Trevor Clifton

New Top 21 Prospect List Is Aggressive and Infused with Draft Picks and a Latin Feel

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By Todd Johnson

Over the past two months, I bet I made 10 different versions of this prospect list. I moved players up and down, in and out, and then I did it all over again. The last time I updated the list was at the end of spring training. A lot has happened in those 2.5 months. Ian Happ was promoted and made over 90 plate appearances in the majors, many prospects played a half a season in the minors, and extended spring training just ended.

I think the first thing you’ll notice in this list is that I did move a lot of players around. Some of that’s based on performance and some of it is based on projection. Players who have been on the list for four or five years are no longer there. Instead, there’s an infusion of young Latin players and a couple first-round picks.

I think it’s only natural that these changes are taking place. In 2015, the Cubs made a concerted effort to sign a substantial group of players in the international free-agent market. They were 16 and 17 at the time. Now they are 18 and 19 and a maturing physically, mentally, and developmentally. The game is beginning to slow down for them.

I did not include Mr. Happ in this list as I didn’t want to redo it in 10 more games.

Here are the top 10 of the Top 21. To see the full list click here.

10. Oscar de la Cruz – Pitcher
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Age: 21
2017 Affiliate – Myrtle Beach
Top Skills – Commanding presence, fastball, curveball
ETA – 2018/2019
Sometimes, he makes it look so effortless. I often wonder how effortless it is for him. He could have been at AA Tennessee in early July. Things were going extremely well for him at Myrtle Beach before he skipped a start and went on the DL. He needs to stay healthy to build up that arm strength. Innings are what he needs.

9. Victor Caratini – Catcher
Age: 23
2017 Affiliate – Iowa
Top Skills – Switch hitting, hit almost .300 in 2016
ETA – 2017/18
I thought that 2016 was his best year as a Cub. Currently, he is blowing that season out of the water this year. He looks to be ready offensively to take over as the backup catcher in Chicago come 2018. On defense, I am not so sure. If he was ready defensively, he would probably be a top five prospect.

8. Aramis Ademan – Shortstop
Age – 17
2027 Affiliate – Eugene
Top skills – Defense, deft hands
ETA – 2021
He is going to skip rookie ball and play in short season Eugene in 2017. Defensively, he is leaps and bounds above every shortstop in the system.

7. Miguel Amaya – Catcher
Age: 18
2017 Affiliate – Eugene
Top Skills – Great receiver, great arm, and a developing power bat
ETA – 2020/2021
He is a great defender with a great arm. This spring in EXST, he showed he ‘s got some power in that bat. Premium skills at a premium position move him way up the board. I watched his debut in Eugene as he threw out three runners. Wow!

6. Adbert Alzolay – SP
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Age: 22
2017 Affiliate – Myrtle Beach
Top Skills – 96/97 mph fastball that he can sustain and maintain deep in the game.
ETA – 2019
He’s really come on in 2017 by quickening his pace. He still needs work on his change, but his FB is c’est magnifique. His curve is improving with a nice 2-7 arc.

5. Trevor Clifton – SP
Age: 21
2017 Affiliate – Tennessee
Top Skills – 3 plus pitches, improving command, pick-off move, pitchability, work ethic
ETA – 2018
He has been pretty consistent in 2017. He has gone toe to toe with some big names and held his own. I still think efficiency should be the thing he works on most of the second-half. He needs to get to seven innings pretty consistently.

Image may contain: 1 person, playing a sport and baseball4. Tom Hatch – SP
Age: 21
2017 Affiliate – Myrtle Beach
Top Skills – 4 pitch repertoire, command and control, ridiculous armside run on his FB
ETA – 2019
He had a rough adjustment period in April through mid-May. After that, he’s been throwing darts including a 13 K affair. He could be amazing in the second half. Don’t look at his ERA before June.

3. Jeimer Candelario – 3B/1B
Age 23
2017 Affiliate – Iowa
Top Skills – Switch hitting, can hit for power and average
ETA – 2017
I don’t know how much longer he is going to remain a Cub. I don’t think there’s much left for him to prove at Iowa, and I don’t think he’s going to get a fair shot to play every day in Chicago.

