Trevor Clifton

The 7 Series: Tennessee Smokies Show Some Deep Talent in 2017

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By Todd Johnson

Overall Record – 68-70

I am not quite sure what went down in Kodak, Tennessee this summer. In April and May, they were close to being the best team in the system and were competing for a playoff spot against Chattanooga. Then, in one series, they were swept by Chattanooga and that doused any first half playoff hopes. Several prospects struggled in June and July and yet the Smokies were still in the thick of the playoff hunt again until mid August when the Montgomery Biscuits put some distance between themselves and the Smokies. Pitcher Jake Stinnett, who missed most of the year, returned in late July as a reliever and shined in his new role (0.61 ERA in 9 games). There could be something there.

Still, there was a lot of development that took place in 2017 for a team that was not considered to have a lot of elite prospects. Here are seven things about the Smokies talented roster.

1. Outfielder Charcer Burks was one of the prospects who came out of the gate extremely well in spring training playing with the big league club. That carried over into April and May as Burks made his way onto MLB Pipeline’s top 30 cubs prospect list after hitting .293 and .286 and then .333 in June. Then July happened. He hit .135 for the month but he did rebound some in August. For the year, he hit .270 with a .370 OBP.

2. Trey Martin – He has been around for a while and he has improved at every level. It is not been a rapid ascent, though, but a slow steady climb. Along the way, he’s won two gold gloves and struggled with minor issues like this year’s hamstring strain that caused him to miss two months. Upon his return, his bat showed a marked improvement and I am really excited about what he might be doing at Iowa next year.

3. David Bote exploded in the second half of 2016 and that carried over into April and May 2017. Like Burks, he went down a little bit in the summer but rebounded well in August hitting over .280. I like the fact that he can play multiple positions in the infield. He has shown some power, but I prefer the fact that he is hitting the ball up the middle on a consistent basis.

4. Jason Vosler – He led the Cubs’ system in home runs this year with 21 but he also hit less than .200 in August. He came on like gangbusters this spring and then faded over the course of the rest of the summer. I am looking forward to seeing his batting average/OBP bounce back in 2018. It seems the more home runs he hit in July and August the lower his batting average got. Considering the fact that he never had more than 10 home runs in a season before 2017, it was interesting to see him produce at such a prodigious rate.

5. Yasiel Balaguert – We should just rename him Mr. Second Half. If he ever had a good first half, he would hit over 25 homers and drive in100 every year. That’s basically his second half pace when prorated out to a 162 game schedule. Maybe he’s just one of those guys it does better when it’s warmer. I look forward to him playing first base and the outfield next year for Iowa in a hitter’s league.

6. Ian Rice – You have to be picky when looking at his stats. You can hone in on the on-base percentage, the power numbers, and games played behind the plate that all point to him being one of the most improved prospects the past year. He played in 114 games this year with a .353 OBP and hit 17 homeruns. Considering that he was a last-minute addition to the Tennessee roster, he did an outstanding job transitioning over to catching almost full-time. I am really looking forward to seeing what he can do in Arizona Fall League this October and November.

7 – Which starting pitchers will get promoted to Iowa with Duane Underwood? I don’t know who that’s going to be. I honestly don’t. It should be determined in spring training. I think Zach Hedges will get a crack at Iowa again if I was to make a bet. If Adbert Alzolay and Trevor Clifton shine in spring training, they could also find their way there. I think a lot of it depends on who the Cubs sign, or trade for, in the offseason to replace Arrieta and Lackey. Right now, Alzolay, who is pitching well in relief in Arizona, might have the inside shot. Clifton, who was brilliant in the first half of the year and struggled in the second, could turn his career around quickly with a good spring. I would not be surprised to see all four get a shot in spring training to make a start with the big league club.

Smokies to Watch in 2018
Now 22, Eddy Martinez will be the player to watch in 2018. He’s finally acclimated to playing baseball again and playing baseball in the United States. It’s been a huge cultural shift for him and he is now able to relax and just play. In the second half of 2017, he hit .276 with 7 HRs and an OBP of .333. I imagine that the Eloy trade was tough for him as they were inseparable as teammates. The trade also may have helped him realize he is on his own now. I am looking forward to seeing him do his own thing in AA in 2018.

SS Zack Short, Pitchers Dakota Mekkes, Michael Rucker, Duncan Robinson, Thomas Hatch, Pedro Araujo, C Tyler Alamo, and 3B Jesse Hodges also bear watching in Tennessee. All will be at critical junctures in their development.

