Oscar De la Cruz
By Todd Johnson
How quickly things can change. What happens in April doesn’t always happen in May and some players who got off to slow starts are now starting to turn it on. That includes hitters, starters, and relievers. Here are a few players who are off to sizzling starts in May.
Iowa – David Bote returned from Chicago and just killed it going 17 for 34 with a couple of home runs and 8 RBI. He was in Chicago yesterday and ripped a 2-run pinch hit double in the third for the Cubs. In addition, Randy Rosario still has not given up a run this year. And Duane Underwood again flashed his promise by going 7 innings with 7 Ks and not allowing a run. Underwood seems to have some sort of Jekyll and Hyde thing going on this year. Hopefully, his next start will be reminiscent of his last.
Tennessee – Charcer Burks did not have a good April hitting .151. However, his May has been scintillating. He’s gone 10 for 27 (.370) with one home run. His teammate, shortstop Zack Short, has displayed a bit more power. In 8 days, Short has posted an OPS of 1.386 and he has seen his batting average rise 34 points in 6 games. He’s hitting .333 this month, mostly in the second spot in the batting order.
Oscar de la Cruz also had a dominating first start in striking out 10 in 5.2 IP while Trevor Clifton rebounded from a poor start on the 2nd (2 ER in 0.2 IP on 40 pitches) to to strike out 9 in 6 IP on the 7th in 6 innings of 1 hit ball.
Myrtle Beach – Connor Myers has never really hit for average. What has allowed him to stay in the system has been an outstanding defensive and baserunning skill set. But to begin May, Myers has been fantastic and looks to be a different hitter as he is at .296 for the month. I asked Pelicans announcers Scott Kornberg what’s been the key to Myers ascension this month. Scott quipped:
It’s really amazing! He has talked a lot about more bat control and having a better plan at the plate. And his walk rate is double what it was last year, and also he’s swinging and missing about five percent less. And on that note about bat control, his line drive rate is actually the second-best mark in the league
On the mound, Matt Swarmer has been enlightening. After winning pitcher of the month for April, he began May in the same fashion going 6.2 innings with 7 Ks and no runs.
South Bend – It took Jared Young a couple of games to heat up once he returned from the DL. But once he started hitting, the South Bend Cubs started winning again. Add in the fact that leadoff man, Roberto Caro, seems to be playing with his hair on fire this month. The 24-year-old outfielder from the Dominican has bounced around the system the past three seasons between Myrtle Beach and South Bend. Caro could be putting a statement on this year as he is currently hitting over .400 from the leadoff spot in 16 games.
Tomorrow, I will be discussing the maturation of Brendon Little during his first month for South Bend. And, on Friday, the six pack looks at relievers around the minors who might get promoted in the next few weeks.
Days left to teach for me…now down to 11.
By Todd Johnson
It is not uncommon for a top prospect to have a rough stretch of baseball. At each level in the minors, there’s a new period of adjustment. Current Myrtle Beach Pelican Austin Upshaw put it best last year about the difference at each level: “Everyone’s just a little more polished.”
Some of the Cubs’ most elite prospects are having a rough time to start the year. Part of it could be physical. Part of it could be mental. And part of it might be they just need to be a little more polished themselves.
At AA Tennessee
Zack Short – Currently, he is hitting .155 and .086 in his last ten games. However, he is still walking a lot – close to 25%. The problem is 28 Ks in 16 games. As he adjusts, the K rate should shrink, his power should return, and he will continue to walk. He has never been a big average guy. Even .250 would be fine as much as he walks. He was moved down in the order this week so that should help to take some pressure off of him.
Oscar de la Cruz – He is not fooling anybody this year with a 9.82 ERA. He is leaving the ball up in the zone and has been getting hit hard with batting average against at .339. In 3 starts, he has been rocked. In one start, he was outstanding with 6 Ks and 0 runs in 6 innings. Adjusting to a 5 day routine is big for someone who has never pitched 100 innings in a single season. His May should be worth watching as he continues to adjust.
