By Todd Johnson
In compiling the stats and possible prospects who might make the First Half All-Star Team, I started with a spreadsheet to get a head start. The 20 something players who made the list did not change much, but who would become the hitter and pitcher of the first half changed from week to week. The reliever of the first half was pretty much set in stone since the first month of the season.
It’s been interesting to watch players shoot up, down, or stay steady throughout the past 2.5 months. Still, it came down to the weekend to see who would make the team when it came to starting pitching (I had 12 at one point and it didn’t end up too far from that).
The biggest surprise the past two weeks has been the surge of Jhonny Bethencourt. Bethencourt is a 21-year-old infielder who plays 3B, SS, and 2B for South Bend. He can definitely handle a stick. He’s hitting almost .350 in June alone to bring his average up to .280. His issue, though, is his defense. He tends to rush plays with his arm. He can get to and field the grounder, it’s just the quality of his throws. However, as long as he hits, he is going to play somewhere.
I really like Jared Young and have been on the “Jared Young Train” since before he began to take off last August. His approach is too good. Not only can he hit for average, he can hit for power. Most teams in the Midwest League already employ a shift against him every night and it is not stopping him from going off. He is the hitter of the first half. I am ready for him to add 10-15 pounds of muscle this winter to add even more power to his game. He cranked out 8 HRs and lead the system in RBI this spring and also lead with a wRC+ of 146 while hitting .302.
Pitcher Matt Swarmer has been pretty steady. He’s had a couple of tough starts, but that is it. The lean and lanky starter already got promoted to Tennessee after being named the April Pitcher of the Month with a 1.72 ERA and 26 Ks in 20.2 IP. In May, he had a 2.92 ERA. In his first start at Tennessee, he got touched, but in his second start, he was scoreless through 3 before the rains came and delayed the game. For the first half, between the two levels, the pitcher of the first half put up a 2.47 ERA and had 65 Ks in 59.1 IP with a WHIP of 0.95.
Dakota Mekkes is the reliever of the first half. He had a 0.98 ERA between Iowa and Tennessee along with 36 Ks in 26.2 IP. His only issue is walks. He’s given out 15 free passes this year, but only 3 in Iowa (5+ BBs/9). Expect to see him in Chicago shortly.
Without further adieu, here is Cub Central’s First Half All-Star team.
The Weekly: Two Affiliates in the Playoff Hunt, Promotion Debuts, Theo and I Speak on the Radio…Separately
By Todd Johnson
Around the System This Week
Iowa – 2-4 (23-37)
Tennessee – 3-5 (31-31)
Myrtle Beach – 6-0 (32-29)
South Bend – 6-1 (31-30)
DSL 1 – 3-3 (4-3)
DSL 2 – 0-6 (1-6)
For the better part of the first half, only Tennessee had a winning record among the Cubs affiliates. Both Myrtle Beach and Iowa got off to horrible starts while South Bend was extremely inconsistent from series to series. Now that things have warmed up quite a bit, the system is seeing some outstanding pitching on a nightly basis. There are a few hitters who are starting to heat up, but it’s been impressive to watch the starting rotations go out at night after night across the system. At the end of this week, two out of the four major affiliates were above .500.
There is just one week left to the first half of the 2018 The fact that the Pelicans are in contention is a testament to manager Buddy Bailey and to the hard work of the team. They sit just 2.5 games back with 8 to go including 3 against first place Winston-Salem.
The Smokies sit just three behind Chattanooga.
Outside of the Draft, the big story of the week was the combined no-hitter for Rollie Lacy and Ben Hecht of South Bend. Lacy went 7 IP on Wednesday with 6 Ks against Lake County and Hecht finished them in 2 innings with 2 strike outs. What I loved most about the night was that Lacy’s curve was just so dominating and the defense made a couple nice plays behind him.
This week also saw the pitching debuts of several prospects at their new affiliates. Cory Abbott went six innings at Myrtle Beach and gave up two runs while striking out 8. Matt Swarmer had a tougher time at Tennessee. He only managed four innings while giving up three earned runs and striking out three.
At AAA Iowa, Dakota Mekkes threw a scoreless inning hitting 95 on the gun in his debut earlier in the week. Last night, he got in some more work. He went 1.2 IP with 4 Ks, but was removed with the bases loaded and two innings. He was not charged with a run. Trevor Clinton made his AAA debut. He got through it. He went just 4 and allowed 2 runs with 3 Ks, but used 85 pitches to get it done. Now that the butterflies are out of the way, his next start should be better.
