By Todd Johnson
Even after just one year, it’s sometimes hard to get a good feel for a draft class until you’ve seen them play for at least a couple of years. Last year, the Cubs selected 41 players and signed 29 of them. A couple of young pitchers have yet to debut this year while 3 prospects are all the way up to high A Myrtle Beach. A large portion of the draftees are at South Bend (13) and the rest will likely play for Eugene this summer or fill in at South Bend within the next month.
While the Cubs did take a majority of pitchers last year in the draft (including two in the first round), it has been the hitters who are currently my focus on a daily basis this spring in Austin Filiere, Jared Young, and Nelson Velazquez. In addition, there are some pitchers trying to figure out whether they are going to start or relieve. Those decisions might be ongoing for a couple of years.
Next year’s grade will be more interesting and indicative of this class’ potential.
The Big Pitching Guns
It’s a bit hit and miss so far.
Alex Lange, Keegan Thompson, and Cory Abbott have been up and down. Brendon Little is improving every start. Tyler Thomas was very good in April but seems to be inconsistent to begin May. And Brendan King is just getting to South Bend in a relief role and doing well. Rollie Lacy just made his first starts of the year for South Bend. It’ll be much easier to evaluate a year from now when these arms have 25 to 30 starts under their belt rather than five or six.
If the last few days are any indication, there’s a lot of promise. 2nd round selection Cory Abbott struck out 11 on Saturday night and 18 for the week while 3rd round pick Erich Uelmen went 12 scoreless on the week with 9 Ks.
The Cubs did pick a few hitters who I really liked last year. Austin Filiere seems to have improved the most as he is hitting for average as well as drawing walks. I thought he would hit a lot more home runs but it hasn’t really heated up yet in the Midwest League. Jared Young is another impressive bat who really came on strong in August. He is one of my favorite hitters to watch in the organization because his approach is so good. The same is true of Austin Upshaw who did well at South Bend last summer. However, Upshaw is struggling in 2018 at Myrtle Beach. The approach is still there, but the results are not.
The Young Guns
Outfielder Nelson Velazquez tore it up last summer in Mesa. I thought he would begin 2018 in Eugene and I was really surprised to see him debut at South Bend the week of May 7. You can definitely see the tools and the skill set on display, but he seems to be struggling at the plate as I don’t think he has seen those types of curves or changeups before. Shortstop Luis Vazquez should also be a sight to see this summer in Eugene. He might be the best defensive shortstop in the system. If he can do anything with his bat, he should move pretty quickly with his skill set on defense. I’m looking forward to seeing Jeremiah Estrada pitch for Eugene this summer. He pitched a little bit last year in Mesa but not enough to get a good look at. This summer, seeing him on TV should be an eye-opener to see if the Cubs got a steal in the sixth round.
There are more than 10 other draft picks who make their 2018 debut later this year. That’s 1/3 of the draft class. Part of me says to give them a B and move on, but that is a lot of players who are still getting in the swing of things.
In trying to decide the grade, the one I really wanted to give was an incomplete. And that might be true for most drafts after their first year, honestly. There are many good things happening with this class and there are other picks who really haven’t even gotten going. I thought it would be unfair to the reader to get through this whole article and not even give a grade.
With that in mind, I’m going to throw out a B-. There’s no one who has gone out and consistently dominated. However, depending on how things go this year, the 2017 class could easily be an A at draft time a year from now if Little continues to improve, Lange and Thompson find some consistency, and Estrada flashes at Eugene to go along with the excellent hitting of Young, Filiere, Upshaw, and Velazquez, and the defense of Vazquez.
The Cubs took some chances in the 2017 draft and may hit on a few of them in due time. Just a year from now we’ll know a lot more. For right now, it’s a pretty promising class.
By Todd Johnson
Every year, I look forward to the Eugene Emeralds’ season with great anticipation. This year is no different. And, like every year, I do a preview of the team two months before they begin play. It’s kind of my thing. What is different about this year is the number of elite prospects that could be headed Eugene’s way.
Normally, the Eugene roster is a mix of young international players and recent college draft picks. This year’s team has some highly anticipated players who won a championship in Mesa and who dominated in the Dominican Summer League in 2017. A few of the players were selected in the draft out of high school; they’ve been the exception rather than the norm the last few years.
Let’s take a sneak peek at who might be playing in PK Park this summer.
