Friday Six Pack – Starting Pitching Prospects for 2018 Getting a Little Clearer

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.

Three likely to get a shot next spring

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

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The Friday Six Pack: Early Surprises All Around the System

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.

 

The Weekly: Jeimer, Cease, Clifton, and Happ Have Good Debuts

Let the Games Begin!
It is going be 70 degrees today in northern Illinois! So, with five games happening this afternoon, it will be great to feel the breeze come in my office as I watch one game on the TV and four on MiLB.TV.

Pic by Rikk Carlson

Last night was a good night to watch three games the same time. I had the Cubs and Milwaukee on the TV, South Bend on the computer, and Tennessee on my phone. I got to see great pitching performances by Dylan Cease and Trevor Clifton, a resurgent offense as Kris Bryant got his first hits of the year, and later, Jeimer Candelario and Ian Happ both hit home runs for the second night in a row.

Here are a few things I have liked just after three games:
1. Iowa is going to win a lot of games. They have a potent offense from 1 to 9 and a talented bullpen.

2. Tennessee has a mixture of excellent defense, starting pitching, and a couple of guys who I think can really play and David Bote and Trey Martin.

3. Jen-Ho Tseng was fairly decent in his debut on Friday night. He looked more like The pitcher at Kane County than he did like the pitcher of the last two years.

3. South Bend is an extremely young team. They only have a couple of position players with college experience. Their bats could take a while to warm up.

4. Oscar de la Cruz will be the pitcher I look forward to seeing most today. In fact, just the first three days showed how good pitching now is in the Cubs’ system.

5. Pitchers Tyson Miller and Duncan Robinson both looked very good for South Bend as they only gave up one earned run between them.


Around the System

Iowa: 3-0; This team is going to win a lot of games. They did well this week by taking down some of the Dodgers’ top prospects
Tennessee: 2-1; They are sneaky good!
Myrtle Beach: 2-1; The starting pitching and bullpen look very good!
South Bend: 0-3; It takes a while for the young bats to warm up in the chilly air of a Midwestern spring.


Weekly Awards

New Features for Cubs Central on the Facebook page
There are three new daily features that will be posted there. They are – Hitter of the Day, Pitcher of the Day, and Reliever of the Day. For the past couple of years, we have done “The Weekly” awards every Sunday. I wanted to reward the daily efforts as well this year. Here are the winners from this week.

Thursday – Eddy Martinez, Eddie Butler, Scott Effross
Friday – Jeimer Candelario, Thomas Hatch, Rob Zastryzny
Saturday – Jeimer Candelario, Dylan Cease, and David Rollins

Draft Update News
Oregon’s David Peterson (77 Ks in 52.1 IP) continues to roll as does Brendon Little (86 Ks in 55 IP) The two lefty starters have to be on the Cubs radar for the

Sad News
The Cubs signed shortstop Vincente King last summer as an international free agent. The 16-year-old was killed in a motorcycle accident in the Dominican Republic. He was set to begin to play in the Dominican Summer League later this year. Our prayers go out to his family and friends.


Upcoming posts
Opening day in Chicago – Rain needs to stay away
From Small Things, Big Things One Day Come
10 Things I Think
The Bullpen

Cubs Central’s Preseason 1st Half All-Star Team Has Some Powerful Names

Today is a fun day! It’s opening day for four of the Cubs’ minor-league affiliates! Weather permitting, Iowa, Tennessee, Myrtle Beach, and South Bend will take the field for the first time in 2017. It is not looking good for South Bend today as three to six inches are called for in West Michigan. As usual, I will be watching all the happenings. Then, starting this Sunday, “The Weekly” will have the players of the week. But today, it’s our annual preseason All-Star team for the first half.

What is happening today is I am picking out several players who I think will be the best at their position in the Cubs’ system through the middle of June. 

  

Catcher
I think that Victor Caratini is locked and loaded and has his eyes set on Chicago. He will be at AAA this year and more than likely, come 2018, he will be the backup catcher to Wilson Contreras. He might even see some time this summer depending on his defense.

First Base
Even though he is currently on the DL, I think Yasiel Balaguert has this position sewn up. Last year, he had 19 home run the 96 RBIs and I think he will improve upon that this year as he has been working on hitting up the middle and to the right.

