By Todd Johnson
When it comes to baseball cards, I am weird. When I was a kid, I loved collecting them around 10, 11, and 12-years-old. It consumed every summer. I used to have a card table in my bedroom where I had them all sorted into neat little stacks by team and arranged by division. I was consumed with collecting them and trying to find the money to collect them. But as the 70s turned into the 80s, there were other things that began to take over my time. Part of me still enjoys that euphoria I got from collecting those initial cards of the 1970s.
That was over 40 years ago. This winter, I added some new templates of more recent years and I’m kind of digging that, too, but in a different way. For the month of January and into early February, I found a few more pictures of prospects that are starting to show up in Google and Twitter searches. Some of the cards I made turned into instant classics.
There’s not really a theme that weaves throughout all of the cards in the second “best of” post for this winter. Instead, the 12 cards I’ve selected today I like for variety of reasons. The key to any great card is a great photograph. And each of the photographs of the following cards are special for a different reason.
There were only a few pictures of Cory Abbott, the Cubs 2017 2nd round pick, out there on the Internet. This is one of them from the Eugene Emeralds that I really like because of the arm action in the follow through. For the other card, Duncan Robinson is in a Myrtle Beach Merman uniform, a play on the show “Eastbound and Down” that followed the mythical career of one Kenny Powers. I really love that jersey and the picture by Larry Kave!
Coming in at number 10 is a picture by my friend John Conover that captures Aramis Ademan in action against West Michigan. While I do like action, I really like the lines in the background of the dirt and the shaded section of the grass as much as the player. Coming in at number nine is a picture by MiLB of Adbert Alzolay at the high class A All-Star game. It’s it’s a very appealing picture to me because he’s in a different uniform and I like the shade of that blue. Sometimes, the specialty jersey can get played out a little bit, but I love this picture of Brendon Little in a “Pirates of the Caribbean” jersey.
7 to 5
Duncan Robinson returns again in the Mermen jersey at number seven. When I love about this picture is how the rain in the background dances in the light in another capture by Larry Kave. In contrast, Duane Underwood’s number six card has him bathed in the sunlight in an old picture from when he was in the Arizona Fall League from USA Today. Larry Kave’s close up of Zack Short is special because the yellow lettering just pops on the card.
4 to 2
Even though he didn’t get to see a lot of action after being drafted, Rollie Lacy comes in at number four in a night shot from the Emeralds that blends in perfectly with the staggered background in a 1999 template. I just love the many shades of black in the card. At number three, Alex Lange gets bathed in the trees that really offset the action in the card in this warm up shot from the Emeralds. For number two, I just love this blue sky blending with the stadium lights of Eugene reliever Casey Ryan. It is a classic action shot of him warming up in between innings in. I think the blue sky and the stadium lights reflecting against his hair is magical.
2017 draft pick Chris Singleton has been through more in the last three years than anyone can imagine. His mother was killed in a church shooting in South Carolina. It didn’t stop Singleton from chasing his dream. When I look at this picture, I see a determined look in his face and how the world is just melting away behind him.
Starting later next week, spring-training shots should be floating around the Internet. I will take a few of those images and begin to make cards for spring training. It will have its own folder over on the Facebook page and I’ll have a post in early April for those cards. I’m really excited to see how much some of the players have changed over the winter and it’s always exciting to see them in a blue Cubs uniform in the Arizona sunlight.
By Todd Johnson
I did not see this post coming…at all.
When the offseason began, I made an album on the Facebook account for offseason cards. I often get several new pics over the offseason as I come across assorted local articles and search results begin to include other pictures. I thought maybe, just maybe, that I might make 20-25 new baseball cards this winter.
To make a short story long, at the end of last season I thought that I would recreate Topps’ 2017 design. I liked how extremely close I came without using an editor. I made a few cards. As some Arizona Fall League (AFL) pictures came in from MiLB and the AFL, I began exclusively making 2017 cards for about 6 weeks until the AFL season ended.
Then I got a little bit ambitious about a week before Christmas. I showed some of my students how I used PIXLR, an online photo editor, to help make the templates for each year. Up through this past fall, the templates I made cards from were from my card collecting years. There were a couple of years in the 1950s, most of the 60s, and then my peak card collecting years, 1970-1986. I do have a 1990 template but that was where the fun ended.
Anyway, I got a lot accomplished for school stuff the last week of the semester. As a result, I had little or no work to do over break. In other words, I was free to fart around, something I haven’t had time for the past couple of years. So, I began to try making more modern cards from the past 30 years. In the end, I added over 16 templates from 1990 onward and two more from the 1950s. I really like most of the templates, but there are 3 or 4 I am still working on.
