Trevor Clifton

Baseball Prospectus’ Top 10 Cubs Prospect List is Pitching Heavy and Young

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By Todd Johnson

The prospect list season is going quick this year. Usually, the major lists are spread out over four months. Not this year. So far, four of the six major lists have been published leaving only MLB Pipeline and Keith Law to go. On Monday, Baseball Prospectus joined the early crowd with their list of top 10 Cubs prospects.

However, despite the current state of the Cubs system, there is still plenty of room for hope and plenty of time for these prospects to develop into players that can contribute at the major-league level.

Baseball Prospectus can be a little bit out there in it’s ranking of Cubs prospects. In 2015, they ranked Addison Russell at number one ahead of Kris Bryant. In 2015, BP placed Gleyber Torres first and followed that up with Eloy Jimenez last year. Heading into this year’s list, I thought it would be one of three prospects: Adbert Alzolay, Aramis Ademan, or Jose Albertos.

There was nothing shocking in the list. Right-handed starting pitchers dominated the list followed by one lefty starter, a switch-hitting catcher and a soon to be 19-year-old shortstop.

The Top Ten
1. Adbert Alzolay, RHP; 2. Jose Albertos, RHP; 3. Aramis Ademan, SS; 4. Brendon Little, LHP; 5. Alex Lange, RHP; 6. Victor Caratini, C; 7. Thomas Hatch, RHP; 8. Oscar de la Cruz, RHP; 9. Jen-Ho Tseng, RHP; and 10. Alec Mills, RHP

In years past, Twitter exchanges could get hot and heavy over which Cubs prospect made a list or did not make a list. I don’t think anyone’s going to be fighting over whether Alec Mills is at number 10. Times have changed. And more importantly, that goes to show just how much focus is now on the major league club.

The Hope
One key to understanding the system and just how raw it is comes from the fact that many of the prospects who might eventually make a top 100 list are 18-19 years old and only Ademan has played  in South Bend and full season baseball. A year from now, this list is going to be totally different and filled with Albertos and other young prospects like Jeremiah Estrada, Nelson Velazquez, and Javier Assad. That’s where the hope is.

BP discussed many of them in their “second ten” section. There’s a lot of depth in the system just based on this section.

Who Is Missing?
It’s stunning what two months of a rough stretch in baseball can do to career, as well as an injury. For Trevor Clifton, he had an outstanding first half (2.84 ERA in 12 starts) at Tennessee and then fell apart in the second. I am still hopeful that he can get it back to what he was like in the first half of 2017. I don’t know how one could give up on him so fast.

Jake Stinnett missed most of the year but came back in August and also pitched in the Arizona Fall League. He showed that he could possibly be a reliever.

Coming Up
I’m looking forward to MLB Pipeline’s list which should be out sometime in January. It’s a little bit more extensive in that they rank 30 prospects. Keith Law usually waits until February to publish his list and I had not planned on doing an updated Top 21 list this winter unless there’s a trade. Who knows, anything could happen this week.

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Trying to Predict Baseball America’s Upcoming Lists

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By Todd Johnson

When it comes to prospect lists this winter, beauty is definitely going to be in the eye of the beholder. As prospect lists begin to come out over the course of the next three months, you could see 20 different Cubs make a top 10 list. And you could see four or five different Cubs atop each of those lists. In a post-Eloy world, it’s going to take a long time for those lists to settle down. With the possibility that the Cubs might make another trade this offseason, more chaos could soon enter those lists.

Baseball America is getting ready to drop their latest Top 10 Cubs Prospects List on Monday or Tuesday, in addition to their top tools in the system. I thought I might beat them to the punch at their own game and come out with my prediction of their list of top MiLB tools and try to guess who they will select as their top 10 Cubs prospects.

🔸Best Hitter for Average: Victor Caratini – No one else is even close.

🔸Best Power Hitter:  Nelson Velazquez – 10 HRs in 6 weeks ought to get him the title.

🔸Best Strike-Zone Discipline: Mark Zagunis. Easy choice but there are several who could gain on him in the next year including Austin Filiere, Jared Young, and Austin Upshaw.

🔸Fastest Baserunner:  DJ Wilson – Watch him hit a triple and you will see how fast he flies.

🔸Best Athlete: Jacob Hannemann is now but might not be for long. Nelson Velazquez could overtake him in a year.

🔸Best Fastball: Adbert Alzolay – Sitting at 96 in the sixth and seventh innings is pretty impressive.

🔸Best Curveball: Dillon Maples – To him, this is his fastball as he commands it and throws it in fastball counts. 

🔸Best Slider: Dillon Maples – This will be the pitch that makes him a killer pro.

🔸Best Changeup: Jose Albertos barely gets the nod over Eugene teammate Jesus Camargo. Both are excellent and get some ugly, ugly swings.

