The Weekly: The Lame Duck Effect, Arizona Fall League Begins, and Awards Come In

By Todd Johnson

Joe Maddon’s Lame Duck Effect
Amidst all the hoopla of Chili Davis being let go as hitting coach, it got me thinking of what effect Joe Maddon’s contract is going to have on the future of the Cubs. Right now, he is only signed through 2019. And with that in mind, it’s gonna be hard to get personnel on the coaching side for just one year.

However, when it comes to free agency, I don’t think Joe’s contract is going to have much impact. Players are going to come here for the money and the culture, but mainly for the money. Their teammates will be a bigger draw than Joe would be.

Arizona Fall League Stats
The Arizona Fall League kicked off this week and several Cub players got in some action. Even though there will be a total of about 36 games, most of the position players the Cubs sent will be lucky if they see action in 20 of them. Trent Giambrone was impressive in his first turn at third base. Former Scout Bernie Pleskoff was impressed by Trent’s short, quick stroke to the ball as Trent wrapped out four singles in his debut.

Shortstop Nico Horner took a few games to shake the rust off before going three for five on Friday. Catcher Johnny Pereda went one for four and PJ Higgins was one for two with two walks. Outfielder DJ Wilson has gotten one hit in three games opening week.

As for pitching, Bailey Clark was scoreless in two innings along with fellow reliever Manny Rondon. Justin Steele got bumped around in his 1.2 innings of work as he gave up four runs. On the other hand, Erick Leal struck out three in 2.1 innings of scoreless work, although he did have to be rescued in the third.

It’s just the first week and I don’t think you want to take too much away from just a couple of games. There is a lot of baseball left to be played against quality competition. It’ll be interesting to see how they do adjust over the next few weeks. Every Sunday I will have an update, but I will be positing highlights Mondays-Saturdays on Twitter. (@CubsCentral08)

Baseball America and Pipeline Awards
Baseball America released its top 20 prospects in the Northwest League and the Cubs placed two in the top 10. Pitcher Brailyn Marquez came in at number three and outfielder Nelson Velasquez came in at number eight. I like seeing that the two 19-year-olds, who were key parts of the team, get some love. I am looking forward to seeing both at South Bend, hopefully, in 2019.

In the Arizona League, OF Cole Roederer came in at #7 while SS Luis Verdugo got a lot of love for his defense at 17 years of age. Verdugo was assigned #17. Pitcher Yovanny Cruz just missed according to BA’s Bill Mitchell.

Over at MiLB Pipeline, They released their Players of the Year for each organization. Here’s what they said about Cubs Jason Vosler and Cory Abbott.

Jason Vosler, 3B: For the second straight season, he set career highs in homers (23), extra-base hits (54) and RBIs (93), pacing the system in all three categories.
Cory Abbott, RHP: Thriving on deception, Abbott led all Cubs farmhands in ERA (2.50), hit rate (7.4 per nine innings) and strikeout rate (10.3 per nine innings).

On the 18th, Pipeline will release their All-Star teams for each system. That should be interesting to see. If I can, I will have a full post on it come Friday morning. I have Parent-Teacher Conferences Thursday night, so those come first…

Coming Up This Week
The 2018 affiliate reviews end as I look at Eugene and Mesa on Monday and Tuesday. On Thursday I’m going to put out the annual baseball cards of the year post with my top 11 cards going all the way back to spring training. It was a lot of fun to put that together!

If some other major news breaks during the day, I will probably have something on it at night. October already seems to be flying by.

Card of the Week

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The Weekly: Bryce Rumors Begin, AFL Starts This Week, Miguel Amaya News, and a Review Preview

By Todd Johnson

It only took a few hours after the Cubs lost to the Rockies for the Bryce Harper rumors to begin anew. The sports betting company Bovada put the Cubs at even money to sign Harper when free agency begins after the World Series ends. While the Cubs do have a good shot at signing the soon-to-be free agent, it is definitely not a sure thing. Although, I sure do like the Cubs chances. You can figure out who’s going to play where later.

And in other MiLB news, the Cubs will be back at Tennessee in 2019. Considering the PDC is only for two years means that the two sides are going to be working some things out between now and 2020 or the Cubs will have a new AA home in 2021.

BA League Top 20s
Baseball America continues to release it’s top 20 prospect lists in each of the minor leagues. The Cubs did not have a top 20 prospect  in either the Pacific Coast League, the Southern League, or the Carolina League. This week, the Cubs got off the schneid as catcher Miguel Amaya was named the number 12 Prospect in the Midwest League. BA described his offensive talents well:

“Amaya took a big step forward this year with his power, as he hit nine home runs and slugged .500 in the first half of the season before wearing down in the second half. Amaya does chase out of the strike zone too often and needs to improve his ability to recognize breaking balls, but he has future average or even above-average power.”

