MiLB Free Agency Is on the Horizon: Cubs Will Have Some Tough Choices

By Todd Johnson

When it comes to 6 year minor league free agents, the Cubs have several this year. Most of them are currently at AAA Iowa while several are scattered throughout the system. Some will re-sign with the Cubs while others will go see if they can break through someplace else.

Today, I’m gonna break down a few names who I think the Cubs are going to try and re-sign of their 20+ minor league free agents.

Here is the list for each affiliate.

Iowa – Alberto Baldonado, LHP; Corey Black, RHP; Stephen Bruno, INF; Chris Coghlan, OF-INF; Casey Coleman, RHP; Ryan Court, INF; Taylor Davis, C-1B; Trey Martin, OF; Bijan Rademacher, OF; Jose Rosario, RHP; Kyle Ryan, LHP; Ali Solis, C; Corey Black, RHP;

Tennessee – Gioskar Amaya, INF; Jeffrey Baez, OF; Yasiel Balaguert, 1B-OF; Wynton Bernard, OF; Erick Castillo, C; Daury Torrez, RHP; Ryan Webb, RHP; Allen Webster, RHP.

Myrtle Beach – Roberto Caro, OF; Erick Leal, RHP; Jose Paulino, LHP; Chris Pieters, OF

Most Likely to Return

Some of these players could actually be coming back. They could be taking leadership roles on the team and helping, somewhat, to coach younger prospects. Taylor Davis and Stephen Bruno definitely could fill those roles.

As for guys who will actually suit up to play, pitcher Kyle Ryan might be worth another look. He has been up-and-down this year, but I still think there is something there and he is still only 26.

Depending upon how he does the next month in Mesa, Corey Black should continue his rehab from Tommy John surgery with the Cubs. Hopefully, Black still wants to give it a go and there’s something left in his arm.

Erick Leal has had a great year at Myrtle Beach coming off Tommy John surgery. I would love to see how he does at AA Tennessee next year. 

Roberto Caro has had a bit of a breakout year and could find his way back to the Cubs’ system to see if he can get it done at Tennessee. If you can hit .350 at two levels, the odds are pretty good.

Several other familiar names have just been sitting and spinning at AAA and AA for a few years now. Daury Torrez and Bijan Rademacher deserve a shot at the majors in some capacity. Unfortunately, it is likely to come with someone else. Along with Trey Martin, they could stick around for one more year, but the odds are slim they could break through with the Cubs.

There’s always two things to keep in mind. One, what is in the best interest of the player? And two, what is in the best interest of the organization?

When Jaron Madison and the rest of the crew sit down to make those determinations, they will have to keep those two questions in mind. While many of these players might not have a chance at the big league level, they can help fill out a roster. Considering that the Cubs’ system does not have a lot of elite talent, some of the other players are just not ready to go to AA or higher yet. As an organization, you want to put players in positions at which they can succeed. These free agents could be seen as place holders until the younger prospects are ready.

 It’ll be interesting to see what happens as to the direction(s) the Cubs take this winter when all these players listed above become free agents.

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40 Man and Rule 5 Considerations – Options and Spots Are Limited

By Todd Johnson

Last year, David Bote and Adbert Alzolay were named to the Cubs’ 40 man roster. They were pretty much slamdunk choices. This year, there is no prospect who is an automatic choice. There are, however, several guys who are clear-cut favorites to be placed on the 40-man roster to either avoid losing them to free agency or the Rule 5 Draft.

Spots

Currently there are 42 players on the 40-man roster with 2 of them on on the 60 day disabled list. Once they come off that list, they can either be released or they have to be placed on the 40 man roster. Which means, someone has to go. Drew Smyly is one of the two players on the 60 Day DL and he will start throwing outings this month. Hopefully, he can be back in time for the playoffs in a relief role. Justin Hancock, the other player on the 60 Day DL, lools like he is not coming back this year at all.

Who Is Leaving for Sure?

The Cubs only have three players, Justin Wilson, Jesse Chavez, and Anthony Bass, whose contracts expire at the end of the 2018 season. Wilson will not return, but Chavez and Bass both could come back to Chicago. That means, at most, one spot would be available.

Option Years

There are another four pitchers who have option years for 2019. Pedro Strop, Cole Hamels, Jose Quintana, and Brandon Kintzler can all have their contracts picked up by the Cubs. Strop and Quintana are the most likely to return. It’s just one start, but I really dig what Cole Hamels was able to do in his debut. Hamels could pitch his way onto the roster for 2019, but his $20 million salary stands in his way. I really doubt it if Kintzler will return. His option could only be $5 million. Let’s say that puts the total at 2 spots.