🔸Best Control: Adbert Alzolay – It begins and ends with the ability to put his fastball where and when he wants. Jen-Ho Tseng comes in a close second.

🔸Best Defensive Catcher: Miguel Amaya – While blocking might be a small issue, his arm is clearly not. PJ Higgins is next. It will be interesting to watch Will Remillard come back and to see what recent international signee Alexander Guerra can do

🔸Best Defensive INF and Best INF Arm:  You might think that Aramis Ademan would get the nod. However, Luis Vazquez is better and more consistent. I’ve only seen him make a few plays, but he shows much more range, fluidity, and athleticism than Ademan.

🔸Best Defensive OF: Now that Trey Martin is gone and Jake Hannemann is back,  Hannemann barely gets the nod over Charcer Burks, DJ Wilson, and Nelson Velazquez. In a year, Velazquez could win almost every hitting and outfield award.

🔸Best OF Arm: Eddy Martinez – 2018 is going to be his year. Don’t be shocked to see him get a chance in Chicago later this summer.

Baseball America’s top 10 list is going to be a little bit different than mine as I do not consider Victor Caratini to still be a prospect. While he technically is, he has spent enough time in the majors to not be, just not the prerequisite 130 at-bats. After Caratini, it could be a free-for-all. It just depends on what value one sees in a prospect.

Where all these prospects are going to be ranked is a complete mystery to me. I’m having trouble reconciling whether to put Ademan in the top five and whether to include Dillon Maples in the top 10. I know other people like pitcher Adbert Alzolay a lot (as do I), but I think that Jose Albertos is a better high-end and prospect and would be my top prospect overall. I would expect the two young pitchers to be 2A and 2B.

Then, all bets are off.

In thinking of how I would do my own list, I’m half tempted to put Nelson Velasquez at number four. Just based on his little six week stint of 10 home runs in Mesa, you have to love the praise he garnered from evaluators and Jason McLeod in the Mark Gonzalez article.

There at least a dozen players who could make their way into Baseball America’s top 10. Mark Zagunis might be the most ready for the majors after Caratini. Thomas Hatch could more than likely be in the top 10 along with the Cubs two first round picks from 2017, Brendon Little and Alex Lange. MLB.com’s number one prospect, the oft-injured Oscar de la Cruz, should be in the top 10 as well as shortstop Aramis Ademan. Cases could also be made for Dillon Maples, Jen-Ho Tseng, Trevor Clifton, Duane Underwood, Jr., D.J. Wilson, and Justin Steele as top 10 prospects this winter.

Their analysis should make for some very interesting discussions in the coming week.

The Friday Six-Pack: Six Things on My Mind as the Season Ends

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By Todd Johnson

Now that the World Series is complete, Cub Central’s Friday 6-Pack returns in a rare off-season appearance. A lot of random baseball things have been going through my mind. From free agency to the draft to things I just can’t stop thinking about, it doesn’t seem like the baseball season ended and for me that might be a good thing.

Here are six things I can’t seem to shake from my brain.

1. Starting Pitching Replacement – The Cubs should be able to replace John Lackey fairly easily this off-season. While free agent Alex Cobb comes to mind to take Lackey’s rotation spot, I am having a hard time figuring out who the Cubs might get as a number one or two starter. I think that is the biggest challenge of this off-season. The more I think about it, the more I lean towards the Cubs making a trade to acquire someone like a Chris Archer who is still young and signed for a while.

Card made from a photo by John Conover

2. I don’t think I talked about Jhon Romero this summer as much as I should. Part of that might be hesitation as he has only pitched one year in the states. Then again, he was pretty filthy in doing so. I know that the Cubs have a lot of bullpen arms who could be ready very soon. I wonder how well Romero can do in 2018. Armed with a mid 90s fastball and a tight breaking ball, he should do well at Myrtle Beach in April and May. After that, it should be interesting to see if he can get to Tennessee next year.

3. I think I may have ranked Nelson Velasquez too low. Sometime during the next week, Baseball America should be publishing their top 10 Cubs prospect list. I currently have Nelson at number 10 on my Top 21 List. Part of me wants to take him and move him all the way up to number five, maybe even four. That might be a little presumptuous but after reading some reports about his athletic ability in centerfield, I think the Cubs may have hit the jackpot. Add in the fact that, according to Jason McLeod, Nelson is apparently not done growing. He could be a monster in 2 to 3 years at 6’2 and around 215 pounds.

4. The Draft – I’m not sure what I’m going to do about this topic the next seven and a half months. Part of me doesn’t want to cover it at all. A lot of that has to do with the amount of time spent watching games, online videos, and reading what other people write. There’s another part of me that thinks I should cover it, but only in small bits. I still haven’t decided. On the other hand, my coverage of the draft over its three days in June will not change.

