Nelson Velazquez

The Friday Six Pack: The Eugene Emeralds – A Week In

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By Todd Johnson

The Eugene Emeralds now have a week of games in. They’ve begun going through the rotation a second time and the current crop of hitters have had a decent number of at bats. All the relievers have been in a game and hopefully some draft picks will be coming soon.

Overall, there is some definite talent to watch, and there are some players who definitely need to develop quite a bit more this season to get ready for the next level.

Here are six things happening with some Eugene Emeralds.

1. Luis Vazquez can play some serious defense in the present. Right now, his glove and legs are ahead of his arm, but you can tell that everyone on the field looks/defers to him first when it comes to a pop up, a blooper, Texas leaguer, or anything on the ground. His bat is going to lag behind for a little bit, but I am OK with that as long as his arm continues to develop over the course of the summer. Right now it’s OK, but I kind of wanna see lasers somewhere down the road. Then I remember that he’s just 18. Lasers would be a bit much. He’s a pretty fluid athlete at shortstop.

2. After experiencing South Bend for about six weeks, Nelson Velazquez was sent to Eugene for the summer. That experience had to be a good one for him at just 19-years-old even if it didn’t show up in the stats. From the looks of it, Velazquez doesn’t seem to have been phased by the experience. I like that about him. Maybe that was part of his development plan. Whatever, Velazquez hit his first home run on Tuesday night against Vancouver and it was almost all arms. I’m excited to see how he continues to do day in and day out at the plate. I have to remember to be patient with his development as it’s going to come in bits and pieces over time. It’s not going to all happen at once.

3. For now, there are a few young pitchers that I would like to see more of at Eugene. Faustino Carrera, Brailyn Marquez, and Eury Ramos all had interesting first starts. Of the three, Carrera looked the most polished. Marquez showed a lot of promise considering he was hitting 95/96 regularly. As for Ramos, I love the angle and downhill slope he gets on his fastball. He has another pitch that I am not sure what it is yet. It could be a cutter, sinker, or changeup. Whatever it is, it has some nice downward sink to it and the Hillsboro hitters really struggled with it.

4. Jonathan Sierra was the number one Cubs’ international free agent signing in 2015. He looked like a Daryl Strawberry clone back then, but not anymore. He looks like he is almost a mini-Jorge Soler. What I really like about him is that he really knows the strike zone. That’s hard to find in a 19-year-old kid. It’s only going to help him going forward. I am still waiting to see him stroke the ball with power on a daily basis. Based on his size, that’s not too far from now.

5. Like Velasquez, Jose Albertos is in Eugene as he continues to work through some of his command problems. He made his longest start of the year on Tuesday going 3.2 innings on 75 pitches. In the second and third innings, he looked like normal Jose. The fastball was sitting 95 to 97 but he was having issues with command of the curve. Sometimes it was going about 57 feet, and other times it was “just a bit outside.” He did not throw the changeup very much, and I hope that was on purpose so that he could work on his curve command. His second start will come early next week in Eugene. It’s going to be a work in progress as the Cubs try to rebuild that curve command and his confidence. The fastball was much improved since he was in South Bend. Remember, he’s just 19. In time, he will be fine.

6. Fernando Kelli has a lot of speed and can cause problems when he is on the basepaths. So far, he shown an affinity to hit the ball the other way as well as strike out. It’s going to take time as he basically skipped Mesa to come to Eugene. He’s only 19, and, like Sierra, he’s going to be one to watch grow this year. There’s a lot for him to work on this year and to adjust to in the Northwest League. To start, I am impressed with his ability go get a ball in the outfield and also to throw. I didn’t know that about him. However, he’s going to have to adjust to the fact that teams are aware of his speed. He can’t sneak up on them, some are just waiting.

I’m going to hold off on having any of these players ascend onto my Top 21 List for a while (Only Velazquez is on the list and he’s been there for 9 months). A week is not a lot of baseball for me to evaluate how the young 19-year-old kids adapt over time. I’m in no rush to place some prospect upon a throne based upon just after a one game, put labels on them after a week, or condemn them to baseball hell because of how they played the first week of  short season at 19.

