Prospect Update – Is Duane Underwood Close?

By Todd Johnson

I have been thinking about this a lot. And every time I watch Duane Underwood pitch, that is the question that is on my mind. And there are several other questions to go with it. Like, how close is he to being ready? Will Underwood be successful if he makes it? And to be honest, they are all pretty close to the same question. And the answer is always the same. Almost. 

It is pretty nondescript and as vague as one can get while at the same time being  somewhat positive, but not too positive.

Drafted in the compensation round in 2012, Underwood has had his moments as a Cub prospect. Some of them, early on, were eye-opening about the condition he needed to keep his body in and the talent that he has when he is healthy.

At Kane County and Myrtle Beach he was throwing an easy 95 and was named the Cubs MiLB pitcher of the Year in 2015 at Myrtle Beach. He had a 2.48 ERA that year in 73.1 innings.

Things started going off the rails for him in 2016 as he battled injuries for the better part of of the season. Nothing required surgery, but it was a little alarming.

It was good to see him pitch 131 innings last year and he has looked much more mature on the mound since about the middle of July 2017.

This year, he looks to be in great shape. His curveball looks great. And, most importantly, he’s throwing pretty much where he wants when he wants. When he occasionally gets the ball up , that’s when he runs into trouble.

He can start a hitter off with a curve ball on strike one or he can finish them off with the change up for strike three. It’s good that he’s pitching in a variety of ways but he’s keeping the ball down. And when he does that, he is almost unhittable. This year, he has a 3.98 ERA in 110 starts with 56 K in 61 innings. He’s only walked 15, which is amazing.

He’s just a phone call away now. Even though it seems like he’s been around forever, it has only been six years. He is still just 23 years old. The only thing he has left work on is to have consistency from start to start to start to start. For awhile this year, he gave up either 4 runs or 0 runs for six straight starts. As a result, his ERA is not a true indication of his season other than his inconsistencies. 

Last Friday, for example. He got hit hard in the first inning and gave up four runs. However, over the next four innings, he struck out a total eight guys (10 total) while not allowing anything else. The issue that first inning was he lead off the game with two walks, then he gave up two singles. He wasn’t hit hard, he just couldn’t get the ball where he wanted before striking out the last two batters. The damage, though, was already done.

The Cubs are only going to put him in Chicago if they feel that he can succeed. I don’t know when that will be, but I do know that he is almost there. It’s all about consistency now.

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The Weekly – Pitching Dominates the Week and Some Draft Tidbits

By Todd Johnson

It was an interesting week in the minors. Everyday saw a great pitching performance or two. On Sunday, Erich Uelmen went six scoreless while Jen-Ho Tseng had the first of two good starts on the week going 7 innings with 9 Ks and 2 runs. On Monday, Michael Rucker went 6 innings with 8 Ks while allowing 2 runs. Javier Assad struck out 7 on Tuesday.

Photo by John Conover

Wednesday was the big day as Brendon Little went 7 scoreless while fellow first rounder Alex Lange went six scoreless with 10 Ks. Duane Underwood also did well on Wednesday along with Trevor Clifton, whose start was cut short due to rain.

On Thursday, the pitching parade continued as Matt Swarmer went 6 scoreless with 7 Ks before leaving in the 7th with a tired arm. He should not miss a start. On Friday, Bailey Clark went from piggyback starter to a full-fledged rotation piece at Myrtle Beach with 4 innings of 1 run ball. That same night, Cory Abbott went 6 strong with 5 Ks and 1 run.

Last night, all four starters were magnificent as well. Keegan Thompson got things started off with 6 scoreless and 8 Ks for Myrtle Beach. South Bend’s Erich Uelmen went 5 scoreless and 8 Ks, too. The only difference between the two was that Thompson gave up just one hit while Uelmen allowed three. Alec Mills continued the night with 6 innings of 1 run ball. Oscar de la Cruz looked very strong for Tennessee, even taking a liner off his knee and staying in the game. He went 7 innings with no runs allowed while striking out 7 and scattering 5 hits.

As the temperature warms up, so has some hitting. 

