The Weekly: Two Affiliates in the Playoff Hunt, Promotion Debuts, Theo and I Speak on the Radio…Separately
By Todd Johnson
Around the System This Week
Iowa – 2-4 (23-37)
Tennessee – 3-5 (31-31)
Myrtle Beach – 6-0 (32-29)
South Bend – 6-1 (31-30)
DSL 1 – 3-3 (4-3)
DSL 2 – 0-6 (1-6)
For the better part of the first half, only Tennessee had a winning record among the Cubs affiliates. Both Myrtle Beach and Iowa got off to horrible starts while South Bend was extremely inconsistent from series to series. Now that things have warmed up quite a bit, the system is seeing some outstanding pitching on a nightly basis. There are a few hitters who are starting to heat up, but it’s been impressive to watch the starting rotations go out at night after night across the system. At the end of this week, two out of the four major affiliates were above .500.
There is just one week left to the first half of the 2018 The fact that the Pelicans are in contention is a testament to manager Buddy Bailey and to the hard work of the team. They sit just 2.5 games back with 8 to go including 3 against first place Winston-Salem.
The Smokies sit just three behind Chattanooga.
Outside of the Draft, the big story of the week was the combined no-hitter for Rollie Lacy and Ben Hecht of South Bend. Lacy went 7 IP on Wednesday with 6 Ks against Lake County and Hecht finished them in 2 innings with 2 strike outs. What I loved most about the night was that Lacy’s curve was just so dominating and the defense made a couple nice plays behind him.
This week also saw the pitching debuts of several prospects at their new affiliates. Cory Abbott went six innings at Myrtle Beach and gave up two runs while striking out 8. Matt Swarmer had a tougher time at Tennessee. He only managed four innings while giving up three earned runs and striking out three.
At AAA Iowa, Dakota Mekkes threw a scoreless inning hitting 95 on the gun in his debut earlier in the week. Last night, he got in some more work. He went 1.2 IP with 4 Ks, but was removed with the bases loaded and two innings. He was not charged with a run. Trevor Clinton made his AAA debut. He got through it. He went just 4 and allowed 2 runs with 3 Ks, but used 85 pitches to get it done. Now that the butterflies are out of the way, his next start should be better.
Short Season Leagues to Begin Friday
On Friday night the 15th, three more Cub affiliates join the fray when Eugene and the two Mesa teams begin play. Hopefully, they’ll be a lot of draft picks in tow. At some point during the week, Eugene will release its roster and I will do an official preview of the team.
Me and Theo On the Air
In other news, Theo Epstein and I spoke on the radio this week, although not to each other. He spoke to 670 the Score about current state of the Cubs, Jason Heyward, Yu Darvish, and other assorted sundries.
I was on the Kent Sterling Radio Show in Indianapolis (1430 AM) subbing for Evan Altman in his weekly radio spot. I talked with Kent about my love for baseball cards, the draft, and Tyler Chatwood.
I also appeared on fellow Cubs Insider Sean Holland’s Holy Cow podcast this week to talk about the draft at length. We also touched on the current state of the minors, the draft, and presidential scandals. Hopefully, that link will be released shortly. I will send it out on Twitter when Sean releases it.
Draft Signings Update
It’s only been a few days since the draft ended, but it looks like the Cubs are going to get a pretty good haul this year. When Theo first took the over, they signed a little over 20 that first year and that has been creeping up the twenties ever since. In 2016, they signed 25 and last year they signed 29. This year, it’s looking like they’re going to sign between 30 and 33 players. Most of the high school kids in the 30s are not gonna sign but it looks like almost everyone else will.
And some of the draft picks are playing in the College World Series this weekend. Here’s how they did yesterday.
Pitcher Ethan Roberts from Tennessee Tech – 4 IP, 1 runs, 4 Ks
SS Levi Jordan from Washington – 0-4
C Hunter Taylor out of South Carolina – 1-4, 1 RBI
CF Jimmy Herron who plays for Duke – 1-3, BB, 2 runs
Coming Up Next Week
Both Myrtle Beach and Tennessee will be the majority of this week’s coverage as they chase down a playoff spot. I do have a Duane Underwood update ready to go. That should be out on Monday. Later this week I will take a look at the Mesa and Eugene rosters before they begin their season on Friday. They should be very interesting to see which of the young international kids make which team.
Other Stuff I Wrote This Week
Players of the Week
Card of the Week
By Todd Johnson
Tonight in Iowa, pitcher Trevor Clifton will make his AAA pitching debut. I am very excited to watch him pitch. Now that he’s just one step away from Chicago, it’s a bittersweet night. His journey to AAA has been thrilling and frustrating as he’s learned to adapt at every level, something he will need to do in Chicago. Wow! He’s that close. Sorry, I got a bit distracted by how far the 23-year-old has come since he was a 12th round pick back in 2013.
