By Todd Johnson
As spring training got underway, I was getting ready for what I call my busy season, which actually began yesterday with a Scholastic bowl tournament. Throw in a history fair and seven nights of Scholastic bowl meets and you have my life through March 15. I am pretty sure I am going to be dragging but it still allows me plenty of time to recoup before spring break starts and spring training ends.
As a result, anytime I had an idea pop into my head this week, I pondered about whether to write a full-blown post about it, or just a small blurb in this column. So, I just cited to get some ideas down now and maybe I can expand upon them more at a later time.
Darvish Impact on Minors
With an opt out clause after two years, that clause does buy the Cubs a couple more years to develop some arms to take Darvish’s place should he leave via free agency. A lot can happen to a pitching prospect in two years. So, it’s a little hard to justify a full-blown post about the topic right now. While some may think that Adbert Alzolay might be one of those who could start in 2020. Thomas Hatch, Duncan Robinson, Alex Lange, Jose Albertos and few more will have their name in that hat.
3 More Coming to Camp
The Cubs invited three more non-roster players to spring training. They were all catchers and many are very familiar to most of you. Cael Brockmeyer, Erick Castillo, and PJ Higgins all got the call.
2 New International Signees
Per Arizona Phil, the Cubs signed two more Cuban international free agents this week. Kevin Moreno is a 17-year-old third baseman who does not have a lot of experience playing international baseball. Pitcher Raidel Orta played in the Serie Nacional when he was 18 in 2014/15. He missed the last two years after defecting. Now at 22, it should be interesting to see just exactly what he has and how much he can improve over the course of the year playing in the US. I’m very interested to see where the Cubs place both prospects after spring training. I made a spreadsheet that has the Cubs last few international classes. Use the tabs at the bottom to go from year to year.
Keith Law of ESPN released his top 30 draft prospects (subscription required) for 2018. While he did not place players with teams, he did rank them from 1 to 30. While I can’t get into specifics about who was ranked where, it’s quite clear the Cubs are going to get an outstanding player at number 24. Law’s rankings are quite different from MLB Pipeline’s top 50 and the first 30 in Baseball America’s top 200. His list is a perfect example of the rise and fall of many prospects and the differentiation in evaluation. As a result, one name Cubs fans may want to add to the list is Missouri State shortstop Jeremy Eierman.
A Bunch of Arms
Cubs also moved pitcher Drew Smyly to the 60 day DL and signed reliever Shae Simmons to a split major/minor league contract. The Cubs signed several pitchers this off-season including Anthony Bass, Daniel Camarena, Michael Roth, Dario Alvarez, Randy Rosario, Cory Mazzoni, Kyle Ryan, Alberto Baldonado, Luke Farrell, and Simmons. I don’t think many of these guys stand much of a chance of making the major leagues bullpen and only a few will probably break camp in the Cubs’ minor-league system. I can see Camarena getting an opportunity to start in the minors at either Iowa or Tennessee. Rosario and Ryan have an outside shot to make the major leagues roster but will need some help and the same is true of Farrell, who is more of a starting pitcher. I don’t think Alvarez, Bass, and even the new signee Simmons have much of a shot. I think the Cubs are pretty clear on just exactly who is going to be in their bullpen. I’ll probably talk about this more as spring training wears on and players get some work in.
Coming Up this Week
On Wednesday the “Leveling Up” series begins to wind down as I look at outfielder Nelson Velasquez. On Friday, I should have something for you either about the bullpen or about young Latin arms coming into the system in 2018. On Saturday the 24th, I will be with my students participating in the history fair at NIU and then “Spring Training News and Notes” will take over for “The Weekly” on Sundays until the season begins. I am also pondering a draft article that looks at a few players beyond the first round.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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..
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.
By Todd Johnson
For three young pitchers in the Cubs system, AA will be the ultimate test of their skills in 2018. All three were taken in the 2016 MLB Draft and all three will arrive in Tennessee after taking strange paths to get there. The Cubs system has not produced any sustained starting pitching they signed as prospects. To date, only Pierce Johnson, Adbert Alzolay, and Paul Blackburn pitched what I would call dominant seasons at AA. Zach Hedges and Trevor Clifton each threw a ½ dominant season in 2016 and 2017. It is not easy.
