By Todd Johnson
Back in the spring, I wrote an article for BP Wrigleyville about which affiliate would be the team to watch in the first half. I wound up picking South Bend mainly because of their pitching. And that turned out to be a good pick as they also had exciting players to watch. Now that the second half is here, who is the affiliate to keep an eye on for the next two months.?
Considering that Iowa has really produced a lot of help for the big league club the spring with David Bodie, Anthony Bass, Victor Caratini, and other assorted relievers, one could make an argument that Iowa should be the team to watch in case the Cubs need more starting pitching. Casey Coleman, Duane Underwood, and Trevor Clifton are three to watch. Meanwhile, Dakota Mekkes and Kyle Ryan are two relievers to examine. At the plate, Mark Zagunis could fill a hole if needed and Chesney Young appears to fully have his groove back again in July. Finally, Taylor Davis could provide a backup catcher if needed.
Myrtle Beach’s Case
Right now, the Pelicans’ hitting is not doing very well. Outside of Andruw Monasterio, PJ Higgins, and Jhonny Pereda, most of prospects are hitting in the .220s or below. But when it comes to pitching, especially the starting variety, Myrtle Beach has several arms to watch. Erich Uelmen didn’t miss a beat when he was promoted to South Bend to Myrtle Beach. 2017 First Round pick Alex Lange is definitely an arm to watch. His changeup seems to be rounding into form as it fades away from right-handed hitters. If he can maintain the current arm slot as his fastball, he becomes deadly. In addition, pitcher Tyson Miller looks to be strong at this point in the season and is getting better every month as his season ERA continues to drop near 3.00. I also look forward to the return of Bailey Clark who missed most of June. Reliever Jhon Romero might be headed for Tennessee very soon at the rate he is striking out batters.
When I first thought of doing this article 2 months ago, I would’ve said that Eugene would be the team to watch with all the young players. It’s still is, but some of those players are going through a lot of growing pains. Right now, the star attraction is number one draft pick shortstop Nico Hoerner. Then again, he’s missed the last five days after injuring his pinky finger sliding into third base. Hopefully he will return soon, and stay there a while before he gets shipped off to South Bend. Otherwise, Fernando Kelli is never dull on the basepaths as he leads the Northwest League in stolen bases. Fireballin’ Pitcher Brailyn Marquez is must see TV. And in good news, Nelson Velasquez and Luis Vazquez seem to be finding in their strokes after a rough first two weeks. Both are hitting well over .300 this month. Luis Diaz has been a nice surprise. Jonathan Sierra has a great eye at the plate but has yet to get the bat going, although he went 4-for-4 last night . The 2018 draft picks have been a little slow to head to Eugene and they seem to be dispersed throughout the system rather than Eugene.
South Bend’s Case
They could easily make a strong case to be the team to watch this half, too. Pitchers Rollie Lacy, Tyler Thomas, and Jesus Camargo are something else. Every time they go out, they seem to just give up zero or one run in 5 to 7 innings with 8 to 10 Ks. First baseman Jared Young is destroying the ball and was just named the Cubs’ minor league player of the month for June. Miguel Amaya slipped a little bit last month but he is still a very exciting young prospect and was just named to the World roster at the Future’s Game. Brandon Hughes looks to be in a groove since adjusting his stance. Michael Cruz also adjusted his approach and hit over .300 in June. This gives South Bend Cubs, arguably, the top 1-9 batting order in the system.
Over the first two-plus weeks of the second half, the Smokies have been the hottest team in the system. They are currently in first place as their hitters seemed to have woken up from a two month slumber. Leading the charge are shortstop Zack Short, second baseman Trent Giambrone, and outfielder Charcer Burks. As soon as the All-Star break ended, those three begin to take off and haven’t stop hitting for the past two weeks. In addition, new pitchers Matt Swarmer and Keegan Thompson are beginning to adjust to AA as the Smokies have gone to a six-man rotation. Thomas Hatch is always a fun watch. I love to see Duncan Robinson pitch whenever he starts and the same is true of Michael Rucker. The two 2016 draft picks just throw strikes. With Jake Stinnett now entrenched as the closer, this team has a lot going on as they sit firmly in first place.
