2018 Affiliate Reviews: Two Mesa Teams Brimming with Talented Young Cubs

By Todd Johnson

Cubs 1: 38-18
Cubs 2: 28-25

The amount of talent of the Cubs had in their two rookie league teams was quite amazing. A lot of them came from the international free agent classes of 2015 through 2017. It looks to be a pretty good haul.

2018 season in Mesa was all about the Cubs q team just dominating the league with the best record for the entire summer. They ended up placing second, losing to the Dodgers team in a three-game series. I was hoping they would go win back-to-back titles but it just didn’t work out.

The Cubs 2 team was filled with a lot of talent from the draft including outfielders Cole Roederer and Brennen Davis, two of the Cubs’ second round picks. Roederer played 36 games with a 129 wRC+ while Davis played in 18 with a 138 wRC+. Those are two pretty impressive performances.

One thing I take away from the season was the massive depth in pitching the Cubs have on those two teams. Some of them were drafted this summer out of junior college and were impressive in their brief tenures in the Arizona Rookie League. Peyton Remy, a 2017 draft pick, made it to Eugene and played a central role out of the bullpen in long relief in the playoffs.

Pitchers Didier Vargas and Jesus Tejada seemed to really step up their game as the season went on with Vargas going 7+ innings in game two of the championship with the Cubs on the brink of elimination.

When it comes to hitting, there was no shortage of the guys who could put up some numbers. Catcher Alexander Guerra, second baseman Reivaj Garcia, first baseman Rafael Mejia and third baseman Fidel Mejia all hit well over .300 for most of the summer. Add in a healthy Jonathan Perlaza, who could move quickly in 2019, and you have bats everywhere.

Where are they headed in 2019?
That seems to be the million dollar question. The Cubs seem to have about 100 prospects for 50 spots at Myrtle Beach and South Bend. A lot of this year’s Mesa squad will head to Eugene next time at 19 and 20 years of age. Some could play as high as Myrtle Beach next year depending on their bat to ball skills and pitching repertoire. Perlaza, Rafael Mejia, and Guerra along with outfielder Edmond Americaan are definitely in play for South Bend along with a Roederer and Brennen Davis.

When he comes to pitching, guys who are starters this year may not be next year. It’s hard to tell how the competitive nature of having two rookie league teams and Eugene to squeeze into South Bend is going to play itself out. It should be a fun spring to cover.

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2nd Half Breakouts: Cubs Have a Lot of New Arms on the Way Up

By Todd Johnson

Yesterday, breakout hitters of the second half were covered. Today, it is the pitchers.

Usually once a pitcher has a spike in their development, they don’t get to breakout again. By that definition, I had to rethink who the breakout pitcher of the second half was going to be Matt Swarmer easily won the breakout pitcher of the first half. But Keegan Thompson and Cory Abbott also had breakout campaigns at their first full season affiliate. So, by definition, all three could not win the award for the second half, even though they all did have another spike in their development in the second half of the year at a new affiliate.

Arizona
This is the first year in a long while I can remember so many pitchers in rookie league having a pretty decent season. This year‘s crop includes some junior college players and young international free agents. I’m excited to see if these guys are going to end up next year in Eugene or at South Bend.

To begin, Peyton Remy was somewhat of an ace for Cubs 1. He led the team into the playoffs and was pretty dominant in July and August. For the season, Remy struck out 59 in 52.1 innings with an ERA of 2.58. He even got to roll with Eugene in the playoffs and was brilliant in the Hillsboro series throwing 3 scoreless in relief and 4 more scoreless against Spokane in the clinching game.

Blake Whitney played for Cubs 2 and had a pretty decent season after being drafted from South Carolina – Upstate. His campaign was surprising because most pitchers that were drafted as starting pitchers only go 2 to 3 innings or 50 pitches. He went 5 innings in 3 of his last 4 appearances. Whitney had a 2.30 ERA and struck out 37 in 31.1 innings.

