Keegan Thompson

The Weekly – The Second Half Begins with Pitching, Debuts, and a RBI/wRC+ Race

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By Todd Johnson

I always find that the three days of the All-Star break is always quite strange. First, you have two teams in the Dominican that play very early in the morning, and then you have four teams playing at night, three of them who just began their season. It’s a bit hard to go from 6 PM to 9 PM without either checking in on a game, watching Gameday, or MiLB.TV. When play resumes on Thursday, then it’s like a massive rush as there are games going anywhere from 9:30 in the morning to 11:30/12 at night. That’s a whole lot of baseball.

All the minor league affiliates began playing at once for the first time on Thursday, pitching was still stealing the show. Tyler Thomas truck at 11 for South Bend, Alex Lange of Myrtle Beach went six strong and struck out seven, and Erling Moreno, who was on a rehab start in Mesa, threw 4.2 no hit innings. And last night, Didier Vargas, all of 19 years old, struck out 11 in 7 for Mesa 1.

In addition to action returning, there was also some player movement. Cam BeLago and early Marino were assigned to South Bend on Friday. On Thursday, Eric Hillman was promoted to Myrtle Beach and Keegan Thompson was promoted to AA Tennessee, and infielder Christian Donahue is going to be filling in at Iowa for a week or two for Stephen Bruno.

Debuts for Draft Picks and Undrafted Free Agents
On Friday night, the first 2018 draft picks debuted down in Mesa. By the end of next week and several of them should be in Eugene. For Mesa 1, second baseman Clayton Daniel and outfielder Jamie Galazin both went two for three in their debut. Over at Mesa 2, outfielders Grant Frennel, Drew Wharton, and DJ Artis all went hitless. There will be a lot more debuts this coming week that will hopefully include some pitchers getting on the mound for the first time.

Card made from a photo by John Conover

RBI/wRC+ Lead
One interesting thing that’s been happening since about the middle of May is the statistic of who is leading the Cubs system in runs created and batted in. For a long while, Jason Vossler had sole possession. Then, starting in early June Jared Young started creating runs in bunches. At the All-Star break, they were tied with 42 RBI while Young had a wRC+ of 141 compared to Vosler’s 129. On Friday night Vosler drove in three runs to retake the RBI as Young only drove in one. It may not mean much in the big scheme of things, but it’s a fun stat to track. I don’t see Young giving up the wRC+ stat anytime soon with his .300 average helping to keep his numbers high.

Draft Signings
Draft picks only have about a week and a half left for them to sign their pro contracts. Several picks signed their contracts this week including first round pick Nico Hoerner. I expect him to begin play very shortly at Eugene and by this time next week the Cubs should have 30-32 of their draft picks signed. Not that that would be a coup, but it would be pretty close to one.

End of June Schedule
As June wraps up, I’ve begun assembling statistics for this month’s all star team. The issue is that the month ends on Saturday. Usually in that instance, I move the Weekly ahead a day. However, I think I am going to put out two posts that day. The Weekly will roll out at it’s usual time. The June All-Star Team will come out in the late afternoon and the Cards of the Month will come out on Tuesday.

Getting My Trips in Order
With only staining the rails and new steps left to do on my deck, my yard work list will probably be done by the end of the week. After that, I can begin my road trips to watch some baseball and break in my new camera. Right now, I plan on heading to South Bend for a couple of days and then follow the team most of the week as they play Quad Cities and Kane County. That will be nice as my house is located in between them.

Players of the Week

Card of the Week

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Promotion Commotion Is Coming: Who Should Be Moving?

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By Todd Johnson

Now that the first half of the MiLB season and accompanying all-star games are complete, expect to see some promotions coming. However, don’t expect to see too many of them. There are two reasons for that. One is that there were not that many dominating hitting performances when it comes to position players. And, while pitchers were great in the first half, there are not too many pitching positions open. The same can be said for catching. Still, there are several players who are worthy of moving up a level.

Should be heading to Iowa
There’s a pitching spot open since Adbert is out for the year.

