Position Breakdown Series: Rough 2018 for the OF, but the Future Is Bright

By Todd Johnson

The lack of production by the Cubs’ MiLB outfielders in 2018 was very disappointing. Only a few names stood out but the times will be changing quite a bit in 2019 thanks in part to the 2018 draft and international free agency.

Last year, I had Nelson Velazquez atop the list followed by Mark Zagunis. Then came Charcer Burks, Eddy Martinez, DJ Wilson, Kevonte Mitchell, and Jonathan Sierra. On the surface, they looked to be a very athletic and promising group. Most of those guys probably want to forget 2018. Considering the prospects coming up behind them now, they better have some short memories.

For this year’s rankings, things are going to be a little bit simpler. I’m not going to put any numbers besides the four guys I picked. These four outfield prospects are heads and shoulders above the rest in the system. 

Mark Zagunis – Sometimes, I hoped for a trade just so he can have an opportunity to play in the majors every day. 2018 was an injury filled year for him but he still went out and produced, especially in the second half. He’s a walk machine, he’s got power, and he can play all three spots. What’s not to love.

Nelson Velasquez just oozes talent. In back-to-back years, he was the Cubs’ minor league player the month for August. While he did play at South Bend for a little bit in May last year, it was probably a good thing, even though his production numbers were horrible. It gave him something to work on and to work towards. He was outstanding at Eugene, especially in August as his approach changed drastically in just three months. He will now lay off pitches down out of the zone. I hope he takes his new approach to South Bend and just lets the game come to him.

Second round compensation pick Cole Roederer is everything all the other outfielders were supposed to be the last six years. He’s got five tools and he’s just turned 19. I would hope that he begins next year in extended spring training. And, if he’s ready, he could head to South Bend in May if the Cubs think he can succeed. Otherwise, Eugene would be a nice place for him to go and tear it up. Either way, it’s going to be a lot of fun watching him go after it.

Brennen Davis is a tall, athletic physical specimen. He put up a 138 wRC+ in just 18 games for Mesa. If he can stay healthy, he is going to be pushing South Bend next season at just 19. Supposedly, his pitch recognition skills are off the charts for someone of his young age. Add in his athleticism and the Cubs may have two special players patrolling the OF for quite a while.

Who Else to Watch For
Outfielder Jose Lopez is someone I’ve never seen play. The Cubs signed him last summer as an international free agent. Considering he was a top 30 IFA Prospect, he should be at Mesa next summer at just 17 years of age. He could be special as he’s a lefty-lefty. Here is what Jesse Sanchez of MLB.com said of his talents:

The ball flies off of Lopez’s bat and he has shown the potential for more power in the future. He’s not as physical as some of the other top prospects, but he makes hard contact to all fields. The belief is that Lopez will be able to generate more power once he signs with a big league team and works on his mechanics in a club’s academy on a daily basis. Lopez has a chance to stay in center field and hit in the middle of the lineup one day.

Lopez is already a plus runner — he’s been clocked at 6.4 seconds in the 60-yard run — and evaluators believe the tool will help carry him through the Minor League system.

I also think two other outfielders who were drafted last summer could surprise some people. Edmond Americaan and DJ Artis could do well with their speed and ability to get on base. And, as usual, we are all still waiting for Jonathan Sierra to break out. Hopefully, Fernando Kelli can hit much better at South Bend than he did in Eugene. Once Kelli gets on base, though, he is unlike any other Cub in the system with his speed and can change the flow of any game.

Roberto Caro also looks like he could belong. He will be at AA to see if he is for real after a dominating 2018. And Chris Singleton finished 2018 strong. It will be interesting to see where and how he begins 2019.

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Random Thoughts about the Costs of Signing Bryce Harper

By Todd Johnson

This winter is pretty slow when it comes to making moves at the MLB level. There have been plenty of MLB rumors though. From Bryce Harper to Jason Heyward, I try not to get sucked in about who might be going where.

Here are some random thoughts that keep going through my brain about this winter, specifically, acquiring Mr. Harper.

Several Levels of Cost

Dollars
 If the Cubs sign Bryce Harper. The actual dollar cost is going to be substantial, but it is not going to be prohibitive. The Cubs payroll will only take a hit for a year. After 2019, things change greatly as the Cubs payroll drops dramatically for 2020. Zobrist, Hamels, and half of the bullpen become free agents.

