When it comes to intriguing right-handed arms competing in extended spring training and the AZL for the Cubs the past few years, one of the trends has been that some of the pitchers that get most of the attention have ended up getting hurt after brief appearances. First, it was Jose Albertos in 2016, then Jeremiah Estrada in 2017, before finally Estrada went down again in 2018 and was also joined by Danis Correa. All three created some early buzz but then missed all or the majority of the year.
Estrada was an over-slot signing in the 6th round of 2017 on par with the Justin Steele deal from a few years back. He entered his senior year of high school as a presumed 1st round pick, but after some struggles fell down draft boards and many assumed he would be best off attending UCLA, but the Cubs were not dissuaded. Since signing we’ve gotten occasional reports of a fastball up to 96, a good curve, a good changeup as well, but in his first year and a half as a pro Estrada has only managed to suit up for four games (6.1 innings) in Mesa.
Correa is a little guy (5’11”) with a big arm. Reports on his velocity have varied, but at times they come back in the upper-90s. Unfortunately, after throwing 40.2 innings in the DSL his first season, he managed just 2 last year before being shut down. If healthy, those two could make their way to Eugene.
He’s managed to appear in 7-9 games in each of his first three seasons, but Yunior Perez is another guy that has struggled to stay on the mound, but when he does has flashed a mid-90s fastball and good feel for a curveball that make him a potential power reliever down the road. A guy who has stayed on the mound and shown a similar profile is Eduarniel Nunez. If he can harness his control a bit this year, he could make his way to Eugene.
Benjamin Rodriguez figures to make his way up from the DSL to Mesa this season. He was a late signing in 2016 class that did not debut until the following year. He attended extended spring training last season before returning to the DSL where he became one of the staff leaders. Fangraphs has noted his high spin rates and potential for a good breaking ball.
The Cubs dipped their toes into the prep pitching market in the 6th round once again in 2018. This time they chose Kohl Franklin, the nephew of former All-Star closer Ryan Franklin, and handed him the 4th highest signing bonus in their draft class. Franklin’s draft buzz was minimal thanks to missing part of his senior season with a broken foot, but the Cubs like his upside. He topped out in the low-90s before the draft but is expected to throw harder as he fills out his 6’4″ frame.
One of the top California JUCO players in last year’s draft, the Cubs hope 6’4″ lefty Chris Allen is a late bloomer after he put up terrific numbers his final collegiate season (13-0, 1.34 ERA, 67 H, 0 HRA, 23 BB, 102 K in 100.2 IP). Allen then followed up with good numbers in the AZL (0.63 ERA, 3.5 BB% in 14.1 IP). He’ll compete for a spot in the South Bend rotation this spring. Another tall (6’6″), potential late bloomer is Andres Bonalde. He pitched just 97.1 innings in the DSL before missing the past two seasons due to injury. The Cubs did choose to protect the 21-year old in the Minor League portion of the Rule 5 draft by placing him on the AAA reserve roster over older, more experienced players so they must still see some upside with him.
Both Allen and Bonalde would be candidates for Eugene if the Cubs feel they aren’t ready to handle a full season in South Bend. There they could join Didier Vargas in the Emeralds rotation. Vargas doesn’t wow anyone with the rest of his repertoire but does bring a good curveball to the table, which has helped him excel thus far in his two pro seasons.
The Cubs received good seasons from a trio of 2017 IFA signings in the DSL last season. By far the most successful was turned in by 18-year old Luis Rodriguez. He was a little older and signed out of the Mexican League so he was more experienced. I do not have a scouting report either so I really can’t classify whether his stuff is legitimate or if it was the case of a more advanced pitcher succeeding with control against teenagers, but his numbers (0.73 ERA, 2.53 xFIP, 3.0 BB%, 26.2 K%, 0.73 WHIP) were nothing short of phenomenal. We should get a better idea once reports come in from extended spring training if we should get excited or not. The two younger signings were Maisel Garcia and Saul Vazquez. Garcia was a late riser in the IFA class as he grew two inches and added 25 pounds after signing for 150K. This helped him get his fastball up to 92, which he pairs with a good curve. Vazquez brings similar size and stuff to the table and put up better numbers during his DSL stint, but finished the year under an 80-game PED suspension. It seems reasonable to expect all three hurlers to come stateside this year.
The Cubs didn’t settle for the top RHP (Richard Gallardo) in the 2018 IFA class, they also snagged one of the top LHP. Joel Machado (Ranked 47th by BA / Top 35 by MLB) added height and weight in the year prior to signing, allowing for an uptick in velocity that now has him topping out around 90 with the potential for more. Both his curve and change receive above average projections and could become his calling card in the years ahead. Like Gallardo, Machado shows off advanced control of the zone for his age.
