Daily Cubs Minors Recap: Tennessee roster and season preview; Iowa rained out

Ryan Jensen (photo by Rikk Carlson)

AAA

Iowa PPD

Iowa and Buffalo will play a doubleheader today.

Injuries, Updates, and Trends

Four more players were added to the Iowa roster, but they’ve gone directly to the IL (LHP Steven Brault, LHRP Brendon Little, RHRP Jonathan Holder, RHRP Dakota Mekkes).

The I-Cubs roster is currently listed as having 33 active players, which is not allowed, but I believe several veterans remained behind in Mesa in the final days of spring training and have not officially reported to the team yet. I wonder if those players, such as John Hicks, Ildemaro Vargas, Stephen Gonsalves and a couple of other pitchers travelled north to Chicago with the Major League club and are waiting to join Iowa when their first home stand begins in Des Moines on Tuesday. If so, and no one gets injured between now and then, it is possible we see a few guys playing the first series get released in the coming days. Another possibility is that one or more of the veterans exercised an out in their Minor League deal and it has not been reported yet.

AA

Tennessee Roster and Preview

C: Bryce Windham, Harrison Wenson, Cam Balego (UT) – Miguel Amaya (IL)

This could be an intriguing year in the development of Bryce Windham. An athletic utility player in college, Windham took well to the catcher conversion program after turning pro, but after suffering a midseason injury the Cubs kept his starts limited to starts at 2B/3B/DH in the 2nd half. His bat picked up the pace during that time however and he finished the year with a .276/.362/.395 line for the year. Miguel Amaya’s elbow surgery has opened the door for the everyday job at Tennessee. Windham has 3rd catcher/utility man upside in a similar way that P.J. Higgins did previously. Windham however is a bit more capable in the field and swings the bat from the left side. He’ll be Rule 5 eligible this fall.

IF: Chris Morel (UT), Chase Strumpf (3B/2B), Luis Vazquez (SS), Bryce Ball (1B), Nelson Maldonado (1B/DH), Delvin Zinn (UT), Christian Donahue (UT)

The lone infielder on the 40-man roster at Tennessee is utility man Chris Morel. A plus defender with a cannon arm at 3B, he’s also a capable fill in at SS and 2B, and then took seamlessly to significant playing time in CF and RF last year as well. His development on defense remains ahead of his offense however. Always blessed with good bat speed he finally appears to have added a decent amount of muscle to his slight frame which should help him access more power this season. He’s made incremental improvements to his plate discipline and pitch recognition every year, but he started off his career as an unapologetic hacker and still has strides he needs to make before he becomes a viable MLB option.

Chase Strumpf initially struggled in his transition to 3B, but stuck with it and appeared more comfortable by the end of last season. Reports from this spring indicate he’s settled in nicely at the position. They key for him has always been the bat though. He’s got a good idea of the zone and improved his strength last season, but his power was still fringe-average last season, especially as a corner guy. He also got a little pull happy at times. If he can develop an all fields approach which should help him keep his average up, Strumpf could make a case for a 40-man roster spot this fall. It will be an intriguing upcoming roster watch throughout the season.

There is no doubt Luis Vazquez can pick it at SS, that Nelson Maldonado can hit for a high average, or that Bryce Ball can draw a walk and hit a ball 450+ feet. They all have one or two MLB caliber tools. Vazquez and Maldonado have bulked up a bit this year in the hopes of doing more damage with their frequent contact at the plate.

Christopher Morel (photo by Rikk Carlson)

Morel and Delvin Zinn are also two of the most energetic players in the org and a joy to watch. Both make unexpected plays in the field and especially on the bases on a regular basis.

OF: Nelson Velazquez, Yonathan Perlaza, Darius Hill

Nelson Velazquez was one of the bigger breakout stories in the Cubs system last year. Always a player who flashed the ability to help with all five tools, he previously struggled with consistency and approach at the plate. His athleticism also suffered in 2019, but all that changed in 2021. He looked stronger and fitter. His defense rounded back into shape (his plus arm never went away). Most importantly he cleaned up his swing and became more selective at the plate. He developed a true plan of attack and it helped him shine in the AFL and earn a 40-man roster spot. He’ll likely head to Iowa at some point in the summer.

