The May All-Star Team Has a Lot of New Faces

By Todd Johnson

It’s getting to be the busy season here at Cubs Central. While next week will be all about the draft, and redoing the top 21 list, this weekend will be about wrapping up what happened in May in the Cubs’ system. Tomorrow, I will rank the top 10 cards I made for the month. For today, it’s all about recognizing the top performers in the Cubs system the last 31 days.

Surprisingly, only 7 prospects made both the May and April All-Star teams. That’s not a lot. And of those 6, only 2 hitters did, catchers Jhonny Pereda and Miguel Amaya. This is going to be an interesting year as players search to find some consistency at the plate and on the mound.

This month’s All-Star team came right down to the wire. Several pitching spots were in play throughout the course of the last two nights, including the Pitcher of the Month and Hitter of the Month.

I have been tracking the system on a month by month spreadsheet. One thing I noticed early in the month was the ascension of Pelican pitcher Casey Bloomquist as a setup man for Myrtle Beach. Like many arms in the system, Bloomquist has worked both as a starter and as a reliever. This year, he is thriving in his new role. All of his pitches are a little more polished this year. The cutter that he talked about two years ago with me, now is becoming a go-to pitch for him. Good for Casey!

So, without further adieu, here is this month’s all star team, once again in video form.

The June All-Star team will be a lot of fun to sort through. The Dominican Summer League begins play tomorrow.

Eugene and the two Mesa teams start on June 15th. Some names I look forward to seeing play in Eugene are OF Fernando Kelli, SS Luis Vazquez, and 3B Christopher Morel. Down in Mesa, pitcher Jesus Tejada is a must follow along with SS Luis Diaz and OF Carlos Pacheco, to name a few. It should be an exciting month of action.

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10 Things I Think – Minor League Spring Training Edition

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.

Position Breakdown Series – RHSP Part Two: The Top of the Heap

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.

Episode V of the MiLB Mailbag: Is South Bend’s Pitching Stacked for 2018?

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.

Prospect Profile: Jesus Camargo and His Changeup Were at the Head of the Class

By Todd Johnson

One of my favorite things to watch this summer was Jesus Camargo’s changeup. Thrown anywhere from 79 to 82 miles an hour, it seemed to roll off a table and into the mitt of the catcher. Coming in at 10-13 miles an hour slower than his fastball, it was a thing of beauty that allowed him to dominate most Northwest League hitters.

Camargo missed all of 2016 after being the ace of the Mesa Cubs in 2015. The 21-year-old right-handed pitcher has to feel good about his success in 2017.  He should begin 2018 in South Bend.

Basic info
5’11” 170 pounds
Throws – Right.
International Free Agent from Mexico

Strengths
Changeup
Pitchability
Doesn’t get rattled

Signed in 2014, Camargo debuted in the Arizona Rookie League in 2015. In 11 games, he threw 46.1 innings with a 3.30 ERA. He was considered to be the number one starter on a team that didn’t have a lot of starters. He struck out 57 batters and only walked 12 all season. He made the Cubs Central All-Star Team for August.

As a result, I was pretty excited to see him in Eugene in 2016. But an injury in spring training ditched that and he missed all of the season.

Heading into 2017, I wasn’t sure what his role was going to be. Would he get the opportunity to start? Would he be a long man out of the pen or a piggyback starter? Or would he be a straight up reliever?

He was two out of those three things this year. Eugene was all the better for it.

He began the year starting and, when some of the Cubs’ top draft picks came to Eugene, he moved to a piggyback role. When they have reached their inning limits, he went back to starting where I thought he should have stayed. His stuff was too good.

In 60.1 innings, he struck out 73 and walked only 24. With a 2.29 ERA, he was a Northwest League All-Star and was probably the most unheralded arm in the system. Opponents only hit .182 off him this year and he did not allow a HR all year.

Going forward

Card made from a photo by John Arguello

Camargo has what I would call baseball maturity. Watching him on the mound it is very apparent that he knows how to set up and attack a hitter. He is not trying to do it with smoke and mirrors, but rather he is able to get the hitter out on his toes and control the pace of play through movement and location along with changing speeds.

When 2018 begins, Camargo will be a full year removed from his injury. I don’t think there will be any restrictions on him starting and trying to get over 100 innings in 2018. He still needs to work on his breaking ball more to accentuate the speed of his changeup. If he can do that for next year, he is going to dominate Midwest League hitters just like he did in the Northwest League.

The August Cards of the Month – Collages of Color and Action

By Todd Johnson

Like July, I made a lot of cards and very quickly in early August. Then, when I started getting ready to teach, the pace of cards slowed way down. I think it gets more challenging every month  to pick just 10 cards because each month I keep adding more and more sources to make those cards.

Next year, I’m going to continue putting the cards in monthly albums on Facebook. It worked out better than I thought it could. It didn’t start out like that but once July got here, a lot of the loading issues were resolved by the monthly selections.

The top cards for this month don’t really have a theme. As I started to narrow them down, I began to also think where they would fit among the top 10 cards of the year. I think we may see two or three of them at the end of September when I do the cards of the year post.

  

10 to 8
Much of a good baseball card comes down to to action, light, and color. At Number 10, Dylan Heuer’s capture of Dillon Maples is accentuated by the sunlight that when combined with shadows really brings out the action. At number 9, Rikk Carlson encapsulates all the athleticism of DJ Wilson in one shot. Yasiel Balaguert is captured by the Tennessee Smokies with the red stripes on the jersey and on his compression stocking making the picture and the card.    

 

7 to 5
There’s just something about the blue of the Tennessee Smokies uni that gets my attention. I might be crazy, but I just love that shade. Steve Perakslis’ jersey and hat show it off in the small shadows. I normally don’t have large pictures turned sideways for cards. I couldn’t resist with Emerald Media’s shot of Rafael Narea and a shot of Duane Underwood by the Smokies.

  

4-2
For Duane Underwood’s second card by MLB Pipeline, you might think it’s the blue that make it but I think it’s the red in the background that really sets up the blue. The Eugene Emeralds’ capture of Jesus Camargo’s face really makes his picture. At number three, Rikk Carlson is back and gets to number two (which seems to be a theme the past few months) on Ademan’s second night at South Bend.

#1. Minor-league baseball (@MiLB) captured the number one spot this month with their publication of a picture of DJ Wilson laying out in a road game. Right now, that picture is in the top two or three for the year.

I will be back in late September with a monthly post. There are still a lot of baseball pics to come in this weekend and in the playoffs. In October, I will have the top 10 cards of the year on in it.  I will be back with “The Weekly” tomorrow where hopefully three teams will have clinched playoff spots and a fourth affiliate will still be alive for one.

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

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