As for the four rookie league teams, none of them are televised, although the Arizona Rookie League teams do get some press coverage with Arizona Phil. They also have 2/3 of this year’s class spread across the two teams.
Considering all of these things, it’s pretty close between Tennessee and South Bend. The deciding factor for my choice comes down to this: Which prospects are going to be at South Bend or Tennessee the whole two months. I can firmly say that most of Tennessee’s roster is going to stay in Kodak. I can’t say the same for South Bend. I could see Jared Young getting the call today as well as Lacy and Thomas. As a result, the first place Tennessee Smokies are going to get a lot more attention the rest of the way in. It should be fun.
By Todd Johnson
I always find that the three days of the All-Star break is always quite strange. First, you have two teams in the Dominican that play very early in the morning, and then you have four teams playing at night, three of them who just began their season. It’s a bit hard to go from 6 PM to 9 PM without either checking in on a game, watching Gameday, or MiLB.TV. When play resumes on Thursday, then it’s like a massive rush as there are games going anywhere from 9:30 in the morning to 11:30/12 at night. That’s a whole lot of baseball.
All the minor league affiliates began playing at once for the first time on Thursday, pitching was still stealing the show. Tyler Thomas truck at 11 for South Bend, Alex Lange of Myrtle Beach went six strong and struck out seven, and Erling Moreno, who was on a rehab start in Mesa, threw 4.2 no hit innings. And last night, Didier Vargas, all of 19 years old, struck out 11 in 7 for Mesa 1.
In addition to action returning, there was also some player movement. Cam BeLago and early Marino were assigned to South Bend on Friday. On Thursday, Eric Hillman was promoted to Myrtle Beach and Keegan Thompson was promoted to AA Tennessee, and infielder Christian Donahue is going to be filling in at Iowa for a week or two for Stephen Bruno.
Debuts for Draft Picks and Undrafted Free Agents
On Friday night, the first 2018 draft picks debuted down in Mesa. By the end of next week and several of them should be in Eugene. For Mesa 1, second baseman Clayton Daniel and outfielder Jamie Galazin both went two for three in their debut. Over at Mesa 2, outfielders Grant Frennel, Drew Wharton, and DJ Artis all went hitless. There will be a lot more debuts this coming week that will hopefully include some pitchers getting on the mound for the first time.
One interesting thing that’s been happening since about the middle of May is the statistic of who is leading the Cubs system in runs created and batted in. For a long while, Jason Vossler had sole possession. Then, starting in early June Jared Young started creating runs in bunches. At the All-Star break, they were tied with 42 RBI while Young had a wRC+ of 141 compared to Vosler’s 129. On Friday night Vosler drove in three runs to retake the RBI as Young only drove in one. It may not mean much in the big scheme of things, but it’s a fun stat to track. I don’t see Young giving up the wRC+ stat anytime soon with his .300 average helping to keep his numbers high.
Draft picks only have about a week and a half left for them to sign their pro contracts. Several picks signed their contracts this week including first round pick Nico Hoerner. I expect him to begin play very shortly at Eugene and by this time next week the Cubs should have 30-32 of their draft picks signed. Not that that would be a coup, but it would be pretty close to one.
End of June Schedule
As June wraps up, I’ve begun assembling statistics for this month’s all star team. The issue is that the month ends on Saturday. Usually in that instance, I move the Weekly ahead a day. However, I think I am going to put out two posts that day. The Weekly will roll out at it’s usual time. The June All-Star Team will come out in the late afternoon and the Cards of the Month will come out on Tuesday.
Getting My Trips in Order
With only staining the rails and new steps left to do on my deck, my yard work list will probably be done by the end of the week. After that, I can begin my road trips to watch some baseball and break in my new camera. Right now, I plan on heading to South Bend for a couple of days and then follow the team most of the week as they play Quad Cities and Kane County. That will be nice as my house is located in between them.