2. Dylan Cease – SP
Age: 21
2017 Affiliate – South Bend
Top Skills – 100 mph fastball, plus curve, improving changeup
ETA – 2019
He was having a pretty good season until he went down with an ankle injury in mid-May. The fastball and curves are there, the change is showing signs of being an average pitch. He still needs to be a lot more efficient to get into the sixth and seventh innings some more.

1. Eloy Jimenez – OF
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Age: 20
2017 Affiliate: Myrtle Beach/Tennessee
Top Skills: Hit for average and power, great pitch recognition, contagious smile
ETA – 2018
People laughed in the spring when he said he was trying to make ball club. He pretty much proved everyone wrong when he showed he belonged as a hitter. I think he’s about as close to being ready as he can be. Once he proves he we can make it at AA, I don’t even see the need for him to go to AAA. The question becomes where he is going to play.

The May All-Star Team Breaks Precedence with 8 Starting Pitchers

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By Todd Johnson

April was a pretty rough month as temperatures kept some players down. Now that it has warmed up, so have the performances. In fact, they were many more players competing for a spot this month, whereas in April, each position was pretty clear-cut.

Starting pitchers and outfielders made the most improvement over the last five weeks. In fact, the starting pitching was so impressive  I went with eight starters rather than the normal six. They all posted ERAs under 3, which made the decision pretty easy.

I did not put Eloy on the team as he only played in 13 games, but what a 13 game stat line. He hit .324 with 3 HRs, 10 RBI, and a .468 OBP. I cannot wait to see how he does in June.

Let’s get right to this month’s list…

Team Breakdown
Iowa – 4 (all hitters)
Tennessee – 11 (4 position/7 pitchers)
Myrtle Beach – 4 (all pitchers)
South Bend – 4 (1 hitter/3 pitchers)

For next month…
Several players will be returning very soon from the DL. They include Trey Martin, Erling Moreno, Jordan Minch, Bailey Clark, and Dylan Cease. As well, some players are starting to put it together who could make a run for next month’s squad. They include Wladimir Galindo, Luis Ayala, Robert Garcia, Dave Berg, and pitcher Thomas Hatch.

Mesa, Eugene, and two DLS squads fire up their seasons this month. Most of them will be in contention for the honorable mention sections as Eugene and Mesa will only get about 12 games in, not enough to qualify.

The two DSL teams start Saturday, June 3rd, and could have some names on the list. Most position players signed in the draft begin play right away. Pitchers selected take some time to get back into shape.

The Friday Six Pack – It’s Been a Great Month for Pitching

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By Todd Johnson

The trade talk for the Cubs right now surrounds the acquisition of a starting pitcher, preferably one who is signed beyond this year. Jon Heyman wrote an interesting article yesterday that listed some possible candidates who might be available this summer. Names included Gerrit Cole, Zack Greinke, Jose Quintana, Chris Archer and every Tampa Ray known to man. The price will be steep if the Cubs decide to go that route.

On the other hand, I was watching/listening to the Myrtle Beach game last night and I started to work on a post for next week. My monthly minor league All-Star team for May has some intriguing options. Usually, for a starting pitcher to be considered to make the team, the ERA is most often near or below three. This month four players who met that standard would not make the team. Zach Hedges is at 3.23, Adbert Alzolay, 2.91, Seth Frankoff, 2.76, and Jen-Ho Tsen, 2.70.

Granted, the month is not over. With six days to go, all of the pitchers listed in this post have one start left. So, it is technically still in a state of flux. That being said, today’s six pack shows just how deep and rich the Cubs starting pitching has been this month at AA Tennessee and high A Myrtle Beach.

Here are the six leading candidates to make Cubs Central’s May All-Star Team. They also could be considered to move up a level here in the next month around the draft. None of them should come as a surprise if you have been reading as I have written about all of them but one this month.

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Oscar de la Cruz 2.63 ERA
What impresses me most is that he works fast. He gets in a rhythm and just throws. He doesn’t necessarily rely on the strikeout, but he can if needed. Last night he struck out ten.

Preston Morrison 2.50 ERA
As usual, he had a crappy April and has had three quality starts in May. I wrote about him earlier this week. He gets great movement on all his pitches and he combines that with great strategy to baffle hitters.

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Trevor Clifton 1.85 ERA
He might be my favorite pitcher to watch. When he is on, it looks like his arm is made of rubber as to how effortless he throws. He also has the best pickoff move in the organization. It’s a bit of an under reported weapon for him. He is off to his best start as a Cubs prospect.

