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.
6′ 195 lbs.
Bats Right, Throws Right
29th Round 2015 Draft
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.
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.
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.
Yeah, I’ve noticed the effort issue plus mixed reports on his changeup and FB velocity. But his track record is strong and I think he may thrive in pro environment. https://t.co/TRs3tcoYYN
— johnsickels (@MinorLeagueBall) December 1, 2017
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!
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
By Todd Johnson
Some weeks in the off-season, I struggle with things to write about. This week, I had a little epiphany after reading Baseball America’s top 10 chat post. I decided, after several years, to finally do a Mailbag about questions people have about the Cubs minor league system. However, I cannot answer all the questions in one post. There will be a second set of questions to answer next week. Who knows, I might just make this a weekly thing in the off-season or, at the very least, a monthly thing overall. I will see what the response is.
Here we go…
What are your thoughts on Ian Rice? How has he developed defensively and does he have any chance at an MLB role?
I really like Ian Rice. Right now, there’s not really a place for him in Chicago and he’s getting pretty close. While his natural swing creates a lot of lift for the baseball, I am even more impressed with his plate discipline. He is not Mark Zagunis good, but he is close when it comes to getting on base. I don’t think he’s quite there defensively but he is not a detriment behind the plate anymore. Working with Mark Johnson at Tennessee improved his all-around defensive skills as he threw out 9 of 35 base stealers to go with just 8 passed balls this season. With Caratini ahead of him, and Willson at the major-league level, Rice’s power is what is going to get him to the majors. Some team is going to want to take that skill in a trade.
Ademan #1 prospect, BA? Really?
Yes, really. Then again, I don’t agree with it. While I do think he is one of the top five position player prospects in the system, I am leaning towards moving Nelson Velasquez above him on my prospect list within the next year. If Nelson had played fall season baseball last year, I might have him ahead of Ademan already. Still, Ademan does have a lot of potential as a middle of the diamond player with a bat that is still emerging.
Who are the guys that most likely will be the 40-man roster spots 26-35?
This is a great question. It has been Theo and Jed’s Modus Operandi in the past in stocking that part of the roster with AAAA players. Most of them once had a crack at the majors but just could not get over the hump. I think the Cubs’ system is now deep enough that their own prospects will make up the majority of this range. There might be 2 to 3 AAAA relievers along with Eddy Butler, Alec Mills, Jene-Ho Tseng, Rob Zastryzny, and Duane Underwood along with some bench depth. But the position player depth will mainly be staffed by outfielders Mark Zagunis and Charcer Burks and catcher Victor Caratini (if he doesn’t make the 25 man roster). Somehow the Cubs need another shortstop as they might not want to rely on Carlos Penalver in case of injury to either Addison or Javy.
I am really excited about watching Hudson pitch at Myrtle Beach in 2018! I think he’s going to break out a little bit; in fact, a lot. As for the ground ball rate, I think he’ll be able to maintain that this year and will probably slip a little bit once he gets to AA Tennessee. Hudson is starting to realize he can get the ground balls with a well placed fastball along with his plus curve.
I have several more questions in the queue already for next week from Cory Alan, Eldrad, and Rikk Carlson about Jeremiah Estrada, Wladimir Galindo, Jhon Romero, Buddy Bailey, and trading MLB talent for MLB talent. If you have a question, you can send it to me on Twitter @CubsCentral08 or you can email me at: CubsCentral2016@gmail.com.
By Todd Johnson
Beginning tomorrow, and running through Friday, baseball’s general managers hold their annual meeting in Orlando Florida. Something could shake down this week. In their search for two starting pitchers, the Cubs could come home with hopefully one. While I would like to see something get done this week, I am also not holding my breath. Ideally, the Cubs could make a trade for a #1 starter this week, get a closer, and then sign a free agent starting pitcher and their major offseason acquisitions would be done.
Right now, signing 23-year-old pitcher Shohei Ohtani from Japan is my number one preference. Considering that he just got a new agent this week, all signs now point to him coming after some things are worked out between MLB, the Player’s Association, and the NPB (Japanese League). He has not officially been posted yet. That could take a while.
As a result, no deal will get done this week.
I have always thought that Yu Darvish and Jake Arrieta would set the market and everything would fall in place after those two signed. Now that the Ohtani roller coaster looks to be heading to America, I wonder how much the market is going to be driven by him as teams try to acquire his talents. Considering that the max he can sign for is $3.5 million ($300,000 with the Cubs), his ability to drive the market will clearly be the coveted roster spot he takes at the top of the rotation.
The name of Alex Cobb has also been bandied about a lot the past few days. While many Cubs fans want to see the Cubs sign him, I would see that signing in a different light. Sure, Cobb is a nice pitcher and a quality guy, but he is not a top of the rotation arm. If the Cubs are trying to win a world championship, Cobb would be a nice back end of the rotation piece who will help get the Cubs to the playoffs but might not even start in the playoffs. The Cubs need a number one starter for the World Series to pitch alongside Hendricks, Lester, and Quintana. That is not Alex Cobb.
Currently, there is a four year window through 2021 for the Cubs’ young position player core to win another World Series. The Cub brass has to acquire two top of the rotation starters to make that happen. Ohtani makes that scenario much more likely than does Cobb.