Short Season Leagues to Begin Friday
On Friday night the 15th, three more Cub affiliates join the fray when Eugene and the two Mesa teams begin play. Hopefully, they’ll be a lot of draft picks in tow. At some point during the week, Eugene will release its roster and I will do an official preview of the team.
Me and Theo On the Air
In other news, Theo Epstein and I spoke on the radio this week, although not to each other. He spoke to 670 the Score about current state of the Cubs, Jason Heyward, Yu Darvish, and other assorted sundries.
I was on the Kent Sterling Radio Show in Indianapolis (1430 AM) subbing for Evan Altman in his weekly radio spot. I talked with Kent about my love for baseball cards, the draft, and Tyler Chatwood.
I also appeared on fellow Cubs Insider Sean Holland’s Holy Cow podcast this week to talk about the draft at length. We also touched on the current state of the minors, the draft, and presidential scandals. Hopefully, that link will be released shortly. I will send it out on Twitter when Sean releases it.
Draft Signings Update
It’s only been a few days since the draft ended, but it looks like the Cubs are going to get a pretty good haul this year. When Theo first took the over, they signed a little over 20 that first year and that has been creeping up the twenties ever since. In 2016, they signed 25 and last year they signed 29. This year, it’s looking like they’re going to sign between 30 and 33 players. Most of the high school kids in the 30s are not gonna sign but it looks like almost everyone else will.
And some of the draft picks are playing in the College World Series this weekend. Here’s how they did yesterday.
Pitcher Ethan Roberts from Tennessee Tech – 4 IP, 1 runs, 4 Ks
SS Levi Jordan from Washington – 0-4
C Hunter Taylor out of South Carolina – 1-4, 1 RBI
CF Jimmy Herron who plays for Duke – 1-3, BB, 2 runs
Coming Up Next Week
Both Myrtle Beach and Tennessee will be the majority of this week’s coverage as they chase down a playoff spot. I do have a Duane Underwood update ready to go. That should be out on Monday. Later this week I will take a look at the Mesa and Eugene rosters before they begin their season on Friday. They should be very interesting to see which of the young international kids make which team.
Other Stuff I Wrote This Week
Players of the Week
Card of the Week
By Todd Johnson
Over the past two weeks, I wrote about the draft so much that I was a little burned out, even on the word. So what do I do on my first off day from writing in a while? That’s right, I go on the radio and talk about it. And tonight, I am talking with Sean Holland of Cubs Insider and Cubs Den on his podcast about it even more. Then….I am done. I swear!
So, today I wanted to write some random things down as June is usually a month of change in baseball in the majors and minors. Without anymore babbling, here are six things that have been coursing through my brain the past few days.
1. I originally wanted to do a full-fledged profile about Vimael Machin. Machin is currently killing it since his promotion to AA Tennessee. In 18 games for the Smokies, the somewhat organizational journeyman is hitting .375 with OBP near .500 in 19 games. Machin, drafted in 2015 from VCU after a messianic CWS run, has bounced around the system the past three years. His identity as a prospect vs. a journeyman was questioned as he moved around freely playing everywhere from Eugene to Iowa. He finally got a steady gig at South Bend in the spring of 2017 and hit .320 in the first half. Machin was then promoted to Myrtle Beach shortly after the All-Star Break. At Myrtle Beach, his walk rate was astounding in spite of his bat. Now at AA, Machin’s bat has returned and he is still walking more than he strikes out, a trait the Cubs covet. Keep an eye on Vimael the rest of this month. He’s looking like a future utility piece as he can play all four infield positions.
2. Promotions – When the 25-30 players from the “you-know-what” sign, several players will be moving to make room. A few pitchers already have gone up a level along with Machin. Next should be Jared Young from South Bend. He’s killing it right now. Over his last 10, he’s hitting .343 with 3 HRs and 10 RBI. For the year, he’s at .291. The problem is the promotions for position players will be scarce as the system is a little log jammed, especially at Catcher.
