Duane Underwood

The 7 Series: Tennessee Smokies Show Some Deep Talent in 2017

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By Todd Johnson

Overall Record – 68-70

I am not quite sure what went down in Kodak, Tennessee this summer. In April and May, they were close to being the best team in the system and were competing for a playoff spot against Chattanooga. Then, in one series, they were swept by Chattanooga and that doused any first half playoff hopes. Several prospects struggled in June and July and yet the Smokies were still in the thick of the playoff hunt again until mid August when the Montgomery Biscuits put some distance between themselves and the Smokies. Pitcher Jake Stinnett, who missed most of the year, returned in late July as a reliever and shined in his new role (0.61 ERA in 9 games). There could be something there.

Still, there was a lot of development that took place in 2017 for a team that was not considered to have a lot of elite prospects. Here are seven things about the Smokies talented roster.

1. Outfielder Charcer Burks was one of the prospects who came out of the gate extremely well in spring training playing with the big league club. That carried over into April and May as Burks made his way onto MLB Pipeline’s top 30 cubs prospect list after hitting .293 and .286 and then .333 in June. Then July happened. He hit .135 for the month but he did rebound some in August. For the year, he hit .270 with a .370 OBP.

2. Trey Martin – He has been around for a while and he has improved at every level. It is not been a rapid ascent, though, but a slow steady climb. Along the way, he’s won two gold gloves and struggled with minor issues like this year’s hamstring strain that caused him to miss two months. Upon his return, his bat showed a marked improvement and I am really excited about what he might be doing at Iowa next year.

3. David Bote exploded in the second half of 2016 and that carried over into April and May 2017. Like Burks, he went down a little bit in the summer but rebounded well in August hitting over .280. I like the fact that he can play multiple positions in the infield. He has shown some power, but I prefer the fact that he is hitting the ball up the middle on a consistent basis.

4. Jason Vosler – He led the Cubs’ system in home runs this year with 21 but he also hit less than .200 in August. He came on like gangbusters this spring and then faded over the course of the rest of the summer. I am looking forward to seeing his batting average/OBP bounce back in 2018. It seems the more home runs he hit in July and August the lower his batting average got. Considering the fact that he never had more than 10 home runs in a season before 2017, it was interesting to see him produce at such a prodigious rate.

5. Yasiel Balaguert – We should just rename him Mr. Second Half. If he ever had a good first half, he would hit over 25 homers and drive in100 every year. That’s basically his second half pace when prorated out to a 162 game schedule. Maybe he’s just one of those guys it does better when it’s warmer. I look forward to him playing first base and the outfield next year for Iowa in a hitter’s league.

6. Ian Rice – You have to be picky when looking at his stats. You can hone in on the on-base percentage, the power numbers, and games played behind the plate that all point to him being one of the most improved prospects the past year. He played in 114 games this year with a .353 OBP and hit 17 homeruns. Considering that he was a last-minute addition to the Tennessee roster, he did an outstanding job transitioning over to catching almost full-time. I am really looking forward to seeing what he can do in Arizona Fall League this October and November.

7 – Which starting pitchers will get promoted to Iowa with Duane Underwood? I don’t know who that’s going to be. I honestly don’t. It should be determined in spring training. I think Zach Hedges will get a crack at Iowa again if I was to make a bet. If Adbert Alzolay and Trevor Clifton shine in spring training, they could also find their way there. I think a lot of it depends on who the Cubs sign, or trade for, in the offseason to replace Arrieta and Lackey. Right now, Alzolay, who is pitching well in relief in Arizona, might have the inside shot. Clifton, who was brilliant in the first half of the year and struggled in the second, could turn his career around quickly with a good spring. I would not be surprised to see all four get a shot in spring training to make a start with the big league club.

