Dillon Maples

The Cubs’ Bullpen Looks to Be Gutted

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By Todd Johnson

Pedro Strop.
Carl Edwards, Jr.
Mike Montgomery.
Justin Grimm.
Justin Wilson.

Those names don’t exactly exude confidence to get the final three to nine outs of a game. After yesterday’s announcement that the Cubs did not tender a contract to reliever Hector Rondon, new pitching coach Jim Hickey’s job just tougher, a lot tougher. At over $6 million, Rondon’s contract was getting too pricey to just be a setup man. The Cubs essentially said, “Thank you for service, but no thanks for 2018.” As a result, Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer now have their work cut out for themselves this offseason.

Originally, just Wade Davis and Brian Duensing had left via free agency. The Cubs now have to replace half their pen and add depth to stash at AAA Iowa, which appears to be well underway.

Since the end of last season, the Cubs have taken some flyers on some arms with minimal MLB experience. Righty Luke Farrell could relieve, he could start. He has 13 career MLB innings. Righty Cory Mazzoni has 16 career innings to go with his shiny 17.28 career ERA. Lefty Randy Rosario’s career ERA is a whopping 30.86 in just  2.1 innings. And this week, the Cubs signed 29-year-old lefty Dario Alvarez. He might be alright. He threw 16 IP in 2017 with a 2.67 ERA but also put up an unsustainable whip of 2.02. He walked 14 batters. I thought his signing was a little odd as Theo talked about adding strike throwers in his offseason press sessions. I don’t think that is what he had in mind.

After seeing those stats, I am not brimming with confidence. I am not in sheer terror either, but I am concerned. The Cubs will need to find a closer and a couple of setup men while adding depth at AAA.

Theo is going to have hit the free agent market and maybe use the Rule 5 Draft (Kohl Stewart of Minnesota is one name I like) as a cheaper option. Theo has been able to find arms in the past rather cheaply and I am sure he will again. In addition, I would not be surprised to see Theo make a trade for an arm or two rather than overpay in the free agent market or in an international free agent.

Here are some free agent names to look for to see if the Cubs are associated with or show interest in over the next month:
Brian Shaw, Brandon Morrow, Pat Neshek, Brandon Kintzler, Addison Reed, Juan Nicasio, Luke Gregerson, Fernando Rodney, Matt Albers, Tony Watson, and Jake McGee.

As for internal options…
Dillon Maples is close to being ready. While he has top flight MLB pitches, it is just a matter of controlling them. At 25, he now stands a better chance of making the 25 man roster. I always thought that Jen-Ho Tseng’s change-curve combo would play better out of the pen than as a starter. He could get that chance in 2018. While Rob Zastryzny is an option, but I don’t know if I see him as a long term option. Justin Hancock is another strong arm. He had an up and down year year for three MiLB teams in 2017, but he does throw in the upper 90s. David Garner finally made it to AAA in August but struggled in his one month there. He is going to need some seasoning at that level. One name I like is Tommy Nance. He spent all of 2017 injured. He reminds me of Brandon Webb in that he throws a “hard” ball that breaks a lot of bats. Nance would be a very longshot to make the team, but I could see him getting a shot later in the summer if all goes well with his health.

In the end, adding three to four more arms to a corps that struggled to find the plate in 2018 is a bit concerning. All last night I kept wondering if Theo would overpay for pen security or would he try to find undervalued arms somewhere. However, heading into day 2 of the Shohei Otani watch, rebuilding the pen could take a while as the Cubs do have more pressing needs at starting pitching. Once the Otani dust settles, it should be interesting to see how the bullpen shakes down.

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Cubs Central Mailbag – Episode II: Estrada, Velazquez, and Some Relievers

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By Todd Johnson

Welcome to episode two of the offseason minor league mailbag. Last week, I answered questions about Ian Rice, Bryan Hudson, and the 40 man roster. This week gets a little bit more specific with questions about players that I have not seen play yet.

