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
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.
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.
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.
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…
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!
By Todd Johnson
José Albertos has had an interesting April in his first taste of full season class A baseball. To look at his stat line, one would think it was a disaster – A 24.30 ERA in 6.2 innings over 5 games. He’s walked 17 batters, hit 1 other while he has only struck out seven However, stats don’t tell the whole story.
1. On the surface, Albertos has just been wild and struggling with his release point. He’s had trouble commanding his fastball. He’s had trouble commanding his curve. He hasn’t really thrown his change much at all that I recall.
2. This is somewhat reminiscent of his first month at Eugene in 2017 in someways. Last year, Albertos came out throwing 90 to 91 in the first inning and worked his way up to 95 by the middle of the game. He worked on his fastball command and curve in his first few starts and kept the changeup for use later in the season.
This year, he’s throwing gas on up to 95 in the first inning. While he was on a strict pitch count last year, the only restrictions on him this year are a pitches per inning limit. In his first start he maxed that out in the first inning. And, he’s come close in the first inning in every outing so far. Last night, he had 29 pitches in one inning of work, albeit in relief.
3. But when you break down the actual moments within an inning, he’s not that far from turning it around and quickly. A pitch here or there and he’d be sitting on the bench, but instead he would give up two to four runs on 28-30 pitches. For example, last night, he walked 3 batters in his only inning of work. He got a double play and looked to almost be out of the inning with just 20 pitches. He was ahead of the batter with a 1-2 count but gave up a single. This is going to sound strange, but his ERA dropped 2.40 points in his 1 run/1 inning affair.
Going back and looking at each start that he’s made on TV, their key moments where he has a way out. It’s just a matter of him making that one pitch to get that ground ball, to pop a guy up, or to strike him out.
4. I don’t think one can be hard on the young pitcher, as he is just 19 years old, and playing against players 2 to 3 years older than him. Still, this is a learning experience on how to pitch. For me, he’s has to get that release point down on his fastball. And when he does, he can start mixing in his change. Until he does, he’s going to struggle.
5. He’s not going to Mesa to do it, either. He will be in South Bend to improve every six days. Ultimately, it is about development. At some point he’s got to be pressing. What may at first been a physical problem with his release point could evolve into something mental that he needs to get past. Sending him down could damage any confidence. If he’s injured, that’s one thing. But he’s not.
6. Albertos can get through this. And when he does, he just needs to continue to build on it outing by outing. Get through the first, then the second, and I think the confidence will begin to roll for him. It could take a bit of time to get there or it could be next week. When he does get that consistency, though, it will be well worth the wait.
By Todd Johnson
It is not uncommon for a top prospect to have a rough stretch of baseball. At each level in the minors, there’s a new period of adjustment. Current Myrtle Beach Pelican Austin Upshaw put it best last year about the difference at each level: “Everyone’s just a little more polished.”
Some of the Cubs’ most elite prospects are having a rough time to start the year. Part of it could be physical. Part of it could be mental. And part of it might be they just need to be a little more polished themselves.
At AA Tennessee
Zack Short – Currently, he is hitting .155 and .086 in his last ten games. However, he is still walking a lot – close to 25%. The problem is 28 Ks in 16 games. As he adjusts, the K rate should shrink, his power should return, and he will continue to walk. He has never been a big average guy. Even .250 would be fine as much as he walks. He was moved down in the order this week so that should help to take some pressure off of him.
Oscar de la Cruz – He is not fooling anybody this year with a 9.82 ERA. He is leaving the ball up in the zone and has been getting hit hard with batting average against at .339. In 3 starts, he has been rocked. In one start, he was outstanding with 6 Ks and 0 runs in 6 innings. Adjusting to a 5 day routine is big for someone who has never pitched 100 innings in a single season. His May should be worth watching as he continues to adjust.
