Ian RIce

The 7 Series: Tennessee Smokies Show Some Deep Talent in 2017

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By Todd Johnson

Overall Record – 68-70

I am not quite sure what went down in Kodak, Tennessee this summer. In April and May, they were close to being the best team in the system and were competing for a playoff spot against Chattanooga. Then, in one series, they were swept by Chattanooga and that doused any first half playoff hopes. Several prospects struggled in June and July and yet the Smokies were still in the thick of the playoff hunt again until mid August when the Montgomery Biscuits put some distance between themselves and the Smokies. Pitcher Jake Stinnett, who missed most of the year, returned in late July as a reliever and shined in his new role (0.61 ERA in 9 games). There could be something there.

Still, there was a lot of development that took place in 2017 for a team that was not considered to have a lot of elite prospects. Here are seven things about the Smokies talented roster.

1. Outfielder Charcer Burks was one of the prospects who came out of the gate extremely well in spring training playing with the big league club. That carried over into April and May as Burks made his way onto MLB Pipeline’s top 30 cubs prospect list after hitting .293 and .286 and then .333 in June. Then July happened. He hit .135 for the month but he did rebound some in August. For the year, he hit .270 with a .370 OBP.

2. Trey Martin – He has been around for a while and he has improved at every level. It is not been a rapid ascent, though, but a slow steady climb. Along the way, he’s won two gold gloves and struggled with minor issues like this year’s hamstring strain that caused him to miss two months. Upon his return, his bat showed a marked improvement and I am really excited about what he might be doing at Iowa next year.

3. David Bote exploded in the second half of 2016 and that carried over into April and May 2017. Like Burks, he went down a little bit in the summer but rebounded well in August hitting over .280. I like the fact that he can play multiple positions in the infield. He has shown some power, but I prefer the fact that he is hitting the ball up the middle on a consistent basis.

4. Jason Vosler – He led the Cubs’ system in home runs this year with 21 but he also hit less than .200 in August. He came on like gangbusters this spring and then faded over the course of the rest of the summer. I am looking forward to seeing his batting average/OBP bounce back in 2018. It seems the more home runs he hit in July and August the lower his batting average got. Considering the fact that he never had more than 10 home runs in a season before 2017, it was interesting to see him produce at such a prodigious rate.

5. Yasiel Balaguert – We should just rename him Mr. Second Half. If he ever had a good first half, he would hit over 25 homers and drive in100 every year. That’s basically his second half pace when prorated out to a 162 game schedule. Maybe he’s just one of those guys it does better when it’s warmer. I look forward to him playing first base and the outfield next year for Iowa in a hitter’s league.

6. Ian Rice – You have to be picky when looking at his stats. You can hone in on the on-base percentage, the power numbers, and games played behind the plate that all point to him being one of the most improved prospects the past year. He played in 114 games this year with a .353 OBP and hit 17 homeruns. Considering that he was a last-minute addition to the Tennessee roster, he did an outstanding job transitioning over to catching almost full-time. I am really looking forward to seeing what he can do in Arizona Fall League this October and November.

7 – Which starting pitchers will get promoted to Iowa with Duane Underwood? I don’t know who that’s going to be. I honestly don’t. It should be determined in spring training. I think Zach Hedges will get a crack at Iowa again if I was to make a bet. If Adbert Alzolay and Trevor Clifton shine in spring training, they could also find their way there. I think a lot of it depends on who the Cubs sign, or trade for, in the offseason to replace Arrieta and Lackey. Right now, Alzolay, who is pitching well in relief in Arizona, might have the inside shot. Clifton, who was brilliant in the first half of the year and struggled in the second, could turn his career around quickly with a good spring. I would not be surprised to see all four get a shot in spring training to make a start with the big league club.

Smokies to Watch in 2018
Now 22, Eddy Martinez will be the player to watch in 2018. He’s finally acclimated to playing baseball again and playing baseball in the United States. It’s been a huge cultural shift for him and he is now able to relax and just play. In the second half of 2017, he hit .276 with 7 HRs and an OBP of .333. I imagine that the Eloy trade was tough for him as they were inseparable as teammates. The trade also may have helped him realize he is on his own now. I am looking forward to seeing him do his own thing in AA in 2018.

SS Zack Short, Pitchers Dakota Mekkes, Michael Rucker, Duncan Robinson, Thomas Hatch, Pedro Araujo, C Tyler Alamo, and 3B Jesse Hodges also bear watching in Tennessee. All will be at critical junctures in their development.