Players of the Week
Card of the Week
By Todd Johnson
Now that the first half of the MiLB season and accompanying all-star games are complete, expect to see some promotions coming. However, don’t expect to see too many of them. There are two reasons for that. One is that there were not that many dominating hitting performances when it comes to position players. And, while pitchers were great in the first half, there are not too many pitching positions open. The same can be said for catching. Still, there are several players who are worthy of moving up a level.
Should be heading to Iowa
There’s a pitching spot open since Adbert is out for the year.
Top of the List
Duncan Robinson is really putting together a good season at AA. He’s being pretty quiet about it, too. He had a 3.36 ERA in the first half. And in June, he’s hotter than a firecracker with a 1.59 ERA. What I like is that his batting average against has decreased every month. The fact that he has only walked 10 batters in 75 innings should give you the first clue that he is clearly in control on the mound.
Heading to Tennessee
If Robinson goes to Iowa, that creates a spot in the rotation for the Smokies.
Top Candidate #1
Keegan Thompson is the hottest pitcher at Myrtle Beach. He has four pitches he can throw for strikes and he recently pitched 7 perfect innings in his last start. He’s extremely polished and I don’t see high A Myrtle Beach holding much of a challenge for him at 23 years of age. He’s been named Carolina League Pitcher of the Week twice. In June, his dominance was highlighted by his WHIP of 0.54! He doesn’t look to be challenged much and there are no new pitches for him to polish – that being his strongest point for promotion.
Top Candidate #2
Alex Lange might not be the hottest pitcher in the system, but he has a lot of potential as a pro. Already armed with a plus curve, he’s been working on two things this year – fastball command and a changeup. Sometimes, he takes his lumps, other times, he dominates. From May 17 to June 11, he allowed 1 earned run while striking out 21 in 22 innings over 4 starts. Lange’s 2.83 season long FIP is much better than Thompson’s 3.42, it would be an interesting discussion on who would move to AA.
The Cubs would have several arms from which to pick at South Bend. Rollie Lacy, Erich Uelmen, Tyler Thomas, and Jesus Camargo are all having excellent seasons for the Cubs’ Midwest League affiliate. On the other hand, Lacy and Uelmen are two of the hottest pitchers in the system. In June, Ulemen has a 1.40 ERA while Lacy has a very nice 0.69 ERA. Lacy’s curve is pretty hard to hit while Uelmen’s natural sinking fastball that bottoms out gets some of the ugliest swings one sees in Class A baseball.
Lacy started out in the pen this year and has been pretty consistent since he moved to the rotation on May 6. He just keeps refining himself every outing and has shown incredible growth through the pitches he throws in certain counts which keeps hitters guessing. His ERA for the year is 2.40.
Uelmen was rocked around pretty hard in April as a starter. His 9.75 ERA and 1.92 WHIP were pretty discouraging. Despite those two stats, Uelmen was still striking out a batter an inning. In May, he figured things out. It was as if he warmed up with the weather in northern Indiana. Back-to-back monthly ERAs of 2.16 and 1.40 point to his growth as well. Even though his ERA is 3.51 for the year, his FIP is a robust 2.47.
It would be a tough choice.
When It Comes to Hitting…
Sadly, no hitter at either Myrtle Beach or Tennessee is just completely dominating. However, I could see Jason Vosler moving to AAA Iowa. Sure, he’s put up good power and walk numbers, and has been hitting well the past month, but there’s not really a spot for him unless someone is cut, or, God forbid, moved to Chicago because of an injury. Who knows what the summer will bring to open up a spot? Maybe a trade will clear some space at AA or AAA.
Then again, there is only one hitter I can see being promoted and I am pretty sure you know who that is. I feel like all I have done is write about him this year.
Jared Young should be in Myrtle Beach as soon as possible. He can go there, play multiple positions, and, in general, scuff up some more baseballs.
What I see driving promotions later this summer is going to be the play of this year’s draft picks. Players like Nico Hoerner and Luke Reynolds could result in more movement than we have seen so far this year. Outside of Cory Abbott, Matt Swarmer, and Trevor Clifton, there’s just not much movement, or, should I say, big names moving.
