A Saturday Surprise – Keith Law Drops His Top Cubs List

By Todd Johnson

I got up today just like any other Saturday enjoying the fact that I got to sleep in and that my dogs let me. I booted around for a little bit, fed the dogs, and decided I would head to DeKalb get my medicine. When I stopped to eat breakfast on the way home, I took my phone out and I got a nice little Saturday surprise when I saw that Keith Law published his top Cubs prospect listUsually, these kinds of things don’t happen on the weekend. So, let’s take a look. The link does require a subscription. 

About a week ago, Law ranked the Cubs as having the number 29 farm system in the minors. It’s not that he doesn’t have a high regard for the Cubs, rather it’s that he doesn’t see a lot of high-end prospects right now. The Cubs currently don’t have a lot of prospects who contain that star quality that Law wants to see in a system. That could change over the next two summers. Still, I was looking forward to seeing just exactly who he put in his list.

It’s not a surprise who was at number one as Miguel Amaya made Law’s top 100 at 91 a couple weeks ago. And it’s no surprise that Nico Hoerner was at number two as he was included in Law‘s next 10 prospects.

A lot of the usual suspects filled up positions three through ten. The list included Brailyn Marquez, Adbert, Brennen Davis, Cole Roederer, and Aramis Ademan. I was mildly surprised to see Oscar de la Cruz still in the top 10 along with Erich Uelmen, who had a rough second half at Myrtle Beach.

The two biggest surprises were the inclusion of Matt Swarmer on the list and the fact that Law ranked Brennen Davis ahead of Cole Roederer. I can easily see why Law did that. Roederer does have a much higher floor while Davis’ talents are just being tapped into now that he plays baseball full time. Scouts do rave about Davis’ athleticism.

Law did go on to discuss a myriad number of pitchers in the system including Alex Lange, Tyson Miller, Yovanny Cruz, Justin Steele, Keegan Thompson, Brendon Little, Duncan Robinson, and Michael Rucker. He also professed to the talents of outfielder Nelson Velazquez, but held off on coronating the young outfielder as a prospect of the future.

There’s only one major prospect list remaining and that is MLB Pipeline’s. According to the schedule, it’ll be published the 21st February.

I’ve been keeping track of all the major prospect list rankings and it’s interesting to see the variance of where people are slotted. Here are the point totals so far with just one list left.

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The Podcast: Looking at Pitchers Who Could Be in Chicago in 2-3 Years

By Todd Johnson

It is really going to be a pivotal year for pitching in the system. There’s competition for starting spots at every level.  The Cubs signed 16 additional arms this winter for depth at AAA, although most won’t make the roster but a few will. This is going to result in a lot of arms trying to get to Chicago as starters and relievers.

This week’s podcast looks at which Cub pitching prospects who could be headed to Chicago in 2-3 years (2019-2021). I did end up focusing mostly on AAA arms who are nearly ready now.

I could have talked even more about arms at AA who could be in the mix, too. Names like Bailey Clark and Michael Rucker as bullpen guys. Then there are possible starters like Erick Leal, Alex Lange, Cory Abbott, Keegan Thompson, Erling Moreno, Manny Rondon, Thomas Hatch, and a few more. Maybe I will do part 2 in a couple weeks. Have a listen.

Next week’s topic is the draft…I think. If you have questions about the draft, send them to me via Twitter or leave a comment down below.

I will be back tomorrow with more of the 5 Series.

Which Prospects Will Get Looks in Big League Camp?

By Todd Johnson

The Cubs are going to issue a press release here in a few days. That release will contain a few names that the team is going to invite to spring training. These players are known as NRIs or non-roster invitees. I keep thinking what that list might look like more and more these days, especially since the convention. The White Sox and a few other organizations have already put out their lists. The Cubs will follow suit any day.

All current prospects on the 40 man will be in camp. So, Adbert, Justin Steele, and Mark Zagunis will be there. In looking at other possibilities, the Cubs are going to basically fill out 2 teams for spring training and slowly whittle about 60-70 players down to 25 by the end of March. In the big scheme of things, the Cubs don’t have to send out invites to players. For some prospects, it’s a reward, for other players it might be a contractual thing if they don’t stick with the Cubs when spring training is over. That way, many AAAA-type guys can get seen playing in the spring.

As for Cub prospects, there are several who should be playing in a packed house at Sloan Park throughout March.

Starting Pitchers
Trevor Clifton, Duncan Robinson, Thomas Hatch, Keegan Thompson, Alex Lange, Cory Abbott, Michael Rucker, and Matt Swarmer are some definite names who should get the call. They could all be piggyback starters as the big league Cubs get stretched out. As well, the Cubs could also get to see how the pitchers fare against big league hitters in those crucial first two or three innings or in split squad games.

Relief Guys
The bullpen arm I want to see most in the big league camp this spring is Dakota Mekkes. The 6’7” righty has a deceptive delivery to go with an elongated stride thanks in part to his large frame. It has worked with great results at every level in the minors so far. I want to see how he does against MLB hitters.

