Jonathan Sierra

The Friday Six Pack: The Eugene Emeralds – A Week In

Posted on

By Todd Johnson

The Eugene Emeralds now have a week of games in. They’ve begun going through the rotation a second time and the current crop of hitters have had a decent number of at bats. All the relievers have been in a game and hopefully some draft picks will be coming soon.

Overall, there is some definite talent to watch, and there are some players who definitely need to develop quite a bit more this season to get ready for the next level.

Here are six things happening with some Eugene Emeralds.

1. Luis Vazquez can play some serious defense in the present. Right now, his glove and legs are ahead of his arm, but you can tell that everyone on the field looks/defers to him first when it comes to a pop up, a blooper, Texas leaguer, or anything on the ground. His bat is going to lag behind for a little bit, but I am OK with that as long as his arm continues to develop over the course of the summer. Right now it’s OK, but I kind of wanna see lasers somewhere down the road. Then I remember that he’s just 18. Lasers would be a bit much. He’s a pretty fluid athlete at shortstop.

2. After experiencing South Bend for about six weeks, Nelson Velazquez was sent to Eugene for the summer. That experience had to be a good one for him at just 19-years-old even if it didn’t show up in the stats. From the looks of it, Velazquez doesn’t seem to have been phased by the experience. I like that about him. Maybe that was part of his development plan. Whatever, Velazquez hit his first home run on Tuesday night against Vancouver and it was almost all arms. I’m excited to see how he continues to do day in and day out at the plate. I have to remember to be patient with his development as it’s going to come in bits and pieces over time. It’s not going to all happen at once.

3. For now, there are a few young pitchers that I would like to see more of at Eugene. Faustino Carrera, Brailyn Marquez, and Eury Ramos all had interesting first starts. Of the three, Carrera looked the most polished. Marquez showed a lot of promise considering he was hitting 95/96 regularly. As for Ramos, I love the angle and downhill slope he gets on his fastball. He has another pitch that I am not sure what it is yet. It could be a cutter, sinker, or changeup. Whatever it is, it has some nice downward sink to it and the Hillsboro hitters really struggled with it.

4. Jonathan Sierra was the number one Cubs’ international free agent signing in 2015. He looked like a Daryl Strawberry clone back then, but not anymore. He looks like he is almost a mini-Jorge Soler. What I really like about him is that he really knows the strike zone. That’s hard to find in a 19-year-old kid. It’s only going to help him going forward. I am still waiting to see him stroke the ball with power on a daily basis. Based on his size, that’s not too far from now.

5. Like Velasquez, Jose Albertos is in Eugene as he continues to work through some of his command problems. He made his longest start of the year on Tuesday going 3.2 innings on 75 pitches. In the second and third innings, he looked like normal Jose. The fastball was sitting 95 to 97 but he was having issues with command of the curve. Sometimes it was going about 57 feet, and other times it was “just a bit outside.” He did not throw the changeup very much, and I hope that was on purpose so that he could work on his curve command. His second start will come early next week in Eugene. It’s going to be a work in progress as the Cubs try to rebuild that curve command and his confidence. The fastball was much improved since he was in South Bend. Remember, he’s just 19. In time, he will be fine.

6. Fernando Kelli has a lot of speed and can cause problems when he is on the basepaths. So far, he shown an affinity to hit the ball the other way as well as strike out. It’s going to take time as he basically skipped Mesa to come to Eugene. He’s only 19, and, like Sierra, he’s going to be one to watch grow this year. There’s a lot for him to work on this year and to adjust to in the Northwest League. To start, I am impressed with his ability go get a ball in the outfield and also to throw. I didn’t know that about him. However, he’s going to have to adjust to the fact that teams are aware of his speed. He can’t sneak up on them, some are just waiting.

I’m going to hold off on having any of these players ascend onto my Top 21 List for a while (Only Velazquez is on the list and he’s been there for 9 months). A week is not a lot of baseball for me to evaluate how the young 19-year-old kids adapt over time. I’m in no rush to place some prospect upon a throne based upon just after a one game, put labels on them after a week, or condemn them to baseball hell because of how they played the first week of  short season at 19.

