By Todd Johnson
If you look at any Cubs prospect list of the past two months, most of the top 10 prospects are right-handed starting pitchers. It is the deepest part of the Cubs system and should begin producing arms for the majors in the next year or two. In both the 2016 and 2017 MLB Drafts, the Cubs targeted starting pitching, more specifically, starting college pitching. In addition, the Cubs mined the Mexican international free agent market which is producing quality arms who could be just a couple years away. Considering that most of the Cubs’ actual major league starting pitchers are signed through 2020, the Cubs still have time to get these prospects developed. They don’t have to be rushed.
There are 46 starting pitching slots in the Cubs minor league system. 34 of those 46 are right-handed. That is an overwhelming number. Here are last year’s top ranked right-handed starters.
11. Jake Stinnett
10. Preston Morrison
9. Erling Moreno
8. Bailey Clark
7. Ryan Williams
6. Zach Hedges
5. Jose Albertos
4. Thomas Hatch
3. Trevor Clifton
2. Oscar de la Cruz
1. Dylan Cease
What a difference a year made. Injuries, sub-par performances, late starts, trades, moving to reliever, rising prospects, and a host of other reasons derailed most of this list in 2017. Only Jose Albertos had a good year. Then again, Adbert Alzolay shot past almost everyone of them. Now, add in all the arms the Cubs took in the past two drafts and it is a quandry to pick only 12 for this list.
I have a feeling that if I ranked these arms every month of 2018, a dramatic fluctuation would occur monthly. Names like Jeremiah Estrada, Erich Uelmen, Keegan Thompson, Kyle Miller, Erling Moreno, Bailey Clark, Zach Hedges, and Erick Leal could make the decision process very difficult for me. I can hardly imagine how hard it is going to be just to pick 6 for the monthly all-star teams this year. Right now, there’s not a lot of differentiation of talent between them. It will have to be about performance this year for a pitcher to separate themselves from the pack..
12. Michael Rucker – He began 2017 as a reliever at South Bend and was dominating. He got promoted to Myrtle Beach and did the same. An injury to Oscar de la Cruz opened the door for Rucker to start and Michael never looked back. His ability to throw 2/3 of his pitches for strikes helps. I don’t know if he will stay a starter this year, but he looks to have a future regardless. AA will be a tough test for him.
11. Duncan Robinson – I really like this guy. He was in the bullpen in April for South Bend and staring in May. He finished the year at Myrtle Beach showing an impressive ability to adapt as he put up a 1.80 ERA in 4 August starts. At 6’6”, he has the frame to withstand the innings needed and intellectual intangibles needed to make it to Chicago. AA is going to tell just how good his curve, cutter, change, and fastball are. I would not be surprised to see him add a fifth pitch this offseason.
10. Javier Assad – After Adbert Alzolay, no pitcher improved as much as Assad did last year. He began the year a bit wild but was throwing mid 90s with control by the end of the year. His fastball quit tailing up and in and he was putting hitters away as he struck out 72 in 66 innings. He will be at South Bend in 2018. He needs to continue improving at each step. Outside of Albertos, he is the pitcher I look forward to the most at South Bend.
9. Cory Abbott – I love his makeup but I also was surprised at how big he is on the mound. He made 3-inning starts for Eugene last year and I was impressed with his work over just 14 innings. He whiffed 18 and his slider looks good. When he gets unleashed in 2018, he could be a breakout arm just a year after being drafted.
8. Trevor Clifton – 2017 was a tale of two halves. First half – All-Star. Second half, not so much. I thought for sure he was headed to Iowa in June after putting up a 2.84 ERA in 66 innings at Tennessee. If there is one thing I like about this kid it is that he will out work anyone. He will be back in 2018 and he will make adjustments. Not every path to the majors is a straight line. Sometimes, there’s a bump in the road. I remember a young arms several years ago who fans thought was washed up as a prospect after posting a 4+ ERA at AA. Sonny Gray turned out OK.
