By Todd Johnson
The Tennessee Smokies are right in the thick of the playoff race. Currently they hold a half a game lead over Montgomery for the second playoff spot in their division in the Southern League North Division. They were in contention with Chattanooga most of the first half before falling apart the last 10 days in a head-to-head series against the Lookouts. When the second half began, the Smokies hit the skids in late June. Now, they righted the ship thanks in large part to a shutdown bullpen in July.
Even though Dillon Maples was recently promoted (he was only at Tennessee for a month), there have been six relievers who have been the stalwarts of the pen in July. They have put together outstanding performances with most of them having ERAs under 1.00. Surprisingly, there is not a left-hander in the bunch. Yet, the Smokies relievers have been able to thrive.
For today’s six-pack, here are six relievers coming up big in the Smokies bullpen.
1. James Pugliese – Right now I’m a little perplexed as to why he is still at AA. For the year, he has a blank 0.82. In July, he’s been solid with a 1.00 ERA in six appearances. On the year , he has 37 strikeouts in 53 innings while only walking 22.
2. Daury Torrez – After converting to reliever, he seems to have found major success this year. Like Pugliese, he’s just been amazing out of the pen. For the year he has a 1.62 and, in July, he has been pretty solid as well with a 2.92 ERA in 7 appearances. His control has been phenomenal as he has only walked 8 batters all year.
3. David Garner – He is easily the most improved reliever this year at Tennessee. While it is his second year at the level, he has made dramatic improvements in his command. He’s learned that he can’t get away with mistakes. He has yet to allow an earned run all month and a strikeout totals have been outstanding all year at 25 in 25 innings. In July, he has a 0.71 WHIP and opponents are only batting .136 against him.
4. Jose Rosario – He just came off the disabled list and on Wednesday night, he looked like the old Jose Rosario striking out three in one inning of work. While he has only made a few appearances, his time in Tennessee might be short-lived for someone who is on the 40 man roster.
5. Craig Brooks – Brooks came out of the gate this year firing bullets for Myrtle Beach with an ERA under 0.5. When he got to Tennessee, he struggled for the first month and a half before he figured things out. In July, he looks exactly like the pitcher who was at Myrtle Beach in April and May throwing upper 90s heat. This month has struck out 19 in 10.2 IP and has yet to allow a run.
6. Steve Perakslis – In 13.1 IP, he has allowed only 1 run in July while striking out 13. Normally, he’s been a slow starter in the first half and typically turns it on with the summer heat. He does throw in the mid 90s and is an interesting arm at age 26.
Fellow relievers Ryan McNeil and Brad Markey have been up and down this year with Markey sometimes doing some spots starts along with Pugliese. I do think that there will be some promotions coming in the next couple of weeks. One pitcher who could be coming to Tennessee is Dakota Mekkes, who has yet to allow an earned run at Myrtle Beach. Who knows, there might even be a lefty coming along with him.
With several doubleheaders in June and early July, it is a wonder this pen and these relievers are not burnt out. Somehow, their hard work has set the Smokies up for success in July. I’d like to think that some of them will get a shot at going to Iowa at the end of the month. Then again, Manager Mark Johnson may need them for his first short at making the playoffs at AA and winning a Southern League title.
*Thank you to Charlie Walter and Sumner Gilliam of the Smokies for the photographs
This was the fastest minor league first half I can remember. It just flew by. For Cubs prospects, there were a lot of great performances in that time span. Many players were able to sustain a level of excellence, while others ebbed and flowed.
If you’ve been following this website, I don’t think there any surprises on the list. However I think there are some names who you would not have foreseen at the beginning of the year. Names like Duncan Robinson, Andrew Ely, Michael Rucker, Jason Vosler, and Dillon Maples, to name a few.
Here is this year’s Cubs first half minor league all-star team in video form.
Here are some names for you to ponder when it comes to the second half All-Star team:
Miguel Amaya, Aramis Ademan, Thomas Hatch, Gustavo Polanco, Jose Albertos, and many more. It would not surprise me to see half the names change in this list.
I will be back tomorrow with a post about some possible breakout players to watch for in the second half. They are mostly players from Mesa and Eugene with a few draft picks thrown in for good measure.
By Todd Johnson
April was a pretty rough month as temperatures kept some players down. Now that it has warmed up, so have the performances. In fact, they were many more players competing for a spot this month, whereas in April, each position was pretty clear-cut.
