By Todd Johnson
This is like the fourth different incarnation of this post. Some of that was influenced by what talent evaluators reported on, some came from ideas some of you piqued in me, and last but not least, some ideas came from trends about certain players that I am interested or curious to see play out.
So, without further adieu, here are 10 things I am thinking about heading into the MiLB portion of Spring Training.
1. Danis Correa
First, I want a picture of him as I can’t seem to find a free one just yet. He’s 18, he’s right-handed, he’s from Colombia, and he throws in the upper 90s. Heading into camp, he’s my breakout pitcher of camp. The problem is he does have control issues, especially with his secondaries. The Cubs will probably take it slow with him in 2018. Eugene looks to be his destination after spending last year in the DSL and getting 2 games in with Mesa. What Jose Albertos was in 2016, Correa will be in 2018, without the injury or shutdown.
2. The Return of Erick Leal
The big right-hander will be returning to the system this year after missing all of 2017. He should be at AA Tennessee to begin the year. It’ll be interesting to see how surgery has affected his ability to pitch and how the Cubs handle his return back to action. Will it be in highly controlled starts? Will he relieve? Will he be a piggyback or have someone piggyback for him?
3. The Dream Outfield
Eugene’s amazing outfield will be filled, right now, with three 19-year-olds in Jonathan Sierra, Fernando Kelli, and Nelson Velazquez. Within a year, they could take over the position in the system and rush up some prospect lists. All three are extremely different but have a mixture of power, potential, and speed. There is currently no rush to move one of them along, but it wouldn’t surprise me if one of them just took off. When I do Eugene’s annual “Preview of their Preview” post, those three will be the focus of the article.
4. Trevor Clifton
When Trevor is pitching well, it is a thing of beauty. He looks fluid, even elastic, as if he and his muscles are not even thinking about what they are doing. “Rock and fire” would be an old school description of that type of delivery. He needs to get back to that in 2018.
5. The Mexican Pitching Connection
The Cubs will have several prospects at South Bend this year who hail from Mexico. Most notable are pitchers Jose Albertos, Javier Assad, and Jesus Camargo. When the Cubs started getting into the Mexican market a few years ago, they didn’t face much competition for prospects. Now, the Cubs dominate international signings in Mexico. This year will be a test of those prospects’ talent. Add in Faustino Carrera (Eugene) and Florencio Serrano (Mesa) and there should be a whole rotation-plus of Mexican arms in the lower part of the system.
6. Carlos Sepulveda
After a horrible first month at Myrtle Beach that was exacerbated by an injury, Sepulveda missed the next three months before showing up in the Arizona Rookie League for the final few weeks of the season. He looked pretty good in Mesa and hopefully he can return to being one of the best second baseman in all of the minors, not just in the Cubs’ system. I am hoping he goes to Tennessee, but I would imagine he begins the year in Myrtle Beach.
7. Bailey Clark
He’s my sleeper pitcher for this year. Word is he healthy, better, faster, stronger, and ready to go for 2018. At times over the past two summers, he flashed some major potential at Eugene. He should begin the year at South Bend or Myrtle Beach and don’t be surprised to see speeds on his fastball back over 95.
8. The Resurrection of Jose Paulino
For a lack of better phrase, 2017 was quite the learning experience for Paulino. After a dominant run in 2016, he had it handed to him at times last spring. After an attitude readjustment, he pitched well in the second half for South Bend and my expectation is that he is going to be more like 2016
9. The Other Pitching Draft Picks
Much has been written about Lange and Little, but that will change this season. The Cubs signed 19 pitchers from last year’s draft. Cory Abbott and Jeremiah Estrada have gotten some press along with Keegan Thompson. By the end of camp, or the end of April at the latest, there should be several other names that Cubs fans should get familiar with like Brendan King, Erich Uelmen, Rollie Lacy, Ricky Tyler Thomas, Ben Hecht, and Jake Steffens.
10. Just Picking Six Pitchers a Month
Every month for the past few years, I make a Cubs monthly minor league all-star team. How am I going to limit the starting pitchers to just six arms this year? It seems almost like an impossible task. Then again, it’s a good problem to have. I started making the Pre-Season team this past weekend and just doing the rotation put me in the frame of mind that it is going to be a very hard problem to deal with every month but one that I will enjoy.
