2018 Affiliate Reviews: Eugene Went From Worst to First in 6 Weeks

By Todd Johnson

When the 2018 season began there was a lot of hope in Eugene. The opening day roster was filled with a lot of the players that won a championship in Mesa the year before. Chief among them was outfielder Nelson Velasquez, the Cubs’ August player of the month in 2017. Eugene also had a lot of hype surrounding outfielders Fernando Kelli and Jonathan Sierra. Maybe those guys could be the core of an outstanding team. Sometimes, things have a weird way of working themselves out.

Things got off on the wrong foot as most of the Cubs’ draft picks were not quite ready to play when the season began. As a result, a large portion of the team was either 18 or 19 years old. That included most of the infield and some of the pitching staff. It was not pretty for the first three weeks as the team struggled at the plate and on the mound. When’s the draft picks arrived in July, things began to straighten themselves out.

It took a whole half of going 14 and 24 before things started to change. By the end of July, most of the infield turned over except for shortstop Luis Vazquez. The outfield remained the same, but Eugene also had a new catching corps and several new pitchers of both the starting and relieving variety.

It proved to be an exciting August as the Ems clinched a playoff berth by finishing second to the winner of both halves, Hillsboro. Hillsboro pretty much had their way with Eugene winning 8 of their 12 games during the regular season. But in the playoffs you start over at 0 to 0.

In just two nights, Eugene changed their own fortunes by sweeping the Hops out of existence. Timely hitting by Caleb Knight and Levi Jordan insured that, along with some outstanding pitching by the bullpen. The pen threw 10.1 innings of action in the two game set and allowed just one run.

Timely hitting, good defense, and excellent starting pitching in the championship seires brought the Ems their second title in three years against Spokane! Their worst to first story culminated with a walk off balk.

As for next year…
The normal step for next year would be for many of these prospects just go to South Bend. For the last couple years, we’ve seen the Cubs be a little bit more aggressive with some prospects. Some might skip South Bend all together and that could be the case for a few of the more mature Emeralds who graced the roster this year. Andy Weber, Luke Reynolds, Derek Casey, and Sean Barry might not need any additional seasoning in the Midwest League.

Who could be coming up
The most logical choices to make it to Eugene next year are this year’s high school and junior college draft picks. But I don’t know if Cole Roederer and Brennen Davis will be in Eugene by the middle of June. They both could make their way to South Bend if they are as good as everyone says.

There are also going to be a lot of guys from the DSL who will be competing in spring training to get to Eugene in June. Shortstop Fabian Pertuz and pitcher Luis Rodriguez from the Dominican are just two of a group of about 10 to 12 players trying to get to Eugene next summer.

Right now the biggest name that should likely be a Eugene Emerald/Monarc next year is pitcher Kohl Franklin, the Cubs 2018 sixth round pick out of high school, who pitched really well in August at Mesa. Lefty Didier Vargas is also a player who I think should be ready to start at either Eugene or South Bend along with fellow young 19-year-old pitchers Jeremiah Estrada and Danis Correa who were both injured all of 2018. 

Most of the roster will be filled with draft picks come early July unless the Cubs speed up their signing process. It will be interesting to see if the Cubs grab a lot of college position players as they did this year.

Until then….

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MiLB Playoff Action – Eugene Gets Going with a Huge Upset Win!

By Todd Johnson

As game time approached for last night’s opening game in the Northwest League Playoffs, I grew more and more unsure of what would happen. The Ems had gone 4-8 during the regular season against the Hillsboro Hops, but the playoffs start over at 0-0. The Ems were set to host game one only in the best of three series.

With Eury Ramos on the mound, I also did not know which Eury Ramos was going to show up on the mound. Ramos last faced the Hops back in the beginning week of the season where he gave up 3 runs in 4 innings. With a 6.29 ERA for the yea, the 20-year-old right handed starter was wildly inconsistent throughout the year. He was either going to be dominant or he would get lit up like a Christmas tree.

