Ian RIce

Tennessee Smokies Preview – 10 Things About This Year’s Very Talented Team

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By Todd Johnson

Last year’s Tennessee Smokies looked to be on the verge of a trip to the playoffs in late May before a collapse in early June. This year’s team should be comprised of talented prospects who could help the Smokies return to the playoffs for the first time since 2011. An elite pitching rotation will set the foundation and a couple of possible power bats could put them over the edge.

Here are 10 things I think will help the Smokies get back to the playoffs:

1. Starting Pitching – With Thomas Hatch, Adbert Alzolay, Trevor Clifton, Duncan Robinson, Oscar de la Cruz, and Michael Rucker, the Smokies have some guys who have the potential to get a lot of outs. Five of the six were teammates last year at Myrtle Beach for a short time.

I’m looking forward to see how well Trevor Clifton begins the year along with Thomas Hatch. I still think that Robinson is going to surprise even more people along with Rucker this year – They can really put the ball where they want in the zone.

As for Oscar de la Cruz, he just needs to stay healthy.

2. Time – This is going to be a team that’s going to have to have plenty of time to play at this level. The fact that there are very few prospects at Iowa who could make their way to Chicago this year, there’s really no place for the Smokies to go, at least in the first half.

3. Staying Healthy – It is said all the time, but it’s really an understatement of how much health plays a factor in a prospect’s career. For Oscar, he has not topped 73 IP in a season the past three summers.

4. Bouncing Back – For some of these players, a poor second half in 2017 was hopefully just an aberration on their road to the majors. While Trevor Clifton stands out as a prospect who needs to bounce back, Jake Stinnett is another arm whose career might take off in the bullpen. Zach Hedges even looks like he will be in Kodak again. Hedges just needs to get over the AAA hump as he does do well in AA (2.47 ERA in 2016, 3.49 in 2017) in a starting role. He pitched in relief in big league games this spring.

5. Who Comes Up – Alex Lange is going to be knocking on the door fairly quickly to come to Tennessee. The right hander’s curve might be a little overpowering for the class A Carolina League. The only issue is whether he can develop a third pitch. If he can, he could be in Kodak by the end of May.

6. Impact Bats – It looks like Ian Rice is going to begin the year Tennessee. If he does, I feel sorry for Southern League pitchers. Shortstop Zack Short is another bat who has power and plate discipline. I think this is the year that Eddy Martinez really takes off. Eddy had a great second half at Myrtle Beach hitting over .270 with 6 home runs. The Southern League is a bit more hitter friendly and should be for Martinez. Jason Vosler, Charcer Burks, and Yasiel Balaguert return as a result of a roster pinch at Iowa and they could all provide a lot of power.

7. Defense – The players that were Pelicans last year had some defensive issues down the stretch. Those need to be improved if some of the players plan on moving on to Iowa. Then again, Trey Martin is back and, when he plays, he can get most everything hit his way in the outfield.

8. Bullpen – This is really the strength of the team. There are a lot of power arms and a lot of guys who have wiffleball repertoires. They could turn every Southern League game into a five or six inning affair. With Jake Stinnett, Scott Effross, Preston Morrison, James Norwood, Dakota Mekkes, and Tommy Nance, they’re going to be a lot of disappointed bats at the end of games.

9. Beat Chattanooga – The Twins AA affiliate will be the team to beat. For the Smokies to make it to the postseason, they have to get past Chattanooga.

10. Attrition – Last year, manager Mark Johnson had to deal with a lot of attrition from players moving up, players getting injured, and players who were burnt out. This year, there’s a little bit more depth in the bullpen and position players in the system that should stave that off. WIth 7 or 8 guys who can start on the mound, the Smokies should be good to go.

Bonus: First Prospect to Iowa
It has to be Mekkes. He’s just a stud and so hard to hit. If he can keep his walks down, he’s not going to be around the minors very long. Considering the strength of the bullpen at Tennessee, they will be just fine.