Second Base
There is some stiff competition for this position with Carlos Sepulveda and Yeiler Peguero competing to get their name on the Internet. However, Ian Happ wins in a landslide. It is so self-evident, that I’m not even going to explain my thinking process for selecting him.

 

Shortstop
At the age of 17, Isaac Paredes made his class A debut at South Bend in late August of 2017. This year, the Cubs will get the full effect of what this man-child can do. He earned the starting spot and hopefully some power will go along with an outstanding batting average and on-base percentage… I’ll from an 18-year-old kid.

Third Base
I am going to break the mold, and tradition, and go with Wladimir Galindo who I think will do extremely well as a 20-year-old in the Midwest League. Normally, I would pick Jeimer Candelario for the spot, but I think Wladimir is determined to succeed and show his worth.

  

Outfield
I think this was the toughest category to pick just three players. I think the deciding factor is how I project them to perform in the first half and the excitement that they will bring to the game. As a result, I am selecting DJ Wilson of South Bend, Eloy Jimenez of Tennessee, and I’m going to stun everybody and go with Bijan Rademacher of Iowa. I know I am leaving out Eddy Martinez and Mark Zagunis, but I think Bijan is going to hit more home runs than both the next two months.

  

Starting Pitchers
I found it hard to just pick six because the Cubs development of pitchers is becoming more and more pronounced. I am going with Dylan Cease, Trevor Clifton, Eddie Butler, Erling Moreno, Oscar de la Cruz, Thomas Hatch, and I am picking Kyle Miller as a Darkhorse. I also thought about including Ryan Williams, Rob Zastryzny, and Zach Hedges. What used to be the weakness of the organization is now turning into a strength. I would not be surprised to see a couple of these pitchers make it to Chicago this year.

Relief Pitchers
Last year, relievers were the strength of the organization. They helped out the big league club down the stretch and Rob Zastryzny even made it to the World Series. This year, Pierce Johnson leads a group of arms who are still a ways off from helping the big league club. Ryan McNeil, Jordan Mnch, Wyatt Short, Dakota Mekkes, and Chad Hockin are just a few of the names who will be excellent bullpen arms the spring. I know there are other bullpen arms, especially in South Bend, who could’ve been added to this list.

Last year’s preseason All-Star team played a significant role in two ways. Some of them wound up on the major-league roster and were key players in the World Series victory. Other prospects were parts of packages used to acquire Aroldis Chapman and Mike Montgomery who helped to win the World Series.

I don’t quite know what will happen this year with some of these prospects, but that’s the fun of it. In four weeks, the April All-Star team should give us a glimpse into how well this package of players listed above did on the road to Wrigley.

Iowa Cubs Preview – Helping to Win Championships

By Todd Johnson

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There are currently 30 pitchers on the Iowa roster. 15 of them should be cut by opening day. As for who those 15 who make the roster will be, it’s a crapshoot right now. However, I do think there are certain pitchers who could be of value to the major league club later this summer. In fact, there are upwards of 10-12 prospects who could help the big league Cubs at some point in 2017.

2016 Review
Last year the Cubs went 67-76. I consider that to be a miraculous record because of a number of injuries sustained in the first month of the year that decimated the starting rotation. It seemed as though the Cubs were always playing catch-up. On the other hand, Iowa produced several prospects who helped the Cubs win the World Series including catcher Wilson Contreras, outfielder Albert Almora, pitcher Carl Edwards, and pitcher Rob Zastryzny. This year there could be as many as ten players who could help the big league club in some form or fashion.

Starting Pitching
Ryan Williams has had an outstanding spring. After missing almost all of 2016, the big lumberjack his back and his command of pictures down in the zone was evident in his time with the big league club in spring training. Throw in Alec Mills and Eddie Butler and you have three arms who could fit nicely at the back of the rotation if needed. However next year, all three could be in a position with some AA pitchers to replace John Lackey and Jake Arrieta. Keep close eyes on Mills and Butler as they could be key replacements in case of injury this spring, especially if Brett Anderson or John Lackey goes down.

Relief pitching
Former starter Pierce Johnson has had an outstanding spring and has reinvented himself as a reliever. I think he gets the first call up and Cub fans plans will love his arsenal of pitches. The fans will also love his laid-back personality and sense of humor. Jose Rosario is another reliever who could help this year, but I think the key one is going to be lefty Jack Leathersich who is going to be fully healthy after coming off Tommy John surgery a year ago.

