2018 Affiliate Reviews: Tennessee’s Rotation Stole the Show

By Todd Johnson

67-71 Record in 2018

Strengths and Highlights
The strength of this team all year was the starting pitching rotation. Beginning with Trevor Clifton, who quickly went to Iowa, and Duncan Robinson, who went to Iowa later, the Smokies had plenty of depth. So much so, they went to a six man rotation in the second half. Matt Swarmer, Michael Rucker, Thomas Hatch, Keegan Thompson, and Justin Steele all shined on the mound for the Smokies. Rucker, and Hatch will likely join Clifton and Robinson in Iowa in 2019. Thompson, Justin Steele, and Swarmer could begin the year in Tennessee after only pitching at Tennessee for just two months in 2018. Or anything could happen depending on spring training.

What Else Worked Well in 2018?
Short, Rice, and Giambrone

These three hitters displayed a patient approach at the plate which allowed them to get on base at high clips. Short and Giambrone both hit 17 home runs while Rice seemed to have a power outage but was still getting on base at over a .400 pace. Hopefully, Rice will be protected in the upcoming Rule Five Draft. Otherwise, some team is going to snap him up.

Returning for 2019
Aside from the aforementioned pitchers and position players mentioned above, there will be a few players returning to AA. Some players may have played their last days as a Cub and they might even be familiar names. The key for this team next year will be at the plate. They will have plenty of pitching, but it will all come down to the bats.

Expect to see Connor Myers return. The multi-talented defender was up and down at AA at the plate, but he was magnificent in centerfield. Eddy Martinez should be back along with catcher PJ Higgins, who had a short tenure at Tennessee in 2018. Charcer Burks’ assignment might be up in the air depending on his spring as well as he had an up and down year.

What Will Be Left in the Bullpen?
Lefty Jordan Minch will go to Iowa. But who else is going to make up the bullpen next year? Scott Effross should be back along with Wyatt Short to anchor the back end of the pen.

Incoming Position Players
Jared Young, Jhonny Pereda, Roberto Caro
These three guys have earned their promotions and DJ Wilson could be added depending on how he does in Arizona this fall. Then again, having to earn his way to Tennessee might be the best thing for Wilson. I’m excited to see how Young will do along with Pereda and Caro.

Remains to Be Seen – Wladimir Galindo could be a guy who also makes it to AA if he has a good spring training. Based on his 2018 stats, you wouldn’t think so. But then again, he has immense talent and is just waiting for it to click in at any level.

Aramis Ademan is likely to repeat Myrtle Beach. But if Nico Hoerner gets it done in the Arizona Fall League, Hoerner could be the Smokies’ starting shortstop bypassing Myrtle Beach..

Arms Aplenty Coming
Alex Lange, Cory Abbott, Erick Leal, and Tyson Miller should headline a somewhat dominating group of starting pitchers heading to AA. There will not be  much of a drop off between the departing and the returning. Add in relievers Bailey Clark, Tyler Peyton, Manny Rondon, and Garrett Kelly, the Cubs’ AA affiliate should be stacked in the pen.

2019 Sleeper
If 2B Carlos Sepulveda can come back healthy, the young 21-year-old could be pleasant surprise for the Smokies at some point next year. He’s basically missed two full years now but he had elite bat-to-ball skills when healthy at South Bend in 2016.

Advertisements

The Weekly: No Tennessee PDC Yet, Baseball Cards, and Cubs Announce Awards

By Todd Johnson

Is No News Good News?
I have not heard anything yet about the Cubs and the Smokies renewing their player development contract. It’s not like the Cubs in the Theo era to wait this long to renew a player development contract. The Cubs tend to do it in season as they did with Eugene earlier in the summer.

There have been rumors of the Smokies ownership buying land in downtown  Knoxville. I wonder if that could have anything to do with the delay? I really like the Smokies, their apparel, and Broadcaster Mick. It would be strange not to have those elements as part of the Cubs minor-league brand.

It would take a lot of getting used to if they did not renew. There are currently four other cities who have not signed with a major league club for 2019 either. They are Midland and Amarillo, both in the Texas League, and Chattanooga and Pensacola are without affiliates in the Southern League.