Jesus Tejada and Didier Vargas were both excellent starters for Cubs 1. I still think they’re both busting out next year. Vargas puts himself in to contention because he just misses him a lot of bats at 19 years old. Both will be pushing for a spot in South Bend next spring.

Eugene
Yovanny Cruz only made one start for Eugene, but he flashed an amazing curveball for a 20-year-old kid. I came away extremely impressed with his command and ability to keep hitters off balance. 2018 draft picks Paul Richan and Riley Thompson each had their moments of dominance this summer. I came away especially impressed with Thompson who is being converted from a reliever to a starter. Right now Thompson is a little bit on the effectively wild side with his secondaries, but he has pretty good command of a 95 mile an hour fastball. It’s pretty dangerous and pretty cool at the same time.

And the winner is…from South Bend…sort of.
A lot of people were aware that Brailyn Marquez had some talent. He could throw in the low to mid 90s but had huge command issues in the Dominican and at Mesa last year. When he arrived at Eugene in June, I was excited to see the 19-year-old lefty have a go at it.

Marquez had a nice jump in velocity this year as he sat 94 to 97 most games and he did so with decent command. He used a slider with a nice 10 to 4 break, sometimes 10 to 5. Against a right-handed hitter, it was just devastating at times. He didn’t throw his changeup a lot, but when he did he seem to have better consistency with it as the year wore on. With just a couple weeks to go in the season, Marquez was promoted to South Bend and he did OK in 2 brief starts. I’m pretty pumped to see him go at it for about 120 innings next year. If he can control and flash 3+ pitches, which is what Marquez has, he might be flying through the system as a 20-year-old. The keys are just command and efficiency for him.

MiLB Playoff Action: Cubs 1 Falls Short in Finale

By Todd Johnson

I must admit, I was a little excited throughout the day to see if the Cubs 1 team could win the Arizona League championship for what would basically be the second straight season. When I saw the Jesus Tejada was pitching, I thought the Cubs would have a solid chance to get back-to-back titles.

Card made from a pic by Freek Bouw/Phrake Photography

Things did not exactly go very smoothly in the first inning for Tejada but he was able to pitch out of trouble and leave 2 runners on base. In the bottom of the inning, things went the Cubs way. Two walks and a hit by pitch loaded the bases for Alexander Guerra. Guerra cleared the bases with a double. A 3-0 lead was a nice start!

The Dodgers gained one back in the third. In the fifth, Tejada ran into some trouble. He left the game with two outs and the bases loaded. Chi-Feng Lee came in and gave up a triple to clear the bases and another run came across later on a wild pitch. All of a sudden, the Dodgers were up 5-3. The Dodgers added one more in the eighth after a throwing error to make it 6-3. The Dodgers scored 6 runs on the night, only 1 was earned. Such is the Arizona League.

Cubs 1 just could not get anything going. For the first seven innings, they only managed 8 base runners and only 4 of those came after the first. After Dalton Hurd lead off the 8th with a double, he still could not get across the plate with the heart of Cubs 1’s order at the plate.

In the bottom of the ninth, the Cubs staged a rally that put two runs on the board. However, the rally fell short with the tying run on third.

Overall, it was a very successful season for the Cubs 1 rookie league team. I will have a season recap at a later time that will analyze several of the prospects and how they could impact the system in 2019.

Cub 1 in Mesa Wins First Half Title!!!

By Todd Johnson

News coming from the Arizona Rookie League this year has been sporadic. Occasionally, Arizona Phil at The Cub Reporter will post an article here or there and Phrake Photography/27 Outs Baseball will post a series of pictures, but the pickings are rather slim. Box scores and the occasional tweet just have to do. It has been pretty a pretty intriguing first half for the Cubs two Arizona Rookie League teams.Then yesterday, the Cubs 1 team finished off the first half in style by winning the division championship.