By Todd Johnson
If you look at any Cubs prospect list of the past two months, most of the top 10 prospects are right-handed starting pitchers. It is the deepest part of the Cubs system and should begin producing arms for the majors in the next year or two. In both the 2016 and 2017 MLB Drafts, the Cubs targeted starting pitching, more specifically, starting college pitching. In addition, the Cubs mined the Mexican international free agent market which is producing quality arms who could be just a couple years away. Considering that most of the Cubs’ actual major league starting pitchers are signed through 2020, the Cubs still have time to get these prospects developed. They don’t have to be rushed.
There are 46 starting pitching slots in the Cubs minor league system. 34 of those 46 are right-handed. That is an overwhelming number. Here are last year’s top ranked right-handed starters.
11. Jake Stinnett
10. Preston Morrison
9. Erling Moreno
8. Bailey Clark
7. Ryan Williams
6. Zach Hedges
5. Jose Albertos
4. Thomas Hatch
3. Trevor Clifton
2. Oscar de la Cruz
1. Dylan Cease
What a difference a year made. Injuries, sub-par performances, late starts, trades, moving to reliever, rising prospects, and a host of other reasons derailed most of this list in 2017. Only Jose Albertos had a good year. Then again, Adbert Alzolay shot past almost everyone of them. Now, add in all the arms the Cubs took in the past two drafts and it is a quandry to pick only 12 for this list.
I have a feeling that if I ranked these arms every month of 2018, a dramatic fluctuation would occur monthly. Names like Jeremiah Estrada, Erich Uelmen, Keegan Thompson, Kyle Miller, Erling Moreno, Bailey Clark, Zach Hedges, and Erick Leal could make the decision process very difficult for me. I can hardly imagine how hard it is going to be just to pick 6 for the monthly all-star teams this year. Right now, there’s not a lot of differentiation of talent between them. It will have to be about performance this year for a pitcher to separate themselves from the pack..
12. Michael Rucker – He began 2017 as a reliever at South Bend and was dominating. He got promoted to Myrtle Beach and did the same. An injury to Oscar de la Cruz opened the door for Rucker to start and Michael never looked back. His ability to throw 2/3 of his pitches for strikes helps. I don’t know if he will stay a starter this year, but he looks to have a future regardless. AA will be a tough test for him.
11. Duncan Robinson – I really like this guy. He was in the bullpen in April for South Bend and staring in May. He finished the year at Myrtle Beach showing an impressive ability to adapt as he put up a 1.80 ERA in 4 August starts. At 6’6”, he has the frame to withstand the innings needed and intellectual intangibles needed to make it to Chicago. AA is going to tell just how good his curve, cutter, change, and fastball are. I would not be surprised to see him add a fifth pitch this offseason.
10. Javier Assad – After Adbert Alzolay, no pitcher improved as much as Assad did last year. He began the year a bit wild but was throwing mid 90s with control by the end of the year. His fastball quit tailing up and in and he was putting hitters away as he struck out 72 in 66 innings. He will be at South Bend in 2018. He needs to continue improving at each step. Outside of Albertos, he is the pitcher I look forward to the most at South Bend.
9. Cory Abbott – I love his makeup but I also was surprised at how big he is on the mound. He made 3-inning starts for Eugene last year and I was impressed with his work over just 14 innings. He whiffed 18 and his slider looks good. When he gets unleashed in 2018, he could be a breakout arm just a year after being drafted.
8. Trevor Clifton – 2017 was a tale of two halves. First half – All-Star. Second half, not so much. I thought for sure he was headed to Iowa in June after putting up a 2.84 ERA in 66 innings at Tennessee. If there is one thing I like about this kid it is that he will out work anyone. He will be back in 2018 and he will make adjustments. Not every path to the majors is a straight line. Sometimes, there’s a bump in the road. I remember a young arms several years ago who fans thought was washed up as a prospect after posting a 4+ ERA at AA. Sonny Gray turned out OK.
