By Todd Johnson
The relationship between the Chicago Cubs and the Myrtle Beach Pelicans seems to be working out just fine. In the three years the affiliate has been in the Cubs’ system, the Pelicans won two Mills Cup Championships and made a third playoff appearance. Can the Pelicans make it back to the Mills Cup Championship Series for a fourth straight year? I think the odds are very good, but everything has to come together perfectly.
What Needs to Happen
One Good Half: Two years ago, most of the 2018 Pelicans’ roster was part of a team that dominated the short season Northwest League. Last year, several players from that team moved quickly but some of the pitchers seemed to struggle in full season ball at South Bend. For the Pelicans to make it to the playoffs, they have to win a first half title or a second-half spot. And, in a 10 team league, it seems a little bit easier to make the postseason if you get hot for a little bit. That’s what happened last year in Myrtle Beach as the Pelicans were a destructive force in May and June. This year, there are a few key factors that will determine if the Pelicans can get back to the promised land.
It all starts with pitching. Starting pitching and relieving all have to be good. Considering the current backlog of prospects in the organization, most players are not going to be going promoted to AA Tennessee unless they have a completely dominant first half.
To begin, 2017 draft pick Alex Lange should be a great watch every sixth night for a couple of months. He has a devastating curve and, when his fastball command is on, he’s so hard to hit. The issue is if he can develop a change to go with his other two pitches. If he can, he is gone to Tennessee by mid season. One aspect of Lange’s personality that I love is his competitive fire. He has a burning to desire to win and also to dominate. His only issue this year could be overthrowing.
Jose Paulino is a 22-year-old lefty who struggled in the first half of 2017 at South Bend after dominating the Northwest League in 2016. He rebounded to pitch well in July and August and playing at Myrtle Beach will only help him as long as he stays aggressive in the zone. He put together a great spring and I’m excited to watch him go at it in a pitcher’s park in Myrtle Beach.
Fourth round pick Keegan Thompson will make the rotation and actually pitch opening night. He has great command of all his pitches and works off a 91-93 mph fastball. As for Erling Moreno (who is injured), Tyson Miller, Matt Swarmer, and Bryan Hudson, they need to stay healthy and need to stay consistent from inning to inning.
Catcher PJ Higgins is returning to Myrtle Beach and he should provide excellent leadership for the young pitchers. Jhonny Perada, who has been nailing runners at second like crazy in spring training, could be one of the most improved players this year.
Even though the Pelicans are a level higher than South Bend, they have the youngest average age of any of the affiliates this year. Maturity was a factor last year for some of this team at South Bend at the end of the first half. They made a push in August but fell a little short to get into the Midwest League playoffs. Another year older, they should also be another year wiser.
It looks as though 1B Tyler Alamo, who was very good in the second half last year (.306 with 5 HRs), will return and begin 2018 in Myrtle Beach. His maturity and leadership can only help these young guys.
I often refer to Wladimir Galindo as “my guy.” He is still rather young but this guy can just put the barrel the bat on the ball and drive it places at will. The issue is that he has to stay healthy. He has yet to play a full season without going on the DL. He missed most of last year with a broken foot. As soon as he hit the ground in spring training this year, he started hitting and hitting well.
The Blossoming of Austin Upshaw
Everyone that watches Austin Upshaw plays comes away very impressed. This kid can flat out rake. There is some potential for potential for power there, too, but that will come in due time. I also like that he can play three infield positions (1B, 2B, and 3B) well. If all goes well, he might not be at the Beach very long.
While the Cubs don’t have any top 100 prospects, there are three players who should be at Myrtle Beach this year who could be big talents in the organization fairly quickly with a breakout season.
Shortstop Aramis Ademan is already a top four prospect in the system but still needs to develop his bat some more. Defensively, he’s pretty good with his feet and his arm is very good. While he can turn on a fastball, he struggled a bit at the plate in his short tenure at South Bend. He’s still only 19 and should be a Pelican all year.
Outfielder DJ Wilson is an elite athletic talent who has yet to hit with any consistency. He has elite defensive skills and the potential for power, as he showed last summer when he was the Cubs’ July player of the month.
The guy I am looking most forward to seeing this year is Kevonte Mitchell. He is turning into a physical beast. Last time I saw him in person in was at Beloit, he looked Hulk-like and was tracking the ball well. Hopefully this year that pays off with a 20 home run season.
It’ll be interesting to see how this team looks at the end of the first half. If they can get it going on the mound, these young position players can score runs in bunches. They just need to be more consistent on a daily basis.