AFL Preview
The Arizona Fall League is set to begin on Wednesday Tuesday, October 9. The Cubs have a total of nine players who will be on the roster for the Mesa Solar Sox. Most of the players played their 2018 season at Myrtle Beach.

2018 first round draft pick Nico Hoerner looks to be the prospect to watch every day. It’ll be interesting to see how he does against such advanced competition after only getting in 49 at bats as a pro this summer before an elbow injury forced him to miss the last six weeks of the season at South Bend.

I’m excited to see how well several other prospects do in this advanced setting. Reliever Bailey Clark is going to be one player I will watch with great anticipation. As well, I’m curious as to how outfielder DJ Wilson will do and hopefully he can stay healthy.

According MLB Pipeline, pitcher Justin Steele might be the Cubs’ sleeper prospect. They said, 

“Steele was just starting to come into his own when he blew out his elbow in August 2017, but he returned to the mound earlier than expected (11 months later) after Tommy John surgery. He can run his fastball up to 97 mph, also can dodge bats with his curveball and has made encouraging progress with his control and command.”

Other Cubs prospects playing in the league include pitchers Erick Leal and Manny Rondon, catchers Jhonny Pereda and PJ Higgins, and 2B Trent Giambrone.

Preview of Affiliate Reviews
Starting tomorrow, I’m going to be releasing the 2018 season reviews for each of the Cubs’ stateside affiliates. I’m going to start with AAA Iowa and work my way down to South Bend this week. Next week, I will cover Eugene and the two Mesa clubs.

While the first half of each article is technically a review of the 2018 season, The second half looks at which prospects should be promoted to the next level and which prospects should be arriving from the level below. The hardest part of projecting next season squads came down to who is going to be in the rotation at each affiliate. A lot of that still has to be determined come spring training.

Card of the Week

A New Top 21 List Drops Today With a New #1

By Todd Johnson

The last time I redid the top 21 list was back in June, shortly after the draft. I waited to do the list again because I want to see how the regular season played out. I wanted to see the newest draft picks play over longer periods of time and I wanted to see some of the Cubs’ younger players in the lower minors get longer looks. I got everything I wanted, so there are no more excuses.

At one point in the last month, I thought about having a tie atop the list at number one. While I really like Miguel Amaya, he wound up catching about 80% of South Bend’s games and was just completely worn out in August and some warts in his game began to show.

I really like SS Nico Hoerner a lot, too. Watching him play at Eugene and seeing him play in person for South Bend, and on TV, I came away extremely impressed with his size, his physicality, his athleticism, and most importantly, his potential.

The differences between Amaya and Hoerner are not big. For a while, it was going to be a straight up tie.

And then all that changed.

When the Cubs announced that Nico was going to the Arizona Fall League, I perked up quite a bit. He originally could have be ready to play somewhere at the end of August/early September. I didn’t think there was a rush to send him to play in even more games in October and November. His assignment is a clear indication of the amount of faith and trust the Cubs have in this young guy. 

Miguel Amaya will slide into number two while Adbert Alzolay drops down to number three after missing most of the 2018 season.

I thought that there would be a lot of moving and shaking this year on the list and there was. Today’s list will be completely different a year from now. This past summer’s international class will get some action. Many of this year’s draft class will get to full season ball, and a lot more action will take place.

Here is the latest incarnation of the Top 21 List.

Why Cubs Central Is Not Making a New Prospect List Until the End of the Season

By Todd Johnson

Early Wednesday afternoon, MLB Pipeline released this bit of news.

“With David Bote graduating from the ‘ Top 30 Prospects list, 19-year-old RHP Jeremiah Estrada enters: http://atmlb.com/2GSeHiE “

Normally, when a prospect is certified as no longer being a prospect due to service time or at-bats, I redo my Top 21 List. Normally.

This year, every time I think about my prospect list, I tend to just stare at all the names in the spreadsheet. It is not that the names of the players are not good. The Cubs have several good prospects who can most certainly help the major league club in the near future. But that’s not the issue of why I have only redone the list once this season.

After spring training, I touched up the list a bit and then again after the draft. Those are excellent points in time to redo a list. Normally, I also touch it up during the summer after the International Free Agency signing period begins as well as after a trade.

I decided against doing the list at any and all occasions this summer. Here’s why.

