By Todd Johnson
When Eloy Jimenez was traded in the middle of last summer, my heart was somewhat broken as I became quite attached to watching him play and was hopeful that he would be ready for the 2018 season. I didn’t think the Cubs had anybody with that type of power potential in the system. Little did I know, at that time, the Cubs drafted a power monster a month earlier in the fifth round.
As spring training looms on the horizon for the minor-league camp, I am looking forward to seeing what Nelson Velasquez can do. In just six weeks at Mesa in 2017, he hit 10 home runs between the regular season and the playoffs. He hit almost .300 for the month of August and drove in 14 runs that month. He drew rave reviews for his hit tool and his athleticism in the field, some suggesting he could stick in centerfield. Jason McLeod even added that Velazquez, while a physical specimen at 6’0” 190 lbs., could add a couple more inches and 15-20 pounds.
Here’s what Fangraphs had to say about Velasquez back in November:
Velazquez is raw but has louder tools than are typically found for $400,000. He projects for plus raw power, and amateur scouts had a 55 on his speed. We saw fringe speed in the AZL but knew there was a hamstring issue present. He projects to an outfield corner. Velazquez is thick through the thighs and butt, and scouts have his frame comp’d to corner outfielders (Jorge Bonifacio, Yoenis Cespedes, and Scott Schebler), so most have him projected there despite the present 55 wheels.
Turned 19 in December
5th Round Pick 2017
PJ Education HS, Puerto Rico
Leveling Up in 2018
For the 2018 season, Velasquez has only one thing to do and that is to reduce his 30% strikeout rate. That’s an astronomical figure for such a young player.
One thing I like to do with a prospect is to breakdown their season into smaller sections of performance. In July, Velasquez struck out 11 times in 31 at bats (35%) and did not get a walk once. In August, things improved slightly as he whiffed 25 times in 75 at-bats (33%) but drew 14 walks for a .408 OBP. However, in the playoffs, he struck out 6 times in 14 at-bats (43%) with 2 walks (.385 OBP) but cranked out 2 HRs and drove in 9 over 5 games. Wow!
And that’s the thing, he may strike out, but he also hits a lot of balls very, very hard including over the fence.
Currently there is no one like him with his potential for power in the system. He’s gonna be one of the more interesting watches this spring in camp. His career could go several different ways in 2018.
1. The Cubs could take the conservative route with him and just let him do extended spring training and then ship them off to Eugene for the summer and keep him there.
2. Depending on how he does in spring training, he could begin the year in extended spring training and move to South Bend for the second half. That would be a bit advanced and an aggressive move to speed up his development.
3. The most likely career route for Velazquez in 2018 would be for him to do extended spring training, get shipped up to Eugene, and then have his career reevaluated in early August. If he still is striking out at a high rate, then keep them in Eugene. Playoff races in Eugene and South Bend could also affect his placement in late August. If Eugene is in and South Bend is out, keep him in Eugene. If South Bend is in and Eugene is out, ship him to South Bend.
The third scenario is the most likely and probably the one that could achieve what the Cubs think Velasquez needs to work on. Ideally, you want him to get as much game experience as you can. Then again, he’s only 19 and he’s not going to Chicago this year. The Cubs can let him get 300 at-bats in this year to improve that plate discipline and develop it as they see fit.
What could spoil all this is if Velasquez just comes out and start ripping the cover off the ball at every stop. PK Park in Eugene is not known as a home run haven, but Velasquez could turn it into one…quickly.
By Todd Johnson
This is like the fourth different incarnation of this post. Some of that was influenced by what talent evaluators reported on, some came from ideas some of you piqued in me, and last but not least, some ideas came from trends about certain players that I am interested or curious to see play out.
So, without further adieu, here are 10 things I am thinking about heading into the MiLB portion of Spring Training.
