Oscar De la Cruz
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.
By Todd Johnson
Part of me did not want to do this post. I thought to myself that the changes were so minute that they would be hardly noticeable. I thought that I could probably hold out another two months until early June before I redid it. That way, there would be two months of performance on which to make adjustments. And I started thinking again… “But if I do it in early June, I’ll just have to redo it again after the draft…and then again in early July after international free agency begins.” This will be a never ending crusade because it’s never complete, but that’s the fun inherit in constantly evaluating the organization.
The biggest reason for updating the list has been the play of Oscar de la Cruz. The pitcher had a really good spring and that should carry over into the season as he will be AA Tennessee. Oscar threw in 4 big league games in spring training, all in relief, striking out two and and only allowed one hit. He did not give up a run. Over the course of those four games, his velocity went from 89-91 to 93-95.
Another reason for doing the list has been the ascension and play of David Bote as a valuable utility man in the future. Originally, Bote did not make the list in January but he’s been rising for the past year and a half. He began to turn it on in the summer of 2016 at Myrtle Beach, had a good season in Tennessee in 2017, and he didn’t stop in the Arizona Fall League. This spring saw Bote continue to chug along in spring training and he should do just fine in Iowa.
Even though he spent all of camp with the big league club, I think Ian Rice showed his potential on the last Sunday of camp by jacking a ninth-inning two-run home run. I think the Cubs are going to have to live and die with that swing. He may not hit for average, but he’s going to hit a lot of home runs. As a catcher, I wonder what value he is going to have beyond this year. I’m sure there’s some insurance but when you’re blocked by Willson and Caratini, there’s not a whole lot of places you can go.
And last, but not least, Duane Underwood looks to be reborn and on a mission to make it to the majors. Underwood will start the year at AAA Iowa and the 23-year-old seems to have had a change of attitude after talking with Epstein last season. I really his stuff. It is just a matter of him commanding it.
So, today’s list is more about reshuffling the deck chairs than it is about anything else. There will be a new list in June with some new names on it, and there maybe some names that move up or down or even off the list. Regardless, it’s gonna be exciting to see what happens and how having five picks in the top 100 of the 2018 MLB Draft will reshape the organization. A month after that, a couple more prospects will be added to the list now that the Cubs can sign an international free agent for more than $300,000.
A lot of changes will be coming this year.
By Todd Johnson
The Cubs made several roster moves in the minors on Thursday. Many of them were surprising. And, just as surprising, the Cubs did not make other moves one would think would happen. The assignments signify a shift within the Cubs organization. Now that the major league roster seems pretty much set for a couple of years, it is going to be hard for a prospect to break into the majors. As a result, that lack of movement continues down through the minor league system and you get what happened yesterday.
With just a week until the season begins, two teams’ rosters are pretty much set in Tennessee and Myrtle Beach. South Bend and Iowa have some adjusting to do as Iowa currently has 33 on their roster and South Bend has 32. The Cubs have until next week to finalize all full season affiliates at 25.
Here are the surprise moves that were made yesterday.
To be brutally honest – I was glad to see Oscar make it up to Tennessee to begin the year. His stuff, when he is healthy, is so advanced and hard. He breaks a lot of bats. As for everyone else that on this list, those are a bit of a letdown. Who knew that Efren Navarro Ryan Court, Mike Freeman, and Stephen Bruno and their outstanding spring training performances would keep Jason Vosler from heading to Iowa? Charcer Burks is in that same boat, too. Ian Rice might be the one I least expected. The Cubs have so much catcher depth now, it’s sick. So, the backlog for backstops begins in Iowa and ripples down.
To Myrtle Beach: PJ Higgins, RHP Casey Bloomquist, RHP Kyle Miller, LHP Jordan Minch, and Daniel Spingola
I was surprised to see Higgins stay in Myrtle Beach to begin the year (see the catcher effect). Higgins might be the best defensive catcher in the system overall, for right now. His bat slipped a little last year. Who knows? Maybe something happens that will free up this logjam of catchers.
As for Spingola, I did not see that coming after he dominated the Carolina League in the first half last year and spent half a season in AA. It is strange that Bloomquist and Miller are not heading to Tennessee, even in bullpen roles, has a bit of the “Oscar de la Cruz” promotion effect to it. Both are versatile swingman. Bloomquist made two appearances in AA and did fine. Miller is a versatile swingman who can start or relieve. As for Minch, he is one of the few lefty relievers left in the system. Then again, he battled injuries off and on the past two summers in Myrtle Beach.
The first two names are the biggest surprises to me. There is no way South Bend will carry 4 catchers. Even if Alamo plays first base, that still leaves three catchers on the squad and Miguel Amaya needs all the playing time he can get. As for Kevonte – he should be at Myrtle Beach. However, there appears to be a logjam for OF, too. Conor Myers, who is an outstanding defender as one will see, but struggles hitting, drops down to South Bend. Right now, the young Cubs have 3 CF on their roster. They won’t begin the season with three.
To Extended Spring Training/Eugene/Mesa: Gustavo Polanco, Alexander Guerra, and Jake Steffens
All three of these players will work on some things the next two months and should be the first called up to South Bend when a spot opens up, as it always does. It could happen next week or two months from now. You never know.
The Big Analysis From All This
Promotions are not a given. They never have been.
With Iowa pretty much cleaning house last winter, it looked as though several prospects would have spots to move up a level in 2018. Things changed in Mesa and spring training that prevented that from happening. The Cubs also have a ton of catchers and that depth will make it hard to move up an affiliate/level. The same is true for outfielders.
Here’s the big kicker – The Cubs still have more trimming of the rosters to do. On Tuesday, it was ten guys let go. Each affiliate still has to get down to 25. That’s 18 more bodies that will be moving down a level, moving to Mesa for extended spring training, or they will be cut.
With no positions opening up at the big league level for the foreseeable future, advancing in the minors will be hard for a couple of years. That is the “New Normal.” There will be another wave of players entering the organization this summer via the draft and international free agency. A prospect is going to have to make themselves stand out, to not be normal, but rather, to excel.