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.
By Todd Johnson
An Arizona Rookie League Championship is an especially nice way to end the season. In the first half of the season, Mesa had the second worst record in the league at 9-19. The Cubs turned it around in the second half going 16-12 and then storming through the playoffs scoring 44 runs in five games.
In 2018, most of these players will move on up to Eugene and South Bend. It is a talented bunch and probably has the most prolific hitters the Cubs have seen in rookie ball in the Theo Epstein era.
Here are several prospects who could be flying up prospect lists this winter and next summer.
1. Nelson Velazquez – Just 18 years old, he hit nine home runs in basically six weeks for Mesa. He was named the Cubs’ minor league player of the month in August as he drove in 16 with six homeruns for the month while hitting over .300. He might not be physically maxed out, but the Cubs fifth round pick from 2017 can flat out hit. I would not be surprised to see him shooting into the top 10 on a lot of prospect lists this winter.
2. Jonathan Sierra – While he did flash some power this year, he continues to show an excellent approach. At 18 years of age, his future is still very bright as he has a long ways to develop physically. At 6’2” and left-handed, he always gets the Darryl Strawberry comp. His game is nothing like Darryl Strawberry’s. I tend to think he’ll be at Eugene next year, but if he begins to develop some power at instructs, spring training, and, then again in an extended spring training, he could be in South Bend late next May. For an 18-year-old, a lot can happen developmentally in 7 to 9 months.
3. Delvin Zinn – He got off to a great start this year for Mesa, slipped a little bit in the middle of the season, and finished strong hitting over .500 in the playoffs with a .630 to on-base percentage. He played shortstop and second base most of the year and I think he really begins to catch fire in 2018. I’m excited to watch him play either at Eugene next year. I just don’t know what position he’s going to play.
4. Cam Balego – Although I have yet to see him play, he showed up every day and played three infield positions for Mesa this year and hit for a high average all season long. The 30th round pick from Mercyhurst has been learning how to play catcher this fall in instructs. I am really excited about getting a look at just how well he does hit next year. He hit .286 with a .385 OBP this year.
5. Marcus Mastrobuoni – He has to be one of the most surprising players in the Cubs’ system this year. The catching corps is getting to be pretty deep and a player has to really make themselves stand out in order to be noticed. Marcus did that this year as he was the leading hitter in all of the four major hitting categories for Mesa until the last couple weeks of the season. I’m glad he was so successful this year. With Miguel Amaya ahead of him, I don’t know how fast he can move up in the system with his hit tool.
6. Brailyn Marquez – After listening to scouts and seeing some of them tweet, it’s obvious that Marquez has swing and miss stuff. It’s also obvious that he still needs to learn how to pitch with what he has. At 6’5” and just 18 years old, there’s a lot of time left for the lefty to fill out and work on his combination of pitches and approach on the mound.
7. Luis Hidalgo – He played in the states for the first time and did not disappoint. Originally an outfielder, he played mostly first base and tore the cover off the ball all of August for Mesa with 13 RBI. With his ability to hit, I don’t think he needs to go to Eugene next summer. I tend to think he’ll be just fine at South Bend playing first and doing some DH.
Bonus – Luis Vazquez was drafted by the Cubs this summer. The 17-year-old shortstop drew rave reviews for his fielding this summer. The bat needs some work but he did hit well in the playoffs going 5 for 7. He should more than likely be at Eugene next summer.
Mesa Cubs to Watch in 2018
It’s a little hard to predict who’s going to be in rookie league but the four players the Cubs signed as international free agents on July 2 would be the best bet to watch in 2018. Pitcher Florencio Serrano, shortstops Luis Verdugo and Fabian Pertuz, and outfielder Alexander Ovalles should begin in Mesa along with many other young international players. One, in particular, that intrigues me is 18 year-old Carlos Pacheco. The young outfielder hit for both power and got on base in the DSL this past summer with a .366 OBP while slugging 9 HRs in 67 games.
