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.
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.
By Todd Johnson
Usually most breakouts occur in the lower levels of the minor leagues. A prospect comes out and begins to let his talent shine for all to see. In the first half of 2017, this is mostly the case. This year, there are several prospects who are putting together some eye-popping performances, somewhat out of the blue. And many of them are showing that they could be assets at the MLB level.
Charcer Burks – He has just been outstanding as the lead off hitter for Tennessee. He is hitting .314 with a .412 OBP. I don’t think he is in Tennessee much after the All-Star break. If he can add some more power, I wonder if he’s closer to Chicago then anyone thinks, a lot closer. Add in a gold glove defense and he is becoming someone to think about at the next level.
Zack Short – He reminds me a lot of Mark Zagunis. He leads the Midwest league in walks (49) and put up an on-base percentage of over 400. Once he went into the leadoff spot, South Bend took off.
Wladimir Galindo – I have always been intrigued by Wladimir’s power potential. This year, he showed he can hit for average. He hit .290 with 4 HRs and 19 RBI before a broken leg ended his season. He will be back next year.
Jason Vosler – Hitting 12 home runs will get anyone noticed. Add in a .400 OBP at AA and you have Jason Vossler in 2017. He already tripled his HR output from last year and needs 2 RBI to equal last year’s as well. He has a nice smooth, quick stroke to the ball and hits lefties (.305) better than righties (.257). That’s not a skill you see everyday (except Rizzo).
Daniel Spingola – He adjusted his swing a little bit to create a little more lift and that has made all the difference this year. Every month he has hit between .280 and .300. He’s been the model of consistency.
Bryant Flete – As the lead off hitter for the Pelicans, he has made the team go. He is proven this year that he is more than just an organizational defensive player. He can hit and his average is testament to his hard work. He is stronger than people give him credit as he has 6 HRs to date.
Dillon Maples – It looks like he finally has it altogether after 5 years. He carved up the Carolina League this spring as a setup man and then a closer. Now off he his Tennessee doing the same. I watched his curveball destroy several hitters’ will to live or even swing a bat. Maples confounded the Twins’ top prospect, Nick Gordon, so much that it looked Gordon screwed himself into the ground swinging. Combined, he’s struck out 50 batters in 34 IP. He’s basically become a fastball/curve reliever. His FB comes in at 96-98 and his curve is in the mid to upper 80s at over 2000 RPM per Scott Kornberg.
Duncan Robinson – He has a monster curveball and an upper 80s/lower 90s fastball that runs in on the hands of right-handed hitters. He dominated the Midwest League, first in relief, then as a starter. I don’t know how long he’s going to be at South Bend, but I would say not much longer.
Michael Rucker – I really like what he can do on the mound. He attacks hitters with a low to mid 90s fastball all in the zone. He rarely walks anyone. His ability to throw strikes constantly inside has been the key. I wonder how long he is going to start this year versus being a reliever? He consistently hits 95/96 in relief and that could change the conversation about his usefulness.
Dakota Mekkes – He has been ungodly for South Bend and his first two outings at Myrtle Beach followed suit. He still needs to cut down on some walks, but his deceptive delivery allows him to strike out batters at an alarming rate.
Justin Steele – It looks like he is finally putting it together. He’s made 13 starts and has a 2.32 ERA. For the last two months, his monthly ERAs are 1.63 and 1.62. Outstanding! He has MLB type stuff and it looks like his harnessing both the physical and mental aspects of the game. However, his WHIP is a little high (1.39) but that tells me he is able to pitch out of trouble now.
Breakout Player of the First Half
Adbert Alzolay – He has been fantastic this year at Myrtle Beach. His fastball has been hitting 96 to 97 regularly and he is able to keep that up throughout the game – 6 to 7 innings deep. He’s struck out 67 in 70 IP with an ERA of 2.83. The three keywords to his success are: tempo, tempo, and tempo. There are other breakout pitchers who have put up better ERAs than Adbert, but they lack the power fastball that Adbert has been able to control and use efficiently to pitch 7 innings like a major league starter needs to do.
Most of these players will be on Monday’s All-Star Team for the First Half. Their performances have been year long and not just a flash in the pan. Though some have worked their way onto a prospect list, others above have not and they may never do so. However, they still have something to offer and their play is speaking volumes.
On Tuesday, I will be back to talk about some prospects who I think could break out in the second half. Most of them are going to be draft picks and players in Eugene and Mesa.
By Todd Johnson
What I thought would be the most exciting part of the week was the Friday night debut of Eddie Butler for Chicago. He went six innings, gave up two hits and three walks, but struck out five and did not allow a run as the Cubs beat the Cardinals 3 to 2. Butler displayed a nice collection of pitches that included a fastball with some nice arm side run. He should get one more start before the Cubs decide on whether to keep him as the fifth starter.
