By Todd Johnson
I think every year is a series of continual adjustments in the game of baseball. The first full season as a professional for Myrtle Beach pitcher Duncan Robinson echoes the sentiment. He began the year as a reliever at South Bend, then he transitioned to a starter. He made the Midwest League All-Star team and shortly thereafter was promoted to Myrtle Beach. His first two starts as a Pelican did not go as planned, but since the middle of July he has been one of the best pitchers in the Carolina League. His ability to adapt to new situations and maintaining his daily routines are the keys to his success.
I had the opportunity to talk to Duncan about all the adjustments he has made this year and how they have affected his routine and what he throws in games.
TJ: How much has your daily routine been apart of your success?
DR: Being able to go into the start of this season with a routine that I can do with my eyes closed, it makes every start seem like it’s just another start. Your body is able to recognize where you are in the week and it allows you to prepare for each start.
DR: It changed. I started a few games in spring training. I had a similar routine as a reliever, a piggyback back starter, where I had the five day rotation of coming in early to a game. But once I moved to a starting role, I did feel a little more comfortable. Once I finished my start, I could lay out my plan for the next five days and the goals I wanted to achieve. I definitely felt more comfortable. But at the end of the day, you just have to execute no matter what my pitching role is.
TJ: What was the biggest change from South Bend to Myrtle Beach?
DR: Probably the weather….When you go up a level, you have a heightened sense of competition where everyone is better, and they are better. In the grand scheme of things, probably the hardest thing is getting back into the routine of when you get to the field of where you are living and trying to get settled in as quickly as possible. The Pelicans have helped me do that. The staff has been great and so have the guys on the team.
Coming into the season, Robinson mainly threw his fastball, sinker, and what I think is a beautiful curve. This year, he has added a cutter thanks to South Bend pitching coach Brian Lawrence. And, he is also working on a changeup in his side sessions.
TJ: How much are you throwing the cutter? Just here or there or in side sessions?
DR: When I first started throwing it, I didn’t expect to throw it too much this season. I threw it in a game against Fort Wayne. I had a lot of success with it. So, I figured the best way to develop a pitch is to try it in a game. It’s become a quality pitch for me at this level to both lefties and righties. I’m trying to make it a pitch in my repertoire as much as anything else.
I just need to execute like I have been doing.
DR: I think just being able to feel more comfortable being at a higher level…Once I got those first two starts out of the way, I felt like I had been here since the beginning of the year. It’s not one of those things where you feel like the new guy all the time. Guys on the team are very accepting to guys moving up, like guys like me. Once you get on the same page with the catcher, and my defense has been spectacular – They’ve turned some key double plays and they’ve been consistent throughout for me and that’s been a huge part of my success.
What I like most about Robinson’s season has been his ability to adjust. I also like that he throws inside a lot and can do so with any pitch. I think his ability to adjust is only going to help him next year at AA Tennessee. Even though he will only have half a season at South Bend and a half season at Myrtle Beach, his track record suggests he has the wherewithal to adapt to any situation. In the Darwinian sense, it is not those who are most likely to adapt that survive, but those who are most responsive to change.
*Cards made from pics by Rikk Carlson in South Bend and Larry Kave/Myrtle Beach Pelicans.
By Todd Johnson
On Sunday morning, the Cubs announced that Jen-Ho Tseng and D.J. Wilson were named the Cubs’ MiLB Pitcher and Player of the Month for July. Tseng had a 1.42 ERA at AAA Iowa to go along with 23 Ks in 25.1 IP. Wilson hit .284 with 7 HRs and 21 RBI in between Mesa (rehab stint) and South Bend. With officially four weeks left in the MiLB season, it got me thinking: Who will be the Cubs MiLB Pitcher and Hitter of the Year?
When it comes to hitting, the winner is clear cut – Victor Caratini. No one else is even in the discussion in my mind. He’s batting .350 with a .959 OPS. He’s hit 10 HRs and driven in 58. While his OBP is a bit less than Mark Zagunis’, whose isn’t. I do not see how Caratini could lose this award. Since his return to Iowa from Chicago, he’s hitting .600.
On the other hand, selecting the Pitcher of the Year is going to be a tough choice that will play out over the next month. I currently have six pitchers in the running with five having a pretty good shot of staking a claim to it.