Other Affiliate Previews
By Todd Johnson
Overall Record: 75-64
South Bend had the best record of any affiliate in the Cubs system in 2017 but they did not make the playoffs. Most of that was due to a poor six week stretch from late May to early July that bookended the tail end of the first half and the beginning of the second. Before and after that stretch, this team displayed the ability to get on base and showed glimpses of the ability to pitch well in pressure situations.
South Bend had a pretty gritty performance this year. They showed a lot of resolve coming back in the second half to almost nab a playoff spot before losing on the second last day of the year. Most of the team should find their way to Myrtle Beach next year but a couple players will likely begin the year back in South Bend for some more seasoning.
Here are 7 key takes about the 2017 South Bend Cubs.
1. Bryan Hudson – I really like how he is developing. It might not all be coming at once, but Hudson was a far better pitcher in 2017 than 2016. His ground ball rate skyrocketed this year and, at times, he was one of the best pitchers in the Cubs’ system. In the second half, he made 13 starts with a 3.69 ERA and a 3-1 GB ratio. He is still rather young at 20 and I hope that he gained a lot of confidence from this season. Going to Myrtle Beach, a noted pitcher’s league, Hudson and his ground ball approach are going to play extremely well.
2. DJ Wilson – Wilson is slowly getting better. He had a great July and was the Cubs’ minor league player of the month. He is an outstanding defender and covers as much ground as anybody in the system in the outfield. But his weakness has always been at the plate. Next year, at Myrtle Beach, will not be the easiest place for a hitter to thrive. However, he still can work on his approach and on spraying the ball around the field. Look for him to continue to work on his power game. Had he been healthy, he could have hit close to 20 HRs. That is excellent for a center fielder. He is going to be the first player profiled in the off-season series called “Leveling Up.”
3. Kevonte Mitchell – When I spent three days watching South Bend play in Beloit this summer, I came away extremely impressed with Mitchell’s work ethic. Nobody on the team worked harder than he did. Whether it was the tee, soft toss, or batting practice, Mitchell attacked the ball at every opportunity trying to drive it up the middle. In games, Mitchell hit much better this season and in May and July was one of the best hitters in the system. I think next year is the year that he begins to break out and I think it begins with the fact that he can clearly pick up a curveball coming out of the pitcher’s hand. He still has to decide either to lay off it or go the other way. I think that happens for him in 2018
4. Luis Ayala – He hit .366 in July and .293 in August and was promoted to the Pelicans’ playoff roster. I really like what he can do with the bat. He’s not going to hit a lot of homeruns and he is going to get on base at a regular clip. So far, he has done all of this at the bottom of the order. I wonder how he would do at the top? At fall instructs, he began to tinker with switch-hitting.
5. Andruw Monasterio – In 2016 at Eugene, he began the season on fire and was promoted to South Bend and then cooled off quite a bit. He began 2017 at Myrtle Beach and was just starting to heat up when he was returned to South Bend. He didn’t stop hitting all summer in the Midwest League. He hit .281 with a .351 OBP in 58 second half games. The fact that he played three positions this past summer only enhances his profile for 2018.
6. Jose Paulino – The first half of the season was a bit of a disappointment for him as a starter. He was demoted to the bullpen in late May and returned to have an outstanding July with an ERA of under two. In August, he looked like he was beginning to wear down in his first full season a pro ball. All his pitches are still there, but he still needs to command them better. One way for him to do that would be to attack hitters with his excellent arsenal, including his plus curve, rather than try and dance around the edge of the strike zone.
7. Aramis Ademan – Overall, it was an outstanding year for the young 18-year-old shortstop. He played two levels and showed that his bat was much further along than anyone possibly thought it could project to be. Defensively, he showed that he can make all the plays, but needs to do so on a consistent basis. When next year begins, he will be 19 and I would not be surprised to see him start at Myrtle Beach.
Bonus Sleeper Prospect – Jhon Romero – The young reliever went through three levels in 2017 based on his ability to spin a curveball. At 22, the right hander used a two pitch mix to strike out 53 batters in 41.2 IP. He put up a 0.62 WHIP and batters only managed to hit .109 against him. He quietly went about his business and he could move quickly in 2018.