At Myrtle Beach
Austin Upshaw – It has not been a good start for one of my favorite prospects from last year’s draft. I am actually stunned. The 21-year-old infielder is currently batting .171. Then again, he is starting show some signs of life. In his last two games, he’s 3 for 6 with a HR and 3 RBI. He is back to playing 1B after spending several games at third where he made 3 errors in 6 games. His approach is too good to be down for too long.
At South Bend
Jose Albertos – He looks a little slimmed down from last season. He also doesn’t look like the same pitcher I watched last summer at Eugene. His windup, delivery, and even the ball coming out of his hand all look the same. But the results are not good. Albertos has made 3 starts. He has not been productive in any of them. His first start was a 1 inning affair where he threw 30 pitches in the first inning, with 15 for strikes. He struggled mightily with fastball command.
In his second start, he was looking good for two outs and was one pitch away from getting out of the inning and then the wheels fell off as he gave up 2 runs in 2 innings on 40 pitches, only 21 strikes. His third start was yesterday. His strike rate for the day was just 40% as he gave up 8 runs, 6 of them earned. He was pulled with no outs in the second after 51 pitches. That is just not sustainable.
I would not be surprised to him head back to Mesa and extended spring training to rebuild his release point on his fastball and to get his confidence back. Without his fastball, he has nothing to pitch off of. And right now, he has to get that back. He could stay in South Bend and try and work it out in the Midwest League. However, the bullpen is just getting worn out covering the rest of the games. Luckily, yesterday was a doubleheader that only required five more innings after he left in the top of the second with nobody out.
Brendon Little – Unlike everyone else, I think Little is closet to putting it together. Each outing has been better than the one before. He has a beautiful curve and a developing change. But, like Albertos, without fastball command, he is not going to be very good. Well, he is getting it. On Sunday, I really liked his performance as he went 4.2 innings in the longest outing of his Cubs career. One player ate him alive with 2 dingers. Other than that guy, he only gave up 2 other hits on the day and allowed just 1 other run. He will be fine in time. The more he pitches, the better he will improve. And, he could improve rapidly.
I would not panic about any of these guys.
Sometimes, it just takes time to get a little more polished.
By Todd Johnson
Congratulations to David Bote who made his MLB debut last night in Colorado. Bote batted eighth and played third base. He went 1 for 3 with a double.
Here he is through the years at every level in the minors.
His story is a story of perseverance. Revisit his Leveling Up post from this winter.
Back to the Minors…
Now that the weather seems to have cleared, there’s a lot more baseball being played especially in the Midwest and the Pacific Coast Leagues. Cub prospects are beginning to get in grooves and improve their stock in the organization. It’s been fun watching most of the teams play and see how they are progressing. It is only April, but there are a few players who are all already worth watching and keeping an eye on.
Who To Watch for at Each Affiliate
Iowa – 2-4 on the week, overall 4-10
Mark Zagunis seems to be the only bat that was hot this week. Bijan Rademacher, who leads Iowa in batting average, missed a few games. As for the pitching, Adbert Alzolay made his first start and dazzled in a two-hitter. Otherwise, Rob Zastryzny, Michael Roth, and Randy Rosario have all been outstanding out of the pen. I’m really happy that Zastryzny seems to have righted the ship and is off to a good beginning – no runs in 8.2 IP with 8 Ks.
Tennessee – 5-1 on the week, overall 8-7
The Smokies are turning into my “go-to” team every day, mainly because every team in the Southern League has MiLB.TV. Still, there’s a lot here to watch. The starting pitching of Trevor Clifton, Michael Rucker, Duncan Robinson, Thomas Hatch, and now Oscar de la Cruz are all pitching well. Both Clifton and de la Cruz did not allow a run in their first starts of the week. Outfielders Trey Martin and Jeffrey Baez lead the team in average. Zack Short is making an impact at the plate despite an average just above .200 because his OBP is almost .400. As for the bullpen, Dakota Mekkes has yet to give up a run, even though he is still walking almost a batter an inning. If he could eliminate his walks, he could be in Iowa before June.