Rikk Carlson
How many prospects in the system are worth trading for top pitching?  Or is it going to be flat out cash deals?
It is not going to be cash deals,. If the Cubs are going to acquire some starting pitching and reliever help, they can get by with prospects in exchange for a reliever. If the Cubs try to get a starter in a trade, they are going to have to throw in major league talent to get major league talent.

If I was a GM for another team, there is no sure thing in the Cubs minor-league system right now. There are some prospects that could turn into something, but the Cubs don’t have a top 100 prospect right now to bring in a top flight starter on their own. On the other hand, while the Cubs may have a bottom five ranked system, they also have a lot of depth and redundancy in order to make a trade or two. Their issue is the lack of current elite talent.

Cory Alan
Early expectations for Estrada?
He did pitch some in the Arizona Rookie League last August. However, he had two wacky stats. While his ERA was good at 1.42 in 6.1 IP, his WHIP was all over the place at 1.74 as he walked 6 and gave up 5 hits in a small sample size. In 2016, he was one of the top young prep arms on the summer circuit. He did not have a good senior season in 2017.

Still, the Cubs talked him out of his commitment to UCLA. I would bet the Cubs saw something that they could fix or tweak to get him back on track. Honestly, I did not expect to see him pitch last year.  With just one month of pro experience, he should be at Eugene to begin 2018. He needs to build up arm strength this year up to about 75 innings. It would not surprise me to see him take the ball every sixth day at Eugene.

It would be safe to say that he might be a little inconsistent this year as he begins to develop and adjust to pitching professionally. My advice would be to not get too high as a fan and not get too low. He is going to have to work through some things.

Will Velaquez fill our Eloy-sized hole in our hearts?
I sure hope so. Part of me is hoping that he has a monster spring and starts in South Bend rather than extended spring training followed by Eugene. I’d be ecstatic if he actually did extended spring training and then filled in in South Bend in late May/early June. However, that is not realistic and might not be good for his development in the long run. The Cubs, more than likely, are going to take their time with him as he does have a few holes in his swing. However, 11 home runs in six weeks shows that there’s a lot right about his swing, too. By the middle of July, we should know if he is going to be the new Cubs phenom in place of Eloy. Currently, that is the direction I am also leaning along with Albertos.

Can Stinnett & Maples be an answer for CHC bullpen?
They can be part of the answer, but the Cubs are probably looking for an additional left-hander. Maples should have a legit shot at making the team in the spring. Considering that Stinnett has only thrown one month as a reliever, plus his time in the Arizona fall league, he should be at AAA Iowa to gain a little more seasoning before he is called upon in that role. Spring training should tell a lot for both pitchers: for Maples, it is about whether he makes the team. For Stinnett, it’s about whether they see him as part of the team in the future, a.k.a., later this summer.

I have enough questions for another post next week. You can send your questions to me on Twitter @cubscentral08, or you can just email me at cubscentral2016@gmail.com.

Trying to Predict Baseball America’s Upcoming Lists

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By Todd Johnson

When it comes to prospect lists this winter, beauty is definitely going to be in the eye of the beholder. As prospect lists begin to come out over the course of the next three months, you could see 20 different Cubs make a top 10 list. And you could see four or five different Cubs atop each of those lists. In a post-Eloy world, it’s going to take a long time for those lists to settle down. With the possibility that the Cubs might make another trade this offseason, more chaos could soon enter those lists.

Baseball America is getting ready to drop their latest Top 10 Cubs Prospects List on Monday or Tuesday, in addition to their top tools in the system. I thought I might beat them to the punch at their own game and come out with my prediction of their list of top MiLB tools and try to guess who they will select as their top 10 Cubs prospects.

🔸Best Hitter for Average: Victor Caratini – No one else is even close.

🔸Best Power Hitter:  Nelson Velazquez – 10 HRs in 6 weeks ought to get him the title.

