The Podcast: Looking at Pitchers Who Could Be in Chicago in 2-3 Years

By Todd Johnson

It is really going to be a pivotal year for pitching in the system. There’s competition for starting spots at every level.  The Cubs signed 16 additional arms this winter for depth at AAA, although most won’t make the roster but a few will. This is going to result in a lot of arms trying to get to Chicago as starters and relievers.

This week’s podcast looks at which Cub pitching prospects who could be headed to Chicago in 2-3 years (2019-2021). I did end up focusing mostly on AAA arms who are nearly ready now.

I could have talked even more about arms at AA who could be in the mix, too. Names like Bailey Clark and Michael Rucker as bullpen guys. Then there are possible starters like Erick Leal, Alex Lange, Cory Abbott, Keegan Thompson, Erling Moreno, Manny Rondon, Thomas Hatch, and a few more. Maybe I will do part 2 in a couple weeks. Have a listen.

Next week’s topic is the draft…I think. If you have questions about the draft, send them to me via Twitter or leave a comment down below.

I will be back tomorrow with more of the 5 Series.

Advertisements

Position Breakdown Series: Relief Depth Is Growing Quickly

By Todd Johnson

With over 50+ guys to pick from, this is always the hardest breakdown to do. Unlike the starting pitching posts, the lefties and righties are all jumbled together. The Cubs have been pretty successful in developing bullpen arms the past three years. Cub fans have seen guys like James Norwood and Dillon Maples figure it out and take off. Dakota Mekkes made it to Iowa in just two years after being drafted. Then, we’ve also seen guys dominate out of the pen at Myrtle Beach and fall flat at Tennessee. You just never know. That’s why ranking relievers is so hard.

Last year, I had Dillon Maples on top followed by Dakota Mekkes, Jake Stinnett, and Corey Black. Mekkes and Maples had good years while Black was injured and Stinnett struggled in Tennessee. John Romero got pegged as a guy to watch and he wound up being traded mid-season to the Nationals.

Even though they are currently starters, I would not be surprised to see Adbert Alzolay and Michael Rucker come out of the pen at some point in Chicago this summer. Alzolay has natural talent with upper 90s stuff while Rucker has a mid 90s fastball, good control, and can throw almost 70% of his pitches for strikes. Both should get plenty of looks in Mesa in Spring Training as starters before transitioning to relievers.

This year, the rankings are going to go a little bit deeper in terms of guys profiled.

Help for Chicago – Maples, Mekkes, and James Norwood definitely are the top of the list with Norwood moving to the front of the line. Norwood has the best combination of stuff and command of the three. I still like Dillon Maples and his arsenal but his future success is more than likely between his ears at this point. Then again, if Maples commands the fastball, you can forget about the space between his ears. As for Mekkes, I am waiting for him to get a shot. That is likely to come in spring training. Considering the Cubs still have needs for the pen with Spring Training less than a month away, these three guys will get opportunities early next year to help Chicago.

Up and Coming – Bailey Clark’s performance in 2018, when healthy, was an impressive leap over 2017. His stuff ticked up due to weight training and he sat 95-96 most days and was hitting 97 at times. I wonder if he is going to work on adding a 4th pitch to go with his deadly slurve thing he has going on. Maybe a cutter would be a nice pitch to jam some lefties.

Brian Glowicki improved greatly in 2018. After struggling in 2017 a bit at Eugene, he was a beast the second half at South Bend and did not allow a run all of August. I like that he can attack down in the zone and he is not afraid to throw inside a lot.

When it comes to the future of Manny Rondon, it is still unclear to me what he is going to do in 2019. At times, I think he could be a good loogy as he was in 2018 at Myrtle Beach. Against lefties, he had a 1.13 ERA and hitters only averaged .160 against him. Then there are times where I think he is going to go back to being a starter like he was in 2016 at Eugene. What made it more confusing for me was that he did both in the Arizona Fall League.

Not Sure What to Expect – Jordan Minch, Wyatt Short, and Tyler Peyton had their moments in the sun in 2018. Peyton and Short did them at Myrtle Beach and Minch was excellent in the second half at Tennessee. Keep an eye on all three in 2019.

Unsure Roles – A lot can happen in an off-season and spring training. For a lot of relievers, things can change greatly from year-to-year and level-to-level and sometimes month-to-month. Sean Barry and Brendan King are two guys who I am curious to see what their roles are going to be in 2018. Barry could skip South Bend while King could start, be a swingman, piggyback, or be a setup guy in Myrtle Beach.

The New Guys

That first full season as a reliever has been an eye opener for recent draft picks. The Cubs drafted several last year in Riley McCauley, Ethan Roberts, Cam Sanders, Jake Reindl, and Josh Sawyer. They all bear watching next year and all have something to build on as relievers. I really like McCauley’s demeanor on the mound, Roberts’ cutter is fantastic, Sanders has a very live loose arm that the ball comes out so easy. But for Reindl and Sawyer, the two pitched in the College World Series and did not pitch again once they signed. Sawyer underwent a procedure in early January while Reindl is not pitching at Winter Instructs either.

