Are There Any Cub Prospects Breaking Out in the Second Half?

By Todd Johnson

Usually, the first half is pretty clear-cut when it comes to prospects breaking out. The second half is not. Playing well in Mesa and Eugene is not a precursor for future success in the upper minors or the majors. With one short season team, four rookie league teams, an influx of draft picks, and a whole lot of player movement, there are a dozens of prospects to monitor. Right now, there are exactly three plus weeks left in the minor league season.

When I started to think about which prospects are breaking out in the second half, no one really popped out with that blinking neon sign that said “BREAKOUT!” In the first half, it was quite evident that Jared Young, Matt Swarmer, and Tyler Peyton were heads and shoulders above everyone. This half, not so much.

Here are some thoughts about prospects that are in the running for being a breakout prospect of the second half.

Tennessee: Keegan Thompson got destroyed in his first two weeks in Tennessee and since then, he might be the closest thing to a possible breakout starter. With a 1.46 ERA in July at AA, Chicago does not look that far away for him.

Myrtle Beach: Tyson Miller has flashed his potential at times and he’s been rocked hard at others. In July, he was outstanding with an ERA of 2.49 , but his first start in August was not something to write home about. There’s still time for him. Jared Young continues to just get better and better at high A. I doubt if you can technically be the breakout hitter of the second half if you already broke out in the first half? As for relievers, Manny Rondon has really taken off and might be close for breakout reliever of the second half with a 1.42 ERA in 19 innings of relief.

South Bend: This is a difficult place to pick a breakout player. They’ve had a few guys go on streaks like Delvin Zinn and Christian Donahue, but nobody that’s really put it together for a long stretch of time. On the mound, they have lost 2/3 of their starting rotation from the beginning of the year The bullpen is decent. They do a good job night after night. But no one is really dominating the opposition. Reliever Garrett Kelly is close as he’s only allowed one run since the beginning of July. Right now, he might have a short lead over Rondon. This half, Kelly’s stats are eye-popping with a 0.44 ERA and 22 Ks in 22 innings with a batting average against of .105. Those are stunning!

Eugene: This is a topsy-turvy team. Half the roster turned over after the first half (38 Games). The team is now loaded with college players from the draft who are sort of/kinda/maybe on the verge of being the breakout hitters of the second half. Luke Reynolds and Grant Fennel seem to be taking the lead in the hitter category. In their last three weeks, they look to be running number one and two in that category. The question I have is: How much they are going to hit for power? Eugene has two starting pitching candidates. I really like Derek Casey, the recent draft pick out a Virginia. He has been outstanding for the Emeralds, but he only pitches 2 to 3 innings a night. That kind a hampers him for being a breakout. It does set him up for next year though. The closest thing to a breakout starting pitcher might be Brailyn Marquez. The tall 19-year-old lefty throws between 95 and 97 this year but he also has his struggles. He’s not efficient as he works a lot of deep counts. He rarely gets out of the fourth inning. Once he makes that adjustment, he could really take off.

Mesa: It’s very hard to break out in rookie league. You’re not exactly facing the best competition on the planet. Then again you still have guys that throw in in the upper 90s and guys hitting 400 foot home runs. Four players come to mind so far based on their performance. Pictchers Didier Vargas and Jesus Tejada both had outstanding Julys on the bump. Vargas was outstanding last year with a 0.99 last year in the DSL and Tejada was the best pitcher in August in the entire system last year, also in the DSL. In addition, second round pick Cole Roederer has been very impressive. He’s shown the ability to hit for average, power, get on base, and steal bases. He looks to be a dream pick! I can’t wait to see him play on actual TV.

You wouldn’t think that 20 games would make a whole lot of difference to picking breakouts, but it does. When the second half of the minor league season is only 70 games, that’s almost a third of the season. In the real world, that’s not much time, but in the minor leagues that’s a good bit of time to show what you can do.