Top of the List
Duncan Robinson is really putting together a good season at AA. He’s being pretty quiet about it, too. He had a 3.36 ERA in the first half. And in June, he’s hotter than a firecracker with a 1.59 ERA. What I like is that his batting average against has decreased every month. The fact that he has only walked 10 batters in 75 innings should give you the first clue that he is clearly in control on the mound.

Heading to Tennessee
If Robinson goes to Iowa, that creates a spot in the rotation for the Smokies.

Top Candidate #1
Keegan Thompson is the hottest pitcher at Myrtle Beach. He has four pitches he can throw for strikes and he recently pitched 7 perfect innings in his last start. He’s extremely polished and I don’t see high A Myrtle Beach holding much of a challenge for him at 23 years of age. He’s been named Carolina League Pitcher of the Week twice. In June, his dominance was highlighted by his WHIP of 0.54! He doesn’t look to be challenged much and there are no new pitches for him to polish – that being his strongest point for promotion.

Top Candidate #2
Alex Lange might not be the hottest pitcher in the system, but he has a lot of potential as a pro. Already armed with a plus curve, he’s been working on two things this year – fastball command and a changeup. Sometimes, he takes his lumps, other times, he dominates. From May 17 to June 11, he allowed 1 earned run while striking out 21 in 22 innings over 4 starts. Lange’s 2.83 season long FIP is much better than Thompson’s 3.42, it would be an interesting discussion on who would move to AA.

Heading to the Beach to PItch

The Cubs would have several arms from which to pick at South Bend. Rollie Lacy, Erich Uelmen, Tyler Thomas, and Jesus Camargo are all having excellent seasons for the Cubs’ Midwest League affiliate. On the other hand, Lacy and Uelmen are two of the hottest pitchers in the system. In June, Ulemen has a 1.40 ERA while Lacy has a very nice 0.69 ERA. Lacy’s curve is pretty hard to hit while Uelmen’s natural sinking fastball that bottoms out gets some of the ugliest swings one sees in Class A baseball.

Lacy started out in the pen this year and has been pretty consistent since he moved to the rotation on May 6. He just keeps refining himself every outing and has shown incredible growth through the pitches he throws in certain counts which keeps hitters guessing. His ERA for the year is 2.40.

Uelmen was rocked around pretty hard in April as a starter. His 9.75 ERA and 1.92 WHIP were pretty discouraging. Despite those two stats, Uelmen was still striking out a batter an inning. In May, he figured things out. It was as if he warmed up with the weather in northern Indiana. Back-to-back monthly ERAs of 2.16 and 1.40 point to his growth as well. Even though his ERA is 3.51 for the year, his FIP is a robust 2.47.

It would be a tough choice.

When It Comes to Hitting…
Sadly, no hitter at either Myrtle Beach or Tennessee is just completely dominating. However, I could see Jason Vosler moving to AAA Iowa. Sure, he’s put up good power and walk numbers, and has been hitting well the past month, but there’s not really a spot for him unless someone is cut, or, God forbid, moved to Chicago because of an injury. Who knows what the summer will bring to open up a spot? Maybe a trade will clear some space at AA or AAA.

Card made from a photo by John Conover

Then again, there is only one hitter I can see being promoted and I am pretty sure you know who that is. I feel like all I have done is write about him this year.

Jared Young should be in Myrtle Beach as soon as possible. He can go there, play multiple positions, and, in general, scuff up some more baseballs.

What I see driving promotions later this summer is going to be the play of this year’s draft picks. Players like Nico Hoerner and Luke Reynolds could result in more movement than we have seen so far this year. Outside of Cory Abbott, Matt Swarmer, and Trevor Clifton, there’s just not much movement, or, should I say, big names moving.

That’s about to change.

 

The Friday Six Pack – Things I’ve Been Keeping an Eye on Lately

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By Todd Johnson

This is the final weekend of the first half of the minor league season. Only the Tennessee Smokies are still in contention but three teams have a chance to have a winning record for the first half. In addition, the Eugene Emeralds begin their season tonight. The Arizona Rookie League also begins on Monday.

