By Todd Johnson
This is easily the hardest position to rank. Eloy Jimenez anchored the rankings for two years and I am just not quite sure how to arrange this year’s crop. Do I put them in tiers, number them, or do I arrange them into categories? I decided to be old fashioned up to 7.
A year ago, Eloy was at the top of the Cub outfielders followed by Mark Zagunis, Eddy Martinez, Donnie Dewees, and DJ Wilson. Two of those five prospects are gone. Although Zagunis did have a pretty good season in 2018, Burks and Wilson didn’t exactly light the minor leagues on fire for a whole year.
This is a position that has a lot of names of players who COULD be elite talents someday. However, their tools have not clicked for some reason. In fact, that pretty much sums up the Cubs system in general. There’s a lot of depth, just not elite talent. However, in two years, that could all change greatly.
In spite of that, here are the current top seven outfielders the Cubs have in their system heading into the 2018 season.
7. Jonathan Sierra – I am just waiting for him to get it going. Hopefully, this year will be the year the homers start to flow. In reality, though, it is more likely to happen at South Bend for him. He might be at the bottom of this list again next year or he could be #1. He as all the tools and the right approach at the plate, it is just a matter of game experience and tapping into his 6’3” frame and beautiful swing.
6. Kevonte Mitchell – A physical specimen, he could be a beast. At times in 2017, he showed that he could carry a club for a week or two at a time. In 2018, he should be at Myrtle Beach and he could begin to fulfill his power potential. Watching him work hard in pre-game activities bodes well for him grinding it out at some point.
5. I could’ve easily written Eddy Martinez in at number two as well as number five. That’s what is hardest about this group – there’s depth but not much differentiation of talent. For Martinez, he was pretty good in the second half of last year hitting .276 with 7 home runs. Already a defensive stalwart, he just needs to walk more and strike out less. I don’t think that’s too much to ask. It is another thing for it to happen.
4. DJ Wilson – He is an amazing athlete who I think should break out a little bit this year at Myrtle Beach. Now at 21 years of age, and in his fourth season as a Cub, the time has come for him to begin to put it together. The lack of a any kind of a sustained performance could be a concern very soon. He has all the skills he needs, it is just a matter of putting it together on a daily basis.
3. Charcer Burks had a great first half at AA Tennessee and I thought for sure he was going to get a promotion in late June to AAA. He got off to a great start in spring training with the big league club and never let up until the middle of June when he seemed to take a step back. He did alright in the Arizona Fall League but he didn’t necessarily knock anyone’s socks off. It was a long year but it was also a huge step in the right direction that truly began the second half of 2016 at Myrtle Beach when Rashad Crawford was dealt. He should be fine at AAA. And to be honest, his power game might improve at AAA. Last year, he hit 10 at AA. I would not be surprised if he hit 15 this year in the PCL.
2. Mark Zagunis – Like Victor Caratini, I don’t think there’s much left for him to prove at AAA. His power improved last year, his batting average improved, while his on base percentage is always spectacular. All he needs is a place to play every day. The problem it is not in Chicago. I was hoping that he might get a chance with another club to break through. That hasn’t happened yet this offseason.
1. Nelson Velasquez – His power potential is off the charts. In just a short six week span, He cranked out 11 home runs in Mesa between rookie league and the playoffs. He still has some swing and miss to his game (30% K rate in the Arizona Rookie League). As a result, I think the Cubs are going to be pretty patient with him and it will be interesting to see how he does in Eugene, which is not a place where home runs have been known to happen frequently. Still, there’s just too much talent to not rank him number 1 just based on potential.
Some Names to Watch for 2018
Out of all the position lists from this winter, the outfield list could change drastically in one year’s time. In fact, the Cubs could pick up another college outfielder or two in the top three to four rounds of the draft next summer that could totally reshape these rankings. Add in some amazing athletes who will be patrolling the green grass in Mesa, Eugene, and South Bend in 2018 who are young, unproven for a full season, and extremely athletic and the system becomes much more dynamic.
Fernando Kelli leads the list and should be making his stateside debut along with Carlos Pacheco. Both played in the Dominican last year and they could be playing anywhere from Mesa to South Bend. Meanwhile, Brandon Hughes begins his first full season after being drafted last summer. A switch-hitter, Hughes is an amazing athlete with the build to hit for power but has never been asked to do so. Chris Carrier, another 2017 draft pick, struggled at Eugene, but is a physical specimen.
Finally, Jose Gutierrez is another young and athletic outfielder who was the leadoff man on Mesa’s championship team. Down the stretch, he hit .354 in August helping to set the table for the rookie league Cubs.
One thing about this class of outfielders from Mesa to Eugene to South Bend is that they are not going to be dull.