Usually the rosters in short season baseball are like a revolving door. Players come in and out quickly as many of them are draft picks or guys that are just on a rehab assignment. This has been the case this year as the 1 team suited up 61 different players including key hitters Clayton Daniel and Grant Fennell who left the team a week ago. However, some players were the core of the team throughout their five week season.

At the Plate

Alexander Guerra: The Cubs signed the 20-year-old catcher last fall. He had some experience in the Series Nacional in Cuba and was thought he could start his Cubs career all the way to Myrtle Beach. He wound up in Mesa and has been taking off in July. In June, he played in seven games and hit .220 with a .281 OBP. In July in 14 games, he’s cranked out two home runs to go along with 11 RBI and is hitting .286 with an astonishing .444 on-base percentage. His OPS of 1.040 is outstanding and he’s killing lefties with an OPS of 1.265.

Yonathan Perlaza: Perlaza was signed in 2015 as part of the great international free-agent signing class. Originally a shortstop, Perlaza has been manning second base and third-base this year. He hit .286 in June and cruising along at .302 in July. He did get some experience last year in Arizona but he will surpass that experience in terms of games and at-bats by the end of this week.

Rafael Mejia: He began this year with Eugene but was squeezed out by recent draft picks. At Mesa, he’s only hit .240, but he’s also cranked out three home runs and 12 runs driven in over just 15 games.

On the Mound

Didier Vargas: The young 19-year-old lefty had a 0.99 ERA in 2017 in the Dominican. At 6’0″ and 175 pounds, Vargas is working on being more consistent this year. He gave up five runs in his first outing and has not given up more than two rus since. His ERA is down to 2.89 and probably will continue to drop throughout the rest of 2018.

Jesus Tejada: In August 2017, Tejada was probably the hottest Cubs’ pitcher in the Dominican with an ERA under 2 that included a no-hitter. I thought he might have a chance to start this year at Eugene. It didn’t happen form but it doesn’t seem to be phasing him. He has a 2.70 ERA over four starts in July which included two 6 inning starts.

Justin Steele: To be honest, I didn’t think he would throw more than one inning at any time in a game this year coming off TJS. The Cubs are still keeping him on a short leash, to be honest, but Steele is pushing the limits of those starts. He’s thrown 18.1 innings in 5 starts in July with a 1.47 ERA and struck out 27 batters in those 18.1 innings while only walking 4. I wonder if he will stay in Mesa throughout August or move up the ladder to do more rehab work?

Maikel Aguiar: Sometimes luck happens for the weirdest reasons. When the Cubs went to two teams in the Arizona Rookie League, they thought they would have their draft picks signed and ready to go when the season began. That didn’t happen. Instead, the Cubs had to call up a few pitchers from the Dominican Summer League Teams. One was Aguiar. At 21, the 6’0″ and 185 pound righty from Venezuela has been devastating in a variety of relief roles. Sometimes he’s a short relieverer, and sometimes he’s a long reliever. In July, he has a 0.40 ERA with 21 strikeouts in 15 innings and opponents are hitting a measly .103 against him and his WHIP is an ungodly 0.55.

With a playoff berth in their backpack, it should be interesting to see how this mix of international players and recent draft picks shakes down in the second half.

Too Early to Breakout, but Not to Be a Surprise in the 2nd Half – Part 1

By Todd Johnson

The second half of the minor league season has been going for a month now. Players in Mesa, Eugene, and the Dominican have been grinding away and developing their craft at the plate, in the field, and on the mound. It is usually in the second half that some players break out and surprise us with their performance and development. Still it’s still a little early to declare a break out prospect after just one month, but there are a few players who are off to good starts here in the second half. Today’s post looks at players from Eugene on down while tomorrow’s looks at prospects from South Bend on up.

DSL 1

Fabian Pertuz was signed last summer as an International Free Agent is doing very well in the DSL. At 17, he’s hitting .323 with an amazing .463 OBP and he’s stolen 18 bags while missing two weeks. He should be in Arizona at some point for instructs this fall.