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Under-Reported Stories from the 2017 Cubs MiLB Season

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By Todd Johnson

 

Looking back at the coverage by Cubs Central this year, I don’t think I have written enough about several prospects. They include hitters Ian Rice, Luis Ayala, and Andruw Monasterio. Eddy Martinez hit almost .280 in the second half for Myrtle Beach and I haven’t written a peep about it. Add in pitcher Tyler Peyton who was one of the best pitchers in August for South Bend. Pitcher Jesus Camargo of Eugene, along with his 2.36 summer ERA and changeup, was overshadowed by top draft picks Brendon Little, Alex Lange, and Cory Abbott, not to mention Jose Albertos. Luis Aquino had an ERA of under 1 at one point for Eugene and I didn’t talk about him much even though he was a Northwest League All-Star.

When it comes to 2018, I am sure there will be several new names to talk about next summer. Here are a few names who I think will get more press next season and that I should have covered more this year.

1. Nelson Velasquez
Any Cubs prospect who can hit home runs at a regular rate is going to draw attention. He is just 18-years-old and just completed rookie ball. He is cranking a HR every 12.2 at-bats. After August 1, he hit 8 HRs and drove in 25, 9 of those in 5 playoff games. He was named the Cubs August Minor League Player of the Month. I can’t wait to see him next year in Eugene.

Card made from a photo by Jared Ravitch

2. Javier Assad
He has shown the proclivity to miss bats as an alarming rate. He has also shown the ability to be inconsistent. I think making 25 to 30 starts at South Bend could lead to more consistent efforts on the mound. I just finished a profile on him yesterday that will come out next month. He has some interesting stats including how opponents are hitting him. He struck out 72  in 66 innings at Eugene this year.

3. Jesus Tejada
The 20-year-old was the hottest pitcher in the Cubs’ system in August. He threw a no-hitter and struck out batters at an alarming rate in the Dominican Summer League. Opponents only hit .141 against him in August when he seemed to put it all together striking out 26 in 23 innings. I tend to think he will be at Eugene next summer.

4. Brendan King
The kid from Holy Cross may be next year’s sleeper pitcher. Like Duncan Robinson, the Ivy Leaguer’s arm has shown the ability to spin a ball in Mesa this summer. He had a 2.82 ERA in 22.1 IP and struck out an impressive 29 batters while walking only 5. Those are some good numbers.

Card made from a photo by John Arguello

5. Fernando Kelli
So, there’s this guy…an outfielder in the DSL and he stole 58 bases. It’s not like I didn’t mention him because he did make an All-Star Team in July. I just didn’t cover him in depth with a profile. I don’t know that much about him other than his stats page. He just turned 19 and hit .320 with an amazing .437 OBP this summer. Just in July, he had a .477 OBP! There’s not a lot of information on him otherwise.

I am sure there will be other prospects breakout in 2018 who I didn’t foresee. Luis Hidalgo, who spent four seasons in the Dominican Summer League, is one to keep an eye on next year. He arrived in Mesa in August and did not stop hitting (.339) while there. While he doesn’t really have a position, he does have a huge bat. Didier Vargas, Emilio Ferrebus, and Danis Correa are three pitchers to keep an eye on for next year along with 2017 international signing Florencio Serrano. Two young shortstops who could raise some eyebrows next year are international free-agent Luis Verdugo and recent draft pick Luis Vazquez.

You never know who will breakout and when.

First Half Cubs MiLB All-Star Team Has Some New Faces

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This was the fastest minor league first half I can remember. It just flew by. For Cubs prospects, there were a lot of great performances in that time span. Many players were able to sustain a level of excellence, while others ebbed and flowed.

If you’ve been following this website, I don’t think there any surprises on the list. However I think there are some names who you would not have foreseen at the beginning of the year. Names like Duncan Robinson, Andrew Ely, Michael Rucker, Jason Vosler, and Dillon Maples, to name a few.

Here is this year’s Cubs first half minor league all-star team in video form.

Here are some names for you to ponder when it comes to the second half All-Star team:
Miguel Amaya, Aramis Ademan, Thomas Hatch, Gustavo Polanco, Jose Albertos, and many more. It would not surprise me to see half the names change in this list.