The Rockstar Outfield
19-year-old Fernando Kelli made a sensation last summer in the Dominican Summer League when he stole 58 bases and had an on base percentage of .437. He has mad speed and will be fun to watch once he gets on base. Another 19-year-old outfielder for Eugene should be Nelson Velasquez. In just a six week span in 2017, he hit eight home runs over six weeks last summer at Mesa in helping to lead Mesa to an Arizona Rookie League championship. While he does need to cut down on the strikeouts, Velasquez is pure power.
Two other outfielders that could see plenty of time in the field and at DH are Jonathan Sierra and Jose Gutierrez. Both played with Velasquez last year in Mesa. Sierra looked like Darryl Strawberry when the Cubs signed him in 2015 as a 16-year-old. He’s filled out quite a bit since but is still working on his hitting after two full seasons between the Dominican and at Mesa. He’s an outstanding defender with the potential for immense power. As for Gutierrez, he really turned it on in the second half of 2017 as the leadoff man for Mesa and was one of the reasons they were able to score a lot of runs down the stretch to win the title.
A Young and Athletic Infield
The Cubs liked Delvin Zinn so much, they selected him twice; once in 2015 and then again in 2016. Zinn is one of the most athletic players in the system and should be at second base. Playing beside him will be one of my favorite young players to watch this year in Luis Vazquez. The first thing you notice about Luis is he is a tall, rangy shortstop who patrols the left side of the diamond like a panther. Not much gets by him. His bat is going to need some work. So, Emeralds’ fans need to be a bit patient with him. 2B Christian Donahue, who attended Oregon State, but was not drafted, could be a part of the Ems squad this year as well.
Any number of players could fill in at first including Fidel Mejia and if 1B Luis Hidalgo does not make it to South Bend, and is healthy, he could destroy NWL pitching just as he did in the AZL and DSL last summer. 18-year-old shortstop Luis Diaz could also could back up Vazquez and Zinn. The powerful Christopher Morel should be at 3B. He has immense power but is still working on hitting offspeed stuff.
Very Young Pitching
Like last year, Eugene is going to have a lot of 18 to 19-year-old pitchers. The most prominent name on the list is Jeremiah Estrada, who the Cubs picked up in the 2017 draft after they talked him out of going to UCLA. He can throw in the low to mid 90s and has a plus-plus changeup.
In addition, youngsters Danis Correa, Brailyn Marquez, Emilio Ferrebus, and Didier Vargas will be competing for spots in extended spring training.
Correa, 18, is from Columbia and can throw in the mid to upper 90s. He saw a little time in the states last year at Mesa and seemed to hold his own. Marquez, also 19, is a 6’5″ lefty who misses a lot of bats and at times, the strike zone. Marquez played at Mesa last summer and drew raves at times for his talent; and other times he struggled to find the plate. Ferrebus, who just turned 20, held his own last year in two leagues and started in the playoffs for Mesa. Didier Vargas is another 19-year-old who did very well in the Dominican Summer League with an ERA of under one for the summer.
One player who I cannot wait to see pitch is Jesus Tejada. The 6’2″ righty had a ERA of under two in August in the Dominican, and he also threw a no-hitter. He is one of the top pitchers on the rise in the Cubs system. My hope is that he makes the squad.
Faustino Carrera is another 19-year-old lefty who does have command and can put the ball where he wants it. Unlike Marquez, Carrera sits in the low 90s.
One pitcher that will be hard to miss is 6’8″ Stephen Ridings, a 2016 draft pick out of Haverford. Last year was his first as a Cub and he improved as the season progressed at Mesa. He can start or relieve.
Add in 5 draft picks from the top 98 picks in this year’s draft and that’s a ton of talent.
It’ll be interesting to see how this extremely young group of players develops in extended spring training the next two months. Most of them should make the Emeralds, a few might make it to South Bend, and a few might stay in Mesa. No matter who makes it, it’s gonna be very exciting to watch them grow and develop every night.
In addition, here are two things to take note of this summer:
1. For every Tuesday home game this summer, the Ems will transform into the Monarcas de Eugene as part of MLB’s Copa de la Diversion.
2. The Cubs now have two teams in the Arizona Rookie League. This will create a lot of playing time for a lot of young players. It will also make it harder to get to Eugene as there will be a lot of competition to do so.
By Todd Johnson
Last week, in part one, I talked about the depth of right-handed starting pitching in the system. That depth also could make my job harder to pick just six arms each month for all-star teams. If I was to rank all 34 right-handed starters, there would not be much of a difference between number 30 and 13. However, in this article, the top six arms in the system set themselves apart from the pack with their talent.
