2018 Affiliate Reviews: Myrtle Beach Pitching Dominated

By Todd Johnson

Team Record 61-78

What Worked in 2018
2018 was all about pitching. The rotation went six strong throughout the year and the bullpen was very sharp right up to the end. As a result, most of the pitching corps will be off to Tennessee. It’ll be exciting to see Alex Lange, Tyson Miller, and Cory Abbott ply their trade in AA.

Erich Uelmen and Bryan Hudson could start out next year in Myrtle Beach but move quickly to Tennessee if they do well.

As for the bullpen, Tyler Peyton, Manny Rondon, Bailey Clark, Garrett Kelly, and Erick Leal should all began 2019 at AA.

There wasn’t a lot to write home about the hitting.

Catcher Johnny Pereda was outstanding in the first half but slipped a little in the second half. Still, Pereda earned a trip to the Arizona Fall League.

First baseman Jared Young arrived in early July and was the Cubs minor league player of the year for Cubs Central and the Cubs themselves. Depending on how he does in the Arizona Fall League, outfielder DJ Wilson might be bound for AA along with Roberto Caro (if he re-signs as a MiLB free agent).

Returning Guys
Aramis Ademan and Wladimir Galindo should return to Myrtle Beach for a while. Both are still relatively young that repeating Myrtle Beach to begin the year might be a good thing for them. There could be a few others who’ll come back, but some familiar faces might be on their way out of the system Considering the depth of the Cubs have in the lower minors, it is a pretty logical course of action.

Christian Donahue should begin 2018 in Myrtle Beach along with Michael Cruz, who both spent most of 2017 in South Bend. Zach Davis should be back as well in the outfield. All three arrived late in the year.

Incoming Position Players
Delvin Zinn, Miguel Amaya, Austin Filiere

This might be the most interesting group to me. I’m wondering where they are going to play outside of Amaya. Zinn could play some third, some second, and, shortstop at times. I thought he could even play in the outfield but has yet to do so. This is where there’s going to be a bit of a log jam in the system. With only a few position players headed to Tennessee, there’s not going to be a lot of openings at Myrtle Beach either. As a result, that creates a bit of a quandry.

Remains to be Seen – Nico Hoerner
The Cubs are more than likely going to wait until after the Arizona Fall League to make a determination on where Nico plays in 2019. If it goes well in Mesa, he probably could be playing in AA. If it just goes OK, he will more than likely be in Myrtle Beach. It’s rare for someone to go from low A to the AFL with less than 100 MiLB at bats.

Big Jumps
I could see a couple guys that played for Eugene skip South Bend next year because of their advanced hitting profile. Andy Weber is one and Luke Reynolds is another bat who might skip.

Keep an Eye on for 2019
How quickly Erich Uelmen moves in the first half of the year is going to set the tone for the rest of the system as the AA and AAA starting rotations are pretty stacked.  Myrtle Beach should have Uelmen, Hudson, Erling Moreno, Brendon Little, and Javier Assad for sure. Who joins in the six spot should be interesting to see. Will it be Jesus Camargo, Ryan Lawlor, or even Brailyn Marquez? Could Derek Casey or fellow draft pick Paul Richan get a shot? It should be fun.

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2018 Affiliate Reviews: Tennessee’s Rotation Stole the Show

By Todd Johnson

67-71 Record in 2018

Strengths and Highlights
The strength of this team all year was the starting pitching rotation. Beginning with Trevor Clifton, who quickly went to Iowa, and Duncan Robinson, who went to Iowa later, the Smokies had plenty of depth. So much so, they went to a six man rotation in the second half. Matt Swarmer, Michael Rucker, Thomas Hatch, Keegan Thompson, and Justin Steele all shined on the mound for the Smokies. Rucker, and Hatch will likely join Clifton and Robinson in Iowa in 2019. Thompson, Justin Steele, and Swarmer could begin the year in Tennessee after only pitching at Tennessee for just two months in 2018. Or anything could happen depending on spring training.

What Else Worked Well in 2018?
Short, Rice, and Giambrone

These three hitters displayed a patient approach at the plate which allowed them to get on base at high clips. Short and Giambrone both hit 17 home runs while Rice seemed to have a power outage but was still getting on base at over a .400 pace. Hopefully, Rice will be protected in the upcoming Rule Five Draft. Otherwise, some team is going to snap him up.