Could Be Released and Resigned to MiLB deals

There are another five spots that could be made by trying to get players through waivers and assign them to Iowa. Luke Farrell, Cory Mazzoni, Rob Zastryzny, Jen-Ho Tseng, and Alec Mills could all be waived to make more room. Of those five, Farrell and Mills arguably hold the most value. The other three are some tough choices. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that they keep Mills and Ferrell and try to get Jen-Ho and Rob Z through waivers while releasing Mazzoni.

That creates three more spots which puts us at five spots. The Cubs are not going to try and fill all five spots with their own prospects. At best, they would probably only pick three and take a risk in losing several others.

The whole purpose of adding the prospects to the 40-man is to avoid losing them in the Rule 5 Draft. It was made so teams could not horde players in the minors. If unprotected, they could be picked up by another team in early December. Here is the full list of Cubs eligible for the Rule 5 Draft per Arizona Phil:

Tyler Alamo, C-1B;  Luis Ayala, OF; Casey Bloomquist, RHP; Andres Bonalde, LHP;Craig Brooks, RHP; Charcer Burks, OF; Trevor Clifton, RHP; Alfredo Colorado, RHP; Enrique de los Rios, RHP’ Scott Effross, RHP; Wander Feliz, RHP; Riger Fernandez, LHP; Emilio Ferrebus, RHP; Wladimir Galindo, INF; Hector Alonso Garcia, RHP; David Garner, RHP; Yapson Gomez, LHP; Eric Gonzalez, C; Jose A. Gonzalez, OF; Jacob Hannemann, OF; Zach Hedges, RHP; PJ Higgins, C; Jesse Hodges, INF; Ryan Kellogg, LHP; Vimael Machin, INF; Brad Markey, RHP; Junior Marte, RHP; Marcus Mastrobuoni, C; Ivan Medina, RHP; M. T. Minacci, RHP; Jordan Minch, LHP; Kevonte Mitchell, OF; Erling Moreno, RHP; Preston Morrison, RHP; Rafael Narea, INF; Richard Nunez, C; Pablo Ochoa, LHP; Eugenio Palma, LHP; Tyler Payne, C; Tyler Pearson, C; Henrry Pedra, INF; Yeiler Peguero, INF; Jhonny Pereda, C; Eury Ramos, RHP; Will Remillard, C; Ruben Reyes, OF; Ian Rice, C; Andry Rondon, RHP; Manuel Rondon, LHP; Aneuris Rosario, RHP; Justin Steele, LHP; Jake Stinnett, RHP; Franklin Tineo, INF; Sucre Valdez, RHP; Jason Vosler, INF; Ryan Williams, RHP; Chesny Young, INF

That’s a lot of names, many of which are familiar to minor-league fans the past five years.  The Cubs cannot keep all of them. 

Best Chance to Be Placed on the 40 Man

Trevor Clifton – In a system that still has not produced a viable starting pitcher, Clifton looks to be close to being ready this year. He shown a mental maturity and has erased the second half of the 2017 season from his mind. The only thing he needs to work on is being more efficient in getting into the 6th and 7th innovation innings on a regular basis. For me, he is as close to a sure thing to make the list as the Cubs have this year.

Justin Steele – he has yet to pitch above high A Myrtle Beach. Tommy John surgery in August 2017 set his development back a year. But now, he is back on track and throwing 95 miles an hour out of the pen  with a tight breaking ball and a great mental makeup. The Cubs don’t want to take a chance on losing that kind of left-handed talent.

Jason Vosler – As the most proficient power bat in the upper half of the system, Vosler, more than likely, could be placed on the 40-man based on need. If he is not, someone is going to snag up a power hitting lefty who can drive and runs. The issue is that he has no place to go with Bote, Bryant, and Rizzo ahead of him. Will the Cubs keep him as insurance or take the risk to see if someone else snags him. He is only signed for one more year. He looks to be a good bet to make the 40-man.

Long Shots: Kyle Ryan, PJ Higgins, Ian Rice, and Johnny Pereda

Ryan is a MiLB free agent after the season ends and putting him on the 40 man might be the only way the Cubs can keep him. He has had a mixed year but has a 2.54 ERA in mixed roles in the second half for Iowa. As for Pereda, Rice, and Higgins, catchers tend to get picked up to be backups at the MLB level. They don’t get exposed every day and you can work them in slowly at the MLB level, if selected. Pereda, the youngest of three catchers listed, is the most likely to get a call, but he has yet to play above high A. The Cubs are likely to lose one or two of them.

When the Arizona Fall League ends, will we get the answer. It is an interesting subject to think about the next three months.

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

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.