1. Danis Correa
First, I want a picture of him as I can’t seem to find a free one just yet. He’s 18, he’s right-handed, he’s from Colombia, and he throws in the upper 90s. Heading into camp, he’s my breakout pitcher of camp. The problem is he does have control issues, especially with his secondaries. The Cubs will probably take it slow with him in 2018. Eugene looks to be his destination after spending last year in the DSL and getting 2 games in with Mesa. What Jose Albertos was in 2016, Correa will be in 2018, without the injury or shutdown.
2. The Return of Erick Leal
The big right-hander will be returning to the system this year after missing all of 2017. He should be at AA Tennessee to begin the year. It’ll be interesting to see how surgery has affected his ability to pitch and how the Cubs handle his return back to action. Will it be in highly controlled starts? Will he relieve? Will he be a piggyback or have someone piggyback for him?
3. The Dream Outfield
Eugene’s amazing outfield will be filled, right now, with three 19-year-olds in Jonathan Sierra, Fernando Kelli, and Nelson Velazquez. Within a year, they could take over the position in the system and rush up some prospect lists. All three are extremely different but have a mixture of power, potential, and speed. There is currently no rush to move one of them along, but it wouldn’t surprise me if one of them just took off. When I do Eugene’s annual “Preview of their Preview” post, those three will be the focus of the article.
4. Trevor Clifton
When Trevor is pitching well, it is a thing of beauty. He looks fluid, even elastic, as if he and his muscles are not even thinking about what they are doing. “Rock and fire” would be an old school description of that type of delivery. He needs to get back to that in 2018.
5. The Mexican Pitching Connection
The Cubs will have several prospects at South Bend this year who hail from Mexico. Most notable are pitchers Jose Albertos, Javier Assad, and Jesus Camargo. When the Cubs started getting into the Mexican market a few years ago, they didn’t face much competition for prospects. Now, the Cubs dominate international signings in Mexico. This year will be a test of those prospects’ talent. Add in Faustino Carrera (Eugene) and Florencio Serrano (Mesa) and there should be a whole rotation-plus of Mexican arms in the lower part of the system.
6. Carlos Sepulveda
After a horrible first month at Myrtle Beach that was exacerbated by an injury, Sepulveda missed the next three months before showing up in the Arizona Rookie League for the final few weeks of the season. He looked pretty good in Mesa and hopefully he can return to being one of the best second baseman in all of the minors, not just in the Cubs’ system. I am hoping he goes to Tennessee, but I would imagine he begins the year in Myrtle Beach.
7. Bailey Clark
He’s my sleeper pitcher for this year. Word is he healthy, better, faster, stronger, and ready to go for 2018. At times over the past two summers, he flashed some major potential at Eugene. He should begin the year at South Bend or Myrtle Beach and don’t be surprised to see speeds on his fastball back over 95.
8. The Resurrection of Jose Paulino
For a lack of better phrase, 2017 was quite the learning experience for Paulino. After a dominant run in 2016, he had it handed to him at times last spring. After an attitude readjustment, he pitched well in the second half for South Bend and my expectation is that he is going to be more like 2016
9. The Other Pitching Draft Picks
Much has been written about Lange and Little, but that will change this season. The Cubs signed 19 pitchers from last year’s draft. Cory Abbott and Jeremiah Estrada have gotten some press along with Keegan Thompson. By the end of camp, or the end of April at the latest, there should be several other names that Cubs fans should get familiar with like Brendan King, Erich Uelmen, Rollie Lacy, Ricky Tyler Thomas, Ben Hecht, and Jake Steffens.
10. Just Picking Six Pitchers a Month
Every month for the past few years, I make a Cubs monthly minor league all-star team. How am I going to limit the starting pitchers to just six arms this year? It seems almost like an impossible task. Then again, it’s a good problem to have. I started making the Pre-Season team this past weekend and just doing the rotation put me in the frame of mind that it is going to be a very hard problem to deal with every month but one that I will enjoy.
By Todd Johnson
For most of the winter, I have avoided updating my Top 21 prospect list. The main reason for that is because I always thought a trade was imminent. So for the better part of three plus months, the list just sat there, waiting to be updated. I thought the second that I posted a new list will be the second that the Cubs trade someone off the list. If a trade happens this week, you can now thank me because my new Top 21 list is now uploaded.