1. As a teacher, I teach US History every day and one of the questions I always get asked every year is, “Why do Supreme Court Justices get to serve for life?” I tell them that the Court System is set up that way to take popular opinion about the Constitution out of the equation. A justice can’t be looking over their shoulder about a decision worrying about re-election or when their term ends. They cannot think about a decision based on political means to get elected or re-appointed. The justice has to base their ruling on how it fits the framework of the Constitution and not on a whim. I am sort of the same way. I would rather the Top 21 list reflect talent evaluation rather than performance. If I was to do the list every month or so, it wouldn’t mean as much as performance would have way more influence on a monthly list rather than on talent evaluation.

2. The Cubs’ minor league system is very deep. While the Cubs lack the elite talent they once had in 2015, I have almost 50 names on my list to ponder when it comes to picking just 21. However, there is not a lot of separation between them. Once I start getting out of the top 10, I could have 40 prospects in contention for the next ten spots. Arguments could be made for 20-30 guys for the #17 spot. It is a bit mind blowing, but it is true.

3. Change comes quickly in the minors in the second half. With all the draft picks now signed and playing, I want to see how they do over a larger sample size. This year, though, I cannot see several of them play as they are going at it in the Arizona Rookie League. I am hearing great things about Cole Roederer and Brennen Davis, but I have yet to set my own eyes on them. The shame is I probably won’t get to see them until they get to Eugene next summer or if they miraculously make it to South Bend beforehand. It is hard for me to evaluate someone very well if I haven’t seen them. I did get to see top pick Nico Hoerner for about a couple of weeks and in person. He’s very poised and polished. If not for an injury, he could have been my #1 prospect (and he still might be).

4. Doing well at the lower levels of the minors is nice for a prospect to hang their hat on, but it is not a precursor of future success nor is it a prerequisite. Some lines a friend of mine and I have been saying this summer go like this: “See me when they get to Tennessee,” and/or “Let me know when they are at Myrtle Beach.” Those levels are much more reliable in predicting a player’s ability to help the organization and in assessing their talent. I don’t want to have a list filled with 18-19 year old kids who have never seen the quality of pitchers and bats at a higher level.

5. The eye test is the best test. Just last month, I saw Brendon Little of South Bend in person just mow down guys in the Quad Cities with an ungodly breaking ball. Seeing his pitch live and the effect it has on a swing changes a lot of things. He’s making guys at low A look sick against that pitch. Just on the quality and depth he gets on one pitch, he is a top ten-ish prospect. Who cares about his 4+ ERA right now. That pitch is amazing! It could take a while for the rest of his arsenal to catch up to the quality of that one pitch. Stop scouting a stat line. Scout a player.

With all those things in mind, I am just going to wait a while to replace Bote in my list. I am just going to let the list ride until the end of the season (3+weeks). Then I will see where the prospects are at and that list will hold for quite a few months…I hope!

The Weekly: Spending a Week with South Bend and Some Random Notes

by Todd Johnson

This has been a fun week! I have been following the South Bend Cubs around the Midwest League. It started last Sunday in South Bend, continued over to the Quad Cities, and it will conclude today and tomorrow as South Bend plays at Kane County in nearby Geneva.

I took a lot of pictures and some video that I put on the Facebook account, and I have done a couple of formal interviews, one of which was published earlier in the week. However, my favorite part has just been watching the players interact with each other during warmups and the games. For the most part, I have been situated in the camera wells and the end of each dugout. Being so close, I really appreciate the day in-day out grind and work that they put in to try and accomplish their dream.

What made it more interesting is that over the course of time was that the Cubs took over the lead for a playoff spot in the Eastern Division. South Bend has plenty of good pitching, a lot of team speed, but they are only going to go as far as their hitting and their defense take them. I also got to see new players Clayton Daniel and Jake Steffens arrive about an hour before Wednesday’s game. 

Tomorrow, I will publish a prospect interview with pitcher Brendan King, who might start on the mound tomorrow night. He would be replacing Tyler Thomas in the rotation at South Bend. Later in the week I might have another interview and an article about how Cubs’ prospects are using technology to improve their performance.

As for the rest of the system…

Come Monday, short season leagues end their first half. The Mesa 1 team is going to come down to the last game tomorrow to see if they make the playoffs. They currently have a 1/2 game lead over the Diamondbacks. The Mesa 2 team has crawled back close to .500 but is showing signs of life, which portends well for the second half.

In Eugene, things changed greatly last week as most of the college draft picks made their way on the Ems’ roster. There are still a few draft picks in Mesa, but a lot of the 18 to 19-year-old kids that were playing for Eugene a month ago were shuffled back to Mesa. However, Luis Vazquez, Nelson Velasquez, Jonathan Sierra, Luis Diaz, Brailyn Marquez, and Fernando Kelli are still with the Emeralds. It’ll be interesting to see how the college dominated roster will do for Eugene in the second half which starts Tuesday.