It’s easy to remember when you see a prospect for the very first time, especially when you are excited about their talent. When Trevor Clifton debuted for the Boise Hawks in 2014, the excitement of broadcaster Mike Safford came through over the Internet. It wasn’t until Clifton pitched at Hillsboro that July did I get to see him for the very first time. Once I got past those uniforms, there was a lot to like.
What was evident early what was the potential. He had a mid 90s fastball, a looping curve back then, and a lot of room to fill out. He was a pretty skinny 19-year-old. When he got to South Bend the next year, Clifton put on some weight but began to struggle a bit in June of 2015. After a suspension in a bench-clearing brawl, Clifton came back and began a stretch of great pitching that summer that lasted for two years where he ascended to the top 10 on most Cub prospect lists. He was even named the Cubs Pitcher of the Year in 2016 while at Myrtle Beach after a season in which he put up a 2.72 ERA and struck out 129 in 109 innings.
Last year at Tennessee, he had a great first half with a 2.84 ERA in 12 starts and was named a Southern League All-Star. It looked as though he was about a month away from heading to Iowa. Then all the wheels fell off. He struggled most of July and into August before he was shut down for the season after his August 21st start..
It’s a bit of a change to go from a six man rotation down to five. But for Clifton that wasn’t the issue. Part of me thought it might be something mechanical was going on or maybe something just got in his head. Whatever the reason, It doesn’t matter now. He’s bounced back.
Clifton started 2018 with a decent April in which he had a 3.96 ERA. Outside of one inning, he gave up just 3 runs in the other 24 frames (1.13 ERA). For May, he put up a 2.36 ERA in 26.2 IP with 25 Ks.
To be frank, 2018 Trevor Clifton looks like Trevor Clifton of old. The guy that really took off in July 2015 looks to be like the same guy pitching for Tennessee in 2018. The curve ball is a little tighter, his change has a little more fade, and his fastball still explodes about 10 feet from the plate.
Not every prospect’s journey to the big leagues is a straight shot. What I like this year is there seems to be some sort of maturity going on. He’s able to get past mental hurdles when he gives up one or two runs to start the game and then he just settles down and can go for five more innings of shutout baseball. He’s not been an arm that will give up a run here or there. Teams either hit him or they don’t. They either get to him early or they get to him late or they don’t get to him at all.
I loved how hard he has worked this off-season to get back to where he needs to be to pitch good baseball. I’ve always enjoyed the swings against him. Seeing him live, he’s at his best when he’s loose, fluid, and not really thinking about what he’s doing. He’s just getting the signal and throwing it to the catcher and letting his natural abilities do what they do. The biggest thing that he has going for him is that he can be a dominant pitcher because of the late movement on all his pitches. He can throw 93 or 95, but those numbers don’t matter.
When he takes the mound tonight, I will be excited to see how he does. I might be a bit misty.
By Todd Johnson
Today’s going to be a hectic day. Starting around 11 Central, Day 3 of the MLB draft begins. If you go online to MLB.com, it’s like listening to a giant conference call because that’s exactly what it is. There is no time between picks and it is sometimes hard to keep up. I will be live blogging starting around 11 and, at some point, I will need to take a break as the day wears on. I hope to see a surprise or two today in the draft.
Around the System
Unfortunately, the minor league system does not shut down while the draft takes place. Tennessee and Myrtle Beach are playing well right now and both are closing in on playoff spots with 12 games to go. Tennessee is three games back of arch-rival Chattanooga while Myrtle Beach is 4.5 games back of Winston-Salem. South Bend has won three in a row and it’s two games below .500, also with 12 games left. But they are 9 games back.
The big story this week has been the parade of pitching prospects moving up and down the system. Southern League All-Stars Trevor Clifton and Dakota Mekkes are now at AAA Iowa. That is pretty exciting. It is pretty cool that both of them are one step away from realizing their dreams. I will hopefully be traveling out to Iowa some point in the next two weeks. Most likely, Monday or Tuesday next week.
In addition, Matt Swarmer heads from Myrtle Beach to Tennessee along with reliever Jordan Minch who now gives Tennessee their first left-handed on the roster this season. Pitcher Cory Abbott takes off his South Bend uniform and will put on Myrtle Beach Pelicans jersey for a while. I cannot wait to see how he does in a pitcher’s park.
Even though he was promoted a few weeks ago to AA Tennessee, infielder Vimael Machin has been on fire since arriving in Kodak. In 16 games as a Smokie, he’s hitting at .432 clip. I will have a profile of him in the next few days. I also have one ready to go on Trevor Clifton.
