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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
By Todd Johnson
This gets harder and harder to do every year. There’s so much information available that it is rare for a prospect to sneak up and have a good year. I don’t like to rely totally on statistics, although I do think they are a valuable tool. When it comes to identifying players who I think could break out or be identified as sleepers in an organization, I prefer seeing them play live. I get a better sense for their approach at the plate, their swing plane, the ability to see the ball into the zone, and the sound of the ball coming off the bat. I also like watching the fluidity of their athleticism.
In 2017, there were a few key prospects who broke out in some form or fashion. Shortstop Zack Short comes to mind along with catcher Ian Rice, third baseman Jason Vosler, outfielder Charcer Burks, and shortstop Aramis Ademan. The biggest breakout was fifth round pick Nelson Velasquez who destroyed Arizona Rookie League pitching in his short tenure as he pummeled 10 HRs in a 7 week span after being drafted.
When it comes to 2018, there are several prospects who could show a marked improvement in their performance. There are several players who, at times in 2017, showed that there might be more there than the level at which they were currently performing. Then there were other players who seemed to come on strong in the second half of the season, or at the very least, in the month of August.
Here are several names of hitting prospects who I think could break out in 2018 to make their way onto a top prospect list.
At AA Tennessee
I really think that 2018 will be the summer of Eddy Martinez. In the second half of 2017 he hit .276 with seven home runs and I think he is finally acclimated to playing professional baseball and living in the United States. He is still young as he will just be 23 in January.
At Class A Myrtle Beach
DJ Wilson – I think this is the year where his physical maturity along with his baseball maturity mesh to produce his best year. I don’t know if he’s going to hit a lot of home runs this year because the Carolina League is just not a hitter’s league. However, I do think his batting average will improve as well as his approach. The one thing I don’t have to worry about is his defense.
Kevonte Mitchell – I think his time has come. He has grown into a physical specimen at 6’5″ and probably about 240 pounds. He is just a beast. But what impressed me most about his performance in 2017 was the way that he was able to track the ball into the catcher’s mitt. He did have an up-and-down year but behind the scenes he was putting in a lot of work to make himself more consistent. It would not surprise me to see him hit 20 home runs at this level and to begin to carry a team for games at a time.
At Class A South Bend
Miguel Amaya – Once you see him, you tend to fall in love with his arm behind the plate. However, his bat was sorely lacking to begin 2017. When he was moved to the seventh spot in the lineup, he did much better hitting almost .300 in the month of August. This leads me to believe that he is going to come into 2018 with a much better approach than he had at short season Eugene. I would not be surprised to see him hit 12 to 15 home runs in the Midwest League.
Jared Young – He is the perfect example of don’t scout the stat line. After being drafted, he began his pro career at Eugene last summer as he got off to a terrible start batting average wise hitting .131 in July. However, if you watched his at-bats, you saw an outstanding approach that saw him work counts to see a lot of pitches, but the balls just were not dropping in for hits. My friend John and I would comment to each other about what bad luck he was having. Then, in the last two weeks of August, he tore the cover off the ball hitting .323 for the month.
In August, one of the highlights of watching the Eugene Emeralds play was to watch Austin Filiere hit on a nightly basis. The 2017 draft pick out of MIT still has some work to do on defense, but his approach at the plate is top notch. He hit .261 with a .392 OBP. Add in his short quick stroke and he has the potential for 20 home run power next season. I’m not saying he’s going to hit 20 homeruns, but he could.
In June and early July, my favorite hitter at Eugene was none other than Joe Martarano who hit .340 for the Emeralds. When he went to South Bend, the poor guy just got off to a horrible start. When I saw him play in Beloit, he had a super high leg kick that didn’t necessarily show up on video. Thankfully, that turned into a toe tap a bit later and he hit much better in August (.273) including his first Midwest League home run. He should start out at South Bend unless he completely terrorizes spring training pitching. I just love the way the ball jumps off his bat and the sound is immense.
Jonathan Sierra is long and lean at 6’3″ and a physical replica of Darryl Strawberry. He just turned 19 in October and should be better next year than last. His approach comes across as fine. He hit .259 in rookie ball with a .332 OBP. His power is what will determine his breakout. He only hit two in 48 games and needs to do better. Hopefully, he breaks out in 2018 but it is more likely to bust out at South Bend in 2019.