Starting pitchers and outfielders made the most improvement over the last five weeks. In fact, the starting pitching was so impressive I went with eight starters rather than the normal six. They all posted ERAs under 3, which made the decision pretty easy.
I did not put Eloy on the team as he only played in 13 games, but what a 13 game stat line. He hit .324 with 3 HRs, 10 RBI, and a .468 OBP. I cannot wait to see how he does in June.
Let’s get right to this month’s list…
Iowa – 4 (all hitters)
Tennessee – 11 (4 position/7 pitchers)
Myrtle Beach – 4 (all pitchers)
South Bend – 4 (1 hitter/3 pitchers)
For next month…
Several players will be returning very soon from the DL. They include Trey Martin, Erling Moreno, Jordan Minch, Bailey Clark, and Dylan Cease. As well, some players are starting to put it together who could make a run for next month’s squad. They include Wladimir Galindo, Luis Ayala, Robert Garcia, Dave Berg, and pitcher Thomas Hatch.
Mesa, Eugene, and two DLS squads fire up their seasons this month. Most of them will be in contention for the honorable mention sections as Eugene and Mesa will only get about 12 games in, not enough to qualify.
The two DSL teams start Saturday, June 3rd, and could have some names on the list. Most position players signed in the draft begin play right away. Pitchers selected take some time to get back into shape.
By Todd Johnson
You can thank the rain storms that covered much of the Midwest for me being able to finish this month’s all-star team on schedule. There were no yards to mow, no weeds to pull, and no dogs to walk in the rain. In addition, there were no minor league games except for Myrtle Beach and South Bend on Sunday.
It was a strange month for trying to pick a few spots on the All-Star team. First base was a difficult choice as most of the organization struggled at that position. I wound up going with a player who only played a few games there. When it came to starting pitching, I had a couple players drop off after poor starts in the last week. When it came time to select the hitter of the month, all I had to do was look at only one team who was rained out for the weekend.
I think the May All-Star team will be much different. For one, I think Yasiel Balaguert has started to find his stroke at first base. In the outfield, there will be much more competition as Jake Hannemann, Kevonte Mitchell, and Mark Zagunis all had strong final weeks in April. Trey Martin could return as well. I also think that some of the starting pitching will start to stabilize in Myrtle Beach and South Bend. Duncan Robinson will be one pitcher to watch in May as to whether he starts or relieves in South Bend.
So, without further adieu, here is the April All-Star team.
Iowa Cubs – 4
Tennessee Smokies – 7
Myrtle Beach Pelicans – 6
South Bend Cubs – 4
When it comes to picking the All-Star team each month, it’s usually clear and dry. The players pretty much decide it for you. Whether it is average, home runs, runs batted in, earned run average, or strikeout, all I have to do is look at their splits for the month and I am done. For hitters this month, that was the case. Even the hitter of the month was a no brainer. However, when it came to pitching, I had to make some tough choices for both starters and relievers.
I take it as a good thing that the choices were hard this month. That means there is a lot of good pitching taking place in the Cub system. Usually, I like the starting pitchers on the All-Star team to have an ERA under 3. That was easy this month as there were six. Paul Blackburn just missed out at 3.00. For relievers, I like them to be under 2.00 for their ERA. And closers take precedence. This month, there were so many studly performances that I included 11 relievers on the team. They were two others who came close in Ryan McNeil and Casey Bloomquist. I am sure than next month that James Farris will return as well. I may have to readjust my standards a little bit to keep it down to six.
The pitcher of the month was the hardest to choose. Was an ERA difference of .005 going to decide it? It came down to Carson Sands of South Bend (1.24 ERA) and Trevor Clifton of Myrtle Beach (1.29). Had it not been a short start of 1.2 innings and 5 ER, Zach Hedges would have had a 1.00 ERA and been in the discussion. So, I had to do to my due diligence.
Additional stats like WHIP, BBs, Ks, and some advanced stats over Fangraphs, like BABIP and FIP, all came into play. However, it was old fashioned stats that swayed my decision. One pitcher walked half of what the other player did and struck out twice as many hitters. I like that both pitchers are in the lower levels and will be in the hunt for this award again the next couple of years. In fact, I think both are just beginning their breakout seasons.
Without further adieu, here is this month’s Cubs MiLB Monthly All-Star Team.
I think several players who’ve been in a bit of a slump will be back next month including Donnie Dewees, Billy McKinney, and Chesny Young. With Pierce Johnson, Jen-Ho Tseng and Dallas Beeler now throwing, the starting pitching could change drastically, especially at Iowa.