The first batter made it look like bad Ramos showed up. Four pitches, all balls, and none of them were remotely close as the first batter took a free pass. Then again, the batter then tried to get a free pass to second but was caught stealing. That play seemed to take the edge off of Ramos. He got the next guy to strikeout and then ended the inning with a fly out to right. All the while, Ramos was sitting in the mid 90s.

In the bottom of the first Grant Fennell, a non drafted free agent, lead off for the Emeralds. He smacked a ball that the third baseman “boofed” for an error to get things started. Two pop ups by Nelson Velazquez and Luke Reynolds and a ground out by Levi Jordan and the first inning was over.

With just 15 pitches on his arm, Ramos came out in the second throwing nothing but fastballs again. The fourth one he threw to Andy Yerzy left the ballpark in a hurry to make it 1-0 Hillsboro. The second batter in the inning, Joey Rose, smacked a double to the wall in center. Next thing you know, the bullpen got busy. However, Ramos regained his composure and got a line out and 2 Ks to get out of the inning with just the homer.

In the bottom of the second, a Jake Slaughter single was the only action of the inning. The third inning saw Ramos walk a hitter followed up by a triple that made it 2-0. His night was done as Eugenio Palma came on in relief to get the final two outs in the inning.

The Ems put together some baserunners in the third with a HBP of Caleb Knight and a bloop single by Grant Fennell. However, Nelson Velazquez popped out to center while Luke Reynolds grounded out to end the inning. The Ems just could’t string together hits to get on the board at this point.

In the fourth, manager Steve Lerud was run from the game after arguing his second call of the night. The first came on a batter’s interference call in the third when Luis Vazquez was called out running to first out of  the baseline. The second call was on what looked to be a whiff but was ruled a foul tip.

When the Ems came up to bat in the fourth, Levi Jordan doubled to start the inning and went to third on a ground out. It looked like the Ems could get a run with any kind of contact. The next batter, Jake Slaughter struck out and it was up to Fernando Kelli. No run crossed the plate as Kelli grounded out.

Eugenio Palma continued to keep the Ems in the game as he held serve in the fifth by striking out the side. Palma struck out 5 in 2.2 IP.  Things started happening for the Ems in the fifth when Luis Vazquez singled, went to second on a Grant Fennell walk, moved to third on a wild pitch, and then scored on a Nelson Velazquez fielder’s choice to make it 2-1.

In the sixth, Cubs 1 ace Peyton Remy made his Eugene debut. After  a double, Remy settled down and got the next three men in order, two of them on strike outs. I was impressed with Remy’s arsenal as he worked in the low to mid low 90s with decent life. He came across as a guy who attacks the zone.

In the bottom of the sixth, anything that could happen did. A walk by Levi Jordan started it all and a comedy of errors along with a couple of runs soon happened. The Ems actually scored their runs on a Fernando Kelli single and a balk. I know, it was a strange inning. The Ems lead 3-2 heading into the home stretch.

Hillsboro could not get anything going but one single the rest of the night. Remy wound up striking out 5 in his 3 innings of work and Ivan Medina (playing in his second Eugene game) closed it out in ho-hum fashion for the Ems.

I was a little bit stunned that Ems took game one. Hillsboro was such a dominant team in compiling the best record in the league all season. The series resumes tonight with Faustino starting for Eugene. The 19-year-old lefty .faced the Hops only once this going 4 innings and allowing 2 runs. I feel pretty good about the Ems chances to get to the finals now. They have two games to win just one.

Who Is the Affiliate to Watch in the Second Half?

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.?

Iowa’s Case

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.

Eugene’s Case

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.

Tennessee’s Case

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.

 

Prospect Profile: Fernando Kelli Excitement Is for Real

By Todd Johnson

One thing that the Cubs have lacked in recent years in the system has been speed. Last summer, a then 18-year-old Fernando Kelli stole 58 bases in the Dominican Summer League. In addition, he hit .320 with an on-base percentage of .437. He’s not big by any means at 6’ and 180 pounds, but prior to his breakout, he’d only been seen a little bit in spring training of 2017. No one knew that much about him before. That has all changed.

