By Todd Johnson
When it comes to baseball cards, I am weird. When I was a kid, I loved collecting them around 10, 11, and 12-years-old. It consumed every summer. I used to have a card table in my bedroom where I had them all sorted into neat little stacks by team and arranged by division. I was consumed with collecting them and trying to find the money to collect them. But as the 70s turned into the 80s, there were other things that began to take over my time. Part of me still enjoys that euphoria I got from collecting those initial cards of the 1970s.
That was over 40 years ago. This winter, I added some new templates of more recent years and I’m kind of digging that, too, but in a different way. For the month of January and into early February, I found a few more pictures of prospects that are starting to show up in Google and Twitter searches. Some of the cards I made turned into instant classics.
There’s not really a theme that weaves throughout all of the cards in the second “best of” post for this winter. Instead, the 12 cards I’ve selected today I like for variety of reasons. The key to any great card is a great photograph. And each of the photographs of the following cards are special for a different reason.
There were only a few pictures of Cory Abbott, the Cubs 2017 2nd round pick, out there on the Internet. This is one of them from the Eugene Emeralds that I really like because of the arm action in the follow through. For the other card, Duncan Robinson is in a Myrtle Beach Merman uniform, a play on the show “Eastbound and Down” that followed the mythical career of one Kenny Powers. I really love that jersey and the picture by Larry Kave!
Coming in at number 10 is a picture by my friend John Conover that captures Aramis Ademan in action against West Michigan. While I do like action, I really like the lines in the background of the dirt and the shaded section of the grass as much as the player. Coming in at number nine is a picture by MiLB of Adbert Alzolay at the high class A All-Star game. It’s it’s a very appealing picture to me because he’s in a different uniform and I like the shade of that blue. Sometimes, the specialty jersey can get played out a little bit, but I love this picture of Brendon Little in a “Pirates of the Caribbean” jersey.
7 to 5
Duncan Robinson returns again in the Mermen jersey at number seven. When I love about this picture is how the rain in the background dances in the light in another capture by Larry Kave. In contrast, Duane Underwood’s number six card has him bathed in the sunlight in an old picture from when he was in the Arizona Fall League from USA Today. Larry Kave’s close up of Zack Short is special because the yellow lettering just pops on the card.
4 to 2
Even though he didn’t get to see a lot of action after being drafted, Rollie Lacy comes in at number four in a night shot from the Emeralds that blends in perfectly with the staggered background in a 1999 template. I just love the many shades of black in the card. At number three, Alex Lange gets bathed in the trees that really offset the action in the card in this warm up shot from the Emeralds. For number two, I just love this blue sky blending with the stadium lights of Eugene reliever Casey Ryan. It is a classic action shot of him warming up in between innings in. I think the blue sky and the stadium lights reflecting against his hair is magical.
2017 draft pick Chris Singleton has been through more in the last three years than anyone can imagine. His mother was killed in a church shooting in South Carolina. It didn’t stop Singleton from chasing his dream. When I look at this picture, I see a determined look in his face and how the world is just melting away behind him.
Starting later next week, spring-training shots should be floating around the Internet. I will take a few of those images and begin to make cards for spring training. It will have its own folder over on the Facebook page and I’ll have a post in early April for those cards. I’m really excited to see how much some of the players have changed over the winter and it’s always exciting to see them in a blue Cubs uniform in the Arizona sunlight.
By Todd Johnson
If you look at any Cubs prospect list of the past two months, most of the top 10 prospects are right-handed starting pitchers. It is the deepest part of the Cubs system and should begin producing arms for the majors in the next year or two. In both the 2016 and 2017 MLB Drafts, the Cubs targeted starting pitching, more specifically, starting college pitching. In addition, the Cubs mined the Mexican international free agent market which is producing quality arms who could be just a couple years away. Considering that most of the Cubs’ actual major league starting pitchers are signed through 2020, the Cubs still have time to get these prospects developed. They don’t have to be rushed.
There are 46 starting pitching slots in the Cubs minor league system. 34 of those 46 are right-handed. That is an overwhelming number. Here are last year’s top ranked right-handed starters.