Baseball Cards Grind to a Halt
It’s been over a week since the Eugene Emeralds won the Northwest League championship. As the last team to finish playing, they were also the last affiliate to get some press. As a result, it looks as if the pictures for the baseball cards dried up about in the middle of this week. I still wound up with over 100 cards for the month with a lot of cards being Eugene players. A few more pics will trickle through before the end of this week.

Photo by John Conover

Cubs Announce Two Awards
Last week, I announced my hitter, starting pitcher, and reliever of the year awards. This week, the Cubs announced their player and pitcher of the year awards. Jared Young was given the player of the year while Matt Swarmer won the pitcher of the year award.

Cubs Insider and BP Wrigleyville
Over at CI, my goal for the off season is to write more original content for that site. This week, I published a review of the 2018 draft class’ first season. Check it out!. At Baseball Prospectus Wrigleyville, I also put up a recent post about the comeback of Justin Steele.

Coming Up This Week
Last week, I released my second half break out awards for hitter, pitcher, and reliever. Tomorrow, I’ll be taking a look at some guys who were injured this year and the hopes for their comebacks in 2019. On Wednesday, I’ll check out some guys who had some poor years in 2018 and their chances for a comeback in 2019. On Friday, 19-year-old infielder Yonathan Perlaza gets the prospect profile treatment.

In addition, the affiliate season reviews are all written, they just need edited. I’ll do the full season affiliates the first week of October and the short season clubs get examined the second week.

Card of the Week

Prospect Update: Matt Swarmer Finishing 2018 Strong

By Todd Johnson

Three months doesn’t seem that long of a time. But in a minor-league baseball player’s career, that’s half a season. That’s a lot games to play, and for Matt Swarmer, 2018 has been an eye-opening experience. He arrived at AA in late May after a dominating two months at Myrtle Beach. And as reported earlier, Swarmer added some weight last winter and that strength ticked his fastball up to 94 miles an hour. With his improved heater, a tightened up curve, an already plus changeup, and his funky delivery, Swarmer’s been the biggest surprise this spring and summer.

However, when he arrived in AA Tennessee Tennessee, his outstanding 2018 season needed some adaptations. AA is such a huge step in development for a minor league player. It’s a big leap in talent, and for Matt Swarmer, he needed to make some adjustments and quick.

His first month was not even close to the success story of the spring. In his four AA starts, he had a 5.63 ERA and his secondary stats were ironically were mostly similar to his first two months. He struck out 16 in 16 innings and walked only four. But the innings per appearance average of four was a bit disconcerting along with a WHIP of 1.50.

Swarmer’s 2018 season got back on track in July. Swarmer began to locate and keep hitters off balance again. In his second month at Tennessee, Swarmer put up an ERA of 3.16 with 25 strikeouts in 25.2 innings over 5 starts. . It was an impressive turnaround from June and made many begin to take notice that Swarmer could just be for real. It was not all smoke and mirrors.

In August, he continued what he started in July. In fact, he’s been even better. He is currently at five starts and is averaging about six innings per appearance this month with a 2.73 ERA and 30 Ks in 29.2 IP. He will likely have one more start before the season ends Monday. For the year, he is neck and neck with Myrtle Beach’s Cory Abbott for the minor-league pitcher of the year. It’s coming down to the final start.

The most impressive thing for me about Swarmer is the number of guys that he has made miss versus walked. In 122.2 innings, between Myrtle Beach and Tennessee, Swarmer has struck out 130 batters and only walked 20. That’s basically just over a 6 to 1 ratio; that is just astounding.

Considering his advanced development this year at such a quick pace, sometimes I wonder if he could be a candidate (as a reliever) to go to the Arizona Fall League. Then again, he’s thrown a career high number of innings and will wind up with almost 130. I wonder how his stuff reacts coming out of the pen. However, based on what he’s been able to do at AA, a relief role might not be in his future.

Come 2019, it should be fun to see how he shows up next spring and if he’s continues to add weight and clicks to his fastball, or if he stays the same size and maintains his current flexibility and pitches. He is one of the great stories of the year.

