By Todd Johnson
It has been an exciting week in the minors. There were several promotions, some draft signings, and lots of debuts of players in new uniforms. From Chicago to Mesa, new was the word. Then again, there will be several more in the weeks ahead as only 13 of the players the Cubs signed from this year’s draft debuted. More are coming.
Tomorrow, the 2018-2019 International Free Agency signing period begins. The Cubs are expected to sign a few top prospects in pitchers Richard Gallardo and Joel Machado along with outfielder Jose Lopez. The Cubs have almost $5 million to spend. It is also the first time since 2015 that they can sign a player for more than $300,000. They will not blow through all of their pool tomorrow. Only a few big names will be released tomorrow, most of the list will be released in October.
No New Top 21
Normally, I would do a new Top 21 list after International Free Agency begins, but not this year. All of the players the Cubs will sign will not play until 2019. So, I decided to wait to think about adding them to the list unless their name is Victor Mesa…and it’s not.
But if I did, there would be a few additions and a few subtractions. Jared Young has played himself into consideration for a spot while Eugene OF Fernando Kelli bears watching along with fellow teammate Jonathan Sierra. In addition, Chesny Young looks to be playing himself back into contention and Duncan Robinson is definitely an arm to watch as he is having big success at AA this year. Pitchers Rollie Lacy, Erich Uelmen, and Tyler Thomas are also worthy of consideration as well.
Who’s Hot at the Plate Right Now?
The second half just started ten days ago. Several players are busting it out of the gate. Zack Short of Tennessee is ripping the cover off the ball (.360+ with 3 HRs and 12 RBI) along with teammate Eddy Martinez (.333 with 2 HRs and 9 RBI). In Myrtle Beach, Andruw Monasterio over his last ten is lighting up a box score at close to .400. Roberto Caro (.400) of South Bend leads a parade of hitters in northern Indiana who are putting balls in play over their last ten games including Brandon Hughes (.289), Austin Filiere (.314), and Michael Cruz (.308). At AAA Iowa, Mark Zagunis is currently in the midst of one of his nicest streaks of the year after a rough May. Chesny Young also looks to have regained his stroke hitting .289 for the month (heading into last night’s game).
Around the System
While Tennessee and South Bend got off to decent starts in the second half, Myrtle Beach has not at 2-8. Their bats have pretty much gone silent except for Monasterio. Iowa is still finding who will be on the roster from day-to-day with the Cubs’ injury issues in Chicago. Eugene started out hot and then cooled off as the bats and pitching are struggling. The Ems have lost 7 in a row and are now at 5-10.
Meanwhile, down in Mesa, the Cubs Mesa 1 team looks to be doing well at 6-4 while the 2 team has some pitching issues at 4-6. Both teams in the DSL are at 9-15 and 10-15 respectively as they struggle at the plate and in the field. SS Fabian Pertuz is back after missing almost two weeks. He immediately hit when he got back on the lineup. He will be one to watch the next two months.
The June All-Star Team
I will put it out later today. Check back around 4:30-5 Central time.
Players of the Week
Card of the Week
By Todd Johnson
A 16th round pick in the 2016 MLB Draft, South Bend Cubs outfielder Brandon Hughes’ career resembles a roller coaster. The switch hitting outfielder is riding a high wave, right now. In June, the 22-year-old is hitting .364 with 2 HRs and 7 RBI in 15 games.
Last year at Eugene, Hughes got off to a torrid start to begin his pro career. That July, he hit .299 with 1 HR and 7 RBI. Then he began to cool off in August as only hit .199. His K rate was at 25% and he only walked 7% of the time. He pulled 43% of his batted balls and only 30% went the other way. Against lefties, he only had 27 ABs but hit .296 against them.
Still, I was pretty high on him at the end of the season. I liked his athleticism and thought that it would help propel him in his career. I really liked his hands through the zone and thought that eventually, he was too good of an athlete to fail.
Here is what I said in the Leveling Up Series About Hughes in March.
The Cubs need to figure out what kind of hitter Hughes is going to be. Is he going to be a leadoff-speed kind of guy like he was at Michigan State? Or, Is he going to be a guy they’re going to try and develop into a power hitter? Will he be the hitter we saw in July or the one in August? Or, is he going to be some sort of multi-dimensional player that has both speed and power?
To put it mildly, Hughes did not good off to a good start this year at South Bend.
I still believed though.
In April, he hit .222 and followed that up in May at .198. His K rates and walk rates were very similar to last year. But something was beginning to change. He was beginning to get more lift. In 2017, only 32% of his batted balls were fly balls. This year, it was up to 42.5% and he was able to go the other way as that rate increased to 35%.
But the biggest change was in his stance.