I will be back tomorrow with a post about some possible breakout players to watch for in the second half. They are mostly players from Mesa and Eugene with a few draft picks thrown in for good measure.

The May All-Star Team Breaks Precedence with 8 Starting Pitchers

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By Todd Johnson

April was a pretty rough month as temperatures kept some players down. Now that it has warmed up, so have the performances. In fact, they were many more players competing for a spot this month, whereas in April, each position was pretty clear-cut.

Starting pitchers and outfielders made the most improvement over the last five weeks. In fact, the starting pitching was so impressive  I went with eight starters rather than the normal six. They all posted ERAs under 3, which made the decision pretty easy.

I did not put Eloy on the team as he only played in 13 games, but what a 13 game stat line. He hit .324 with 3 HRs, 10 RBI, and a .468 OBP. I cannot wait to see how he does in June.

Let’s get right to this month’s list…

Team Breakdown
Iowa – 4 (all hitters)
Tennessee – 11 (4 position/7 pitchers)
Myrtle Beach – 4 (all pitchers)
South Bend – 4 (1 hitter/3 pitchers)

For next month…
Several players will be returning very soon from the DL. They include Trey Martin, Erling Moreno, Jordan Minch, Bailey Clark, and Dylan Cease. As well, some players are starting to put it together who could make a run for next month’s squad. They include Wladimir Galindo, Luis Ayala, Robert Garcia, Dave Berg, and pitcher Thomas Hatch.

Mesa, Eugene, and two DLS squads fire up their seasons this month. Most of them will be in contention for the honorable mention sections as Eugene and Mesa will only get about 12 games in, not enough to qualify.

The two DSL teams start Saturday, June 3rd, and could have some names on the list. Most position players signed in the draft begin play right away. Pitchers selected take some time to get back into shape.

Where Else Is There Power in the Cubs System?

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By Todd Johnson

The days of Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber tearing up the minors with gigantic home runs are gone. That power has not been replaced. Still, there are a few Cubs prospects who have the potential for power. Most notable on the horizon are Ian Happ., Eloy Jimenez, Yasiel Balaguert, and Jeimer Candelario. They could, at any time, drive the ball over the fence. However, there other prospects who have the potential to do so, yet they have not done so with any regularity. Here are six prospects who could become the next power Cubs prospect.

Matt Rose
6’4” 195 pounds
Somewhat hobbled by an injury this year, Rose only has 6 HRs in 95 ABs this year. However, a low average has kept him down in the past. Since returning from his injury, he’s been on a nice 10 game tear hitting .314 with 2 HRs. He has the potential to do very well. Last August, he had 7 HRs at South Bend. He has great balance with his feet during his swing, I think he just needs to be a little more selective as a hitter and look for certain pitches in certain zones to maximize his power potential.

Joe Martarano
6’4” 245 pounds
The former Boise State Linebacker is now playing baseball full-time. He will likely be assigned to Eugene this summer. He has been playing some outfield in extended spring versus 1st and 3rd where he played before. Originally drafted by the Phillies and then by the Cubs in 2014, he last played for the Cubs in 2015 where he only played 18 games ut hit .305. In high school, Martarano was known for his hitting skills before committing to Boise State to play football. A broken leg has changed his career plans. Football is out and baseball is in now. His bat has been drawing rave reviews from Arizona Phil in his EXST game reports.

Kevonte Mitchell
6’4” 185 pounds
He has been up and down this year. At one point, he had a nice ten game run with 3 mammoth home runs. The next two games saw him go 0-11 with 6 Ks. He is seeing the ball well. When he is on, he is very selective and does well. When he is in a rut, he is not.

Jason Vosler
6’1” 190
The first thing I used to notice about Jason Vosler when he was at South Bend was that he did not use batting gloves. In 2017, he is now at AA Tennessee. The first thing I noticed is gloves are now present. What Vosler does do well is barrell up the ball. He hit 10 HRs between South Bend and Myrtle Beach in 2015 and only 3 between Myrtle and Tennessee in 2016. This year, the 23-year-old 3B has 7 HRs and 23 RBIS while hitting a robust .310 with a robust .421 OBP. I enjoy watching him hit as he is quick to the ball and uses all fields.

