nelson Velazquez, but held off on coronating the young outfielder as a prospect of the future.

There’s only one major prospect list remaining and that is MLB Pipeline’s. According to the schedule, it’ll be published the 21st February.

I’ve been keeping track of all the major prospect list rankings and it’s interesting to see the variance of where people are slotted. Here are the point totals so far with just one list left.

The Podcast: Looking at Pitchers Who Could Be in Chicago in 2-3 Years

By Todd Johnson

It is really going to be a pivotal year for pitching in the system. There’s competition for starting spots at every level.  The Cubs signed 16 additional arms this winter for depth at AAA, although most won’t make the roster but a few will. This is going to result in a lot of arms trying to get to Chicago as starters and relievers.

This week’s podcast looks at which Cub pitching prospects who could be headed to Chicago in 2-3 years (2019-2021). I did end up focusing mostly on AAA arms who are nearly ready now.

I could have talked even more about arms at AA who could be in the mix, too. Names like Bailey Clark and Michael Rucker as bullpen guys. Then there are possible starters like Erick Leal, Alex Lange, Cory Abbott, Keegan Thompson, Erling Moreno, Manny Rondon, Thomas Hatch, and a few more. Maybe I will do part 2 in a couple weeks. Have a listen.

Next week’s topic is the draft…I think. If you have questions about the draft, send them to me via Twitter or leave a comment down below.

I will be back tomorrow with more of the 5 Series.

Convention Day 3 – MiLB Session Fruitful and a Podcast Pops Up

By Todd Johnson

It is always fitting and ironic that the session about the Cubs minor league sessions is always last. When I sat down in my chair to check out the festivities, I was not sure what I was going to get from Jason MacLeod, Jaron Madison, and whoever else would be on the panel (It would be just them). And I wondered what kind of questions Tennessee Broadcaster Mick Gillispie would field from the audience.

I started out watching the video feed from the Eugene Emeralds. It was tough to hear the questions, but Jason McLeod came through pretty clear. That lasted for about 16:37 before the feed cut out. After that, I relied on tweets from Evan Altman, Tony Andracki, the South Bend Cubs, and a few others.

For the first ten to twelve minutes, pitching was the main focus of the panel. McLeod said,

“After developing no pitching in 7 years and money becoming issue at the major league level, there’s definitely a sense of urgency. It’s on us. We can’t just keep celebrating Kris Bryant. It’s so obvious it’s not even an elephant in the room.”

He later added that the Cubs were too conservative in the pitchers they selected in 2012 and the he takes the blame for that. However, both McLeod and Madison feel good about where the pitching is at now and Brailyn Marquez’s name came up several times throughout the session.

As for who could help the MLB squad this year, Madison and McLeod mentioned Adbert Alzolay, Dakota Mekkes, and James Norwood. McLeod said they would all likely be used out of the pen. Duncan Robinson even got a bit of pub at one point in the conversation.

When it came to Nico, Madison quipped that Nico should move through the system quickly. The two men on the panel were also high about Hoerner’s makeup and potential leadership skills. McLeod and Madison threw out Miguel Amaya, Cole Roederer, and Brennen Davis as names to keep an eye for 2019. McLeod also said that there were several kids in the DSL but he didn’t want to name any of those hitting prospects by name just yet.

A couple of other discussions involved David Bote’s incredible work ethic along with Jason Vosler and Charcer Burks. A good sign also occured when the discussion turned to Jose Albertos.

Another aspect of their discussion I enjoyed, even though it was very brief, was that by having a second rookie league team in Mesa, it is going to allow the Cubs to be more aggressive in the draft. Last year, the Cubs signed over 30+ players including several high school and junior college picks.

Jaron Madison also spoke highly about the future for 2017 top picks in Alex Lange and Brendon Little. Madison said that Lange needs to improve his consistency. As for Little, Madison said, “He has all the upside in the world. He spent nearly the entire offseason in Arizona working his butt off and showing us what he can do.” Everyone I talk to in the system just loves Little and his desire to improve through hard work and using tech.

