By Todd Johnson
When I originally came up with the idea for this post, it was in the middle of September when the Cubs had a 2 game lead over the Cardinals and a 3 game lead over the Brewers. A lot happened since it’s inception.
Looking ahead to 2018, I am most excited to see how new hitting coaches Chili Davis and Andy Haines work with these young hitters to help them adjust to both major trends and minor situations. I also look forward to personnel changes as Theo Epstein is not an executive who will sit still after how 2017 ended. He will do whatever it takes.
When I look back at the 2017 regular season, I’m going to remember a group of players that looked tired. From pitching to hitting, they appeared worn out after playing deep into October in 2015 and 2016, followed by a party that never seemed to stop from November 2 to Opening Day 2017. I think it’s just part of being a champion and the Cubs never got past it.
Now that the 2017 postseason is over, it’s time to look at the State of the Cubs for 2018. This is going be done in three parts. The first part examines the position players and the second part will analyze the current pitching staff and future needs/possibilities. The final part dissects the needs of the bullpen.
“The strength of this team for the next three to four years will be our young position players. “ – Theo Epstein…probably…
From Rizzo to Bryant to Russell to Contreras to Baez to Schwarber to Happ to Almora, it is an extremely young core that should be much improved, motivated, and rested as a result of how 2017 ended. The Cubs could trade one of them, if they needed, to help acquire another starting pitcher or even an outfielder. That type of trade should probably be a last resort. The Cubs have plenty of prospects to deal and over $50 million in cap space to go get someone, or two, in free agency.
With Miami’s financial troubles, the Cubs could even add to their young core by using some of their assets to acquire one of Miami’s exciting young and proven outfielders (I prefer Yelich and Ozuna for defensive purposes).
There are, however, a couple of concerns for everyday players in Ben Zobrist and Jason Heyward. Zobrist still has two years left on his contract while Heyward can opt out after 2018. I doubt if Heyward would unless he has a monster 2018 season. Based on the last two years, that idea does not look possible. Then again, maybe the Cubs can see if Chili Davis or Any Haines can make something happen. If Heyward was shipped out in a trade, the Cubs might have to send a substantial sum of cash to make that deal work, depending on where he goes.
As for Zobrist, I’m not sure how this is going to play out. I am of the mind that if Ben thought he couldn’t perform at a certain level, that he would retire. I think he reeks of that type of integrity, but he also might accept just a bench role which I think might be better for him. Playing two to three times a week and pinch hitting almost every day might be more productive than trying to play four or five. And I think he would succeed in being ready every day as a pinch-hitter. At some point, that transition has to be made and he has to be on board with it. Zobrist is not getting any younger.
Joe Maddon likes to carry three catchers. Victor Caratini could be one of them in 2018. Joe, however, would lean towards having veterans in those spots even if Caratini is ready. After his debut last year, though, Caratini is close to being ready. I see Caratini’s future tied to the two new starting pitchers the Cubs need for 2018 and where they come from. If it is through free agency or a trade, Caratini should begin the year in AAA. The problem is his bat might force the issue of bringing him up.
That leaves only 2 other bench players.
Tommy La Stella is one option and I don’t know if the Cubs can ask John Jay to come back. They might not be able to afford him after he proved he can be a valuable asset to a team. The Cubs are not going to try and bring up any minor league hitting prospect at this stage either. Instead, they should go with a veteran in that role off the bench.
As I look back at the 2017 season, I think Ian Happ’s ascension messed things up in a good way. What most impressed me about Happ was the improvement he showed in the outfield. I didn’t foresee him playing centerfield at all in the majors. He looked a little rough the first month but it’s gotten better every month since. And, there still is plenty of room for growth.
In having a spectacular rookie season, probably a year early, Happ made other players expendable. The question becomes: Who do you trade? The answer is pretty simple on the surface – the one who does not have the most long-term potential to help the Cubs win a World Series. Then you can start throwing in defensive or offensive values/metrics and it becomes a mess of whether it’s Russell, Almora, Schwarber, or maybe even Happ that is used to acquire pitching.
The Cubs major-league position player portion of the roster is built for the long-haul. For now, the best option might be to fill-in with some veterans on a year-to-year basis although getting Yelich, Stanton, or Ozuna would be a coup.