Catchers
As is the case in every spring training, the Cubs are going to need lots of catchers. Miguel Amaya is one guy I want to see get some MLB time in Mesa along with Jhonny Pereda. Both guys have very different hitting profiles but are both very solid defensively. Ian Rice and PJ Higgins should also get the call for the first couple of weeks.

Infielders
I am pretty sure Nico Hoerner is going to get a lot of looks this spring at both second base and shortstop. The Cubs are going to give Nico a preview of what he could be seeing quickly. In addition, Zack Short could be a guy the Cubs want to get more ABs against MLB arms to see how Short’s amazing approach works against big league pitching. As well, Jared Young,Trent Giambrone, and Luis Vazquez will see action, but whether they get invites is up in the air. I would also love to see Luke Reynolds get some swings in as well. However they get in the games doesn’t matter. They should all get into games to show what they can do.

Outfielders
As we saw last year, the Cubs had several young guys get looks from time-to-time throughout the spring. Fernando Kelli played in two games despite not being a NRI. I would love to see Nelson Velazquez get in a few games to practice laying off breaking balls out of the zone.

Considering the quantity of AAAA players the Cubs signed this year, the list of NRI should be somewhere around 20 and be pitching and catching heavy. I don’t expect to see a lot of position players except middle infielders. Hopefully, the list should be out today or tomorrow.

Coming Up on Cubs Central
Friday – Organization Breakdown – Relief Pitching
Sunday – Prospect List Frenzy and other Random MiLB Notes and Signings
Next Week – Podcast #2 – If you have topics you want me to talk about, send me a tweet.

The 5 Series: Matt Swarmer Questions Will Get Answered Quickly in 2019

By Todd Johnson

It is been a while since I’ve seen a pitcher transform himself both physically and in his performance quite like Matt Swarmer did in 2018. The Cubs minor-league pitcher of the year took off, first at Myrtle Beach in the spring, and then he did very well at AA Tennessee in July and August.

Swarmer gained 10 to 15 pounds last winter and added about 3 to 4 miles an hour on his fastball. Already armed with a plus curve and a potentially plus change that wowed the Cubs’ own scouts, Swarmer took off as one of the most dominant arms in the system. The new variation of speed was now too much for most hitters.

Heading into 2019, I have several questions about Swarmer that should be answered quickly.

1. The Fluke Factor – Considering the dominance with which he threw, Swarmer’s 2018 was not by chance. He wasn’t just getting guys out, his pitches had some “Wow!” factor to them. The only question I have to that issue is can he maintain that kind of dominance as he goes throughout this next season?

2. Based on the fact that his improvement came as a result of changes he made in the off-season, I wonder what changes Swarmer could possibly make this off-season? Will it be to continue to maintain his current physical size or will he add a few more pounds as he has plenty of room to add it?

3. Ever since the Cubs drafted him, Swarmer has stuck with the fastball/curve/changeup trio. What would he add if he were to add a fourth pitch? Would it be a cutter, a slider, or a second kind of changeup that has different action from the first? That could just be nasty.

4. Placement – I’ve spent most of this off-season thinking that Swarmer should begin 2019 back in AA for a little while. He did have 77 innings at AA Tennessee last year, but is that enough to get him to Iowa? I would not be surprised if he wound up competing for a spot at AAA Iowa just based on the quality of his stuff.

5. – The Future – Swarmer is armed with 2+ pitches and one of them, the change up, is very close to being a plus-plus pitch. Do the Cubs value him more as a starter because of those pitches? Or do they want to try him out in the bullpen at some point because of those same pitches? These are interesting questions. It definitely does not have to be answered this year. Then again, Swarmer has shown the ability to adapt to improve his future.

Swarmer was such a surprise prospect last year to those outside of the organization. To his teammates, they’ve just been waiting for him to put it together as they are the ones who have had to face that changeup and curve in spring training the past two years. When he makes his first start in 2019, it will be interesting to see what changes he made this winter.

To be quite honest. I would not be surprised to see the 2016 19th round pick out of Kutztown get some innings in with the big league club this spring in Mesa just so the Cubs can see how he stacks up.

MiLB Questions Abound for Next Sunday’s “Down on the Farm” Session

By Todd Johnson


With the Convention coming up, I  have a lot of questions about the minor leagues. A few of those will get answered next Sunday morning by Jaron Madison, the Cubs Director of Player Development. The session known as “Down on the Farm” is usually the last of the Convention and I doubt they would let me stand there and ask questions for 15 minutes. They include a lot of players specific queries. But what if they did let me just ask away?

Here are just a few things I would ask:.

Nico Hoerner – Where is Nico going to start 2019? Is there a timetable or a performance level before he moves up? Would it be wrong to suggest that he should move faster than normal? Can we expect to see him in Chicago by the end of the summer, or the beginning of next year?

Cole and Brennen – Just how good are these two kids? What can we expect to see from both in 2019? Where are both going to start out in 2019? Are you going to make them stay in low class A for a whole year?