Christian Donahue is an infielder who currently plays for South Bend. After coming off the DL on the 16th, Donahue’s bat has taken off with steady playing time. He’s hitting .400 for the month. He seems to be a doubles machine as he has a .964 OPS despite not having a home run. But what I like the most is Donahue’s hustle. He plays the game hard. Being an undrafted free agent out of Oregon State might have something to do with that. I will flesh out his bio a little later this week.

Some Good News

Ryan Williams returned to action for the first time in 2 years yesterday. The “Big Lumberjack” threw 46 pitches (3.2 IP) yesterday in an EXST game. He didn’t light up the radar gun, but he was effective the first two innings. In addition, Erling Moreno came on in relief throwing harder than usual at 96-98. Arizona Phil of The Cub Reporter wondered if Erling is being transitioned into a reliever.

Roster Changes

Victor Caratini is back in Iowa while Chris Gimenez is now in Chicago. Victor really needs to play everyday. I am sure the experience was good, but Victor’s future is not as a backup to Willson, Victor, more than likely, will be his own catcher at some point. Efren Navarro of iowa, who was on track to make this month’s All-Star team at 1B, was designated for assignment yesterday.

Jim Callis Draft Interview

On Saturday, Jim Callis of MLB Pipeline was on 670 The Score’s “Inside the Clubhouse” talking about the draft. Callis said the Cubs have to let the draft come to them picking at #24. Callis talked about how the Cubs may have a strategy of looking for a college bat, but players drop or fall for various reasons. Callis used Alex Lange dropping last year as an example. Callis brought up some college arms who could fall to the Cubs including lefty Shane McClanahan of Central Florida, Logan Gilbert of Stetson, and Jackson Kowar of Florida as guys who could be bypassed earlier in the draft in favor of college bats.

One interesting name that came up as possible bats at that position, aside from Callis’ pick of Trevor Larnach, was Indiana high school outfielder Nick Schnell. The Louisville commit has a nice 6’2” 180 lb. frame and bats left while throwing right. Callis called him an all-around player.

Another player I hear gaining traction, and not just for the Cubs, is Georgia prep catcher Anthony Seigler. Though decent behind the plate, his bat is his true calling card. He also has the experience of playing USA Baseball, a box that scouting director Jason McLeod like to check. If he shoots into the first round, he could mess up a lot of draft boards.

https://twitter.com/j_nyy/status/1000145385535373312

Around the System
Iowa – 5-2 (18-29)
Tennessee – 3-3 (25-23)
Myrtle Beach – 4-4 (21-28)
South Bend – 4-3 (21-26)

Players of the Week

 

 

Card of the Week

Coming Up Next Week on Cubs Central
Monday – Draft Questions
Tuesday – Christian Donahue
Wednesday – Pitching in the MiLB
Thursday – ???
Friday – May MiLB All-Star Team
Saturday – May Cards of the Month
Sunday – The Weekly
Monday the 4th – Draft Day #1

As for Me…

I wrapped up another year of teaching on Thursday afternoon. That, to me, means the beginning of summer. When I am not checking in on baseball the next few weeks, I am going to do a lot of little things around the house and yard while trying to figure whether I am going to South Bend or Des Moines for a trip the week of June 11th.

 

A Magical Night of Pitching from Iowa on Down to South Bend

By Todd Johnson

In yesterday’s article, I talked about how the hitting was struggling at each affiliate.

Last night, the pitching took center stage and it was very impressive.

For Iowa, Duane Underwood went 6 innings and only gave up 1 run while striking out 6. he gave up 4 hits and lowered his season ERA to 3.35. This month Underwood still has a bit of that good start/bad start thing going on. More starts like Wednesday’s will fix that.

Down in Pensacola, Trevor Clifton continued his very good season for AA Tennessee. Clifton’s ERA for May is 3.05 after throwing 4 scoreless with 3 Ks. Except for a couple bad innings this season, he’s been one of the best pitchers in the system. Unfortunately, Trevor’s outing yesterday was cut short by rain and the game will be finished today. His ERA for the season is 3.55.

The highlight, or should I say highlights, of the evening actually involved last year’s two first round picks.