Neither Yonathan Perlaza or Darius Hill will wow you on a baseball field, but Perlaza continues to develop a better approach and a bit more pop at the plate, and Hill makes frequent contact and consistently works good at bats. Both likely top out as AAA depth, as Perlaza offers little defensively and Hill lacks power, but they are guys who could stick around the system for a while and you never know, they may be capable of an unexpected leap.

Morel and Zinn will see plenty of outfield time as well.

Rotation: Ryan Jensen, Cam Sanders, Riley Thompson, Anderson Espinoza, Javier Assad, Peyton Remy, Brandon Leibrandt

The rotation will be led by a long list of hard throwers. All four of Ryan Jensen, Cam Sanders, Riley Thompson, and Anderson Espinoza are capable of running it up to the mid-to-upper-90s on a consistent basis. Once he is stretched out after a positive COVID test delayed his entry into the US for Spring Training, I would expect Brailyn Marquez and his potential triple digit fastball to join this group as well. It could be a really fun rotation to watch this summer.

Jensen is still lacking a put away pitch among his secondaries. The slider has flashed in the past, but he has always been working on a new curve. For Sanders it is all about consistency. His delivery, velo, secondaries, and most importantly control have all wavered at various times throughout his career. I’ve long expect a transition to the bullpen is in order, but one more shot as a starter will not hurt. At his best he has a starter’s four pitch mix. Thompson developed a go-to changeup and improved his control back in 2019, but shoulder issues wiped out his 2021 season. Reports are his velocity has returned to his collegiate levels of 95+ and like Jensen has reworked his curveball, which could be the key to a potential breakout.

Riley Thompson (photo by Rikk Carlsson)

Those three will be Rule 5 eligible this fall and possess the type of arm you hate to lose. It’s a good bet all three get added if they stay healthy and show any kind of improvement this season. Espinoza and Marquez are already members of the 40-man roster, but both have also been frequent visitors to the IL.

Espinoza returned from four consecutive lost seasons to show off the same easy velo which once made him a Top 100 prospect in the game. His once plus changeup wasn’t as sharp however, and his new slider only flashed. He’s got to lock in those secondaries and stay healthy this year. He’ll have only one more option season in 2023 so it is imperative he stay on the mound and settle into a role as either a starter or reliever by the end of 2022.

It is a similar story for Marquez, but he is a year younger, and has one additional Minor League option so the clock is not ticking down quite as quickly. Still, I get the feeling the org is growing a bit impatient with the talented lefty, and if he could at least put together a strong second half it would put a lot of minds at ease.

RHRP: Eury Ramos, Dauris Valdez, Blake Whitney, Graham Lawson

Eury Ramos and Dauris Valdez both throw a good fastball. We’ll see if they can develop the necessary control and a consistent secondary offering to earn a 40-man spot this fall. On the other end of the spectrum is Blake Whitney. He began his career with the look of an org arm. He’s always known how to pitch and seems to have a rubber arm, but at first the stuff didn’t excite much. It seems like that stuff has ticked up just a tad in each successive season and I’m curious to see if it has again. If so, he could at least earn an extended shot in Iowa in the coming seasons.

LHRP: Burl Carraway, Bryan Hudson, Brandon Hughes, Scott Kobos

This group has the opportunity to be a lot of fun. Burl Carraway is a former 2nd round pick with elite spin rates and the potential for three plus pitches. Control was a major issue early last season, but he settled in by the end. Bryan Hudson is also a former high round pick (3rd) who has steadily improved his velo and control over the years. His arm slot and 6’8″ frame give him added deception and extension.

Bryan Hudson (photo by Stephanie Lynn)

The other two guys come with less draft cachet but are interesting stories nonetheless. Brandon Hughes began his career as an outfielder before transitioning full time to the mound. He’s a very good athlete who repeats his delivery well. His sweeping slider is really tough on both left and right handed batters, giving him multi-inning utility. He dominated in a split season between South Bend and Tennessee in 2021.

Scott Kobos went unpicked in the abbreviated 2020 draft, but then managed to finish his 2021 with a cup of coffee in Triple-A after beginning the season down in Low-A. His crazy success at the lower three levels (1 ER allowed in 30.2 IP between MB and TN) was a bit BABIP driven, but Kobos limited free passes and missed a decent amount of bats as well.

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  • I'm looking forward to the Smokies visiting Birmingham!

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