By Todd Johnson
Yesterday, I talked about the dilemma for the backup catcher spot. Today, it’s all about the bullpen. Or, as Joe Maddon now refers to them, bullpen men. The Cubs are likely to take eight of them east to Miami. Seven of those have been pretty set in stone since the beginning of camp in Brandon Morrow, Steve Cishek, Carl Edwards, Jr., Pedro Strop, Brian Duensing, Mike Montgomery, and Justin Wilson.
With just five days left until opening day, the Cubs have kept two spots open on their 40 man roster. One is likely for catcher Chris Jimenez and the other might be for one of the players they could be taking for the bullpen.
Lefty pitcher Randy Rosario has some MLB experience and is on 40 man, but I don’t think he wowed anybody this spring. As a result, he was sent down yesterday to trim the roster to 34. But pitchers Anthony Bass, Kyle Ryan, and Justin Hancock are still alive and all put together good springs.
Former starter Eddie Butler more than likely looks to have one spot locked up as he is out of options. Another spot could be open as Pedro Strop is not quite ready to return and could begin the year on the DL.
Just yesterday, reliever Justin Hancock pitched two scoreless innings to close out a game, even though it was against mostly minor league players. When spring training began, I didn’t think that Hancock stood much of a chance of making it through spring training, let alone this long. His ability to throw mid to upper 90s heat and to locate that heat made him an extremely viable candidate to make the team. According to Patrick Mooney of The Athletic, Joe Maddon said the following about Hancock’s arsenal: “He’s got a lightning bolt for an arm” and “He’s got A-lister stuff.” A pitcher is not going to get a much better rec than that. Hancock would need to be added to the 40 man if he did.
When Theo talked about adding strike throwers, he wasn’t kidding. Anthony Bass fit that bill this spring along with Kyle Ryan. Ryan did not have a good 2017. However, he was pretty good before that in Detroit. Being a lefty gives Ryan a distinct advantage over the other two. The 6’5” 26-year-old is an intriguing option who put up a 3.07 ERA in 56 games in 2016. But will Joe Maddon want to go with four left-handers in the bullpen?
Ryan pitched just 8 innings so far while Bass only got in 5.2. Those totals don’t seem enough to judge an extra reliever/bullpen man.
Part of me also wonders how much the Cubs will be looking at the waiver wire here the next few days to see if there’s a player with substantial talent that gets cut right before the season starts.
Another part of me says the Cubs are going to go with the more experienced player. In that case Ryan has the most experience and has actually had some success at the major-league level. On the other hand, Bass had the best spring, but is the oldest player at 30. As for Hancock, I think he has the most talent. And to be honest, talent usually wins out.
In the end, though, the bullpen on March 24 is not going to matter that much in the big scheme of things. I look more towards how the bullpen develops over the course of the summer and the names that are going to be there in October.
At some point, Dillon Maples will enter the discussion later this year along with my guy, Dakota Mekkes. A lot can happen between now and August 31, the day playoff rosters are due. The Cubs have a lot of time to sort things out for October. For now, though, they will have to make a decision just about who begins the season on the 25-man roster.
By Todd Johnson
There are now exactly two weeks to go in Spring Training. Basically two roster spots remain open. The backup catcher spot is a competition between Chris Gimenez, who looks to have the advantage of having been a backup before, and Victor Caratini, whose bat and experience in the organization will make it tough to pick just one. But when it comes to the final reliever spot, all bets are still off.
In the big scheme of things, the bullpen on March 29th is not going to be as important as the bullpen six months later on October 1. Between injuries, performance, promotions, and trades, a lot can go down (or up) underneath the bleachers and on the mound.
Over the past week, the Cubs whittled down their roster some. Several non-roster invitees were sent back to Iowa and Tennessee and others, like Rob Zastryzny, were optioned to Iowa.
Who Is Definitely In?
Brandon Morrow, Steve Cishek, Carl Edwards, Brian Duensing, Pedro Strop, Mike Montgomery, and Justin Wilson.
Who Is Still Left?
Out of those six names, one will break camp and head to Miami. It is not going to be Dillon Maples no matter how badly I want him to make the club. He still has some work to do. Justin Grimm, meanwhile, is not looking too promising either. His contract is not guaranteed this year after losing his arbitration case. Hancock is throwing very well but a 40 man roster spot would have to made for him and the same would be true if Bass or Ryan made the club.
That leaves Eddie Butler. Currently, the righthander is out of options. He either makes the club or the Cubs risk losing him on a waiver claim. He’s had a good spring and the benefit of having him in the pen for the spring months is that he, along with Montgomery, could eat up some innings as long men.
Today, Butler would be my pick to make it. That could all change in a week.
However, the tenor of spring training games changes greatly in the next week as the starting pitcher go deeper into games and the hitters get 4-5 at-bats. Whoever comes in to relieve will be facing mostly major league hitters rather than a mish-mash of talent. The Cubs will get a better look at the bullpen and what these arms can do in that time frame.
Later in the Year
The Cubs have two arms in the minors who could remake the pen. One is Adbert Alzolay, who already has a wicked fastball in the mid 90s that could bump up some more in short stints. He should start the year at Tennessee.