Yesterday, I found some more pics to make cards for the leveling up profiles and the position breaking. I uploaded them to the Facebook album and I was stunned I had made over 70+ cards this offseason. I knew then it was time for a post.
So, with further adieu…
Normally, I don’t make a lot of big league players unless it is from their debut or rookie season. I just love the light and shadow on Dillon Maples in his debut last year. It also looks good in one of my favorite new templates, the 1953 Topps. Dillon also looks stunning in a mixture of red, white, and Cub blue in a 2003 template.
Coming in at number 10, Jake Stinnett pops in this picture by Clubhouse Corner from the Arizona Fall League. I love this 2008 template but the popout Topps tab is sometimes hard to work around. Larry Kave’s capture of Zack Short meshes well with many shades of blue contained in another 2003 card. Rikk Carlson’s closeup of DJ Wilson just jumps off the page in the 2017 frame.
As I looked at the large number of cards, each tier became harder and harder to pick. International Free Agent Florencio Serrano looks great in a 1999 frame at number 7. I haven’t decided what affiliate’s uniform will blend with the color in this template best. At number 6, Dylan Heuer captures the “Popeye” arms of Mark Zagunis perfectly in a 1953 frame. Larry Kave returns at number 5 with Thomas Hatch in a 2007 frame which I beginning to like more and more. What I love about this picture, though, is the yellow line at the top of the outfield wall blends with Hatch’s cap and the lettering on the card.
Getting to the top four took a lot of thought. I found this rare picture of pitcher Brendan King, a 2017 draftee of the Cubs. He pitched in Mesa this past after signing and I found the pic on the Twitter account of Holy Cross Baseball. I used a filter to make the blue pop and I liked it a lot. Coming in at #3, Duane Underwoods closeup from the former CSN-Chicago gets some love in a 2017 frame. At number 2, this was one of my favorite cards of the entire and it is of Adbert Alzolay in the Arizona Fall League. The lighting of the game makes the card along with his gray Mesa Solar Sox hat being similar in color to the gray 2017 frame and his glove.
I had this list all done and then about 9 P.M. last night I was looking for pics in a Twitter search. Lo and behold, there was a picture of Wladimir Galindo by Jared Ravitch from 2016. The black of uniform fits perfectly with the black of the card and gray outline and the blue fencing provides a backdrop for Wladimir’s face. It’s a great closeup of Wladimir in a 1953 classic frame.
Only 6 more weeks until spring training!
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
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
By Todd Johnson
When I first saw Zack Short play in 2016 for the Eugene Emeralds, I came away impressed with his overall game. He could hit for power, he could make all the throws at shortstop, and he had a somewhat decent approach at the plate. In 2017, things changed a bit for the better.
At class A South Bend, Short’s approach improved as he led the Midwest League in walks in the first half. He also continued his power stroke as he clubbed six home runs for the Cubs in the first half. He was named a Midwest League All-Star while playing a mixture of second (12 games), third (23 games), and shortstop (61 games). and was promoted to high class A Myrtle Beach in late June.
In the second half, Short continued his impressive season as he hit for a better average for the Pelicans and continued to display power. When looking back at the 2017 season, the most impressive thing about Short was that he continued to hit well at Myrtle Beach, a noted pitcher’s league. His on base percentage was .372 and in the second half he hit an additional six home runs in a ballpark where home runs go to die. Whether he can build upon those two skills remains to be seen.
When Zack Short was drafted in 2017, his blurb that day was to the point. I wrote, “A bit undersized at 5’11 and 175, he only hit .241 as a senior. There is some developing power. When he was a freshman, he was 5’9″ and 155 pounds. So, there’s some projection left. Well thought of in scouting circles.” Even then, that burgeoning power was evident. It appeared, on the surface, that the Cubs were going to get an ascending player who still had some growing into his body to do.
And that is exactly what the Cubs got.
Short is one of many prospects who will be moving up a level in 2018 from Myrtle Beach to AA Tennessee.
What I would like to see from him at Tennessee is for him to continue to get on base at a high rate as well as show power. He doesn’t necessarily have to hit 20 HRs, but he does have to show the ability to drive the ball into the gaps. His defense does need some work as he was somewhat error-prone in stretches last year.