Iowa Cubs Preview – Sometimes, All You Need Is a Chance

By Todd Johnson

Manager Marty Pevey has done a very good job the past five years of getting players ready for the daily grind of major league baseball. He will continue to do that again this year with several new prospects coming to Iowa. The difference this year is that very few of them will get an opportunity to make it to Chicago.

They are basically two scenarios in which an Iowa Cub could help the big league club this year. One is, of course, an injury to a position player or pitcher. And the second one is if somebody in the bullpen is just throwing lights out or a position player tearing the cover off the ball at Iowa.

First, the Cubs bullpen is not solidified. There are several arms who could possibly help at some point during the year. Dillon Maples leads that list. His stuff is phenomenal, he just has trouble controlling it. The 6’5″ lefty Kyle Ryan, who spent most of spring training with the big league club, is another specialist for manager Joe Maddon to call upon depending how Ryan does in Iowa.

While Mike Montgomery is currently slated as the sixth starter, and Eddie Butler, the seventh, the Cubs are going to need a spot starter or two throughout the course of the year. They always do. Iowa will have Jen-Ho Tseng along with Luke Farrell and Duane Underwood who could possibly fill that spot if need be. In addition, Alec Mills could be a name who might be given a chance this year. He missed most of last year and resurfaced in August. I’m interested to see how he does once he gets stretched out.

A 162 game schedule can wear down players and so it is likely that a position player is going to be needed at either catcher or as an infielder or outfielder. Infielders Ryan Court, Stephen Bruno, Chesny Young, Mike Freeman, and David Bote all saw substantial time in spring training with Chicago and could help out at a moment’s notice. Chris Gimenez, Ali Solis, and Taylor Davis can do the same behind the plate.

In the outfield, plus hitters Mark Zagunis and Bijan Rademacher could make an outstanding fifth outfielder in Chicago, if need be. While Rademacher can place all three outfield positions, Zagunis is best suited to left. The speedy Jacob Hannemann should be patrolling centerfield most days and it will be interesting to see how his bat improves from last year.

Most Likely to Make It to Chicago First
Bote’s ability to play 5-6 positions moves him to the front of the line. However, Mark Zagunis is the most experienced prospect and has earned the right to get another crack first. Even though Zagunis is an outfielder, the rest of the big league Cubs are versatile enough to play all over. If it is a catcher injury, Gimenez gets the call.

The First Prospect Promoted to Iowa
It should be reliever Dakota Mekkes who will start the season at Tennessee. The 6’7” reliever dominated two levels of full season A ball last year. He went almost 2 and 1/2 months without giving up an earned run. His ERA for the year was just under 1.

Overall, the Iowa Cubs have a lot of depth. They just don’t have that player that everyone concedes to be an elite prospect. They have several guys who can help the big league club if needed. And to be honest, that’s fine for right now. It would be nice if they had another top prospect, but the ones they have will help when called upon.

A Decision About “Bullpen Men” Is Coming Soon

By Todd Johnson

Yesterday, I talked about the dilemma for the backup catcher spot. Today, it’s all about the bullpen. Or, as Joe Maddon now refers to them, bullpen men. The Cubs are likely to take eight of them east to Miami. Seven of those have been pretty set in stone since the beginning of camp in Brandon Morrow, Steve Cishek, Carl Edwards, Jr., Pedro Strop, Brian Duensing, Mike Montgomery, and Justin Wilson.

With just five days left until opening day, the Cubs have kept two spots open on their 40 man roster. One is likely for catcher Chris Jimenez and the other might be for one of the players they could be taking for the bullpen.

Lefty pitcher Randy Rosario has some MLB experience and is on 40 man, but I don’t think he wowed anybody this spring. As a result, he was sent down yesterday to trim the roster to 34. But pitchers Anthony Bass, Kyle Ryan, and Justin Hancock are still alive and all put together good springs.

Former starter Eddie Butler more than likely looks to have one spot locked up as he is out of options. Another spot could be open as Pedro Strop is not quite ready to return and could begin the year on the DL.

Just yesterday, reliever Justin Hancock pitched two scoreless innings to close out a game, even though it was against mostly minor league players. When spring training began, I didn’t think that Hancock stood much of a chance of making it through spring training, let alone this long. His ability to throw mid to upper 90s heat and to locate that heat made him an extremely viable candidate to make the team. According to Patrick Mooney of The Athletic, Joe Maddon said the following about Hancock’s arsenal: “He’s got a lightning bolt for an arm” and “He’s got A-lister stuff.” A pitcher is not going to get a much better rec than that. Hancock would need to be added to the 40 man if he did.

