MiLB Free Agency Is on the Horizon: Cubs Will Have Some Tough Choices

By Todd Johnson

When it comes to 6 year minor league free agents, the Cubs have several this year. Most of them are currently at AAA Iowa while several are scattered throughout the system. Some will re-sign with the Cubs while others will go see if they can break through someplace else.

Today, I’m gonna break down a few names who I think the Cubs are going to try and re-sign of their 20+ minor league free agents.

Here is the list for each affiliate.

Iowa – Alberto Baldonado, LHP; Corey Black, RHP; Stephen Bruno, INF; Chris Coghlan, OF-INF; Casey Coleman, RHP; Ryan Court, INF; Taylor Davis, C-1B; Trey Martin, OF; Bijan Rademacher, OF; Jose Rosario, RHP; Kyle Ryan, LHP; Ali Solis, C; Corey Black, RHP;

Tennessee – Gioskar Amaya, INF; Jeffrey Baez, OF; Yasiel Balaguert, 1B-OF; Wynton Bernard, OF; Erick Castillo, C; Daury Torrez, RHP; Ryan Webb, RHP; Allen Webster, RHP.

Myrtle Beach – Roberto Caro, OF; Erick Leal, RHP; Jose Paulino, LHP; Chris Pieters, OF

Most Likely to Return

Some of these players could actually be coming back. They could be taking leadership roles on the team and helping, somewhat, to coach younger prospects. Taylor Davis and Stephen Bruno definitely could fill those roles.

As for guys who will actually suit up to play, pitcher Kyle Ryan might be worth another look. He has been up-and-down this year, but I still think there is something there and he is still only 26.

Depending upon how he does the next month in Mesa, Corey Black should continue his rehab from Tommy John surgery with the Cubs. Hopefully, Black still wants to give it a go and there’s something left in his arm.

Erick Leal has had a great year at Myrtle Beach coming off Tommy John surgery. I would love to see how he does at AA Tennessee next year. 

Roberto Caro has had a bit of a breakout year and could find his way back to the Cubs’ system to see if he can get it done at Tennessee. If you can hit .350 at two levels, the odds are pretty good.

Several other familiar names have just been sitting and spinning at AAA and AA for a few years now. Daury Torrez and Bijan Rademacher deserve a shot at the majors in some capacity. Unfortunately, it is likely to come with someone else. Along with Trey Martin, they could stick around for one more year, but the odds are slim they could break through with the Cubs.

There’s always two things to keep in mind. One, what is in the best interest of the player? And two, what is in the best interest of the organization?

When Jaron Madison and the rest of the crew sit down to make those determinations, they will have to keep those two questions in mind. While many of these players might not have a chance at the big league level, they can help fill out a roster. Considering that the Cubs’ system does not have a lot of elite talent, some of the other players are just not ready to go to AA or higher yet. As an organization, you want to put players in positions at which they can succeed. These free agents could be seen as place holders until the younger prospects are ready.

 It’ll be interesting to see what happens as to the direction(s) the Cubs take this winter when all these players listed above become free agents.


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.

The Backup Catcher Debate: Just a Week Left – For Now

By Todd Johnson

Every off-season, I rank every position in the Cubs system. This year was no different. Six years ago, catching was a major weakness in the system and now is one of the strongest positions in the organization. This goes for both major and minor league levels. With an All-Star and possible MVP candidate in Willson Contreras, the Cubs are trying find a backup for Contreras for the upcoming season. This spring training has seen prospect Victor Caratini battle with journeyman catcher Chris Gimenez for that spot for this season. With a week to go, there is still uncertainty about who is going to make the club.

When I start to think about who would be best for the spot, my mind starts to wander in a variety of ways. There’s the concept of what is best for the team versus what is best for the individual. Going in that direction, you have to think about whether playing once a rotation would be best for Victor Caratini and his development, or would he need to play two or three times a week. I think Gimenez might actually be more suited to that type of arrangement where he only has to play once every five days.

Then again, come the playoffs, do you want Gimenez exposed in a key situation/game or would you rather have Victor’s bat? This is an important way to look at the position for later in the year. In fact, this dilemma might not be solved until then. Who knows, maybe all three will be on the playoff roster. .

One could look at Victor as a high-value prospect to include in a trade. That he is. But what if something happens (God forbid) to Wilson or Gimenez this year. What does that leave you with. I don’t think Joe Maddon wants to pencil in journeymen every day. Joe’s going to want Victor to play as much as Wilson did. I like the idea of having Caratini around as an insurance plan. However,  when you have that kind of bat with improving defensive skills, someone is going to want to acquire those talents in one player. The Cubs can probably hold them off for another year, but it’s not doing Victor any good just to use him as insurance in the prime of his career.