Returning for 2019
Aside from the aforementioned pitchers and position players mentioned above, there will be a few players returning to AA. Some players may have played their last days as a Cub and they might even be familiar names. The key for this team next year will be at the plate. They will have plenty of pitching, but it will all come down to the bats.

Expect to see Connor Myers return. The multi-talented defender was up and down at AA at the plate, but he was magnificent in centerfield. Eddy Martinez should be back along with catcher PJ Higgins, who had a short tenure at Tennessee in 2018. Charcer Burks’ assignment might be up in the air depending on his spring as well as he had an up and down year.

What Will Be Left in the Bullpen?
Lefty Jordan Minch will go to Iowa. But who else is going to make up the bullpen next year? Scott Effross should be back along with Wyatt Short to anchor the back end of the pen.

Incoming Position Players
Jared Young, Jhonny Pereda, Roberto Caro
These three guys have earned their promotions and DJ Wilson could be added depending on how he does in Arizona this fall. Then again, having to earn his way to Tennessee might be the best thing for Wilson. I’m excited to see how Young will do along with Pereda and Caro.

Remains to Be Seen – Wladimir Galindo could be a guy who also makes it to AA if he has a good spring training. Based on his 2018 stats, you wouldn’t think so. But then again, he has immense talent and is just waiting for it to click in at any level.

Aramis Ademan is likely to repeat Myrtle Beach. But if Nico Hoerner gets it done in the Arizona Fall League, Hoerner could be the Smokies’ starting shortstop bypassing Myrtle Beach..

Arms Aplenty Coming
Alex Lange, Cory Abbott, Erick Leal, and Tyson Miller should headline a somewhat dominating group of starting pitchers heading to AA. There will not be  much of a drop off between the departing and the returning. Add in relievers Bailey Clark, Tyler Peyton, Manny Rondon, and Garrett Kelly, the Cubs’ AA affiliate should be stacked in the pen.

2019 Sleeper
If 2B Carlos Sepulveda can come back healthy, the young 21-year-old could be pleasant surprise for the Smokies at some point next year. He’s basically missed two full years now but he had elite bat-to-ball skills when healthy at South Bend in 2016.

40 Man and Rule 5 Considerations – Options and Spots Are Limited

By Todd Johnson

Last year, David Bote and Adbert Alzolay were named to the Cubs’ 40 man roster. They were pretty much slamdunk choices. This year, there is no prospect who is an automatic choice. There are, however, several guys who are clear-cut favorites to be placed on the 40-man roster to either avoid losing them to free agency or the Rule 5 Draft.

Spots

Currently there are 42 players on the 40-man roster with 2 of them on on the 60 day disabled list. Once they come off that list, they can either be released or they have to be placed on the 40 man roster. Which means, someone has to go. Drew Smyly is one of the two players on the 60 Day DL and he will start throwing outings this month. Hopefully, he can be back in time for the playoffs in a relief role. Justin Hancock, the other player on the 60 Day DL, lools like he is not coming back this year at all.

Who Is Leaving for Sure?

The Cubs only have three players, Justin Wilson, Jesse Chavez, and Anthony Bass, whose contracts expire at the end of the 2018 season. Wilson will not return, but Chavez and Bass both could come back to Chicago. That means, at most, one spot would be available.

Option Years

There are another four pitchers who have option years for 2019. Pedro Strop, Cole Hamels, Jose Quintana, and Brandon Kintzler can all have their contracts picked up by the Cubs. Strop and Quintana are the most likely to return. It’s just one start, but I really dig what Cole Hamels was able to do in his debut. Hamels could pitch his way onto the roster for 2019, but his $20 million salary stands in his way. I really doubt it if Kintzler will return. His option could only be $5 million. Let’s say that puts the total at 2 spots.

Could Be Released and Resigned to MiLB deals

There are another five spots that could be made by trying to get players through waivers and assign them to Iowa. Luke Farrell, Cory Mazzoni, Rob Zastryzny, Jen-Ho Tseng, and Alec Mills could all be waived to make more room. Of those five, Farrell and Mills arguably hold the most value. The other three are some tough choices. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that they keep Mills and Ferrell and try to get Jen-Ho and Rob Z through waivers while releasing Mazzoni.

That creates three more spots which puts us at five spots. The Cubs are not going to try and fill all five spots with their own prospects. At best, they would probably only pick three and take a risk in losing several others.