3. International Free Agency (IFA) – The Cubs are considered to be the favorites to sign pitcher Richard Gallardo, ranked as the #5 international player by MLB Pipeline. The Cubs should be able to sign some pretty good talent this year after two years of penalties. Now, a hard cap is in place for all teams. However, teams can trade bonus pool money. It would not surprise me to see the Cubs trade some prospects for some IFA money. If they do, the Cubs could easily outdo their talent haul from this week’s “event I refuse to call by its name.”
4. The Bullpen/Starter Conundrum in Chicago – While watching the game yesterday, I saw Joe Maddon trot out Cishek, Duensing, Wilson, Strop, and Morrow (not in that order) to seal the victory. It’s a scene I’ve witnessed far too often this year. A starter doesn’t make out of the fifth or into the sixth and the bullpen is used for the rest of the game. If this continues, there will be no bullpen left. I checked how many games these guys already pitched in and everyone was over 25 with 103 left. At the rate they are going, the five aforementioned guys will make between 70-75 appearances in the regular season. They will be gassed for the postseason. The starters have to go longer so the bullpen can pitch less.
As for help, Dillon Maples has been much better of late the past three weeks. He has not allowed a run over his last six games. Also, now that Dakota Mekkes is just a phone call away, expect that call to come to Chicago sometime later this summer.
5. The Art of a Deal – The Cubs, more than likely, are not going to be making a big deal this summer unless it’s for a bullpen arm or a bench player. There’s not going to be a big name guy coming to town. I just don’t see Theo giving up what’s left of the system this year. This is pretty much the team as it is. Help, if needed, is more than likely to come from Iowa.
6. Ryan Williams – He is getting very close to returning to playing in a game that matters. Yesterday, he threw 67 pitches in extended spring training. He’s one of my favorite Cubs to watch pitch. He’s such a bulldog out there. Still, he’s missed the past two plus years with shoulder issues. I was wondering if he was ever going to return. He’s not quite ready, but we could see him rehabbing up through the system in July. That would be a great sight to see.
I will be back tomorrow with a preview of Trevor Clifton’s AAA debut. On Sunday, “The Weekly” looks ahead at Theo’s latest interview and the last week of the first half of the MiLB season. And a peak at the Eugene and Mesa rosters is coming next week as they begin play a week from today.
By Todd Johnson
One good month does not a promotion make. Two months, … maybe.
So far, there has not been a lot of movement up and down in the Cubs’ system this year. However, Bailey Clark moving from South Bend to Myrtle Beach was one of domination at South Bend. But most other promotions that took place were related to injury.
In the next few weeks, there will be a lot of movement as the MLB Draft takes place and 20+ new Cubs begin their careers. In addition, the first half will come to a close. I don’t expect a lot of movement when it comes to hitters, but there should be plenty of pitching movement – especially when it comes to relievers. In addition, there could even be a few players released at the higher levels.
Look for the following players to get bumped up a level fairly soon.
Tennessee to Iowa
Dakota Mekkes has been impressive since the beginning of the 2017 season. He has dominated three levels in the last 14 months. And the only reason to keep him in Tennessee would be to work on his walks. In 17.1 innings, he has walked 12. However, in the past, that hasn’t stopped the Cubs from promoting Carl Edwards, Pierce Johnson, and Dillon Maples. Mekkes is ready for the next level and could be in Chicago fairly quickly this summer if needed.
Thomas Hatch has looked much better this year. He looks pretty comfortable on the mound and with what he’s throwing. What I like most is that he is gone deep in the games this year And with solid results as he’s posted a 3.06 ERA in 9 starts. His WHIP might be a little high, but I like his ability to get out of jams. He’s also pitched 89 pitches or more in 5 of his last 6 starts. That’s big fo him as the Cubs kept him on a short leash and a 5 inning limit in 2017. He gets bumped around every once in a while, but when you start breaking down his starts, he looks to be fairly consistent. He’s more of a candidate to go at the All-Star break then he is in the first week in June.
Myrtle Beach to Tennessee
Tyler Peyton has been an eye-opener for some at Myrtle Beach. I saw this coming last summer at South Bend as he was pretty dominant the last six weeks of the season. Part of me hopes he would get a chance to start, but as a reliever he is throwing 96 mph consistently out of the pen. Add in a killer ERA of 1.29, and he should find his way to Tennessee shortly after Dakota Mekkes heads to Iowa.