Look at this line from last July…
.131 batting average
.197 OBP
.148 slugging
4 RBI in 16 games
25% K rate
That looks like a disaster, doesn’t it? Well, that was Jared Young’s first month as a pro. My friend John and I commented to each other last August how much we liked his approach and patient swing. It was going to happen for Jared and it was just a matter of time. His approach would make sure of that. And it sure did.

Patience, Padawans.

These kids have all kinds of time to grow and develop. How they are now is not how they are going to be a month, ayear, or five years from now.

This is an extremely young group of kids who are already playing at a level above most of their peers. They are going to be pretty streaky throughout the course of the season. Hopefully, the highs will outweigh the lows and they will be primed and ready to go for South Bend at the end of the year.

Advertisements

Eugene’s Roster Is Ready for Opening Night…With Room for More Changes

Posted on

By Todd Johnson

At the end of spring training when I did my roster previews for each affiliate, I always do a preview of what Eugene’s preview two months down the road might look like. I was pretty close on who I thought would be on the opening day roster for the Cubs’ short season class A affiliate. However, there are always a few things I can not foresee like Delvin Zinn getting a shot to stick at South Bend.

This year, two factors are in play to affect the roster. One is that there are two Mesa teams now. And the second is that the MLB Draft was last week which allows more time this year for the picks to sign. The draft signees will trickle in and out as they ho through a short training camp in Mesa and begin to make their way up the system.

Usually, upwards of 50-60 players file through Eugene’s locker room in a year. Many go on to South Bend, but 35 are stationed in Oregon at a time. The affiliate can only have 25 activated per night (10 of which must be pitchers), but it is a good proving ground to move on to the next level and it is the beginning stop for most draft picks coming out of a 4 year college.

As of today, there are still 8 roster available out of the 35.

Who did I get right?

Most of the young Latin position players that I predicted will be at Eugene to start the year. They include Nelson Velazquez (after a month in South Bend), OF Jonathan Sierra, SS Luis Vasquez, OF Fernando Kelli, 3B Christopher Morel, and 2B Luis Diaz.

While not currently on the roster of 27, SS Nico Hoerner and other collegiate picks like 3B Luke Reynolds and 1B Tyler Durna are probably not too far behind from getting their careers started in Eugene.

Who did I miss?

By this point in the 2018 season I thought Jose Albertos would be on the verge of heading to Myrtle Beach at just 19 years old. But some issues with his fastball command and release point will have him at Eugene after opening at South Bend and then heading down to Extended Spring Training to work on that issue.

Catcher Jonathan Soto is a bit of a surprise, but according to Arizona Phil, Soto was one of the best hitters this spring. The backstop will turn 20 next month.

In addition there are several returning players. Relievers Jake Steffens and Casey Ryan along with closer Luis Aquino are back. First baseman/catcher Gustavo Polanco returns and will try to break through Eugene to make it to South Bend. It also looks like Cam Belago, who was one of the better hitters for Mesa last summer, will see some time behind the plate and at first as well.

As for the pitching…

Card made from a photo by John Arguello

It will have a distinct Latin feel for a while. Brailyn Marquez and Faustino Carrera, who both pitched at Mesa last year, are two young lefties who could not be more different. Marquez, who is just 19, has a plus fastball (95) and a plus curve that has had command issues in the past. When he’s on, he’s brilliant. Carrera can command his stuff and at 19 is a promising youngster with a plus changeup who throws in the upper 80s, low 90s.

Joining them in the rotation will be a mixture of 2018 draft picks and swingmen until the roster gets settled. It usually takes a month before things calm down. But you could see 9th round pick Derek Casey and compensation pick Paul Richan get in some starts in addition to several relievers like Riley Thompson and Ethan Roberts.

It will be interesting to watch how this team evolves over the next two months. While development is always the essential objective at this level, just as important this year will be who plays for Eugene and for how long. 

Will Nico Hoerner’s tenure as an Emerald/Monarch be something that last weeks or months? The same question holds true for Reynolds and even Jose Albertos. I have a soft spot for Jose, but he’s still only 19. He still has excellent stuff. When he leaves Eugene, Jose has to be able to command his arsenal. Whether if that’s in a month or next spring, it doesn’t matter, just as long as he does.