At Myrtle Beach
Austin Upshaw – It has not been a good start for one of my favorite prospects from last year’s draft. I am actually stunned. The 21-year-old infielder is currently batting .171. Then again, he is starting show some signs of life. In his last two games, he’s 3 for 6 with a HR and 3 RBI. He is back to playing 1B after spending several games at third where he made 3 errors in 6 games. His approach is too good to be down for too long.
At South Bend
Jose Albertos – He looks a little slimmed down from last season. He also doesn’t look like the same pitcher I watched last summer at Eugene. His windup, delivery, and even the ball coming out of his hand all look the same. But the results are not good. Albertos has made 3 starts. He has not been productive in any of them. His first start was a 1 inning affair where he threw 30 pitches in the first inning, with 15 for strikes. He struggled mightily with fastball command.
In his second start, he was looking good for two outs and was one pitch away from getting out of the inning and then the wheels fell off as he gave up 2 runs in 2 innings on 40 pitches, only 21 strikes. His third start was yesterday. His strike rate for the day was just 40% as he gave up 8 runs, 6 of them earned. He was pulled with no outs in the second after 51 pitches. That is just not sustainable.
I would not be surprised to him head back to Mesa and extended spring training to rebuild his release point on his fastball and to get his confidence back. Without his fastball, he has nothing to pitch off of. And right now, he has to get that back. He could stay in South Bend and try and work it out in the Midwest League. However, the bullpen is just getting worn out covering the rest of the games. Luckily, yesterday was a doubleheader that only required five more innings after he left in the top of the second with nobody out.
Brendon Little – Unlike everyone else, I think Little is closet to putting it together. Each outing has been better than the one before. He has a beautiful curve and a developing change. But, like Albertos, without fastball command, he is not going to be very good. Well, he is getting it. On Sunday, I really liked his performance as he went 4.2 innings in the longest outing of his Cubs career. One player ate him alive with 2 dingers. Other than that guy, he only gave up 2 other hits on the day and allowed just 1 other run. He will be fine in time. The more he pitches, the better he will improve. And, he could improve rapidly.
I would not panic about any of these guys.
Sometimes, it just takes time to get a little more polished.
By Todd Johnson
Every time I sit down to watch the minor league games each day, there’s always a dilemma on which to watch. Such was the case yesterday. There was Keegan Thompson starting in Myrtle Beach at 6 o’clock, who I had not seen as a starter yet. And then there was my guy, Jose Albertos, who was making his 2018 season debut for South Bend. Since Trevor Clifton pitched in the morning, I thought that I would make it my duty to check out Jose.
There’s no secret as to my thoughts on Albertos. The 19-year-old right-hander is my number one prospect in the Cubs’ system as he has the highest ceiling. He has a mid 90s fastball, a plus-plus change up, and a developing curveball. For 2018, his objective should be to continue to develop the curveball and to get over 100 innings this season.
As the day went on, I got extremely excited to watch him pitch. It had been cold the previous two nights at South Bend with temperatures in the 30s at game time. On Wednesday, during the day, temperatures were in the low 60s. So I felt good that Albertos would acclimate to that kind of weather.
Jose got the first hitter to whiff at a change but then gave up a single, a SB, and then a walk. A wild pitch then moved up the runners to second and third. After walking Brendan McKay, Albertos was at 20 pitches with just one out. Albertos was able to coax a fly ball that scored a run. Now with two outs, he was at 25 pitches.
He threw a curve that traveled about 58 feet and resulted in his third wild pitch and another run. After thirty pitches, the inning ended. Only 15 of them were strikes.
For inning number two, Brendan King took the mound. Jose was done. Usually, at low Class A, 30 pitches in the first will end your evening as a precaution. Considering Albertos’ injury history, the Cubs were not going to take any chances.
