Jake Steffens

The Weekly – The Second Half Begins with Pitching, Debuts, and a RBI/wRC+ Race

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By Todd Johnson

I always find that the three days of the All-Star break is always quite strange. First, you have two teams in the Dominican that play very early in the morning, and then you have four teams playing at night, three of them who just began their season. It’s a bit hard to go from 6 PM to 9 PM without either checking in on a game, watching Gameday, or MiLB.TV. When play resumes on Thursday, then it’s like a massive rush as there are games going anywhere from 9:30 in the morning to 11:30/12 at night. That’s a whole lot of baseball.

All the minor league affiliates began playing at once for the first time on Thursday, pitching was still stealing the show. Tyler Thomas truck at 11 for South Bend, Alex Lange of Myrtle Beach went six strong and struck out seven, and Erling Moreno, who was on a rehab start in Mesa, threw 4.2 no hit innings. And last night, Didier Vargas, all of 19 years old, struck out 11 in 7 for Mesa 1.

In addition to action returning, there was also some player movement. Cam BeLago and early Marino were assigned to South Bend on Friday. On Thursday, Eric Hillman was promoted to Myrtle Beach and Keegan Thompson was promoted to AA Tennessee, and infielder Christian Donahue is going to be filling in at Iowa for a week or two for Stephen Bruno.

Debuts for Draft Picks and Undrafted Free Agents
On Friday night, the first 2018 draft picks debuted down in Mesa. By the end of next week and several of them should be in Eugene. For Mesa 1, second baseman Clayton Daniel and outfielder Jamie Galazin both went two for three in their debut. Over at Mesa 2, outfielders Grant Frennel, Drew Wharton, and DJ Artis all went hitless. There will be a lot more debuts this coming week that will hopefully include some pitchers getting on the mound for the first time.

Card made from a photo by John Conover

RBI/wRC+ Lead
One interesting thing that’s been happening since about the middle of May is the statistic of who is leading the Cubs system in runs created and batted in. For a long while, Jason Vossler had sole possession. Then, starting in early June Jared Young started creating runs in bunches. At the All-Star break, they were tied with 42 RBI while Young had a wRC+ of 141 compared to Vosler’s 129. On Friday night Vosler drove in three runs to retake the RBI as Young only drove in one. It may not mean much in the big scheme of things, but it’s a fun stat to track. I don’t see Young giving up the wRC+ stat anytime soon with his .300 average helping to keep his numbers high.

Draft Signings
Draft picks only have about a week and a half left for them to sign their pro contracts. Several picks signed their contracts this week including first round pick Nico Hoerner. I expect him to begin play very shortly at Eugene and by this time next week the Cubs should have 30-32 of their draft picks signed. Not that that would be a coup, but it would be pretty close to one.

End of June Schedule
As June wraps up, I’ve begun assembling statistics for this month’s all star team. The issue is that the month ends on Saturday. Usually in that instance, I move the Weekly ahead a day. However, I think I am going to put out two posts that day. The Weekly will roll out at it’s usual time. The June All-Star Team will come out in the late afternoon and the Cards of the Month will come out on Tuesday.

Getting My Trips in Order
With only staining the rails and new steps left to do on my deck, my yard work list will probably be done by the end of the week. After that, I can begin my road trips to watch some baseball and break in my new camera. Right now, I plan on heading to South Bend for a couple of days and then follow the team most of the week as they play Quad Cities and Kane County. That will be nice as my house is located in between them.

Players of the Week

Card of the Week

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Position Breakdown Series: Relievers Close It Out

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By Todd Johnson

 

Out of all the positions in the breakdown series, relief pitcher is the most unpredictable. I don’t think anyone foresaw the phoenix-like ascendance of Dillon Maples last year to go from class A all the way to Chicago. One pitch can sometimes be the difference.

I went back-and-forth on how to organize this breakdown. First I was going to rank what I thought were the top 5 arms and then list of some potential breakouts. Then, I thought I had a great idea of putting them in categories until I thought about it some more. Then I went back to rankings. But after sifting through each affiliate, I began to wonder out loud how much more time the Cubs are going to give some of these relievers a chance to be a Cub. As a result, I wound up with four categories.

Kind of a Big Deal
1. Dillon Maples – Armed with upper 90s stuff and a devastating slider, he is technically not going to be a prospect very much longer. 2017 saw him harness his physical and mental skills to perfection at Myrtle Beach, Tennessee, Iowa, and Chicago. He does have closer type stuff but will probably be treated with kid gloves his first full year in Chicago.

2. Dakota Mekkes – The 6’7″ reliever from Michigan State dominated two leagues in 2017. For 2017, he put up an ERA under one and struck out 92 hitters in 73.1 innings. His deceptive delivery makes a 91 to 93 mile an hour fastball seem more like 96 to 98. The ball just sneaks up and creates a rushed decision. It should be exciting to watch him go at it in AA Tennessee this year. If he can cut down on his walks, the big league club could be calling very soon.

