Duane Underwood

Cards of the Offseason – Part 2: Lighting It Up In New Templates

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By Todd Johnson

When it comes to baseball cards, I am weird. When I was a kid, I loved collecting them around 10, 11, and 12-years-old. It consumed every summer. I used to have a card table in my bedroom where I had them all sorted into neat little stacks by team and arranged by division. I was consumed with collecting them and trying to find the money to collect them. But as the 70s turned into the 80s, there were other things that began to take over my time. Part of me still enjoys that euphoria I got from collecting those initial cards of the 1970s.

That was over 40 years ago. This winter, I added some new templates of more recent years and I’m kind of digging that, too, but in a different way. For the month of January and into early February, I found a few more pictures of prospects that are starting to show up in Google and Twitter searches. Some of the cards I made turned into instant classics.

There’s not really a theme that weaves throughout all of the cards in the second “best of” post for this winter. Instead, the 12 cards I’ve selected today I like for variety of reasons. The key to any great card is a great photograph. And each of the photographs of the following cards are special for a different reason.


Honorable Mention
There were only a few pictures of Cory Abbott, the Cubs 2017 2nd round pick, out there on the Internet. This is one of them from the Eugene Emeralds that I really like because of the arm action in the follow through. For the other card, Duncan Robinson is in a Myrtle Beach Merman uniform, a play on the show “Eastbound and Down” that followed the mythical career of one Kenny Powers. I really love that jersey and the picture by Larry Kave!

  
10-8
Coming in at number 10 is a picture by my friend John Conover that captures Aramis Ademan in action against West Michigan. While I do like action, I really like the lines in the background of the dirt and the shaded section of the grass as much as the player. Coming in at number nine is a picture by MiLB of Adbert Alzolay at the high class A All-Star game. It’s it’s a very appealing picture to me because he’s in a different uniform and I like the shade of that blue. Sometimes, the specialty jersey can get played out a little bit, but I love this picture of Brendon Little in a “Pirates of the Caribbean” jersey.

  
7 to 5
Duncan Robinson returns again in the Mermen jersey at number seven. When I love about this picture is how the rain in the background dances in the light in another capture by Larry Kave. In contrast, Duane Underwood’s number six card has him bathed in the sunlight in an old picture from when he was in the Arizona Fall League from USA Today. Larry Kave’s close up of Zack Short is special because the yellow lettering just pops on the card.

  
4 to 2
Even though he didn’t get to see a lot of action after being drafted, Rollie Lacy comes in at number four in a night shot from the Emeralds that blends in perfectly with the staggered background in a 1999 template. I just love the many shades of black in the card. At number three, Alex Lange gets bathed in the trees that really offset the action in the card in this warm up shot from the Emeralds. For number two, I just love this blue sky blending with the stadium lights of Eugene reliever Casey Ryan. It is a classic action shot of him warming up in between innings in. I think the blue sky and the stadium lights reflecting against his hair is magical.

Number 1

2017 draft pick Chris Singleton has been through more in the last three years than anyone can imagine. His mother was killed in a church shooting in South Carolina. It didn’t stop Singleton from chasing his dream. When I look at this picture, I see a determined look in his face and how the world is just melting away behind him.

Starting later next week, spring-training shots should be floating around the Internet. I will take a few of those images and begin to make cards for spring training. It will have its own folder over on the Facebook page and I’ll have a post in early April for those cards. I’m really excited to see how much some of the players have changed over the winter and it’s always exciting to see them in a blue Cubs uniform in the Arizona sunlight.

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Leveling Up Series: Duane Underwood Is Just One Level Away Now

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By Todd Johnson

For the past two months, the “Leveling Up” series has taken a look at some prospects who will be advancing one level in the system in 2018. Most of them have been hitters but today’s series starts to shift towards pitching prospects.

