Justin Steele

Position Breakdown Series – Lefty Starters Gaining Ground

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By Todd Johnson

The left-handed starter might be the most coveted of the Cubs’ prospects. The problem is they only have around 10. Ranking them is not that difficult. But then again, you never know what is going to happen to them from year to year.

Last year, I had Rob Zastryzny at number one and I thought for sure he was going to be in the bullpen in Chicago all year long and that didn’t happen. At number two, Ryan Kellogg struggled most of the year at Myrtle Beach after a dominating second half at South Bend in 2016. Jose Paulino came in at number three and fellow South Bend teammate Manny Rondon was at number four. Both struggled at low class A with Paulino rebounding some in the second half.
I had Bryan Hudson at number five last year despite struggling in 2016 at Eugene. I put Justin Steele at No. 6 despite his struggles the year before at South Bend.

Both pitchers changed quite a bit in 2017. I really liked the maturation I saw from Hudson in 2017. He turned into a ground ball machine. He’s not perfect yet, but he was vastly improved from 2016. He is still just 20 years old. As for Steele, He probably had the best year of anything Cubs’ lefty starting pitcher. However, he had TJS in late August.

What I thought would be an easy list this year is actually turning into something quite hard. You would think out of 10 arms that I can find five or six that I really like. After thinking about it, I wanted to get a Time Machine go to the middle of August, see how they did, then come back and pick them that way. That’s not gonna happen…

7. Didier Vargas is a Dominican summer league player who had some success last year. He doesn’t throw as hard as fellow teenager Danis Correa, but Vargas should do well in Mesa after posting a 0.99 ERA in 63.2 IP in the DSL in 2017.

Card made from a photo by John Arguello

6. Brailyn Marquez – If this list was just on pure talent, he would be number one. If it was on command, he wouldn’t even be on the list. Part of Mesa’s championship team, Marquez can throw in the mid 90s with a killer curve. The problem Marquez has is that he has not got his control and command down yet. He can look like the greatest thing for two or three innings and then turn into a BP machine. In 44 IP, he whiffed 52 but gave up 50 hits.

5. Jose Paulino – He went from 75 IP to 123.2 IP between 2016 and 2017. In May and June, his ERAs for both of those months were over 6. He was put on leave for a week and moved to the bullpen to begin the second half. He got a second chance at starting in July where he put together a nice string of outings with a 2.28 ERA for the month, reminiscent of his outstanding 2016 at Eugene. In August, he made 6 starts with a 3.34 ERA. What I liked most about his year was that he went 6 or more innings 11 times in 22 starts, and 7 of those came in 11 starts in the second half. That bodes really well for 2018 and Myrtle Beach.

4. I don’t know what the plan is for Rob Zastryzny. He could be a starter, or he could be a reliever. Or, do the Cubs just want to maintain that flexibility with him? That has to be a difficult and challenging thing to deal with when you don’t know how they want you to be used. My guess is the Cubs will keep him stretched out in case of an emergency this year at Iowa.

3. Justin Steele – He’s not gonna play in 2018 but when he comes back in 2019, he will hopefully carry the approach he began at Myrtle Beach with him to AA Tennessee. He credits daily mental routines for his 2017 success and his aggressiveness on the mound was also a key factor. In 20 starts, he had a 2.82 ERA with 82 Ks in 98.2 IP. The other day, Steele tweeted that he has already begun throwing in his rehab. Now, I am beginning to wonder if he throws some in relief the second half of the year.

2. Bryan Hudson – I probably should’ve just given him a 1B distinction because his future looks mighty bright. Do not get hung up on what his ERA was last year (3.91) but I liked what I saw in his ability to get hitters out. He figured out he could get guys to beat the ball into the ground with his fastball just as well as he could with his killer curve/slider. I think performance wise he’s going to have the best year of these five in 2018. If you’re thinking down the road a few years, I think there’s a lot to look forward to there as well.

1. Brendon Little – If you’re talking about performance, 2017 is not going to rank too high in his professional career. He had some command issues in his debut at Eugene but he also showed a devastating curveball at times. The differentiation between his reported fastball in college and what he showed in Eugene was substantial. He threw 91-94 in college, topping out at 97. At Eugene, he was in the upper 80s and low 90s. What I like is that he could be is a power arm that I think the Cubs can work with and develop. He just turned 21. He came from a junior college program. He doesn’t have all the spit and polish of someone like Lange who spent three years in a major college program and pitched in the College World Series. Little is going to be a work in progress. But the end result in three or four years could be substantial. That’s what you have to focus on. As a fan, you cannot judge him and his future on six weeks in Eugene. You just can’t. He might be one of those guys the Cubs keep in extended spring training in April and May to work on some things before he goes to South Bend. I don’t see the Cubs rushing him through the system. The Cubs poured a lot of money into him and they’re going to do it right.

