The early days of Spring Training allow ample time for prospects to make a strong first impression on coaches, while also giving fans someone to latch onto who may not have previously been on their radar. And I am definitely here to see which prospects can turn a few heads (for the right reasons) in camp.
- Pierce Johnson is sticking in the bullpen, according to the Tribune’s Mark Gonzales, as the Cubs have seen his fastball and breaking pitches play better in relief. In a video interview with Gonzales, Johnson says the move to the bullpen gives him the freedom to let his pitches perform at a high level in short spurts rather than trying to pick and choose when to let loose while trying to persevere over the course of five or six innings. Johnson says he likes the transition (so far), and notes things started to click when he moved to the ‘pen after some suggested mechanical adjustments from Chris Bosio.
- Johnson, a supplemental first round pick in 2012, split time between the rotation and the bullpen in 2016, but saw significant gains in certain peripherals when he moved into a relief role. His K/9 ratio went from 8.9 as a starter to 14.1 in relief, the K/BB ratio jumped from 1.33 to 2.69, and his strikeout rate moved from 20.3% to 38.5%. The walk rate still needs some work, as it was trimmed only slightly from 15.2 to% to 14.3%.
- Johnson, who received a rave review from veteran catcher Miguel Montero, is part of a Cubs youth movement that manager Joe Maddon tells the Tribune would be getting more attention if they were in any other camp. Maddon believes the likes of Eloy Jimenez, Ian Happ, Jeimer Candelario, Jacob Hannemann are “impact players” … though, only Jimenez comes with the kind of billing and hype that surrounded the current crop of Cubs young Major League stars. Even still, the foursome is being watched closely by Maddon this spring because there is plenty of certainty among the young players returning from the 2016 World Series championship-winning squad. “So if you’re in an organization that doesn’t have Bryant, Russell, Schwarber, (Willson) Contreras, etc., you’re talking a lot more loudly about this group right now,” Maddon told the Tribune.
- Another hitting prospect who could make some waves this spring is Mark Zagunis, who Maddon said reminded him of Kevin Millar, according to Ken Rosenthal of FOX Sports. Zagunis was drafted out of Virginia Tech in the third round in the 2014 draft, and the second college catcher picked by the Cubs that year — Kyle Schwarber was the first. Over at FanGraphs, David Laurila writes that Zagunis’ goal this spring is to add in-game power to his skill set. He has homered only 20 times in 1,196 minor league plate appearances, but has a solid .281/.401/.434 slash line. “I’m definitely trying to develop more and more power,” Zaguins told FanGraphs. “But if that makes me switch my swing, or I don’t feel comfortable, I’ll definitely go back to my old approach, and my old swing.” One of Zagunis’ challenges will be tweaking his swing without sacrificing what made him a productive minor league hitter. You’ll want to read more of this piece, as Zagunis talks about some of his struggles, and how his characterization of his swing (he calls a slight uppercut) differs from that of Eric Logenhagen, who described it as linear.
- With elbow problems in his rearview mirror, Thomas Hatch — the first player the Cubs were able to draft in 2016, which came at the end of the third round — has his eyes set on being part of a wave of pitching prospects to make their way to Wrigley Field to complement the position players who stormed through the system and onto the Major League roster. Jared Wyllys has the dive into Hatch’s rebirth over at 2080 Baseball, which has been delayed after the Cubs shut him down shortly after signing with the team. The Cubs opted instead last year to get him acclimated with the organization without overworking an arm that took on a significant workload in his senior season, one year after a sprained UCL kept him out in 2015. Among the details Wyllys unearths in his in-depth piece is how a new arm slot (that reminds Hatch’s college coach of Tim Hudson) has had the unexpected benefits of increased velocity, while lessening strain on his elbow.
- Chesny Young has been a hit machine since being drafted in the 14th round in 2014, and is trying build on a strong showing in the Dominican Winter League by putting together a strong spring in his first Major League training camp. Not only was winter ball a good experience as he attempted to sharpen his hitting skills, but it also proved to be valuable in personal growth. His Spanish improved to the point where he could converse with others. In camp, Young has used the opportunity to pick the brain of World Series MVP Ben Zobrist about his approach at the plate. “There’s so much more to hitting that I need to improve on,” Young told Cubs.com. “I’m trying to do it here with some new minds.”
- Jon Greenberg profiles Ian Happ at The Athletic, and how he’s plenty talented enough to contribute to the Cubs very soon, but the fit is going to be difficult, given the talent ahead of him.