Myrtle Beach– 3-4 on the week, overall 5-12
It has been just a horrible, horrible start for the Pelicans. All three facets of the game have not been working. However, there have been a couple of bright spots. Kevonte Mitchell, who is now injured, had been outstanding at the plate (.306). Andruw Monasterio is having the quietest season of any Cub prospect as he keeps his average over .300. On the mound, Alex Lange was impressive in his first two starts and Keegan Thompson showed signs of massive improvement this week as he went 5 innings with no runs and 4 Ks. Another glimmer of hope took place this week as Bryan Hudson had an excellent start this week going 5 IP with 7 Ks and only allowing 1 run. Jhon Romero and Tyler Peyton are both throwing great out of the pen along with Wyatt Short, who has yet to allow a run in 4 appearances. That effort is reminiscent of when Short did not allow a run the entire season at Eugene in 2016.
South Bend – 1-4 on the week, overall 7-6
The Cubs have been up-and-down. They got off to a good start at 6-2 and their bats hit a rough patch. At the same time, the young Cubs are struggling to field the ball properly and make plays in the infield. Meanwhile, Jared Young (who just went on the DL), Austin Filiere, and Yeiler Peguero have been impressive at the plate. Javier Assad, Bailey Clark, Rollie Lacy, Tyler Thomas and Cory Abbott are all starting to round in shape. If Jose Albertos can get his fastball command down, this team could really take off. The bullpen has been lights out and rarely surrenders a run.
Players of the Week
There were a lot of performances to pick from this week, especially starting pitching.
Things I Wrote for Other Sites This Week
Latin Infusion Coming North – The Pitchers
Coming Up Next Week
I’m going to start a new feature for Wednesdays called “The Mid Weekly.” It will sum up MiLB action for Sundays, Mondays, and Tuesdays. I am still checking out draft stuff on the side, but I won’t return with a “Draft Prep” post until May 7. Several mock drafts came out in the past two weeks. Players are all over the place – there’s not a lot of consensus.
Baseball Card of the Week
I made a lot of new baseball cards you can see in an album over on the Facebook account. I am closing in on 130 cards made just this April. I have a problem…I think…Yes, I do.
Made from a photo by Dylan Heuer
By Todd Johnson
Originally, I wrote a six-pack post for today about how the Cubs’ system in going to change over the next 6-10 weeks. That post is going to have to wait for another day. Instead, Oscar de la Cruz is going to get some pub.
1. Oscar de la Cruz’s first two starts of 2018 could best be described as really, really bad. With an ERA of over 16, hitters were hitting .452 against him. The Cubs Director of Player Development prophetically expressed confidence in Oscar’s ability to adjust to being at AA Tennessee earlier in the week on Baseball America.
2. In his third start of the year for the Tennessee Smokies, Oscar got off to a bit of a rough start. Despite squaring up the ball solidly in the ball in the first, the Montgomery Biscuits were only able get a runner on via an error. Catcher Erick Castillo helped by throwing out that runner on an attempted steal. Even though Oscar only threw seven pitches in the inning, it was far from smooth as he lacked fastball command.
3. Oscar gave up a walk in the second, but he continued to throw mainly fastballs. The hard hit balls of the first inning began to disappear as he got his first strike out. He looked a little more comfortable the more pitches he threw. He was at 25 pitches through two innings.
4. The third and fourth innings were wonderful and he looked great as Oscar began to work in his curve the second time through the Biscuits’ order. He did give up a single in the third and then hit a guy in the fourth, but Oscar was looking very efficient on 55 pitches at that point. I did not get a lot of velocity readings but I did hear 92 a couple of times along with 93.