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MLB Pipeline’s New Top 30 Cubs Prospect List Reveals a New Young Base of Talent

By Todd Johnson

I figured this year would be a season where there would be a lot of variation of players moving up and down my own prospect list. Usually, MLB Pipeline is pretty conservative when it comes to adjusting their own list. They aren’t so herky-jerky and prospects take a lot of time to move around on the list. Today, MLB Pipeline released their new top 30 list that included recent draft picks and international free agents. Based on the year that several prospects are having, I thought there would be a lot of turnover throughout the list. There was.

What Was the Least Surprising Thing?

Everybody and their mother knew last week when Jim Callis answered my MLB Pipeline inbox question if Miguel Amaya would be “the cream of the Cubs’ crop.” Here is what MLB Pipeline said about Amaya’s growth in 2018:

Amaya is starting to make the same type of impact offensively, showing feel for the barrel and the ability to make consistent contact from the right side of the plate. He’s doing a better job of waiting for pitches he can do more damage against, allowing him to tap into his power. He moves decently for a catcher but isn’t a factor on the bases.

Another thing that was not very surprising to see the number of players moving up and down the list. There five new additions to the list and one player returned to the list. Otherwise, there was not a lot of separation between the prospects, but that will be changing as the 2016-2018 draft and international free agent classes make their way up the organization.

What Was the Most Surprising Thing on the List?

Seeing lefty pitcher Brailyn Marquez all the way up at number 4 was quite surprising. Then again, Marquez has the type of talent that has everyone picking their jaws up off the floor. Marquez, who is only 19, has gone from the low to mid 90s to the mid to upper 90s on his fastball.

On the other hand, Thomas Hatch fell all the way down to #20. I thought he would drop but not all that far. The 2016 third round pick has struggled at times this year at AA. MLB Pipeline said the following about his fall from grace: “He hasn’t missed as many bats this year in Double-A, leading to some thought that he might be better suited for middle relief than the back of Chicago’s rotation.

Who is New to the List?

Trent Giambrone, Richard Gallardo, Cole Roederer, Brennen Davis, Erling Moreno, and James Norwood.

I was glad to see Giambrone make it along with Norwood. As for Moreno, he is not technically new, he is back on the list. Roederer, meanwhile, is off to a good start in Mesa and could rise fast next year along with fellow draft pick Brennan Davis. Both Roederer and Davis could easily make their way into the top 10.

Who is Missing?

I really like Jared Young as a hitting prospect. He dominated the Midwest League from April through June and is doing the same in July at Myrtle Beach. Young will more than likely be named the Cubs Hitter of the Year at the end of the season, Duncan Robinson has put together a good year at AA Tennessee. He’s had a rough patch in July, but for the year, he has been a steady force for the Smokies.

Who is is now off the list?

Jen-Ho Tseng, Alec Mills, Javier Assad, Bryan Hudson, Jeremiah Estrada, and Wladimir Galindo all fell off. In the future, I would not be surprised to see Assad, Hudson, Estrada, and/or Galindo back on the list.

In the offseason, MLB Pipeline will release another list at some point. It will be different, too. It might not have six players change, but there could be 3 or 4 of this year’s draft picks get some more action over the next 5 weeks of the MiLB season and more development in fall instructs. The system has a new breath of life and that should continue to improve with the majority of elite talent at 18-19 years of age.

For your information, here is the old list from the end of 2017.

The Weekly – Notes on Debuts, Signings, Awards, Nico, Justin Steele, Cards, and Grant Fennell

By Todd Johnson

*Friday was the final day underclassmen and high school players drafted by the Cubs’ this year could sign a pro contract. The Cubs had around $85,000 in extra bonus pool money and they stunned everyone by getting 35th round pick OF Edmond Americaan from Chipola JC in Florida for just over $200,000. The Cubs also signed 27th round pick Niels Stone from Indian River State College, a junior college. He is right-handed pitcher. Even though the deadline has passed, the Cubs still can sign Catcher Hunter Taylor from South Carolina, who was a senior. They own Taylor’s rights until next June.