Selected in the compensation round of the 2012 draft, Underwood is one of the few prospects left from the first class of the Theo era. 2018 will be his second year on the 40 man roster. I don’t foresee the Cubs giving up on him anytime soon as he is only 23 years old. Sometimes it seems that he is been around forever, but he’s really only completed just 2 complete full seasons baseball. The first was in 2014 at Kane County. The second one was last year at AA Tennessee. That’s it. In 2015 and 2016, Underwood barely pitched 70 innings each year as he struggled to stay healthy. Last year’s 138 innings at Tennessee bode well for 2018.

Aside from saying healthy, what impressed me most about Underwood last year was that he improved his walk rate throughout the course of the year. In fact, he cut it in half from May to August. When he had health issues, he struggled to command the ball despite throwing it in the mid to upper 90s. His talent never changed moving up the system.

Basic info
Age – 23
6’2” and 210 lbs.
Throws Right
Bats Right

Last fall, I published a profile of Underwood’s progress at Tennessee. But when it comes to 2018, there are just a few things to look for him at AAA Iowa.

1. How many innings is he pitching and how many pitches is he pitching?
While Underwood has always had a quality fastball and curve, he’s never been a strikeout pitcher despite his plus arsenal. Instead, he’s known to pitch to contact. In theory, this was supposed to allow him to get deeper in the game and to not throw as many pitches. It didn’t necessarily work that way. If all goes well in Iowa, he should get in 140-150 innings with a pitch count of close to 90+ each night. Strikeouts there are not that important, but getting his arm ready to pitch every five days in the majors is.

2. Staying Healthy
One thing that Underwood has been blessed with is that he missed going under the knife. The arm the Cubs drafted is still the arm that he has. And at 23 years of age, he’s still got a lot of life left in it. He is going to have his work and command cut out for him in some of the parks in the Pacific Coast league as they have been known to be places where the ball just flies out.

3. Adversity
Aside from injuries that have shoved him for short periods of time, the only struggle he’s had in the past five summers has been his command. As Jen-Ho Tseng showed last year, one can be a successful pitcher in the PCL with a low ERA. It’ll be interesting to see what kind of pitcher Underwood is going to be and how much confidence he got from putting up 138 innings at AA and his impressive July to August stretch.

4. Spring Training
I expect to see Duane make a few starts with the big league club, especially early in camp. If all goes well, Underwood could hang around for most of the spring. Now that he is just one level away, I am pretty excited for him and Cubs fans as Underwood really does have some special pitches. It is just a matter of command.

 

 

Here are some other profiles in the series
DJ Wilson
Kevonte Mitchell
Wladimir Galindo
Jose Albertos
Eddy Martinez
Zack Short
Rucker, Robinson, and Hatch
Ian Rice
David Bote

Position Breakdown Series – RHSP Part 1: It’s A Crowded Field Filled with Promise

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By Todd Johnson

If you look at any Cubs prospect list of the past two months, most of the top 10 prospects are right-handed starting pitchers. It is the deepest part of the Cubs system and should begin producing arms for the majors in the next year or two. In both the 2016 and 2017 MLB Drafts, the Cubs targeted starting pitching, more specifically, starting college pitching. In addition, the Cubs mined the Mexican international free agent market which is producing quality arms who could be just a couple years away. Considering that most of the Cubs’ actual major league starting pitchers are signed through 2020, the Cubs still have time to get these prospects developed. They don’t have to be rushed.

There are 46 starting pitching slots in the Cubs minor league system. 34 of those 46 are right-handed. That is an overwhelming number. Here are last year’s top ranked right-handed starters.
11. Jake Stinnett
10. Preston Morrison
9. Erling Moreno
8. Bailey Clark
7. Ryan Williams
6. Zach Hedges
5. Jose Albertos
4. Thomas Hatch
3. Trevor Clifton
2. Oscar de la Cruz
1. Dylan Cease

What a difference a year made. Injuries, sub-par performances, late starts, trades, moving to reliever, rising prospects, and a host of other reasons derailed most of this list in 2017. Only Jose Albertos had a good year. Then again, Adbert Alzolay shot past almost everyone of them. Now, add in all the arms the Cubs took in the past two drafts and it is a quandry to pick only 12 for this list.