11. Jake Stinnett
10. Preston Morrison
9. Erling Moreno
8. Bailey Clark
7. Ryan Williams
6. Zach Hedges
5. Jose Albertos
4. Thomas Hatch
3. Trevor Clifton
2. Oscar de la Cruz
1. Dylan Cease
What a difference a year made. Injuries, sub-par performances, late starts, trades, moving to reliever, rising prospects, and a host of other reasons derailed most of this list in 2017. Only Jose Albertos had a good year. Then again, Adbert Alzolay shot past almost everyone of them. Now, add in all the arms the Cubs took in the past two drafts and it is a quandry to pick only 12 for this list.
I have a feeling that if I ranked these arms every month of 2018, a dramatic fluctuation would occur monthly. Names like Jeremiah Estrada, Erich Uelmen, Keegan Thompson, Kyle Miller, Erling Moreno, Bailey Clark, Zach Hedges, and Erick Leal could make the decision process very difficult for me. I can hardly imagine how hard it is going to be just to pick 6 for the monthly all-star teams this year. Right now, there’s not a lot of differentiation of talent between them. It will have to be about performance this year for a pitcher to separate themselves from the pack..
12. Michael Rucker – He began 2017 as a reliever at South Bend and was dominating. He got promoted to Myrtle Beach and did the same. An injury to Oscar de la Cruz opened the door for Rucker to start and Michael never looked back. His ability to throw 2/3 of his pitches for strikes helps. I don’t know if he will stay a starter this year, but he looks to have a future regardless. AA will be a tough test for him.
11. Duncan Robinson – I really like this guy. He was in the bullpen in April for South Bend and staring in May. He finished the year at Myrtle Beach showing an impressive ability to adapt as he put up a 1.80 ERA in 4 August starts. At 6’6”, he has the frame to withstand the innings needed and intellectual intangibles needed to make it to Chicago. AA is going to tell just how good his curve, cutter, change, and fastball are. I would not be surprised to see him add a fifth pitch this offseason.
10. Javier Assad – After Adbert Alzolay, no pitcher improved as much as Assad did last year. He began the year a bit wild but was throwing mid 90s with control by the end of the year. His fastball quit tailing up and in and he was putting hitters away as he struck out 72 in 66 innings. He will be at South Bend in 2018. He needs to continue improving at each step. Outside of Albertos, he is the pitcher I look forward to the most at South Bend.
9. Cory Abbott – I love his makeup but I also was surprised at how big he is on the mound. He made 3-inning starts for Eugene last year and I was impressed with his work over just 14 innings. He whiffed 18 and his slider looks good. When he gets unleashed in 2018, he could be a breakout arm just a year after being drafted.
8. Trevor Clifton – 2017 was a tale of two halves. First half – All-Star. Second half, not so much. I thought for sure he was headed to Iowa in June after putting up a 2.84 ERA in 66 innings at Tennessee. If there is one thing I like about this kid it is that he will out work anyone. He will be back in 2018 and he will make adjustments. Not every path to the majors is a straight line. Sometimes, there’s a bump in the road. I remember a young arms several years ago who fans thought was washed up as a prospect after posting a 4+ ERA at AA. Sonny Gray turned out OK.
7. Duane Underwood – There were times last year that Duane Underwood of 2017 looked like Duane Underwood of 2014-2015. The velocity was there. From the middle of July to the end of August, he looked studly as he finished a season of 130+ innings healthy. As the year went on, his innings increased and his walks decreased. In fact, his was walk rate was cut in half from .475/inning in May to .27/inning in August. I am really looking forward to seeing him get back at it in 2018.
Don’t be surprised to see any of these arms become one of the top six quickly. I really like Assad and I like Bailey Clark, who did not make this list. Regardless of what their name is, the Cubs have a plethora of arms who are going to have to dominate to get themselves noticed in a crowded field.
I will be back next week with the top 6 (It will be on Thursday due to the Convention) and a list of arms to keep an eye on next summer.
By Todd Johnson
This week’s mailbag has just one question and it’s a doozy.