When digging deeper into his statistics, Short has some interesting splits. His line drive rate increased 10 percent at Myrtle Beach as did his batting average of balls in play (BABIP). His BABIP went from .273 in South Bend to .307 at Myrtle Beach. I think there’s a direct correlation between the increased percentage of line drives to the batting average as his flyball rate fell from 57 to 43 percent and his ground ball rate stayed the same at 30 percent
If he can put together a pretty good season of getting on base and being in power mode, his value skyrockets. He might not be the most physically gifted athlete on the field but he does execute. He always has came across to me as a baseball rat. He lives, breathes, and eats baseball.
Short told his local paper about his daily grind:
“You work on everything every day. You are here doing early work every day. You have to stay with your routine every day and get better in all aspects of the game because somebody else is at your back chomping behind you to take your position.”
He comes across a guy who just knows how to play the game and I think that is the highest compliment I pay a prospect.
If there’s one thing the Cubs have shown that they covet in a prospect it’s the ability to control the strike zone. Zack Short has done that at four levels in just 639 at bats. That’s it. His career as a Cub has only been 6 1/2 months. If he does what he should and keeps grinding and getting on base, it’s going to last a lot longer.
Next week, the “Leveling Up” series looks at some starting pitchers who will advance to AA Tennessee in 2018 by the names of Rucker, Robinson, and Hatch.
By Todd Johnson
I was all set to begin uploading “The Weekly” on Saturday night when I thought I would jump onto Twitter to see if there was a trade or signing. I should have known better. 15 minutes later, I finished reading John Sickels’ ranking of Cubs prospects and realized I would have to write a whole new column. Damn you, John Sickels!
To begin, Sickels’ list has a different top prospect than other recent prospect lists and his contains several rankings that are quite different from Fangraphs and Baseball America.
Pitcher Adbert Alzolay is fittingly ranked number one. And not surprisingly, Sickels did not give out one grade of “A” to any of the Cub prospects. In fact, he only handed out just six Bs. That’s quite an indictment of the Cubs’ system. Then again, just three of his top 10 prospects began their season above A+ last year.
The top prospect for both Baseball America and Fangraphs, shortstop Ademan, came in at number two and 2017 draft pick Alex Lange came in at number three. Lange’s inclusion so high in the list likely has to do more with his ability to move fast through the system based on one single dominant pitch, his curveball. I really like the placement of Lange this high. I love his competitiveness just as much as his curve.
Yeah, I’ve noticed the effort issue plus mixed reports on his changeup and FB velocity. But his track record is strong and I think he may thrive in pro environment. https://t.co/TRs3tcoYYN
— johnsickels (@MinorLeagueBall) December 1, 2017
Other players to make the top 10 included Jose Albertos, Victor Caratini, Oscar de la Cruz, Thomas Hatch, Brendon Little, Jen-Ho Tseng, and Mark Zagunis. In Sickels’ second 10, his selections get a little bit more adventurous.
Coming in at number 16 is pitcher Michael Rucker. Rucker started out as a reliever at South Bend in 2017 and wound up going to Myrtle Beach mid-summer and later replaced Oscar de la Cruz in the Pelicans’ starting rotation. Based on his summer split of a 2.51 ERA in 15 starts at Myrtle Beach, Rucker doesn’t seem to be letting go of the rotation at all. It’s a pretty meteoric rise one year after being drafted. He throws a lot strikes, something the Cubs seem to lack.
Sickels also gives some love to pitcher Keegan Thompson out of Auburn at number 17. Drafted in the 4th round in 2017, Thompson pitched some in relief at Eugene last summer. After missing all of 2016, Thompson came back as a different pitcher as he relied more on experience than a purebred 95 mph fastball. Instead, command and control became his calling card. He only threw 19 innings while striking out 23 in short season ball. He did make one start, a three inning scoreless affair.
I was a little surprised to see Sickels’ list so early this offseason, even more so in the wake of Fangraphs’ list, which just came out on Thursday. Sickels’ list does prove a few things about what I thought would happen this winter. One, not every evaluator is going to agree on who the Cubs’ number one prospect is. In addition, I don’t even think there’s a consensus on who the top Cub prospects are. DJ Wilson, who came in at number nine for Fangraphs, did not even make Sickels’ top 20 and graded out of with a C+.
I’m starting to get a kick out of the differentiation amongst the lists.
Two players who I thought might see a little love just based on their 2017 performances were Ian Rice and Zack Short. Neither has yet to make a list.
