Spring Training Notes – Week 2: Lester, Happ, Gimenez, Underwood, and Some Draft Risers

By Todd Johnson

My busy season now has just a week left. After last Saturday’s history fair and two sets of Scholastic bowl matches, it is nice to get some rest this weekend and catch up on everything in the Cubs’ universe. This week will be my busiest week as I have the IHSA Scholastic Bowl regional on Monday and then five conference matches over two nights on Tuesday and Thursday. By Friday, my butt is going to be dragging.

Meanwhile, the Cubs starting pitching rotation looks to be set. Manager Joe Maddon coronated veteran Jon Lester to be the Cubs’ opening day starting pitcher. While Lester is clearly not at the peak of his performance in terms of velocity anymore, I think he’s going to have a much better year under new pitching coach Jim Hickey than he did in a conflicted 2017 with Chris Bosio. After Lester, Hendricks, Darvish, Quintana, and Chatwood will follow. I thought that was an interesting way to break up the lefty-righty combos. And it also looks like a way to take pressure off of Darvish and Quintana in the three and four spots. It’s almost as if the Cubs have four number two pitchers and a number five.

As for the action on the field, Ian Happ has been the center of attention the first week plus. Cranking out three home runs from the leadoff spot will do that.  Theo Epstein even called him his breakout player for 2018 on 670 The Score the other day. In addition, Happ has been flashing the leather and looks a little bit leaner as a center fielder.

Most pitchers that have seen any action have only gone one inning. As a result, it’s really hard to evaluate what is happening as the Cubs have mainly relied on arms that should be at AAA Iowa in 2018. Still, Zach Hedges and Duane Underwood, Jr. have each been impressive in their two outings. The Cubs starters really haven’t gotten much work in other than an inning or two apiece. Yu Darvish has yet to pitch.

Catcher Chris Gimenez has destroyed the baseball in the first week of camp. Then again, he is not exactly been facing major league pitching. It’ll be interesting to see how he does over the next 3 and 1/2 weeks. I think as he sees more major league arms in spring training games, Gimenez might struggle more than he is right now.

In an article on the Cubs website, Carrie Muskat did a great job talking about Duane Underwood and his new physique and mental outlook this spring. Even Joe Maddon chimed in on the new Duane:

“His body is better, he’s leaner. When he came into camp this year, he had a different look about him. This is a guy with a high ceiling, and he hasn’t realized it. There’s a lot of conversation from the front office, coaches, etc. I think this winter he went home and did a little soul searching. He’s much more assertive, he’s attacking the zone.”

The Allen Webster signing on Friday made little sense to me as it could possibly take a AAA roster spot from a prospect the Cubs drafted and developed. The Cubs are taking a lot of gambles on some former big names this spring like Webster and Danny Hultzen in hopes that the player can either salvage their career or catch lightning in a bottle. Odds are that most of them will be cut in early April. The low risk/high reward flyer has been part of the Cubs’ modus operandi since 2012 with little effect other than Hector Rondon.

Draft News

Baseball America beefed up their top 200 draft prospects to a top 300 list. As usual, they redid some of the rankings near the top just based on how some of the college players are doing. The biggest riser so far has been Stanford pitcher Tristan Beck. The big right-hander is skyrocketing up their list and might soon be out of reach of the Cubs. In addition, Wichita State third baseman Alec Bohm has gone from the late 20s to the low 20s. Considering that most high school teams, especially in the north, don’t start for a couple more weeks, these moves up could be temporary or they could be permanent. But both players bear watching. Missouri State Shortstop Jeremy Eierman and Duke OF Griffin Conine could be on the Cubs radar now along with Kentucky pitcher Sean Hjelle. 

Topps Heritage

As an avid fan of baseball cards, and not so much a collector anymore, I have been checking out the Topps Heritage Series as it kind of resembles what I have been doing for the past six summers. Topps, however, has been doing it since 2001. It takes old cards and puts current players in them. Over the course of the past week, I downloaded a few cards and made a couple adjustments to some players the Cubs picked up over the winter. While Topps only does one season per year in the series, they do change the throwback card every year. 