The Weekly – Playoffs Loom Large and Some Interesting Trends

By Todd Johnson

Wow! Three weeks from tomorrow the minor-league baseball season ends. That’s a hard thing to fathom. I am not really sure I am ready for that. When it comes to teaching, I am not sure I am ready for that, either. This past week, I set up my classroom and come Wednesday, I have the first of two institute days. The kids arrive for their first day on Friday the 17th. Then, the month begins to take off.

Then MiLB Playoffs will be kicking off soon. Tennessee is still holding on. Heading into today, the Smokies are 5.5 games back. South Bend is fading very fast. They are seven games back. South Bend is going to need an incredible run and some help to get over five teams. Eugene has an excellent shot of joining Mesa in the postseason. They are just two games behind Salem Kaiser. The Cubs 2 team in Mesa is very quietly moving up the ladder. They now stand 1 games behind first place. However, that division is so jumbled with five teams within 2 games of the lead. Mesa’s season ends a week early on the 27th. 

This past week, Baseball America released their rankings of the top farm systems in the minors. The Cubs came in at #28. Even though Miguel Amaya made two top 100 lists, the system itself still lacks elite talent. BA, however, did mention both Nico Hoerner and Brailyn Marquez as possible players who should be ones to watch next year.

Interesting Trends Happening

Even though there are three weeks still left in the season, Jared Young seems to have sewn up the Cubs’ Minor League Player of the Year Award. He won back-to-back monthly awards in June and July. Aside from hitting .306 with a .368 OBP for the year, Young hit his 15th HR on Friday while also crossing the 70 RBI plateau. Young has completely dominated two levels at South Bend and Myrtle Beach. The only player who is even in the same discussion for the award is Jason Vosler, who leads the Cubs’ system in both HRs and RBI with 18 and 73.

On Friday night, it was strange seeing Trevor Clifton throw a no-hitter for 5.2 IP. He gave up 2 consecutive hits before he was pulled. All the while, I kept thinking, “I only have one more baseball card to make of him and that is from his MLB debut.” Got a little misty thinking about his journey and how close he is to getting the call to Chicago.

Every summer down in the Dominican, one prospect usually garners a lot of inquiry about their stat line. Last year, that prospect was Fernando Kelli who stole 58 bases. This year, pitcher Luis Rodriguez is raising some eyebrows. For the season, he has a 0.70 ERA and 0.70 WHIP in 51.1 innings. He’s struck out 46 and walked only 6 all summer. Even more impressive, as a starter, he has a 0.24 ERA!!!! I was hoping the 18-year-old lefty gets a shot to come north to play in Mesa once his team is eliminated from the DSL playoffs.

Zack Short is killing it AA the past month. The 23-year-old shortstop is doing what he normally does – hitting dingers and taking walks. But this year, he’s had a couple streaks where he’s hit about .300 for long stretches at a time. He’s in one of those runs now (9 for his last 30). His K rate has fluctuated throughout the year. In May it was at 42% but is back down into the low 20s now to go along with his ungodly walk rate, which in August is in the upper 20 percents. He’s going to be in Iowa next year and with his power potential (he has 14 HRs so far in 2018), he could earn his way to Chicago very soon. Check out this cool piece about Short by the greatest self professed scout ever.

It sure seems like South Bend has been playing with 24 guys on the roster most of the year. In addition, for the past month, they have only had 2 catchers suiting up. Miguel Amaya gets the call behind the dish most days and Cam Belago, who is in his first year of receiving behind the plate, spells Miguel once or twice a week. Amaya, even though he’s just 19, has to be feeling the effects of catching 80% of the time. Hopefully, a third catcher will find their way to Indiana. They will need a new bullpen arm as Garrett Kelly is on his way to Myrtle Beach after last night’s game.

The Tennessee starting rotation has been other worldly later. Every night, it seems like the starter goes 6 innings with 1 run allowed and strikes out 5-8 hitters. Keegan Thompson, Matt Swarmer, Michael Rucker, and Duncan Robinson might be the most under-reported story of the past six weeks. If not for one horrible start at the end of July, Rucker would have been pitcher of the month. Thompson was right there with him while Robinson is in his second month with a sub-2.00 ERA. Their success on the mound at AA should make things quite difficult for the powers that be next year as AAA should be swimming in quality starters.

