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.
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 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
By Todd Johnson
Now that the first half of the MiLB season and accompanying all-star games are complete, expect to see some promotions coming. However, don’t expect to see too many of them. There are two reasons for that. One is that there were not that many dominating hitting performances when it comes to position players. And, while pitchers were great in the first half, there are not too many pitching positions open. The same can be said for catching. Still, there are several players who are worthy of moving up a level.
Should be heading to Iowa
There’s a pitching spot open since Adbert is out for the year.
Top of the List
Duncan Robinson is really putting together a good season at AA. He’s being pretty quiet about it, too. He had a 3.36 ERA in the first half. And in June, he’s hotter than a firecracker with a 1.59 ERA. What I like is that his batting average against has decreased every month. The fact that he has only walked 10 batters in 75 innings should give you the first clue that he is clearly in control on the mound.
Heading to Tennessee
If Robinson goes to Iowa, that creates a spot in the rotation for the Smokies.
Top Candidate #1
Keegan Thompson is the hottest pitcher at Myrtle Beach. He has four pitches he can throw for strikes and he recently pitched 7 perfect innings in his last start. He’s extremely polished and I don’t see high A Myrtle Beach holding much of a challenge for him at 23 years of age. He’s been named Carolina League Pitcher of the Week twice. In June, his dominance was highlighted by his WHIP of 0.54! He doesn’t look to be challenged much and there are no new pitches for him to polish – that being his strongest point for promotion.
Top Candidate #2
Alex Lange might not be the hottest pitcher in the system, but he has a lot of potential as a pro. Already armed with a plus curve, he’s been working on two things this year – fastball command and a changeup. Sometimes, he takes his lumps, other times, he dominates. From May 17 to June 11, he allowed 1 earned run while striking out 21 in 22 innings over 4 starts. Lange’s 2.83 season long FIP is much better than Thompson’s 3.42, it would be an interesting discussion on who would move to AA.
The Cubs would have several arms from which to pick at South Bend. Rollie Lacy, Erich Uelmen, Tyler Thomas, and Jesus Camargo are all having excellent seasons for the Cubs’ Midwest League affiliate. On the other hand, Lacy and Uelmen are two of the hottest pitchers in the system. In June, Ulemen has a 1.40 ERA while Lacy has a very nice 0.69 ERA. Lacy’s curve is pretty hard to hit while Uelmen’s natural sinking fastball that bottoms out gets some of the ugliest swings one sees in Class A baseball.
Lacy started out in the pen this year and has been pretty consistent since he moved to the rotation on May 6. He just keeps refining himself every outing and has shown incredible growth through the pitches he throws in certain counts which keeps hitters guessing. His ERA for the year is 2.40.
Uelmen was rocked around pretty hard in April as a starter. His 9.75 ERA and 1.92 WHIP were pretty discouraging. Despite those two stats, Uelmen was still striking out a batter an inning. In May, he figured things out. It was as if he warmed up with the weather in northern Indiana. Back-to-back monthly ERAs of 2.16 and 1.40 point to his growth as well. Even though his ERA is 3.51 for the year, his FIP is a robust 2.47.
It would be a tough choice.
When It Comes to Hitting…
Sadly, no hitter at either Myrtle Beach or Tennessee is just completely dominating. However, I could see Jason Vosler moving to AAA Iowa. Sure, he’s put up good power and walk numbers, and has been hitting well the past month, but there’s not really a spot for him unless someone is cut, or, God forbid, moved to Chicago because of an injury. Who knows what the summer will bring to open up a spot? Maybe a trade will clear some space at AA or AAA.
Then again, there is only one hitter I can see being promoted and I am pretty sure you know who that is. I feel like all I have done is write about him this year.
Jared Young should be in Myrtle Beach as soon as possible. He can go there, play multiple positions, and, in general, scuff up some more baseballs.
What I see driving promotions later this summer is going to be the play of this year’s draft picks. Players like Nico Hoerner and Luke Reynolds could result in more movement than we have seen so far this year. Outside of Cory Abbott, Matt Swarmer, and Trevor Clifton, there’s just not much movement, or, should I say, big names moving.
That’s about to change.
By Todd Johnson
This is the final weekend of the first half of the minor league season. Only the Tennessee Smokies are still in contention but three teams have a chance to have a winning record for the first half. In addition, the Eugene Emeralds begin their season tonight. The Arizona Rookie League also begins on Monday.
Here are six other things I have been keeping an eye on lately.
1. Keegan Thompson – The Myrtle Beach starting pitcher threw seven perfect innings of no-hit ball. He uses a four pitch mix to get eight strikeouts while not allowing a baserunner of any kind. The no-hitter and perfect game were lost in the eighth, as well as the game. Still, Thompson might be the most polished right now of last year’s draft class. His pitchability is off the charts.