So, in total, the Cubs signed 32 drafted players (the most in the Theo era) and 3 non-drafted players. That will be a lot of new Cubs to keep track of the next two months.

*Nico Hoerner, the Cubs’ first round pick last month, just continues to get on base at an unreal clip in Eugene. After missing four games from jamming his pinky finger sliding into third base, Hoerner came back on Friday and did not skip a beat going 2/4 with a BB, a run, and 2 SBs. Then, last night, he cranked his first HR as a Cub.

*In a bit of perplexing and sad/bad news, the oft-injured pitcher Oscar de la Cruz received an 80-game suspension after testing positive for Furosemide, a masking agent. Although he was struggling a bit at AA Tennessee, this was also the first year he had stayed healthy since his breakthrough at Eugene. It will be interesting to see how the Smokies replace Oscar in the rotation and how the Cubs deal with Oscar on a personal level in the future.He will not be eligible to play until mid-May of 2018.

*In good news, South Bend 1B/OF Jared Young (who was promoted to Myrtle Beach yesterday) and Tennessee pitcher Duncan Robinson were named the Cubs’ minor league player and pitcher of the month, respectively. In what is becoming an annoying trend this year, I am picking the hitter correctly in my monthly All-Star teams. My pitchers are not usually close. For June, I had South Bend’s Rollie Lacy while in April I had Javier Assad to the Cubs’ Matt Swarmer. I will get it right someday (as I did in May with Cory Abbott).

*I also went a little bit nuts on making my baseball cards the past two weeks. I finished my June cards of the month post a few days early. As a result, I had a weekend’s worth of cards to add into July’s album. With addition of Eugene now playing along with  3 new photographers contributing pics, I had plenty to do. Right now, I have an amazing 76 cards just one week into the month. Here’s an amazing tidbit to that number…I still have an album of Eugene pics from their last homestand to sort through and turn into cards. You can see all of July’s cards here.

*I am beginning to have some thoughts about who the Cubs might protect on the 40 man roster to avoid losing in the Rule 5 Draft in December. The Cubs have until November to make their declarations. Usually at the end of July/early August, Cub fans get a sneak peak when 7 players are usually selected to participate in the Arizona Fall League. Justin Steele is no-brainer selection for Arizona. The young lefty missed most of this season after TJS last August. He came back this week and pitched three scoreless in Mesa. I am excited for him as he worked hard to get back. As for who else might be on the list, there’s still a lot of baseball to be played before that is figured out.

*Because of Trent Giambrone’s massive 3 HR and 9 RBI outburst, he is going to get the hitter of the week award, and deservedly so. Coming in second was Grant Fennell of Mesa 2. The IF/OF from Nevada was signed as an non-drafted free agent and is doing very well in the AZL. He hit over .500 this week and drove in 5. He’s going to be a bat worth watching the rest of the summer. I am thinking of doing a profile on him later this week. We’ll see.

*In addition, several young Cubs made their debuts this week including Cole Roederer, Zach Mort, Paul Richan, Ethan Roberts, and Jimmy Herron. To see how all the draft picks are doing this year, click here.

Players of the Week

Card of the Week

Who Is the Affiliate to Watch in the Second Half?

By Todd Johnson

Back in the spring, I wrote an article for BP Wrigleyville about which affiliate would be the team to watch in the first half. I wound up picking South Bend mainly because of their pitching. And that turned out to be a good pick as they also had exciting players to watch. Now that the second half is here, who is the affiliate to keep an eye on for the next two months.?

Iowa’s Case

Considering that Iowa has really produced a lot of help for the big league club the spring with David Bodie, Anthony Bass, Victor Caratini, and other assorted relievers, one could make an argument that Iowa should be the team to watch in case the Cubs need more starting pitching. Casey Coleman, Duane Underwood, and Trevor Clifton are three to watch. Meanwhile, Dakota Mekkes and Kyle Ryan are two relievers to examine. At the plate, Mark Zagunis could fill a hole if needed and Chesney Young appears to fully have his groove back again in July. Finally, Taylor Davis could provide a backup catcher if needed.