5. Trouble with Starters – I have been wracking my brain as to why the Cubs have not been able to produce some starting pitchers after six full minor-league seasons in the Theo era. I began to ask questions like: Is this a systemic issue? Is there something they’re doing developmentally? Is this a scouting issue? Or, are the Cubs not willing to spend money on pitching? I think this needs to be flushed out in a bigger post. Maybe I’ll do it over at BP Wrigleyville.

6. Summer Itinerary – I started to put together some plans to go watch some baseball next summer. Once school gets out in May, I plan on going over to South Bend for a few days as well as seeing the Cubs’ low Class A affiliate play at Kane County and in the Quad Cities next summer. I also plan on going to see the big league club when they travel to Kansas City as there’s a lot of good barbecue, the Negro League museum, the National Jazz museum, along with the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum. Being a history teacher, the museum trips might be more fun… along with the food… and the baseball – all of my favorite things in one trip (yes, I am a huge nerd!). I also hope to make it out to Des Moines, Iowa next summer when Trevor Clifton or Dakota Mekkes get promoted.

I will be back on Sunday with “The Weekly.” I’ll be talking about Shohei Otani and some breakouts besides John Romero to watch for in 2018.

State of the Cubs for 2018 – Part 2: Acquiring Starting Pitching Is the #1 Priority

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By Todd Johnson

The Cubs need to take their pitching staff into the shop to get it ready for the 2018 season. It’s going to need more than a tuneup, an oil change, and a new set of white walls. In 2017, it proved to be an aging staff. Even with the addition of Jose Quintana, there are still a lot of question marks when it comes to the Cubs starting rotation for 2018 and beyond.

There should be two new faces in 2018 for the starting rotation. When you consider that you have to replace almost 400 innings, in addition to developing some back ups in AAA, that’s a lot to go and find in one offseason. I think the Cubs need to go find the best long-term assets they possibly can. Considering who the Cubs are replacing, the Cubs need number one and number two type starters.

There are three ways that the Cubs are going to get starting pitching for 2018 and beyond. They can promote from within, find a free agent or two, or make a trade. They should get one free agent and make one trade. Theo will probably not go all in on one way to acquire talent.

From Within
The number of pitchers the Cubs could cull from within for 2018 is slim. Mike Montgomery will head back to the pen, although he could make a spot start or two next year. Jen-Ho Tseng is just about ready – he only has 55 IP at AAA. Eddie Butler and Alec Mills also provide some depth in case of injury. However, Mills and Butler are currently not exactly what the Cubs are looking for in a starter. The Cubs need #1 or #2 type arms.

Duane Underwood, Trevor Clifton, Adbert Alzolay, and Zach Hedges should all be at AAA at some point in the next year. In order for any Cub farmhand to make it to Chicago, they would have to be dominant at that level. So far, only Tseng has. Spring training performance will go a long ways towards inspiring any confidence in their arms.

The second half of the year looks more promising for starting pitching help as the prospects gain experience at AAA. The Cubs also have several arms at AA who could help later this season, too. Thomas Hatch is one prospect who I hope figures it out this year and I would not look past Alex Lange, the Cubs second first round pick from 2017. Lange could move fast this year with his experience and his killer curve. A starting pitcher moving quickly is something the Cubs have not seen in the Theo era.

The Free Agent Market
When looking at the free-agent market for this winter, there’s Shohei Otani and then there’s the rest. The Cubs can only offer Otani a minor league contract for $300,00. If Otani waited for another year and a half until he turns 25, the Cubs could sign him for $200-$300 million. With the talent this kid has, the team that signs him would basically be getting a once in a generation type player. I’m keeping my fingers crossed for a miracle but I’m not holding my breath.

 

That leaves the field.

Alex Cobb might be a nice back of the rotation type starter, but he’s not the number one or number two type the Cubs envision themselves getting, let alone one who will be 31 when when 2018 begins.

Here is a list of some of this offseason’s top free agents that I like and their age:
Jake Arrieta (32)
Andrew Cashner (31)
Tyler Chatwood (28)
Johnny Cueto (32) — Can opt out of the remaining four years, $84MM on his contract
Yu Darvish (31)
Nathan Eovaldi (28) — $2MM club option
Matt Moore (29) — $9MM club option with a $1MM buyout
Masahiro Tanaka (29) — Can opt out of the remaining three years, $67MM on his contract

While this list doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence, there are some attractive arms but there is no sure thing at a cheap price. I would love to see Cueto or Darvish in a Cubs’ uniform. I like the idea of Chatwood but more as a reclamation project just as much as I like Cashner in the pen. I just wonder if the cost is going to be prohibitive. As a result, I think the Cubs might go with someone like someone like Alex Cobb, or Jeremy Hellickson who is not on this list. That would be for just one pitcher.