Then, on Saturday afternoon, Ian Happ made his MLB debut against the Cardinals. His first at-bat was not very auspicious as he struck out on four pitches. He later homered in the game – Not a bad first game. On the other hand, he will likely be back in Iowa in ten days.
We were not done yet.
Eloy Jimenez finally was scheduled to play in a game that mattered on Saturday night for Myrtle Beach. Unfortunately, the game was called because of rain. So, Myrtle Beach will play two today. I doubt if Eloy does.
Finally, Wladimir Galindo returned from the DL for South Bend. In his first at-bat, he drove in two. For the night, he went 1-4 with 3 Ks. His average is now .321.
While some prospects have made a lot of noise with their bats and arms this season, there are several other prospects who are quietly going about their business and putting together some very nice seasons.
- Duncan Robinson has gone back and forth between starting and piggybacking. He now looks like a starter after a 7 IP, 5 K performance where he lowered his ERA down to 1.52.
- Michael Rucker has been very hard to score on out of the bullpen for South Bend. Currently, his ERA is 1.42.
- Bryant Flete has been a go to guy for the pelicans. He is one of the team leaders in RBIs while playing a very good shortstop.
- Both David Bote and Charcer Burks go about their business quietly and have been essential cogs at the top of the lineup for Tennessee.
- Matt Rose missed two weeks but it has not stopped him from being one of the team leaders in homers and RBIs for Myrtle Beach. Since returning from his injury, his average is slowly creeping up towards .250. I think he could go on a tear once the weather warms up a little bit more. Last August, he hit seven dinners in August at South Bend.
Here at Cubs Central
The Facebook page is beginning to take off with the Players of the Day segment. Every day we select the best hitter, starting pitcher, and reliever in the minors and give them some props and put their baseball card on the Internet. There is also a page on this site that keeps a record of who we selected. AND another new page on this site keeps track of each monthly All-Star team. If you are on your phone, you can click the drop-down menu in the header. If you have a computer, there should be a tab at the top of the page to select.
Around the System This Week
Iowa: 1-6; 14-20 – 8.5 GB
The Cubs can score 11 runs in a game, but then they give up 12. With Butler now in Chicago, I think there will be a mostly new rotation the second half. Alec Mills could be the only remaining starter come July.
Tennessee: 5-3; 22-14- First Place
The Smokies moved into first place in the Southern League’s Northern Division. Using a combination of excellent starting pitching, a shutdown bullpen, and some ascending hitters, the Smokies are a team to watch this year. Hopefully, they can clinch a playoff spot for the first half next month.
Myrtle Beach: 2-3; 19-16 – 2.5 GB
They have not really gone on a winning streak this year. Starting pitching doesn’t seem to be in a groove just yet. Right now, they seem to be susceptible to the big inning. Adbert Alzolay looks like he could be the real deal this year.
South Bend: 5-2; 23-12 – 1.5 GB
This team does not have a lot of power at the plate. Nevertheless, they can put up some crooked numbers in a hurry. From 1 to 9, they might have the best lineup in the system. Pitcher of Bryan Hudson also had an encouraging start this week. If Manny Rondon can get straightened out like he was last night (6IP, 0 Runs), this team could be unstoppable with some consistent starting pitching.
Extended Spring Training
There is less than a month left and some of the pitchers are starting to get stretched out a bit. Jose Albertos had a very good scoreless three inning start this week and I expect to see him hit four innings this next week.
Players of the Week
POWER! in the System
Friday Six Pack
Saturday Prospect Profile
Grading the Drafts
My Posts on Other Sites This Week
By Todd Johnson
You can thank the rain storms that covered much of the Midwest for me being able to finish this month’s all-star team on schedule. There were no yards to mow, no weeds to pull, and no dogs to walk in the rain. In addition, there were no minor league games except for Myrtle Beach and South Bend on Sunday.
It was a strange month for trying to pick a few spots on the All-Star team. First base was a difficult choice as most of the organization struggled at that position. I wound up going with a player who only played a few games there. When it came to starting pitching, I had a couple players drop off after poor starts in the last week. When it came time to select the hitter of the month, all I had to do was look at only one team who was rained out for the weekend.
I think the May All-Star team will be much different. For one, I think Yasiel Balaguert has started to find his stroke at first base. In the outfield, there will be much more competition as Jake Hannemann, Kevonte Mitchell, and Mark Zagunis all had strong final weeks in April. Trey Martin could return as well. I also think that some of the starting pitching will start to stabilize in Myrtle Beach and South Bend. Duncan Robinson will be one pitcher to watch in May as to whether he starts or relieves in South Bend.