The Front Runners
Michael Rucker has done it all this year in 84 innings. He’s been a reliever and a starter. He’s been a closer, a setup man, and an ace. His 1.93 ERA is the lowest of the starters up for the award. His 95 Ks gives him a 9.21 K/9 rate. I love to watch him pitch as he just throws strikes. He’s only walked 16 all year.
Jen-Ho Tseng has had a resurgent year relying on good command of his pitches which includes a low 90s fastball and a plus curve and change. His 2.77 combined ERA between Iowa and Tennessee is impressive and he has 110 Ks in 120 IP.
Adbert Alzolay was my breakout player of the first half. Now at AA Tennessee, he has a combined 2.84 ERA between Myrtle Beach and Tennessee with 101 Ks in 107 IP. I like his energy, his pacing, and his 96-97 mph heater. He still needs to refine his secondaries going forward.
The Long Shots
Duncan Robinson is a bit like Rucker in that he began the year as a reliever and morphed into a starter. He was a Midwest League All-Star and was promoted in July to Myrtle Beach from South Bend. On the year, he has a 2.13 ERA over 91 innings. His 77 Ks take him out the discussion a bit when compared with other front runners.
It has been a most impressive season for Justin Steele. He’s been very steady all year. His 2.92 ERA is a testament to his approach and hard work after a rough season at South Bend in 2016. He has 82 Ks in 98.2 IP.
If you were to pick this award on sheer domination, reliever Dakota Mekkes would win hands down. He dominated at South Bend and then again at Myrtle Beach. He did allow an earned run for almost three months. Heading into today, his ERA is a miniscule 0.76 ERA to go along with 79 Ks in 59 IP. Opponents are only hitting .152 against him. If not for 27 walks, I think he would be in Tennessee.
I think Michael Rucker is currently in the lead. However, I truly think the award should go to Mekkes. For the past few years, the Cubs have rewarded starters including Tseng, Trevor Clifton and Duane Underwood. But Mekkes’ season has been one of pure domination across the board and two levels. However, I don’t think the Cubs will give that award to a reliever. I wish they would, though. I really wish they would.
By Todd Johnson
This was the month of the hitters. It was also month that was hard to narrow down to just nine position players. In the past, I have sometimes had extra hitters at a position and that’s what I went to this month.
On the other hand, it was a decent month for starting pitchers in the system. Big innings, slumps, and warmer air made the ball fly a bit more. However, 7 starters found their way onto the team.
As for relievers, there was bonanza of relievers in the middle of July. At least 15 Cubs prospects had ERAs ranging from 0.00 to 1.50. By the end of the month, that was down to 7.
A lot of tough decisions had to be made including whether to add some players from the Arizona Rookie League Mesa Cubs and a couple of hot hitters from the Cubs DSL 1 team. I decided against it this month as there were so many excellent performances at the upper levels.
By Todd Johnson
It has been a busy few days for me. I started getting ready for my real job as a history teacher by doing some long range-planning this week. But I am ready to get back to baseball writing.
I was able to take a few breaks and watch some outstanding pitching performances from Cubs prospects this week. As I mentioned last week, the Cubs farm system has shifted towards being pitching heavy. The past few days have proven that with some serious games thrown across all levels. When I go to pick the monthly prospect All-Star team in less two weeks, these guys will make my job very hard.
Duncan Robinson – In his third start at high A Myrtle Beach, Robinson put his excellent command to good use going 5 IP with 5 Ks while only allowing 1 hit. This was clearly his best start since being promoted. It lowered his ERA for the month to 3.27 and for the year to 2.28.
Manny Rondon – He got off to a rough start to begin 2017. I found it surprising as he was the Northwest League pitcher of the year in 2016. On Monday afternoon, the lefty went 6.2 IP and gave up only a run while striking out three. It was one of his best starts of the year. After a 3.60 ERA in June, things are beginning to look up.
Jose Albertos – At short season Eugene, the young 18-year-old top prospect has put up a 2.70 ERA so far. He has a really good fastball in the mid 90s that he can command most days. His curve is a work in progress. I wish he would use his change more as that could be his most devastating pitch.
Justin Steele – He has quietly put up one of the best seasons of any pitcher in the Cubs’ system in 2017. He credits a new mental focus that includes stir-fry and meditation before every game. His major league type arsenal is looking very good. On Sunday, in a rain shortened game, he only gave up 1 run in 4 innings, which is about the norm for him this year.