Look at this line from last July…
.131 batting average
.197 OBP
.148 slugging
4 RBI in 16 games
25% K rate
That looks like a disaster, doesn’t it? Well, that was Jared Young’s first month as a pro. My friend John and I commented to each other last August how much we liked his approach and patient swing. It was going to happen for Jared and it was just a matter of time. His approach would make sure of that. And it sure did.

Patience, Padawans.

These kids have all kinds of time to grow and develop. How they are now is not how they are going to be a month, ayear, or five years from now.

This is an extremely young group of kids who are already playing at a level above most of their peers. They are going to be pretty streaky throughout the course of the season. Hopefully, the highs will outweigh the lows and they will be primed and ready to go for South Bend at the end of the year.

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Eugene’s Roster Is Ready for Opening Night…With Room for More Changes

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By Todd Johnson

At the end of spring training when I did my roster previews for each affiliate, I always do a preview of what Eugene’s preview two months down the road might look like. I was pretty close on who I thought would be on the opening day roster for the Cubs’ short season class A affiliate. However, there are always a few things I can not foresee like Delvin Zinn getting a shot to stick at South Bend.

This year, two factors are in play to affect the roster. One is that there are two Mesa teams now. And the second is that the MLB Draft was last week which allows more time this year for the picks to sign. The draft signees will trickle in and out as they ho through a short training camp in Mesa and begin to make their way up the system.

Usually, upwards of 50-60 players file through Eugene’s locker room in a year. Many go on to South Bend, but 35 are stationed in Oregon at a time. The affiliate can only have 25 activated per night (10 of which must be pitchers), but it is a good proving ground to move on to the next level and it is the beginning stop for most draft picks coming out of a 4 year college.

As of today, there are still 8 roster available out of the 35.

Who did I get right?

Most of the young Latin position players that I predicted will be at Eugene to start the year. They include Nelson Velazquez (after a month in South Bend), OF Jonathan Sierra, SS Luis Vasquez, OF Fernando Kelli, 3B Christopher Morel, and 2B Luis Diaz.

While not currently on the roster of 27, SS Nico Hoerner and other collegiate picks like 3B Luke Reynolds and 1B Tyler Durna are probably not too far behind from getting their careers started in Eugene.

Who did I miss?

By this point in the 2018 season I thought Jose Albertos would be on the verge of heading to Myrtle Beach at just 19 years old. But some issues with his fastball command and release point will have him at Eugene after opening at South Bend and then heading down to Extended Spring Training to work on that issue.

Catcher Jonathan Soto is a bit of a surprise, but according to Arizona Phil, Soto was one of the best hitters this spring. The backstop will turn 20 next month.

In addition there are several returning players. Relievers Jake Steffens and Casey Ryan along with closer Luis Aquino are back. First baseman/catcher Gustavo Polanco returns and will try to break through Eugene to make it to South Bend. It also looks like Cam Belago, who was one of the better hitters for Mesa last summer, will see some time behind the plate and at first as well.

As for the pitching…

Card made from a photo by John Arguello

It will have a distinct Latin feel for a while. Brailyn Marquez and Faustino Carrera, who both pitched at Mesa last year, are two young lefties who could not be more different. Marquez, who is just 19, has a plus fastball (95) and a plus curve that has had command issues in the past. When he’s on, he’s brilliant. Carrera can command his stuff and at 19 is a promising youngster with a plus changeup who throws in the upper 80s, low 90s.

Joining them in the rotation will be a mixture of 2018 draft picks and swingmen until the roster gets settled. It usually takes a month before things calm down. But you could see 9th round pick Derek Casey and compensation pick Paul Richan get in some starts in addition to several relievers like Riley Thompson and Ethan Roberts.

It will be interesting to watch how this team evolves over the next two months. While development is always the essential objective at this level, just as important this year will be who plays for Eugene and for how long. 

Will Nico Hoerner’s tenure as an Emerald/Monarch be something that last weeks or months? The same question holds true for Reynolds and even Jose Albertos. I have a soft spot for Jose, but he’s still only 19. He still has excellent stuff. When he leaves Eugene, Jose has to be able to command his arsenal. Whether if that’s in a month or next spring, it doesn’t matter, just as long as he does.

I am looking forward to tomorrow night!