South Bend to Myrtle Beach
2017 second round pick Cory Abbott is missing a lot of bats in the Midwest league, 44 Ks in 36.1 IP. He should be on the first plane to South Carolina fairly quickly at the rate he is going. His slider and fastball command are just wiping out hitters as he has posted a 2.72 ERA in 7 starts. His WHIP is 1.06 and opponents are hitting only .206 against him.
On the Edge
The main problem in promoting prospects is that there is nowhere to go for many of them. For the following list of prospects, they still need some more time to simmer in their respective affiliates before being promoted. While they may not be promoted in the next two weeks, look for their names to be bumped up in late June at the end of the first half.
Tennessee: Zack Short, Charcer Burks, and Jeffrey Baez – All three would need a place to play. Right now, there are no spots in Iowa.
Myrtle Beach: Jhonny Pereda, Wyatt Short, Casey Bloomquist, Bailey Clark, Connor Myers, and Tyler Alamo – Bloomquist has been a nice surprise out of the pen this year, along with Short, while Alamo and Pereda are part of the logjam at first and catcher in the system. Bailey Clark has been a stud throwing between 95-97. He had a couple of adjustments to make at high A but looks to have righted the ship. If Baez and Burks go to Iowa, look for Connor Myers to head west to Tennessee.
South Bend: Tyler Thomas, Javier Assad, Rollie Lacy, and Austin Filiere – All four have shown flashes of potential and have put together some impressive performances along with some befuddling ones. The pitchers probably move before Filiere does.
It will be interesting to see how this shakes down in a couple of weeks both before and after the draft.
By Todd Johnson
Happy Mother’s Day!
It was a good week across the entire organization. The big league club looks like it’s beginning to put things together at the plate. Meanwhile, in the minor leagues, pitching dominated the week as three of the four affiliates had winning weeks.
It was a full week of games so several starters got in two starts. Duane Underwood dazzled in both starts. It seemed like every day someone was going six innings with several strikeouts. As a result, picking the pitcher of the week was a very hard choice.
The big news of the week came in South Bend in three parts.
1. Top 10 prospect Nelson Velazquez popped up in South Bend and immediately flashed his five tools. It is going to be a bit of adjustment for him as he probably has never seen the types of curveballs and offspeed stuff he is going to see in the Midwest League.
2. Pitcher Rollie Lacy made his first start of the year this week after dominating in the bullpen for five weeks. In fact, he made two starts. I really like watching him work as he just seems to pound the zone and keeps hitters off their toes by changing speeds. And he also misses a lot of bats (31 in 27.1 IP).
3. No sooner than I posted an article about Brendon Little did he have his best start of the year. He came out Friday night and just attacked, attacked, and attacked. While he did walk four, he struck out five as the Clinton hitters were stymied by his curve. Little only gave up two hits and looked very impressive doing so. As a result, I am excited to see how he does on Wednesday or Thursday next week – which should be his next start.
This Week’s Records
Iowa 5-2 (11-23)
Tennessee 5-2 (19-16)
Myrtle Beach 2-5 (14-22)
South Bend 4-3 (14-18)
It is also hard to believe that the first half of the MiLB first half is now over on Tuesday the 15th. The minor league season goes by very, very quickly and we should start to see a few pitching promotions soon. I don’t expect anything major, and by major I mean a starting pitcher. It will probably be a reliever.
Dakota Mekkes is the one to watch for and the one that could impact the big league club the most. He’s just dominated the Southern League in six weeks. I don’t know what else he has left to prove. Yes, he could cut down on his walks but he can work on that at Iowa while getting that much closer to Chicago.
I don’t see a lot of player movement happening on the hitting side.
Extended Spring Training
Cuban pitcher Raidel Orta, 22, is starting to get some more action. A little under the radar signing, he might be a bit of a break out prospect in the second half. I have yet to see him pitch, but I am looking forward to hopefully seeing him in Eugene with that talented roster. He comes in at 5’9″ and 180 lbs. Meanwhile, third baseman Christopher Morel keeps hitting dingers and shortstops Luis Diaz and Luis Vasquez keep impressing Arizona Phil in the daily updates at The Cub Reporter. Another name to keep in mind is catcher Jonathan Soto who seems to be coming up big at the most important times. Another name who could be interesting this summer is Kevn Moreno, a 3B from Cuba who sounds like he could stick in Mesa at 17-years-old.