7. Duane Underwood – There were times last year that Duane Underwood of 2017 looked like Duane Underwood of 2014-2015. The velocity was there. From the middle of July to the end of August, he looked studly as he finished a season of 130+ innings healthy. As the year went on, his innings increased and his walks decreased. In fact, his was walk rate was cut in half from .475/inning in May to .27/inning in August. I am really looking forward to seeing him get back at it in 2018.
Don’t be surprised to see any of these arms become one of the top six quickly. I really like Assad and I like Bailey Clark, who did not make this list. Regardless of what their name is, the Cubs have a plethora of arms who are going to have to dominate to get themselves noticed in a crowded field.
I will be back next week with the top 6 (It will be on Thursday due to the Convention) and a list of arms to keep an eye on next summer.
By Todd Johnson
For three young pitchers in the Cubs system, AA will be the ultimate test of their skills in 2018. All three were taken in the 2016 MLB Draft and all three will arrive in Tennessee after taking strange paths to get there. The Cubs system has not produced any sustained starting pitching they signed as prospects. To date, only Pierce Johnson, Adbert Alzolay, and Paul Blackburn pitched what I would call dominant seasons at AA. Zach Hedges and Trevor Clifton each threw a ½ dominant season in 2016 and 2017. It is not easy.
For Duncan Robinson and Michael Rucker, both began 2017 as relievers in South Bend. Robinson would up in the rotation in May while Rucker was lights out in the bullpen. When both went Myrtle Beach in the middle of the summer, Rucker got the chance to start in place of Oscar de la Cruz and never relinquished the role. Robinson, meanwhile, adjusted well to the change in play after a couple of rough starts and turned in an outstanding second half with a 2.37 ERA in 8 starts. Rucker’s second half ERA was 2.81.
For Hatch, the pseudo-first pick of the Cubs in the 2016 draft, he did not pitch that first season and began his pro career in 2017 at Myrtle Beach. It was as inconsistent a season as one could expect. Hatch did add a 4-seamer to his repertoire but Hatch struggled to get past five innings. Only three times did he make it into the sixth inning, usually throwing 80+ pitches every night. He did pitch seven innings once and eight another time. Once, he struck out 13 in 5.1 innings. His K rate for the season was a very good as he struck out 128 in 124 innings.
6’1” 185 Pounds
23 Years Old
11th Round pick out of BYU
6’6” 220 Pounds
24 years old
9th Round Pick out of Dartmouth
6’1” 190 Pounds
23 Years Old
3rd Round Pick out of Oklahoma State
What to Expect for All Three
The key for both Rucker and Robinson is strikes. Rucker’s strike percentage is 67%. That’s outstanding! Robinson is not far behind at 65% while Hatch is at 63%. Looking at their walk rates, Hatch walks 3.61/9 while Robinson is at 2.74 and Rucker at 2.03. At AA, it is going to be crucial for all three to pound the zone. AA hitters won’t chase as much high A and they are patient enough to wait for a pitch they can do something with.
Being that all three arms are just two levels from Chicago, it is also important to work in some serious innings. Hatch threw in 124 last year while Rucker only got in 96 after relieving the first two months of the year. Robinson got in 126 after relieving in April. Getting innings in the MiLB is essential to building arm strength for the MLB level. They hopefully can build to 140 IP in 2018 and 160 in 2019.
What doesn’t get talked about enough at AA is the adjustment that starting pitchers have to make. The Tennessee Smokies are the first stage where starters are on a 5 man rotation. That’s a huge shift from the 6 man staff in A ball and even more so from college where starters get the ball once a week. For some, “dead arm,” or arm fatigue, becomes a daily struggle to overcome in the second half.
As for future success at AA, Robinson has two things going for him that would enable him to have success at Tennessee. First, he’s a pretty smart cookie. Second, he can adapt easily. He knows who he is as a pitcher and he’s not afraid to change something to improve his lot in the organization. Last year, he added a cutter. I would not be surprised to see him add something else this year.
For Rucker, I like that he throws strikes and throws a lot of them. Whether he stays in the rotation or heads back to the bullpen, the skill to put the ball in the zone will get him to Chicago sooner or later.