Then again, The Cubs may just try to get one more year out of everyone before next year’s booming free agent crop, but I doubt it.
Ultimately, a few roster changes will coincide with the coaching changes. The changes could include just a couple of position players getting new addresses, but the results could be major.
Theo is not going to be complacent. He is not going to sit on his laurels. He is going to re-assemble another team to win it all. That’s his goal. It should be fun watching him go at it this winter.
So, as a result, be prepared for anything this offseason.
And I mean anything.
For the second straight year, manager Marty Pevey had to assemble a starting rotation made out of spare parts until August. Injuries and promotions at both the major and minor league levels cut his starting rotation short. The I-Cubs did have a potent offense led by the Cubs minor league player of the year, Victor Caratini. Starting pitcher Jen-Ho Tseng put together the best half by a pitcher in AAA since Kyle Hendricks was there.
The Iowa Cubs are still producing prospects to help Chicago every year. This year we saw, in addition to Caratini and Jen-Ho, Ian Happ, Eddie Butler, Jeimer Candelario, Mark Zagunis, Dillon Maples, and several relief pitchers help out the big club in some capacity. I expect more prospects will help out again in 2018, likely they will be just in bench roles. I don’t see anyone with the everyday playing career path of Ian Happ in the upper parts of the pipeline. Caratini looks to make the 25 man roster in Chicago next spring but just as the backup catcher. I am curious as to what the plans for Mark Zagunis are as he doesn’t have much left to prove in AAA.
Here are seven things to know about the 2017 Iowa Cubs.
1. Bijan Rademacher had the quietest best second half of any prospect in the system. I was a little surprised he wasn’t named the July player of the month as he hit almost .400. He can play all three outfield positions and I think he has one of the best outfield arms after Eddy Martinez. The issue is that he doesn’t project to be anything other than a fourth outfielder. Then again, he hasn’t really been given the chance to show that he can be something else. He has begun to hit for more power and I like what he can do at the plate. He can hit for average and he knows how to work an at bat.
2. I would not be surprised to see the big league club continue to clean house again at Iowa. The 2017 roster at Iowa only had a few position players that might project to make it to Chicago. Most of the roster were journeyman players looking for one more opportunity to get back to the big leagues. With Tennessee sending anywhere between 6 and 9 position players to Iowa next year, I don’t think there are going to be too many roster spots available for any player or prospect nearing 27 years of age. Already, Jake Hannemann, Pierce Johnson, and Felix Pena have new homes for 2018. I don’t know if John Andreoli will be back again either.
3. I still believe in Chesny Young despite his up-and-down year. I think that he has some adjusting to do at this level and I’m confident that he will do well in his second go around at AAA in 2018.
4. Unless Eddie Butler can add some sort of out pitch, I don’t know if he’s going to be anything more than a fill-in at the major-league level. He had his moments this year in Chicago, but he never went much beyond five innings. He needs to be more efficient to get outs quickly and go deeper into games.
5. I am still pulling for Ryan Williams to make it. I just like the kid. He has a bulldog mentality that I love. However, after basically missing two full seasons, I wonder if returning to the bullpen might be best for his long term health. In 2018, we will see.
6. Dillon Maples is going to be close to making the Chicago Cubs 25 man roster next spring. I like the fact that he’s going to get more instruction from big league coaches that will only enhance his chances.
7. For me, the highlights of the year were the second halves of Jen-Ho Tseng (1.80 ERA) and Taylor Davis (.297 avg with 62 RBI). I am glad Davis got the call to make it to Chicago. His story is a tale of perseverance and he is an outstanding teammate and hitter that I think can play somewhere in the majors. I don’t know if Tseng will be given a true opportunity to pitch in the big leagues next year but he should get a few starts with the club in spring training. A lot of his future is tied to what the Cubs do to add starting pitching this offseason.
What to Watch for in 2018
There are going to be at least six position players from Tennessee who should start in Iowa next year. I think many will benefit from playing in the Pacific Coast League but none more than catcher Ian Rice. If you dismiss his batting average and just look at his power numbers and on base percentage, you begin to see his value and how much greater he is than his fellow prospects (17 HRs, .353 OBP). I think he is really going to benefit from playing in the hitter friendly Pacific Coast League more than any other prospect in 2018.