It should be an exciting year to watch these Smokies develop.

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A New Top 21 List for a New Season – Just a Few Changes for Now

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By Todd Johnson

Part of me did not want to do this post. I thought to myself that the changes were so minute that they would be hardly noticeable. I thought that I could probably hold out another two months until early June before I redid it. That way, there would be two months of performance on which to make adjustments. And I started thinking again… “But if I do it in early June, I’ll just have to redo it again after the draftand then again in early July after international free agency begins.” This will be a never ending crusade because it’s never complete, but that’s the fun inherit in constantly evaluating the organization.

The biggest reason for updating the list has been the play of Oscar de la Cruz. The pitcher had a really good spring and that should carry over into the season as he will be AA Tennessee. Oscar threw in 4 big league games in spring training, all in relief, striking out two and and only allowed one hit. He did not give up a run. Over the course of those four games, his velocity went from 89-91 to 93-95.

Another reason for doing the list has been the ascension and play of David Bote as a valuable utility man in the future. Originally, Bote did not make the list in January but he’s been rising for the past year and a half. He began to turn it on in the summer of 2016 at Myrtle Beach, had a good season in Tennessee in 2017, and he didn’t stop in the Arizona Fall League. This spring  saw Bote continue to chug along in spring training and he should do just fine in Iowa. 

Even though he spent all of camp with the big league club, I think Ian Rice showed his potential on the last Sunday of camp by jacking a ninth-inning two-run home run. I think the Cubs are going to have to live and die with that swing. He may not hit for average, but he’s going to hit a lot of home runs. As a catcher, I wonder what value he is going to have beyond this year. I’m sure there’s some insurance but when you’re blocked by Willson and Caratini, there’s not a whole lot of places you can go.

And last, but not least, Duane Underwood looks to be reborn and on a mission to make it to the majors. Underwood will start the year at AAA Iowa and the 23-year-old seems to have had a change of attitude after talking with Epstein last season. I really his stuff. It is just a matter of him commanding it.

So, today’s list is more about reshuffling the deck chairs than it is about anything else. There will be a new list in June with some new names on it, and there maybe some names that move up or down or even off the list. Regardless, it’s gonna be exciting to see what happens and how having five picks in the top 100 of the 2018 MLB Draft will reshape the organization. A month after that, a couple more prospects will be added to the list now that the Cubs can sign an international free agent for more than $300,000. 

A lot of changes will be coming this year.

Here is the new list.

Cubs MiLB Roster News: Surprising Moves Reveal a “New Normal” for the System

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By Todd Johnson

The Cubs made several roster moves in the minors on Thursday. Many of them were surprising. And, just as surprising, the Cubs did not make other moves one would think would happen. The assignments signify a shift within the Cubs organization. Now that the major league roster seems pretty much set for a couple of years, it is going to be hard for a prospect to break into the majors. As a result, that lack of movement continues down through the minor league system and you get what happened yesterday.  

With just a week until the season begins, two teams’ rosters are pretty much set in Tennessee and Myrtle Beach. South Bend and Iowa have some adjusting to do as Iowa currently has 33 on their roster and South Bend has 32. The Cubs have until next week to finalize all full season affiliates at 25. 

Here are the surprise moves that were made yesterday.

To Tennessee: Oscar de la Cruz, James Pugliese, Ian Rice, Yasiel Balaguert, Jason Vosler, Trey Martin, and Charcer Burks

To be brutally honest – I was glad to see Oscar make it up to Tennessee to begin the year. His stuff, when he is healthy, is so advanced and hard. He breaks a lot of bats. As for everyone else that on this list, those are a bit of a letdown. Who knew that Efren Navarro Ryan Court, Mike Freeman, and Stephen Bruno and their outstanding spring training performances would keep Jason Vosler from heading to Iowa? Charcer Burks is in that same boat, too. Ian Rice might be the one I least expected. The Cubs have so much catcher depth now, it’s sick. So, the backlog for backstops begins in Iowa and ripples down.