Smokies to Watch in 2018
Now 22, Eddy Martinez will be the player to watch in 2018. He’s finally acclimated to playing baseball again and playing baseball in the United States. It’s been a huge cultural shift for him and he is now able to relax and just play. In the second half of 2017, he hit .276 with 7 HRs and an OBP of .333. I imagine that the Eloy trade was tough for him as they were inseparable as teammates. The trade also may have helped him realize he is on his own now. I am looking forward to seeing him do his own thing in AA in 2018.

SS Zack Short, Pitchers Dakota Mekkes, Michael Rucker, Duncan Robinson, Thomas Hatch, Pedro Araujo, C Tyler Alamo, and 3B Jesse Hodges also bear watching in Tennessee. All will be at critical junctures in their development.

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A New Top 21 List – A Few Movers and Shakers

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By Todd Johnson

I am thinking I had this list done about three weeks ago. I wanted to put it out almost immediately after the minor league season ended. After thinking about it, I thought I would just let it settle and edit it before I put it out. To be honest, it has changed much from when I wrote it to today. In fact, I was reconsidering re-ordering 5-9 all night.

Card made from a photo by Freek Bouw/27 Outs Baseball.com

There are really only two major changes in this list from the summer. They are the inclusion of outfielders Jonathan Sierra and Nelson Velazquez. In fact, I had Velasquez shoot all the way into the top 10. The Cubs don’t have anybody like him in the system with his home run power and production.

I still think this list is pretty volatile. After the Arizona Fall League, I will think about mixing it up a bit. But with who is going to Arizona, I think only one prospect might improve their lot on the list.

The list could change quite a bit later this off-season as trades are made and injuries are revealed. I think the biggest risers and fallers next year will be at AA Tennessee. The Smokies will have pitchers Thomas Hatch, Trevor Clifton, Oscar de la Cruz, Duncan Robinson, Michael Rucker and position players Zack Short and Eddy Martinez. Those seven will determine how the rest of the list looks because production at AA signals that the product could be productive in Chicago.

South Bend’s rotation next year will also have a huge impact on the list as recent draft picks will be unleashed without any restrictions. Cory Abbott and Keegan Thompson are two pitchers who could make some waves in 2018 with some excellent performances next summer.

So, without further adieu, here is the current Top 21 list in video form.

The August Cards of the Month – Collages of Color and Action

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By Todd Johnson

Like July, I made a lot of cards and very quickly in early August. Then, when I started getting ready to teach, the pace of cards slowed way down. I think it gets more challenging every month  to pick just 10 cards because each month I keep adding more and more sources to make those cards.

Next year, I’m going to continue putting the cards in monthly albums on Facebook. It worked out better than I thought it could. It didn’t start out like that but once July got here, a lot of the loading issues were resolved by the monthly selections.

The top cards for this month don’t really have a theme. As I started to narrow them down, I began to also think where they would fit among the top 10 cards of the year. I think we may see two or three of them at the end of September when I do the cards of the year post.

  

10 to 8
Much of a good baseball card comes down to to action, light, and color. At Number 10, Dylan Heuer’s capture of Dillon Maples is accentuated by the sunlight that when combined with shadows really brings out the action. At number 9, Rikk Carlson encapsulates all the athleticism of DJ Wilson in one shot. Yasiel Balaguert is captured by the Tennessee Smokies with the red stripes on the jersey and on his compression stocking making the picture and the card.    

 

7 to 5
There’s just something about the blue of the Tennessee Smokies uni that gets my attention. I might be crazy, but I just love that shade. Steve Perakslis’ jersey and hat show it off in the small shadows. I normally don’t have large pictures turned sideways for cards. I couldn’t resist with Emerald Media’s shot of Rafael Narea and a shot of Duane Underwood by the Smokies.

  

4-2
For Duane Underwood’s second card by MLB Pipeline, you might think it’s the blue that make it but I think it’s the red in the background that really sets up the blue. The Eugene Emeralds’ capture of Jesus Camargo’s face really makes his picture. At number three, Rikk Carlson is back and gets to number two (which seems to be a theme the past few months) on Ademan’s second night at South Bend.