3. Jake Stinnett – After missing four months at AA Tennessee, Stinnett returned late in the season in a relief role and appeared to be reborn as a pitcher. He then went to the Arizona Fall League and did very well against elite competition. He always struggled as a starter in his previous three seasons as a prospect. Coming out of the bullpen, I think his stuff plays up a little bit better as most of his pitches have some sort of wiffle ball type movement to them. Along with Mekkes, he is going to be an interesting prospect and test case to see how the Cubs deal with just what his role is going to be.

4. Corey Black – Something Jaron Madison said at the Cubs convention has stayed with me for the past two weeks. In talking about Corey, Madison mentioned an “emotional maturity” that seems to bode well for Corey’s future. Now at 26 years of age, Black should be on the precipice of making it to the majors as Madison spoke very highly of Black’s potential and Madison was high on Corey’s 4+ MLB type pitches. If that’s the case, Black could be a guy. Sometimes an injury can turn your career around for the better.

Who the Hell Is This Guy?
Jhon Romero flew under the radar in the second half of 2017. He began his season in June at Eugene and ended up in South Bend. After Maples and Mekkes, Romero was this relief pitcher I enjoyed watching the most in August. He can throw 93 to 95 and has a beautiful tight breaking ball that just devastated hitters. He struck out 53 hitters in 41 innings and opponents only hit .109 against him. He should be at Myrtle Beach to begin the year.

How much longer?
James Pugliese, Daury Torrez, Ryan McNeil, Tommy Nance, Jordan Minch, Tommy Thorpe, Kyle Miller, Craig Brooks, Scott Effross, and David Garner
What we have here are several relievers who have been in the organization for at least three years, some of them going on six years. Out of this bunch, Tommy Nance has the best stuff. He throws a hard ball in the mid 90s and breaks a lot of bats. Hopefully, he can return healthy in 2018. Two players who came on strong at some point last year were Scott Effross and David Garner. Effross will be at AA and Garner will be in AAA, along with a spring training invite.

Breakout Relievers for 2018
Jake Steffens, Ricky Tyler Thomas, and Ben Hecht all were outstanding for Eugene last summer coming out of the pen. All three were also draft picks from last year. Steffens is pretty good sized guy with a natural sinking fastball while Hecht was a strikeout machine for the Emeralds. To me, Thomas has the potential and pitches (plus changeup) to be a starter, just unsure about his frame. He might get a shot to stretch it out this year. For these three arms, pitching in the Northwest League is a different animal than the Midwest League. It is usually a pretty good barometer or a pitcher’s acumen.

If I was to pick one more arm, I would go with Ivan Medina who was Mesa’s closer. I am sure there will be an arm that does really well that I did not foresee. There always is.

Breakout Relievers for 2018 – Eight Arms Ready to Burst

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By Todd Johnson

David Garner – Photo by Drew Gibby/Tennessee Smokies

Let’s cut right to the chase – the Cubs are not known for developing relief pitchers. They’ve only developed a few arms that have stuck with the team for any amount of time in the last five years and most of those came via the Matt Garza and Ryan Dempster trades. Kyle Hendricks, CJ Edwards, Justin Grimm, and Neil Ramirez all came over from Texas. Things are about to change.

In 2017 Dillon Maples broke out and went from class A to the majors in one season. He is set to compete for a spot in the Cubs’ bullpen in spring training. Pedro Araujo is another reliever who broke out last year while at Myrtle Beach. Pedro has been doing excellent in the Arizona Fall league and should be at AA Tennessee to begin 2018. After missing most of 2017, Jake Stinnett was reborn as a reliever and is also turning heads from the bullpen in the Arizona Fall League.

At AAA Iowa
David Garner – He has had one of the quietest rides up through the system. Last year, he advanced to AAA without much fanfare. As a setup man, he throws in the mid 90s and 2018 should be the year he gets a crack at Wrigley. Although, he only got in nine games at AAA in August, his chance at the big-time is going to come later in the year.

Corey Black – No, I haven’t forgot about him and I look forward to seeing how Tommy John surgery has impacted his career and what type of pitcher he will be. As a reliever, he’s only had 1 full season but only 30.1 IP at AAA. His recovery bears watching.

At Tennessee
Scott Effross – Part of me wants to see him start as he does have four pitches he can throw for strikes. Then again, with the second half he had last year at Myrtle Beach, he really put himself on the map with a 2.03 ERA in 44.1 IP. AA Tennessee is going to love him.