7. Duane Underwood – There were times last year that Duane Underwood of 2017 looked like Duane Underwood of 2014-2015. The velocity was there. From the middle of July to the end of August, he looked studly as he finished a season of 130+ innings healthy. As the year went on, his innings increased and his walks decreased. In fact, his was walk rate was cut in half from .475/inning in May to .27/inning in August. I am really looking forward to seeing him get back at it in 2018.
Don’t be surprised to see any of these arms become one of the top six quickly. I really like Assad and I like Bailey Clark, who did not make this list. Regardless of what their name is, the Cubs have a plethora of arms who are going to have to dominate to get themselves noticed in a crowded field.
I will be back next week with the top 6 (It will be on Thursday due to the Convention) and a list of arms to keep an eye on next summer.
By Todd Johnson
The prospect list season is going quick this year. Usually, the major lists are spread out over four months. Not this year. So far, four of the six major lists have been published leaving only MLB Pipeline and Keith Law to go. On Monday, Baseball Prospectus joined the early crowd with their list of top 10 Cubs prospects.
However, despite the current state of the Cubs system, there is still plenty of room for hope and plenty of time for these prospects to develop into players that can contribute at the major-league level.
Baseball Prospectus can be a little bit out there in it’s ranking of Cubs prospects. In 2015, they ranked Addison Russell at number one ahead of Kris Bryant. In 2015, BP placed Gleyber Torres first and followed that up with Eloy Jimenez last year. Heading into this year’s list, I thought it would be one of three prospects: Adbert Alzolay, Aramis Ademan, or Jose Albertos.
There was nothing shocking in the list. Right-handed starting pitchers dominated the list followed by one lefty starter, a switch-hitting catcher and a soon to be 19-year-old shortstop.
The Top Ten
1. Adbert Alzolay, RHP; 2. Jose Albertos, RHP; 3. Aramis Ademan, SS; 4. Brendon Little, LHP; 5. Alex Lange, RHP; 6. Victor Caratini, C; 7. Thomas Hatch, RHP; 8. Oscar de la Cruz, RHP; 9. Jen-Ho Tseng, RHP; and 10. Alec Mills, RHP
In years past, Twitter exchanges could get hot and heavy over which Cubs prospect made a list or did not make a list. I don’t think anyone’s going to be fighting over whether Alec Mills is at number 10. Times have changed. And more importantly, that goes to show just how much focus is now on the major league club.
One key to understanding the system and just how raw it is comes from the fact that many of the prospects who might eventually make a top 100 list are 18-19 years old and only Ademan has played in South Bend and full season baseball. A year from now, this list is going to be totally different and filled with Albertos and other young prospects like Jeremiah Estrada, Nelson Velazquez, and Javier Assad. That’s where the hope is.
BP discussed many of them in their “second ten” section. There’s a lot of depth in the system just based on this section.
Who Is Missing?
It’s stunning what two months of a rough stretch in baseball can do to career, as well as an injury. For Trevor Clifton, he had an outstanding first half (2.84 ERA in 12 starts) at Tennessee and then fell apart in the second. I am still hopeful that he can get it back to what he was like in the first half of 2017. I don’t know how one could give up on him so fast.
Jake Stinnett missed most of the year but came back in August and also pitched in the Arizona Fall League. He showed that he could possibly be a reliever.
I’m looking forward to MLB Pipeline’s list which should be out sometime in January. It’s a little bit more extensive in that they rank 30 prospects. Keith Law usually waits until February to publish his list and I had not planned on doing an updated Top 21 list this winter unless there’s a trade. Who knows, anything could happen this week.
By Todd Johnson
This week’s mailbag has just one question and it’s a doozy.
Shawn Cline: Is South Bend going to be stacked at pitcher next year?
By the time the 2018 minor league season begins, I could answer this question four or five different ways. There are a myriad of combinations of pitchers who could start at South Bend in 2018. Just off the top of my head, I counted 13 possible arms who could take the bump every sixth day. Not all of the 13 are going to start the year at South Bend. Some could find their way to Myrtle Beach to begin 2018.