🔸Best Strike-Zone Discipline: Mark Zagunis. Easy choice but there are several who could gain on him in the next year including Austin Filiere, Jared Young, and Austin Upshaw.

🔸Fastest Baserunner:  DJ Wilson – Watch him hit a triple and you will see how fast he flies.

🔸Best Athlete: Jacob Hannemann is now but might not be for long. Nelson Velazquez could overtake him in a year.

🔸Best Fastball: Adbert Alzolay – Sitting at 96 in the sixth and seventh innings is pretty impressive.

🔸Best Curveball: Dillon Maples – To him, this is his fastball as he commands it and throws it in fastball counts. 

🔸Best Slider: Dillon Maples – This will be the pitch that makes him a killer pro.

🔸Best Changeup: Jose Albertos barely gets the nod over Eugene teammate Jesus Camargo. Both are excellent and get some ugly, ugly swings.

🔸Best Control: Adbert Alzolay – It begins and ends with the ability to put his fastball where and when he wants. Jen-Ho Tseng comes in a close second.

🔸Best Defensive Catcher: Miguel Amaya – While blocking might be a small issue, his arm is clearly not. PJ Higgins is next. It will be interesting to watch Will Remillard come back and to see what recent international signee Alexander Guerra can do

🔸Best Defensive INF and Best INF Arm:  You might think that Aramis Ademan would get the nod. However, Luis Vazquez is better and more consistent. I’ve only seen him make a few plays, but he shows much more range, fluidity, and athleticism than Ademan.

🔸Best Defensive OF: Now that Trey Martin is gone and Jake Hannemann is back,  Hannemann barely gets the nod over Charcer Burks, DJ Wilson, and Nelson Velazquez. In a year, Velazquez could win almost every hitting and outfield award.

🔸Best OF Arm: Eddy Martinez – 2018 is going to be his year. Don’t be shocked to see him get a chance in Chicago later this summer.

Baseball America’s top 10 list is going to be a little bit different than mine as I do not consider Victor Caratini to still be a prospect. While he technically is, he has spent enough time in the majors to not be, just not the prerequisite 130 at-bats. After Caratini, it could be a free-for-all. It just depends on what value one sees in a prospect.

Where all these prospects are going to be ranked is a complete mystery to me. I’m having trouble reconciling whether to put Ademan in the top five and whether to include Dillon Maples in the top 10. I know other people like pitcher Adbert Alzolay a lot (as do I), but I think that Jose Albertos is a better high-end and prospect and would be my top prospect overall. I would expect the two young pitchers to be 2A and 2B.

Then, all bets are off.

In thinking of how I would do my own list, I’m half tempted to put Nelson Velasquez at number four. Just based on his little six week stint of 10 home runs in Mesa, you have to love the praise he garnered from evaluators and Jason McLeod in the Mark Gonzalez article.

There at least a dozen players who could make their way into Baseball America’s top 10. Mark Zagunis might be the most ready for the majors after Caratini. Thomas Hatch could more than likely be in the top 10 along with the Cubs two first round picks from 2017, Brendon Little and Alex Lange. MLB.com’s number one prospect, the oft-injured Oscar de la Cruz, should be in the top 10 as well as shortstop Aramis Ademan. Cases could also be made for Dillon Maples, Jen-Ho Tseng, Trevor Clifton, Duane Underwood, Jr., D.J. Wilson, and Justin Steele as top 10 prospects this winter.

Their analysis should make for some very interesting discussions in the coming week.

State of the Cubs for 2018: The Bullpen Might Be Hickey’s to Sort Out

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By Todd Johnson

Of the three parts of the Cubs team, this is the most volatile and unpredictable aspect of the organization. While the Cubs may have to replace two starters in the rotation and a couple of position players, the idea of selecting or finding relievers to hold a win is a bit frightening. Ideally, the Cubs would want to hold onto Wade Davis. I don’t think the odds of that are too good.