MLB Players
Technically, the Cubs could keep both Heyward and Harper, but the odds are against that. The Cubs will need to move some payroll in order to sign Harper. However, Heyward cannot be traded just by himself. The Cubs would have to sweeten that deal with an MLB ready players. Ian Happ is the most controllable ready guy and any team that gets Happ thrown in the deal would have him through 2023. I doubt if any team would take Almora as Happ’s bat is much more potent. 

The Cubs could even throw in Jose Quintana and ride with Mike Montgomery this year and next. It’s very unlikely to happen, but it’s a thought considering the cost certainty of Quintana for 2019 and 2020. Trading Jose would really cut into the SP depth at the MLB level. That may not be a cost the Cubs would be willing to risk.

Prospects
No team is going to take on Heyward’s contract along with Happ and that be the end of the deal. Some prospect is going to have to top off the deal., someone that a team could control for 6-7 years. Adbert Alzolay could be well liked by other teams as could Miguel Amaya. It will be interesting to see who the Cubs would be willing to part with in a such a transaction.

Outfield Depth
Let’s say that Heyward is traded along with Happ. Then the Cubs sign Harper. That leaves Harper, Schwarber, Almora, and Zobrist as the outfielders. Kris Bryant could play out there occasionally along with David Bote. My only concern is injuries. Mark Zagunis is deserving of a shot and he’s the only OF at Iowa who has the skills needed to come up. The issue is Zagunis is not a CF by trade, He can play CF, but not at a high level probably needed at the MLB level.

The Cubs would probably have to go out and get a veteran for either the bench or to store in Iowa. Jacob Hannemann  is very good defensively, but has barely hit his weight at AA and AAA and has never really put that offensive aspect of his game together. At AA, and likely Iowa next year, Charcer Burks could be a guy as could Eddy Martinez, but they are a long ways away due to consistency. A veteran guy would give the Cubs more certainty as a known commodity.

What Harper Adds to the Lineup
He is one of the top 3 players in the game and his addition would transform the lineup. I could see him batting second, third, or fourth and giving Manager Joe Maddon a lot versatility to mix and match lefties and righties in the lineup.

In addition Harper’s true talent hasn’t really blossomed. Once teams learned they could work around him because of the Nats’ lineup, it changed things. If Harper signs as a Cub, he’s going to see a lot more pitches in the zone with Bryant, Rizzo, and Baez behind him.

And that’s the key. He is going to cost something but he is going to be worth it. What the Cubs get for the cost will far outweigh what they give up.

Is There a Plan B?
The Cubs could begin to make moves here in the next two weeks. If Heyward is moved, that will be the sign. If not, the Cubs are going to have to go to “Plan B.” No one knows what that is. It could be using who they have now, or they could go and get AJ Pollock. I could go for that move, too.

Come Tomorrow
I will be profiling the top OFs in the Cubs’ system. Aside from Zagunis, the other 3 will all be in low A or short season A ball this year.

MLB Pipeline’s All-Star Team for Cubs Actually Has Power

By Todd Johnson


MLB Pipeline’s All-Star Team for Cubs’ prospects actually has some pretty good power and power potential. You would think that a system ranked in the bottom five of farm systems by several sources (Baseball America, Keith Law, Pipeline) would not have a lot of power potential. Au contraire, my friend.

Piepline’s All-Star Team begins with their #87 prospect Miguel Amaya, who cranked out 12 HRs. 1B Jared Young hammered out 17 as did 2B Trent Giambrone and SS Zack Short. Jason Vosler rounded out the infield with 23 dingers. That’s 86 infield HRs. That’s not too shabby for minor league guys.

When I make MiLB all-star teams, I normally just do them on a monthly basis, by the half, or a preseason team. This is a pretty good list for what my 2019 preseason team will look like on the infield except for maybe Nico Hoerner.

When it comes to the outfield this year, MLB Pipeline went with Mark Zagunis, Roberto Caro, and Zach Davis. All three hit well enough to deserve their spots this year with Caro and Davis doing it across two levels. What is missing, though, is power. None of three hit many extra base hits but they did get on base at a pretty good clip. Davis had a wRC+ of 111, Caro was at 186 (wow!) in 38 games at South Bend and 113 in 41 games at Myrtle Beach. Zagunis was also at 111 with just 24 XBHs on the year.

However, come next year, there could be some different names in the outfield including Nelson Velazquez along with 2018 draft picks Cole Roederer and Brennen Davis.

As for pitching, Pipeline acknowledged Cory Abbott (Cubs Central POTY) as the top right-handed starter. Eugene’s Faustino Carrera was named the top lefty this year over Brailyn Marquez and Brian Glowicki got the reliever nod over Dakota Mekkes. Those are three very different arms.