2017 Draft Class 1 Year Later – It Could Be McLeod’s Deepest Group in Time

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By Todd Johnson

Even after just one year, it’s sometimes hard to get a good feel for a draft class until you’ve seen them play for at least a couple of years. Last year, the Cubs selected 41 players and signed 29 of them. A couple of young pitchers have yet to debut this year while 3 prospects are all the way up to high A Myrtle Beach. A large portion of the draftees are at South Bend (13) and the rest will likely play for Eugene this summer or fill in at South Bend within the next month.

While the Cubs did take a majority of pitchers last year in the draft (including two in the first round), it has been the hitters who are currently my focus on a daily basis this spring in Austin Filiere, Jared Young, and Nelson Velazquez. In addition, there are some pitchers trying to figure out whether they are going to start or relieve. Those decisions might be ongoing for a couple of years.

Next year’s grade will be more interesting and indicative of this class’ potential.

Photo by John Conover

The Big Pitching Guns

It’s a bit hit and miss so far.

Alex Lange, Keegan Thompson, and Cory Abbott have been up and down. Brendon Little is improving every start. Tyler Thomas was very good in April but seems to be inconsistent to begin May. And Brendan King is just getting to South Bend in a relief role and doing well. Rollie Lacy just made his first starts of the year for South Bend. It’ll be much easier to evaluate a year from now when these arms have 25 to 30 starts under their belt rather than five or six.

If the last few days are any indication, there’s a lot of promise. 2nd round selection Cory Abbott struck out 11 on Saturday night and 18 for the week while 3rd round pick Erich Uelmen went 12 scoreless on the week with 9 Ks.

Some Surprises

The Cubs did pick a few hitters who I really liked last year. Austin Filiere seems to have improved the most as he is hitting for average as well as drawing walks. I thought he would hit a lot more home runs but it hasn’t really heated up yet in the Midwest League. Jared Young is another impressive bat who really came on strong in August. He is one of my favorite hitters to watch in the organization because his approach is so good. The same is true of Austin Upshaw who did well at South Bend last summer. However, Upshaw is struggling in 2018 at Myrtle Beach. The approach is still there, but the results are not.

The Young Guns

Outfielder Nelson Velazquez tore it up last summer in Mesa. I thought he would begin 2018 in Eugene and I was really surprised to see him debut at South Bend the week of May 7. You can definitely see the tools and the skill set on display, but he seems to be struggling at the plate as I don’t think he has seen those types of curves or changeups before. Shortstop Luis Vazquez should also be a sight to see this summer in Eugene. He might be the best defensive shortstop in the system. If he can do anything with his bat, he should move pretty quickly with his skill set on defense. I’m looking forward to seeing Jeremiah Estrada pitch for Eugene this summer. He pitched a little bit last year in Mesa but not enough to get a good look at. This summer, seeing him on TV should be an eye-opener to see if the Cubs got a steal in the sixth round.

There are more than 10 other draft picks who make their 2018 debut later this year. That’s 1/3 of the draft class. Part of me says to give them a B and move on, but that is a lot of players who are still getting in the swing of things.

In trying to decide the grade, the one I really wanted to give was an incomplete. And that might be true for most drafts after their first year, honestly. There are many good things happening with this class and there are other picks who really haven’t even gotten going. I thought it would be unfair to the reader to get through this whole article and not even give a grade.

With that in mind, I’m going to throw out a B-. There’s no one who has gone out and consistently dominated. However, depending on how things go this year, the 2017 class could easily be an A at draft time a year from now if Little continues to improve, Lange and Thompson find some consistency, and Estrada flashes at Eugene to go along with the excellent hitting of Young, Filiere, Upshaw, and Velazquez, and the defense of Vazquez.

The Cubs took some chances in the 2017 draft and may hit on a few of them in due time. Just a year from now we’ll know a lot more. For right now, it’s a pretty promising class.

The Weekly: Big Time Pitching Fills Up the Week

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By Todd Johnson

Happy Mother’s Day!

It was a good week across the entire organization. The big league club looks like it’s beginning to put things together at the plate. Meanwhile, in the minor leagues, pitching dominated the week as three of the four affiliates had winning weeks.