Brendon Little’s May ERA is now down to 3.75 and he is throwing with a lot of assertiveness. Last night Little threw 7 scoreless innings with 5 Ks and did not allow a run on 82 pitches. Little attacked with his fastball-curve combo and an occasional changeup. Rather than nibble like he did in April, he’s going right after hitters, challenging them, and moving the ball all around the zone. Little has become must-see MiLB.TV and he looks like first round material the Cubs envisioned. Some fans were a little concerned about his early troubles in Eugene in 2017 and in April this year.

Be concerned no more.

Meanwhile, down in Myrtle Beach…

Alex Lange of the Pelicans had his best start as a Cubs prospect. Lange went 6 strong, allowed 6 hits without any runs while striking out an amazing 10 batters. While his fastball location was iffy, his use of a changeup seems to be helping his curves because hitters were flailing at his 2 curves all night long. He was devastating against lefties as his curve broke down and in. They stood no chance. It was one of the most impressive starts and pitches of any prospect this season.

Tonight, more of the Cubs top pitchers are back at it. Duncan Robinson goes for Tennessee, April Pitcher of the Month Matt Swarmer goes for Myrtle Beach, and one of my faves, Rollie Lacy, goes for South Bend.

In other news, pitcher Erick Leal will be returning to Myrtle Beach after missing all of 2017. Pelicans’ pitchers Kyle Miller and Elvis Diaz were released while Jose Paulino, also of Myrtle Beach, was placed on the DL.

The Midweek Report: Remillard Begins 2018, Pitcher Injuries, and Top 21 Thoughts

By Todd Johnson

It is good to see catcher Will Remillard back in action and playing all the way up at AA Tennessee. The former Midwest League All-Star missed 2.5 years due to two Tommy John surgeries. He saw his first action since 2014 last August doing some catching for the Eugene Emeralds. He spent most of this spring in extended spring training and he began playing last week in Tennessee.

His bat has acted like he never left and skipped high A baseball. Heading into Wednesday’s game, he was 5 for 11 (.455) in 3 games at AA and I am extremely happy to see him play. I love his catching skills and his leadership skills. He brings a lot of intensity to any team he is on.

In Other Injury News…
Manny Rondon made his debut last night in South Bend. He did so in relief giving up 1 unearned run and striking out 1 in 1.2 innings.

Meanwhile, Justin Steele, who was outstanding at Myrtle Beach last year before TJS in August, is back throwing after surgery.

Also, reliever Chad Hockin showed off his scar work from his Tommy John Surgery last month.

In addition…

For some weird reason, I am also thinking about June when I plan on redoing my Top 21 prospect list. At the beginning of the year, I knew that players would move up and down the list this year depending on performance. The lack of elite talent and separation between the talent in the system would cause that movement as players heated up or cooled off.

There are a few prospects who are putting together nice seasons and could be promoted at the All-Star break in mid June.

Hitters
Zack Short – After a poor July, he’s pounding the ball in May with a .698 slugging percentage and hitting above .300 this month with an OBP well over .500.
Jared Young – He did have a brief injury after hitting .400+ the first two weeks of the season. He struggled a bit after coming off the DL, but seems to have found his stroke the past four or five games.
Austin Filiere – The 2016 draft pick out of MIT hit for more power last year, but this year finds him hitting for a high average (.313)) and his usual .400+ OBP.

Pitchers
Duane Underwood was doing this best Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde impersonation for a few starts and now looks to be using all his pitches in a variety of counts to keep a batter guessing. When he’s been on, he is is amazing. When he’s off, yeesh!

I really enjoy watching Keegan Thompson pitch. I like how he works hitters and uses all of the zone and throws a variety of pitches. He’s really been impressive in May with a 2.65 in 3 starts.

Matt Swarmer, Cory Abbott, Tyler Thomas, and Javier Assad have all been impressive in spurts, but I need more data on them. Of the four, Abbott could be the most consistent and he could sneak into the back end of the list. Although, Matt Swarmer’s K totals are amazing (42 in 32.1 IP).

I don’t know how it will all shake down, but there will be an even greater number of prospects this June to add into the Top 21 mix when Eugene, Mesa, and the Dominican begin play. Jeremiah Estrada is one player pitching I am looking forward to seeing along with Outfielder Fernando Kelli and Shortstop Luis Vazquez as well as the new draft picks.