#1. Minor-league baseball (@MiLB) captured the number one spot this month with their publication of a picture of DJ Wilson laying out in a road game. Right now, that picture is in the top two or three for the year.

I will be back in late September with a monthly post. There are still a lot of baseball pics to come in this weekend and in the playoffs. In October, I will have the top 10 cards of the year on in it.  I will be back with “The Weekly” tomorrow where hopefully three teams will have clinched playoff spots and a fourth affiliate will still be alive for one.

Which Cub Prospect Would Be Worth Investing In Over the Next Year?

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By Todd Johnson

Last week, Baseball America released its new top 100 prospect list that included draft picks from the 2017 MLB Draft. There was not a Cub to be seen. There were three former Cubs, but no one who is currently in the system. Over the next year, I tend to believe that one or two Cubs prospects might make it onto either MLB.com’s Top 100 list or Baseball America’s Top 100. If I was to invest money into who those prospects might be, I would have a wide array of choices in which to invest.

The Cubs have a lot of prospects who are on their way up. By that I mean, they are ascending players as their skills and tools begin to improve. There are other prospects who have shown glimpses of immense talent but have not put it all together yet. They are still developing.

At first I tried to organize my investment choices into categories based on risk and reward. There were players who I thought were a high-risk vs. investing in others who were a low risk. I scrapped that idea pretty quickly. 

Categories

I narrowed the categories down to three. The first one would be long-term investments. These could be recent high school pics like Luis Vazquez and Nelson Velasquez to go along with several young international free agents who are currently in the Dominican Summer League or in Mesa. It’s going to take awhile for them to approach Top 100 status.

The second category is players who could take a couple years to develop before they hit the top 100. Miguel Amaya is one player whose defensive attributes garner attention but the bat still lags behind a little bit.  First-round pick Brendon Little is a perfect example of someone who is going to take a couple years to develop and a lot of that is because of his age and lack of experience. Then again, his curveball could accelerate his development.

The final category is players who I think have a decent shot at being included on a top 100 list by the middle of next summer. I call these these One Year Bets.

Jose Albertos – Currently at short season Eugene, I think the 18-year-old pitcher is the top prospect in the Cubs’ system. He should be a top 100 prospect by the middle of next year if he continues to pile up innings and gain experience. I think he’s getting that experience this year, but next year will really propel him up a list. If things go well the last month, he could make a list this winter.

Adbert Alzolay – I am extremely impressed that he has been able to maintain his velocity and health over the course of this year as a starter. He doesn’t have the biggest frame which makes his ability to sustain a 96/97 mile an hour fastball into the sixth and seventh innings that much more impressive.

Duane Underwood – Over the past month, something is happening for the 23-year-old right-hander. I don’t know what it is specifically. But I do know that he is able to command his pitches better, get more strikeouts, and work deep into games. Over the past month he has a 1.33 ERA in five starts. If he can do that at the beginning of next year for AAA Iowa, he may find himself in Chicago by the middle of the summer. He just turned 23.

Aramis Ademan – I think he has the most tools of any position player currently in the system. He’s yet to put everything together. We see have seen brief glimpses and runs of greatness as well as stretches of inconsistency. I think his bat is further along at this point then many people thought it would be and his defense has not peaked where others may have thought it should be.

Alex Lange – I really like what he brings to the table and I think once he gets going as a full-time pitcher next year, he is going to shoot up the rankings. Even though he was drafted behind Little, Lange’s experience in the SEC will move him along at a much faster rate. I would not be surprised to see him be on the list before anybody else.

The Longshots

Mark Zagunis – Right now, I don’t think there’s a better pure hitter and a better eye at the plate in the organization than Zagunis. He’s going to be close to a 20 home run pace this year in spite of starting the year somewhat injured. I don’t really know if he fits the mold is a top prospect, but his performance and his exceptional approach at the plate raise him high above any other prospects. The problem is not his floor, it’s his ceiling.