It was a full week of games so several starters got in two starts. Duane Underwood dazzled in both starts. It seemed like every day someone was going six innings with several strikeouts. As a result, picking the pitcher of the week was a very hard choice.

The big news of the week came in South Bend in three parts.
1. Top 10 prospect Nelson Velazquez popped up in South Bend and immediately flashed his five tools. It is going to be a bit of adjustment for him as he probably has never seen the types of curveballs and offspeed stuff he is going to see in the Midwest League.

2. Pitcher Rollie Lacy made his first start of the year this week after dominating in the bullpen for five weeks. In fact, he made two starts. I really like watching him work as he just seems to pound the zone and keeps hitters off their toes by changing speeds. And he also misses a lot of bats (31 in 27.1 IP).

3. No sooner than I posted an article about Brendon Little did he have his best start of the year. He came out Friday night and just attacked, attacked, and attacked. While he did walk four, he struck out five as the Clinton hitters were stymied by his curve. Little only gave up two hits and looked very impressive doing so. As a result, I am excited to see how he does on Wednesday or Thursday next week – which should be his next start.

This Week’s Records
Iowa 5-2 (11-23)
Tennessee 5-2 (19-16)
Myrtle Beach 2-5 (14-22)
South Bend 4-3 (14-18)

Promotion Commotion

It is also hard to believe that the first half of the MiLB first half is now over on Tuesday the 15th. The minor league season goes by very, very quickly and we should start to see a few pitching promotions soon. I don’t expect anything major, and by major I mean a starting pitcher. It will probably be a reliever.

Dakota Mekkes is the one to watch for and the one that could impact the big league club the most. He’s just dominated the Southern League in six weeks. I don’t know what else he has left to prove. Yes, he could cut down on his walks but he can work on that at Iowa while getting that much closer to Chicago.

I don’t see a lot of player movement happening on the hitting side. 

Extended Spring Training
Cuban pitcher Raidel Orta, 22, is starting to get some more action. A little under the radar signing, he might be a bit of a break out prospect in the second half. I have yet to see him pitch, but I am looking forward to hopefully seeing him in Eugene with that talented roster. He comes in at 5’9″ and 180 lbs. Meanwhile, third baseman Christopher Morel keeps hitting dingers and shortstops Luis Diaz and Luis Vasquez keep impressing Arizona Phil in the daily updates at The Cub Reporter. Another name to keep in mind is catcher Jonathan Soto who seems to be coming up big at the most important times. Another name who could be interesting this summer is Kevn Moreno, a 3B from Cuba who sounds like he could stick in Mesa at 17-years-old.

Mock Drafts Coming In

Both Baseball America and MLB Pipeline released full first round mock drafts in the past two weeks. BA had the Cubs taking a HS catcher from Georgia while MLB Pipeline had the Cubs going with Kumar Rocker, an elite athlete and quality HS pitcher. Here is what Jim Callis said of Rocker:

Chicago has pounded college pitching in each of the last two Drafts and still could use more arms, though this time the prep route might be more attractive in the first round. A hamstring injury has slowed Rocker down the stretch, giving the Cubs an unexpected shot at a guy who can bring mid-90s heat and a wipeout slider at his best. Rodriguez and Wilcox are two more comparable options.

While Rocker would be a good selection, the Cubs are most likely to pound college bats with their first four to five picks. In positions slotted behind Rocker were some appealing college bats like Seth Beer and Steele Walker, and Prep bat Connor Scott.

What’s Ahead Next Week at Cubs Central?
On Monday, I will be examining the draft classes of the past few years and re-grading them. I don’t really have much else planned for the week other than to keep an eye on Velazquez transitioning to South Bend. 

Players of the Week

Things I Wrote for Other Sites
BP Wrigleyville
April Wrap Up

Cubs Insider
Jose Albertos
Nelson Velazquez Debut
Matt Swarmer
Draft Primer
Relievers

Baseball Card of the Week

Nelson Velazquez Makes His South Bend Debut and Flashes His Five Tools

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By Todd Johnson

I about had a heart attack when I saw this tweet about 5:30 on Tuesday.