I am looking forward to tomorrow night!

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

Posted on

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.

Leveling Up Series: Is It Time for the Jonathan Sierra Era to Begin?

Posted on

By Todd Johnson

Card made from a Photo by John Arguello

When 16-year-old Jonathan Sierra was signed as an international free agent in 2015, every physical comp compared him to a young Darryl Strawberry. Now 19 years old, Sierra is no longer a long and lean lefty. Rather, he is a big strong lefty at 6’3″, maybe closer to 6’4″, and somewhere between 240 to 250 pounds. In addition to that size and the potential for power, Sierra is also known as a gifted fielder with a strong left arm. 2018 will be his third season as a professional.

When the Cubs first signed Sierra, he was known as Yonathan Sierra Estiwal. Here is MLB.com’s  profile of him from 2015

Overall, Estiwal has been praised for his ability to hit in games and hit the ball to all fields. He has also shown some power in games and the ability to drive the ball to the opposite field. Scouts describe Estiwal as an average runner and say his arm might be a tick above average.

Estiwal does well in games, and scouts like his makeup. He’s been simply described as “a good baseball player who knows the game,” on numerous occasions.

To date, he’s gotten 405 at bat in his two seasons. After a stellar .384 on base percentage in the DSL in 2016, Sierra struggled a bit playing in Mesa as his batting average shrank from .264 to .259 and his on-base percentage went from .384 to .332.

In watching a video of Sierra, it’s quite clear he is susceptible to breaking stuff and there’s a hole in his swing that he needs to learn to cover up.

These things can be fixed and they can be fixed quickly. The question is, will it happen this year.?

Basic Info
6’4″ 230 lbs.
Bats Left
Throws Left
Signed as an International Free Agent in 2015
Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic

Leveling Up
I’m not sure of what to expect just yet for 2018. I’d like to see him strike out less and see him hit more home runs. He’s got all the potential in the world but he just turned 19. Comparatively, a former top prospect who also had massive home run power hit just three dingers at the same age in Eugene.

Card made from a photo by John Arguello

One of the great things that I’ve seen the Cubs do in recent years is to train their young hitters to be more selective. That’s what needs to happen with Sierra. Once that happens, then the HRs will come.

In 2016 in the Dominican, he struck out about 25% of the time. In Mesa, he struck out about 33% of the time. It’s not ideal, but it’s not uncommon. He was only 18.

Out of all the places he could play in the system in 2018, Eugene is the place as it is kind of built for him. It’s hard to get a ball out to left and left center, almost impossible to dead center, but he could pull one down the right field line over a short fence.

It would be unreasonable to expect drastic improvement and huge power numbers this year in Eugene. However, improvement and development are going to be essential. His walk rate needs to go up and the strikeout rate needs to come down. If those things happen, everything else should fall in the place.

400 at-bats not a lot for a professional baseball player. Sierra should get an additional 230 to 250 this year Eugene. Next year at South Bend should be the big year as he will see over 400 at bats in close to 140 games.

It’s not hard to see Sierra coming, however for him to blossom, that still might be a year away. But when he does, it could be special.

 

10 Things I Think – Minor League Spring Training Edition

Posted on

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: Outfielders Need Some Big Impact Bats

Posted on

By Todd Johnson

This is easily the hardest position to rank. Eloy Jimenez anchored the rankings for two years and I am just not quite sure how to arrange this year’s crop. Do I put them in tiers, number them, or do I arrange them into categories? I decided to be old fashioned up to 7.

A year ago, Eloy was at the top of the Cub outfielders followed by Mark Zagunis, Eddy Martinez, Donnie Dewees, and DJ Wilson. Two of those five prospects are gone. Although Zagunis did have a pretty good season in 2018, Burks and Wilson didn’t exactly light the minor leagues on fire for a whole year.

This is a position that has a lot of names of players who COULD be elite talents someday. However, their tools have not clicked for some reason. In fact, that pretty much sums up the Cubs system in general. There’s a lot of depth, just not elite talent. However, in two years, that could all change greatly.