Other Names to Keep an Eye On
I’m not ready to give up on Manny Rondon. And like Hudson, Rondon may benefit from the environs of the Carolina League and be a bounce-back prospect just like Steele was in 2017. As for Ryan Kellogg, I’m pretty sure he’ll be at Tennessee in 2018 but I’m not so sure what role he is going to have.

Andres Bonalde missed all of 2017. The 6’6” lefty put together a great second half in the DSL in 2016. He had a 2.31 ERA in 7 second half starts including a 1.29 ERA in 4 August starts. I was saddened to see him miss last year. Now, I look forward to him coming back at Mesa in 2018. He is still just a 20-year-old.

The big question mark is Carson Sands. He underwent surgery last winter for elbow splints and returned in late July. He did some rehab starts in Mesa before joining South Bend where he struggled to find the plate, one of which I saw live at Beloit. After two terrible starts for South Bend, he was sent to Eugene. He only made one more start in the Northwest League before he was shut down for the year. You have to feel for the kid. At this point, I hope the problem is physical and can be remedied with rest and rehab. At this point, I do not have a destination for him in 2018.

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A New Top 21 List – A Few Movers and Shakers

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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.

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

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.

The Weekly: 3 Affiliates Reach the Postseason

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By Todd Johnson

With the minor league regular season ending tomorrow, that was the quickest five months I can ever remember. But the postseason begins Tuesday and the Cubs have three teams in the playoffs. Myrtle Beach clinched in June, Eugene clinched last night, and Mesa finalized their spot yesterday afternoon. South Bend, sadly, ended its run last night with a loss at Bowling Green. The playoffs begin Thursday for Myrtle Beach, Tuesday for Eugene, and Mesa laces them up at a time to be determined.

Promotions

Dillon Maples, Mike Freeman, and Victor Caratini were all promoted from Iowa to Chicago on Friday. In addition, Justin Grimm was activated from the DL and more promotions will probably come on Tuesday when Iowa is completely done with their season. I am expecting Taylor Davis, Mark Zagunis, Matt Carasiti, and Bijan Rademacher to get looks this September.

All-Stars

Four Cubs prospects were named All-Stars for their season by their respective leagues. Victor Caratini and Matt Carasiti are Pacific Coast League All-Stars while David Bote and Jason Vosler earned similar honors in the Southern League.

In Sad News

Justin Steele had Tommy John surgery supposedly on August 22 according to a tweet by Jon Roegele. Hopefully he can come back by the end of next season to get some pitches in. For the year, he made 20 starts with a 2.92 ERA and made the Carolina League All-Star Game as well as two monthly ones here at Cubs Central.

On Friday, the Cubs released 27-year-old reliever José Rosario. Hopefully he can latch on with another team to fulfill his dream.

Upcoming Articles.  

With the season ending tomorrow, I have several posts already in the can just waiting to be published. On Tuesday, I will post the year end report for the Iowa Cubs. The Tennessee Smokies will get their year end review next and I will work South Bend’s recapitulation in after that. However, when Wednesday gets here, I will have short posts about the playoff action for Myrtle Beach, Eugene, and Mesa.

Players of the Week

Baseball Card of the Week

My Other Stuff on the Web From This Week

Cubs Insider:

Arizona Fall League

Austin Filiere Profile

 

Cubs MiLB Pitcher of the Year Award Is Still a Bit Murky

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By Todd Johnson

On Sunday morning, the Cubs announced that Jen-Ho Tseng and D.J. Wilson were named the Cubs’ MiLB Pitcher and Player of the Month for July. Tseng had a 1.42 ERA at AAA Iowa to go along with 23 Ks in 25.1 IP. Wilson hit .284 with 7 HRs and 21 RBI in between Mesa (rehab stint) and South Bend. With officially four weeks left in the MiLB season, it got me thinking: Who will be the Cubs MiLB Pitcher and Hitter of the Year?