So, Shawn, the simple answer to your question is yes.
The complicated answer would be that I have no idea which six will make the opening day roster.
The Cubs have targeted pitching in the last two drafts and the last two international free-agent signing periods, especially in the Mexican market. The dividends of those investments will begin to come to fruition at South Bend. In 2017, Duncan Robinson and Michael Rucker were the first wave of arms to breakout and both will be at AA Tennessee next year along with 2016 third round pick Thomas Hatch.
As for South Bend, here are 13 pitchers who could wind up in the rotation.
Alex Lange, Jose Albertos, Javier Assad, Jesus Camargo, Brendon Little, Cory Abbott, Erich Uelmen, Bailey Clark, Rollie Lacy, Keegan Thompson, Enrique de los Rios, Matt Swarmer, and Carson Sands.
The starting rotation for South Bend will be determined in spring training. Some of the arms could skip South Bend and wind up in Myrtle Beach to begin the year. Alex Lange and Jesus Camargo would be the two most likely selections based on their age and experience.
While having Albertos skip South Bend would be interesting, he is going to be just 19 years old next year and there’s no rush to move him up the system. He needs to refine his curve and basically get his work in. He needs to throw close to 100 innings after missing most of 2016. Whether he does that at South Bend or Myrtle Beach, I don’t care. But either way, it will be riveting.
The same is true for Javier Assad, who could be one arm at South Bend to really break out. I really like Assad a lot. Out of all the pitchers I watched at Eugene last summer, he improved the most in his arsenal and command. Now 20, he struck out 72 in 66 IP. He has a nice live mid 90s fastball and a good curve. If he commands his fastball down in the zone, he misses a lot of bats. He struck out 9 batters three times in short season ball where pitch limits are just 70-75 pitches. That is extremely impressive.
Top 2017 draft pick Brendon Little should be in South Bend most of the year as he works on his command and control.
While Albertos, Assad, and Camargo pitched well in full extended starts last year at Eugene, the one player who I am going to be fascinated with this year is the Cubs 2017 second round pick Cory Abbott. I was impressed with him last year as it pertained to his physical presence on the mound along with his actual talent and demeanor. He made five starts for Eugene, never throwing more than 3 innings and he exceeded 50 pitches only once.
While Little and Alex Lange got all the headlines from the draft, Abbott is an under the radar type who grew by leaps and bounds the last two years thanks in part to an uptick in his velocity and a slider that he modeled after Noah Syndergaard, his idol.
Fangraphs said the following about Abbott’s potential just last week:
Abbott has terrific glove-side control of his average slider and fastball, and can loop a 12-6 curveball into the zone for strikes. He’s not a great athlete but repeats his delivery well and could have plus command and control at peak. If he does — and he could move quickly — he’ll be a No. 4/5 starter.
Another possible breakout pitcher who did not get much time in Eugene in 2017 is Erich Uelmen. Uelmen was the Cubs fourth round pick out of Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. After his selection, he got in 17.2 innings of work with a 2.04 ERA and 23 Ks. He was just used in relief. Next year, his role could change.
Fangraphs’ Eric Longenhagen also liked him. Longenhagen said:
The club’s 2017 fourth-rounder out of Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo, Uelmen’s college stats are remarkable. He allowed just three home runs in 212 career innings at Cal Poly and struck out a batter per inning as a junior there, just as he did the prior summer on Cape Cod. He was up to 95 on the Cape but pitched more in the low 90s as a junior. His delivery is odd but effective. Uelmen is basically a side-armer, but has a shorter, quicker arm stroke than most of his low-slotted peers. It creates deception/extension which, along with his fastball’s significant arm-side movement, makes the fastball effective despite middling velocity. He also has an average slider, which he locates consistently to his glove side, and feel for creating movement on his changeup but not for locating it. There’s a chance Uelmen ends up with a starter’s repertoire and command. Ultimately, the very thing that has many skeptical about his chances of remaining a starter — his delivery — is precisely (because of its deception) what might allow him to be one.