2. Erich Uelmen – Over the last two months, there has been no better pitcher in the Cubs system. He had a 2.16 ERA in May and has a 1.40 ERA in 3 June starts. Currently, his sinker is one of the best pitches of any Cubs’ pitching prospect. If he can command all three pitches, he is going to be unstoppable. I can’t wait to see how his stuff plays at the next level.
3. Jared Young – in April, he was hitting over .400 before an injury. When he came back in May, it took him a couple weeks to get back in the swing of things. He only hit .229 for the month. He’s back to destroying the ball and hitting .298 for the first half as well as 39 RBI, second only to Jason Vosler in the system.
4. David Bote – He definitely has power as he hit another home run last night. His bat to ball skills clearly put him at the top of the Cubs’ call up from AAA list.
5. Jason Vosler – He should find his way to AAA soon. For the past six weeks, he’s been hitting for average and power while leading the system in home runs and RBIs. He’s been taking his walks all year, now balls just seem to be falling in for him at a much higher rate. He should be fine at AAA as long as he can hit somewhere between .250 and .270 to go along with his power.
6. Jake Hannemann – He’s never been a hitting machine until this year. At 27-years-old, things are really beginning to click for him. In May, he hit .313 and, so far in June, he cruising along at a .400 clip.
Bonus – I have not been spending as much time on Twitter since the draft. That will probably continue as I seem to be enjoying doing other things like getting the back yard fixed up. If you send me a message on Twitter, I will get a notification on my phone and I can message you back. Other than that I think I’m enjoying cutting back the amount of time I spend there.
Coming up Sunday in The Weekly
Who’s Hot – Jhonny Bethencourt, Brandon Hughes, Michael Rucker, Duncan Robinson, and Jacob Hannemann, to name a few. I will also check out how Eugene did and take a short look at trends in the DSL.
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 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.
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.
By Todd Johnson
I am not quite sure of what is going on at third base in the Cubs system. There has been a lot of player movement in and out of the position. While versatility may be of value to the Cubs’ brass, it is wreaking havoc on these rankings. I do know that there are most definitely four prospects who see most of their time at third base. All four also happen to be some of the most prolific home run hitters in the system. So, while it may be the hot corner, it is also power central.
Last year’s rankings had Matt Rose at number five, Jason Vosler was fourth, David Bote came in at number three while Wladimir Galindo was ranked second to Jeimer Candelario. Rose is now with the White Sox and Jeimer should be playing almost every day for the Tigers at third base in 2018.
As a result, there’s a new number one.
1. I had no qualms putting Wladimir Galindo at number one. There was no hesitation and no second-guessing. The potential that he has to hit for power and average far outpaces anyone else on this list. What makes the ranking more emphatic is that he only played 44 games last year. His presence, despite the injury, was impactful as he hit .290, showed some power, and drove the ball with ease to the opposite field. That’s not something anyone else on this list can do.
2. Jason Vosler – Out of nowhere, he cranked out 21 home runs at AA Tennessee in 2017. Through 2016, he had hit only 15 HRs total. So, 21 was quite a pleasant surprise. However, in the second half, his batting average took a major tumble as he fell below the Mendoza line at .211. In the Arizona Fall League, he did see a lot of action at first base. He also hit .210 there but walked 12 times in 23 games for an OBP of .323. It will be interesting to see how he does at Iowa in 2018. Will the power return? Will he hit for average? Which Jason Vosler will we see?
3. Sometimes a hitter’s development can coincide with an increase in power. Such was the case for Jesse Hodges last year at Myrtle Beach. His daily approach and maturity finally began to pay off as he was one of the best hitters in the Carolina League. Prior to last year, he had always been known as somewhat of a swinger who wanted to get the big home run. Last year, the home runs came but as a result of working counts with a solid approach at the plate. His K rate shrank down to 20.8% and his walk rate improved to 8.9%. Look for that to continue at Tennessee. I am pretty excited to see what he can do at AA in 2018.
4. When it comes to maturity at the plate, 2017 8th round pick up Austin Filiere is pretty advanced. While his average was in the .260s, his on base percentage was at or near .400 all year long. In addition, he cranked out six home runs in 49 games. That’s a pretty good number for PK Park in Eugene, which is usually pretty stingy when it comes to giving up the long ball. I would love to see him continue to build on the foundation he established in 2017. Who knows, maybe we could see the Cubs’ first 20 home run hitter at South Bend next year. He has that potential. With a good year at South Bend and other environs, he could ascend to number 2 on this list quickly.