When it comes to hitting, the winner is clear cut – Victor Caratini. No one else is even in the discussion in my mind. He’s batting .350 with a .959 OPS. He’s hit 10 HRs and driven in 58. While his OBP is a bit less than Mark Zagunis’, whose isn’t. I do not see how Caratini could lose this award. Since his return to Iowa from Chicago, he’s hitting .600.

On the other hand, selecting the Pitcher of the Year is going to be a tough choice that will play out over the next month. I currently have six pitchers in the running with five having a pretty good shot of staking a claim to it.

The Front Runners

Michael Rucker has done it all this year in 84 innings. He’s been a reliever and a starter. He’s been a closer, a setup man, and an ace. His 1.93 ERA is the lowest of the starters up for the award. His 95 Ks gives him a 9.21 K/9 rate. I love to watch him pitch as he just throws strikes. He’s only walked 16 all year.

Jen-Ho Tseng has had a resurgent year relying on good command of his pitches which includes a low 90s fastball and a plus curve and change. His 2.77 combined ERA between Iowa and Tennessee is impressive and he has 110 Ks in 120 IP.

Adbert Alzolay was my breakout player of the first half. Now at AA Tennessee, he has a combined 2.84 ERA between Myrtle Beach and Tennessee with 101 Ks in 107 IP. I like his energy, his pacing, and his 96-97 mph heater. He still needs to refine his secondaries going forward.

The Long Shots

Duncan Robinson is a bit like Rucker in that he began the year as a reliever and morphed into a starter. He was a Midwest League All-Star and was promoted in July to Myrtle Beach from South Bend. On the year, he has a 2.13 ERA over 91 innings. His 77 Ks take him out the discussion a bit when compared with other front runners.

It has been a most impressive season for Justin Steele. He’s been very steady all year. His 2.92 ERA is a testament to his approach and hard work after a rough season at South Bend in 2016. He has 82 Ks in 98.2 IP.

If you were to pick this award on sheer domination, reliever Dakota Mekkes would win hands down. He dominated at South Bend and then again at Myrtle Beach. He did allow an earned run for almost three months. Heading into today, his ERA is a miniscule 0.76 ERA to go along with 79 Ks in 59 IP. Opponents are only hitting .152 against him. If not for 27 walks, I think he would be in Tennessee.

I think Michael Rucker is currently in the lead. However, I truly think the award should go to Mekkes. For the past few years, the Cubs have rewarded starters including Tseng, Trevor Clifton and Duane Underwood. But Mekkes’ season has been one of pure domination across the board and two levels. However, I don’t think the Cubs will give that award to a reliever. I wish they would, though. I really wish they would.

11 Young Cub Pitchers Dominating in July

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By Todd Johnson

It has been a busy few days for me. I started getting ready for my real job as a history teacher by doing some long range-planning this week. But I am ready to get back to baseball writing.

I was able to take a few breaks and watch some outstanding pitching performances from Cubs prospects this week. As I mentioned last week, the Cubs farm system has shifted towards being pitching heavy. The past few days have proven that with some serious games thrown across all levels. When I go to pick the monthly prospect All-Star team in less two weeks, these guys will make my job very hard.

Duncan Robinson – In his third start at high A Myrtle Beach, Robinson put his excellent command to good use going 5 IP with 5 Ks while only allowing 1 hit. This was clearly his best start since being promoted. It lowered his ERA for the month to 3.27 and for the year to 2.28.

Manny Rondon – He got off to a rough start to begin 2017. I found it surprising as he was the Northwest League pitcher of the year in 2016. On Monday afternoon, the lefty went 6.2 IP and gave up only a run while striking out three. It was one of his best starts of the year. After a 3.60 ERA in June, things are beginning to look up.

Jose Albertos – At short season Eugene, the young 18-year-old top prospect has put up a 2.70 ERA so far. He has a really good fastball in the mid 90s that he can command most days. His curve is a work in progress. I wish he would use his change more as that could be his most devastating pitch.

Justin Steele – He has quietly put up one of the best seasons of any pitcher in the Cubs’ system in 2017. He credits a new mental focus that includes stir-fry and meditation before every game. His major league type arsenal is looking very good. On Sunday, in a rain shortened game, he only gave up 1 run in 4 innings, which is about the norm for him this year.

Thomas Hatch – In June, the Cubs 2016 third round pick put up a 0.98 ERA. He got roughed up in one start this month but still sports a 3.21 ERA in just July. With improved command of a “new” four seam fastball in his pocket, he has been changing eye levels all summer.