Mock Drafts Coming In
Both Baseball America and MLB Pipeline released full first round mock drafts in the past two weeks. BA had the Cubs taking a HS catcher from Georgia while MLB Pipeline had the Cubs going with Kumar Rocker, an elite athlete and quality HS pitcher. Here is what Jim Callis said of Rocker:
Chicago has pounded college pitching in each of the last two Drafts and still could use more arms, though this time the prep route might be more attractive in the first round. A hamstring injury has slowed Rocker down the stretch, giving the Cubs an unexpected shot at a guy who can bring mid-90s heat and a wipeout slider at his best. Rodriguez and Wilcox are two more comparable options.
While Rocker would be a good selection, the Cubs are most likely to pound college bats with their first four to five picks. In positions slotted behind Rocker were some appealing college bats like Seth Beer and Steele Walker, and Prep bat Connor Scott.
What’s Ahead Next Week at Cubs Central?
On Monday, I will be examining the draft classes of the past few years and re-grading them. I don’t really have much else planned for the week other than to keep an eye on Velazquez transitioning to South Bend.
Players of the Week
Things I Wrote for Other Sites
April Wrap Up
Dakota Mekkes – Photo courtesy of the Tennessee Smokies
By Todd Johnson
Last winter, I thought that catcher might be the most dominant position that the Cubs had in their minor league system. When it comes time to reassess the system this fall, I might be persuaded to change my mind based on the work of this year’s relief corps; 3 of whom could find their way to Chicago this year, if needed.
1. Dillon Maples might be the reliever that most Cub fans know about in the minor-league system. He got off to a bit of a rough start this year at AAA Iowa but has been pitching well since the second week of the season. His K rate is astronomical at over 20 per nine innings. Still, when the time has came to bring up a pitcher to Chicago, Maples has been bypassed five times already as he continues to try to cut down on his walks. He’s walked 6 in 10 appearances. At some point this year, he’s going to get another crack at the majors.
2. Randy Rosario – What I liked about the Rosario signing this winter was that he was young, 23, had some MLB experience, and was a left-hander. The Cubs have kept him down at AAA Iowa, and, over the past six weeks, he has yet to allow run. He is also missing some bats as he’s struck out 10 in 15 innings and his batting average against is a minuscule .173.
3. Dakota Mekkes – If there was any prospect that could skip AAA and go to the majors from AA, it would be Mekkes – although I doubt that happens. However, Dakota has just been dominating AA. And like Myrtle Beach last year, Mekkes has not allowed a run in his 13.1 innings in 10 games. That include Includes Tuesday night’s extra innings save where he began the inning with a man on second base. His walk rate is a little better this year, but, like Maples, Mekkes still has room to improve. But to be frank, I don’t think there’s much left for him to do at AA. He should be in Des Moines and soon.
4. Jhon Romero – As the season goes on, Romero’s two pitch mix, a 93 to 95 mile an hour fastball and a sharp breaking curve, seem to be improving in Myrtle Beach. When I first saw him at South Bend last year, I wondered what he was doing there as he baffled Midwest League hitters. What I like about Romero is that he gets some ugly swings as batters just can’t time him up, especially on the curve ball. I don’t think he’s long for Myrtle Beach either.
5. Bailey Clark has already been promoted once, and at the rate he’s going in Myrtle Beach, he’s not gonna be there long either. Last year, Maples went from Myrtle Beach to the majors. I think Clark could come close to moving three levels this year. But first, he’s got to continue what he’s doing well. He’s using a mid 90s to upper 90s fastball in combination with a hard biting slider that he’s able to command. Right now, between the two levels this year, he has a 1.17 ERA with 28 Ks in 23 IP. The big stat no one is talking about is he is averaging almost 5 ground outs for every fly ball/pop up – an astonishing rate. If he can continue to do that, he should be in Tennessee by mid June. However, the key will be to take it one level at a time.
6. Tyler Peyton – I really liked and enjoyed the progress I saw in him last summer in a relief role in South Bend as he was one of the best relievers in the system in August with a 1.29 ERA. He’s doing pretty much the same thing this year at Myrtle Beach and he’s even moved into the closer role a few times. I don’t know if he’s going to move up this year, but I like what I’m seeing as he continues to flash a 93 to 95 mile an hour fastball with a nice curve and change.