It’s an eclectic mix of players that were given the accolades. A year from now, things could change quite a bit in pitching as well. A few players will be coming back from injuries, a few could be traded this winter, and some guys might just breakout. You never know what will happen.

For this year’s group, though, their plaudits are well deserved through a mixture of performance, talent, and grinding it out.

2018 Affiliate Reviews: Iowa Cubs Get It Done in the Bullpen

By Todd Johnson

It probably doesn’t seem like there would be much to say about a 50-88 team, but this year’s Iowa Cubs had a few things to write home about. AAA is always a level whose main job is to get players ready for the big leagues. In the Theo era, Iowa has become a place where bench players are stashed, elite prospects get a tune up, and where long-term MiLB players hope to get a chance. Sometimes that affiliate model works and sometimes it does not.

What Worked in 2018
Relief Pitchers
– From Randy Rosario to Anthony Bass to Cory Mazzoni to James Norwood, the bullpen was the key to keeping the big league Cubs afloat all summer long in Chicago. Then again, that is really Iowa’s job.

Victor Caratini – I was surprised he made the club out of spring training but not surprised when he was sent down to Iowa. He just needed to get some more at bats in. When he was ready he came up to Chicago and was a key cog in the stretch run in September.

David Bote – Bote came up and made himself into a household name this summer with some dramatic at-bats before fading a bit in September. However, his defense and ability to play multiple positions increased his value. Bote’s ability to play multiple positions is the key to his future in 2019.

Dakota Mekkes – He’s my guy and likely to be called up sometime next spring. The only issue for him right now is that he is not on the 40 man roster to get the call up. When he’s ready next spring, he will be up. He had 41 Ks in 31.1 IP at AAA to go along with his 30 in 22.1 at AA earlier in the year. For the season, his ERA was a spectacular 1.17 with hitters only managing to hit .188 against him.

2019 Returning Guys
Mark Zagunis should return in 2019 if he does not get traded this winter. I really feel for him because I think he’s ready for a major league role. More than likely, it’s not going be with the Cubs.

I’d like to think that Bijan Rademacher will be coming back in 2019, but the odds are against it. At 27, the veteran minor-league outfielder might’ve played his last game as a Cub. Like Zagunis, there is just not a spot for him in Chicago.

A lot of the pitchers at Iowa should be returning. Along with some starting guys from Tennessee, it’s gonna be a pretty competitive spring to see who will be in the starting rotation in 2019 for Iowa. Outside of Alzolay, Mills, and Clifton, I think it’s pretty wide open for anyone to come in and get a spot. For now, it looks like Duane Underwood might be a bullpen piece.

Incoming Position Players
Ian Rice, Zack Short, and Trent Giambrone

I wish there were more. It was a disappointing year for most of the Smokies at the plate. However, these three seemed to transcend their teammates. All three showed a penchant for two things: getting on base and power.

Keep an Eye on for 2019
The Starting Rotation Conundrum

There will be 5 spots and about 10 arms who will be competing for said spots. However, either Alec Mills or Adbert Alzolay could be in Chicago to start the year. One of those two will be in the rotation along with Trevor Clifton. After that, that leaves spots for Michael Rucker, Duncan Robinson, Thomas Hatch, Matt Swarmer, or Keegan Thompson.

There are not going be too many guys coming up from Tennessee to pitch in the bullpen to begin the year. I expect Theo will go out and get a lot of arms just like he did in 2018….and 2017…and 2016…

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

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

April’s MiLB All-Star Team Is Pitching Heavy

By Todd Johnson

This month’s All-Star team was pretty fluid right up through yesterday’s games. There were prospects who stayed consistent all month. There were those who got hot early and faded late. And then there are those who got off to a rough start but turned it on later in the month. At one point, before last Thursday, they were only five pitchers who met the usual pre-requisite 3.00 ERA. Somehow, two more pulled through

As for position players, no one but Jeffrey Baez really set the system on fire. Baez, who, in the past, has dominated levels in spurts. In April, Baez hit .411 with 3 HR and 15 RBI to earn Hitter of the Month honor. They were not that many players who hit above or near .300. While that is not required to get on the team, there were clear demarcations in the levels of production across the system about who should be on the team. I did not have to leave anyone off who was on a par with current crop of all-stars.