South Bend Cubs to Watch in 2018
Jose Albertos – I consider him to be the number one prospect in the Cubs’ system. He will be just 19 when the 2018 season begins and I don’t envision him being in South Bend a long time. Armed with a mid to upper 90s fastball and a killer changeup, Albertos is working on developing a curveball that at times can be a wild pitch or a hammer. It just depends. I think the goal for him next year is to get to 100 innings. Whether that’s in South Bend or South Bend and Myrtle Beach, it doesn’t matter. He is going to light it up no matter where he goes.
Honorable Mention – Joe Martarano – I really dig this prospect…a lot! After watching him take BP and other assorted pregame hitting rituals, I came away extremely impressed at the sound the ball makes coming off his bat. He began the year by pounding the ball with regularity in extended spring training and that carried over to Eugene where he hit just shy of .400 in July. After a promotion to South Bend, he got off to a rough start, was sent back to Eugene, returned to South Bend and just struggled to get it going. In August, he improved greatly hitting almost .280 but it was only in 13 games. However he did lose a giant leg kick and replaced it with a toe tap and he began squaring up the ball, including his first homer for South Bend. I think he begins the year in South Bend in 2018 and I think it’s OK to cut him a little slack. The reason I say that is it has to be hard to basically miss 3 to 4 years of playing baseball. Now that it will be his full-time gig, I expect bigger things from him next year.
By Todd Johnson
Originally, I did not plan on putting together a second half all star team. However, after looking at some of the performances of several prospects over the last 2 and 1/2 months, I thought they deserved to be honored for their performances.
I always like putting together a second-half team because they usually contain a few recent draft picks and some players from the lower parts of the system. Last year, I started including a couple players from the Dominican Summer League. That holds true for this year as well.
What started with the July All-Star team continued with the August All-Star team and this team. That is, in this list, you can definitely see a shift in the system. Younger players are starting to rise to the top and perform at a high-level. This is true of a couple of draft picks in Austin Upshaw and Nelson Velazquez along with several pitchers from the Dominican Summer League..
So, without further adieu, here is the All-Star team for the second half of the 2017 minor league season.
When I sit down to make my preseason All-Star team in 2018, a lot of the players listed in the video above will get a lot of merit for inclusion. One name not included that I am interested in seeing more of next year is Jose Gutierrez. The 18-year-old outfielder from Venezuela hit .354 in August and was a key cog in helping the Mesa Cubs win a title.
By Todd Johnson
Looking back at the coverage by Cubs Central this year, I don’t think I have written enough about several prospects. They include hitters Ian Rice, Luis Ayala, and Andruw Monasterio. Eddy Martinez hit almost .280 in the second half for Myrtle Beach and I haven’t written a peep about it. Add in pitcher Tyler Peyton who was one of the best pitchers in August for South Bend. Pitcher Jesus Camargo of Eugene, along with his 2.36 summer ERA and changeup, was overshadowed by top draft picks Brendon Little, Alex Lange, and Cory Abbott, not to mention Jose Albertos. Luis Aquino had an ERA of under 1 at one point for Eugene and I didn’t talk about him much even though he was a Northwest League All-Star.
When it comes to 2018, I am sure there will be several new names to talk about next summer. Here are a few names who I think will get more press next season and that I should have covered more this year.
1. Nelson Velasquez
Any Cubs prospect who can hit home runs at a regular rate is going to draw attention. He is just 18-years-old and just completed rookie ball. He is cranking a HR every 12.2 at-bats. After August 1, he hit 8 HRs and drove in 25, 9 of those in 5 playoff games. He was named the Cubs August Minor League Player of the Month. I can’t wait to see him next year in Eugene.
2. Javier Assad
He has shown the proclivity to miss bats as an alarming rate. He has also shown the ability to be inconsistent. I think making 25 to 30 starts at South Bend could lead to more consistent efforts on the mound. I just finished a profile on him yesterday that will come out next month. He has some interesting stats including how opponents are hitting him. He struck out 72 in 66 innings at Eugene this year.
3. Jesus Tejada
The 20-year-old was the hottest pitcher in the Cubs’ system in August. He threw a no-hitter and struck out batters at an alarming rate in the Dominican Summer League. Opponents only hit .141 against him in August when he seemed to put it all together striking out 26 in 23 innings. I tend to think he will be at Eugene next summer.
4. Brendan King
The kid from Holy Cross may be next year’s sleeper pitcher. Like Duncan Robinson, the Ivy Leaguer’s arm has shown the ability to spin a ball in Mesa this summer. He had a 2.82 ERA in 22.1 IP and struck out an impressive 29 batters while walking only 5. Those are some good numbers.