DSL 2

17-year-old SS Pedro Martinez (Yes, that is his name) is leading the squad in hitting at .336 with a .424 OBP. He’s also swiped 22 bags and seems to be a pretty consistent player the last six weeks.

At 6’6”, 19-year-old Pitcher Johan Lopez is an intriguing prospect. He’s struck out 32 in 31 innings while posting a 2.87 ERA. His WHIP of 1.20 is a bit of a head scratcher, but at this level, it’s OK. This is his first year as a pro and, as such, is a late bloomer.

Mesa 1

Two hitters caught my eye in Arizona. 2B Clayton Daniel, a 31st round pick this year, can get on base with his bat or by walking. When I started writing this article on Saturday, he was in Mesa. He moved up to Eugene for a couple of days and I saw him arrive last night in Davenport about an hour before game time as he was promoted to South Bend. Not too shabby for a 31st round pick. Daniel is hitting .344 with a .408 OBP. 3B Yonathan Perlaza is part of that vaunted 2015 international free agent class. It looks like things are starting to click for him this year as he nears .300 after a rough start.

Reliever Maikel Aguiar is a strikeout machine whiffing 23 in 18 innings to go with a 0.48 ERA. Starters Didier Vargas and Jesus Tejada both had rough starts their first times out. Since, they have been turning it around. Tejada looks to be the more stable arm right now with his WHIP of just over 1.

Mesa 2

3B Fidel Mejia is closing in on .400 for the season. Over his last ten games, he’s hitting on all cylinders at a .500 pace. In addition, 2nd round compensation pick Cole Roederer is showing a propensity to get on base at a steady clip as a top of the order bat. He’s batted first and third for the rookie league team. He’s hitting .371 with a .488 OBP in just nine games. I’m a little excited about that pick. After yesterday’s 3/5 performance, I am beginning to wonder if he belongs in Rookie League.

The player no one saw coming is non-drafted free agent Grant Fennell. The utility player was the Mountain West Player of the Year as a senior at the University of Nevada. Every time I check the box score he’s going 2-for-5 with an RBI. He’s hitting .355 with a team leading 20 RBI.  In addition, that RBI total leads the Arizona League. He made his Eugene debut on Tuesday this week.

Eugene

Over the past month, Cubs Central already profiled two top young prospects in Brailyn Marquez and Luis Vazquez. But in the bullpen, reliever Dalton Geekie has thrown 11.2 innings without allowing a run and struck out 16 while only walking 4. His WHIP is fantastic at 0.86. At 23, he’s a reclamation project who should be at South Bend very, very soon.

Which Prospects Could Breakout for the Cubs in the 2nd Half?

By Todd Johnson

Yesterday, I wrote about who  broke out in the first half for Cubs Insider. But trying to predict breakouts prospects for the second half of the minor league season is a bit tougher. Most of the players one would expect to breakout will be playing for Mesa, Eugene, or South Bend. Some of them are 18 to 20-year-old kids while others are recent draft picks.

If I was to pick one hitter, one pitcher, and one reliever to break out in the second half, I would more than likely be wrong come the end of August. So, to hedge my bets, what I’m going to do is to pick three hitters, four starting pitchers, and three relievers who might make some waves in the Cubs’ system the next two months. Hopefully, one or more in each category will make it.  

On with the prospects.

Hitters

Everyone is going to be watching Nico Hoerner once he signs. The fans will watch his bat, his glove, his arm, and his speed, grit, and hustle. That kind of takes the pressure off of everyone else.

The batter that will impress everyone is Luke Reynolds, the Cubs tenth round pick out of Southern Mississippi. I would expect him to be a fast mover. He, like Hoerner, will probably start at Eugene, but neither will be there long as their approaches and skills will be too dominant.

