Eugene Position Players
New Emeralds Manager Lance Rymel, 29, a former 28th round pick of the Cubs who played in the NWL All-Star game just 6 years ago, is now tasked with leading the league's defending champions. Rymel may be young, but the former catcher has already compiled experience as a Manager. He guided the Cubs1 affiliate in the DSL the past two seasons, finishing above .500 both times. It will be a tough task to repeat the success of the 2016 and 2018 NWL Championship trophies, as the Cubs didn't invest in many college bats to infuse the Eugene roster with a boost in talent later this summer, so there will need be a lot of heavy lifting done by recent signings from the international market.
Second baseman Reivaj Garcia (.302/.362/.355 in 40 G with AZL Cubs1 in 2018) is a 17-year old wunderkind who skipped the DSL in his first season of pro ball and still managed to hit over .300 in the AZL. A relatively unheralded signing out of Mexico, Garcia is not very big and isn't expected to develop much power moving forward, but the hit tool is legit. The switch hitter was also remarkably consistent considering his youth. He did not hit less than .280 in any month last year.
His double play partner was originally scheduled to be fellow Mexican teenager Luis Verdugo, but will instead be slick fielding Luis Vazquez. The 19-year old became the youngest Iowa Cubs player to hit a home run since Carlos Zambrano when he filled in with the club as an injury replacement a couple weeks ago. He is the best infielder in the entire system, with smooth hands, quick actions and the balance to throw from multiple platforms but his offensive game has yet to develop.
Vazquez makes frequent contact, but has not been able to display much power or patience up to this point. He failed to hit above the Mendoza Line in his first two seasons (including just .193 with Eugene last year), but did manage a .216 average over 36 games split between Iowa and Tennessee the past two months. He does have the frame to add weight and strength in the coming years, so I do hold out hope there is more offense to come down the line. His defense will ensure he continues to receive opportunities moving forward.
There is a good chance Vazquez moves up to South Bend once the chain of promotions begin after the Minor League All-Star break, so we could still see Verdugo, with his developing power profile and solid instincts at shortstop in Eugene before too long. In the meantime, the Cubs will want to get both everyday ABs in the NWL and AZL respectively.
Infielder Yonathan Perlaza is a former high profile 2015 IFA signing who finally began tapping into his offensive ability in 2018. He hit well in the AZL before receiving a late promotion to Eugene, where he scored the winning run on the incredible walk-off balk that ended the decidin game in the NWL Championship.
Second rounder Chase Strumpf will push his way into a featured role once he makes his way to Eugene. It could mean Garcia drops back to the AZL so that he can continue getting everyday reps, but it is also possible Strumpf could be tried at multiple positions, and may only be in Eugene for a short time if the Cubs believe the MWL is a better fit for him. Third baseman Ryan Reynolds (2019, 14th) could factor in as well, but the Cubs 2019 draft was light on college bats so the impact from position players (at least those who are prospects and not org players) figures to be minimal compared to previous classes.
The newcomer to watch in the outfield is Edmond Americaan. The athletic outfielder with a line drive stroke received the 8th highest bonus from the 2018 draft class and also got a quick look in South Bend earlier this month when injuries wiped out their entire starting outfield for a time. He figures to be a fixture near the top of the lineup with speedster Fernando Kelli returning to the leadoff role.
Kelli is a 70 runner, but was pretty reckless in his attempts to impact the game with it last year. Despite tying for the league league in steals he was getting gunned out quite frequently as well. I think he will do better this time around. And he isn't just a little guy with limited upside at the plate either. There is a little bit of pop in his bat so I also believe he can improve on his .236/.308/.295 line from 2018.
The Ems will return another familiar face behind the plate with Jonathan Soto. He opened 2018 in Eugene (.138/.190/.190) before returning to the AZL (.327/.403/.426) after struggling badly on offense. The left-handed hitter is not very big but is able to generate a bit of pop. Soto is a legit catching prospect though, and so look for the 20-year old to perform better this time around.
Eugene Pitching Staff
The staff will feature a pair of former 6th round prep arms who signed overslot deals from the past two drafts. Jeremiah Estrada (2017) has been bitten by the injury bug since being picked, with just 6.1 career innings under his belt in his first year and a half as a pro, but the Cubs thought highly enough of him to give him a $1M to sign, their 3rd highest bonus given out in the 2017 draft behind only 1st rounders Alex Lange and Brendon Little. If he can stay on teh mound, his mid-90s heat, and two solid secondaries (curve, change), make him the most intriguing prospect on the staff. Kohl Franklin (2018) comes with a bit less fanfare and received a less substantial signing bonus ($640K), but the nephew of former MLB All-Star closer Ryan Franklin features a classic starter's pitch mix and projectable 6'4" frame. He currently sits in the low-90s, but there may be more in the tank down the road.