Jen-Ho Tseng – He might have the most underrated story in the Cubs’ system this summer. After a rebirth that made one think of his 2014 summer at Kane County, Tseng hung up a 2.99 ERA at AA Tennessee. Most impressive in his statistics arsenal were his 83 Ks in 90.1 IP. In his second start at AAA Iowa, Tseng went 7 IP with 8 Ks and did not allow a run on Monday night.

Michael Rucker – His transformation has been stunning this year. As a reliever, he was a strikeout machine at South Bend. He was promoted in early June and was doing the same. All he does is attack the zone. It’s a simple plan that he can execute. The 2016 11th round pick out of BYU took over the injured Oscar de la Cruz’s spot in Myrtle Beach’s starting rotation and has never looked back. Check out this line from Monday night – 8 IP, 10 Ks, 2 hits, and 0 runs.

Preston Morrison – He’s had an up and down year. After a 1.88 ERA in May, it ballooned to 6 in June, and he is killing it in July with a 1.50 ERA. I enjoyed watching him last year at South Bend where he used what I call a “whiffle ball repertoire” to confound hitters. His last two starts saw him go 6 IP apiece and only give up 1 run in each.

Adbert Alzolay – He was promoted from Myrtle Beach to Tennessee two weeks ago. He proceeded to strike out ten in his five inning AA debut. So far, he has a 2.70 ERA in two AA starts. With a fastball that he can maintain deep into games, he bears a lot of watching.

Jesus Camargo – He comes across as a sneaky pitcher who I love to watch pitch. Currently at short season Eugene, he is having a good season after missing all of 2016. He has upper 80s/low 90s heat with a mid 70s curve and a changeup that is just plain filthy and that he can add and subtract mph. It is really a devastating pitch. The 21-year-old righty has a 1.73 ERA in six appearances and has struck out 31 in 26 IP. I really enjoy watching him work.

Jose Paulino – His last two starts saw him throw 12 scoreless innings with 12 Ks. His ERA for July is 0.55. Just six weeks ago, he was taken out of the rotation and placed in the bullpen. The young lefty has returned with a vengeance.

There should be even more great performances coming on a nightly basis. Hopefully Oscar de la Cruz will return to action along with Jake Stinnett. Stinnett made a rehab appearance this week down in Mesa. Trevor Clifton will look to bounce back in his next start and Bryan Hudson looks to recapture his ground ball magic. Even Bailey Clark has shown signs that he was a good gamble. Last night, he struck out 8 in 5 IP. He struck out 9 a couple of weeks ago. It’s getting deep when it comes to Cubs’ starting pitching.

Mind you, these 11 are just the starters. I did not talk about the relievers. I will be covering some of them the next few days.

June All-Star Team Has Several New Faces

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By Todd Johnson

I think the first thing you’ll notice when you start watching this month’s presentation is the amount of new names who made the All-Star team in June. In fact, there are only ten holdovers from last month. That means there are 10 new names and one returning name from April. That’s a lot.

June was a rough month in the Cubs’ system. Going into Thursday and Friday, I only had five starting pitchers on my list and only four of them met the usual requirement of an ERA below 3.00 for a month. I do like the fact that there are a lot of new names as it shows the depth of the system, and it also shows that they are all performing at a high-level.

July is usually when we see a lot of new names make the list. Arizona and Eugene players will make their names heard. For me, this is when I really I get to know a prospect. I begin to keep track of their stats almost on a daily basis. I am always excited to see new prospects do well, whether it’s the ones I think will or the ones who surprise me. To be honest, I always enjoy being surprised more.

The Weekly: Good News Around the System and Draft Signings

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By Todd Johnson

Even though there are now eight minor league games a day, it doesn’t seem like much is happening. The draft is complete, the second half began, and all the rookie and short season leagues are in high gear. Yet, here I sit wondering what to write about for the next week. There are, however, good things happening throughout the Cubs system. Here are 14 of them.