As a result, the Cubs could be in search of a closer this winter and a couple setup men. In addition to losing Davis, Brian Duensing could walk as a free agent. On the other hand, Joe was not on very good terms with many relievers other than Strop, Edwards, and Montgomery. Pitching Coach Jim Hickey has his work cut out with rebuilding the confidence and strike throwing capabilities of Rondon, Justin Wilson, and Justin Grimm. Add in newly signed Luke Farrell and Hickey has a lot to do at the MLB level.

Internal Solutions

Dillon Maples is going to get a shot at making the 25 man roster next spring. He is just one of many arms who are close to the major league level. I think we can add Iowa closer Matt Carasiti to that list if he re-signs a MiLB deal and is added to the 40 man. Corey Black, who is coming off Tommy John surgery, might be one to watch for later in the summer as he gets stronger. In addition, flamethrowers Justin Hancock and Tommy Nance are two to look for as well later in the year. Hancock has control issues but throws in the upper 90s, while Nance can really pound the mitt but was injured all of 2017. The best way I can describe how hard Nance throws is the catchers feel like their are catching bricks instead of baseballs. 

A long shot to make the pen could be Adbert Alzolay. And by longshot, I mean his odds are between slim and none. However, what Alzolay does have is a fastball that closes in on 100 miles an hour. As a starter, he usually throws between 95 and 96. He is not a pitcher blessed with a big frame to sustain 200 innings a year. As a result, his frame leans more toward relieving than it does starting. After a successful 2017 as a starter at Myrtle Beach and Tennessee, I can see Adbert making a push to get to Chicago as a reliever fairly quickly if all he has to do is make it one level, considering that two years ago he was a reliever at Eugene.

Three other possible longshots to make the pen next season are Jake Stinnett, Pedro Araujo, and Dakota Mekkes. Stinnett and Araujo who have been outstanding this fall in the AFL. Stinnett missed most of the year but came back reborn as a reliever. Araujo was the closer at Myrtle Beach. Of the three, Stinnett would have the inside track and it would be strange if he skipped AAA. As a result, he is an option to think about next spring.

As for Mekkes, he dominated two levels in 2017 at South Bend and Myrtle Beach. He will have his work cut out for him at AA Tennessee in 2018. His deceptive delivery is his greatest weapon as it makes a 91-93 mph fastball appear to be 96-98. The odds are long for him to get to Chicago, but he is not that far away in reality. He will be a lot of fun to watch as a Smokie in 2018.

The Free Agent Market

It is not like closers and setup men grow on trees. Watching the Cubs go through the postseason with basically a five-man bullpen was a bit strenuous to watch on a nightly basis. Now, the Cubs can go and rebuild with what will hopefully be a couple of lefties and a couple of righties. I don’t think the Cubs are going to spend big but they will take their chances if someone is available that they really like.

Right Handed Relievers
Steve Cishek (32)
Wade Davis (32)
Greg Holland (32) — $15MM player option
Craig Kimbrel (30) — $13MM club option with a $1MM buyout
Brandon Morrow (33)
Huston Street (34)

Top Left-Handed Relievers
Brian Duensing (35)
Boone Logan (33) — $7MM club option with a $1MM buyout
Mike Minor (30) — $10MM mutual option with a $1.5MM buyout

Out of all the free agents, Davis is still the best option with Morrow close behind. On the other hand, neither are going to come cheaply. I would not be surprised to see the Cubs get 2 starters for the same price that they will have to pay for their closer in 2018.

I think the best route might be in a trade. Hopefully, the Cubs can find a suitor.

Assembling a bullpen is going to be the most challenging aspect of this offseason. Don’t be surprised if this becomes an ongoing thing through next summer as the Cubs acquire the perfect pen piece by piece. As a result, spring training should be highly competitive.