Keegan Thompson out of Auburn is a third pitcher who I think will do extremely well at South Bend. He missed all of 2016 after undergoing Tommy John surgery and came back last year and was the Cubs third round pick. He pitched well in his debut in Eugene (mostly in relief) and he should come back stronger from the surgery than he did in 2017.
One of my own personal favorites from this list is Bailey Clark. Drafted out of Duke in 2016, Clark debuted that summer for Eugene but returned to school to finish his degree that fall. Due to finishing his degree and some nagging injuries and an inability to weight train, Clark came to camp late in the the spring. He pitched well in Eugene, especially in August where he had a 1.69 ERA in 3 starts. This offseason, Clark is injury free, improving his strength and his velocity should be back in the mid 90s when spring training rolls around. As a result, he could be either at South Bend or Myrtle Beach, depending on his camp.
So, here are my six to start the year for South Bend: Albertos, Assad, Little, Abbott, Thompson, and Clark or Uelmen. It’s still extremely hard to call this some 3 1/2 months away. However, I think Lange will go up and start at Myrtle Beach and Camargo and his plus changeup will be there, too.
I didn’t even get to the relievers in this post but here are three names to watch for out of the pen: Ricky Tyler Thomas, Jake Steffens, and Ben Hecht.
I am pretty geeked to see all of these guys throw next year. It should be very interesting to see who goes to what affiliate to begin the year and what their roles will be.
Next week’s mailbag will be just one question again. I will be comparing and contrasting the system now to 2011, just before Theo took over. That has brought back some ghosts.
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
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.
Sometimes, the games don’t seem so important.
Cubs Prospect Tyler Alamo was one of those in attendance last week at the shooting in Las Vegas. Tim Huwe (@tim815) first reported on this a couple of days ago. Included in Tim’s article was a link to an interview where Alamo recounts the harrowing events of that night including the loss of his friends.
Felix Pena was DFA’d this week to make room for pitcher Luke Farrell, son of Red Sox Manager John Farrell and brother of South Bend Hitting Coach Jeremy Farrell. Farrell appeared in nine games for the Reds last summer and had a 2.61 ERA in 10.1 IP, all in relief.
At fall instructs, the Cubs prospects are playing sim games but with pitching machines. Although, Koji Uehara, on a rehab assignment, did face a few batters.
The Arizona Fall League begins play on Tuesday. The Mesa Solar Sox have 7 Cubs on the roster: Relievers Pedro Araujo and Jake Stinnett, starter Alec Mills, catcher Ian Rice, infielders David Bote and Jason Vosler, and outfielder Charcer Burks. Their schedule goes through mid-November. I will try and keep up with their performances every Sunday.
Baseball America Offseason Prospect Lists
Baseball America has been publishing their top 20 prospects in each minor league the past couple of weeks. In the first week, Victor Caratini made it in the Pacific Coast League. And last week, Adbert Alzolay made it for the Carolina League. This week saw a large number of prospects make it for the Midwest League and the Northwest League. The problem was not all the prospects are still with the franchise. In the Midwest League, Isaac Paredes came in at number nine and Dylan Cease at number 11. No current South Bend Cub made the list.
For the Eugene Emeralds, the Cubs hit the motherlode. Jose Albertos was ranked number four, Aramis Ademan came in at number eight, and Miguel Amaya was number 16. None of those three selections were surprising. However, at number nine, pitcher Javier Assad was a stunning selection as BA’s Michael Lananna praised Assad’s improving arsenal.
On Thursday, the Arizona League post was published. It’s not surprising that Nelson Velasquez was on the list. However, he was ranked at number 20. He is still a bit raw, but he still does have a lot of upside and room for improvement in his game.
The DSL list should be published this next week. It will be interesting to see if any young Cubs make it.
I think what the six lists do show is that the Cubs are not devoid of talent. There may not be a lot of prospects at the top of each league, but the Cubs do have several players who could be on their way up the lists.
Top 20 Chat Post
There was an interesting question in the Northwest League chat that accompanied the post. A Cub fan from Pasadena California asked about whether the Cubs should be concerned about Brendon Little’s performance in the Northwest League. Here is the response to that question:
Michael Lananna: Mildly concerned, but don’t press the panic button yet. He’s the same guy. His control was erratic throughout his college career, and that’s still going to remain his biggest hurdle to the next level. This summer was just a small snapshot of that, and I’m sure the Cubs will work with him on his strike throwing going forward. He’s still an exciting left handed arm with power stuff.