There is really no exclusivity to this position anymore. For instance, Ian Rice saw action at third in the Arizona Fall League and Andrew Monasterio moved over to third to make room for shortstop Aramis Ademan. Jhonny Bethancourt, for example, saw a lot of action at third but struggled there defensively. It’ll be interesting to see who else plays the position in 2018. David Bote and Chesny Young have both seen a lot of action at that position in the past but both are better suited to second base.
It will also be interesting to see who plays the position in the Dominican in early June and then later that month in Mesa and Eugene.
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.
I am not quite sure what went down in Kodak, Tennessee this summer. In April and May, they were close to being the best team in the system and were competing for a playoff spot against Chattanooga. Then, in one series, they were swept by Chattanooga and that doused any first half playoff hopes. Several prospects struggled in June and July and yet the Smokies were still in the thick of the playoff hunt again until mid August when the Montgomery Biscuits put some distance between themselves and the Smokies. Pitcher Jake Stinnett, who missed most of the year, returned in late July as a reliever and shined in his new role (0.61 ERA in 9 games). There could be something there.
Still, there was a lot of development that took place in 2017 for a team that was not considered to have a lot of elite prospects. Here are seven things about the Smokies talented roster.
1. Outfielder Charcer Burks was one of the prospects who came out of the gate extremely well in spring training playing with the big league club. That carried over into April and May as Burks made his way onto MLB Pipeline’s top 30 cubs prospect list after hitting .293 and .286 and then .333 in June. Then July happened. He hit .135 for the month but he did rebound some in August. For the year, he hit .270 with a .370 OBP.
2. Trey Martin – He has been around for a while and he has improved at every level. It is not been a rapid ascent, though, but a slow steady climb. Along the way, he’s won two gold gloves and struggled with minor issues like this year’s hamstring strain that caused him to miss two months. Upon his return, his bat showed a marked improvement and I am really excited about what he might be doing at Iowa next year.
3. David Bote exploded in the second half of 2016 and that carried over into April and May 2017. Like Burks, he went down a little bit in the summer but rebounded well in August hitting over .280. I like the fact that he can play multiple positions in the infield. He has shown some power, but I prefer the fact that he is hitting the ball up the middle on a consistent basis.
4. Jason Vosler – He led the Cubs’ system in home runs this year with 21 but he also hit less than .200 in August. He came on like gangbusters this spring and then faded over the course of the rest of the summer. I am looking forward to seeing his batting average/OBP bounce back in 2018. It seems the more home runs he hit in July and August the lower his batting average got. Considering the fact that he never had more than 10 home runs in a season before 2017, it was interesting to see him produce at such a prodigious rate.
5. Yasiel Balaguert – We should just rename him Mr. Second Half. If he ever had a good first half, he would hit over 25 homers and drive in100 every year. That’s basically his second half pace when prorated out to a 162 game schedule. Maybe he’s just one of those guys it does better when it’s warmer. I look forward to him playing first base and the outfield next year for Iowa in a hitter’s league.
6. Ian Rice – You have to be picky when looking at his stats. You can hone in on the on-base percentage, the power numbers, and games played behind the plate that all point to him being one of the most improved prospects the past year. He played in 114 games this year with a .353 OBP and hit 17 homeruns. Considering that he was a last-minute addition to the Tennessee roster, he did an outstanding job transitioning over to catching almost full-time. I am really looking forward to seeing what he can do in Arizona Fall League this October and November.
7 – Which starting pitchers will get promoted to Iowa with Duane Underwood? I don’t know who that’s going to be. I honestly don’t. It should be determined in spring training. I think Zach Hedges will get a crack at Iowa again if I was to make a bet. If Adbert Alzolay and Trevor Clifton shine in spring training, they could also find their way there. I think a lot of it depends on who the Cubs sign, or trade for, in the offseason to replace Arrieta and Lackey. Right now, Alzolay, who is pitching well in relief in Arizona, might have the inside shot. Clifton, who was brilliant in the first half of the year and struggled in the second, could turn his career around quickly with a good spring. I would not be surprised to see all four get a shot in spring training to make a start with the big league club.
Smokies to Watch in 2018
Now 22, Eddy Martinez will be the player to watch in 2018. He’s finally acclimated to playing baseball again and playing baseball in the United States. It’s been a huge cultural shift for him and he is now able to relax and just play. In the second half of 2017, he hit .276 with 7 HRs and an OBP of .333. I imagine that the Eloy trade was tough for him as they were inseparable as teammates. The trade also may have helped him realize he is on his own now. I am looking forward to seeing him do his own thing in AA in 2018.
SS Zack Short, Pitchers Dakota Mekkes, Michael Rucker, Duncan Robinson, Thomas Hatch, Pedro Araujo, C Tyler Alamo, and 3B Jesse Hodges also bear watching in Tennessee. All will be at critical junctures in their development.