By Todd Johnson
I am thinking I had this list done about three weeks ago. I wanted to put it out almost immediately after the minor league season ended. After thinking about it, I thought I would just let it settle and edit it before I put it out. To be honest, it has changed much from when I wrote it to today. In fact, I was reconsidering re-ordering 5-9 all night.
There are really only two major changes in this list from the summer. They are the inclusion of outfielders Jonathan Sierra and Nelson Velazquez. In fact, I had Velasquez shoot all the way into the top 10. The Cubs don’t have anybody like him in the system with his home run power and production.
I still think this list is pretty volatile. After the Arizona Fall League, I will think about mixing it up a bit. But with who is going to Arizona, I think only one prospect might improve their lot on the list.
The list could change quite a bit later this off-season as trades are made and injuries are revealed. I think the biggest risers and fallers next year will be at AA Tennessee. The Smokies will have pitchers Thomas Hatch, Trevor Clifton, Oscar de la Cruz, Duncan Robinson, Michael Rucker and position players Zack Short and Eddy Martinez. Those seven will determine how the rest of the list looks because production at AA signals that the product could be productive in Chicago.
South Bend’s rotation next year will also have a huge impact on the list as recent draft picks will be unleashed without any restrictions. Cory Abbott and Keegan Thompson are two pitchers who could make some waves in 2018 with some excellent performances next summer.
So, without further adieu, here is the current Top 21 list in video form.
By Todd Johnson
While the first half breakout list tends to be players from South Bend and Myrtle Beach, the second half list is usually players from Mesa, Eugene, and maybe South Bend or Beach. There were a few prospects who had good seasons that we did see coming like Miguel Amaya, Aramis Ademan, and Jose Albertos. There were several players who put together good stretches together during the second half. Altogether, it was difficult picking out the winners.
Breakout Hitter of the Second Half
This was a tough call. Austin Upshaw was a player that I really liked from South Bend who hit almost .290 each month after being drafted this summer. Austin Filiere of Eugene hit .287 in the fourth spot with over a .400 OBP hitting cleanup along with five home runs. Andruw Monasterio came close to the definition of a breakout hitter along with Luis Ayala of South Bend. Monasterio hit .290+ in August while Ayala got his average up to .366 in July and .293 for the second half.
But if I’m gonna pick just one guy, it has to be Nelson Velasquez of Mesa whom the Cubs drafted in the fifth round this year. In August, he hit almost .300 and clubbed 6 home runs for the Mesa Cubs in the Arizona Rookie League leading them to a second half division title. In the playoffs, he hit 2 more homers and drove in 9. The sad thing about Nelson is we don’t have as many eyes on him after the death of John Arguello. Still, Nelson progressed each month since signing his pro contract. He is just 18 years old and I am really looking forward to him playing next year at Eugene and/or South Bend.
Breakout Starting Pitcher of the Second Half
This one wasn’t really as tough as the hitter category. It basically came down to two players. Runner-up Jesus Tejada had an outstanding August for the Cubs’ Dominican Summer League 1 team. He threw a no-hitter and struck out 19 batters in consecutive games.
But for me, the biggest surprise was the performance of Duncan Robinson at Myrtle Beach. While Michael Rucker stole the show there in June, Robinson got off to a rough start in his July debut and then seemed to improve at every opportunity throughout the summer. I liked the fact that he kept improving by adding a cutter to his repertoire. Another thing I liked was that Robinson did not seem to tire as the season progressed. He had a 2.37 ERA in 10 second half starts while striking out 37 in 49.1 IP. I am really looking forward to him pitching next year at AA Tennessee.
Breakout Reliever of the Second Half
I think Dakota Mekkes stole the show in the first half. The second half winner is not gonna be that much of a surprise. South Bend reliever Jhon Romero is one who I did not see coming. He throws in the mid 90s with a wicked breaking ball. Another surprise was Tyler Peyton of South Bend who had a 1.29 ERA just in August. One reliever I did see coming was Pedro Araujo for Myrtle Beach. With an ERA under 2, he basically owned the closer role and the Carolina League in the second half.
