The May All-Star Team Has a Lot of New Faces

By Todd Johnson

It’s getting to be the busy season here at Cubs Central. While next week will be all about the draft, and redoing the top 21 list, this weekend will be about wrapping up what happened in May in the Cubs’ system. Tomorrow, I will rank the top 10 cards I made for the month. For today, it’s all about recognizing the top performers in the Cubs system the last 31 days.

Surprisingly, only 7 prospects made both the May and April All-Star teams. That’s not a lot. And of those 6, only 2 hitters did, catchers Jhonny Pereda and Miguel Amaya. This is going to be an interesting year as players search to find some consistency at the plate and on the mound.

This month’s All-Star team came right down to the wire. Several pitching spots were in play throughout the course of the last two nights, including the Pitcher of the Month and Hitter of the Month.

I have been tracking the system on a month by month spreadsheet. One thing I noticed early in the month was the ascension of Pelican pitcher Casey Bloomquist as a setup man for Myrtle Beach. Like many arms in the system, Bloomquist has worked both as a starter and as a reliever. This year, he is thriving in his new role. All of his pitches are a little more polished this year. The cutter that he talked about two years ago with me, now is becoming a go-to pitch for him. Good for Casey!

So, without further adieu, here is this month’s all star team, once again in video form.

The June All-Star team will be a lot of fun to sort through. The Dominican Summer League begins play tomorrow.

Eugene and the two Mesa teams start on June 15th. Some names I look forward to seeing play in Eugene are OF Fernando Kelli, SS Luis Vazquez, and 3B Christopher Morel. Down in Mesa, pitcher Jesus Tejada is a must follow along with SS Luis Diaz and OF Carlos Pacheco, to name a few. It should be an exciting month of action.

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The Six Pack – Six Relievers Are Dominating This Spring

Dakota Mekkes – Photo courtesy of the Tennessee Smokies

By Todd Johnson

Last winter, I thought that catcher might be the most dominant position that the Cubs had in their minor league system. When it comes time to reassess the system this fall, I might be persuaded to change my mind based on the work of this year’s relief corps; 3 of whom could find their way to Chicago this year, if needed.

1. Dillon Maples might be the reliever that most Cub fans know about in the minor-league system. He got off to a bit of a rough start this year at AAA Iowa but has been pitching well since the second week of the season. His K rate is astronomical at over 20 per nine innings. Still, when the time has came to bring up a pitcher to Chicago, Maples has been bypassed five times already as he continues to try to cut down on his walks. He’s walked 6 in 10 appearances. At some point this year, he’s going to get another crack at the majors. 

2. Randy Rosario – What I liked about the Rosario signing this winter was that he was young, 23, had some MLB experience, and was a left-hander. The Cubs have kept him down at AAA Iowa, and, over the past six weeks, he has yet to allow run. He is also missing some bats as he’s struck out 10 in 15 innings and his batting average against is a minuscule .173.

3. Dakota Mekkes – If there was any prospect that could skip AAA and go to the majors from AA, it would be Mekkes – although I doubt that happens. However, Dakota has just been dominating AA. And like Myrtle Beach last year, Mekkes has not allowed a run in his 13.1 innings in 10 games. That include Includes Tuesday night’s extra innings save where he began the inning with a man on second base. His walk rate is a little better this year, but, like Maples, Mekkes still has room to improve. But to be frank, I don’t think there’s much left for him to do at AA. He should be in Des Moines and soon.

4. Jhon Romero – As the season goes on, Romero’s two pitch mix, a 93 to 95 mile an hour fastball and a sharp breaking curve, seem to be improving in Myrtle Beach. When I first saw him at South Bend last year, I wondered what he was doing there as he baffled Midwest League hitters. What I like about Romero is that he gets some ugly swings as batters just can’t time him up, especially on the curve ball. I don’t think he’s long for Myrtle Beach either.

5. Bailey Clark has already been promoted once, and at the rate he’s going in Myrtle Beach, he’s not gonna be there long either. Last year, Maples went from Myrtle Beach to the majors. I think Clark could come close to moving three levels this year. But first, he’s got to continue what he’s doing well. He’s using a mid 90s to upper 90s fastball in combination with a hard biting slider that he’s able to command. Right now, between the two levels this year, he has a 1.17 ERA with 28 Ks in 23 IP. The big stat no one is talking about is he is averaging almost 5 ground outs for every fly ball/pop up – an astonishing rate. If he can continue to do that, he should be in Tennessee by mid June. However, the key will be to take it one level at a time.

6. Tyler Peyton – I really liked and enjoyed the progress I saw in him last summer in a relief role in South Bend as he was one of the best relievers in the system in August with a 1.29 ERA. He’s doing pretty much the same thing this year at Myrtle Beach and he’s even moved into the closer role a few times. I don’t know if he’s going to move up this year, but I like what I’m seeing as he continues to flash a 93 to 95 mile an hour fastball with a nice curve and change.

I’m not really surprised these guys above are doing well. I am surprised that they are so dominant to begin the season. As it warms up, things could change a little bit over the next 4 to 6 weeks, but I think their ability to throw strikes is paramount to their success.