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A New Top 21 List – A Few Movers and Shakers

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By Todd Johnson

I am thinking I had this list done about three weeks ago. I wanted to put it out almost immediately after the minor league season ended. After thinking about it, I thought I would just let it settle and edit it before I put it out. To be honest, it has changed much from when I wrote it to today. In fact, I was reconsidering re-ordering 5-9 all night.

Card made from a photo by Freek Bouw/27 Outs Baseball.com

There are really only two major changes in this list from the summer. They are the inclusion of outfielders Jonathan Sierra and Nelson Velazquez. In fact, I had Velasquez shoot all the way into the top 10. The Cubs don’t have anybody like him in the system with his home run power and production.

I still think this list is pretty volatile. After the Arizona Fall League, I will think about mixing it up a bit. But with who is going to Arizona, I think only one prospect might improve their lot on the list.

The list could change quite a bit later this off-season as trades are made and injuries are revealed. I think the biggest risers and fallers next year will be at AA Tennessee. The Smokies will have pitchers Thomas Hatch, Trevor Clifton, Oscar de la Cruz, Duncan Robinson, Michael Rucker and position players Zack Short and Eddy Martinez. Those seven will determine how the rest of the list looks because production at AA signals that the product could be productive in Chicago.

South Bend’s rotation next year will also have a huge impact on the list as recent draft picks will be unleashed without any restrictions. Cory Abbott and Keegan Thompson are two pitchers who could make some waves in 2018 with some excellent performances next summer.

So, without further adieu, here is the current Top 21 list in video form.

Now That Jeimer Is Gone, Which Cubs Prospects Have “Next” in Chicago?

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By Todd Johnson

Eloy is gone.

Dylan Cease is gone.

Ian Happ is gone.

Albert Almora is gone.

Jeimer Candelario…gone.

Four months ago, they were the top five guys in the Cubs’ system. Two made it to Chicago while the other three were used in trades to obtain players that will hopefully bring another World Series trophy this year and/or next.

In looking at who might be the next group of players to make it to Chicago, one only need to look at AAA Iowa and AA Tennessee to see the next possible candidates who could arrive over the next year to help out.

I feel confident in saying that we can rule out any position players. No one in Chicago is going anywhere until at least after 2018. And that is not a even certainty.

So that leaves pitching.

The Cubs will have several openings in the bullpen and starting staff next year. I think the Cubs will use all avenues of talent acquisition to fill those spots. Still, here are five to seven prospects to watch the rest of August, fall instructs, and spring training as they could be in the discussion for a roster spot in 2018, or maybe even a bullpen spot this year.

Dillon Maples – It took a while, but he’s got it. In fact, he has always had “it.” Now he has confidence and a cutter to go with his upper 90s fastball and slider/curve “thingy” (That’s what Maples calls it). He has dominated two levels this year and is now working on a third. Based on his talent and ascension, he will get a precious 40 man spot this winter to escape being selected in the Rule V draft.

Jen-Ho Tseng – I loved him in 2014 as an 18-year-old at Kane County. The changeup fell off the table then. He will turn 23 this fall and should have a shot to compete for a starting spot at the back of the rotation in 2018. More than likely, he will probably be used as starting pitching depth for next season and be stored at Iowa. Still, I cannot wait to see him in camp next spring.

Craig Brooks – He is in Tennessee right now. In July, the right handed reliever did not allow a run and struck out 25 in 13.1 IP. It took him several months to figure it out at Myrtle Beach. It took him just 4 weeks at AA. I cannot wait to see what his mid to upper 90s heat will do at Iowa and in spring training.

Adbert Alzolay – Long term, I like his stuff better out of the pen. But for now, he’s starting and doing it very well throwing at 96 in the 6th and 7th innings. The secondaries still need some work. Hopefully, he can get those improved at AA before the spring. He is stretched out now in his second year of starting after being a reliever/piggyback starter in Eugene in 2015. He’s pretty healthy despite his small frame.

Matt Carasiti – He came over this summer in the Zac Rosscup trade from the Rockies. I have watched him pitched a couple of times. He throws in the middle 90s but doesn’t have that “out” pitch, but he does know how to pitch. You don’t get to be the closer in the All-Star game in a hitter’s league for nothing.

Long Shots – Duane Underwood and Trevor Clifton

They have both been around for a while. Underwood in his second season at AA and Clifton, his first. For Underwood, he still throws in the upper 90s that either he commands or he doesn’t command and that can change from inning to inning. He just turned 23 so don’t expect the Cubs to give up on him anytime soon.

As for Trevor, he was outstanding through the All-Star Break at AA. Since, he’s struggled in his six second half starts. I still believe in his talents. At times, he is humming right along and runs into the big inning or a big fly. His walk rate is up a bit after being way down last year. He’s a mentally tough kid. At just 22, he’s worked hard to get here. He will continue to do so. This might be just a bump in the road for him to go around.

