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
An Arizona Rookie League Championship is an especially nice way to end the season. In the first half of the season, Mesa had the second worst record in the league at 9-19. The Cubs turned it around in the second half going 16-12 and then storming through the playoffs scoring 44 runs in five games.
In 2018, most of these players will move on up to Eugene and South Bend. It is a talented bunch and probably has the most prolific hitters the Cubs have seen in rookie ball in the Theo Epstein era.
Here are several prospects who could be flying up prospect lists this winter and next summer.
1. Nelson Velazquez – Just 18 years old, he hit nine home runs in basically six weeks for Mesa. He was named the Cubs’ minor league player of the month in August as he drove in 16 with six homeruns for the month while hitting over .300. He might not be physically maxed out, but the Cubs fifth round pick from 2017 can flat out hit. I would not be surprised to see him shooting into the top 10 on a lot of prospect lists this winter.
2. Jonathan Sierra – While he did flash some power this year, he continues to show an excellent approach. At 18 years of age, his future is still very bright as he has a long ways to develop physically. At 6’2” and left-handed, he always gets the Darryl Strawberry comp. His game is nothing like Darryl Strawberry’s. I tend to think he’ll be at Eugene next year, but if he begins to develop some power at instructs, spring training, and, then again in an extended spring training, he could be in South Bend late next May. For an 18-year-old, a lot can happen developmentally in 7 to 9 months.
3. Delvin Zinn – He got off to a great start this year for Mesa, slipped a little bit in the middle of the season, and finished strong hitting over .500 in the playoffs with a .630 to on-base percentage. He played shortstop and second base most of the year and I think he really begins to catch fire in 2018. I’m excited to watch him play either at Eugene next year. I just don’t know what position he’s going to play.
4. Cam Balego – Although I have yet to see him play, he showed up every day and played three infield positions for Mesa this year and hit for a high average all season long. The 30th round pick from Mercyhurst has been learning how to play catcher this fall in instructs. I am really excited about getting a look at just how well he does hit next year. He hit .286 with a .385 OBP this year.
5. Marcus Mastrobuoni – He has to be one of the most surprising players in the Cubs’ system this year. The catching corps is getting to be pretty deep and a player has to really make themselves stand out in order to be noticed. Marcus did that this year as he was the leading hitter in all of the four major hitting categories for Mesa until the last couple weeks of the season. I’m glad he was so successful this year. With Miguel Amaya ahead of him, I don’t know how fast he can move up in the system with his hit tool.
6. Brailyn Marquez – After listening to scouts and seeing some of them tweet, it’s obvious that Marquez has swing and miss stuff. It’s also obvious that he still needs to learn how to pitch with what he has. At 6’5” and just 18 years old, there’s a lot of time left for the lefty to fill out and work on his combination of pitches and approach on the mound.
7. Luis Hidalgo – He played in the states for the first time and did not disappoint. Originally an outfielder, he played mostly first base and tore the cover off the ball all of August for Mesa with 13 RBI. With his ability to hit, I don’t think he needs to go to Eugene next summer. I tend to think he’ll be just fine at South Bend playing first and doing some DH.
Bonus – Luis Vazquez was drafted by the Cubs this summer. The 17-year-old shortstop drew rave reviews for his fielding this summer. The bat needs some work but he did hit well in the playoffs going 5 for 7. He should more than likely be at Eugene next summer.
Mesa Cubs to Watch in 2018
It’s a little hard to predict who’s going to be in rookie league but the four players the Cubs signed as international free agents on July 2 would be the best bet to watch in 2018. Pitcher Florencio Serrano, shortstops Luis Verdugo and Fabian Pertuz, and outfielder Alexander Ovalles should begin in Mesa along with many other young international players. One, in particular, that intrigues me is 18 year-old Carlos Pacheco. The young outfielder hit for both power and got on base in the DSL this past summer with a .366 OBP while slugging 9 HRs in 67 games.
By Todd Johnson
After being held to two hits through the first six innings, the Mesa Cubs erupted to score 9 runs in the last three frames to defeat the Giants 10-4 in Game 1 of the best of 3 series. Delvin Zinn went 3 for 4 with 3 RBI and Nelson Velazquez homered as the Cubs are now one step away from a championship! Game two is tonight.
9 strikeouts will decimate any offense and that is what the Giants’ Jose Marte did to the Cubs through 6 IP. The Cubs’ Alfredo Colorado ‘s best pitching effort kept the Cubs within striking distance at 2-1 when Marte left the game. The Cubs pushed across 1 run in the 7th to tie it, then exploded for 5 in the 8th and 3 more in the ninth. Cam Balego scored three times for the Cubs and the Cubs took advantage of four errors by the Giants to win.
In other Playoff News…
The Myrtle Beach Pelicans start their series vs the Down East Wood Ducks tonight with Michael Rucker on the mound.
The Eugene Emeralds, after being smoked out due to forest fires, host Hillsboro tonight with Jesus Camargo taking the ball.
By Todd Johnson
Falling behind 5-0 would be the death knell for most teams. However, when you have a potent offense, no lead is insurmountable. Such was the case last night as the Mesa Cubs rallied to win 7-6 over the Dodgers in the Arizona Rookie League semi-finals.
The Cubs used home runs by Jonathan Sierra, 2017 draft pick Cam Balego (his second in the playoffs), and 2016 draftee Delvin Zinn to tie it up. Carlos Sepulveda, on a rehab assignment, drove in Kwang-Min Kwon as the winning run in the eighth.
Another key to victory was that the bullpen pitched great in relief. Eugenio Palma, Jeffrey Passantino, and Ivan Medina scattered 8 hits and allowed 2 runs in 9 innings after Stephen Ridings was chased in the first after giving up four runs without getting an out.
The Cubs now move to the finals where they will face the Giants in a best of three series. 2017 Draft Pick, Brendan King from Holy Cross, probably gets the ball tonight and Brailyn Marquez could take the bump tomorrow.
The series starts tonight and runs through Thursday, if necessary. The Cubs went 5-3 against the Giants this year. I like the Cubs’ chances.
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
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.