Myrtle Beach’s Case


Right now, the Pelicans’ hitting is not doing very well. Outside of Andruw Monasterio, PJ Higgins, and Jhonny Pereda, most of  prospects are hitting in the .220s or below. But when it comes to pitching, especially the starting variety, Myrtle Beach has several arms to watch. Erich Uelmen didn’t miss a beat when he was promoted to South Bend to Myrtle Beach. 2017 First Round pick Alex Lange is definitely an arm to watch. His changeup seems to be rounding into form as it fades away from right-handed hitters. If he can maintain the current arm slot as his fastball, he becomes deadly. In addition, pitcher Tyson Miller looks to be strong at this point in the season and is getting better every month as his season ERA continues to drop near 3.00. I also look forward to the return of Bailey Clark who missed most of June. Reliever Jhon Romero might be headed for Tennessee very soon at the rate he is striking out batters.

Eugene’s Case

When I first thought of doing this article 2 months ago, I would’ve said that Eugene would be the team to watch with all the young players. It’s still is, but some of those players are going through a lot of growing pains. Right now, the star attraction is number one draft pick shortstop Nico Hoerner. Then again, he’s missed the last five days after injuring his pinky finger sliding into third base. Hopefully he will return soon, and stay there a while before he gets shipped off to South Bend. Otherwise, Fernando Kelli is never dull on the basepaths as he leads the Northwest League in stolen bases. Fireballin’ Pitcher Brailyn Marquez is must see TV. And in good news, Nelson Velasquez and Luis Vazquez seem to be finding in their strokes after a rough first two weeks. Both are hitting well over .300 this month. Luis Diaz has been a nice surprise. Jonathan Sierra has a great eye at the plate but has yet to get the bat going, although he went 4-for-4 last night . The 2018 draft picks have been a little slow to head to Eugene and they seem to be dispersed throughout the system rather than Eugene.

South Bend’s Case

They could easily make a strong case to be the team to watch this half, too. Pitchers Rollie Lacy, Tyler Thomas, and Jesus Camargo are something else. Every time they go out, they seem to just give up zero or one run in 5 to 7 innings with 8 to 10 Ks. First baseman Jared Young is destroying the ball and was just named the Cubs’ minor league player of the month for June. Miguel Amaya slipped a little bit last month but he is still a very exciting young prospect and was just named to the World roster at the Future’s Game. Brandon Hughes looks to be in a groove since adjusting his stance. Michael Cruz also adjusted his approach and hit over .300 in June. This gives South Bend Cubs, arguably, the top 1-9 batting order in the system.

Tennessee’s Case

Over the first two-plus weeks of the second half, the Smokies have been the hottest team in the system. They are currently in first place as their hitters seemed to have woken up from a two month slumber. Leading the charge are shortstop Zack Short, second baseman Trent Giambrone, and outfielder Charcer Burks. As soon as the All-Star break ended, those three begin to take off and haven’t stop hitting for the past two weeks. In addition, new pitchers Matt Swarmer and Keegan Thompson are beginning to adjust to AA as the Smokies have gone to a six-man rotation. Thomas Hatch is always a fun watch. I love to see Duncan Robinson pitch whenever he starts and the same is true of Michael Rucker. The two 2016 draft picks just throw strikes. With Jake Stinnett now entrenched as the closer, this team has a lot going on as they sit firmly in first place. 

As for the four rookie league teams, none of them are televised, although the Arizona Rookie League teams do get some press coverage with Arizona Phil. They also have 2/3 of this year’s class spread across the two teams.

Considering all of these things, it’s pretty close between Tennessee and South Bend. The deciding factor for my choice comes down to this: Which prospects are going to be at South Bend or Tennessee the whole two months. I can firmly say that most of Tennessee’s roster is going to stay in Kodak. I can’t say the same for South Bend. I could see Jared Young getting the call today as well as Lacy and Thomas. As a result, the first place Tennessee Smokies are going to get a lot more attention the rest of the way in. It should be fun.