Down in the Dominican, the two teams have played 3 games. Outfielder Carlos Morfa is stealing all the thunder hitting 3 HRs, 2 of them yesterday, while hitting close to .600. His OPS is 2.199!!! Be wary of DSL stats, but this is an interesting story to follow as Morfa needs to builds up a larger sample size of data. This is about the only thing I can find about Morfa and it is his prospect video from the DPL. First thing you notice in the video. He’s just 17.
Meanwhile, on Cubs Central, the draft is hogging the website for just one more day. After today, I will have a new top 21 list tomorrow and then I think I might take a day off from writing as it feels like it’s becoming a full-time job the past three days.
Right now, I’m going to go for a walk. It’s a little brisk here in northern Illinois as it got down into the 40s last night. The cool air ought to wake me up and get me ready for 30 new Cubs to be selected starting in less than 3 hours.
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.
By Todd Johnson
It was an interesting week in the minors. Everyday saw a great pitching performance or two. On Sunday, Erich Uelmen went six scoreless while Jen-Ho Tseng had the first of two good starts on the week going 7 innings with 9 Ks and 2 runs. On Monday, Michael Rucker went 6 innings with 8 Ks while allowing 2 runs. Javier Assad struck out 7 on Tuesday.
Wednesday was the big day as Brendon Little went 7 scoreless while fellow first rounder Alex Lange went six scoreless with 10 Ks. Duane Underwood also did well on Wednesday along with Trevor Clifton, whose start was cut short due to rain.
On Thursday, the pitching parade continued as Matt Swarmer went 6 scoreless with 7 Ks before leaving in the 7th with a tired arm. He should not miss a start. On Friday, Bailey Clark went from piggyback starter to a full-fledged rotation piece at Myrtle Beach with 4 innings of 1 run ball. That same night, Cory Abbott went 6 strong with 5 Ks and 1 run.
Last night, all four starters were magnificent as well. Keegan Thompson got things started off with 6 scoreless and 8 Ks for Myrtle Beach. South Bend’s Erich Uelmen went 5 scoreless and 8 Ks, too. The only difference between the two was that Thompson gave up just one hit while Uelmen allowed three. Alec Mills continued the night with 6 innings of 1 run ball. Oscar de la Cruz looked very strong for Tennessee, even taking a liner off his knee and staying in the game. He went 7 innings with no runs allowed while striking out 7 and scattering 5 hits.
As the temperature warms up, so has some hitting.
Christian Donahue is an infielder who currently plays for South Bend. After coming off the DL on the 16th, Donahue’s bat has taken off with steady playing time. He’s hitting .400 for the month. He seems to be a doubles machine as he has a .964 OPS despite not having a home run. But what I like the most is Donahue’s hustle. He plays the game hard. Being an undrafted free agent out of Oregon State might have something to do with that. I will flesh out his bio a little later this week.
Some Good News
Ryan Williams returned to action for the first time in 2 years yesterday. The “Big Lumberjack” threw 46 pitches (3.2 IP) yesterday in an EXST game. He didn’t light up the radar gun, but he was effective the first two innings. In addition, Erling Moreno came on in relief throwing harder than usual at 96-98. Arizona Phil of The Cub Reporter wondered if Erling is being transitioned into a reliever.
Victor Caratini is back in Iowa while Chris Gimenez is now in Chicago. Victor really needs to play everyday. I am sure the experience was good, but Victor’s future is not as a backup to Willson, Victor, more than likely, will be his own catcher at some point. Efren Navarro of iowa, who was on track to make this month’s All-Star team at 1B, was designated for assignment yesterday.
Jim Callis Draft Interview
On Saturday, Jim Callis of MLB Pipeline was on 670 The Score’s “Inside the Clubhouse” talking about the draft. Callis said the Cubs have to let the draft come to them picking at #24. Callis talked about how the Cubs may have a strategy of looking for a college bat, but players drop or fall for various reasons. Callis used Alex Lange dropping last year as an example. Callis brought up some college arms who could fall to the Cubs including lefty Shane McClanahan of Central Florida, Logan Gilbert of Stetson, and Jackson Kowar of Florida as guys who could be bypassed earlier in the draft in favor of college bats.
One interesting name that came up as possible bats at that position, aside from Callis’ pick of Trevor Larnach, was Indiana high school outfielder Nick Schnell. The Louisville commit has a nice 6’2” 180 lb. frame and bats left while throwing right. Callis called him an all-around player.
Another player I hear gaining traction, and not just for the Cubs, is Georgia prep catcher Anthony Seigler. Though decent behind the plate, his bat is his true calling card. He also has the experience of playing USA Baseball, a box that scouting director Jason McLeod like to check. If he shoots into the first round, he could mess up a lot of draft boards.