6. Jen-Ho Tseng – For the second time in four years, he was named the Cubs MiLB Pitcher of the year. There probably won’t be a third. He’s pretty much ready. With a plus curve and a plus change, he can baffle hitters as long as he can command his fastball. It will be interesting to see what role he gets in spring training. If he doesn’t make the 25 man in the pen, he will begin 2018 at Iowa as a starter.
5. Oscar De la Cruz – He did not pitch 50 innings last year. That’s a concern. In fact, he hasn’t pitched a 100 innings combined over the last two years. That is a huge concern. As a result, it is easy to question whether he is built to be a starter. He definitely has starter stuff, but he keeps breaking down. Last year, it was a shoulder strain, the year before, a forearm strain. He was all set to pitch in the Arizona Fall League in 2017 and the Cubs yanked him from there. For 2018, there are a lot of questions that only his performance and health can answer. Spring training will give us the first look.
4. Thomas Hatch – Year two should go much better. Maybe he was thrown to wolves a bit last year, but he did dominate as much as he struggled. At AA, his four pitch mix should play well if he can find the zone. After a 0.98 ERA in five June starts, I thought he was headed to Tennessee. That didn’t happen. On the other hand, he stayed healthy for the entire year, pitched 124 innings, and struck out 126. An interesting tidbit is that he only pitched beyond five innings just five times. AA will be a huge test to improve that efficiency.
3. Alex Lange – I love to watch him pitch. He has an amazing curve and when his fastball command is on, he is almost unhittable. The problem is he needs a third pitch if he dreams of being a starter in Chicago. He got in 9 innings of work last summer to acclimate himself a bit to the minors. As for where he will begin 2017, part of me hopes it is South Bend to get a taste of a Great Lakes spring. The other part of me hopes for Myrtle Beach to challenge him. Right now, I am leaning toward the former. This is one thing I would like to find out this weekend at the Convention.
2. Adbert Alzolay – He needs to refine his secondaries some more this year. He should begin 2018 at AAA Iowa and if he ever gets a changeup figured out, he could be in Chicago quickly. He should make several starts with the big league club in Chicago during spring training. That should be fun.
1. Jose Albertos – I love everything about this kid. Ever since Eloy left, I labeled him as the Cubs top prospect. His 18-year-old-floor contains a 91-96 mph fastball, a wicked plus changeup, and a curve that still has some grip issues. If he gets the curve figured out, the sky’s the limit for his ceiling. He just needs to keep building innings and arm strength. In 2016, he only got 4 in. Last year, he put in 60+ if you include extended spring training. This year, 100 should be the goal and 120-130 in 2019 making him ready for 160 big league innings in 2020.
More names to watch
Jesus Camargo – I love his changeup. He had a good 2017 coming off of TJS and was one of my favorites to watch last year. Plus changeup.
Alec Mills – I need to see more. Several lists have him as a top 10 prospect, but I haven’t seen it yet.
Jeremiah Estrada – He’s young, moldable, and was a stud in 2016 on the summer circuit. His 2017 high school season was a downer but the Cubs took the talented flamethrower in the 6th round and dissuaded him from going to UCLA. There’s no rush with him.
Bailey Clark – 2018 should be a good year for him as it sounds like he is working hard this offseason and building up strength to get back into the mid 90s. In August, he destroyed the Northwest League with a 1.69 ERA.
Erick Leal – After missing all of 2017, he should be back at Tennessee and the long, lanky righty will get his first crack at AA.
Erling Moreno – If he could only stay healthy. He missed the better part of two months in 2017 after missing most of 2014-15. When he and his plus curve are on, he’s very good. When he’s not, it is not pretty.
Keegan Thompson – Last year was a comeback year for the 2017 draft pick from Auburn and now he should be set free from day one with no restrictions. The former flamethrower said surgery turned him into more of a pitcher. I look forward to seeing him in South Bend.
Erich Uelmen – He didn’t get a lot of work in after being drafted last year, but he should be in a rotation somewhere in 2018. He can throw in the low to mid 90s in somewhat of a sidearm style.
Jesus Tejada – He was the hottest Cub pitcher in August but that was down in the Dominican. He should be stateside this year. I think he will probably start out in Eugene.
Brendan King – He was the ace of the Mesa staff after being drafted last summer. The kid from Holy Cross should get a crack at South Bend to start 2018. He struck out 28 in 22 innings and made 4 starts for the Rookie League champs.
Next week’s breakdown post returns on Friday as I examine left-handed starters.