5. In the fifth, he threw 15 more pitches with 2 strikeouts as his curve looked beautiful in a nice 12-6 shape. Only facing three batters, he got them all out but each count began to go deeper. He was now at 70 pitches. I thought he might be done as a precaution.
6. I was wrong and I was glad I was wrong. de la Cruz came out in the 6th and used 12 pitches to get three quick outs. That inning saw Oscar attack the zone and his approach was very reminiscent of “2015 Oscar” when he was at Eugene and struck out 73 in 73 innings. He just attacked the zone and dared hitters to hit strikes.
For the night, he went 6 IP with 6 Ks. He gave up one hit, walked one, and hit one. Overall, it was a pretty stress free night.
What impressed me most was how much de la Cruz improved over the course of the game. The pitcher in the first was not the same pitcher in the sixth. Sixth inning Oscar de la Cruz was humming strikes down in the zone and rolling breaking balls off a table. He didn’t really throw his changeup much, but he did not need it.
As a result, the former overall #1 prospect in the Cubs’ system dispelled any scuttlebutt that something was wrong with him or that he did not belong at AA. Now, he needs to build on his success from last night and continue to refine his fastball command and throw his changeup a bit more to make him a complete pitcher.
It is going to be fun to watch.
By Todd Johnson
The relationship between the Chicago Cubs and the Myrtle Beach Pelicans seems to be working out just fine. In the three years the affiliate has been in the Cubs’ system, the Pelicans won two Mills Cup Championships and made a third playoff appearance. Can the Pelicans make it back to the Mills Cup Championship Series for a fourth straight year? I think the odds are very good, but everything has to come together perfectly.
What Needs to Happen
One Good Half: Two years ago, most of the 2018 Pelicans’ roster was part of a team that dominated the short season Northwest League. Last year, several players from that team moved quickly but some of the pitchers seemed to struggle in full season ball at South Bend. For the Pelicans to make it to the playoffs, they have to win a first half title or a second-half spot. And, in a 10 team league, it seems a little bit easier to make the postseason if you get hot for a little bit. That’s what happened last year in Myrtle Beach as the Pelicans were a destructive force in May and June. This year, there are a few key factors that will determine if the Pelicans can get back to the promised land.
It all starts with pitching. Starting pitching and relieving all have to be good. Considering the current backlog of prospects in the organization, most players are not going to be going promoted to AA Tennessee unless they have a completely dominant first half.
To begin, 2017 draft pick Alex Lange should be a great watch every sixth night for a couple of months. He has a devastating curve and, when his fastball command is on, he’s so hard to hit. The issue is if he can develop a change to go with his other two pitches. If he can, he is gone to Tennessee by mid season. One aspect of Lange’s personality that I love is his competitive fire. He has a burning to desire to win and also to dominate. His only issue this year could be overthrowing.
Jose Paulino is a 22-year-old lefty who struggled in the first half of 2017 at South Bend after dominating the Northwest League in 2016. He rebounded to pitch well in July and August and playing at Myrtle Beach will only help him as long as he stays aggressive in the zone. He put together a great spring and I’m excited to watch him go at it in a pitcher’s park in Myrtle Beach.
Fourth round pick Keegan Thompson will make the rotation and actually pitch opening night. He has great command of all his pitches and works off a 91-93 mph fastball. As for Erling Moreno (who is injured), Tyson Miller, Matt Swarmer, and Bryan Hudson, they need to stay healthy and need to stay consistent from inning to inning.
Catcher PJ Higgins is returning to Myrtle Beach and he should provide excellent leadership for the young pitchers. Jhonny Perada, who has been nailing runners at second like crazy in spring training, could be one of the most improved players this year.
Even though the Pelicans are a level higher than South Bend, they have the youngest average age of any of the affiliates this year. Maturity was a factor last year for some of this team at South Bend at the end of the first half. They made a push in August but fell a little short to get into the Midwest League playoffs. Another year older, they should also be another year wiser.