I would also have included Rollie Lacy of South Bend on this list. However, he now has a rotation spot in South Bend replacing Jose Albertos. Still, I don’t know if Lacy will do that permanently or for the time being.

Names to Know for May and Early June

Brendan King has only just begun to pitch at South Bend. King pitched well as a starter last year for Mesa. The 2017 draft pick out of Holy Cross has done very well in relief at South Bend. I don’t know if he’s going to get a chance to start, but I would be interested to see how he would do in that role, too. He usually is the upper 80s with his fastball to go along with a curve that he control and throw at will. With his command and a plus curve, he should do well at this level and high A.

There could be other relievers who will pop in the next month from the bullpen. One never knows who is coming and when.

The Midweek: Several Prospects Off to Good Starts to Begin May

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.

April’s MiLB All-Star Team Is Pitching Heavy

By Todd Johnson

This month’s All-Star team was pretty fluid right up through yesterday’s games. There were prospects who stayed consistent all month. There were those who got hot early and faded late. And then there are those who got off to a rough start but turned it on later in the month. At one point, before last Thursday, they were only five pitchers who met the usual pre-requisite 3.00 ERA. Somehow, two more pulled through

As for position players, no one but Jeffrey Baez really set the system on fire. Baez, who, in the past, has dominated levels in spurts. In April, Baez hit .411 with 3 HR and 15 RBI to earn Hitter of the Month honor. They were not that many players who hit above or near .300. While that is not required to get on the team, there were clear demarcations in the levels of production across the system about who should be on the team. I did not have to leave anyone off who was on a par with current crop of all-stars.

It will be interesting to see which players get promoted here in the coming weeks. I expect some of the players in the video below to move up a level. Most of the promoted prospects will probably be relievers and maybe one of the starting pitchers.

So, without further adieu, here is this month’s minor league All-Star team.

Do the Cubs Have a Short-Term Lefty Shortage?

By Todd Johnson

When minor league rosters were first announced, one of the strangest things I noticed was that the Tennessee Smokies did not have one single left-handed pitcher on the roster. That was pretty hard to miss. At the same time, South Bend mustered two lefty starters and one in a relief role who has already spent time on the 7-day DL last week. The lack of lefties in the minors does seem to be a bit strange considering their high value to the major league club.

At the major-league level, the Cubs have Jon Lester and Jose Quintana as left-handed starters and they have plenty of help in the bullpen with Justin Wilson, Brian Duensing, and Mike Montgomery. AAA Iowa currently has four lefties in starter Michael Roth and relievers Rob Zastryzny, Alberto Baldonado, and Randy Rosario.

In total, the Cubs have about 30 left-handed pitchers in the entire system. Myrtle Beach and Chicago account for 10 of the 30 left-handed pitchers which leaves almost 20 spread across the other 8 teams. The shortage of lefties might not be a big deal right now, but it could be if something happens at the big league level.

Who Could Help This Year If Needed?

While the Cubs did select lefty Brendon Little with the first pick in the 2017 Draft, Little is far from a polished prospect. Rather, he might be more of a project that pays off much later. His ability to get to Chicago depends on a few years of development.

If lefty help is going to come this year, Zastryzny will like more than likely be the first name called up for the bullpen. In Iowa, all Zastryzny has done is to come out of the pen and not allow a run in 5.1 IP this year and has struck out 5. That’s a good beginning for him.

I did find it surprising that Roth made Iowa’s starting rotation. So far, he’s made 2 starts and has not allowed a run over 9.2 innings while striking out 8.

As for Randy Rosario, he’s only 23, which I find to be amazing, and he could be a steal and a long term piece for the pen. The Cubs control Rosario through 2023, the same as Zastryzny. So far, Rosario has not allowed a run in 3 appearances for Iowa. He might be the most intriguing arm to watch. Then again, Rosario, who appeared in 2 MLB games last June, did so with disastrous results as he allowed 8 runs in 2.1 innings.

As for Baldanaldo at Iowa, … it’s not going well at Iowa.

Another lefty, Kyle Ryan, is in Arizona in extended spring training and will likely be assigned to Iowa at a later date. Ryan spent two full years being successful in the majors for the Tigers before struggling last year with an ERA over 7.

Ultimately, in the short term, the odds are not ideal for lefties in the system. On the other hand (pun intended), depending on the need and impact of a lefty needed at the major league level, the Cubs could go and get one via the trade market this summer. The aforementioned lefties from Iowa would be fine for a short DL stint or two. But if a loogy is needed for the season and the playoffs, expect the Cubs to go and get the players they need like they have done in the past.

As for the Future…

The odds for developing lefty pitchers are much better in the long-term. Here are a few names of some lefties, other than Little, who might be worth watching this summer. Bear in mind, none of the following names will not make it to Chicago this summer or even next year. 

