Michael Rucker

John Sickels’ Top 20 Prospect List Takes Over “The Weekly”

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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.

Card made from a photo by Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

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.

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!

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The Weekly: Ohtani, Cobb, Jason McLeod Talks Pitching, and the AFL Is Winding Down

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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.

Baseball Card of the Week
Just in case, I have it ready

Cubs Insider
Possible 2018 Breakout Pitchers
Possible 2018 Breakout Hitters

 

The 7 Series: Myrtle Beach Players Heading for a Big Test

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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.

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.

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.