Here are six other things I have been keeping an eye on lately.

1. Keegan Thompson – The Myrtle Beach starting pitcher threw seven perfect innings of no-hit ball. He uses a four pitch mix to get eight strikeouts while not allowing a baserunner of any kind. The no-hitter and perfect game were lost in the eighth, as well as the game. Still, Thompson might be the most polished right now of last year’s draft class. His pitchability is off the charts.

2. Erich Uelmen – Over the last two months, there has been no better pitcher in the Cubs system. He had a 2.16 ERA in May and has a 1.40 ERA in 3 June starts. Currently, his sinker is one of the best pitches of any Cubs’ pitching prospect. If he can command all three pitches, he is going to be unstoppable. I can’t wait to see how his stuff plays at the next level.

3. Jared Young – in April, he was hitting over .400 before an injury. When he came back in May, it took him a couple weeks to get back in the swing of things. He only hit .229 for the month. He’s back to destroying the ball and hitting .298 for the first half as well as 39 RBI, second only to Jason Vosler in the system.

4. David Bote – He definitely has power as he hit another home run last night. His bat to ball skills clearly put him at the top of the Cubs’ call up from AAA list.

Card made from a photo by Tiffany W. (@TiffW96)

5. Jason Vosler – He should find his way to AAA soon. For the past six weeks, he’s been hitting for average and power while leading the system in home runs and RBIs. He’s been taking his walks all year, now balls just seem to be falling in for him at a much higher rate. He should be fine at AAA as long as he can hit somewhere between .250 and .270 to go along with his power.

6. Jake Hannemann – He’s never been a hitting machine until this year. At 27-years-old, things are really beginning to click for him. In May, he hit .313 and, so far in June, he cruising along at a .400 clip.

Bonus – I have not been spending as much time on Twitter since the draft. That will probably continue as I seem to be enjoying doing other things like getting the back yard fixed up. If you send me a message on Twitter, I will get a notification on my phone and I can message you back. Other than that I think I’m enjoying cutting back the amount of time I spend there.

Coming up Sunday in The Weekly
Who’s Hot – Jhonny Bethencourt, Brandon Hughes, Michael Rucker, Duncan Robinson, and Jacob Hannemann, to name a few. I will also check out how Eugene did and take a short look at trends in the DSL.

The May All-Star Team Has a Lot of New Faces

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By Todd Johnson

It’s getting to be the busy season here at Cubs Central. While next week will be all about the draft, and redoing the top 21 list, this weekend will be about wrapping up what happened in May in the Cubs’ system. Tomorrow, I will rank the top 10 cards I made for the month. For today, it’s all about recognizing the top performers in the Cubs system the last 31 days.

Surprisingly, only 7 prospects made both the May and April All-Star teams. That’s not a lot. And of those 6, only 2 hitters did, catchers Jhonny Pereda and Miguel Amaya. This is going to be an interesting year as players search to find some consistency at the plate and on the mound.

This month’s All-Star team came right down to the wire. Several pitching spots were in play throughout the course of the last two nights, including the Pitcher of the Month and Hitter of the Month.

I have been tracking the system on a month by month spreadsheet. One thing I noticed early in the month was the ascension of Pelican pitcher Casey Bloomquist as a setup man for Myrtle Beach. Like many arms in the system, Bloomquist has worked both as a starter and as a reliever. This year, he is thriving in his new role. All of his pitches are a little more polished this year. The cutter that he talked about two years ago with me, now is becoming a go-to pitch for him. Good for Casey!

So, without further adieu, here is this month’s all star team, once again in video form.

The June All-Star team will be a lot of fun to sort through. The Dominican Summer League begins play tomorrow.

Eugene and the two Mesa teams start on June 15th. Some names I look forward to seeing play in Eugene are OF Fernando Kelli, SS Luis Vazquez, and 3B Christopher Morel. Down in Mesa, pitcher Jesus Tejada is a must follow along with SS Luis Diaz and OF Carlos Pacheco, to name a few. It should be an exciting month of action.