There was one funny bit where McLeod told how Cole Roederer in Arizona asked one guy where he played in 2018. The player responded, “Chicago, Wrigley Field.” It was Ben Zobrist.

The Baseball America Podcast
While I did find the reports and video for the session fun to listen to, I got an outsider’s perspective of the system via a podcast on Baseball America. I started checking it out as soon as Down on the Farm ended. I found it very enlightening. Kyle Glaser and Josh Norris talked about the system and several of the Cubs top prospects in detail.

The views from beyond the Cubs’ universe also like Nico Hoerner a lot. Norris sees Nico as a fast mover like many of us do. Both writers also praised Miguel Amaya for his first half of 2018 and  talked of his overuse in the second. Zack Short even got some high praise later in the podcast for his defense and power.

In addition, the head scratching seasons of Aramis Ademan and Jose Albertos were discussed in detail. I really like Glazer’s analogy of Ademan. “He looked like an 8th grader playing high school varsity football.” By that Glazer meant that Ademan had the tools to play, he’s just not physically strong enough to hang with them on a day-to-day basis.

As for Jose Albertos, Norris very much still believes in him. He stated, “I bet on upside, I bet on tools.” Norris quoted scouts who said that Albertos’ problem was more mental than physical.

The biggest plaudits in the podcast came later for 2018 pick Cole Roederer who Norris thought of putting Cole at #2 if he would be in a really aggressive mood. The Andrew Benintendi comp came up again about Cole and Norris stated he thought Cole would begin 2019 in South Bend.

Davis got a lot of praise too. While both Roederer and Davis have high ceilings, Davis’ floor is a bit lower. Based on conversations with scouts, Roederer might move a faster pace than Davis who has his own set of skills to work on that Cole has already mastered.

I will be back tomorrow with the 5 Series. This week’s prospects to be analyzed are Yovanny Cruz and Jared Young. I am not sure who goes first yet. On Friday, relief pitchers close out the organization breakdown series and hopefully Baseball Prospectus releases their Top 10 Cubs prospect list this week. Lots of good stuff coming your way.

Position Breakdown Series: LHSP Is Young and Loaded with Talent

By Todd Johnson

This has always been the most volatile position from year to year. And by volatile, I just mean change. A guy could be ranked first one year and off the list the next. The Cubs don’t have a lot of left-handed starters in the system. Over nine minor league teams, there might be 13 or 14 guys who start on a regular basis that are left-handed.

The most interesting trend with this category is that the Cubs did have a lot of young left-handed starters in rookie league ball in 2018. Most of them will be at either South Bend or Eugene to start 2019 and two could be at Myrtle Beach.

A year from now, this list could be topsy-turvy as well. It almost makes me afraid to rank them but I’m going to anyway.

The Top 4
Brailyn Marquez – This kid will be 20 years old to start 2019 and he will be bring his 95-97 mph fastball and wipe out slider with him. He’s always had talent, but the 6’5” lefty began to put things together last year at Eugene. He still needs to be more efficient and use less pitches so that he can go deeper in the game. More than likely, he starts at Myrtle Beach in April.

Justin Steele – I did not expect to see him starting at all in 2018. The fact that he started and dominated was amazing. Add in that he throwing 95 mph was the cherry on top. He has to be thrilled heading into 2019 at AA. I am. In fact, he’s not that far away from Chicago now that he’s on the 40 man roster.

Brendon Little – Do not look at his ERA. After spending close to ten games in a two week stretch last summer, I came away very impressed with Little. When I saw him start in the Quad Cities, his curveball was outstanding as hitters had no chance to square it up that night. He struck out 5 in 5 innings. 2019 will be all about getting his fastball velocity back and commanding said fastball. FYI – He has a great work ethic, too. I wonder what he worked on this winter?