The Trade
The problem with the Cubs making a trade for a #1 type of starting pitcher is they more than likely don’t have the high end minor league prospects that other teams value. Yes, the Cubs do have some good young players, but I don’t think any amalgamation of prospects is going to bring back a number one starter. It’s going to take a major league player to get a major-league pitcher. That means Happ, Almora, Russell, or Schwarber are likely to be involved.

Phil Rogers of MLB.com listed some possible arms the Cubs could acquire this winter that fit the bill of what they are looking for in a pitcher.

But now it sure sounds like Epstein and Co. are prioritizing the starting pitchers who could be available in a trade — Chris Archer, Michael Fulmer, Marcus Stroman, Aaron Nola and Sean Manaea, to name five — ahead of the position players who don’t provide unique skills on the roster. Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant and Willson Contreras are untouchable, but maybe nobody else.

I think whatever the Cubs are going to do this offseason to acquire top flight starting pitching is going to come together quickly. It is hard to put a price on proven major league starting pitching of that caliber. It is going to cost a lot of money or a lot of prospects, or even a current MLB player.

In the end…

When the year 2021 comes around. most of the Cubs position players will be in the last year of their rookie contracts. The Cubs do not have any starting pitching signed beyond that year. Whoever Theo gets this winter could be the anchors for 2021 and beyond.

The Weekly: MiLB Roster Moves, International Free Agent List, and the 40 Man and Rule V List is Coming

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By Todd Johnson

MiLB Roster News
The Cubs claimed outfielder Jake Hannemann off waivers from Seattle who previously acquired Hannemann from the Cubs back in September. With the pending free agency of John Jay, and the possibility of the Cubs trading one of their young outfielders, Hanneman provides some depth along with current Iowa Cub Mark Zagunis.

The Cubs re-signed Minor League free agent James Pugliese on Friday. In the past week, fellow Cubs prospects Gioskar Amaya and Erick Castillo also re-upped. Trey Martin, John Andreoli, Chris Nunn, and Matt Carasiti still remain unsigned for next year.

The Cubs also released the names and ages of 21 more international free agents they signed. Arizona Phil, as usual, of The Cub Reporter had the full list. He spent most of the article talking about 20-year-old Cuban catcher Alexander Guerra who I found out is nicknamed “El Tanque!” The Cubs previously announced they had signed shortstops Luis Verdugo and Fabian Pertuz, pitcher Florencio Serrano, and OF Alexander Ovalles back in July.

40 Man and Rule V Deadline Approaching
By November 20, The Cubs have to turn in their 40 man roster prior to the Rule V Draft. When I looked at possible prospects back in the middle of the summer, a lot has changed in those four months. Certain locks are not so certain anymore. I think the Cubs might even gamble I’m leaving a few touted prospects off the list.

I think there are four prospects that definitely will get added. They are Oscar de la Cruz, Adbert Alzolay, David Bote, and Pedro Araujo. Reliever Matt Carasiti could be in the discussion as he has had success at AAA in the Rockies’ system and again at Iowa. Carasiti has yet to sign a contract for next year.

Pitchers Trevor Clifton and and Jake Stinnett are borderline candidates to be added to the 40 man roster along with infielders Chesny Young and Jason Vosler.

2017 was such a strange year for Trevor Clifton. He looked like a certain 40 man candidate at the end of May and again at the All-Star break where he was a Southern League All-Star. Things fell apart in the second half. For Stinnett, he did not see any action until late in the summer and that was in a relief role. I think a team could take a huge gamble and select him. The Cubs could/should end up protecting both.

Arizona Fall League
What I am enjoying most about performances by the Cubs’ prospects this fall is the job that relievers Jake Stinnett and Adbert Alzolay are doing. On Friday, they each pitched two innings and struck out three and neither allowed a run. As for Stinnett, he did not allow a hit as his ERA is now down to 2.45 in 7.1 IP. Alzolay is at 0.90 in 20 IP.

It has also been nice to see Adbert Alzolay get a lot of traction online as a possible pitcher for next summer. While his fastball and approach are close to major-league ready, he still needs some work on his curve and changeup. I think the earliest we could see Adbert in Chicago would be in July. That could be in relief or it could be as a starter. At AAA Iowa, he is definitely going to be a starter for now. It is best to take a wait and see attitude. He is sure to get some looks at doing both in the major league camp.

Upcoming Series
In exactly one week, free agency will begin and trades will start happening. It doesn’t take long after the World Series ends. I will have a three-part look this week at the “State of the Cubs for 2018.” I will look at position players first, then I take a peek at the starting pitching, and finally, I examine what is needed in the bullpen.

After Friday, I am all out of prewritten material. The “Leveling Up” and “Position Breakdown” Series begin the week of Thanksgiving.

Cubs Insider
David Bote
State of the MiLB System Part 2

BP Wrigleyville
Top MiLB Storylines for 2018: Part 1

Baseball Card of the Week

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.

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.