It looks as though 1B Tyler Alamo, who was very good in the second half last year (.306 with 5 HRs), will return and begin 2018 in Myrtle Beach. His maturity and leadership can only help these young guys.
I often refer to Wladimir Galindo as “my guy.” He is still rather young but this guy can just put the barrel the bat on the ball and drive it places at will. The issue is that he has to stay healthy. He has yet to play a full season without going on the DL. He missed most of last year with a broken foot. As soon as he hit the ground in spring training this year, he started hitting and hitting well.
The Blossoming of Austin Upshaw
Everyone that watches Austin Upshaw plays comes away very impressed. This kid can flat out rake. There is some potential for potential for power there, too, but that will come in due time. I also like that he can play three infield positions (1B, 2B, and 3B) well. If all goes well, he might not be at the Beach very long.
While the Cubs don’t have any top 100 prospects, there are three players who should be at Myrtle Beach this year who could be big talents in the organization fairly quickly with a breakout season.
Shortstop Aramis Ademan is already a top four prospect in the system but still needs to develop his bat some more. Defensively, he’s pretty good with his feet and his arm is very good. While he can turn on a fastball, he struggled a bit at the plate in his short tenure at South Bend. He’s still only 19 and should be a Pelican all year.
Outfielder DJ Wilson is an elite athletic talent who has yet to hit with any consistency. He has elite defensive skills and the potential for power, as he showed last summer when he was the Cubs’ July player of the month.
The guy I am looking most forward to seeing this year is Kevonte Mitchell. He is turning into a physical beast. Last time I saw him in person in was at Beloit, he looked Hulk-like and was tracking the ball well. Hopefully this year that pays off with a 20 home run season.
It’ll be interesting to see how this team looks at the end of the first half. If they can get it going on the mound, these young position players can score runs in bunches. They just need to be more consistent on a daily basis.
Other Affiliate Previews
By Todd Johnson
Last year’s Tennessee Smokies looked to be on the verge of a trip to the playoffs in late May before a collapse in early June. This year’s team should be comprised of talented prospects who could help the Smokies return to the playoffs for the first time since 2011. An elite pitching rotation will set the foundation and a couple of possible power bats could put them over the edge.
Here are 10 things I think will help the Smokies get back to the playoffs:
1. Starting Pitching – With Thomas Hatch, Adbert Alzolay, Trevor Clifton, Duncan Robinson, Oscar de la Cruz, and Michael Rucker, the Smokies have some guys who have the potential to get a lot of outs. Five of the six were teammates last year at Myrtle Beach for a short time.
I’m looking forward to see how well Trevor Clifton begins the year along with Thomas Hatch. I still think that Robinson is going to surprise even more people along with Rucker this year – They can really put the ball where they want in the zone.
As for Oscar de la Cruz, he just needs to stay healthy.
2. Time – This is going to be a team that’s going to have to have plenty of time to play at this level. The fact that there are very few prospects at Iowa who could make their way to Chicago this year, there’s really no place for the Smokies to go, at least in the first half.
3. Staying Healthy – It is said all the time, but it’s really an understatement of how much health plays a factor in a prospect’s career. For Oscar, he has not topped 73 IP in a season the past three summers.
4. Bouncing Back – For some of these players, a poor second half in 2017 was hopefully just an aberration on their road to the majors. While Trevor Clifton stands out as a prospect who needs to bounce back, Jake Stinnett is another arm whose career might take off in the bullpen. Zach Hedges even looks like he will be in Kodak again. Hedges just needs to get over the AAA hump as he does do well in AA (2.47 ERA in 2016, 3.49 in 2017) in a starting role. He pitched in relief in big league games this spring.
5. Who Comes Up – Alex Lange is going to be knocking on the door fairly quickly to come to Tennessee. The right hander’s curve might be a little overpowering for the class A Carolina League. The only issue is whether he can develop a third pitch. If he can, he could be in Kodak by the end of May.