At Myrtle Beach
Jhon Romero – He basically got by on two pitches last summer but they were both excellent. Armed with a mid 90s fastball and a hard, biting curve, Romero could move quickly in 2018. He began last season at Eugene in July and was just dominant at two levels. I’m extremely excited to watch him pitch in his first full season.

At South Bend
Jake Steffens – It is hard to breakout in a half a season, but Steffens came close to it. His ascension to closer was definitely one of the surprises of the second half . He saw his stuff tick up a little bit from college. Now in full season South Bend, the Cubs should get a better picture of whether he can stick in the bullpen.

Ben Hecht – At times, this kid has a golden arm and you wonder why he is a relief pitcher to start his career. From southern Illinois, and at 6’5”, he was a strikeout machine at Eugene after struggling in his last season at Wichita State. He struck out 25 in 17.2 IP in his professional debut at Eugene.

Ricky Tyler Thomas – He started every year in college and he did it well until last spring. As a reliever, he was outstanding at Eugene last summer. He has a nice change up and when he can locate his fastball, he becomes even more deadly. Hopefully, his fastball will creep up a click or two this season.

Others to Watch at Eugene
It’s a little hard to project who will be at short season Eugene as there’s a lot of spring training and extended spring training for the young kids to develop and a draft to take place. One who might get some pub is Ivan Medina, the 21 year old closer for the Arizona Rookie League champion Mesa Cubs.

The 7 Series: Eugene’s Roster Dominated By Young Pitchers and Solid Draft Picks

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By Todd Johnson

Overall Record: 39-37

This team was just loaded with pitching talent. It’s easy to see why they did so well in the playoffs. With a mixture of young international free agents and some seasoned college players, they started peaking at the right time. As a result, the Ems went deep into the playoffs but lost in the finals of the Northwest League Championship Series.

Heading into the season, I was a little unsure of what was gonna happen. None of the players drafted had been signed yet. Although the Emeralds did not win the division title, they had the second best overall record in their division which earned them a playoff spot. As a team, they were a bit inconsistent at the plate, but they did flash glimpses of their immense talent from time to time. They just didn’t do it on a day-to-day basis. The strength of the team was starting pitching and a deadly bullpen.

Here are seven takes you need to know about this year’s team.

1. Jose Albertos – I think it’s safe to say he was my favorite player in the organization the second half of the year. He is still developing his curveball but he did begin to throw his changeup up more often in the second half of the year then he threw it in the first. I am extremely excited to watch him pitch next year at South Bend. His fastball did sit in the low to mid 90s and it varied from night to night but was usually anywhere between 91 and 96. His changeup comes in around 79 – 82, which is pretty unfair to most hitters.

2. Miguel Amaya – He’s only 18 and I don’t think he’s done growing yet. The catcher displayed a power arm behind the plate and threw out around 50% of base runners this year. He’s still a work in progress but once he moved down to the seven spot in the lineup, he hit over .300 in the month of August. I am really looking forward to seeing him for 140 games in 2018.

3. Javier Assad – Like Albertos, he is a young pitcher who is still developing. Several times this summer, he did throw close to double digit strikeouts. He does throw a fastball in the low to mid 90s and depending upon how his curveball did, that dictated how he would do want on a particular evening. His arm is pretty live and loose. He has to still work on keeping the ball down and moving the ball around the zone rather than focus on pounding one particular area.

4. Brendon Little – I think it would be a bit unfair to judge him based on his short starts where he would only pitch two-three innings. To go from throwing four innings in 2016 to 80+ innings in 2017 makes a big difference on the arm along with the fact that he was basically shut down from pitching and games for almost 2 months. He did flash an amazing curveball that will weaken the knees of several hitters in the Midwest League next year. However the velocity that we read about in scouting reports of a fastball in the mid to upper 90s was not there. Instead it was around 89 to 92.

5. Alex Lange – Although he wasn’t around at the end of the season, I am pretty excited to see what he will do in 2018 after pitching around 130 innings at LSU. The Cubs only had him originally scheduled to pitch 10 innings at Eugene. He pitched nine. I came away impressed by his curve and his tenacity.Hopefully, the Cubs can smooth out his delivery little bit as it looks like there is some effort to delivery.

6. Gustavo Polanco – It was pretty clear from the get-go that this kid could hit. The issues are that he is maxed out physically and that he doesn’t take a lot of walks. I think that is something that South Bend manager Jimmy Gonzalez can work on next year. Polanco needs to improve his approach to begin to tap into his power, which he did flash a couple of times this year. He does have good bat to ball skills and his natural swing takes the ball to right field, which is impressive.

7. The College Kids – Overall, I liked the new Cubs from the 2017 MLB Draft. Most of those players were at Eugene and we got some looks at their athletic talent and ability. There were several pitchers I came away impressed with including Jake Steffens and Cory Abbott along with Ricky Tyler Thomas. The position players were plentiful this year and that bodes well for South Bend next year. I was in particularly impressed with the plate approaches of Jared Young and Austin Filiere along with the natural physical talents of Brandon Hughes.