For Duncan Robinson and Michael Rucker, both began 2017 as relievers in South Bend. Robinson would up in the rotation in May while Rucker was lights out in the bullpen. When both went Myrtle Beach in the middle of the summer, Rucker got the chance to start in place of Oscar de la Cruz and never relinquished the role. Robinson, meanwhile, adjusted well to the change in play after a couple of rough starts and turned in an outstanding second half with a 2.37 ERA in 8 starts. Rucker’s second half ERA was 2.81.
For Hatch, the pseudo-first pick of the Cubs in the 2016 draft, he did not pitch that first season and began his pro career in 2017 at Myrtle Beach. It was as inconsistent a season as one could expect. Hatch did add a 4-seamer to his repertoire but Hatch struggled to get past five innings. Only three times did he make it into the sixth inning, usually throwing 80+ pitches every night. He did pitch seven innings once and eight another time. Once, he struck out 13 in 5.1 innings. His K rate for the season was a very good as he struck out 128 in 124 innings.
6’1” 185 Pounds
23 Years Old
11th Round pick out of BYU
6’6” 220 Pounds
24 years old
9th Round Pick out of Dartmouth
6’1” 190 Pounds
23 Years Old
3rd Round Pick out of Oklahoma State
What to Expect for All Three
The key for both Rucker and Robinson is strikes. Rucker’s strike percentage is 67%. That’s outstanding! Robinson is not far behind at 65% while Hatch is at 63%. Looking at their walk rates, Hatch walks 3.61/9 while Robinson is at 2.74 and Rucker at 2.03. At AA, it is going to be crucial for all three to pound the zone. AA hitters won’t chase as much high A and they are patient enough to wait for a pitch they can do something with.
Being that all three arms are just two levels from Chicago, it is also important to work in some serious innings. Hatch threw in 124 last year while Rucker only got in 96 after relieving the first two months of the year. Robinson got in 126 after relieving in April. Getting innings in the MiLB is essential to building arm strength for the MLB level. They hopefully can build to 140 IP in 2018 and 160 in 2019.
What doesn’t get talked about enough at AA is the adjustment that starting pitchers have to make. The Tennessee Smokies are the first stage where starters are on a 5 man rotation. That’s a huge shift from the 6 man staff in A ball and even more so from college where starters get the ball once a week. For some, “dead arm,” or arm fatigue, becomes a daily struggle to overcome in the second half.
As for future success at AA, Robinson has two things going for him that would enable him to have success at Tennessee. First, he’s a pretty smart cookie. Second, he can adapt easily. He knows who he is as a pitcher and he’s not afraid to change something to improve his lot in the organization. Last year, he added a cutter. I would not be surprised to see him add something else this year.
For Rucker, I like that he throws strikes and throws a lot of them. Whether he stays in the rotation or heads back to the bullpen, the skill to put the ball in the zone will get him to Chicago sooner or later.
Out of the three, Hatch easily has the best movement on his pitches. Despite being drafted the same time as Rucker and Robinson, he’s sort of a year behind in the learning curve department. He did throw over 130+ innings his junior year at Oklahoma State in 2016. As a result, the Cubs kept him on the sidelines after signing him due to the fact he missed all of 2015. While the Cubs were being cautious, Rucker and Robinson’s experiences at Eugene allowed them to produce for the summer as potential arms for the future.
Hatch’s numbers last year look better once I start rooting around deeper. While he had an ERA of 4.04, his FIP was an outstanding at 2.95. That’s a huge difference. His groundball rate was very good at 45.7% and he allowed just 2 HRs all year long. his walks per nine inning stat was a bit high at 3.47 and hitters averaged .347 on balls in play. That’s extremely high. And when hitters made contact, almost 50% of balls were pulled. Hatch’s pitches are good enough that he should be able to make adjustments this year. Just how good he can be is the bigger issue.
2018 could be the summer of the starting pitcher in Tennessee. These three arms will go along with a rebuilt Erick Leal to be the foundation of a nice rotation. Trevor Clifton or Oscar de la Cruz could be joining them. That will all be sorted out in spring training. For now, these three arms will be tested at AA beginning in early April.
By Todd Johnson
Beginning tomorrow, and running through Friday, baseball’s general managers hold their annual meeting in Orlando Florida. Something could shake down this week. In their search for two starting pitchers, the Cubs could come home with hopefully one. While I would like to see something get done this week, I am also not holding my breath. Ideally, the Cubs could make a trade for a #1 starter this week, get a closer, and then sign a free agent starting pitcher and their major offseason acquisitions would be done.