I don’t think there any big surprises for those of you that check out this website regularly. You know my love of Jose Albertos and he is still sitting pretty at number one. When I was done arranging the prospects, I was somewhat stunned to realize that I only placed five position players on the list. I even gave spots to two relievers.
It’s quite clear that the Cubs do have a lot of pitching depth. They still don’t have that top of the rotation type starter just yet. Albertos could be that guy by the end of this year and Alzolay could be a middle of the rotation type starter if he can develop his secondaries. While I think it’s obvious that Albertos has a higher ceiling than any Cub prospect, there’s still a lot that needs to happen for him to reach his potential.
As for the system as a whole, there’s a lot of depth, but there’s not a lot of elite talent that you could for see being All-Stars at the major-league level. On the other hand, I can see several of these prospects becoming major-league players.
Now that the list is ready to go, there are only two major prospect lists left to be published. MLB Pipeline should have theirs in early February and so should ESPN’s Keith Law. Based upon Jim Callis and his point of view on “Inside the Clubhouse,” it was pretty clear Pipeline is going with Aramis Ademan at number one and who knows what Keith Law will do. He could go one of three ways.
In six months, this prospect list is going to drastically change. With a new draft class (likely 4 picks in the top 100) and some money to spend in international free agency, there should be a huge influx of higher level talent coming aboard. Add in a another three months of development from current prospects and this list could be completely different. But for now, this is what the system is.
By Todd Johnson
This is easily the hardest position to rank. Eloy Jimenez anchored the rankings for two years and I am just not quite sure how to arrange this year’s crop. Do I put them in tiers, number them, or do I arrange them into categories? I decided to be old fashioned up to 7.
A year ago, Eloy was at the top of the Cub outfielders followed by Mark Zagunis, Eddy Martinez, Donnie Dewees, and DJ Wilson. Two of those five prospects are gone. Although Zagunis did have a pretty good season in 2018, Burks and Wilson didn’t exactly light the minor leagues on fire for a whole year.
This is a position that has a lot of names of players who COULD be elite talents someday. However, their tools have not clicked for some reason. In fact, that pretty much sums up the Cubs system in general. There’s a lot of depth, just not elite talent. However, in two years, that could all change greatly.
In spite of that, here are the current top seven outfielders the Cubs have in their system heading into the 2018 season.
7. Jonathan Sierra – I am just waiting for him to get it going. Hopefully, this year will be the year the homers start to flow. In reality, though, it is more likely to happen at South Bend for him. He might be at the bottom of this list again next year or he could be #1. He as all the tools and the right approach at the plate, it is just a matter of game experience and tapping into his 6’3” frame and beautiful swing.
6. Kevonte Mitchell – A physical specimen, he could be a beast. At times in 2017, he showed that he could carry a club for a week or two at a time. In 2018, he should be at Myrtle Beach and he could begin to fulfill his power potential. Watching him work hard in pre-game activities bodes well for him grinding it out at some point.
5. I could’ve easily written Eddy Martinez in at number two as well as number five. That’s what is hardest about this group – there’s depth but not much differentiation of talent. For Martinez, he was pretty good in the second half of last year hitting .276 with 7 home runs. Already a defensive stalwart, he just needs to walk more and strike out less. I don’t think that’s too much to ask. It is another thing for it to happen.
4. DJ Wilson – He is an amazing athlete who I think should break out a little bit this year at Myrtle Beach. Now at 21 years of age, and in his fourth season as a Cub, the time has come for him to begin to put it together. The lack of a any kind of a sustained performance could be a concern very soon. He has all the skills he needs, it is just a matter of putting it together on a daily basis.
3. Charcer Burks had a great first half at AA Tennessee and I thought for sure he was going to get a promotion in late June to AAA. He got off to a great start in spring training with the big league club and never let up until the middle of June when he seemed to take a step back. He did alright in the Arizona Fall League but he didn’t necessarily knock anyone’s socks off. It was a long year but it was also a huge step in the right direction that truly began the second half of 2016 at Myrtle Beach when Rashad Crawford was dealt. He should be fine at AAA. And to be honest, his power game might improve at AAA. Last year, he hit 10 at AA. I would not be surprised if he hit 15 this year in the PCL.