 

Which Prospects Could Breakout for the Cubs in the 2nd Half?

By Todd Johnson

Yesterday, I wrote about who  broke out in the first half for Cubs Insider. But trying to predict breakouts prospects for the second half of the minor league season is a bit tougher. Most of the players one would expect to breakout will be playing for Mesa, Eugene, or South Bend. Some of them are 18 to 20-year-old kids while others are recent draft picks.

If I was to pick one hitter, one pitcher, and one reliever to break out in the second half, I would more than likely be wrong come the end of August. So, to hedge my bets, what I’m going to do is to pick three hitters, four starting pitchers, and three relievers who might make some waves in the Cubs’ system the next two months. Hopefully, one or more in each category will make it.  

On with the prospects.

Hitters

Everyone is going to be watching Nico Hoerner once he signs. The fans will watch his bat, his glove, his arm, and his speed, grit, and hustle. That kind of takes the pressure off of everyone else.

The batter that will impress everyone is Luke Reynolds, the Cubs tenth round pick out of Southern Mississippi. I would expect him to be a fast mover. He, like Hoerner, will probably start at Eugene, but neither will be there long as their approaches and skills will be too dominant.

Another hitter that could break out this summer is Fernando Kelli. While we know some about Kelli after his 58 stolen bases last season in the DSL, it is different playing in the US, especially skipping Mesa. The hardest adjustments for an 18-19 year old prospect from the DSL to make are just playing against quality competition. Kelli will need to adapt to quality changeups and curves; and guys trying to get him out in the batter’s box and also on the basepaths. In just 5 games, he has caused some havoc between the bases. His defense, on the other hand, might be better than we thought.

My third selection is Jonathan Sierra. Originally, he looked like Daryl Strawberry clone when the Cubs signed him in 2015 at 16 years-old. Now, he is getting his physique into something resembling Jorge Soler. What I really like about him so far is his approach. He shows to have a pretty good knowledge of the zone at 19 and he is not afraid to walk to this early in his career. The issue he has now is that his swing is a bit long. He needs to shorten that up or he will be eaten alive as he moves up the ladder. For now, though, game experience and seeing as many pitches as possible will be the goals for 2018.

Bonus Hitters – Kevin Moreno from Cuba (who is only 17) and Reivaj Garcia are two young hitters who have been tearing up EXST. They will both be in Mesa to begin the year. I love Luis Vazquez’s defense already. The fact that he got experience at SS in a major league spring training game says how highly the Cubs already think of him. He is in Eugene to start 2018. Focus on his defense, not the bat.

Starting Pitchers

One of the more interesting stories in August last year was the maturation of Jesus Tejada in the DSL. He was a stud with an ERA just under 2 for that month and he also threw a no-hitter. Now, the 19 year old will be stateside. This spring, one of the more interesting reports over time from Arizona Phil has been the growth in each performance of lefty Brailyn Marquez, who is really dialing it up as the spring goes along. Now that summer is here, the young 19-year-old pitcher is in Eugene as the ace of the staff. He can dial it up in the mid-90s. The issue has always been his command.

I liked the Cubs taking Derek Casey of Virginia in the ninth round of the 2018 draft a lot. He’s experienced, a senior, and he should be a valuable arm next year. This year, he will more than likely just pitch 2 or 3 innings a game in Eugene or South Bend. He should do well in those spots.

Faustino Carrera is not going to blow you away with his fastball, but he can make you swing wildly at his changeup. The 19-year-old lefty (I am noticing a theme here) has good command and can get hitters to do what he wants when he can control his upper 80s to low 90s heater. He also has a curve that comes in around 82 and he seems to hide the ball well to make it appear to have more zip than it does.

Bonus – In what is his third season as a Cub, Nathan Sweeney is back in the Arizona Rookie League. But here’s the thing, he’s still just 20 and, if he had gone to college, he would just be finishing his sophomore year. After two years of instruction from the college of pitching coaches in Mesa, he should start to put it together this year. His fastball has been clocked in the low 90s consistently.