By Todd Johnson
This gets harder and harder to do every year. There’s so much information available that it is rare for a prospect to sneak up and have a good year. I don’t like to rely totally on statistics, although I do think they are a valuable tool. When it comes to identifying players who I think could break out or be identified as sleepers in an organization, I prefer seeing them play live. I get a better sense for their approach at the plate, their swing plane, the ability to see the ball into the zone, and the sound of the ball coming off the bat. I also like watching the fluidity of their athleticism.
In 2017, there were a few key prospects who broke out in some form or fashion. Shortstop Zack Short comes to mind along with catcher Ian Rice, third baseman Jason Vosler, outfielder Charcer Burks, and shortstop Aramis Ademan. The biggest breakout was fifth round pick Nelson Velasquez who destroyed Arizona Rookie League pitching in his short tenure as he pummeled 10 HRs in a 7 week span after being drafted.
When it comes to 2018, there are several prospects who could show a marked improvement in their performance. There are several players who, at times in 2017, showed that there might be more there than the level at which they were currently performing. Then there were other players who seemed to come on strong in the second half of the season, or at the very least, in the month of August.
Here are several names of hitting prospects who I think could break out in 2018 to make their way onto a top prospect list.
At AA Tennessee
I really think that 2018 will be the summer of Eddy Martinez. In the second half of 2017 he hit .276 with seven home runs and I think he is finally acclimated to playing professional baseball and living in the United States. He is still young as he will just be 23 in January.
At Class A Myrtle Beach
DJ Wilson – I think this is the year where his physical maturity along with his baseball maturity mesh to produce his best year. I don’t know if he’s going to hit a lot of home runs this year because the Carolina League is just not a hitter’s league. However, I do think his batting average will improve as well as his approach. The one thing I don’t have to worry about is his defense.
Kevonte Mitchell – I think his time has come. He has grown into a physical specimen at 6’5″ and probably about 240 pounds. He is just a beast. But what impressed me most about his performance in 2017 was the way that he was able to track the ball into the catcher’s mitt. He did have an up-and-down year but behind the scenes he was putting in a lot of work to make himself more consistent. It would not surprise me to see him hit 20 home runs at this level and to begin to carry a team for games at a time.
At Class A South Bend
Miguel Amaya – Once you see him, you tend to fall in love with his arm behind the plate. However, his bat was sorely lacking to begin 2017. When he was moved to the seventh spot in the lineup, he did much better hitting almost .300 in the month of August. This leads me to believe that he is going to come into 2018 with a much better approach than he had at short season Eugene. I would not be surprised to see him hit 12 to 15 home runs in the Midwest League.
Jared Young – He is the perfect example of don’t scout the stat line. After being drafted, he began his pro career at Eugene last summer as he got off to a terrible start batting average wise hitting .131 in July. However, if you watched his at-bats, you saw an outstanding approach that saw him work counts to see a lot of pitches, but the balls just were not dropping in for hits. My friend John and I would comment to each other about what bad luck he was having. Then, in the last two weeks of August, he tore the cover off the ball hitting .323 for the month.
In August, one of the highlights of watching the Eugene Emeralds play was to watch Austin Filiere hit on a nightly basis. The 2017 draft pick out of MIT still has some work to do on defense, but his approach at the plate is top notch. He hit .261 with a .392 OBP. Add in his short quick stroke and he has the potential for 20 home run power next season. I’m not saying he’s going to hit 20 homeruns, but he could.
In June and early July, my favorite hitter at Eugene was none other than Joe Martarano who hit .340 for the Emeralds. When he went to South Bend, the poor guy just got off to a horrible start. When I saw him play in Beloit, he had a super high leg kick that didn’t necessarily show up on video. Thankfully, that turned into a toe tap a bit later and he hit much better in August (.273) including his first Midwest League home run. He should start out at South Bend unless he completely terrorizes spring training pitching. I just love the way the ball jumps off his bat and the sound is immense.
Jonathan Sierra is long and lean at 6’3″ and a physical replica of Darryl Strawberry. He just turned 19 in October and should be better next year than last. His approach comes across as fine. He hit .259 in rookie ball with a .332 OBP. His power is what will determine his breakout. He only hit two in 48 games and needs to do better. Hopefully, he breaks out in 2018 but it is more likely to bust out at South Bend in 2019.
He is just 20 years old, but Delvin Zinn is one player I think everyone should watch in 2018. He played in Mesa last summer and played mainly at short and second. He is an extremely athletic player who did have an up and down season. If he can learn to be more consistent, he is going to be a force on the base paths.
Others to Watch
Brandon Hughes is a switch hitting speedy outfielder who has the perfect size (6’2″) to develop a power stroke. Whether he will or not, I don’t know, but it’s not all going to happen next year. Improving his approach next year at South Bend should help.