It will be interesting to see which players get promoted here in the coming weeks. I expect some of the players in the video below to move up a level. Most of the promoted prospects will probably be relievers and maybe one of the starting pitchers.

So, without further adieu, here is this month’s minor league All-Star team.

The Weekly – Bote Promoted and Several Other Prospects Off to Good Starts

By Todd Johnson

Congratulations to David Bote who made his MLB debut last night in Colorado. Bote batted eighth and played third base. He went 1 for 3 with a double.

Here he is through the years at every level in the minors.

  

His story is a story of perseverance. Revisit his Leveling Up post from this winter.

Back to the Minors…

Now that the weather seems to have cleared, there’s a lot more baseball being played especially in the Midwest and the Pacific Coast Leagues. Cub prospects are beginning to get in grooves and improve their stock in the organization. It’s been fun watching most of the teams play and see how they are progressing. It is only April, but there are a few players who are all already worth watching and keeping an eye on.

Who To Watch for at Each Affiliate
Iowa – 2-4 on the week, overall 4-10
Mark Zagunis seems to be the only bat that was hot this week. Bijan Rademacher, who leads Iowa in batting average, missed a few games. As for the pitching, Adbert Alzolay made his first start and dazzled in a two-hitter. Otherwise, Rob Zastryzny, Michael Roth, and Randy Rosario have all been outstanding out of the pen. I’m really happy that Zastryzny seems to have righted the ship and is off to a good beginning – no runs in 8.2 IP with 8 Ks.

Tennessee – 5-1 on the week, overall 8-7
The Smokies are turning into my “go-to” team every day, mainly because every team in the Southern League has MiLB.TV. Still, there’s a lot here to watch. The starting pitching of Trevor Clifton, Michael Rucker, Duncan Robinson, Thomas Hatch, and now Oscar de la Cruz are all pitching well. Both Clifton and de la Cruz did not allow a run in their first starts of the week. Outfielders Trey Martin and Jeffrey Baez lead the team in average. Zack Short is making an impact at the plate despite an average just above .200 because his OBP is almost .400. As for the bullpen, Dakota Mekkes has yet to give up a run, even though he is still walking almost a batter an inning. If he could eliminate his walks, he could be in Iowa before June.

Myrtle Beach– 3-4 on the week, overall 5-12
It has been just a horrible, horrible start for the Pelicans. All three facets of the game have not been working. However, there have been a couple of bright spots. Kevonte Mitchell, who is now injured, had been outstanding at the plate (.306).  Andruw Monasterio is having the quietest season of any Cub prospect as he keeps his average over .300. On the mound, Alex Lange was impressive in his first two starts and Keegan Thompson showed signs of massive improvement this week as he went 5 innings with no runs and 4 Ks. Another glimmer of hope took place this week as Bryan Hudson had an excellent start this week going 5 IP with 7 Ks and only allowing 1 run. Jhon Romero and Tyler Peyton are both throwing great out of the pen along with Wyatt Short, who has yet to allow a run in 4 appearances. That effort is reminiscent of when Short did not allow a run the entire season at Eugene in 2016.

South Bend – 1-4 on the week, overall 7-6
The Cubs have been up-and-down. They got off to a good start at 6-2 and their bats hit a rough patch. At the same time, the young Cubs are struggling to field the ball properly and make plays in the infield. Meanwhile, Jared Young (who just went on the DL), Austin Filiere, and  Yeiler Peguero have been impressive at the plate. Javier Assad, Bailey Clark, Rollie Lacy, Tyler Thomas and Cory Abbott are all starting to round in shape. If Jose Albertos can get his fastball command down, this team could really take off. The bullpen has been lights out and rarely surrenders a run.

Players of the Week

There were a lot of performances to pick from this week, especially starting pitching. 

Things I Wrote for Other Sites This Week
BP Wrigleyville
Latin Infusion Coming North – The Pitchers

Cubs Insider
Austin Filiere
Lefty Shortage
Adbert’s First Start

Coming Up Next Week
I’m going to start a new feature for Wednesdays called “The Mid Weekly.” It will sum up MiLB action for Sundays, Mondays, and Tuesdays. I am still checking out draft stuff on the side, but I won’t return with a “Draft Prep” post until May 7. Several mock drafts came out in the past two weeks. Players are all over the place – there’s not a lot of consensus.

Baseball Card of the Week
I made a lot of new baseball cards you can see in an album over on the Facebook account. I am closing in on 130 cards made just this April. I have a problem…I think…Yes, I do.

Made from a photo by Dylan Heuer