I had a lot of questions about him and was extremely interested to get a good look at him. During spring training, he actually got into a couple of games with the big league club and held his own. Being that he now plays late at night for Eugene, I am getting a pretty good look at what he can and cannot do. There are a lot of things to like and there are a lot of things that he needs to improve on. Then again, he’s just 19 playing one level above most of his peers.

Things He’s Doing Well

The first thing you notice about Kelli is his speed. In his first ten games, he had the opponent’s attention within seconds. It affected how fielders fielded and threw. It affected a pitcher’s attention span. Kelli’s speed totally disrupts the flow of the defense. So far, in just 11 games, he has 8 SBs which puts him on pace to steal 50. He has been caught stealing twice and picked off once as he continues to adjust.

He’s a pretty decent defender. He also uses his speed in the field to go get some balls. He already has one outfield assist as he gunned down a runner heading back to first. Kelli is not just a one-trick pony. He’s an all-around baseball player.

I like his hitting profile, too. He can hit the ball with authority to right field and has 1 HR to date. He doesn’t necessarily spray the ball as only 12% of his batted balls go to center. Most of his contact goes to left (41%) and right (45%). He also gets the ball in the air as a hitter. He barrels up the ball regularly with 50% of his contact being line drives and fly balls. After last night’s game, he’s hitting  on the young season with an OBP of .348.

Surprisingly, Kelli is not a big bunter. The defense comes in on him at the corners to guard against him bunting and he takes advantage of that by lining balls in those gaps in the infield.

I really like watching him play. There is no one quite like him in the Cubs’ minor league system and you never know what will happen on each play.

Things to Work On

It didn’t take teams long to catch on that Kelli has some major league wheels. He got thrown out at second twice in one game and is now learning how far he can lead off and how to pick his spots to steal a base.

In his first eight at bats, he struck out four times. Now that he’s got an a little bit more larger data set, his K rate is still high at 38% while his walk rate is at 7.7%. Those numbers are going to have to change. As a leadoff hitter, 38% is not sustainable, but it is getting lower.

Game experience – He can make a really good play in the outfield tracking down a fly ball and then there have been a couple of moments where he completely loses the ball or takes a poor route to get to a ball. The Eugene outfield is not the easiest place to play because the outfielders are staring directly into a setting sun. Still, he is going to have to improve.

Approach – Right now, he’s struggling with a breaking ball or offspeed pitch down and away. It’s also odd because he takes a fastball to right field with ease. He needs to learn to do the same with pitches that don’t start with a F.

Seeing a curve In the US is a lot different than say the DSL. In the DSL, most of the pitchers are 17 to 19-year old kids while in the Northwest League, a lot of the arms have some level of college experience. And the pitchers that came out of high school have much more game experience versus kids from the DSL.

It’s an interesting adjustment that sometimes takes 2 to 3 years to catch up. Kelli will play at Eugene this year, go to fall instructs, and then play winter ball where he will continue to improve over time as he gains experience. Who knows, he might catch on this season.

He could be a different hitter next spring in South Bend or even as early as mid-July as he improves his pitch recognition skills. It just depends on how fast he can adjust. For now, though, he’s very exciting. It is hard to imagine that he could be more exciting, but he most certainly can.

The Friday Six Pack: The Eugene Emeralds – A Week In

By Todd Johnson

The Eugene Emeralds now have a week of games in. They’ve begun going through the rotation a second time and the current crop of hitters have had a decent number of at bats. All the relievers have been in a game and hopefully some draft picks will be coming soon.

Overall, there is some definite talent to watch, and there are some players who definitely need to develop quite a bit more this season to get ready for the next level.

Here are six things happening with some Eugene Emeralds.

1. Luis Vazquez can play some serious defense in the present. Right now, his glove and legs are ahead of his arm, but you can tell that everyone on the field looks/defers to him first when it comes to a pop up, a blooper, Texas leaguer, or anything on the ground. His bat is going to lag behind for a little bit, but I am OK with that as long as his arm continues to develop over the course of the summer. Right now it’s OK, but I kind of wanna see lasers somewhere down the road. Then I remember that he’s just 18. Lasers would be a bit much. He’s a pretty fluid athlete at shortstop.