Bryan Hudson 1.23 ERA
He stayed in EXST to begin the year. He made 2 starts in April and his ERA was 10.13. In May, he’s been a ground ball machine averaging over 10 a game. In four starts, his 1.23 ERA is more indicative of the type of pitcher he’s becoming. The 6’8” lefty is moving up lists this summer. He just keeps gaining more and more confidence.

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Justin Steele 1.19 ERA
Good for him! He is the kind of kid you can root for. He is still working on some things, but his stuff this year has been compared to Lester’s. However, he still needs to get his command down. Even though opponents are hitting .250 against him, he’s stranding them on base this year.

Duncan Robinson 0.90 ERA
At the beginning of the month, he was one of the best relievers in the system. Now, the 6’6” righty from Dartmouth has been one of the best starters. He’s gone 13 innings in his two starts and only allowed one run. For the month, he pitched 20 innings combined.I don’t think he is going back to being a reliever. He is the biggest surprise/breakout of the 2017 season.

The next week should be fun to see who makes the All-Star team.

The Cubs MiLB April All-Star Team Is Pitching Heavy

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By Todd Johnson

You can thank the rain storms that covered much of the Midwest for me being able to finish this month’s all-star team on schedule. There were no yards to mow, no weeds to pull, and no dogs to walk in the rain. In addition, there were no minor league games except for Myrtle Beach and South Bend on Sunday.

It was a strange month for trying to pick a few spots on the All-Star team. First base was a difficult choice as most of the organization struggled at that position. I wound up going with a player who only played a few games there. When it came to starting pitching, I had a couple players drop off after poor starts in the last week. When it came time to select the hitter of the month, all I had to do was look at only one team who was rained out for the weekend.

I think the May All-Star team will be much different. For one, I think Yasiel Balaguert has started to find his stroke at first base. In the outfield, there will be much more competition as Jake Hannemann, Kevonte Mitchell, and Mark Zagunis all had strong final weeks in April. Trey Martin could return as well. I also think that some of the starting pitching will start to stabilize in Myrtle Beach and South Bend. Duncan Robinson will be one pitcher to watch in May as to whether he starts or relieves in South Bend.

So, without further adieu, here is the April All-Star team.

Team Breakdown
Iowa Cubs – 4
Tennessee Smokies – 7
Myrtle Beach Pelicans – 6
South Bend Cubs – 4

Friday Six Pack – Starting Pitching Prospects for 2018 Getting a Little Clearer

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By Todd Johnson

On Monday, Cubs Central’s first monthly all-star team of the season will be published. So far, it’s been 3 and 1/2 weeks of interesting performances by some of the Cubs’ best prospects. Time is also growing near as the Cubs seem to be struggling with two starters in the rotation. On the horizon, two starting pitchers will most likely leave at the end of the season as free agents. So, the performances by several of the Cubs are an insight into who could be, and who could not be, possible starting pitchers in 2018.

My initial theory was that the Cubs would get one possible starter either this summer or at the trade deadline this summer or they could acquire one next winter. Then, the other pitcher could be one of their own prospects. Right now, the accruement of another pitcher is extremely likely. In addition, the Cubs could produce more than one pitcher on their own. The problem, though, is that there is no number one or two type starter among them. Still, the pitching prospects could all be functional on many levels.

Three likely to get a shot next spring

  1. Eddie Butler – Right now, he’s looking good. He is pitching well in a predominant hitting league. He is not striking out as many hitters as I thought he would/could, but he is getting them out in a timely manner with as few  pitches as possible. He’s not throwing straight gas, but is using all his pitches. His current ERA of 1.49 is the lowest in the Cubs system for starters with 4 starts.
  2. Duane Underwood – He’s having a bit of a renaissance season. He has a 3.00 ERA in 3 starts, one in which he struck out 8. I would like to see him go a bit deeper in each start. Currently, he’s gone 5 innings in each one.
  3. Alec Mills – He made two starts and then went on the DL. His second start was a bit of a gem. He went 6 IP with 3 hits and no runs allowed. It should be interesting to see how he does when he returns.

