By Todd Johnson
There are now exactly two weeks to go in Spring Training. Basically two roster spots remain open. The backup catcher spot is a competition between Chris Gimenez, who looks to have the advantage of having been a backup before, and Victor Caratini, whose bat and experience in the organization will make it tough to pick just one. But when it comes to the final reliever spot, all bets are still off.
In the big scheme of things, the bullpen on March 29th is not going to be as important as the bullpen six months later on October 1. Between injuries, performance, promotions, and trades, a lot can go down (or up) underneath the bleachers and on the mound.
Over the past week, the Cubs whittled down their roster some. Several non-roster invitees were sent back to Iowa and Tennessee and others, like Rob Zastryzny, were optioned to Iowa.
Who Is Definitely In?
Brandon Morrow, Steve Cishek, Carl Edwards, Brian Duensing, Pedro Strop, Mike Montgomery, and Justin Wilson.
Who Is Still Left?
Out of those six names, one will break camp and head to Miami. It is not going to be Dillon Maples no matter how badly I want him to make the club. He still has some work to do. Justin Grimm, meanwhile, is not looking too promising either. His contract is not guaranteed this year after losing his arbitration case. Hancock is throwing very well but a 40 man roster spot would have to made for him and the same would be true if Bass or Ryan made the club.
That leaves Eddie Butler. Currently, the righthander is out of options. He either makes the club or the Cubs risk losing him on a waiver claim. He’s had a good spring and the benefit of having him in the pen for the spring months is that he, along with Montgomery, could eat up some innings as long men.
Today, Butler would be my pick to make it. That could all change in a week.
However, the tenor of spring training games changes greatly in the next week as the starting pitcher go deeper into games and the hitters get 4-5 at-bats. Whoever comes in to relieve will be facing mostly major league hitters rather than a mish-mash of talent. The Cubs will get a better look at the bullpen and what these arms can do in that time frame.
Later in the Year
The Cubs have two arms in the minors who could remake the pen. One is Adbert Alzolay, who already has a wicked fastball in the mid 90s that could bump up some more in short stints. He should start the year at Tennessee.
Another arm who could be available later this year is Dakota Mekkes. The 6’7” righty has a deceptive delivery that turns a 93 mph into a 97 mph one with his long stride. He dominated at both South Bend and Myrtle Beach. He could do that as well again in 2018.
Regardless of the opening day bullpen, Theo and Jed are going to put together the best pen they can come the end of August. More than likely, that last spot will be fluid and malleable throughout this spring and even more so this summer.
By Todd Johnson
Out of all the positions in the breakdown series, relief pitcher is the most unpredictable. I don’t think anyone foresaw the phoenix-like ascendance of Dillon Maples last year to go from class A all the way to Chicago. One pitch can sometimes be the difference.
I went back-and-forth on how to organize this breakdown. First I was going to rank what I thought were the top 5 arms and then list of some potential breakouts. Then, I thought I had a great idea of putting them in categories until I thought about it some more. Then I went back to rankings. But after sifting through each affiliate, I began to wonder out loud how much more time the Cubs are going to give some of these relievers a chance to be a Cub. As a result, I wound up with four categories.
Kind of a Big Deal
1. Dillon Maples – Armed with upper 90s stuff and a devastating slider, he is technically not going to be a prospect very much longer. 2017 saw him harness his physical and mental skills to perfection at Myrtle Beach, Tennessee, Iowa, and Chicago. He does have closer type stuff but will probably be treated with kid gloves his first full year in Chicago.
2. Dakota Mekkes – The 6’7″ reliever from Michigan State dominated two leagues in 2017. For 2017, he put up an ERA under one and struck out 92 hitters in 73.1 innings. His deceptive delivery makes a 91 to 93 mile an hour fastball seem more like 96 to 98. The ball just sneaks up and creates a rushed decision. It should be exciting to watch him go at it in AA Tennessee this year. If he can cut down on his walks, the big league club could be calling very soon.