Out of the three, Hatch easily has the best movement on his pitches. Despite being drafted the same time as Rucker and Robinson, he’s sort of a year behind in the learning curve department. He did throw over 130+ innings his junior year at Oklahoma State in 2016. As a result, the Cubs kept him on the sidelines after signing him due to the fact he missed all of 2015. While the Cubs were being cautious, Rucker and Robinson’s experiences at Eugene allowed them to produce for the summer as potential arms for the future.
Hatch’s numbers last year look better once I start rooting around deeper. While he had an ERA of 4.04, his FIP was an outstanding at 2.95. That’s a huge difference. His groundball rate was very good at 45.7% and he allowed just 2 HRs all year long. his walks per nine inning stat was a bit high at 3.47 and hitters averaged .347 on balls in play. That’s extremely high. And when hitters made contact, almost 50% of balls were pulled. Hatch’s pitches are good enough that he should be able to make adjustments this year. Just how good he can be is the bigger issue.
2018 could be the summer of the starting pitcher in Tennessee. These three arms will go along with a rebuilt Erick Leal to be the foundation of a nice rotation. Trevor Clifton or Oscar de la Cruz could be joining them. That will all be sorted out in spring training. For now, these three arms will be tested at AA beginning in early April.
By Todd Johnson
This has been the slowest off-season I can remember. Not that the Tyler Chatwood is a major signing, but at three years and $38 million, that is not what Cub fans expect to see added to rotation. This week, left-handed pitcher Kyle Ryan announced on his Twitter that he had signed with the Cubs. Ryan was excellent in 2016 but not so much in 2017. What the Cubs seem to be doing most this offseason is building bullpen depth at AAA Iowa. And to be honest, that has been standard operating procedure the last five years.
Jim Callis of MLB Pipeline was on 670 The Score’s “Inside the Clubhouse” yesterday morning. He talked about Cubs and White Sox prospects. Callis called shortstop Aramis Ademan the Cubs best prospect. He called him “more of a solid player than a potential star.” He also talked about the Cubs pitching and that he did not see any immediate help for pitching other than Maples. While Callis did talk about Zastryzny and Tseng, he thought of those two more as pitching depth than someone they can count on to stay in the rotation. He added he liked Albertos and Lange but intimated that those two have more questions than answers at this point in their careers.
Top Posts of the Year
As the holiday season comes to a close on Monday, I always like to look back at what posts were the most popular for the year. I am always surprised at the articles that get the most traffic. Just when I think I know what type of post gets the most attention, I get proven wrong every time.
2017 was no exception as the most popular post in the history of Cubs Central was published. A draft profile of high school picture Alex Scherff destroyed all previous records. I just find it odd because the Cubs did not select him. Most of the traffic came after he was selected in the draft. Considering Boston took him, I am going to assume that much of the interest came from the Red Sox fans.
Watching a player break out is always exciting as a fan and a writer. This year, three Cubs pitchers had profiles that put them in second, third and fourth place. Pitcher Michael Rucker came in second place with a profile on his breakthrough performance at South Bend. Ironically, he continued breaking out at Myrtle Beach after moving into the rotation. Eugene’s Bailey Clark had a magically frustrating start that put him in third and a Zach Hedges update from early in the year garnered a lot of traffic.
Another top post was actually my favorite interview of the year with Austin Upshaw. The young infielder from Kennesaw State has a beautiful swing and a great head on his shoulders. The return of catcher Will Remillard was one of my favorite posts of the year as I have always been a big fan of his going back to Kane County in 2014. After missing 2.5 years, his bat came back with a vengeance.
Two posts about breakouts made the top ten – one was on possible second half breakouts and the other was on why breakout pitching prospects were getting hard to find. Coming in at number 9 was a post from just two weeks ago on the top shortstops in the system. Also a prospect profile of outfielder Eddy Martinez prior to the 2017 season came in at number ten. Given a few more days, Zack Short’s Leveling Up Series post would get in.
If you have some free time this week you may want to go back and revisit some of these articles. Thanks again for reading.