Jason Vosler will also benefit from playing in such environs. After a poor second half, Vosler should look to recapture what made his first half so fantastic in 2017. In the first half, he hit at a .274/.375/.521 clip with 13 HRs and 49 RBI. In addition, Yasiel Balaguert, David Bote, Trey Martin, and Charcer Burks should be starting everyday in Des Moines next summer.
Remember the name Adbert Alzolay. Out of all the prospects at Tennessee, I think he might be the most ready for Chicago. Even though he is currently a starting pitcher, I can see him coming out of the bullpen in Chicago as early as the middle of next summer. With a fastball that sits 95-97, there’s a lot to like.
By Todd Johnson
It has been quite the run. In the past three years, the Cubs have won 290+ games. In the divisional era (since 1969), this is the second time the Cubs have won back-to-back division titles (2007-2008). It is their third playoff appearance in a row. And, this team is built for many more seasons of postseason play.
For me, it was pretty sweet that the clincher came in St. Louis. It had been a tough year to be a Cubs fan as the team did not live up to expectations in the first half. The Cubs were two games under .500 and 5.5 GB Milwaukee. How they have played since the All-Star break has been very gratifying and exciting to watch.
It is now time to turn attention to who should be the 25 players on the playoff roster. I think 22 players are pretty much a given. So, it all comes down to adding three players. What position player will get the nod and what 2 relief pitchers will make the squad?
Sure Shots to Make the 25
Position players: Wilson, Avila, Rizzo, Baez, Zobrist, Russell, Bryant, Schwarber, Jay, Almora, Happ, Heyward
Pitchers: Lester, Hendricks, Quintana, Arietta, Davis, Strop, Rondon, Montgomery, Edwards, Duensing
Making the Case: Position Players
Who is out? – Rivera, Davis, Freeman, Martin
Outside Looking In: La Stella, Caratini, and Rivera
With the core of 12, I’m not sure whether manager Joe Maddon would rather carry an extra bat or an extra catcher. If it’s a bat, Tommy let Stella would be the best answer. If it’s a catcher, then he goes with Rene Rivera. I tend to think that Maddon will lean catcher but ultimately La Stella’s patient approach will work better in the playoffs. Caratini would be a long shot and would be my personal second choice as he can switch hit. If the Cubs go with La Stella, and an emergency catcher is needed, then Joe has to go with Schwarber. The most logical bat is Tommy La Stella.
Making the Case: Pitchers
Who Is Out: Wilson, Tseng, Zastryzny, Maples, Pena
I do think Dillon Maples making the roster would be amazing. While his stuff might be ready, he is not. I do hope he gets a lot of work the next five days and gets to experience the postseason even if he is not on the roster. As for Justin Wilson, I don’t think he is consistent enough to get on the roster. He was pulled in the middle of a batter Monday night.
— CSN Chicago (@CSNChicago) September 28, 2017
That leaves Grimm, Lackey, and Uehara.
This is a tough call. Part of me says that maybe the Cubs should bring Lackey on as a long man rather than pick either of the other two. At times, Uehara has looked good this year and at other times, he’s been very hittable. Grimm, meanwhile, has looked like a train wreck most of the second-half. It doesn’t look like this will be a win-win situation.
I am not sure how this will all shake out over the next week. While I feel pretty good about the La Stella pick, I also know that Rivera is also a good choice based on Maddon’s preferences. As for the pitchers to be on the roster, Maddon could pick any two of them. I do not feel good about those selections at all.
We shall see. Part of me hopes for a surprising pick….or two.
Here is the schedule so far. Times to be released later.
Game 1: 10/6 at WSH
Game 2: 10/7 at WSH
Game 3: 10/9 at CHI
Game 4: 10/10 at CHI
Game 5: 10/12 at WSH
By Todd Johnson
After today, there are just two weeks left to the major-league regular season. The Cubs’ bats could not have picked a better time to wake up from their hitting with runners in scoring position slumber. Hopefully, the bullpen can hold up along with the starting pitching the rest of the way. One thing I can tell you is the next two weeks are not going to be dull. The Cubs play the Brewers and Cardinals 8 more times.