Another hitter that could break out this summer is Fernando Kelli. While we know some about Kelli after his 58 stolen bases last season in the DSL, it is different playing in the US, especially skipping Mesa. The hardest adjustments for an 18-19 year old prospect from the DSL to make are just playing against quality competition. Kelli will need to adapt to quality changeups and curves; and guys trying to get him out in the batter’s box and also on the basepaths. In just 5 games, he has caused some havoc between the bases. His defense, on the other hand, might be better than we thought.

My third selection is Jonathan Sierra. Originally, he looked like Daryl Strawberry clone when the Cubs signed him in 2015 at 16 years-old. Now, he is getting his physique into something resembling Jorge Soler. What I really like about him so far is his approach. He shows to have a pretty good knowledge of the zone at 19 and he is not afraid to walk to this early in his career. The issue he has now is that his swing is a bit long. He needs to shorten that up or he will be eaten alive as he moves up the ladder. For now, though, game experience and seeing as many pitches as possible will be the goals for 2018.

Bonus Hitters – Kevin Moreno from Cuba (who is only 17) and Reivaj Garcia are two young hitters who have been tearing up EXST. They will both be in Mesa to begin the year. I love Luis Vazquez’s defense already. The fact that he got experience at SS in a major league spring training game says how highly the Cubs already think of him. He is in Eugene to start 2018. Focus on his defense, not the bat.

Starting Pitchers

One of the more interesting stories in August last year was the maturation of Jesus Tejada in the DSL. He was a stud with an ERA just under 2 for that month and he also threw a no-hitter. Now, the 19 year old will be stateside. This spring, one of the more interesting reports over time from Arizona Phil has been the growth in each performance of lefty Brailyn Marquez, who is really dialing it up as the spring goes along. Now that summer is here, the young 19-year-old pitcher is in Eugene as the ace of the staff. He can dial it up in the mid-90s. The issue has always been his command.

I liked the Cubs taking Derek Casey of Virginia in the ninth round of the 2018 draft a lot. He’s experienced, a senior, and he should be a valuable arm next year. This year, he will more than likely just pitch 2 or 3 innings a game in Eugene or South Bend. He should do well in those spots.

Faustino Carrera is not going to blow you away with his fastball, but he can make you swing wildly at his changeup. The 19-year-old lefty (I am noticing a theme here) has good command and can get hitters to do what he wants when he can control his upper 80s to low 90s heater. He also has a curve that comes in around 82 and he seems to hide the ball well to make it appear to have more zip than it does.

Bonus – In what is his third season as a Cub, Nathan Sweeney is back in the Arizona Rookie League. But here’s the thing, he’s still just 20 and, if he had gone to college, he would just be finishing his sophomore year. After two years of instruction from the college of pitching coaches in Mesa, he should start to put it together this year. His fastball has been clocked in the low 90s consistently.

Relievers

All three of my breakout reliever choices were taken in the draft this year. Ethan Roberts, Riley Thompson, and Layne Looney all had excellent careers in college in the bullpen. I would not be surprised to see any or all 3 get a chance at starting next year. But this year, they are just going to relieve. Thompson, who can bring it at 95, will need the most time to develop. Roberts might need to rest a bit after Tennessee Tech almost made it to Omaha for the College World Series. And Looney should be good to go as he was already playing summer ball. Expect to see Thompson to get in a game first and it should be at Mesa.

Here are a few other names who could break out as legitimate prospects this summer.

DSL
Alexander Ovalles – OF; Carlos Morfa – OF; Fabian Pertuz – SS; Carlos Paula – SP

Mesa
Luis Verdugo – SS; Carlos Pacheco – OF (who is injured to start the year); Raidel Orta – SP; Eduarniel Nunez – SP; and Luis Hidalgo 1B/OF

Eugene
Luis Diaz – 2B and Jonathan Soto – C

The Annual Preview of a Preview: The Ems Are Just Loaded for 2018

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.

Card made from a photo by John Arguello

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.