Emeralds to Watch in 2018

Card made from a Photo by John Arguello

It’s hard to predict who’s going to be on a short season roster. There’s a lot of development time that takes place between now and the middle of next June. I’d like to think that Nelson Velasquez or Jonathan Sierra will be hitting balls deep into the night at PK park next summer. But you never know what’s gonna happen over the next nine months. Both could wind up in South Bend at some point next May at the end of extended spring training. Regardless, there will be several players from the Dominican, like Fernando Kelli, who could show up in Eugene. However, I think it’s going to be several Dominican pitchers like Jesus Tejada and Emilio Ferrebus who could get all the acclaim before the drafted players sign.

Cubs’ MiLB 2nd Half All-Star Team Shows the Shift in the System

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By Todd Johnson

Originally, I did not plan on putting together a second half all star team. However, after looking at some of the performances of several prospects over the last 2 and 1/2 months, I thought they deserved to be honored for their performances.

I always like putting together a second-half team because they usually contain a few recent draft picks and some players from the lower parts of the system. Last year, I started including a couple players from the Dominican Summer League. That holds true for this year as well.

What started with the July All-Star team continued with the August All-Star team and this team. That is, in this list, you can definitely see a shift in the system. Younger players are starting to rise to the top and perform at a high-level. This is true of a couple of draft picks in Austin Upshaw and Nelson Velazquez along with several pitchers from the Dominican Summer League..

So, without further adieu, here is the All-Star team for the second half of the 2017 minor league season.

When I sit down to make my preseason All-Star team in 2018, a lot of the players listed in the video above will get a lot of merit for inclusion. One name not included that I am interested in seeing more of next year is Jose Gutierrez. The 18-year-old outfielder from Venezuela hit .354 in August and was a key cog in helping the Mesa Cubs win a title.

MiLB Playoff Action – Ems Take the Lead while Mesa Loses a Tough One

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By Todd Johnson

Nelson Velazquez is turning into a world beater, however it wasn’t enough last night. Velazquez had a triple and drove in three runs to give the Mesa Cubs a brief lead in Game 2 of the best of three AZL Championship Series. However, the Cubs lost in Game 2 to the Giants 6-5. It was a seesaw game with the Cubs scoring two in the first, thanks in part to a Jose Gutierrez home run. The Giants came back and scored four in the fourth before Nelson’s fifth inning triple gave the Cubs the lead 5-4. The Giants came back and tied it and then went on to win it in the ninth on an error. Tonight is the final game as it looks like Emilio Ferrebus should take the mound for the Cubs.

Meanwhile in Eugene…

Smoke from the wildfires finally lifted enough for the Ems and the Hillsboro Hops to get game 1 in. Jose Albertos started for Eugene and went 5.2 innings. He gave up two runs, one on a homer, but looked sharp after the first inning. He didn’t throw his curve much, but his change was a thing of beauty.

Relievers Elvis Diaz and Jake Steffens shut down the Hops after Albertos left the game. Jhonny Bethencourt scored scored two runs and Gustavo Polanco drove in Michael Cruz with the winning run in the eighth inning for a 3-2 victory.

The Ems travel To Hillsboro to finish out the best-of-three series. Jesus Camargo is slated to start game 2.

Pelicans Rained Out

Myrtle Beach was rained out and they will resume their semi-final Mills Cup series tonight, weather permitting. Michael Rucker is still slated to pitch for the Pelicans against Down East, a Rangers’ affiliate.

Cubs’ August MiLB All-Star Team Has 16 New Faces

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By Todd Johnson

What a difference the last two months had on the look of the Cubs’ system. A lot of familiar names are gone and new ones have taken their place. You would think that this month’s All-Star team would be pitching centric but it’s not. Instead, there are a plethora of hitters who rose to the occasion in August.

Surprisingly, the position of catcher saw the greatest highlights out of all Cubs prospects. Five years ago that was a huge pit of emptiness and now has become a position of strength at every level. Outfield play was also outstanding along with the reliever corps.

While there were several hitters over .300, only a few displayed any kind of power and only one power prospect made the team. The great thing about that is he’s only 18 years old.

As for starting pitching, most MiLB pitchers tend to get run down in August but several arms had a very good month with four outstanding hurlers putting up ERAs under 2.00. This month’s team is structured a little different as it has more than one player at a few everyday positions.

Team Breakdown
Myrtle Beach, South Bend, and Eugene each have 6 reps.
Tennessee, Iowa, and Mesa each have 5. The DSL has 1.

Upcoming posts
Saturday – Cards of the Month
Sunday – The Weekly
Monday – Prospect Profile: Jared Young