The Weekly: Draft Picks Impress and Miguel Amaya Makes 2 Lists

By Todd Johnson

The good news for the week is that Miguel Amaya became the first Cub prospect in over a year to make onto a Top 100 list. Miguel did so at 97 for MLB Pipeline and again over on Baseball America at 100. That’s kind of exciting for a system on the rebuild. The bad news is he’s been in a slump for about two weeks. For a few days this week, Miguel was the only active catcher at South Bend. The 19-year-old has been going non-stop for two weeks since the Futures Game. He needs a little breather.

Meanwhile, Down in Mesa

The Cubs 1 team in the Arizona League brought home a first half division title and a playoff berth this week. That’s pretty exciting. The team is a mix of recent draft picks, some juco players from 2017, and several international guys. 

Draft Pick Play

Tomorrow, I am publishing my interview with 31st round pick Clayton Daniel. Daniel, who is currently at South Bend is doing fairly well through great bat-to-ball skills. But Daniel is not the only draft prospect beginning to make a name for himself.

This week, Eugene’s Zach Mort and Riley Thompson both had good starts on the mound for the Emeralds. Mort went 3 IP with 7 Ks while Thomson flashed a 95-97 mph fastball in two scoreless frames as he converts from being a reliever into a starter.

Jimmy Herron, a former Duke OF and the Cubs current 3rd Round pick, was promoted to South Bend Monday and immediately inserted in CF for the Cubs. I was there for his debut on Monday and he looked a little nervous at the plate. He calmed down over the course of the week. What I like most about Herron is that he can go get a ball in CF and he has an amazing eye at the plate. In his first three games, he was able to draw four walks by laying off pitches out of the zone. The bat should come around quickly.

Mesa OF Edmond Americaan went on a tear this past week. So far in 8 games, the former Chipola JC player, who hails from Curacao, hit .357 in that span with a .438 OBP. It will be interesting to see how fast he progresses. Americaan was signed by the Cubs on the last signing day with an overslot deal even though he was picked in the 35th round. The 6’1” lefty has room to grow and a good track record playing for one of the best JC programs in the country.

There is always a surprise. Every year. It never fails. This year, the pitching surprise goes to Blake Whitney. Whitney hails from an obscure college known as South Carolina-Upstate. But that does not matter. What does is his performance in July. He’s put up a 1.26 ERA in 5 starts for Mesa 2. In addition, Whitney has struck out 19. He has walked 8 which accounts for his 1.40 WHIP, but he is getting better every start. On Tuesday this week, he went 4.2 IP and struck out 9 in an outstanding performance.

It took him a few games, but non-drafted free agent Grant Fennell, who demolished balls in Mesa, is now in a groove for Eugene. I really like what I have seen from his bat this week along with his ability to play all over the field. He went 11 for 25 from the 22nd through the 29th. That’s pretty impressive! He earned the hitter of the week award for his efforts!

You can always check out how all the draft picks are doing here, which has their cumulative stats.

Coming This Week at Cubs Central
On Wednesday – The July All-Star Team
On Thursday – The Cards of the Month
On Friday – 40-Man Roster Considerations

Players of the Week

Card of the Week

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MLB Pipeline’s New Top 30 Cubs Prospect List Reveals a New Young Base of Talent

By Todd Johnson

I figured this year would be a season where there would be a lot of variation of players moving up and down my own prospect list. Usually, MLB Pipeline is pretty conservative when it comes to adjusting their own list. They aren’t so herky-jerky and prospects take a lot of time to move around on the list. Today, MLB Pipeline released their new top 30 list that included recent draft picks and international free agents. Based on the year that several prospects are having, I thought there would be a lot of turnover throughout the list. There was.

What Was the Least Surprising Thing?

Everybody and their mother knew last week when Jim Callis answered my MLB Pipeline inbox question if Miguel Amaya would be “the cream of the Cubs’ crop.” Here is what MLB Pipeline said about Amaya’s growth in 2018:

Amaya is starting to make the same type of impact offensively, showing feel for the barrel and the ability to make consistent contact from the right side of the plate. He’s doing a better job of waiting for pitches he can do more damage against, allowing him to tap into his power. He moves decently for a catcher but isn’t a factor on the bases.

