June MiLB All-Star Team: Consistency and Adaptation Abound

By Todd Johnson

June was a rough month at times. It began with three affiliates in contention for a playoff spot for the first half. None of them made it. In the meantime, five additional teams began play this month. Two teams in the DSL started in early June while Eugene and two Mesa teams began June 15th and 18th respectively.

In selecting players for this month’s all-star team, the hitting definitely took a downturn except for second basemen. Pitching, meanwhile, continues to be the strength of the system. There were four arms in contention for pitcher of the month up until Wednesday this week. Not surprisingly, most of them were at South Bend. The relief corps dominated at almost every level with the largest contingent of players on the list.

If I was to come up with a theme to this month’s team, it would have to be something about finding consistency and adapting. I was really pleased to see Michael Cruz of South Bend make the team as he finally hit for average at this level. He has always hit for power at every stop, but his willingness to go the other way is really changing his profile.

in addition, another pleasant surprise included the play of outfielder Brandon Hughes. I detailed his changes and adaptations earlier in the week at Cubs Central.

The hitter and pitcher of the month both had dominant performances. 1B Jared Young of South Bend drove in 27 runs in 27 games while teammate Rollie Lacy owned the mound in every start striking out more than 10 per nine innings with an ERA at 0.78. Dillon Maples is the reliever of the month as he was just overpowering with his immense K/9 inning ratio of 17.61 this month. Not allowing an earned run helped.

When the July All-Star team rolls around, there will be lots of new faces to consider and statistics for nine teams to sort through. I expect to see the pitching continue to dominate throughout the system and the newly promoted arms to adjust. As well, the hitters taken in the draft should begin to display their talents from Mesa on up to South Bend in the coming weeks. It should be very exciting.

As usual, this month’s team is once again on film, the digital kind.

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The Friday 6 Pack Is Back – Random Thoughts About Non-Draft Stuff

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.

Vimael Machin – Courtesy of the Tennessee Smokies

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.

 

A New Top 21 List Arrives: 21 Things Affecting the List

By Todd Johnson

Redoing my Top 21 list over the past week might have been thee hardest list to evaluate. You would think that the list would not change much in just a two month span.

Well, a lot of things happened since the end of March.
1. Jose Albertos’ release point deteriorated. Once he gets things figured out, he will be back quickly and impressively. It’s just a matter of time.
2. Duane Underwood looked studly at times and not so much at other times. He needs to find some sense of consistency from start to start.
3. Thomas Hatch has been very consistent every outing. It should not be long before he finds his way to Iowa. Problem is, there is no real spot yet.
4. Nelson Velazquez debuted at South Bend this year and struggled. He is striking out at a high rate and has yet to show much power beyond BP.
5. Dillon Maples struggled at Iowa in April and early May after not making the big league club. He now seems to be much better the past three weeks. He’s allowed just 1 ER since the middle of May and only 3 BBs in his last 7 innings. He’s close.


6. David Bote went to Chicago and did very well in a utility role. He has supplanted himself as the go-to-guy position player now.
7. Wladimir Galindo struggled, was injured, struggled some more, and then caught fire.
8. Aramis Ademan looks overmatched most nights at Myrtle Beach. The Pelicans have started moving him up and down the batting order to try something different. Then again, he’s just 19 and at high A.
9. Last year’s pitching class is killing it. From Lange to Thompson to Lacy to Uelmen to Abbott, the Cubs caught a deep class.
10. No hitter was really dominant in the first two months of 2018.


11. Two months of unexpected performances from Matt Swarmer and Jhonny Pereda might constitute breakout seasons, but does not mean they should be on a prospect list? They are very close, however.
12. Brady Clark is living up to my hype of him from the past two seasons.
13. Chesny Young looks like Chesny Young of 2016. You know, the guy who falls out of bed and laces a single right Chesny Young. I like 2016 Chesny  a lot.
14. If Connor Myers can hit a little, his profile totally changes as he is a plus-plus defender and defender. Being able to hit 260-270 could carry him to the majors with his other skills being so predominant.
15. Miguel Amaya is developing into a power hitter quickly. Every at bat is becoming must see MiLB.TV.