I will be writing about Adbert Alzolay in anticipation of his supposed start on Saturday. The issue is whether I will be posting it in the Six Pack on Friday or its own post on Saturday.

The Weekly: Big Time Pitching Fills Up the Week

By Todd Johnson

Happy Mother’s Day!

It was a good week across the entire organization. The big league club looks like it’s beginning to put things together at the plate. Meanwhile, in the minor leagues, pitching dominated the week as three of the four affiliates had winning weeks.

It was a full week of games so several starters got in two starts. Duane Underwood dazzled in both starts. It seemed like every day someone was going six innings with several strikeouts. As a result, picking the pitcher of the week was a very hard choice.

The big news of the week came in South Bend in three parts.
1. Top 10 prospect Nelson Velazquez popped up in South Bend and immediately flashed his five tools. It is going to be a bit of adjustment for him as he probably has never seen the types of curveballs and offspeed stuff he is going to see in the Midwest League.

2. Pitcher Rollie Lacy made his first start of the year this week after dominating in the bullpen for five weeks. In fact, he made two starts. I really like watching him work as he just seems to pound the zone and keeps hitters off their toes by changing speeds. And he also misses a lot of bats (31 in 27.1 IP).

3. No sooner than I posted an article about Brendon Little did he have his best start of the year. He came out Friday night and just attacked, attacked, and attacked. While he did walk four, he struck out five as the Clinton hitters were stymied by his curve. Little only gave up two hits and looked very impressive doing so. As a result, I am excited to see how he does on Wednesday or Thursday next week – which should be his next start.

This Week’s Records
Iowa 5-2 (11-23)
Tennessee 5-2 (19-16)
Myrtle Beach 2-5 (14-22)
South Bend 4-3 (14-18)

Promotion Commotion

It is also hard to believe that the first half of the MiLB first half is now over on Tuesday the 15th. The minor league season goes by very, very quickly and we should start to see a few pitching promotions soon. I don’t expect anything major, and by major I mean a starting pitcher. It will probably be a reliever.

Dakota Mekkes is the one to watch for and the one that could impact the big league club the most. He’s just dominated the Southern League in six weeks. I don’t know what else he has left to prove. Yes, he could cut down on his walks but he can work on that at Iowa while getting that much closer to Chicago.

I don’t see a lot of player movement happening on the hitting side. 

Extended Spring Training
Cuban pitcher Raidel Orta, 22, is starting to get some more action. A little under the radar signing, he might be a bit of a break out prospect in the second half. I have yet to see him pitch, but I am looking forward to hopefully seeing him in Eugene with that talented roster. He comes in at 5’9″ and 180 lbs. Meanwhile, third baseman Christopher Morel keeps hitting dingers and shortstops Luis Diaz and Luis Vasquez keep impressing Arizona Phil in the daily updates at The Cub Reporter. Another name to keep in mind is catcher Jonathan Soto who seems to be coming up big at the most important times. Another name who could be interesting this summer is Kevn Moreno, a 3B from Cuba who sounds like he could stick in Mesa at 17-years-old.

Mock Drafts Coming In

Both Baseball America and MLB Pipeline released full first round mock drafts in the past two weeks. BA had the Cubs taking a HS catcher from Georgia while MLB Pipeline had the Cubs going with Kumar Rocker, an elite athlete and quality HS pitcher. Here is what Jim Callis said of Rocker:

Chicago has pounded college pitching in each of the last two Drafts and still could use more arms, though this time the prep route might be more attractive in the first round. A hamstring injury has slowed Rocker down the stretch, giving the Cubs an unexpected shot at a guy who can bring mid-90s heat and a wipeout slider at his best. Rodriguez and Wilcox are two more comparable options.

While Rocker would be a good selection, the Cubs are most likely to pound college bats with their first four to five picks. In positions slotted behind Rocker were some appealing college bats like Seth Beer and Steele Walker, and Prep bat Connor Scott.

What’s Ahead Next Week at Cubs Central?
On Monday, I will be examining the draft classes of the past few years and re-grading them. I don’t really have much else planned for the week other than to keep an eye on Velazquez transitioning to South Bend. 