I have a feeling that if I ranked these arms every month of 2018, a dramatic fluctuation would occur monthly. Names like Jeremiah Estrada, Erich Uelmen, Keegan Thompson, Kyle Miller, Erling Moreno, Bailey Clark, Zach Hedges, and Erick Leal could make the decision process very difficult for me. I can hardly imagine how hard it is going to be just to pick 6 for the monthly all-star teams this year. Right now, there’s not a lot of differentiation of talent between them. It will have to be about performance this year for a pitcher to separate themselves from the pack..

Numbers 12-7
12. Michael Rucker – He began 2017 as a reliever at South Bend and was dominating. He got promoted to Myrtle Beach and did the same. An injury to Oscar de la Cruz opened the door for Rucker to start and Michael never looked back. His ability to throw 2/3 of his pitches for strikes helps. I don’t know if he will stay a starter this year, but he looks to have a future regardless. AA will be a tough test for him.

11. Duncan Robinson – I really like this guy. He was in the bullpen in April for South Bend and staring in May. He finished the year at Myrtle Beach showing an impressive ability to adapt as he put up a 1.80 ERA in 4 August starts. At 6’6”, he has the frame to withstand the innings needed and intellectual intangibles needed to make it to Chicago. AA is going to tell just how good his curve, cutter, change, and fastball are. I would not be surprised to see him add a fifth pitch this offseason.

10. Javier Assad – After Adbert Alzolay, no pitcher improved as much as Assad did last year. He began the year a bit wild but was throwing mid 90s with control by the end of the year. His fastball quit tailing up and in and he was putting hitters away as he struck out 72 in 66 innings. He will be at South Bend in 2018. He needs to continue improving at each step. Outside of Albertos, he is the pitcher I look forward to the most at South Bend.

9. Cory Abbott – I love his makeup but I also was surprised at how big he is on the mound. He made 3-inning starts for Eugene last year and I was impressed with his work over just 14 innings. He whiffed 18 and his slider looks good. When he gets unleashed in 2018, he could be a breakout arm just a year after being drafted.

8. Trevor Clifton – 2017 was a tale of two halves. First half – All-Star. Second half, not so much. I thought for sure he was headed to Iowa in June after putting up a 2.84 ERA in 66 innings at Tennessee. If there is one thing I like about this kid it is that he will out work anyone. He will be back in 2018 and he will make adjustments. Not every path to the majors is a straight line. Sometimes, there’s a bump in the road. I remember a young arms several years ago who fans thought was washed up as a prospect after posting a 4+ ERA at AA. Sonny Gray turned out OK.

7. Duane Underwood – There were times last year that Duane Underwood of 2017 looked like Duane Underwood of 2014-2015. The velocity was there. From the middle of July to the end of August, he looked studly as he finished a season of 130+ innings healthy. As the year went on, his innings increased and his walks decreased. In fact, his was walk rate was cut in half from .475/inning in May to .27/inning in August. I am really looking forward to seeing him get back at it in 2018.

Don’t be surprised to see any of these arms become one of the top six quickly. I really like Assad and I like Bailey Clark, who did not make this list. Regardless of what their name is, the Cubs have a plethora of arms who are going to have to dominate to get themselves noticed in a crowded field.

I will be back next week with the top 6 (It will be on Thursday due to the Convention) and a list of arms to keep an eye on next summer.

Cards of the Offseason – Part 1: New Templates with New Pics

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By Todd Johnson

I did not see this post coming…at all.

When the offseason began, I made an album on the Facebook account for offseason cards. I often get several new pics over the offseason as I come across assorted local articles and search results begin to include other pictures. I thought maybe, just maybe, that I might make 20-25 new baseball cards this winter.

To make a short story long, at the end of last season I thought that I would recreate Topps’ 2017 design. I liked how extremely close I came without using an editor. I made a few cards. As some Arizona Fall League (AFL) pictures came in from MiLB and the AFL, I began exclusively making 2017 cards for about 6 weeks until the AFL season ended.