Coming Up This Week at Cubs Central
I have three posts scheduled to be published in between playoff recaps over the next five days. The Cards of the Year post should be out Monday. Later in the week, Shohei Otani and his impending free agency gets previewed. Part 2 of the State of the Cubs MiLB System will hit the Internet as well at some point in the next five days.
A Mock Draft Already?
Baseball America also posted their first mock draft for 2018. I was surprised to see that they had the Cubs selecting wiry high school pitcher Cole Wilcox at 24 considering that OF Travis Swaggerty from South Alabama was taken at number 25, I would’ve preferred the Cubs have gone with the college outfielder rather than the high school pitcher. Then again, it was only a mock draft but it is interesting to see where players are falling now and then compare that to a few months from now.
By Todd Johnson
One of the cool things about the Cubs’ system is that you can watch players develop in increments. There’s so much press, coverage, and statistical information, it’s hard for a prospect go unnoticed at any stage. Last year (2016) at Mesa, an 18 and then a 19-year-old Javier Assad sort of became the de facto ace of the young rookie league squad. His fastball, at that time, sat around 88 to 91 according to John Arguello.
In 2017, Assad continued his development at short season Eugene. Now 19/20, his fastball crept up a little bit more as the year wore on. It was not uncommon for him to top out at 94/95 in a game. Still, he sat most of the time in the low 90s often working easily up to 93..
What I took away from watching him in 2017 was that he’s got a little “dog in the fight.” He’s competitive and he attacks the zone. As the year progressed, he tended to quicken his pace, à la Adbert Alzolay, as he didn’t waste a lot of time between pitches. I think in 2018, we are going to start to see a much more fully developed pitcher.
Statistics can sometimes be irrelevant for a lot of minor-league players. There are instances where certain statistics can point out a weakness or a strength. I think a lot of time, people get hung up on just looking at one or two stats for the Cubs’ minor league pitchers, I tend not to get too hung up on either the velocity readings or ERA. Those are nice, but I think other statistics hint to where a prospect is at a certain point in their development. I like to look at statistics and how they compare in smaller splits as adjustments are continually made.
For example, Assad’s monthly ERAs in 2017 went from 2.45 in 3 June starts to 5.00 in 5 July starts and back down to 3.72 in 4 August starts. However, when you start digging deeper, his batting average against went down each month despite a roller coaster ERA. All the while, his K and BB rates remained consistent.
Pitching in Eugene was a bit treacherous this year and even more so when Aramis Ademan left to go to South Bend. It was not the best defensive unit on the face of the Earth. As a result, I don’t think it’s fair to evaluate Assad’s 2017 solely on his ERA or WHIPs which did go down each month. Instead, I think FIP and xFIP are likely more representative of his current development. They stood at 3.03 and 3.27 respectively. Both of those are very respectable.
When I saw Assad pitch several times in August, I was impressed by how much he had changed. Aside from quickening his pace, his curve had taken on a sharper bite. His fastball was not as wild and tailing up and away as it had earlier in the year. Even though he is 6’1” and 200 pounds, he is far from physically sculpted. I think as time goes on, his musculature could tighten up and he could gain a couple more ticks on his fastball.
As I start thinking about his future, I also noticed a set of stats that show some promise for the future. In 2016, 39.3% batted balls were pulled. In 2017, that percentage of balls was close at 39.1%. The biggest change occurred in opposite field hits increased by 5%. That tells me that hitters are not getting around him as much. It’s a stat and trend to watch for 2018 along with his BB rate.
The hardest thing for Assad to do in 2018 will be to earn a starting spot in South Bend. Alex Lange, Brendon Little, and Jose Albertos are most likely to be assigned there along with Bailey Clark and Jesus Camargo. Two 2017 draft picks, Keegan Thompson and Cory Abbott, will also be there to make the competition fierce in spring training. Assad is going to have his work cut out for him.