2. Mark Zagunis – Like Victor Caratini, I don’t think there’s much left for him to prove at AAA. His power improved last year, his batting average improved, while his on base percentage is always spectacular. All he needs is a place to play every day. The problem it is not in Chicago. I was hoping that he might get a chance with another club to break through. That hasn’t happened yet this offseason.
1. Nelson Velasquez – His power potential is off the charts. In just a short six week span, He cranked out 11 home runs in Mesa between rookie league and the playoffs. He still has some swing and miss to his game (30% K rate in the Arizona Rookie League). As a result, I think the Cubs are going to be pretty patient with him and it will be interesting to see how he does in Eugene, which is not a place where home runs have been known to happen frequently. Still, there’s just too much talent to not rank him number 1 just based on potential.
Some Names to Watch for 2018
Out of all the position lists from this winter, the outfield list could change drastically in one year’s time. In fact, the Cubs could pick up another college outfielder or two in the top three to four rounds of the draft next summer that could totally reshape these rankings. Add in some amazing athletes who will be patrolling the green grass in Mesa, Eugene, and South Bend in 2018 who are young, unproven for a full season, and extremely athletic and the system becomes much more dynamic.
Fernando Kelli leads the list and should be making his stateside debut along with Carlos Pacheco. Both played in the Dominican last year and they could be playing anywhere from Mesa to South Bend. Meanwhile, Brandon Hughes begins his first full season after being drafted last summer. A switch-hitter, Hughes is an amazing athlete with the build to hit for power but has never been asked to do so. Chris Carrier, another 2017 draft pick, struggled at Eugene, but is a physical specimen.
Finally, Jose Gutierrez is another young and athletic outfielder who was the leadoff man on Mesa’s championship team. Down the stretch, he hit .354 in August helping to set the table for the rookie league Cubs.
One thing about this class of outfielders from Mesa to Eugene to South Bend is that they are not going to be dull.
By Todd Johnson
The prospect list season is going quick this year. Usually, the major lists are spread out over four months. Not this year. So far, four of the six major lists have been published leaving only MLB Pipeline and Keith Law to go. On Monday, Baseball Prospectus joined the early crowd with their list of top 10 Cubs prospects.
However, despite the current state of the Cubs system, there is still plenty of room for hope and plenty of time for these prospects to develop into players that can contribute at the major-league level.
Baseball Prospectus can be a little bit out there in it’s ranking of Cubs prospects. In 2015, they ranked Addison Russell at number one ahead of Kris Bryant. In 2015, BP placed Gleyber Torres first and followed that up with Eloy Jimenez last year. Heading into this year’s list, I thought it would be one of three prospects: Adbert Alzolay, Aramis Ademan, or Jose Albertos.
There was nothing shocking in the list. Right-handed starting pitchers dominated the list followed by one lefty starter, a switch-hitting catcher and a soon to be 19-year-old shortstop.
The Top Ten
1. Adbert Alzolay, RHP; 2. Jose Albertos, RHP; 3. Aramis Ademan, SS; 4. Brendon Little, LHP; 5. Alex Lange, RHP; 6. Victor Caratini, C; 7. Thomas Hatch, RHP; 8. Oscar de la Cruz, RHP; 9. Jen-Ho Tseng, RHP; and 10. Alec Mills, RHP
In years past, Twitter exchanges could get hot and heavy over which Cubs prospect made a list or did not make a list. I don’t think anyone’s going to be fighting over whether Alec Mills is at number 10. Times have changed. And more importantly, that goes to show just how much focus is now on the major league club.
One key to understanding the system and just how raw it is comes from the fact that many of the prospects who might eventually make a top 100 list are 18-19 years old and only Ademan has played in South Bend and full season baseball. A year from now, this list is going to be totally different and filled with Albertos and other young prospects like Jeremiah Estrada, Nelson Velazquez, and Javier Assad. That’s where the hope is.