Ian Rice
6’ 190
Rice is now at AA Tennessee and has punishing the baseball the last two weeks. In that span, he has 4 HRs and his average has gone .237 with a .338 OBP to .310 with a .421 OBP. Last year, he was second in HRs in the system with 15 to Yasiel Balaguert’s 19. I thought Rice could hit 20 in the mountains of Tennessee versus Myrtle Beach, a noted pitcher’s park.

Michael Cruz
5’11” 210
I have yet to see Cruz hit live or on TV. Currently, he is the position player I want to see most in 2017. That will come to end soon. He will either be in South Bend soon or when Eugene starts its season in the middle of June. The 2016 7th round pick out of Bethune-Cookman has been held back a bit to work on his defense. Last year, he played in 40 games after being drafted and hit 2 dingers in 40 games while hitting .238 with a .370 OBP. The left-handed swinging Cruz has been tearing it up in EXST. I think his bat might be better than we think. The question, though, will his defense hold him back in spite of his bat? I cannot wait for June to get here just to see him.

With two picks, basically, in the first round, the Cubs have the opportunity to add a special bat or two. They are not going to get a Kris Bryant or Kyle Schwarber type of bat, but they can get a player who has the potential for power. This year’s draft is big on pitching and shortstops at the top of the draft. There are only a few power bats, most from the college ranks, available.

Prospect Update: Ian Rice Forging at Ahead Full Steam

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By Todd Johnson

On Monday, Ian Rice was named Hitter of the Week in the Southern League. For the week, the Tennessee Smokies catcher/first baseman hit .613 with 3 HRs and 9 RBIs. For the year, Rice is hitting .311 with an amazing .462 OBP along 3 HRs and 11. The 6’ 195 pound catcher has been wreaking havoc for the last year with his bat while drawing lots of walks. The University of Houston product has been working primarily on catching this year at Tennessee. His bat, and approach, are doing very well as his 1.003 OPS attests.

Last year, I profiled Rice breaking out at South Bend  in early June. After that article, Rice was promoted to Myrtle Beach where he continued hitting dingers for the Pelicans. He wound up hitting .265 between South Bend and Myrtle Beach with a combined .380 OBP. He also smashed 15 home runs, which was second most in the Cubs minor league system. And he drove in 58 runs in 97 games.

His quick start at AA is somewhat of a surprise. Rice was expected  to head back to Myrtle Beach to get some more seasoning on his defense. Things changed in the last two weeks of the preseason and Rice headed to Tennessee where he now learns under the auspices of Mark Johnson, the Smokies manager and a former major league catcher.

In the 97 games he appeared in 2016, he only caught in 31. He has already caught 14 in games out of Tennessee’s 30. He only caught 12% of base stealers in 2016 (5/37) and this year he has not caught one (0/9). He has plenty to work on behind the plate.

Then again, it is all about his bat.

What Rice brings to the plate are three things that make him successful

  1. A short, quick stroke
  2. Elite pitch recognition skills
  3. The ability to lay off pitches and work a walk

In the video below, you see how quick Rice can get to the ball and thus provide lift from his 6’ frame.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9xWlC5rRd7Y

While Rice is having a nice season to date, there’s no need to rush him to Iowa as Victor Caratini is there doing Victor Caratini things. At 23, Rice’s bat is clearly his calling card. His defense will determine how fast he makes it to the next level..

Rice is part of an organization that has some redundancy at Catcher with Caratini, Myrtle Beach’s PJ Higgins, and 18-year-old Miguel Amaya, Rice is going to have to separate himself from the others. Hitting .600 in a week is a start.

Tennessee Smokies Preview – Looking for an Elusive Title

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By Todd Johnson

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2016 in Review
Last year was a huge disappointment for the Tennessee Smokies. Their team was stacked with players who won back to back championships at Kane County and Myrtle Beach. Aside from a few individual performances, the Smokies and Manager Mark Johnson limped to a 58-81 record.

Infielder Chesney Young and outfielders Mark Zagunis and Bijan Radmacher were the highlights of the season. Zagunis and Rademacher both were promoted to Iowa in the middle of the year while Young stayed in Tennessee through the end of the season and competed for the Southern League batting title.

On the mound, injuries decimated the starting staff and a midseason trade of top pitcher Paul Blackburn to the Mariners did not help. However, there were a few things that went right that including the second halves of starter Zach Hedges and relievers James Faris and Jose Rosario.

2017 Preview
For Manager Mark Johnson, he has to be excited about the 2017 campaign. He is getting an influx of players coming off a championship of their own from Myrtle Beach. Combined with some holdovers, Tennessee could make a run at that championship that eluded them in 2016.

