Cubs MiLB Pitching Thoughts – Why Haven’t the Cubs Opened the Door to Chicago?

Clifton 15 2017 Tenn
On Saturday night, I was watching AAA Iowa’s game against Oklahoma City. At the same time, I was also messaging back-and-forth with my friend John. Most of the conversation pivoted around why the Cubs don’t seem to trust their own pitching at the major league level. There are several arms who are close to being ready and are not being given the chance. John and I began brainstorming several possible reasons why the Cubs have not been able to produce long-term success at that position.

To say the Cubs have not been able to produce success at the pitching position is a bit misleading. Carl Edwards has definitely had success at the major-league level and he started out at Daytona and pitched at three levels in the Cubs’ system. Kyle Hendricks did well in Tennessee and Iowa before joining the Cubs’ starting staff. And Paul Blackburn and Zak Godley have had success elsewhere. Even James Norwood was successful along with Alec Mills last late last summer in Chicago. Still, they were not given much of a chance to earn a spot in the bullpen this spring.

Here are some of the things we thought of as possible reasons.

Drafting – The Cubs have drafted plenty of guys who can throw hard and pitch. But to break this down, I think you have to look at how they drafted arms from 2012 to 2015 and then 2016 to the present. Up to 2015, those pitchers seemed to fit into a box as to the type a pitcher they were. The Cubs did not go for the Kellogg’s variety pack of arms in getting different types of pitchers. They also tended to shy away from big-name arms, especially in the first couple of rounds.

Jason McLeod, the Cubs Director of Scouting, admitted their mistakes openly at the Cubs Convention (per Mark Gonzalez of the Trib) this past January.

“We put so many checks on guys that I feel we probably walked by some guys that didn’t meet certain criteria at the time (referring to mechanics, health and strike-throwing efficiency). That probably hamstrung us a bit.”

The thing about that quote is that can be taken in two ways. One, obviously, is looking past guys. The other way to analyze it is how they evaluate their own pitchers. There have been many times I wondered why certain guys got promoted over others. I thought Trevor Clifton should have been at Iowa after dominating the Southern League in the first half of 2017.

Since 2016, the Cubs have tended to take more risks in drafting pitchers. When you draft 27 pitchers in 2016 that’s a huge risk to the strength of your organization. And then you repeat it again in 2017. Most of those guys are now at AA and AAA.

Even the 2018 class is quite different as the Cubs look like they went for some electric arms like Riley Thompson and Cam Sanders along with guys with excellent plus pitches like Paul Richan and Ethan Roberts. It was really an eclectic mix and there are still a few guys who I haven’t seen yet like Kohl Franklin, Chris Allen, Jake Reindl, and Josh Sawyer.

Development – I distinctly remember in 2016 when Buddy Bailey started managing at Myrtle Beach that he told his pitchers that they were going to throw inside and own the inner half of the plate. Needless to say, several Pelican starters had their best year that year. Trevor Clifton was the Cubs MiLB Pitcher of the Year and the Pelicans won the Carolina League for the second year in a row.

The thing is this – you don’t hear enough stories like that about the system. Occasionally, you will hear stories about minor adjustments like speeding up the time between pitches, adding a cutter, a four seamer, or changing arm slots. There is no organizational philosophy on pitching. Add in the fact that the Cubs, at one point, had 4 different minor league pitching coordinators in 4 years. That should raise a red flag.

Adbert 07 2018 IowaTrust – When it comes right down to it, the Cubs success at the major league level doomed developing pitching at the major league level. If a pitcher is deemed ready to come up and pitch in Chicago, the Cubs major league squad does not have the luxury of time, or patience, to develop him. That arm has to earn the Cubs’ trust on day one. This is about winning and winning now. And it’s been that way since 2015-2016.

Now just who isn’t trusting these guys to come up and stay is another story. It could be the MiLB staff or Theo and Jed thinking they are not ready. It could be Joe Maddon who might be hesitant to do more than pencil them in for a spot start and to do mop up duty in a blowout.

It’s a little of both.

But here’s my take – The Cubs want arms who can get major leaguers out. Those pitchers are not going to be able to do that in AAA Iowa. They have to learn how to do it in Chicago. There’s nowhere else to do it. And, more than likely, the Cubs have shown time and time again that they don’t have the time to develop arms at the MLB level because they have to win now.

clark 99 2018 mbThe Cubs have at least 5 guys who could be in Chicago (Maybe not all at once, but you get my drift). Dakota Mekkes, Dillon Maples, James Norwood, Trevor Clifton, and Adbert Alzolay (when healthy) all are just sitting there waiting to develop in the majors. Duncan Robinson had 7 IP of 1 run ball the other night and he could be a guy as well.

Chicago is the final step in development and it seems the Cubs are not willing to take the time to finish that final step just yet. And that’s just for guys at Iowa. Tennessee has Cory Abbott, Tyson Miller, and Bailey Clark just tearing it up to begin 2019. They will be knocking on the door soon. The question for the future is, when will the Cubs open the door to let them develop in Chicago?