To Myrtle Beach: PJ Higgins, RHP Casey Bloomquist, RHP Kyle Miller, LHP Jordan Minch, and Daniel Spingola

I was surprised to see Higgins stay in Myrtle Beach to begin the year (see the catcher effect). Higgins might be the best defensive catcher in the system overall, for right now. His bat slipped a little last year. Who knows? Maybe something happens that will free up this logjam of catchers.

As for Spingola, I did not see that coming after he dominated the Carolina League in the first half last year and spent half a season in AA. It is strange that Bloomquist and Miller are not heading to Tennessee, even in bullpen roles, has a bit of the “Oscar de la Cruz” promotion effect to it. Both are versatile swingman. Bloomquist made two appearances in AA and did fine. Miller is a versatile swingman who can start or relieve. As for Minch, he is one of the few lefty relievers left in the system. Then again, he battled injuries off and on the past two summers in Myrtle Beach.

To South Bend: Tyler Alamo and 3 other catchers, Kevonte Mitchell,.and Connor Myers

The first two names are the biggest surprises to me. There is no way South Bend will carry 4 catchers. Even if Alamo plays first base, that still leaves three catchers on the squad and Miguel Amaya needs all the playing time he can get. As for Kevonte – he should be at Myrtle Beach. However, there appears to be a logjam for OF, too. Conor Myers, who is an outstanding defender as one will see, but struggles hitting, drops down to South Bend. Right now, the young Cubs have 3 CF on their roster. They won’t begin the season with three.

To Extended Spring Training/Eugene/Mesa: Gustavo Polanco, Alexander Guerra, and Jake Steffens

All three of these players will work on some things the next two months and should be the first called up to South Bend when a spot opens up, as it always does. It could happen next week or two months from now. You never know.

The Big Analysis From All This
Promotions are not a given. They never have been.

With Iowa pretty much cleaning house last winter, it looked as though several prospects would have spots to move up a level in 2018. Things changed in Mesa and spring training that prevented that from happening. The Cubs also have a ton of catchers and that depth will make it hard to move up an affiliate/level. The same is true for outfielders.

Here’s the big kicker – The Cubs still have more trimming of the rosters to do. On Tuesday, it was ten guys let go. Each affiliate still has to get down to 25. That’s 18 more bodies that will be moving down a level, moving to Mesa for extended spring training, or they will be cut.

With no positions opening up at the big league level for the foreseeable future, advancing in the minors will be hard for a couple of years. That is the “New Normal.” There will be another wave of players entering the organization this summer via the draft and international free agency. A prospect is going to have to make themselves stand out, to not be normal, but rather, to excel. 

Leveling Up Series: Ian Rice Is Getting It Done Quickly

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By Todd Johnson

The word majestic pretty much sums up my view of Ian Rice. He has this beautiful uppercut swing that is designed to hit the ball a long ways. It may not be great for a high batting average, but it does create some beautifully hit baseballs. Over the past two summers, Rice has been very enjoyable to watch. His development as a hitter happened quickly and his ascension to the upper echelons of the Cubs’ system is a breath of fresh air.

Rice was drafted out of the University of Houston in 2015. In his first summer as a pro at Eugene, he didn’t catch my eye. When he arrived at South Bend in late April of 2016, he just destroyed the baseball. He was quickly promoted to Myrtle Beach, and, in 2017, Rice was assigned to AA Tennessee.

Rice really grew defensively as a catcher in 2017, but he also continued a trend of hitting home runs and getting on base at an extremely high rate. While he only hit .230 for the year, he had a .353 on-base percentage. He finished the season with 17 home runs and was later assigned to the prestigious Arizona Fall League.

