Michael Rucker

Cubs’ MiLB 2nd Half All-Star Team Shows the Shift in the System

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By Todd Johnson

Originally, I did not plan on putting together a second half all star team. However, after looking at some of the performances of several prospects over the last 2 and 1/2 months, I thought they deserved to be honored for their performances.

I always like putting together a second-half team because they usually contain a few recent draft picks and some players from the lower parts of the system. Last year, I started including a couple players from the Dominican Summer League. That holds true for this year as well.

What started with the July All-Star team continued with the August All-Star team and this team. That is, in this list, you can definitely see a shift in the system. Younger players are starting to rise to the top and perform at a high-level. This is true of a couple of draft picks in Austin Upshaw and Nelson Velazquez along with several pitchers from the Dominican Summer League..

So, without further adieu, here is the All-Star team for the second half of the 2017 minor league season.

When I sit down to make my preseason All-Star team in 2018, a lot of the players listed in the video above will get a lot of merit for inclusion. One name not included that I am interested in seeing more of next year is Jose Gutierrez. The 18-year-old outfielder from Venezuela hit .354 in August and was a key cog in helping the Mesa Cubs win a title.

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Cubs Breakout Players of the Second Half Get It Done Down the Stretch

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By Todd Johnson

While the first half breakout list tends to be players from South Bend and Myrtle Beach, the second half list is usually players from Mesa, Eugene, and maybe South Bend or Beach. There were a few prospects who had good seasons that we did see coming like Miguel Amaya, Aramis Ademan, and Jose Albertos. There were several players who put together good stretches together during the second half. Altogether, it was difficult picking out the winners.

Breakout Hitter of the Second Half

This was a tough call. Austin Upshaw was a player that I really liked from South Bend who hit almost .290 each month after being drafted this summer. Austin Filiere of Eugene hit .287 in the fourth spot with over a .400 OBP hitting cleanup along with five home runs. Andruw Monasterio came close to the definition of a breakout hitter along with Luis Ayala of South Bend. Monasterio hit .290+ in August while Ayala got his average up to .366 in July and .293 for the second half.

But if I’m gonna pick just one guy, it has to be Nelson Velasquez of Mesa whom the Cubs drafted in the fifth round this year. In August, he hit almost .300 and clubbed 6 home runs for the Mesa Cubs in the Arizona Rookie League leading them to a second half division title. In the playoffs, he hit 2 more homers and drove in 9. The sad thing about Nelson is we don’t have as many eyes on him after the death of John Arguello. Still, Nelson progressed each month since signing his pro contract. He is just 18 years old and I am really looking forward to him playing next year at Eugene and/or South Bend.   

Breakout Starting Pitcher of the Second Half

This one wasn’t really as tough as the hitter category. It basically came down to two players. Runner-up Jesus Tejada had an outstanding August for the Cubs’ Dominican Summer League 1 team. He threw a no-hitter and struck out 19 batters in consecutive games.

But for me, the biggest surprise was the performance of Duncan Robinson at Myrtle Beach. While Michael Rucker stole the show there in June, Robinson got off to a rough start in his July debut and then seemed to improve at every opportunity throughout the summer. I liked the fact that he kept improving by adding a cutter to his repertoire. Another thing I liked was that Robinson did not seem to tire as the season progressed. He had a 2.37 ERA in 10 second half starts while striking out 37 in 49.1 IP. I am really looking forward to him pitching next year at AA Tennessee.

Breakout Reliever of the Second Half

I think Dakota Mekkes stole the show in the first half. The second half winner is not gonna be that much of a surprise. South Bend reliever Jhon Romero is one who I did not see coming. He throws in the mid 90s with a wicked breaking ball.  Another surprise was Tyler Peyton of South Bend who had a 1.29 ERA just in August. One reliever I did see coming was Pedro Araujo for Myrtle Beach. With an ERA under 2, he basically owned the closer role and the Carolina League in the second half.