The Comeback Kid

Chad Hockin missed 99.33% of 2018 after TJS. He started throwing in October and should be ready to go opening day. Hopefully, he will be back to his college velocity of 95. He was close to getting back last spring and I am really pulling for him to get back because he did have some pretty good movement on his stuff. When I last saw him pitch live in August of 2017 in Beloit, he was starting to get his velocity back. The movement was definitely there, and when he kept it down, he was fine.

Out Of Nowhere
As usual, there will be guys who make one adjustment and take off as relievers. It always happens. Sometimes, they start the year as a reliever, and others move from the rotation and just take off. You just never know.

Looking Back at 2018…

By Todd Johnson

The 2019 season won’t be long now, the convention will soon be here, then spring training will start up, and, next thing you know, baseball games that matter will soon follow! I’m excited to see what the year brings.

Looking back at 2018, here are my favorite highlights of the past year.

1. 10 Days – That’s about how long I spent with South Bend last July. I began the journey in South Bend and followed them over to to the Quad Cities for three days and then to Kane County. It was a lot of fun seeing the players day after day after day, but I was really tired from driving to-and-fro at the end of it. I got a really good sense of some players and their potential watching them prepare every day, play in person, and seeing them work at their craft. I am going to do something similar again in July of 2019. I will go up to Appleton, Wisconsin and stay overnight for three nights. Then, in the next series, I can drive back-and-forth to Beloit from my home for three more games.

2. The Camera – I used to use my iPhone to take pictures until this year. My wife and I took some of our income tax refund to purchase a camera. I took a lot of shots last summer at the ballpark. I am still getting used to it but I did go up and practice some up in Beloit and I may do that some more early on in the year, if it’s not too cold. I really liked using some of the pics to make several baseball cards and just taking a break from reporting the game to capture the beauty of the game on film.

3. One thing I really enjoyed this year was seeing Javier Baez explode into an All-Star. He made every play exciting whether he was playing second, short, running the bases, or hitting. I am looking forward to seeing what he can do every day in 2019 and just who will be playing alongside of him.

4. In a very quiet way, minor league relievers went about their business in a very understated way in 2018. While Dillon Maples was the best known name heading into the year, James Norwood’s ascension to MLB was very exciting as were the breakouts of Bailey Clark and Brian Glowicki. In addition, Garrett Kelly’s transformative story is not done yet. He could be a name to watch out of the pen this year as well as Brendan King. King is not blessed with dominant speed but his curveball is developing into a plus pitch that is deadly to righties.

5. The comebacks of Justin Steele and Erick Leal were a breath of fresh air last summer. Both should begin 2019 at Tennessee. I am excited to see them face AA hitters this spring.

6. We could one day look back at the 2018 Draft and international signings as the turning point in rebuilding the farm system. The Cubs got several key young players who could be the next new core of the franchise.

7. I love it when players breakout in the minor leagues. I don’t think anybody foresaw the emergence of catcher Jhonny Pereda and pitcher Matt Swarmer. Both played at Myrtle Beach in 2018 with Swarmer advancing to Tennessee. Pereda ended his year playing in the Arizona Fall League. Both added weight in the off-season which helped propel them to their breakout seasons. Within the organization, the Cubs’ own players have been raving about Swarmer’s curve and changeup for the past two years. An improved fastball made all the difference.

Top Posts of 2018
I never know what the most read posts are going to be outside the Top 21 List. Here are the top 5 articles at Cubs Central from 2018.

  1. Brenden Heiss Draft Profile
  2. Leveling Up Series – Brandon Hughes
  3. Position Breakdown Series – The Rise of the Shortstops
  4. Prospect Profile – Luis Vazquez
  5. Nelson Velazquez Makes His South Bend Debut

I will be back tomorrow with my look forward to 2019.

Cubs’ Big League Bullpen Has Some Issues for 2019

By Todd Johnson

This is going to be one of those off seasons where the Cubs are just going to wait to make a move. They don’t seem to be gung ho on making trades or pulling the trigger on anything and that’s especially true for the bullpen

After the GM meetings this week, I was not surprised to see the Cubs not make a move to add to the back end. Considering the injury concerns of Brandon Morrow and Pedro Strop, that type of recurrence is on the minds of most fans looking at the bullpen. Who can the Cubs put in the pen to assuage such fears from running rampant? There are a lot of options from free agents Andrew Miller or Zach Britton to the Cubs’ very own prospects.

If you look at that depth chart on Cubs.com, the pen seems set in terms of numbers. Then again, Morrow, Strop, and Duensing are coming off injuries, Carl Edwards, Jr. is coming off a walked filled year. Cishek and Rosario were the highlights of the pen last year, along with the departed Jesse Chavez. Mike Montgomery should be joining them and Alex Mills was surprisingly good in his turns. As for Kintzler and Chatwood, they do not inspire many.