Playing for the Mesa Solar Sox, Rice played a little third, a little first, did some catching, and was the designated hitter. While he did not hit any homeruns, Rice hit .311 with a .415 OBP and drove in 11 runs while getting in some work at third base. He more than acquitted himself against the elite competition. 2018 should be very exciting year for the 24-year-old prospect.

Basic Info
6′ 195 lbs.
Age 24
Bats Right, Throws Right
29th Round 2015 Draft

When I think of prospects that I want to see in 2018, Rice is in my top five Cubs to see.

Why?

The most obvious reason that is he is going to be playing in a hitter’s league located up, down, in, and around the Rocky Mountains. He is going to crush some baseballs. However, I don’t think that’s what the Cubs are looking to see from Rice.

The ultimate goal is to get him Chicago. With Wilson Contreras entrenched behind the plate, Rice provides an alternative to Victor Caratini. Rice brings elite power and elite strike zone management to the table . What the Cubs are probably looking for from Rice is to improve his on-base percentage.

His strikeout rate needs to come down. Last year it was a career-high 22.8 percent but he also walked 15.3 percent of the time. His batting average of balls and play was a career low at .263. Still, he pulled the ball quite a bit at over 57 percent, but he’s only hitting balls to right field 27 percent of the time. He is definitely coming across as an all or nothing hitter.

Last year, a little over 12 percent of his balls were line drives while 37 percent were ground balls and over 50 percent were fly balls. With an uppercut swing, that is what you’re naturally going to get.

When Rice is in Iowa, he more than likely is going to be playing a mixture of positions. I am sure he will catch some, but he also could be playing a mixture of first and third to continue to make himself more versatile.

I don’t think anyone is going to tinker with his swing. The Cubs may just leave the swing as it is and will take the good with the bad. Personally, I’d like to see more line drives and a different spray pattern, but that’s just me. It’ll be interesting to see what kind of hitter Rice becomes in 2018 and where he becomes it.

John Sickels’ Top 20 Prospect List Takes Over “The Weekly”

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By Todd Johnson

I was all set to begin uploading “The Weekly” on Saturday night when I thought I would jump onto Twitter to see if there was a trade or signing. I should have known better. 15 minutes later, I finished reading John Sickels’ ranking of Cubs prospects and realized I would have to write a whole new column. Damn you, John Sickels!

To begin, Sickels’ list has a different top prospect than other recent prospect lists and his contains several rankings that are quite different from Fangraphs and Baseball America.

Pitcher Adbert Alzolay is fittingly ranked number one. And not surprisingly, Sickels did not give out one grade of “A” to any of the Cub prospects. In fact, he only handed out just six Bs. That’s quite an indictment of the Cubs’ system. Then again, just three of his top 10 prospects began their season above A+ last year.

Card made from a photo by Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The top prospect for both Baseball America and Fangraphs, shortstop Ademan, came in at number two and 2017 draft pick Alex Lange came in at number three. Lange’s inclusion so high in the list likely has to do more with his ability to move fast through the system based on one single dominant pitch, his curveball. I really like the placement of Lange this high. I love his competitiveness just as much as his curve.

Other players to make the top 10 included Jose Albertos, Victor Caratini, Oscar de la Cruz, Thomas Hatch, Brendon Little, Jen-Ho Tseng, and Mark Zagunis. In Sickels’ second 10, his selections get a little bit more adventurous.

Coming in at number 16 is pitcher Michael Rucker. Rucker started out as a reliever at South Bend in 2017 and wound up going to Myrtle Beach mid-summer and later replaced Oscar de la Cruz in the Pelicans’ starting rotation. Based on his summer split of a 2.51 ERA in 15 starts at Myrtle Beach, Rucker doesn’t seem to be letting go of the rotation at all. It’s a pretty meteoric rise one year after being drafted. He throws a lot strikes, something the Cubs seem to lack.