There were not many positives to take away from his start. HIs fastball command was off. He looked to nibble, he didn’t attack the zone, and he didn’t throw strikes. He threw a change once, which is his best pitch. And his curve still needs a lot of help. And to be quite frank, he was one pitch away from ending that inning. A key grounder could have gotten a double play to end it and we could be sitting here talking about his great debut and how he worked out of trouble in a 21 pitch first inning.
And, really, that’s all it was. One bad inning. It was not catastrophic or career threatening.
He’s still just 19. As a top prospect, there are a lot of expectations heaped on someone who has attained that status. In the big scheme of things, he can learn from it and improve upon his approach and lose any butterflies he might have had. Last night was not his night. There will be a lot of other starts this year for him to show us what he can do.
By Todd Johnson
While Alzolay was ranked number one, he’s only got a couple of months in at AA and he still needs to work on his changeup quite a bit. I see his potential more as a reliever long-term. Although, he was able to stay in the mid-90s in the 6th and 7th inning last year. He just needs to continue to build up more innings to maintain his viability as a middle of the rotation starter.
As for Ademan, while he did well at Eugene on both sides of the plate, he struggled offensively at South Bend in his short time there. The Cubs will more than likely be aggressive with him this year and he will be assigned to Myrtle Beach. Oscar de la Cruz missed most of 2017 but still has a powerful potential in spite of his being oft-injured past two years.
When it comes to Jose Albertos, I just love him. By the end of the year he could take over the number one spot and I am looking forward to watching him do it at South Bend in the first half of the year. If all goes well, the young 19-year-old pitcher could end up in the pitcher friendly Carolina League for the second half of the year.
Catcher Miguel Amaya shot up to number 11. If his bat comes along at South Bend in 2018, he could rise even more. David Bote, at #15 went from utility organizational guy to a player with bat to make it as a utility infielder in Chicago. Recent draft picks from the past two years dot the list with Alex Lange at 5, Brendon Little at 6, and Thomas Hatch at 7. Three 2017 draft picks also got some praise. At 17, Jeremiah Estrada is well liked along with Erich Uelman at 19 and Keegan Thompson at 19, two college starters who only saw brief action in relief last year at Eugene. Pitcher Michael Rucker moved all the way up to 21 and Zack Short made his first appearance on the list at 23. Pitcher Javier Assad, who I am looking forward to watching throw at South Bend, is at #24. That’s a very good sign as he is only 19. Meanwhile, lefty starter Brailyn Marquez debuted at #27 at the age of 19. He is still very raw but he does miss a lot of bats.
Who is still in?
Most of the usual suspects in the Cubs system still made the list. Although, it is quite clear that they have lost some of the former status. Usually, MLB.com’s Pipeline is slow to change. One bad season doesn’t befall most prospects. There was some slippage this year. Trevor Clifton still made the list at #28 as did Duane Underwood at #30. Both have their work cut out in front of them.
Names to Know for Later Lists
Danis Correa is one of several young Latin pitching prospects who could breakout in 2018. He throws in the mid to upper 90s but needs some work on his command. I think Bailey Clark will turn some heads this year as he is now done with his degree at Duke and minor injuries. 2B Carlos Sepulveda was not on the list this year after missing almost of 2017. He could return later. The big breakout could be OF Fernando Kelli who will arrive from the Dominican Summer League where he stole 58 bases last year. Personally, I like the potential bats of infielders Austin Upshaw and Jered Young along with pitcher Jesus Tejada, who threw a no-hitter in the Dominican last summer.
It should be exciting as the Cubs system gets remade. It looks to be getting much younger since last year’s trades.
The Final Rankings List
I assigned point value to seven prospect lists this winter. A player received 10 for being named #1, 9 for #2, etc. I used Fangraphs, John Sickels, Baseball Prospectus, Baseball America, Keith Law. MLB.com, and my own Top 21.
Here are the final totals.