Shawn Cline: Is South Bend going to be stacked at pitcher next year?
By the time the 2018 minor league season begins, I could answer this question four or five different ways. There are a myriad of combinations of pitchers who could start at South Bend in 2018. Just off the top of my head, I counted 13 possible arms who could take the bump every sixth day. Not all of the 13 are going to start the year at South Bend. Some could find their way to Myrtle Beach to begin 2018.
So, Shawn, the simple answer to your question is yes.
The complicated answer would be that I have no idea which six will make the opening day roster.
The Cubs have targeted pitching in the last two drafts and the last two international free-agent signing periods, especially in the Mexican market. The dividends of those investments will begin to come to fruition at South Bend. In 2017, Duncan Robinson and Michael Rucker were the first wave of arms to breakout and both will be at AA Tennessee next year along with 2016 third round pick Thomas Hatch.
As for South Bend, here are 13 pitchers who could wind up in the rotation.
Alex Lange, Jose Albertos, Javier Assad, Jesus Camargo, Brendon Little, Cory Abbott, Erich Uelmen, Bailey Clark, Rollie Lacy, Keegan Thompson, Enrique de los Rios, Matt Swarmer, and Carson Sands.
The starting rotation for South Bend will be determined in spring training. Some of the arms could skip South Bend and wind up in Myrtle Beach to begin the year. Alex Lange and Jesus Camargo would be the two most likely selections based on their age and experience.
While having Albertos skip South Bend would be interesting, he is going to be just 19 years old next year and there’s no rush to move him up the system. He needs to refine his curve and basically get his work in. He needs to throw close to 100 innings after missing most of 2016. Whether he does that at South Bend or Myrtle Beach, I don’t care. But either way, it will be riveting.
The same is true for Javier Assad, who could be one arm at South Bend to really break out. I really like Assad a lot. Out of all the pitchers I watched at Eugene last summer, he improved the most in his arsenal and command. Now 20, he struck out 72 in 66 IP. He has a nice live mid 90s fastball and a good curve. If he commands his fastball down in the zone, he misses a lot of bats. He struck out 9 batters three times in short season ball where pitch limits are just 70-75 pitches. That is extremely impressive.
Top 2017 draft pick Brendon Little should be in South Bend most of the year as he works on his command and control.
While Albertos, Assad, and Camargo pitched well in full extended starts last year at Eugene, the one player who I am going to be fascinated with this year is the Cubs 2017 second round pick Cory Abbott. I was impressed with him last year as it pertained to his physical presence on the mound along with his actual talent and demeanor. He made five starts for Eugene, never throwing more than 3 innings and he exceeded 50 pitches only once.
While Little and Alex Lange got all the headlines from the draft, Abbott is an under the radar type who grew by leaps and bounds the last two years thanks in part to an uptick in his velocity and a slider that he modeled after Noah Syndergaard, his idol.
Fangraphs said the following about Abbott’s potential just last week:
Abbott has terrific glove-side control of his average slider and fastball, and can loop a 12-6 curveball into the zone for strikes. He’s not a great athlete but repeats his delivery well and could have plus command and control at peak. If he does — and he could move quickly — he’ll be a No. 4/5 starter.
Another possible breakout pitcher who did not get much time in Eugene in 2017 is Erich Uelmen. Uelmen was the Cubs fourth round pick out of Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. After his selection, he got in 17.2 innings of work with a 2.04 ERA and 23 Ks. He was just used in relief. Next year, his role could change.
Fangraphs’ Eric Longenhagen also liked him. Longenhagen said:
The club’s 2017 fourth-rounder out of Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo, Uelmen’s college stats are remarkable. He allowed just three home runs in 212 career innings at Cal Poly and struck out a batter per inning as a junior there, just as he did the prior summer on Cape Cod. He was up to 95 on the Cape but pitched more in the low 90s as a junior. His delivery is odd but effective. Uelmen is basically a side-armer, but has a shorter, quicker arm stroke than most of his low-slotted peers. It creates deception/extension which, along with his fastball’s significant arm-side movement, makes the fastball effective despite middling velocity. He also has an average slider, which he locates consistently to his glove side, and feel for creating movement on his changeup but not for locating it. There’s a chance Uelmen ends up with a starter’s repertoire and command. Ultimately, the very thing that has many skeptical about his chances of remaining a starter — his delivery — is precisely (because of its deception) what might allow him to be one.