Needless to say, I ate my gyro and salad in a hurry so that I could sit and watch his debut. This would be my first time seeing Velazquez play live. I was expecting him to debut in Eugene next month after suffering an injury at the end of spring training. The 19-year-old came across with some impressive skills in the field, at the plate, and on the basepaths, all in one night.

In his first at-bat, he looked good laying off some pitches before he doubled on a curve down and in. He seemed to just flick his wrists as he sped down the line and on to second as the ball took a funny hop off the side wall. He wound up stranded at third despite leading off.

In the top of the third, he caught a fly to right and showed off a canon for an arm on a throw to third. He didn’t get the runner as it was off a bit, but impressive nonetheless.

The knock on Velazquez heading into this year was he struck out a lot. In the regular season, his K% while in Mesa was at 30%. In the playoffs, it was almost at 50% even though he hit 2 HRs, drove in 9, while hitting .304 with a .385 OBP in 5 games leading the Cubs to a championship.

Last night, he looked very much in charge of his own swing.

In his second at-bat, he worked the count after being down 0-2. He laid off a couple of curves and recognized the ball spin quickly and tracked the ball on its path to a conclusion. He ultimately hit a high popup deep into right center, but the approach was excellent. That’s a good sign!

In the bottom of the sixth, Velazquez came up for the third time. The 6’2″ 200 lb. right-handed hitting outfielder quickly fell behind 0-2 swinging at two fastballs in the zone. He laid off the curve for ball one. Then he got called out on strikes as the pitcher painted the outside corner with a fastball.

While he did not get a hit, his approach was good.

When Velazquez came up in the bottom of the 8th, men were on first and second with one out. He swung mightily at the first pitch and shattered his bat on the second. He watched a slider go by and then he got caught looking at a fastball low and away again. South Bend announcer Darin Pritchet quipped that Velazquez might have been looking for a breaking ball. Regardless, Velazquez needs to either go the other way with that type of pitch or learn to foul it off.

Overall, Velazquez is very raw. It is evident that he has a lot of tools – arm, glove, speed, bat, and power. Although he did not go yard, going 1-for-4 with a 2B and 2 Ks is alright for a debut at low class A at the age of 19. It is going to be up to Manager Jimmy Gonzalez and his staff to help polish those skills over the course of this summer. Gonzalez has excelled in improving pitch recognition and game decisions with many young Cub prospects the past couple of years.

At the plate, Velazquez is going to face pitchers and pitches he is not accustomed to seeing. He should be one of the most interesting follows as he uses his talented set of tools to learn to adjust and adjust again and again. I already can’t wait for tomorrow’s game!

The Weekly – Things Warming Up for Cub Affiliates as Well as the Draft

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By Todd Johnson

It warmed up a little this week. There were still some raindrops to play through as all four affiliates got six games in. There were some exciting daily performances from Jeffrey Baez, Cory Abbott, Rollie Lacy, and Bailey Clark. Still, as a whole, it seems most teams can’t get in a groove. It might be the weather, or it might not. It’s also time to see some promotions coming down the pike. Most likely, relievers might be moving around the system.

Iowa (0-6, 4-16)
They are struggling to put runs on the board and to hold leads in the bullpen. Zagunis, Davis, and Rademacher are all hitting well, but that’s it. Duane Underwood has a great start this week and Dillon Maples was just plain deadly on Friday as he struck out all four batters he faced. And they all looked silly trying to hit his slider.

Tennessee (2-4, 10-11)
Jeffrey Baez played like his hair was on fire this week going 8 for 16 with 2 HRs and 7 RBI. Trevor Clifton looked good again on Friday and rebounded nicely to go five strong after a rough first inning. Thomas Hatch continues to get better every start and Daury Torrez should be at Iowa as he is unhittable. The same holds true for Dakota Mekkes who has yet to allow a run all month. Trent Giambrone and Trey Martin were pretty handy with the stick, too, as they pushed their averages over .300. Duncan Robinson also had a very good outing last night, too. He went 6 innings, 0 ER, and struck out 6.`

Myrtle Beach (3-3, 8-15)
They are starting to show some signs of life. Alex Lange, Matt Swarmer, and Keegan Thompson all put together some great starts this week. Lange just overpowered Salem last night.  The Pelicans just need some consistency at the plate. No one seems to be clicking right now in the batter’s box.