But when it comes right down to who was the biggest surprise or break out, it’s Dillon Maples. He progressed through four levels of the system at the age of 25. He has always had wicked stuff from the time he was drafted in 2011 but had injuries and confidence issues along the way. This year, the worm turned for him. With a wicked slider/curve and a fastball that approached 100 miles an hour, he was almost impossible to hit at every level. On September 1, he was called up to Chicago. In his first appearance, he walked one and struck out one.


When it comes to next year, I am not quite sure what to expect when it comes to possible breakout prospects. I am thinking Jonathan Sierra, but he most likely won’t begin play until the second half at Eugene. The same is true for pitcher Jesus Tejada.

More than likely, the first half breakouts for 2018 will come from either South Bend or Myrtle Beach. Hopefully, DJ Wilson, Kevonte Mitchell, or Joe Martarano can put it together for half a season. Or, it could even be one of this year’s draft picks or International players who steal the show – literally – like Fernando Kelli who had 58 SBs in 2017. When it comes to pitching, this year proved that opportunities will present themselves for pitchers to step up and become essential players. You never know who will get the chance.

 

Cubs MiLB Pitcher of the Year Award Is Still a Bit Murky

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By Todd Johnson

On Sunday morning, the Cubs announced that Jen-Ho Tseng and D.J. Wilson were named the Cubs’ MiLB Pitcher and Player of the Month for July. Tseng had a 1.42 ERA at AAA Iowa to go along with 23 Ks in 25.1 IP. Wilson hit .284 with 7 HRs and 21 RBI in between Mesa (rehab stint) and South Bend. With officially four weeks left in the MiLB season, it got me thinking: Who will be the Cubs MiLB Pitcher and Hitter of the Year?

When it comes to hitting, the winner is clear cut – Victor Caratini. No one else is even in the discussion in my mind. He’s batting .350 with a .959 OPS. He’s hit 10 HRs and driven in 58. While his OBP is a bit less than Mark Zagunis’, whose isn’t. I do not see how Caratini could lose this award. Since his return to Iowa from Chicago, he’s hitting .600.

On the other hand, selecting the Pitcher of the Year is going to be a tough choice that will play out over the next month. I currently have six pitchers in the running with five having a pretty good shot of staking a claim to it.

The Front Runners

Michael Rucker has done it all this year in 84 innings. He’s been a reliever and a starter. He’s been a closer, a setup man, and an ace. His 1.93 ERA is the lowest of the starters up for the award. His 95 Ks gives him a 9.21 K/9 rate. I love to watch him pitch as he just throws strikes. He’s only walked 16 all year.

Jen-Ho Tseng has had a resurgent year relying on good command of his pitches which includes a low 90s fastball and a plus curve and change. His 2.77 combined ERA between Iowa and Tennessee is impressive and he has 110 Ks in 120 IP.

Adbert Alzolay was my breakout player of the first half. Now at AA Tennessee, he has a combined 2.84 ERA between Myrtle Beach and Tennessee with 101 Ks in 107 IP. I like his energy, his pacing, and his 96-97 mph heater. He still needs to refine his secondaries going forward.

The Long Shots

Duncan Robinson is a bit like Rucker in that he began the year as a reliever and morphed into a starter. He was a Midwest League All-Star and was promoted in July to Myrtle Beach from South Bend. On the year, he has a 2.13 ERA over 91 innings. His 77 Ks take him out the discussion a bit when compared with other front runners.

It has been a most impressive season for Justin Steele. He’s been very steady all year. His 2.92 ERA is a testament to his approach and hard work after a rough season at South Bend in 2016. He has 82 Ks in 98.2 IP.

If you were to pick this award on sheer domination, reliever Dakota Mekkes would win hands down. He dominated at South Bend and then again at Myrtle Beach. He did allow an earned run for almost three months. Heading into today, his ERA is a miniscule 0.76 ERA to go along with 79 Ks in 59 IP. Opponents are only hitting .152 against him. If not for 27 walks, I think he would be in Tennessee.