Coming Up Next Week
On Wednesday, Duncan Robinson, Michael Rucker, and Thomas Hatch get profiled in the “Leveling Up” series. On Friday, relievers get broken down in the position breakdown series. Hopefully, there will be a transaction of some sort this week and it will be a starting pitcher. Maybe it will be Darvish or it could even be a trade.
As for January, The leveling up series will continue on Wednesdays with the position breakdown series on Fridays except during Convention week, when they both get moved up a day.
Also, you can check out the cards I made with new templates this offseason over on Cubs Central’s Facebook account.
Have a happy New Year!
Baseball Card of the Week
By Todd Johnson
I was all set to begin uploading “The Weekly” on Saturday night when I thought I would jump onto Twitter to see if there was a trade or signing. I should have known better. 15 minutes later, I finished reading John Sickels’ ranking of Cubs prospects and realized I would have to write a whole new column. Damn you, John Sickels!
To begin, Sickels’ list has a different top prospect than other recent prospect lists and his contains several rankings that are quite different from Fangraphs and Baseball America.
Pitcher Adbert Alzolay is fittingly ranked number one. And not surprisingly, Sickels did not give out one grade of “A” to any of the Cub prospects. In fact, he only handed out just six Bs. That’s quite an indictment of the Cubs’ system. Then again, just three of his top 10 prospects began their season above A+ last year.
The top prospect for both Baseball America and Fangraphs, shortstop Ademan, came in at number two and 2017 draft pick Alex Lange came in at number three. Lange’s inclusion so high in the list likely has to do more with his ability to move fast through the system based on one single dominant pitch, his curveball. I really like the placement of Lange this high. I love his competitiveness just as much as his curve.
Yeah, I’ve noticed the effort issue plus mixed reports on his changeup and FB velocity. But his track record is strong and I think he may thrive in pro environment. https://t.co/TRs3tcoYYN
— johnsickels (@MinorLeagueBall) December 1, 2017
Other players to make the top 10 included Jose Albertos, Victor Caratini, Oscar de la Cruz, Thomas Hatch, Brendon Little, Jen-Ho Tseng, and Mark Zagunis. In Sickels’ second 10, his selections get a little bit more adventurous.
Coming in at number 16 is pitcher Michael Rucker. Rucker started out as a reliever at South Bend in 2017 and wound up going to Myrtle Beach mid-summer and later replaced Oscar de la Cruz in the Pelicans’ starting rotation. Based on his summer split of a 2.51 ERA in 15 starts at Myrtle Beach, Rucker doesn’t seem to be letting go of the rotation at all. It’s a pretty meteoric rise one year after being drafted. He throws a lot strikes, something the Cubs seem to lack.
Sickels also gives some love to pitcher Keegan Thompson out of Auburn at number 17. Drafted in the 4th round in 2017, Thompson pitched some in relief at Eugene last summer. After missing all of 2016, Thompson came back as a different pitcher as he relied more on experience than a purebred 95 mph fastball. Instead, command and control became his calling card. He only threw 19 innings while striking out 23 in short season ball. He did make one start, a three inning scoreless affair.
I was a little surprised to see Sickels’ list so early this offseason, even more so in the wake of Fangraphs’ list, which just came out on Thursday. Sickels’ list does prove a few things about what I thought would happen this winter. One, not every evaluator is going to agree on who the Cubs’ number one prospect is. In addition, I don’t even think there’s a consensus on who the top Cub prospects are. DJ Wilson, who came in at number nine for Fangraphs, did not even make Sickels’ top 20 and graded out of with a C+.
I’m starting to get a kick out of the differentiation amongst the lists.
Two players who I thought might see a little love just based on their 2017 performances were Ian Rice and Zack Short. Neither has yet to make a list.
Then again, while offseason lists are fun to discuss the value of prospects, I tend to prefer mid-season rankings as you tend to get a better feel for players drafted the year before. This was true last year for Short, Rucker, and pitcher Duncan Robinson. I wonder what will be said about Little, Lange, Cory Abbott, and Keegan Thompson in the middle of next summer?