When it comes to the walking wounded, Bailey Clark is back on the bump. He made two one inning starts in Mesa this week. He is slowly building up his arm before he goes back to Myrtle Beach.

Getting Back to the Compass

One thing I really like to write in the second half of the year is a prospect profile. A lot has been happening in the system and I have gotten a few in, but not as many as I want. This week, however, profiles are filling the post docket and most of the them are about players in Eugene. In the past two weeks, I looked at Luke Reynolds and Grant Fennell. This week, Jake Slaughter gets profiled along with Andy Weber (hopefully) while Nelson Velazquez and Jose Albertos get updates.

Player of the Week

Card of the Week

The MiLB First Half All-Star Team Came Right Down to the Wire

By Todd Johnson

In compiling the stats and possible prospects who might make the First Half All-Star Team, I started with a spreadsheet to get a head start. The 20 something players who made the list did not change much, but who would become the hitter and pitcher of the first half changed from week to week. The reliever of the first half was pretty much set in stone since the first month of the season.

It’s been interesting to watch players shoot up, down, or stay steady throughout the past 2.5 months. Still, it came down to the weekend to see who would make the team when it came to starting pitching (I had 12 at one point and it didn’t end up too far from that).

The biggest surprise the past two weeks has been the surge of Jhonny Bethencourt. Bethencourt is a 21-year-old infielder who plays 3B, SS, and 2B for South Bend. He can definitely handle a stick. He’s hitting almost .350 in June alone to bring his average up to .280. His issue, though, is his defense. He tends to rush plays with his arm. He can get to and field the grounder, it’s just the quality of his throws. However, as long as he hits, he is going to play somewhere.

I really like Jared Young and have been on the “Jared Young Train” since before he began to take off last August. His approach is too good. Not only can he hit for average, he can hit for power. Most teams in the Midwest League already employ a shift against him every night and it is not stopping him from going off. He is the hitter of the first half. I am ready for him to add 10-15 pounds of muscle this winter to add even more power to his game. He cranked out 8 HRs and lead the system in RBI this spring and also lead with a wRC+ of 146 while hitting .302.

Pitcher Matt Swarmer has been pretty steady. He’s had a couple of tough starts, but that is it. The lean and lanky starter already got promoted to Tennessee after being named the April Pitcher of the Month with a 1.72 ERA and 26 Ks in 20.2 IP. In May, he had a 2.92 ERA. In his first start at Tennessee, he got touched, but in his second start, he was scoreless through 3 before the rains came and delayed the game. For the first half, between the two levels, the pitcher of the first half put up a 2.47 ERA and had 65 Ks in 59.1 IP with a WHIP of 0.95.

Dakota Mekkes is the reliever of the first half. He had a 0.98 ERA between Iowa and Tennessee along with 36 Ks in 26.2 IP. His only issue is walks. He’s given out 15 free passes this year, but only 3 in Iowa (5+ BBs/9). Expect to see him in Chicago shortly.

Without further adieu, here is Cub Central’s First Half All-Star team.

 

The Weekly: Two Affiliates in the Playoff Hunt, Promotion Debuts, Theo and I Speak on the Radio…Separately

By Todd Johnson

Around the System This Week
Iowa – 2-4 (23-37)
Tennessee – 3-5 (31-31)
Myrtle Beach – 6-0 (32-29)
South Bend – 6-1 (31-30)
DSL 1 – 3-3 (4-3)
DSL 2 – 0-6 (1-6)

For the better part of the first half, only Tennessee had a winning record among the Cubs affiliates. Both Myrtle Beach and Iowa got off to horrible starts while South Bend was extremely inconsistent from series to series. Now that things have warmed up quite a bit, the system is seeing some outstanding pitching on a nightly basis. There are a few hitters who are starting to heat up, but it’s been impressive to watch the starting rotations go out at night after night across the system. At the end of this week, two out of the four major affiliates were above .500.