2. After experiencing South Bend for about six weeks, Nelson Velazquez was sent to Eugene for the summer. That experience had to be a good one for him at just 19-years-old even if it didn’t show up in the stats. From the looks of it, Velazquez doesn’t seem to have been phased by the experience. I like that about him. Maybe that was part of his development plan. Whatever, Velazquez hit his first home run on Tuesday night against Vancouver and it was almost all arms. I’m excited to see how he continues to do day in and day out at the plate. I have to remember to be patient with his development as it’s going to come in bits and pieces over time. It’s not going to all happen at once.

3. For now, there are a few young pitchers that I would like to see more of at Eugene. Faustino Carrera, Brailyn Marquez, and Eury Ramos all had interesting first starts. Of the three, Carrera looked the most polished. Marquez showed a lot of promise considering he was hitting 95/96 regularly. As for Ramos, I love the angle and downhill slope he gets on his fastball. He has another pitch that I am not sure what it is yet. It could be a cutter, sinker, or changeup. Whatever it is, it has some nice downward sink to it and the Hillsboro hitters really struggled with it.

4. Jonathan Sierra was the number one Cubs’ international free agent signing in 2015. He looked like a Daryl Strawberry clone back then, but not anymore. He looks like he is almost a mini-Jorge Soler. What I really like about him is that he really knows the strike zone. That’s hard to find in a 19-year-old kid. It’s only going to help him going forward. I am still waiting to see him stroke the ball with power on a daily basis. Based on his size, that’s not too far from now.

5. Like Velasquez, Jose Albertos is in Eugene as he continues to work through some of his command problems. He made his longest start of the year on Tuesday going 3.2 innings on 75 pitches. In the second and third innings, he looked like normal Jose. The fastball was sitting 95 to 97 but he was having issues with command of the curve. Sometimes it was going about 57 feet, and other times it was “just a bit outside.” He did not throw the changeup very much, and I hope that was on purpose so that he could work on his curve command. His second start will come early next week in Eugene. It’s going to be a work in progress as the Cubs try to rebuild that curve command and his confidence. The fastball was much improved since he was in South Bend. Remember, he’s just 19. In time, he will be fine.

6. Fernando Kelli has a lot of speed and can cause problems when he is on the basepaths. So far, he shown an affinity to hit the ball the other way as well as strike out. It’s going to take time as he basically skipped Mesa to come to Eugene. He’s only 19, and, like Sierra, he’s going to be one to watch grow this year. There’s a lot for him to work on this year and to adjust to in the Northwest League. To start, I am impressed with his ability go get a ball in the outfield and also to throw. I didn’t know that about him. However, he’s going to have to adjust to the fact that teams are aware of his speed. He can’t sneak up on them, some are just waiting.

I’m going to hold off on having any of these players ascend onto my Top 21 List for a while (Only Velazquez is on the list and he’s been there for 9 months). A week is not a lot of baseball for me to evaluate how the young 19-year-old kids adapt over time. I’m in no rush to place some prospect upon a throne based upon just after a one game, put labels on them after a week, or condemn them to baseball hell because of how they played the first week of  short season at 19.

Look at this line from last July…
.131 batting average
.197 OBP
.148 slugging
4 RBI in 16 games
25% K rate
That looks like a disaster, doesn’t it? Well, that was Jared Young’s first month as a pro. My friend John and I commented to each other last August how much we liked his approach and patient swing. It was going to happen for Jared and it was just a matter of time. His approach would make sure of that. And it sure did.

Patience, Padawans.

These kids have all kinds of time to grow and develop. How they are now is not how they are going to be a month, ayear, or five years from now.

This is an extremely young group of kids who are already playing at a level above most of their peers. They are going to be pretty streaky throughout the course of the season. Hopefully, the highs will outweigh the lows and they will be primed and ready to go for South Bend at the end of the year.

Which Prospects Could Breakout for the Cubs in the 2nd Half?

By Todd Johnson

Yesterday, I wrote about who  broke out in the first half for Cubs Insider. But trying to predict breakouts prospects for the second half of the minor league season is a bit tougher. Most of the players one would expect to breakout will be playing for Mesa, Eugene, or South Bend. Some of them are 18 to 20-year-old kids while others are recent draft picks.