Relievers

All three of my breakout reliever choices were taken in the draft this year. Ethan Roberts, Riley Thompson, and Layne Looney all had excellent careers in college in the bullpen. I would not be surprised to see any or all 3 get a chance at starting next year. But this year, they are just going to relieve. Thompson, who can bring it at 95, will need the most time to develop. Roberts might need to rest a bit after Tennessee Tech almost made it to Omaha for the College World Series. And Looney should be good to go as he was already playing summer ball. Expect to see Thompson to get in a game first and it should be at Mesa.

Here are a few other names who could break out as legitimate prospects this summer.

DSL
Alexander Ovalles – OF; Carlos Morfa – OF; Fabian Pertuz – SS; Carlos Paula – SP

Mesa
Luis Verdugo – SS; Carlos Pacheco – OF (who is injured to start the year); Raidel Orta – SP; Eduarniel Nunez – SP; and Luis Hidalgo 1B/OF

Eugene
Luis Diaz – 2B and Jonathan Soto – C

The Annual Preview of a Preview: The Ems Are Just Loaded for 2018

By Todd Johnson

 

Every year, I look forward to the Eugene Emeralds’ season with great anticipation. This year is no different. And, like every year, I do a preview of the team two months before they begin play. It’s kind of my thing. What is different about this year is the number of elite prospects that could be headed Eugene’s way.

Normally, the Eugene roster is a mix of young international players and recent college draft picks. This year’s team has some highly anticipated players who won a championship in Mesa and who dominated in the Dominican Summer League in 2017. A few of the players were selected in the draft out of high school; they’ve been the exception rather than the norm the last few years.

Let’s take a sneak peek at who might be playing in PK Park this summer.

The Rockstar Outfield
19-year-old Fernando Kelli made a sensation last summer in the Dominican Summer League when he stole 58 bases and had an on base percentage of .437. He has mad speed and will be fun to watch once he gets on base. Another 19-year-old outfielder for Eugene should be Nelson Velasquez. In just a six week span in 2017, he hit eight home runs over six weeks last summer at Mesa in helping to lead Mesa to an Arizona Rookie League championship. While he does need to cut down on the strikeouts, Velasquez is pure power.

Two other outfielders that could see plenty of time in the field and at DH are Jonathan Sierra and Jose Gutierrez. Both played with Velasquez last year in Mesa. Sierra looked like Darryl Strawberry when the Cubs signed him in 2015 as a 16-year-old. He’s filled out quite a bit since but is still working on his hitting after two full seasons between the Dominican and at Mesa. He’s an outstanding defender with the potential for immense power. As for Gutierrez, he really turned it on in the second half of 2017 as the leadoff man for Mesa and was one of the reasons they were able to score a lot of runs down the stretch to win the title.

A Young and Athletic Infield
The Cubs liked Delvin Zinn so much, they selected him twice; once in 2015 and then again in 2016. Zinn is one of the most athletic players in the system and should be at second base. Playing beside him will be one of my favorite young players to watch this year in Luis Vazquez. The first thing you notice about Luis is he is a tall, rangy shortstop who patrols the left side of the diamond like a panther. Not much gets by him. His bat is going to need some work. So, Emeralds’ fans need to be a bit patient with him. 2B Christian Donahue, who attended Oregon State, but was not drafted, could be a part of the Ems squad this year as well.

Any number of players could fill in at first including Fidel Mejia and if 1B Luis Hidalgo does not make it to South Bend, and is healthy, he could destroy NWL pitching just as he did in the AZL and DSL last summer. 18-year-old shortstop Luis Diaz could also could back up Vazquez and Zinn.  The powerful Christopher Morel should be at 3B. He has immense power but is still working on hitting offspeed stuff.

Very Young Pitching
Like last year, Eugene is going to have a lot of 18 to 19-year-old pitchers. The most prominent name on the list is Jeremiah Estrada, who the Cubs picked up in the 2017 draft after they talked him out of going to UCLA. He can throw in the low to mid 90s and has a plus-plus changeup.