The Cubs do have some prospects in the minor leagues that might be better suited to be back up catchers in the long run. The problem is they are not ready yet. PJ Higgins will be at Tennessee this summer. He is very good defensively but he is still working to improve his offensive side of the game. Will Remillard might be the best hitting catcher but he missed 2 and 1/2 years after two Tommy John surgeries. He looked great on a rehab assignment in Eugene last fall and has been outstanding catching runners this spring according to the box scores by Arizona Phil at The Cub Reporter. Remillard should be at Myrtle Beach this spring.

In the end, the catcher that everybody’s going to be looking at in two-three years is going to be Miguel Amaya. He’s got a rifle for an arm and a potential power bat. Then again, Amaya’s not destined to be a backup either.

It should be interesting to see what the Cubs do here in the next week for the near future and how they deal with this issue this summer. My guess would be Victor goes down to Iowa, for the time being, until his talents are needed.

In the end, it’s a good problem to have. You know your team is doing well when you spend 626 words discussing the backup catcher and the implications for it years down the road.

The 7 Series – Iowa Cubs Produced Prospects in 2017 but Changes Are Coming

By Todd Johnson

Overall Record – 67-72

For the second straight year, manager Marty Pevey had to assemble a starting rotation made out of spare parts until August. Injuries and promotions at both the major and minor league levels cut his starting rotation short. The I-Cubs did have a potent offense led by the Cubs minor league player of the year, Victor Caratini. Starting pitcher Jen-Ho Tseng put together the best half by a pitcher in AAA since Kyle Hendricks was there.

The Iowa Cubs are still producing prospects to help Chicago every year. This year we saw, in addition to Caratini and Jen-Ho, Ian Happ, Eddie Butler, Jeimer Candelario, Mark Zagunis, Dillon Maples, and several relief pitchers help out the big club in some capacity. I expect more prospects will help out again in 2018, likely they will be just in bench roles. I don’t see anyone with the everyday playing career path of Ian Happ in the upper parts of the pipeline. Caratini looks to make the 25 man roster in Chicago next spring but just as the backup catcher. I am curious as to what the plans for Mark Zagunis are as he doesn’t have much left to prove in AAA.

Here are seven things to know about the 2017 Iowa Cubs.

1. Bijan Rademacher had the quietest best second half of any prospect in the system. I was a little surprised he wasn’t named the July player of the month as he hit almost .400. He can play all three outfield positions and I think he has one of the best outfield arms after Eddy Martinez. The issue is that he doesn’t project to be anything other than a fourth outfielder. Then again, he hasn’t really been given the chance to show that he can be something else. He has begun to hit for more power and I like what he can do at the plate. He can hit for average and he knows how to work an at bat.

2. I would not be surprised to see the big league club continue to clean house again at Iowa. The 2017 roster at Iowa only had a few position players that might project to make it to Chicago. Most of the roster were journeyman players looking for one more opportunity to get back to the big leagues. With Tennessee sending anywhere between 6 and 9 position players to Iowa next year, I don’t think there are going to be too many roster spots available for any player or prospect nearing 27 years of age. Already, Jake Hannemann, Pierce Johnson, and Felix Pena have new homes for 2018. I don’t know if John Andreoli will be back again either.

3. I still believe in Chesny Young despite his up-and-down year. I think that he has some adjusting to do at this level and I’m confident that he will do well in his second go around at AAA in 2018.

4. Unless Eddie Butler can add some sort of out pitch, I don’t know if he’s going to be anything more than a fill-in at the major-league level. He had his moments this year in Chicago, but he never went much beyond five innings. He needs to be more efficient to get outs quickly and go deeper into games.

5. I am still pulling for Ryan Williams to make it. I just like the kid. He has a bulldog mentality that I love. However, after basically missing two full seasons, I wonder if returning to the bullpen might be best for his long term health. In 2018, we will see.

6. Dillon Maples is going to be close to making the Chicago Cubs 25 man roster next spring. I like the fact that he’s going to get more instruction from big league coaches that will only enhance his chances.

7. For me, the highlights of the year were the second halves of Jen-Ho Tseng (1.80 ERA) and Taylor Davis (.297 avg with 62 RBI). I am glad Davis got the call to make it to Chicago. His story is a tale of perseverance and he is an outstanding teammate and hitter that I think can play somewhere in the majors. I don’t know if Tseng will be given a true opportunity to pitch in the big leagues next year but he should get a few starts with the club in spring training. A lot of his future is tied to what the Cubs do to add starting pitching this offseason.