That’s about to change.
By Todd Johnson
This is the final weekend of the first half of the minor league season. Only the Tennessee Smokies are still in contention but three teams have a chance to have a winning record for the first half. In addition, the Eugene Emeralds begin their season tonight. The Arizona Rookie League also begins on Monday.
Here are six other things I have been keeping an eye on lately.
1. Keegan Thompson – The Myrtle Beach starting pitcher threw seven perfect innings of no-hit ball. He uses a four pitch mix to get eight strikeouts while not allowing a baserunner of any kind. The no-hitter and perfect game were lost in the eighth, as well as the game. Still, Thompson might be the most polished right now of last year’s draft class. His pitchability is off the charts.
2. Erich Uelmen – Over the last two months, there has been no better pitcher in the Cubs system. He had a 2.16 ERA in May and has a 1.40 ERA in 3 June starts. Currently, his sinker is one of the best pitches of any Cubs’ pitching prospect. If he can command all three pitches, he is going to be unstoppable. I can’t wait to see how his stuff plays at the next level.
3. Jared Young – in April, he was hitting over .400 before an injury. When he came back in May, it took him a couple weeks to get back in the swing of things. He only hit .229 for the month. He’s back to destroying the ball and hitting .298 for the first half as well as 39 RBI, second only to Jason Vosler in the system.
4. David Bote – He definitely has power as he hit another home run last night. His bat to ball skills clearly put him at the top of the Cubs’ call up from AAA list.
5. Jason Vosler – He should find his way to AAA soon. For the past six weeks, he’s been hitting for average and power while leading the system in home runs and RBIs. He’s been taking his walks all year, now balls just seem to be falling in for him at a much higher rate. He should be fine at AAA as long as he can hit somewhere between .250 and .270 to go along with his power.
6. Jake Hannemann – He’s never been a hitting machine until this year. At 27-years-old, things are really beginning to click for him. In May, he hit .313 and, so far in June, he cruising along at a .400 clip.
Bonus – I have not been spending as much time on Twitter since the draft. That will probably continue as I seem to be enjoying doing other things like getting the back yard fixed up. If you send me a message on Twitter, I will get a notification on my phone and I can message you back. Other than that I think I’m enjoying cutting back the amount of time I spend there.
Coming up Sunday in The Weekly
Who’s Hot – Jhonny Bethencourt, Brandon Hughes, Michael Rucker, Duncan Robinson, and Jacob Hannemann, to name a few. I will also check out how Eugene did and take a short look at trends in the DSL.
By Todd Johnson
It’s getting to be the busy season here at Cubs Central. While next week will be all about the draft, and redoing the top 21 list, this weekend will be about wrapping up what happened in May in the Cubs’ system. Tomorrow, I will rank the top 10 cards I made for the month. For today, it’s all about recognizing the top performers in the Cubs system the last 31 days.
Surprisingly, only 7 prospects made both the May and April All-Star teams. That’s not a lot. And of those 6, only 2 hitters did, catchers Jhonny Pereda and Miguel Amaya. This is going to be an interesting year as players search to find some consistency at the plate and on the mound.
This month’s All-Star team came right down to the wire. Several pitching spots were in play throughout the course of the last two nights, including the Pitcher of the Month and Hitter of the Month.
I have been tracking the system on a month by month spreadsheet. One thing I noticed early in the month was the ascension of Pelican pitcher Casey Bloomquist as a setup man for Myrtle Beach. Like many arms in the system, Bloomquist has worked both as a starter and as a reliever. This year, he is thriving in his new role. All of his pitches are a little more polished this year. The cutter that he talked about two years ago with me, now is becoming a go-to pitch for him. Good for Casey!
So, without further adieu, here is this month’s all star team, once again in video form.
The June All-Star team will be a lot of fun to sort through. The Dominican Summer League begins play tomorrow.
Eugene and the two Mesa teams start on June 15th. Some names I look forward to seeing play in Eugene are OF Fernando Kelli, SS Luis Vazquez, and 3B Christopher Morel. Down in Mesa, pitcher Jesus Tejada is a must follow along with SS Luis Diaz and OF Carlos Pacheco, to name a few. It should be an exciting month of action.