So, without further adieu, here is the April All-Star team.
Iowa Cubs – 4
Tennessee Smokies – 7
Myrtle Beach Pelicans – 6
South Bend Cubs – 4
By Todd Johnson
With two home runs on Tuesday night, Zack Short capped off a ten game span in which he’s hit .306 with 4 HRs, 12 RBIs, and an OBP of .419 mostly in the leadoff spot for South Bend. Short’s short burst helped propel South Bend into a three-way tie for first place on Wednesday morning.
It is getting to be that time of the baseball season where hitters are catching up to hitters. In early April, it is easier for the pitchers to get a jump on the hitters, especially in cold weather sectors like the upper Midwest and Great Lakes region that is the Midwest League. However, Cubs hitting prospects are hitting all over. While Ian Happ, Jeimer Candelario, and Victor Caratini busted out of the gate early in April, it has taken time for the rest of the Cubs top prospects to do some catching up.
Wladimir Galindo – Hitting .421 over his last ten games, Galindo’s breakout coincided with him being able to go the other way. I thought he might be pull happy to start the year. Instead, he is showing himself to be a complete hitter and is now entrenched in the number four spot for the first place Cubs. The power has yet to come, but it will.
Yeiler Peguero – He is on a .364 clip in his last ten games and also drove in nine runs in that span. He even cranked a home run and a double off the top of the fence in one game. I knew he could hit and could be an exciting player just based on his performance last year at Eugene. I did not know he could be this dependable.
Robert Garcia – I first heard of him in Rookie League in Mesa when he hit .341 in the summer of 2015. Last year in Eugene, he was a bit overshadowed by some other prospects and only hit .283. This year, the 23 year -old switch hitter skipped South Bend and is holding his own in the Carolina League. In his last 10 games, he’s going along at .387 clip.
Charcer Burks – I love to watch Charcer Burks play. He is gold glover on defense and he is beginning to figure out the offensive side of the ball. He got a couple looks with the big league club in spring training and it appears he gained some confidence in that process. In addition to being a key cog in Myrtle Beach’s championship run, Burks is having his best season as a Cub. He’s currently hitting .292 with an OBP of .418 for Tennessee. I don’t think it is any coincidence that Burks’ play has helped Tennessee get off to a great start.
Trey Martin – He was off to an outstanding start in Tennessee before a hamstring injury sidelined him. Like Burks, Martin is an excellent defender and is also beginning to figure himself out at the plate. In just 8 games, he was hitting .320 with 2 HRs and 6 RBIs. I can’t wait to see him get back to playing.
Keep an Eye On
Jake Hannemann – He has always been a great defender and athlete, it is his bat that has always been lacking. I think he may have found it. He stayed behind at Extended Spring Training and gradually began to destroy the pitching there. I have never been that high on him just based on his lack of offensive production. Occasionally, there would be an outburst here or there, just not any sustained production. I think that changes this year. Now that he is on the 40 man roster, I think expectations changed from the Cubs, and more importantly, from himself. Look for good things from him in Tennessee.
By Todd Johnson
It is hard to believe, but April is over in less than ten days! Minor league clubs have two full weeks in and the big league club is finishing its third full week on Sunday. However, this April has not been without some surprises.
Chicago: I am bit surprised to see Kyle Hendricks struggle AND give up dingers. His 6.19 ERA is a bit puzzling. However, I am not surprised to see Albert Almora do so well in the field. It is all he has ever done.
Iowa: I am not surprised to see Jeimer Candelario and Victor Caratini do so well in hitting in AAA. Caratini is having his best year ever as a Cubs prospect while Candelario already has driven in 18 in just 14 games.
Tennessee: I am surprised to see Yasiel Balaguert struggle to start this year. He is starting to come around. Last year, he drove in 95 runs. Last night, a seeing eye-single brought in two. I am not surprised to see Trevor Clifton come out and out work the other team. It’s early in his AA career, but he is off to his best start as a prospect.
Myrtle Beach: I am surprised by the sluggish start of Carlos Sepulveda. I thought he would hit every where he went. Two weeks in and he is just not getting close to .200. I am not surprised the bat of Tyler Alamo. He just works hard wherever he lands. I am very happy to see him get off to a good start as he is one of the nicest kids in the system.
South Bend: No surprise on Dylan Cease and the bullpen – they are both outstanding. I am surprised by the great start of Yeiler Peguero, I knew he would be at least decent this year. I did not see him dominating at-bats and hitting a home run (almost two in one game) this early in the year.