Right now, there’s just a lot of uncertainty with regards to health, performance, and age of the arms on the roster. In trying to look ahead to the makeup of the bullpen for 2019, I’m starting to get the feeling the Cubs are going to wait and see what they have come May and June. Then, they could go out and make a move for an arm before the trading deadline. That makes the most sense in terms of talent, availability, and, surprisingly, dollars.

The Cubs stashed a few guys down at Iowa already. Rowan Wick, Jerry Vasto, and Conor Lillis-White are three new guys the Cubs have added this offseason for depth. Whether or not the Cubs will use them is up in the air.

The wait and see approach could open the door for some of their own prospects. To be honest, I’d like to see what Adbert Alzolay can do out of the pen in Chicago. I’d like to see Dakota Mekkes get a shot in the majors. Add in James Norwood and Dillon Maples and you have four talented young arms from which to choose and to use.

When the Cubs went hog wild on pitchers in the 2016 and 2017 drafts, I thought it might take four years for them to get through the system. Instead those arms are going to be close to ready in 2019. Thomas Hatch, Duncan Robinson, and Michael Rucker are all set to begin next season at Iowa. Rucker’s stuff plays up quite a bit out of the pen and with his ability to throw strikes at almost a 70% rate, he might be the most appealing of these three for a bullpen role.

Part of me says just throw them out there and let them have at it.

When I look at Theo, though, he can’t be happy. He is going to get something done. While free agency is an option, a trade might make more sense to get what he wants as the Cubs do have plenty of MiLB pitching depth to use as assets and they do have a few bench players they could use in a deal.

Sitting on a deal might work in the short term. But come June, Theo will want the bullpen solidified for the stretch run.

Fangraphs Leads Off the Prospect Lists by Going Young, Very Young

By Todd Johnson

Amaya 08 2018 SB

When Fangraphs started releasing their prospect lists last week, I got a little excited. They started out with the NL Central and had three teams done by the weekend. I knew last Saturday that the Cubs would be up this week.

The list itself was somewhat surprising. Authors Eric Longenhagen and Kiley McDaniel emphasized what is becoming a system with some highly ranked youth.

The first surprise was that the two authors still hung with Miguel Amaya who ascended to the top of most Cub lists last summer. Coming in second was my favorite, Nico Hoerner. Scouts that McDaniel and Longenhagen talked to were still unsure what position Nico is going to end up playing. The scouts think Hoerner could end up at second and/or center.

After Ademan, Adbert Alzolay, and Justin Steele, the first big ripple in the list came with the placement of Cole Roederer at #6. Fangraphs’ placement of Roederer this high is very encouraging for the strength of a system. Roederer was outstanding in 36 games with a .354 OBP, 5 HRs, 24 RBI, and 13 SB after being signed in 2018.

Marquez 65 2018 EugThe Youth Movement continued to flow throughout the top half of their 31 prospects. 19-year-old lefty Brailyn Marquez came in at #7 while 17-year-old Richard Gallardo rounded out the top 10. Reivaj Garcia was the biggest surprise at #11. The 17-year-old second baseman held his own in the Arizona Rookie League last year. 19-year-old Brennan Davis could be a classic five tool guy in time and he was put on the list at #12.

Despite injuries and troubles, Jeremiah Estrada and Jose Albertos both made the list.  I don’t understand the placement of Nelson Velazquez at 28. With his power profile, Velazquez is likely a top 10 power prospect in a system devoid of power.

The biggest surprise was the inclusion of pitcher Benjamin Rodriguez at #30. He’s just 18 and still growing and was lauded for his spin rates in the Dominican Republic..

Who’s Missing: Pitching staple Trevor Clifton came up missing on the list along with the Jared Young, the Cubs MiLB Player of the Year in 2018. As well, reliever Dillon Maples and Duane Underwood were nowhere to be seen. DJ Wilson and Mark Zagunis made the other prospects portion of the list. The two outfielders were routinely in the top 10 the past four years and now, poof!

Final Thoughts

Hoerner 07 2018 SBFor the first major prospect list, Fangraphs really went hard to the young prospects. 15 of the 31 prospects on the list actually come from the international market. And 17 of the 31 are 20 or younger. That’s a lot of young guys. It still is a very heavy pitching list with just a few players with power potential.

Several of the younger prospects came across as overrated. On my own list, I am starting to trend towards not listing prospects until they have at least got some substantial time in full season ball. 15 of the 31 on Fangraphs’ list have yet to log at least a half a season at South Bend. Many have not faced a lot of pitchers or hitters with college experience yet.

In the next year, the prospects listed by Fangraphs should be lighting it up all across the system. Then again, they might not. This list is still about projection. The one thing that very few Cubs prospects did in the last year was to dominate a level. That’s what these 31 need to do. I still think they are 1-2 years away from that kind of domination by these young kids.

 

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.