In spite of that, here are the current top seven outfielders the Cubs have in their system heading into the 2018 season.

7. Jonathan Sierra – I am just waiting for him to get it going. Hopefully, this year will be the year the homers start to flow. In reality, though, it is more likely to happen at South Bend for him. He might be at the bottom of this list again next year or he could be #1. He as all the tools and the right approach at the plate, it is just a matter of game experience and tapping into his 6’3” frame and beautiful swing.

6. Kevonte Mitchell – A physical specimen, he could be a beast. At times in 2017, he showed that he could carry a club for a week or two at a time. In 2018, he should be at Myrtle Beach and he could begin to fulfill his power potential. Watching him work hard in pre-game activities bodes well for him grinding it out at some point.

5. I could’ve easily written Eddy Martinez in at number two as well as number five. That’s what is hardest about this group – there’s depth but not much differentiation of talent. For Martinez, he was pretty good in the second half of last year hitting .276 with 7 home runs. Already a defensive stalwart, he just needs to walk more and strike out less. I don’t think that’s too much to ask. It is another thing for it to happen.

4. DJ Wilson – He is an amazing athlete who I think should break out a little bit this year at Myrtle Beach. Now at 21 years of age, and in his fourth season as a Cub, the time has come for him to begin to put it together. The lack of a any kind of a sustained performance could be a concern very soon. He has all the skills he needs, it is just a matter of putting it together on a daily basis.

3. Charcer Burks had a great first half at AA Tennessee and I thought for sure he was going to get a promotion in late June to AAA. He got off to a great start in spring training with the big league club and never let up until the middle of June when he seemed to take a step back. He did alright in the Arizona Fall League but he didn’t necessarily knock anyone’s socks off. It was a long year but it was also a huge step in the right direction that truly began the second half of 2016 at Myrtle Beach when Rashad Crawford was dealt. He should be fine at AAA. And to be honest, his power game might improve at AAA. Last year, he hit 10 at AA. I would not be surprised if he hit 15 this year in the PCL.

2. Mark Zagunis – Like Victor Caratini, I don’t think there’s much left for him to prove at AAA. His power improved last year, his batting average improved, while his on base percentage is always spectacular. All he needs is a place to play every day. The problem it is not in Chicago. I was hoping that he might get a chance with another club to break through. That hasn’t happened yet this offseason.

Card made from a photo by Freek Bouw/27 Outs Baseball.com

1. Nelson Velasquez – His power potential is off the charts. In just a short six week span, He cranked out 11 home runs in Mesa between rookie league and the playoffs. He still has some swing and miss to his game (30% K rate in the Arizona Rookie League). As a result, I think the Cubs are going to be pretty patient with him and it will be interesting to see how he does in Eugene, which is not a place where home runs have been known to happen frequently. Still, there’s just too much talent to not rank him number 1 just based on potential.

Some Names to Watch for 2018
Out of all the position lists from this winter, the outfield list could change drastically in one year’s time. In fact, the Cubs could pick up another college outfielder or two in the top three to four rounds of the draft next summer that could totally reshape these rankings. Add in some amazing athletes who will be patrolling the green grass in Mesa, Eugene, and South Bend in 2018 who are young, unproven for a full season, and extremely athletic and the system becomes much more dynamic.

Card made from a photo by John Arguello

Fernando Kelli leads the list and should be making his stateside debut along with Carlos Pacheco. Both played in the Dominican last year and they could be playing anywhere from Mesa to South Bend. Meanwhile, Brandon Hughes begins his first full season after being drafted last summer. A switch-hitter, Hughes is an amazing athlete with the build to hit for power but has never been asked to do so. Chris Carrier, another 2017 draft pick, struggled at Eugene, but is a physical specimen.

Finally, Jose Gutierrez is another young and athletic outfielder who was the leadoff man on Mesa’s championship team. Down the stretch, he hit .354 in August helping to set the table for the rookie league Cubs.

One thing about this class of outfielders from Mesa to Eugene to South Bend is that they are not going to be dull.

What Could Be the Top MiLB Story Lines in 2018? Part 2

Posted on Updated on

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.