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
Last year, I quipped that Fangraphs produced the prospect list your mother warned you about. This year, Eric Longenhagen continued the tradition of creating a list different from the mainstream. The list, which came out today, contains analysis of upwards of 50 Cub prospects in detail. Although he only ranks 22, there is still plenty of information to go through and dissect. Overall, the list is a selection of young, athletic, and unproven prospects in the top 10.
Like Baseball America, Fangraphs placed shortstop Aramis Ademan at number one followed by pitchers Adbert Alzolay and Jose Albertos. While I would probably have them in inverse order as a top three, I really can’t quibble with Longenhagen’s reasoning. For the next 18 picks, though, it is all about potential. Longenhagen states:
Trades and graduations have sliced off the head of this system, but I remain fond of its “fruit on the bottom” composition. It features a wide swath of young talent at the lower levels, mostly from Latin America. The Cubs have cast a wide net in Latin America, adding a slew of good-bodied athletes with middling tools and then just kicking back to see what the player-development staff can do with them.
Pitcher Oscar de la Cruz is still held in esteem at number four and is soon followed by Brendon Little and Alex Lange, both of whom seem to have incomplete projections about whether they will be starters or relievers if, and when, they get to Chicago
The biggest shockers in the list came in the middle with the inclusion of several young 18 to 19-year-olds. Catcher Miguel Amaya is a favorite of mine and he is situated at number nine. Pitcher Alec Mills was next at ten, even though he missed most of 2017 with bone spurs. Mills was praised for his baseball command and plus changeup.
At number 11, 2017 sixth round pick pitcher Jeremiah Estrada got a lot of love from Longenhagen for his potential despite only pitching six innings of professional ball in 2017. One of my favorite young Cub prospects, outfielder Nelson Velazquez, came in at number 13 while unheralded lefty starter Brailyn Marquez surfaced at number 14 after an up-and-down year in Mesa.
The more I got through the list, the more and more the emphasis is on potential. Former top prospect Mark Zagunis wound up at number 20 while several more established Cub prospects did not make the top 22 cut like Trevor Clifton, Chesny Young, and Duane Underwood. Even the Cubs’ reigning MiLB Pitcher of the Year Jen-Ho Tseng did not make it. It is not as if Fangraphs have tossed the old guard to the side of the road, they made way for more prospects with a higher upside. DJ Wilson, for example, is one young and athletic prospect I profiled just last week who made the top 10.
In the end, this list is just going to be one of many this offseason that could have a totally different view of the Cubs system from every other list. In the next two weeks, Baseball Prospectus is set to release their Top 10 Cubs list either late next week or the week of the 11th.
The more lists that come out, the greater the variance is going to be. It’s pretty evident that the era of consensus on who the Cubs top prospects are is over. Even though Ademan has gotten the top nod in both major lists so far, don’t expect him to get top billing in every one.
By Todd Johnson
Welcome to episode two of the offseason minor league mailbag. Last week, I answered questions about Ian Rice, Bryan Hudson, and the 40 man roster. This week gets a little bit more specific with questions about players that I have not seen play yet.
How many prospects in the system are worth trading for top pitching? Or is it going to be flat out cash deals?
It is not going to be cash deals,. If the Cubs are going to acquire some starting pitching and reliever help, they can get by with prospects in exchange for a reliever. If the Cubs try to get a starter in a trade, they are going to have to throw in major league talent to get major league talent.
If I was a GM for another team, there is no sure thing in the Cubs minor-league system right now. There are some prospects that could turn into something, but the Cubs don’t have a top 100 prospect right now to bring in a top flight starter on their own. On the other hand, while the Cubs may have a bottom five ranked system, they also have a lot of depth and redundancy in order to make a trade or two. Their issue is the lack of current elite talent.
Early expectations for Estrada?
He did pitch some in the Arizona Rookie League last August. However, he had two wacky stats. While his ERA was good at 1.42 in 6.1 IP, his WHIP was all over the place at 1.74 as he walked 6 and gave up 5 hits in a small sample size. In 2016, he was one of the top young prep arms on the summer circuit. He did not have a good senior season in 2017.
Still, the Cubs talked him out of his commitment to UCLA. I would bet the Cubs saw something that they could fix or tweak to get him back on track. Honestly, I did not expect to see him pitch last year. With just one month of pro experience, he should be at Eugene to begin 2018. He needs to build up arm strength this year up to about 75 innings. It would not surprise me to see him take the ball every sixth day at Eugene.
It would be safe to say that he might be a little inconsistent this year as he begins to develop and adjust to pitching professionally. My advice would be to not get too high as a fan and not get too low. He is going to have to work through some things.