Another thing that was not very surprising to see the number of players moving up and down the list. There five new additions to the list and one player returned to the list. Otherwise, there was not a lot of separation between the prospects, but that will be changing as the 2016-2018 draft and international free agent classes make their way up the organization.

What Was the Most Surprising Thing on the List?

Seeing lefty pitcher Brailyn Marquez all the way up at number 4 was quite surprising. Then again, Marquez has the type of talent that has everyone picking their jaws up off the floor. Marquez, who is only 19, has gone from the low to mid 90s to the mid to upper 90s on his fastball.

On the other hand, Thomas Hatch fell all the way down to #20. I thought he would drop but not all that far. The 2016 third round pick has struggled at times this year at AA. MLB Pipeline said the following about his fall from grace: “He hasn’t missed as many bats this year in Double-A, leading to some thought that he might be better suited for middle relief than the back of Chicago’s rotation.

Who is New to the List?

Trent Giambrone, Richard Gallardo, Cole Roederer, Brennen Davis, Erling Moreno, and James Norwood.

I was glad to see Giambrone make it along with Norwood. As for Moreno, he is not technically new, he is back on the list. Roederer, meanwhile, is off to a good start in Mesa and could rise fast next year along with fellow draft pick Brennan Davis. Both Roederer and Davis could easily make their way into the top 10.

Who is Missing?

I really like Jared Young as a hitting prospect. He dominated the Midwest League from April through June and is doing the same in July at Myrtle Beach. Young will more than likely be named the Cubs Hitter of the Year at the end of the season, Duncan Robinson has put together a good year at AA Tennessee. He’s had a rough patch in July, but for the year, he has been a steady force for the Smokies.

Who is is now off the list?

Jen-Ho Tseng, Alec Mills, Javier Assad, Bryan Hudson, Jeremiah Estrada, and Wladimir Galindo all fell off. In the future, I would not be surprised to see Assad, Hudson, Estrada, and/or Galindo back on the list.

In the offseason, MLB Pipeline will release another list at some point. It will be different, too. It might not have six players change, but there could be 3 or 4 of this year’s draft picks get some more action over the next 5 weeks of the MiLB season and more development in fall instructs. The system has a new breath of life and that should continue to improve with the majority of elite talent at 18-19 years of age.

For your information, here is the old list from the end of 2017.

Some New Cubs Prospect Lists Have Some New Names at the Top

By Todd Johnson

Now that the draft is complete and the big ticket international free agents have mostly been signed, it is that time of the year when prospect lists start flying out. Two came out this week along with a sneak peak of another. I originally was going to redo my top 21 list after international free agency, but I decided to postpone that until there is either a big trade or the end of the MiLB season. I thought there was too much happening in the Cubs’ system and I wanted to see how the draft picks performed, especially at the plate. That is turning out to be a wise choice.

Photo by Todd Johnson

However, that’s not stopping other sites, magazines, and evaluators from releasing their own.

2080 Baseball broke the ice with their own top 125 prospects. Lo and behold, there is a Cub on a list for the first time since Eloy was traded. Coming in at #120 is none other than Miguel Amaya. They projected Amaya to arrive in 2022. That’s not a bad time frame for a still 19-year-old backstop who is still maturing. 2080 description of Amaya was brief. They said: “High-end defensive backstop showing more advanced than expected offensive tools in first year of full-season ball.” Coming out of the prospect desert of the last year, I’ll take it.

Baseball America followed that list up on Thursday by releasing their top 10 midseason Cubs’ prospects on Friday. To not many’s surprise, Amaya was atop that list. I was surprised to see Oscar de la Cruz still on there after his suspension for a masking agent. As well, 16-year-old Richard Gallardo made the list at #10. That’s a pretty high ranking for someone who is still growing and won’t debut until fall instructs and play in real games until next June.

In addition, Nico Hoerner popped in at #4. I liked that Baseball America suggested Hoerner would fit at second base as that’s where I see him fit best in the long run. When he returns from his injury, though, I am sure the Cubs will keep him at short for the time being.

Earlier in the week, I asked Jim Callis of MLB Pipeline two questions about their upcoming Top 30 List, which should drop this next week or the week after. I asked, “How many Cubs’ 2018 draft picks will make their top 30 and is Miguel Amaya now the cream of the Cubs’ crop?” His answer looks like there is a solid consensus about the system’s top prospect.