The Weekly: May Flying By, A Few Promotions, and “The Jinx”

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By Todd Johnson

It’s been a rough week in the minors. There were a lot of rainouts and doubleheaders in addition to night games followed by early morning affairs. It was enough to make a prospect’s head spin. As a result, the Cubs’ system did not have a good week.

As May comes to a close, the pitching that was dominating hitters in April took a downward turn as the weather warmed up. In April, the Cubs had eight starting pitchers with ERAs under three and several of those eight had ERAs under two. With just 11 days to go in May, the Cubs only have three pitchers with an ERA under 3.00 for just this month. They are Keegan Thompson at 2.65, Michael Rucker at 2.81, and Alec Mills at 2.89.

There have been plenty of outstanding starts by many pitchers just this week. Last night, Cory Abbott struck out 11 for South Bend while Thomas Hatch threw a 7 inning complete game shutout for Tennessee. Earlier in the week, Erich Uelmen went six shutout innings for South Bend as well, while Duncan Robinson tossed six innings of one run ball. There’s some great stuff happening on the mound. Maintaining that high level of success is easier said than done. We will see if more can get below that 3.00 threshold to make it onto the May All-Star Team.

As for hitting, one would think it would be improving as the weather warmed up. It has a little bit. In April, six Cub position players hit above .300 for the month and Jeffrey Baez posted a .411 average for the span. In May, those numbers increased to eight guys hitting over .300 lead by Tyler Alamo at .366. David Bote hit over .500 for Iowa but that was before his call-up 12 days ago. As a result, he doesn’t have enough at-bats to qualify (3.1 ABs per game). Still, Bote has been extremely impressive at AAA at .455 in just 33 ABs. If you include his 17 MLB plate appearances, he’s at 22 for 52 or .423.

Promotions and Releases
Reliever Ryan McNeil debuted for Tennessee this week. The 2012 draft pick missed most of the year down in extended spring training. However, McNeil’s debut saw the release of long time prospect James Pugliese. Drafted in 2011, Pugliese filled a variety of roles at Kane County, Myrtle Beach, and Tennessee. Hopefully he can catch on with another system in a relief role.

Infielders Vimael Machin and Yeiler Peguero were also promoted from Myrtle Beach and South Bend, respectively. Their promotion saw the release of long time shortstop Carlos Penalver. Penalver was known more for his defense but had trouble hitting at the plate at Kane County, Myrtle Beach, and Tennessee. Good luck to him in his MLB pursuit.

The Jinx
On Twitter, I have been known to tweet out live pitching stats during a game. Well, for about 3-4 days in a row, as soon as I tweeted something out, that pitcher then got knocked around the next inning. It happened to both relievers and starters. I am sure they were just coincidences, but it makes you wonder. Follow the thread on this tweet to see what happened with Dakota Mekkes.

Coming Up Next Week on Cubs Central
On Monday, I’m going to slap a grade on the 2017 draft class. It will be their first one. As for the rest of the week, I am going to let the action dictate the content. I don’t have anything planned for “The Midweek” or The Six Pack.” Although, I do have some thoughts banging around my brain. Maybe you will see a “10 Things I Think” post or a “Prospect Stock Watch.” You could even see an affiliate update.

After Memorial Day, I will be doing some phone interviews with a few Myrtle Beach Pelicans. I always look forward to talking to the players and reporting back on their career paths and stories. I don’t have a definite list of who I’m going to interview, but Pelicans announcer Scott Kornberg and I talked about a few players that fans might want to know more about.

With the MLB draft just two weeks away, I’ll be pouring through some mock drafts and rankings this week. Right now, there’s not a lot of consensus on where players will be falling after the first few pics.

