Cubs

Cubs prospect notes: Vogelbach, Alcantara and Pierce Johnson

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Cubs prospect notes: Vogelbach, Alcantara and Pierce Johnson

As The Plan comes to fruition in Chicago, it's easy for Cubs fans to wonder what - or who- is next.

Kris Bryant and Addison Russell are already up. Javier Baez is back on track at Iowa. Carl Edwards Jr. (formerly C.J. Edwards) is adjusting well to his new bullpen role with a 2.66 ERA and 13.7 K/9.

Joe Maddon already said Kyle Schwarber - who is posting a 1.020 OPS in 42 games at Double-A this season - could be a bat that helps the Cubs late in 2015.

But what about Dan Vogelbach? Pierce Johnson? Arismendy Alcantara?

All three guys have made a name for themselves as under-the-radar prospects in the Cubs system.

[RELATED - Cubs see Addison Russell taking a big step forward]

Vogelbach is enjoying a breakout season with Double-A Tennessee, creating a bash brothers duo with Schwarber at the plate.

Vogelbach, 22, has posted a .320/.436/.497 slash line entering play Thursday, with a whopping 32 walks and only 38 strikeouts in 43 games. He also has 17 extra-base hits (12 doubles, one triple, four homers), 24 RBI and 21 runs.

The bat has never really been the problem for Vogelbach, who has an .865 OPS across his minor-league career since being taken in the second round of the 2011 MLB Draft (just after the Cubs selected Baez).

Vogelbach is listed at 6-foot, 250 pounds and with Anthony Rizzo locked up through at least 2019 at first base in Chicago, some wonder if Vogelbach could move to the outfield.

Cubs senior vice president of scouting and player development Jason McLeod shut that down Wednesday at Wrigley Field.

"With the mobility and only being a first baseman, we're not considering [a switch to the outfield] at this time," Jason McLeod said. "He's another kid who's had a phenomenal start to the season these first two months.

"Our plan is to leave him where he is, doing what he's doing right now."

The same can be said for Pierce Johnson, the injured right-hander considered to be one of the Cubs' Top 2 or 3 pitching prospects in the system.

[RELATED - Why Cubs think Javier Baez is in a good place in Iowa]

Johnson, 24, was shut down in spring training with a strained lat muscle and still has yet to report to a minor-league team while the Cubs try to get his back to cooperate.

McLeod said the Cubs are aiming for the first week of June for Johnson to rejoin Double-A Tennessee.

"He's been throwing down in extended spring training," McLeod said. "It's been a longer process than we had hoped with lower back soreness. But knock on wood right now, he'll be out early June."

Johnson has had trouble staying healthy since the Cubs took him in the supplemental first round of the Draft in 2012. He has only appeared in 49 games (46 starts) in his four pro seasons, tossing a combined 232 innings.

Johnson has had success when he has been on the mound, with a 16-11 record, 2.68 ERA and 9.2 K/9 throughout his career. Like Edwards, he could have been an option for a bullpen boost in Chicago late this season before the back injury erased the first two months of the campaign.

Alcantara began the season in Chicago, but had just one hit in 26 at-bats and was sent back down to Triple-A Iowa to right the ship.

That's exactly what he's been doing lately, with a .333 average and .973 OPS the last 10 games, including seven runs, two homers, five walks and a pair of stolen bases.

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The 23-year-old has lived up to his versatility again, moving all over the diamond with games at second, short, third, left field and center field for Iowa.

There may not be a chance for everyday playing time in the big leagues (especially depending on Baez's situation), but the Cubs view Alcantara as another guy who could provide a boost late in the season serving in a utility role.

"I think 'Mendy' is a guy, with his twitchiness and his athleticism, who can move around," McLeod said. "I think with him, coming up here last year, probably not expecting to be up here on a major-league team, I think it was a whirlwind for him. Certainly an eye-opening experience."

"Probably his confidence [suffered]; he was probably doubting himself a little bit. That's really what we're working with him on - believe in yourself, believe in your talent. And I think he'll come back up here later on."

Cubs have new hitting coach in Anthony Iapoce

Cubs have new hitting coach in Anthony Iapoce

The Cubs are heading into a new season with a different hitting coach for the second straight winter, but the most recent choice is a familiar face.

Anthony Iapoce is set to join Joe Maddon's coaching staff this week after serving in the same capacity with the Texas Rangers for the last three seasons. The Cubs confirmed the move Monday afternoon shortly after the news broke out of the Rangers camp.

The Cubs fired Chili Davis last week after just one season as the team's hitting coach.

Entering the final week of the season, the Rangers fired manager Jeff Banister, leaving Iapoce and the rest of the Texas coaching staff in limbo.

As such, Iapoce is rejoining the Cubs, where he served as a special assistant to the General Manager from 2013-15 focusing on player development, particularly in the hitting department throughout the minor leagues.

Iapoce has familiarity with a bunch of the current star offensive players on the Cubs, from Willson Contreras to Kris Bryant. 