Players of the Week

Things I Wrote for Other Sites
BP Wrigleyville
April Wrap Up

Cubs Insider
Jose Albertos
Nelson Velazquez Debut
Matt Swarmer
Draft Primer
Relievers

Baseball Card of the Week

The Midweek: Several Prospects Off to Good Starts to Begin May

By Todd Johnson

How quickly things can change. What happens in April doesn’t always happen in May and some players who got off to slow starts are now starting to turn it on. That includes hitters, starters, and relievers. Here are a few players who are off to sizzling starts in May.

Iowa – David Bote returned from Chicago and just killed it going 17 for 34 with a couple of home runs and 8 RBI. He was in Chicago yesterday and ripped a 2-run pinch hit double in the third for the Cubs. In addition, Randy Rosario still has not given up a run this year. And Duane Underwood again flashed his promise by going 7 innings with 7 Ks and not allowing a run. Underwood seems to have some sort of Jekyll and Hyde thing going on this year. Hopefully, his next start will be reminiscent of his last.

Tennessee – Charcer Burks did not have a good April hitting .151. However, his May has been scintillating. He’s gone 10 for 27 (.370) with one home run. His teammate, shortstop Zack Short, has displayed a bit more power. In 8 days, Short has posted an OPS of 1.386 and he has seen his batting average rise 34 points in 6 games. He’s hitting .333 this month, mostly in the second spot in the batting order.

Oscar de la Cruz also had a dominating first start in striking out 10 in 5.2 IP while Trevor Clifton rebounded from a poor start on the 2nd (2 ER in 0.2 IP on 40 pitches) to to strike out 9 in 6 IP on the 7th in 6 innings of 1 hit ball.

Myrtle Beach – Connor Myers has never really hit for average. What has allowed him to stay in the system has been an outstanding defensive and baserunning skill set. But to begin May, Myers has been fantastic and looks to be a different hitter as he is at .296 for the month. I asked Pelicans announcers Scott Kornberg what’s been the key to Myers ascension this month. Scott quipped:

It’s really amazing! He has talked a lot about more bat control and having a better plan at the plate. And his walk rate is double what it was last year, and also he’s swinging and missing about five percent less. And on that note about bat control, his line drive rate is actually the second-best mark in the league

On the mound, Matt Swarmer has been enlightening. After winning pitcher of the month for April, he began May in the same fashion going 6.2 innings with 7 Ks and no runs.

South Bend – It took Jared Young a couple of games to heat up once he returned from the DL. But once he started hitting, the South Bend Cubs started winning again. Add in the fact that leadoff man, Roberto Caro, seems to be playing with his hair on fire this month. The 24-year-old outfielder from the Dominican has bounced around the system the past three seasons between Myrtle Beach and South Bend. Caro could be putting a statement on this year as he is currently hitting over .400 from the leadoff spot in 16 games.

Tomorrow, I will be discussing the maturation of Brendon Little during his first month for South Bend. And, on Friday, the six pack looks at relievers around the minors who might get promoted in the next few weeks.

Days left to teach for me…now down to 11.

April’s MiLB All-Star Team Is Pitching Heavy

By Todd Johnson

This month’s All-Star team was pretty fluid right up through yesterday’s games. There were prospects who stayed consistent all month. There were those who got hot early and faded late. And then there are those who got off to a rough start but turned it on later in the month. At one point, before last Thursday, they were only five pitchers who met the usual pre-requisite 3.00 ERA. Somehow, two more pulled through

As for position players, no one but Jeffrey Baez really set the system on fire. Baez, who, in the past, has dominated levels in spurts. In April, Baez hit .411 with 3 HR and 15 RBI to earn Hitter of the Month honor. They were not that many players who hit above or near .300. While that is not required to get on the team, there were clear demarcations in the levels of production across the system about who should be on the team. I did not have to leave anyone off who was on a par with current crop of all-stars.

It will be interesting to see which players get promoted here in the coming weeks. I expect some of the players in the video below to move up a level. Most of the promoted prospects will probably be relievers and maybe one of the starting pitchers.

So, without further adieu, here is this month’s minor league All-Star team.