16. Top five international pick pitcher Richard Gallardo should slide into the list once he officially signs on July 2. The question is for me, “Where do you put a 16-year-old kid that never has never thrown a pitch in professional baseball and won’t until next June?”
17. The Cubs just selected five guys in the top 100 picks of the draft. However, it is a tenth round pick I look forward to in the batter’s box the most in Luke Reynolds.
18. Jared Young has been blistering the ball lately. He started off strong, got hurt, and it took a couple weeks for him to heat back up?
19. Jason Vosler was not good for six weeks and now looks to be ready to move on actaually on pace to hit 25+ HRs this year.
20. DJ Wilson has vanished on the DL.

21. And Eugene and Mesa begin in a week. There we will get a better look at some former DSL guys, Jeremiah Estrada, and s=most of this year’s draft class.

After some discussion with some of my friends on these 21 topics and more, online and in the real world, I decided just a few changes would be in order. However, some of those changes are pretty powerful..

Top 21 List as of June 8, 2018.

The Six Pack – Six Relievers Are Dominating This Spring

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.

Names to Know for May and Early June

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.

Iowa Cubs Preview – Sometimes, All You Need Is a Chance

By Todd Johnson

Manager Marty Pevey has done a very good job the past five years of getting players ready for the daily grind of major league baseball. He will continue to do that again this year with several new prospects coming to Iowa. The difference this year is that very few of them will get an opportunity to make it to Chicago.

They are basically two scenarios in which an Iowa Cub could help the big league club this year. One is, of course, an injury to a position player or pitcher. And the second one is if somebody in the bullpen is just throwing lights out or a position player tearing the cover off the ball at Iowa.

First, the Cubs bullpen is not solidified. There are several arms who could possibly help at some point during the year. Dillon Maples leads that list. His stuff is phenomenal, he just has trouble controlling it. The 6’5″ lefty Kyle Ryan, who spent most of spring training with the big league club, is another specialist for manager Joe Maddon to call upon depending how Ryan does in Iowa.

While Mike Montgomery is currently slated as the sixth starter, and Eddie Butler, the seventh, the Cubs are going to need a spot starter or two throughout the course of the year. They always do. Iowa will have Jen-Ho Tseng along with Luke Farrell and Duane Underwood who could possibly fill that spot if need be. In addition, Alec Mills could be a name who might be given a chance this year. He missed most of last year and resurfaced in August. I’m interested to see how he does once he gets stretched out.

A 162 game schedule can wear down players and so it is likely that a position player is going to be needed at either catcher or as an infielder or outfielder. Infielders Ryan Court, Stephen Bruno, Chesny Young, Mike Freeman, and David Bote all saw substantial time in spring training with Chicago and could help out at a moment’s notice. Chris Gimenez, Ali Solis, and Taylor Davis can do the same behind the plate.

In the outfield, plus hitters Mark Zagunis and Bijan Rademacher could make an outstanding fifth outfielder in Chicago, if need be. While Rademacher can place all three outfield positions, Zagunis is best suited to left. The speedy Jacob Hannemann should be patrolling centerfield most days and it will be interesting to see how his bat improves from last year.

Most Likely to Make It to Chicago First
Bote’s ability to play 5-6 positions moves him to the front of the line. However, Mark Zagunis is the most experienced prospect and has earned the right to get another crack first. Even though Zagunis is an outfielder, the rest of the big league Cubs are versatile enough to play all over. If it is a catcher injury, Gimenez gets the call.

The First Prospect Promoted to Iowa
It should be reliever Dakota Mekkes who will start the season at Tennessee. The 6’7” reliever dominated two levels of full season A ball last year. He went almost 2 and 1/2 months without giving up an earned run. His ERA for the year was just under 1.