Keegan Thompson out of Auburn is a third pitcher who I think will do extremely well at South Bend. He missed all of 2016 after undergoing Tommy John surgery and came back last year and was the Cubs third round pick. He pitched well in his debut in Eugene (mostly in relief) and he should come back stronger from the surgery than he did in 2017.
One of my own personal favorites from this list is Bailey Clark. Drafted out of Duke in 2016, Clark debuted that summer for Eugene but returned to school to finish his degree that fall. Due to finishing his degree and some nagging injuries and an inability to weight train, Clark came to camp late in the the spring. He pitched well in Eugene, especially in August where he had a 1.69 ERA in 3 starts. This offseason, Clark is injury free, improving his strength and his velocity should be back in the mid 90s when spring training rolls around. As a result, he could be either at South Bend or Myrtle Beach, depending on his camp.
So, here are my six to start the year for South Bend: Albertos, Assad, Little, Abbott, Thompson, and Clark or Uelmen. It’s still extremely hard to call this some 3 1/2 months away. However, I think Lange will go up and start at Myrtle Beach and Camargo and his plus changeup will be there, too.
I didn’t even get to the relievers in this post but here are three names to watch for out of the pen: Ricky Tyler Thomas, Jake Steffens, and Ben Hecht.
I am pretty geeked to see all of these guys throw next year. It should be very interesting to see who goes to what affiliate to begin the year and what their roles will be.
Next week’s mailbag will be just one question again. I will be comparing and contrasting the system now to 2011, just before Theo took over. That has brought back some ghosts.
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
It has to be tough to out hit your opponent and lose. But that’s what happened last night in Vancouver as the Canadians beat the Emeralds 2 to 1. Two costly errors in one inning lead to 2 unearned runs. The Canadians now lead the series 2 games to 1.
The Canadians’ Nate Pearson was a beast on the mound throwing 96-98 but the Ems still managed to score a first inning run thanks to Zach Davis who singled, stole second and third, and came home on a wild pitch. Eugene only managed three other hits the rest of the night.
Picture Cory Abbott was impressive in his short start. He went three innings and struck out three were only giving up one hit. Catcher Will Remillard threw out two base runners in one inning after Abbott walked each for the only threat up to that point. Ricky Taylor Thomas was excellent in relief striking out 3 in 2.1 IP.
Tonight’s game for begins at 9 central. Hopefully José Albertos will be on the mound to tie up the series.
By Todd Johnson
It is easy to get a sneak peek at pitchers that have recently been drafted. However, their roles are not really going to be laid out for another year or two. Adjustments will be made at instructs this fall and again in spring training. The pitchers they are now will not resemble the pitchers they are next year or the year after
The thing I like to remember is that they have already pitched a full season of baseball. Some, like Alex Lange, have already thrown over 120 innings. Then again, there are relievers who fit right in when it comes to workloads this season. Of the 19 pitchers signed via the 2017 draft, only four have been given an opportunity to start in some capacity. In addition, two of the arms selected and signed have not thrown a pitch in game action.
Here is an update on how the young pitchers are doing.
Alex Lange – The first round pick dominated in his two inning debut. While it was at Eugene, I felt that he should not be there much longer in that it really wasn’t a challenge for him. Hopefully, he can go up to South Bend and make it a start of two innings and the Cubs can reevaluate from there. I tend to think he’ll begin next year at Myrtle Beach with an outside shot of Tennessee. However, Tennessee might be too aggressive.
Rollie Lacy – He is pitching only in relief in Mesa and he hasn’t allowed a lot of baserunners with a WHIP of 0.66. As a 22-year-old, he should dominate rookie ball and he is. I think there is a pretty good chance he’s in northern Indiana to begin the year.