5. Fernando Kelli
So, there’s this guy…an outfielder in the DSL and he stole 58 bases. It’s not like I didn’t mention him because he did make an All-Star Team in July. I just didn’t cover him in depth with a profile. I don’t know that much about him other than his stats page. He just turned 19 and hit .320 with an amazing .437 OBP this summer. Just in July, he had a .477 OBP! There’s not a lot of information on him otherwise.
I am sure there will be other prospects breakout in 2018 who I didn’t foresee. Luis Hidalgo, who spent four seasons in the Dominican Summer League, is one to keep an eye on next year. He arrived in Mesa in August and did not stop hitting (.339) while there. While he doesn’t really have a position, he does have a huge bat. Didier Vargas, Emilio Ferrebus, and Danis Correa are three pitchers to keep an eye on for next year along with 2017 international signing Florencio Serrano. Two young shortstops who could raise some eyebrows next year are international free-agent Luis Verdugo and recent draft pick Luis Vazquez.
You never know who will breakout and when.
By Todd Johnson
While the first half breakout list tends to be players from South Bend and Myrtle Beach, the second half list is usually players from Mesa, Eugene, and maybe South Bend or Beach. There were a few prospects who had good seasons that we did see coming like Miguel Amaya, Aramis Ademan, and Jose Albertos. There were several players who put together good stretches together during the second half. Altogether, it was difficult picking out the winners.
Breakout Hitter of the Second Half
This was a tough call. Austin Upshaw was a player that I really liked from South Bend who hit almost .290 each month after being drafted this summer. Austin Filiere of Eugene hit .287 in the fourth spot with over a .400 OBP hitting cleanup along with five home runs. Andruw Monasterio came close to the definition of a breakout hitter along with Luis Ayala of South Bend. Monasterio hit .290+ in August while Ayala got his average up to .366 in July and .293 for the second half.
But if I’m gonna pick just one guy, it has to be Nelson Velasquez of Mesa whom the Cubs drafted in the fifth round this year. In August, he hit almost .300 and clubbed 6 home runs for the Mesa Cubs in the Arizona Rookie League leading them to a second half division title. In the playoffs, he hit 2 more homers and drove in 9. The sad thing about Nelson is we don’t have as many eyes on him after the death of John Arguello. Still, Nelson progressed each month since signing his pro contract. He is just 18 years old and I am really looking forward to him playing next year at Eugene and/or South Bend.
Breakout Starting Pitcher of the Second Half
This one wasn’t really as tough as the hitter category. It basically came down to two players. Runner-up Jesus Tejada had an outstanding August for the Cubs’ Dominican Summer League 1 team. He threw a no-hitter and struck out 19 batters in consecutive games.
But for me, the biggest surprise was the performance of Duncan Robinson at Myrtle Beach. While Michael Rucker stole the show there in June, Robinson got off to a rough start in his July debut and then seemed to improve at every opportunity throughout the summer. I liked the fact that he kept improving by adding a cutter to his repertoire. Another thing I liked was that Robinson did not seem to tire as the season progressed. He had a 2.37 ERA in 10 second half starts while striking out 37 in 49.1 IP. I am really looking forward to him pitching next year at AA Tennessee.
Breakout Reliever of the Second Half
I think Dakota Mekkes stole the show in the first half. The second half winner is not gonna be that much of a surprise. South Bend reliever Jhon Romero is one who I did not see coming. He throws in the mid 90s with a wicked breaking ball. Another surprise was Tyler Peyton of South Bend who had a 1.29 ERA just in August. One reliever I did see coming was Pedro Araujo for Myrtle Beach. With an ERA under 2, he basically owned the closer role and the Carolina League in the second half.
But when it comes right down to who was the biggest surprise or break out, it’s Dillon Maples. He progressed through four levels of the system at the age of 25. He has always had wicked stuff from the time he was drafted in 2011 but had injuries and confidence issues along the way. This year, the worm turned for him. With a wicked slider/curve and a fastball that approached 100 miles an hour, he was almost impossible to hit at every level. On September 1, he was called up to Chicago. In his first appearance, he walked one and struck out one.
When it comes to next year, I am not quite sure what to expect when it comes to possible breakout prospects. I am thinking Jonathan Sierra, but he most likely won’t begin play until the second half at Eugene. The same is true for pitcher Jesus Tejada.