Position Players
Jeimer Candelario’s retention as a Cub has been surprising. I thought for sure he might get traded during the off-season for starting pitching. Right now, Jeimer picked up where he left off last spring. The switch-hitting first baseman and third baseman is showing why the Cubs are still hanging onto him as he sprays the ball from both sides of the plate.

There was no doubt that Ian Happ was the star of spring training. Word came late tonight that Happ would be assigned to Iowa. For Happ, the only thing he needs to work on is hitting consistently. While his OBP is always near .400, his batting average fluctuates greatly throughout the season. The streak he has been on this spring is pretty much standing operating procedure for him. In the past, a slump would eventually come. I am hoping that this year it does not.

Catcher Victor Caratini displayed his bat that many have been waiting for since he was traded to the Cubs from the Braves. Now that he has two years of catching in the Cubs system, I am hoping he improves his defense some more as it appears his bat his major league ready. In the case of an injury to Montero, Caratini could get the call this year. However, his bat is still far ahead of his defense. That should be the goal for him as he projects to be the backup in 2018.

Another prospect who could help this summer is Chesny Young. Young has turned into a utility player getting time in at 6 positions last summer in Tennessee. In addition to being a hitting and walking machine, Young has shown some power lately. He hit a four last year in Tennessee and has two this spring with the Cubs. With a .313 career MiLB average, it won’t be long until we see him in Chicago. I think he will feast on PCL pitching this spring and summer.

I think Bijan Rademacher and Mark Zagunis are very close to making it to Chicago as bench players. Rademacher can play all three outfield positions, hits left-handed, and is actually getting much better every year, especially when it comes to power (see yesterday’s grand slam for an example). Zagunis has the best plate discipline in the organization and his ability to draw a walk is going to get him to Chicago this year.

Sleeper – I don’t think he’s a sleeper anymore, but Pierce Johnson looks to be the breakout prospect of the year in Iowa. It took a few months, but he looks great coming out of the pen.

Probable Daily Lineup
LF – Zagunis/Happ
CF – Andreoli/Happ
RF – Rademacher/Happ
3B – Candelario/Young
SS – Kawasaki/Young
2B – Bruno/Happ
1B – Candelario/Dominguez
C – Davis/Caratini
DH – Young/Happ

First to be Promoted – Johnson has to be close as the Cubs big league bullpen is a little long in the tooth, especially in the back end with Davis, Uehara, and Duensing all over 30 and Rondon and Strop coming off injuries. It is not a question of if now, but when for Pierce.

Somehow Anderson Steals Montgomery’s Thunder This Spring

By Todd Johnson

Mike Montgomery gets the last of the World Series

With the release of Jason Hammel this winter, Mike Montgomery was put clearly in the driver’s seat to take the final spot in the starting rotation. The man who got the final out of the 2016 World Series was going to be the fifth starter for the defending champions…or so we thought.

There are a couple of things that happened this winter to change that. The Cubs signed starting pitcher Brett Anderson and traded for prospects, Eddie Butler and Alec Mills.

It seemed like Montgomery had the job for about five minutes.

Still, there is a huge difference between being a starting pitcher and being a reliever.

Heading into Sunday night’s game, Montgomery had pitched seven innings this spring with a 3.86 ERA. After giving up a home run to Mike Moustakas in the first inning, Montgomery settled down, got out of the inning, and proceeded to strike out the side in the second. In the third, he hit a batter and gave up a couple of hits before getting out of the inning with the bases-loaded but not before one more run scored.

I liked what I saw when Montgomery mixed his fastball and changeup to get hitters out in front or to induce a ground ball. He got a lot of ugly swings when using his changeup and I especially liked it when he used his changeup to set up his fastball, which he commanded very well.

At this point, I think Montgomery’s only weakness is his curveball. It is not a bad curveball, but it is not a great one, either. It seemed as though he just laid off his curve because it was not finding the zone at all.

I really think Montgomery’s best place, in the long run, might be in the pen. Sure, he could spot start from time to time, but his fastball/changeup mix works much better in the bullpen. I just don’t think he has the three-pitch mix needed to sustain a starting role over the course of the season.