Ben Hecht – He has been a most impressive reliever as he has swing and miss stuff. At Eugene, he has pitched 6.1 innings and struck out an amazing 15 batters. With that kind of firepower, I think long term that he is a reliever with closer or setup potential.
Jake Steffens – To date he’s pitched up 10.2 innings and is look good doing so. He had one bad outing in his eight appearances and opponents are only hitting .108 against him. It’s pretty good for a 29th round pick.
Brendan King – He is just getting going and he is making short starts. Right now, his ERA is 1.59 and he’s struck out 13 and 11.1 innings while only giving up two earned runs. Depending on how he does this fall and next spring, I think he has an outside shot at making it to Indiana for the summer.
Erich Uelmen – He has only made three appearances. His first outing was a bit rough, but his second saw him strikeout five in two innings. He is currently at Eugene and I expect him to be in South Bend starting in 2018.
Mitch Stophel – Currently, he is in rookie ball in Mesa. He has pitched nine innings in a relief it is struck out 13. He walked five, but for a 25 round pick, I’m not gonna complain. He could be in South Bend next year.
Cory Abbott – He debuted Monday night. He flashed a four pitch mix and struck out three in two innings but did give up a homer, his only hit. His fastball sat in the low 90s topping out at 93.
Depends on the Day
Kegan Thompson – After missing all of 2016, I was surprised the Cubs let him pitch after he threw 98 innings for Auburn this spring. He’s being used in relief and he has only made two appearances so far. I see him starting next summer in the rotation for South Bend.
Brian Glowicki – The closer from the University of Minnesota has had some ups and downs in that role for the Emeralds. He has shown the ability to miss bats and I think he will get better as the season goes on.
Casey Ryan – Take away one outing where he gave up four runs in 1/3 of an inning, and he’s been really good. He is a reliever in a starter’s body.
Jeffrey Passantino – I am not sure what his role is going to be. In Mesa, he hass been relieving. I don’t know if they’re going to try and turn him into a starter as a pro or leave him in the bullpen with his bulldog mentality. I guess we’ll find out next year.
Brendon Little – He has been lit up in his two outings. After only pitching four innings in college plus the cape cod league in 2016, he threw 80+ innings this year. I thought we might see him out of the pen to begin with, but he is taking the bump to begin the game twice. I would not be too alarmed that his performance so far. You still have to remember he’s only 20 years old and has been basically shut down for two months.
Sean Barry – He’s only made three appearances so far in Mesa. All were in relief. I don’t have a good read on him yet.
Peyton Remy – He made his first appearance on Sunday night when he threw a scoreless one third of an inning.
Crickets…They have not pitched yet and might not.
Jeremy Estrada – He has not been rostered yet. I think Estrada will more than likely be in Mesa at worst and Eugene at best.
Brady Miller – No roster has been assigned for Miller yet, either.
Braxton Light – He has been assigned to Arizona but has yet to see any action.
19 arms is a lot about pitching to accommodate in an organization at one time. We will know more next year at this time than we do now about these arms. I think this summer’s performances have kind of given us a sneak peek and there’s a lot to be encouraged by past month, and even the last week. And I think once the starters are stretched out next year, it will be even more impressive. With a lot of the young arms at Eugene and South Bend, this collection of arms will create quite the competition for spots next spring. So far, I find their performances encouraging for the organization.
The Cubs second round selection of Cory Abbott was a bit of a surprise. The 6’2″ right-hander is best known for throwing a perfect game this year against BYU. By adding a slider this year, his pitching took off. He threw 98.1 IP and struck out 130 with a 1.58 ERA. Opponents only batted .178 against him. He only walked 25.
Cory Abbott – Loyola Marymount
6’2″ and 215 Pounds
Low 90s fastball
Upper 80s slider
Areas of Concern
A third and/or fourth pitch
I think he is really going to blossom from professional coaching. I don’t know if the Cubs project him as a starter or reliever yet. He should pitch some this year at Eugene, but not much after logging a full college season. Some may see him as a bit of a stretch. He was ranked #149 on Baseball America’s Top 500 but was taken at #67.
I will be back tomorrow at noon central with one long post about picks 3-10. Just keep clicking refresh.