South Bend (2-4, 9-10)
At home, they are almost invincible. On the road, not so much. On Wednesday, they put up 17 runs in a hit fest at Bowling Green. However, it is the pitching that is just outstanding. Cory Abbott,  Tyler Thomas, and Javier Assad were all great this week and Rollie Lacy and Bailey Clark were just stupendous out of the pen. Austin Filiere is now over .300 and Brendon Little made it past the third inning in his last outing. I am really digging Little’s improvement from start to start. Kudos go out to him and pitching coach Brian Lawrence for the noticeable differences in pitchability.

Extended Spring Training
Nelson Velazquez is back and he went 2 for 3 with 2 doubles and 2 RBI in his return. Cannot wait to see him in Eugene in six weeks. Pitchers Jeremiah Estrada and Brailyn Marquez, who both should anchor Eugene’s rotation, threw 2 scoreless innings apiece this week. In addition, Cuban catcher Alexander Guerra seems to be rounding into shape as he is now hitting with regularity including some power. This week he did go yard. And one of my favorite draft picks from last year, Luis Vazquez, is doing very well with the bat. Yesterday, he went 2 for 3.

Draft News
The MLB draft is 5 weeks from tomorrow. This week, MLB Pipeline released its top 100 draft prospects. At first, I wanted to write a full blown article about the rankings. I decided against that as I am off to the State History Fair in Springfield this week and there’s no time or space to do so. Here is who Pipeline ranked at each of the five spots the Cubs pick in the top 100. That doesn’t mean they will be there when the Cubs pick, but the rankings are interesting for value perception of who could possible be there.

24 – Trevor Lanarch – I like the 6’4” lefty OF from OSU. He has dramatically improved this year.  two or three years down the road, he could be a power bat that hits 20-25 HRs a year.

62  – Zach Watson – OF – LSU -A speedster, he covers good ground at a premium position. At 6’1” and 165 lbs, he has a lot of filling in to do.

77 – Kyle Isbel – OF/2B – UNLV – His versatility is interesting. He can definitely hit. If he’s a 2B, his value skyrockets as he does have some power.

78 – Jeremiah Jackson – SS – A high school player from Alabama, he has good size (and is not done growing) and he could have some power down the road. He already has a good feel for the zone and that bodes well for the MIssissippi State commit.

98 – Grant Lavigne – 1B – He has a big frame that already has big power. The only concern is that New Hampshire is not a baseball hotbed and that he has not faced elite competition.

I will be back with a full fledged draft post on Monday May 7th with my top 5 players to select at #24.

Players of the Week

Things I Wrote for Other Sites This Week
BP Wrigleyville
Latin Infusion: Part 2 – The Hitters

Cubs Insider
Draft Primer: College Pitchers

Coming Up Next Week
While I will be out of town for a few days in Springfield, I have two posts all ready to go. On Tuesday, the April All-Star team will be released. A few surprises made the list. There are a couple of things that still need to be determined. A couple of starting pitchers could make their way onto the list with good performances today and tomorrow. On Wednesday, the Cards of the Month make their way into the light. I could have easily done a top 15 list without much effort, the pics were so good this month!

Baseball Card of the Week
Check out the monthly album for April on our Facebook account.

*Photo by John Conover

The Annual Preview of a Preview: The Ems Are Just Loaded for 2018

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By Todd Johnson

 

Every year, I look forward to the Eugene Emeralds’ season with great anticipation. This year is no different. And, like every year, I do a preview of the team two months before they begin play. It’s kind of my thing. What is different about this year is the number of elite prospects that could be headed Eugene’s way.

Normally, the Eugene roster is a mix of young international players and recent college draft picks. This year’s team has some highly anticipated players who won a championship in Mesa and who dominated in the Dominican Summer League in 2017. A few of the players were selected in the draft out of high school; they’ve been the exception rather than the norm the last few years.

Let’s take a sneak peek at who might be playing in PK Park this summer.

