Position Breakdown Series: Miguel Amaya Leads Off the Catchers

By Todd Johnson

 A year ago, I had Victor Caratini atop the Cubs catching prospects followed by Miguel Amaya, Ian Rice, PJ Higgins, and Will Remillard. The Cubs’ catching corps is still pretty deep this year. Only a few changes were made to the list since Victor now has a big league job.

With this year’s rankings, the top spot has to make everyone feel good. At number one, Miguel Amaya is quickly developing a potent bat to go along with his ability to be a defensive stalwart behind the plate. To have a power arm and a power bat as a catcher is a rare commodity for most organizations. The great thing about him is that he’s just going to be 20 this year and his bat is far from complete. This year‘s goal at the plate will be to continue to improve his pitch recognition skills and walk a bit more as well smack some more balls over the wall.

Jhonny Pereda had an excellent first half at Myrtle Beach and was one of the surprises of the year in the Cubs’ system. In that first half, he hit .284 with a .368 OBP and 5 HRs. As the year wore on, he kept on catching most games and slipped about 20 points in average and on-base percentage. Still, Pereda was given a ticket to the Arizona Fall League where he was decent at .276/.344. Like Rice and Higgins, he is also Rule V eligible. If he does not get taken, he should be at AA Tennessee to begin 2019. 

For now, catcher Ian Rice is firmly implanted at number three. With an on-base percentage of close to .400 year last year, Rice worked mainly on his defense while also playing first and third base a bit. While his power numbers were down, Rice also did an excellent job of managing a pitching staff at Tennessee. I am very excited to see what he can do in the Pacific Coast League while at Iowa. He could be a Cub or he could not. It all depends on whether he is taken as a Rule V pick on December 13. Some other team is going to get a guy with the potential for 20 home runs with a smooth uppercut bat path and a good eye at the plate.

At #4, PJ Higgins tore it up at Myrtle Beach in the first half of 2018. At Tennessee, he kept his head above water and was fine behind the plate as he worked with a staff that he was quite familiar with. As for his experience in the Arizona Fall League, it did not go as planned as he struggled to hit most days. Then again, his AFL experience should shape his future. It should propel him to improve in the batter’s box. More than likely, he begins 2019 back at AA Tennessee.

In his first year as a Cub, Alexander Guerra put up some nice numbers in helping to lead the Cubs 1 team in Arizona to the best record in the league. He hit .267, had an OBP of .355 with 3 HRs, and drove in a team leading 30 RBI in 46 games. Based on that successful experience, he should be at South Bend to begin 2019. 

As for Michael Cruz, he looked like he figured some things out last summer at South Bend. He hit .322 in June and .286 in July to go with 27 RBI over the two months. He was promoted to Myrtle Beach and saw action in just 12 games in August and September. Cruz should be at Myrtle Beach to start 2019.

Still a Bit Unsure
A year ago, I had Will Remillard at number five. I thought he was going to be ready after missing 2.5 years. He got some work in at Tennessee and Iowa, but 29 games is not a lot. I hope he is back healthy and ready to go in 2019.

Sleepers for 2019
Henderson Perez – He’s listed at 5’9” and 160 lbs. Those were his 16-year-old traits. He is ripped now and did well in the second half for Mesa 2 hitting .311/.386/.411 with 15 RBI in 24 games. He will be just 19 when he starts next year at Eugene.

Marcus Mastrobuoni – After leading Mesa to an AZL title in 2017, Marcus missed all of 2018 with a knee injury. After hitting .308 with a .390 OBP and 6 dingers, Mastrobuoni looked prime to break out last year for South Bend. It didn’t happen for him but it could in 2019 even at 24 years of age. 

And I Wonder…
The Cubs signed two non-drafted free agent catchers in Caleb Knight and Brennon Kaleiwahea. I wonder what kind of roles they will have this year and with whom. And in a weird twist of fate, the Cubs can still sign 2018 23rd round pick Hunter Taylor of South Carolina up until 2 weeks before the 2019 draft. Because Taylor was a senior last year, the Cubs still have that strange right.

After the Rule V Draft, we shall see if this list is still the same.

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Second Half Prospect Surprises – Part 2

By Todd Johnson

Yesterday, I looked at some prospect surprises in the lower portion of the Cubs’ system in the second half. Today’s post checks out some surprises in the upper half of the minors. It can be hard to breakout at these levels but it has been done. Willson Contreras really busted out at Tennessee in 2015 and Rob Zastryzny didn’t figure things out until he changed his cutter at AAA Iowa two years ago.