I will have a first half All-Star Team on the 23rd and the regular monthly one on July 1. They should be quite different.
The June All-Star Team will be much more of a challenge as 4 more teams enter the fray in Eugene, Arizona, and two Dominican teams (who start Saturday). Add in some draft picks into the minor league system and it will be a whole new ballgame.
Look out, Jeimer Candelario is almost back. He didn’t get player of the week, but he is back in the discussion again. And that’s a great thing! He went 10/25 (.400) with 1 HR and 2 RBIs. His average for the season is now .244. Like Gleyber Torres, the Cubs top prospect, Candelario is putting together a solid March, more in line with his career stats. With two games to go, Candelario is hitting .280 with 1 HR and 11 RBI for the month. I would like to see his power numbers bigger, but so would most people.
Torres has been burning bright all month. A .309 average with 4 HRs (a year high) and 11 RBIs has given some relief to fans who saw his .179 April average. Mark Zagunis has not stopped hitting this month at .329 with 3 HRs and 10 RBIs. His OBP is an insane .444. Willson Contreras went on a HR binge this week with 3 but he only hit .250 in that span.
There were several good pitching outings this week. Trevor Clifton went 5.2 scoreless. Carson Sands made it seven innings this week. Ryan Kellogg rebounded after a three poor outings to throw 6 innings of 2 run ball while striking out eight, another good sign. Brad Markey once again went 6 IP for another quality start.
Record: 21-26; 4.0 GB
Last Ten: 3-7
Record: 22 – 27; 9 GB
Last Ten: 4-6
Record: 26-21; 5 GB
Last Ten: 6-4
Record: 30 – 17; +3.0 GB
Last Ten: 8-2
Extended Spring Training
Jesus Camargo and Dallas Beeler returned to action this week. It will still be a while before they see full season action, but it was good to hear that they are closer to returning. Once again, Dylan Cease, Bryan Hudson, and Jesus Castillo drew raves this week and Erling Moreno might just break out as a pitcher this year, if he can keep healthy. The international signees keep getting press, too. Aramis Ademan keeps hitting along with Wladimir Galindo and Jonathan Perlaza, who has moved over to second base. I can’t wait to see how Arizona and Eugene are divided up in a couple of weeks. On Saturday, Pierce Johnson threw three innings after missing most of the month at Iowa.
Hitter of the Week – Eloy Jimenez – South Bend.
After I gave Andrew Ely the Hitter of the Week last week instead of Eloy, Eloy went off last Sunday and never really stopped hitting. He went 11/25 (.440) with 1 HR and 11 RBIs. He got the Midwest League Player of the Week on Monday. I would not be surprised to see him to get it again this week.
Starting Pitcher of the Week – Drew Rucinski – Iowa
He took a perfect game into the 7th inning on Friday night for his best start of the year. He wound up allowing 1 run on 3 hits and his ERA dropped a whole run.
Reliever of the Week – Daury Torrez – Myrtle Beach
He is starting to look comfortable in a reliever role the past two weeks. With the promotions of James Farris and Jose Rosario, we might see Daury in more of a closer’s role the next month.
Team of the Week – South Bend
They not only moved into first place, they slingshot past the other three teams in a week and now hold a three game lead. While this team has raked at the plate, their pitching is starting to slowly gel. Carson Sands and Preston Morrison are getting it done on a nightly basis this month. Last night, the Cubs pummeled top Blue Jays prospect, Jon Harris. They scored 17 runs as the team hit .400+ on the night.
Coming Up This Week at Cubs Central
Monday – Ian Rice Profile
Tuesday – Cubs Central MiLB All-Star Team for May
Wednesday – Cards of the Month
Friday – The Six Pack
There is a lot of minor league news this week. AA and AAA starting squaring off against teams from other systems and Myrtle Beach and South Bend starting playing against each other before taking on other squads. Some of the names we have hyped here got a little action in and some other names you may not know raised their profiles a little.
But first off…
The big league club sent down some players to the minors. They include: Willson Contreras, Arismendy Alcantara, Carl Edwards Jr., Pierce Johnson and C.J. Riefenhauser are going to start the season at AAA Iowa. 3B Jeimer Candelario surprisingly got a ticket to AA Tennessee. I imagine he won’t be there long. Also, the Cubs placed non-roster invitees Stephen Fife, Felix Pena, Drew Rucinski, Edgar Olmos and Taylor Davis in the minor league camp. They were not sent to a specific team. The big news, aside from Jeimer going to AA, is that Carl Edwards did not make the bullpen. He had a nice spring going until his last appearance when he gave up four runs in one inning.