The Rockstar Outfield
19-year-old Fernando Kelli made a sensation last summer in the Dominican Summer League when he stole 58 bases and had an on base percentage of .437. He has mad speed and will be fun to watch once he gets on base. Another 19-year-old outfielder for Eugene should be Nelson Velasquez. In just a six week span in 2017, he hit eight home runs over six weeks last summer at Mesa in helping to lead Mesa to an Arizona Rookie League championship. While he does need to cut down on the strikeouts, Velasquez is pure power.

Two other outfielders that could see plenty of time in the field and at DH are Jonathan Sierra and Jose Gutierrez. Both played with Velasquez last year in Mesa. Sierra looked like Darryl Strawberry when the Cubs signed him in 2015 as a 16-year-old. He’s filled out quite a bit since but is still working on his hitting after two full seasons between the Dominican and at Mesa. He’s an outstanding defender with the potential for immense power. As for Gutierrez, he really turned it on in the second half of 2017 as the leadoff man for Mesa and was one of the reasons they were able to score a lot of runs down the stretch to win the title.

A Young and Athletic Infield
The Cubs liked Delvin Zinn so much, they selected him twice; once in 2015 and then again in 2016. Zinn is one of the most athletic players in the system and should be at second base. Playing beside him will be one of my favorite young players to watch this year in Luis Vazquez. The first thing you notice about Luis is he is a tall, rangy shortstop who patrols the left side of the diamond like a panther. Not much gets by him. His bat is going to need some work. So, Emeralds’ fans need to be a bit patient with him. 2B Christian Donahue, who attended Oregon State, but was not drafted, could be a part of the Ems squad this year as well.

Any number of players could fill in at first including Fidel Mejia and if 1B Luis Hidalgo does not make it to South Bend, and is healthy, he could destroy NWL pitching just as he did in the AZL and DSL last summer. 18-year-old shortstop Luis Diaz could also could back up Vazquez and Zinn.  The powerful Christopher Morel should be at 3B. He has immense power but is still working on hitting offspeed stuff.

Very Young Pitching
Like last year, Eugene is going to have a lot of 18 to 19-year-old pitchers. The most prominent name on the list is Jeremiah Estrada, who the Cubs picked up in the 2017 draft after they talked him out of going to UCLA. He can throw in the low to mid 90s and has a plus-plus changeup.

In addition, youngsters Danis Correa, Brailyn Marquez, Emilio Ferrebus, and Didier Vargas will be competing for spots in extended spring training.

Card made from a photo by John Arguello

Correa, 18, is from Columbia and can throw in the mid to upper 90s. He saw a little time in the states last year at Mesa and seemed to hold his own. Marquez, also 19, is a 6’5″ lefty who misses a lot of bats and at times, the strike zone. Marquez played at Mesa last summer and drew raves at times for his talent; and other times he struggled to find the plate. Ferrebus, who just turned 20, held his own last year in two leagues and started in the playoffs for Mesa. Didier Vargas is another 19-year-old who did very well in the Dominican Summer League with an ERA of under one for the summer.

One player who I cannot wait to see pitch is Jesus Tejada. The 6’2″ righty had a ERA of under two in August in the Dominican, and he also threw a no-hitter. He is one of the top pitchers on the rise in the Cubs system. My hope is that he makes the squad.

Faustino Carrera is another 19-year-old lefty who does have command and can put the ball where he wants it. Unlike Marquez, Carrera sits in the low 90s.

One pitcher that will be hard to miss is 6’8″ Stephen Ridings, a 2016 draft pick out of Haverford.  Last year was his first as a Cub and he improved as the season progressed at Mesa. He can start or relieve.

Add in 5 draft picks from the top 98 picks in this year’s draft and that’s a ton of talent.

It’ll be interesting to see how this extremely young group of players develops in extended spring training the next two months. Most of them should make the Emeralds, a few might make it to South Bend, and a few might stay in Mesa. No matter who makes it, it’s gonna be very exciting to watch them grow and develop every night.

In addition, here are two things to take note of this summer:
1. For every Tuesday home game this summer, the Ems will transform into the Monarcas de Eugene as part of MLB’s Copa de la Diversion.

2. The Cubs now have two teams in the Arizona Rookie League. This will create a lot of playing time for a lot of young players. It will also make it harder to get to Eugene as there will be a lot of competition to do so.