Three who could get a shot next next spring

  1. Trevor Clifton – I really like Trevor. He has two plus pitches and an improving changeup. Some call him workmanlike, but I don’t see that. He has a lot of talent. He can throw hard. Once he gets in a groove, he is almost unhittable. Even though his fastball comes in between 92-95, it has late action that occurs ten feet from the plate. His curve can be knee buckling while his change has some arm side run at times. He currently has a 2.66  ERA and all of the earned runs he’s allowed this year came on just two pitches until last night. He has improved on the little things a lot since South Bend and now has one of the best pick off moves in the system. I think he gets a shot in spring training and is likely added to the 40 man this fall.
  2. Jen-Ho Tseng – He’s a bit of an enigma. LIke Underwood, he’s having a bit of a resurgent year. So far, he’s had 4 starts with a 2.45 ERA. He’s struck out 14 in 22 IP. Yet, there are still the questions of dependability and consistency. In 2014, he was the Cubs MiLB Pitcher of the Year. Since then, he’s struggled to figure out what kind of pitcher he can be. It looks like he’s reverted to 2014 and it looks like it is working.
  3. Zach Hedges – I love watching this young man pitch. He’s a ground ball machine. His start on Tuesday saw him go 7 IP with only 1 hit. His current ERA is 2.38 and is likely headed down. He should be the first pitcher at AA Tennessee to get the call to AAA Iowa, whose staff is a bit distressed. Whether or not he can make it to Chicago really depends on his ability to keep the ball down in AAA Iowa when he gets there. He has a plus slider and throws mostly between 90-94 with his sinking fastball.

You are probably wondering why Dylan Cease is not on this list. Currently he is at low A South Bend. He will not be ready come next spring to attempt to compete for a spot in Chicago. He’s likely to be ready in 2019. Even if he makes it to AA Tennessee in August this year, he needs a lot of work on a changeup or a third pitch. If he’s going to be just a two pitch pitcher, then Cease will just be a reliever very, very quickly.

The Weekly: Jeimer, Cease, Clifton, and Happ Have Good Debuts

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Let the Games Begin!
It is going be 70 degrees today in northern Illinois! So, with five games happening this afternoon, it will be great to feel the breeze come in my office as I watch one game on the TV and four on MiLB.TV.

Pic by Rikk Carlson

Last night was a good night to watch three games the same time. I had the Cubs and Milwaukee on the TV, South Bend on the computer, and Tennessee on my phone. I got to see great pitching performances by Dylan Cease and Trevor Clifton, a resurgent offense as Kris Bryant got his first hits of the year, and later, Jeimer Candelario and Ian Happ both hit home runs for the second night in a row.

Here are a few things I have liked just after three games:
1. Iowa is going to win a lot of games. They have a potent offense from 1 to 9 and a talented bullpen.

2. Tennessee has a mixture of excellent defense, starting pitching, and a couple of guys who I think can really play and David Bote and Trey Martin.

3. Jen-Ho Tseng was fairly decent in his debut on Friday night. He looked more like The pitcher at Kane County than he did like the pitcher of the last two years.

3. South Bend is an extremely young team. They only have a couple of position players with college experience. Their bats could take a while to warm up.

4. Oscar de la Cruz will be the pitcher I look forward to seeing most today. In fact, just the first three days showed how good pitching now is in the Cubs’ system.

5. Pitchers Tyson Miller and Duncan Robinson both looked very good for South Bend as they only gave up one earned run between them.


Around the System

Iowa: 3-0; This team is going to win a lot of games. They did well this week by taking down some of the Dodgers’ top prospects
Tennessee: 2-1; They are sneaky good!
Myrtle Beach: 2-1; The starting pitching and bullpen look very good!
South Bend: 0-3; It takes a while for the young bats to warm up in the chilly air of a Midwestern spring.


Weekly Awards

New Features for Cubs Central on the Facebook page
There are three new daily features that will be posted there. They are – Hitter of the Day, Pitcher of the Day, and Reliever of the Day. For the past couple of years, we have done “The Weekly” awards every Sunday. I wanted to reward the daily efforts as well this year. Here are the winners from this week.