Another 2018 draft pick to keep an eye on is 21 year-old lefty Chris Allen. He was one of three players the Cubs chose after the 10th round who they devoted some of their bonus pool to sign him above the allowed $125K cap (Americaan and Riley Thompson were the others). The former JUCO star is likely to work in a piggyback role, and could be in line for a promotion to South Bend later in the year with a successful stint for the Ems. He posted a 0.63 ERA in his 7 AZL games in 2018.
Niels Stone (2018, 27th) is another lively arm and is also expected to contribute in a piggyback role. Zach Mort (2018, 8th) returns to Eugene to get stretched out after a successful stint out of the South Bend pen earlier this year. He is a strike thrower, whose 10 starts for the Emeralds last season and 32.2 innings in the MWL this spring, make him the most experienced memeber of the staff.
Two 20-year olds, Yunior Perez and Eduarniel Nunez, are a couple of under-the-radar former IFA arms to keep an eye on. Perez is the more experienced, but has battled nagging injuries and inconsistencies his first three years. He receives solid marks for his curve and changeup in addition to a fastball capable of touching the upper-90s. Nunez is up to 95 on the gun, pitched well in limited action in DSL two years ago, and then again in a larger showing (10 starts, 3.19 ERA) in the AZL last season. Control will be a big factor for both, as walks have been an issue so far during their careers.
All lefty Didier Vargas has done since signing two years ago is get guys out (2.02 ERA in 116 combined innings between DSL/AZL). He doesn't light up the gun, but his curveball gets good reviews.
It is unfortunate that two of the most exciting prospects who figured to factor in with Eugene have been shut down for the time being. Yovanny Cruz blew through the AZL as an 18-year old last season, and then impressed in a late audition with Eugene. He impressed during spring training with a couple extra ticks on his sinker, reaching around 94, to go along with an intriguing slider and changeup, but the Cubs shut him down later in the EXST. At this point I am not if or when they plan to resume his throwing schedule.
Danis Correa is the second arm we may miss out on in 2019. He may be undersized, but Correa reportedly reaches the mid-90s and sometimes even higher, but after a successful DSL debut in 2017, he was limited to just two innings last year, and now it appears the 19-year old is again in line for another partial season at most.
Fingers crossed on both of those guys.
AZL Position Players
We touched on Strumpf and Verdugo above, as they both figure to see action in Eugene by the end of the year, but there are other prospects to keep an eye on in Mesa. It should also come as no surprise that the majority of those prospects are up-the-middle defenders as well.
Fabian Pertuz may get overshadowed by Verdugo and Reivaj Garcia from the 2017-18 IFA class, but the 6-foot Colombian is an energetic defender with a good hit tool coming off a very good 2018 season in the DSL. He is likely to outgrow shortstop but he is considered a savvy player and there may be enough in the bat as he fills out for him to profile at 2B/3B or at least in a utility role.
Speedy Venezuelan switch hitter Pedro Martinez may profile best at 2B due to an average arm, but his instincts, plate discipline, and base stealing skills put him firmly on the map as a potential top of the order prospect to watch. Another switch hitter, Josue Huma returns to the AZL after a solid 2018. He doesn't have an exciting athletic profile, but he is considered a solid all around player capable of playing all three infield positions. I don't have much info on the Cubs 11th round pick Mack Chambers, but he offers yet another switch-hitting option, and he put up impressive numbers (404/489/565, 21 doubles, 4 triples, 8 homers, 34/27 BB/K ratio and 14/18 on SB attempts) in the JUCO ranks.
A third baseman who could emerge is Widimer Joaquin. Considered a potential power hitting prospect in the 2017-18 IFA class, some teams were scared off by a questionable hit tool, but in his debut DSL season Joaquin hit .292. The power has yet to emerge, but at just 18, there is still plenty of time. He did have contact issues, but there could be some sleeper potential with him.