Extended Spring Training: I was not surprised to see the 2015 IFA class playing with the Eugene team and thriving. I figured Ademan, Sierra, and Perez would hold their own. However, it is catcher Miguel Amaya who is dominating on both sides of the diamond. I am surprised how well Bryan Hudson is doing. He’s thrown 11 innings with 12 Ks and 15 GB outs.
The most surprising pitchers of the first two weeks are Justin Steele of Myrtle Beach and Eddie Butler of Iowa. I really like how Justin Steele is attacking the zone and hitters this year. There’s no more nibbling around the edge of the zone. With Butler, he just pitches well. He has quality stuff and gets people out. It seems as if he finally figured some things out.
When it comes to hitting, I am surprised to see Wladimir Galindo be a well rounded hitter. He goes the other way, often with two strikes and is hitting .327. Although he has one homer, we will see more as it warms up. Before a hamstring injury sidelined, Trey Martin was putting up some good numbers in Tennessee. Always a great fielder, Martin showed an offensive burst last summer for a bit. He was hitting .320 with 2 HRs and 6 RBIs in 8 games.
Today is a fun day! It’s opening day for four of the Cubs’ minor-league affiliates! Weather permitting, Iowa, Tennessee, Myrtle Beach, and South Bend will take the field for the first time in 2017. It is not looking good for South Bend today as three to six inches are called for in West Michigan. As usual, I will be watching all the happenings. Then, starting this Sunday, “The Weekly” will have the players of the week. But today, it’s our annual preseason All-Star team for the first half.
What is happening today is I am picking out several players who I think will be the best at their position in the Cubs’ system through the middle of June.
I think that Victor Caratini is locked and loaded and has his eyes set on Chicago. He will be at AAA this year and more than likely, come 2018, he will be the backup catcher to Wilson Contreras. He might even see some time this summer depending on his defense.
Even though he is currently on the DL, I think Yasiel Balaguert has this position sewn up. Last year, he had 19 home run the 96 RBIs and I think he will improve upon that this year as he has been working on hitting up the middle and to the right.
There is some stiff competition for this position with Carlos Sepulveda and Yeiler Peguero competing to get their name on the Internet. However, Ian Happ wins in a landslide. It is so self-evident, that I’m not even going to explain my thinking process for selecting him.
At the age of 17, Isaac Paredes made his class A debut at South Bend in late August of 2017. This year, the Cubs will get the full effect of what this man-child can do. He earned the starting spot and hopefully some power will go along with an outstanding batting average and on-base percentage… I’ll from an 18-year-old kid.
I am going to break the mold, and tradition, and go with Wladimir Galindo who I think will do extremely well as a 20-year-old in the Midwest League. Normally, I would pick Jeimer Candelario for the spot, but I think Wladimir is determined to succeed and show his worth.
I think this was the toughest category to pick just three players. I think the deciding factor is how I project them to perform in the first half and the excitement that they will bring to the game. As a result, I am selecting DJ Wilson of South Bend, Eloy Jimenez of Tennessee, and I’m going to stun everybody and go with Bijan Rademacher of Iowa. I know I am leaving out Eddy Martinez and Mark Zagunis, but I think Bijan is going to hit more home runs than both the next two months.
I found it hard to just pick six because the Cubs development of pitchers is becoming more and more pronounced. I am going with Dylan Cease, Trevor Clifton, Eddie Butler, Erling Moreno, Oscar de la Cruz, Thomas Hatch, and I am picking Kyle Miller as a Darkhorse. I also thought about including Ryan Williams, Rob Zastryzny, and Zach Hedges. What used to be the weakness of the organization is now turning into a strength. I would not be surprised to see a couple of these pitchers make it to Chicago this year.
Last year, relievers were the strength of the organization. They helped out the big league club down the stretch and Rob Zastryzny even made it to the World Series. This year, Pierce Johnson leads a group of arms who are still a ways off from helping the big league club. Ryan McNeil, Jordan Mnch, Wyatt Short, Dakota Mekkes, and Chad Hockin are just a few of the names who will be excellent bullpen arms the spring. I know there are other bullpen arms, especially in South Bend, who could’ve been added to this list.
Last year’s preseason All-Star team played a significant role in two ways. Some of them wound up on the major-league roster and were key players in the World Series victory. Other prospects were parts of packages used to acquire Aroldis Chapman and Mike Montgomery who helped to win the World Series.
I don’t quite know what will happen this year with some of these prospects, but that’s the fun of it. In four weeks, the April All-Star team should give us a glimpse into how well this package of players listed above did on the road to Wrigley.