Cam Balego – He played all over the infield in 2017 for Mesa and converted to catcher this fall at instructs. He was extremely consistent at the plate as he hit .286. I’m interested to see what he can do in a larger sample size.
Marcus Mastrobuoni – He led Mesa in almost every hitting category until Nelson Velasquez passed him up late in the season. The young catcher should be at Eugene in 2018. The problem for him is that there is nowhere to go in the now catching rich system.
By Todd Johnson
Overall Record: 39-37
This team was just loaded with pitching talent. It’s easy to see why they did so well in the playoffs. With a mixture of young international free agents and some seasoned college players, they started peaking at the right time. As a result, the Ems went deep into the playoffs but lost in the finals of the Northwest League Championship Series.
Heading into the season, I was a little unsure of what was gonna happen. None of the players drafted had been signed yet. Although the Emeralds did not win the division title, they had the second best overall record in their division which earned them a playoff spot. As a team, they were a bit inconsistent at the plate, but they did flash glimpses of their immense talent from time to time. They just didn’t do it on a day-to-day basis. The strength of the team was starting pitching and a deadly bullpen.
Here are seven takes you need to know about this year’s team.
1. Jose Albertos – I think it’s safe to say he was my favorite player in the organization the second half of the year. He is still developing his curveball but he did begin to throw his changeup up more often in the second half of the year then he threw it in the first. I am extremely excited to watch him pitch next year at South Bend. His fastball did sit in the low to mid 90s and it varied from night to night but was usually anywhere between 91 and 96. His changeup comes in around 79 – 82, which is pretty unfair to most hitters.
2. Miguel Amaya – He’s only 18 and I don’t think he’s done growing yet. The catcher displayed a power arm behind the plate and threw out around 50% of base runners this year. He’s still a work in progress but once he moved down to the seven spot in the lineup, he hit over .300 in the month of August. I am really looking forward to seeing him for 140 games in 2018.
3. Javier Assad – Like Albertos, he is a young pitcher who is still developing. Several times this summer, he did throw close to double digit strikeouts. He does throw a fastball in the low to mid 90s and depending upon how his curveball did, that dictated how he would do want on a particular evening. His arm is pretty live and loose. He has to still work on keeping the ball down and moving the ball around the zone rather than focus on pounding one particular area.
4. Brendon Little – I think it would be a bit unfair to judge him based on his short starts where he would only pitch two-three innings. To go from throwing four innings in 2016 to 80+ innings in 2017 makes a big difference on the arm along with the fact that he was basically shut down from pitching and games for almost 2 months. He did flash an amazing curveball that will weaken the knees of several hitters in the Midwest League next year. However the velocity that we read about in scouting reports of a fastball in the mid to upper 90s was not there. Instead it was around 89 to 92.
5. Alex Lange – Although he wasn’t around at the end of the season, I am pretty excited to see what he will do in 2018 after pitching around 130 innings at LSU. The Cubs only had him originally scheduled to pitch 10 innings at Eugene. He pitched nine. I came away impressed by his curve and his tenacity.Hopefully, the Cubs can smooth out his delivery little bit as it looks like there is some effort to delivery.
6. Gustavo Polanco – It was pretty clear from the get-go that this kid could hit. The issues are that he is maxed out physically and that he doesn’t take a lot of walks. I think that is something that South Bend manager Jimmy Gonzalez can work on next year. Polanco needs to improve his approach to begin to tap into his power, which he did flash a couple of times this year. He does have good bat to ball skills and his natural swing takes the ball to right field, which is impressive.
7. The College Kids – Overall, I liked the new Cubs from the 2017 MLB Draft. Most of those players were at Eugene and we got some looks at their athletic talent and ability. There were several pitchers I came away impressed with including Jake Steffens and Cory Abbott along with Ricky Tyler Thomas. The position players were plentiful this year and that bodes well for South Bend next year. I was in particularly impressed with the plate approaches of Jared Young and Austin Filiere along with the natural physical talents of Brandon Hughes.
Emeralds to Watch in 2018
It’s hard to predict who’s going to be on a short season roster. There’s a lot of development time that takes place between now and the middle of next June. I’d like to think that Nelson Velasquez or Jonathan Sierra will be hitting balls deep into the night at PK park next summer. But you never know what’s gonna happen over the next nine months. Both could wind up in South Bend at some point next May at the end of extended spring training. Regardless, there will be several players from the Dominican, like Fernando Kelli, who could show up in Eugene. However, I think it’s going to be several Dominican pitchers like Jesus Tejada and Emilio Ferrebus who could get all the acclaim before the drafted players sign.
by Todd Johnson
The Mesa Cubs won the Arizona Rookie League Championship last night with an awesome display of hitting! The first four hitters (Jose Gutierrez, Carlos Sepulveda, Jonathan Sierra, and Nelson Velazquez) in the lineup each drove in two runs as the Cubs scored runs in bunches to defeat the Giants 13-3 and win the series two games to one. Delvin Zinn scored three times and Luis Vazquez scored twice while going 4 for 5. Jeffrey Passantino, Eugenio Palma, and Ivan Medina held the Giants scoreless over the last five innings to secure the win! This is the Cubs’ first rookie league title since 2002.