At the beginning of 2018, his hands were extended away from his body shoulder level (see picture below). In May, he pulled his hands in and lowered them to his chest. He seemed to be more upright and he opened up his stance to better see the pitcher and improve his timing.
In talking with South Bend Cubs broadcaster Brendan King, Brendan commented that Hughes works very hard at repeating that new swing and stance every pre-game. At some point, muscle memory begins to take over and that is what is happening. At 6’2” and 215 lbs., Hughes has good size and his athletic prowess is helping him repeat his performance.
I am looking forward to seeing how he will do the rest of the summer with his new stance now ingrained in his muscles. Right now, Hughes is all systems go and it looks like he’s taking off.
By Todd Johnson
As the first half of the year comes to a close today, the future is hopeful. At the end of April, times were rough in the system. Only one team had a record over .500. But over the course of the last six weeks, some hitters broke out, several pitchers excelled, and where there was once darkness, there is now some light. After today, 3 of the 4 full season teams could have a .500 record or better for the first half. That did not look possible on May 1.
Although no team made the playoffs, a few should make a run for it in the second half. The draft picks could add a little boost to the system once they sign and go through their camp.
Iowa – 2-4 (25-41)
Tennessee – 4-3 (35-34)
Myrtle Beach – 2-6 (34-35)
South Bend – 3-4 (34-34)
Eugene – 2-0 (2-0)
DSL 1 – 3-3 (7-6)
DSL 2 – 4-2 (5-8)
Eugene began their season on Friday night and it is an extremely young team. That should change once the draft picks go through an orientation camp for one week. For now, though, there is some promise. Fernando Kelli is an extremely exciting player and Nelson Velazquez looks more at ease. I can’t wait to watch them develop. Kelli is already causing havoc on the basepaths everytime he gets on base. Whether it is good baserunning, stolen bases, or his presence, he is just plain exciting.
Meanwhile, out in Arizona, the two rookie league teams in Mesa begin play tomorrow. It will be interesting to see the rosters tomorrow. One could assume one team might be a normal team while the other could have the rehabbing players and the draft picks coming in and out. We will find out more tomorrow.
Brandon Hughes hit .222 in April and slumped to .188 in May. The 2017 16th round pick from Michigan was highly thought of because of his athletic prowess. The poor start did not dampen his development. A switch hitter can sometimes be hard to fix. For Hughes, though, he seems to be on the right track in June. He’s hitting .389 with 1 HR for the month. His average was at .199 on June 2. Two weeks later, he’s brought it up to .241.
I asked South Bend Cubs broadcaster Brendan King what about Brandon changed? He said, “They’ve changed the batting stance a bit, he’s standing more straight up in the box but other than that, just constant repetition.” Like many Cubs prospects, one reason Hughes was selected was his athleticism, another was his makeup. King would also add that Hughes is an extremely hard worker. I look forward to seeing if he can maintain this level of performance as I think there could be something with his size and his speed. The coaches are going to have to bring it out and it sounds like things are improving. Good for him.
Down in the Dominican
I am never quite sure what to make of some stats in the Dominican. The league is made up of a mixture of 16-21 year old kids who are need of game experience. Development can occur rapidly and the play is not always the best. There are lots of errors, wild pitches, and TOOTBLANs. As a result, I always take the stats with a grain of salt. Still, there are some eye-popping numbers coming out of there by several prospects. I will go over some of those in more detail, hopefully next Saturday, as more data comes in.
The Podcast Is Up
The Podcast I did with Cubs Insider and Cubs Den writer Sean Holland is up. There are some technical difficulties but it is still decent. I never can stand the sound of my own voice; I always find it weird. Give it a listen.
Busy Week Ahead
Tomorrow, I will publish the First Half All-Star team followed by the Baseball Cards of the First Half on Tuesday. Wednesday will see the Breakouts of the first half and Thursday will see some second half breakout predictions.
Players of the Week
Card of the Week
By Todd Johnson
It was a rough night in the Cubs’ system as the minor league season began. Only the Iowa Cubs came away with a victory. Errors and defensive miscues plagued Tennessee, Myrtle Beach, and South Bend while all four failed to push across runs in key situations.
Loss to Oklahoma City 2-1; Win vs Oklahoma City 3-2
Jen-Ho Tseng pitched well, but one mistake resulted in a home run for the AAA Dodgers’ affiliate in the openener. In the nightcap, David Bote’s solo home run looked like it would hold up as the game winning RBI until Anthony Bass struggled to find the zone and gave up two runs. The Cubs gained a split of the opening day double-header thanks to the new extra inning rule. Pitcher Duane Underwood got some base running in and scored the game winner on a single by Efren Navarro.