No word on when MLB Pipeline or Keith Law will publish their new lists. However, Baseball Prospectus is set to drop their top 10 Cubs prospect list on December 11. Hopefully, there will be a new name on the top of that list, like… say, Ohtani. That would be great!
By Todd Johnson
Beginning tomorrow, and running through Friday, baseball’s general managers hold their annual meeting in Orlando Florida. Something could shake down this week. In their search for two starting pitchers, the Cubs could come home with hopefully one. While I would like to see something get done this week, I am also not holding my breath. Ideally, the Cubs could make a trade for a #1 starter this week, get a closer, and then sign a free agent starting pitcher and their major offseason acquisitions would be done.
Right now, signing 23-year-old pitcher Shohei Ohtani from Japan is my number one preference. Considering that he just got a new agent this week, all signs now point to him coming after some things are worked out between MLB, the Player’s Association, and the NPB (Japanese League). He has not officially been posted yet. That could take a while.
As a result, no deal will get done this week.
I have always thought that Yu Darvish and Jake Arrieta would set the market and everything would fall in place after those two signed. Now that the Ohtani roller coaster looks to be heading to America, I wonder how much the market is going to be driven by him as teams try to acquire his talents. Considering that the max he can sign for is $3.5 million ($300,000 with the Cubs), his ability to drive the market will clearly be the coveted roster spot he takes at the top of the rotation.
The name of Alex Cobb has also been bandied about a lot the past few days. While many Cubs fans want to see the Cubs sign him, I would see that signing in a different light. Sure, Cobb is a nice pitcher and a quality guy, but he is not a top of the rotation arm. If the Cubs are trying to win a world championship, Cobb would be a nice back end of the rotation piece who will help get the Cubs to the playoffs but might not even start in the playoffs. The Cubs need a number one starter for the World Series to pitch alongside Hendricks, Lester, and Quintana. That is not Alex Cobb.
Currently, there is a four year window through 2021 for the Cubs’ young position player core to win another World Series. The Cub brass has to acquire two top of the rotation starters to make that happen. Ohtani makes that scenario much more likely than does Cobb.
Jason McLeod on the Score
For 20 minutes Saturday morning, the Cubs Executive Vice-President and Director of Scouting espoused on a number of topics from young pitching to Eloy and Gleyber to Schwarber and development at the MLB level.
What caught my ear during the interview were some quick evaluations by McLeod of the Cubs minor league starting pitchers. He eloquently praised Adbert Alzolay as a future starter. In addition, he talked about the potential of Thomas Hatch and his ability to miss bats despite a “blip” in his development.
What I really enjoyed was how effusive McLeod was about Michael Rucker and Duncan Robinson. He praised Rucker’s ability to throw strikes at a high velocity and he was just as excited about Robinson’s ability to throw a variety of pitches. McLeod went on to discuss and issue plaudits for the talents of Jose Albertos and Javier Assad. I am excited to see who is going to be pitching for each affiliate next spring. It is going to be quite competitive in the lower parts of the system.
Arizona Fall League Ends Next Week
With just one week left in the season, it is been an up-and-down year for many of the Cub prospects who are taking part in the six week fall league. Both David Bote and Adbert Alzolay came on strong to begin the fall league, but they have faded somewhat. To be fair, Alzolay had one bad outing where he gave up six runs in two-thirds of an inning. Meanwhile, Charcer Burks has been up-and-down and Pedro Araujo has been consistent throughout the six weeks season with an ERA under 2.00. Jake Stinnett has not thrown a lot of innings, but his thrown enough striking out 1.5 batters per inning.
In looking at Jason Vosler, his batting average at .229 does not inspire confidence, but his OBP is quite good at .349. Teammate Ian Rice has an OBP of .422. I’d say it’s been a good 2017 for Mr. Rice.
10 Days Away
I am just 10 days away from beginning my off-season series and I’m not ready yet. Right now, there is nothing planned to be published this week. If I do put out something, it’s going to be “incidental” news. That’ll give me time to get started on examining DJ Wilson and breaking down the catchers in the minor-league system for the position breakdown series.