3. Jake Stinnett – After missing four months at AA Tennessee, Stinnett returned late in the season in a relief role and appeared to be reborn as a pitcher. He then went to the Arizona Fall League and did very well against elite competition. He always struggled as a starter in his previous three seasons as a prospect. Coming out of the bullpen, I think his stuff plays up a little bit better as most of his pitches have some sort of wiffle ball type movement to them. Along with Mekkes, he is going to be an interesting prospect and test case to see how the Cubs deal with just what his role is going to be.
4. Corey Black – Something Jaron Madison said at the Cubs convention has stayed with me for the past two weeks. In talking about Corey, Madison mentioned an “emotional maturity” that seems to bode well for Corey’s future. Now at 26 years of age, Black should be on the precipice of making it to the majors as Madison spoke very highly of Black’s potential and Madison was high on Corey’s 4+ MLB type pitches. If that’s the case, Black could be a guy. Sometimes an injury can turn your career around for the better.
Been over a year since I’ve stepped on a mound but boy let me tell you that’s the most comfortable I’ve felt on the mound in a very long time.
— Corey Black (@CblackCHC) January 23, 2018
Who the Hell Is This Guy?
Jhon Romero flew under the radar in the second half of 2017. He began his season in June at Eugene and ended up in South Bend. After Maples and Mekkes, Romero was this relief pitcher I enjoyed watching the most in August. He can throw 93 to 95 and has a beautiful tight breaking ball that just devastated hitters. He struck out 53 hitters in 41 innings and opponents only hit .109 against him. He should be at Myrtle Beach to begin the year.
How much longer?
James Pugliese, Daury Torrez, Ryan McNeil, Tommy Nance, Jordan Minch, Tommy Thorpe, Kyle Miller, Craig Brooks, Scott Effross, and David Garner
What we have here are several relievers who have been in the organization for at least three years, some of them going on six years. Out of this bunch, Tommy Nance has the best stuff. He throws a hard ball in the mid 90s and breaks a lot of bats. Hopefully, he can return healthy in 2018. Two players who came on strong at some point last year were Scott Effross and David Garner. Effross will be at AA and Garner will be in AAA, along with a spring training invite.
Breakout Relievers for 2018
Jake Steffens, Ricky Tyler Thomas, and Ben Hecht all were outstanding for Eugene last summer coming out of the pen. All three were also draft picks from last year. Steffens is pretty good sized guy with a natural sinking fastball while Hecht was a strikeout machine for the Emeralds. To me, Thomas has the potential and pitches (plus changeup) to be a starter, just unsure about his frame. He might get a shot to stretch it out this year. For these three arms, pitching in the Northwest League is a different animal than the Midwest League. It is usually a pretty good barometer or a pitcher’s acumen.
If I was to pick one more arm, I would go with Ivan Medina who was Mesa’s closer. I am sure there will be an arm that does really well that I did not foresee. There always is.
By Todd Johnson
I am thinking I had this list done about three weeks ago. I wanted to put it out almost immediately after the minor league season ended. After thinking about it, I thought I would just let it settle and edit it before I put it out. To be honest, it has changed much from when I wrote it to today. In fact, I was reconsidering re-ordering 5-9 all night.
There are really only two major changes in this list from the summer. They are the inclusion of outfielders Jonathan Sierra and Nelson Velazquez. In fact, I had Velasquez shoot all the way into the top 10. The Cubs don’t have anybody like him in the system with his home run power and production.
I still think this list is pretty volatile. After the Arizona Fall League, I will think about mixing it up a bit. But with who is going to Arizona, I think only one prospect might improve their lot on the list.
The list could change quite a bit later this off-season as trades are made and injuries are revealed. I think the biggest risers and fallers next year will be at AA Tennessee. The Smokies will have pitchers Thomas Hatch, Trevor Clifton, Oscar de la Cruz, Duncan Robinson, Michael Rucker and position players Zack Short and Eddy Martinez. Those seven will determine how the rest of the list looks because production at AA signals that the product could be productive in Chicago.
South Bend’s rotation next year will also have a huge impact on the list as recent draft picks will be unleashed without any restrictions. Cory Abbott and Keegan Thompson are two pitchers who could make some waves in 2018 with some excellent performances next summer.
So, without further adieu, here is the current Top 21 list in video form.