Meanwhile, in Tennessee, the Smokies fell out of first place and are now two games back after going through some bullpen issues. In Myrtle Beach, they’ve been playing in between the raindrops only getting a few games in. Jared Young seems to be settling in and is looking more and more like a guy who could be a guy. He hit another home run this week and is now at 12 for the year. I hope that he can add about 10 pounds each of the next two years (that would put him at 200) to increase his power potential.

While Iowa has been out of the playoff hunt for a long time, it looks like Trevor Clifton is knocking on the door to Chicago very loudly. He’s been at Iowa since the first week of June. In that span, he’s put up a 3.29 ERA, and just in July, it is a minuscule 2.11. It is getting harder and harder for anyone to not see what Trevor is up to in Des Moines.

Trades

The Cubs traded South Bend pitcher Tyler Thomas this week to Texas in the Jesse Chavez deal. Thomas displayed a plus changeup and an ERA under 3.00 ERA at South Bend. While probably a reliever long term, Thomas should still get a chance to start in the Rangers’ system

Back in Action

2018 second round draft pick Brennen Davis returned to action in Arizona for Mesa 2 after missing a few weeks and was playing right alongside fellow pick Cole Roederer. Roederer is pushing the limits at Mesa and giving the Cubs a hard decision about whether to promote him to Eugene as he hitting almost .400 with an OBP over .500 and 3 dingers in 12 games.

The sad news of the week was that number one draft pick Nico Hoerner is going on the shelf for 4-6 weeks with an elbow injury that occurred last Sunday diving to make a play in South Bend. This pretty much means Hoerner is going to be out for the season. He did make a pit stop in Chicago to visit Wrigley before heading out to Mesa to begin his rehab. More than likely, Hoerner will conclude his maiden season at fall instructs in October. He should begin next year at high A Myrtle Beach.

Players of the Week

Card of the Week

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.

Random Notes from Sunday’s Action – Clifton, Hoerner, and King Impress

By Todd Johnson

Yesterday was an exciting day throughout the Cubs’ system – From the Cubs playing in San Diego all the way down to Arizona. I traveled from my home to Indiana to see South Bend play and to hang out with my friend Rikk and take some pictures. Here are some random thoughts about yesterday’s action across the system.

1. I haven’t done a lot of writing about the major league club this year, I am pretty excited about the record and standings at the All-Star break. While the Cubs are playing decent ball , Milwaukee was not as the Brewers went 2-8 over their last 10. As a result, the Cubs have a 2.5 game lead over the Brew Crew and the best record in the NL heading into the second half. If they get their starting pitching figured out, it could be a magical 10 weeks.

2. Trevor Clifton had his best start of his tenure at AAA Iowa yesterday. He only gave up two hits and walked to, but struck out six and did not allow her run in five innings. His ERA for the month is a clean 2.30. I’m excited to see him do well at this level so quickly! Should be interesting to see what happens in September if he continues this trajectory.

3. This year my wife and I broke down and bought a camera with part of our income tax refund. Yesterday, the camera made its maiden voyage to South Bend to break it in with baseball pictures. I still have a lot to learn about the settings, but I got some cool pictures of the young Cubs in action. Here is a link to the folder of all the decent pictures I took yesterday.

4. In the late morning, I had a great interview with South Bend reliever Garrett Kelly. When I get back home, I’m going to have to transcribe the interview because it was really good about how he went from being non-drafted to the Twins to Independent ball and then back to the minor leagues. That should be out Wednesday or Thursday. It might even be in two parts.

5. I tend to get a better feel for a pitcher when I see them in person. It’s hard to pick up on TV the depth that breaking pitches get and to get the full effect of how batters swing against said pitches. Yesterday, South Bend Cub pitcher Brendan King impressed me with his off speed arsenal. He was getting a lot of ugly swings as his pitches dive bombed out of the zone in the last 10 to 15 feet. Yes, he did give up a run, but those breaking pitches are very promising. I hope to interview him later this week and see what all he is throwing and how he is throwing them.

6. The main object of my attention yesterday was shortstop and first round pick Nico Hoerner. You have to be impressed by his play so far. On Sunday, he hit a home run to left center field as he went 2-for-4 on the day. In using the camera, I began to pick up or some little idiosyncrasies that showed up. One of them is, as he’s getting ready on defense for the pitch, he does this little hop to get himself ready. I also picked up that he does not use his lower half to its fullest effect yet as a hitter. That will come in due time. He is doing very well at South Bend and he should be there for this month.

I was in such a rush to get on the road to head to South Bend yesterday that I forget to post the players of the week in Sunday’s “The Weekly.” So, here they are in all of their glory.