This Week’s Records
Iowa 2-3 (13-26)
Tennessee 3-4 (22-20)
Myrtle Beach 3-2 (17-24)
South Bend 3-5 (17-23)

Players of the Week

Things I Wrote for Other Sites
BP Wrigleyville
Nelson Velazquez

Cubs Insider
Brendon Little

Baseball Card of the Week

A Few Website Changes
As a website, Cubs Central has never been static. I do make changes on what I hope are improvements from time to time. This week I removed the Prospect Pictures and Video Page that was filled with images I took myself. They are now placed in albums on the Facebook page. In addition, I am in the process of uploading any videos I took to my YouTube account (that could take awhile). I am hoping it just makes for a cleaner experience and as it created a lot more memory on the server.

The Midweek Report: Remillard Begins 2018, Pitcher Injuries, and Top 21 Thoughts

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By Todd Johnson

It is good to see catcher Will Remillard back in action and playing all the way up at AA Tennessee. The former Midwest League All-Star missed 2.5 years due to two Tommy John surgeries. He saw his first action since 2014 last August doing some catching for the Eugene Emeralds. He spent most of this spring in extended spring training and he began playing last week in Tennessee.

His bat has acted like he never left and skipped high A baseball. Heading into Wednesday’s game, he was 5 for 11 (.455) in 3 games at AA and I am extremely happy to see him play. I love his catching skills and his leadership skills. He brings a lot of intensity to any team he is on.

In Other Injury News…
Manny Rondon made his debut last night in South Bend. He did so in relief giving up 1 unearned run and striking out 1 in 1.2 innings.

Meanwhile, Justin Steele, who was outstanding at Myrtle Beach last year before TJS in August, is back throwing after surgery.

Also, reliever Chad Hockin showed off his scar work from his Tommy John Surgery last month.

In addition…

For some weird reason, I am also thinking about June when I plan on redoing my Top 21 prospect list. At the beginning of the year, I knew that players would move up and down the list this year depending on performance. The lack of elite talent and separation between the talent in the system would cause that movement as players heated up or cooled off.

There are a few prospects who are putting together nice seasons and could be promoted at the All-Star break in mid June.

Hitters
Zack Short – After a poor July, he’s pounding the ball in May with a .698 slugging percentage and hitting above .300 this month with an OBP well over .500.
Jared Young – He did have a brief injury after hitting .400+ the first two weeks of the season. He struggled a bit after coming off the DL, but seems to have found his stroke the past four or five games.
Austin Filiere – The 2016 draft pick out of MIT hit for more power last year, but this year finds him hitting for a high average (.313)) and his usual .400+ OBP.

Pitchers
Duane Underwood was doing this best Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde impersonation for a few starts and now looks to be using all his pitches in a variety of counts to keep a batter guessing. When he’s been on, he is is amazing. When he’s off, yeesh!

I really enjoy watching Keegan Thompson pitch. I like how he works hitters and uses all of the zone and throws a variety of pitches. He’s really been impressive in May with a 2.65 in 3 starts.

Matt Swarmer, Cory Abbott, Tyler Thomas, and Javier Assad have all been impressive in spurts, but I need more data on them. Of the four, Abbott could be the most consistent and he could sneak into the back end of the list. Although, Matt Swarmer’s K totals are amazing (42 in 32.1 IP).

I don’t know how it will all shake down, but there will be an even greater number of prospects this June to add into the Top 21 mix when Eugene, Mesa, and the Dominican begin play. Jeremiah Estrada is one player pitching I am looking forward to seeing along with Outfielder Fernando Kelli and Shortstop Luis Vazquez as well as the new draft picks.

I will be writing about Adbert Alzolay in anticipation of his supposed start on Saturday. The issue is whether I will be posting it in the Six Pack on Friday or its own post on Saturday.

A Few Cubs Prospects Are Trying to Break Out in 2018

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By Todd Johnson

It is getting harder and harder to be a breakout prospect with the myriad number of blogs, websites, and other assorted media out there to capture Cub prospects in action. Last year, Adbert Alzolay was the Cubs’ breakout pitching star going through two levels like a hot knife through butter. Meanwhile, 2017 5th round pick Nelson Velazquez clubbed 8 HRs in about 6 weeks of ball in August and early September to take the breakout hitting award. This year, things are a little different when identifying the breakout performances of the first half.