Jason McLeod on the Score
For 20 minutes Saturday morning, the Cubs Executive Vice-President and Director of Scouting espoused on a number of topics from young pitching to Eloy and Gleyber to Schwarber and development at the MLB level.
What caught my ear during the interview were some quick evaluations by McLeod of the Cubs minor league starting pitchers. He eloquently praised Adbert Alzolay as a future starter. In addition, he talked about the potential of Thomas Hatch and his ability to miss bats despite a “blip” in his development.
What I really enjoyed was how effusive McLeod was about Michael Rucker and Duncan Robinson. He praised Rucker’s ability to throw strikes at a high velocity and he was just as excited about Robinson’s ability to throw a variety of pitches. McLeod went on to discuss and issue plaudits for the talents of Jose Albertos and Javier Assad. I am excited to see who is going to be pitching for each affiliate next spring. It is going to be quite competitive in the lower parts of the system.
Arizona Fall League Ends Next Week
With just one week left in the season, it is been an up-and-down year for many of the Cub prospects who are taking part in the six week fall league. Both David Bote and Adbert Alzolay came on strong to begin the fall league, but they have faded somewhat. To be fair, Alzolay had one bad outing where he gave up six runs in two-thirds of an inning. Meanwhile, Charcer Burks has been up-and-down and Pedro Araujo has been consistent throughout the six weeks season with an ERA under 2.00. Jake Stinnett has not thrown a lot of innings, but his thrown enough striking out 1.5 batters per inning.
In looking at Jason Vosler, his batting average at .229 does not inspire confidence, but his OBP is quite good at .349. Teammate Ian Rice has an OBP of .422. I’d say it’s been a good 2017 for Mr. Rice.
10 Days Away
I am just 10 days away from beginning my off-season series and I’m not ready yet. Right now, there is nothing planned to be published this week. If I do put out something, it’s going to be “incidental” news. That’ll give me time to get started on examining DJ Wilson and breaking down the catchers in the minor-league system for the position breakdown series.
By Todd Johnson
MLB Roster Moves
8 Cubs declared for free agency after the World Series this week. On Tuesday, the offseason is all set to begin. The Cubs will be active but Yu Darvish and Jake Arrieta will drive the market. Once those two sign, then you will begin to see slots fill up around the league. I hope the Cubs can hang onto Wade Davis and Jake Arrieta, but the odds are slim.
After the declarations, the Cubs announced that they claimed left-handed reliever Randy Rosario off waivers from Minnesota. The newly converted reliever pitch mostly at AA in 2017 but did see an unforgettable 2.1 IP. This has all the markings of a flyer and a gamble. He throws in the mid-to-upper 90s with a 90 mph slider. That, my friends, is worth exploring.
MiLB Roster News
Catcher Alberto Mineo is back on board. However, there is still no word on Trey Martin, Matt Carasiti, or John Andreoli either signing or choosing free agency. The Cubs don’t necessarily have to sign Carasiti to retain his services if they automatically place him on the 40 man roster. It is doubtful, but there’s a small chance it could happen before Tuesday’s signing deadline. Other prospects, who are not free agents but who would but eligible for the Rule 5 Draft, have to be placed on the 40 man by November 20 to avoid the Rule 5 Draft.
Johnson Roster News
In the past year and a half, two of our old dogs passed after short illnesses. On Friday night, my wife and I drove up to Madison, Wisconsin to get a new member for our pack. Socrates is a 4-year-old Spaniel mix who seems to be fitting in nicely. He has some 80 grade deception on his left front paw. He’s a keeper! High floor on his cuteness!
Otani Fever Is Getting Cold
Earlier in the week, the Posting Fee agreement between MLB and NPB (Japanese Professional League) expired without a new agreement in place. As a result, that fact could definitely hamper the career aspirations of P/OF Shohei Otani. Until a new agreement is in place redone, Otani will not likely come to the states unless his home team in Nippon financially benefits in a big way.
Since Otani could only sign a MiLB deal because of his age, the fee would be minimal. As a result, he is staying put for the time being unlike he gets an exception in the new deal.
I could have sworn I wrote a post about possible breakout players for 2018. I went back and looked to see who I picked and I could not find it or anything resembling it. Yes, I had some storylines I wanted to follow, but no posts exist about breakouts or sleepers for 2018. So, this week, that is what I am going to write about.
In three different posts, I will breakdown some players I will think will break out next year and shoot up the Cubs system or prospect lists. This will be in three parts. I will do hitters first, then starting pitchers, and I will close it out with relievers.
Arizona Fall League
Pedro Araujo and Jake Stinnett are still going strong. David Bote, Charcer Burks, and Ian Rice have all come back to the pack a bit. Even though Adbert Alzolay had a horrible outing this week (3 HRs and 6 runs in 0.2 IP), he was still in the AFL All-Star Game last night as were Bote and Stinnett. There are only just 2 weeks left in the AFL season. It has been an eye-opening experience as Bote and Rice have done really well against some of the best prospects in all of baseball.
There are still about three weeks left before I start posting my two off-season series – the usual MiLB system position breakdown series starts around Thanksgiving as does this year’s prospect series called “Leveling Up.”
Rule 5 Draft and the 40 Man Roster Choices
Expansion and Realignment are not so easy.