By Todd Johnson
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.?
6’4″ 230 lbs.
Signed as an International Free Agent in 2015
Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.