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

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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

A Few Mid-Weekly Random Notes

By Todd Johnson

I had a big ole post written about 10 things that I am thinking about. When I was done editing it, I got so mad at myself because it was pretty close to what I wrote on Sunday for the weekly. So, I decided to scrap it.

I have been suffering through a bit of a case of writer’s block and everything I write feels like I have written it before. Instead, for today, I decided to just do a few random notes about the week so far – almost a mid-week kind of post about a few observations.

1. The defense in the minors has been brutal at all four levels. I know it is early in the season, and it has been very cold and wet, but every ground ball and popup is an adventure. I cannot wait until warms up. The pitchers have to be struggling watching it take place behind them.

2. Mark Zagunis – It took a bit, but he has started to come around. He had a spell where he went 1 for 19 but has rebounded and his average is closing in on .300 and he hit his first home run. By the end of the month, he should be clicking on all cylinders. Too bad there is no place for him in Chicago.

3. The start for Trevor Clifton this year is a mixed bag. He is trending towards the good side. He has 14 innings of work so far where he’s given up one hit and not allowed a run. The other inning, a combined 1/3 and 2/3 of an inning, saw him give up 8 earned. He told MiLB.com he has since worked on strengthening his legs after each outing. What happened was that in his first two starts, he sailed through the first few innings in each start without giving up any hits or runs. Then he got hammered in that 1/3 or 2/3 of an inning. On Monday, in his third start that didn’t happen. Trevor needs to continue to improve each start and to have a short memory about the last outing. That looks to be the case.

4. I love to watch Duncan Robinson pitch all around the zone. He pitches up down, in, and out. Eye levels are always changing. Last night, he threw 6 innings while striking out four. He gave up an earned run, but that was the worst of it. For the year, his ERA is 1.93 over 15 innings at AA Tennessee. He’s had one heck of a quick ride as a starter in the minors.

5. Adbert Alzolay is coming east from Mesa. He was called up after throwing 75 pitches in extended spring training. He will be assigned to AAA Iowa and debut tomorrow in Iowa. That assignment signals some serious confidence in the young pitcher. Part of me wants to see him in the bullpen in Chicago come August. Who knows, he could be starting there, instead.

6. Iowa’s red alternate jerseys take some getting used to. However, I am beginning to like them. Now, if I could just get a clear picture of them.

I will be back on Friday with the return of the “Friday 6 Pack” as I look at six ways the system will change in June and July.

 

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.

Cards of the Offseason – Part 1: New Templates with New Pics

By Todd Johnson

I did not see this post coming…at all.

When the offseason began, I made an album on the Facebook account for offseason cards. I often get several new pics over the offseason as I come across assorted local articles and search results begin to include other pictures. I thought maybe, just maybe, that I might make 20-25 new baseball cards this winter.

To make a short story long, at the end of last season I thought that I would recreate Topps’ 2017 design. I liked how extremely close I came without using an editor. I made a few cards. As some Arizona Fall League (AFL) pictures came in from MiLB and the AFL, I began exclusively making 2017 cards for about 6 weeks until the AFL season ended.

Then I got a little bit ambitious about a week before Christmas. I showed some of my students how I used PIXLR, an online photo editor, to help make the templates for each year. Up through this past fall, the templates I made cards from were from my card collecting years. There were a couple of years in the 1950s, most of the 60s, and then my peak card collecting years, 1970-1986. I do have a 1990 template but that was where the fun ended. 

Anyway, I got a lot accomplished for school stuff the last week of the semester. As a result, I had little or no work to do over break. In other words, I was free to fart around, something I haven’t had time for the past couple of years. So, I began to try making more modern cards from the past 30 years. In the end, I added over 16 templates from 1990 onward and two more from the 1950s. I really like most of the templates, but there are 3 or 4 I am still working on.

Yesterday, I found some more pics to make cards for the leveling up profiles and the position breaking. I uploaded them to the Facebook album and I was stunned I had made over 70+ cards this offseason. I knew then it was time for a post.

So, with further adieu…

Honorable Mention
Normally, I don’t make a lot of big league players unless it is from their debut or rookie season. I just love the light and shadow on Dillon Maples in his debut last year. It also looks good in one of my favorite new templates, the 1953 Topps. Dillon also looks stunning in a mixture of red, white, and Cub blue in a 2003 template.

 

10-8
Coming in at number 10, Jake Stinnett pops in this picture by Clubhouse Corner from the Arizona Fall League. I love this 2008 template but the popout Topps tab is sometimes hard to work around. Larry Kave’s capture of Zack Short meshes well with many shades of blue contained in another 2003 card. Rikk Carlson’s closeup of DJ Wilson just jumps off the page in the 2017 frame.

7-5
As I looked at the large number of cards, each tier became harder and harder to pick. International Free Agent Florencio Serrano looks great in a 1999 frame at number 7. I haven’t decided what affiliate’s uniform will blend with the color in this template best. At number 6, Dylan Heuer captures the “Popeye” arms of Mark Zagunis perfectly in a 1953 frame. Larry Kave returns at number 5 with Thomas Hatch in a 2007 frame which I beginning to like more and more. What I love about this picture, though, is the yellow line at the top of the outfield wall blends with Hatch’s cap and the lettering on the card.

