In our earlier look at comeback prospects for 2018, I examined a group consisting mostly of players who were injured for most of the year, if not all of it. This time it’s all about players looking to regain some semblance of consistency in their production. Most of this group will be at either AA Tennessee or AAA Iowa.
When I examine how a prospect is doing, several things run through my head. There is a part of me that wants to be an objective writer, then there’s part of me that’s a fan, and then there’s part of me that is a teacher. It’s really hard to shake the last one because I always look for the good and then I try to pick out things that can be improved upon. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t.
Writers and fans can be the same way, I suppose. They see the promise of a prospect and can sometimes be blinded by it. I know that’s a flaw that I have from time to time.
While the Cubs don’t have a wealth of that blinding talent in the system at this point, most of their top prospects have been around for several years. To be honest, it’s hard not to get attached when you watch them grow up, quite literally in some cases. We want them to succeed and it’s hard when they don’t.
This week’s comeback list is filled with players who fit the above description.
Zach Hedges has a plus slider, pretty decent fastball command, and he’s a likable kid. All told, I just really like watching him pitch. He’s done really well the past two summers at AA, but he’s only gotten one chance at AAA and it did not go well at all. I am hoping he begins 2018 at AAA Iowa, as there really is not much left for him to prove at Tennessee. For him to succeed, he is going to have to keep his fastball down and use his slider to set hitters up. He’s never been a big strikeout pitcher and has always been a ground-ball machine, so I hope he can be that in Iowa this year.
Trevor Clifton has had my attention ever since Mike Safford used to call his games online for the Boise Hawks. Clifton got off to a rough start with South Bend in 2015, but he righted the ship in the second half and didn’t let up until mid-June 2017. He was the Cubs’ MiLB Pitcher of the Year in 2016 and then was a Southern League All-Star with Tennessee in the first half with a 2.84 ERA.
Then it was like he had four flat tires at once in the second half. It appeared that he was overthrowing as he struggled to keep the ball down and find the zone. It was as if he was trying fix his release point, landing spot, and self-confidence all at once. I have no doubt Clifton is going to work hard to return to form in 2018. He’s got a plus curveball and a developing change, but getting back to believing in himself and his pitches will be the key.
Chesny Young rode a roller coaster of a season in 2017. Ever since being drafted in the 14th round out of Mercer in 2014, it seemed he could just fall out of bed and lace a single to right. From his debut in South Bend through his time in Myrtle Beach, Young showed no signs of the type of season he endured in 2017. Then it was good month/bad month all year en route to a .256 average.
It was a bit of a shock for a player whose lowest season before was .303. While Young did play seven different positions in the field last year, he often looked clueless at the plate. And at other times, he looked, well, like Chesny Young. He did not walk as much last year when he struggled, and he did walk when he was hitting well in May and July. Establishing a consistent approach will be the key to getting off to a good start and is what could eventually propel him to Chicago in a bench role.
Ryan Kellogg was brilliant in the second half of 2016 (1.99 ERA in 11 starts) but he could not put it together at Myrtle Beach in 2017 (save for August, his only monthly with a sub-4 ERA). I am not sure of what his role will be and where he’ll be playing this season. He could start, he could relieve. It probably all depends on how he looks this spring.
Jeffrey Baez had a horrible season at Tennessee last year as he fought off minor injuries and failed to adjust after a scintillating second half at Myrtle Beach in 2016. Hitting below the Mendoza Line for a whole season is not a good way to get to Chicago. Still, Baez just turned 24 and can rebound if he can stay healthy enough to use his mix of power and speed.
PJ Higgins is currently the best defensive catcher in the system. He also showed a deft eye at the plate in 2016 at South Bend. But while he threw out 33 runners for Myrtle Beach last season, his bat seemed to go missing and his walk rate plummeted (.327 OBP) along with his batting average (.237). The converted infielder is a natural behind the plate and defense will always be his calling card, though I am sure the Cubs would like some improvement on offense. They’re hoping last year was an aberration, since Higgins hit between .280-.300 at every previous stop.
Joe Martarano only had 156 official at-bats last season and only had 69 ABs in 2015. The former Boise State linebacker hasn’t had a full-time commitment to baseball for very long and his inexperience showed in moving up from Eugene to South Bend. I expect Martarano to do much better in 2018 as he implements a few adjustments.
For one, he turned a high leg kick into a toe tap for a better timing mechanism and hit .273 with one homer in 13 August games. Martarano raked at extended spring training (.324) and Eugene (.385), so the .161 at South Bend may have just been a fluke. I can’t be quantified, but the ball just jumps off his bat with “that sound.” If he can cut down on the strikeouts, he’ll be one to watch.