What to Watch for in 2018
There are going to be at least six position players from Tennessee who should start in Iowa next year. I think many will benefit from playing in the Pacific Coast League but none more than catcher Ian Rice. If you dismiss his batting average and just look at his power numbers and on base percentage, you begin to see his value and how much greater he is than his fellow prospects (17 HRs, .353 OBP). I think he is really going to benefit from playing in the hitter friendly Pacific Coast League more than any other prospect in 2018.

Jason Vosler will also benefit from playing in such environs. After a poor second half, Vosler should look to recapture what made his first half so fantastic in 2017. In the first half, he hit at a .274/.375/.521 clip with 13 HRs and 49 RBI. In addition, Yasiel Balaguert, David Bote, Trey Martin, and Charcer Burks should be starting everyday in Des Moines next summer.

Remember the name Adbert Alzolay. Out of all the prospects at Tennessee, I think he might be the most ready for Chicago. Even though he is currently a starting pitcher, I can see him coming out of the bullpen in Chicago as early as the middle of next summer. With a fastball that sits 95-97, there’s a lot to like.

Cubs’ August MiLB All-Star Team Has 16 New Faces

By Todd Johnson

What a difference the last two months had on the look of the Cubs’ system. A lot of familiar names are gone and new ones have taken their place. You would think that this month’s All-Star team would be pitching centric but it’s not. Instead, there are a plethora of hitters who rose to the occasion in August.

Surprisingly, the position of catcher saw the greatest highlights out of all Cubs prospects. Five years ago that was a huge pit of emptiness and now has become a position of strength at every level. Outfield play was also outstanding along with the reliever corps.

While there were several hitters over .300, only a few displayed any kind of power and only one power prospect made the team. The great thing about that is he’s only 18 years old.

As for starting pitching, most MiLB pitchers tend to get run down in August but several arms had a very good month with four outstanding hurlers putting up ERAs under 2.00. This month’s team is structured a little different as it has more than one player at a few everyday positions.

Team Breakdown
Myrtle Beach, South Bend, and Eugene each have 6 reps.
Tennessee, Iowa, and Mesa each have 5. The DSL has 1.

Upcoming posts
Saturday – Cards of the Month
Sunday – The Weekly
Monday – Prospect Profile: Jared Young

The Weekly: September Callups and the Playoff Push

By Todd Johnson

There are just three weeks left in the MiLB season. With the Iowa Cubs out of the running, the Cubs will have some callups once September arrives and rosters expand. I would not expect too many players considering the Cubs are in the midst of a pennant race. Here are five players I think the Cubs will add for the final month. All but one are on the 40 man roster and a space will have to be made to add that one player.

Mark Zagunis – I think he is the only position player who gets added since Caratini arrived to replace Willson.

Jack Leathersich – A lefty, he’s been lights out at Iowa but I doubt he would pitch in Chicago except in a blowout.

Eddie Butler – I like adding him as a long man or backup starter.

Rob Zastryzny – He was just up for a day and should be up all September now that he is healthy.

Dillon Maples – He is the only one who is not on the 40 man roster. Then again, he could be added long before September comes the way he is pitching.

Outside shot of being added – Catcher Taylor Davis – I don’t think Manager Joe Maddon wants to go into the playoffs with a couple of run down catchers. Hopefully Willson will be back in a month. In the meantime, Davis would provide a day off for both catchers or an inning or two of relief in blowouts down the stretch to keep them fresh as well.

A month ago, I published an article about the Arizona Fall League and 40 man roster implications. At first, I thought about revisiting that post in the wake of the trades, but Eloy Jimenez was the only player affected from the post. Instead, the only possible outcome would be that there might be one more 40 man roster spot available. In the article, I predicted who the Cubs might protect from the Rule V Draft by adding them to the 40 man roster. I also suggested some possible prospects who could play in the AFL. The Cubs may want to save a spot for Willson Contreras to rehab considering how  well that worked for someone else last year to come back for the World Series.

In other news this week, Baseball America produced a new top 100 prospect list that includes this year’s draft picks. There are still no Cubs. I don’t think there will be until the middle of next year.

Coming up at Cubs Central.
School starts for me this week. After two days of institute on Wednesday and Thursday, the students arrive on Friday.  I have a couple of posts already in the queue ready to go. One is an interview with Myrtle Beach Pelicans pitcher Duncan Robinson. The other is a post about investing in Cubs prospects. I will also examine possible names of some DSL players who should be headed north for Fall Instructs. That could be the week after. You never know how news flows.