I think Michael Rucker is currently in the lead. However, I truly think the award should go to Mekkes. For the past few years, the Cubs have rewarded starters including Tseng, Trevor Clifton and Duane Underwood. But Mekkes’ season has been one of pure domination across the board and two levels. However, I don’t think the Cubs will give that award to a reliever. I wish they would, though. I really wish they would.

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

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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.

Ten Things I Think About Michael Rucker

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By Todd Johnson

When I last talked in early June about Michael Rucker, he had just made his first start as a pitcher as a Cubs prospect. Since then, he made 8 more starts and was named Carolina League Pitcher of the Week twice…in back-to-back weeks. Altogether, Rucker’s performance are raising a lot of eyebrows and questions about whether the Cubs may have an unearthed a gem in the 11th round of last year’s draft. Here are “Ten Things I Think” about the 23 year old starter.

1. I think the Cubs knew what they were getting in Rucker. He was the Friday night starter for BYU his junior year. He had gone 11-1 with a 2.73 ERA. The reason Rucker fell to the 11th round was signability. He still had one year of eligibility left.

2. The Yankees were also reportedly in on him along with a few other teams. While BYU may not seem like a baseball powerhouse, it did also produce fellow Cub Jake Hannemann.

3. One reason for his success is he is more mature than other prospects. Being married at a young age will do that.

4. He was upset about starting at first. According to Pelicans’ announcer Scott Kornberg, Rucker was upset because of his concern for teammate Oscar de la Cruz’s shoulder strain.

5. As a starter in June, he went 25.2 IP with a 2.10 ERA. He made my June All-Star Team after making the May one as a reliever.

6. In July, he has a 1.83 ERA in 9 starts with just 4 BBs and 49 Ks in just 24 innings. Those are some impressive statistics to put up in back-to-back months.

7. I like him a lot because he throws strikes. It’s not that he attacks hitters (he’s only hit one). Rather, he just puts the ball in the zone with some nice armside run on his fastball.

8. His velocity has been pretty consistent all year. Usually, if a guy becomes a starter after being a reliever, there’s usually a downturn in velocity. Not for Rucker. He’s been able to maintain his velocity between 93-96 all year with a couple reports of him touching 97. And he’s been able to sustain that velocity deep into games.

9. He stands a pretty good shot of being named the Cubs Minor League Pitcher of the Month late next week. Right now, I would say it is down to Rucker, Jen-Ho Tseng of Iowa, and Jesus Camargo of Eugene. All have 1 start left in the month.

10. What I am most interested in seeing in the next month are two lists. One came out Monday night and that was MLB.com’s Top 30 organizational prospect list. He did not make the list. The other list coming out in a couple of weeks is from Minor League Ball by John Sickels. Inclusion would be a sign of his standing as a prospect.

It doesn’t seem like 50+ innings as a starter by the end of this month would anoint Michael Rucker as an elite prospect, but it could. Oscar de la Cruz’s 73 inning performance in 2015 did it for him. But making a prospect list isn’t just about performance. It also involves skills, projection, and the quality of his pitches. For me, he’s a “prospect of interest.” I would imagine, that right now, he is what he is. I don’t know how much more his skills will improve. If there is room for improvement, which I think there is, that changes his outlook.

But he’s looking good. He should be in the discussion as a possible arm for the future.

Next year, he will be at AA. That puts him pretty close to Chicago. I’d say he’s a guy to watch. One can rise quickly in the system and that is just what he is doing.

The Weekly – Closing In On Playoff Spots, Baseball Cards, and Traveling to Beloit

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By Todd Johnson

The big league club went 4-1 at home this week and has won 7 out of 8 since the break. They now sit one game behind Milwaukee and are 5.5 games behind both Arizona and Colorado for a wild card spot. There are 66 games to go.That’s a lot of baseball left to be played. Jose Quintana goes tonight against the Cardinals on ESPN at 7.