I was finally able to get a peek at next year’s schedule for South Bend and the Chicago Cubs 2018 calendar. I am thinking of doing some traveling next year and it looks like the schedules are going to cooperate.
For South Bend, they venture west of Indiana for four series. Next year, the young Cubs are going to be in Cedar Rapids and Peoria on one trip and then Kane County and the Quad Cities on a separate jaunt. I will not be able to make the Cedar Rapids series as I will be in Springfield at the state history fair. For Peoria, it’s about an hour and a half away and is a Friday, Saturday, and Sunday series. So, it looks like I will only make one or two of those games. But for the Quad Cities and Kane County portion, those series are both in July and will be day trips for me as both are just an hour and fifteen minutes away or less. I haven’t been to the Quad Cities stadium in a few years and I look forward to going. I just hope some of the Cubs top prospects are still on the team.
Looking at the big Cubs’ schedule, I got really excited to see that the Cubs will be going to Kansas City in early August. A little over 6 hours away for me, the city is also home to the Negro League Baseball Museum and a national Jazz Museum. Also, the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum is next door in Independence. Those are pretty much all my favorite type of things to do in life. Add in the vaunted BBQ and my wife and I are set. We are going to stay for a few days and probably catch two games. I cannot wait!
The Cubs also presented Jen-Ho Tseng and Victor Caratini with their MiLB Players of the Year Awards. This is the first time I can remember both players being in uniform to receive them. Jen-Ho’s debut start was less than ideal and I don’t think he will get another start unless the Cubs clinch or there is an injury or rain out. He looked to be overwhelmed at the experience. I am sure he will make a few starts in spring training for the club, which will probably go much better.
The Cubs also signed a non-drafted free agent from Oregon State named Christian Donahue. Donahue is a second baseman and outfielder who had an outstanding 2016 season but struggled in 2017 and was suspended from the team just prior to the College World Series. That would explain why he wasn’t drafted. But the Cubs may have gotten a steal as most reports of his abilities and skills have been very complementary. He’s not big at 5’7″, and he’s not going to hit for a lot of power, but he does have the ability to square up the ball and hit for a high average. As freshman, he hit .287 and as a sophomore, .339. He was named to the first team All-Pac 12 that year.
A Question Answered
I also got my question answered on MLB Pipeline this week. I asked which Cub is likely to make a top 100 list next year. Check out the response from Johnathan Mayo.
Tho he’s No. 2 currently on Cubs list, I might say Jose Albertos. Plus upside there. And keep an eye on what Alex Lange does in 1st full yr https://t.co/u13SbZ7G84
— Jonathan Mayo (@JonathanMayo) September 14, 2017
I like that Mayo thinks so highly of Albertos. He is ranked #1 on Cubs Central’s Top 21 list now and on the new one that comes out in a couple of weeks. I got a little giddy when I saw that he threw Lange in there, too.
For the first time, I did not publish the affiliate year-end posts this year. Instead, they were published over the last two weeks at Cubs Insider.
I will be posting articles in a couple of weeks where I look at seven things about each affiliate from the past year and one thing to look for in 2018.
Card of the Week
Upcoming Posts This Week
2nd Half All-Star Team
The All-Injury Team
Jesus Camargo Profile
“The New Cubs Farmhand” will be published at BP Wrigleyville this Thursday.
By Todd Johnson
On Sunday morning, the Cubs announced that Jen-Ho Tseng and D.J. Wilson were named the Cubs’ MiLB Pitcher and Player of the Month for July. Tseng had a 1.42 ERA at AAA Iowa to go along with 23 Ks in 25.1 IP. Wilson hit .284 with 7 HRs and 21 RBI in between Mesa (rehab stint) and South Bend. With officially four weeks left in the MiLB season, it got me thinking: Who will be the Cubs MiLB Pitcher and Hitter of the Year?
When it comes to hitting, the winner is clear cut – Victor Caratini. No one else is even in the discussion in my mind. He’s batting .350 with a .959 OPS. He’s hit 10 HRs and driven in 58. While his OBP is a bit less than Mark Zagunis’, whose isn’t. I do not see how Caratini could lose this award. Since his return to Iowa from Chicago, he’s hitting .600.
On the other hand, selecting the Pitcher of the Year is going to be a tough choice that will play out over the next month. I currently have six pitchers in the running with five having a pretty good shot of staking a claim to it.