Both Bryant and Contreras endured tough 2018 seasons at the plate, which was a huge reason for the Cubs' underperforming lineup. Bryant's issue was more related to a left shoulder injured suffered in mid-May while Contreras' offensive woes remain a major question mark after the young catcher looked to be emerging as a legitimate superstar entering the campaign.

Getting Contreras back to the hitter that put up 21 homers and 74 RBI in only 117 games in 2017 will be one of the main goals for Iapoce, so the history between the two could be a key.

With the Rangers, Iapoce oversaw an offense that ranked 7th, 9th and 14th in MLB in runs scored over the last three seasons. The decline in offensive production is obviously not a great sign, but the Rangers as a team have fallen off greatly since notching the top seed in the AL playoffs in 2016 with 95 wins only to lose 95 games in 2018, resulting in the change at manager.

Iapoce has worked with an offense backed by Adrian Beltre, Elvis Andrus, Shin-Soo Choo, Nomar Mazara and Joey Gallo the last few seasons.

Under Iapoce's tutelage, former top prospect Jurickson Profar shed any notion of a "bust" label and emerged as a budding star at age 25, collecting 61 extra-base hits with a .793 OPS in 2018.

When the Cubs let Davis go last week, they provided no update on assistant hitting coach Andy Haines, who just finished his first season in that role and is expected to remain with the team for 2019. The same offseason Iapoce left for the Rangers, Haines took over as the Cubs' minor league hitting instructor.

What should Brandon Morrow's role be in Cubs 2019 bullpen?

What should Brandon Morrow's role be in Cubs 2019 bullpen?

Since the Cubs' early exit from the postseason, many have turned their attention to the 2019 roster and wonder if Brandon Morrow will be the team's closer next year.

However, the question isn't WILL Morrow be the closer, but rather — SHOULD he be counted on as the main ninth-inning option?

Morrow didn't throw a single pitch for the Cubs after the All-Star Game, nursing a bone bruise in his forearm that did not heal in time to allow him to make a return down the stretch.

Of course, an injury isn't surprising given Morrow's lengthy history of arm issues. 

Consider: Even with a half-season spent on the DL, Morrow's 35 appearances in 2018 was his second-highest total since 2008 (though he also spent a ton of time as a starting pitcher from 2009-15).

Morrow is 34 now and has managed to throw just 211 innings in 126 games since the start of the 2013 season. 

Because of that, Theo Epstein isn't ready to anoint Morrow the Cubs' 2019 closer despite success in the role in his first year in Chicago (22-for-24 in save chances).

"[We're] very comfortable with Morrow as part of a deep and talented 'pen," Epstein said. "We have to recommit to him in a very structured role and stick with it to do our best to keep him healthy. Set some rules and adhere to them and build a 'pen around that. I'm comfortable."

Epstein is referencing the overuse the Cubs have pointed to for the origin of Morrow's bone bruise when he worked three straight games from May 31-June 2 during a stretch of four appearances in five days.

Joe Maddon and the Cubs were very cautious with Morrow early in the year, unleashing him for only three outings — and 2 innings — in the first two-plus weeks of the season, rarely using him even on back-to-back days.

During that late-May/early-June stretch, Morrow also three just 2 pitches in one outing (May 31) and was only called upon for the 14th inning June 2 when Maddon had already emptied the rest of the Cubs bullpen in a 7-1 extra-inning victory in New York.

The blame or origin of Morrow's bone bruise hardly matters now. All the Cubs can do at this moment is try to learn from it and carry those lessons into 2019. It sounds like they have, heading into Year 2 of a two-year, $21 million deal that also includes a team option for 2020.

"It's the type of injury you can fully recover from with rest," Epstein said. "that said, he has an injury history and we knew that going in. That was part of the calculation when we signed him and that's why it was the length it was and the amount of money it was, given his talent and everything else.

"We were riding pretty high with him for a few months and then we didn't have him for the second half of the season. And again, that's on me. We took an educated gamble on him there and on the 'pen overall, thinking that even if he did get hurt, we had enough talent to cover for it. And look, it was a really good year in the 'pen and he contributed to that greatly in the first half.

"They key is to keep him healthy as much as possible and especially target it for down the stretch and into what we hope will be a full month of October next year."

It's clear the Cubs will be even more cautious with Morrow in 2019, though he also should head into the new campaign with significantly more rest than he received last fall when he appeared in all seven games of the World Series out of the Dodgers bullpen.

Morrow has more than proven his value in this Cubs bullpen as a low-maintenance option when he's on the field who goes right after hitters and permits very few walks or home runs. 

But if the Cubs are going to keep him healthy for the most important time of the season in September and October, they'll need to once again pack the bullpen with at least 7 other arms besides Morrow, affording Maddon plenty of options.

When he is healthy, Morrow will probably get a ton of the closing opportunities, but the world has also seen what Pedro Strop can do in that role and the Cubs will likely add another arm or two this winter for high-leverage situations.