He is just 20 years old, but Delvin Zinn is one player I think everyone should watch in 2018. He played in Mesa last summer and played mainly at short and second. He is an extremely athletic player who did have an up and down season. If he can learn to be more consistent, he is going to be a force on the base paths.
Others to Watch
Brandon Hughes is a switch hitting speedy outfielder who has the perfect size (6’2″) to develop a power stroke. Whether he will or not, I don’t know, but it’s not all going to happen next year. Improving his approach next year at South Bend should help.
Cam Balego – He played all over the infield in 2017 for Mesa and converted to catcher this fall at instructs. He was extremely consistent at the plate as he hit .286. I’m interested to see what he can do in a larger sample size.
Marcus Mastrobuoni – He led Mesa in almost every hitting category until Nelson Velasquez passed him up late in the season. The young catcher should be at Eugene in 2018. The problem for him is that there is nowhere to go in the now catching rich system.
By Todd Johnson
Overall Record: 39-37
This team was just loaded with pitching talent. It’s easy to see why they did so well in the playoffs. With a mixture of young international free agents and some seasoned college players, they started peaking at the right time. As a result, the Ems went deep into the playoffs but lost in the finals of the Northwest League Championship Series.
Heading into the season, I was a little unsure of what was gonna happen. None of the players drafted had been signed yet. Although the Emeralds did not win the division title, they had the second best overall record in their division which earned them a playoff spot. As a team, they were a bit inconsistent at the plate, but they did flash glimpses of their immense talent from time to time. They just didn’t do it on a day-to-day basis. The strength of the team was starting pitching and a deadly bullpen.
Here are seven takes you need to know about this year’s team.
1. Jose Albertos – I think it’s safe to say he was my favorite player in the organization the second half of the year. He is still developing his curveball but he did begin to throw his changeup up more often in the second half of the year then he threw it in the first. I am extremely excited to watch him pitch next year at South Bend. His fastball did sit in the low to mid 90s and it varied from night to night but was usually anywhere between 91 and 96. His changeup comes in around 79 – 82, which is pretty unfair to most hitters.
2. Miguel Amaya – He’s only 18 and I don’t think he’s done growing yet. The catcher displayed a power arm behind the plate and threw out around 50% of base runners this year. He’s still a work in progress but once he moved down to the seven spot in the lineup, he hit over .300 in the month of August. I am really looking forward to seeing him for 140 games in 2018.
3. Javier Assad – Like Albertos, he is a young pitcher who is still developing. Several times this summer, he did throw close to double digit strikeouts. He does throw a fastball in the low to mid 90s and depending upon how his curveball did, that dictated how he would do want on a particular evening. His arm is pretty live and loose. He has to still work on keeping the ball down and moving the ball around the zone rather than focus on pounding one particular area.
4. Brendon Little – I think it would be a bit unfair to judge him based on his short starts where he would only pitch two-three innings. To go from throwing four innings in 2016 to 80+ innings in 2017 makes a big difference on the arm along with the fact that he was basically shut down from pitching and games for almost 2 months. He did flash an amazing curveball that will weaken the knees of several hitters in the Midwest League next year. However the velocity that we read about in scouting reports of a fastball in the mid to upper 90s was not there. Instead it was around 89 to 92.
5. Alex Lange – Although he wasn’t around at the end of the season, I am pretty excited to see what he will do in 2018 after pitching around 130 innings at LSU. The Cubs only had him originally scheduled to pitch 10 innings at Eugene. He pitched nine. I came away impressed by his curve and his tenacity.Hopefully, the Cubs can smooth out his delivery little bit as it looks like there is some effort to delivery.
6. Gustavo Polanco – It was pretty clear from the get-go that this kid could hit. The issues are that he is maxed out physically and that he doesn’t take a lot of walks. I think that is something that South Bend manager Jimmy Gonzalez can work on next year. Polanco needs to improve his approach to begin to tap into his power, which he did flash a couple of times this year. He does have good bat to ball skills and his natural swing takes the ball to right field, which is impressive.
7. The College Kids – Overall, I liked the new Cubs from the 2017 MLB Draft. Most of those players were at Eugene and we got some looks at their athletic talent and ability. There were several pitchers I came away impressed with including Jake Steffens and Cory Abbott along with Ricky Tyler Thomas. The position players were plentiful this year and that bodes well for South Bend next year. I was in particularly impressed with the plate approaches of Jared Young and Austin Filiere along with the natural physical talents of Brandon Hughes.
