Ian RIce

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.

Spring Training News and Notes- Week 5

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By Todd Johnson

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

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

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

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

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

As for the minor league camp…

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

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

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

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

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

Upcoming Posts
Draft Review
How Close is Ian Happ?

The Cubs Position System Breakdown Series Begins with Catchers Aplenty

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By Todd Johnson

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Usually, there are two kinds of catchers in a minor-league system. First, there are the organizational catchers. These are guys are just paid to catch. They are almost like a player/coach with no hopes of reaching the majors. Sometimes, they are in the bullpen; sometimes, they are in the game. Sometimes, they play first base or DH. The second kind of catcher is the legitimate prospect. There are a lot of those in the Cubs’ minor league system. Every level has one, some levels have two.

Even though there are about 20 catchers rostered across the six American affiliates, I am only going to rank nine. My reason for doing just nine is that Wilson Contreras blocks everyone else in the system for the next five years. There will be an opportunity to be a backup and that’s about it. Any catchers the Cubs develop through 2021 will be limited as to where they can go and what they can do in this system.

In ranking the catcher position, I split the analysis into two parts the offense and the defense. If it was just offense Victor Caratini would win going away. If it was just defense, PJ Higgins would dominate. Combined, it makes for an interesting discussion of value and just who can help the Cubs at the next level and in what capacity.

higgins 85 2016 sb

1. PJ Higgins – In his first full year of catching, Higgins showed off an arm unlike any other in the system with a timed throw around 1.9 down to second base. That is far superior to anybody else in the system. He wasn’t too shabby of a hitter either. While his batting average fluctuated between .270 and .290, his OBP was always close to .400. Like Caratini, Higgins did not display much power, but I think in a backup catcher role, what you’re looking for is the defense. He displayed that in spades

2. Victor Caratini – In 2017, Victor had his best season as a Cubs prospect. He hit .291 on the season at AA Tennessee and displayed some power, but not a lot of power at the plate. This fall he worked on improving his defense in the Arizona Fall League, and heading into 2018, he is on pace to replace Miguel Montero as the backup at catcher in Chicago. I even think he might get a look this year or if there is an injury to either Montero or Contreras. I also would not be surprised if the Cubs went out got a backup catcher this year just so Victor can have a full year at AAA.

rice 76 2016 eug

3. Ian Rice – Power! That’s what Rice has in spades and he brought it to the table this year at South Bend and Myrtle Beach. For the year, Rice hit 15 HRs in 97 games between 2 levels. He showed the ability to get on base (.380) as well as hit for power. On the other hand, he did not catch much. I sometimes wonder if Rice is going to be shifted to first base. I think this spring, he will be more focused on the day-to-day duties of handling a pitching staff. Out of all the catchers in the Cubs’ system, I’m most interested to see what he can do behind the plate on a daily basis.

4. Cael Brockmeyer – Every level he has been to in the Cubs system, pitchers love pitching to Cael Brockmeyer. Last year was a bit of a whirlwind for him as shuttled between 3 levels. The big 6’5” catcher sets a low target and has a decent arm. He also calls a great game and can get in a pitcher’s head, unlike any catcher the Cubs have. He’s a leader among leaders. His bat was a little off-kilter last year. He did very well at Tennessee hitting .317 in just under 20 games, but he struggled some in just over 30 games at AAA. He’s been known to hit for average more than power. I like him as a backup catcher at the next level. I think he could see some time before Caratini in Chicago just because Cael is more suited for that role and could slide easily into being a team player in a bench role.

5. Michael Cruz – Like Rice, Michael came into the system and began to hit immediately. The power took a little bit to come around, but at the end of the year, he showed why the Cubs selected him in the 2016 draft. And like Rice, he has some work to do behind the plate. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him in South Bend to start next year, but I also think because his defense needs some work and that Eugene is the perfect landing spot for him.

6. Sam Tidaback – The Cubs only drafted a few position players in the 2016 draft. I think Sam might be one of the biggest surprises. He finished the year at South Bend and I’m not quite sure what to think of him. He looks to have a solid bat and a solid approach when it comes to hitting for average and getting on base, but I’m not for sure about the power. He looked promising in just a short sample size.

alamo 65 2016 sb7. Tyler Alamo – He is probably one of the nicest kids in the system. I got to chat with him while he was in the on-deck circle in Clinton Iowa. He came across very down to earth, well mannered, and well tempered. Last year, he reshaped his body physically and it paid off in the first half at South Bend. He showed that he could hit with power and manage a pitching staff. Minor injuries bugged him in the second half and I wonder how the big framed catcher will improve over this offseason to be ready for 2017.

8. Will Remillard – It’s been two years since he’s seen a regular-season game. After back to back Tommy John surgeries, I am ready to see him hit and play again. He was one of my favorite players on the 2014 Kane County championship team. Before his second Tommy John surgery last spring, his bat looked as good as it did in 2014.

9. Albert Mineo – The young Italian was signed several years ago. At first, I thought he was a bullpen catcher at South Bend. Then he started showing up in games, in more ways than one. I didn’t think he was in there except for defensive reasons. But then his bat clearly showed that he was ready to play in South Bend as he drove in 26 runs in 40 games. To look at him, he’s not the most athletic looking fellow. However, he actually was pretty decent. I think as the year went on he became more and more confident in his skills. He should be at Myrtle Beach this year where we will see how that success carries over.

And there are others: Tyler Payne, Marcus Mastrobuoni, Gioskar Amaya, etc. When the Epstein Triumvirate took over five years, the catching corps was one of the weakest parts of the Cubs’ system. Every year since, they draft two to three catchers. Now, the position is one of the strongest in the minors.