The whole purpose of adding the prospects to the 40-man is to avoid losing them in the Rule 5 Draft. It was made so teams could not horde players in the minors. If unprotected, they could be picked up by another team in early December. Here is the full list of Cubs eligible for the Rule 5 Draft per Arizona Phil:

Tyler Alamo, C-1B;  Luis Ayala, OF; Casey Bloomquist, RHP; Andres Bonalde, LHP;Craig Brooks, RHP; Charcer Burks, OF; Trevor Clifton, RHP; Alfredo Colorado, RHP; Enrique de los Rios, RHP’ Scott Effross, RHP; Wander Feliz, RHP; Riger Fernandez, LHP; Emilio Ferrebus, RHP; Wladimir Galindo, INF; Hector Alonso Garcia, RHP; David Garner, RHP; Yapson Gomez, LHP; Eric Gonzalez, C; Jose A. Gonzalez, OF; Jacob Hannemann, OF; Zach Hedges, RHP; PJ Higgins, C; Jesse Hodges, INF; Ryan Kellogg, LHP; Vimael Machin, INF; Brad Markey, RHP; Junior Marte, RHP; Marcus Mastrobuoni, C; Ivan Medina, RHP; M. T. Minacci, RHP; Jordan Minch, LHP; Kevonte Mitchell, OF; Erling Moreno, RHP; Preston Morrison, RHP; Rafael Narea, INF; Richard Nunez, C; Pablo Ochoa, LHP; Eugenio Palma, LHP; Tyler Payne, C; Tyler Pearson, C; Henrry Pedra, INF; Yeiler Peguero, INF; Jhonny Pereda, C; Eury Ramos, RHP; Will Remillard, C; Ruben Reyes, OF; Ian Rice, C; Andry Rondon, RHP; Manuel Rondon, LHP; Aneuris Rosario, RHP; Justin Steele, LHP; Jake Stinnett, RHP; Franklin Tineo, INF; Sucre Valdez, RHP; Jason Vosler, INF; Ryan Williams, RHP; Chesny Young, INF

That’s a lot of names, many of which are familiar to minor-league fans the past five years.  The Cubs cannot keep all of them. 

Best Chance to Be Placed on the 40 Man

Trevor Clifton – In a system that still has not produced a viable starting pitcher, Clifton looks to be close to being ready this year. He shown a mental maturity and has erased the second half of the 2017 season from his mind. The only thing he needs to work on is being more efficient in getting into the 6th and 7th innovation innings on a regular basis. For me, he is as close to a sure thing to make the list as the Cubs have this year.

Justin Steele – he has yet to pitch above high A Myrtle Beach. Tommy John surgery in August 2017 set his development back a year. But now, he is back on track and throwing 95 miles an hour out of the pen  with a tight breaking ball and a great mental makeup. The Cubs don’t want to take a chance on losing that kind of left-handed talent.

Jason Vosler – As the most proficient power bat in the upper half of the system, Vosler, more than likely, could be placed on the 40-man based on need. If he is not, someone is going to snag up a power hitting lefty who can drive and runs. The issue is that he has no place to go with Bote, Bryant, and Rizzo ahead of him. Will the Cubs keep him as insurance or take the risk to see if someone else snags him. He is only signed for one more year. He looks to be a good bet to make the 40-man.

Long Shots: Kyle Ryan, PJ Higgins, Ian Rice, and Johnny Pereda

Ryan is a MiLB free agent after the season ends and putting him on the 40 man might be the only way the Cubs can keep him. He has had a mixed year but has a 2.54 ERA in mixed roles in the second half for Iowa. As for Pereda, Rice, and Higgins, catchers tend to get picked up to be backups at the MLB level. They don’t get exposed every day and you can work them in slowly at the MLB level, if selected. Pereda, the youngest of three catchers listed, is the most likely to get a call, but he has yet to play above high A. The Cubs are likely to lose one or two of them.

When the Arizona Fall League ends, will we get the answer. It is an interesting subject to think about the next three months.

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.

Promotion Commotion Is on the Horizon – Who’s Up First?

By Todd Johnson

One good month does not a promotion make. Two months, … maybe.

So far, there has not been a lot of movement up and down in the Cubs’ system this year. However, Bailey Clark moving from South Bend to Myrtle Beach was one of domination at South Bend. But most other promotions that took place were related to injury.

In the next few weeks, there will be a lot of movement as the MLB Draft takes place and 20+ new Cubs begin their careers. In addition, the first half will come to a close. I don’t expect a lot of movement when it comes to hitters, but there should be plenty of pitching movement – especially when it comes to relievers. In addition, there could even be a few players released at the higher levels.