Sickels also gives some love to pitcher Keegan Thompson out of Auburn at number 17. Drafted in the 4th round in 2017, Thompson pitched some in relief at Eugene last summer. After missing all of 2016, Thompson came back as a different pitcher as he relied more on experience than a purebred 95 mph fastball. Instead, command and control became his calling card. He only threw 19 innings while striking out 23 in short season ball. He did make one start, a three inning scoreless affair.

I was a little surprised to see Sickels’ list so early this offseason, even more so in the wake of Fangraphs’ list, which just came out on Thursday. Sickels’ list does prove a few things about what I thought would happen this winter. One, not every evaluator is going to agree on who the Cubs’ number one prospect is. In addition, I don’t even think there’s a consensus on who the top Cub  prospects are. DJ Wilson, who came in at number nine for Fangraphs, did not even make Sickels’ top 20 and graded out of with a C+.

I’m starting to get a kick out of the differentiation amongst the lists.

Two players who I thought might see a little love just based on their 2017 performances were Ian Rice and Zack Short. Neither has yet to make a list.

Then again, while offseason lists are fun to discuss the value of prospects, I tend to prefer mid-season rankings as you tend to get a better feel for players drafted the year before. This was true last year for Short, Rucker, and pitcher Duncan Robinson. I wonder what will be said about Little, Lange, Cory Abbott, and Keegan Thompson in the middle of next summer?

No word on when MLB Pipeline or Keith Law will publish their new lists. However, Baseball Prospectus is set to drop their top 10 Cubs prospect list on December 11. Hopefully, there will be a new name on the top of that list, like… say, Ohtani. That would be great!

Position Breakdown Series – Catchers Now the Strength of the System

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By Todd Johnson

Six years ago, when Theo took over, the Cubs’ system was bereft of catchers. It is now a position of strength at almost every level. This year saw two catchers promoted to Chicago and fill in at the major league level very admirably. Victor Caratini and Taylor Davis both provided support in a time of need. Although neither made the playoff roster, both helped the Cubs make the playoffs.

With Willson Contreras entrenched as the main catcher, and Alex Avila and René Rivera both free agents. Caratini could earn a job next spring in Mesa. However, I think Joe Maddon would be more comfortable with a veteran backup catcher on the roster. Still, the job could be Caratini’s to win.

Last year’s catcher rankings:
1. PJ Higgins
2. Victor Caratini
3. Ian Rice
4. Cael Brockmeyer
5. Michael Cruz

Here are this year’s top five catchers currently in the system.

1. Victor Caratini
It’s time. There is nothing left for him to prove at AAA Iowa. His bat is more than ready, it’s more about improving his defense. And that can be done at the MLB level just as well as it can at Iowa.

2. Miguel Amaya
Even though he will be 19 next year, he shoots up to number two on this list just based upon his arm. He still needs to improve on blocking pitches and settling down whoever is on the mound. His bat improved greatly last summer, especially when he moved down in the order to the seventh spot. In August, he hit almost .300 for the month.

3. Ian Rice
You have to love his bat! You just have to. However, I am beginning to wonder where that bat is going to play. He will be at AAA in 2018, or at least he should be. It does depend on what the Cubs are going to do with Caratini. I would love to see him hit 25 home runs in the PCL next summer. He is more than capable of doing that and getting on base at a .350 to .375 clip. He is one of three or four hitters that I look forward to seeing most in 2018. I love his power and approach at the plate. I just don’t know how much longer he’s going to be a catcher with that kind of production and discipline.

4. PJ Higgins
Currently, he is the best all-around defensive catcher in the system, but last year his offense deteriorated at Myrtle Beach, as it does for many players in the Carolina League. He should rebound and hit better at AA Tennessee in the more hitter friendly Southern League.