The 7 Series – Iowa Cubs Produced Prospects in 2017 but Changes Are Coming

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By Todd Johnson

Overall Record – 67-72

For the second straight year, manager Marty Pevey had to assemble a starting rotation made out of spare parts until August. Injuries and promotions at both the major and minor league levels cut his starting rotation short. The I-Cubs did have a potent offense led by the Cubs minor league player of the year, Victor Caratini. Starting pitcher Jen-Ho Tseng put together the best half by a pitcher in AAA since Kyle Hendricks was there.

The Iowa Cubs are still producing prospects to help Chicago every year. This year we saw, in addition to Caratini and Jen-Ho, Ian Happ, Eddie Butler, Jeimer Candelario, Mark Zagunis, Dillon Maples, and several relief pitchers help out the big club in some capacity. I expect more prospects will help out again in 2018, likely they will be just in bench roles. I don’t see anyone with the everyday playing career path of Ian Happ in the upper parts of the pipeline. Caratini looks to make the 25 man roster in Chicago next spring but just as the backup catcher. I am curious as to what the plans for Mark Zagunis are as he doesn’t have much left to prove in AAA.

Here are seven things to know about the 2017 Iowa Cubs.

1. Bijan Rademacher had the quietest best second half of any prospect in the system. I was a little surprised he wasn’t named the July player of the month as he hit almost .400. He can play all three outfield positions and I think he has one of the best outfield arms after Eddy Martinez. The issue is that he doesn’t project to be anything other than a fourth outfielder. Then again, he hasn’t really been given the chance to show that he can be something else. He has begun to hit for more power and I like what he can do at the plate. He can hit for average and he knows how to work an at bat.

2. I would not be surprised to see the big league club continue to clean house again at Iowa. The 2017 roster at Iowa only had a few position players that might project to make it to Chicago. Most of the roster were journeyman players looking for one more opportunity to get back to the big leagues. With Tennessee sending anywhere between 6 and 9 position players to Iowa next year, I don’t think there are going to be too many roster spots available for any player or prospect nearing 27 years of age. Already, Jake Hannemann, Pierce Johnson, and Felix Pena have new homes for 2018. I don’t know if John Andreoli will be back again either.

3. I still believe in Chesny Young despite his up-and-down year. I think that he has some adjusting to do at this level and I’m confident that he will do well in his second go around at AAA in 2018.

4. Unless Eddie Butler can add some sort of out pitch, I don’t know if he’s going to be anything more than a fill-in at the major-league level. He had his moments this year in Chicago, but he never went much beyond five innings. He needs to be more efficient to get outs quickly and go deeper into games.

5. I am still pulling for Ryan Williams to make it. I just like the kid. He has a bulldog mentality that I love. However, after basically missing two full seasons, I wonder if returning to the bullpen might be best for his long term health. In 2018, we will see.

6. Dillon Maples is going to be close to making the Chicago Cubs 25 man roster next spring. I like the fact that he’s going to get more instruction from big league coaches that will only enhance his chances.

7. For me, the highlights of the year were the second halves of Jen-Ho Tseng (1.80 ERA) and Taylor Davis (.297 avg with 62 RBI). I am glad Davis got the call to make it to Chicago. His story is a tale of perseverance and he is an outstanding teammate and hitter that I think can play somewhere in the majors. I don’t know if Tseng will be given a true opportunity to pitch in the big leagues next year but he should get a few starts with the club in spring training. A lot of his future is tied to what the Cubs do to add starting pitching this offseason.

What to Watch for in 2018
There are going to be at least six position players from Tennessee who should start in Iowa next year. I think many will benefit from playing in the Pacific Coast League but none more than catcher Ian Rice. If you dismiss his batting average and just look at his power numbers and on base percentage, you begin to see his value and how much greater he is than his fellow prospects (17 HRs, .353 OBP). I think he is really going to benefit from playing in the hitter friendly Pacific Coast League more than any other prospect in 2018.