Kevonte Mitchell – We have seen glimpses of Kevonte busting out this season. Of the five months that make up the 2017 season, he’s had one good one, two mediocre ones, and two excellent ones. He’s been very impressive in the second half especially in August. I think if he comes into camp ready to go, he could take the Carolina League by storm next year. Physically gifted, he is an imposing figure as anyone in the Cubs system. It’s just a matter of him putting it together which he has started to do this year with better pitch recognition and approach.

Oscar de la Cruz – Injuries look they put his career in slow motion. It was a shoulder strain this season, forearm tightness last year. But when healthy, he throws 93-95 with ease. He can command a curve and a change along with his fastball. For him to make any list, he has to get healthy and put in some innings.

The Weekly: September Callups and the Playoff Push

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By Todd Johnson

There are just three weeks left in the MiLB season. With the Iowa Cubs out of the running, the Cubs will have some callups once September arrives and rosters expand. I would not expect too many players considering the Cubs are in the midst of a pennant race. Here are five players I think the Cubs will add for the final month. All but one are on the 40 man roster and a space will have to be made to add that one player.

Mark Zagunis – I think he is the only position player who gets added since Caratini arrived to replace Willson.

Jack Leathersich – A lefty, he’s been lights out at Iowa but I doubt he would pitch in Chicago except in a blowout.

Eddie Butler – I like adding him as a long man or backup starter.

Rob Zastryzny – He was just up for a day and should be up all September now that he is healthy.

Dillon Maples – He is the only one who is not on the 40 man roster. Then again, he could be added long before September comes the way he is pitching.

Outside shot of being added – Catcher Taylor Davis – I don’t think Manager Joe Maddon wants to go into the playoffs with a couple of run down catchers. Hopefully Willson will be back in a month. In the meantime, Davis would provide a day off for both catchers or an inning or two of relief in blowouts down the stretch to keep them fresh as well.


A month ago, I published an article about the Arizona Fall League and 40 man roster implications. At first, I thought about revisiting that post in the wake of the trades, but Eloy Jimenez was the only player affected from the post. Instead, the only possible outcome would be that there might be one more 40 man roster spot available. In the article, I predicted who the Cubs might protect from the Rule V Draft by adding them to the 40 man roster. I also suggested some possible prospects who could play in the AFL. The Cubs may want to save a spot for Willson Contreras to rehab considering how  well that worked for someone else last year to come back for the World Series.


In other news this week, Baseball America produced a new top 100 prospect list that includes this year’s draft picks. There are still no Cubs. I don’t think there will be until the middle of next year.


Coming up at Cubs Central.
School starts for me this week. After two days of institute on Wednesday and Thursday, the students arrive on Friday.  I have a couple of posts already in the queue ready to go. One is an interview with Myrtle Beach Pelicans pitcher Duncan Robinson. The other is a post about investing in Cubs prospects. I will also examine possible names of some DSL players who should be headed north for Fall Instructs. That could be the week after. You never know how news flows.


Saying Goodbye
Yesterday morning, my wife and I had to put down one of our dogs. Phoebe was a terrier mix who was almost 13. She lived a good life of walks, treats, and belly rubs. In the past year, she had lost her sight and most of her hearing. We miss her already.


Around the Minors:
Iowa – 4-3: Jen-Ho Tseng continues to roll and reliever David Garner was promoted to AAA.

Tennessee – 3-3: 3.5 GB of a playoff spot – Yasiel Balaguert was named Southern League Hitter of the Week while Duane Underwood might be named Pitcher of the Week tomorrow.

Myrtle Beach – 1-5: It is rough all around in South Carolina. Reliever Pedro Araujo was promoted to AA Tennessee. I hope to see some infusion of talent from South Bend to give the Pelicans a shot at winning back-to-back-to-back titles.