There is just one week left to the first half of the 2018 The fact that the Pelicans are in contention is a testament to manager Buddy Bailey and to the hard work of the team. They sit just 2.5 games back with 8 to go including 3 against first place Winston-Salem.

The Smokies sit just three behind Chattanooga.

Outside of the Draft, the big story of the week was the combined no-hitter for Rollie Lacy and Ben Hecht of South Bend. Lacy went 7 IP on Wednesday with 6 Ks against Lake County and Hecht finished them in 2 innings with 2 strike outs. What I loved most about the night was that Lacy’s curve was just so dominating and the defense made a couple nice plays behind him.

Pic by Rebecca Snyder

Promotion Debuts
This week also saw the pitching debuts of several prospects at their new affiliates. Cory Abbott went six innings at Myrtle Beach and gave up two runs while striking out 8. Matt Swarmer had a tougher time at Tennessee. He only managed four innings while giving up three earned runs and striking out three.

At AAA Iowa, Dakota Mekkes threw a scoreless inning hitting 95 on the gun in his debut earlier in the week. Last night, he got in some more work. He went 1.2 IP with 4 Ks, but was removed with the bases loaded and two innings. He was not charged with a run. Trevor Clinton made his AAA debut. He got through it. He went just 4 and allowed 2 runs with 3 Ks, but used 85 pitches to get it done. Now that the butterflies are out of the way, his next start should be better.

Short Season Leagues to Begin Friday
On Friday night the 15th, three more Cub affiliates join the fray when Eugene and the two Mesa teams begin play. Hopefully, they’ll be a lot of draft picks in tow. At some point during the week, Eugene will release its roster and I will do an official preview of the team.

Me and Theo On the Air
In other news, Theo Epstein and I spoke on the radio this week, although not to each other. He spoke to 670 the Score about current state of the Cubs, Jason Heyward, Yu Darvish, and other assorted sundries.

https://omny.fm/shows/the-spiegel-and-parkins-show-on-670-the-score/theo-epstein-and-jason-heyward-join-the-show-hour/embed

I was on the Kent Sterling Radio Show in Indianapolis (1430 AM) subbing for Evan Altman in his weekly radio spot. I talked with Kent about my love for baseball cards, the draft, and Tyler Chatwood.

I also appeared on fellow Cubs Insider Sean Holland’s Holy Cow podcast this week to talk about the draft at length. We also touched on the current state of the minors, the draft, and presidential scandals. Hopefully, that link will be released shortly. I will send it out on Twitter when Sean releases it.

Draft Signings Update
It’s only been a few days since the draft ended, but it looks like the Cubs are going to get a pretty good haul this year. When Theo first took the over, they signed a little over 20 that first year and that has been creeping up the twenties ever since. In 2016, they signed 25 and last year they signed 29. This year, it’s looking like they’re going to sign between 30 and 33 players. Most of the high school kids in the 30s are not gonna sign but it looks like almost everyone else will.

And some of the draft picks are playing in the College World Series this weekend. Here’s how they did yesterday.

Pitcher Ethan Roberts from Tennessee Tech – 4 IP, 1 runs, 4 Ks
SS Levi Jordan from Washington – 0-4
C Hunter Taylor out of South Carolina – 1-4, 1 RBI
CF Jimmy Herron who plays for Duke – 1-3, BB, 2 runs

Coming Up Next Week
Both Myrtle Beach and Tennessee will be the majority of this week’s coverage as they chase down a playoff spot. I do have a Duane Underwood update ready to go. That should be out on Monday. Later this week I will take a look at the Mesa and Eugene rosters before they begin their season on Friday. They should be very interesting to see which of the young international kids make which team.

Other Stuff I Wrote This Week
@BP Wrigleyville

5 Things to Like About the Cubs’ Draft

Day Two Analysis

Second Round Picks Raise Some Eyebrows

Hoerner Checks the Boxes

@Cubs Insider

10 Picks from Day 3 I Like

Day Two Recap

High Risk/HIgh Reward Second Round Picks

Players of the Week

Card of the Week

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.