By Todd Johnson
Originally, I did not plan on putting together a second half all star team. However, after looking at some of the performances of several prospects over the last 2 and 1/2 months, I thought they deserved to be honored for their performances.
I always like putting together a second-half team because they usually contain a few recent draft picks and some players from the lower parts of the system. Last year, I started including a couple players from the Dominican Summer League. That holds true for this year as well.
What started with the July All-Star team continued with the August All-Star team and this team. That is, in this list, you can definitely see a shift in the system. Younger players are starting to rise to the top and perform at a high-level. This is true of a couple of draft picks in Austin Upshaw and Nelson Velazquez along with several pitchers from the Dominican Summer League..
So, without further adieu, here is the All-Star team for the second half of the 2017 minor league season.
When I sit down to make my preseason All-Star team in 2018, a lot of the players listed in the video above will get a lot of merit for inclusion. One name not included that I am interested in seeing more of next year is Jose Gutierrez. The 18-year-old outfielder from Venezuela hit .354 in August and was a key cog in helping the Mesa Cubs win a title.
By Todd Johnson
On Sunday morning, the Cubs announced that Jen-Ho Tseng and D.J. Wilson were named the Cubs’ MiLB Pitcher and Player of the Month for July. Tseng had a 1.42 ERA at AAA Iowa to go along with 23 Ks in 25.1 IP. Wilson hit .284 with 7 HRs and 21 RBI in between Mesa (rehab stint) and South Bend. With officially four weeks left in the MiLB season, it got me thinking: Who will be the Cubs MiLB Pitcher and Hitter of the Year?
When it comes to hitting, the winner is clear cut – Victor Caratini. No one else is even in the discussion in my mind. He’s batting .350 with a .959 OPS. He’s hit 10 HRs and driven in 58. While his OBP is a bit less than Mark Zagunis’, whose isn’t. I do not see how Caratini could lose this award. Since his return to Iowa from Chicago, he’s hitting .600.
On the other hand, selecting the Pitcher of the Year is going to be a tough choice that will play out over the next month. I currently have six pitchers in the running with five having a pretty good shot of staking a claim to it.
The Front Runners
Michael Rucker has done it all this year in 84 innings. He’s been a reliever and a starter. He’s been a closer, a setup man, and an ace. His 1.93 ERA is the lowest of the starters up for the award. His 95 Ks gives him a 9.21 K/9 rate. I love to watch him pitch as he just throws strikes. He’s only walked 16 all year.
Jen-Ho Tseng has had a resurgent year relying on good command of his pitches which includes a low 90s fastball and a plus curve and change. His 2.77 combined ERA between Iowa and Tennessee is impressive and he has 110 Ks in 120 IP.
Adbert Alzolay was my breakout player of the first half. Now at AA Tennessee, he has a combined 2.84 ERA between Myrtle Beach and Tennessee with 101 Ks in 107 IP. I like his energy, his pacing, and his 96-97 mph heater. He still needs to refine his secondaries going forward.
The Long Shots
Duncan Robinson is a bit like Rucker in that he began the year as a reliever and morphed into a starter. He was a Midwest League All-Star and was promoted in July to Myrtle Beach from South Bend. On the year, he has a 2.13 ERA over 91 innings. His 77 Ks take him out the discussion a bit when compared with other front runners.
It has been a most impressive season for Justin Steele. He’s been very steady all year. His 2.92 ERA is a testament to his approach and hard work after a rough season at South Bend in 2016. He has 82 Ks in 98.2 IP.
If you were to pick this award on sheer domination, reliever Dakota Mekkes would win hands down. He dominated at South Bend and then again at Myrtle Beach. He did allow an earned run for almost three months. Heading into today, his ERA is a miniscule 0.76 ERA to go along with 79 Ks in 59 IP. Opponents are only hitting .152 against him. If not for 27 walks, I think he would be in Tennessee.
I think Michael Rucker is currently in the lead. However, I truly think the award should go to Mekkes. For the past few years, the Cubs have rewarded starters including Tseng, Trevor Clifton and Duane Underwood. But Mekkes’ season has been one of pure domination across the board and two levels. However, I don’t think the Cubs will give that award to a reliever. I wish they would, though. I really wish they would.