Thomas Hatch – In June, the Cubs 2016 third round pick put up a 0.98 ERA. He got roughed up in one start this month but still sports a 3.21 ERA in just July. With improved command of a “new” four seam fastball in his pocket, he has been changing eye levels all summer.
Jen-Ho Tseng – He might have the most underrated story in the Cubs’ system this summer. After a rebirth that made one think of his 2014 summer at Kane County, Tseng hung up a 2.99 ERA at AA Tennessee. Most impressive in his statistics arsenal were his 83 Ks in 90.1 IP. In his second start at AAA Iowa, Tseng went 7 IP with 8 Ks and did not allow a run on Monday night.
Michael Rucker – His transformation has been stunning this year. As a reliever, he was a strikeout machine at South Bend. He was promoted in early June and was doing the same. All he does is attack the zone. It’s a simple plan that he can execute. The 2016 11th round pick out of BYU took over the injured Oscar de la Cruz’s spot in Myrtle Beach’s starting rotation and has never looked back. Check out this line from Monday night – 8 IP, 10 Ks, 2 hits, and 0 runs.
Preston Morrison – He’s had an up and down year. After a 1.88 ERA in May, it ballooned to 6 in June, and he is killing it in July with a 1.50 ERA. I enjoyed watching him last year at South Bend where he used what I call a “whiffle ball repertoire” to confound hitters. His last two starts saw him go 6 IP apiece and only give up 1 run in each.
Adbert Alzolay – He was promoted from Myrtle Beach to Tennessee two weeks ago. He proceeded to strike out ten in his five inning AA debut. So far, he has a 2.70 ERA in two AA starts. With a fastball that he can maintain deep into games, he bears a lot of watching.
Jesus Camargo – He comes across as a sneaky pitcher who I love to watch pitch. Currently at short season Eugene, he is having a good season after missing all of 2016. He has upper 80s/low 90s heat with a mid 70s curve and a changeup that is just plain filthy and that he can add and subtract mph. It is really a devastating pitch. The 21-year-old righty has a 1.73 ERA in six appearances and has struck out 31 in 26 IP. I really enjoy watching him work.
Jose Paulino – His last two starts saw him throw 12 scoreless innings with 12 Ks. His ERA for July is 0.55. Just six weeks ago, he was taken out of the rotation and placed in the bullpen. The young lefty has returned with a vengeance.
There should be even more great performances coming on a nightly basis. Hopefully Oscar de la Cruz will return to action along with Jake Stinnett. Stinnett made a rehab appearance this week down in Mesa. Trevor Clifton will look to bounce back in his next start and Bryan Hudson looks to recapture his ground ball magic. Even Bailey Clark has shown signs that he was a good gamble. Last night, he struck out 8 in 5 IP. He struck out 9 a couple of weeks ago. It’s getting deep when it comes to Cubs’ starting pitching.
Mind you, these 11 are just the starters. I did not talk about the relievers. I will be covering some of them the next few days.
By Todd Johnson
The second half of the minor-league season begins today. With Myrtle Beach already in the playoffs, Tennessee and South Bend will both be trying to get in after barely missing in the first half. Both of those teams will have to improve and infusion of talent could help. For the Iowa Cubs, they are going to need a lot to go right just to get back to .500. But then again, their main gig is to have players developed and ready to play in Chicago.
Iowa: 31-41 – Record is cumulative for the year (last place in Northern Division)
This team needs some starting pitching. They ranked 14th out of 16 teams in team ERA in the Pacific Coast League. Starter Zach Hedges joined Iowa a week ago, but they need one more arm in the rotation and maybe one or two in the pen. Dave Berg is turning out to be a pleasant surprise at this level. When it comes to hitting, who knew that Jake Hannemann would be profoundly better at AAA than at AA. He’s hitting .311 in 16 games. Expect to see Jen-Ho Tseng make it to Iowa after the All-Star Break. I don’t expect to see any promotions to Chicago except a bullpen arm like Zac Rosscup or Jack Leathersich.
Key Hitting Prospect: Victor Caratini – His bat has nothing left to accomplish in Iowa. It is all about his glove and arm the rest of the year.
Key Pitching Prospect: Jack Leathersich – After missing a year and a half, he looks to be in shape and ready to help out at the MLB level. In 6 June appearances, he has a 1.17 ERA and has struck out 13 in 7.1 IP while opponents are only hitting .154 against him.