South Bend – 4-2: I am seeing some growth and development from DJ Wilson, Kevonte Mitchell, and Bryan Hudson that is extremely promising. In addition, pitcher Tyler Peyton is on a great streak of pitching well the past three weeks. He has put himself into contention to make the monthly all-star team. Tomorrow’s post will be about how South Bend can help Myrtle Beach win the Mills Cup.

Eugene – 2-5: 1 Defensive woes derailed their week but they are still just one game away from a playoff spot. Brandon Hughes is starting to warm up again.

Mesa – 2-3: The kids are getting experience even if it doesn’t show up in wins. Delvin Zinn seems to be back in a groove hitting over .300 this month.

DSL 1 – 3-4 – OF Luis Hidalgo got the call to Mesa this week.
DSL 2 – 2-4 

Baseball Card of the Week

Players of the Week

My Other Stuff on the Web From This Week
Cubs Insider:
Austin Upshaw Profile
MiLB Pitcher of the Year Discussion
Duane Underwood

Prospect Update: Duane Underwood Is Back on the Radar

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By Todd Johnson
   
One of the most underreported stories of the summer has been the somewhat resurgence of Duane Underwood. The 2012 draft pick has been healthy all season. And over his last 10 starts, he has compiled a 3.45 ERA. His last start saw him go 7 IP with 7 Ks and no BBs, a rarity for him. What I find most encouraging about the rebirth of Underwood is that he has done it pretty much unnoticed.

Here are six reasons why you could jump back on the “Duane Underwood Top Prospect” train.

1. He just turned 23. It seems like he’s been around forever. Nevertheless, when you are drafted into an organization devoid of pitching, as the Cubs were in 2012, your name moves to the top of the list. Add in his performances at Kane County and Myrtle Beach in 2014 and 2015 and bloggers, writers, and other evaluators were drooling over his potential. As a result, in a system bereft of pitching, writers drifted towards the blinking radar gun in 2014 that said, “Easy 95.”

2. His ability to throw hard has never gone away. In fact, I think the velocity has improved since he was in class A. I think he now throws 95 to 97 regularly and, on an odd occasion, he touches 98-100.

3. Injury Free – He hasn’t missed a start all year. He’s taken the ball every fifth day and pitches between 90 and 100 pitches most of the time. For the year, he has thrown 108 innings and 1776 pitches, 1088 of them for strikes.

4. Pure Stuff – I don’t think there’s anybody in the system that throws three better pitches than Duane Underwood. There are pitchers who have better command, which has been the issue the past two seasons. What I find odd is that he’s never really been a strikeout pitcher with the kind of pitches that he has. One would think that he could just wipe guys out left and right. I don’t know why that is not happening. In 2015 at Myrtle Beach, his last full year, he averaged 5.69 K/9. This year, he is up to 6.79.

5. Command – This has always been his kryptonite or Achilles heel.  In 58.2 IP at AA in 2016, his BB/9 rate was 4.76. This year it is 3.42 which is almost respectable. He needs to get that in the 2s if he is going to go beyond Iowa. In spite of his command, I feel pretty good about his chances to make it to Iowa in 2018. And I feel pretty good about his chances at being a starter at AAA next year.

6. Time to Develop – Sometimes it takes five to seven years to develop a high school pitcher, which was where Underwood was when the Cubs drafted him. Because of his young age, I’m not ready for him to be a reliever, and I’m not ready for the Cubs to give up on him as a starter when he’s only 23. If he was 25, I could see him transition to being a reliever. But here’s the thing: He’s still a young kid and there’s plenty of time to be a reliever later. I still think he’s got a couple years of starter development still in him and that’s fine. If he makes to it Chicago in two years with a 95-97 mph FB that he can command to go along with a plus curve and a change, that’s more than you could ask for in a starter.

Right now, he is improving every month and he’s healthy. That’s a huge improvement from the past two seasons. With just a little over three weeks left in the minor-league season, Underwood will probably make about five more starts. I don’t think there’s anything to look for or expect out of him in those starts other than to just stay healthy.