Look for the following players to get bumped up a level fairly soon.

Tennessee to Iowa
Dakota Mekkes has been impressive since the beginning of the 2017 season. He has dominated three levels in the last 14 months. And the only reason to keep him in Tennessee would be to work on his walks. In 17.1 innings, he has walked 12. However, in the past, that hasn’t stopped the Cubs from promoting Carl Edwards, Pierce Johnson, and Dillon Maples. Mekkes is ready for the next level and could be in Chicago fairly quickly this summer if needed.

Thomas Hatch has looked much better this year. He looks pretty comfortable on the mound and with what he’s throwing. What I like most is that he is gone deep in the games this year And with solid results as he’s posted a 3.06 ERA in 9 starts. His WHIP might be a little high, but I like his ability to get out of jams. He’s also pitched 89 pitches or more in 5 of his last 6 starts. That’s big fo him as the Cubs kept him on a short leash and a 5 inning limit in 2017. He gets bumped around every once in a while, but when you start breaking down his starts, he looks to be fairly consistent. He’s more of a candidate to go at the All-Star break then he is in the first week in June.

Myrtle Beach to Tennessee
Tyler Peyton has been an eye-opener for some at Myrtle Beach. I saw this coming last summer at South Bend as he was pretty dominant the last six weeks of the season. Part of me hopes he would get a chance to start, but as a reliever he is throwing 96 mph consistently out of the pen. Add in a killer ERA of 1.29, and he should find his way to Tennessee shortly after Dakota Mekkes heads to Iowa.

South Bend to Myrtle Beach
2017 second round pick Cory Abbott is missing a lot of bats in the Midwest league, 44 Ks in 36.1 IP. He should be on the first plane to South Carolina fairly quickly at the rate he is going. His slider and fastball command are just wiping out hitters as he has posted a 2.72 ERA in 7 starts. His WHIP is 1.06 and opponents are hitting only .206 against him.

On the Edge

The main problem in promoting prospects is that there is nowhere to go for many of them. For the following list of prospects, they still need some more time to simmer in their respective affiliates before being promoted. While they may not be promoted in the next two weeks, look for their names to be bumped up in late June at the end of the first half.

Tennessee: Zack Short, Charcer Burks, and Jeffrey Baez – All three would need a place to play. Right now, there are no spots in Iowa.

Myrtle Beach: Jhonny Pereda, Wyatt Short, Casey Bloomquist, Bailey Clark, Connor Myers, and Tyler Alamo – Bloomquist has been a nice surprise out of the pen this year, along with Short, while Alamo and Pereda are part of the logjam at first and catcher in the system. Bailey Clark has been a stud throwing between 95-97. He had a couple of adjustments to make at high A but looks to have righted the ship. If Baez and Burks go to Iowa, look for Connor Myers to head west to Tennessee.

South Bend: Tyler Thomas, Javier Assad, Rollie Lacy, and Austin Filiere – All four have shown flashes of potential and have put together some impressive performances along with some befuddling ones. The pitchers probably move before Filiere does.

It will be interesting to see how this shakes down in a couple of weeks both before and after the draft.

A Few Cubs Prospects Are Trying to Break Out in 2018

By Todd Johnson

It is getting harder and harder to be a breakout prospect with the myriad number of blogs, websites, and other assorted media out there to capture Cub prospects in action. Last year, Adbert Alzolay was the Cubs’ breakout pitching star going through two levels like a hot knife through butter. Meanwhile, 2017 5th round pick Nelson Velazquez clubbed 8 HRs in about 6 weeks of ball in August and early September to take the breakout hitting award. This year, things are a little different when identifying the breakout performances of the first half.

When it comes to pitching, Myrtle Beach starter Matt Swarmer currently leads the pack. He was the Cubs’ April Pitcher of the Month going 20.2 IP with 27 Ks. This month, Swarmer is making his second trip around the 10-team Carolina League and things are a bit tougher. He has a 3.82 ERA in May over 11.2 innings but he’s struck out 16 and walked just 1. I think you can chalk that up to one bad inning. Still, more data is needed before we declare Swarmer the breakout pitcher of the first half.