 

The Cubs Farm System in a Post-Eloy World Built on Youth and Pitching

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By Todd Johnson

You wouldn’t think that trading two of your top prospects would gut your farm system. But for the Cubs today, it did rip a pretty good gash in the system. Eloy Jimenez was the top ranked hitter and Dylan Cease was the top ranked pitcher. Combined, they were the only two prospects the Cubs had in Baseball America’s Top 100. Jeimer Candelario is the only Cub that remains on MLB.com’s Pipeline Top 100. That’s a drastic change from 2013-2014 when the Cubs had as many as 6 prospects in the list.

However, the Cubs farm system will be fine in the long run.

The organization can be rebuilt quickly. Epstein, Hoyer, and McLeod did it once, they can do it again. Next year, they have the regular draft, likely 1-2 comp picks, and international free agency restrictions will be lifted. You can be assured the Cubs will attack acquiring talent in several means. In fact, the system is just beginning a quiet rebuild with the 2015 international free agent class hitting these shores, many of them at just 18 years-old.

Some of them are just blossoming in the states. Names like Jose Albertos, Miguel Amaya, Isaac Paredes, Johnathan Sierra, Aramis Ademan, and Brailyn Marquez could become household names in the next two years as they mature. John Arguello of 2080 Baseball wrote an excellent piece on the depth of the Cubs’ cull that year. I think that the group will be the foundation of the system the next three years.

But when it comes to now, just who exactly moves up the prospect lists in the void left the trade of Jimenez and Cease? MLB.com listed Jeimer Candelario as the new top prospect. I don’t think that he is. Sure, he’s a good player with value, but I think there others who project much higher.

Here are the top 5 names after Jeimer that could assume the mantle of the Cubs’ Top Prospect in the next two summers.

Aramis Ademan – Shortstop

Age – 18
2027 Affiliate – Eugene
Top skills – Defense, deft hands
ETA – 2021
He skipped rookie ball and is playing in short season Eugene in 2017. Defensively, he is leaps and bounds above every shortstop in the system. The bat is slowly coming around and has more pop than first thought. In July, he’s hitting over .300 and improving rapidly on offense.

Trevor Clifton – Pitcher

Age: 22
2017 Affiliate – Tennessee
Top Skills – 3 plus pitches, improving command, pick-off move, pitchability, work ethic
ETA – 2018/2019
He was pretty consistent in April and May and hit a bit of a bump after the All-Star break. 2017 was easily his best start in his career. 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. He is pitching tonight for Tennessee.

Tom Hatch – Pitcher

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.

Adbert Alzolay – Pitcher

Age: 22
2017 Affiliate – Myrtle Beach
Top Skills – 96/97 mph fastball that he can sustain and maintain deep in the game.
ETA – 2018
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. In his AA Tennessee debut, he announced his presence with authority by striking out 10. I could see him as a back-end starter, but he would be dynamite as a reliever topping out near 100.

Jose Albertos – Pitcher

Age: 18
2017 Affiliate – Eugene
Top Skills – 97 mph fastball, command
ETA – 2020
The young 18-year-old out of Mexico throws between 95-97. He has elite command of his fastball and employs a plus changeup. The curve, when developed, will give him three plus pitches.The ball just flies out of his hand. I fell in love with him the first time I saw him pitch (last Sunday). He is just deadly with the fastball. He is extremely advanced for his age.

While this list is pitching heavy, expect that to be the trend. The Cubs have a lot of good arms who should be arriving in Chicago in 2018 and 2019. It’s not about the hitters anymore.

To see my updated Top 21 List, click here.

 

 

Arizona Fall League and Rule V Decisions Loom This Month

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By Todd Johnson

At some point over the next two weeks, the Cubs will select up to eight players to participate in the prestigious Arizona Fall League. The league is a collection of elite talent. Held in October and November, the Cubs use this opportunity to evaluate how some players do against top-flight competition. The Cubs also use the league after to determine if they want to add certain players to the 40 man roster to avoid losing them in the Rule V Draft. And they also get some top prospects, who have been injured, some extra games in.  