BP discussed many of them in their “second ten” section. There’s a lot of depth in the system just based on this section.
Who Is Missing?
It’s stunning what two months of a rough stretch in baseball can do to career, as well as an injury. For Trevor Clifton, he had an outstanding first half (2.84 ERA in 12 starts) at Tennessee and then fell apart in the second. I am still hopeful that he can get it back to what he was like in the first half of 2017. I don’t know how one could give up on him so fast.
Jake Stinnett missed most of the year but came back in August and also pitched in the Arizona Fall League. He showed that he could possibly be a reliever.
I’m looking forward to MLB Pipeline’s list which should be out sometime in January. It’s a little bit more extensive in that they rank 30 prospects. Keith Law usually waits until February to publish his list and I had not planned on doing an updated Top 21 list this winter unless there’s a trade. Who knows, anything could happen this week.
By Todd Johnson
Welcome to episode two of the offseason minor league mailbag. Last week, I answered questions about Ian Rice, Bryan Hudson, and the 40 man roster. This week gets a little bit more specific with questions about players that I have not seen play yet.
How many prospects in the system are worth trading for top pitching? Or is it going to be flat out cash deals?
It is not going to be cash deals,. If the Cubs are going to acquire some starting pitching and reliever help, they can get by with prospects in exchange for a reliever. If the Cubs try to get a starter in a trade, they are going to have to throw in major league talent to get major league talent.
If I was a GM for another team, there is no sure thing in the Cubs minor-league system right now. There are some prospects that could turn into something, but the Cubs don’t have a top 100 prospect right now to bring in a top flight starter on their own. On the other hand, while the Cubs may have a bottom five ranked system, they also have a lot of depth and redundancy in order to make a trade or two. Their issue is the lack of current elite talent.
Early expectations for Estrada?
He did pitch some in the Arizona Rookie League last August. However, he had two wacky stats. While his ERA was good at 1.42 in 6.1 IP, his WHIP was all over the place at 1.74 as he walked 6 and gave up 5 hits in a small sample size. In 2016, he was one of the top young prep arms on the summer circuit. He did not have a good senior season in 2017.
Still, the Cubs talked him out of his commitment to UCLA. I would bet the Cubs saw something that they could fix or tweak to get him back on track. Honestly, I did not expect to see him pitch last year. With just one month of pro experience, he should be at Eugene to begin 2018. He needs to build up arm strength this year up to about 75 innings. It would not surprise me to see him take the ball every sixth day at Eugene.
It would be safe to say that he might be a little inconsistent this year as he begins to develop and adjust to pitching professionally. My advice would be to not get too high as a fan and not get too low. He is going to have to work through some things.
Will Velaquez fill our Eloy-sized hole in our hearts?
I sure hope so. Part of me is hoping that he has a monster spring and starts in South Bend rather than extended spring training followed by Eugene. I’d be ecstatic if he actually did extended spring training and then filled in in South Bend in late May/early June. However, that is not realistic and might not be good for his development in the long run. The Cubs, more than likely, are going to take their time with him as he does have a few holes in his swing. However, 11 home runs in six weeks shows that there’s a lot right about his swing, too. By the middle of July, we should know if he is going to be the new Cubs phenom in place of Eloy. Currently, that is the direction I am also leaning along with Albertos.
Can Stinnett & Maples be an answer for CHC bullpen?
They can be part of the answer, but the Cubs are probably looking for an additional left-hander. Maples should have a legit shot at making the team in the spring. Considering that Stinnett has only thrown one month as a reliever, plus his time in the Arizona fall league, he should be at AAA Iowa to gain a little more seasoning before he is called upon in that role. Spring training should tell a lot for both pitchers: for Maples, it is about whether he makes the team. For Stinnett, it’s about whether they see him as part of the team in the future, a.k.a., later this summer.