Around the System
Iowa – 5-2 (18-29)
Tennessee – 3-3 (25-23)
Myrtle Beach – 4-4 (21-28)
South Bend – 4-3 (21-26)
Players of the Week
Card of the Week
Coming Up Next Week on Cubs Central
Monday – Draft Questions
Tuesday – Christian Donahue
Wednesday – Pitching in the MiLB
Thursday – ???
Friday – May MiLB All-Star Team
Saturday – May Cards of the Month
Sunday – The Weekly
Monday the 4th – Draft Day #1
As for Me…
I wrapped up another year of teaching on Thursday afternoon. That, to me, means the beginning of summer. When I am not checking in on baseball the next few weeks, I am going to do a lot of little things around the house and yard while trying to figure whether I am going to South Bend or Des Moines for a trip the week of June 11th.
By Todd Johnson
Happy Mother’s Day!
It was a good week across the entire organization. The big league club looks like it’s beginning to put things together at the plate. Meanwhile, in the minor leagues, pitching dominated the week as three of the four affiliates had winning weeks.
It was a full week of games so several starters got in two starts. Duane Underwood dazzled in both starts. It seemed like every day someone was going six innings with several strikeouts. As a result, picking the pitcher of the week was a very hard choice.
The big news of the week came in South Bend in three parts.
1. Top 10 prospect Nelson Velazquez popped up in South Bend and immediately flashed his five tools. It is going to be a bit of adjustment for him as he probably has never seen the types of curveballs and offspeed stuff he is going to see in the Midwest League.
2. Pitcher Rollie Lacy made his first start of the year this week after dominating in the bullpen for five weeks. In fact, he made two starts. I really like watching him work as he just seems to pound the zone and keeps hitters off their toes by changing speeds. And he also misses a lot of bats (31 in 27.1 IP).
3. No sooner than I posted an article about Brendon Little did he have his best start of the year. He came out Friday night and just attacked, attacked, and attacked. While he did walk four, he struck out five as the Clinton hitters were stymied by his curve. Little only gave up two hits and looked very impressive doing so. As a result, I am excited to see how he does on Wednesday or Thursday next week – which should be his next start.
This Week’s Records
Iowa 5-2 (11-23)
Tennessee 5-2 (19-16)
Myrtle Beach 2-5 (14-22)
South Bend 4-3 (14-18)
It is also hard to believe that the first half of the MiLB first half is now over on Tuesday the 15th. The minor league season goes by very, very quickly and we should start to see a few pitching promotions soon. I don’t expect anything major, and by major I mean a starting pitcher. It will probably be a reliever.
Dakota Mekkes is the one to watch for and the one that could impact the big league club the most. He’s just dominated the Southern League in six weeks. I don’t know what else he has left to prove. Yes, he could cut down on his walks but he can work on that at Iowa while getting that much closer to Chicago.
I don’t see a lot of player movement happening on the hitting side.
Extended Spring Training
Cuban pitcher Raidel Orta, 22, is starting to get some more action. A little under the radar signing, he might be a bit of a break out prospect in the second half. I have yet to see him pitch, but I am looking forward to hopefully seeing him in Eugene with that talented roster. He comes in at 5’9″ and 180 lbs. Meanwhile, third baseman Christopher Morel keeps hitting dingers and shortstops Luis Diaz and Luis Vasquez keep impressing Arizona Phil in the daily updates at The Cub Reporter. Another name to keep in mind is catcher Jonathan Soto who seems to be coming up big at the most important times. Another name who could be interesting this summer is Kevn Moreno, a 3B from Cuba who sounds like he could stick in Mesa at 17-years-old.
Mock Drafts Coming In
Both Baseball America and MLB Pipeline released full first round mock drafts in the past two weeks. BA had the Cubs taking a HS catcher from Georgia while MLB Pipeline had the Cubs going with Kumar Rocker, an elite athlete and quality HS pitcher. Here is what Jim Callis said of Rocker:
Chicago has pounded college pitching in each of the last two Drafts and still could use more arms, though this time the prep route might be more attractive in the first round. A hamstring injury has slowed Rocker down the stretch, giving the Cubs an unexpected shot at a guy who can bring mid-90s heat and a wipeout slider at his best. Rodriguez and Wilcox are two more comparable options.
While Rocker would be a good selection, the Cubs are most likely to pound college bats with their first four to five picks. In positions slotted behind Rocker were some appealing college bats like Seth Beer and Steele Walker, and Prep bat Connor Scott.
What’s Ahead Next Week at Cubs Central?
On Monday, I will be examining the draft classes of the past few years and re-grading them. I don’t really have much else planned for the week other than to keep an eye on Velazquez transitioning to South Bend.
Players of the Week
Things I Wrote for Other Sites
April Wrap Up
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.