The Front Runners
Michael Rucker has done it all this year in 84 innings. He’s been a reliever and a starter. He’s been a closer, a setup man, and an ace. His 1.93 ERA is the lowest of the starters up for the award. His 95 Ks gives him a 9.21 K/9 rate. I love to watch him pitch as he just throws strikes. He’s only walked 16 all year.
Jen-Ho Tseng has had a resurgent year relying on good command of his pitches which includes a low 90s fastball and a plus curve and change. His 2.77 combined ERA between Iowa and Tennessee is impressive and he has 110 Ks in 120 IP.
Adbert Alzolay was my breakout player of the first half. Now at AA Tennessee, he has a combined 2.84 ERA between Myrtle Beach and Tennessee with 101 Ks in 107 IP. I like his energy, his pacing, and his 96-97 mph heater. He still needs to refine his secondaries going forward.
The Long Shots
Duncan Robinson is a bit like Rucker in that he began the year as a reliever and morphed into a starter. He was a Midwest League All-Star and was promoted in July to Myrtle Beach from South Bend. On the year, he has a 2.13 ERA over 91 innings. His 77 Ks take him out the discussion a bit when compared with other front runners.
It has been a most impressive season for Justin Steele. He’s been very steady all year. His 2.92 ERA is a testament to his approach and hard work after a rough season at South Bend in 2016. He has 82 Ks in 98.2 IP.
If you were to pick this award on sheer domination, reliever Dakota Mekkes would win hands down. He dominated at South Bend and then again at Myrtle Beach. He did allow an earned run for almost three months. Heading into today, his ERA is a miniscule 0.76 ERA to go along with 79 Ks in 59 IP. Opponents are only hitting .152 against him. If not for 27 walks, I think he would be in Tennessee.
I think Michael Rucker is currently in the lead. However, I truly think the award should go to Mekkes. For the past few years, the Cubs have rewarded starters including Tseng, Trevor Clifton and Duane Underwood. But Mekkes’ season has been one of pure domination across the board and two levels. However, I don’t think the Cubs will give that award to a reliever. I wish they would, though. I really wish they would.
By Todd Johnson
The Good News
The Cubs are 1.5 games in front of Milwaukee. So, they will be leaving town in first place at the least. They only play 9 games in August against teams with winning records and they all happen in the first ten days.
The Sad News
Cubs Den founder John Arguello passed away yesterday. I send my condolences out to his family, friends, and web site. He was an inspiration in my starting this site and John was always helpful along the way. I wrote about his direct role in my career last night. He is already missed.
While tomorrow is the non-waiver trade deadline, I don’t think I will be surprised on who or what the Cubs acquire. I think a catcher will be acquired, and maybe even a pitcher. What could surprise me is what the Cubs might give up to acquire a catcher, reliever, and/or starter. I will post and update throughout the day on Monday. Despite Jed and Theo saying the Cubs have already made their big trade, the Cubs still have enough assets to get more.
James Norwood was promoted from Myrtle Beach up to Tennessee and Yapson Gomez went from Eugene to South Bend. Also, Jake Stinnett is off the DL and appeared in relief in Myrtle Beach. He will not be starting the rest of this year, which is only five weeks.
MLB Pipeline came out with its latest prospect lists this week. They produced a top 100 for all of MLB and each team got its own top 30 list. The Cubs only placed one player in the top 100. Jeimer Candelario was ranked at #92 and was followed in the Cubs list by Oscar de la Cruz, Jose Albertos, and Adbert Alzolay. The Cubs top 30 is a very pitcher driven list with 8 out of the top 12, and 19 total, being potential arms.
Meanwhile, over at Fangraphs, Chris Mitchell released the latest KATOH rankings. Mitchell uses data from prospect ranking along with MiLB statistics from the past two season to produce a “Wins Above Replacement” forecast up to six years. The Cubs placed three in the top 100. Mark Zagunis (#77), Jeimer Candelario (#83), and Victor Caratini (#91) received the honors. When it comes to just stats only, Ian Rice made that list at #60. In addition, Caratini, Zagunis and Isaac Paredes were found in the 70s on the stats only list.