 

4-2
Getting to the top four took a lot of thought. I found this rare picture of pitcher Brendan King, a 2017 draftee of the Cubs. He pitched in Mesa this past after signing and I found the pic on the Twitter account of Holy Cross Baseball. I used a filter to make the blue pop and I liked it a lot. Coming in at #3, Duane Underwoods closeup from the former CSN-Chicago gets some love in a 2017 frame. At number 2, this was one of my favorite cards of the entire and it is of Adbert Alzolay in the Arizona Fall League. The lighting of the game makes the card along with his gray Mesa Solar Sox hat being similar in color to the gray 2017 frame and his glove.

 

#1
I had this list all done and then about 9 P.M. last night I was looking for pics in a Twitter search. Lo and behold, there was a picture of Wladimir Galindo by Jared Ravitch from 2016. The black of uniform fits perfectly with the black of the card and gray outline and the blue fencing provides a backdrop for Wladimir’s face. It’s a great closeup of Wladimir in a 1953 classic frame.

Only 6 more weeks until spring training!

Position Breakdown Series: Outfielders Need Some Big Impact Bats

By Todd Johnson

This is easily the hardest position to rank. Eloy Jimenez anchored the rankings for two years and I am just not quite sure how to arrange this year’s crop. Do I put them in tiers, number them, or do I arrange them into categories? I decided to be old fashioned up to 7.

A year ago, Eloy was at the top of the Cub outfielders followed by Mark Zagunis, Eddy Martinez, Donnie Dewees, and DJ Wilson. Two of those five prospects are gone. Although Zagunis did have a pretty good season in 2018, Burks and Wilson didn’t exactly light the minor leagues on fire for a whole year.

This is a position that has a lot of names of players who COULD be elite talents someday. However, their tools have not clicked for some reason. In fact, that pretty much sums up the Cubs system in general. There’s a lot of depth, just not elite talent. However, in two years, that could all change greatly.

In spite of that, here are the current top seven outfielders the Cubs have in their system heading into the 2018 season.

7. Jonathan Sierra – I am just waiting for him to get it going. Hopefully, this year will be the year the homers start to flow. In reality, though, it is more likely to happen at South Bend for him. He might be at the bottom of this list again next year or he could be #1. He as all the tools and the right approach at the plate, it is just a matter of game experience and tapping into his 6’3” frame and beautiful swing.

6. Kevonte Mitchell – A physical specimen, he could be a beast. At times in 2017, he showed that he could carry a club for a week or two at a time. In 2018, he should be at Myrtle Beach and he could begin to fulfill his power potential. Watching him work hard in pre-game activities bodes well for him grinding it out at some point.

5. I could’ve easily written Eddy Martinez in at number two as well as number five. That’s what is hardest about this group – there’s depth but not much differentiation of talent. For Martinez, he was pretty good in the second half of last year hitting .276 with 7 home runs. Already a defensive stalwart, he just needs to walk more and strike out less. I don’t think that’s too much to ask. It is another thing for it to happen.

4. DJ Wilson – He is an amazing athlete who I think should break out a little bit this year at Myrtle Beach. Now at 21 years of age, and in his fourth season as a Cub, the time has come for him to begin to put it together. The lack of a any kind of a sustained performance could be a concern very soon. He has all the skills he needs, it is just a matter of putting it together on a daily basis.

3. Charcer Burks had a great first half at AA Tennessee and I thought for sure he was going to get a promotion in late June to AAA. He got off to a great start in spring training with the big league club and never let up until the middle of June when he seemed to take a step back. He did alright in the Arizona Fall League but he didn’t necessarily knock anyone’s socks off. It was a long year but it was also a huge step in the right direction that truly began the second half of 2016 at Myrtle Beach when Rashad Crawford was dealt. He should be fine at AAA. And to be honest, his power game might improve at AAA. Last year, he hit 10 at AA. I would not be surprised if he hit 15 this year in the PCL.

2. Mark Zagunis – Like Victor Caratini, I don’t think there’s much left for him to prove at AAA. His power improved last year, his batting average improved, while his on base percentage is always spectacular. All he needs is a place to play every day. The problem it is not in Chicago. I was hoping that he might get a chance with another club to break through. That hasn’t happened yet this offseason.

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

1. Nelson Velasquez – His power potential is off the charts. In just a short six week span, He cranked out 11 home runs in Mesa between rookie league and the playoffs. He still has some swing and miss to his game (30% K rate in the Arizona Rookie League). As a result, I think the Cubs are going to be pretty patient with him and it will be interesting to see how he does in Eugene, which is not a place where home runs have been known to happen frequently. Still, there’s just too much talent to not rank him number 1 just based on potential.

Some Names to Watch for 2018
Out of all the position lists from this winter, the outfield list could change drastically in one year’s time. In fact, the Cubs could pick up another college outfielder or two in the top three to four rounds of the draft next summer that could totally reshape these rankings. Add in some amazing athletes who will be patrolling the green grass in Mesa, Eugene, and South Bend in 2018 who are young, unproven for a full season, and extremely athletic and the system becomes much more dynamic.

Card made from a photo by John Arguello

Fernando Kelli leads the list and should be making his stateside debut along with Carlos Pacheco. Both played in the Dominican last year and they could be playing anywhere from Mesa to South Bend. Meanwhile, Brandon Hughes begins his first full season after being drafted last summer. A switch-hitter, Hughes is an amazing athlete with the build to hit for power but has never been asked to do so. Chris Carrier, another 2017 draft pick, struggled at Eugene, but is a physical specimen.

Finally, Jose Gutierrez is another young and athletic outfielder who was the leadoff man on Mesa’s championship team. Down the stretch, he hit .354 in August helping to set the table for the rookie league Cubs.

One thing about this class of outfielders from Mesa to Eugene to South Bend is that they are not going to be dull.