This year is quite the conundrum. I think the Cubs could add up to 8 prospects to the 40 man roster this winter. Here is List of Eligible Players for the rule five draft per The Cub Reporter:

Tyler Alamo, Adbert Alzolay, Luis Ayala, Yasiel Balaguert, Corey Black, David Bote, Cael Brockmeyer, Charcer Burks, Stephen Bruno, Roberto Caro, Trevor Clifton, Kevin Cornelius, Oscar de la Cruz, Enrique de los Rios, Andin Diaz, Andrew Ely, Luiz Escanio, Bryant Flete, Robert Garcia, David Garner, Yapson Gomez, Zach Hedges, Luis Hernandez, Jesse Hodges, Eloy Jiménez, John Michael Knighton, Erick Leal, Mark Malave, Dillon Maples, Brad Markey, Joe Martarano, Ryan McNeil, Jordan Minch, Erling Moreno, James Norwood, Juan Carlos Paniagua, Adonis Paula, Jose Paulino, Tyler Pearson, Henry Pedra, Stephen Perakslis, Jhonny Pereda, Chris Pieters, Bijan Rademacher, Moises Ramirez, Will Remillard, Juan Rengifo, David Rollins, Manuel Rondon, Carson Sands, Pedro Silverio, Jake Stinnett, Tommy Thorpe, Jen-Ho Tseng, Jason Vosler, Ryan Williams, Chesny Young, Jose Zapata.

Let’s start by looking at who the Cubs may send to Arizona.

I think two pitchers they want to get a closer look at are Dillon Maples and Adbert Alzolay. Although Alzolay is a starter, he could work in relief in Mesa. I also think 3B Jason Vosler and OF Charcer Burks are definitely going to Arizona. You could even throw in left-handed reliever Jordan Minch as that is a scarce position in the majors. The Cubs could also use a closer look at C Ian Rice and to get him more time behind the plate with elite pitchers. Closer Pedro Araujo Is another ascending reliever who the Cubs might want to take a look at. Currently he is dominating as the closer at Myrtle Beach. Outfielder Eddy Martinez could get a shot at Arizona if he could improve a little bit this summer. Currently, he is hitting .325 over his last 10 games.   

The big-name prospect that they could send this year is not Eloy. Instead it is pitcher Oscar de la Cruz who missed most of June with a strained shoulder muscle. I would like to see how his mid 90s heat does against more advanced hitters.

As a result, I think the Cubs will definitely select a minimum of five players to go on the 40 man roster this winter. I do think they could really add up to eight.

Definitely 40 man material  

Adbert Alzolay, Charcer Burks, Trevor Clifton, Oscar de la Cruz, Eloy Jimenez

I think these five are all on a major-league track. Adbert’s has been a surprise this year along with Burks. The other three have been some of the Cubs top prospects for the past three years. I would be stunned if Clifton, Jimenez, and de la Cruz are not on the 40 man.   

Most Likely Added

I really like Dillon Maples. His curveball is out of this world and he’s really taking big steps toward becoming a major-league reliever this year. I think it all boils down to confidence for him and he will probably be in Iowa in August. As for Jason Vosler, I think the Cubs need to see what they have in the left-handed third baseman before they make a decision. He had a great April and May before slumping in June, even though he hit five home runs for the month.   

Maybe – Maybe Not

Chesny Young has not had the greatest year. I don’t think the Cubs are going to protect him. If they don’t, I think somebody might snag him. Jen-Ho Tseng is a tricky one. He’s had a rebirth this year, but I don’t know if he will make it to Chicago if he does get put on the 40 man.   

Probably Not

Bijan Rademacher is a guy you root for. He is still relatively young and can play all three outfield positions. He just doesn’t have much power but he can hit for a high average.

Jake Stinnett, Erick Leal, Ryan Williams, Zach Hedges, Carson Sands – These are all nice guys but injuries have done four out of five of them in for this year. Sands might be one to talk about a year from now. He is currently rehabbing in Mesa after elbow splints.

Foresight

Joe Martarano – even though he missed a season playing football, he was just promoted to South Bend. I know a team is not going to take a chance and select him with the expectation of him playing on the major-league roster. A year from now, that might be a different discussion.   

Jordan Minch – he’s left-handed, he’s a reliever, and if exposed, he might get selected. But that’s a big if.

Do they stay on?

Right now Pierce Johnson, Dwayne Underwood, and Jacob Hannemann are all on the 40 man roster. Johnson and Underwood have had underwhelming seasons in 2016, while Hanneman has had a resurgence in his best month as a prospect since his promotion to AAA Iowa. I think the Cubs give them one more year. Underwood, after all, is only 22 years old. On the other hand, Johnson and Hannemann are 26.

The decisions for the Arizona Fall League usually occur in the middle of July. Whomever the Cubs select to attend always gives a glimpse into who they value and who they need to evaluate some more.

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
Image may contain: 1 person, sunglasses, baseball and text
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
Image may contain: 1 person, baseball
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
Image may contain: one or more people, people playing sports, baseball and text
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.