Amaya, the starting catcher for the World team, will be the No. 1 prospect when we redo our Cubs Top 30. He’s very advanced for a 19-year-old catcher, displaying quality receiving and framing skills along with a quick transfer that enhances his average arm strength. He also makes consistent contact at the plate and could have 15-20 home run power.

Three of Chicago’s 2018 Draft choices will crack the Top 30. Stanford shortstop Nico Hoerner (first round) will rank in the upper third, while high school outfielders Brennen Davis (second) and Cole Roederer (supplemental second) will fit in the middle of the list.

I am really excited to see how that whole list shakes down. It’s been a strange year in the Cubs’ system as there have been some breakouts, some falls from grace, some injuries, and some natural development along with the addition of 32 draft picks and several free agents, both foreign and domestic.

Right now, I am most interested in how the recent draft picks will fit on my list. They still have six weeks left in their debut seasons. I don’t want to to be too risky and place them too high, nor do I want to place them too low. But Cole Roederer and Brennen Davis might change perceptions about the lack of elite talent in the Cubs’ system along with Richard Gallardo and some of last year’s 2017 picks. I am excited to see some more evaluations.

Leveling Up Series: Miguel Amaya – It’s All About the Arm

By Todd Johnson

There are certain prospects that make my eyes light up when I start talking about them and I get really animated. Eloy used to be one, Jose Albertos is one, and Miguel Amaya is another one. The 18-year-old catcher was blessed with a golden right arm. The very first time I saw him throw down to second while catching for Eugene last year, I feel immediately in love with that arm.

Basic Info
Catcher
6’1” 185 lbs. (Still growing)
Age 18
Bats/Throws Right
International free agent from Panama
2018 Affiliate – South Bend

Leveling Up
Amaya is far from perfect, but his ceiling is pretty high. The issue right now, is that his floor has some work to be done.

At Eugene in 2017, Amaya struggled the first half the year at the plate until he moved down in the lineup where he hit almost .300 in the month of August. He’s still got a little ways to fill out but he has shown the ability to pull the ball and to pull it for power.

Fangraphs said this of Amaya’s bat:

Offensively, Amaya’s approach to hitting is geared for contact. He expands the zone too often right now but has promising hand-eye coordination and bat control. He often finds a way to get the bat on the ball, making sub-optimal contact rather than no contact at all. He has the physical tools to hit but needs a refined approach, and his frame suggests there might eventually be some power here, too.

That’s promising. But to be really honest, I don’t care about the bat. It’s all about the arm.

At one point last year, he was throwing out over 50% of base runners. At the same time, Amaya struggled to catch a ball in the dirt. He then showed a lackadaisical approach in jogging back to the backstop to go get the ball that just went between his legs. As the year went on, that effort dramatically improved. He hustled after everything in August. However, he still has some work to do on blocking.

Amaya also needs to work on going out and calming his pitchers down when they are struggling. In June, he rarely went out to talk to anybody, but as the year went by, he got much better and there were certain pitchers he seemed to be more comfortable with like Jose Albertos and Jesus Camargo.

South Bend will be a different animal for him. The weather will be much different as will the size of the stadiums. A lot of the issues Amaya currently has should fade away quickly with game experience. He is, after all, just 18 for one more month.

Amaya’s also going to have to continue to be patient at the plate like he was in August last year. And, as a 19-year-old, he’s really going to be behind the eight ball in helping to manage a pitching staff with a lot of talent. He is going to be catching three of the Cubs top six prospects in Albertos, Lange, and Little. That’s a huge responsibility.

I think the effort really has to be there on every pitch. There needs to be an emphasis on blocking balls in the dirt and keeping his pitchers calm. Everything else is a cherry on top of that arm.

MiLB Mailbag – Comparing the 2011 Cubs Prospect List to Now

By Todd Johnson

The final question of this off-season’s minor-league mailbag comes to us from little Cory Alan from South Bend, Indiana. Cory asks: How does this year’s prospect list compare to when Theo took over?

To answer Cory’s question thoroughly, I had to do some digging. First, I went back to the archives at MLB Pipeline to look at their Cubs prospect list from 2011. They had Anthony Rizzo at number one. That list came out after Theo took over. I was able to find BP’s list from 2011 and I think it’s much more indicative of the Cubs system heading into 2011 before the season rather than after.