While it is too early, or late, to declare any of the following prospects breakouts, they can definitely be called surprises for the second half.

South Bend
The biggest surprise the last month or so in South Bend has been the overall play of Michael Cruz. Over the past two summers, Cruz has shown the ability to hit for power from the left side. That continued the first couple months of 2018 but he was only batting .155 at one point. When he started to use the whole field, things began to turn around and they haven’t stopped since. Pitcher Garrett Kelly is looking like he could be a bullpen arm somewhere down the road if he can develop some secondary pitches to go with his 95 mile an hour fastball. The final surprise at South Bend has been the pitching of Ryan Lawlor who was profiled on Tuesday this week.

Myrtle Beach
The Pelicans have just not hit this year. They have plenty of pitching to get into the playoffs. With any kind of hitting, they may be able to sneak in over the next six weeks. To that end, the Pelicans have made some roster adjustments. Outfielder Roberto Caro, who was injured most of the first half at South Bend, just continues to rake at Myrtle Beach hitting in the .350s. At 24, the switch hitter has shown the ability to get on base at a high clip and was an essential to the Pelicans’ recent six-game win streak. In addition, pitcher Bryan Hudson seems to be finding his groove this month. After struggling with an ERA of over five for most of the year, Hudson is putting together a very nice July was in the area of 1.15. He’s been very impressive in comparison to his first half.

Tennessee
I always knew that Trent Giambrone could hit for power, but I didn’t think he would be breathing down anyone’s neck for the leading home run hitter in the Cubs’ system. He’s been on fire since the beginning of June as it now stands he has 16 homers to his name.

Iowa

No one really breaks out at AAA, they just improve their performance. This year, two guys have turned it up a notch once they got to AAA. It is almost as if they can smell Chicago. Jason Vosler is on pace to hit 25+ home runs for the year, but he’s also on pace to hit near .300 for the month of July as he continues to show up every day and prove that he deserves a shot at the majors. Trevor Clifton seems to have taken to AAA Iowa as he is continuing his great 2018 season. This month, he’s put up an ERA of 2.30. He’s also missing bats at a pretty good clip striking out 31 in his last 32 innings, all at AAA. Clifton is coming across that he is much more stronger mentally as he is avoiding the big inning, a problem he’s fought with since Boise. Trevor could have a 40 man position at the end of the season at the rate he’s going. I am so excited  to see him do so well as he gets closer to Chicago.

The Weekly: Hot Prospects, Debuts, Promotions, and IFA a Day Away

By Todd Johnson

It has been an exciting week in the minors. There were several promotions, some draft signings, and lots of debuts of players in new uniforms. From Chicago to Mesa, new was the word. Then again, there will be several more in the weeks ahead as only 13 of the players the Cubs signed from this year’s draft debuted. More are coming.

Tomorrow, the 2018-2019 International Free Agency signing period begins. The Cubs are expected to sign a few top prospects in pitchers Richard Gallardo and Joel Machado along with outfielder Jose Lopez. The Cubs have almost $5 million to spend. It is also the first time since 2015 that they can sign a player for more than $300,000. They will not blow through all of their pool tomorrow. Only a few big names will be released tomorrow, most of the list will be released in October.

No New Top 21
Normally, I would do a new Top 21 list after International Free Agency begins, but not this year. All of the players the Cubs will sign will not play until 2019. So, I decided to wait to think about adding them to the list unless their name is Victor Mesa…and it’s not.

But if I did, there would be a few additions and a few subtractions. Jared Young has played himself into consideration for a spot while Eugene OF Fernando Kelli bears watching along with fellow teammate Jonathan Sierra. In addition, Chesny Young looks to be playing himself back into contention and Duncan Robinson is definitely an arm to watch as he is having big success at AA this year. Pitchers Rollie Lacy, Erich Uelmen, and Tyler Thomas are also worthy of consideration as well.

Who’s Hot at the Plate Right Now?

The second half just started ten days ago. Several players are busting it out of the gate. Zack Short of Tennessee is ripping the cover off the ball (.360+ with 3 HRs and 12 RBI) along with teammate Eddy Martinez (.333 with 2 HRs and 9 RBI). In Myrtle Beach, Andruw Monasterio over his last ten is lighting up a box score at close to .400. Roberto Caro (.400)  of South Bend leads a parade of hitters in northern Indiana  who are putting balls in play over their last ten games including Brandon Hughes (.289), Austin Filiere (.314), and Michael Cruz (.308). At AAA Iowa, Mark Zagunis is currently in the midst of one of his nicest streaks of the year after a rough May. Chesny Young also looks to have regained his stroke hitting .289 for the month (heading into last night’s game).