Adbert Alzolay -66
Aramis Ademan – 64
Jose Albertos -57
Alex Lange – 42
Oscar de la Cruz – 38
Brendon Little – 33
Victor Caratini – 28
Thomas Hatch – 23
Jen-Ho Tseng – 12
Dillon Maples – 7
Nelson Velazquez – 5
By Todd Johnson
As spring training got underway, I was getting ready for what I call my busy season, which actually began yesterday with a Scholastic bowl tournament. Throw in a history fair and seven nights of Scholastic bowl meets and you have my life through March 15. I am pretty sure I am going to be dragging but it still allows me plenty of time to recoup before spring break starts and spring training ends.
As a result, anytime I had an idea pop into my head this week, I pondered about whether to write a full-blown post about it, or just a small blurb in this column. So, I just cited to get some ideas down now and maybe I can expand upon them more at a later time.
Darvish Impact on Minors
With an opt out clause after two years, that clause does buy the Cubs a couple more years to develop some arms to take Darvish’s place should he leave via free agency. A lot can happen to a pitching prospect in two years. So, it’s a little hard to justify a full-blown post about the topic right now. While some may think that Adbert Alzolay might be one of those who could start in 2020. Thomas Hatch, Duncan Robinson, Alex Lange, Jose Albertos and few more will have their name in that hat.
3 More Coming to Camp
The Cubs invited three more non-roster players to spring training. They were all catchers and many are very familiar to most of you. Cael Brockmeyer, Erick Castillo, and PJ Higgins all got the call.
2 New International Signees
Per Arizona Phil, the Cubs signed two more Cuban international free agents this week. Kevin Moreno is a 17-year-old third baseman who does not have a lot of experience playing international baseball. Pitcher Raidel Orta played in the Serie Nacional when he was 18 in 2014/15. He missed the last two years after defecting. Now at 22, it should be interesting to see just exactly what he has and how much he can improve over the course of the year playing in the US. I’m very interested to see where the Cubs place both prospects after spring training. I made a spreadsheet that has the Cubs last few international classes. Use the tabs at the bottom to go from year to year.
Keith Law of ESPN released his top 30 draft prospects (subscription required) for 2018. While he did not place players with teams, he did rank them from 1 to 30. While I can’t get into specifics about who was ranked where, it’s quite clear the Cubs are going to get an outstanding player at number 24. Law’s rankings are quite different from MLB Pipeline’s top 50 and the first 30 in Baseball America’s top 200. His list is a perfect example of the rise and fall of many prospects and the differentiation in evaluation. As a result, one name Cubs fans may want to add to the list is Missouri State shortstop Jeremy Eierman.
A Bunch of Arms
Cubs also moved pitcher Drew Smyly to the 60 day DL and signed reliever Shae Simmons to a split major/minor league contract. The Cubs signed several pitchers this off-season including Anthony Bass, Daniel Camarena, Michael Roth, Dario Alvarez, Randy Rosario, Cory Mazzoni, Kyle Ryan, Alberto Baldonado, Luke Farrell, and Simmons. I don’t think many of these guys stand much of a chance of making the major leagues bullpen and only a few will probably break camp in the Cubs’ minor-league system. I can see Camarena getting an opportunity to start in the minors at either Iowa or Tennessee. Rosario and Ryan have an outside shot to make the major leagues roster but will need some help and the same is true of Farrell, who is more of a starting pitcher. I don’t think Alvarez, Bass, and even the new signee Simmons have much of a shot. I think the Cubs are pretty clear on just exactly who is going to be in their bullpen. I’ll probably talk about this more as spring training wears on and players get some work in.
Coming Up this Week
On Wednesday the “Leveling Up” series begins to wind down as I look at outfielder Nelson Velasquez. On Friday, I should have something for you either about the bullpen or about young Latin arms coming into the system in 2018. On Saturday the 24th, I will be with my students participating in the history fair at NIU and then “Spring Training News and Notes” will take over for “The Weekly” on Sundays until the season begins. I am also pondering a draft article that looks at a few players beyond the first round.