By Todd Johnson
Overall Record – 73-67
I think the pressure of winning a third consecutive championship had to be overwhelming at times for many players on the Pelicans. And then everything changed in one day as one single trade saw three of the Pelicans switch dugouts. It was just a weird year.
In April and early May, the Pelicans played like a .500 team. Granted, they were without outfielder Eloy Jimenez, but he would soon join the team. In late May, the team caught fire and they won 20 out of 24 games to clinch a first half division title.
After the All-Star break, the Eloy trade, injuries, and a languishing offense began to catch up as the Pelicans finished last in their division in the second half.
In the playoffs, they bowed out quicklyin a hurricane-shortened playoff series. There were still some bright spots.
Heading into 2018, I think it could be a transformative year for several prospects. Some are position players, some of are pitchers, but regardless of their position, AA is the ultimate test for a prospect. Here are seven Pelicans from 2017 to watch who could raise their value in the organization in 2018.
1. Eddy Martinez – I think 2018 is when he takes off and breaks out as a prospect. He will have two years under his belt of living in the US and and playing minor-league baseball. He will turn 23 in January and I think he is ready to explode after hitting over .270 in the second half of 2017.
2. Zack Short – He was one of my favorite prospects to watch in 2017. He was a great lead off hitter and he succeeded at two levels. He can work a walk with the best Cub prospects. Add in his power at a premium position and he could be something special in AA. My only concern for him is he needs to improve his fielding and I really don’t see that as a major problem.
3. Duncan Robinson – Although he comes from Dartmouth, he is nothing like fellow Ivy Leaguer Kyle Hendricks. I think that Robinson is really going to surprise some people next year with his ability to adapt over the course of the season. This year, he added a cutter and he went from reliever to starter to Midwest League All-Star and then shined at Myrtle Beach in a two month span.
4. Michael Rucker – He was pressed into service as a starter this year and I don’t know if that’s his long-term future. As a reliever, he was a strike throwing machine that challenged hitters. He wore down a little bit as August as a starter. Still, he compiled an outstanding season and should be one to watch in Tennessee. I just don’t know what his role will be. He should start 2018 as a starter.
5. Thomas Hatch – He had a nice run in June when he was named the Cubs’ minor league pitcher of the month. Other than that, I never knew what was gonna happen when he was on the mound. The only thing I could say with certainty was that his pitches were going to move quite a bit. The question always was could he control them. And I think that’s the next question for 2018 is how much command he can regain by next spring for his second pro season.
6. Pedro Araujo – What a great year he had as he started to put it together. He has always had a powerful arm, it just took a while for it to develop. He took off beginning in May and then even more so when he became the closer in early June. He has to be very confident heading into next season. Even though he is up for Rule V draft, I still think he’s a couple years away from making it and I don’t think any team is going to risk selecting him this winter.
7. Originally, I was going to put Jesse Hodges, but I really think Jesse’s gonna be just fine at AA. Instead, I have decided to go with Tyler Alamo, who is a prospect who is really beginning to put things together. It’s been a slow track since he was drafted out of high school, but the catcher/1st baseman was one of the best hitters the Cubs had in the second half of the season.
I’m not quite sure what to make of Oscar de la Cruz. Injuries made his year an almost wasted one. He just has not gotten a lot of innings and that is what will need to do so in order to become a major league starter.
Pelicans to Know for 2018
This was a hard one. There are a lot of players who were on South Bend in 2017 who can really hit well. But I don’t know if there’s anybody who really stands out as a possible elite player just yet. There are several prospects who flashed some serious talent over the course of their Cubs minor league career, but no one who seems to do it on a consistent basis. DJ Wilson is close and outfielder Luis Ayala is an emerging bat.
Still, I think the player who could really take off next year is Kevonte Mitchell. At times this year, he flashed the ability to carry a team for a week or so. He had outstanding May and another outstanding July. In between and afterwards, he was inconsistent. You can see him recognize a curveball, but he can’t hit it on a regular basis. Until he does that, he is going to mash fastballs whenever he can. He does that really well.
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.