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Brett Anderson

However, I much prefer Montgomery starting to Brett Anderson, who I thought might have trouble even making the club with an ERA over 7.00. Earlier this week, it looked like Anderson was given the fifth starter job. I did not see that coming, and I don’t know if I want to see what’s coming in the future, either. Let me be the first to say, I do not agree with the decision. Anderson’s litany of injuries do not exude confidence on my part, nor should they on yours. When healthy, he can do the job, but he rarely has stayed healthy. He has only thrown over 150 IP twice in his eight-year career.

In my honest opinion, I think we will not see the true fifth, or maybe even fourth, starter arrive in Chicago sometime in June or July. That starter could be someone like Butler or Mills, or the Cubs could make a trade with some of their elite prospects. I think if Butler comes up, he doesn’t go back down. Mills still has a couple of options left.

Until then, I think Anderson is just a fill-in fifth starter for 10 to 12 weeks, even though I think Montgomery easily out pitched him for the job.

Spring Training News and Notes- Week 5

By Todd Johnson

It’s been a pretty busy week in the Cub universe. Minor-league teams started playing and the Cubs cut their roster down to 40. Eloy was assigned to the minor league camp, Duane Underwood saw some action with the big league, Kyle Schwarber entered another ball into outer space, and Eddie Butler stole the show for the week.

The week began last Sunday with the bullpen meltdown when the Cubs gave up 4 runs in two innings to lose to the A’s. William Perez gave up four runs and Rob Zastryzny gave up another to lose the game. As for the rest of the week, the Cubs consistently put up runs across the board. Ian Happ continues to hit well as does Matt Szczur.

The Cubs also trimmed the roster down to 40. Some of those on the 40 man roster were sent to minor league camp including Duane Underwood, who actually started on Friday and threw a scoreless inning giving up one hit and getting two ground ball outs and one flyball out to escape.

As for Eloy, the Cubs did not say to which team he had been assigned. Before spring training it was assumed he would be with Myrtle Beach. I don’t think that’s been determined and I still think you’re going to see him play with the big boys the next two weeks pending examination of a sore shoulder – hopefully, it is nothing. Ian Happ is part of the 40 players vying for 25 spots, but it’s more like 16 players for 2 spots – a relief pitcher and a utility guy.

The pitching star of the week was Eddie Butler who went 4 scoreless. He’s having a better spring than either Mike Montgomery or Brett Anderson. In fact, Anderson and Mark Montgomery both struggled in their appearances this week. If Butler continues his progression, he may not be down in Iowa very, very long. And the same could be true of Alec Mills, who also has had a pretty good spring.

As for the minor league camp…

Carlos Sepulveda went three for four in the first intrasquad game and then found himself up playing with the major league club in Friday’s win over Arizona. Like Eloy, Sepulveda has shown excellent bat to ball skills in camp, but also in their first season in South Bend. Whether that means he’s going to jump Myrtle Beach, I doubt it. However, he could move a little faster than a normal prospect. The fact that he hits left-handed is also a positive. and recently he gained a lot of praise in Keith Law’s second base rankings as one of the top 10 minor league second basemen.

Zack Short, Ian Rice, and Trent Giambrone also hit the ball all over and out of the park with 18-year-old Jonathan Sierra. The hitters clearly have a jump on the pitchers so far. Kyle Miller pitched the best while Wyatt Short gave up 3 runs in one appearance. That three more runs than he gave up all last year. Manny Rondon, who should be in South Bend in 2017, looked very good in his first appearance this spring.

Michael Rucker, lefty Colton Freeman, and Thomas Hatch also looked outstanding in their debuts. The player to watch for this spring looks to be Sepulveda followed by Giambrone, catcher Michael Cruz, and DJ Wilson.

As for me…
I finally finished my busy season this week. I coach the academic team at the school where I teach and the kids finished their season this week. They went undefeated in conference play and brought home a championship trophy below. Here is our awesome trophy!

Thankfully, the season finished just in time for baseball. As a result, expect to see more posts including Tuesday’s look at whether Ian Happ can make the roster. To be honest, It’s not that far-fetched.

Upcoming Posts
Draft Review
How Close is Ian Happ?