That late start time for the Sunday game works great for me as I will be back in Beloit at 2 p.m. today watching South Bend play the Snappers, the A’s class A affiliate in the Midwest League. Yesterday, I got to interview reliever Wyatt Short and recent draft pick Austin Upshaw. I hope to talk to hitting coach Jeremy Farrell today about Kevonte Mitchell and Isaac Paredes. I will be going back to Beloit Monday night, but probably just as a normal fan.

I posted several pics I took last night on the Pics/Video page. You can see close up at-bats on video of Kevonte Mitchell, Isaac Paredes, Austin Upshaw, and Luis Ayala. I will add some more pics/video from today when I got home and there could be a few more on Monday.

For the month of July, I have made almost 150 baseball cards. The pictures have just been so good that I cannot stop. They are all stored on our Facebook account. It will be hard to pick just ten for the Cards of the Month.

Around the Minors This Week
Iowa: 3-5; 45-53 – Pitching still seems to be a big issue except for Jen-Ho Tseng. He went 7 IP last night and now has a 1.40 ERA in 3 starts at AAA. In a weird set of circumstances on Friday, John Andreoli was injured on one play, replaced by Bijan Radmacher, who was then injured on the very next play.

Tennessee: 2-3; 16-12 – Between the raindrops along the Gulf, the Smokies have run into some starting pitching issues. Hopefully, those can be resolved quickly as they are now tied with Montgomery for a playoff spot.

Myrtle Beach: 4-4; 12-16 – The bats have not woken up since the Eloy trade. Pitcher Michael Rucker has been amazing and Duncan Robinson had his best start since being promoted. Vimael Machin continues to hit since moving to high A.

South Bend: 3-3; 15-14 – It looks like they have their bullpen issues resolved, now they need to solidify the starting pitching. Carson Sands had 2 rough starts on his way back from having bone spurs removed this past winter. On the other hand, I have been impressed with Tyson Miller the last few starts. I will get to see his slider Monday.

Eugene: 4-3; 21-16 – Their first half ends today. If they win and Hillsboro loses, they make the playoffs. Hopefully the Emeralds can get it done. Miguel Amaya seems to have broken out of his slump the last four games and his average is up over .200 to .220. #1 draft pick Brendon Little debuts on Tuesday against Salem-Keiser. Also, Jesus Camargo looks a little too advanced for short season ball. His changeup is other wordly at this level.

Mesa: 2-4, 7-16 – It is becoming all about the draft picks. Chris Singleton seems to fit in the leadoff spot and Ramsey Romano and Cam Balego continue to rake at .400 clips. Pitcher Brendan King from Holy Cross made a start on Saturday and went 3 IP while allowing a run.

DSL 1: 2-3; 21-20  
DSL 2: 2-4; 21-21 –

Draft Pick News
Alex Lange is the only draft pick that is left to be assigned to a team.

Coming Up This Week on Cubs Central
Another Jose Albertos Start
Dakota Mekkes Interview Part 2
South Bend Turning It Around
Second Half Surprises
Brendon Little’s First Start
Austin Upshaw Profile

Players of the Week

Card of the Week

My Other Stuff on the Web
BP Wrigleyville:
Why Jose Albertos Should Take Over the Top Spot
Brandon Hughes Profile

Cubs Insider:
11 Cubs Pitching Prospects Taking Off in July
Baseball America’s Midseason List Spurs Debate
Trent Giambrone Interview

11 Young Cub Pitchers Dominating in July

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By Todd Johnson

It has been a busy few days for me. I started getting ready for my real job as a history teacher by doing some long range-planning this week. But I am ready to get back to baseball writing.

I was able to take a few breaks and watch some outstanding pitching performances from Cubs prospects this week. As I mentioned last week, the Cubs farm system has shifted towards being pitching heavy. The past few days have proven that with some serious games thrown across all levels. When I go to pick the monthly prospect All-Star team in less two weeks, these guys will make my job very hard.