Bryan Hudson – OK. OK. OK. He’s still only 21. It seems like he’s been around forever, but he’s still a pup…so to speak. I thought he had it figured out at Myrtle Beach in July. Over 5 starts he had a 1.27 ERA that month. Then in August, it ballooned to over 7. Once he gets that consistency down, he should begin to take off. We have seen glimpses of the “ground ball machine” from time to time, it just needs to happen most every night.

The New Guys
When I watched Eugene play last year, I came away extremely impressed with Faustino Carrera. The then 19-year-old looked very polished and efficient. He put up a 2.53 ERA in 13 games for the Ems while opponents only hit .198 off him. Didier Vargas, who was also 19 last year, put up the same type of performance in Mesa including a 6.2 IP and 7 K performance in an elimination game in the playoffs to put the Cubs 1 team in the title game.

2018 Draft Picks
Chris Allen and Jack Patterson
got some work in last year. Allen had an innings restriction but did very well with a 0.63 ERA. I cannot wait to watch him pitch. Allen could be one of the top lefties in the system a year from now. Patterson did very well with a 2.83 ERA in 35 IP and was great down the stretch for Eugene and again in the playoffs.

The DSL Squad
Maisel Garcia
got a lot of praise for his improvement from Baseball America’s Ben Badler last year. He struck out 46 in 45.2 IP as a 17-year-old. He is still growing as are many kids in the DSL.

At 18, Luis Rodriquez led the DSL 1 team in ERA with a 0.73. He will be 19 when 2019 begins. Andres Bonalde missed all of 2018 with an injury. He was very good at the end of 2017 and I was looking forward to seeing him in Mesa. He will be 21 when 2019 begins.

Joel Machado was one of the Cubs’ top international free agents they signed last summer. Still growing at 16, he is adding weight, height, and mph to his game. More than likely, he starts out next year in the DSL. He’s a long shot to make it to Mesa.

The 5 Series: Brailyn Marquez Se Incendia

By Todd Johnson

Over the past eight months, no pitching prospect has risen faster in the Cubs’ system than Brailyn Marquez. The 6‘5“ left-hander has come from the back of the pack to be one of the top 5 prospects in the system in a short amount of time.

Last year, Marquez pitched at short season Eugene for most of the year before getting in two starts at South Bend. Currently, he is projected to start 2019 at A+ Myrtle Beach. He could begin the year at South Bend, but he probably would not be there long.

That’s a bit of a jump to go from short season to the Carolina League with just a cup of coffee at South Bend. But when you watch Marquez pitch, it doesn’t seem like much of a jump. At just 19 years old, soon to be 20, he looks like he could be something that the Cubs don’t have in their system. And that is a high end starter.

Here are five things to remember and to be cautious about Marquez.

1. Tool Kit – He has a fastball that he can sit at 94 to 97 without extreme effort. A few times he did top out at 98, but that was the exception rather than the norm.

2. Wipe Out – He has this slurvey breaking ball that slides across the plate. He gets a lot of movement from left to right and up to down. It is a pitch that just devastates left-handers.

3. Working Counts – Marquez showed a lot of growth last year in his efficiency. Early in the year, he worked a lot of deep counts and rarely made it past the third or fourth inning. By the end of the year, he could work into the fifth or sixth earnings, hence why his stock shot up. The velocity shooting above 95 didn’t hurt either.

4. Game Experience – The more he pitches, the better he’s going to be. Marquez looks like he is learning on the mound. He doesn’t look scared, but you can tell these are new situations and he is learning how to adapt to them on a game-by-game basis.

5. Time – This is a tricky concept for Marquez. Here is a guy who is very young with some plus pitches and he could move very quickly. If he comes out dealing in Myrtle Beach, I wonder if the Cubs are just going to let him sit and dominate all year, or would they put him at AA at the age of 20. It’s an interesting conundrum. You want to challenge him and, at the same time, get him experience.