In addition, youngsters Danis Correa, Brailyn Marquez, Emilio Ferrebus, and Didier Vargas will be competing for spots in extended spring training.

Card made from a photo by John Arguello

Correa, 18, is from Columbia and can throw in the mid to upper 90s. He saw a little time in the states last year at Mesa and seemed to hold his own. Marquez, also 19, is a 6’5″ lefty who misses a lot of bats and at times, the strike zone. Marquez played at Mesa last summer and drew raves at times for his talent; and other times he struggled to find the plate. Ferrebus, who just turned 20, held his own last year in two leagues and started in the playoffs for Mesa. Didier Vargas is another 19-year-old who did very well in the Dominican Summer League with an ERA of under one for the summer.

One player who I cannot wait to see pitch is Jesus Tejada. The 6’2″ righty had a ERA of under two in August in the Dominican, and he also threw a no-hitter. He is one of the top pitchers on the rise in the Cubs system. My hope is that he makes the squad.

Faustino Carrera is another 19-year-old lefty who does have command and can put the ball where he wants it. Unlike Marquez, Carrera sits in the low 90s.

One pitcher that will be hard to miss is 6’8″ Stephen Ridings, a 2016 draft pick out of Haverford.  Last year was his first as a Cub and he improved as the season progressed at Mesa. He can start or relieve.

Add in 5 draft picks from the top 98 picks in this year’s draft and that’s a ton of talent.

It’ll be interesting to see how this extremely young group of players develops in extended spring training the next two months. Most of them should make the Emeralds, a few might make it to South Bend, and a few might stay in Mesa. No matter who makes it, it’s gonna be very exciting to watch them grow and develop every night.

In addition, here are two things to take note of this summer:
1. For every Tuesday home game this summer, the Ems will transform into the Monarcas de Eugene as part of MLB’s Copa de la Diversion.

2. The Cubs now have two teams in the Arizona Rookie League. This will create a lot of playing time for a lot of young players. It will also make it harder to get to Eugene as there will be a lot of competition to do so.

Position Breakdown Series – Lefty Starters Gaining Ground

By Todd Johnson

The left-handed starter might be the most coveted of the Cubs’ prospects. The problem is they only have around 10. Ranking them is not that difficult. But then again, you never know what is going to happen to them from year to year.

Last year, I had Rob Zastryzny at number one and I thought for sure he was going to be in the bullpen in Chicago all year long and that didn’t happen. At number two, Ryan Kellogg struggled most of the year at Myrtle Beach after a dominating second half at South Bend in 2016. Jose Paulino came in at number three and fellow South Bend teammate Manny Rondon was at number four. Both struggled at low class A with Paulino rebounding some in the second half.
I had Bryan Hudson at number five last year despite struggling in 2016 at Eugene. I put Justin Steele at No. 6 despite his struggles the year before at South Bend.

Both pitchers changed quite a bit in 2017. I really liked the maturation I saw from Hudson in 2017. He turned into a ground ball machine. He’s not perfect yet, but he was vastly improved from 2016. He is still just 20 years old. As for Steele, He probably had the best year of anything Cubs’ lefty starting pitcher. However, he had TJS in late August.

What I thought would be an easy list this year is actually turning into something quite hard. You would think out of 10 arms that I can find five or six that I really like. After thinking about it, I wanted to get a Time Machine go to the middle of August, see how they did, then come back and pick them that way. That’s not gonna happen…

7. Didier Vargas is a Dominican summer league player who had some success last year. He doesn’t throw as hard as fellow teenager Danis Correa, but Vargas should do well in Mesa after posting a 0.99 ERA in 63.2 IP in the DSL in 2017.

Card made from a photo by John Arguello

6. Brailyn Marquez – If this list was just on pure talent, he would be number one. If it was on command, he wouldn’t even be on the list. Part of Mesa’s championship team, Marquez can throw in the mid 90s with a killer curve. The problem Marquez has is that he has not got his control and command down yet. He can look like the greatest thing for two or three innings and then turn into a BP machine. In 44 IP, he whiffed 52 but gave up 50 hits.