6. Impact Bats – It looks like Ian Rice is going to begin the year Tennessee. If he does, I feel sorry for Southern League pitchers. Shortstop Zack Short is another bat who has power and plate discipline. I think this is the year that Eddy Martinez really takes off. Eddy had a great second half at Myrtle Beach hitting over .270 with 6 home runs. The Southern League is a bit more hitter friendly and should be for Martinez. Jason Vosler, Charcer Burks, and Yasiel Balaguert return as a result of a roster pinch at Iowa and they could all provide a lot of power.
7. Defense – The players that were Pelicans last year had some defensive issues down the stretch. Those need to be improved if some of the players plan on moving on to Iowa. Then again, Trey Martin is back and, when he plays, he can get most everything hit his way in the outfield.
8. Bullpen – This is really the strength of the team. There are a lot of power arms and a lot of guys who have wiffleball repertoires. They could turn every Southern League game into a five or six inning affair. With Jake Stinnett, Scott Effross, Preston Morrison, James Norwood, Dakota Mekkes, and Tommy Nance, they’re going to be a lot of disappointed bats at the end of games.
9. Beat Chattanooga – The Twins AA affiliate will be the team to beat. For the Smokies to make it to the postseason, they have to get past Chattanooga.
10. Attrition – Last year, manager Mark Johnson had to deal with a lot of attrition from players moving up, players getting injured, and players who were burnt out. This year, there’s a little bit more depth in the bullpen and position players in the system that should stave that off. WIth 7 or 8 guys who can start on the mound, the Smokies should be good to go.
Bonus: First Prospect to Iowa
It has to be Mekkes. He’s just a stud and so hard to hit. If he can keep his walks down, he’s not going to be around the minors very long. Considering the strength of the bullpen at Tennessee, they will be just fine.
It should be an exciting year to watch these Smokies develop.
By Todd Johnson
The first half of the minor-league baseball season in 2018 should be very interesting. There are a lot of great storylines to follow. There should be prospects making comebacks, prospects breaking out, and prospects solidifying their place and value in the organization. Then again, who knows what could happen. That’s really the case every year. There are always surprises and that’s one reason why I like covering the minor leagues.
For this year’s Preseason First Half All-Star Team, it is a mixture of prospects up and down the system. With only four affiliates playing until the middle of June, it limits who can be on it. So, there will be no Nelson Velasquez, Luis Vazquez, Fernando Kelli, or Jeremiah Estrada.
Myrtle Beach (10) and Tennessee (7) have the most prospects on the team, Iowa (5) and South Bend (5) have the fewest all stars on this year’s team.
This year, my breakout prospects of the first half will be at South Bend. I really like Austin Filiere. He has a great eye at the plate and can hit some dingers. He did spend most of the spring playing first base after playing third-base most of his college career and at Eugene.
I think this is the year that reliever Tyler Peyton turns it on. The former Iowa starter improved every month last year at South Bend. By the end of the season, he was throwing darts all August (1.29 ERA). My runner-up was one of my favorite players to talk to last year in Chad Hockin, who should be at Myrtle Beach.
My break out starting pitcher is going to be Erich Uelmen. He didn’t see a lot of time last year at Eugene after being drafted. In fact he didn’t make one start, he only pitched 17.2 IP in relief. This year, he will be given the opportunity to start and I think we are going to like what we see as he has pretty good control and command and somewhat sidearm slot.
In addition, I have three guys I am picking to be come back players of the year. One of my all-time favorite Cubs prospects is catcher Will Remillard. He returned late last summer from two Tommy John surgeries and was outstanding at Eugene. Reliever Jake Stinnett will be back this year to try his hand at the bullpen full-time. I think this is where his calling is going to be.
As for a starting pitching coming back, Oscar de la Cruz looked great in spring training. Hopefully he can get back and get over 100 innings in this year to strengthen up his arm. It was a close contest between de la Cruz and Trevor Clifton, who I think is going to return to form this year as well.
So without further adieu, roll film.