Here is their top 10 in all its glory, pre-Theo:

1. Brett Jackson, OF
2. Trey McNutt, RHP
3. Chris Archer, RHP
4. Josh Vitters, 3B
5. Hak-Ju Lee, SS
6. Chris Carpenter, RHP
7. Hayden Simpson, RHP
8. Reggie Golden, OF
9. Jay Jackson, RHP
10. Robinson Lopez, RHP

I also found Baseball America’s list. They had Archer at number one, Jackson at two, and McNutt at 3.

Now, it would be easy to sit back and say that today’s system is much better than 2011. But, at the time, I can’t believe I’m going to say this, the 2011 Cubs actually had two top 100 prospects in Brett Jackson and Trey McNutt. The Cubs don’t have a single top 100 prospect today. However, today’s Cubs could have three or more within the next two years, depending on draft picks and development. But beyond the top 10 in 2011, there was not much hope in the system.  Only Darwin Barney is a recognizable name for most Cubs fans from that list.

In all sincerity, there were people who actually believed that Brett Jackson and Josh Vitters were going to be pros in Chicago. People thought Trey McNutt was going to be an arm and that Chris Carpenter was going to make it. In addition, I remember seeing Reggie Golden play for Kane County in 2013 and struggling to hit any pitch that started with a C, but he was one sculpted physical specimen.

It’s obvious, now, that the system in 2011 was not deep at all. It’s not like Brett Jackson was fooling anyone. Lots of top 100 prospects don’t make it in the major leagues – injuries happen, players peak. When Josh Vitters hit .283 with 14 home runs and 80+ RBIs at AA Tennessee, I think most Cubs fans and evaluators thought he was going to be an “it” guy.

By the time the 2011 season began, Archer was gone and General Manager Jim Hendry would be by mid-year. In Hendry’s final act, he drafted Javier Baez, Dan Vogelbach, and Dillon Maples. Soon after, thus began what we think of as the rebuild, but it would be Theo who did almost all the heavy lifting.

Sure, today’s Cubs system does not have one Top 100 prospect…for now. Still, the system is deep, redundant, but just lacks elite talent. However, within two years, several of the prospects led by Jose Albertos, Aramis Ademan, Miguel Amaya, Alex Lange, Jeremiah Estrada, and Nelson Velazquez (who will be at Eugene and South Bend in 2018) could matriculate up prospect lists . It could take a while, but Cubs system could be making a vaunted comeback without having to lose 100 games.

Fangraphs’ Top Prospect List Goes All-In on Potential

By Todd Johnson

Last year, I quipped that Fangraphs produced the prospect list your mother warned you about. This year, Eric Longenhagen continued the tradition of creating a list different from the mainstream. The list, which came out today, contains analysis of upwards of 50 Cub prospects in detail. Although he only ranks 22, there is still plenty of information to go through and dissect. Overall, the list is a selection of young, athletic, and unproven prospects in the top 10.

Like Baseball America, Fangraphs placed shortstop Aramis Ademan at number one followed by pitchers Adbert Alzolay and Jose Albertos. While I would probably have them in inverse order as a top three, I really can’t quibble with Longenhagen’s reasoning. For the next 18 picks, though, it is all about potential. Longenhagen states:

Trades and graduations have sliced off the head of this system, but I remain fond of its “fruit on the bottom” composition. It features a wide swath of young talent at the lower levels, mostly from Latin America. The Cubs have cast a wide net in Latin America, adding a slew of good-bodied athletes with middling tools and then just kicking back to see what the player-development staff can do with them.

Pitcher Oscar de la Cruz is still held in esteem at number four and is soon followed by Brendon Little and Alex Lange, both of whom seem to have incomplete projections about whether they will be starters or relievers if, and when, they get to Chicago

The biggest shockers in the list came in the middle with the inclusion of several young 18 to 19-year-olds. Catcher Miguel Amaya is a favorite of mine and he is situated at number nine. Pitcher Alec Mills was next at ten, even though he missed most of 2017 with bone spurs. Mills was praised for his baseball command and plus changeup.

At number 11, 2017 sixth round pick pitcher Jeremiah Estrada got a lot of love from Longenhagen for his potential despite only pitching six innings of professional ball in 2017. One of my favorite young Cub prospects, outfielder Nelson Velazquez, came in at number 13 while unheralded lefty starter Brailyn Marquez surfaced at number 14 after an up-and-down year in Mesa.