By Todd Johnson
Pitching in the minors this spring has been stupendous at times. From AAA Iowa on down to class A South Bend. Depending on the day, you could see almost any pitcher throw a one or two-hitter with 8 to 10 Ks. You never know. However, stringing together a series of consistent starts has been hard to find. Last month, Matt Swarmer did it for Myrtle Beach. This month, that distinction falls to Erich Uelmen of South Bend.
When the Cubs announce their Pitcher of the Month for May next week, Uelmen should be at or near the top of the list for consideration In fact, unless a miracle happens, Uelmen is going to be named to Cubs Central’s All-Star Team for May on Friday.
For the month, Uelmen made five starts going 25 innings. He struck out 25 while holding opponents to a .232 average and only walking six. In April, you would not have recognized Uelmen. His ERA of 9.75 was marked by a .320 batting average against and a WHIP of 1.92. In May, his WHIP was 1.12 and Uelmen has not allowed an earned run since May 11. That’s a pretty impressive stretch. Add in a 3-to-1 ground ball to flyout ratio and Uelmen begins to look very promising.
Third Round Pick 2017 Draft
Cal Poly San Luis Obispo
6’3” 185 Pounds
After Uelmen was drafted and signed in 2017, he spent the rest of the summer at Eugene in short season ball. I only remember seeing him pitch a couple of times. I try not to put too much stock into a signed starter’s first go around. But Uelmen threw 17.2 total innings, all in relief, and gave up only 4 earned runs (2.04 ERA) while striking out an outstanding 23 batters.
Over the winter, MLB Pipeline ranked Uelmen at #17 on the Cubs’ Top 30 Prospect List. Here is what they thought of Uelmen.
Uelmen pounds the bottom of the strike zone with a heavy 90-94 mph sinker that has the Cubs wondering if he might be the second coming of Derek Lowe. They’re going to have him add a four-seamer he can elevate to change batters’ eye level. He can get some swings and misses with his average slider but he needs more work on his changeup.
Uelmen operates from a low three-quarters arm slot and has effort in his delivery, so some scouts project him as a reliever. Chicago will develop him as a starter, believing that his athleticism and strike-throwing ability can keep him in the rotation. He could succeed as at least a middle reliever with his sinker, giving him a nice fallback and one of the higher floors among its recent college pitching selections.
Pipeline’s Jim Callis and Jonathan Mayo make an excellent point that Uelmen needs to add a 4 seamer to offset his plus sinker.
What I have seen this month from Uelmen is that he is pitching off that sinker more and more. I am not a big radar gun guy. Yes, sometimes it is flashy to see a guy throw 95-97, but I like to watch the type of swings a pitcher gets. For Uelmen, he gets some of the ugliest swings off the sinker. Most hitters will flail over the top or make weak contact.
However, Uelmen still needs to work on his other pitches. He has a changeup and a slider to go along with his sinker. While Uelmen has put up an excellent month, it is just the beginning of his Cub career. He’s not going to be fast tracked to the majors anytime soon. But another month like May and you have to begin to wonder if he will see Myrtle Beach this year. It’s a possibility. After all, his FIP is 2.87 on the year. In the end, though, for Uelmen it has to be about developing that consistency from start to start and month to month. He’s had a nice three week run in May. He just needs to keep it going.
By Todd Johnson
It was an interesting week in the minors. Everyday saw a great pitching performance or two. On Sunday, Erich Uelmen went six scoreless while Jen-Ho Tseng had the first of two good starts on the week going 7 innings with 9 Ks and 2 runs. On Monday, Michael Rucker went 6 innings with 8 Ks while allowing 2 runs. Javier Assad struck out 7 on Tuesday.
Wednesday was the big day as Brendon Little went 7 scoreless while fellow first rounder Alex Lange went six scoreless with 10 Ks. Duane Underwood also did well on Wednesday along with Trevor Clifton, whose start was cut short due to rain.