Pitching
Zach Hedges will start the year at Tennessee, but if he pitches like he did last year in the second half, he won’t be in Kodak very long. Trevor Clifton, whose home is only about 45 minutes away, could be taking over the ace role very quickly. Both pitchers improved exponentially in 2016. Clifton with his command, and Hedges with his velocity. The former South Bend and Myrtle Beach teammates could both be in contention for 2 starting spots next year in Chicago if they can get to Iowa by August this year.

Duane Underwood will be returning to Tennessee after an injury-riddled 2016. However, it is unclear if he will be a starter or a reliever. I am hoping for a starter. Erick Leal should build upon his excellent 2016 season and might be the breakout prospect for the team this year. It would not surprise me, either, to see Preston Morrison do well at Tennessee with his whiffle ball repertoire. For Jake Stinnett, he has yet to put it together but he still has a starting spot at AA. It is close to “make it or break it” because of his age (He will be 25 in April). The bullpen might be calling sooner rather than later.

Ryan McNeil, Jordan Minch, Daury Torrez, Tommy Thorpe, and James Pugliese lead an experienced bullpen that was a key to the Pelicans championship run.

Position Players
New to Tennessee will be a few of position players who are starting to come into their own. They are not necessarily elite prospects yet, but they are excellent baseball players who could play an important role in the Cubs’ system going forward.

All winter long I thought that Ian Happ would be in Tennessee at least to begin the year. That all changed on Monday night. For the group of position players coming to Tennessee, I think they are used to it. I think they will thrive with that opportunity to play.

During last year’s championship run for Myrtle Beach, Yasiel Balaguert and David Bote both put the fear of God into every baseball the last two months of the 2016 season. Balaguert hit 19 home runs for the Pelicans in a noted pitcher’s league. Bote hit over .400 in July and August leading the Pelicans down the stretch. Bote can play all four infield positions but is best suited for second base and third base.

2015 draftee Ian Rice showed he could hit for power and also have a high on-base percentage between South Bend and Myrtle Beach last year. This spring, Rice spent more time at honing his catching skills and hopefully his bat will produce more home runs in the Southern League. I think he will be the sleeper of the year for the Smokies. His bat has a lot of power as he hit 9 dingers for Myrtle Beach in 39 games and 15 for the year. I think his bat will play better in the Southern League. It would not surprise me to see him 20+ this summer.

Gold glove outfielder Trey Martin should be patrolling centerfield and will be an asset to any pitcher on the mound for the Smokies. Hopefully, he can improve his bat as he already has major league range and defense in the outfield. Charcer Burks struggled in the first half last year at Myrtle Beach and was very good in the second half from the leadoff spot. I expect to see him do better playing above sea level, too.

Overall, this is an experienced team that will use power and the ability to get on base to score runs. They are not going to overwhelm you with the ability to hit for average, rather they will capitalize on opportunities to get the job done by doing the little things…and sometimes big things.

The pitching, on the other hand, has the potential to be something special with Clifton, Hedges, Leal, and Morrison anchoring the rotation to go along with an experienced and disciplined bullpen. I think this year Smokies team has a lot of talent whose fruition began last year at Myrtle Beach.

Breakout prospect
Erick Leal – Last year, he had the quietest 10–4 season of any pitcher in the Cubs’ system. He had a 3.23 ERA and struck out 66 batters in a little over 90 innings pitched. He might never be a power picture, but he could be a ground ball machine, which I think he is now. Leal is able to keep hitters off-balance and he works quickly to do so. He might only throw in the low 90s, but he is also able to command the bottom of the zone well. I think this year at AA will be quite the task for him and he should succeed just on pitchability factors.

Probable Lineup
LF – Charcer Burks
CF – Trey Martin
RF – Jeffrey Baez
3B – Jason Vosler
SS – Flete, Ely
2B – Bote
1B – Balaguert
C – Rice, Alberto Mineo

I still think the Smokies are going to need some help on offense. Therefore, when his bone bruise is healed, I would not be surprised to see Eloy Jimenez arrive by the end of May.

First to Be Promoted – It’s going to be a pitcher. If I had to put money on it, I would go with Zach Hedges who already has a half in at AA. If I went with my heart, I would go with Trevor Clifton. Either way, the Iowa Cubs can’t lose.