Saying Goodbye
Yesterday morning, my wife and I had to put down one of our dogs. Phoebe was a terrier mix who was almost 13. She lived a good life of walks, treats, and belly rubs. In the past year, she had lost her sight and most of her hearing. We miss her already.

Around the Minors:
Iowa – 4-3: Jen-Ho Tseng continues to roll and reliever David Garner was promoted to AAA.

Tennessee – 3-3: 3.5 GB of a playoff spot – Yasiel Balaguert was named Southern League Hitter of the Week while Duane Underwood might be named Pitcher of the Week tomorrow.

Myrtle Beach – 1-5: It is rough all around in South Carolina. Reliever Pedro Araujo was promoted to AA Tennessee. I hope to see some infusion of talent from South Bend to give the Pelicans a shot at winning back-to-back-to-back titles.

South Bend – 4-2: I am seeing some growth and development from DJ Wilson, Kevonte Mitchell, and Bryan Hudson that is extremely promising. In addition, pitcher Tyler Peyton is on a great streak of pitching well the past three weeks. He has put himself into contention to make the monthly all-star team. Tomorrow’s post will be about how South Bend can help Myrtle Beach win the Mills Cup.

Eugene – 2-5: 1 Defensive woes derailed their week but they are still just one game away from a playoff spot. Brandon Hughes is starting to warm up again.

Mesa – 2-3: The kids are getting experience even if it doesn’t show up in wins. Delvin Zinn seems to be back in a groove hitting over .300 this month.

DSL 1 – 3-4 – OF Luis Hidalgo got the call to Mesa this week.
DSL 2 – 2-4 

Baseball Card of the Week

Players of the Week

My Other Stuff on the Web From This Week
Cubs Insider:
Austin Upshaw Profile
MiLB Pitcher of the Year Discussion
Duane Underwood

Davis and Bruno Are Still Hanging Around for a Chance

By Todd Johnson

Not every prospect takes a straight path. And not every prospect is going to be named in a list somewhere on the Internet. For most prospects, their path to the major leagues ends at some point. Only one in about 40 drafted prospects make it to the show. However, there are exceptions to every rule.

For the Iowa Cubs, one thing they have not struggled with this year has been their ability to hit. Two players who are drilling the ball are Cubs prospects who have been hanging around for quite a while. They are 26 and 27-years-old, they have not given up on their dream, and they are playing better than ever.

Image may contain: 1 personTaylor Davis
It’s not that catcher Taylor Davis was a fast track prospect, but the 2011 undrafted free agent kind of flew through the lower part of the minors, basically skipping class A Peoria. Though Davis has always had the potential for power, his high leg kick gives him the ability to hit for average. Beginning in 2015, Davis’ bat really became his calling card. He hit .319 in 21 games at Tennessee and followed that up hitting .309 in 83 games at AAA Iowa.

2016 saw him fight off some nagging injuries and also saw him bounced around due to the ascendancy of one Willson Contreras. This year, even though Victor Caratini is tearing it up at AAA, Davis has found playing time at first base, designated hitter, and he even tools around in the outfield. He got up off a semi-slow start in April hitting just .273. In May, he turned it on hitting over .300 and is off to a good start to June.

Stephen Bruno
Image may contain: one or more peopleBefore Chesney Young came along, the utility player who basically could fall out of bed and lace a single to right was none other than Stephen Bruno. The 5’9″ utility player came to the Cubs via The University of Virginia in 2012. He was part of winning teams in Boise and Peoria and missed a championship in Daytona because of Tommy John surgery in 2013.

When he returned to full time action in 2014, Bruno was assigned to AA Tennessee. In 105 games he hit .276. I thought for sure he would be headed to AAA Iowa to begin 2015, but he wound back up in Tennessee where he played another 105 games and hit .263.

Minor injuries dogged him off and on in 2016 as he only played and 35 games while hitting .272.

This year, Bruno looks to be at full strength and playing all over the field. His ability to hit for average is reminiscent of his early days in Boise and Peoria. So far, in 41 games, he is hitting .306. In April, he only saw action in 16 games while hitting .233. With the promotions of Candelario and Happ, Bruno finally got some consistent playing time as he hit .313 in May.

Going Forward
I would like to see them both get a chance at the majors. I realize it’s probably not gonna come with the Cubs. Still, these are two guys that you like to root for. Every step of their development has been about playing hard to win, hitting, and being a good teammate. Considering that one of the main skills required in the major leagues is hitting, you would think that somebody would want to give them a shot, even if it’s in a bench role. It’s pretty clear that their path to the major leagues is being blocked by an all-star, or several all-stars. Sometimes, you still have to hope there is a chance that somehow, someway they will both get their opportunity.