Club by Club
Early in the week, the major buzz in the minor league camp was that Dylan Cease was on the mound for South Bend. By all reports, Cease was chucking the ball between 97 and 100 miles an hour against the Pelicans. He gave up one run two innings but had scouts drooling throughout his entire outing. Cease told Baseball America, “The only thing I’m focusing on right now is just my rhythm, tempo and making sure I stay closed longer. I could have done a better job of that today.”
With three weeks to go until the start of minor league season, I don’t know where Cease is going to end up. It appears that he could begin in South Bend or he could, as I have suggested earlier, stay in extended spring training before going to South Bend in May. Just based on his outings, it will be hard to keep him down all the way until the middle of June before sending him to Eugene. While that may be the plausible scenario, I think the realistic scenario is he’s going to end up in Indiana much sooner than later.
In addition, in the very first game against a team from another organization, Eloy Jimenez jacked one over the fence. Also, Blake Headley, a 2015 draftee out of Nebraska, looks much improved and more athletic than last year. Darryl Wilson has also been getting some play with the South Bend team and Alex Bautista also hit a homerun in his debut. Donnie Dewees has been raking it and Carlos Sepulveda and Andrew Monasterio looked good up the middle, however they will likely be at Eugene.
The big news out of Myrtle Beach this week was that Jake Stinnett was just dealing it along with Trevor Clifton and Preston Morrison. All three pitched three innings of shutout ball at least once. Stinnett was said to have been in the 94 to 96 mile an hour range and Clifton struck out 4 in his 3 frames. One of my favorite prospects, Rashad Crawford is beefed up a bit and drawing raves for his defense and offense. Will Remillard also returned and his bat has not skipped a beat.
I held my breath when word came out this week that Duane Underwood has been having some elbow stiffness. The young 21-year-old current top pitching prospect of the Cubs was a non roster invitee to the major league camp but never appeared in a game this spring. I wondered why they were holding them off, now I know.
It looks like Daury Torrez is going to be a reliever based upon how he was used this week. That leaves Paul Blackburn, who had an underwhelming start on Friday, Tyler Skulina, who pitched well for Iowa earlier in the week, Jonathan Martinez, Jen-Ho Tseng and Brad Markey as possible starters in the rotation for manager Mark Johnson. On the hitting side of things, Billy McKinney has looked good coming off a knee injury from last year and Jake Hannemann looked good in both the major league and minor league games this week.
Dan Vogelbach has regained some of his power back and has been drawing raves for his bat and approach. It looks like he has shrugged off the minor injuries from last year and his power is returning. That’s a good sign.
Right now John Andreoli is making a run at the 25th man spot. I doubt he gets it, unless he learns how to magically hit left-handed in the next two weeks, but he’s going to be someone that the Cubs are sure to call on in case of injury at several points during the summer.
Albert Almora looks great in the field but struggles at the plate in major league games. As for who will be on the Iowa team come April 1, I am not really sure yet. The Cubs have some shaking out to do, some cuts to make. Currently there’s about three spots that are up in the air for the 25 man roster for the majorly club. Spencer Patton is in competition for one of the bullpen spots in Chicago. It looks like Matt Szczur will be returning to Iowa again this year giving the Iowa Cubs a very speedy outfield.
Cubs Central Weekly Awards
Pitcher: Bryan Hudson – 5 shutout innings – one of those outings was for Iowa. Trevor Clifton, Rob Zastryzny, and Preston Morrison were the runners up.
Reliever: Adbert Alzolay – 3 shutout innings of relief. Runner up – Daniel Lewis had 2.2 shutout innings.
Hitter: Donnie Dewees– He’s gone 2 for 3 and 3 for 4 this week. Then on Saturday, he jacked a homerun. That’s a pretty good start.
Team: Myrtle Beach – They beat Dylan Cease. It also doesn’t hurt that they have Gleyber, Ian Happ, and Rashad Crawford on board either. To be honest, this team is going to be much better than the one I saw a year ago at South Bend thanks to another year in development. In August last year, they were outstanding down the stretch.
Players to Watch Next Week
Zach Hedges, and Jen-Ho Tseng should all be making their first “starts” of the spring.