Another pitcher who seems to breaking out is Rollie Lacy of South Bend. Like Duncan Robinson and Michael Rucker did last year, Lacy began the year in the bullpen. He was dominant in 5 of his 6 relief outings striking out 25 in 18.2 innings. As a starter, he’s made two starts and is still stretching his arm out. I like what I see as he does fool a lot of hitters by changing speeds and keeping the ball down in the zone. While he did not strike out any in his first start, he whiffed six in his second. While I doubt if he could overtake Swarmer for the Award for the first half, he is definitely one to watch in the second half as he acclimates to starting at this level.

I love to watch Keegan Thompson pitch. The young man knows how to work a hitter and a strike zone. Every time he pitches, he improves over the last outing. He put up a 4.19 ERA in April after skipping South Bend to begin his first year in full season ball. That, in and of itself, is an adjustment. Now that May is here, Thompson is delivering with a 2.65 ERA for the month in three starts. He has 18 Ks already for the month surpassing his total for all of April in half the time. Thompson just looks like he knows what he wants to do on the mound. He should be a fun watch.

In the bullpen, Tyler Peyton was my pick to breakout in relief and he has done everything to make me look good. The 2016 draft pick out of Iowa has really taken to the bullpen. He did well at times last year in South Bend, especially in August when he had a 1.29 ERA for the month. So far, Peyton has a 1.35 ERA in 20 innings with 20 Ks and he has begun to close for the Pelicans, opposite fellow closer Jhon Romero.

On the other hand, hitting in the Cubs’ system is down quite a bit in 2018.

As a result, it is pretty easy to pick out prospects who have a spike in their performance at the plate. While Austin Filiere is having an outstanding year for South Bend, he pretty much broke out last summer at Eugene but was overshadowed by Nelson Velazquez down in Mesa. The same is true for Zack Short and Jared Young. Meanwhile, Connor Myers, who hit just .191 last year, seems to have added “singles hitter” to his repertoire with an average just above .280 this year. Myers has always been an elite defender, but his adding the ability to hit for average really transforms his worth to the organization.

Still, Myers is not the breakout hitter of the first half.

That distinction belongs to Myer’s teammate, catcher Jhonny Pereda.

Pereda is hitting a smooth .311 with 2 HRs and a team leading 23 RBI. He doesn’t strike out much and his monthly splits are ascending – hitting .304 with a .360 OBP in April and .324 with a .405 OBP in May. Arizona Phil of The Cub Reporter raved about Pereda this spring for his defense behind the plate. I was glad to read that. His offense, on the other hand, has been a complete surprise.

Last year, at South Bend, I got my first good look at Pereda. He got off to a great start in April hitting .344. Then he met a lot of pitches that began with the letter “C.” He struggled to hit in May (.219) and June (.153) before rebounding somewhat in July (.275) and August (.263). In the second half, he cut his K rate by a third and that has been the springboard for him this year.

His consistency and approach at the plate leads me to believe he will be the breakout hitter of the first half in about a month. Pelicans announcer Scott Kornberg added the following about Pereda’s success this year:

He rarely strikes out or even swings and misses, and tries to use the middle and opposite fields. In fact, about two-thirds of his batted balls have been hit to those directions, and he has one of the highest opposite-field percentages in the league. In addition, he’s been hitting consistent line drives. His line drive rate has been in the top 10 of the league all year long, so when you’re making that much contact and it’s almost always quality contact, good things are going to happen. 

It will be interesting to watch the aforementioned players try to maintain and sustain their development this spring. Ultimately, I think the Cubs are looking for a few breakthroughs, too.

April’s MiLB All-Star Team Is Pitching Heavy

By Todd Johnson

This month’s All-Star team was pretty fluid right up through yesterday’s games. There were prospects who stayed consistent all month. There were those who got hot early and faded late. And then there are those who got off to a rough start but turned it on later in the month. At one point, before last Thursday, they were only five pitchers who met the usual pre-requisite 3.00 ERA. Somehow, two more pulled through

As for position players, no one but Jeffrey Baez really set the system on fire. Baez, who, in the past, has dominated levels in spurts. In April, Baez hit .411 with 3 HR and 15 RBI to earn Hitter of the Month honor. They were not that many players who hit above or near .300. While that is not required to get on the team, there were clear demarcations in the levels of production across the system about who should be on the team. I did not have to leave anyone off who was on a par with current crop of all-stars.

It will be interesting to see which players get promoted here in the coming weeks. I expect some of the players in the video below to move up a level. Most of the promoted prospects will probably be relievers and maybe one of the starting pitchers.

So, without further adieu, here is this month’s minor league All-Star team.