I’m not really surprised these guys above are doing well. I am surprised that they are so dominant to begin the season. As it warms up, things could change a little bit over the next 4 to 6 weeks, but I think their ability to throw strikes is paramount to their success.
I would also have included Rollie Lacy of South Bend on this list. However, he now has a rotation spot in South Bend replacing Jose Albertos. Still, I don’t know if Lacy will do that permanently or for the time being.
Brendan King has only just begun to pitch at South Bend. King pitched well as a starter last year for Mesa. The 2017 draft pick out of Holy Cross has done very well in relief at South Bend. I don’t know if he’s going to get a chance to start, but I would be interested to see how he would do in that role, too. He usually is the upper 80s with his fastball to go along with a curve that he control and throw at will. With his command and a plus curve, he should do well at this level and high A.
There could be other relievers who will pop in the next month from the bullpen. One never knows who is coming and when.
By Todd Johnson
Come next Tuesday, I will release my first monthly MiLB All-Star Team. This April was a little hard to judge due to the many rainouts (which are still happening), the cold (which is hopefully gone for good), and the snow (see the cold). It looks like most Cub affiliates will get in between 20 and 22 games for the month. That does not seem like a lot. Well, it is not.
There are some interesting trends taking place at the plate and the mound. Some players are off to great starts while some other well-known names are struggling, some mightily. Here is this month’s monthly stock watch.
I don’t think any these guys are going to break into a prospect list right now. Zagunis is the only one listed on mine, but I think Jared Young might make the Top 21 List by the end of the summer. The problem for Young, though, is that he is currently on the DL after a good start hitting .406 in South Bend. Jeffrey Baez and Trey Martin are repeating AA but they are currently dominating in all facets of the game. Baez, who has always been a streaky hitter with 5 tool potential, has 3 HRs and is closing in on .400. Martin, meanwhile, looks like a veteran bat who is improving his lot in the system. He has 2 gold gloves to his credit, but this year is all about his bat which is currently in the mid .300s.
That fact that there are so few hitters gives you a clear indication of the lack of elite hitting in the system. However, come June, that will all change via the draft and 5 short-season rookie league and class A teams begin play.
Stock Going Up: Pitchers
Rob Zastryzny, Randy Rosario, Thomas Hatch, Dakota Mekkes, Matt Swarmer, Tyler Peyton, Wyatt Short, Jhon Romero, Brian Glowicki, Ben Hecht, Cory Abbott, Rollie Lacy, Bailey Clark, Javier Assad, and Tyler Thomas
To be honest, I have never been very high on Rob Zastryzny until he started using a cutter and his career took off in 2016. Last year, he had a bunch of nagging little injuries. Now healthy, he’s been pretty dominant out of the bullpen this spring in Iowa. 8.2 IP, 0 runs allowed. If Dakota Mekkes of Tennessee cuts his walk rate in half, he is likely the first guy to be promoted because he’s not giving up hits or runs. Swarmer has been the most surprising prospect. In three starts, he has a 1.72 ERA. He can locate his fastball and his curve is a little tighter this year and has that classic 12-6 break. Hitters have trouble timing him up. With an over the top delivery and a freakishly high leg kick, there’s a lot going on in his delivery to distract even the best hitters.
The South Bend pitchers have been pretty impressive – Javier Assad especially. He did not have good stuff to start the day last Saturday. He made what he had work for a couple of innings and until got into a groove. He stranded seven in the first three innings. It was a master class in getting out of a jam you put yourself into.
In addition, Tyler Thomas will be one to watch in May. His 0.60 ERA over 3 starts leads all Cubs’ starters. Piggyback starters Bailey Clark and Rollie Lacy have been near dominant in their 7 opportunities.
Hatch and Mekkes are the only pitchers listed from above that are on my Top 21 List. Assad could easily break on to a list this summer. I really like his FB and curve combo.
It is still a little early to start moving prospects around lists just based on a 20+ game set. However, that set gives a good indication of who is playing well to start the year and who is carrying over from the end of last year – a more interesting trend to me. The May Watch List might be more interesting because that will list will have a 40 game set of qualitative and quantitative data to evaluate.
Still, this list is a start to check out the talent in the system for 2018.