Tennessee: 36-33 First Half – 5.5 GB
This team had a nice stretch in May and then fell apart the past two weeks. They will be fine. I wonder how long Burks and Vosler stay at this level? They have been outstanding hitters along with Andrew Ely. Ian Rice has been streaky as has David Bote. But the key to their season is the bullpen. If Ryan McNeil gets it figured out, look out because Torrez and Pugliese have given up nothing in front of him all year and David Garner was having a good June. Dillon Maples and his MLB ready curveball have been excellent so far. Also, I am hoping that Jake Stinnett makes it back to pitch this year. If he does not, look for some starter from Myrtle Beach to move up to Tennessee soon.
Eloy Jimenez is coming…it is not a question of if, but when. He is being pitched around quite a bit in the Carolina League. I don’t expect this promotion to take long, though. When he does come, his bat will really change the lineup for those in front of him, and those behind, especially Jason Vosler.
Key Pitching Prospect: Trevor Clifton – Just 22, Clifton has gone a level a year. He had a good April and May and slumped a little in June. He should be back to normal after the break. He has been a stud in July and August the past two summers.
Key Hitting Prospect: Eloy – He better be.
Myrtle Beach: 43-27 First Half; Southern Division Champions
They won 20 out of 24 to close out the first half. All parts of the team clicked to make it happen – starting pitching, hitting, defense, and the bullpen. In the second half, Manager Buddy Bailey will surely have some roles to figure out as some players head to Tennessee and others come in from South Bend and the draft. Adbert Alzolay made a case to be promoted as he went deep into games most every night. It should be interesting to see who is on this roster come the first of July. Even then, this team will have plenty of starting pitching and a shut down bullpen to possibly win the second half title as well.
Key Hitting Prospect – Trent Giambrone – He is coming on strong. After barely hitting .220 in the first half, he is hitting almost .300 in June
Key Pitching Prospect – Thomas Hatch – He has yet to give up a run this month and looks to have his command and control down perfectly.
South Bend: 39-30 First Half – 1.5 GB of a Wild Card Spot
They were blowing the doors of teams in May and then they hit a wall. The 18-20 year-old hitters just looked tired at the end of late May and they began slumping at the worst possible time. Wladimir Galindo broke his leg and some key bullpen arms were promoted, not to mention Dylan Cease’s ankle injury. Still, there’s a lot of hope for the second half. They’re a very young team but they can hit. Zack Short seems an old man at 21. Duncan Robinson was a nice first half surprise along with Short, Vimael Machin, and Albert Mineo. I think several college picks could arrive to help the bullpen and to offset any losses for position players – remember the name Brandon Hughes, an outfielder from Michigan State.
Key Hitting Prospect: Isaac Paredes – He is already hitting over .300 for June. It took a while, but I think he is beginning to live up to the faith the Cubs brass had in him skipping Eugene.
Key Pitching Prospect: Dylan Cease – He really needs innings and developing efficiency is the key to him strengthening that arm. Right now, he has 38.1 IP. He has about 13-14 starts left. Hopefully, he can get over 100 IP in this year. That would be great!
Overall, I don’t see a lot of promotions taking place this month. Maybe one starting pitcher/reliever per team and maybe one position player as well. I think most of the movement is going to come with draft picks. As a result, the lower levels will have the most impact, specifically South Bend and Eugene.
This was the fastest minor league first half I can remember. It just flew by. For Cubs prospects, there were a lot of great performances in that time span. Many players were able to sustain a level of excellence, while others ebbed and flowed.
If you’ve been following this website, I don’t think there any surprises on the list. However I think there are some names who you would not have foreseen at the beginning of the year. Names like Duncan Robinson, Andrew Ely, Michael Rucker, Jason Vosler, and Dillon Maples, to name a few.
Here is this year’s Cubs first half minor league all-star team in video form.
Here are some names for you to ponder when it comes to the second half All-Star team:
Miguel Amaya, Aramis Ademan, Thomas Hatch, Gustavo Polanco, Jose Albertos, and many more. It would not surprise me to see half the names change in this list.
I will be back tomorrow with a post about some possible breakout players to watch for in the second half. They are mostly players from Mesa and Eugene with a few draft picks thrown in for good measure.