What I am Working On

Once I survive this week, I have a couple things that I have been quietly assembling. The first one is my preseason minor league All-Star team. So far, I just added pictures/cards of who I think will be the top Cubs players in the first half. Because Eugene does not start until the second half, a few of the Cubs’ top prospects won’t be on that list. I am also adding two breakout players who I think will really shine at either South Bend, Myrtle Beach, Tennessee, or Iowa.

And as for the affiliate previews, I have done a little more than to assemble the position players. With minor-league camp just starting, I think it’s too early to try and figure out just exactly which prospects are going to be pitching where. With as many arms that they have selected in the draft and signed internationally the past two summers, there is going to be a ton of competition for what amounts to be 22 spots from AAA down to low class A. 

Coming Up Next Week

Because of my schedule, I already have this week’s posts pre-written and uploaded, it’s just a matter of clicking the publish button. On Monday, I take a look at a few high school bats that the Cubs could be interested in following this spring. On Wednesday, Austin Upshaw returns. This time I will profile him in the “Leveling Up” series. And on Friday, if all goes well, I return with a post about the Latin infusion of talent coming north of the border at some point this summer.

Baseball Card of the Week

 

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Several Cubs Prospects Coming Off a Rough 2017: Part 2 – Trying to Bounce Back

By Todd Johnson


In last Monday’s look at comeback players for 2018, I examined the walking wounded which consisted mostly of players who were injured for most of the year, if not all of it. Today, it’s all about players looking to get back some semblance of consistency in their production. Most of this group will be at either AA Tennessee or AAA Iowa.

When I examine how a prospect is doing, I have several things that run through my head. There is a part of me that wants to be an objective writer, then there’s part of me that’s a fan, and then there’s part of me that is a teacher, and it’s really hard to shake the last one. I always look for the good and then I try to pick out things that need to be worked on. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t. And like teachers, sometimes writers see the promise of a prospect and hopefully they don’t get blinded by it. I know that’s a flaw that I have.

Most of the Cubs’ current prospects have been in the system for several years. To be honest, it’s hard not to get attached when you watch them go from a scrawny 175 pound kid to a 225 pound man. We watch them grow up and we want them to succeed. It’s hard when they don’t.

This week’s comeback list is filled with a lot of prospects who fit the above description.

I really like watching Zach Hedges pitch. He’s got a plus slider, pretty decent fastball command, and he’s a likable kid. He’s done really well the past two summers at AA, but he’s only gotten one chance at AAA and it did not go well at all. I am hoping he begins 2018 at AAA Iowa as there really is not much left for him to prove in Tennessee. For him to succeed in AAA, Hedges is going to have to keep his fastball down and use his slider to set hitters up. He’s never been a big strikeout pitcher, he’s always been a ground ball machine. I hope he can be that in Iowa this year.

I have been a fan of Trevor Clifton ever since Mike Safford used to call his games online when Trevor was with the Boise Hawks. When Trevor came to South Bend, he got off to a rough start. But after he righted the ship in the second half, Clifton didn’t let up for the next two years through the middle of June 2017. Then it was like he had four flat tires at once. He struggled keeping the ball down, he struggled overthrowing, and he struggled to just find the zone. It was as if he was trying fix his release point, landing spot, and self-confidence all at once. I have no doubt Trevor is going to work hard to return to form in 2018. He’s a great young man with a plus curveball and a developing change. Getting back to knowing, and believing, in himself and his pitches will be the key.

A roller coaster season would be the best way to describe what Chesny Young went through in 2017. The 2014 14th round pick out of Mercer always seemed to just fall out of bed and lace a single to right for his Cub career. From his debut in South Bend through Myrtle Beach, Young showed no sign of the type of season he endured in 2017. April, bad. May, good. Rinse and repeat for a season and a .256 average. It was a bit of a shock for a player whose lowest season before was .303. While Young did play 7 different positions in the field last year, at times he looked clueless at the plate, And at other times, he looked…like Chesny Young. He did not walk as much last year when he struggled, and he did walk when he was hitting well in May and July. As a result, a consistent approach for 2018 should be the key to getting off to a good start in the batter’s box and is what could propel him to Chicago in a bench role.