Then I got a little bit ambitious about a week before Christmas. I showed some of my students how I used PIXLR, an online photo editor, to help make the templates for each year. Up through this past fall, the templates I made cards from were from my card collecting years. There were a couple of years in the 1950s, most of the 60s, and then my peak card collecting years, 1970-1986. I do have a 1990 template but that was where the fun ended. 

Anyway, I got a lot accomplished for school stuff the last week of the semester. As a result, I had little or no work to do over break. In other words, I was free to fart around, something I haven’t had time for the past couple of years. So, I began to try making more modern cards from the past 30 years. In the end, I added over 16 templates from 1990 onward and two more from the 1950s. I really like most of the templates, but there are 3 or 4 I am still working on.

Yesterday, I found some more pics to make cards for the leveling up profiles and the position breaking. I uploaded them to the Facebook album and I was stunned I had made over 70+ cards this offseason. I knew then it was time for a post.

So, with further adieu…

Honorable Mention
Normally, I don’t make a lot of big league players unless it is from their debut or rookie season. I just love the light and shadow on Dillon Maples in his debut last year. It also looks good in one of my favorite new templates, the 1953 Topps. Dillon also looks stunning in a mixture of red, white, and Cub blue in a 2003 template.

 

10-8
Coming in at number 10, Jake Stinnett pops in this picture by Clubhouse Corner from the Arizona Fall League. I love this 2008 template but the popout Topps tab is sometimes hard to work around. Larry Kave’s capture of Zack Short meshes well with many shades of blue contained in another 2003 card. Rikk Carlson’s closeup of DJ Wilson just jumps off the page in the 2017 frame.

7-5
As I looked at the large number of cards, each tier became harder and harder to pick. International Free Agent Florencio Serrano looks great in a 1999 frame at number 7. I haven’t decided what affiliate’s uniform will blend with the color in this template best. At number 6, Dylan Heuer captures the “Popeye” arms of Mark Zagunis perfectly in a 1953 frame. Larry Kave returns at number 5 with Thomas Hatch in a 2007 frame which I beginning to like more and more. What I love about this picture, though, is the yellow line at the top of the outfield wall blends with Hatch’s cap and the lettering on the card.

 

4-2
Getting to the top four took a lot of thought. I found this rare picture of pitcher Brendan King, a 2017 draftee of the Cubs. He pitched in Mesa this past after signing and I found the pic on the Twitter account of Holy Cross Baseball. I used a filter to make the blue pop and I liked it a lot. Coming in at #3, Duane Underwoods closeup from the former CSN-Chicago gets some love in a 2017 frame. At number 2, this was one of my favorite cards of the entire and it is of Adbert Alzolay in the Arizona Fall League. The lighting of the game makes the card along with his gray Mesa Solar Sox hat being similar in color to the gray 2017 frame and his glove.

 

#1
I had this list all done and then about 9 P.M. last night I was looking for pics in a Twitter search. Lo and behold, there was a picture of Wladimir Galindo by Jared Ravitch from 2016. The black of uniform fits perfectly with the black of the card and gray outline and the blue fencing provides a backdrop for Wladimir’s face. It’s a great closeup of Wladimir in a 1953 classic frame.

Only 6 more weeks until spring training!

Trying to Predict Baseball America’s Upcoming Lists

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By Todd Johnson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then, all bets are off.

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

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

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

State of the Cubs for 2018 – Part 2: Acquiring Starting Pitching Is the #1 Priority

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By Todd Johnson

The Cubs need to take their pitching staff into the shop to get it ready for the 2018 season. It’s going to need more than a tuneup, an oil change, and a new set of white walls. In 2017, it proved to be an aging staff. Even with the addition of Jose Quintana, there are still a lot of question marks when it comes to the Cubs starting rotation for 2018 and beyond.

There should be two new faces in 2018 for the starting rotation. When you consider that you have to replace almost 400 innings, in addition to developing some back ups in AAA, that’s a lot to go and find in one offseason. I think the Cubs need to go find the best long-term assets they possibly can. Considering who the Cubs are replacing, the Cubs need number one and number two type starters.

