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Cubs minor leagues: Three up, three down and minding the restart

Notes on Dakota Mekkes and others doing well in the Cubs farm system.

Dakota Mekkes
John Arguello

As the season progresses I’ll be interested in hearing which teams have best restarted within their pipelines. Perhaps those articles will be written. Some teams, like the Rays, have immense amounts of talent, and keep churning. Eventually, some of those players reach MLB, and wreak havoc for years. For most of the teams, though, the restart of the minor leagues is an interesting science experiment. Some teams are sending out their top prospects from the beginning. Some Cubs prospects are being held back due to injury. Some of the Cubs’ best aren’t being sent to play in Myrtle Beach, healthy or not. However, it seems to me a version of Game Theory is going on.

On May 22, the Cubs signed pitcher Jarod Wright. A 24-year-old from Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg, he was a completely under-the-radar signing. A few other pitchers are far more tenured in the Cubs pipeline (such as 2020 fourth rounder Luke Little), but the Cubs moved Wright to league games before Little and others. What could be some possible reasons?

The Cubs don’t have time invested in Wright. He’s one of 180 players in the pipeline. (Teams are limited to 180 players not on the 40-man roster in the minor leagues.) If Wright is better than Low-A hitters, and he’s allowed no runs in two outings, he might be worth running up to South Bend in July. If he’s terrible, recycle the spot. All while Little works on the things developing pitchers have to work on.

Wright isn’t the first low-end debutante the Cubs have tried in 2021. Tyler Suellentrop is a 24-year-old with time in the Mariners system. His first outing was a bit ghastly, but given another four outings since, he’s been much better. His last outing was three innings of scoreless relief. All things considered, Suellentrop taking a spot start wouldn’t seem out of line. His pitch count has been stretched to 50. If a flyer like Wright or Suellentrop push far enough, they could possibly fill in for someone who gets traded in July.

Which, eventually, will become a topic. When teams buzz about the Cubs looking for trade pieces, DJ Herz, Brennen Davis, and Chase Strumpf will be names other teams seek. For the Cubs, making available players having reasonably good seasons is an option to consider. After making major trades in 2016 and 2017, they traded Ricky Tyler Thomas for Jesse Chavez, Rollie Lacy and Eddie Butler for Cole Hamels, and Jhon Romero for Brandon Kintzler. None were entire afterthoughts, but none were serious enough prospects to decline trading for roster upgrades.

I’d much prefer similar trades in 2021. Derek Casey has pitched adequately well in Advanced-A South Bend. (Five starts, all over 70 pitches, four over 80, one over 90.) Sam Thoresen (undrafted free agent in 2020) has pitched solidly in Myrtle Beach. (Six starts, all over 50 pitches. His fifth start was 68 pitches. His last start was for 73 pitches.) And if they trade someone like Thoresen or Casey, Suellentrop can claim his rotation spot.

Three Up

Ethan Roberts was a leverage reliever at Tennessee Tech, and has extended into a leverage reliever in the Cubs pipeline. With so many players in their wrong spot, this hasn’t been an especially noteworthy week for wins, and leverage relievers, but Roberts has been largely immune. Through twelve innings this season, he’s allowed eight hits and three walks. None of his four earned runs have been the last two weeks.

I’ve yet to erector-set a dossier on Roberts, but he seems as good as Double-A so far. The natural order of things seems to kick in at Double-A. By that I mean that certain players earn Triple-A looks before other players. Roberts might be a bit low on the pecking order, but as a fourth-round choice (2018), he’d get his look eventually if he keeps getting outs. He would be Rule 5 Draft-eligible in December.

Jacob Wetzel was one of the college players that eschewed an extra college season to turn pro after the draft last season. From Frederick Community College (Frederick, Maryland), Wetzel benefited from the “next man up” philosophy this season. Wetzel wasn’t supposed to play much, if at all for Myrtle Beach. However, Darius Hill was called up to Tennessee (where he’s thrived), Edmond Americaan was called up to South Bend, and Jordan Nwogu has struggled at the plate.

With five current outfielders in South Carolina, Wetzel is playing almost as much as any of them. Jonathan Sierra and Yohendrick Pinango get a few more chances over a week than Wetzel, but the undrafted free agent get more looks than Nwogu or Ezequiel Pagan. His OPS is only .638, but the league’s is only .688. Myrtle Beach (fourth youngest offense in the league of 12) hasn’t played the league’s bottom-feeders, yet. And won’t.

The last few seasons, a popular call among some has been: Get Dakota Mekkes a look in Wrigley. A look at his Triple-A numbers in 2019 indicate why he didn’t get the call. He hadn’t adjusted to the “rabbit ball” that was being used in Triple-A. A rather lengthy argument could result from debating the merits on Triple-A numbers as a clear predictor of MLB success, but if a reliever isn’t getting Triple-A hitters out, why would they get MLB hitters out? It could happen, but as this month has reminded us, the team gets decisional blowback for calling up a player too early.

Now, the Cubs are in a rather dicey position regarding pitching call-ups. Two players (Brad Wieck and Trevor Megill) are realistic recalls, while Miguel Amaya, Manny Rodriguez, Christopher Morel, Brailyn Marquez, and the newly-acquired Dakota Chalmers are not. With Rowan Wick, Jonathan Holder, and Austin Romine eventually (possibly) returning from the 60-day injured list, some decisions might need to be made. Right now, unless current players on the roster are going to be parted with, calling up Mekkes (or anyone new) might be a tough recipe to create.

Mekkes has, however, done rather well in Des Moines. His Triple-A ERA is 1.88. Through 14⅓ innings, he’s allowed only seven hits. What’s more, he’s extending himself into a two- (or, gasp, three-) inning reliever. If MLB follows through on its threats to significantly reduce the size of bullpens, the reliever who can get eight outs becomes of more value than the “three outs and sit” type. By pitching well, and more, Mekkes has ramped up his value.

Three Down

The current minor league box scores show the available bench players for each game, both pitchers and hitters. Despite larger rosters than last cycle, teams are often going with two or three available bench bats. I get that teams don’t want to overuse pitchers, but there are times the bench players seem specifically that. They’ll play if someone gets injured, or pinch run in the eighth or ninth, but the bench riders are just that. It was standard in other seasons to start everyone on the roster two or three times a week. That doesn’t seem the case now. At least one player has filled in at three levels already.

Players do seem to be playing above their level of competence. Some of that is the Cubs offensive reliance on Dominican Summer League veterans. They’re jumping (with unrequested time off) from the DSL to full-season ball without any intervening years in Eugene, Mesa, or D1 ball. Some are adjusting, but when facing college guys that needed three successful offerings to pitch well on Friday nights, the mismatches can be stark.

My biggest downstroke for this season remains how many players can’t go due to injury. Regardless the level, so many players haven’t been able to stay healthy after 2020. And with 2022 up in the air due to labor unrest, 2023 might be even worse. Especially for players who take 2022 off.