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
By Todd Johnson
On Monday, Cubs Central’s first monthly all-star team of the season will be published. So far, it’s been 3 and 1/2 weeks of interesting performances by some of the Cubs’ best prospects. Time is also growing near as the Cubs seem to be struggling with two starters in the rotation. On the horizon, two starting pitchers will most likely leave at the end of the season as free agents. So, the performances by several of the Cubs are an insight into who could be, and who could not be, possible starting pitchers in 2018.
My initial theory was that the Cubs would get one possible starter either this summer or at the trade deadline this summer or they could acquire one next winter. Then, the other pitcher could be one of their own prospects. Right now, the accruement of another pitcher is extremely likely. In addition, the Cubs could produce more than one pitcher on their own. The problem, though, is that there is no number one or two type starter among them. Still, the pitching prospects could all be functional on many levels.
- Eddie Butler – Right now, he’s looking good. He is pitching well in a predominant hitting league. He is not striking out as many hitters as I thought he would/could, but he is getting them out in a timely manner with as few pitches as possible. He’s not throwing straight gas, but is using all his pitches. His current ERA of 1.49 is the lowest in the Cubs system for starters with 4 starts.
- Duane Underwood – He’s having a bit of a renaissance season. He has a 3.00 ERA in 3 starts, one in which he struck out 8. I would like to see him go a bit deeper in each start. Currently, he’s gone 5 innings in each one.
- Alec Mills – He made two starts and then went on the DL. His second start was a bit of a gem. He went 6 IP with 3 hits and no runs allowed. It should be interesting to see how he does when he returns.
Three who could get a shot next next spring
- Trevor Clifton – I really like Trevor. He has two plus pitches and an improving changeup. Some call him workmanlike, but I don’t see that. He has a lot of talent. He can throw hard. Once he gets in a groove, he is almost unhittable. Even though his fastball comes in between 92-95, it has late action that occurs ten feet from the plate. His curve can be knee buckling while his change has some arm side run at times. He currently has a 2.66 ERA and all of the earned runs he’s allowed this year came on just two pitches until last night. He has improved on the little things a lot since South Bend and now has one of the best pick off moves in the system. I think he gets a shot in spring training and is likely added to the 40 man this fall.
- Jen-Ho Tseng – He’s a bit of an enigma. LIke Underwood, he’s having a bit of a resurgent year. So far, he’s had 4 starts with a 2.45 ERA. He’s struck out 14 in 22 IP. Yet, there are still the questions of dependability and consistency. In 2014, he was the Cubs MiLB Pitcher of the Year. Since then, he’s struggled to figure out what kind of pitcher he can be. It looks like he’s reverted to 2014 and it looks like it is working.
- Zach Hedges – I love watching this young man pitch. He’s a ground ball machine. His start on Tuesday saw him go 7 IP with only 1 hit. His current ERA is 2.38 and is likely headed down. He should be the first pitcher at AA Tennessee to get the call to AAA Iowa, whose staff is a bit distressed. Whether or not he can make it to Chicago really depends on his ability to keep the ball down in AAA Iowa when he gets there. He has a plus slider and throws mostly between 90-94 with his sinking fastball.
You are probably wondering why Dylan Cease is not on this list. Currently he is at low A South Bend. He will not be ready come next spring to attempt to compete for a spot in Chicago. He’s likely to be ready in 2019. Even if he makes it to AA Tennessee in August this year, he needs a lot of work on a changeup or a third pitch. If he’s going to be just a two pitch pitcher, then Cease will just be a reliever very, very quickly.
By Todd Johnson
It is hard to believe, but April is over in less than ten days! Minor league clubs have two full weeks in and the big league club is finishing its third full week on Sunday. However, this April has not been without some surprises.
Chicago: I am bit surprised to see Kyle Hendricks struggle AND give up dingers. His 6.19 ERA is a bit puzzling. However, I am not surprised to see Albert Almora do so well in the field. It is all he has ever done.
Iowa: I am not surprised to see Jeimer Candelario and Victor Caratini do so well in hitting in AAA. Caratini is having his best year ever as a Cubs prospect while Candelario already has driven in 18 in just 14 games.
Tennessee: I am surprised to see Yasiel Balaguert struggle to start this year. He is starting to come around. Last year, he drove in 95 runs. Last night, a seeing eye-single brought in two. I am not surprised to see Trevor Clifton come out and out work the other team. It’s early in his AA career, but he is off to his best start as a prospect.
Myrtle Beach: I am surprised by the sluggish start of Carlos Sepulveda. I thought he would hit every where he went. Two weeks in and he is just not getting close to .200. I am not surprised the bat of Tyler Alamo. He just works hard wherever he lands. I am very happy to see him get off to a good start as he is one of the nicest kids in the system.
South Bend: No surprise on Dylan Cease and the bullpen – they are both outstanding. I am surprised by the great start of Yeiler Peguero, I knew he would be at least decent this year. I did not see him dominating at-bats and hitting a home run (almost two in one game) this early in the year.
Extended Spring Training: I was not surprised to see the 2015 IFA class playing with the Eugene team and thriving. I figured Ademan, Sierra, and Perez would hold their own. However, it is catcher Miguel Amaya who is dominating on both sides of the diamond. I am surprised how well Bryan Hudson is doing. He’s thrown 11 innings with 12 Ks and 15 GB outs.
The most surprising pitchers of the first two weeks are Justin Steele of Myrtle Beach and Eddie Butler of Iowa. I really like how Justin Steele is attacking the zone and hitters this year. There’s no more nibbling around the edge of the zone. With Butler, he just pitches well. He has quality stuff and gets people out. It seems as if he finally figured some things out.
When it comes to hitting, I am surprised to see Wladimir Galindo be a well rounded hitter. He goes the other way, often with two strikes and is hitting .327. Although he has one homer, we will see more as it warms up. Before a hamstring injury sidelined, Trey Martin was putting up some good numbers in Tennessee. Always a great fielder, Martin showed an offensive burst last summer for a bit. He was hitting .320 with 2 HRs and 6 RBIs in 8 games.