Ryan Kellogg was near brilliant in the second half of 2016 (1.99 ERA in 11 starts) but he could not put it together except for August (his only monthly with a sub 4 ERA) at Myrtle Beach in 2017. I am not sure of what his role will be and where it will be in 2018. He could start, he could relieve. It probably all depends on how he looks this spring.

OF Jeffrey Baez had a horrible season at Tennessee last year as he fought off minor injuries and failed to adjust after a scintillating second half at Myrtle Beach in 2016. Hitting below the Mendoza line for a whole season is not a good way to get to Chicago. Still, Baez just turned 24 (I find that to be amazing) and can rebound if he can stay healthy to use his mix of power and speed.

PJ Higgins is currently the finest overall defensive catcher in the system. In 2016 at South Bend, he also showed a deft eye at the plate. In 2017, he threw out 33 runners for Myrtle Beach. However, his bat seemed to go missing as his walk rate plummeted along with his batting average (.237). To be quite frank, Higgins’ strength has always been his defense. The converted infielder is a natural behind the plate. I am sure the Cubs would like some improvement on offense. Prior to last season, he hit between .280-.300 at every stop. Hopefully, last year was an aberration.

156 official at-bats is a very small sample size. That’s what Joe Martarano got in last year. Before last year, he only had 69 trips to the plate in 2015. To go two full years without seeing live hitting, let alone moving up to class A from rookie league, is a bit of a culture shock.

In 2018, I expect Martarano to do much better. For one, he cut out a high leg kick and turned that into a toe tap for a better timing mechanism. The result was an August where he hit .273 with 1 HR in 13 games. His K rate needs to come down. Except for July at South Bend, where he hit only .161 for the month, he crushed the rest of the year at EXST (.324) and Eugene (.385). I was impressed watching him work hard in batting practice to drive the ball up the middle. The ball just jumps off his bat with “that sound.” There’s not many Cub prospects who have “that sound” now, but Martarano does.

The Weekly – Wrapping Up 2017

By Todd Johnson

This has been the slowest off-season I can remember. Not that the Tyler Chatwood is a major signing, but at three years and $38 million, that is not what Cub fans expect to see added to rotation. This week, left-handed pitcher Kyle Ryan announced on his Twitter that he had signed with the Cubs. Ryan was excellent in 2016 but not so much in 2017. What the Cubs seem to be doing most this offseason is building bullpen depth at AAA Iowa. And to be honest, that has been standard operating procedure the last five years.

Jim Callis of MLB Pipeline was on 670 The Score’s “Inside the Clubhouse” yesterday morning. He talked about Cubs and White Sox prospects. Callis called shortstop Aramis Ademan the Cubs best prospect. He called him “more of a solid player than a potential star.” He also talked about the Cubs pitching and that he did not see any immediate help for pitching other than Maples. While Callis did talk about Zastryzny and Tseng, he thought of those two more as pitching depth than someone they can count on to stay in the rotation. He added he liked Albertos and Lange but intimated that those two have more questions than answers at this point in their careers.

Top Posts of the Year

As the holiday season comes to a close on Monday, I always like to look back at what posts were the most popular for the year. I am always surprised at the articles that get the most traffic. Just when I think I know what type of post gets the most attention, I get proven wrong every time.

2017 was no exception as the most popular post in the history of Cubs Central was published. A draft profile of high school picture Alex Scherff destroyed all previous records. I just find it odd because the Cubs did not select him. Most of the traffic came after he was selected in the draft. Considering Boston took him, I am going to assume that much of the interest came from the Red Sox fans.

Watching a player break out is always exciting as a fan and a writer. This year, three Cubs pitchers had profiles that put them in second, third and fourth place. Pitcher Michael Rucker came in second place with a profile on his breakthrough performance at South Bend. Ironically, he continued breaking out at Myrtle Beach after moving into the rotation. Eugene’s Bailey Clark had a magically frustrating start that put him in third and a Zach Hedges update from early in the year garnered a lot of traffic.