Right now, signing 23-year-old pitcher Shohei Ohtani from Japan is my number one preference. Considering that he just got a new agent this week, all signs now point to him coming after some things are worked out between MLB, the Player’s Association, and the NPB (Japanese League). He has not officially been posted yet. That could take a while.
As a result, no deal will get done this week.
I have always thought that Yu Darvish and Jake Arrieta would set the market and everything would fall in place after those two signed. Now that the Ohtani roller coaster looks to be heading to America, I wonder how much the market is going to be driven by him as teams try to acquire his talents. Considering that the max he can sign for is $3.5 million ($300,000 with the Cubs), his ability to drive the market will clearly be the coveted roster spot he takes at the top of the rotation.
The name of Alex Cobb has also been bandied about a lot the past few days. While many Cubs fans want to see the Cubs sign him, I would see that signing in a different light. Sure, Cobb is a nice pitcher and a quality guy, but he is not a top of the rotation arm. If the Cubs are trying to win a world championship, Cobb would be a nice back end of the rotation piece who will help get the Cubs to the playoffs but might not even start in the playoffs. The Cubs need a number one starter for the World Series to pitch alongside Hendricks, Lester, and Quintana. That is not Alex Cobb.
Currently, there is a four year window through 2021 for the Cubs’ young position player core to win another World Series. The Cub brass has to acquire two top of the rotation starters to make that happen. Ohtani makes that scenario much more likely than does Cobb.
Jason McLeod on the Score
For 20 minutes Saturday morning, the Cubs Executive Vice-President and Director of Scouting espoused on a number of topics from young pitching to Eloy and Gleyber to Schwarber and development at the MLB level.
What caught my ear during the interview were some quick evaluations by McLeod of the Cubs minor league starting pitchers. He eloquently praised Adbert Alzolay as a future starter. In addition, he talked about the potential of Thomas Hatch and his ability to miss bats despite a “blip” in his development.
What I really enjoyed was how effusive McLeod was about Michael Rucker and Duncan Robinson. He praised Rucker’s ability to throw strikes at a high velocity and he was just as excited about Robinson’s ability to throw a variety of pitches. McLeod went on to discuss and issue plaudits for the talents of Jose Albertos and Javier Assad. I am excited to see who is going to be pitching for each affiliate next spring. It is going to be quite competitive in the lower parts of the system.
Arizona Fall League Ends Next Week
With just one week left in the season, it is been an up-and-down year for many of the Cub prospects who are taking part in the six week fall league. Both David Bote and Adbert Alzolay came on strong to begin the fall league, but they have faded somewhat. To be fair, Alzolay had one bad outing where he gave up six runs in two-thirds of an inning. Meanwhile, Charcer Burks has been up-and-down and Pedro Araujo has been consistent throughout the six weeks season with an ERA under 2.00. Jake Stinnett has not thrown a lot of innings, but his thrown enough striking out 1.5 batters per inning.
In looking at Jason Vosler, his batting average at .229 does not inspire confidence, but his OBP is quite good at .349. Teammate Ian Rice has an OBP of .422. I’d say it’s been a good 2017 for Mr. Rice.
10 Days Away
I am just 10 days away from beginning my off-season series and I’m not ready yet. Right now, there is nothing planned to be published this week. If I do put out something, it’s going to be “incidental” news. That’ll give me time to get started on examining DJ Wilson and breaking down the catchers in the minor-league system for the position breakdown series.
By Todd Johnson
Overall Record – 73-67
I think the pressure of winning a third consecutive championship had to be overwhelming at times for many players on the Pelicans. And then everything changed in one day as one single trade saw three of the Pelicans switch dugouts. It was just a weird year.
In April and early May, the Pelicans played like a .500 team. Granted, they were without outfielder Eloy Jimenez, but he would soon join the team. In late May, the team caught fire and they won 20 out of 24 games to clinch a first half division title.
After the All-Star break, the Eloy trade, injuries, and a languishing offense began to catch up as the Pelicans finished last in their division in the second half.
In the playoffs, they bowed out quicklyin a hurricane-shortened playoff series. There were still some bright spots.