Another arm who could be available later this year is Dakota Mekkes. The 6’7” righty has a deceptive delivery that turns a 93 mph into a 97 mph one with his long stride. He dominated at both South Bend and Myrtle Beach. He could do that as well again in 2018.
Regardless of the opening day bullpen, Theo and Jed are going to put together the best pen they can come the end of August. More than likely, that last spot will be fluid and malleable throughout this spring and even more so this summer.
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.
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 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.
For the second straight year, manager Marty Pevey had to assemble a starting rotation made out of spare parts until August. Injuries and promotions at both the major and minor league levels cut his starting rotation short. The I-Cubs did have a potent offense led by the Cubs minor league player of the year, Victor Caratini. Starting pitcher Jen-Ho Tseng put together the best half by a pitcher in AAA since Kyle Hendricks was there.
The Iowa Cubs are still producing prospects to help Chicago every year. This year we saw, in addition to Caratini and Jen-Ho, Ian Happ, Eddie Butler, Jeimer Candelario, Mark Zagunis, Dillon Maples, and several relief pitchers help out the big club in some capacity. I expect more prospects will help out again in 2018, likely they will be just in bench roles. I don’t see anyone with the everyday playing career path of Ian Happ in the upper parts of the pipeline. Caratini looks to make the 25 man roster in Chicago next spring but just as the backup catcher. I am curious as to what the plans for Mark Zagunis are as he doesn’t have much left to prove in AAA.
Here are seven things to know about the 2017 Iowa Cubs.
1. Bijan Rademacher had the quietest best second half of any prospect in the system. I was a little surprised he wasn’t named the July player of the month as he hit almost .400. He can play all three outfield positions and I think he has one of the best outfield arms after Eddy Martinez. The issue is that he doesn’t project to be anything other than a fourth outfielder. Then again, he hasn’t really been given the chance to show that he can be something else. He has begun to hit for more power and I like what he can do at the plate. He can hit for average and he knows how to work an at bat.
2. I would not be surprised to see the big league club continue to clean house again at Iowa. The 2017 roster at Iowa only had a few position players that might project to make it to Chicago. Most of the roster were journeyman players looking for one more opportunity to get back to the big leagues. With Tennessee sending anywhere between 6 and 9 position players to Iowa next year, I don’t think there are going to be too many roster spots available for any player or prospect nearing 27 years of age. Already, Jake Hannemann, Pierce Johnson, and Felix Pena have new homes for 2018. I don’t know if John Andreoli will be back again either.
3. I still believe in Chesny Young despite his up-and-down year. I think that he has some adjusting to do at this level and I’m confident that he will do well in his second go around at AAA in 2018.
4. Unless Eddie Butler can add some sort of out pitch, I don’t know if he’s going to be anything more than a fill-in at the major-league level. He had his moments this year in Chicago, but he never went much beyond five innings. He needs to be more efficient to get outs quickly and go deeper into games.
5. I am still pulling for Ryan Williams to make it. I just like the kid. He has a bulldog mentality that I love. However, after basically missing two full seasons, I wonder if returning to the bullpen might be best for his long term health. In 2018, we will see.
6. Dillon Maples is going to be close to making the Chicago Cubs 25 man roster next spring. I like the fact that he’s going to get more instruction from big league coaches that will only enhance his chances.
7. For me, the highlights of the year were the second halves of Jen-Ho Tseng (1.80 ERA) and Taylor Davis (.297 avg with 62 RBI). I am glad Davis got the call to make it to Chicago. His story is a tale of perseverance and he is an outstanding teammate and hitter that I think can play somewhere in the majors. I don’t know if Tseng will be given a true opportunity to pitch in the big leagues next year but he should get a few starts with the club in spring training. A lot of his future is tied to what the Cubs do to add starting pitching this offseason.
What to Watch for in 2018
There are going to be at least six position players from Tennessee who should start in Iowa next year. I think many will benefit from playing in the Pacific Coast League but none more than catcher Ian Rice. If you dismiss his batting average and just look at his power numbers and on base percentage, you begin to see his value and how much greater he is than his fellow prospects (17 HRs, .353 OBP). I think he is really going to benefit from playing in the hitter friendly Pacific Coast League more than any other prospect in 2018.
Jason Vosler will also benefit from playing in such environs. After a poor second half, Vosler should look to recapture what made his first half so fantastic in 2017. In the first half, he hit at a .274/.375/.521 clip with 13 HRs and 49 RBI. In addition, Yasiel Balaguert, David Bote, Trey Martin, and Charcer Burks should be starting everyday in Des Moines next summer.
Remember the name Adbert Alzolay. Out of all the prospects at Tennessee, I think he might be the most ready for Chicago. Even though he is currently a starting pitcher, I can see him coming out of the bullpen in Chicago as early as the middle of next summer. With a fastball that sits 95-97, there’s a lot to like.
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.
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.