By Todd Johnson
This was the month of the hitters. It was also month that was hard to narrow down to just nine position players. In the past, I have sometimes had extra hitters at a position and that’s what I went to this month.
On the other hand, it was a decent month for starting pitchers in the system. Big innings, slumps, and warmer air made the ball fly a bit more. However, 7 starters found their way onto the team.
As for relievers, there was bonanza of relievers in the middle of July. At least 15 Cubs prospects had ERAs ranging from 0.00 to 1.50. By the end of the month, that was down to 7.
A lot of tough decisions had to be made including whether to add some players from the Arizona Rookie League Mesa Cubs and a couple of hot hitters from the Cubs DSL 1 team. I decided against it this month as there were so many excellent performances at the upper levels.
By Todd Johnson
Bo Bichette – 0/2 with 1 K
Vladimir Guerrero, Jr. – 0/1 with a walk
Jorge Ona – 0/2 with 2 Ks
Fernando Tatis, Jr. – 0/3 with 2 Ks
Those four hitters were some of the best hitters in the Midwest League in the first half of 2017. The statistics listed above are how they fared against Dakota Mekkes. They should not feel ashamed as that is pretty much how everyone did against Mekkes while he was with South Bend. In 2017, he’s struck out 70 batters in 49.2 IP across 2 levels with a God-like ERA of 0.36.
Earlier this year, I wrote about Dakota Mekkes for Cubs Insider. At the end of the article, I foresaw the 6’7” 255 lb. right-handed reliever being a fast riser through the Cubs system. In the early part of June, Mekkes was promoted from South Bend to Myrtle Beach. I originally thought he should just skip Myrtle Beach because he had been so dominant for South Bend. Since his promotion, he has not given up an earned run. Soon, I would imagine, he will be in AA Tennessee.
I had the great opportunity to sit down and talk with him on Tuesday about his routine and the adjustments he is making at AA.
Did your daily process/routines change when you went from South Bend to Myrtle Beach?
No, I pretty much stayed doing the same thing every day that I did in South Bend. I figured if it’s not broke don’t fix it. I like to get in a routine, get my routine down, and do the same thing every day.That’s what I have been doing since I moved up here is stay with what I have been doing. Some days, if I throw 2 innings (the night before), then I know I will have a couple days off, then I will just do long toss. Normally, I just go 90 then 120 and get some sprints in before the game. It’s nothing too crazy or complicated. I’m a big routine guy. I’m really superstitious actually.
How is the coaching different? You had Brian Lawrence at South Bend and now have Anderson Tavarez at Myrtle Beach. How are they similar and different?
For me, since I throw kinda funky, they have been kinda hands off. Like neither of them really tell me too much. That’s just like how they are through the organization. Like the coordinators, they just let me throw. If they see something small, they’ll tweak it.
Mekkes did add that the two pitching coaches have different personalities but he likes that they are different.
Are you using video to adjust your pitching?
I am actually not a big video guy, I have always been someone that when I throw a bad pitch, I typically know what I did wrong. I will look at it every now and then like if hadn’t had my slider for a few outings or I haven’t had my changeup. I’ll look at it to see if I can find any differences in my last outing and an outing from a month ago when I knew it was good.
What has been the biggest adjustment you have had to make at Myrtle Beach?
I noticed it right away. The hitters are much better at Myrtle Beach, obviously. They don’t miss mistakes. If you make a mistake pitch here, you are not going to get away with it. Down at South Bend you get away with missing a fastball and get some swing and miss. Up here, more likely than not, it’s going to be a base hit. You gotta be pinpoint with your accuracy.
I think Mekkes has made the adjustment to playing at a higher level just fine. In fact, he has far exceeded expectations with a 0.00 ERA at Myrtle Beach in 18.2 IP along with 23 Ks and a 100% Left-on-Base rate. In other words, he’s stranded every runner.
The fact that opponents hit just .132 against him across both levels is a testament to his arsenal. Even more, it is a testament to his work ethic and routine.
I will be back next week with part 2 of the interview where Dakota discusses his unique delivery, its development, his grips, and getting to AA Tennessee.