When it comes to pitching, Myrtle Beach starter Matt Swarmer currently leads the pack. He was the Cubs’ April Pitcher of the Month going 20.2 IP with 27 Ks. This month, Swarmer is making his second trip around the 10-team Carolina League and things are a bit tougher. He has a 3.82 ERA in May over 11.2 innings but he’s struck out 16 and walked just 1. I think you can chalk that up to one bad inning. Still, more data is needed before we declare Swarmer the breakout pitcher of the first half.

Another pitcher who seems to breaking out is Rollie Lacy of South Bend. Like Duncan Robinson and Michael Rucker did last year, Lacy began the year in the bullpen. He was dominant in 5 of his 6 relief outings striking out 25 in 18.2 innings. As a starter, he’s made two starts and is still stretching his arm out. I like what I see as he does fool a lot of hitters by changing speeds and keeping the ball down in the zone. While he did not strike out any in his first start, he whiffed six in his second. While I doubt if he could overtake Swarmer for the Award for the first half, he is definitely one to watch in the second half as he acclimates to starting at this level.

I love to watch Keegan Thompson pitch. The young man knows how to work a hitter and a strike zone. Every time he pitches, he improves over the last outing. He put up a 4.19 ERA in April after skipping South Bend to begin his first year in full season ball. That, in and of itself, is an adjustment. Now that May is here, Thompson is delivering with a 2.65 ERA for the month in three starts. He has 18 Ks already for the month surpassing his total for all of April in half the time. Thompson just looks like he knows what he wants to do on the mound. He should be a fun watch.

In the bullpen, Tyler Peyton was my pick to breakout in relief and he has done everything to make me look good. The 2016 draft pick out of Iowa has really taken to the bullpen. He did well at times last year in South Bend, especially in August when he had a 1.29 ERA for the month. So far, Peyton has a 1.35 ERA in 20 innings with 20 Ks and he has begun to close for the Pelicans, opposite fellow closer Jhon Romero.

On the other hand, hitting in the Cubs’ system is down quite a bit in 2018.

As a result, it is pretty easy to pick out prospects who have a spike in their performance at the plate. While Austin Filiere is having an outstanding year for South Bend, he pretty much broke out last summer at Eugene but was overshadowed by Nelson Velazquez down in Mesa. The same is true for Zack Short and Jared Young. Meanwhile, Connor Myers, who hit just .191 last year, seems to have added “singles hitter” to his repertoire with an average just above .280 this year. Myers has always been an elite defender, but his adding the ability to hit for average really transforms his worth to the organization.

Still, Myers is not the breakout hitter of the first half.

That distinction belongs to Myer’s teammate, catcher Jhonny Pereda.

Pereda is hitting a smooth .311 with 2 HRs and a team leading 23 RBI. He doesn’t strike out much and his monthly splits are ascending – hitting .304 with a .360 OBP in April and .324 with a .405 OBP in May. Arizona Phil of The Cub Reporter raved about Pereda this spring for his defense behind the plate. I was glad to read that. His offense, on the other hand, has been a complete surprise.

Last year, at South Bend, I got my first good look at Pereda. He got off to a great start in April hitting .344. Then he met a lot of pitches that began with the letter “C.” He struggled to hit in May (.219) and June (.153) before rebounding somewhat in July (.275) and August (.263). In the second half, he cut his K rate by a third and that has been the springboard for him this year.

His consistency and approach at the plate leads me to believe he will be the breakout hitter of the first half in about a month. Pelicans announcer Scott Kornberg added the following about Pereda’s success this year:

He rarely strikes out or even swings and misses, and tries to use the middle and opposite fields. In fact, about two-thirds of his batted balls have been hit to those directions, and he has one of the highest opposite-field percentages in the league. In addition, he’s been hitting consistent line drives. His line drive rate has been in the top 10 of the league all year long, so when you’re making that much contact and it’s almost always quality contact, good things are going to happen. 

It will be interesting to watch the aforementioned players try to maintain and sustain their development this spring. Ultimately, I think the Cubs are looking for a few breakthroughs, too.