Around the System

While Tennessee and South Bend got off to decent starts in the second half, Myrtle Beach has not at 2-8. Their bats have pretty much gone silent except for Monasterio. Iowa is still finding who will be on the roster from day-to-day with the Cubs’ injury issues in Chicago. Eugene started out hot and then cooled off as the bats and pitching are struggling. The Ems have lost 7 in a row and are now at 5-10.

Meanwhile, down in Mesa, the Cubs Mesa 1 team looks to be doing well at 6-4 while the 2 team has some pitching issues at 4-6. Both teams in the DSL are at 9-15 and 10-15 respectively as they struggle at the plate and in the field. SS Fabian Pertuz is back after missing almost two weeks. He immediately hit when he got back on the lineup. He will be one to watch the next two months.

The June All-Star Team

I will put it out later today. Check back around 4:30-5 Central time.

Players of the Week

Card of the Week

 

Brendon Little’s 2018 Debut – A Wild, Wild Night in South Bend

By Todd Johnson

Heading into Tuesday night’s debut, Brendon Little’s pro career had not been very stellar. The 21-year-old left-handed starter only pitched in 16 innings in 2017 for short season Eugene  after being taken by the Cubs in the first round of the 2017 MLB Draft. Those 16 innings were not kind. He struggled with his fastball. His velocity was down. His ERA was over 9 and he only struck 12 as opponents hit .300 against him. It was, as I say to my students, “73 kinds of bad.”

That was last year.

By all accounts (Arizona Phil), Little had a good spring in Mesa. Just a week ago, Little pitched five innings and did well. He allowed 1 run but had 6 Ks in the outing.

I was was not expecting to see anything from Little in his South Bend debut except his curve. Considering he did not pitch D1 baseball, but rather at a junior college, the Midwest League is a pretty big jump in talent. I was trying to temper my expectations and think long term with his development rather than get immediate results. I did not want to place unreasonable expectations on a first round pick.

Then again, I hoped to see his fastball in the low to mid-low 90s (91-93) and that he could command it often. If he could get through the fifth with just giving up 2 or 3 runs, I could have lived with that. Maybe he could get in 60-80 pitches for the night and strike out four or five. But those are just wishes and maybe unreasonable ones at that.

My wishes are where I want him to be by the end of the year. Tuesday was the first step to get there – or that’s what I told myself yesterday afternoon.

Here is how his 2018 debut went:

Little got the first two guys out on 5 pitches. He looked good at that point. He was throwing nothing but fastballs around 92, which was 3-4 mph better than at Eugene last year.

Then Little fell behind the third batter. It went to a full count when the batter laced a double down the left field line. After a passed ball, he walked Bowling Green’s cleanup hitter Brendan McKay.

At this point, I began to wonder why Little was nibbling on every pitch instead of attacking the zone. He looked to be in command with batter #5 when strike three was not caught by catcher Miguel Amaya, who then was unable to make a throw to first for the third out.

Little was closing in on 30 pitches, which is usually the inning limit for Cubs in South Bend.

It looked like Little was going to get out of the inning on a liner to center but the ball kept sailing resulting in a 2 run double. Little faced one more batter who promptly walked.

After 35 pitches and 0.2 IP, Little was done – 1 K, 2 BBs, 2 hits, and 4 ERs.

A line I have been saying a lot lately is “I have seen this movie before.” After watching Little go at it last night, I said it again. This looked somewhat similar to how he pitched at Eugene last year. But then again it wasn’t. The velocity was up this year, he threw a couple of changeups that looked good, the curve looked nice, but his fastball was all over the place. He has to attack the zone rather than pitch on the edges. He has to get that straightened out.

At 21-years-old, he’s got time. If he figures it out, he could be special. But for now, it is hard to see that. Still, I look forward to his second start and see how he does then. It’s a process, but no one said it would be easy, even for a first round pick.


The rest of the game was a doozy! Bowling Green took an 8-0 lead after an inning and a half. Then, South Bend began to chip away at the Hot Rods’ lead. Home runs by Michael Cruz, Austin Filiere, and Jared Young pulled the young Cubs close to 11-9. Chris Carrier, an outfielder from Memphis, stepped up to the plate in the seventh and proceeded to hit a grand slam to give South Bend a 13-11 lead! Brian Glowicki held the Hot Rods scoreless to preserve the win.