Another top post was actually my favorite interview of the year with Austin Upshaw. The young infielder from Kennesaw State has a beautiful swing and a great head on his shoulders. The return of catcher Will Remillard was one of my favorite posts of the year as I have always been a big fan of his going back to Kane County in 2014. After missing 2.5 years, his bat came back with a vengeance.

Two posts about breakouts made the top ten – one was on possible second half breakouts and the other was on why breakout pitching prospects were getting hard to find. Coming in at number 9 was a post from just two weeks ago on the top shortstops in the system. Also a prospect profile of outfielder Eddy Martinez prior to the 2017 season came in at number ten. Given a few more days, Zack Short’s Leveling Up Series post would get in.

If you have some free time this week you may want to go back and revisit some of these articles. Thanks again for reading.

Coming Up Next Week

Card made from a picture by Stephanie Lynn

On Wednesday, Duncan Robinson, Michael Rucker, and Thomas Hatch get profiled in the “Leveling Up” series. On Friday, relievers get broken down in the position breakdown series. Hopefully, there will be a transaction of some sort this week and it will be a starting pitcher. Maybe it will be Darvish or it could even be a trade.

As for January, The leveling up series will continue on Wednesdays with the position breakdown series on Fridays except during Convention week, when they both get moved up a day.

Also, you can check out the cards I made with new templates this offseason over on Cubs Central’s Facebook account.

Have a happy New Year!

Baseball Card of the Week

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

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 7 Series: Tennessee Smokies Show Some Deep Talent in 2017

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.

Cubs’ MiLB 2nd Half All-Star Team Shows the Shift in the System

By Todd Johnson

Originally, I did not plan on putting together a second half all star team. However, after looking at some of the performances of several prospects over the last 2 and 1/2 months, I thought they deserved to be honored for their performances.

I always like putting together a second-half team because they usually contain a few recent draft picks and some players from the lower parts of the system. Last year, I started including a couple players from the Dominican Summer League. That holds true for this year as well.

What started with the July All-Star team continued with the August All-Star team and this team. That is, in this list, you can definitely see a shift in the system. Younger players are starting to rise to the top and perform at a high-level. This is true of a couple of draft picks in Austin Upshaw and Nelson Velazquez along with several pitchers from the Dominican Summer League..

So, without further adieu, here is the All-Star team for the second half of the 2017 minor league season.

When I sit down to make my preseason All-Star team in 2018, a lot of the players listed in the video above will get a lot of merit for inclusion. One name not included that I am interested in seeing more of next year is Jose Gutierrez. The 18-year-old outfielder from Venezuela hit .354 in August and was a key cog in helping the Mesa Cubs win a title.

Cubs’ August MiLB All-Star Team Has 16 New Faces

By Todd Johnson

What a difference the last two months had on the look of the Cubs’ system. A lot of familiar names are gone and new ones have taken their place. You would think that this month’s All-Star team would be pitching centric but it’s not. Instead, there are a plethora of hitters who rose to the occasion in August.

Surprisingly, the position of catcher saw the greatest highlights out of all Cubs prospects. Five years ago that was a huge pit of emptiness and now has become a position of strength at every level. Outfield play was also outstanding along with the reliever corps.

While there were several hitters over .300, only a few displayed any kind of power and only one power prospect made the team. The great thing about that is he’s only 18 years old.

As for starting pitching, most MiLB pitchers tend to get run down in August but several arms had a very good month with four outstanding hurlers putting up ERAs under 2.00. This month’s team is structured a little different as it has more than one player at a few everyday positions.

Team Breakdown
Myrtle Beach, South Bend, and Eugene each have 6 reps.
Tennessee, Iowa, and Mesa each have 5. The DSL has 1.

Upcoming posts
Saturday – Cards of the Month
Sunday – The Weekly
Monday – Prospect Profile: Jared Young