On Thursday, the pitching parade continued as Matt Swarmer went 6 scoreless with 7 Ks before leaving in the 7th with a tired arm. He should not miss a start. On Friday, Bailey Clark went from piggyback starter to a full-fledged rotation piece at Myrtle Beach with 4 innings of 1 run ball. That same night, Cory Abbott went 6 strong with 5 Ks and 1 run.
Last night, all four starters were magnificent as well. Keegan Thompson got things started off with 6 scoreless and 8 Ks for Myrtle Beach. South Bend’s Erich Uelmen went 5 scoreless and 8 Ks, too. The only difference between the two was that Thompson gave up just one hit while Uelmen allowed three. Alec Mills continued the night with 6 innings of 1 run ball. Oscar de la Cruz looked very strong for Tennessee, even taking a liner off his knee and staying in the game. He went 7 innings with no runs allowed while striking out 7 and scattering 5 hits.
As the temperature warms up, so has some hitting.
Christian Donahue is an infielder who currently plays for South Bend. After coming off the DL on the 16th, Donahue’s bat has taken off with steady playing time. He’s hitting .400 for the month. He seems to be a doubles machine as he has a .964 OPS despite not having a home run. But what I like the most is Donahue’s hustle. He plays the game hard. Being an undrafted free agent out of Oregon State might have something to do with that. I will flesh out his bio a little later this week.
Some Good News
Ryan Williams returned to action for the first time in 2 years yesterday. The “Big Lumberjack” threw 46 pitches (3.2 IP) yesterday in an EXST game. He didn’t light up the radar gun, but he was effective the first two innings. In addition, Erling Moreno came on in relief throwing harder than usual at 96-98. Arizona Phil of The Cub Reporter wondered if Erling is being transitioned into a reliever.
Victor Caratini is back in Iowa while Chris Gimenez is now in Chicago. Victor really needs to play everyday. I am sure the experience was good, but Victor’s future is not as a backup to Willson, Victor, more than likely, will be his own catcher at some point. Efren Navarro of iowa, who was on track to make this month’s All-Star team at 1B, was designated for assignment yesterday.
Jim Callis Draft Interview
On Saturday, Jim Callis of MLB Pipeline was on 670 The Score’s “Inside the Clubhouse” talking about the draft. Callis said the Cubs have to let the draft come to them picking at #24. Callis talked about how the Cubs may have a strategy of looking for a college bat, but players drop or fall for various reasons. Callis used Alex Lange dropping last year as an example. Callis brought up some college arms who could fall to the Cubs including lefty Shane McClanahan of Central Florida, Logan Gilbert of Stetson, and Jackson Kowar of Florida as guys who could be bypassed earlier in the draft in favor of college bats.
One interesting name that came up as possible bats at that position, aside from Callis’ pick of Trevor Larnach, was Indiana high school outfielder Nick Schnell. The Louisville commit has a nice 6’2” 180 lb. frame and bats left while throwing right. Callis called him an all-around player.
Another player I hear gaining traction, and not just for the Cubs, is Georgia prep catcher Anthony Seigler. Though decent behind the plate, his bat is his true calling card. He also has the experience of playing USA Baseball, a box that scouting director Jason McLeod like to check. If he shoots into the first round, he could mess up a lot of draft boards.
Around the System
Iowa – 5-2 (18-29)
Tennessee – 3-3 (25-23)
Myrtle Beach – 4-4 (21-28)
South Bend – 4-3 (21-26)
Players of the Week
Card of the Week
Coming Up Next Week on Cubs Central
Monday – Draft Questions
Tuesday – Christian Donahue
Wednesday – Pitching in the MiLB
Thursday – ???
Friday – May MiLB All-Star Team
Saturday – May Cards of the Month
Sunday – The Weekly
Monday the 4th – Draft Day #1
As for Me…
I wrapped up another year of teaching on Thursday afternoon. That, to me, means the beginning of summer. When I am not checking in on baseball the next few weeks, I am going to do a lot of little things around the house and yard while trying to figure whether I am going to South Bend or Des Moines for a trip the week of June 11th.