If I was to pick one hitter, one pitcher, and one reliever to break out in the second half, I would more than likely be wrong come the end of August. So, to hedge my bets, what I’m going to do is to pick three hitters, four starting pitchers, and three relievers who might make some waves in the Cubs’ system the next two months. Hopefully, one or more in each category will make it.  

On with the prospects.

Hitters

Everyone is going to be watching Nico Hoerner once he signs. The fans will watch his bat, his glove, his arm, and his speed, grit, and hustle. That kind of takes the pressure off of everyone else.

The batter that will impress everyone is Luke Reynolds, the Cubs tenth round pick out of Southern Mississippi. I would expect him to be a fast mover. He, like Hoerner, will probably start at Eugene, but neither will be there long as their approaches and skills will be too dominant.

Another hitter that could break out this summer is Fernando Kelli. While we know some about Kelli after his 58 stolen bases last season in the DSL, it is different playing in the US, especially skipping Mesa. The hardest adjustments for an 18-19 year old prospect from the DSL to make are just playing against quality competition. Kelli will need to adapt to quality changeups and curves; and guys trying to get him out in the batter’s box and also on the basepaths. In just 5 games, he has caused some havoc between the bases. His defense, on the other hand, might be better than we thought.

My third selection is Jonathan Sierra. Originally, he looked like Daryl Strawberry clone when the Cubs signed him in 2015 at 16 years-old. Now, he is getting his physique into something resembling Jorge Soler. What I really like about him so far is his approach. He shows to have a pretty good knowledge of the zone at 19 and he is not afraid to walk to this early in his career. The issue he has now is that his swing is a bit long. He needs to shorten that up or he will be eaten alive as he moves up the ladder. For now, though, game experience and seeing as many pitches as possible will be the goals for 2018.

Bonus Hitters – Kevin Moreno from Cuba (who is only 17) and Reivaj Garcia are two young hitters who have been tearing up EXST. They will both be in Mesa to begin the year. I love Luis Vazquez’s defense already. The fact that he got experience at SS in a major league spring training game says how highly the Cubs already think of him. He is in Eugene to start 2018. Focus on his defense, not the bat.

Starting Pitchers

One of the more interesting stories in August last year was the maturation of Jesus Tejada in the DSL. He was a stud with an ERA just under 2 for that month and he also threw a no-hitter. Now, the 19 year old will be stateside. This spring, one of the more interesting reports over time from Arizona Phil has been the growth in each performance of lefty Brailyn Marquez, who is really dialing it up as the spring goes along. Now that summer is here, the young 19-year-old pitcher is in Eugene as the ace of the staff. He can dial it up in the mid-90s. The issue has always been his command.

I liked the Cubs taking Derek Casey of Virginia in the ninth round of the 2018 draft a lot. He’s experienced, a senior, and he should be a valuable arm next year. This year, he will more than likely just pitch 2 or 3 innings a game in Eugene or South Bend. He should do well in those spots.

Faustino Carrera is not going to blow you away with his fastball, but he can make you swing wildly at his changeup. The 19-year-old lefty (I am noticing a theme here) has good command and can get hitters to do what he wants when he can control his upper 80s to low 90s heater. He also has a curve that comes in around 82 and he seems to hide the ball well to make it appear to have more zip than it does.

Bonus – In what is his third season as a Cub, Nathan Sweeney is back in the Arizona Rookie League. But here’s the thing, he’s still just 20 and, if he had gone to college, he would just be finishing his sophomore year. After two years of instruction from the college of pitching coaches in Mesa, he should start to put it together this year. His fastball has been clocked in the low 90s consistently.

Relievers

All three of my breakout reliever choices were taken in the draft this year. Ethan Roberts, Riley Thompson, and Layne Looney all had excellent careers in college in the bullpen. I would not be surprised to see any or all 3 get a chance at starting next year. But this year, they are just going to relieve. Thompson, who can bring it at 95, will need the most time to develop. Roberts might need to rest a bit after Tennessee Tech almost made it to Omaha for the College World Series. And Looney should be good to go as he was already playing summer ball. Expect to see Thompson to get in a game first and it should be at Mesa.