Pitching Assignments – Who is going to be where to start 2019? Who gets left behind at AA? Were the Augusts of Alex Lange and Thomas Hatch a foreshadowing of what they could be in 2019? If Trevor Clifton is lights out at AAA, does he jump ahead of Alec Mills?

Jose Albertos – Just exactly what went wrong with Jose Albertos last year? Was it more mental or more physical? What did he work on this off-season? What’s the prognosis for him for 2019? Where is he going to return?

AAA – It seems like only a few prospects get to AAA anymore. Even after a successful stint at AA, not many make it. Why is that? How come you keep filling Iowa up with guys who are basically AAAA players that don’t even have a shot? Are those players that much better than the Cubs’ prospects?

Miguel Amaya – Just how good do you think this kid can be? Is he a guy that is just going to sit at Myrtle Beach all day regardless of how he does in 2019? What are the odds on him moving to Tennessee midsummer? Do you think he’s destined to be a starter at the major-league level? Is he going to get some reps in spring training with the big league club?

Jhonny Pereda – After his breakout year, what are the expectations for him for 2019? Just how good can he be offensively? Could he be a guy that’s a backup at the next level or could he be a starter?

Tennessee Smokies – What’s up with that video feed? Can you get that looked at or fixed?

Matt Swarmer – Even though he was a big breakout last year, even bigger things could be in store for 2019. How do you think his stuff is going to play at AAA? And will he get to log some innings in spring training with the big league club?

Rookie League – Give us the name of somebody, other than Pedro Martinez, who might surprise in Arizona this year?

Of course, in the real world, I only get to ask one question. But, I have a week to decide!

Position Breakdown Series – RHSP Part 1: Upper Part of the System is Stacked

By Todd Johnson

As usual, I’m going to split the right-handed starting pitcher system evaluation into two posts. Last year, it was a number ranking thing where I had 12 to 7 in one post and then 6 to 1 in the other. This year, not so much. I decided to split them up into the top two levels of the minor league system and then Myrtle Beach on down. Rankings be damned! This post will look at exactly who the top arms are and who should be throwing at Iowa, Tennessee, and hopefully Chicago in 2019.  

1. It all starts with Adbert Alzolay this year. Even though he missed three months in 2018, he still had a lot of impressive moments at AAA. While technically still a starter, I would not be surprised to see him in Chicago as a reliever at some point this summer.

2. Trevor Clifton looks to be close to being ready for Chicago. His efficiency to get deep into a game is what’s going to keep him a starter in the majors. The same movement that he got on his curveball has now been added to his changeup, and his fastball continues to have good armside run in on a right-handed hitter.

3. Cory Abbott is the best pitcher the Cubs took in the 2017 Draft. He dominated two levels in 2018 at South Bend and Myrtle Beach. It took about 2-3 weeks for him to make adjustments and then it was on. It is not unreasonable to think he could he do the same in 2019.

4. For Duncan Robinson, he has the efficiency that Clifton is looking for. His second half was amazing at Tennessee and that earned him 2 starts for Iowa at the end of the year. The 6‘6“ righty out of Dartmouth has pushed himself to to being a guy the Cubs might consider for a spot start this summer. He did it all in a little over two years. Look for him to take the bump a time or two in Mesa with the big league club this spring.

5. Matt Swarmer’s 2018 is a kind of Hollywood type story. The big gangly kid added some muscle and some miles per hour to his fastball and everything just clicked. Now he’s able to throw 92 to 94 with a vicious curve and a wicked change. I don’t know if he starts in Iowa to begin the year or in Tennessee. Either way, he is not that far away.

6.  Michael Rucker is my guy. I think in the long term he might be a reliever because his stuff plays up a bit out of the pen, but when you throw 70% strikes, that turns a lot of heads.

7. Tyson Miller took off last year at Myrtle Beach and should be at AA to start 2019. If he continues adding onto his rather large 6‘3“ frame like he did last year, his stuff could tick up even more. It was fun to watch an arm who had gotten through the lower part of the system by using his command and control to have some added fire power with the same command and control. I’m excited to see what happens with him in 2019.

Still watching – Keegan Thompson looks like he could be a guy as he dominated high A Myrtle Beach. He was somewhat inconsistent at Tennessee but at times he was good. As well, I hope the Cubs can get Alex Lange on track. He has 2 plus pitches and a pedestrian fastball. If he could get his fastball to have some movement, he could get going upward. Lange can get teed up or he could strike out 10. You never know. Then again, Lange finished very strong in August with a 2.74 ERA for the month with opponents only hitting .160 off him. I’d like some more of that Alex Lange, please.

Sleeper – Thomas Hatch – Whatever happened to him in August, whether it was something he ate or drank or changed, needs to continue next year. He was a freaking beast on the mound with a 2.51 ERA in 5 starts, his best month at AA. I hope he can begin 2019 like he ended 2018.

The de la Cruz Factor 
When Oscar de la Cruz’s suspension ends, it will be intriguing to see if the Cubs stretch him or put him in the pen. His injurious past affected the suspension and putting him in the pen might kill two birds with one stone.

It is going to be a fun year for watching pitching at Iowa and Tennessee.

 

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.