MiLB Mailbag – Episode II: All About Pitching Coming Soon

By Todd Johnson

In today’s mailbag post, I am going to kill two birds with one stone thanks in part to two queries about pitching. David Spellman asked, “Any pitching help for the major league level on the horizon?” In the same post, Jason Anderson wondered, “How is @adbert29 rehab coming?  When will he be back? Where do you think he starts his season?  Could he see time with the big league club next year? Possibly in bullpen?” Luckily for me, the two questions kind of share a common component. So, I will answer them at the same time.

I remember in 2012 when Jed Hoyer and Jason McLeod would talk about one of the goals of the farm system was to produce waves of pitching for the major leagues. Well, that time is finally here. It’s a few years later than expected but in 2019, there will be plenty of arms in contention to make it to Chicago next spring and summer. The main arm I see on the horizon is Adbert Alzolay.

Alzolay missed most of the 2018 season just as it looked like he was figuring things out at AAA Iowa. In his last start in May, he took a no hitter into the fifth. It was his fourth such outing last spring. The Cubs shut him down in mid-June when his lat strain was not recovering. Alzolay continued to work hard and shared rehab stories and videos on his own Instagram and Twitter accounts. The Cubs would love it if Alzolay could make it to Chicago as a starter since he sits 95-96 deep into games. That sustainability is a key part of his likability but so are an improving curve and changeup.

However, there is no spot for him in the rotation right now. Alzolay would be awesome coming out of the pen. When I first saw Alzolay pitch in 2015, it was a long reliever for Eugene. He was brilliant most every night for the Ems. Alzolay has improved since then. He would not have any issues transitioning to such a role.

Alzolay is one arm I can see pitching in Chicago regularly in 2019. The other is Dakota Mekkes. The 6’7” behemoth is pretty close to ready. He’s dominated four levels the pasts two years as a pro with a 1.16 career ERA and 190 Ks in 147 IP. The former Michigan State reliever only needs to cut down on his walks and he could be a 6th-7th inning kind of guy to begin and he could also easily go 2 innings if needed.

Alec Mills and James Norwood look to be names to know after getting a sneak peak in the pen last summer. Duane Underwood worked out of the pen some in Iowa after getting a spot start for the Cubs. And, as usual the past two years, Dillon Maples is still lurking.

However, there is a new wave of arms who could be ready at some point in 2019.

Trevor Clifton seems to be getting closer and closer as a starting pitching. Efficiency will be a key for him to get to the 6th and 7th innings on a regular basis. Duncan Robinson is not far behind Trevor in terms of experience, but his control and versatility could be a key to his arrival. I really like Michael Rucker as a swing guy who can start and relieve with his ability to throw strikes at almost a 70% rate and be in the mid 90s while doing so.

 

Three guys could be longshots to make it this year. Matt Swarmer and Keegan Thompson both went through 2 levels last year at Myrtle Beach and Tennessee with great success. Thomas Hatch, the third, pitched like a man possessed in August with an ERA of 2.51 in 5 starts.

Relievers Bailey Clark and Manny Rondon are still about a year or so away and Justin Steele is going to be the one I am going to keep an eye on the most at Tennessee to begin 2019. The lefty starter came back quickly from TJS and was dominant in the second half while hitting 95 most days to go along with his plus curve.

The pitchers are coming. What I like most is that they are all so different. There is no cookie cutter approach. It should be fun to watch them get their shots in 2019.

Advertisements

What Will be the Top Pitching Storylines in 2019 for Cub Prospects?

By Todd Johnson


Unlike hitting, the Cubs starting pitching does not have depth issues. When it comes to 2019, there are going to be a lot of storylines to follow at every major affiliate when it comes to pitching. Some of those storylines may take place this off-season and some of them will take place throughout the course of the 2019 regular season.

Moving Up or Staying Put

First, and foremost, Jaron Madison is going to have a tough time deciding which five starting pitchers are going to be at AAA Iowa to begin the year. Adbert Alzolay, Trevor Clifton, Duncan Robinson, and maybe Alec Mills will begin the year in the rotation. But then Keegan Thompson, Thomas Hatch, Matt Swarmer, and Michael Rucker will be competing for a spot or two and it’s going to be a whale of a competition. It’ll be interesting to see how that type of log jam plays out as it trickles down the rest of the system. It will be a very competitive spring. 

If you succeed at AA, odds are your season was not a fluke. Odds are you a legit prospect. In 2018, Matt Swarmer and Keegan Thompson both did very well; first at Myrtle Beach and later at AA Tennessee. Michael Rucker flashed in spurts and Duncan Robinson got better every month and just plain dominated the second half of the year. Thomas Hatch pitched like a man possessed in August. It will be interesting to see who ends up where in 2019.

How Good Can Brailyn Marquez Get?
After having a breakout season in 2018, the 6’4″ lefty is still in a bit of quandry. After regularly sitting 95-97 most nights in Eugene last summer, he earned a late promotion to South Bend. Is he good enough to start out at Myrtle Beach? Can he go deeper and deeper into games? How efficient can he be with his wipe out slider? He will be just 20 next year. As a top 5 system prospect, there is no one quite like him in the minors for the Cubs.

Skippers
Last year, a couple of pitchers skipped a level to begin the year. Alex Lange and Keegan Thompson both started out at Myrtle Beach after playing a little bit at Eugene the year before. They did just fine. The only arm I could see doing that in 2019 is Derek Casey, the Cubs ninth round pick out of Virginia. However, several guys from Mesa could skip Eugene to get to South Bend. I would love to see lefty Didier Vargas attacking the zone in South Bend as a 20-year-old lefty,

South Bend Breakouts
South Bend is going to have a lot of young arms that are going to be extremely talented and also will have some growing to do. This is where most of the breakout arms should debut next season. Riley Thompson, Yovanny Cruz, Didier Vargas, Faustino Carrera, and many more young talented pitchers will be competing for a spot to pitch every six days over 140 games. I am excited to see just exactly what they can do. They  all tend to have one plus pitch and they need to refine the rest of their arsenal.

Young Drafted Guys: Kohl Franklin, Niels Stone, and Chris Allen
All three of these guys should begin at Eugene next year as they are either a high school or junior college draft pick last year. All three had great months ilast August but I don’t think they’re quite ready for South Bend.

Injury Return: Alzolay, Danis Correa, and Jeremiah Estrada
All three of these pitchers will hopefully return to health and have good seasons next year. Alzolay will be at AAA and Chicago while the other two should be in Eugene or South Bend come June.

Question Marks: Blake Whitney, Jack Patterson, and Peyton Remy

The Cubs drafted a lot of arms the past three years and these three are beginning to stand out a little bit. All three did excellent last year in Mesa, but I wonder if they are going to start in 2019 or work in relief. Remy threw darts for Eugene in the playoffs and Paterson went five scoreless in game two of the championship series against Spokane.

Overall, the pitching in 2019 will be the most competitive aspect of the minors come spring. With so many good arms, the Cubs are looking for a few to breakthrough and they might end up using a few of them either in Chicago or as trade chips as they did last summer.

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.

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.