Tyler Thomas – The 6’ and 175 pound lefty out of Fresno State has dazzled in his first two starts for South Bend this year, including throwing five innings of no-hit ball against Bowling Green. Armed with a low 90s fastball and a beautiful changeup, Thomas works at a quick pace keeping everyone on their toes. He was one of the top collegiate pitchers in 2016, but struggled a bit in the spring of 2017 at Fresno State. However when he came to Eugene, he was lights out in a relief role (24 Ks in 19.1 IP).

Brailyn Marquez – He just turned 19 in January, but at 6’5”, he is still growing into his frame and can throw in the mid 90s. He played last year at Mesa and struck out 52 batters in 44 innings. The issue was not that he walked just 12 guys all summer, rather it was that opponents hit .275 off him. His secondaries are a work in progress. Marquez should be at short season Eugene which starts play in the middle of June.

Bryan Hudson – His first start in 2018 didn’t go so well for Myrtle Beach but there’s plenty of time to recover. On Saturday, in his second start, he went 5 IP and struck out 4 but gave up 3 runs. The 6’8” 220 pound 20-year-old is improving gradually every year. He was a ground ball machine at South Bend in 2017. For his career, he has averaged 2.96 ground balls to 1 flyout. His curve/slider used to be his calling card, but now it’s his ability to get guys to beat the ball into the ground with his fastball as well.

And Don’t Forget…

Justin Steele – He had his best season as a Cub in 2017 with an ERA of 2.92 for Myrtle Beach. However, he wound up having Tommy John surgery in August. He’s not gonna come back to pitching as a starter this year, but hopefully he can be seen tossing the ball around in Mesa in August. I highly doubt if he gets in any games. He should be back on track to pitch at AA Tennessee in 2019.

What most impressed me about Steele last year before the injury was a new mental focus. Steele credited to the Cubs’ mental skills program that involved meditation for a lot of his success. Steele is an arm who could relieve, or he could also start. He is still just 22.

 

The Weekly: MiLB Free Agent Chances, Mesa, New Cards, and an Invasion Is Coming

By Todd Johnson

The off-season continues to move at a snail’s pace. Nothing much happened at the major-league level again this week, but the Cubs did add some more depth by signing two players to minor league contracts. Outfielder Peter Bourjos is a veteran who has played with Tampa, St. Louis, and Anaheim. First baseman Efren Navarro last played with the Tigers. Both will be non roster invitees to spring training. I don’t look for either to make the club. And if they don’t, I’d expect them to choose free agency rather than go to AAA Iowa.

Right now, I just don’t have a good feel for who is going to be where. A lot of that stems from who will be at Iowa and Tennessee. The Cubs have signed several starting and bullpen arms this offseason to minor league contracts. As a result, I am holding off on doing any affiliate previews until either the last week of March or the first week in April. It is going to kill me to not write about South Bend’s starting rotation until then.

As for some some of the minor league free agents the Cubs signed this winter, Daniel Camarena is extremely intriguing to me. The young lefty comes from a stacked Yankees system that saw him make 7 decent starts at AAA with a 3.28 ERA last year. He is only 25. Like the Cubs, the Yankees cannot hang onto every prospect in perpetuity. After 5 years in the minors, the prospects can elect free agency and that is what Camarena did. The Cubs will hopefully benefit from that.

Sometimes, I can be quite blunt. Right now is one of those instances. A lot of the pitchers the Cubs signed this winter don’t have much of a chance to make the 25 man roster in Chicago or even be stashed at AAA Iowa. The Cubs are taking a gamble that some magic can happen with either Jim Hickey or Jim Benedict (the pitching whisperer) during spring training. Don’t be counting on Dario Alvarez or Alberto Baldonado to be trotting out of the bullpen this summer, let alone dancing on camera. The odds are just not in their favor. 

However, I could see lefty Randy Rosario ending up in Iowa for some bullpen depth. And Kyle Ryan, who was decent for Detroit out of the bullpen in 2015 and 2016, could also work out his issues in Des Moines and return to the show. Both are nice lefty bullpen options that could be worth keeping.

Baseball Cards

It was a banner week for making baseball cards as I had time to scour the Internet for more pictures. It turned out to be a bonanza of new pics and a nice crop of new cards. Before spring training begins, I will do a best of list for the second half of the offseason. There are a few cards I think that turned out to be classics. Go to the Facebook account to check out the album.

Card made from a photo by John Arguello

More Thoughts on Mesa

This week, I kept thinking about how the second Mesa team in the Arizona Rookie League could create a whole juggernaut of players coming stateside that I did not foresee. I started to make a post about possible players who could be heading north. I had to stop myself when I got to two pages and still had 5 or 6 guys to go. I may turn that into 2 posts (hitters and pitchers) later this spring.

Before MiLB Spring Training Begins…

You might want to revisit two posts I did last fall. One is about who I see as possible breakout hitters in the Cubs system for 2018. The second examines some possible breakout pitchers for 2018.

Upcoming Posts

This week, come Wednesday, catcher Miguel Amaya gets profiled in the “Leveling Up” series. I am really enjoyed writing about the young backstop prospect. I also have two spring training previews for the major league camp and the minor league camp in the works. I am not sure when those will be published but I am leaning towards the 9th and the 16th, respectively.

Baseball Card of the Week