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
By Todd Johnson
What I thought would be the most exciting part of the week was the Friday night debut of Eddie Butler for Chicago. He went six innings, gave up two hits and three walks, but struck out five and did not allow a run as the Cubs beat the Cardinals 3 to 2. Butler displayed a nice collection of pitches that included a fastball with some nice arm side run. He should get one more start before the Cubs decide on whether to keep him as the fifth starter.
Then, on Saturday afternoon, Ian Happ made his MLB debut against the Cardinals. His first at-bat was not very auspicious as he struck out on four pitches. He later homered in the game – Not a bad first game. On the other hand, he will likely be back in Iowa in ten days.
We were not done yet.
Eloy Jimenez finally was scheduled to play in a game that mattered on Saturday night for Myrtle Beach. Unfortunately, the game was called because of rain. So, Myrtle Beach will play two today. I doubt if Eloy does.
Finally, Wladimir Galindo returned from the DL for South Bend. In his first at-bat, he drove in two. For the night, he went 1-4 with 3 Ks. His average is now .321.
While some prospects have made a lot of noise with their bats and arms this season, there are several other prospects who are quietly going about their business and putting together some very nice seasons.
- Duncan Robinson has gone back and forth between starting and piggybacking. He now looks like a starter after a 7 IP, 5 K performance where he lowered his ERA down to 1.52.
- Michael Rucker has been very hard to score on out of the bullpen for South Bend. Currently, his ERA is 1.42.
- Bryant Flete has been a go to guy for the pelicans. He is one of the team leaders in RBIs while playing a very good shortstop.
- Both David Bote and Charcer Burks go about their business quietly and have been essential cogs at the top of the lineup for Tennessee.
- Matt Rose missed two weeks but it has not stopped him from being one of the team leaders in homers and RBIs for Myrtle Beach. Since returning from his injury, his average is slowly creeping up towards .250. I think he could go on a tear once the weather warms up a little bit more. Last August, he hit seven dinners in August at South Bend.
Here at Cubs Central
The Facebook page is beginning to take off with the Players of the Day segment. Every day we select the best hitter, starting pitcher, and reliever in the minors and give them some props and put their baseball card on the Internet. There is also a page on this site that keeps a record of who we selected. AND another new page on this site keeps track of each monthly All-Star team. If you are on your phone, you can click the drop-down menu in the header. If you have a computer, there should be a tab at the top of the page to select.
Around the System This Week
Iowa: 1-6; 14-20 – 8.5 GB
The Cubs can score 11 runs in a game, but then they give up 12. With Butler now in Chicago, I think there will be a mostly new rotation the second half. Alec Mills could be the only remaining starter come July.
Tennessee: 5-3; 22-14- First Place
The Smokies moved into first place in the Southern League’s Northern Division. Using a combination of excellent starting pitching, a shutdown bullpen, and some ascending hitters, the Smokies are a team to watch this year. Hopefully, they can clinch a playoff spot for the first half next month.
Myrtle Beach: 2-3; 19-16 – 2.5 GB
They have not really gone on a winning streak this year. Starting pitching doesn’t seem to be in a groove just yet. Right now, they seem to be susceptible to the big inning. Adbert Alzolay looks like he could be the real deal this year.
South Bend: 5-2; 23-12 – 1.5 GB
This team does not have a lot of power at the plate. Nevertheless, they can put up some crooked numbers in a hurry. From 1 to 9, they might have the best lineup in the system. Pitcher of Bryan Hudson also had an encouraging start this week. If Manny Rondon can get straightened out like he was last night (6IP, 0 Runs), this team could be unstoppable with some consistent starting pitching.
Extended Spring Training
There is less than a month left and some of the pitchers are starting to get stretched out a bit. Jose Albertos had a very good scoreless three inning start this week and I expect to see him hit four innings this next week.
Players of the Week
POWER! in the System
Friday Six Pack
Saturday Prospect Profile
Grading the Drafts
My Posts on Other Sites This Week
By Todd Johnson
You can thank the rain storms that covered much of the Midwest for me being able to finish this month’s all-star team on schedule. There were no yards to mow, no weeds to pull, and no dogs to walk in the rain. In addition, there were no minor league games except for Myrtle Beach and South Bend on Sunday.
It was a strange month for trying to pick a few spots on the All-Star team. First base was a difficult choice as most of the organization struggled at that position. I wound up going with a player who only played a few games there. When it came to starting pitching, I had a couple players drop off after poor starts in the last week. When it came time to select the hitter of the month, all I had to do was look at only one team who was rained out for the weekend.
I think the May All-Star team will be much different. For one, I think Yasiel Balaguert has started to find his stroke at first base. In the outfield, there will be much more competition as Jake Hannemann, Kevonte Mitchell, and Mark Zagunis all had strong final weeks in April. Trey Martin could return as well. I also think that some of the starting pitching will start to stabilize in Myrtle Beach and South Bend. Duncan Robinson will be one pitcher to watch in May as to whether he starts or relieves in South Bend.
So, without further adieu, here is the April All-Star team.
Iowa Cubs – 4
Tennessee Smokies – 7
Myrtle Beach Pelicans – 6
South Bend Cubs – 4