By Todd Johnson
Usually most breakouts occur in the lower levels of the minor leagues. A prospect comes out and begins to let his talent shine for all to see. In the first half of 2017, this is mostly the case. This year, there are several prospects who are putting together some eye-popping performances, somewhat out of the blue. And many of them are showing that they could be assets at the MLB level.
Charcer Burks – He has just been outstanding as the lead off hitter for Tennessee. He is hitting .314 with a .412 OBP. I don’t think he is in Tennessee much after the All-Star break. If he can add some more power, I wonder if he’s closer to Chicago then anyone thinks, a lot closer. Add in a gold glove defense and he is becoming someone to think about at the next level.
Zack Short – He reminds me a lot of Mark Zagunis. He leads the Midwest league in walks (49) and put up an on-base percentage of over 400. Once he went into the leadoff spot, South Bend took off.
Wladimir Galindo – I have always been intrigued by Wladimir’s power potential. This year, he showed he can hit for average. He hit .290 with 4 HRs and 19 RBI before a broken leg ended his season. He will be back next year.
Jason Vosler – Hitting 12 home runs will get anyone noticed. Add in a .400 OBP at AA and you have Jason Vossler in 2017. He already tripled his HR output from last year and needs 2 RBI to equal last year’s as well. He has a nice smooth, quick stroke to the ball and hits lefties (.305) better than righties (.257). That’s not a skill you see everyday (except Rizzo).
Daniel Spingola – He adjusted his swing a little bit to create a little more lift and that has made all the difference this year. Every month he has hit between .280 and .300. He’s been the model of consistency.
Bryant Flete – As the lead off hitter for the Pelicans, he has made the team go. He is proven this year that he is more than just an organizational defensive player. He can hit and his average is testament to his hard work. He is stronger than people give him credit as he has 6 HRs to date.
Dillon Maples – It looks like he finally has it altogether after 5 years. He carved up the Carolina League this spring as a setup man and then a closer. Now off he his Tennessee doing the same. I watched his curveball destroy several hitters’ will to live or even swing a bat. Maples confounded the Twins’ top prospect, Nick Gordon, so much that it looked Gordon screwed himself into the ground swinging. Combined, he’s struck out 50 batters in 34 IP. He’s basically become a fastball/curve reliever. His FB comes in at 96-98 and his curve is in the mid to upper 80s at over 2000 RPM per Scott Kornberg.
Duncan Robinson – He has a monster curveball and an upper 80s/lower 90s fastball that runs in on the hands of right-handed hitters. He dominated the Midwest League, first in relief, then as a starter. I don’t know how long he’s going to be at South Bend, but I would say not much longer.
Michael Rucker – I really like what he can do on the mound. He attacks hitters with a low to mid 90s fastball all in the zone. He rarely walks anyone. His ability to throw strikes constantly inside has been the key. I wonder how long he is going to start this year versus being a reliever? He consistently hits 95/96 in relief and that could change the conversation about his usefulness.
Dakota Mekkes – He has been ungodly for South Bend and his first two outings at Myrtle Beach followed suit. He still needs to cut down on some walks, but his deceptive delivery allows him to strike out batters at an alarming rate.
Justin Steele – It looks like he is finally putting it together. He’s made 13 starts and has a 2.32 ERA. For the last two months, his monthly ERAs are 1.63 and 1.62. Outstanding! He has MLB type stuff and it looks like his harnessing both the physical and mental aspects of the game. However, his WHIP is a little high (1.39) but that tells me he is able to pitch out of trouble now.
Breakout Player of the First Half
Adbert Alzolay – He has been fantastic this year at Myrtle Beach. His fastball has been hitting 96 to 97 regularly and he is able to keep that up throughout the game – 6 to 7 innings deep. He’s struck out 67 in 70 IP with an ERA of 2.83. The three keywords to his success are: tempo, tempo, and tempo. There are other breakout pitchers who have put up better ERAs than Adbert, but they lack the power fastball that Adbert has been able to control and use efficiently to pitch 7 innings like a major league starter needs to do.
Most of these players will be on Monday’s All-Star Team for the First Half. Their performances have been year long and not just a flash in the pan. Though some have worked their way onto a prospect list, others above have not and they may never do so. However, they still have something to offer and their play is speaking volumes.
On Tuesday, I will be back to talk about some prospects who I think could break out in the second half. Most of them are going to be draft picks and players in Eugene and Mesa.