MiLB Playoff Action: The Season Ends for Eugene

By Todd Johnson

Heading into last night’s action, I was pretty excited to see that Jose Albertos was named the game four starter. And then I remembered I couldn’t watch it on TV. That’s the only thing that blows about the Northwest League is that there are only two teams with MiLB.TV. Anyway, my number one prospect in the Cubs system took the mound in a do or die game. If they won, they lived to fight another day. If they lost, the season would be officially over.

After the tough one run loss on Monday night, I thought they just need to get their bats going. If they could get some runs early, it would throw the Canadians off their game. Jose could then relax and just throw strikes and use his change. That didn’t happen. For the second night in a row, the Emeralds out hit the Canadians but lost 2-1. Five walks by Albertos gave the Canadians all the base runners they needed. Michael Cruz did homer for the Ems who only managed four hits on the night.

The series is now complete and the season is now over.

My Eugene Emeralds year-end review will be posted at Cubs Insider in the next couple of days. I will be back tomorrow with news about what’s in store for Cubs Central during the off season.

The Weekly: MiLB Playoff Action Update

By Todd Johnson

It has been a “heckuva” ride this week as Mesa won four out of five games including the best-of-three championship series against the Giants. I was quite surprised to see Mesa go on the run winning 13 out of 15 games. In the first half, it was brutal to check their daily box score. They were 9-19 in the first half. There was no indication that this team could go on such a run. There were some roster moves made in early August that I thought could stabilize the team as a couple of pitchers came up from the DSL along with hitter Luis Hidalgo. I didn’t think they would be that stabilizing.   

Needless to say, covering the lower minors next year is going to be very exciting. Nelson Velazquez pounded the ball in the playoffs with 2 HRs along with fellow 18-year-olds Jonathan Sierra and Luis Vazquez. 2B Delvin Zinn hit .500 for the playoffs with a .632 OBP. Most of the players on the Mesa team will be at Eugene next summer with a few at South Bend. I’m excited to watch them every day next year on MiLB.TV. 

As for the Eugene Emeralds, they played the Vancouver Canadians in game one of a best-of-five series last night. Keegan Thompson got the start for the Ems and he gave up two runs in three innings. In the bottom of the third, the Ems took a 4-2 lead thanks in part to two walks and a HBP. After that, the Ems had 3 errors and a wild pitch just in the fifth inning that they could not overcome. Vancouver scored four to take a 6-4 lead. Each team would tack on one more run as the Canadians won 7-5. Brendon Little pitches tonight for Eugene at 7 Central.

I’m pretty hopeful that Eugene can get their back-to-back championship  trophies. They now have their work cut out for them. They have the pitching, hitting, and the speed to do it. The questions this year have  been their defense, especially up the middle, and their lack of consistency both on the mound and at the plate. I have no doubts about their talent, whatsoever. Some nights, they just struggle because that’s baseball and they are very young.

And finally, the Myrtle Beach Pelicans’ season ended in a strange set of circumstances. Hurricane Irma forced the cancellation of the Mills Cup championship. Two teams would be declared co-champions based on the division series. The Pelicans were supposed to play a best of five series against Down East, the Rangers affiliate in the Carolina League. That was shortened to a best of three series. Myrtle Beach only pushed two runs across the plate, and, as a result, they lost two games to none.

When it comes to Cubs Central…
I began to plan out what the off-season is going to involve on this site. Over the winter, I’m going to have a weekly series beginning after Thanksgiving. It is going to be called “Leveling Up.” It is going to look at several high-profile prospects moving up the system and what they need to do at the next level. DJ Wilson is going to be the first prospect profiled and will be followed by Zack Short and Eddy Martinez.

My Other Writing This Week on the Web
I did some year-end affiliate reviews this week and they are up and posted at Cubs Insider. Click on the links below.
Iowa Review
Tennessee Review
South Bend Review
Jared Young Profile

Card of the Week

Photo by Stephanie Lynn.  

 

July All-Star Team Filled with New Faces Including 4 Draft Picks

By Todd Johnson

This was the month of the hitters. It was also month that was hard to narrow down to just nine position players. In the past, I have sometimes had extra hitters at a position and that’s what I went to this month.

On the other hand, it was a decent month for starting pitchers in the system. Big innings, slumps, and warmer air made the ball fly a bit more. However, 7 starters found their way onto the team.

As for relievers, there was bonanza of relievers in the middle of July. At least 15 Cubs prospects had ERAs ranging from 0.00 to 1.50. By the end of the month, that was down to 7.

A lot of tough decisions had to be made including whether to add some players from the Arizona Rookie League Mesa Cubs and a couple of hot hitters from the Cubs DSL 1 team. I decided against it this month as there were so many excellent performances at the upper levels.