Duncan Robinson – In his third start at high A Myrtle Beach, Robinson put his excellent command to good use going 5 IP with 5 Ks while only allowing 1 hit. This was clearly his best start since being promoted. It lowered his ERA for the month to 3.27 and for the year to 2.28.

Manny Rondon – He got off to a rough start to begin 2017. I found it surprising as he was the Northwest League pitcher of the year in 2016. On Monday afternoon, the lefty went 6.2 IP and gave up only a run while striking out three. It was one of his best starts of the year. After a 3.60 ERA in June, things are beginning to look up.

Jose Albertos – At short season Eugene, the young 18-year-old top prospect has put up a 2.70 ERA so far. He has a really good fastball in the mid 90s that he can command most days. His curve is a work in progress. I wish he would use his change more as that could be his most devastating pitch.

Justin Steele – He has quietly put up one of the best seasons of any pitcher in the Cubs’ system in 2017. He credits a new mental focus that includes stir-fry and meditation before every game. His major league type arsenal is looking very good. On Sunday, in a rain shortened game, he only gave up 1 run in 4 innings, which is about the norm for him this year.

Thomas Hatch – In June, the Cubs 2016 third round pick put up a 0.98 ERA. He got roughed up in one start this month but still sports a 3.21 ERA in just July. With improved command of a “new” four seam fastball in his pocket, he has been changing eye levels all summer.

Jen-Ho Tseng – He might have the most underrated story in the Cubs’ system this summer. After a rebirth that made one think of his 2014 summer at Kane County, Tseng hung up a 2.99 ERA at AA Tennessee. Most impressive in his statistics arsenal were his 83 Ks in 90.1 IP. In his second start at AAA Iowa, Tseng went 7 IP with 8 Ks and did not allow a run on Monday night.

Michael Rucker – His transformation has been stunning this year. As a reliever, he was a strikeout machine at South Bend. He was promoted in early June and was doing the same. All he does is attack the zone. It’s a simple plan that he can execute. The 2016 11th round pick out of BYU took over the injured Oscar de la Cruz’s spot in Myrtle Beach’s starting rotation and has never looked back. Check out this line from Monday night – 8 IP, 10 Ks, 2 hits, and 0 runs.

Preston Morrison – He’s had an up and down year. After a 1.88 ERA in May, it ballooned to 6 in June, and he is killing it in July with a 1.50 ERA. I enjoyed watching him last year at South Bend where he used what I call a “whiffle ball repertoire” to confound hitters. His last two starts saw him go 6 IP apiece and only give up 1 run in each.

Adbert Alzolay – He was promoted from Myrtle Beach to Tennessee two weeks ago. He proceeded to strike out ten in his five inning AA debut. So far, he has a 2.70 ERA in two AA starts. With a fastball that he can maintain deep into games, he bears a lot of watching.

Jesus Camargo – He comes across as a sneaky pitcher who I love to watch pitch. Currently at short season Eugene, he is having a good season after missing all of 2016. He has upper 80s/low 90s heat with a mid 70s curve and a changeup that is just plain filthy and that he can add and subtract mph. It is really a devastating pitch. The 21-year-old righty has a 1.73 ERA in six appearances and has struck out 31 in 26 IP. I really enjoy watching him work.

Jose Paulino – His last two starts saw him throw 12 scoreless innings with 12 Ks. His ERA for July is 0.55. Just six weeks ago, he was taken out of the rotation and placed in the bullpen. The young lefty has returned with a vengeance.

There should be even more great performances coming on a nightly basis. Hopefully Oscar de la Cruz will return to action along with Jake Stinnett. Stinnett made a rehab appearance this week down in Mesa. Trevor Clifton will look to bounce back in his next start and Bryan Hudson looks to recapture his ground ball magic. Even Bailey Clark has shown signs that he was a good gamble. Last night, he struck out 8 in 5 IP. He struck out 9 a couple of weeks ago. It’s getting deep when it comes to Cubs’ starting pitching.

Mind you, these 11 are just the starters. I did not talk about the relievers. I will be covering some of them the next few days.