I think, as a whole, a lot of people of been impatient with him, including myself. But I also recognize that he is an extremely talented and athletic pitcher. The expectation to rush him to the majors has been there for three years. And that expectation hasn’t worked out too well. Maybe it’s time for different expectations. I think those early expectations placed on Underwood were more projections of people wanting him to be something much sooner than later.

I think if he can finish the season healthy, that will go along way towards his own confidence, and, maybe more importantly, the confidence of the Cubs in him.

Now That Jeimer Is Gone, Which Cubs Prospects Have “Next” in Chicago?

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By Todd Johnson

Eloy is gone.

Dylan Cease is gone.

Ian Happ is gone.

Albert Almora is gone.

Jeimer Candelario…gone.

Four months ago, they were the top five guys in the Cubs’ system. Two made it to Chicago while the other three were used in trades to obtain players that will hopefully bring another World Series trophy this year and/or next.

In looking at who might be the next group of players to make it to Chicago, one only need to look at AAA Iowa and AA Tennessee to see the next possible candidates who could arrive over the next year to help out.

I feel confident in saying that we can rule out any position players. No one in Chicago is going anywhere until at least after 2018. And that is not a even certainty.

So that leaves pitching.

The Cubs will have several openings in the bullpen and starting staff next year. I think the Cubs will use all avenues of talent acquisition to fill those spots. Still, here are five to seven prospects to watch the rest of August, fall instructs, and spring training as they could be in the discussion for a roster spot in 2018, or maybe even a bullpen spot this year.

Dillon Maples – It took a while, but he’s got it. In fact, he has always had “it.” Now he has confidence and a cutter to go with his upper 90s fastball and slider/curve “thingy” (That’s what Maples calls it). He has dominated two levels this year and is now working on a third. Based on his talent and ascension, he will get a precious 40 man spot this winter to escape being selected in the Rule V draft.

Jen-Ho Tseng – I loved him in 2014 as an 18-year-old at Kane County. The changeup fell off the table then. He will turn 23 this fall and should have a shot to compete for a starting spot at the back of the rotation in 2018. More than likely, he will probably be used as starting pitching depth for next season and be stored at Iowa. Still, I cannot wait to see him in camp next spring.

Craig Brooks – He is in Tennessee right now. In July, the right handed reliever did not allow a run and struck out 25 in 13.1 IP. It took him several months to figure it out at Myrtle Beach. It took him just 4 weeks at AA. I cannot wait to see what his mid to upper 90s heat will do at Iowa and in spring training.

Adbert Alzolay – Long term, I like his stuff better out of the pen. But for now, he’s starting and doing it very well throwing at 96 in the 6th and 7th innings. The secondaries still need some work. Hopefully, he can get those improved at AA before the spring. He is stretched out now in his second year of starting after being a reliever/piggyback starter in Eugene in 2015. He’s pretty healthy despite his small frame.

Matt Carasiti – He came over this summer in the Zac Rosscup trade from the Rockies. I have watched him pitched a couple of times. He throws in the middle 90s but doesn’t have that “out” pitch, but he does know how to pitch. You don’t get to be the closer in the All-Star game in a hitter’s league for nothing.

Long Shots – Duane Underwood and Trevor Clifton

They have both been around for a while. Underwood in his second season at AA and Clifton, his first. For Underwood, he still throws in the upper 90s that either he commands or he doesn’t command and that can change from inning to inning. He just turned 23 so don’t expect the Cubs to give up on him anytime soon.

As for Trevor, he was outstanding through the All-Star Break at AA. Since, he’s struggled in his six second half starts. I still believe in his talents. At times, he is humming right along and runs into the big inning or a big fly. His walk rate is up a bit after being way down last year. He’s a mentally tough kid. At just 22, he’s worked hard to get here. He will continue to do so. This might be just a bump in the road for him to go around.