1. Trent Giambrone is on fire. He’s hitting .361 with 4 HRs and 8 RBI over his last ten games.
2. Thomas Hatch has allowed one earned run all month. That calculates to a 0.33 ERA.
3. Isaac Paredes, all of 18-years-old, has figured it out at South Bend. He’s hitting .316 and slugging .526 as a shortstop this month.
4. Catcher Alberto Mineo looks to have mastered South Bend. He’s hitting at .323 clip this month.
5. I thought Vimael Machin was going to be a utility/organizational player this year. He has proved me wrong. He is hitting .311 in June and .289 on the year.
6. Justin Steele’s ERA for just May was 1.63. In June, it is 1.62.
7. Charcer Burks is the most unheralded Cub prospect going. He’s hitting .353 for the month and .309 on the year. And, he is a gold glove defender.
8. Victor Caratini’s monthly averages this year are .312, .366, and .333.
9. Bijan Radmacher is on a tear this month. He’s hitting .375 with a .455 OBP
10. Eugene’s Gustavo Polanco has everyone beat in his first 9 games. He’s crushing it at a .486 clip. His OPS is a staggering 1.311.
11. Joe Martarano might be better than I thought. After missing most of 2 years while focusing on football, he’s going at it. He has a .385 average and a .455 OBP. I really like his at-bats. Even when he makes an out, he works counts and lays off stuff out of the zone.
12. Yapson Gomez is the bomb out of the pen for Eugene. He threw 6.1 IP this week and struckout 8.
13. I watched Alex Lange pitch for LSU on Friday. He’s the real deal. He’s not a MLB #1 starter, but he and his curve will do just fine.
14. Carson Sands made his first start of the year in Mesa last night. He had elbow surgery in the off-season to remove elbow splints. He went three scoreless with 6 GB outs.

Draft Signings: 17 to date
The MLB Draft was moved back a bit this year. As a result, draft picks who had normally signed and started playing short season ball are just now getting their physicals. It looks like the Cubs could sign as many as 28-30 players this year.

Rounds 1-10: LHP Brendon Little, RHP Cory Abbott, RHP Keegan Thompson, RHP Erich Uelmen, LHP Ricky Tyler Thomas, 3B/1B/OF Austin Filiere, OF Chris Carrier, and RHP Brian Glowicki

Rounds 11-20: RHP Casey Ryan, RHP Brendan King, RHP Peyton Remy,

Rounds 21-30: RHP Sean Barry, RHP Mitch Stophel, RHP Jake Steffens, RHP Braxton Light, and 2B Cam Balego

Rounds 31-40: IF Ramsey Romano

They should game begin action later this week, most likely in Mesa. The more advanced college players will go to Eugene. There are a few others rumored to be signed, but their physicals must be completed before the signing becomes official. The deadline day to sign is July 15 at 4 PM,  CDST.

Promotion Commotion
Daniel Spingola made his way to Tennessee this week. Conor Myers is back with Myrtle Beach after being with Eugene for the past week.

Around the Minors


Iowa: 3-3; 32-43 – This starting pitching thing will hopefully straighten itself out in the next couple of weeks. Zach Hedges was much better in his second start. He will adjust.

Tennessee: 0-3; 0-3 – The second half got off to a rough start with a tropical storm and then losing both ends of a double header. Trevor Clifton was roughed up in his worst start of the year.

Myrtle Beach: 1-2; 1-2 – Going into Friday’s start, all five starting pitchers had ERAs under 3.18 for the month. Then Ryan Kellogg was uncharacteristically shelled by Down East. Michael Rucker was dominant last night in 5 IP before a rain delay ended his start after only 56 pitches.

South Bend: 1-2; 1-2 – First game back and Zack Short hit a HR. Manny Rondon thn had his best start of the year Thursday and Jose Paulino moved to the bullpen this half. I will have to keep an eye on that rotation. Bryan Hudson was excellent last night. Dylan Cease should be coming up.

Eugene – 3-3; 5-5 – Gustavo Polanco es en fuego and Yapson Gomez has been money in the pen. And who is Jhon Romero (Yes, that’s how he spells it)? 2B Rafael Narea seems to have taken off since he was moved to the leadoff spot. He went 3 for 4 with 2 BBs last night. He’s batting .344 with a .488 OBP.

Mesa:  1-0; 1-0 – Opening day went very well except for that one part where they batted out of order. However, Delvin Zinn did well (2-5) as did Rafael Mejia (3-4, HR). Carson Sands had 1 K in his 3 innings.

DSL 1: 1-4; 5-13 – It was a rough week. Let’s leave it at that.

DSL 2: 2-3; 8-10 – This team has some serious starting pitching but can’t score a lot of runs.


Players of the Week

Card of the Week

My Other Cubs Articles on the Web from this Week

BP Wrigleyville: Thomas Hatch

Cubs Insider: Alex Lange