Here are a few other names who could break out as legitimate prospects this summer.

DSL
Alexander Ovalles – OF; Carlos Morfa – OF; Fabian Pertuz – SS; Carlos Paula – SP

Mesa
Luis Verdugo – SS; Carlos Pacheco – OF (who is injured to start the year); Raidel Orta – SP; Eduarniel Nunez – SP; and Luis Hidalgo 1B/OF

Eugene
Luis Diaz – 2B and Jonathan Soto – C

The Weekly – The First Half Comes to a Close, Brandon Hughes, and Fernando Kelli

By Todd Johnson

As the first half of the year comes to a close today, the future is hopeful. At the end of April, times were rough in the system. Only one team had a record over .500. But over the course of the last six weeks, some hitters broke out, several pitchers excelled, and where there was once darkness, there is now some light. After today, 3 of the 4 full season teams could have a .500 record or better for the first half. That did not look possible on May 1.

Although no team made the playoffs, a few should make a run for it in the second half. The draft picks could add a little boost to the system once they sign and go through their camp.

Iowa – 2-4 (25-41)
Tennessee – 4-3 (35-34)
Myrtle Beach – 2-6 (34-35)
South Bend – 3-4 (34-34)
Eugene – 2-0 (2-0)
DSL 1 – 3-3 (7-6)
DSL 2 – 4-2 (5-8)

Eugene began their season on Friday night and it is an extremely young team. That should change once the draft picks go through an orientation camp for one week. For now, though, there is some promise. Fernando Kelli is an extremely exciting player and Nelson Velazquez looks more at ease. I can’t wait to watch them develop. Kelli is already causing havoc on the basepaths everytime he gets on base. Whether it is good baserunning, stolen bases, or his presence, he is just plain exciting.

Meanwhile, out in Arizona, the two rookie league teams in Mesa begin play tomorrow. It will be interesting to see the rosters tomorrow. One could assume one team might be a normal team while the other could have the rehabbing players and the draft picks coming in and out. We will find out more tomorrow.

Who’s Hot at the Plate Right Now?

Brandon Hughes hit .222 in April and slumped to .188 in May. The 2017 16th round pick from Michigan was highly thought of because of his athletic prowess. The poor start did not dampen his development. A switch hitter can sometimes be hard to fix. For Hughes, though, he seems to be on the right track  in June. He’s hitting .389 with 1 HR for the month. His average was at .199 on June 2. Two weeks later, he’s brought it up to .241.

I asked South Bend Cubs broadcaster Brendan King what about Brandon changed? He said, “They’ve changed the batting stance a bit, he’s standing more straight up in the box but other than that, just constant repetition.” Like many Cubs prospects, one reason Hughes was selected was his athleticism, another was his makeup. King would also add that Hughes is an extremely hard worker. I look forward to seeing if he can maintain this level of performance as I think there could be something with his size and his speed. The coaches are going to have to bring it out and it sounds like things are improving. Good for him.

Down in the Dominican

I am never quite sure what to make of some stats in the Dominican. The league is made up of a mixture of 16-21 year old kids who are need of game experience. Development can occur rapidly and the play is not always the best. There are lots of errors, wild pitches, and TOOTBLANs. As a result, I always take the stats with a grain of salt. Still, there are some eye-popping numbers coming out of there by several prospects. I will go over some of those in more detail, hopefully next Saturday, as more data comes in.

The Podcast Is Up

The Podcast I did with Cubs Insider and Cubs Den writer Sean Holland is up. There are some technical difficulties but it is still decent. I never can stand the sound of my own voice; I always find it weird. Give it a listen.

Busy Week Ahead

Tomorrow, I will publish the First Half All-Star team followed by the Baseball Cards of the First Half on Tuesday. Wednesday will see the Breakouts of the first half and Thursday will see some second half breakout predictions.

Players of the Week

Card of the Week

Card made from a photo by Tiffany W. (@TiffW96)