Will Velaquez fill our Eloy-sized hole in our hearts?
I sure hope so. Part of me is hoping that he has a monster spring and starts in South Bend rather than extended spring training followed by Eugene. I’d be ecstatic if he actually did extended spring training and then filled in in South Bend in late May/early June. However, that is not realistic and might not be good for his development in the long run. The Cubs, more than likely, are going to take their time with him as he does have a few holes in his swing. However, 11 home runs in six weeks shows that there’s a lot right about his swing, too. By the middle of July, we should know if he is going to be the new Cubs phenom in place of Eloy. Currently, that is the direction I am also leaning along with Albertos.
Can Stinnett & Maples be an answer for CHC bullpen?
They can be part of the answer, but the Cubs are probably looking for an additional left-hander. Maples should have a legit shot at making the team in the spring. Considering that Stinnett has only thrown one month as a reliever, plus his time in the Arizona fall league, he should be at AAA Iowa to gain a little more seasoning before he is called upon in that role. Spring training should tell a lot for both pitchers: for Maples, it is about whether he makes the team. For Stinnett, it’s about whether they see him as part of the team in the future, a.k.a., later this summer.
I have enough questions for another post next week. You can send your questions to me on Twitter @cubscentral08, or you can just email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Todd Johnson
Looking ahead to next year’s minor league season, there are several storylines which I am sure most outlets will cover. They include the pitching of the most recent draft picks, the ascension of Nelson Velazquez, and how Duane Underwood, Trevor Clifton, and Oscar de la Cruz bounce back next season. For me, I don’t always like to do whatever everybody else does.
On Monday, I wrote an article at BP Wrigleyville about several storylines that would be interesting to follow in the Cubs’ minor-league system in 2018. I could not fit them all in one post. So, here is part two which includes several interesting storylines for next season.
Coming Back from Injuries – After missing the better part of two years, I wonder if Ryan Williams will be back in full effect in 2018. Coming off rotator cuff issues, I wonder if the Cubs will move him back to the bullpen where he pitched in college. I like his mentality wherever he pitches as he is just, plain, tenacious. In addition, Carlos Sepulveda missed most of 2017 before reappearing in the Arizona Rookie League in August. I wonder if he will resume his career at Tennessee or in Myrtle Beach?
Latin Relief – Pitcher Jhon Romero is a reliever who should move quickly next year. He pitched stateside for the first time in 2018 and dominated in the month of August at South Bend. In 9 games, he struck out 24 with a 0.53 ERA. He has a devastatingly tight curve that works off of a mid 90s fastball.
Jonathan Sierra – Physically gifted and only 18 years old, the 6’2″ outfielder is getting close to a breakout year. In 2017, he had a good season for the Mesa Cubs in the Arizona Rookie League. In 2018, I expect him to continue to improve. The question will be, how much? While he only hit one home run this past season, he will get better as he gets more game experience. He should be in Eugene next year.
Young Guns – There are going to be a lot of interesting names to watch in the lower parts of the system next summer. Mesa, Eugene, and South Bend will have a lot of the 18 to 19-year-old variety. Most of them are brimming with talent in need of a little polish. Jeremiah Estrada turns 19 on Wednesday. The young right-handed pitcher the Cubs got in the sixth round of the 2017 draft could be special. He did get some work in but had an unstable 1.76 WHIP despite a 1.42 ERA in just 4 games.
The DSL Invasion – In part 1, I talked about Fernando Kelli arriving in the US to play next year. Kelli is one of many DSL players looking to make an impact in 2018. Some pitchers arrived in August and played a large role in the Mesa Cubs Championship run. Pitchers Jesus Tejada, Emilio Ferrebus, Didier Vargas, Danis Correa, and hitter Luis Hidalgo should lead a wave of 10-12 DSL players who could be assigned anywhere from Mesa to Eugene to South Bend.
The New IFA System – The new money structure places a hard cap on all international spending. Everyone is going to be competing with fixed dollars and can’t go over the amount given to them by major-league baseball. I don’t know if teams will start to figure out some strategies quickly like blowing all their money on one player or trading established prospects or major-league players for pool money. I am sure teams are going to try and find any possible loophole that they can, including the Cubs.
The 2018 Draft – The Cubs pick at #24 in each round next year. If Arrieta and Davis leave, the Cubs will have two compensation picks between the second and third round. Next year’s draft will be a bit deeper than 2017. And like 2017, it is pitching heavy, especially at the college level.