Plus speed and a plus arm were enough to entice teams to draft Curacao native Edmond Americaan two consecutive years, first out of high school and then after his freshman season at Chipola JC. Americaan chose not to sign, but the third time was the charm, last year. Americaan added some strength and some loft to his line drive stroke, helping him to do a little more damage at the plate, and the Cubs took a late round flyer on him. He ended up signing for above slot, the 9th highest bonus the Cubs gave out last year.
In the past two drafts the Cubs have pulled some interesting talents out of Puerto Rican high schools (Nelson Velazquez, Luis Vazquez), and the next guy to keep an eye on is 13th round pick Ezequiel Pagan. He still needs to mature physically, but he is considered a good athlete in centerfield with a solid hit tool.
Carlos Morfa is considered a super raw, but athletic and powerful corner outfielder. Got off to decent start in his first DSL campaign, but then struggled after missing more than month with an injury. He was the lone DSL player brought to winter instructs. Considered long-term project but we may begin seeing power come out in 2019.
The Cubs highest IFA signing bonus ($1.5M) was reserved for quick-twitch center fielder Jose Lopez. A plus runner, the rest of Lopez’s tools project in the 50-55 range, but as a guy likely to stick in CF that makes him a highly enticing talent with the potential to impact a game in multiple ways. There is a noticeable hitch in his swing that scared some off, but Lopez has been able to overcome it thanks to bat speed at this point. The Cubs obviously feel there is plenty of time, and Lopez is a strong enough athlete, for them to work out the kinks in the coming years.
As we know, the Cubs prioritize up-the-middle athletes, so they did not stop with Jose Lopez in the latest IFA class. They added another speedy centerfield with a good hit tool in Yohendrick Pinango for $400K, then late in the signing period they agreed to similar deals with a pair of Cuban outfielders Christian More and Felix Stevens Canizares.
Not only were the Cubs strong at shortstop and second base throughout their full season affiliates but they were at both rookie level complexes as well. I guess that shouldn’t be a surprise given the emphasis the Cubs place on signing and drafting up-the-middle athletes. He doesn’t have the same upside as Luis Verdugo but switching hitting shortstop Josue Huma is the more advanced player from the AZL last year, and could make the competition for the starting spot in Eugene interesting this year. He is considered a solid, steady player offensively and defensively.
Moving up from the DSL to Mesa this year will be two guys coming off great seasons. Fabian Pertuz is the more heralded, and just missed out on sticking in the AZL last year as a 17-year old. He went down and wrecked the DSL though to the tune of .298/.419/.427 (147 wRC+, .417 wOBA) and 36 SBs. That impressive OBP was driven by a 14.1 BB% set against a 11.9 K%. Those numbers make him an enticing top of the order option, and Pertuz is also known as a flashy defender capable of making all the plays at shortstop. He figures to receive competition for leadoff jobs in Mesa from fellow shortstop Pedro Martinez, who matched Pertuz with more than 30 stolen bases and low whiff rate (11.4 K%). His 11.4 BB% wasn’t too bad either as he came up just shy of a .400 OBP (.310/.398/.406).
In order to refill the pipeline down in the DSL, the Cubs went out and signed the younger brother of infielder Christopher Morel in the latest IFA class. Rafael Morel is another highly athletic shortstop although he could transition to centerfield as a professional. A plus athlete and runner with a knack for hitting line drives, Morel is potential top of the order batter as well.
Moving on to the hot corner, a couple of names to keep in the back of your mind are Widimer Joaquin and Rochest Cruz. Joaquin entered his first pro season considered to have intriguing raw power. Some teams were scared off in IFA because of concerns about his hit tool, but not the Cubs, and the early returns (.292/.374/.395, 2 HR, 126 wRC+, .380 wOBA, 9.0 BB%, 20.6 K%) back up the team’s assessment.
Nineteen-year olds performing at a high level in the DSL should come with giant warning signs attached, but .302/.420/.404 with far more walks than strikeouts and 56 stolen bases are numbers that deserve some attention regardless of circumstances. Again, we should get an idea from extended spring training reports whether Rochest Cruz is a legitimate prospect or not.
Behind the plate, Henderson Perez is the big name to keep tabs on. Given a higher bonus in the same class as Miguel Amaya, Perez is a lean, athletic, strong-armed backstop whose offense just began to develop in 2018 (.277/.354/.358, 108 wRC+). He is likely to share time in Eugene with Jonathan Soto.