I have enough questions for another post next week. You can send your questions to me on Twitter @cubscentral08, or you can just email me at email@example.com.
By Todd Johnson
An Arizona Rookie League Championship is an especially nice way to end the season. In the first half of the season, Mesa had the second worst record in the league at 9-19. The Cubs turned it around in the second half going 16-12 and then storming through the playoffs scoring 44 runs in five games.
In 2018, most of these players will move on up to Eugene and South Bend. It is a talented bunch and probably has the most prolific hitters the Cubs have seen in rookie ball in the Theo Epstein era.
Here are several prospects who could be flying up prospect lists this winter and next summer.
1. Nelson Velazquez – Just 18 years old, he hit nine home runs in basically six weeks for Mesa. He was named the Cubs’ minor league player of the month in August as he drove in 16 with six homeruns for the month while hitting over .300. He might not be physically maxed out, but the Cubs fifth round pick from 2017 can flat out hit. I would not be surprised to see him shooting into the top 10 on a lot of prospect lists this winter.
2. Jonathan Sierra – While he did flash some power this year, he continues to show an excellent approach. At 18 years of age, his future is still very bright as he has a long ways to develop physically. At 6’2” and left-handed, he always gets the Darryl Strawberry comp. His game is nothing like Darryl Strawberry’s. I tend to think he’ll be at Eugene next year, but if he begins to develop some power at instructs, spring training, and, then again in an extended spring training, he could be in South Bend late next May. For an 18-year-old, a lot can happen developmentally in 7 to 9 months.
3. Delvin Zinn – He got off to a great start this year for Mesa, slipped a little bit in the middle of the season, and finished strong hitting over .500 in the playoffs with a .630 to on-base percentage. He played shortstop and second base most of the year and I think he really begins to catch fire in 2018. I’m excited to watch him play either at Eugene next year. I just don’t know what position he’s going to play.
4. Cam Balego – Although I have yet to see him play, he showed up every day and played three infield positions for Mesa this year and hit for a high average all season long. The 30th round pick from Mercyhurst has been learning how to play catcher this fall in instructs. I am really excited about getting a look at just how well he does hit next year. He hit .286 with a .385 OBP this year.
5. Marcus Mastrobuoni – He has to be one of the most surprising players in the Cubs’ system this year. The catching corps is getting to be pretty deep and a player has to really make themselves stand out in order to be noticed. Marcus did that this year as he was the leading hitter in all of the four major hitting categories for Mesa until the last couple weeks of the season. I’m glad he was so successful this year. With Miguel Amaya ahead of him, I don’t know how fast he can move up in the system with his hit tool.
6. Brailyn Marquez – After listening to scouts and seeing some of them tweet, it’s obvious that Marquez has swing and miss stuff. It’s also obvious that he still needs to learn how to pitch with what he has. At 6’5” and just 18 years old, there’s a lot of time left for the lefty to fill out and work on his combination of pitches and approach on the mound.
7. Luis Hidalgo – He played in the states for the first time and did not disappoint. Originally an outfielder, he played mostly first base and tore the cover off the ball all of August for Mesa with 13 RBI. With his ability to hit, I don’t think he needs to go to Eugene next summer. I tend to think he’ll be just fine at South Bend playing first and doing some DH.
Bonus – Luis Vazquez was drafted by the Cubs this summer. The 17-year-old shortstop drew rave reviews for his fielding this summer. The bat needs some work but he did hit well in the playoffs going 5 for 7. He should more than likely be at Eugene next summer.
Mesa Cubs to Watch in 2018
It’s a little hard to predict who’s going to be in rookie league but the four players the Cubs signed as international free agents on July 2 would be the best bet to watch in 2018. Pitcher Florencio Serrano, shortstops Luis Verdugo and Fabian Pertuz, and outfielder Alexander Ovalles should begin in Mesa along with many other young international players. One, in particular, that intrigues me is 18 year-old Carlos Pacheco. The young outfielder hit for both power and got on base in the DSL this past summer with a .366 OBP while slugging 9 HRs in 67 games.