Jason Vosler will also benefit from playing in such environs. After a poor second half, Vosler should look to recapture what made his first half so fantastic in 2017. In the first half, he hit at a .274/.375/.521 clip with 13 HRs and 49 RBI. In addition, Yasiel Balaguert, David Bote, Trey Martin, and Charcer Burks should be starting everyday in Des Moines next summer.

Remember the name Adbert Alzolay. Out of all the prospects at Tennessee, I think he might be the most ready for Chicago. Even though he is currently a starting pitcher, I can see him coming out of the bullpen in Chicago as early as the middle of next summer. With a fastball that sits 95-97, there’s a lot to like.

Trying to Build a Playoff Roster: Three Tough Choices Ahead

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By Todd Johnson

It has been quite the run. In the past three years, the Cubs have won 290+ games. In the divisional era (since 1969), this is the second time the Cubs have won back-to-back division titles (2007-2008). It is their third playoff appearance in a row. And, this team is built for many more seasons of postseason play.

For me, it was pretty sweet that the clincher came in St. Louis. It had been a tough year to be a Cubs fan as the team did not live up to expectations in the first half. The Cubs were two games under .500 and 5.5 GB Milwaukee. How they have played since the All-Star break has been very gratifying and exciting to watch.

It is now time to turn attention to who should be the 25 players on the playoff roster. I think 22 players are pretty much a given. So, it all comes down to adding three players. What position player will get the nod and what 2 relief pitchers will make the squad?

Sure Shots to Make the 25
Position players: Wilson, Avila, Rizzo, Baez, Zobrist, Russell, Bryant, Schwarber, Jay, Almora, Happ, Heyward
Pitchers: Lester, Hendricks, Quintana, Arietta, Davis, Strop, Rondon, Montgomery, Edwards, Duensing


Making the Case: Position Players
Who is out? – Rivera, Davis, Freeman, Martin
Outside Looking In: La Stella, Caratini, and Rivera

With the core of 12, I’m not sure whether manager Joe Maddon would rather carry an extra bat or an extra catcher. If it’s a bat, Tommy let Stella would be the best answer. If it’s a catcher, then he goes with Rene Rivera. I tend to think that Maddon will lean catcher but ultimately La Stella’s patient approach will work better in the playoffs. Caratini would be a long shot and would be my personal second choice as he can switch hit. If the Cubs go with La Stella, and an emergency catcher is needed, then Joe has to go with Schwarber. The most logical bat is Tommy La Stella.

Making the Case: Pitchers
Who Is Out: Wilson, Tseng, Zastryzny, Maples, Pena

I do think Dillon Maples making the roster would be amazing. While his stuff might be ready, he is not. I do hope he gets a lot of work the next five days and gets to experience the postseason even if he is not on the roster. As for Justin Wilson, I don’t think he is consistent enough to get on the roster. He was pulled in the middle of a batter Monday night.

That leaves Grimm, Lackey, and Uehara.

This is a tough call. Part of me says that maybe the Cubs should bring Lackey on as a long man rather than pick either of the other two. At times, Uehara has looked good this year and at other times, he’s been very hittable. Grimm, meanwhile, has looked like a train wreck most of the second-half. It doesn’t look like this will be a win-win situation.

I am not sure how this will all shake out over the next week. While I feel pretty good about the La Stella pick, I also know that Rivera is also a good choice based on Maddon’s preferences. As for the pitchers to be on the roster, Maddon could pick any two of them. I do not feel good about those selections at all.

We shall see. Part of me hopes for a surprising pick….or two.

Here is the schedule so far. Times to be released later.

Game 1: 10/6 at WSH

Game 2: 10/7 at WSH

Game 3: 10/9 at CHI

Game 4: 10/10 at CHI

Game 5: 10/12 at WSH

 

Cubs’ MiLB 2nd Half All-Star Team Shows the Shift in the System

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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.