There are no sure things in baseball when it comes to prospects. You never know what will happen. But it’s going to be exciting watching what Marquez will do this year. Marquez might be the prospect everyone wants to see just based on radar gun readings. While those are nice, I like to see more of his ability to go deep into a game without using a large amount of pitches. He has pitches he can get guys out, some are of the swinging variety and other pitches hitters just watch because they just cannot hit it.

Here is what Fangraphs had to say about his future:

Marquez is perhaps the hardest-throwing teenage southpaw on the planet right now. He also has pretty advanced fastball command for someone with that kind of heat to go along with a 6.5% walk rate over his last 100 innings of work. His secondary stuff is pretty pedestrian, but everything of his plays up against left-handed hitters because Marquez has a weird, sawed off, low-slot arm action. He’ll need to develop better ways to deal with right-handed hitters, either via command or better secondary stuff

Fangraphs Leads Off the Prospect Lists by Going Young, Very Young

By Todd Johnson

Amaya 08 2018 SB

When Fangraphs started releasing their prospect lists last week, I got a little excited. They started out with the NL Central and had three teams done by the weekend. I knew last Saturday that the Cubs would be up this week.

The list itself was somewhat surprising. Authors Eric Longenhagen and Kiley McDaniel emphasized what is becoming a system with some highly ranked youth.

The first surprise was that the two authors still hung with Miguel Amaya who ascended to the top of most Cub lists last summer. Coming in second was my favorite, Nico Hoerner. Scouts that McDaniel and Longenhagen talked to were still unsure what position Nico is going to end up playing. The scouts think Hoerner could end up at second and/or center.

After Ademan, Adbert Alzolay, and Justin Steele, the first big ripple in the list came with the placement of Cole Roederer at #6. Fangraphs’ placement of Roederer this high is very encouraging for the strength of a system. Roederer was outstanding in 36 games with a .354 OBP, 5 HRs, 24 RBI, and 13 SB after being signed in 2018.

Marquez 65 2018 EugThe Youth Movement continued to flow throughout the top half of their 31 prospects. 19-year-old lefty Brailyn Marquez came in at #7 while 17-year-old Richard Gallardo rounded out the top 10. Reivaj Garcia was the biggest surprise at #11. The 17-year-old second baseman held his own in the Arizona Rookie League last year. 19-year-old Brennan Davis could be a classic five tool guy in time and he was put on the list at #12.

Despite injuries and troubles, Jeremiah Estrada and Jose Albertos both made the list.  I don’t understand the placement of Nelson Velazquez at 28. With his power profile, Velazquez is likely a top 10 power prospect in a system devoid of power.

The biggest surprise was the inclusion of pitcher Benjamin Rodriguez at #30. He’s just 18 and still growing and was lauded for his spin rates in the Dominican Republic..

Who’s Missing: Pitching staple Trevor Clifton came up missing on the list along with the Jared Young, the Cubs MiLB Player of the Year in 2018. As well, reliever Dillon Maples and Duane Underwood were nowhere to be seen. DJ Wilson and Mark Zagunis made the other prospects portion of the list. The two outfielders were routinely in the top 10 the past four years and now, poof!

Final Thoughts

Hoerner 07 2018 SBFor the first major prospect list, Fangraphs really went hard to the young prospects. 15 of the 31 prospects on the list actually come from the international market. And 17 of the 31 are 20 or younger. That’s a lot of young guys. It still is a very heavy pitching list with just a few players with power potential.

Several of the younger prospects came across as overrated. On my own list, I am starting to trend towards not listing prospects until they have at least got some substantial time in full season ball. 15 of the 31 on Fangraphs’ list have yet to log at least a half a season at South Bend. Many have not faced a lot of pitchers or hitters with college experience yet.

In the next year, the prospects listed by Fangraphs should be lighting it up all across the system. Then again, they might not. This list is still about projection. The one thing that very few Cubs prospects did in the last year was to dominate a level. That’s what these 31 need to do. I still think they are 1-2 years away from that kind of domination by these young kids.