More than likely, the first half breakouts for 2018 will come from either South Bend or Myrtle Beach. Hopefully, DJ Wilson, Kevonte Mitchell, or Joe Martarano can put it together for half a season. Or, it could even be one of this year’s draft picks or International players who steal the show – literally – like Fernando Kelli who had 58 SBs in 2017. When it comes to pitching, this year proved that opportunities will present themselves for pitchers to step up and become essential players. You never know who will get the chance.
By Todd Johnson
What a difference the last two months had on the look of the Cubs’ system. A lot of familiar names are gone and new ones have taken their place. You would think that this month’s All-Star team would be pitching centric but it’s not. Instead, there are a plethora of hitters who rose to the occasion in August.
Surprisingly, the position of catcher saw the greatest highlights out of all Cubs prospects. Five years ago that was a huge pit of emptiness and now has become a position of strength at every level. Outfield play was also outstanding along with the reliever corps.
While there were several hitters over .300, only a few displayed any kind of power and only one power prospect made the team. The great thing about that is he’s only 18 years old.
As for starting pitching, most MiLB pitchers tend to get run down in August but several arms had a very good month with four outstanding hurlers putting up ERAs under 2.00. This month’s team is structured a little different as it has more than one player at a few everyday positions.
Myrtle Beach, South Bend, and Eugene each have 6 reps.
Tennessee, Iowa, and Mesa each have 5. The DSL has 1.
Saturday – Cards of the Month
Sunday – The Weekly
Monday – Prospect Profile: Jared Young
The topic for every six pack changes throughout the week. When I woke up this morning I didn’t think that I was going to do a six pack. Since it’s the 11th August, I thought I’d take a look at ten-day splits to see how prospects are doing in preparation for our monthly All-Star team. As a result, the topic for today’s six pack is who’s hot and who’s not.
1. Dillon Maples – In 11.2 innings at Iowa, it looks as though he started to figure things out at this level, too. His K/9 rate is astronomical (15.43) and he’s only walked one batter. I am starting to get the inkling that he might make it to Chicago before the end of the month. Adding a guy in the bullpen who throws 98 to 100 with a wipeout slider is not going to hurt anything.
2. Mark Zagunis – In addition to hitting over .300 the past 6 weeks, he is still a walking machine. I feel pretty good about his chances of being in Chicago in September. But beyond that, he’s not going to be anything other than a fourth/fifth outfielder with who is in front of him. I really hope he gets an extended shot sometime in the next year whether it’s with the Cubs or another team.
3. The South Bend Outfield – Kevonte Mitchell, DJ Wilson, Luis Ayala, and Chris Pieters – Every single one of them is hitting above .321 this month and they are killing it in all phases of the game. Last night, Mitchell hit a grand slam while DJ Wilson tracked ball after ball down in centerfield. The other night, Kevonte threw out a guy at the plate. It has been nice to see them perform so well and it’s almost as if they are trying to one up each other.
4. Four Hitters in Rookie League – First, Luis Vasquez has peaked my interest since the Cubs signed him this summer. The fact that he is hitting .300+ as a 17-year-old tall and rangy shortstop helps as well. The same is true of Delvin Zinn’s athleticism and he seems to be back on track this month hitting over .300. International free-agent Jonathan Sierra seems to have found a groove (still no power) while Jose Gutierrez seems to have done the same hitting over .450 this month. I could also add in pitchers Rollie Lacy, Brendan King, Jeffrey Passantino, and reliever Mitch Stophel for another four.
5. Zack Short – The 23-year-old shortstop has transversed three levels in the past year since he was signed by the Cubs. He seems to be getting better at every level. In the past ten games, he has been on a tear hitting over .400 with 3 home runs. Combined, between Myrtle Beach.and South Bend, the leadoff hitter has 12 dingers this year with an OBP of .391 and this morning was named as having the best strike zone control in the Midwest League by Baseball America.
6. Who is not hot? The Eugene Defense
Once Aramis Ademan was promoted to South Bend, this team has been in a tailspin defensively. It’s a struggle for pitchers Alex Lange, Jose Albertos, and Brendon Little to get through an inning. In the past week, routine grounders have been misplayed, balls to first have been airmailed, and assignments and coverages have been blown. Instead of a pitcher getting out of an inning, those mistakes lead to two or three runs being scored, sometimes more.
Honorable Mentions – Yasiel Balaguert, Taylor Davis, James Norwood, Craig Brooks, Tyler Alamo, Bryan Hudson, Tyler Peyton, Brian Glowicki, Chris Singleton, Marcus Mastrobuoni, Cam Balego, Fernando Kelli, Emilio Ferrebus, and Erich Uelmen.