But when it comes right down to who was the biggest surprise or break out, it’s Dillon Maples. He progressed through four levels of the system at the age of 25. He has always had wicked stuff from the time he was drafted in 2011 but had injuries and confidence issues along the way. This year, the worm turned for him. With a wicked slider/curve and a fastball that approached 100 miles an hour, he was almost impossible to hit at every level. On September 1, he was called up to Chicago. In his first appearance, he walked one and struck out one.
When it comes to next year, I am not quite sure what to expect when it comes to possible breakout prospects. I am thinking Jonathan Sierra, but he most likely won’t begin play until the second half at Eugene. The same is true for pitcher Jesus Tejada.
More than likely, the first half breakouts for 2018 will come from either South Bend or Myrtle Beach. Hopefully, DJ Wilson, Kevonte Mitchell, or Joe Martarano can put it together for half a season. Or, it could even be one of this year’s draft picks or International players who steal the show – literally – like Fernando Kelli who had 58 SBs in 2017. When it comes to pitching, this year proved that opportunities will present themselves for pitchers to step up and become essential players. You never know who will get the chance.
by Todd Johnson
The Mesa Cubs won the Arizona Rookie League Championship last night with an awesome display of hitting! The first four hitters (Jose Gutierrez, Carlos Sepulveda, Jonathan Sierra, and Nelson Velazquez) in the lineup each drove in two runs as the Cubs scored runs in bunches to defeat the Giants 13-3 and win the series two games to one. Delvin Zinn scored three times and Luis Vazquez scored twice while going 4 for 5. Jeffrey Passantino, Eugenio Palma, and Ivan Medina held the Giants scoreless over the last five innings to secure the win! This is the Cubs’ first rookie league title since 2002.
Cubs win first AZL title since 2002. Final 13-3 pic.twitter.com/6pYkQhsE5W
— Eric Longenhagen (@longenhagen) September 8, 2017
Meanwhile in Hillsboro…
The Emeralds got on the board early against the Hops in game two of their series thanks in part to a Brandon Hughes home run to take a 3-0 lead. The Hops came right back to tie at three apiece. Each team would tack on another run with the Hops tying it in the bottom of the eighth. In the top of the ninth, the Ems blew it open by scoring six runs to win 10-4. Chris Singleton had a bases clearing double that put the game out of reach. The Emeralds will now face Vancouver in the championship. No dates have been announced as of yet.
In the Carolina League
Things did not go well for Myrtle Beach in their quest to go back-to-back-to-back. The Wood Ducks scored three runs on 5 hits in the fourth to take a 4-0 lead and held on to defeat the Pelicans 4-1. The Pelicans only managed four hits. The Pelicans and Wood Ducks will play two tonight in order to avoid Hurricane Irma in the best of five series.
By Todd Johnson
Falling behind 5-0 would be the death knell for most teams. However, when you have a potent offense, no lead is insurmountable. Such was the case last night as the Mesa Cubs rallied to win 7-6 over the Dodgers in the Arizona Rookie League semi-finals.
The Cubs used home runs by Jonathan Sierra, 2017 draft pick Cam Balego (his second in the playoffs), and 2016 draftee Delvin Zinn to tie it up. Carlos Sepulveda, on a rehab assignment, drove in Kwang-Min Kwon as the winning run in the eighth.
Another key to victory was that the bullpen pitched great in relief. Eugenio Palma, Jeffrey Passantino, and Ivan Medina scattered 8 hits and allowed 2 runs in 9 innings after Stephen Ridings was chased in the first after giving up four runs without getting an out.
The Cubs now move to the finals where they will face the Giants in a best of three series. 2017 Draft Pick, Brendan King from Holy Cross, probably gets the ball tonight and Brailyn Marquez could take the bump tomorrow.
The series starts tonight and runs through Thursday, if necessary. The Cubs went 5-3 against the Giants this year. I like the Cubs’ chances.
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.
Myrtle Beach, South Bend, and Eugene each have 6 reps.
Tennessee, Iowa, and Mesa each have 5. The DSL has 1.
Saturday – Cards of the Month
Sunday – The Weekly
Monday – Prospect Profile: Jared Young