When Theo talked about adding strike throwers, he wasn’t kidding. Anthony Bass fit that bill this spring along with Kyle Ryan. Ryan did not have a good 2017. However, he was pretty good before that in Detroit. Being a lefty gives Ryan a distinct advantage over the other two. The 6’5” 26-year-old is an intriguing option who put up a 3.07 ERA in 56 games in 2016. But will Joe Maddon want to go with four left-handers in the bullpen?

Ryan pitched just 8 innings so far while Bass only got in 5.2. Those totals don’t seem enough to judge an extra reliever/bullpen man.

Part of me also wonders how much the Cubs will be looking at the waiver wire here the next few days to see if there’s a player with substantial talent that gets cut right before the season starts.

Another part of me says the Cubs are going to go with the more experienced player. In that case Ryan has the most experience and has actually had some success at the major-league level. On the other hand, Bass had the best spring, but is the oldest player at 30. As for Hancock, I think he has the most talent. And to be honest, talent usually wins out.

In the end, though, the bullpen on March 24 is not going to matter that much in the big scheme of things. I look more towards how the bullpen develops over the course of the summer and the names that are going to be there in October.

At some point, Dillon Maples will enter the discussion later this year along with my guy, Dakota Mekkes. A lot can happen between now and August 31, the day playoff rosters are due. The Cubs have a lot of time to sort things out for October. For now, though, they will have to make a decision just about who begins the season on the 25-man roster.

The Weekly: MiLB Free Agent Chances, Mesa, New Cards, and an Invasion Is Coming

By Todd Johnson

The off-season continues to move at a snail’s pace. Nothing much happened at the major-league level again this week, but the Cubs did add some more depth by signing two players to minor league contracts. Outfielder Peter Bourjos is a veteran who has played with Tampa, St. Louis, and Anaheim. First baseman Efren Navarro last played with the Tigers. Both will be non roster invitees to spring training. I don’t look for either to make the club. And if they don’t, I’d expect them to choose free agency rather than go to AAA Iowa.

Right now, I just don’t have a good feel for who is going to be where. A lot of that stems from who will be at Iowa and Tennessee. The Cubs have signed several starting and bullpen arms this offseason to minor league contracts. As a result, I am holding off on doing any affiliate previews until either the last week of March or the first week in April. It is going to kill me to not write about South Bend’s starting rotation until then.

As for some some of the minor league free agents the Cubs signed this winter, Daniel Camarena is extremely intriguing to me. The young lefty comes from a stacked Yankees system that saw him make 7 decent starts at AAA with a 3.28 ERA last year. He is only 25. Like the Cubs, the Yankees cannot hang onto every prospect in perpetuity. After 5 years in the minors, the prospects can elect free agency and that is what Camarena did. The Cubs will hopefully benefit from that.

Sometimes, I can be quite blunt. Right now is one of those instances. A lot of the pitchers the Cubs signed this winter don’t have much of a chance to make the 25 man roster in Chicago or even be stashed at AAA Iowa. The Cubs are taking a gamble that some magic can happen with either Jim Hickey or Jim Benedict (the pitching whisperer) during spring training. Don’t be counting on Dario Alvarez or Alberto Baldonado to be trotting out of the bullpen this summer, let alone dancing on camera. The odds are just not in their favor. 

However, I could see lefty Randy Rosario ending up in Iowa for some bullpen depth. And Kyle Ryan, who was decent for Detroit out of the bullpen in 2015 and 2016, could also work out his issues in Des Moines and return to the show. Both are nice lefty bullpen options that could be worth keeping.

Baseball Cards

It was a banner week for making baseball cards as I had time to scour the Internet for more pictures. It turned out to be a bonanza of new pics and a nice crop of new cards. Before spring training begins, I will do a best of list for the second half of the offseason. There are a few cards I think that turned out to be classics. Go to the Facebook account to check out the album.

Card made from a photo by John Arguello

More Thoughts on Mesa

This week, I kept thinking about how the second Mesa team in the Arizona Rookie League could create a whole juggernaut of players coming stateside that I did not foresee. I started to make a post about possible players who could be heading north. I had to stop myself when I got to two pages and still had 5 or 6 guys to go. I may turn that into 2 posts (hitters and pitchers) later this spring.

Before MiLB Spring Training Begins…

You might want to revisit two posts I did last fall. One is about who I see as possible breakout hitters in the Cubs system for 2018. The second examines some possible breakout pitchers for 2018.

Upcoming Posts

This week, come Wednesday, catcher Miguel Amaya gets profiled in the “Leveling Up” series. I am really enjoyed writing about the young backstop prospect. I also have two spring training previews for the major league camp and the minor league camp in the works. I am not sure when those will be published but I am leaning towards the 9th and the 16th, respectively.

Baseball Card of the Week