The Cubs invested heavily in the catcher position in the 2019 draft. Sixth rounder Ethan Hearn was considered the top prep catcher in the entire draft, and the Cubs are expected to sign him to an overslot deal equivalent to 2nd round money in the coming days. The main traits Hearn offers are a powerful left-handed bat and a strong right arm. Joining him will be 10th rounder Wyatt Hendrie, a sleeper from the JUCO ranks, who converted to backstop from the outfield this season, and boasts plus athleticism for the position, including good speed. He is undoubtedly still raw on the defensive side, but I am anxious to get a look at him, although I don't expect he will play above the AZL this season, so I won't lay my eyes on him until next year.
Considering Miguel Amaya and Jonathan Soto have jumped out ahead in the early part of their careers, it is easy to forget that Henderson Perez actually received a higher signing bonus than either in the IFA market back in 2015. His development has been slow up to this point, but he did show strides with the bat last season, so I still hold out hope Perez can emerge as a legitimate catching prospect moving forward.
Moving to the outfield, there is nowhere near the intrigue we saw last year, with guys like Brennen Davis and Cole Roederer to track, but Ezequiel Pagan is a speedy center fielder the Cubs took out of Puerto Rico in the 13th round who has all the defensive tools, but needs to continue filling out as we wait and see if the bat catches up. Toolsy is a good descriptor for right fielder Carlos Morfa. He was considered very raw coming out of the 1718 IFA class, and his struggles at the plate in the DSL last season were no surprise, but the balls jumps off his bat when he makes contact.
Abraham Rodriguez missed 2017 due to a shoulder injury, then spent all of last season on the Restricted List, so there isn't much track record in games, but his left-handed hit tool is considered legit. It is just unclear if he can play a position (probably a 1B/LF) and his power may not profile at those spots.
AZL Pitching Staffs
It is unclear just how much we will see of Cubs 1st round pick Ryan Jensen this summer. He already worked 100 innings with Fresno State and the team reportedly wants to spend time with him making adjustments in the Pitch Lab. If we do get to see him on the mound, his running mid-90s two-seamer and high-90s four-seamer figure to stand out. His slider and changeup are considered inconsistent offerings right now, and figure to be what the Cubs hope to tweak. I have seen video of Jensen snapping off some good breakers though, so the skill is there.
Outside of Jensen, the Cubs top rated 2018-19 IFA signing Richard Gallardo figures to be the main attraction on the mound in Mesa. The 17-year old will skip the DSL and while the Cubs figure to protect his arm, it does appear he has earned one of the starting rotation slots this spring. Gallardo sits in the low-90s, can snap off some impressive curves, and shows good feel for a changeup at his young age. His command and control are also considered advanced. While he doesn't boast a big, projectable frame, Gallardo is a good athlete and does figure to continue add a bit of velocity as he matures.
We may also see another IFA signing from the same class, as lefty Joel Machado has been in Mesa all spring, but was recently shut down. He received the second highest bonus among pitchers from the Cubs last year, but was reportedly sitting only in the mid-80s during EXST.
Lefty Misael Garcia was considered an advanced strike thrower with a good feel for a curve when signed for $150K in the 17-18 class, but has grown significantly since signing as is now also up into the low-90s with his fastball. He posted a 3.55 ERA and more than a K per inning in 45 innings as a 17-year old in the DSL last year. Willy Cabrera is a big righty with a big arm, capable of hitting the mid-to-high-90s, but control was a huge issue for him last season, and he was recently shut down.
The Cubs added some hard throwers in their 2019 draft class beyond just Jensen. Their 3rd rounder, Michael McAvene, was touching triple digits at times this season as the Louisville closer. It is possible the Cubs consider stretching him out as McAvene was considered a starting pitcher coming out of the prep ranks but moved to the pen after TJS early in his collegiate career. Chris Clarke is a huge righty (6'7") who can touch the mid-90s, but his plus curve is considered his go to pitch. Hunter Bigge (12th) was a two-way player at Harvard (also a 3B) whose results never matched his stuff at the collegiate level, but could unlock his potential with a move to the mound full-time as a pro.
They don't figure to get a ton of work, but both of the Cubs overslot prep arms should debut with one of the Mesa clubs this summer. Lefty D.J. Herz (8th round, but received late 3rd round bonus) is a good athlete with a fastball that touches 94 and a plus slider. He reminds me a lot of a young Justin Wilson in the video I saw. Righty Tyler Schlaffer (9th) also hits 94 on the gun and pairs it with a potential plus changeup. He is out of Homewood-Flossmoor in Illinois, and was a two-way player, so as a cold weather player who hasn't devoted his full efforts on the mound there could be more untapped potential there.