There are three ways that the Cubs are going to get starting pitching for 2018 and beyond. They can promote from within, find a free agent or two, or make a trade. They should get one free agent and make one trade. Theo will probably not go all in on one way to acquire talent.

From Within
The number of pitchers the Cubs could cull from within for 2018 is slim. Mike Montgomery will head back to the pen, although he could make a spot start or two next year. Jen-Ho Tseng is just about ready – he only has 55 IP at AAA. Eddie Butler and Alec Mills also provide some depth in case of injury. However, Mills and Butler are currently not exactly what the Cubs are looking for in a starter. The Cubs need #1 or #2 type arms.

Duane Underwood, Trevor Clifton, Adbert Alzolay, and Zach Hedges should all be at AAA at some point in the next year. In order for any Cub farmhand to make it to Chicago, they would have to be dominant at that level. So far, only Tseng has. Spring training performance will go a long ways towards inspiring any confidence in their arms.

The second half of the year looks more promising for starting pitching help as the prospects gain experience at AAA. The Cubs also have several arms at AA who could help later this season, too. Thomas Hatch is one prospect who I hope figures it out this year and I would not look past Alex Lange, the Cubs second first round pick from 2017. Lange could move fast this year with his experience and his killer curve. A starting pitcher moving quickly is something the Cubs have not seen in the Theo era.

The Free Agent Market
When looking at the free-agent market for this winter, there’s Shohei Otani and then there’s the rest. The Cubs can only offer Otani a minor league contract for $300,00. If Otani waited for another year and a half until he turns 25, the Cubs could sign him for $200-$300 million. With the talent this kid has, the team that signs him would basically be getting a once in a generation type player. I’m keeping my fingers crossed for a miracle but I’m not holding my breath.

 

That leaves the field.

Alex Cobb might be a nice back of the rotation type starter, but he’s not the number one or number two type the Cubs envision themselves getting, let alone one who will be 31 when when 2018 begins.

Here is a list of some of this offseason’s top free agents that I like and their age:
Jake Arrieta (32)
Andrew Cashner (31)
Tyler Chatwood (28)
Johnny Cueto (32) — Can opt out of the remaining four years, $84MM on his contract
Yu Darvish (31)
Nathan Eovaldi (28) — $2MM club option
Matt Moore (29) — $9MM club option with a $1MM buyout
Masahiro Tanaka (29) — Can opt out of the remaining three years, $67MM on his contract

While this list doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence, there are some attractive arms but there is no sure thing at a cheap price. I would love to see Cueto or Darvish in a Cubs’ uniform. I like the idea of Chatwood but more as a reclamation project just as much as I like Cashner in the pen. I just wonder if the cost is going to be prohibitive. As a result, I think the Cubs might go with someone like someone like Alex Cobb, or Jeremy Hellickson who is not on this list. That would be for just one pitcher.

The Trade
The problem with the Cubs making a trade for a #1 type of starting pitcher is they more than likely don’t have the high end minor league prospects that other teams value. Yes, the Cubs do have some good young players, but I don’t think any amalgamation of prospects is going to bring back a number one starter. It’s going to take a major league player to get a major-league pitcher. That means Happ, Almora, Russell, or Schwarber are likely to be involved.

Phil Rogers of MLB.com listed some possible arms the Cubs could acquire this winter that fit the bill of what they are looking for in a pitcher.

But now it sure sounds like Epstein and Co. are prioritizing the starting pitchers who could be available in a trade — Chris Archer, Michael Fulmer, Marcus Stroman, Aaron Nola and Sean Manaea, to name five — ahead of the position players who don’t provide unique skills on the roster. Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant and Willson Contreras are untouchable, but maybe nobody else.

I think whatever the Cubs are going to do this offseason to acquire top flight starting pitching is going to come together quickly. It is hard to put a price on proven major league starting pitching of that caliber. It is going to cost a lot of money or a lot of prospects, or even a current MLB player.

In the end…

When the year 2021 comes around. most of the Cubs position players will be in the last year of their rookie contracts. The Cubs do not have any starting pitching signed beyond that year. Whoever Theo gets this winter could be the anchors for 2021 and beyond.

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.