5. Jose Paulino – He went from 75 IP to 123.2 IP between 2016 and 2017. In May and June, his ERAs for both of those months were over 6. He was put on leave for a week and moved to the bullpen to begin the second half. He got a second chance at starting in July where he put together a nice string of outings with a 2.28 ERA for the month, reminiscent of his outstanding 2016 at Eugene. In August, he made 6 starts with a 3.34 ERA. What I liked most about his year was that he went 6 or more innings 11 times in 22 starts, and 7 of those came in 11 starts in the second half. That bodes really well for 2018 and Myrtle Beach.

4. I don’t know what the plan is for Rob Zastryzny. He could be a starter, or he could be a reliever. Or, do the Cubs just want to maintain that flexibility with him? That has to be a difficult and challenging thing to deal with when you don’t know how they want you to be used. My guess is the Cubs will keep him stretched out in case of an emergency this year at Iowa.

3. Justin Steele – He’s not gonna play in 2018 but when he comes back in 2019, he will hopefully carry the approach he began at Myrtle Beach with him to AA Tennessee. He credits daily mental routines for his 2017 success and his aggressiveness on the mound was also a key factor. In 20 starts, he had a 2.82 ERA with 82 Ks in 98.2 IP. The other day, Steele tweeted that he has already begun throwing in his rehab. Now, I am beginning to wonder if he throws some in relief the second half of the year.

2. Bryan Hudson – I probably should’ve just given him a 1B distinction because his future looks mighty bright. Do not get hung up on what his ERA was last year (3.91) but I liked what I saw in his ability to get hitters out. He figured out he could get guys to beat the ball into the ground with his fastball just as well as he could with his killer curve/slider. I think performance wise he’s going to have the best year of these five in 2018. If you’re thinking down the road a few years, I think there’s a lot to look forward to there as well.

1. Brendon Little – If you’re talking about performance, 2017 is not going to rank too high in his professional career. He had some command issues in his debut at Eugene but he also showed a devastating curveball at times. The differentiation between his reported fastball in college and what he showed in Eugene was substantial. He threw 91-94 in college, topping out at 97. At Eugene, he was in the upper 80s and low 90s. What I like is that he could be is a power arm that I think the Cubs can work with and develop. He just turned 21. He came from a junior college program. He doesn’t have all the spit and polish of someone like Lange who spent three years in a major college program and pitched in the College World Series. Little is going to be a work in progress. But the end result in three or four years could be substantial. That’s what you have to focus on. As a fan, you cannot judge him and his future on six weeks in Eugene. You just can’t. He might be one of those guys the Cubs keep in extended spring training in April and May to work on some things before he goes to South Bend. I don’t see the Cubs rushing him through the system. The Cubs poured a lot of money into him and they’re going to do it right.

Other Names to Keep an Eye On
I’m not ready to give up on Manny Rondon. And like Hudson, Rondon may benefit from the environs of the Carolina League and be a bounce-back prospect just like Steele was in 2017. As for Ryan Kellogg, I’m pretty sure he’ll be at Tennessee in 2018 but I’m not so sure what role he is going to have.

Andres Bonalde missed all of 2017. The 6’6” lefty put together a great second half in the DSL in 2016. He had a 2.31 ERA in 7 second half starts including a 1.29 ERA in 4 August starts. I was saddened to see him miss last year. Now, I look forward to him coming back at Mesa in 2018. He is still just a 20-year-old.

The big question mark is Carson Sands. He underwent surgery last winter for elbow splints and returned in late July. He did some rehab starts in Mesa before joining South Bend where he struggled to find the plate, one of which I saw live at Beloit. After two terrible starts for South Bend, he was sent to Eugene. He only made one more start in the Northwest League before he was shut down for the year. You have to feel for the kid. At this point, I hope the problem is physical and can be remedied with rest and rehab. At this point, I do not have a destination for him in 2018.