Then again, while offseason lists are fun to discuss the value of prospects, I tend to prefer mid-season rankings as you tend to get a better feel for players drafted the year before. This was true last year for Short, Rucker, and pitcher Duncan Robinson. I wonder what will be said about Little, Lange, Cory Abbott, and Keegan Thompson in the middle of next summer?
No word on when MLB Pipeline or Keith Law will publish their new lists. However, Baseball Prospectus is set to drop their top 10 Cubs prospect list on December 11. Hopefully, there will be a new name on the top of that list, like… say, Ohtani. That would be great!
By Todd Johnson
Overall Record – 73-67
I think the pressure of winning a third consecutive championship had to be overwhelming at times for many players on the Pelicans. And then everything changed in one day as one single trade saw three of the Pelicans switch dugouts. It was just a weird year.
In April and early May, the Pelicans played like a .500 team. Granted, they were without outfielder Eloy Jimenez, but he would soon join the team. In late May, the team caught fire and they won 20 out of 24 games to clinch a first half division title.
After the All-Star break, the Eloy trade, injuries, and a languishing offense began to catch up as the Pelicans finished last in their division in the second half.
In the playoffs, they bowed out quicklyin a hurricane-shortened playoff series. There were still some bright spots.
Heading into 2018, I think it could be a transformative year for several prospects. Some are position players, some of are pitchers, but regardless of their position, AA is the ultimate test for a prospect. Here are seven Pelicans from 2017 to watch who could raise their value in the organization in 2018.
1. Eddy Martinez – I think 2018 is when he takes off and breaks out as a prospect. He will have two years under his belt of living in the US and and playing minor-league baseball. He will turn 23 in January and I think he is ready to explode after hitting over .270 in the second half of 2017.
2. Zack Short – He was one of my favorite prospects to watch in 2017. He was a great lead off hitter and he succeeded at two levels. He can work a walk with the best Cub prospects. Add in his power at a premium position and he could be something special in AA. My only concern for him is he needs to improve his fielding and I really don’t see that as a major problem.
3. Duncan Robinson – Although he comes from Dartmouth, he is nothing like fellow Ivy Leaguer Kyle Hendricks. I think that Robinson is really going to surprise some people next year with his ability to adapt over the course of the season. This year, he added a cutter and he went from reliever to starter to Midwest League All-Star and then shined at Myrtle Beach in a two month span.
4. Michael Rucker – He was pressed into service as a starter this year and I don’t know if that’s his long-term future. As a reliever, he was a strike throwing machine that challenged hitters. He wore down a little bit as August as a starter. Still, he compiled an outstanding season and should be one to watch in Tennessee. I just don’t know what his role will be. He should start 2018 as a starter.
5. Thomas Hatch – He had a nice run in June when he was named the Cubs’ minor league pitcher of the month. Other than that, I never knew what was gonna happen when he was on the mound. The only thing I could say with certainty was that his pitches were going to move quite a bit. The question always was could he control them. And I think that’s the next question for 2018 is how much command he can regain by next spring for his second pro season.
6. Pedro Araujo – What a great year he had as he started to put it together. He has always had a powerful arm, it just took a while for it to develop. He took off beginning in May and then even more so when he became the closer in early June. He has to be very confident heading into next season. Even though he is up for Rule V draft, I still think he’s a couple years away from making it and I don’t think any team is going to risk selecting him this winter.
7. Originally, I was going to put Jesse Hodges, but I really think Jesse’s gonna be just fine at AA. Instead, I have decided to go with Tyler Alamo, who is a prospect who is really beginning to put things together. It’s been a slow track since he was drafted out of high school, but the catcher/1st baseman was one of the best hitters the Cubs had in the second half of the season.
I’m not quite sure what to make of Oscar de la Cruz. Injuries made his year an almost wasted one. He just has not gotten a lot of innings and that is what will need to do so in order to become a major league starter.
Pelicans to Know for 2018
This was a hard one. There are a lot of players who were on South Bend in 2017 who can really hit well. But I don’t know if there’s anybody who really stands out as a possible elite player just yet. There are several prospects who flashed some serious talent over the course of their Cubs minor league career, but no one who seems to do it on a consistent basis. DJ Wilson is close and outfielder Luis Ayala is an emerging bat.
Still, I think the player who could really take off next year is Kevonte Mitchell. At times this year, he flashed the ability to carry a team for a week or so. He had outstanding May and another outstanding July. In between and afterwards, he was inconsistent. You can see him recognize a curveball, but he can’t hit it on a regular basis. Until he does that, he is going to mash fastballs whenever he can. He does that really well.
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.