The more I got through the list, the more and more the emphasis is on potential. Former top prospect Mark Zagunis wound up at number 20 while several more established Cub prospects did not make the top 22 cut like Trevor Clifton, Chesny Young, and Duane Underwood. Even the Cubs’ reigning MiLB Pitcher of the Year Jen-Ho Tseng did not make it. It is not as if Fangraphs have tossed the old guard to the side of the road, they made way for more prospects with a higher upside. DJ Wilson, for example, is one young and athletic prospect I profiled just last week who made the top 10.

In the end, this list is just going to be one of many this offseason that could have a totally different view of the Cubs system from every other list. In the next two weeks, Baseball Prospectus is set to release their Top 10 Cubs list either late next week or the week of the 11th.

The more lists that come out, the greater the variance is going to be. It’s pretty evident that the era of consensus on who the Cubs top prospects are is over. Even though Ademan has gotten the top nod in both major lists so far, don’t expect him to get top billing in every one.

Position Breakdown Series – Catchers Now the Strength of the System

By Todd Johnson

Six years ago, when Theo took over, the Cubs’ system was bereft of catchers. It is now a position of strength at almost every level. This year saw two catchers promoted to Chicago and fill in at the major league level very admirably. Victor Caratini and Taylor Davis both provided support in a time of need. Although neither made the playoff roster, both helped the Cubs make the playoffs.

With Willson Contreras entrenched as the main catcher, and Alex Avila and René Rivera both free agents. Caratini could earn a job next spring in Mesa. However, I think Joe Maddon would be more comfortable with a veteran backup catcher on the roster. Still, the job could be Caratini’s to win.

Last year’s catcher rankings:
1. PJ Higgins
2. Victor Caratini
3. Ian Rice
4. Cael Brockmeyer
5. Michael Cruz

Here are this year’s top five catchers currently in the system.

1. Victor Caratini
It’s time. There is nothing left for him to prove at AAA Iowa. His bat is more than ready, it’s more about improving his defense. And that can be done at the MLB level just as well as it can at Iowa.

2. Miguel Amaya
Even though he will be 19 next year, he shoots up to number two on this list just based upon his arm. He still needs to improve on blocking pitches and settling down whoever is on the mound. His bat improved greatly last summer, especially when he moved down in the order to the seventh spot. In August, he hit almost .300 for the month.

3. Ian Rice
You have to love his bat! You just have to. However, I am beginning to wonder where that bat is going to play. He will be at AAA in 2018, or at least he should be. It does depend on what the Cubs are going to do with Caratini. I would love to see him hit 25 home runs in the PCL next summer. He is more than capable of doing that and getting on base at a .350 to .375 clip. He is one of three or four hitters that I look forward to seeing most in 2018. I love his power and approach at the plate. I just don’t know how much longer he’s going to be a catcher with that kind of production and discipline.

4. PJ Higgins
Currently, he is the best all-around defensive catcher in the system, but last year his offense deteriorated at Myrtle Beach, as it does for many players in the Carolina League. He should rebound and hit better at AA Tennessee in the more hitter friendly Southern League.

5. Will Remillard
I was so happy to see him back playing last year. The fact that he did so well after being gone for almost 3 full seasons is a testament to his work ethic and his natural skills as a hitter and catcher. When I first saw him at Kane County in 2014, I was extremely impressed with his natural leadership skills. He played at Eugene the last month of the season in 2017 in what amounted to a rehab outing where he hit .474. I have no idea where he is going to go next season. He could be at South Bend, or he could be all the way up to Tennessee. Now 25 years old, I think the higher the class, the better. One thing is for sure, his bat is going to make some noise wherever he goes.

Two to watch in 2018
Alexander Guerra

Guerra is a 21-year-old catcher who played in the Series Nacional in Cuba. He’s a little bit more advanced than your average draft pick or international free agent. It would not surprise me to see him stay in extended spring or break camp with either South Bend or Myrtle Beach. He has some pretty good size and I wonder if that translates into power in the United States.

Don’t sleep on Marcus Mastrobuoni. He may have been playing above his level last year. As a result, 2018 will be more predictive of his talents. Right now, his hit skill is more advanced than previously thought.

First base will be up next week.