Cubs win first AZL title since 2002. Final 13-3 pic.twitter.com/6pYkQhsE5W
— Eric Longenhagen (@longenhagen) September 8, 2017
Meanwhile in Hillsboro…
The Emeralds got on the board early against the Hops in game two of their series thanks in part to a Brandon Hughes home run to take a 3-0 lead. The Hops came right back to tie at three apiece. Each team would tack on another run with the Hops tying it in the bottom of the eighth. In the top of the ninth, the Ems blew it open by scoring six runs to win 10-4. Chris Singleton had a bases clearing double that put the game out of reach. The Emeralds will now face Vancouver in the championship. No dates have been announced as of yet.
In the Carolina League
Things did not go well for Myrtle Beach in their quest to go back-to-back-to-back. The Wood Ducks scored three runs on 5 hits in the fourth to take a 4-0 lead and held on to defeat the Pelicans 4-1. The Pelicans only managed four hits. The Pelicans and Wood Ducks will play two tonight in order to avoid Hurricane Irma in the best of five series.
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.
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.
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.
By Todd Johnson
Last week’s draft signing deadline was a close cut for three prospects. Alex Lange, Jeremiah Estrada, and Nelson Velazquez were all able to sign contracts with the Cubs. That brought the total number of draft picks signed to 29, a high for the Theo era.
Nine of those 29 picks are playing in South Bend, Eugene, and Mesa. The other 20, 16 at which are pitchers, have not begun their Cubs careers. Here some initial impressions about who is doing what and where.
At South Bend
Austin Upshaw – I really like this kid. He has a smooth left-handed stroke and some power. He can play either second base or first base. He is hitting over .400 after a couple of weeks and has been put in the middle of the lineup.
Brian Glowicki – In 2 relief appearances, he’s given up one earned run and struck out three. In the second appearance on Sunday, he looked pretty good throwing in the low 90s.
Jake Steffens – He is a big boy and throws on a steep downhill plane. He’s not going to strike out a lot of hitters, but he will get a lot of ground balls.
Casey Ryan – He is a huge presence that on the mound. He’s made 2 appearances for Eugene and nothing has really happened other than a lot of ground balls. He’s got some nice arm side run that goes in on the hands of right-handed hitters.
Austin Filiere – In just 8 games he’s shown the ability to hit for power to all fields. He came on strong at first and is having a little slump in the last couple of games.
Jared Young – The first thing you notice is that he is a 6’2” second baseman. He has shown a good approach at the plate from the left side in just a few games. I am very impressed with how he carries himself when he’s looking for a pitch to hit.
Brandon Hughes – He provided all the offense on Sunday, including a home run. I think the Cubs are going to try and tinker with his swing a little bit to create more lift. At Michigan State, he relied on speed to get on base. He has only played in a couple of games so far with excellent results. Love the bat drop.
Cam Balego – He currently leads the team in hitting and has only been there a couple of weeks. He’s just played second base.
Chris Carrier – He started his first game on Monday night so it’s a little early to tell. He has good size and speed and we will know more when he gets to Eugene.
I expect most of these players to be rostered by the end of next week with the majority of them in Mesa and Eugene, and a few might matriculate their way to South Bend. I would not be surprised to see some of the starting pitchers shut down for the year based upon how many pitches they have already thrown in college this spring.
Brendon Little, Alex Lange, Cory Abbott, Keegan Thompson, Erich Uelmen, Jeremiah Estrada, Ricky Tyler Thomas, Rollie Lacy, Ben Hecht, Peyton Remy, Brendan King, Sean Barry, Mitch Stophel, Brady Miller, Braxton Light, and Jeff Passantino.
There is a lot up in the air with this group of arms. I think Little might see some action in the pen but start next year. I doubt if Lange pitches this year after throwing over 120 innings at LSU. I think it could take a while to shake these roles out. You would think that Abbott, Thompson, Uelmen, and Estrada are destined to be starters.
Nelson Velazquez, Luis Vazquez, Chris Singleton, and Ramsey Romano
I’m looking forward to seeing how Velasquez and Vazquez do in rookie ball. The Cubs have not selected a lot of high school position players the past few years so they are the exception rather than the mainstream type of pick. As for Singleton, his mother was killed in the Charleston, South Carolina church shooting for around 2015.
Hopefully, I can see some of the newest Cubs when South Bend travels to Beloit in 10 days.