John Sickels of Minor League Baseball should be coming out with his mid-season Cubs prospect list this week or next.
Also, Chris Kusiolek tweeted a couple of evaluations from Arizona on how a couple young players from the Mesa Cubs are looking early in their career.
Nelson Velasquez explosive hands w/ 6 bat speed; avg build, thick up thru trunk; Rotation; fairly compact path, off top hand. Above avg raw
— Chris Kusiolek (@CaliKusiolek) July 25, 2017
After a rough start, he has popped a couple of dingers and his average is climbing over .200. His fellow countrymen, Luis Vazquez, seems to following the same career trajectory but it closing in on .250. Kusiolek also chimed in on pitcher Brailyn Marquez who had an excellent start this week with 7 Ks in 5.1 IP.
Brailyn Marquez good proj build; physical, high waisted; extremely loose w/ compact arm swing; 92-94 w/ tail & bore. 84-88 CH; 73-79 roller
— Chris Kusiolek (@CaliKusiolek) July 25, 2017
It will be a busy week coming up at Cubs Central.
Monday – I will be reporting on any trades the Cubs make and the impact that could have on the MLB club and the MiLB system.
Tuesday – The Monthly All-Star Team will be published. There are a lot of new names this month. You might want to get used to that.
Wednesday – My monthly Baseball Cards of the Month post comes out. Action is this month’s theme.
Thursday – I will be rounding up the month of July on each affiliate. It hasn’t been the best of months for this farm system when it comes to winning.
Around the Minors This Week
It was a brutal week for most teams across the system. I will spare you the details but know that the DSL 1 team is playing well. Also, Brendon Little made his first start and now has to wait until next weekend after the Northwest League All-Star Break to make his second.
Players of the Week
My Other Stuff on the Web From This Week
By Todd Johnson
It was a bit stunning to look at how John Manuel and Baseball America (BA) viewed a reorganized collection of talent in the Cubs system. With Eloy Jimenez, Dylan Cease, Albert Almora, and Ian Happ no longer prospects, the BA staff went to town reshuffling their midseason prospect list (subscription required to read the profiles). In are a few young prospects in Jose Albertos, Isaac Paredes and Aramis Ademan. Also falling out of the top 10 from the January list are Trevor Clifton, Mark Zagunis, and DJ Wilson.
Here is their list (Links are to Cubs Central Profiles).
- Victor Caratini, C
- Thomas Hatch, RHP
- Jose Albertos, RHP
- Adbert Alzolay, RHP
- Isaac Paredes, SS
- Brendon Little, LHP
- Alex Lange, RHP
- Aramis Ademan, SS
- Jeimer Candelario, 3B
- Oscar de la Cruz, RHP
I guess it shouldn’t be all that surprising. Last week, I talked about the shift in the organization from hitting to pitching. However, I didn’t think that Lange and Little would be top 10 considerations without having thrown a pitch. There’s a lot to like about each of them, but pitching in the minors will take some adjusting for both of them.
While I agree with the overall restructuring of this list, I am not sure I would have put Caratini at #1 or Hatch at #2. While all lists are subjective in nature, there are data and reports which sway decisions and evaluations. I, for one, think Albertos should be number one based on his fastball command and poise at just 18. Others, like MLB.com, went with the old tried and true Jeimer Candelario.
I think that Caratini was selected by default based on his hitting performance this year, which has been spectacular (.342 avg, .919 OPS). On the other hand, everyone knows Caratini’s defense is his weakness and that there are other prospects in the Cubs’ system with far superior arms and defensive skills (Miguel Amaya and P.J. Higgins).
I was surprised to see Trevor Clifton drop all the way off the list. Clifton was outstanding in the early part of the year (1.84 ERA in May) at Tennessee but has struggled in June and July. As for Wilson, he missed most of the first half with a lower body injury after getting off to a poor start. As for Zagunis, he got a sneak peak in Chicago, but I don’t know how valued he is. He hasn’t hit for average as he has in the past, but he still gets his walks and has hit 11 HRs in 74 games, which is pretty decent.
Come the offseason, there will be new lists and a new number one as Caratini does not look to be leaving the Cubs 25 man roster anytime soon. So, we will get to debate again. And it will be fun as that is what a prospect list is supposed to do.