Heading into 2018, I think it could be a transformative year for several prospects. Some are position players, some of are pitchers, but regardless of their position, AA is the ultimate test for a prospect. Here are seven Pelicans from 2017 to watch who could raise their value in the organization in 2018.
1. Eddy Martinez – I think 2018 is when he takes off and breaks out as a prospect. He will have two years under his belt of living in the US and and playing minor-league baseball. He will turn 23 in January and I think he is ready to explode after hitting over .270 in the second half of 2017.
2. Zack Short – He was one of my favorite prospects to watch in 2017. He was a great lead off hitter and he succeeded at two levels. He can work a walk with the best Cub prospects. Add in his power at a premium position and he could be something special in AA. My only concern for him is he needs to improve his fielding and I really don’t see that as a major problem.
3. Duncan Robinson – Although he comes from Dartmouth, he is nothing like fellow Ivy Leaguer Kyle Hendricks. I think that Robinson is really going to surprise some people next year with his ability to adapt over the course of the season. This year, he added a cutter and he went from reliever to starter to Midwest League All-Star and then shined at Myrtle Beach in a two month span.
4. Michael Rucker – He was pressed into service as a starter this year and I don’t know if that’s his long-term future. As a reliever, he was a strike throwing machine that challenged hitters. He wore down a little bit as August as a starter. Still, he compiled an outstanding season and should be one to watch in Tennessee. I just don’t know what his role will be. He should start 2018 as a starter.
5. Thomas Hatch – He had a nice run in June when he was named the Cubs’ minor league pitcher of the month. Other than that, I never knew what was gonna happen when he was on the mound. The only thing I could say with certainty was that his pitches were going to move quite a bit. The question always was could he control them. And I think that’s the next question for 2018 is how much command he can regain by next spring for his second pro season.
6. Pedro Araujo – What a great year he had as he started to put it together. He has always had a powerful arm, it just took a while for it to develop. He took off beginning in May and then even more so when he became the closer in early June. He has to be very confident heading into next season. Even though he is up for Rule V draft, I still think he’s a couple years away from making it and I don’t think any team is going to risk selecting him this winter.
7. Originally, I was going to put Jesse Hodges, but I really think Jesse’s gonna be just fine at AA. Instead, I have decided to go with Tyler Alamo, who is a prospect who is really beginning to put things together. It’s been a slow track since he was drafted out of high school, but the catcher/1st baseman was one of the best hitters the Cubs had in the second half of the season.
I’m not quite sure what to make of Oscar de la Cruz. Injuries made his year an almost wasted one. He just has not gotten a lot of innings and that is what will need to do so in order to become a major league starter.
Pelicans to Know for 2018
This was a hard one. There are a lot of players who were on South Bend in 2017 who can really hit well. But I don’t know if there’s anybody who really stands out as a possible elite player just yet. There are several prospects who flashed some serious talent over the course of their Cubs minor league career, but no one who seems to do it on a consistent basis. DJ Wilson is close and outfielder Luis Ayala is an emerging bat.
Still, I think the player who could really take off next year is Kevonte Mitchell. At times this year, he flashed the ability to carry a team for a week or so. He had outstanding May and another outstanding July. In between and afterwards, he was inconsistent. You can see him recognize a curveball, but he can’t hit it on a regular basis. Until he does that, he is going to mash fastballs whenever he can. He does that really well.
By Todd Johnson
Originally, I did not plan on putting together a second half all star team. However, after looking at some of the performances of several prospects over the last 2 and 1/2 months, I thought they deserved to be honored for their performances.
I always like putting together a second-half team because they usually contain a few recent draft picks and some players from the lower parts of the system. Last year, I started including a couple players from the Dominican Summer League. That holds true for this year as well.
What started with the July All-Star team continued with the August All-Star team and this team. That is, in this list, you can definitely see a shift in the system. Younger players are starting to rise to the top and perform at a high-level. This is true of a couple of draft picks in Austin Upshaw and Nelson Velazquez along with several pitchers from the Dominican Summer League..
So, without further adieu, here is the All-Star team for the second half of the 2017 minor league season.
When I sit down to make my preseason All-Star team in 2018, a lot of the players listed in the video above will get a lot of merit for inclusion. One name not included that I am interested in seeing more of next year is Jose Gutierrez. The 18-year-old outfielder from Venezuela hit .354 in August and was a key cog in helping the Mesa Cubs win a title.