Loss to Mississippi 3-0
Trevor Clifton looked very good through five innings and 67 pitches. In the 7th, the wheels fell off and he wound up being charged with three runs. Still, there was a lot to like about his start as he was very efficient for five innings. The Smokies struggled to put the bat on the ball with men in scoring position, a common theme from last night. The Smokies actually out hit the Braves 5-4 but were shutout. Jake Stinnett looked very good in relief despite giving up a hit that lead to two runs, both charged to Clifton. He struck out 2 in 1.2 IP.
Loss to Frederick 6-2
Initially, the Pelicans made three errors in the first inning leading to three runs by Frederick. Two of them were later changed to hits but the Keys scored three runs off Pelicans’ starter Keegan Thompson in the first and three runs later. The birds also had trouble hitting. PJ Higgins went 2 for 4 with 2 RBI in the 6-2 loss. Andruw Monasterio also did well going 2 for 3.
Loss to West Michigan 6-2
After taking a 1-0 lead in the first, South Bend struggled to keep up with the Whitecaps. Tyler Thomas (formerly Ricky Tyler Thomas) gave up 2 unearned runs and an earned run. Bailey Clark came on in relief later and struggled mightily in his first inning with 2 WPs and 3 runs, 1 of them earned. Outfielder Brandon Hughes was the only offensive highlight of the night. He went 2 for 2 with 2 walks, a stolen base, and he also scored a run.
It is rare for me to do a nightly recap. However, on most nights, I usually just focus in on one or two games or key performances. Everyday, though, I do pick the best performances of the day. Opening Day is no exception.
Hopefully, day two brings some better results in the Cubs’ system. Iowa is off due to inclement weather. Meanwhile, in the rest of the system, Duncan Robinson will be on the hill for the Smokies, Jose Paulino gets the nod for the Pelicans, and Javier Assad goes for South Bend.
Come back on Sunday for “The Weekly” as I recap the beginning weekend of MiLB baseball and select the Players of the Week along with the Baseball Card of the Week and the Team of the Week.
By Todd Johnson
Rule number one: Draft all the athletes.
Brandon Hughes is most definitely that. The young 2017 draft pick from Michigan State is arguably the best athlete the Cubs selected in the draft since Jacob Hannemann, way back in 2013. In addition to speed, Hughes has the potential for power. As a lead off hitter at Michigan State, he was never asked to hit that way. That’s something the Cubs might want to change this year.
Upon his arrival at Eugene, Hughes burst onto the scene with a scintillating July before cooling off in August. He hit .299 the first month, and .190 the second. It’s not like he’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, but turning pro can be a tough experience when you’ve already played a full season of baseball; your body is just not used to the grind of playing eight months versus five.
Hughes will have some definite competition for an outfield spot in South Bend but is best suited to right field. His arm is considered above average, but he definitely has the ability to go get the ball.
It is hard to evaluate someone just on 40 games in short season ball. By the time the middle of June rolls around this year, Hughes should have 60 games in at South Bend. In that span, he needs to improve getting on base. Some of that will come from a solid approach, which he should’ve been working on over the off-season, and some of that will come with a familiarity with the league.
Most importantly, the Cubs need to figure out what kind of hitter Hughes is going to be. Is he going to be a leadoff-speed kind of guy like he was at Michigan State? Or, Is he going to be a guy they’re going to try and develop into a power hitter? Will he be the hitter we saw in July or the one in August? Or, is he going to be some sort of multi-dimensional player that has both speed and power?
If I had to guess, I would go with the last one. One thing South Bend manager Jimmy Gonzalez has been able to do the past few summers is to develop hitters with good pitch recognition skills. I don’t know if part of that comes from computer games the players play or just their own natural development. Whatever the case may be, Gonzalez gets results and those hitters go on to do well at Myrtle Beach.
Out of the almost 30 signees from last year’s draft, I think Hughes is the one who will change the most this year. Last summer, I wrote the following for BP Wrigleyville and I still think it holds true for Hughes’ future:
Hughes’ style of hitting reminds me of a story by Ryne Sandberg. Ryno often talks about his conversations with Jim Frey and how Sandberg used to pound the ball into the Astroturf and dirt to try and use his speed to get on base. One day at the batting cage, Frey suggested Sandberg should change his swing to create more lift to hit for more power. And that one piece of advice transformed Sandberg’s career.
I am not saying that Brandon Hughes is going to be a Hall of Famer. And I am not comparing him to Ryne Sandberg, but their original hitting styles are similar. Hughes is physically gifted. He has the frame and the musculature to hit home runs. It will be interesting to see what his swing is next year.
His natural physicality will allow him to do a variety of things in the field, on the basepaths, and at the plate. His development is going to be a multi-year process that will hopefully take advantage of his natural athletic talent.
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.