5. Will Remillard
I was so happy to see him back playing last year. The fact that he did so well after being gone for almost 3 full seasons is a testament to his work ethic and his natural skills as a hitter and catcher. When I first saw him at Kane County in 2014, I was extremely impressed with his natural leadership skills. He played at Eugene the last month of the season in 2017 in what amounted to a rehab outing where he hit .474. I have no idea where he is going to go next season. He could be at South Bend, or he could be all the way up to Tennessee. Now 25 years old, I think the higher the class, the better. One thing is for sure, his bat is going to make some noise wherever he goes.

Two to watch in 2018
Alexander Guerra

Guerra is a 21-year-old catcher who played in the Series Nacional in Cuba. He’s a little bit more advanced than your average draft pick or international free agent. It would not surprise me to see him stay in extended spring or break camp with either South Bend or Myrtle Beach. He has some pretty good size and I wonder if that translates into power in the United States.

Don’t sleep on Marcus Mastrobuoni. He may have been playing above his level last year. As a result, 2018 will be more predictive of his talents. Right now, his hit skill is more advanced than previously thought.

First base will be up next week.

The Weekly: A Big News Week Looms Ahead

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By Todd Johnson

40 Man Decisions

Monday should be a big newsday as every major league baseball team has to turn in their 40 man roster which will include prospects that will no longer be available for other teams to take  in the Rule 5 Draft. it should be interesting to see which players the Cubs protect.

With six spots on the 40 man available, I have a pretty good inkling that the Cubs’ list will be pitching heavy with Adbert Alzolay, Oscar de la Cruz, Pedro Araujo, outfielder Charcer Burks, and infielder David Bote most likely to be added. I also think that Trevor Clifton and Jake Stinnett could make the 40 man cut as well. It would be a huge gamble to leave one of the two off. Then again, the team that selects a player has to put them on the 25 man roster. It is easier to hide a pitcher in the pen than a position player on the bench. Don’t be surprised if the Cubs only select pitchers to go on the 40 man.

Braves Punishment

Major League Baseball will supposedly be handing down their punishment to the Atlanta Braves tomorrow. I expect it will be harsh and result in several prospects being named free agents, including SS Kevin Maitan. It would be wise of Maitan to wait until July 2 to resign with a new team as most teams have already spent most of their 2017 IFA pool. The 6’2” 190 pound 17-year-old would look good in Eugene this summer!

Arizona Fall League Ends

It was an up and down 6 weeks for most of the Cubs’ prospects. David Bote came on like gangbusters hitting .333 with a .395 OBP to go with 4 HRs (most in the first week). Catcher Ian Rice was pretty steady hitting .311 with a .415 OBP in just 13 games. Outfielder Charcer Burks hit .236 while Jason Vosler hit .210 with a .323 OBP and 2 HRs.

Pitcher Alec Mills had his moments as a starter but then equally struggled at times. Adbert Alzolay was used frequently and was excelling before he gave up 6 runs in 0.2 innings. However, Jake Stinnett and Pedro Araujo shined all fall with ERAs under 2 and K rates of 14+/9 IP.

The Cubs brass probably learned what they wanted to know about each prospect this fall. Tomorrow, we shall see who they value most from this bunch when some will be protected and some will not.

Prospect Lists

While Baseball America did kick off the prospect list season this week, it will be about another month before Baseball Prospectus and Fangraphs do theirs. In the meantime, John Sickles will probably have his prospect list released by the end of this week or early next week.

Leveling Up

On Wednesday this week, the off-season prospect series debuts with a profile of outfielder DJ Wilson. The series is called “Leveling Up.” The emphasis of each article will be a 2017 review  and a 2018 to do list. On Friday, the position breakdown series returns as I analyze each position by ranking the top Cub prospects at that position.

Mailbag Part 2 Coming Up

The first mailbag post this week was somewhat successful. I have enough questions left over for two more posts. The second one will be out tomorrow, the other on the 27th.

Baseball Card of the Week

Cubs Insider

Baseball America Top 10 Reaction

BP Wrigleyville

Why Have the Cubs not Developed a Pitcher Yet?