Overall, the Iowa Cubs have a lot of depth. They just don’t have that player that everyone concedes to be an elite prospect. They have several guys who can help the big league club if needed. And to be honest, that’s fine for right now. It would be nice if they had another top prospect, but the ones they have will help when called upon.

Who Is Going to Be the Last Reliever Standing?

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?

Dillon Maples, Justin Grimm, Justin Hancock, Kyle Ryan, Anthony Bass,and Eddie Butler

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.

Spring Training Notes: Happ Stays Hot and MiLB Camp Gets Going

By Todd Johnson

There seems to be a lot of good things happening in spring training. Ian Happ has just been tearing it up and looks to be the leading candidate for CF and the leadoff spot. Meanwhile, Albert Almora had a pretty good week this week after getting off to a rough start. This week also saw most hitters getting three at bats a game and some starting pitchers were stretched out to about 50 pitches. For Jon Lester, that happened to be 5 innings in an excellent start on Friday.

After a rough first inning Tuesday, Yu Darvish settled down in his Cubs debut and was fantastic in the second inning which resulted in a “Wow!” description from Wilson Contreras to manager Joe Maddon. The Cubs also reassigned a few players back to minor league camp with Adbert Alzolay and Thomas Hatch going to Tennessee after neither saw any action in camp (by design).

There are just a little over 2 and 1/2 weeks until the season begins and I am still a little bit unsure about the two roster spots to be determined. Catcher Chris Gimenez got off to a blazing smart but it seems he has come back to Earth a bit. Fellow catcher Victor Caratini now looks to be catching fire after a homer yesterday. Meanwhile, Dillon Maples seemed poised to breakthrough after last year, but appears to need some a lot more seasoning to get to Chicago after giving up 3 runs last night to push his ERA to 12.60.

One of the highlights of spring for me has been the play of three players who could play utility roles in case of injury later this summer. Ryan Court, Mike Freeman, and David Bote have all put together excellent springs. While Court has the highest average, David Bote has shown to have the most power. Bote’s strength is a bit more than I thought he had at Tennessee. He seems to be evolving every year into a better and better hitter. What makes Bote more attractive as a utility player is that he can play three infield spots very well and he got in 13 games in the outfield last summer. That’s a pretty versatile player to plug in and play.

MiLB News
The minor-league camp now seems to be in full swing. A few things have come trickling back in including some positive news about certain pitchers. According to the message boards at The Cub Reporter, Trevor Clifton seems to be throwing, well, like 2016 Trevor Clifton. In addition, Oscar de la Cruz (who was sent down to Tennessee Thursday) was reaching the mid 90s in his last game with the major league club on Friday. It’s encouraging that Oscar was sitting 92 to 93 and touching 95 after being a couple clicks lower earlier this spring. 

Some prospects got in an exhibition game against the Chinatrust Brothers (from Taiwan) per Arizona Phil. Duncan Robinson got the start and gave up a run in two innings. Trevor Clifton and Michael Rucker also got in two innings apiece. Clifton whiffed 4 while Rucker allowed a 2 run homer. Austin Upshaw went yard and Chris Pieters drove in three runs while Zack Short went 2 for 3 while playing some 3B.

Also, Gioskar Amaya is back from TJS after missing all of 2017. This year, Amaya is not behind the plate and is back at his original position – second base. He switched to catcher after the 2014 season. Now 25, Amaya should be at AA Tennessee to begin the year.

Coming Up Next Week

Tomorrow’s article looks at some guys that are starting to pull away from the Cubs and head towards the top of the draft, some names moving up in range of the Cubs, and some names that are falling down. In addition, I have some info on 2015 draft pick John Cresto from Santa Clara.

Austin Filiere is the next to the last player to be profiled in the “Leveling Up” series this Wednesday. And on Thursday, I have an interesting article coming out on BP Wrigleyville about which affiliate might be the team to watch this summer. 

On a  Personal Note…
My Scholastic Bowl team went 12-6 this year and got the #2 seed for the Conference Tournament to be held Thursday. I will let you know how that goes.

Baseball Card of the Week