Thursday – Eddy Martinez, Eddie Butler, Scott Effross
Friday – Jeimer Candelario, Thomas Hatch, Rob Zastryzny
Saturday – Jeimer Candelario, Dylan Cease, and David Rollins

Draft Update News
Oregon’s David Peterson (77 Ks in 52.1 IP) continues to roll as does Brendon Little (86 Ks in 55 IP) The two lefty starters have to be on the Cubs radar for the

Sad News
The Cubs signed shortstop Vincente King last summer as an international free agent. The 16-year-old was killed in a motorcycle accident in the Dominican Republic. He was set to begin to play in the Dominican Summer League later this year. Our prayers go out to his family and friends.


Upcoming posts
Opening day in Chicago – Rain needs to stay away
From Small Things, Big Things One Day Come
10 Things I Think
The Bullpen

Cubs Central’s Preseason 1st Half All-Star Team Has Some Powerful Names

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Today is a fun day! It’s opening day for four of the Cubs’ minor-league affiliates! Weather permitting, Iowa, Tennessee, Myrtle Beach, and South Bend will take the field for the first time in 2017. It is not looking good for South Bend today as three to six inches are called for in West Michigan. As usual, I will be watching all the happenings. Then, starting this Sunday, “The Weekly” will have the players of the week. But today, it’s our annual preseason All-Star team for the first half.

What is happening today is I am picking out several players who I think will be the best at their position in the Cubs’ system through the middle of June. 

  

Catcher
I think that Victor Caratini is locked and loaded and has his eyes set on Chicago. He will be at AAA this year and more than likely, come 2018, he will be the backup catcher to Wilson Contreras. He might even see some time this summer depending on his defense.

First Base
Even though he is currently on the DL, I think Yasiel Balaguert has this position sewn up. Last year, he had 19 home run the 96 RBIs and I think he will improve upon that this year as he has been working on hitting up the middle and to the right.

Second Base
There is some stiff competition for this position with Carlos Sepulveda and Yeiler Peguero competing to get their name on the Internet. However, Ian Happ wins in a landslide. It is so self-evident, that I’m not even going to explain my thinking process for selecting him.

 

Shortstop
At the age of 17, Isaac Paredes made his class A debut at South Bend in late August of 2017. This year, the Cubs will get the full effect of what this man-child can do. He earned the starting spot and hopefully some power will go along with an outstanding batting average and on-base percentage… I’ll from an 18-year-old kid.

Third Base
I am going to break the mold, and tradition, and go with Wladimir Galindo who I think will do extremely well as a 20-year-old in the Midwest League. Normally, I would pick Jeimer Candelario for the spot, but I think Wladimir is determined to succeed and show his worth.

  

Outfield
I think this was the toughest category to pick just three players. I think the deciding factor is how I project them to perform in the first half and the excitement that they will bring to the game. As a result, I am selecting DJ Wilson of South Bend, Eloy Jimenez of Tennessee, and I’m going to stun everybody and go with Bijan Rademacher of Iowa. I know I am leaving out Eddy Martinez and Mark Zagunis, but I think Bijan is going to hit more home runs than both the next two months.

  

Starting Pitchers
I found it hard to just pick six because the Cubs development of pitchers is becoming more and more pronounced. I am going with Dylan Cease, Trevor Clifton, Eddie Butler, Erling Moreno, Oscar de la Cruz, Thomas Hatch, and I am picking Kyle Miller as a Darkhorse. I also thought about including Ryan Williams, Rob Zastryzny, and Zach Hedges. What used to be the weakness of the organization is now turning into a strength. I would not be surprised to see a couple of these pitchers make it to Chicago this year.

Relief Pitchers
Last year, relievers were the strength of the organization. They helped out the big league club down the stretch and Rob Zastryzny even made it to the World Series. This year, Pierce Johnson leads a group of arms who are still a ways off from helping the big league club. Ryan McNeil, Jordan Mnch, Wyatt Short, Dakota Mekkes, and Chad Hockin are just a few of the names who will be excellent bullpen arms the spring. I know there are other bullpen arms, especially in South Bend, who could’ve been added to this list.

Last year’s preseason All-Star team played a significant role in two ways. Some of them wound up on the major-league roster and were key players in the World Series victory. Other prospects were parts of packages used to acquire Aroldis Chapman and Mike Montgomery who helped to win the World Series.

I don’t quite know what will happen this year with some of these prospects, but that’s the fun of it. In four weeks, the April All-Star team should give us a glimpse into how well this package of players listed above did on the road to Wrigley.