 

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Spring Training News and Notes #6 – Maples, Webster, and Zagunis Could Make the 25 Man

By Todd Johnson

Another strange week of action took place out in Mesa this past week. The biggest news happened to be on the injury front as Mark Descalso (shoulder) along with Pedro Strop (hamstring) and a few other relievers look to be headed to the new injury list (IL) to start the season, which is less than two weeks away. The Cubs have two options; they can go acquire more bullpen arms or they could take a chance and promote from within. Right now, promoting from within looks to be the current course of action.

Three guys who could crack the opening day roster include Dillon Maples, Kyle Ryan, and Allen Webster. Webster has been outstanding this spring  with a .107 batting average against. Considering the injuries and the fact that Webster has been sitting in the mid-90s, he looks like he has a shot. As for Ryan, he’s seems a longshot with his 3.38 ERA and 2.00 WHIP. But, Ryan’s saving grace is he is left-handed, something the Cubs don’t have a lot of in the system. And with Randy Rosario’s rocky spring (11.12 ERA), Ryan could be an insurance policy.

The most positive ascension news this spring looks like Dillon Maples is in the mix. In an article on MLB.com, Jordan Bastian said that the Cubs coaching staff has made a few changes to Maples approach to the mound – both physically and mentally. Maples is now buying into visualization as part of the mental skills program. He has also tweaked his delivery. He’s now on the third base of the rubber to keep his left shoulder in and his stance is now more open. The results in a short time frame have been impressive.

Here is what teammate Brandon Morrow said of Maples’ stuff, “I mean, his stuff’s better than everybody. I think his breaking ball probably rates as possibly the best pitch in all of baseball based on spin rate, movement and velocity.” That is some pretty high praise.

As for the position player side of the roster, Mark Zagunis looks to be in the lead for a spot to replace Descalso on the roster to begin the season. With 3 HRs and an impressive daily approach, I am hoping this is where Zagunis gets his chance. SS and utility infielder Christian Adames has been just as impressive this spring and looks to be one of the better MiLB free agent pickups this winter. Adames may not make the 25 man but his performance does add some depth to the squad in Iowa in case of injury. However, with Zagunis already on the 40 man roster, things look to be a bit rosier for Mark to break camp with the Cubs.

The Best News of the Week
On Friday, Jose Albertos threw 1 inning in a game and needed only 10 pitches to get out of it. 8 of them were strikes. He got 2 ground balls and a flyball. That simple stat line just made me smile all Friday night. If he can continue to do well, he becomes a top 5 guy very quickly. I am ecstatic to see the results from his second outing!

Also this week, 1B/OF Jared Young got some love from Baseball America in an article about players who been impressing MLB scouts this spring A subscription is required to read the article.

Other MiLB News
Pitcher Florencio Serrano was signed at age 16 by the Cubs in 2017. He never pitched an inning due to corruption behind the scenes (not by the Cubs) and his contract was revoked by MLB. Earlier this week month, the ban against signing Mexican players from certain leagues was lifted and Serrano signed with the Texas Rangers.

The Cubs also “officially” announced the signing of 6’4″ 235 lb. outfielder Felix Stevens from Cuba. That brings the Cubs’ international haul to just 14 this year. They include pitchers Richard Gallardo, Darling Grullon, Manuel Heredia, Gabriel Jaramillo, Joel Machado, and Yander Montero. Infielders Edwin Castillo, Rafael Morel, Lizardo Ruiz, and Ronny Simon al inked earlier in the cycle. As well Outfielders Ezequiel Alvarez, Samuel Duarte, Orlando Guzman, Jose Lopez, and Yohendrick Pinango were mostly signed lasts summer. Gallardo, Lopez, Machado, Morel, and Pinango were all considered to be in the top 50 international free agents, depending on the list.

At South Bend, it looks as though relievers Riley McCauley and Cam Sanders could be rotation pieces this summer. Summers has an electric arm that the ball just comes out so smooth. They will both be two players to keep an eye on as the spring transpires.

Brennen Davis also seems to be getting more press. This week, it comes from Prospects Live who commented on his weight gain and swing changes.

On a Personal Note
My busy season at school came to an abrupt halt on Thursday with the conference academic bowl tournament. My team came home with a tournament championship as my little seven person squad swept through the bracket with three wins to bring home their second straight conference tournament trophy. The kids were also co-champs during the regular season at 8-1. The great thing about this victory is that I do not lose one player as there we no seniors on the team.

Coming Up This Week on Cubs Central

  • I have an article on Bailey Clark ready to go at some point this week.
  • The big news of the week will come at some point on Monday when Myrtle Beach and Iowa will announce their Copa Diversion nicknames for the coming year. I am a little pumped to see how these are handled. Eugene went in a totally different direction last year as Los Monarcas. I could see the Pelicans going with the Tiburons, which is Spanish for Shark. Grand Makos (mackerel shark) is another option. Iowa could go with Opatas, or Arctos, which is an extinct grizzly bear that was once found in Mexico. We shall see. I am ready to spend some money to get their gear, too. 
  • Ben Badler of Baseball America is releasing his recaps of international signings by each club. Hopefully, the Cubs will be targeted this week.

Bits of the Week at Cubs Central
Glenallen Hill, Jr.
Chris Allen
The Cubs’ YouTube Channel Debuts

Card of the Week

Photo by MLB Pipeline

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.

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.