Emeralds to Watch in 2018
It’s hard to predict who’s going to be on a short season roster. There’s a lot of development time that takes place between now and the middle of next June. I’d like to think that Nelson Velasquez or Jonathan Sierra will be hitting balls deep into the night at PK park next summer. But you never know what’s gonna happen over the next nine months. Both could wind up in South Bend at some point next May at the end of extended spring training. Regardless, there will be several players from the Dominican, like Fernando Kelli, who could show up in Eugene. However, I think it’s going to be several Dominican pitchers like Jesus Tejada and Emilio Ferrebus who could get all the acclaim before the drafted players sign.
Sometimes, the games don’t seem so important.
Cubs Prospect Tyler Alamo was one of those in attendance last week at the shooting in Las Vegas. Tim Huwe (@tim815) first reported on this a couple of days ago. Included in Tim’s article was a link to an interview where Alamo recounts the harrowing events of that night including the loss of his friends.
Felix Pena was DFA’d this week to make room for pitcher Luke Farrell, son of Red Sox Manager John Farrell and brother of South Bend Hitting Coach Jeremy Farrell. Farrell appeared in nine games for the Reds last summer and had a 2.61 ERA in 10.1 IP, all in relief.
At fall instructs, the Cubs prospects are playing sim games but with pitching machines. Although, Koji Uehara, on a rehab assignment, did face a few batters.
The Arizona Fall League begins play on Tuesday. The Mesa Solar Sox have 7 Cubs on the roster: Relievers Pedro Araujo and Jake Stinnett, starter Alec Mills, catcher Ian Rice, infielders David Bote and Jason Vosler, and outfielder Charcer Burks. Their schedule goes through mid-November. I will try and keep up with their performances every Sunday.
Baseball America Offseason Prospect Lists
Baseball America has been publishing their top 20 prospects in each minor league the past couple of weeks. In the first week, Victor Caratini made it in the Pacific Coast League. And last week, Adbert Alzolay made it for the Carolina League. This week saw a large number of prospects make it for the Midwest League and the Northwest League. The problem was not all the prospects are still with the franchise. In the Midwest League, Isaac Paredes came in at number nine and Dylan Cease at number 11. No current South Bend Cub made the list.
For the Eugene Emeralds, the Cubs hit the motherlode. Jose Albertos was ranked number four, Aramis Ademan came in at number eight, and Miguel Amaya was number 16. None of those three selections were surprising. However, at number nine, pitcher Javier Assad was a stunning selection as BA’s Michael Lananna praised Assad’s improving arsenal.
On Thursday, the Arizona League post was published. It’s not surprising that Nelson Velasquez was on the list. However, he was ranked at number 20. He is still a bit raw, but he still does have a lot of upside and room for improvement in his game.
The DSL list should be published this next week. It will be interesting to see if any young Cubs make it.
I think what the six lists do show is that the Cubs are not devoid of talent. There may not be a lot of prospects at the top of each league, but the Cubs do have several players who could be on their way up the lists.
Top 20 Chat Post
There was an interesting question in the Northwest League chat that accompanied the post. A Cub fan from Pasadena California asked about whether the Cubs should be concerned about Brendon Little’s performance in the Northwest League. Here is the response to that question:
Michael Lananna: Mildly concerned, but don’t press the panic button yet. He’s the same guy. His control was erratic throughout his college career, and that’s still going to remain his biggest hurdle to the next level. This summer was just a small snapshot of that, and I’m sure the Cubs will work with him on his strike throwing going forward. He’s still an exciting left handed arm with power stuff.
Coming Up This Week at Cubs Central
I have three posts scheduled to be published in between playoff recaps over the next five days. The Cards of the Year post should be out Monday. Later in the week, Shohei Otani and his impending free agency gets previewed. Part 2 of the State of the Cubs MiLB System will hit the Internet as well at some point in the next five days.
A Mock Draft Already?
Baseball America also posted their first mock draft for 2018. I was surprised to see that they had the Cubs selecting wiry high school pitcher Cole Wilcox at 24 considering that OF Travis Swaggerty from South Alabama was taken at number 25, I would’ve preferred the Cubs have gone with the college outfielder rather than the high school pitcher. Then again, it was only a mock draft but it is interesting to see where players are falling now and then compare that to a few months from now.